THE WIND WHIPPED Hester’s hair around her face. She shoved it behind her ears and closed her eyes for a second, taking a deep breath of sea air—faintly like salt, faintly like cucumbers. The ocean filled her with joy and longing, all at once. It was strangely, achingly bittersweet.
She had gone on dozens of Captain Dave whale-watch adventures over the last seventeen years: her best friend’s father was Captain Dave Angeln himself, and her own dad—a researcher at Woods Hole—often used the trips to collect data and observe mammalian life in the bay. When she was a child she had loved clambering up on the ship’s rails, her father gripping the back of her shirt in his fist, and scouring the horizon for the telltale spouts that she was almost always the first to see. She still thrilled at skimming alongside a massive humpback, its slick body and watchful eye hinting at secrets from beneath the surface.
She stole a glance at Peter, a bullhorn hanging in his right hand, his left hand shielding the late spring sun from his eyes. She could see just the side of his face: a high cheekbone, black glasses, a thick eyebrow, weather-beaten blond hair like bristles of a brush, lips pursed in easy concentration. He was looking for whales. His eyes passed right over her as he turned, scanning the bay. In a moment he lifted the bullhorn to his mouth.
“Awright, folks, we’ve got a spray on the horizon off the port bow,” he announced cheerfully. “For you landlubbers that’s the left side as you face forward, near the front of the boat.” The tourists rushed to see, chattering and aiming their cameras. A father hoisted his son onto his shoulders.
“There it is again—eleven o’clock,” Peter said. “Ah! There may be two of them.”
The crowd oohed with delight and pointed eager fingers. Peter announced, “The captain is going to take us in that direction—toward the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. It’ll be a few minutes, but with any luck we’ll get a much closer look at those animals.”
He lowered the bullhorn and caught Hester’s eye, smiling. He yelled against the wind, “You’re slipping, hawkeye.”
“No fair, I was distracted by something,” she called back.
“Oh, yeah, by what?”
She opened her mouth but nothing came out. The truth was, she had been distracted by him. She had dropped her guard. How could she have let that happen? She felt her ears heat up.
A girl with a pixie haircut and a nose piercing rose from her seat and tapped Peter’s shoulder. He turned away from Hester to answer the girl’s question. Hester examined her; she was boyishly pretty with a heart-shaped face and cherry red lipstick. She wore tight black pants and a gray cashmere sweater with a red silk scarf. The girl’s eyes fairly sparkled as she spoke to him, and her broad smile revealed perfect teeth. Hester felt a little weight press on her chest, and then she felt irritated by the sensation.
Peter took off his Captain Dave’s windbreaker as he talked and Hester tilted her head with a new discovery: his shoulders were broader now. Had she already known that? She’d been friends with him for so long that half the time in her mind’s eye he was a bony six-year-old, hanging on to a swimming ring for dear life at the beach, craning his neck to keep the water from splashing his face, while she recklessly dove under him again and again, just to unnerve him. He was such a funny little chicken back then, she thought. She caught her eyes sweeping over his shoulders and his back again and she forced herself to look away.
She had no business admiring him, or spying on him when he was with other girls.
She pulled a necklace out of her collar—a rounded gold heart with softly brushed edges, on a delicate, short chain. She pushed the heart hard to her lip until the pressure against her tooth made her wince. She reminded herself of the history of the necklace: her dying mother had bequeathed it to her when she was only four days old, and her grandmother had given it to her mother under the same circumstance. According to a story passed down through the generations, the original owner was Hester’s great-great-great-grandmother, a woman named Marijn Ontstaan, who had died of “languishment” or something equally nebulous less than a week after her own child was born.
What a burden that little heart represented for her family, Hester thought, dropping it back under her collar: a legacy of premature death, passed on to innocent new life. It was also a warning, she had decided years ago, against love and its cozy associates: sex and marriage. Other people could dare to love—Peter and the pixie girl, for instance—people who wouldn’t lose everything if they did.
She looked back at the two of them. Peter was showing the girl a specimen of a baleen plate from a whale. From his gestures Hester knew he was describing the filter-feeding process of the whale and telling her that the baleen combs were made of keratin, like fingernails, rather than bone. She had heard him explain it to tourists a thousand times: wholly approachable, never impatient, always sharing a sense of discovery with them. But now his head was so close to the girl’s, they were almost touching. And then they lingered like that; a beat too long. He was neglecting the other passengers, wasn’t he? He wasn’t tracking the sprays of the whales for the captain, as he usually did. The girl brushed her hand over the baleen sample and then grinned as she ran her fingertips over his hair, comparing the two. He received her touch without flinching—maybe even playfully?
Hester needed to lift the weight from her chest. She moved to the back of the boat, to the other side of the captain’s cabin, away from them. She looked out across the water and allowed the feeling of longing to wash over her, spill into the crevices of her soul, and fill her completely.
Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Fama