Rebecca Figler,
Sail Away

NO, don’t touch that!

I quickly pulled my hand from the slippery steering handle of the boat. I thought I was helping by taking control when the rudder was momentarily unoccupied, but my scowling brother seemed to think otherwise.

No one touches the tiller but me. Got it? He spoke harshly, squinting his eyes at me. He had to blink several times as rain and mist from the ocean sprayed his face and got into his eyes. I looked at him apologetically, hoping my innocent expression would appease him. He jerked his head back to whatever he was concentrating on before. Duck, he added sharply, just loud enough for me to hear over the crashing waves and the wind and rain. I ducked just in time as the boom swung low across the boat.

I wasn’t surprised by his behavior that day. He was usually angry at something, just in varying degrees. I figured he was annoyed about the storm sneaking up on us unexpectedly, and I knew that he was concentrating very hard on getting us back home safely. I also knew that his anger rarely originated from me specifically, so I tried to forgive him and not take it too personally.

I remember he had been so happy when he was sixteen, when our mother got him his new little Sunfish, a boat big enough for four people. He taught himself how to sail, learned all the special terms, and practiced all the sailing knots. He mastered everything in no time. He even painted the boat and learned how to maintain it himself. One day, I found him staring closely at the side of the boat as he meticulously painted perfect, black letters onto its surface. He usually had a job or two on the side, but I knew that while his friends were using their paychecks on taking girls out on dates and filling their cars with gas, the little money my brother made went toward the care and maintenance of his boat.

One night at the dinner table, over a feast of Chinese take-out, our mother was commenting on how the only thing my brother did was sail by himself, and how us two siblings never spent any quality time together. It wasn’t that we didn’t get along; we just didn’t hang out because we didn’t have much in common. But she was concerned that because we were almost ten years apart, we would never be close with each other.

Hey, she said, motioning at my brother with her fork, why don’t you take your sister out in the Sunfish? I’m sure she’d love that. In reality, I didn’t care either way.

No thanks, he replied, not looking up from shoveling lo mein noodles into his mouth.

My mother frowned at him in disapproval. I think it would be a great idea, spending some time getting to know each other.

We know each other fine. His tone became more defensive, and he glanced up at me for backup. Right?

I nodded. Yup. I knew that if I had answered with anything else, I’d hear about it later. I looked down at my sweet and sour chicken.

After a while, the conversation between them became more like an argument, and then it turned into more of a verbal fight. My mother was glaring furiously at him from across the table. Well, from now on, you’re going to take her with you wherever you go, and maybe that will give you enough time to think about talking to your mother like that!

WHAT?! Are you kidding me? he retorted, his eyes wide in disbelief and his mouth still full of noodles.

The day after my brother’s sentence, he was the angriest I’ve ever seen him, going about everything in a constant rage, shouting at me about everything. But I understood. It was just his way of dealing with life. And I knew he had other things on his mind. He seemed frustrated because while all his friends were off at college, getting their first apartments and getting out into the world, he was still at home. I wasn’t sure why that was, but I assumed he was most likely stuck here for a while, still living under the rules and financial support of our mother. I often wondered if he dreamed of sailing away and never returning, and I wondered what brought him back home each time.

Since that night, he hadn’t taken me everywhere, like my mother had ordered him to, but he had started taking me with him when he went sailing. Every time was always a little different. Sometimes he’d be annoyed or angry, like the day of the storm, and yell at me for various things. Sometimes he’d completely ignore me and pretend like I wasn’t there, and the whole trip would be silent except for the lapping of the greenish-gray waves against the boat. On those silent days, I never knew if he’d warn me about the boom swinging across the boat.

As time went on, and after we had spent more time together on the boat, he started to treat me like part of his crew, and even his little sister. He’d quietly ask if I was doing okay, or he’d shield me from the boom by gently pressing down on my head with his hand. If he was in a particularly good mood, he’d show me all the intricate sailing knots he was working on, and he’d teach me sailing terms, like boom and tiller. Sometimes he’d even explain the parts of the boat to me, like how the boom was the bottom beam of the main sail, and how it would swing across every time the sail changed sides so that the boat could make the zigzag pattern that allowed the maximum speed. But he would never let me steer or control the ropes of the sails. The most he would let me do would be to hold any excess rope that was lying on the floor so it would stay dry and be out of the way when he was switching sides.

The waves echoed my brother’s aggravation, and they became higher. Luckily, we could see the shore, and it looked like we were almost home. My brother was concentrating harder than ever, especially because the wind had shifted so that it was against us. Even so, we were still slowly moving forward.

I knew he wouldn’t want my help, so I just looked out into the wild ocean and watched the waves roll among each other, their white crests splashing into the boat when they crashed onto the side.

Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain on the back of my head, as if something thudded into it. Millions of colored dots filled my eyes, followed by complete blackness. The next thing I knew, I was submerged in the thundering sea. I struggled to reach the surface for air, thrashing my arms and legs. But the violent force of the waves above me kept pushing me down underneath them. I couldn’t manage to get another breath, and soon I would have no choice but to inhale the bitter salt water.

Then, as quickly as I had fallen into the water, I felt a strong arm loop around my torso, grab it tightly, and roll me onto my back so that I was above the water and able to breath. The arm began pulling me in one direction and didn’t stop until much later, when we finally reached the shore.

We still don’t hang out that much, but he does little things like ruffle my hair when he walks by me, or sometimes he pushes me playfully. Although he now makes solitary sailing trips for his much-needed alone time, he still takes me sailing with him, and he teaches me new things about sailing each time, including the right way to steer with the tiller and how to control the main sail. And sometimes, if I’m lucky, he’ll let me sail the boat all by myself, and he’ll lie down and close his eyes, listening to the calming rhythm of the ocean waves.