Rickety, is how Allen describes the rowboat while we are climbing out of his car onto the shoulder of a quiet lane in Chatham where his parents keep a house. I don't tell him I can't swim, even when I see the splintered wood and the oars lying down the middle of the gray plank seats. I don't tell him I'd expected a motor of some kind. A radio in case we need help. A life jacket.
Allen sets down the tackle box and rubs his hands together. "You ready to get wet?" he says, and grins. I set the carton of bait—nightcrawlers in Chinese food boxes—on the coarse sand and wipe damp hands against jean shorts. Then he is off across the small golden strip of beach, long legs hurdling over ridged heaps of green-black seaweed and plunging into the water without pause, swimming when the green waves swallow his knees. After pulling himself over the paint-flaking, white-painted rim of the boat, he cups his hands around his mouth and calls: "Permission to come ashore?" I salute him, clicking my bare ankles together.
We load up in silence and I help him push the little rowboat back into the gentle bay, cringing to shuffle through the soft brown muck of sand and silt and salt that sends brown tendrils up between my bare toes. He tells me to climb in just as the water murks enough to camouflage the spider crabs and I clamber in ungracefully, collecting a trio of splinters in the round dome of one knee. I won't pick them out though, not in front of Allen, who thinks I am tough and nature-loving and crunchy because he's seen college pictures of me with brown dreads and my bare feet almost black on their bottoms. There's a difference, I've tried to tell him, between fashion and philosophy, between appearances and actuality.
I own high heels now. I pay for pedicures. I haven't been hiking in years.
"I'm glad you could make it this weekend," he says, and I can tell he's telling the truth because there are three little wrinkles between his eyebrows, the face he makes when he's being sincere. It's only been six weeks, I think. This is only a weekend away, what people do who want to fuck in a different bed, with a different view out the window.
"This is nice," is what I say, but what I'm thinking of is dinner, later, at The Lobster Pot where he promised a cup of chowder that will ruin me for Campbell's. "I'm glad we did this," I say, because my friends say I'm too quick to cut loose the men I date for insignificant sins. What I don't tell them is I'm waiting for the one who holds on even after the scissors come out. The one who won't run gladly, looking over his shoulder, thankful to be free.
"Just one more step before we row," he says, and those wrinkles are gone. Smooth skin for him is the poker face before the joke. He's leaning way to the left, wet hair dripping diamond droplets onto a tanned forearm and I'm screaming and gripping the edges of the boat as if I can single-handedly refute the theory of gravity. A second before I slip into the green mystery below I open my mouth to tell him the truth, that if I fall in I will flail and swallow water and call for the God I told him I didn't believe in, but there's only time for an intake of breath as I plug my nose with one hand and let go with the other, shape my body like a pencil, rocket toward the bottom, close my eyes against the salt. In a moment, surely, he will fetch me; bubbles from his dive will whisper down my side. But for now I'm sinking, feet seeking anything solid, toes pointing down, down, down.
BIO: Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Carve, Gulf Coast, Word Riot, and Monkeybicycle, among other journals. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.