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The Starboard Sea: A Novel

The Starboard Sea: A Novel


"With unflinching wit, Amber Dermont examines the harsh vicissitudes of life, and though the worlds she creates are often unsettling places, her sense of detail always makes for a pleasurable read. There is a vibrant lucidity to her language, a daring music…Her characters are simultaneously able to articulate their pain, pass judgment on their own behavior and pardon themselves for their transgressions.” —MARILYNNE ROBINSON, Pulitzer Prize and Orange Prize winning author of Gilead and Home

About the Author

Amber Dermont received her MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa Writers&#; Workshop. Her short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including Dave Eggers’s Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope: All-Story, and Jane Smiley’s Best New American Voices 2006. A graduate of Vassar College, she received her Ph.D. in and literature from the University of Houston. She currently serves as an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

On the morning I turned eighteen, instead of a birthday present, my father tossed me the keys to his car and informed me I was finally man enough to captain his Cadillac. It was early August. I was doomed to trade the final blaze of summer for the first days of school. Dad kept the engine running while I half-assed my way through packing, racing around our apartment stuffing boxer shorts and sport coats into duffel bags. Instead of helping me, Dad ordered our ancient doorman, Max, to ferry my luggage to the car. In his navy wool uniform, all epaulets, gold tassels, and brass stars, his kind face glistening with sweat, Max looked like the commander of a sinking ship. I told him not to worry, but Max was adamant. “Okay,” I said, “but leave the heavy stuff to me.” More than anything, I hated being waited on, but I didn’t want to cause trouble for Max. We rode the elevator to the lobby and I told him, “For wearing that get-up in this heat, you deserve hazard pay.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Max said. “I get paid to look this pretty.” Max helped me load the car and wished me good luck. “It’s your ,” he said. “Enjoy yourself.”
My mother was still on vacation in Maine. It occurred to me that the only soul in all of New York City I would miss would be my doorman. “Take care, Boss,” I said and slid into the driver’s seat.
Once on the road, Dad turned down the air-conditioning. I could feel the heat radiating off the dashboard as we cruised away from Manhattan, weaving along the East River, headed for the coast of Massachusetts. Dad sat beside me in the passenger seat, alternating between the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. Every few minutes, he checked the road over his bifocals. “Jason Kilian Prosper, this isn’t a race.”
My father was tall, with a good two inches on me, three on my older brother, Riegel; the Cadillac was custom-designed with extra depth and legroom. A pair of life jackets could have been stowed in the space beyond his outstretched legs. Still, my father struggled for comfort. He lifted his left knee toward his chest, wincing when the bones cracked. His blue linen pants remained crisp in the damp heat. Even in pain, Dad sat composed and pleated, looking less like a dad and more like a member of the British House of Lords.
According to my father, I was “damaged goods.” Selling me to another school wasn’t going to be easy. This was the summer of 1987, the year of damaged goods: Oliver North and paper shredders, Gary Hart and Monkey Business, record-high AIDS, and a record-high stock market. That spring, Mathias Rust, just one year older than me, eager for a thrill, had evaded Soviet air defenses and landed his Cessna 172B in Red Square. That fall, the entire country would be riveted for two and a half days, as rescue workers in Midland, Texas, plotted to pull a baby from an abandoned well. And in the meantime, I had gotten myself banished from Kensington Prep and was about to start my Senior Year at Bellingham Academy.
“What’s the drill?” I asked, breaking our silence. “Drinks with the headmaster? Nine holes of golf?”
Dad folded his newspaper into a tight, narrow column. “The headmaster is out of town. We’re meeting with the dean. Dick Warr.”
“I hope he lives up to his name,” I said.
“Try behaving for once.”
“I stopped behaving myself a long time ago.” The needle fanned over seventy-five. Before Dad noticed, I decelerated, slightly.
“Just graduate.” Dad scanned his newspaper. “Finish up for your mother. The poor woman. She doesn’t like to show her face in public anymore.”
“So I’m the reason Mom leaves the apartment in disguise. Go figure.”
“Your brother never speaks to me that way.” Dad cracked the side of my head with the Journal. His weapon of choice.
I don’t think he meant to hurt me, but the impact and surprise caused me to swerve. The corner of the paper struck my right eye, knocking it shut and, for a brief instant, I let go of the wheel. Imagined us hitting the guardrail, the Cadillac embraced by an elbow of metal.
“Get control of yourself, for God’s sake!” Dad pulled the steering wheel back in line.
For the rest of the trip, I half daydreamed and half drove, the car flipping forward and crushing Dad’s body. Leaving me to surgically excise what little was left of my dad from the wreckage. Snapping his legs off cleanly at the knees. No blood. Just bones and sockets, white as a whale&#;s tooth. On one knee, I’d scrimshaw the word “left,” and on the other, “right.” Neat and orderly. During long trips, the legs could be packed into one of those cases ventriloquists use to store their dummies. At last, Dad would no longer be in pain. His linen pants would drape and rest like opera curtains on the carpeted car floor.
“Pull over at the next rest stop. Time for me to drive.”
Our near accident had been his fault. For some parents, having children meant full absolution from any future mistakes. My father wouldn’t permit himself to be wrong. He shifted the blame of misplaced scissors, rising interest rates, and iceless ice cube trays all onto Riegel and me. Dad cheated on our mom and told our mom it was her fault he cheated on her.
My mother really had left our apartment in disguise. Decoyed in a rotating masquerade of ginger-haired wigs and cat’s-eye sunglasses, she’d chased after my dad and his harem.
Mom and I had spent the earlier part of that summer at our cottage in Maine. Our mornings devoted to relaxing on wicker porch chairs, watching the Iran-contra hearings, mixing champagne with grapefruit juice. As the men on the TV bragged and lied, denying their accomplishments, my mother turned the sound to mute and spoke to me about my father’s indiscretions.
“Of all your father’s mistresses, my favorite was this knock-kneed Eastern European hussy he would lug around on business trips, this woman Gayla, a dozen years his junior. Called her his ‘administrative aide.’ Gayla the Flying Whore is what I called her. I followed them once on a nonstop to the Caymans. Your father didn’t notice me in my red wig coming down the aisle to claim my seat in coach. He was preoccupied with his first-class hot towels, with brushing the white cloth against her neck. That woman took forever to get off the plane. Commandeering the aisle, prattling on to the flight crew while the rest of us cooled our heels. The way that woman laughed, with her teeth. I never laughed that way.” My mother swept the to her lips, then confirmed that she was ready to hunt a new breed of Gaylas. From under her wicker seat, Mom pulled out a hatbox, opened the top, and withdrew a mass of chocolate ringlets. “My latest disguise.” She twirled the hairpiece on her fist and said, “When you were little, I caught you and Riegel with one of my old wigs. Remember? The hair all matted like a rat’s nest.”
“We used it to play tag. Chasing each other, then forcing the loser into the wig.” Riegel had made up this game as a way of torturing me. A brittle net material covered the inside of the hairpiece, and my brother the bully liked to pull it over my nose and push the scratchy lining into my face. The suffocation became my own definition of blindness. Not an absence of light, but a prickling concealment. A rough and painful mask.
“I guess we both played games with the damn thing,” Mom said.
Mom was wrong to tell me about Dad. To let me know that he cheated and to make me afraid of the ways he could hurt me. He was a swindler passing for a saint, and as I sat beside him in his big American luxury car, I thought, “Be careful, Dad. I’m on to you.”
*   *   *
My father had his wild streak, but he drove his Cadillac slow and steady like a grandma rocking a baby to sleep. It took us all afternoon to reach our destination. We exited the highway and a wooden historical marker welcomed my father and me to the small Atlantic village of Bellinghem, spelled with an “e.” Another sign, this one metal and posted just a few yards away, welcomed us to Bellingham Academy. It was impossible to tell where the school ended and the town began. A run of dorms resembled coach houses. Fenced roads between the dormitories felt like estate driveways. I’d been to Bellingham twice before for dinghy races. My sailing partner Cal and I had won our individual races but lost both regattas to the home team. They sailed high-performance Fireballs and had an ocean advantage over schools like Kensington that practiced on lakes with shifty winds. As I stared at the waterfront, the color and movement on the ocean created an optical illusion in my mind. The entire school appeared to float on water, like a life raft. I felt weightless. The rhythm of the waves reminded me of naval hymns, of songs about peril and rescue.
Most of us who found ourselves at Bellingham had been kicked out of better schools for stealing, or having sex, or smoking weed. Rich kids who’d gotten caught, been given a second chance, only to be caught again then finally expelled. We weren’t bad people, but having failed that initial test of innocence and honor, we no longer felt burdened to be good. In some ways it was a relief to have fallen. To have fucked up only to land softly, cushioned, as my dad reminded me, “by a goddamn safety net of your parents’ wealth.” Bellingham offered us sanctuary, minimal regulations, and a valuable lesson: Breaking rules could lead to more freedom. Because the school catered to thieves, sluts, and dope fiends, it was understood that additional transgressions would be overlooked. If you could...

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