Okanagan by Abigail Mitchell

The day you crashed the boat there were hardly any people on Okanagan Lake, just you and me and a lone fisherwoman trolling for rainbow trout.

We were mostly alone on the lake but we weren’t alone in Okanagan. That September, I remember, we were there with your dad and your maman and your aunt Élodie, four of my favorite BC cousins, the only uncle I tolerated, my mother, and Grandpa George. This was four years after we’d met in the Maritimes—in the Oceanography Department at Dalhousie—and after we’d gone through three vicious break-ups and co-written that paper on marine biogeochemical processes. I’d stayed there, in Nova Scotia, for you. Both of us had been with other people, flings here and there, but the consensus was that those people were only temporary, easily tossed aside when we found ourselves tumbling back together. Time and time again, we reeled each other in again: caught like fish on hooks.

My Grandpa George wasn’t happy with you for drawing things out and he’d been letting you know it. Old-fashioned as he was, he couldn’t understand why we were holding back. But I knew and you knew that we weren’t a sure thing: by Okanagan we were at that point, you know, where things were either going to be serious or they were going to be over for good. I was starting to itch for some sort of sign either way. I’d told you that first night in Okanagan—at that lakeside restaurant with the terrible steak—that I’d been offered a job in California starting in the Spring, in a department I thought was a great fit. I wanted to go—but more than anything I wanted to know where we stood. So I didn’t tell you that I was thinking it, but I thought: maybe if I told you about California, you might ask me to stay.

Anyway, we were out on my uncle’s boat on Okanagan Lake not long after I’d told you, wanting some time to ourselves to figure things out, and by that time I guess I already had some idea that we might not be good for each other. This, I think, is different from not being right for each other, and different from not being in love with each other, because both of those things I would swear to even now. We were bad for each other, not just because we fought all the time, but because when we did it hurt too much. You looked for the vulnerable parts of my flesh to sink your teeth into. I knew all the places you were tender, the right bruises to press into with my knuckles. I wanted to overlook these things, because it felt like you needed me. Like I could be a safe place for your anger. But, that first night, after I told you about California, your mouth had pressed into a thin line. You’d looked at me like it was the worst kind of treachery. And this night was unlike any fight we’d ever had before, because you didn’t lash out, and you didn’t tear me to pieces with your sharp tongue. Instead, you disappeared. You stormed out of our room without your wallet, and then an hour later you appeared in the doorway of our bedroom with this look in your eyes that you only ever got when you wanted to get lucky, so I peeled back the covers and you burrowed in next to me and pressed your cold toes against my ankles.

“You wanna?” you said.

I could have asked you then what had upset you, but that wasn’t what you needed.

“I wanna,” I said.

Of course, from there it was pretty standard procedure. We undressed. You took off your own socks because you’d always been adamant that there was something terribly unsexy about taking off another person’s socks. Your gaze was serious as you unhooked my bra. You trailed your fingertips over my skin like you were remembering the shape of me, and I tried not to laugh because I was cold and also ticklish. I kissed you some. And then, you started to kiss along my neck, and I reached out a hand to tangle in your hair, and I didn’t see this part coming, but you seized my wrist in this sharp movement and pressed it back into the pillows, your grip on me too tight. Not asking me to stay—not really. More like telling me to stay put. You didn’t ask if it was okay, and I didn’t say that it wasn’t, because it wasn’t the first time you’d done something like that. We’d talked about it, so you knew that I liked it. You holding me down, me feeling the whole weight of you on my chest, just enough that I had to trust you would let me breathe when I needed to.

That night, I let you take my wrist, and you smiled for a moment, like I had done something absolutely right. Time suspended there as you held me, this blinding knife edge of happiness and apprehension trembling against my throat. I trusted you not to press too deep. I didn’t struggle. See, when we were fucking it was easy to understand what you were asking for. Even easier for me to give it to you.

But up on the boat a few days later things weren’t quite so solid between us. I took the wheel because it was my uncle’s boat, a Hacker Runabout he’d cherished since 1999, and you’d never bothered getting your license. We were crawling through the water because all of my attention was on you; we were out near Whiskey Island, arguing about going swimming the next morning. I was pretty sure that Okanagan was safe enough because my family had been going out there for years, and you were explaining to me in a very slow, patient voice, about an article you had recently read on algal bloom and Lake Erie, and I was getting more and more annoyed because you didn’t stop even when I reminded you that I had written that fucking article, and I was tempted to jump over the edge of the boat just to spite you. But the afternoon was slipping away, the moon hung over the lake like a postcard from the gift shop and I really couldn’t care less about the swimming or the algae or our fight.

I wanted to tell you this, but you were getting more and more worked up about my not trusting you, and then about my not believing you, and the next thing I knew it really wasn’t about swimming or algae anymore. And you were shouting:

“Just ‘cause you got the job doesn’t mean you’re smarter than me.”

Though I was used to our fighting, I was still taken aback. The way it had burst out of you, vicious: it caught me off guard.

“What? Of course it doesn’t,” I said. You carried on shouting.

“I could’ve gotten it! If I applied, I could’ve! If I’d wanted—”

“What do you mean by that?” I said. And by now I really wasn’t liking the way you sounded. I was starting to see red.

“You think you’re so smart,” you replied, and this time you weren’t shouting. Sneering, maybe. Spitting, maybe. I was kind of wounded by it, even if it was something I’d heard before from plenty of guys in my lifetime. You hear that stuff when you’re the only person in the lab with boobs. But I hadn’t heard it from you before, so it stung.

“I could have done it,” you continued, and I noticed—I couldn’t help but notice — the way your knuckles gripped the side of the boat, the skin there turning white with exertion. From something that wasn’t fear—because what marine biologist is afraid of boats? Maybe if I’d been less angry at you, I would have stopped things then. Killed the engine. Pulled each of your fingers from the mahogany hull and kissed the tension out of them. Asked you what was wrong, and been prepared to move the earth to fix things. But I was mad, and instead of looking at you, I put my foot down on the pedal, looked out at the still waters of Okanagan as we accelerated through them, engine sputtering, ripples spreading across the surface in our wake.

“Well, you didn’t,” I said. I didn’t mean it spitefully but you flinched away from me anyway. The engine gurgled and roared.

“I could have!” You repeated. I shook my head at you, frustrated.

“But you didn’t. You did nothing. Just like always.”

That was the wrong thing to say. Before I could take it back, your hands were leaving the mahogany trim. My own left the wheel in surprise as you reached towards me and shoved with your whole body. My foot caught on the pedal. The next thing I knew I was falling. You had this look on your face like you had surprised yourself, and truthfully, I was surprised too. I went backwards over the side of the boat, into Okanagan, my head hitting the windshield as I went. Last thing I heard was you, shouting my name—a desperate, panicked sound that stuck in my ears long after the water had filled them.

Cold. I was sinking. Or rising—I couldn’t tell. My head was throbbing, and I was surrounded by darkness. Okanagan is a deep lake–over 230 metres in some parts–and though I knew I couldn’t possibly have sunk so far, when I opened my eyes, I wondered if I had reached the very bottom. Here’s where things got a little strange. I looked around and found my eyes adjusting to the gloom, with none of the sting I expected from the lake water. I could just about make out the faint light of the surface, but it seemed impossibly far away. Logically I knew I must have been struggling for air, but for a moment I forgot that I couldn’t breathe.

See: I wasn’t alone down there.

She slithered towards me slowly. Her long, lithe body, encrusted with dull scales, cut through the water with ease. Undulating. She looked to be close to fifteen metres in length, with a long mandibular canal like the Basilosaurus cetoides skull I’d seen months before at the Museum of Ancient Life. I should have been fighting for air, kicking to swim towards the surface, but instead I treaded water, watched her come, and continued, impossibly, to breathe.

The lake serpent approached me slowly, assessing me through slitted eyes, tilting her head as if asking what are you doing here?

It was the million-dollar question. I kept staring, and she came closer, nudging at my bruised temple with her giant mouth. Though I expected it to hurt, all I felt was warmth. Like tiger balm on a sore muscle. She nudged me again, tilting her head towards the surface.

You don’t belong here.

I wasn’t so sure.

When I was eleven, visiting my cousins in Kelowna for the first time, my Grandpa had told us about the monster of Okanagan Lake. My uncle had just bought the boat and the four of us had taken her out for her maiden voyage: me, Grandpa George, Uncle Jordan, and my eldest cousin, Nate. I hadn’t spent a lot of time on the water before that; I was going through this phase where my life’s goal was to be on the Olympic curling team. So I held on tight to the side of the boat because I was a little afraid of what lurked under the surface of the water, and my Grandpa George put his arm around my shoulder, over my lifejacket, and told me a story about Ogopogo, or Naitaka, the shy serpent who dwelled in the deepest caves.

“Naitaka’s the guardian of the lake,” he said. “She won’t do you no harm.”

I’d believed him. Grandpa George had been my closest friend, back then. I had begged him for story after story after that, books and day trips and aquarium visits; that day had sparked a lifelong fascination with the creatures of the deep. With the Canadian lakes. The need to discover their secrets would define my entire intellectual life.

I had forgotten, until now, that it all began on Okanagan. With Naitaka. Now, as I watched, she opened her mouth wider, revealing row upon row of razor sharp teeth, like a smile. Trusting that she wouldn’t hurt me, I smiled back.

Help me, I thought.

The next thing I knew, I was on Whiskey Island, flat on my back. The night was closing in on us, and you were giving me mouth-to-mouth. Ten feet away, the boat was on fire, the bow smashed against the rocks by the shore. I didn’t want to watch. My head hurt. I closed my eyes again. Everything sounded fuzzy, the way things do when you listen to them underwater.

“Wake up!” you were shouting. My name, over and over, desperate as I had ever heard you. “Please, please wake up!”

I opened my eyes for you, feeling now the burn of the lake water. I coughed, my lungs heaving with the strain. I took you in, teary-eyed and dirty. Your body covered in soot and sand and bruises. Instinctively, I reached for you. Worried. Even then, I wanted to promise you that I would be all right. That everything was going to be okay, like I’d promised so many times before. That I could forgive you for what had nearly happened to me.

I wanted, most of all, to tell you that I could be your sanctuary. Wanted to say open your sea-green eyes and slice open your chest and wrap your love in silver ribbons — and I will find a safe place for your agonies to flourish. Wanted to say: look, I wrote the skies for you. Drew eternity onto a coffee house napkin. Mapped constellations over your shoulder blade with my tongue to taste you, your skin, and the salty rain. I wanted to pull you to me again, put your lips back on mine, rewind the last four days, and return to a place where I was uncertain of the future. But instead I found myself looking into your watery eyes, listening to the cries catching in your throat, inhaling the smell of the smoke as my uncle’s Hacker burned, and I knew that I couldn’t be your safe place anymore.

Without me at the wheel, you had crashed the boat into the shore. Worse, you’d pushed me overboard. I didn’t know what to say.

I suppose I could have told you then about Naitaka. I thought about telling you. You would have been excited, had you believed me, but I was certain then that you wouldn’t have. I thought about the night that we first met, at that Halloween mixer at the pub, the Earl of Dalhousie; when you were dressed as a dunkleosteus and I was the only person who guessed it. You’d made the jaws with paint and cardboard, this misshapen, ugly mask, and when I guessed it right, you prised them open and pretended to bite my shoulder, and I laughed and let you buy me a drink. After, you said it was the costume that got us together. For years, you carried that cardboard armored fish head from apartment to apartment. You named it Dunky; by the year we got to Okanagan, we had a whole host of stories about that goddamn mask—your fearless alter ego. And on those nights that you’d drink too much and sink down into yourself, and on those mornings you couldn’t drag yourself out of bed, sometimes I would look at the mask sitting on your bookshelf and it would remind me of the person I was staying for.

I still loved that person.

But I looked at the boat again. My uncle’s prized Hacker, engulfed by flames. You were still crying, running your hands over me as if you were checking I was there, tangible. Like I was some watery mirage your guilt had conjured up. And you deserved to feel guilty, I thought. You deserved it to eat away at you, to erode you until there was nothing left.

So, yes: I wanted to tell you I could be your beacon. That I’d guide you home, to your thumb pressing red marks into my hip, to the easy quiet of our companionship. Promise that through the nights you’d thrash in thunder and ice, I could whisper you down from the tempest. But the nights were dark, and the clouds were heavy, and I had forgotten how to be the stars, or the sun, or the moon, and the safe ways through deep waters. I couldn’t shield our soft hearts from the monsters we’d created. They lurked below the surface with sharp teeth.

“Please,” you said, one more time. Not I’m sorry. Not forgive me.

I could have told you then that I still loved that boy in the fish mask, in spite of what happened on Okanagan. That, at least, would have been true.

“I’m going to California,” I said, instead. “Alone. Without you.”

Abigail Mitchell
Abigail MitchellAbigail is a writer and 2013 graduate of the University of Cambridge. Currently, she is a student in the MPW Program at the University of Southern California, where she also serves as poetry editor for this year’s Southern California Review. Abigail has recently been published by Drunk Monkeys, paper nautilus, and FORTH magazine.