Thick plumes of gray wafted up from the beach. Day three of Phil’s self-imposed exile. We were already on an island—Washington Island—but walling himself off took it one step further. I didn’t question his intent. I trusted him. I admired his intensity. I’d done Outward Bound and I understood that the “solo” was a way of strengthening oneself, something that you accomplished by spending time alone. He said it was like a sweat lodge, a mystical experience of sorts.
“What’s he doing down there?” my mom asked me, more than a little suspicious, since I’m the one who brought my architect here to remote northeastern Wisconsin—his first time on the island, though not his first time with my mother. Isolating himself was his way of dealing with her. I understood how avoiding my mother could be nurturing to the self.
We got stuck on Washington Island when I was a kid and my parents missed the last boat to our vacation destination—neighboring Rock Island, a state park where we’d intended to camp.
That night my parents went for a drive to look for deer at sunset. They found a house—it was for sale—small, but high up on a hill that overlooked Washington Harbor. My mom’s mom had died, leaving enough money for a down payment.
My mom and I now sat on the porch.
“We really bought the house to get away from your dad’s parents,” my mom said. My parents were long since divorced. The island was a friendly place; people waved when they passed one another in cars on roads that were surrounded by open fields.
I looked out to the shimmering harbor that was framed by two birch trees and down to the barbeque pit at the beach, originally made of white limestone from the cliffs above Lake Michigan. The stones had turned gray, dappled with black specks, years ago.
“Phil seems to really like the beach,” I said.
“I hope he’s not burning my driftwood collection,” my mom said, letting the creaky screen door slam behind her. I sighed and felt like a skinny bridge between them, the kind that is suspended between the tops of trees that swings from side to side when you step on it, unsure of its loyalties.
It should have been obvious that he was incinerating her driftwood, but he said he was doing an overhaul, a clean-up that was long overdue. I wanted to believe him, but it was becoming clear that he was some kind of fire bug, spending his days outside burning stuff and trekking up the winding, steep path back to the house at night. He blamed his obsession with fire on being raised modern orthodox, which limited his activities to Torah study, learning Hebrew, and long meals on the Sabbath, so he didn’t go out much. He rebelled by not keeping Kosher when he wasn’t around his parents. I could understand his need to break the rules.
“Does he realize those rocks can blow up if they’re wet?” my mother asked me, while peeping out the kitchen curtains. I was raised in a home where accidents did not happen.
“Why, is the water level up?” I asked. The harbor was deep; ships used to come in all the time. One, called the Louisiana, a Great Lakes oil liner, sank in front of our house before we bought it, and scuba divers still poked around it. Somehow we had a different beach every year.
“Does that Phil ever drive, or do you always take your car?” she asked, shaking her head and frowning, then she remembered to correct the frown.
“He’s about to get a new car,” I said. He’d quit his job at the fancy firm and wanted to work with a developer, but he didn’t want to start until the summer was over.
I wanted to encourage him with his beach clean-up project in hopes that, if we stayed together, he could somehow manage the property, have a vision for it in the future, and possibly offset the onus of my mother. So I had some expectations, but at the very least, I wanted him to like it there.
“This island is no place for a single person, especially a woman,” she said. “You know who’s here? All social misfits,” she said. “Just look at Steve, he’s schizophrenic.” Steve was her boyfriend for years while I was growing up. “You know how you tell a person’s crazy? They don’t have a job. You know why they don’t work? Because they can’t.” Steve hadn’t had a job since he’d stopped running charter fishing trips.
I tried to think of a time when my mom had worked. Maybe she’s right about crazy people, but the island gave my mom a much-needed psychological benefit—confinement.
“Well, at least it’s safe.” She scratched her head. “The only people to be afraid of here are the people you know.”
There were cobwebs everywhere—my mom said it had to do with being in the Northwoods and there being lots of spiders. There were dead flies in the windowsills weeks after her arrival in the spring.
“It’s a lot of work around here, you know, you could help once in a while.” She didn’t look like she was getting up. I never wanted to help. It felt like too much. I feared my cooperation would be misinterpreted as resignation.
“I’ve been focused on trimming the trees.” She gestured out toward the bluff. “If I hadn’t trimmed those branches, you couldn’t sit here enjoying the view.” Piles of leaves filled the corners of the porch. It needed painting. The way my mom painted the house was one can of paint per year, a section at a time.
“Should I sell this house?” She asked this question at least once a year, even though she’d paid off the mortgage. I shrugged. She spent lots of time alone listening to wind chimes. She had nobody to talk to, she said. The least I could do is listen to her.
She painted a “for rent” sign and hung it under the sign that said Harbour Hill House—what she named the place. Both signs were primitive—painted on driftwood—but artful. Whenever people made the inquiry about the house for rent, she deflected them by making all kinds of rules and requirements—no kids unless they knew how to act, no dogs unless they were trained, nobody who was overweight—the furniture could not support fat people, it’s a small house, you know. You couldn’t use the washing machine, you couldn’t use the hot water unless you were going to pay the electric bill, no long-distance calls. If somehow someone was able to rent the place for a week, she refused to vacate the property during their stay. She stayed in the “bunkhouse,” which is what she called the room next to the closet she called “the chicken coop.” Think of me as the property manager, she told them.
“Did the cat escape?” She looked around the yard. Part of it was sectioned off for the horse to graze. “I thought I locked the back door.” There were four entrances to the small house, and the status of their locks was always in question. Somehow the cat had indeed escaped.
We never talked about anything important, like how we felt or what we wanted from our relationship. We never talked about the world outside of my mother’s mind. She especially hated politics.
“When you see Phil ask him if he has any pot for me.” She was serious.
Phil attended St. Johns, a Great Books school in Santa Fe. He told me that he smoked a lot of pot there. I’d made the mistake of telling my mother.
“Mom, I told you, he quit.”
“He’s probably stunted in his emotional development. You better pretend you’re dating a nine-year-old.”
Phil and I bought kayaks earlier in the spring. We planned to circumnavigate Washington Island in them. We’d been practicing our skills for the last five months, and as much as I was familiar with the island, the journey was of an indeterminable distance to us. I figured, based on my land and lake experience, two days, maybe more if conditions were windy. Recent reports of the deaths of paddling instructors who neglected to bring a paddle float and had enough arrogance not to check the weather made me think of safety.
I wandered down to the beach just as the sun was setting and discovered Phil had burned up all the planks my mother collected from the dump and used as steps because the footing on the stones was tricky. The planks had to be stabilized and required skill to walk on well beyond what visitors expected. She’d make assessments of the coordination and skill set of a person trying to make it to or from the beach and was impressed if someone did not fall through the slatted planks, especially if the person had big feet. By now the wood was all rotted and had nails sticking up everywhere. It was another project of my mother’s to hit these nails down with a stone. She never sat at the beach, and she never went in the water—it was too cold and scary. The beach looked less like a junkyard, but I worried about my mom’s reaction because she had a habit of treating things—her lawn, her house, her beach—as if they were actual extensions of herself. Her reaction was as if Phil amputated her arm.
“It says a lot about what kind of person he is,” she told me, “destructive.” I wondered about Phil. I liked him better when we were at home in Milwaukee.
I was relieved when we left for the kayak excursion the next morning at seven, before the wind was up so we wouldn’t have to worry about getting tossed into Boyer’s Bluff. We made good time; conditions were favorable. It was a flat calm day with very little wind, but the flies were biting, and we had to stop to get ourselves wet a couple of times to ward them off. The relief was temporary. The evaporation process attracted them again. I put on a long-sleeve shirt, even though I was hot.
Trees with green tops along the shoreline reflected in the clear water. Rocks and fish beneath the surface appeared. I dipped my paddle as little as possible, making the most of any surface tension that was available, leaving swirling holes behind me. I hoped that being alone with Phil in nature would provide some reassurances.
On the west side of the island, at Little Lake, there was a narrow bridge of land, an isthmus. I’d always thought of Little Lake as an inland lake, but its border closely shared with Lake Michigan’s. Phil wanted to stop.
“So soon?” I could resist the urge to stop. We were barely a quarter of the way through our itinerary for the day.
“Yeah,” he said. “What’s the hurry? We’re on vacation, right?” I acquiesced, landing my craft. Shanties used for ice fishing lined the shore, reminding me of the short Wisconsin summertime. Phil ventured off on foot, said he was going to use the public restroom—there was one, an outhouse. He was gone a long time. I waited, trying not to get pissed off.
“Hey, can I have some food?” he asked when he returned. Everything was packed up in the sealed-off compartment and in rolled-up dry sacs, so it was hard to get. What a pain in the ass! I dug through something I didn’t plan on getting into until the end of day.
“Don’t mess with my SpaghettiOs,” he said. He insisted that we bring them. Maybe my mom was right. I might as well have been hanging out with a nine-year-old. He should have been thinking of hours of daylight left, not canned pasta.
“Oh, whoops!” he said, dropping a pot pipe that was still smoking. I couldn’t believe it. He told me that pot had been a huge problem for him, that it was out of his life, that he’d quit. I don’t know why I took such a hard line against pot. I’d hardly even tried it. It made stupid people stupider. Pot was for people who couldn’t find enough amusement in regular life. But he’d lied to me, so I hated him. He was weak and a potential threat to our safety.
We got back in our boats, and I went ahead because Phil’s pace was lagging. We turned south into the wind, passing Gibson’s Beach. It was a minefield of whitecaps. I paddled in short strokes, careful not to put my paddle too high in the air. Looking back at Phil, I could see him struggling, his paddle high in the air, until he turned the sixteen-foot red kayak perpendicular to the shore and headed in.
I went back for him. He had the rescue float in his boat, and we were lucky nothing happened, like a double-crested wave bouncing back from the shore.
“I don’t have the energy for this,” he said.
That made two of us. I could see a ferry coming across from the mainland, crossing Death’s Door, the Bermuda Triangle of the Great Lakes.
Amazingly, we got to Pederson’s Bay, where we planned to camp. Detroit Island was just across from Washington Island and part-time inhabited by seven families who had their own barge and generator. I’d known the Olsens, one of the families, forever, and they’d given me lifetime permission to camp on their beach.
It was getting late, about four o’clock. I’d looked forward to relaxing on the beach and having a cuddly, campy kind of night and not the kind where it starts getting cold and your boyfriend can’t find the lighter. There would be no hot food.
With little respect for any ritual of dining, Phil opened the SpaghettiOs and ate them with a spoon right out of the can. I opened a beer but it was undrinkable; it was warm and my mood was bad. I looked across Detroit Harbor; the sunset was obscured by clouds. I could see a green light, something marking the channel. Maybe I could swim to the Washington Hotel, arrive soaking wet but unencumbered, and emerge from the lake a person who lived a life metamorphasized from sea to land—a better version of myself and one who could enjoy a romantic, delicious dinner. It was less than half a mile, but it seemed far.
Phil was still eating, stopping only to make a comment about how he thought it would be nicer over here—more like Robinson Crusoe—instead it looked the same as everything else.
I was no longer speaking to him.
Phil spat. Right on the beach, next to me. I hate spitting more than pot. Being stuck on this island eating canned food with Phil sucked. I turned, gave him a look. He spat again.
“There’s a stone in my SpaghettiOs,” he said, looking up from the can of tiny white lifesavers.
“Congratulations,” I said. “You’ve accomplished something.”
“Let’s go!” I walked to my kayak. “Come on, we’ll paddle fast, it’s completely calm. When we get to the ferry dock, I’ll call my mom from the payphone—she’ll pick us up.”
I was happy to see the red taillights of my blue Volvo wagon backing up just as it got dark. We loaded our kayaks on the top, and when I opened the car door, my mom said, “Did you guys get along OK? The cat is still missing, you know.”
Phil opened the car door. I pushed by him as my mom scooted over. “I’ll drive.” It was all I could do to wait for him to get into the back seat. I wanted to leave him there with a can opener and let him live off the land