Moxie

Alison Wilgus


The Bermuda Race was in three weeks. The man that David Song’s father had sailed with since before David could remember—Zhou Peng, from Mashpee—had agreed to crew The Dark Side of the Moon one last time before retirement. Peng was the best, David’s father had long insisted; he could be relied upon, out there in the open ocean, where steadiness of hand and spirit were a matter of survival, even on so short a voyage.

But David’s father had died over the winter, cut down with brutal suddenness by a heart attack just before the New Year. And Zhou Peng was now a full half-hour late.

For thirty years, David’s father had done the bulk of his business over lunches at the Hyannis Yacht Club; dinner, sometimes, for old friends who had to catch a commuter flight from the Barnstable County Airport down the road. He’d claimed good-naturedly it was because of their excellent lobster rolls, but David knew better than that. They were the only Chinese family with full Club membership, and Mr. Song had made a point of being as active and as visible a patron as possible, short of buying one of the condos along the wharf. He’d been a proud man who liked to rub people’s faces in their own discomfort, but not so much that he’d yolk himself to Hyannis, of all places. “I’m not a barbarian,” he’d been fond of saying, often with a Plymouth and tonic in his hand, which sloshed but never spilled as he gestured for effect.

For thirty years, Mr. Song had taken the ferry from Oak Bluffs for these lunchtime meetings—he believed very strongly that no one should ever come to the Vineyard for business if it could be helped—and often, he’d brought his son along. David had vivid childhood memories of Shirley Temples and BLTs, of quietly playing with the tiny plastic sword that had kept a slice of orange and a maraschino cherry perched at the lip of his glass, and of watching as tanned white people in salmon-colored polo shirts and battered Red Sox caps hosed down the decks of their moored Boston Whalers.

After an appropriate period of mourning, David had gone back to work. He spent weekdays in Boston, where he kept a studio apartment on Rose Wharf, and flew home to the Vineyard on the weekends. He took his meetings on personal business at a cafe in Vineyard Haven, a short walk from the marina where The Dark Side of the Moon was moored. He hadn’t set foot in Hyannis since the funeral, but he’d kept his father’s yacht, in the end.

David was browsing, almost-serious, through online crew classifieds when the screen door of the cafe banged open. He glanced up in time to see a man—East Asian, no older than twenty and drowning in a too-large yellow windbreaker—spot him from across the room.

“David Song?” he asked, breathless. His bangs were plastered to his forehead with sweat.

“Yes,” said David.

“Sorry I’m so late,” said the other man, who sounded even younger than he looked. “Missed the ferry. Had to wait hours for the next one.”

“It’s only May,” said David. He frowned. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Oh! Yes…” The man pulled out the chair across from David and sank into it. “You’re expecting my dad.”

“You’re Peng’s son, then?”

That seemed to take him off guard, although David couldn’t imagine why. They were probably the only two Chinese Americans in Vineyard Haven. Some assumptions weren’t much of a stretch.

“Sure,” the other man said finally.

“I wasn’t really expecting to conduct an interview this morning.”

Peng laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I wasn’t really expecting this either. Kind of came together at the last minute.”

“Has your father lost my phone number and email address?”

Peng’s smile evaporated. “He, ah…wouldn’t give them to me.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Well, I knew he was supposed to meet you here today, and I was pretty sure of the time, but his address book only has your dad’s cell.”

“Does he know that you’re taking this meeting on his behalf?”

“Oh, of course.”

David narrowed his eyes as Peng shifted in his chair.

“Look, Mr. Song…I’m gonna be honest with you. Dad didn’t really want me to come.”

“Then why did you, exactly?”

“He’s too old to crew a race like this,” said Peng. “His back’s shot, his knee’s been acting up, his blood pressure’s too high. One of the bigger boats, maybe, but a double-handed race could kill him.”

“If Mr. Peng isn’t in the condition to crew my boat, that would have been helpful to know six months ago.”

Peng shrugged. “He’s a Boomer.”

“Did you tie him up and lock him in a closet?”

“Of course not. Mom hid his keys.”

David sighed, not bothering to mask his irritation, and leaned over to pull his laptop out of his bag. “Well, this crew information form is useless,” he said as he pulled up the file. “Name?”

The other man hesitated. “Alex Peng.”

“I assume you have an ISAF Sailor ID?”

“Of course,” he said, then recited it from memory while David typed it into the form.

“Classification?”

“Group 1,” said Peng. So he was an amateur or too young to count as a pro. Both, probably.

“Do you have any offshore racing experience?”

“I ran the San Fernando race with some family friends out of Hong Kong back in 2011.”

“Have you ever crewed double-handed?”

“Inshore. Mostly around the Cape and islands.”

David closed his laptop with a sharp click. “Thank you for your time. Give your father my regards.”

Peng frowned. “Is that all? Don’t I need to sign the forms? They’re due in like four days…”

“Which means I have four days to interview candidates.”

“But I said I can do it.”

David slid his laptop into its matte leather case. “Look. You obviously mean well and I’d prefer not to insult a man directly. So let’s just say that your qualifications are insufficient and leave it at that.”

“I’ve been sailing since I could walk. My dad’s one of the best and he’s taught me everything he knows.”

“He also has three times your experience.”

“I’m strong, I’m fast and I won’t hold you back.”

“How old are you, anyway?”

“Twenty-five.”

“You don’t look it.”

“Can’t do much about that.”

“Have you ever run this course before?”

Peng hesitated. “I’m a quick learner.”

“And I’m not hear to teach you,” said David. “This is not a school. This is the most prestigious ocean race in North America. The Dark Side of the Moon has placed in the top three finishes of the Class 15 Double-handed division for the past four races. I appreciate that you’re trying to fulfill Zhou Peng’s obligations, but respectfully, our goals are incompatible. I intend to carry out my father’s wishes and do honor to his memory. I won’t compromise my chances to provide you with a learning experience.”

Peng scowled at him. “Our fathers sailed together for two decades.”

“I have thanked Mr. Peng for his service, and I’ll do so again when I have the opportunity.”

“He doesn’t want your thanks. He wants to sail to Bermuda on your yacht, because he promised your father that he would. The only reason he isn’t here right now is because I physically prevented him from coming.”

“Your decision, not mine.”

“Do you really think this is what your dad would’ve wanted? For you to turn your back on my family and shop around for some half-rate pro on Craigslist?”

“I think you underestimate the resources available to me.”

Peng snorted and pushed back his chair. “I’ll be on the island until the last ferry leaves for Falmouth. Here’s my cell.” He dropped a folded scrap of paper onto the table, stood, and walked out of the cafe. The flimsy screen door banged shut behind him.

***

The area near the Vineyard Haven marina was all low shingled buildings and a handful of trees, and David could see his father’s ship from some distance away as he walked down Beach Road. The Dark Side of the Moon was a Class 40 sailing yacht—30 foot hull, forty horsepower engine, the name written in English and Chinese along the side, white letters against flat black.

The afternoon was cold and drizzling under a oyster shell sky, and the boats sat canvas-covered and alone in the black water, gull sweeps spinning briskly in the wet gusts that blew over the harbor. Against this backdrop of sand and choppy water and worn wooden planks, it was impossible to miss the little red-hulled Sunfish that slid smoothly toward the end of one jetty. Or the figure that ran out to meet it, dressed in a yellow windbreaker that glowed in the flat gray light.

The Sunfish pulled up alongside the jetty, its sail flapping in the breeze as its captain leaned back to grab one of the piles. But rather than tie off the boat, he held it steady for a moment as Peng closed the last few feet of distance and hopped gracefully onto its deck, the momentum of his landing pushing them away from the jetty again. Peng took his place with the smooth ease of long practice, ducking under the boom as his friend pulled in the mainsail and caught the wind again. David guessed that the boat had stopped for perhaps three seconds altogether.

He watched as the Sunfish cut north across the harbor, sail held taut and steady despite the gusts, Peng’s hands on the mainsheet while his friend managed the tiller. Once the tip of their mast had disappeared behind the breakwater, David crossed the sun-bleached parking lot, sand crunching between the asphalt and the soles of his shoes.

David found a weathered bench out on the jetty, sat so that he faced the open water, and took his computer out of his bag. It sat, unopened, on his lap. He watched the damp horizon and thought.

***

It rained that afternoon, and David held a small black umbrella over his head while he waited for the Sunfish to return. When Peng climbed up onto the dock again, a coil of rope in hand, his hair was stuck to his cheeks and forehead and water dripped from chin.

He tied the line around mooring cleat. “I got your text,” he said.

“I gathered,” said David. “Is this your boat?”

“It’s mine,” said the friend, a young black man in boat shoes and a threadbare polo shirt. He was midway through furling the sail, and paused to squint curiously up at David. “Bill Graham, out of Oak Bluffs. Maybe you know my dad?”

“Of course,” said David after a moment’s recollection. “Does your family still winter in Naples?”

“Actually, I think they’re gonna try and stick it out on the island this year.”

“Excellent,” said David. “I know it’s not for everyone, but I love the Vineyard in the off season.”

“Yeah, it’s something else.” Finished with the sails, Graham looked up at Peng. “You’re cutting it pretty close for the ferry. You have someone who can pick you up if you have to catch the boat to Hyannis?”

“I’ll make arrangements if I detain him that long,” said David.

Graham and Peng exchanged a long, strange look.

“Sure,” said Graham, still facing Peng. “Well, I’m gonna moor the boat here until tomorrow. I’ll be at Lucy’s if you need anything.”

“Thanks, Bill,” said Peng. “You’re the best.”

“And you’re a weirdo, but what else is new?” The two of them exchanged a one-armed hug and a whispered word, then Graham jogged toward shore along the jetty.

David waited for the sound of footsteps to fade before he spoke again. “How serious about this are you?” he asked.

Peng frowned. “About sailing? Or about the race?”

“Both.”

“Extremely.”

“Why?”

Peng crossed his arms. “My family’s reputation is at stake.”

“As is mine,” said David.

“So you understand, then.”

David let out a sort of chuckling sigh. “I must be crazy.”

Peng shrugged his shoulders. “You’d be crazy to say ‘no.’”

***

Peng had never been on board a Class 40 yacht, but had apparently read through everything on the association’s website before their meeting in the cafe, and knew the rules at least as well as David. He examined every contour of the deck and every yard of the sails, making notes in a small book he kept in his back pocket. His parents had packed them both a week’s worth of meals you could eat one-handed, which he stowed in the tiny galley with practiced efficiency. He had the easy, sure-footed confidence of a man who’d grown up on the water.

In previous years, David’s father had brought The Dark Side of the Moon south to Newport via trailer, not seeing the point of the extra wear on the boat and the chance for something to go wrong. But Mr. Song hadn’t been about to sail the Bermuda race with a near-total stranger.

The trip was quick and uncomplicated—four hours under overcast skies, steady wind and complacent seas, the shore an olive smudge on the western horizon. Normally so short a distance would have taken them closer to ninety minutes to cross, but David had wanted to make the most of this chance to practice out on the water.

They changed the sails, each one furled and raised with a stopwatch timing them until David was happy with what he saw. They secured the cabin and rigging to withstand hurricane winds. They took turns jumping overboard so the other could come to their rescue. They hoisted each other to the top of the mast to free a hypothetical knot. They checked every one of the fire extinguishers and annoyed David’s admin with field tests of the satellite phone.

They rounded Brenton Point, with the wind directly behind them as they sailed into Narragansett Bay. Children waved to them from the shore as they slid by.

“One more sail change,” said David. They were perched together on the high starboard side of the cockpit, their legs braced against the heel of the ship. “I want to see how quickly you can swap in the storm jib on your own.”

On such a cold gray afternoon so early in the season, no boats were anywhere near them in the bay, and David could give his full attention to Peng as he worked. With no task of his own to complete, David found himself appreciating the small details of a seaman at home on deck. Even in the hours since they’d set out from Vineyard Haven, Peng had gotten a feel for the particulars of The Dark Side of the Moon, and hesitated only for a moment of let’s-be-sure before taking hold of the halyard. The jib was down in seconds, and Peng wrestled the sail into its bag with more efficiency than David would have managed.

He watched as Peng hauled the storm Jim into place and felt a strange swell of affection in his chest, so sudden and so unexpected that when Peng called out to him, he missed what the other man had said entirely.

“So you’ve make this run before?” Peng repeated when asked.

“Twice,” said David. “With friends from school. One of them had a sixty foot Bordeaux in the family. Sailed out of Oyster Harbors.” Thinking of the absurd luxury of that boat—with its three private cabins, full kitchen and working shower—made him cringe with embarrassment at what a man like Peng would think to see it. “We weren’t serious competitors.”

Peng looked thoughtful for a second, sitting on the forward deck with his arms draped over his knees, the back of his yellow windbreaker billowing in the wind. “I’d assumed you weren’t a sailor,” he said.

“Why’s that?”

“Well…I mean, Mr. Song always made the the run for Bermuda with my dad…” Peng laughed a little. “I uh….I guess I was just surprised, is all.”

“My father took this race very seriously,” said David.

“Yeah, that’s what Dad always–”

“Let’s change the lighter sail back in,” said David.

Peng glanced over his shoulder. “We’re almost at port…”

“We can use the practice,” said David.

They didn’t speak as they worked.

***

After he’d checked in at race headquarters, there was little for David to do before the start. Most logistical arrangements had been made months ago—all eight of the sails his Class 40 yacht would be allowed had been decided on already, extra sails and gear for the return trip would be shipped by container to Bermuda, and early planning by his father had won The Dark Side of the Moon a prime appointment for its final equipment check. They were finished with race business by mid-afternoon.

As was common for year-round residents in David’s experience, Peng had apparently spent little time off-Cape except for races or work with his family’s business. He explained that he’d been to Newport before, but had slept on a boat in the shipyards and never really left the waterfront.

“I know it’s a little cold to swim,” said David, “But after lunch we should rent a couple of bikes and head up Memorial to First Beach.”

“Bikes?”

“You know how to ride, don’t you?”

“Of course, I just figured you’d…call a taxi or something.” Peng laughed. “But sure, yeah, it would be great to go to the beach. It’ll be nice and empty today.”

“We may see some surfers if we’re lucky,” said David.

“Sure.” Peng glanced over his shoulder, toward the tower of the Hyatt Regency that rose from one end of the island behind them. “We won’t have much time to walk around,” he said.

“Why do you say that?”

“We’ll have to be back at the hotel at five to get ready for the Gosling’s party.”

David frowned. “How interested are you in going to that?”

“I’m not really all that invested either way?” Peng shrugged. “I won’t really know anyone there, but that’s fine. The free dark and stormies would be nice.”

“I could buy you much better drinks than that,” said David.

“Do you not want to go?”

“I will know people there.”

“And?”

“They were friends of my father’s.”

“I’m sure they’d be glad to see you.”

“They’d be more glad to see my father.” David sighed. “I’m being ridiculous. It’s your first race, you should go to the party.”

“I’ve never really been much for ‘should,’” said Peng, and laughed again. “Look, Song, if you want me to give you an excuse to skip out on this thing, just say so.”

David crossed his arms and looked out over the water. “I might.”

“So what, beach then dinner? Classy night out on the town playing hooky?”

“You’re making this sound like a date.”

Peng’s entire face turned red. “I…sorry, I didn’t-”

Now David laughed, grinning much wider than his cheeks were accustomed to. “Come on,” he said, and punched the smaller man in one neon yellow shoulder. “My treat.”

***

A photo of Mr. Song’s first Bermuda race had sat on his desk for decades—since before he’d married, as far as David could tell. In it, he was a square-jawed youth in a crisp collared shirt, the only dark head amongst a pack of his classmates from Yale, their blonde hair bleached white from years in the sun and salt. The sky behind them was clear as they squinted in the morning light. A perfect day.

Whether Peng’s first race would be perfect was yet to be seen, but its beginning was not. The wind had picked up again, and David’s eyes stung with rain and sea spray as they scrambled to reef the mainsail. He’d put a light wetsuit on under his jacket that morning once he’d looked at the weather report; by the time they were underway, many hours later, he was hot and itchy and in a foul mood.

Once he’d secured the last reefing line, he unzipped the jacket and threw it down into the cabin. The wetsuit was sleeveless, with his neck and collarbones left exposed. The rain felt cool against his sweat-sticky skin. He tilted back his head, his feet hooked around the railing, and closed his eyes as water ran down his face.

Rigging moaned and rattled as the wind shifted again. David opened his eyes and caught a glimpse of Peng’s red-cheeked face whipping away from him.

“Something wrong?” he asked the back of Peng’s head.

“No,” said Peng, his voice carried over his shoulder by the wind. “Sorry. It’s nothing.”

“You’re sure?”

“Totally sure.”

David frowned. “We’ll be on this boat alone together at least two more days, and it’ll feel like a month if we let things get awkward. If you have something to say to me, just say it.”

Peng reached for an unsecured line on the deck and began coiling it around his forearm. He was in profile, now, his eyes focused on the water. “You’re good at this,” he said.

“What? Sailing?”

“Yeah.”

“Well…thank you,” said David, now feeling much more awkward than he had a minute ago.

“You must’ve started when you were a kid.”

“My father taught me when I was three,” said David. “I was sailing on my own by the time I was six. Just a pram, of course.”

“Of course.” Peng finished coiling the rope in silence and stowed it neatly, still not looking at David. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Why wouldn’t he want to race with you?”

“Who?”

“Your dad,” said Peng. “It doesn’t make sense. I mean you two got along great, right?”

David stiffened. “That’s not really the point.”

“And it’s not like our dads were super close.”

“They weren’t, no.”

“Did he ever say something to you about it?”

“Of course not.”

“So why–”

“Peng,” David snapped. The other man looked at him, then, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

“I’m sorry,” said Peng. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Your dad just died, I shouldn’t be…” He stood up, no less agile for his embarrassment, and hopped over to check the lines securing the jib. David thought he might have heard another “sorry” after that, but it was hard to be sure. Peng’s back was to him again, skinny neoprened legs sticking out from under his oversized windbreaker.

***

What remained of the first day passed with little talk apart from business. They lucked into a Gulf Stream eddy that gave them a shove worth at least ten knots, and the wind blew steady and strong from the west. The sky was still heavy and blue at sunset, but the temperature had come up a few degrees, and the rain had eased to a light mist that left droplets in their hair.

They sat on the high port side of the deck, legs dangling over the hull and elbows on the railing, and ate the tidy meat pies the elder Pengs had baked for them.

“God, I’m so glad we’re out here,” Peng said between mouthfuls. “Eating in the cabin makes me nauseous.”

“I’ll have to thank your parents for this,” said David, gesturing with what was left of his pie.

“Oh, they insisted,” said Peng. “They always liked your dad.”

David took another bite of his dinner and chewed it slowly. Dark water rushed past them, black and choppy in the last light of the day.

“He held your father in extremely high regard,” said David. “Skilled. Experience. Very reliable.”

Peng chuckled. “A lot to live up to.”

David made a small noise of agreement. The sky darkened to a deep, moonless charcoal that blurred into the water.

“My father died very suddenly,” said David. “He’d had trouble with his heart, but he ate well. Exercised. Took his pills. I don’t think he believed it would happen so soon.”

Peng was silent. Lit by the ships’ lanterns behind them, his face was lost in shadow.

“We’d sail the twenty-sixteen race together,” said David. “That was the plan. He just wanted to have this last year with Mr. Peng.” David swallowed. “He was explicit this time. A promise. Nothing vague.”

The wind gusted. Waves that David could no longer see broke against the hull.

“He hadn’t won Bermuda since the nineties,” said David. “He just wanted one last chance before he retired. A real chance. And Mr. Peng was the safer bet.”

“Maybe,” said Peng.

“Of course I understood where he was coming from. It wasn’t personal. He had the rest of his life to race for fun.” David swallowed again. His throat felt tight. “He didn’t know. How could he have known?”

“He couldn’t have,” said Peng.

“He’d have raced with me in twenty-twelve, if he’d known,” said David. “If he’d had any idea. He wouldn’t have waited.”

David’s eyes were on the horizon, now two shades of black divided by a dim indigo line. He felt the warm weight of a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” said Peng.

“It’s fine,” said David.

The hand was withdrawn. The wind shifted.

They trimmed the sails in the dark.

***

Their first dawn on the ocean was bright and clear, with a crisp breeze from the northeast and no sign of further storms ahead. David cheerfully left his wetsuit in the cabin, dressing instead in a tee shirt and a well-worn pair of shorts. He’d managed five full hours of sleep overnight, if only in one-hour bursts, and his mood was light as the sunrise washed over him, pinkening the deck while he checked the rigging.

Peng had taken the last sleep shift, and emerged from below deck into full morning sunlight. He was wearing the yellow windbreaker again, this time paired with cargo pants, and said very little while David filled him in on news of the weather and their progress toward the finish.

By ten AM, the temperature had reached the low eighties. Beads of sweat rolled down the sides of Peng’s face. The windbreaker remained, zipped up to his sternum and gleaming in the summer sun.

At noon, they took their turns for lunch. David sipped his chowder and watched as Peng let out the jib, his hair forming scraggly wet rivers along his temples.

“Aren’t you hot?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” said Peng. He wiped his forehead with the back of one hand. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You don’t look fine,” said David.

Peng secured the line he’d been adjusting. “I am.”

“If you forgot to pack sunscreen, I have plenty to share.”

“It’s fine.”

Hours passed. This time of year and at this latitude, the sun wouldn’t set until almost eight-thirty, and David found himself watching Peng with a sort of concerned fascination. There was no shade on deck. The wind changed suddenly and often, and the currents were unpredictable, leaving the two of them little time to rest. David imagined he could see Peng wilting, like a houseplant left unwatered in a south-facing window.

Just after three, Peng stopped what he was doing and crouched beside the mast, grim and bedraggled as he stared out at the ocean.

He unzipped the windbreaker, pulled it off, and tied it around his waist. Now wearing only a white tank top, Peng moved on to the next task, not once looking at David to see his reaction.

David did have a reaction, though. A sudden twist of doubt that quickly grew and hardened into furious embarrassment, so intense he could feel his heartbeat quicken.

Her face and neck red and her eyes resolutely downcast, Peng set about untangling a snarled line at the bow.

***

Their second night at sea was gorgeous.

They worked under a sliver moon and an infinite sky of starlight. Behind them, a second Milky Way of bioluminescence was stirred up by their passing. They kept the ship’s lanterns low and walked barefoot across the deck, cool blue and soft-edged in the dimness.

The night was astounding, but David would barely remember it. Too furious to do anything beyond the reflexive mechanics of keeping their ship on course, he glowered at the heartbreaking vista with irritable impatience.

In less than two days, he would be off of this boat. He would drink aged whiskey and smoke several perfect cigars on the balcony of his hotel. And he would never have to speak to a single member of the Peng family again.

***

“You’re going to have to say something to me eventually,” said Peng.

David stuffed what remained of breakfast into his mouth, stood, and went to check on the starboard tiller. The port side was entirely out of the water, drops spraying off the blade in wet gusts of wind.

“Look, maybe I should have said something sooner, but you’re the one who started this.”

The current had shifted while they’d trimmed the mainsail, pulling them off the rhumb line to Bermuda. David leaned hard on the tiller.

“What does it matter anyway? I can do the job.” She snugged a knot in the main line and went to let out the jib. As she moved forward along the deck, she had to raise her voice to be heard above the water. “Song, I’m doing the job.”

David watched the horizon and clenched his jaw.

“I understand this is kind of awkward,” said Peng. “But it’s not worth–”

“You don’t understand anything,” said David.

“I get why you’re embarrassed, but–”

“No,” said David. The tiller was cold and slippery, and he gripped it hard enough to make the bones in his hand ache. “‘Embarrassed’ is forgetting someone’s name at a party. ‘Embarrassed’ is wearing your shirt inside-out. This isn’t ‘embarrassed.’”

Peng climbed back toward him, crouching above the companionway in her cargo pants and white tank. “Okay, well I get why you’re angry, then.”

“You don’t ‘get’ anything about me,” said David. “You don’t ‘get’ who I am or what I’ve been through.”

“How can you say that after–”

“After what? We kept a ship on course for a couple of days and talked about our fathers? You lied to me.”

“About one thing.”

“One thing? One thing!” David laughed unkindly. “Oh, no big deal!”

“It shouldn’t be.”

“Of course it is!” He was shouting, now. “I told you about my personal…about my life! My father! You manipulated me!”

Peng barked out a nervous laugh. “What the hell, David? It’s like you think that being a woman means I don’t know what it’s like to have a dad.”

David said nothing.

Peng frowned at him for several seconds. Then she stood, ducked under the boom, and went back to work on the forward deck, an efficient silhouette behind the mainsail.

***

Sunset on the third day was ominously spectacular. A wall of cloud advanced on them from the southeast, slate heaps of cumulus tinged a startling red from below, hot light that poured over a choppy sea until it was swallowed by the horizon. Their sails ruffled as a cold wind rolled over them ahead of the storm, bringing the first fat drops of rain. They worked to catch the shifting air, boom swinging around with the ratchet click of winches and the rattle of metal fittings,

David had seen the radar. The boiling snarl of yellow and red that unloaded itself on their heads had blown in across the North Atlantic, and stretched on for at least fifty miles ahead and to either side. If they were lucky, they’d have cleared it by the time they reached the century mark. Until then, the swirling gulf current and the capricious winds of an early-summer storm promised a sleepless night for them both.

The same easy synchronicity of instinct that had let them pass most of a day without speaking now allowed them to trim the sails once a quarter hour with only a few grunted half-sentences between them. Once the heavy, wet darkness had settled itself on top of them, David lost all sense of the passage of time. He’d taken his watch off hours ago, after catching it one too many times on the sheets. He stuffed his pockets with homemade protein bars and ate them whenever hunger muddied his concentration, taking each one down in two enormous bites before the rain could make a soggy mess of it.

They jibed through a sputtering headwind for hours, the boom careening back and forth as whichever of the pair of them was up on the foredeck scrambled out of the way. With the heel of the ship in constant flux, one gunwale and then the other leaning down into the surf, everything not in their pockets or the cabin had to be lashed down. Sails and rigging shone and dimmed as the lanterns swung. David fantasized about hot food and dry clothes and ground away at the winches.

Somewhere in the ruthless valley between late night and early morning, David sat with both hands white-knuckled on the tiller. The wind had changed again, and the sails flapped uselessly as he fought to bring the ship about. His brow itched and his eyes stung with sweat and salt water. His arms and shoulders were beginning to cramp, but the auto-tiller wasn’t reliable in rough seas, and a storm like this would destroy it.

He could just make out Peng as she crab-walked under the jib, hair in her face and clothes plastered to her body in stiff, uneven bunches. He watched her work the lines with stubborn single-mindedness and tried not to think about how much pain he was in or how much longer he would have to endure it.

When she came to relieve him, he had to bite back a moan of relief as he uncurled his fingers from the wood.

He moved over, bracing himself against the far side of the cockpit, and shook the stiffness out of his hands. “Why am I doing this,” he said. He could barely hear himself over the wind, but Peng’s cold-whitened ear was very close.

“Not sure,” said Peng. “Probably you’re just stupid.”

“I hate this boat,” said David.

“Understandable.”

“I hate my father.”

“No you don’t,” said Peng. “Come on.”

“I do,” said David. “I hate him.”

“Sure.”

“And this boat. But mostly him.”

Peng grinned. “Okay.”

“I wish he was here,” said David. “So I could punch him in the face for making me do this.”

Peng laughed long and hard at that.

After a moment, so did he.

***

The storm passed just after dawn. David changed out of his wet suit again, pulling soft clean cotton over skin stiff with layers of salt and sunscreen. This close to the end, there wasn’t time for sponging himself off in the head. He hid the state of his hair under a Black Dog cap and rubbed chapstick on his parched lips.

They’d be able to see the island within an hour or so. The wind was fair and favorable. White flashes of sail dotted the horizon, but David made no effort to identify them. He and Peng moved about the deck with unhurried precision, each of them settled into the clear-eyed calm of competence.

“Why did you think you had to lie to me?” said David.

“I didn’t have much time to think about it,” said Peng. “I didn’t know how you’d react if I corrected you.”

“Do I look like the kind of man who’d make a scene over something like that?”

“No,” said Peng. “But you might not have given me the job.”

“This isn’t the fifties,” said David. “No one cares about having women on ships anymore.”

Peng took her time securing the jib sheet. “That isn’t my experience.”

“Why would you even want to sail with someone who’d turn you away for a reason like that? I’d have thought you’d tell me just to make sure I wasn’t a complete ass.”

Peng looked up at him, her eyes unreadable behind her sunglasses. “Why did you decide to sail this race?”

David frowned. “I had to.”

“Why?”

“I owed it to my father.”

Peng bent to check on a coiled line. “There you go, then.”

***

When they were thirty miles out from St. George, David called Bermuda Radio on VHF to register their approach and verify their course. At twenty miles, Peng hefted herself up into the rigging on a bosun’s chair and flew the yellow quarantine flag. At ten, when the rhythm of work permitted, they took turns watching the archipelago through binoculars, its details blurred by fog and distance.

They passed St. David’s Lighthouse at eight thirty-one on the morning of the fourth day, crossing the finish line well east of the reefs that jutted out from shore. Race officials verified their total elapsed time over VHF: sixty-four hours and ten minutes. The official corrected times wouldn’t be announced until later that day, but these things weren’t difficult to calculate.

David’s friends had told him they’d watch the finish online. When he turned his cell phone back on, it vibrated for nearly a minute as notifications for several dozen texts and voice mails marched across the screen. He put his phone back in his pocket.

They looped around north and west to the Town Cut Channel, a dredged passage that spilled out into the sheltered waters of St. George’s Harbor. There was a line for the customs dock on Ordinance Island, so they anchored in Pirate Bay and sat on the gunwale, legs dangling over the water as they watched support craft buzz between the yachts that motored past.

“Did you check your messages?” asked David.

Peng chuckled. “Yeah.”

The morning was clear and breezy. Pastel buildings with white rooftops tumbled down the lush hillsides. The staccato calls of longtail birds drifted across the harbor. A ninety footer out of New York slid into place beside them in the bay, two dozen men in khakis and white polo shirts swarming over its deck.

“‘Falconer’s going to make up a lot of time with corrections,” said David. “We can’t really know anything until they finish.”

“True.”

“And the protest hearings aren’t for two more days. They won’t post the final results until that night, at the earliest. Probably not until Thursday afternoon.”

“Probably,” said Peng. She stretched her arms over her head, her fingers interlaced and her palms flat to the sky. “There’s a pretty good Italian place near the shipyards.”

“Italian?”

“Dad told me about it.”

“You want to get Italian. In Bermuda.”

Peng shrugged. “You want to eat at the yacht club?”

“Christ. No. If I wanted to pay nine dollars for a Hot Dog I’d catch a game at Fenway. At least the company would be better.”

“Ouch.”

“What?”

“Well, I’d’ve thought some of your friends would be in town for the race.”

“The people I’m still friends with don’t do this sort of thing anymore,” said David. “They all live in Manhattan or the Bay Area. They fly their parents in for Christmas. Most of them probably haven’t been east of Providence since grad school.”

Peng leaned back on her hands. “What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Why are you still in Boston?”

David bristled. “Why are you still in Mashpee?”

Peng laughed and shook her head. “You know, we’ll probably have to show up for the Navigators Forum.”

“And the reception,” said David. He sighed.

“Forced to socialize at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club,” said Peng, mock-serious. “I don’t know how you stand it.”

Behind them, the VHF crackled to life. David punched her lightly in the shoulder, then went to make arrangements for their turn at customs.

As he scribbled notes on a legal pad, he looked back to where Peng still sat at the edge of the deck. Her already short hair was pushed up under her cap, leaving the silhouette of her neck and shoulders smooth and unbroken. Behind her, the teal blue water glittered.

***

As miserly as the race committee had been with tickets and press credentials, the terrace of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club wasn’t large enough to accommodate the prize giving reception, so tents and seating had been erected in Barr’s Bay Park next door. All participating Skippers and Navigators were invited, and each were allowed a small number of guests. Additional crew members were included only from the winning yachts, and even then skippers were asked to winnow their compatriots down to a handful.

The result of this gauntlet of exclusivity was a sea of white masculine faces and gray hair, dotted with the darker complexions of the yacht club staff. If not for his own immaculately tailored navy blazer and the Kate Spade dress that Peng had bought in town that afternoon, David was certain they’d both have been mistaken for servers.

He spent the opening hour of cocktails and appetizers on conversational autopilot, papering over any awkwardness with practiced ease.

“Yes, he was my father.”

“Thank you. He very much wanted to be here.”

“Yes, David Song. I believe we met at the Playhouse Gala on the Vineyard.”

“Perhaps you remember Zhou Peng? Yes, he went by ‘Zack’ most of the time.”

“His daughter, Alexandra Peng. Yes, I can see how that might be confusing.”

“I’ve always lived on the Vineyard. Hmm? Well, my grandparents are from China, yes.”

“Of course, we’re very excited.”

“No, we were as surprised as anyone.”

Peng was largely silent. She drank her dark and stormy from a plastic cup in small sips, occasionally smiling to herself behind the rim. In a private moment between pleasantries, he asked if she was all right, and she laughed into her drink.

“I have no idea what to say to these people,” she murmured. “I’m worried that if I open my mouth, I’ll get us kicked out of the party.”

“Would that be the worst thing?”

She rolled her eyes. “Come on.”

“It’s not really that hard,” he said. “Just be friendly and act like you belong here.” He smiled. “Because you do.”

After that, Peng made some small attempts at conversation. Once she realized she could put even the older skippers at ease by talking shop, David found he could pass long minutes just listening quietly.

It occurred to him that Peng was very charming.

***

David stood on the hotel balcony with his elbows on the railing, looking out over the nighttime harbor. The polished silver plate in his hands shone yellow with the light from the room behind him. He tilted it back and forth, watching the inscription slip in and out of view: Moxie Prize. Double-Handed Class. First.

“This isn’t how I thought I’d feel,” he said.

Peng nodded. She had slipped out of her low-heeled shoes, but still wore the dress from the reception—a black silk sheath with a white bar across the chest and shoulders. “What were you hoping for?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Satisfaction? Excitement?”

“Maybe a little ‘I told you so?’”

“See, that’s the thing. I think Dad was right.”

“You’re an excellent sailor,” said Peng. “Demonstrably.”

“That’s not what I mean,” said David. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this with him. We just…” He sighed. “We never really worked together on anything.”

“You’d never worked with me, either.”

“Maybe that’s why I’ve never won a race before.”

Peng took a few seconds to reply. “Maybe.”

David put the trophy on the tabletop beside him. It made a satisfying clink against the glass. “You’re quite the sailor, you know.”

Peng smiled. “Oh, I know.”

“Seriously,” said David. “You’re…” He paused. “You’re incredible.”

Peng looked out at the water. “At sailing.”

“That, too.”

Peng ran a hand back through her hair. “Thanks.”

A minute or so passed. The warm lights of pleasure craft slid across the water. Music from the Yacht Club party, which David knew would continue most of the way through the night, drifted up to them on the wind.

“We should get dinner,” said David. “Someplace small.”

“It’s pretty late,” said Peng.

“Drinks, then,” said David. “I asked the concierge…there’s a little martini bar down the street where the kitchen stays open all night. Wouldn’t even need a taxi.”

Peng laughed. “You’re making this sound like a date.”

David leaned in a little closer. “So is that a yes?”

“To drinks,” said Peng. She smiled. “We’ll see about the rest.”


 

Alison Wilgus has been a writer and artist for comics and animation since she clawed her way out of film school ten years ago. She lives in Brooklyn, is still making comics because she physically cannot stop herself, and is the sort of person who tears up while watching NASA TV.