The first concession that had to be made was that the second S was going to have to be backwards. He thought about it long and hard, but there was just no way to get from the top of a U to the bottom of an S without cheating, and making the second S backwards was the cheating that involved the fewest extra lines. Right on the heels of that came the second concession, which was that the A would have to remain uncrossed, rendering it more like an upside-down U: the suggestion of an A, the inverse of the U that would come before it. It wasn’t ideal, but sometimes to make an omelete, you had to break a few eggs, and one or two of those eggs always got broken badly, and then you had to reach into the bowl and pick out the bits of shell. It was like that.
The third concession was to the inherent fickleness of coastal weather conditions. “If there’s any wind,” he said to Bill, gesturing with his hand palm-down across the water as though he might be able to keep the bay smooth by sheer force of will, “it won’t work. There’ll be whitecaps everywhere, and you won’t be able to see it.”
Bill, who’d been his friend since his first job out of college nearly fifteen years ago, looked at his watch. “Well, there’s supposed to be a cold front coming in this afternoon, so I’d say you’ve got … half an hour before things start picking up.”
They both had on their windbreakers already, zipped up to the neck against chill and spray alike. The sky right above was a clear blue, flat and undisturbed as the water around them, but the far horizon had a grey cast to it, and what little breeze tugged at the flags by the marina told him that it was coming their way. At the far end of the seawall, a huge, heavy tanker lumbered its way toward the ship channel, but that was too far away to be a concern; its wide wake would peter out long before it got to where he was. “Marina Patrol?” he asked.
Bill scanned the horizon for the familiar white boats. “Coast looks clear.” What they were doing wasn’t too reckless, but he absolutely didn’t want to be stopped halfway through by an ever-vigilant safety officer who mistook fancy driving for boating while intoxicated. That would ruin the whole show.
He steered the boat out between the break in the jetties, out of the marina proper and into the open bay. The storm might be coming soon, but for now the water’s surface was glassy and flat. Once out, he enlisted Bill’s help in putting up the new red canopy that shaded the whole back half of the boat. He didn’t so much care about sun protection as visibility—not that he could see, but that he could be seen. The canvas top was a bright contrast to the blue water, and contrast was what he was going for. “Navigator?”
“Navigator is ready.” In the seat next to the captain’s chair, Bill flipped his sunglasses down from his forehead and spread the marina map across his knees. It was laminated, so neither the elements nor the brown dry-erase marker that sketched out their approximate course design would do it any permanent damage.
All that was left was to make sure the audience was watching. He unzipped one of his windbreaker pockets and pulled out his phone, then hit the top number on his speed dial. As it rang two, three, four times, he began to have a little panic—he’d checked her calendar with her assistant to make sure she’d be in the office, but what if Noemi had gotten the date wrong, or something unexpected had come up, or any one of a million other things had needed her to be elsewhere right then? He’d already used up concessions four through eight to her schedule, when five previous perfect calm days had run afoul of her prior commitments.
But in the middle of the fifth ring, she picked up. “Hello?” she said with all the professional crispness the office required.
“What are you doing?” he asked, trying to sound casual despite how he couldn’t keep from grinning.
“Just work,” she said, and he could hear the papers shuffling on her desk as proof of her claims. “What are you doing?”
“Got a surprise for you.” He put the boat into reverse just a touch so that the current didn’t carry them too far away from his desired starting spot. As far as ocean space went, he had plenty of room, but the space between the nearest breakwater and the place where an adjacent office building eclipsed her view wasn’t as wide as he might have liked. “Go to your window and look out on the water.”
“Okay…” There was a small pause, and then she asked, “What am I looking for?”
He didn’t bother waving; she probably couldn’t see him at this distance, and the canopy was up anyway. “I’m going to put down the phone in a second, but I want you to keep your eye on the little red dot. Got it?”
“Eye on the red dot,” she said, the laughter clear in her voice. “Got it.”
“Now just keep watching,” he said, and he slid the still-open phone into his windbreaker’s front pocket, half-zipping the flap shut to make sure it didn’t fall out. He nodded at Bill, who nodded back, ready to call out all the turns at the appropriate distances, then reached for the radio with his left hand and the throttle with his right. The left dial spun all the way up, shattering the mid-morning stillness with the Beach Boys, and as the throttle went down, the boat lurched forward.
She wasn’t thinking about him when her phone rang. She was trying to read a set of documents one of the other partners had dropped by, but her mind kept straying to the practical: what to get from the grocery store on her way home, when the dog’s next round of heartworm vaccinations was due, what files she needed to get ready for her afternoon clients, how she needed to call and make a hair appointment, when the church board of trustees was meeting next, what time her friends were meeting her for dinner tonight. She was so distracted, in fact, that she didn’t hear her phone ring at first, and when she finally did tune in to the chime, she had to go excavating through her purse to find it. It was half a ring away from voicemail when she finally managed to dig it out, so she tapped the green ‘answer’ button without really registering the caller’s name or the picture behind it. “Hello?”
The connection was bad; she heard that before she heard anything else. There was a crisp sort of static, the telltale sound of distance. “What are you doing?” asked the voice on the other end of the line.
She felt her breath freeze in her lungs. For a moment, she thought she might pass out right there at her desk, just teeter forward and collapse; the practical part of her brain, the efficient little voice that never shut off, told her that if she was going to fall over, she should have the decency to do it quietly in the hopes that she’d wake up on her own before attracting anyone else’s attention. “…Who is this?” she managed with what little air she had left inside her, and when those words were gone, she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to breathe enough again to replace it.
“Got a surprise for you!” said the voice, and she knew that voice as well as she knew her own, that flat hodgepodge of an airman’s son’s vowels, born in Oklahoma but raised a little bit of everywhere. “Go to your window and look out on the water.”
She could barely stand. Her hand had become a raptor’s talon around the black plastic of the phone—she’d been meaning to get a new one, she’d been saying so for well over a year now, but there had been no time, for so long there had been no time, and then when there had been time, a new phone just hadn’t seemed so important anymore. “I,” she began, but that was the extent of her effort. Somehow she placed her free hand flat atop her ancient oak desk and braced herself, shifting her weight forward until she could leave the chair behind. She’d kicked off her shoes earlier, just out of habit, and that was good; even the low grey heels she’d put on that morning might have pitched her over.
The view from her office window was half-obscured by a low, late morning fog. She’d heard on the local NPR station that morning that it had choked the airport, delaying all the pre-dawn flights until the sun could rise and burn off enough to give any visibility. It lingered between the office buildings, hanging around the higher floors, like the one she was on. The cars going up and down Shoreline Boulevard all had their lights on, making bright cat’s eyes pacing along the water’s edge. Just beyond that was the marina, and then the bay itself, its surface mirror-like in the still, humid air.
The fog was so thick, in fact, that she might have missed it entirely had she not known where to look. She placed one hand flat against the window and gripped the phone to her cheek with the other. “I’m going to put down the phone in a second, but I want you to keep your eye on the little red dot,” the voice instructed her. “Got it?”
“Eye on the red dot,” she echoed, murmuring more than speaking, answering more by reflex than by conscious thought. “Got it.”
“Now just keep watching,” said the voice, and as the muffled sounds of ‘Surfing USA’ began to pound through the connection, the little red dot she was supposed to watch started moving.
From behind her, there was a tiny rap on her office’s doorframe, the polite little knock that always heralded Jo’s presence. Despite having only been with the firm for three months, Jo was five feet of sharp, competent efficiency, more than capable of picking up Noemi’s regular duties while Noemi was off visiting her newest granddaughter in Amarillo. Seeing her boss on the phone, Jo gave an apologetic little wave and put the stack of files she’d come to deliver on top of the desk, though she had to push aside one of the festive balloon-and-flower bouquets to make room. That done, she stopped and frowned at the foggy vista, taking a step closer, and then another, until they were both standing at the window, staring out at the water.
The red-canopied boat darted right, though before it had gone too far it did a full half-turn to the left and sped back the distance it had come, then made another 180-degree turn to the right, snaking up all the while and leaving a clear S-shaped path. The bay was still choppy and whitecaps dotted the grey-green waters, but the boat sped through them as though it couldn’t feel their slaps along its sides, and the wake behind it rolled over them undisturbed. At the top of the double curve, the boat bent right again, then cranked down in a long, skinny U.
It could have been anyone. His boat still had a slip in the marina, and his grown son from his first marriage had a key and took it out all the time. Bill had gotten a red canopy for his own boat, which he still took out regularly despite—or, if she wanted to be honest, because of—his own recent diagnosis. And red was a popular shade: bright, visible from a distance, sporty, fun, everything you wanted in a vehicle made to go fast.
The second S was, as always, backwards: it mirrored the first, starting at the top of the U and snaking its way down to the other side. They’d laughed about that together, how there was no way around it, how writing on water was the strangest kind of calligraphy, where you couldn’t lift your pen or make sharp turns, and where you didn’t really want to cross over your old lines if you didn’t have to. His own name would never have worked. But hers was perfect—perfect, that was, except for the backwards S and the uncrossed A, and those oddball letters still made up their own kind of perfection.
She stood there and stared even as tears pricked at the corners of her eyes and threatened to blur her vision. Through the speaker pressed up to her ear, she could hear the song continue, drowned out at intervals as the engine roared in time with the extra torque needed to make those sharp turns. The same static crackled over it all, the kind of noise she associated with the long-distance calls of her childhood, in the days before cell phones and roaming charges and friends-and-family phone plans, back when the astronauts making the moon landing got a clearer connection than she did phoning just down the street. Distance had its own sound, as did absence. She clenched tight her left fist, the one not holding the phone, and felt the paired bands she still wore there press against her skin.
Jo frowned and squinted, as though the fog were over her own eyes rather than shrouding the whole landscape. “Is that boat … writing something?”
Cutting the engine stopped the engine and the visible white wake the boat left behind it, but it didn’t stop the boat itself; that kept drifting after, pushed by even the smallest winds and currents, rocked by forces far greater than itself. This close to shore, even if everything that moved the boat were suddenly to stop working, he wouldn’t float out to sea, but would eventually be carried home to land again. He squinted through his prescription sunglasses back at the space over which they’d just traveled, but there was no way to tell from this flat angle if all his planning had paid off. He looked over to Bill, who gave him a thumbs-up and a shrug at once, which was no help.
Quieting the music, he reached into his pocket for the phone, glanced at the still-glowing screen to make sure he hadn’t accidentally disconnected the call, and rocked up on the balls of his feet with anticipation as he asked, “Did you see it?”
“I saw it,” she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice. The windows on her building were tinted, and the bright late-morning sun shone off them with a spectacular glare, but he knew which one was hers; he didn’t have to try hard to imagine her on the other side of it, almost visible, almost right there.
“Yeah, but could you read it?” he asked, just to make sure. He was out of breath, as though he’d been doing all the work and not just riding the boat.
“Loud and clear,” she said, though she herself was neither loud nor clear; there had been a bit of static on the line when he’d started the call, but it had grown since, until her words had become choppy, sometimes even missing little sounds from the middle. He blamed the storm.
“The second S had to be backwards,” he explained, just in case she might be thinking he’d forgotten how to spell twenty percent of her name. “And the—”
“And the A can’t be crossed, so I have to imagine that it is,” she said before he could get there. “And then the N at the end.”
“Hey, that’s right! You must be pretty smart!” He gave a thumbs-up back to Bill, who smiled and began folding the map.
There was no immediate response, and he was afraid that the call had dropped before he heard a muffled ‘thanks for bringing those by’ and ‘would you mind shutting the door?’ from her end of the connection. She was a busy woman with a busy schedule, and he knew that for a fact. “You signed the—” The sentence cut off in the middle, then started over again: “You signed the ocean for me.”
“It’s what you get the woman who has everything.” He grinned as he said it. “Though I don’t think it’s going to fit in your living room.” He heard her laugh at that, but it was a choked sound, one that couldn’t be explained away by the connection. “Hey, is everything okay?”
“It’s—” He heard her take a deep breath. “It’s fine. It’s really fine. Everything is fine. I’m fine.” She laughed again, that same breathy chuckle. “Miss you.”
He hadn’t come over the night before; he’d been working late in order to make perfectly sure that he’d be free tonight for their dinner date. He would have tried this any day all his conditions had come together, but having it all fall into place on her birthday was just the icing on the cake. “Then maybe I should pick you up at five instead of six.”
“That’d be great,” she said. “I’d like that. I can’t even tell you how much I want you to do to that.”
He laughed, tilting his head back so he could see the clear blue sky above him. Who could possibly believe a coming storm on a day like this? “Then it’s a date,” he said. He’d call the restaurant and see if he could get their reservation moved up an hour, and if he couldn’t, well, then they’d just have to be a little patient. He didn’t mind waiting, though, not in general and especially not with her.
Bill whistled a little and pointed to a white boat skipping its way toward them; the light atop its frame wasn’t flashing, which meant that they probably weren’t in much trouble, but all the same. “Time to go explain my life choices to the authorities,” he said, wheeling the boat around with his free hand so he and the Marina Patrol’s driver could talk more easily. “Five o’clock! I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said, though the hiss of the static all but ate her words, which now sounded even more directionless and distant than before. “I always will.”
The Marina Patrol boat honked its air horn, a sharp blast that cut through the still air. “I’ll see you tonight,” he promised, and snapped shut the phone, ending the call.
The two young women piloting the Marina Patrol boat were not only remarkably helpful and understanding, they were actually both impressed when he explained his plan and showed how he’d plotted it on the map. After a few minutes of friendly conversation called out over the gap between their two boats, the officers wished him and Bill well before they sped off on their way. “So,” asked Bill, “satisfied?”
They’d drifted while talking to the Marina Patrol, pushed by the mild current and the other boat’s stronger wake such that her building was now nearly eclipsed by a taller one closer to the water. He could still see her window, though, and he stared up at it, squinting through the reflected sunlight.
He closed his eyes and breathed in the salt air, felt the sun on his face, smiled when he thought of her smile. “I am,” he said looking back at the water where he’d traced her name as best he’d been able. The bay was almost back to its initial flatness again, though if he tried, he could still see faint white whispers of bubbles that marked the places where he had been, hanging on to the surface as long as they could before the greater press of time and tide returned them, as it did everything else, to their source. Not too long from now, they’d all be gone.