Menemsha Bite

Menemsha 1993, Alison Shaw

Menemsha 1993, Alison Shaw

The summer I turned eight, my father insisted I go sailing with him and Mrs. Gilchrest. In July the three of us left Three Mile Harbor on Dad’s wooden yawl to sail past the chunky cliffs of Block Island to Martha’s Vineyard. I dangled my legs across the bow, pretending I was galloping a strawberry roan across a wide prairie, until Dad barked out a fresh command from the cockpit or I caught the tail end of Mrs. Gilchrest’s uncertain laughter. I’d known her as my mother’s friend, but now she slept in the captain’s bunk and I was supposed to call her Mary Grace.

Maybe Dad wanted me to come on the sailing trip because I had refused to go to his wedding. The June day Dad and Mrs. Gilchrest were married on Long Island, I was in Manhattan at the Lexington Avenue Pet Shop with my mother and Mr. Gilchrest. I studied the parakeets, while Mr. Gilchrest and my mother slumped against the wall of wire cages, lighting new cigarettes from the stumps of their old ones. I took much longer than I knew I should. Even when I threw in a package of seed treats, a cuddle bar, and a hollow ball with a bell, neither of them tried to curtail my extravagance. Afterwards we went to the Zebra Room, where we picked at a mediocre lunch with the birdcage next to us on the floor. All three of us were excruciatingly polite.

Onboard without my mother or older siblings, I was more afraid than usual and hungry all the time. I’d go below to dab peanut butter on a plate of Ritz Crackers, but then Dad would tilt the boat until the cockpit filled with water. This made Mary Grace scream and she’d beg him to stop. Finally he would, but that was her only special treatment. When her new straw hat blew off, Dad called her an idiot and refused to tack back. As I watched the hat fill up with water, then sink, I knew we could have saved it. We’d gone back for other hats before. Mostly Dad acted the same as always except at night he made sure to click his cabin door shut.

Falling asleep in my bunk, I occasionally wondered if Pretty Bird had food or water, but really I didn’t miss him much. A parakeet hadn’t turned out to be a satisfying pet. Each time I stuck my finger into the cage to teach my bird to trust me, he’d make a dash for the open door and poke me hard with his beak.

When Dad finally pointed out the brick lighthouse on top of the Gay Head Cliffs, I had a moment’s elation. But as I counted the three long white flashes and then the single red one, my heart sank. Now we’d have to sail back. By the time we anchored in Menemsha Pond, the sky was the color of a tangerine. I dreaded another evening of listening to Dad and Mary Grace sing show tunes. Silent during “Some Enchanted Evening,” I’d always join in when Mary Grace belted out “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.”

Something snapped when Dad asked, “Laura, do you know what a Menemsha Bight is?” The only way to answer the condescension in his tone was with my teeth. I leaned over and nipped the soft skin of his forearm. He laughed and I might have let go, but Mary Grace mumbled, “You deserved that.” I bit down harder. Savoring the salt on his skin and the fury on his breath, I felt myself soaring like a gull above the tip of the mast. Looking down at the three of us in the cockpit, damp now with evening dew, I knew Dad wouldn’t dare punish me. I let go.

We laughed like it had been the joke we each knew it wasn’t. As we ate our boiled lobsters and the evening bruised to night, I kept glancing at my father’s arm to make sure my tooth marks were still there. When Dad caught me, all he did was roll down the sleeve of his shirt and look away.

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