Joyland

New York |

Long Exposure

by Hala Alyan

edited by Amy Shearn

All week they’ve been talking about the fog. The weather channel warns of it, the vacationers bemoan it. Frankie is one of the dock hands. She loves the summer hustle. The scent of gasoline follows her like a question mark. Even in the nice hotel, there is the lingering aroma of fish and diesel. The whole town smells like that, Hunter likes to say. We’re lucky we can’t smell our own stink.

“Incoming,” her boss, Roy, calls out. A small yacht motors towards dock. The Pegasus. A blond man is steering. He is handsome, in a B actor sort of way, perfect jawline, eyes like Listerine.

“Off-islanders. All yours, Frankie.”

She walks up to the gleaming starboard side as he cranks it in reverse and it drifts to a stop. Frankie grabs the rail. The man pushes his sunglasses up and she catches him staring at her blackened fingernails for a moment before speaking.

“Diesel?”

“I’ll grab the hose.” She jogs back to the pumps to grab the diesel line, muttering to her boss, “Definitely summering folks.”

As she is filling up the tank, she can feel the man’s eyes on her grimy tank top, the pit stains, her thigh muscles like rocks. He wants her to lean over a little more, she knows. She makes a point of looking him in the eye when she is done.

“Thirty-four fifty.”

He complains about the price, then pays. As he steps back on the boat, a woman emerges from the cabin. She is darker than him, Mexican or something. They are at least a decade older than Frankie, mid-thirties. She is carrying a large, fancy-looking camera and snaps a shot of the dock.

“Did you ask about Dame’s Rock?” the woman asks. Her accent is melodic, vaguely Eastern.

“She won’t know.” The man seems irritated with the question.

“You need directions to Dame’s Rock?” Frankie asks the woman in what she thinks of as her vacationers' voice. “It’s easy to find.”

“I’ve been there a dozen times,” the man says, ignoring Frankie.

The woman rests her fists on her hip. “You said the last time was decades ago.” She turns back to Frankie. “I’m Amar. This is Win.”

Frankie extends her arm before realizing the position she is putting the woman in, with her grubby hands. But the woman takes Frankie’s hand. Her skin is smooth. Frankie wonders how her own feels, the callouses and scars, the burn marks from working at the Lobster Grill.

“All right,” Win says, his tone signaling the end of the conversation. “We should go before the tide gets too low.”

As Amar turns away, the wind flattens her tunic against her body, the curves of her breasts.

“It’s not that easy,” Frankie says. The other two turn to her. “Getting to the island. Especially if the fog comes in.”

“So why’d you say it was?” Now the irritation is clear in Win’s voice.

“I could draw you a map. Natives’ route.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

“Win.”

“No, they’re all like this, trying to hustle for a buck. This happens all over town.”

“One hundred.” Frankie doesn’t flinch. “Quickest path.” She waits.

“I want to see the granite cliffs,” Amar says softly.

“Fine.” Win pulls out his wallet.

Frankie finds paper and pen, sketches a map. The woman takes the paper and folds it. Win revs the engine without another word.

***

All day long, her mind keeps drifting back to the couple and she wonders if they made it to the island. Her fingers and toes feel tingly with nerves. At eight exactly, she packs up her things. After so many hours on the dock, the solid earth is disorienting. Her shirt reeks. It’s hard work, the docks, but she loves it. Especially after those years at the bakery; the cloying perfume of sugar gave her headaches.

Her father’s house is small and blue, the one she grew up in and never left. Hunter’s pickup is out front. She exhales loudly through her nose. Maybe it’s for the best. She needs to do something about this, her jitters, before they gather and grow like a funnel cloud.

They are both in front of the television. The bottom half is covered in static. The Red Sox are playing.

“Hey,” she says. Her father waves. Hunter blows a kiss. Neither look up from the television.

Frankie goes upstairs to the bathroom and strips down. She turns the hot water up. She scrubs until her tits are raw, then between her legs, as though she can scrub out the tingling. Her body is streamlined, slender and strong. Like an expensive boat, Hunter once said, the nicest thing anyone has ever said to her. She can outswim any of the guys she went to high school with.

She shoves a fistful of her hair into a ponytail, the water dripping against her bare shoulders as she walks downstairs in a towel.

“I’m going to bed,” she says. Neither man speaks. “Good night.”

“Night, baby,” her father says.

“Hunter.” She waits. A ball flies and the men hoot. “Hunter.” Finally, he turns to her. “Bed.”

He opens his mouth to argue, then changes his mind. “Yeah, alright. Gimme a few.”

The heat is worse upstairs. She unwraps the towel and spreads it on her bed. Then she lies on top of it.

Hunter comes in. He strips down to his boxers and lies next to her. She likes his peppery cologne, the softness of his belly. She takes each of his large hands and rests them on her breasts.

“Yeah?” he asks.

“Yeah.”

She has to make the part before he enters her count. His hand, two fingers pointed like a revolver, against her, rubbing back and forward as if he is erasing something. He starts to mount her.

“Wait! Jesus. Let me get it.”

He grunts. She gets up, kneels on all fours like an animal, takes his left hand and rubs, back and forth, back and forth, her panting loud enough to drown out her heartbeat.

She thinks of the usual stuff. The girls from the harbor, their bikinis snug as they come out of the water. The one time an islander was tanning on the dock and turned over, one nipple briefly visible. She thinks of Amar, the wind against her tunic, imagines Amar’s hot mouth instead of Hunter’s fingers, and she comes.

After, she lays in the heat, listening to Hunter’s snoring.

Frankie has always known. Their town is tiny. This is implicitly understood. The only time she lapsed was at junior prom, when she drunkenly kissed her best friend Cass. What the fuck is wrong with you? Cass called her a dyke. They stopped speaking for a year.

So Frankie dated Hunter and then never stopped, like a habit half-kicked. Sometimes, when it gets too much, she'll take an overnight trip, go down to Portland or even Boston, she'll give in.

That tides her over. Then she returns.

***

The couple moors at the nearby harbor the following evening. Frankie is walking back after her shift when she sees them. The woman waves.

“How was the island?”

“The cliffs were incredible. I’d never seen quartz veins like that before.”

“Veins?”

“I studied geology,” Amar explains. “A long time ago.”

“We’re spending the night,” Win says, as though Frankie asked. He seems more cheerful than yesterday. His linen shirt is so thin Frankie can make out his skin below.

“I was going to get a beer,” Frankie lies. “You should come.”

Win hesitates, then glances at Amar. “I guess a whiskey would be nice.”

They go to Harbor Pub, the nicest bar in town, with mahogany bar tops and pearl onion martinis. Win sits between the two women on the barstools. When Amar goes to the bathroom, he scoots forward, his hand lightly grazing Frankie's thigh. She moves her leg.

“Your wife seemed happy with the island.”

Win coughs. He pulls his hand back. He opens his mouth, then stops, a strangely earnest look on his face.

“She’s not my wife,” he says, almost mournfully.

When Amar returns, they all speak of safer things. Frankie tells them about winters on the island, when all the farmer’s markets and clam bars are shuttered for the dead season. Amar mentions that the small cottages on Dame’s Rock reminded her of her grandmother’s old house.

“How would you say it in Arabic?” Win asks Amar. “Dame’s Rock.”

Amar tightens her mouth. Her beer is half-finished and she pushes the bottle away. “Sakhret el sayida,” she says quietly. She seems reluctant parting with each word, as though she has lost something by speaking them aloud, and Frankie wishes she could give them back.

***

They leave around midnight and Frankie stays for another beer. Outside, the night air is warm and muggy. Without thinking about it, she finds herself walking west, along the docks to the harbor.

The cabin light of the Pegasus is on and Frankie follows it. Her heartbeat pounds in her ears. She feels the same feverish buzz from her overnight trips. The stairs down to the cabin are narrow, and Frankie nearly trips over a heap of pants at the bottom, a leather wallet visible. Khakis. She peeks in the room.

Frankie had expected to find them mid-act, but instead, they are both seated on the bed. Amar is fully clothed. Her knees are pulled to her chest and Win is brushing her hair. It looks like a pool of syrup beneath his fingers, black and silky. He looks happy, almost beatific. Amar’s eyes are open, blankly staring at her feet.

Frankie tells herself she’ll wait one more moment, two, three more. One of them will see her. Maybe she’ll ask for a thousand dollars, buy her father that new truck engine. But the gentle waves beneath the yacht, the alcohol churning in her stomach, makes her feel ill. She turns to leave. At the stairs, she picks up Win’s wallet, and deftly pulls out all the twenties. When she reaches the pier of the dock, she leans over and vomits into the ocean.

***

She remains on the pier for a long time, her legs dangling over the edge. Finally, a figure appears, tall and slim. Amar. She has the camera slung over her shoulder. She doesn’t seem surprised to see Frankie.

“It’s the same sound,” Amar calls out to Frankie, as though they’re mid-conversation. “The water. It sounds the same everywhere.”

“Wouldn’t know,” Frankie says. “I only know it here.”

“Do you like it?” Amar asks suddenly. “Being here?”

The question startles Frankie with its precision. “I like boats,” she says. She hates how stupid it sounds. “I like watching the fancy ones arrive. They look…majestic or something.”

“People get on boats,” Amar says quietly, “all over the world.”

“But not like these.” Frankie gestures towards the harbor. “The people that dock here have the most expensive ones.”

“I meant,” Amar turns to Frankie, a strange expression on her face, “that some people get on boats because they have to. Some people are grateful for rafts, scraps of wood, anything that floats.”

They sit in silence for a moment. A white spark erupts in Frankie’s face, a camera flash. Amar examines her handiwork. “It’s too exposed.”

“I’m sorry about the map,” Frankie blurts out.

Amar glances at her. “You sold what you had,” she says neutrally.

Frankie wants to ask about the granite cliffs, about what she saw in the cabin, anything to keep Amar from turning away again. The impulse is still half-formed as she leans towards Amar, one hand planted on the dock to steady herself as she kisses the other woman.

Amar is still as stone for a second, then recoils, lighting-quick. “Take.” She shakes her head at the horizon. “And take and take.”

“I didn’t mean—” Frankie looks down, ashamed.

“I know.” Amar’s voice is gentler. “It wouldn’t even occur to you not to,” she murmurs, almost to herself.

The you seems to ring out in the night.

***

On the walk home, Frankie tries to focus on the crunching gravel beneath her sneakers. In the dark of her home, she finds herself overcome by a sudden hunger. She makes herself a butter and sugar sandwich, then eats it standing up in the kitchen, ignoring the crumbs. When she is finished, she licks her fingers. Only then does she realize she never asked Amar where she was from.

***

She wakes around dawn and feels sick, then returns to a fitful sleep. Frankie imagines Amar waking up in that small cabin, her camera filled with unnecessary photographs of this town.

She’ll apologize. They’ll come by the docks, they need more gas for the rest of the trip. Twenty gallons, she calculates. Yes, they’ll definitely need more gas.

At the docks, Frankie throws herself in the mindless task of filling tanks, making small talk about boats and the fog. It’s well after three before her boss says offhandedly, “Your vacationers came earlier.”

Frankie’s heart leaps. “Oh yeah?”

He takes a long drag on his Parliament. “Said they’re packing up. They wanted to get an early start.”

“They’re gone?”

He nods, flicks the cigarette over the pier. The water roils back and forth, and the tiny spark disappears.