How To Set A Fire Underwater
Was there a more foolish place to pick a fight than a sailboat on the Hudson River? It looked like Lady Liberty had taken her torch to the sky, lighting the clouds above her head in vibrant flames of orange and pink, while the buildings of downtown shone golden in the final light of the day. It should have been a perfect evening, but Olivia found herself setting a match to her relationship.
She’d arrived in a bad mood. She hadn’t quite realised the journey from the Lower East Side to Pier 25 was a confusing mess of switching trains, and she’d been running late and frustrated by the delay. Sometimes the surgeon sent an Uber to pick her up, but today he hadn’t offered and she wasn’t brave enough to ask, so she’d battled against the subway crowds. She was flustered. He hadn’t seemed to notice.
He had spent their walk down to the boat talking about the aerodynamics of sailing without recognising that she wasn’t listening, or that she was mildly annoyed at him for not sending an Uber, and mildly annoyed at herself for being the kind of girl who expected an Uber. They stopped by a white boat with wooden panelling and an American flag waving boldly in the wind. A weathered man was standing by the step hooked to the edge of the boat.
“Good evening,” the skipper said, cutting off the surgeon’s explanation of sails. He had wispy white-yellow hair that looked out of place on his leathery tanned skin. He wore a white polo with a name badge that read “Antonio”.
“Evening. I’m Ralph. Booking’s under Wright. And this is Olivia.” As he said it, he let his arm snake around her waist and pulled her towards him.
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Wright,” the man said. “I’m Tony, and I’ll be your skipper this evening. And there is also Sasha who is…” as he said it, a young white woman appeared from below deck, holding a bottle of champagne and two empty glasses. She was wearing a very tight skirt.
“Welcome aboard!” Sasha called out.
Ralph put out his hand to help Olivia step off the pier. She took one last look at the city behind them before committing herself to the boat, feeling like she was stepping into a trap. Once they set off, the only escape from the boat would be into the water.
When Ralph was aboard, the skipper set about untying ropes. Sasha showed them where they could sit, and Olivia bounced her leg nervously. She was distracted, and when Sasha popped open the bottle, Olivia jumped. Sasha let out a warm laugh.
Sasha handed Olivia a glass of champagne, and when she did, Olivia caught her eye and forced a smile. She felt, as she always did, self-conscious sitting beside Ralph, who was clearly a few years older than her. But Sasha must see this kind of thing all the time, Olivia supposed. Rich boyfriends taking their pretty girlfriends on sailing tours around the city to watch the sunset and eat dinner and drink champagne. Did Olivia look like all the other girls? She didn’t feel like all the other girls, even though she had been dating the surgeon for a few months now, mostly because he bought her dinner.
While she was taking her first sips of the champagne, their boat set off from the pier. Tony the skipper - who was barefoot, Olivia now noticed - adjusted ropes and pulleys and then took position behind a comically large wheel.
Ralph sat with his arm around Olivia. As they made their slow way out past other boats, Olivia remembered a film she’d once seen where a man killed his friend with an oar and adopted his identity and life.
Her best friend, Monica, who was thousands of miles away, called the surgeon American Psycho, and kept jokingly predicting that he was planning to kill Olivia and keep her body in his freezer. Maybe tonight would be the night, Olivia thought. She finished her champagne in one swig.
“Now what’s this, thirty feet?” Ralph asked over her head, towards the skipper, as he unfurled the sails.
“Good guess,” the skipper said. “It’s thirty-three feet.”
“Thought so,” Ralph said. “I grew up with a forty-three foot yacht in Florida. Sailed it to the Bahamas.”
“Ah, you can sail,” the skipper said, with interest.
“Of course,” Ralph said. “Although I don’t find much time nowadays.”
“You are missing it?” the skipper asked. His gaze was on the water.
“Sometimes. But I work in a hospital, so the hours are long,” Ralph said. He leant back, waiting for Tony to take the bait.
Sasha snapped it up first. She had reappeared with a platter of olives, pastrami, and cheese, and as she set it down she said, “are you a doctor?”
“A surgeon,” Ralph said. Although he was answering Sasha’s question, he was looking at Tony, as if waiting for approval.
“You must be very smart,” Sasha said. She had some kind of Eastern European accent. Ralph might have thought she was flirting with him, but Olivia could tell this was her customer service voice.
Olivia took an olive and placed it on her tongue. The bitter flavour burst in her mouth. She chewed her way around the pit, and then removed it with her fingers. There was a little empty bowl for olive pits, but Olivia threw it into the water. She wanted to see it splash, but as soon as the pit left her hand it was snatched by the wind and disappeared.
Ralph changed the topic, excluding Olivia and Sasha from the conversation by asking Tony more details about the sailboat. He then launched into an explanation of the individual boats that he and his father had sailed. Boats in Florida. Boats in the Bahamas. A boat they’d bought from some remotely famous adventure sailor. One of the boats had been tossed against another during a storm. There had been an insurance claim.
Olivia wasn’t really listening. She left the pastrami on the plate untouched, and instead drank another glass of champagne. Ralph knew she didn’t eat meat, but seeing the pastrami, Olivia wondered if he had informed the sailing tour company about her dietary requirements when he’d booked their sunset sail. Over the months they’d been dating, he’d never been particularly considerate of her lifestyle - taking her to Korean barbecue restaurants and even a Michelin-starred ramen place as a “surprise” without considering whether she could eat anything on the menu.
What was the point of dating a man because he paid for her dinner if he didn’t even respect the fact she was vegetarian? She felt her annoyance at him building as the wind picked up, but it twisted into knots inside of her. Was she annoyed at him, or annoyed at herself for getting into this situation?
When she moved to New York, the last thing on her mind was snagging a rich boyfriend. But then she’d met him in a terrible bar in Midtown after work, and he’d told her he liked her accent and wanted to take her out to dinner. She’d felt incredibly insecure the first time he’d offered to pay for their extravagant meal, but he’d seemed to revel in the performance of putting his American Express card inside the black leather folder and handing it to the waiter.
Then he took her to exclusive rooftop bars, and pretentious wine bars, and dark cocktail bars, every time relishing in flashing his Amex. Much to her horror, he once spent $200 just to get them a reservation at a restaurant that was booked out for weeks. He would pay for her Ubers to his apartment late at night when he finished a long shift, and she had gone along with it all, because she was young and new to the city and wanted to experience new things. Monica loved living vicariously through Olivia’s dating stories, and Olivia loved making Monica laugh.
At first, Olivia had been certain that her side of the bargain was sex, and she’d been willing to play her part. She wanted to know what it was like to exchange her body for services. She wanted to lean into the patriarchy for the way it could benefit her. She liked sex, and she found Ralph attractive, and at first the transactional nature of their relationship seemed completely fair to her. Lately, she’d realised that her role was different. Ralph didn’t pay for her dinners and her Ubers because he wanted to have sex with her.
Ralph wanted to impress his doormen.
There was a rotating group of men in suits who opened the front door to his building for him and knew his every movement. When the two of them walked in together after dinner, the doorman would greet Ralph by his surname, and Ralph would gently grip Olivia’s arse as they walked to the elevators.
The skipper, Tony, was no different. Here was a man that Ralph may never see again in his life. He was a sailor and a tour-boat operator. He was just as working class as any of the doormen, and yet Ralph was going to spend the entire evening trying to impress him.
“Such a beautiful sunset!” Sasha said. “Would you like me to make a picture of you?”
Olivia was pulled out of her thoughts, and looked up towards the Statue of Liberty. They’d slowed here, in the place where most couples wanted to take romantic photos. Olivia and Ralph had never had a photo together.
“Yeah, Olivia will want one for her Instagram,” Ralph said, and when he said it he glanced back at Tony with a smirk, as if to share in a private joke.
Olivia knew in that moment that these photos would never end up on her social media. When she smiled for the picture, she imagined she looked like a lifeless doll beneath Ralph’s arm.
Sasha had set out the table for dinner, and invited them to take a seat there. Then she brought out a bottle of red wine and poured a tasting portion for Ralph. He tasted it and nodded to Sasha without comment. With an expertise clearly earned from serving many glasses of wine on rocking boats, Sasha poured them each a glass.
Sasha descended again into the galley, and then returned with two plates with silver covers. It looked so comically absurd to Olivia. She had only ever seen these silver plate covers in old-fashioned movies. Sasha removed the silver lids with a flourish to reveal plates of ribeye steak, dripping red. Olivia felt a wave of self-righteous anger wash through her, and she looked up at Ralph, who had his nose deep in his glass of red wine.
She waited for Ralph to notice her glare, but then he was looking back, again, to the skipper at the wheel. He called out something to Tony - something about the wind direction, and the sails - and Tony gave what seemed to Olivia like a false grin and a nod.
“Ralph,” she said, gently.
He looked back at her.
She inhaled, then smiled. “Cheers,” she said, holding up her glass of red wine towards him.
She was pointedly ignoring the steak in front of her. It was silly to pick a fight. Foolish, and yet she felt it burning deep beneath the surface, spurred on by two glasses of champagne and hidden behind her smile.
“Cheers,” he said. “You look beautiful.”
“Thank you,” she said. She placed her glass on the table and watched him as he cut into the steak. Serrated knife through flesh.
After a pause, she said, “What do you like about me?”
He looked up from his steak and pondered the question. “I like kissing you with a view,” he said, leaning towards her and attempting to kiss her over the table.
She pulled back. “That’s not an answer.”
He was surprised by her sudden hostility, and his smile dissolved.
“I like your eyes,” he said earnestly. “And you have very good taste in cocktails.”
On their first date he’d ordered a negroni, and she’d told him that was her favourite cocktail. Since then he had ordered a negroni for her at every bar they went to, without asking.
She had an impulse now to tell him she hated negronis, but that would be a lie. It would also make him feel slighted and misled. That wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted him to admit that he knew nothing about her; that he never asked her questions or showed any interest in her life or her work or her friends or family. She knew everything about his family. She had met all his friends. He had taken her as a guest to his best friend’s engagement party, and hadn’t seemed to notice that she felt incredibly out of place amongst his mid-thirties friends.
“Is that all?” she asked coldly.
“Is this a test?” he said, and he smiled again. “You know I’m very good at tests.”
She had heard the story of how he got the best exam scores of his year in medical school. Twice. One time, he had told the story to an Uber driver while she sat in silence.
“It’s not a test,” she said. “I genuinely want to know. Why do you date me? What is it about me that you like? Why me and not some other girl?”
“I’m attracted to you,” he said, and she could feel him grappling to steer the conversation back into safer waters, where he could touch the bottom. “Oh, and I like your sense of humour.”
“Really?” she asked, confused. “You think I’m funny? What jokes have you liked?”
“Not jokes,” he said. “You’re not a comedian. I mean you have a good sense of humour.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Well,” he said. “You understand humour. That’s what I mean.”
“You mean I laugh at your jokes?”
“Yes, you understand humour. You’ve got a good sense of humour. That’s actually quite rare.”
She grinned at this. It was possibly the funniest thing he’d ever said. “My sense of humour. Okay.”
“And you don’t take things too seriously,” he said. He was confident now that she was smiling. “When I’m on call and I can’t meet you, you’re cool. My ex would complain.”
“Of course she would,” Olivia said, and the grin was plastered to her face, but in her head she saw the word “cool” burning as brightly as the sky.
In university, Olivia and Monica had memorised the Cool Girl monologue from Gone Girl. It had been a party trick, to be able to launch into it. She had forgotten about that, but now it burst into the forefront of her mind and she recognised she had inhabited the Cool Girl persona for him. She hadn’t realised she was in so deep. She had let it drown her, obscure her.
With the flaming sunset behind her, she lit the match that would torch their relationship.
“What’s my best friend’s name?” she asked.
“What?” he was caught off guard by the change of topic.
“My best friend. She’s Italian. She’s the most important person in my life, and I talk about her constantly. We spend every summer in Tuscany together. I call her once a week. What’s her name?”
“I don’t know if you’ve mentioned her,” he said.
Her laughter was incandescent.
“What, so now I have to memorise all your friends’ names?” he said. “Would that prove to you that I like you? Should I also ask your favourite colour and how many siblings you have?”
“Well surely you know how many siblings I have,” she said.
“No, I don’t think it’s ever come up,” he said.
She wanted to cackle at how annoyed she was at him.
She was annoyed because he still didn’t see it. He thought he was right, and he was bemused by her sudden attack. He thought he knew exactly as much information about her as he would ever need. He thought she was nothing more than a girl, and he dismissed her interests as shopping and makeup, and thought her friends were uninteresting, and the only thing he wanted to know about her family was her father’s profession.
“Why is there a steak sitting in front of me, Ralph?” she asked him.
She saw the realisation in his eyes, and then he set his jaw. “They didn’t get my request for your meal.”
She leant back and crossed her arms. “Right,” she said, but suddenly she felt her throat constricting, the frustration building into tears. She didn’t want to cry in front of him, on this boat, with Tony and Sasha watching, but she felt the emotions of the day ready to spill forth from her.
Ralph didn’t know anything about her, and he didn’t care about her. She had told herself that their relationship was transactional, but stupidly, she had wanted him to prove her wrong.
She had wanted him to surprise her, and tell her that he liked that she cared about animals and had a sixth-sense for spotting cats in the windows of brownstones in Brooklyn. She wanted him to say she was smart and had balanced world views and that she was eloquent when she argued about politics. She wanted him to say that he loved her taste in books and wanted to read everything she read, just so he could understand something in her complex mind.
But he would never, ever, think of her mind as complex. He was a surgeon, and she was working in some office job in Midtown that he never asked about, and that was all he had ever needed to know about her. She was just a woman, just a girl, and there was nothing more to know.
“Are you crying because of the steak?” he asked her.
She glared at him, frustrated that tears betrayed her. She wanted her anger to catch him alight, but instead he was bewildered by her tears. Even now, he didn’t truly see her.
She imagined taking an oar to him, and letting his body sink to the bottom of the Hudson.
But she was more angry at herself. She had been adrift in a relationship in which she held no power; a passenger on a boat she couldn’t sail. She knew now that there would always be some fundamental part of him that didn’t see her as a full human being, and the longer she stayed with him, the more she would lose sight of that herself.
When they got back to the pier, Olivia called an Uber herself. As she walked away from him, she imagined him telling people why they broke up. He would meet a new girl in a bar, and buy her a drink, and tell her that his ex went crazy and cried on a boat because they got her order wrong, and the new girlfriend would laugh and accept the free drinks and wonder if this was worth it.
hey thanks for reading. actually this is the first chapter in an adult novel I’m currently working on. I’m going to keep it mostly offline for a while (rather than posting it to wattpad) just because I don’t think wattpad is the right place for it, and also because I want to keep it fairly close to my chest for now. but I hope you at least enjoyed the first chapter, and you know I’ll keep you very up-to-date on instagram and via my newsletter if I share more words.
thanks for the support x elle
He is just a poor Narci.
He is just a poor Narci.