Death by Sea


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Photograph by Isabel Dietz Hartmann.

Heading to the dinner party, I wondered if people there would be able to tell that I was in crisis. Out the window of the Toyota Land Cruiser—on loan, from my uncle—islands and ocean floated past. I was on the car ferry from Lopez Island to San Juan Island, in the middle of the Puget Sound. 

It was February of 2020, and I was a few months into living on Lopez. I had moved from New York City, where I was from, so that I could help start a restaurant there. This restaurant, which would open in a dockside bar, had existed in many incarnations before our project. Now my team and I—food friends who would make their way in spring—were going to revamp it. I was twenty-four, earnest, electrified at my luck. 

But things had begun to go awry. Switching hands of the restaurant had caused local discord. Around town, strangers peppered me with questions about the future of the restaurant that I never seemed to answer in a satisfying way. The island’s Facebook groups were exploding with commenters fearful that outsiders were ruining something good, as dissident voices defended us with pleading emojis. At the worksite: anonymous, ominous notes. The island’s dogs had begun to bark at me. Insomnia and howling winds yawned unsettlingly into beautiful sunrise. I had come to the conclusion that the spirits of the island were angry with me. Everything felt big, dark, and personal. 

So when Isabel invited me to her house on San Juan for a murder mystery dinner party for her friend’s birthday, I was grateful. I credited my glee to being excited to socialize. Wondering at the immensity of my excitement, I realized there was more: I was free to go where I pleased.

Disembarking the ferry on San Juan, I said the names of the familiar landmarks aloud in the Cruiser as I made my way to the house: American Camp, English Camp, Bell Point. For years, I had spent my summers on these islands. It was easy to recall little moments of youthful autonomy, hitchhiking around this bend, then that one. Surreal, to do something so old-fashioned, but the quality of being stuck-in-time was the joy of these islands in the first place. Large pastures dotted with hay bales rolled into the quiet daytime shadows of the madrone trees that hugged the road. Passing the camel named Mona, who lives in the middle of the island, I waved. 

The exhale of the house! It seemed to rise from the earth, then from the water, as I drove up. The interior was filled with antiques, piles of books, light, shadow. Having been in Isabel and her brother Carson’s family for generations, the house was no doubt inhabited by spirits. If I were a ghost, I would want to live there forever. So many places to float: bottom floor—little rooms. Middle floor—deck porch, ornate living room. Top floor—the master. A turret with a little balcony. A perfect bathtub on the first floor, books and salts balanced around it.

And there was Isabel. Wearing something somehow crocheted, rustic, and glamorous, all at once, she ran out to hug me, calling out “Rossssa!” with a soft s, as she and her brother inexplicably do. We all met at summer camp, here in these islands. And here were her friends, eight of them, sprawled around the house. Caroline, the birthday girl, was easy, beaming. I was taken aback at their warmth, then at my own shyness. 

I settled into my assigned bedroom—the turret!—and thought, tonight I would be someone new. Our mystery instructions had been printed out, and I read mine hungrily. I was going to be the General; I owned the estate at which the party would be hosted. The glee of getting ready! Padding up and downstairs, trading clothes and strange accessories, exclaiming. I wore bloomers and tights, a lingerie top, a blazer. Eyeliner on my top and bottom lids, and then as a mustache. Also, a top hat.

Candles were glowing in the downstairs dining room. Giant plates piled with food—a bird, a salad, some bread, a fish. Glasses constellating, drawing tight the cosmos between cocktails, wine, and water. I sat back in my chair and let myself drink. My cheeks flushed, and I felt a sensation proximate to mercy.

I was called on to make a toast to begin our night of mayhem. It was easy, considering my existential lostness, to pretend that this was my dinner, my manor. Someone at the table was my ex–business partner, someone else my dilettante daughter, another my wife. To us! We clinked our glasses. The lights went off.

I felt a hand on my shoulder, a squeeze as if to say, I’m sorry, and also, It’s time. I had been killed. 

Our God sat down and lights came back on. My acting out of my own death, though valiant, was probably feeble. I couldn’t believe it was me. Down I went, tumbling onto the antique carpet, clutching my throat, gasping through my mustache. There was some peace in the moments that I stopped fighting for life and let my legs splay out sideways, cutting off my inhale. 

It was sweet how concerned everyone was about my death. They were in an uproar: little groups scurried about—flirting, questioning, arguing, all in their character accents. I was amazed by how quickly I dropped out of what had been my life. Effort was now unnecessary. I chatted postmortem, drank my martini, lazily questioned everyone. Then I slipped out the door.

Around the side of the house, past the firepit and the hammocks and the mossy patches, toward the sea. The waves got louder as I approached, and I thought for the zillionth time how much I loved that this body of water was called the Sound. One hand holding a light blue Spirit, I plunged the other into the waves. I could swear I felt the salt. Everything had been so ghostly lately that I half expected bioluminescence. Then, a strange relief in how the ocean had no light to it after all— just salinity and rush. 

It would have been a good time to yell or cry. Instead, I found something different: a bit of deflation. A pragmatic fatigue at reveling in the same crisis. An older voice from somewhere, vaguely impatient, offered: This is not a psychic punishment. This is the nature of being young. You choose to have an adventure, until you realize that it has chosen to have you. 

And then, back to the house, to the candles melted low. They had found the murderer—my ex–business partner! Who had loved my daughter! Ceremonially, I forgave the crime and went back to the tipsiness of the living room, to the whispers of the conversation and the little explosions of the sleepy fire. To being spent, and to the bed at the very top of the house, to cackle and gossip in the turret, to fall asleep warm, safe, and living. 

 

Rosa Shipley lives in Brooklyn. She writes the Substack Palate Cleanseon food, culture, and wellness.



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