By January of 1976, I was midway through my freshman year in high school, living in a tiny town in northwestern Colorado. My parents had been separated for a few months and their divorce was underway. My physically and verbally abusive father wasn’t living with us any more, which was a plus, but everything from our finances to our daily routines were far less certain and predictable. I had had a big break-up of my own that no one knew about—because we were both extremely closeted boys in a very redneck town so of course we had been keeping it a secret. And another boy who had been one of my most consistent bullies throughout middle-school had recently coerced me into an even more covert non-consensual relationship. So to say my life at the time was a bit of a nightmare would not be inaccurate.
I still had a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, thanks to my grandparents, and each time a new issue arrived in the mail, I would retreat to my room with it and stay up way past my bedtime devouring every page. These were the circumstances under which I first read the short story, “My Boat” by Joanna Russ…
The story is a literal narrative, written as if it is a transcription of the words of a screenwriter, Jim, having lunch with his agent, Milt. We never hear Milt’s side of the conversation, we have to infer it from Jim’s words. Jim is supposed to be pitching script ideas for the coming television pilot season, but soon he is sidetracked explaining to Milt why he hasn’t been himself lately. To explain it, he has to first tell Milt about an incident that happened to him in High School, back in 1952.
Jim was attending public school somewhere in Long Island, in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood. Their mostly white school was being integrated, with five black kids being bussed in. One of those students was the very quiet (and rumored to be mentally ill) Cissy Jackson. Cissy is extremely shy, never talking in more than a whisper except in drama class, and only then sometimes while doing a scene with the other students. Over time, Jim’s best friend, Al Coppolino, befriends Cissy. Al has alwasy been Jim’s weird friend, the guy who read lots of weird fantasy and horror stories, with a particular predilection for the works of Lovecraft. One day Al and Cissy invite Jim to come with them to see Cissy’s boat.
Cissy explains that she co-owns the boat with a cousin, and while it is an extremely large and luxurious yacht, they keep it moored at a two-dollar-a-month slip at Silverhampton. Because Al and Cissy can only go on this excursion when her crazy religiously-conservative mother will be away on Sunday afternoon, they need Jim and his car to get out to the boat and back again within the window of opportunity.
When they arrive, Jim finds that it is a very leaky and decrepit row boat with the name “My Boat” scrawled on it in orange paint. But as Cissy talks, and tells Jim to look again (while he’s bailing the bilge out of the boat), the boat slowly transforms, becoming more fabulous and made of more exotic materials each time she tells him to look again. A very rusty bucket transforms into a glamorous silver vessel which magically refills itself with cold water. An old crate becomes a fabulous teak and cedar cabin. A muslin sheet stolen from the prop room becomes a beautiful striped silk awning. Cissy, meanwhile, has transformed into an exotically dressed Queen while Al has become a bearded, doublet-wearing nobleman.
Jim is sent back to the dock to untie the boat, and as he looks back toward his friends on the boat, he sees their faces transform many more times, as if the images of hundreds of past lives were being superimposed. Jim isn’t certain he wants to understand what is happening to Cissy and Al, nor to follow them on their journey. He is interrupted by the arrival of a stereotypical southern redneck sheriff, who wants to know what Jim and his friends are doing with that rowboat. Except there is no row boat, or any sign of his friends. And while Jim is trying to explain, the sheriff vanishes, too. Apparently he was an illusion.
Al and Cissy are never seen again. Jim tries to convince the authorities and Cissy’s mother that Al has not kidnapped Cissy, taken her somewhere, raped her, murdered her, and since gone on the run. He doesn’t succeed, but apparently no one ever accuses him of doing anything to the both of them, either.
Jim has tried to move on and not think about it, except that now, 20 years later, he ran into Al again. Al had magically not aged a bit, and he needed Jim to help him retrieve something from his old home. Jim goes with Al to the place where Al lived with his parents as a child. Al’s key still miraculously works, and everything in the home is exactly as it was 20 years before. Al finds what he came for, a hard-cover copy of the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, and then goes away. Jim later discovers that not only is Al’s old home no longer there, the entire street was torn down years ago and replaced with an expressway.
So Jim is afraid that he’s going insane, and he wants Milt’s opinion. Milt seems to think that Jim has been pitching another script idea this whole time, and tries to get Jim to work on another idea someone has suggested about a Martian sent to Earth to secretly prepare for an invasion by disguising herself as a beautiful blonde and becoming romantically involved with various men. But Jim isn’t sure that he can do that story justice. He wants Milt to keep talking, though, because now Jim sees a skinny kid in a cape and doublet in the next booth in the restaurant, and Jim never had the spine to go across the multiverse with his friends and isn’t sure he should start thinking about it now.
At the time I first read the story, I didn’t know much about Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s writing was just entering a new era of being unearthed from obscurity at the time. All the volumes of reprints and homages and reference books littering the sci fi/fantasy shelves today didn’t exist. So I didn’t understand all the references Russ was making to Lovecraft’s work in the story—all the name-dropping that Cissy and Al do in the middle of the tale, for instance.
But the idea that Cissy, simply by believing could literally transform the old boat into a fantastic yacht—and herself into a Queen and Al into her dashing consort—was easy to grasp. Them sailing off into the imaginary world, having tricked Jim into helping them and then leaving him behind, seemed a bit cruel. Now that I’m more familiar with what happens to people who go on journeys into the fantastic in Lovecraftian tales, I’m thinking Jim might be the lucky one.
I also didn’t understand all of the ways that Joanna Russ was alluding the Lovecraft’s work, besides explicitly mentioning it. The structure of the story, a narrator telling someone else that tale, was one Lovecraft used a lot, for instance. I think the irony of how Jim explained to Milt that he was open-minded and didn’t judge Al and Cissy for having an interracial relationship, when the way Jim talks about them indicates Jim was really more concerned with appearing to be progressive and enlightened when he’s really pretty clueless. I also didn’t understand the jabs the author was making at Lovecraft’s sexism and racism along the way.
At the time, it was just a really engrossing tale of two people leaving a boring and unpleasant reality for a much more exciting world beyond; and their friend who had never understood them. I wanted to know what adventures Cissy and Al had in the dreamlands. I wanted to know why Al had to come back for the book. I wanted to know so much more. But unlike some other stories I’ve written about recently, Joanna Russ didn’t leave me feeling confused and unsatisfied that I didn’t have all the answers.
I liked this story enough that I tried to find more stories by her. A couple of novels were listed in the Books In Print at the public library, but neither of them seemed to be owned by any of the libraries that were in our inter-library loan association (which I believe was only within the western half of the state).
A couple years later, when my parents’ divorce was final, and Mom, my sister, and I had moved out to Washington, I found this short story again in a used paperback copy of The 1977 World’s Best SF edited by Donald Wolheim. And I loved the story even more. By that time I had a bit more knowledge of Lovecraft, having for instance been loaned the anthology The Spawn of Cthulhu. So I understood a bit more of the story’s background. And wasn’t so certain as I had been earlier that Cissy and Al were having wonderful adventures in the Dreamlands.
I also had read more of Russ’s work by that time, and had become a fan.
“My Boat” seemed like a more adult version of the portal fantasy stories I had enjoyed so much when I was younger. Cissy’s life, and the reasons she would want to flee it, seemed more believable. Certainly at the time I understood the allure of leaving the world behind. But thinking about the aftermath of the story solidified my conviction that an escape which left your friends behind wasn’t how I wanted to find a better life. It was an important distinction to be able to make when I was a queer teen feeling very out of place in the real world.