I like to romanticize adventures. These are usually grand, revelatory experiences, from which I emerge a new and better person. One of them involves a cabin deep in the woods. In it, I channel my inner Thoreau, and free from the trappings of television, and phones, and the Internet, I can finally suspend my decades-long practice of gross procrastination, and write the book that will confirm my gifts and genius to the rest of humanity. I haven’t tried that one yet, but I plan to get around to it.
Another one finds me on a sailboat. Here, I picture myself out in the middle of the Pacific. Each day begins with a majestic, God-affirming sunrise, which can only be outdone by the tranquil beauty of its sunset counterpart. My days are filled with the challenge of capturing and honing the wind as I make my way through the great expanse of water and sky, intoxicated by so much blue.
One night there is a terrible storm. Mother Nature releases her awful fury, and I am on the deck of the boat, fighting to steady the ship. Fighting to stay alive. Waves crash against the bow, and my face, and body, and overall manliness are repeatedly anointed by the spray. Strong and stalwart, I gallantly endure it all as I am battened down to whatever the hell it is you batten yourself down to.
Because that’s the problem; in reality everything I know about boats you could fit on a Post-it. And even that paltry knowledge has been gleaned from movies and television—the captain always goes down with the ship, there is an apparent unspoken undercurrent of homosexuality in pirate culture.
For years I thought my lack of experience and education would forever disqualify me from my sailing adventure. I gave up, and moved on to other things. Then, one summer I found myself back in Los Angeles with too much free time, and not nearly enough money. Earlier that year, a production company that dealt primarily in horror films had hired me to write a script for them. They were hoping to capitalize on the zombie craze that was currently sweeping through pop-culture, but felt that they needed a different approach, something viewers hadn’t seen before. In their infinite wisdom the producers landed on Nazis to provide this novelty, and so I spent the next five months writing about the Third Reich’s ability to raise the dead. I’d send in pages, only to receive emails with subject headings like: Creativity vs. Historical Accuracy, that began, We are concerned about the liberties you’re taking with the Zombie Goebbels character. While that job was creatively soul crushing, it did mean that I didn’t have to work over the summer. If I was conservative in my spending, I could stretch my Nazi necromancer money until September.
Unfortunately, my frugal intentions lasted about two weeks. I had too much free time, and to fill the days I’d go out to eat, or to bars. I’d go shopping, buying things I didn’t need or even really want. I was burning through cash like a disaffiliated Mormon in Bangkok. Something had to be done. I needed a project that was time consuming, but with low overhead. As in so many moments of desperation, I turned to the Internet. I joined sailing websites, and created profiles. I scoured the “Crew Wanted” pages and carefully drafted numerous responses explaining that my positive attitude, and ability to learn, more than made up for my complete and total lack of experience. I received dozens of polite responses from people wishing me well, but ultimately saying no. Then one morning I received one, singular acceptance. This is how I met
~ * ~
“So, tell me what he’s like?” my mother asked when I first called to tell her the details.
“I don’t know,” I said. “We’ve emailed back and forth a few times, and spoken once. He seems like a nice enough guy.”
“Yeah, that’s how they get you.”
“What? Besides, I’ll be able to get to know him before I really commit to anything.” I explained that David’s boat was docked in a marina outside of Seattle. The plan was I’d use my miles to fly up and help him prep the boat for a few days, and then we’d sail to San Francisco, which would take another seven to nine days depending on the wind.
“And tell me,” my mother continued, and I knew exactly where this was headed. “How old is this David?”
“And it’s going to be just the two of you? Out in a boat, in the middle of God knows where?”
“Oh my God,” she said, sighing deeply into her end of the phone. “Well, I hope you enjoy being molested.”
Now there are two reasons why my mother would say this. First, she is convinced that the Internet is nothing more than a virtual bathhouse, populated by all types of perverts and deviants. This is in part due to her obsession with the Dateline expose To Catch a Predator. In it, producers of the show pose as children in Internet chat rooms, hoping to attract and snare a would-be molester. At some point in the conversation, the toddler-toucher suggests a rendezvous, usually when the kid will be home alone, and the “child” agrees. It was here, waiting for the “ah-ha” moment when Chris Hanson and his camera crew would come bursting in, crashing the pervert’s play date, that my mother would scoot to the edge of the couch, clench her fists, and shout towards the television,
“Yes! Gotcha sicko.”
The other reason is that my mother finds me highly rapable. No. Wait. That’s a terrible way to phrase that. What I mean is that in these kinds of situations—me in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people (men), my being molested is almost a foregone conclusion. In her mind I am a pederast’s pin-up model, the apple of their wandering eye. Though this belief system hit its peak when I was a child—everyone was a possible suspect, every hand potentially menacing, it still continues to this day, despite the fact that I am thirty-eight.
“I’m not going to get molested,” I told her. “People do things like this all the time.” I tried to explain to her the sub-culture of sailing. How there were hundreds of people out there who either had boats and needed help getting them from A to B, or else they were looking for some sailing experience and a possible adventure. This helped, but only so far for my mother to downgrade David from a pervert to a homosexual.
“Why not?” she said. “He recruits a good looking young man to help him on his boat, and then sails him off to San Francisco. Think about it.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Okay, then tell me, Mr. Smarty Pants, what’s the name of the website where you two met?”
“Oh sweet Jesus!”
~ * ~
I told my mother that I had spoken to David on the phone, which was true, but if she knew the details of that conversation, her hysteria would have risen to a whole new level. It began innocently enough. We talked about where we lived, past jobs and current interests. David told me about his boat. At first he offered simple concepts, its size and age, but he soon delved deeper and deeper into technical specifications. I reminded him, as I had done in our previous emails, that I knew nothing about boats, but he either didn’t hear me, or chose not to.
“Right now I’m runnin’ a batten-less mainsail with a high aspect rig, but I’m thinking about converting to a fully battened sail. I figure that a significant roach would either require I reduce my luff or attach the bottom end of the backstay to a boomkin.” Then he would pause, as if waiting for my sage wisdom and advice. I had no idea what he was talking about. The only words I caught were significant roach, and I pictured a bug sporting a power suit and $200 haircut addressing a board of directors, which was probably
not what he meant.
“Yeah, that sounds great.” I’d say. “That’s just how I’d do it.”
Afterwards, he told me about his life. He’d been living alone aboard his boat for the last five years, bouncing around marinas in the Pacific Northwest. Once we got to San Francisco, he was going to pick up some more crew, and eventually make his way to Panama where he planned to retire.
“You’re probably wonderin’ how I can afford to do this,” he said.
It hadn’t crossed my mind, but as soon as he brought it up I was curious.
“Insurance money,” he said. “There was a car accident. A head-on collision.”
“I went through the windshield.”
“It wasn’t too bad, no broken bones, or major lacerations.”
“Well,” I said, “that’s good.”
“Yeah, just some frontal lobe damage. No big deal.”
And that’s how he said it, like a casual aside, apropos of nothing, as if that were the most natural, and expected continuation of his story.
I went to the mall for a soft pretzel, but they were out of the cinnamon sugars, so I killed the fat girl behind the counter and burned down the store. No big deal.
If I had bothered to research the effects of front lobe damage before I left, I would have learned that victims often suffer from an inability to make good choices nor do they recognize consequences. They become irritable, and have difficulty regulating their behavior. I would have learned that the frontal lobe is
responsible for something called “executive function,” which controls planning, goal selection, selfmonitoring, and self-correction.
But I didn’t do that. Over the years I’ve found that things like knowledge and experience threaten the stability of my delicately constructed fantasies. They make poor bedfellows. Myopic, reality-eschewing laziness is what makes the fake world go round, and I wasn’t about to let the details of David’s busted brain ruin that for me.
I left for Seattle the next morning.
~ * ~
To meet up with David I had to take the monorail from the airport to downtown, getting off just south of Pike Place Market. From there it was a short walk to Pier 52, where I’d board a ferry for Bainbridge Island. Once there, two buses would take me to Port Ludlow, and the marina where David’s boat was docked.
“You’ll transfer buses in the town of Poulsbo,” David had told me in an email. “Give me a call when you get there.”
Getting off the bus I thought the word “town” was a bit generous, as Poulsbo seemed to consist of nothing more than a small highway and thousands of pine trees. Even the bus stop was just an old bench and a laminated bus schedule nailed to a telephone pole.
Before I left, I had attempted to correctly program David’s name and number into my phone, but it never quite happened. His last name begins with an E, but is then followed by a conga line of consonants, creating something that I can’t pronounce much less spell. In the end I gave up, and he was entered as “David Boat Guy.” He answered on the fifth ring.
“David, it’s Joe. The guy you’re going sailing with.”
“Right. How are you? What’s going on?”
“I’m in Poulsbo, but I think this schedule must be wrong. It says the next bus doesn’t leave until 4:30.”
“No, that’s right. There’s only four buses a day in and out of Port Ludlow. That’s why I wanted you to call.”
“Oh, okay. So, what, are you coming to pick me up?”
“No. No, can’t do that. Don’t have a car.”
“So you just wanted me to call, from the bus stop, to tell me that there wouldn’t be another bus for,” and I stopped to check the time, “three and half hours?”
“Alright. I’ll see you in a while then,” I said, hanging up. Why David thought I would want to bide my time in the middle of nowhere, instead of say, downtown Seattle, was a mystery. It would be the first of many.
I wandered around, looking for something to do, but all I found was a mini strip mall consisting of a store that sold prosthetic limbs, and a Lane Bryant. As I was fully appendaged, and not in the market for size fourteen Capri pants, I hiked a few miles up the road until I found a Mexican restaurant. For three hours I sipped watered-down margaritas, and ate stale chips and salsa, and wondered if this is how all great sailing adventures begin.
The last bus dropped me off at the top of a small hill that offered a perfect view of my home for next few days. The Port Ludlow Marina was tucked into a small cove, surrounded on three sides by rolling hills of thick, evergreen woods. About two hundred or so boats were docked, bobbing gently on the calm, sundappled waters of Port Ludlow Bay. A snow-peaked Mount Olympus towered in the distance. Okay, I thought, this is pretty good. I saw David waiting for me at the base of the hill.
There had been a picture included with his Cruisers Forum profile, but it was taken from a distance, so I didn’t know exactly what to expect. David had long, stringy black hair pulled back in a ponytail, and he was wearing a black t-shirt, and acid-washed jeans the color of cloudless summer sky. I though he looked younger than his fifty-three years, like a former roadie for Metallica. He would have rated about a five-and-a-half on my mother’s potential pervert scale.
We shook hands, made the compulsory “how was your trip” chitchat, and then headed towards the docks. When David turned, I saw what looked like a giant ice pick hanging from his belt. His pervert rating skyrocketed to a ten. That’s it, I thought. That’s what he’s going to hold to my throat as he slowly strips away my innocence. I would later learn that it is called a marlinspike, a tool used to splice marine rope and untie knots. Still, I kept my eye on it.
David gave me a quick tour, showing me the bathrooms (or shore head), showers and laundry room. The Port Ludlow Marina was home to a wide-array of boats, and as we walked to David’s, I saw sleek megayachts that were practically dripping with wealth and luxury, little schooners and single-person dinghies, and of course every make and manner of sailboat.
We must have been close, because David stopped and said, “Guess which one is mine.”
For the record, I hate the guessing game. There are no real ways to win, just varying degrees of insult and embarrassment for both the guesser and guessee. As a child my Christmases were plagued by visits from my Aunt Pauline, a penny-pinching cheapskate of the highest order. She would arrive at our house, unannounced, just in time for breakfast. After her third helping, she’d pull a present out of her giant old lady purse, and force me to guess what it was. I, at first unaware of her extreme frugality, would suggest something normal, like a toy or video game. This was met by a look of wounded shame on Pauline’s face, and horrific outrage on my mother’s, as if I had just stood up and pissed on the nativity scene.
In the intervening years I learned it was best to guess low enough so that the reality was not overmatched, but not so low as to be insulting. It helped that Pauline’s gift to me never changed—a book of McDonald’s coupons, and a bag of airline peanuts. I also learned that Pauline’s true gift was the unwavering belief that she would spend eternity burning in the hottest corners of hell.
I surveyed the boats before David and I, and selected a cream-colored sailboat with teak accents. It seemed like a fine specimen of wind-powered transport. Clean, and classy, but not ostentatious. “Is it this one?” I asked.
“What?” David said, shaking his head in a wide-eyed look of disbelief. He reacted as if I had suggested he was the proud owner of a gold-plated hovercraft. “You’re crazy,” he said. “Just crazy.”
David’s actual sailboat was in fact a boat, but only in that same way that an 85 Buick, parked on blocks, and slowly rusting out in some meth head’s front yard is, technically, still a car. It had all of the basic parts—sides and a back, pointy bit at the front. It had a mast. It floated. But aside from that, this thing looked no more ready to sail to San Francisco than the soda machine beside the bathrooms.
“So, what do you think?” David asked.
“You know,” I said, “I had something in mind before I got here. But this, this doesn’t even come close to that.”
“Right? She’s a real beauty, that little lady. Sure, she’s getting on in years, but I still love her.”
I admired the sentiment. Really, I did. The loyalty and devotion to something so cherished was rare, and it was refreshing to witness, but it has its limits. I could have said the exact same lovely things about my Grandma Bubby, but still, I’d never delude myself into thinking she was fit enough for a stranger to ride her all the way down to San Francisco.
We climbed aboard, and I decided to make the best of it. David said the boat would be ready to leave in a few days, and so I put my trust and faith in him. Plus, I figured how much worse could it possibly get.
“Are you ready to see inside?” he asked.
We descended a small ladder into the cabin, which was the length and width of a bathroom stall. Obese people have been buried in spaces with more square footage. To the immediate left was a single bunk, and to the right a shelving unit filled with all manners of trash: disposable razors, empty cans of food, deodorant sticks, and moldy jars of spaghetti sauce. And scattered among them all was an alarming number of prescription pill bottles. A low, foul odor hung in the air. It was the heady concoction of stale body odor
and microwaved squash. Behind me was the kitchen, or galley. Crusted, broken-handled pots and pans filled the sink, and the small, retractable stove was coated in a layer of grease so thick I could have traced designs in it. Though there was enough headroom for David to stand easily, I had crouch down to keep from rapping my head against the ceiling.
“What’s this way,” I asked, hump-backing my way to the front part of the cabin.
“That’s the forward cabin. There used to be another bunk in there, but right now I’m using it for storage.”
Beyond the mast, the walls of the cabin gradually came together, forming the V that made of the bow of the boat. It looked like it could have been a warm, cozy little nook, but it was impossible to tell as this space was also drowning in trash. Milk crates crammed with tools were stacked at precarious angles, threatening to spill their contents with the slightest movement. Scraps of a metal and lumber poked out from beneath leaking trash bags and piles of clothes. A plastic bin rested atop a heap of blue, dirt-caked tarps, and though I couldn’t see inside, I was positive it contained pizza boxes filled with cat skeletons.
This was not what I had in mind. I was supposed to sail out into the open ocean, commune with nature, and bask in her many splendors. And, if Mother Nature demanded a price for such experiences, and threw me a storm, or sent rough waters my way, I would meet them head-on, my courage tested, my resolve
But here, on this floating junk drawer, my biggest challenge would be not getting buried under an avalanche of hammers and sweatpants, or contracting hepatitis B. I had signed up for adventure on the high seas, but instead found myself on the nautical version of Hoarders.
“David,” I asked, “where am I supposed to sleep?”
In anticipation of my arrival, David had installed a couple of hooks at each end of the cabin, and rigged up a hammock. When unfurled, it hung right next to his bunk. We would sleep side by side.
“This’ll do for now,” he told me, “but once we hit open water, you’ll need something more stable. I figure then, we’ll just hot bunk it.”
Okay, two things here. First, and call me old-fashioned, but of all of the sensations to be shared by two strangers, two male strangers, it seems that heat should occur a bit later in the relationship. Perhaps after a nice fondue dinner, and evening of musical theater. And second, although I didn’t know what “hot bunk” meant, I didn’t like that it was a verb. I don’t want to be bunked by anybody, hot or cold.
It turned out that once David and I reached the ocean, one of us would have to do night watches to make sure we stayed on course. This meant that we’d sleep in shifts, and could therefore share the bunk. The “hot” I guessed referred to the residual body heat we’d each feel as we changed shifts, and climbed into bed. The reality wasn’t as prison-rapey as I had imagined, but the thought still made me more than a little sick to my stomach.
“So, you ready for dinner?” David asked.
Dinner was actually a fairly decent meal of fish stuffed with crab, served on a bed of brown rice. David said he wanted to make something special for my first night, and we ate on the deck of the boat, just as the sun slipped behind the pines. We made the usual small talk, and discussed how in the morning we’d take the bus into town, have breakfast, and get some supplies to begin prepping the boat. At some point, our conversation veered towards David’s current bout with kidney stones, and the medicine and copious amounts of cranberry juice prescribed by his doctor.
“I’m supposed to drink like a jug a day,” he told me, “but it’s tough. That and the pills got me pissing every ten minutes.”
I thought, given our limited time together, and the fact that we were eating, that perhaps David’s urinary adventures weren’t the best topics of conversation. But I was a guest, so I nodded my head
sympathetically. We continued eating, mercifully in silence, when David quickly sat up; shoulders back, spine rigid, the look on his face like a lightening bolt of panic. It was the kind of look people get when they’re two hundred miles into a road trip and suddenly realize they’ve left the iron on.
“Something embarrassing has happened,” David told me, though his eyes never found mine. “I think have to go to the shore head.” He gently set down his plate, rose, and left the boat. And as he walked down the docks toward the bathrooms, I saw a brown stain slowly bloom in the seat of his jeans, blighting their pristine, acid-washed blue.
Now it wasn’t the act itself that bothered me. It happens. To everyone. You show me an adult that claims to have never shit themselves, and I’ll show you a liar. It was just the timing of it. It was too much, and too soon. For some people, things like trust or respect have to be earned over a period time. For me, it’s
sympathy. If David had shit himself three or four days in, no problem. But now, less than three hours from meeting him, and coupled with the fact that I’d be living in what was essentially a Grey Garden’s linen closet, it was a lot to take in.
I assumed it was our dinner that had made David unwell, so I did what anyone in my situation would do—I threw it overboard. I figured it would sink, or that something would come along and eat it, but not only did dinner prove surprisingly buoyant, it seems that fish have reservations about cannibalism. To make matters worse, the current kept pushing the food towards the boat, gently rapping it against the hull. It was too far down for me to reach, so I frantically looked for a pole, or a stick, something I could use to break it up and make it sink. I thought how embarrassed I’d be if David returned, only to find his “special dinner” floating in the bay. Then, it didn’t dawn on me that even though I had just witnessed a grown man shit himself in front of a stranger; I was the one concerned about losing face.
David returned a few minutes later, and found me on the deck, all smiles, a clean plate in front of me, the picture of a respectful guest. I had found an old, broken antenna, and used it to scoot the evidence to the far side of the boat.
“I’m not feeling too well,” he said as he picked up his dish. “You can have this.” And then he dumped the remains of his dinner on my plate.
~ * ~
Oftentimes on boats, their design, and the objects within are created to be multi-purposed. This nod to varied functionality is meant to capitalize on the limited space. Deck chairs are also flotation devices. Tables fold down or extend from walls, making room for eating or navigation. Sometimes seats pull out, creating extra berths. David was also an advocate of this dual-purpose philosophy, though in his own unique way. It was clear that the floor, or shelves, or really any flat surface would also double as a trash can. We would also use two, old, hunter green motor oil jugs as our bathroom.
“Excuse me?” I asked when this was explained.
“Toilet’s broken,” David told me. “It’s good for twos, but you can’t piss in it.”
He went on to explain that for the time being the toilet was stuffed with peat moss, which allowed it to accept “twos” but nothing else. This was a degree of nautical voodoo that I didn’t understand, and wanted no part of.
“It’s on the list to get fixed, but until then, we gotta use these,” David said, holding aloft one of the jugs.
“What about the shore head at the marina? Does it close at night?”
“No, it’s unlocked, but it’s way over there.”
“Way over there” was actually about two hundred yards from the boat, which seemed like a fair penance to pay to avoid pissing into a jug, much less having containers of my waste lying around an area the size of a tool shed.
“I’m going to keep mine here,” David said, “next to the wall. It’s the one on the right okay?”
“Yeah, that’s good,” I said. “We don’t want to get them confused, because that would be disgusting.”
Having settled that matter, we unfurled the hammock, and went to bed.
It was around midnight when the ooeeys began. The hammock folded in on itself when entered which made it almost impossible to fall asleep, and so cocooned in my canvas hell, I heard the shifting of limbs and the rustling of sheets, like David was fighting the bed. Then it would get quite, and David would emit in two drawn-out, and breathy syllables, the word ooeey.
Having muttered this godless noise, David would climb from his bed, turn on the lights, and go to the bathroom. What’s important to understand however, what must be implicitly clear for you to appreciate all thirty-one flavors of this experience, was the layout of our sleeping arrangements. There was the left (port) side of the boat, which David’s bunk was flush with, then me, tacquitoed in my hammock directly beside him, then about ten inches of space, and then the right (starboard) wall. This meant that to go to the bathroom David would have to stand on his bunk, gain his balance, then throw a leg over me and onto the shelving unit to my right, regain his balance, and then dismount and answer nature’s call. It was the second move, with his one foot on the bunk, and the other on the shelf, that was the harrowing part, because it meant that he was essentially straddling me for the eternal seconds it took him to regain his balance.
What made it worse was that David felt compelled to turn on the lights before this routine, even though there was plenty of ambient light. What his little boat lacked in space, or cleanliness, it made up for in wattage, because when David flipped the switch there was enough light to perform open heart surgery. This, or course, celebrated the nuances of every gory detail, including the fact that David liked to wear black, mesh, bikini-brief underwear to bed.
So there I was, swaddled in my hammock, being straddled by a half-naked man, with a recent history of rectal failure. David’s mesh underwear did nothing to hide him, but instead rendered his junk in these monochromatic hues of black and gray, so it was like watching a 1930’s porno. Except in 3-D. And about two feet from my face. And lit with enough juice to be seen from the moon.
David would then use the bathroom, which of course meant urinating in one of our multipurpose jugs. This was not the end of the routine however, because there was barely enough room for him to stand, much less execute such a delicate docking maneuver. So when he peed, his body pressed against mine. And when he finished, and shook out those last few drops, his forearm rubbed up and down against my thigh. Yes, it was through the hammock, but still. I remember thinking: Doesn’t he know that’s me. Doesn’t he realize that the resistance he feels, the friction created as he shakes off his urine, is because he is rubbing against my body?
Maybe it’s me. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to accidental contact. I know that if I bump into a stranger on a bus, or brush against a woman on a crowded elevator, I apologize profusely, like a leper with a restraining order.
Either way, David did not share my sentiment, as the entire act was done in silence. No I’m sorry’s, or Isn’t life crazy sometimes? or Welcome to sailing, bitch! He just finished his business, and on his way back to bed, straddled me again. This time he did it in reverse, so I was afforded a view of David’s monochromed ass, which things being what they were, was an improvement.
Had this been an isolated incident, I’d like to think I could have endured. But it was not to be. Throughout the night David got up to use the bathroom thirteen more times. Thirteen more times he rose and brought forth the blinding white light. Thirteen more times he straddled me, his meshed sword of Damocles hanging inches from my face. And thirteen more times I felt the weight and heat from his body as he slowly filled that jug. No, that’s not quite accurate, because as his condition progressed, David was called to the toilet on a number of occasions. This offered a reprieve from the friction-filled number ones, but only just slightly. The toilet separated the main cabin from the forward cabin, which meant it was about two feet from where I lay, and blocked by nothing more than the mast of the boat. Take both your hands, and touch thumbs and index fingers. That was roughly the circumference of the mast pole. That was all that obstructed me from David’s numerous and disturbingly auditory trips to the toilet.
And every time, every time, David announced the beginning of this ritual with what came to be the verbal manifestation of his troubled tummy, the plea for relief from his bedeviled bowels—Ooeey.
Now I know little about boats, and even less about boat culture, but it seems to me that if your body is having a going-out-of-business sale, and everything is marked to go, and you have to get up fourteen times throughout the night to use the bathroom, and getting up means climbing over and temporarily straddling the person, the stranger, who is fear-feigning sleep next to you, then maybe, at some point, you might consider taking the outside bunk.
Did I voice this concern? Did I make my disbelief and subsequent outrage known? I did not. Even now I’m not sure why. I guess I wanted to believe that each time would be the last, or at some point David would offer what seemed to be the most obvious thing in the world. That with each moanful ooeey he would realize how bizarre and futile these hellish acrobatics were, and offer to switch places. Or maybe after his fifth, or ninth trip to the toilet, I no longer desired to trade beds with a guy on the trot.
Regardless, David and his bowels settled down for good around 3 am, but I had decided I was leaving long before that. I can compartmentalize most things, and what I can’t I drown in alcohol, but the filth of the boat coupled with David’s toiled-themed, Cirque de Soleil extravaganza was more than my system could handle. The first bus out of Port Ludlow didn’t leave until 8, but that was no good as David planned for us to catch the other bus going into town. I knew I had to leave, but even more than that, I knew I wasn’t ready to explain why to David. There could be no awkward goodbyes as we waited for our respective buses, and any reasons for my leaving would only bring about a flood of bewildered outrage, or pitiful judgment. So I decided to do what I always do when encountered with a challenging situation whose resolution requires grace and diplomacy; I decided to run away.
I would wait until first light, collect my things, quietly slip off the boat, and leave the marina. I figured I’d just hike along the road towards Poulsbo until the first bus caught up with me. Then I’d take the ferry back to Seattle, check into a hotel with a proper bed and a working toilet, and take the longest, hottest shower of my life.
The hatch to the boat’s cabin had a small window, so from 3 to 5 am I lay in my hammock, and stared at the mast and the little sliver of sky beyond it. The time crawled by. I’d turn on my phone, only to discover that the last hour amounted to nothing more than seven minutes. Dejected, I’d stare at the sky, trying to discern changes in color as proof of a rising sun. It seems more of a charcoal gray now than the iron skillet black it was a few minutes ago.
The sky began to lighten around five, so I peeled myself out of the hammock, and collected my things, trying not to knock over the jugs of urine, or more importantly, wake David. The latter proved impossible. I’m not the most ninja-esque person in the best of circumstances, but slipping off that boat undetected was like sneaking out of two-man coffin.
“What time is it?” David asked, rolling over in response to the racket I was making.
“I’m just taking a shower. You go back to sleep.” You’ve had a long night of incontinence and mentally scarring a complete stranger.
Once off the boat, my road to freedom consisted of a two-lane blacktop that rose and fell through a thick evergreen forest. I figured David would sleep until seven, which gave me a two-hour head start before he realized I had fled. For a while I had the road to myself. I was up before most people left for work, so there were no cars, just the sound of the breeze through the pines, the birds chirping, and my feet on the asphalt. Alone with only my thoughts, I tried to assess the situation. I’d met a man on the Internet, and even though I knew little about him, I went to his place and spent the night. And now here I was, fleeing through the woods, after what was essentially a terrible one-night stand. I felt like at thirty-eight I was finally learning a lesson most people realize when they’re twenty-two. And a woman.
Before I left L.A. David advised me to pack light, so I only had a small duffel bag and a backpack, the latter containing not much more than Cliff bars and bottled water. As the sun rose, so did the temperature, and before long sweat was running in my eyes, pooling in my lower back. My hand carrying the duffel bag would cramp up, so I’d switch it to the other one, but then that one would cramp up too. For a while, just to mix things up, I walked with the bag cradled to my chest, like a mother with her young child. I felt like a refugee. I had been persecuted, forced from my temporary homeland by unspeakable, inhumane acts. And now here I was, alone, braving the elements, protecting the few possessions I was able to salvage from my escape. I was like one of those Sudanese Lost Boys. Yeah, I thought. That’s exactly who I am. Then I ate a Cliff Bar, had a few sips of Fiji water, and continued on.
By eight o’clock I was exhausted. There was still no bus, but I had been awake all night, and walking for the last three hours, so when I came upon the bust stop, I decided to sit and wait. At the sound of every car I’d crane my neck, and stare down the road, hoping to see the big, beautiful machine that would take me away. After about thirty minutes, I saw it slowly lumbering towards me. Newly revived, I jumped to my feet, already imagining myself back in Seattle. The bus rolled to a stop, its doors slowly accordioned open, and sitting right there, directly in front of me, was David.
You know how in almost every horror film there is the scene where the young girl finally frees herself from her bonds, and escapes from the abandoned asylum, or madman’s mansion, or whatever locale was serving as her inevitable demise? She goes tearing through the woods, only to come upon a small, country road. Then a car approaches, its headlights visible as it crests the rise of a hill. The girl jumps up and down, frantically screams and waves, imploring the car to stop. When it does, she runs around to the driver’s side window, crying, pleading for help, explaining how there is a psychopath nearby, and she’s got to get out of there. The window slowly lowers, and she sees that the person driving the car is the very same lunatic she’s been running away from.
That is exactly what happened to me. I had become that young girl.
“There you are,” David said. “What happened? You’re not trying to leave are you?”
I just stood before the entrance to the bus. Shock, and fear, and disbelief vied for control of my body. I had made a wrong turn. In most situations I have a terrible sense of direction, but with the island’s little signage, and all of those stupid, identical pine trees, I was doomed. Instead of going left out of the marina, towards Seattle, and salvation, and working toilets graciously surrounded by walls and locked doors, I went right. For three hours I hiked in the wrong direction, and it had taken David thirty minutes to catch up with me. In the end, utter defeat won out, and I climbed on the bus. I told David some bullshit story about looking for a coffee shop, and getting lost. How at some point I’d gone so far that I figured he and the bus would just catch up with me.
“But why do you have all of your stuff?” David asked.
There were about five other people on that bus who has stopped whatever it was they were doing, now completely engaged in our little drama. They, like David, sat there, waiting for my answer.
“I…didn’t want to wake you up bringing it back to the boat.”
It was such an awful, transparent lie. I knew David wouldn’t buy it. He would push me for the truth that I was too much of a coward to admit on my own. It would be awkward, and uncomfortable, but we’d get to the heart of the matter, and with our incompatibility fully exposed, I’d be free to go.
At first, David didn’t say anything. He just stared at me with this look on his face. It was the kind of look people get when they’re trying to do math in their head.
“Okay,” he finally said. “So, what do you feel like for breakfast?”
And that was all that was said about it. I couldn’t believe it. How could he just let it go? Why didn’t he ask for a further explanation? In the end I decided not to push my luck, and sat in the seat next to him. I figured that for the first time since I had arrived David’s brain damage was working in my favor, and if I didn’t have to volunteer my motives, especially on that bus, filled as it was with kindly small-town folk, then so be it. I knew there my calm, quite reasons would immediately devolve into loud, harsh criticisms. I’d turn to the quiet passengers, seeking acceptance and validation. Fourteen times, I’d yell. Jugs of urine, I’d explain, but they wouldn’t understand. They’d see me as the crude, sanctimonious out-of-towner who was unwilling to appreciate the unique characteristics of one of their own. They’d turn on me, and likely run me out of town. Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted to leave, but I wanted it to be on my terms.
David and I ate at the Blue Moose Café; a squat, greasy spoon perched in the middle of a shipyard. The place was packed, and when we entered all the sailors and shipbuilders turned to stare at David, and what looked like some wayward runaway he picked up on his way to breakfast, which was pretty much what I was. We had to sit at the counter, with my bags piled beneath my feet like so much shame. For the most part our meal transpired with the relaxed, carefree manner of an arranged marriage. I picked at my blueberry pancakes, and sucked down multiple cups of coffee trying to stay awake. David made attempts at conversation, discussing our plans to get some supplies and things for dinner, but I wasn’t in the mood for chitchat.
“I hope we have time to get everything finished before the 11 o’clock bus,” David said. “If we miss it, then we’ll have to wait until 3. We’ll be trapped here, and we certainly don’t want that.”
I turned from my plate and looked at David for the first time since we had sat down. “No,” I said. “We certainly don’t.”
~ * ~
David and I picked up what we needed, and returned to the marina with a plan. We’d spend the rest of the day preparing the boat, and making necessary repairs. I found myself newly invigorated about the whole idea. Little by little David and I would make progress. I’d see the effects of our efforts, and perhaps along the way, I’d explain how it was socially frowned upon for people to poop in front of one another. On the way back I had told David I could no longer sleep in the hammock, blaming it on a preference to sleep on my stomach, and not on having his diarrheic bottom dangled in my face all night long. He agreed to switch bunks. With the sleeping situation taken care of, I figured if I spent the next solid thirty hours scrubbing the
boat clean, it could pass as livable. I could stick this out and still get my sailing adventure. The first night was an anomaly I told myself. How much worse could it possibly get?
“Okay,” David said. “First thing we’ll do is install the new brushed-nickel hardware for the cabinets.
Then, we’ll sand and varnish the tiger wood housing for the compass.”
Since I had arrived David had been boasting about these cosmetic upgrades. Hardware, I thought. Compass housing? How about we install a door, or a piece of plywood, or an Elmo beach towel, anything to separate the bathroom from the rest of the cabin so I don’t have to watch you ooeey into the toilet fourteen times a night? Shouldn’t that be on the top of the to-do list?
I felt my resolve weakening. David went into the forward cabin, returning with a pair of his toolfilled milk crates. Then he dumped each of their rusty, greasy remains on his bed. Now my bed. From the debris emerged a cockroach that quickly scrambled over hammers, and under screwdrivers. David grabbed a set of needle-nose pliers, impaling him. I felt sorry for the little creature. He was no doubt just looking for a cleaner, and more hospitable environment to raise thousands of children. I felt sorry for him until David wiped his puss-oozing carcass on the pillowcase, my pillowcase, and then I went back to feeling sorry for myself.
We spent the rest of the day making David’s cosmetic improvements. I tried suggesting more pertinent repairs, but these were met with a look of curious bewilderment, and then shot down.
“So,” I said, “what do you think we should work on after this? The toilet maybe?”
“No. I think we’ll run the wiring for the digital GPS.”
“Yeah,” I said, “that’s a good idea.” That way, when I’m watching you piss into a jug all night long, I’ll know exactly where I am.
Because of the limited space, and the nature of the work, even our cosmetic improvements were a one-man job. I spent the majority of the day just standing in the cabin, handing David the odd tool like a despondent nurse. David’s handyman abilities proved just a notch above his housekeeping talents. It took most of the afternoon for him to install the hinges and pulls for the cabinets, and he cracked the first two pieces of tiger wood for the compass housing. This meant that he had to saw all new pieces, which of course he did on the bed.
At one point I remember standing in the cabin, looking around, ignoring David’s frustrated pleas towards some uncooperative piece of hardware. My gaze landed on some stains on the wall. Some unholy cocktail of grease and liquid rust had dripped down from its holds, and created a pattern of shapes just below the cooler. One looked like an Egyptian hieroglyphic of a man. Beside it, two long streaks came together, forming a V, and beneath it a loose oval. That one looks like the head of bunny, I thought.
And then it spoke to me.
“What the hell are you doing?” it said. “Standing here like an ass-clown, finding shapes in the filth like they’re clouds on a picnic day. This boat is a shitpit, and David either doesn’t realize it or care, and nothing you can do will change that. Besides, at the rate you two are going, this thing isn’t going to be ready to sail until early 2019.”
That dirty bunny was right. This was ridiculous. I had to get out of there. I resolved to try again. In the morning I would sneak away, and this time confident in the directions, I would return to Seattle. That night I went to sleep in my bed of sawdust and cockroach remains, and at sunrise I slipped away.
Then, I didn’t explain my reasons for leaving, and I still haven’t. Hours after I left David began calling, and this continued for the next few days. “David Boat Guy” would appear on my phone, but every time it was ignored. I know I owe him an explanation, and perhaps one day he’ll get it. I can say that the morning I left David was asleep in the hammock beside me, which meant I had to straddle him on the way out. I accidentally woke him up, but I purposefully stood over him for an extra beat, letting my ass linger in his face. It was my way of saying goodbye, and for now it will have to suffice.
Joe Dornich is a PhD candidate in Texas Tech’s creative writing program where he also serves as Managing Editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. In addition to writing, Joe is also taking a mail-order course in veterinary medicine. His mailbox is often filled with sick kittens.