When you leave the boat you’ve called home for the past three months, you will need two dock carts. Ridiculous as clowns spilling from a tiny car, bulging backpacks emerge from the corners of your 7 by 2 by 2 ½ foot bunk, the one space here that was solely yours. Gather the ragged sweatshirt that served yet another season, the pocket knife you thought lost, the barely used Irish Spring and coconut shampoo. Gather the books and socks – so many books and socks! – the Red Dwarf DVDs, the granola bars nobody else on board liked. Gather vacuum packed portions of coho, pristine fillets to feed your family through the winter. When all of these things are loaded into the Subaru, stand before your shipmates and gather your words.
You will want to thank your captain, but won’t know where to begin. Do you begin at the beginning, with the seven year old boy who grew into this graying man who still calls you Sis? Or do you praise the conscientious skipper who woke in the middle of blustery nights to ensure the anchor held fast and avoided those grasping rocks where the ocean was too thin? At sea, you and this man share a language of flicked glances and raised eyebrows. Now you wonder where the summer went and wish you’d used more words while you had the chance.
You will want to apologize to your crewmate, wishing you could erase the times you were impatient, distant. Wishing you’d laughed at more of his jokes. Not for the first time, wonder what’s wrong with you, that even after going into this season knowing what a bad shipmate you’d been in years past, you still didn’t behave any better.
But your friends are tired and you are tired and you don’t have strength or grace enough to find any of these words. Gather hugs instead, your face crammed tight against broad chests, and tell them you love them. They are smart men who know you well; trust that now, as in all summer, they hear everything you don’t say.
Driving home, recall your mom’s assurances to your teenaged self: “If you can drive a boat, you can drive a car!” These days you do both of these things, but as rubber rockets over asphalt, no opposing current or wind muffling your commands, you don’t see any comparison between the two. Thirty-five miles per hour feels impossibly fast, reckless.
Your return coincides with your sweetheart’s absence, a long-anticipated trip to the Canadian Rockies. Eager as you are to reunite, you enter the empty house with relief. (Empty, that is, except for the talkative cat who twines herself around your ankles.) This is the first time you have been alone, truly alone, for months. The season crashes over you – record-setting salmon runs, 48 hour turn-arounds between 16 day trips, the weary push/pull of missing your partner, your boat, while being grateful for your cohorts – and you are dowsed with exhaustion.
When you open your eyes the next morning, you’ll lie immobile. Bedding crushes you against the king-sized pillowtop, the billowing layers of flannel and fleece oppressive after all this time spent in a sleeping bag. Stare at a ceiling that is not inches from your face, trying to identify the discomfort you feel. Realize you still occupy the same position that you fell asleep in eight hours ago. Your bed hasn’t pitched you hither and yon, the sea’s restless night ensuring your own.
As you prepare to leave the house, hesitate at the door. Remember you’re Down South now, in a fishing town no longer, and return to the bathroom. Reach for eye liner, mascara, ironing your furrowed brow with an irritated finger. Slide steel spirals into your ears, jangly jewelry that’s not safe on a boat. Study the woman in the mirror. Wonder who she is.
The grocery store will overwhelm you. Wander the aisles with an empty basket on your arm, hopelessly lost in options. You haven’t planned or prepared a meal all summer; your biggest task has been to finish cleaning the fish in front of you when your captain calls you in to eat, peel off your rainpants and bloody gloves to receive a steaming bowl of oatmeal, a small mountain of curry. Realize you have no idea how to feed yourself. Text your shipmates that the grocery story is freaking you out. Finally, more out of compulsion than conviction, select a carton of orange juice, rice crackers, granola, and Greek yogurt. Pay $15.27 for four items that would have cost over $22 in Sitka.
You will be further overwhelmed by the abrupt anonymity. You will feel the presence of every one of this city’s 82,000 residents, hordes of people everywhere you look and not one a familiar face. When you flee back to solitude, 35 no longer feels too fast.
In the silence of your house, you will hear distant ringing. This is yours to keep, a permanent souvenir from months living with the generator’s ‘round-the-clock relentless growl. Notice that your back is stiff as you shuffle from room to room. Understand that this ache is not from the work of fishing, but the absence of work. Your body protests unyielding surfaces – the floor that doesn’t shift beneath your feet, the seat you don’t sway in. This motionless world jars you. After a summer marred by only one lumpy September afternoon of seasickness, you are landsick your first day ashore.
Coming from a 46-foot boat where you forever jostled elbows and shoulders with your companions, the house’s high ceilings and open floor plan feel gluttonous. Last night you didn’t even go downstairs, unable to stomach the stimuli of two stories. But now you drift through rooms, picking things up, placing them down again. With each item comes a memory – the cloth you bartered for in a Tunisian souk, the Gatorade bottle filled with Sitka Sound, every card and photo you sent from Alaska covering the face of the ‘fridge – and with each memory the knot in your chest loosens.
Your sweetheart has left a treasure trail of rhyming love notes though the house. As you follow the clues through the kitchen (fully loaded coffee pot, English muffins, Adams chunky peanut butter), the bedroom (rainbow striped socks, socks with crows, socks with cats), and the bathroom (clean towels, fresh soap), you will begin to remember that within these walls lies the non-boat home that you and your sweetheart have created together. This space is expansive not to contain Stuff, but love.
Finally, armed with a cup of coffee, you will enter your writing room. Smile at the inspirational trinkets in the windowsill, the sagging bookshelves, the bulletin board studded with photos, quotes, and cards. Facing the butcher paper-plastered wall, study your book’s outline. A final note of encouragement waits in the center of your desk, accompanied by chocolate. You will tear up as you read it, support so explicit it leaves you weak in the knees, fumbling for the chair. Once seated, you will pick up the black Uni-ball pen you inadvertently stole from the boat, and begin.
I sometimes think that the writers/essays/poems that have most moved us are hovering somewhere over our shoulder as we write a particular piece, a sort of divine literary presence we may not be conscious of until after the fact. That was the case with this one. It wasn’t until after posting this piece that I realized how obviously I’d channeled two of my favorite Fisher Poets, Toby Sullivan and Moe Bowstern. Toby wrote a piece called “Things You Will Need,” and perhaps a few years later, Moe wrote one called, “Things That Will Be Difficult,” which she credited Toby with inspiring. Both Toby and Moe are tremendous writers and humans; you can hear them read their essays on the In The Tote site. Please do.
Listen to “Things You Will Need,” by Toby Sullivan
Listen to “Things That Will Be Difficult,” by Moe Bowstern
Apart from sharing some photos on Twitter, friends, this season was my worst for keeping in touch. You’ve been in my thoughts – I’ve missed you! How are you? For the bloggers among you, I’m terribly out of touch with everyone’s work. Got a favorite summer post you could link to here? I’d love at least a glimpse into what you’ve been writing.Read More