It’s such a horrible thing, a mind without a heart. I wonder what travel is for, or what it should be for; and I know. I travel for knowledge. To acquire language. To build identity by the whole world; understanding it from the low rung that I choose; feeling the goodness of people that I’m greedy for; to see the contour of the earth and feel the upwelling of beholding; to create art, to write artfully, illustratively, presently–presently. But during a year I have lived in the future. I can see the future. I see the months and the years like seeing the curve of the road down below as it bends through the valley beyond. I anticipate. I see teaching, perhaps, and the route, the countries. It’s all planned unplanned, and this is the worst kind of preparation because the mind tells you that you’re true and spontaneous and alive, but really you are not–really you have the idea to end the travel and to be somewhere because you have yet something lingering powerfully on the fore of your brain. Where? Why am I in the future? Why am I in the past? When can I ever stand with planted feet, look at them in their trodden dirt and say to myself “I am here now”?
A year–no, a year and a half. And she has been with me, unending; suddenly in the mornings and in the evenings carefully there, tending to my soul like a broken wing. I’ve been grounded, baseless and grounded, and here in the sea it has been worse–time has gone by for the world in so swift a way, but I’m on the big blue always-shifting but never-changing ocean, distracted by the unhappy needs of cruisers; practical problems to practical days that always look the same as the last and resemble what tomorrow should be–and nothing happens. And she has lived lives in this time and I knew it in my dreams that there was another, and in the day it was the air that whispered to me the secret, and my heart caved in but I was trapped by the sea, by the seasons, by the pride of challenge to cross the sea, and it is folly.
Only there, in that desert city, was I truly in the present. And only when I said I would leave after three months did pain arise. And then once more, I limited our time, and only for that was the pain so sharp. But during the time in between, I was with her and happy and present. The principle of adaptability–ration myself for the experience of life in all its forms. How can this be done when my mind is not settled with my heart? I said I should not sacrifice passion, but I left her. I said love had to be killed, and I tried. I failed, and now I’m too late and there’s another. But no–I’m not too late. This is her. It’s impossible. It cannot be too late. It can’t be. I hate the sea, and the sea cares nothing for me. I hate the boats and the lifestyle, and I don’t care to ‘complete’ anything–fuck this sea and these boats and these frustrations and this limbo of time on the water when the heart finds recourse to betray–damn it all, and to hell with the whole mad thing. I’m going back to her. I love her. I have loved her since her milk chocolate eyes trapped me in that club all these years ago. I wrote a fool–I’ve been a fool. A fool with a clock and a ticking that tick-tocks in his noggin until the buzzer sounds and breaks glass hearts, and twice, or thrice, and now never again. Smash the clock, that its springs distort and snap, its gears fall into this terrible saltwater ocean and sink to oblivion there to rust and be forgotten. No time–no limits, because this love is never-ending. Perhaps it never was a classic love story; but hell, it’s my favorite one.
I carried a map since the day I left Oregon, and it was with me for years. Often I’d look at it for hours with nothing but the imagined travel entering my mind’s eye, and I saw images and colors and I was a hero and a maniac. When my eyes passed over South America’s western hump, where the tropical lushness of Ecuador curves into the desolate desert coast of Peru, there was something that I felt; something magnetic. I always felt it when I looked there, long before I first arrived. There was always something inexplicable. It was a recognition, unacknowledged. It was seeing something real that I couldn’t believe, like a figure half hidden down the road by bands of heat. And I walked towards her.
And from the beginning I rebelled. Only a girl could stop me, I said. I met her, and I resisted once, then again, and again. When I think of South America and Mexico and Central America, I think to the times when I learned the most–when I was with good people who became good friends–these times when my mind was present and aware and like a sponge soaked up the memories and held them. I think of Veracruz, and above all, I think of Lima. I champion this traveling way of life, constantly, and to myself I reinforce these beliefs daily. But I’ve ignored the truth, which is that I loved being in Lima, to be there among travelers and friends in the House of No Ends, and above all to be with her. I loved her. She is the only one in the world I care to be with for long times. I have love in my life; my family, my friends. But the more people that I meet, the more I understand for myself that she is the only one I want always around me, and damn it, I do.
And the only terror in that has been my blinding resolve to hitchhike around the world alone. Perhaps I want to be some kind of cultural icon–the neo-beat disenfranchised youth who experiences all the things in college that would lead him to grasp the cold steel of what chains modern lives to modern circumstances, and to tear it apart with some aeriform adrenaline rush got up from the pieces of his shattered self at feeling offended that the world should assume that he must swallow its bullshit and join the ranks of middle class apathetics. Nothing else was attractive–not even the jobs that cause goodness, because they were all within the same framework, a reality that I wanted so badly to tear myself from. And I discovered that the hitching vagabond feels apart. He is not apart, only distant, but he feels apart anyway, and I drew and grew and wrote until I’d written myself into a way to live and express that was not only accessible to me, but meaningful. And it is.
But like any life, it will be false so long as the one living it remains false to himself. I am not who I thought I was or could be. If I care to have an impact in some way in the world, it is not by doing what I have been doing alone. The writing, the learning, is something, and it is what I ought to be doing. But the mind is not itself when the heart hates it. I’m spilling over with love for a woman, and I know, now, right now, that I have been ignoring the good thing that we had created, which is better than all the feelings and thoughts I felt and thought before and since I met her. And more do I think that happy and honest feelings beget that appreciative quality which is necessary for learning. I should be writing and drawing and learning, but I have given my half to her, and without her as my counterpart, my mind is weak and my heart is a tragedy. I once said that to be with someone else, you are not yourself when as a couple you meet a third party–that part of your mind is constantly thinking of your partner, and therefore you are not you. I think to the people I’ve met while traveling alone and those I’ve met while traveling with her and I realize that the one is not better than the other, despite their differences, and that my mind had created a subjective assumption–the result of too much thinking. Now I can feel. And I’m feeling joy. I’m feeling joy; I’m honest–what I want more than travel is to be once more with her. There is another. But I will stop it.
I want it all. I know what I felt and what I wrote while we traveled together. And I want it again. I want the fighting. I want the clammy hand-in-hand and the way the road made her look disheveled. And I want her professional garb and her pink crocs and her cracking bones. I want her eyes to catch mine and hold them, and tell them things that words don’t understand. Maybe we’ll fly, and reach heights that gravity doesn’t understand, and other such magnificent cliches. I’ll sing bad opera for her again, and remain awake hours to watch her breathe when she’s sleeping off a drunk night. I’ll put my forehead on hers and tell her to enter, beg her to be me and I her. And I’ll kiss her and again and again and every time the opportunity is there I will put my skin to hers and let our hearts melt in this oven of ours.
I know that she loves me. The sea has been treacherous to me, and cruel for time, but the air was pure and gave me the word–she loves me still. I know it to be true. I know it, I’ve known it. The other came, and I knew that too. Her love, even unspoken, un-communicated, and without ever hearing or seeing her for so much time; her love was sustaining–the knowledge of it. Go on, I told myself, it’s OK, she loves you yet. But it was not words as these that I heard myself say–it was nothing; I went on, and on, and the sea killed time and then one day I felt the first twinge of fear that the love was threatened by another, and suddenly I’m going on a plane to get the fuck out of Polynesian Dodge, which for me is boats and wasted time.
But thank you, boats and long-gone time. You at least aid me to realize what is meaningful. Thank you, moneyed and moneyless boaters, who run in the world with bundled homes–try the hitching vagabond for a month–he is not running, he’s in the shit. My distaste of your flight, and your loneliness, and your pragmatic captains–it’s the last part of the puzzle that guides me back to Peru. And it was never New Zealand or Australia that I was interested in, but Asia. And just as before with Brazil, I am not ready for Asia. And again, it is because I’m in love but alone. Goddamn it am I in love! But at the end of Brazil I placed a brick blockade against her; now, my heart has melted the mortar and buried the bricks. So I wave goodbye from just off your coast, Asia–maybe one day I will see you and know you; but if I do, I hope beyond hope that I will step onto your shores beside the booted tramping feet of my love. …And so many young people are sad…
The computer turned off. I pulled the screen down and shut it. Rob and Daniel were on the couch, and Florent was in the armchair facing me.
“So?” asked Rob.
“So, I wrote it out,” I said, thumbing the edges of the netbook. “I’m going back to Peru.”
I wasn’t looking at them, but I felt their eyes. There was a moment of silence.
“…No shit,” said Rob.
“Really? You’re going to Peru?” asked Daniel. Florent just laughed unbelieving.
“Pussy,” said Daniel.
“Well, at least I don’t suck Florent off every night in the V-berth.”
“You have it backwards,” he said, and Florent shook his head.
“So what’s the deal then?” asked Rob.
“Well, I can’t very well leave the boat now that we’ve been checked out of here for a week…” I prompted Rob, who arched his eyebrows at the floor. “Right,” I said. “Then I go with you still to Tonga, and fly out from there.”
“That’s so crazy,” said Florent. “One minute we’re going to drink in Tonga and get a boat to New Zealand together, and now Peru?”
“There’s a lot to it. A history.”
“I think it’s great he’s going back,” said Rob. “I really do. You’re teaching us something about that.”
“I think an ex is an ex for a reason,” said Daniel.
I brought my eyes down on him. “I don’t think we can really compare each other, you know? Your life is different–you’d never get with this girl, not in a million years.”
“Like I said. Ex an ex for a reason.”
“Yea, and the reason being she maxed your credit card. That kind of thing aint possible in this case.”
Daniel’s experience of love and marriage bored me, and reminded me of millions of other boring stories where couples do petty bullshit. Love at the mark with frills and flourishing, things to keep it alive. Hers had none of it–true and unconditional–just two people in a city. Two sets of eyes.
“Well so much for the Pacific!” added Rob.
“I don’t care man,” I said.
“Wha?” Florent stammered. “Man I know you from Panama. You’re not across the Pacific yet.”
“I don’t care,” I said again. “What is it, this Suwarrow in the Cooks, then Tonga, then New Zealand?”
“Or Tonga to Fiji, then Vanuatu, then New Caledonia, and Australia.”
“Right,” said Rob.
“I don’t care,” I repeated.
“Wasn’t crossing the Pacific the whole idea?”
“I guess, but I don’t like boats. Rob knows it–I’ve told him.”
“He doesn’t like boats,” said Rob.
“I don’t like the cruising lifestyle. I’m in a limbo of sameness, and I’m not learning anything more than I already have. Practical stuff–repairing a boat. I’m in the middle of the ocean in cultures that are millennia old and all I do is repair a boat and do bullshit boat stuff. No offense, Rob,” I said.
“That’s fine. To each his own.”
“Right, well. I hate islands too. And I feel very much an underling. I can’t very well reproach Rob without risking my plans. It’s not something I care for anymore. I want to be free.”
“You can get off the boat anytime,” said Rob.
“Rob, I’m not trying to offend you, I’m just saying.”
Florent was beside himself. “How can you be here and say you don’t like it?”
Later, when we were back on the boat, I was at the bow with Florent. I wanted to delve into the conversation once more, away from the perhaps reactionary ears of the captain.
“Flo,” I said. “It’s not that I hate boats themselves. It’s that I hate being crew.”
He sighed. “I do too. I want to be alone, with my boat, and my decisions.”
“Right–you want your own boat, I got that. But I think traveling on a boat to a bunch of islands is an inferior way to travel and learn than vagabonding on land–far inferior.”
“I don’t like that travel. On a boat you see places you can’t get without a boat.”
“Right, but then you’re stuck with a boat, and aside from the practical problems and expense, which take up 90 percent of your time, you’re essentially moving around the world with all your little creature comforts that you get while you’re home and sedentary. You take your whole life with you. So you go out from your boat and get input from wherever you are, but then back on the boat your mind resets itself among familiar scenes–no immersion, which is fucking essential if you ask me. Boaters look for that pristine island where people are not. Fuck man, maybe it’s ok when you’re older and done with the world of man, but it’s not for the young.”
“But you’re sailing. I love sailing. I have sailed since I was child.”
“Sure I guess. You like sailing. I think the wind is neat, but I hate sailing-traveling. Sailing a small quick thing on a lake, I don’t know, that’s more like a little hobby and I don’t know it. But sailing traveling, the sameness is fucking horrible–where the ocean is interesting is where we can’t get to; it’s down below the surface.”
“You’re not a diver.”
“I’m talking about passages. The days go by and nothing happens, it’s always blue, it’s fucking monotonous. And you’re stuck in this tiny space with other humans and you bother each other and there’s no way to avoid it. If I jump ship to vagabond then I’m stuck on an island and I have to think about the seasons.”
“Like Rob said, you can get off whenever you want.”
“Fuck that,” I retorted. “No I can’t, not if I wanted to complete this crossing. But that’s just my point–I’m done with it. I don’t need to go around the world uninterrupted. On land, maybe, but I’ve decided that I’m not interested in these isolated little islands.”
“You don’t know. You haven’t been to Tonga or Fiji or those other islands.”
“I know how I feel about the islands I have been to. I’d take a bland mainland town any day. And anyway, I can’t go everywhere,” I said. “Not interested in going everywhere anymore.”
“So what about Australia, you wanted to get there eventually?”
“Yeah, only because I’d have to in order to continue onward to Asia without flying. Ego, man. It was like a fucking little chip-shaped devil was whispering to me from my shoulder.”
“I see, yes.”
“But no, man, no. I’m not interested in English-speaking countries. I was intrigued by New Zealand ’cause they said it was laid-back, and it has mountains and temperate climate in the south. Flight of the Concords. I wanted to stop and work for a spell. But as far as I’m concerned I’ve been wasting my time for months now.”
“Wasting your time? What about all these experiences you’ve had, all the things you’ve learned?” The wonder in his question showed in his bright face, so I turned to face him more directly.
“I’ve learned all I care to learn on boats, my friend. I’m wholly fucking disillusioned with the cruising lifestyle. Big yachts piloted by a bunch of people who mingle only among themselves around the world; they take their things with them everywhere; they go to desolate islands to get away from the world and the islands are boring after a few days; they bring their pleasure boats into port and expect ‘traditional cultures’ and primitive sights to dazzle their eyes and some get all indignant when they see a people like the Polynesians in American Samoa who have lost traditional custom but who are climbing the financial ladder, the same fucking financial globalized ladder that the yachties had to climb for them to even have the yacht in the first place! Fuck!”
“I see,” said Florent after my monologue cooled.
I wasn’t sure if he followed all of what I’d said–his English was good but not great. I didn’t care; this was a time to vent and get all this out of me. It was not only the truth for me, but the justification that I would need in order to settle my mind, to withdraw from the challenge of crossing the ocean and be content with one day flying directly to Asia, skipping a chunk of Pacific.
“I don’t care about circumnavigating the globe,” I continued. “I see boats, and what I see is a privileged white people who are proud of their boating lifestyle and for me it makes me sick, and I’m tired of being a part of it–and very tired of being submissive to the captains, whether I like them or not. Hell maybe I’ll crew someday again, but there are limits, and I can feel them.”
Florent drew on his rolled cigarette, and looked back at the blue lights underneath the Mai Kai marina bar. He didn’t like hearing these things, I knew. I thought he was stubborn, but really he was proud. He wanted to buy his own boat–when I met him in the Galapagos he had already decided it, and no one would tell him otherwise. “That’s it,” he had said. “I’m going to go to New Zealand, to work, and then fly to France, and I’ll work a few years, buy a boat, and go around the world.” He was my friend but a part of me mused at how perfect he’d be as a boat captain–proud and even somewhat arrogant. But then I think to the boaters I most respected, to Dirk and to Worth–they weren’t like that, were they?
“I’m a strange writer,” I said. “I need to live in a way that doesn’t distract my mind with petty concerns like those the boating life is riddled with. Stuck with my own thoughts, and the sea which I don’t care for. I want input, man. I want to be acted upon by the world, and not always in the same monotonous way.”
“This is why you’re going back,” he said. “To Peru.”
“Maybe it’s a reaction.”
“Of course it’s a reaction. There’s someone else. It brings it all out. My mind had been distracted by boating, and nothing has happened on the sea, and so much has happened for her. And like I said, I felt it, all of it. I felt her, on the way to the Galapagos, after I sent that horrible letter.”
“Well what’s your point?” I prodded.
“Will she take you back?”
I turned to face him then. We were at the bow, just behind the bowsprit, and salt crystals glistened in moonlight on the anchor chain, which disappeared into black water.
I bore into his eyes with mine and patted my chest with a closed fist. He smiled and dragged on the dying butt.
“I wish I had that,” he said.
The boat was on a mooring ball at the marina in Bora Bora. We’d been there for a week now, and the heavy wind event that Rob had feared was still with us, howling in the rigging and snapping halyards against the mast.
“Jesus fucking Christ. How the hell can you guys stand that?” Rob shouted from his cabin, storming out and onto the deck to tighten the halyards. I looked at Daniel, who looked at Florent, who looked at Daniel and I.
Just let me survive this, I thought. I just had to survive. I had to make it to Tonga. I had to make it to Tonga or to Fiji or to wherever I could get on a plane that I could afford. Just survive, I told myself, don’t flip out. And don’t die, I thought. I couldn’t die–I couldn’t; I had to make it, because my life is not meant to be a tragedy, it’s supposed to be the opposite–I’m in a comedy. I’m for happy beginnings. Just make it there.
We would stay longer, said Rob, and then no–we’re going tomorrow. When tomorrow came, we were staying yet another day. It wasn’t Rob’s fault, but my mind wouldn’t heed objectivity anymore. We’re in Bora Bora illegally–I can’t leave the boat, but my chest is imploding and nightly, daily do my thoughts remain with her. I don’t sleep.
And the time is punctuated by the erect nipples of a girl who remains in the marina bar. Daniel, Florent and I have razors and are cutting up an old Genoa for Rob, sitting beside the pool, and there’s Riva, laying out and her breasts perking through the wool sweater and she giggles at us and talks with us.
“God I want to fuck with this girl,” Florent said to us.
“No chance,” said Daniel under his breath. “She’s into big guys–did you see how she was with that other American the other day? Mine.”
“Why don’t you guys just ask if she’ll go with you both?” I said. “Look she’s just flaunting it all.”
Daniel and Florent went with her one night to a party at the next yacht club over. The theme was “Flower Child.” Yachties at a flower child party. I’m sure many were indeed flower children at one point–but did that generation change anything for the better? If there hadn’t been hippies, would we be in a more conservative society today? Daniel would be happy about that. The hippies became the rising middle class became the moneyed and some became yachties and now chuckle and wear the peace symbol for parties themed flower child.
When finally we weighed anchor and passed through the bands of colorful water at the channel, and sailed for hours, my eyes watched unengaged as Bora Bora fell away into the horizon. The guys had not bedded Riva, and so the gay jokes continued, and my mind processed them, and wore. I retreated to the bowsprit seat and leaned over the pulpit, arms dangling. I heard Rob saying something about my this or mine that. Some captains, it seemed to me, have an overdeveloped concept of property. I shouldn’t be on the boat–my mind is making enemies of friends.
I became seasick the first day, and through the second. I knew I would, and I had warned the others. Still I managed to help raise the whisker pole, or spinnaker pole, which pushed the headsail out over the water and gained us degrees downwind. But I ate a candy and threw up over the stern and all over the transom–a bleached water spout. My chest heaved and I felt the insides trying to leave.
It threw me back to her apartment, to that night of ayahuasca years before. I saw hate and fear and anger that night. Now I heaved and the water rushed from my mouth and splashed into the sea. She said she learned from me to appreciate even the horrible feelings. I love you, I said now, and I am pained but it is a pain that I love because you are in my chest.
During the night watches it was the sunflower seeds that kept me awake. Pain, her, and I was sleepless. I pulled my hat over my eyes, closed them, put my finger to my lips and put myself into the future. Sometimes tearful, and sometimes not. High cirrus in the night were like tire tracks or paw prints dabbled over the sky. Low embossed frescoes of cumulus shown in the moonbeam.
The days moved on and the monotonous sea remained so. I am tired of gay jokes. I’m tired of pragmatic boat concerns and hearing about the war and bar fighting culture. We are in the world, my friends, it is here that you create new memories and identity. Live it, I said. And do not talk to me of women for you are dealing with the high-maintenance modern American woman and I am thinking of someone independent of place, of addictions, of how-life-should-be. I am thinking of a creature so lovely I cannot tell you. I do not want your jokes. I will push you overboard.
“Florent,” I said. “This is a cultural experience for me as well. Southern men.”
Texas, and Oklahoma, and Georgia living. I had to avoid talking about the Civil War, or about any war for that matter. I avoided talking about guns except for that one day that I said “You speak against gun control to say that instead we must change the societal problems that create murderers–and yet you think being in Afghanistan and burning opium to destroy heroin is the answer instead of dealing with the societal problems that create users.” Later, I found Daniel and Rob in the cockpit, cleaning Rob’s two hand guns. I wondered at the coincidence–look, Cale, and now shut the fuck up.
Florent got headaches. He was cranky and lazy without cigarettes. The country music made him worse. How can you listen to love song after love song with shit metaphors comparing love to confetti, but then when it comes to talking about it, you are stone cold and jumpy? I think then of the dullness of the world without love. And a man of knowledge, of science, will think that love is a chemical, and an obsession. But so be it! The dullness of your knowledge, that you seek to explain everything–it’s frigid and calculating, and it is colorless. Andrew had no passion but unlimited knowledge and after all I despised his presence.
I came onto my watch one night around 2 am, but could not find my sunflower seeds.
“Hey Flo,” I said, and from the cabin looked up into the dark cockpit at him, and there was another Florent beside him.
OK, I said to myself, My head’s playing with me now. I will find my sunflower seeds, and then I will deal with this second Florent. But it wasn’t another Florent, it was Rob, and they both retired when I had found my sunflower seeds.
Alone. The world. I feel this girl like a mint-fresh air in my heart, can it be possible? Of course it’s possible you’re a good man and she a good woman, and this is it. A year you’ve betrayed yourself. A year!
Their lures brought in fish. “Fish on!” Rob would cry. First they lost many, and Florent and I both said pipe down, men, and let the fish hook itself before you reel–that’s how we did it on the last boats, and we used a treble. “Isn’t this fun? The ocean, man!” cried Rob. But I had it with the ocean. It’s filled with mahi mahi. We caught a 50 pound one, and when I bludgeoned it it turned candy purple dying. Then there was a skipjack tuna, and then a yellowfin.
“That was a great 60 pound fish eh?” said Rob when I’d hacked it into filets, having torn its skin from the flesh and discarded it into the waves.
“60 pounds? I thought it was 50?” asked Daniel.
“It’ll be 70 pounds by the time we arrive to Suwarrow,” I said.
“When he’s Stateside, he’ll say ‘oh shit I caught this amazing 100 pound mahi once!'” said Daniel.
Some jokes were tolerable. It was fun, but unhappy fun for me because every wave tumbled my chest and reminded me that I didn’t want to be there–get me out of here, get me from this sea, put me on a plane–I want to be in those deep dark irises, and pinched by the blinking lush lashes–get me there!
I tried and felt stupid to talk about her to them. The conversation always reverts back to waves, the boat or lures. I spoke French to Florent, who welcomed the conversation, but Rob said it was offensive to speak another language in front of them. He apologized but the opinion was voiced, and he hid behind the apologetic demeanor of feigned indifference–so no more French speaking.
Gin rummy continued when my sickness had abated. Onward, to the Cook Islands. To Suwarrow. “Tom Neal stayed alone on that island for 23 years,” said Rob. “We gotta check it out.”
Daniel grimaced and joked, and seemed upset at my decision to return. Perhaps I was powerful in his eyes before I announced my plan to go back–a loner in the world, taking it on in a gritty way. And a woman is sanitizing. But people are difficult who are proud of what they think they know, whether true or false. To him I’m a typical story: man returns to woman, asks forgiveness. But it is a narrow field of vision. He does not know. He cannot know the depth of thought it took to leave her when my heart was bleeding for her, or the sprint and spark of spirit it demands now to return, to wrap my perceived life in a blanket to keep warm and possible to share with her–but to otherwise change absolutely everything, and go back. Men who have been sad with women are bitter at a love story.
“I would have to be logical to do what you’re doing,” said Daniel.
“I would need a plan. A job, and a place to stay.”
“I have a job. I have a place to stay. If I didn’t, I would still return.” Hearts will never be practical until they are made unbreakable, I thought.
The yellowfin we chopped up into sashimi. I cooked rice: salt, squeezes of lime juice. The plate had wasabi and wet pink ginger, and we mixed wasabi into the soy sauce.
“This right here–this is 100 bucks at a restaurant,” said Rob.
Later, I fried medallions of skipjack in onions and peppers. I mashed them, and added olive oil mayonnaise. I poured this tuna fish salad over pasta in the evening. I was the cook, again.
And she was with me even in the aroma of cooking, too. I always knew, as I knew about the space of Peru on the map–something always told me that I would turn back before making Asia. It was a question of how close before turning back. But I’m glad. One day I will see that massive country as a more mature man, who knows his wants and does not shun but accepts his emotions alongside his intellectual aspirations.
The neck I know is most sensitive. It’s her neck. The copper banks and ravines, the gleam of sweat. Where the blood pushes from the heart to the mind–it’s the former that must accommodate the later and unopposed. First we are human and then we are rational, and neither is better because now neither exists without the other. The sea spray and rain in the afternoon; the dusk light fizzling beyond torn minute layers of nimbus; salt numbing inside my cheeks and I spit shells out overboard, but the wind brings them and scatters them on deck; I pick them up individually and flick them into the wake. Where will fateful happiness lead? This new unknown, again–this wide awake man who is fearful and uncertain but chases after that once-terrible word, and lays himself out in the air to catch its tail.
And in the morning my friends search for arguments that fit their minds which are already resolved, and the conversations become bland for it. These men who speak of vagabonding as if they know, but they do not. Something happens in early life, a wind blows that makes a person political in one way or another on this sorry plain; then we argue about the right way to raise a child, but it’s all bull.
Ridicule continues, and somehow chest hair is a point of contention. Daniel is shaved all over; I do not say to him that he is a stranger in the world therefore. Healthy men. And I’m healthier. I’m tired. I’m tired of comradery being the ridicule of each other. I prefer a friendship allied in commonality. If you care, then of course I cannot handle the Marine Corps–I’m too independent, I think too much, and I’m not a young malleable chick glued to ingrained and unquestioned morals. But he is a good person, and I can see it. Fuck it, everyone’s a good guy.
We arrived finally at the end of the week to Suwarrow. New Zealand’s Cook Islands, and here we were in the Cook Islands National Park.
We entered the 11-mile atoll in front of Anchorage Island, past small breakers over the reef, floating on clear water, and around to the backside of the palm studded island. Here it is. I’ve seen this on a million Corona commercials. I’ve seen this coupled with ideas of paradise. There were 11 other boats anchored here. 12 or so reef sharks coiled around the boat as we dropped the anchor and set the dinghy into the water. I jumped into the dinghy and prepared the motor and the fuel tank, and the sharks looked curious so I swatted the water with my hand to send them off.
Coral sand bottom. The rings of blue color were graded from the brilliant beach–transparent teal, candy blue, then the dark sapphire of the lagoon water. The atoll’s other islands sat pudgy on the ring horizon, and little bursts of white like static marked the breakers. The southern reef of the atoll received the hardest onslaught.
We took the dinghy ashore and tied up on a coral and concrete dock. We could see the whole dock beneath its foot of depth, the thin shimmering surface of the clear water the only thing telling us there was even water there at all. In length the island was shorter than a hockey rink, but twice the width. On the far side the breakers sounded, and later we saw there brown black tip reef sharks in a foot of surf. Palms populated the whole island, and undisturbed coconuts all turned to saplings, which trapped the sun’s heat and made the interior of this unassuming island intensely hot.
The immigration office was a black table sitting before a set of couches on a concrete floor, opened to the air beneath a stilted room above. There were tattered and torn flags with written things like “Thank you Henry and Charlie for a wonderful time in Suwarrow!” These dangled above our heads–the leftover memorabilia from countless cruisers. Henry was the Maori official, and he came out in a sleeveless black rugby shirt and flip-flops. He had a wide mouth and a convex face, a nose like a bobby’s hat, and a slow New Zealander accent that kept his mouth open at the end of words like ‘today’.
“Did you see the sign out front?” he asked. “Those are the rules. Just follow the rules, and you’ll be ok.”
“Alright,” said Rob. “That sounds just fine Henry, thank you.” Rob became the quintessential friendly guy when we dealt with official people.
“There’s no fishing, remember, and don’t throw waste overboard. Spearfishing is the worst, don’t do that. You can go to the buoys out beyond the anchor field in the mornings to see the manta rays.”
“Any sharks?” asked Rob. “We got a member here who’s skittish around them.” He eyed me.
Henry turned to me and grinned. “Eh,” he said. “There was a tiger shark. Tore one of the manta rays to shreds.” I liked how he pronounced shreds.
“A tiger shark?” said Florent.
“Yea. It should be safe now though.”
“You guys got him out of the lagoon then?” asked Rob.
“Well, we haven’t seen him around,” he replied with a grin.
When we were checked into the country, Charlie, the assistant and only other person living at Suwarrow, took us to see the cistern via a tunnel of foliage.
“You shower here,” he said. He had lost all his front teeth. “You don’t shower here, you haven’t been to Suwarrow. People, they come here, but they don’t use Suwarrow’s water–so how can they say they’ve been to Suwarrow?”
There was a massive book exchange in the only other building on the island, but it was infested by thick tomes of New York Times Bestsellers. I found a Star Wars book and snagged it. Entertainment.
We were planning on staying 3 days but we would stay 5. Always longer. The crossings are always longer, and the anchoring is always longer. I always felt like I was wasting my time on boats. Now it was worse than that with her eyes in front of me–this was torture, and here I was, far from everything, in your conception of paradise.
We snorkeled in a candy land reef city just beside the island. The coral heads were speckled different colors, and some were solid and vibrant–blues, oranges, yellows, greens and reds and purples. Brightly colored clams were careful when we approached, retracting into their shells like popped bubble gum licked back in. Great opalescent parrot fish snapped at the growth on the bottom and traveled in large schools. The reef sharks circled us, and once a great lemon shark became curious, but we scared him away.
On the coral sand beach I collected shells and thought of her. Palms dipped their trunks over the limpid lapping surf, and to one of these someone had attached a rope swing. I sat on it, dragging my feet in the warm shore water. I stared at the silent breakers on the other side of the lagoon, and wondered whether she would like this place. A year you have deceived your own heart, you fool, and now that you are honest you are out of your goddamn mind. You’re in love, you want to see her, and you’re trapped in the middle of the largest ocean on earth. I just have to survive.
We saw the manta rays one day. We attached the dinghy to a mooring ball, donned the fins and fell in. There were three of them, with wingspans of 9 feet or more. They circled slowly above what Rob called a cleaning station; and I watched through my goggles the little wrasses picking at whatever growth the winged giants had accumulated. Only when a wrasse would get too intimate would the ray react, and spiral upward at a slightly faster pace. I wondered if they could swim swiftly; it should be doubtful–these things are built for elegance. I dove down 30 feet, popping my eardrums by holding my nose and blowing. I swam along the bottom and looked up. The manta ray slid along, gliding in his world above me, a shape against the sunlit surface water with shoots of light pouring around his massive black body.
Mostly, I stayed on the boat. I drew. I pestered Florent when he ran out of cigarettes and discovered that not one of the other boaters in the anchorage smoked. Without his fix he became unpleasant to be around. He worked like a lunatic cleaning the whole boat, and then made comments that sounded like he worked only so that he could make the comments. Remember who got you on this boat in the first place, I wanted to say, but it would be out of character. I let him alone.
Rob was always saying “go have fun you guys this is fucking paradise,” and then somehow changing his mind and requiring us to stay and help, or we did anyway because there was a vibe and we knew that otherwise he’d make comments like Florent. I was tired. Every day it was the same: there’s the island, here’s the water, now I’m wet, now I’m cooking, now someone is repairing something on the boat and we’re all gathered around, now I’m told to do this but I feel like I’m upsetting someone, now someone is pissed about nothing, now we’re ashore with a bunch of other white-faced cruisers playing petanque, and nothing is happening. My body assisted, but my mind and chest were perpetually in that Great Latin Land.
But they were good guys. Of course they were good guys. But I wrote, and I wrote and now there’s this and it’s empty of all the fun comments and conversations because I’m so impatient to get out of here and only the frustrating things are sticking–if she were here perhaps I’d love the sea. Oh I hope not, and I think not. I don’t want to torture her with the sea. I want to let it be.
After the 5 days, we weighed anchor rumbo American Samoa, coming around the point and sailing once more into the sea. Things seemed to slow down again. My chest settled as the soft rocking of the boat made a halyard on the mast into a maritime metronome. The conditions were good, and the clacking line counted off the seconds, the minutes, and then I was in hours again.
“How are you doing?” asked Florent.
“Ain’t sick, yet.”
“That sucks, I think, to be sick of the sea all of the time.”
“I guess I only get seasick when the rocking is really bad. But it always ends after a day or so.”
The sail flogged and Florent glared at it. “Come on, sail,” he said to it. It billowed. “OK.”
“Does that help?” I asked.
“It listens to me sometimes.”
We were in the cockpit. Rob and David came up simultaneously from the fore and aft cabins and sat with us.
“Here we go, American Samoa!” exclaimed Rob. “Good ole US of A.”
“You think Florent will be able to get in? I mean, it’s the US and all.”
“Yeah he’ll be fine. It’s a territory. Puerto Rico isn’t so difficult to get into compared to the states.”
Florent grinned and clapped his hands close against his chest. “Good good,” he said through the sucking sounds he made, chewing the Nicorette.
I eyed him and told him that he was crazy, and he shook abruptly and pretended to jerk off. The Nicorette made him loony. Rob and Daniel laughed, and got a kick out of about his strange behavior under the influence of the gum.
Later Florent found me lying on the settee doing nothing.
“No Tonga, after all, huh? Well, Rob’s still going to go there,” I said.
“What will you do?”
“Look for flights from American Samoa, otherwise come to Tonga to get that flight to Fiji, then LA.”
“You think they’re expensive?”
“Oh,” he said. “She’s worth all of this, then?”
“Man.” I sat up. “I’ve been thinking a lot. I’m going fucking crazy here.” Daniel and Rob were chatting in the cockpit, and I was whispering to Florent. “I’m tired of stories about being drunk in bars, and stories about the Marines. He’s a good guy, and the cap is too, I know they are, I’m just, man, they’re not the guys I want to be around right now.”
“Hmm,” he muttered. “I don’t know how Daniel does it. He sleeps with so many girls it sounds like. I can’t do that.”
“Man, I’ve always thought of myself as a gritty guy. But you know, I’m not that guy. I’m not the guy who gets with chicks in bars. I just ain’t, and it feels good to admit it.”
“Many fish in the sea, though,” he said.
“They’re all mahi mahi,” I said. He laughed. “I know someone who says ‘just because you’ve already ordered, doesn’t mean you can’t keep looking at the menu.'”
“Yes!” cried Florent. “I like that. Even while you’re eating, you look at other peoples’ plates”
“Yea, but I was just thinking. All that might be true. But sometimes, I don’t even have to look at the menu to know what I want.”
“You’re thinking too much,” he rolled.
A day passed. We caught yellowfin tuna and made sashimi. Then another day passed, and another. But what happened? I had been in the hours, but as the days continued, and once more I was alone on watch under the stars, I could count the minutes and seconds while I thought of her, the salty sunflower seeds soaking in my mouth.
Slowly a new vibe grew like vine to brick, and I became the irritable one when it tried to cling to me. I argued with Florent, who said that everyone should care about sustainability and I said it’s reverence that makes humans compatible together. If an asteroid was going to destroy the earth would you do something about it or not, he asked; and I said to hell with your stupid fucking absolutes you Sith bastard. I argued with Rob about Venezuela, and raved about how the Baby Boomers seem so often to equate freedom with purchasing power and property rights. I argued with Daniel about American conceptions of fairness and country music. Conversations were stopped mid-sentence and I’d be left alone. I was thinking so much about her, and now I started to think about the witty friends I expected to see also, who could hold the conversation and douse its intensity with a bit of cold humor, instead of turning things personal.
“Yes!” I cried. “That’s perfect, play that love song.”
Daniel glowered at me, a frown scrunching his brow. “You’re ridiculous.”
“Just once more,” I pleaded. “I’ve never actually listened to the lyrics before.”
“No. Here. This one. A love song.” He smiled at the corner and disappeared topside.
Take my hand, it said. Take my whole life too. Who is this, I wondered. His voice shook. For I can’t help falling in love with you. Ahh, yes. That’s perfect. Good, Daniel, good. Like a river flows surely to the sea. True, yes, that’s true. Darling so it goes; some things are meant to be. So it goes! The King said it? He did! And what truth!
“Are you done being a little girl?” asked Daniel when the song had finished.
Blind yourself, sea! I’m done with you. Survive. Just survive this. Don’t fall overboard.
“Flo, come here.”
“What do you want?”
“Flo do you buy round-trip tickets?”
The boat rolled over a larger swell, and I braced myself against the mast table.
“Man, I always buy one-way tickets, but you know what? This is the first time I’ll buy one in the right direction.”
“I’m tired of hearing about your love story, man.”
“I can’t stop. Hey, you can have the rest of my candies.”
“Yea go ahead.”
He shook with glee and rummaged through the dry storage for the snacks.
“I’ve proven to myself that my mind is a bastard.”
“Shit. Man, all I gotta do is get there. I just need to look at her. I need to live.”
“Mm hmm. Sucks if you die before.”
“Yea, I’ve thought that too. If we sink or something.”
“Yea,” he giggled. “If pirates get us.”
“If the plane crashes.”
“You are hit by a bus.”
“Shot in LA.”
“Break your back on stairs at the airport.”
That last night before arriving to American Samoa, I had the early morning watch. After the sun came up, Rob rose from his cabin and stood staring at the large block of landmass forming in front of us.
“I dreamed last night that infinity stopped,” he said in a croaking morning voice.
“Ha, that’s something. How’s that?”
“Mathematical equations, man. They looked like hot dogs.”
Florent woke when he smelled Daniel’s coffee. We were all again in the cockpit, looking at the island before us.
“How do you pronounce it again?” I asked.
“Pago Pago,” said Florent.
“No. It’s Pango Pango.” Rob looked certain.
“There’s an ‘n’ hein?”
“Makes sense to me. It looks more like a Pango Pango than a Pago Pago.”
“Pago Pago is ‘I pay, I pay’ in Spanish,” said Florent. “I think it is a good warning for my first visit to the United States.”
“Territory, man. I don’t know how American this is gonna be,” said Rob.
Over the next several hours the island grew, and we came alongside its southern coast. Here’s another green mountainous island plopped here all alone in another part of the middle of nowhere. Pago Pago was the main town and harbor, and when we crossed between the breakers, we could smell the tuna processing plants.
“Largest tuna fleet in the world,” said Rob. “Really interesting stuff. Smell that? Mmmm!”
Florent was being a lunatic at the bow, gesturing to the mountains that were crowded with towering tropical vegetation bursting from the steep slopes that arrived at the road.
“Looks like he’s chewing his last gum,” I said. “Doesn’t Japan have bigger tuna fleets?”
“The Japanese own this fleet,” he replied. “And look at all those Chinese rigs!”
We came into the harbor slowly. The sky was blocked by cloud cover, which gripped and obscured the mountain peaks. The water turned black, and plastic wrappers floated in it. Other boats were anchored at the far side of the bay. The geography was pleasant, but the bay was not. After so much perfect water, our eyes were spoiled.
When we had set our anchor, I tried to take in the place. American Samoa. Hell, I didn’t know a damn thing about it. The Rock was from here, I thought. I knew these people were very large–my university’s linebackers were all Samoan. I had read that cruisers hate Pago Pago, which gave me hope that I might find reasons to like it.
We went to McDonald’s and ate Big Macs. It seemed that the bay was always pierced by ambulance sirens, which made Florent giddy as all hell, clapping his hands at his chest again and exclaiming, “It’s just like in the movies!”
I made a note to myself that the locals were mostly speaking Samoan together. It was true that it was more commercial here than elsewhere, but compared to French Polynesia, I felt that I was in a place that was at least more authentic; a place which didn’t exist by selling itself for the pleasure of outsiders. We spoke English with everyone, and the street dogs attacked each other and scurried before us.
There were perhaps 15 or 20 boats in the anchorage. They say Pago Pago is the best place to provision, but few cruisers stay for long, and much less do they enjoy staying at all. I squinted at a boat in the distance.
“Hey Rob,” I called. He came onto the deck at the stern.
“Yea what is it?”
“See that there?”
His eyelids closed around his irises. “No shit.”
“I told you, man. I knew they’d come here.”
“You’re fuckin’ right man. No fuckin shit. Ha!”
It was Miluna.
Later that day, Gary came over in his dinghy. It was strange to see him, again; we were continuing our game of hopscotch all over the South Pacific.
“So they’re gone.” Gary was sitting in the cockpit, and we were gathered around on the benches, listening like eager pupils.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Well, I accidentally tipped over their backpack in Tahiti, and a bag of pot rolled out onto the floor. I told them to get rid of it.”
“So they were off the boat in French Poly?”
“No, I said to get rid of it. My boat could be impounded. So I thought they got rid of it back there in Tahiti.”
I thought back to our friends Bryan and Regan, the couple I had become friends with at the Taina anchorage. I remembered entertaining them on Wild Wind when Rob had returned to the states.
“Shit, so then what happened?”
“Well, we got to Suwarrow, and we were arguing because I said we were going to American Samoa to get the new headsail. Bryan got mad and yelled. We arrived here, and right away he and Regan took the dinghy and one of their bags to shore. You see? They still had the pot on them. Then Bryan came and collected the rest of their bags. Finally he had the nerve to ask for their contribution money back. Hell no, I said, you had pot on my boat. And he didn’t seem to deny it.”
“Damn,” said Rob. “I wouldn’t have tolerated that.”
“I didn’t. So they were off, and pissed. They went to the cops, who came out and brought me to their office. I told them that I wasn’t giving the contribution money back, because Bryan and Regan had brought illegal drugs on my boat in Tahiti.”
“You told the cops directly?” I asked.
“You’re damned right. Then they came out with a sniffer dog. The mut put its paw on the same drawer three times. Must have been where they had stored the pot. The cop said they could impound the boat. Bryan and Regan were lucky. They got rid of the pot, apparently. But they were told they had 24 hours to leave. They flew to New Zealand. They were mad about spending the money.”
“You did just what I would’ve,” said Rob. “These guys know I have zero tolerance for that kind a behavior.”
I looked at Rob, then at Gary.
The following day was a day of days. We went ashore and cleared in with the port captain, and received our entry stamps at the big blocky immigration office, beneath governmental promotional banners that read “American Samoa Nutritional Education Program” or “American Samoa Developmental Disabilities Council,” both of which shocked me since the population was only 75,000. I went off alone and found internet at a hotel lobby. When I emerged 2 hours later, I had purchased 1400 dollars worth of air tickets, and had organized pick-ups at the airports in LA and Lima. I would leave that very night from American Samoa.
I saw a Japanese man jogging, and wondered about his life. Then, as I was walking back toward the dock, through the smattering of wooden and concrete buildings that made up the stretched uptown of Pago Pago, I heard a “ssstt”. I turned to see a man at a cast iron gate beside a grocery store motioning me over. Of course I went to him; I had not met any Samoans, and I was eager to learn something before the flight that night. And anyway, vagabonding’s advice is to always go at an invitation when the scene is right.
His name was Joe. He was a large man, much larger than me, with deep eyes and a bull cut. The whites of his eyes were a faded, slightly yellow color, but he smiled when I came and his eyes did as well.
“Hey man,” he said. “What are you doing man? You’re on a boat I guess right?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“That’s cool that’s cool. You know Shane? I met shane. He was on a boat. Ukranian guy, invited us to eat. He was working on one of the tuna boats.”
“I’m on a sailboat,” I said.
“Ah, ok! Ok man, yea, cool. Welcome to Samoa my friend. Where did you come from?”
“Suwarrow, in the Cooks.”
“Alright, cool man, that’s cool. Where are you headed?”
“I’m going to Peru.”
“Is that in the States?”
“No sir, it’s down there in South America.”
“Oh man! Really? Why are you going there?”
“Love is powerful, man, it’s really powerful. Hey Larry!” he cried into the gate.
“What?” said a voice. It had an Asian twang to it.
“Larry check this out, this is…?”
“This is Cale,” he said. “I’m Joe.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“What?” said Larry.
“Cale, man, and he’s going to go back to the states, to Peru, for a girl man. Man, that’s across the planet, man.”
“Ooohh,” said Larry, hidden behind the gate. “Very nice.”
“So when are you leaving?”
“Tonight, 11pm. I fly to Hawaii, then LA, then Detroit, then Fort Lauderdale in Florida, and then Lima, Peru.”
“Wow man, that’s great! Cool man, all of those places? That’s a hell of a lot man, wow.”
“And she knows you’re coming?”
“And how long you been gone?”
“What!? Really, man? You been gone from your woman that long?” I liked his slight accent, the Samoan one, which made the ‘R’ prominent.
“What the hell man?”
“I left her, to travel.”
“Oh brother, and you think she’s going to take you back? Are you crazy? You think she’ll take you back?”
“I know it,” I said.
He looked at me. He eyed me, and smiled. “Man, you’re crazy brother. That must be pretty strong. I’m waitin for my kid to get outta school right now man, but man, I’m gonna tell everyone I met this crazy guy who’s going all the way across the ocean for his girl man. Wow.”
“Yea, well, it feels right.”
“That’s powerful man.”
“I’m tired of boats anyway.”
“Been on them since Panama.”
“What, man? Really? You been on boats since Panama, man?”
“Oh man! It gets crazier, and I didn’t think it was possible man, whoa! So you were just coming here?”
“I was trying to hitchhike around the world without flying.”
“WHAT?! Man! Crazy! No, not crazy man, there aint a word for that man, whoa! You’re one loaded cat man!”
“Maybe I’ll travel with her again.”
“I don’t know man, they say if you can travel with a girl she’s to keep, man. You know?”
“Yeah. She came with me, hitchhiking for 4 months.”
“Oh… man… brother… you gotta get this girl. Are you serious right now? I can’t believe you, she traveled with you hitchhiking? And for 4 months? And you left her?”
“You just left her like that?”
“No, I flew her back to her home in Lima from Rio de Janeiro.”
“How do you have money man?”
“I write some. But I spend all my money on visas and planes, I guess.”
“Man, I couldn’t do that, shit man. Wow, man. You gotta come party with my friends and I.”
“I’m leaving tonight.”
“Oh that’s right! Man, I’m gonna tell everyone about you man.”
I laughed. Florent came walking up to us then.
“Hey Flo, where’s Rob and Daniel?”
He smiled at Joe and shook his hand.
“They’ll meet us later,” he said. “Hi, nice to meet you. Skittle?”
“Naw that’s alright man, thanks,” said Joe. “Hey you guys want some weed by any chance?”
I looked at Florent.
“Oh, well, sure, yeah, but not now,” he said. “But yes, I like to smoke.”
“It’s hot as hell here,” I said.
“Man it’s Samoa brother. It’s always hot here. And it’s always raining man, always.”
“I’ve seen a ton of churches here,” I said. “They’re everywhere. On every block. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many.”
“Yea man, there are a lot of churches, all kinds too man. Protestant, catholic, evangelist, baptist, mormon, oh man the list goes on. You believe in God, man?”
“I’m agnostic, I guess, if a label will do.”
“Agnostic?” asked Joe.
“Yea, I think I could believe in something, I don’t define it in a religion.”
“Ok, man, that’s cool man, so you’re not an atheist?”
“How about you, what was it?”
“Yea, Florent, you aint American huh?”
“Oh ok man, alright that’s cool.”
“Really man? Like, really? You da second atheist I met ever. You and Shane man. But you’re alright man. You offered me Skittles, so that’s alright man, for an atheist.”
“Well we better get to our boat,” I said.
“Hey man, that’s cool. It’s nice to meet you man. Hey Florent you just come find me when you want to smoke, I gotchyou man.”
“Thanks Joe,” said Florent.
“Cale man I’m gonna tell my friends bout you man. You should write a novel. Your story is like Hollywood. Good luck to you brother.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said.
Pago Pago bay is coiled around a peninsula, and tucked away by its steep walls. When the sun rises, it arrives late, and when it sets, it disappears early. There was no sun when I was wishing Rob and Daniel well. I’d packed my things, and we took the dinghy back to shore. Only the sounds of gurgling car engines came to my ears, and the low rumble of the boat’s motor. I left Wild Wind for the last time, finally on my way back to where I ought to be.
“You left money on the boat?” asked Rob once we were walking on shore again.
“Yea,” I said. I left 10 bucks for food that we had bought in Bora Bora. But I didn’t leave the contribution for Suwarrow. It was a boat cost, not a per person cost. I didn’t want another, last argument, so I didn’t mention it.
“You’re a good man,” he said.
“Thanks for having me, Rob, and I’m sorry I’m not coming along with you guys after all.”
“I’m gonna get all choked up here. You’ve become a friend.”
“Likewise,” I said.
Florent and I crossed the street and flagged a bus. Rob and Daniel disappeared into McDonald’s to steal some internet time.
“You think you’ll go along with Rob to Tonga?” I asked Florent.
“I don’t know. Now Gary is in need of crew.”
“You know him, what do you think?”
“I think Gary’s particular. You’re probably better off with Rob and Daniel. Just make sure the details are hammered out.”
The bus was a gutted pick-up truck with a passenger compartment built on its back. In the front, above the windshield, it read, “God,” and on the back were the words “Is good.” We were in the bus for 30 minutes or so. The US gives significant aid to American Samoa. Apparently the chiefs don their traditional Samoan getups to present themselves to congress once a year in a show meant to ensure continued financial aid. Cops have the sleekest vehicles, and the roads are good. There’s a strange mix of American and Samoan patriotism, and it speaks to the peculiar state of globalization when I heard an immigration official badmouth what he saw as the Mexican tendency to steal jobs… and we’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
At the airport there was only one restaurant. Florent and I sat in the bar and drank Vailima beer, imported from Western Samoa.
“Yuk,” said Flo. “This is too bitter.”
“Go get a Heineken, gimme that,” I said.
When he came back with his new beer he sat with a thump.
“That’s just so crazy that you’re leaving.”
“I’m jealous,” he said.
“…I thought you liked sailing?”
“I do, but I hate how slow it is. Nothing happens–”
“But now you’re going, you’re moving now. You’re going to be in many places different. That’s it; I’m going back to France from New Zealand.”
“Sorry I’m not coming with, man. I need to get back to this girl. I’m out of my mind.”
“Come visit me in France.”
The airport was filled with people. We paid double for the 6 beers we drank between us, because it was a “flight night”, which meant that a plane was coming.
It was strange for skinny me to be among the locals. Many Samoans are blimps. They’re simply large. The diet doesn’t help. KFC failed and closed because it was cheaper to fry the chicken at home–the restaurant parking lot is now littered with high grass and rusting metal fences. But it’s the genetic propensity for largeness that keeps Samoa plump. I felt like anti-matter among them.
I’d been in or around boats for 7 and a half months. In the beginning, it was Colombia. I traveled with Worth on Satori from Cartagena to Bocas del Toro. I hitched to Panama City, meeting Collin along the way. I met Dirk on Lola and the Swedish Vikings on Warskavi. Collin and I met Florent there, and then I eventually left on Sarim. I spent months with Lido, Geli and Gil on Sarim and in the Marquesas I joined Andrew on Athena. In Tahiti I joined Wild Wind with Rob, and now, here at the end, the beginning was repeating itself. Drinking beer with Florent, as if we had brought the Panama bar with us across the ocean, and the world was opening up again to the new unknown, which came to gather me up into its fuselage and throw me into past dimensions. I never knew what to expect from the sea, but I was glad to be leaving it behind.
Florent was gone, and I went through the security checkpoint, my umbrella safe in hand. A large Hawaiian Airline plane sat alone on the tarmac, and I followed the feet in front of me, around a perimeter of orange cones, to the rear mobile staircase. The plane was not full, so I took a window seat and tried to sleep but couldn’t. I was about to turn months of movement into moments, flying over that great blue sea that looks so predictable from above.
We took off and it was night. 11:30. I saw Pago Pago’s thin threads of orange lamplight curl around the peninsula, into the bay. I saw the anchor lights of the sailing yachts, and I picked out what I thought to be Wild Wind. Above my head a harsh shoot of cold air shot forth from an open vent. I closed it, and when I looked back out the window we had passed through a flimsy cloud cover, and the island was gone.
I had a blanket, and ear phones, but the left node was not functional; the right one relayed ukulele tunes when I plugged it into the armrest jack. I pocketed the eye shades that the Hawaiian shirt-clad attendants had handed out. There was no turbulence; there were no lights but the stars. I didn’t sleep. I let air pass from my lips, long and slow, like the gentle pressing out of the final bit of air from a mattress. I closed my eyes and saw the desert city; I felt myself leaving the earth and the ocean behind; I saw the girl.
The story of going back
We touched down at 5 a.m. and I was out of the airport by 6, having first to go through immigration and customs. I had never been to Hawaii before, but I knew that Honolulu was home to Pearl Harbor, and so I decided to use my 8 hour layover to see about a bit of history. But it wasn’t to be. The bus driver recognized that I was new there, and when he confirmed that he was heading to Pearl Ridge, he said, “Pearl Harbor is closed today, government shutdown.”
“Government shutdown?” I asked.
“Didn’t you know? The bastards can’t agree on a budget. Government’s shut down.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about but I didn’t care.
“Where should I go? I’ve never been here.”
“Go to Waikiki.”
Words here sound funny, I thought. I didn’t know what he’d said, but I soon found out that he was talking about Honolulu’s “Most famous beach in the world.” I’d been to a few, and considered the bold phrase lacking humility. Beaches ought to be humble.
The bus through downtown showed me many pusher streets and tent communities among the financial HQ behemoth skyscrapers. As I peered out the window at the tattered camps, my hands rubbed over my arms, bumpy and chilled by an over-cooled air–the hotter the city, the less proportional the air conditioning. I looked down at myself. I could’ve fit in with the pushers. My little dirty gray pack, the destroyed boots, those sun-worn and crotch-ripped pants, the green-webbing belt with plastic snap buckle, my tacky and wrinkled orange dress shirt that was missing its top button so that I looked like a swinger, the moldy old brown hoodie with dog tooth-gouged holes above where saltwater corrosion had frozen the zipper shut, my matted unwashed long blondish hair. Then I looked up and saw that I was the only white guy on the bus. Everyone was Asian or Polynesian.
Waikiki was clean. There were more people on the beach than I’d seen in weeks. Sand formed its crescent beach that began at the Army Museum and stretched off to the east and made the people into dots. I saw a crowd of surfers a quarter kilometer out, and paddle boarders among them. To the west, tall white masts marked two marinas fronting the waterfront otherwise dominated by massive condominiums and palms deprived of their fruit. There was so much activity; paragliders, the surfers and paddle boarders and swimmers, sunbathers and ranting homeless, big sand tricycles with plastic wheels, frisbee throwing, speedboats and sailboats alike, a guy in a full black wetsuit wielding a metal detector, the Japanese doing a good job of staying together and protecting themselves from the sun, planes in the sky with banners, the vibes from that old leather surfer with wispy silver locks.
Along the boardwalk and main shopping street I felt eyes and discomfort. My clean clothes were in my bag, already checked at the airport, and I was walking among the quintessence of commercial, which frowns on anything that is not pretty. And the stores! Louis Vuitton, Starbucks, King Jewelry, Swatch; Subway, ABC stores, the Yard House, The Cheesecake Factory, bebe, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Apple, California Pizza Kitchen; all these stores that show that success is repetition and recognition and hegemony in all the big metropolises. Young guys were handing out leaflets but no one offered me any. I ate a burger at IHOP and had quirky stares from older people and respect from the servers. I felt like a ghost.
Back in the airport I watched as lines formed in front of McDonald’s and Starbucks. Half the lighting in the terminal came from electric billboards advertising products hidden by ass and tit. I’d made it through TSA, covering my rank shoes with the hoodie, and now I was sitting in my funk, watching the world act out its economy. I realized I would never be a successful writer; the tomes in the airport store were New York Times Bestsellers; a bunch of entertainment. I look at my fellow people, and I realize that they are consumers. I am one of them until I get the hell out of the airport, or the city. I can relinquish this idea to pick up where I leave off in travel–I won’t go back to American Samoa ever. But I can’t ever forget the things I’ve learned on the road about the world, which for some reason cause me to feel the same inquietude when I watch normal transactions as when I watch the poor pick at garbage.
I almost missed the flight. We flew up and over O’ahu, and it looked to be formed of a collection of smaller craters where the hotspot volcanoes once erupted. The Big Island was on the other side of the plane, and I didn’t see it and its lava. This flight was also Hawaiian Airlines, and they gave us a meal and a glass of wine, an action claimed as “our unique brand of Hawaiian hospitality.” But all airlines give you food. The wine was nice.
I didn’t sleep on the flight to Los Angeles. We debarked around 11pm. I gathered my backpack from the baggage claim and stood in the cool night LA air. Then Vikas pulled up. We embraced each other, and retired to his apartment in Boyle Heights. It’s a Latino neighborhood and in the days I spent there I was the only visible gringo around. Vikas said it was the Latin Compton of the city. He is from Delhi, and his petite mother was visiting for some months, and she cooked very nice Indian food in her colorful sari. Vikas and I reminisced about Veracruz, in Mexico in 2010, the last place other than Lima where I stayed for a significant amount of time. We spoke of Pilsen and Jarocho, carnival, our friends Matt and Oz and the verb Nadia. I remembered hot nights in that place, and the dirty sea nearby where we swam sometimes, and other times in the complex’ pool. He reminded me that I’m close friends with people for their humor, and I told him to come to Lima.
A few days later I left and went to my cousin’s house in Santa Monica, and I felt that I’d come full circle, having stayed with him rumbo Mexico in 2009. Everything was coming together, the whole cycle of the travel. I had not made it to Asia; instead, I had begun a return trip that was closing the doors of doubt one at a time; that was yanking off the shoe and pouring the pebbles back into the sea. My cousin treated me as a prince welcomes a prince, and we ate sushi and I spoke of sashimi on the high seas, and of Andrew and his nakedness jinxing the world. I watched movies, finally, and had time to write, and relax, on a couch, that looked like fluffy feather incarnate. We spoke of his life and mine, two vastly different possibilities in the same world; the start-up entrepreneur and the student-rendered-vagabond with stories to fill a mug.
He dropped me at the airport around 8pm one fine evening, and he told me I should captain his yacht one day, which I promptly declined. We embraced, then I went in to once more deal with Spirit Airlines. They said there was another flight, that I’d skip Detroit altogether and go directly to Fort Lauderdale, right now: you have to hurry. They made me buy a refundable return flight from Lima–damn it, I forgot, again, to make my fake ticket–and rushed me through TSA. Grimaces about my smelly shoe, yelling next to my hear at the people behind, rushing across the terminal to gate 39, rushing again aboard a plane already full and eyes casting their glares; look at this new asshole, this happy idiot holding up the plane, what the hell are you beaming about?
I met Dante then, and as the plane took off we spoke about search engine optimization, and about his fashion magazine and why he was going to the Bahamas to meet an investor, and how before the magazine he was a photographer in the porn industry and those parties were crazy because you had to step over people in the big mansion having sex on the floor, and the girls he brought were already sucking dudes off and it was normal. Then we talked about love and I told him my story and brought out my computer and showed him the photos and the videos and told him the story of Andrew and he said he had a sailboat before and he hated it longer than 5 days and we bonded on that, and he said sex without love is like high-fiving but missing every time, and he said love was powerful and I agreed and told him the rest of the story about hitchhiking everywhere in South America, and then across the Pacific, and that I felt her in the middle of the sea and then the torture, the torture of endlessness and nothingness on the monotonous ocean, and like Cassidy he said ‘yes, that’s it! yes!’ to my story; he smiled and laughed and held his chest and I spilled it all to this new friend I was making; and now here I am beside you, I said, talking, underway to Lima, to claim her, man, to get her love you see? Go, he said, you have to, it’s true love man, and you haven’t spoken to her or seen her in 16 months, that’s amazing, I love this story man I want to feature you, I’m coming down to Lima and I’m going to feature you! And finally when the plane landed and I had showed Dante my drawings and he yelled about featuring me and everyone else on the plane had been asleep before that, and only we two had remained awake across the whole of the United States from Los Angeles to Florida and now landing, the tarmac, the descent, baggage claim, sitting, come, Cale, you’re coming with my girl and I, and I did, Stefano came, my mind was in Lima, but I went and we had breakfast in Miami and went to South Beach, frisbee throwing with the 4 year old nephew, and sand castles that I never got to build with Gil; they dropped me back at the airport and we embraced as new friends, 24 hour friends. Now I didn’t sleep for 24 hours, and on the plane to Lima I didn’t sleep during 5 hours of flight and it got in late and it took 2 hours to get out of the terminal through immigration, but there Camilo professional tweaker Camilo and Franco! and their friend Yani and hugs and motherfucker I can’t believe you got back from France two days ago the last you were here I was trying to meet the girl for the second time and you left me in the House of No Ends and now we’re here reunited and fuck fuck fuck pisco pisco in the parking lot and ideas ideas words, laughter and face muscles contracting authentically giddy glad pisco glad rumbo the center suddenly the combi gonna kill us this fucking loon and I a lout then blacking out at the bar/club where all these chicks are staring and I’m dancing now with beer and there’s Alain, and Franco and Camilo my friends and here Lima Peru pues! Beer, more cerveza, the waterfall gullet tax haven stomach sols twinkle tingle tumble of pockets lights noise smoke black cloud street amber and marble and granite and stone and stucco steeple synthesizing syndicate stomping to bar #2 mind blown! cracked stinging aspirin couch shit shit sleep morning sleep beer Franco where, and Camilo, Alain here, daylight red vein pulse and pinch taxi on who’s this and then STOP. It’s 1 pm.
Everything slowed down. Everything stopped.
“It’s 1 pm,” I said. “Huevon, how the hell is it one pm?”
Camilo was sitting beside a random girl, who had Alain’s computer in her lap.
“I have political power,” he was saying to her.
“Camilo,” I said. “Man, what the hell happened?”
“Apparently you shat your pants,” he said. “You’re my hero.”
“Fuck, I know. Alain, lend me some pants man, I have to go.”
“Toma, gringo,” he said, tossing me a pair of blue pajama pants.
“Really?” I snapped the pants of dust. “Ok. Thanks. Shit. I have no money.”
“Gringo, take my card.”
“Take it, here’s the code, it has lots of money, take what you want.”
“Camilo, just give me 20 sols.”
“Just gimme a bill, I need aspirin. Man, I’m meeting her at 4pm, I can’t go with this headache.”
“Fine, here,” he said, handing me a 20 sol bill.
“Ok. Man, what did happen last night? Where’s Franco?”
“He left early.”
“Shit. I knew drinking with you assholes would be a bad idea. You know why I’m here right?”
Camilo turned to the young girl who was immersed in Alain’s computer. Alain was passing out on the couch.
“Girl,” he said. “This huevon flew across the planet because he’s in love with a Peruvian. What do you think about that?”
She giggled but her eyes didn’t move from the screen.
“What the hell is she doing here?” I asked Camilo in English.
“I think it was your idea to bring her,” he said.
“Oh, shit. Fuck pisco. I haven’t drunk like that in 8 months. Last time I drank like that I was carrying a Pole away from Fatboy Slim in Panama City.”
“Alright. I took a shower. I have clean clothes. I just need the aspirin.”
“Go, huevon, get out of here!”
I ran out the door, down the flight of stairs, out into the street, the brindling of Lima’s garua fog above my head. Noises, familiar noises, came to me then, and I heard combis motoring past, and their attendants shouting the vehicles’ destinations, “Arequipa Arequipa, Ovalo Higuera, Miraflores!” My chest was flying, and I ran into a pharmacy, happily purchased a single aspirin tablet, something you can’t do elsewhere. I swallowed it and walked toward the Ovalo Higuera with a quickened pace. Everything was so familiar; it was so, how to say it; so welcome!
The night was lunatic, but it wasn’t a mistake. I had tried to tell my friends not to expect lots of drinking from me, but the House was in our blood now and it was a reunion that could not be denied. This random chick in Alain’s house–they said it was my idea, and that was a mistake. I felt guilt, and shame, but my chest felt the same. I rushed aboard a combi bus heading to Miraflores, and paid a sol for the transit. My head found the confines of my cupped hands, and I buried my face away from the light.
What did I have planned about this random chick in my terrible forgetfulness? Fuck pisco, I thought. Everything added up to something horribly perfect–torture on the ocean with thoughts of the girl, a year away and not touching another woman, knowledge that there had been another in her life, and the jealousy that a man might feel, and then anticipation of seeing her and being with her intimately, and 72 hours of sleep deprivation, and all of that mixed with pisco, beer, old mad friends and a city where I stick out to curious eyes like the glint of silver in water. Would I have? Could I have? I scratched at my cheeks. No; it means nothing. It is nothing. That the feelings would betray is something entirely different, but physicality is bland and heartless. To me.
Then I was walking alongside Parque Kennedy. I passed Pariwana, and the Fumador smoke shop. I walked down Larco to the mall complex, with its huge glass smoke stacks rising among the colors of skateboarders and snack vendors. I veered left and followed the ocean cliffs. 100 feet below were waves crashing on shore, and then clicking retroceding back through the maze of slick rocks. I walked rapidly, my hands in my pockets, my eyes scanning the horizon for boats. It was hard to look at the Pacific Ocean and try to feel what I used to feel. Now the ocean brought stories back into my consciousness, and I loured. Why the hell did I drink last night?
I sat in the grass at Parque Dormossola, where the Miraflores Park Hotel was. I lay down under a bush, and waited.
Peruvian couples were necking on benches. Some people were walking their dogs.
Over the wall, the ocean was gray. Tall condominiums skirted the park behind me, and I felt like they were watching me, scolding me.
I saw a girl walking then. I didn’t have my glasses, which I had lost in the night–the second pair lost to Lima–but I didn’t need them to know. She wore an embroidered turquoise sweater, fit khakis and chopines. I squinted. No, they weren’t chopines they were shorter than that; but they elevated her elegantly. That professional garb.
I stood and pulled the hood over my head. I didn’t walk straight to her, because I wasn’t sure; this girl was way out of my league. But really I knew; I could feel her.
From the path I walked slowly up to her, my hands still buried away. Here, after all the world. After so much time. Breathing; I breathed heavily. Stepping; I stepped lightly. She leaned on the brick wall. She was framed by the ocean; she was looking the other way. The foot traffic was blotted out and I could hear my organs rousing in my ears. I approached carefully, hooded, in Alain’s stark blue pajama pants and the overused brown hoodie. This dirty vagabond awkwardly testing the space of a magnificent girl. But I wasn’t outwardly aware, and I went on.
When she saw me, I saw the moment. She skipped a moment–placed briefly into some other dimension—and when instantaneously she returned, her hand shot to her mouth when she whispered my name, and her eyes were wet; she rose on her heel, descended, and fell across the space between us and into my arms. Through our layers our hearts could tell, and I brought her into me and held her there for endlessness. My chin rested aside her head; the black strands scented of jasmine and coconut milk. I felt her lips on my neck, and I heard history in my mind, and suddenly I was seeing it pass in that yellow filter of memory; I saw her again in Rio, where tears watered the airport tile and she disappeared behind the security gate; I saw her return to me in Montevideo wearing love; I saw myself in a yellow field somewhere in Argentina, my heart breaking the eyes and promising to go back; I saw her open the door wearing her garb and crocs, surrounded by yellow light, and her bones cracked when I pulled her over me; I saw again when I’d left after our night of wine, telling her the pain would pass, and wiping a tear from those lush lashed orbs; I saw walking in this very park on that first date, a golden sun dipping off, and I didn’t touch her but I knew; then our lips bared in the House of No Ends; then I saw us dancing in that club, and her big milk chocolate eyes looking up at me over the splendid contour of her nose and cheeks, which took in the dim yellow strobe and exploded it into loveliness.
“You have to contact her man!” cried Franco that one morning. “Don’t let love pass you by!”
“It is not love,” I’d said. But I wanted to see, I just, I wanted to make sure of something. Then I left to Nazca, I slept with someone there to quit my bodily urge, and I knew then that a hint of recognition, a touch of interest from those beautiful eyes back in Lima was worth more than any aimless physicality.
Now we were sitting in the grass, and the sun was dipping low again. But she saw in my eyes the confusion of the previous night, and I couldn’t hide a thing like that if I’d wanted to. Her arms hugged around herself when I started talking about the drinking, and the chick in Alain’s house. And her brow furled and my heart might as well have been impacted there between those wrinkles, smothered out in her swarthy concern. And here I was doing it again; I crossed an ocean and a continent and all for nothing–I hid myself in my hands again, and felt pure pain. I felt lost.
A small hand wrapped gently around my wrist, and pulled my broken cave apart. Her eyes were so deep. They held me in them, and she moved my arm away; then she rose, and came into my lap, and held her hands behind my neck, and she wouldn’t look away from my stare, and we didn’t blink. I rested my hands on her waist. She gave me herself, and the walls built of last night’s mistakes crumbled. Close in beside my ear, the whole world blurred.
“Te amo,” she said. “Oh God, I’ve missed you so much.”
“Chica,” I whispered. “I’m not afraid of the words anymore.”
“Chico, my love.” I felt her fingers in my hair.
“I’ve loved you since that club, when you caught me in your eyes. I’ve loved you. I felt you on the sea, Mayra. I’ve never stopped loving you.”
“Oh Cale te amo tanto!”
She bore into me, and was inside me again, finally, and forever. She engulfed herself in me as the sun parted its last rays into the ocean. Then, slowly: that adamant embrace; that melting; and that kiss.
Velabas. I think it has been about understanding human nature. But my objectivity was killing passion completely. Trying to understand human nature is one thing, but I had been trying to conquer it. As I sat in that grass wrapped up with her, staring at the sea that I’d not crossed, I felt that I had crossed it, after all. T.S. Elliot once wrote that we will travel, and we will learn and grow, and that when we are once more in the place from which we come, we will know it for the first time. And now, here in the arms of my love, I felt like I’d come home.