« June 2005 | Main | October 2005 »

July 12, 2005

Floating on the Ocean

In which there is salt and sea and sky, the tragedy of repetition, and endless doldrums.

Howie regrets the time he’s spent in lifeboats. So many ships he’s been on have sunk.

“It seems like bad luck,” he suggests to Su, “but perhaps that’s too easy an explanation. The laws of mathematics would suggest that it has something to do with me.”

“How many large, commercial boats have you been on?” she asks him.

“Seven,” he says. “And all of them have sunk.”

“It seems uncanny,” she admits.

They are sitting in a lifeboat now. Su’s halter top is straining beneath the pressure of her enormous breasts.

“It’s my little sister’s halter top,” she explains when she sees him staring. “I grabbed it when I felt the boat lurch. I know it is too small.”

“Not a problem,” says Howie. He aims to be a gentleman this time.

They examine the box of provisions and are confident that there will be enough for the present.

“I’ve spent time in much less well-provided life boats,” Howie assures Su, who is weeping uncontrollably. He resists the temptation to embrace and comfort her. A good cry should go a long way toward helping her move to a more rational place, he thinks. He takes out the harmonica provided in the survival kit and plays a few riffs.

“You’re pretty good,” says Su, after a while.

“Lots of time to practice,” says Howie.

Su beats out some percussion on the tin of crackers. “Are we playing an actual song?” she asks him.

“We’re just improvising,” he tells her.

The boat floats. There are no oars. There had not been time to grab any.

Their conversation is thin. There is nothing to learn or to calculate. Su is from New Jersey, Howie from the California coast. They share nothing but proximity, a steady diet of hard tack and Gatorade, and a likely grisly end.

“Distract me, Howie,” she says in a while.

“All right,” he says. And does. He has known that this would happen, that people turn to easy routes to pleasure when the opposite asserts itself.

“I suppose that my sister is dead,” says Su. “She was set to turn sixteen on Tuesday.” Her eyes are sad, looking out over the water. The setting sun creates a field of diamonds.

“It’s beautiful,” she says. “At least it’s beautiful.”

Howie tells Su about Sister Augustine, who had sat where Su now sits, her habit stiff with salt. Their conversation, he tells her, had started with God and the beyond.

“But eventually turned to here and the now,” says Howie. “Situations have a way of asserting themselves. Things change. The perspective of a life boat shows us we’re really coming from.”

“You’re philosophizing now,” says Su.

“I am,” he says. “But what is the alternative?”

“What is?” she agrees. She dips her hand into the water, trails her fingers as they float. “I think we’re moving,” she tells him. “I think this boat is going somewhere.”

Howie scours the stars at night, searching for a familiar configuration. “My luck has been balanced,” he says. “For every sinking, a rescue. For every test, a successful walk across the embers.”

“And have your feet been burned?” she asks. “Have there been scars?”

Howie reveals his feet. They are sunburned but otherwise intact. “They’ve always carried me back to the land,” he says, considering.

“And why do you keep on taking these trips?” she asks. “Considering all, it’s a little inconsiderate.”

“Your sister, you mean?” he asks.

“Among others,” says Su. “My fiancé was on that boat as well.”

“You haven’t mentioned him before,” says Howie.

“I didn’t like him so much,” says Su. “In some ways, I am grateful to you.”

“It’s hard sometimes,” says Howie, “to end a bad relationship.”

“It is,” she says, reflecting.

When supplies grow thin there is tension, gamesmanship, lack of trust. But it passes.

“The hardest times . . .” says Howie.

“Have a way of bringing us together,” says Su.

“By us, you mean people in general?” he asks.

“I mean just you and me for the present,” says Su. “There’s no more room to talk in platitudes.”

And Howie is touched. There’s something real in her affection. He shrugs it off in a moment, confident suddenly that the boat will wind up circling the middle of the ocean forever.

Time passes. Su grows emotional.

“In some real ways,” says Su, “You are my best friend now.”

“By definition strictly,” Howie says.

“Yes,” she admits, “But let that not lessen the importance.”

“I love you, Howie,” she says.

“I love you, too,” he says. He hates this moment when it comes. There is a duplicity. He still corresponds with Marthya, Janice, Sister Agnes and the others. All of them are living in the same city in Kansas, as far as possible from the sea. It makes visiting them both efficient and complex, creating the conditions for his need to seek new oceans to explore.

“Will we die?” says Su. She is lying on her back. The food is gone. She is so thirsty. She is only hoping now for easy answers.

“Yes,” says Howie. “In time,” he says.

“But not today?” she asks. By the way she says the question, there is only one answer.

“Not today,” he says. He closes his eyes. When they wake, there is sun again. Sun and blue and not a cloud in the sky.

When they are rescued, Su is sheepish.

“All that worry,” she says.

“There’s still your sister,” Howie reminds her, “to feel bad about. You can still regret this trip on her account.”

“You’re right, of course,” she says. “But right now I’m only thinking of a shower and a plate of food. Is it wrong, in your experience?”

“It’s completely natural,” he assures her. “It happens to the best.”

“Did it happen to the nun?” says Su. Her eyes are pleading.

“It did,” says Howie, though the nun had immediately returned to doing good once back on the deck of the rescue ship.

Standing on the land, Howie is adrift. There is a pattern to acknowledge, he thinks. Shall I keep in touch with Su, he thinks? Shall I get her contact information? We’ve shared some moments, good and bad. Will I wonder down the line whether she chose nursing or decided to pursue her MFA. Will his nostalgia turn to suffocation if I cannot look into her satisfied Midwestern eyes?

He realizes he will know were to find her should he ever want to. He finds a comfort in it.

He scans the papers for another cruise. There are so many to choose from. Until someone tries to stop me, he thinks, I’m going to keep floating on the ocean.

Posted by bogenamp at 06:54 AM