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A Watery Brush with Death 


published in Esquire

“We long to move the stars to pity."  –Flaubert

I had just come off half a week’s honeymoon cruise among the Yasawa Islands west of Fiji – the only unmarried person aboard a ship full of wedding celebrants of all ages. Freshly divorced but seemingly bearing up well, I was adopted by the merry couples as something of a mascot, the object lesson everyone wanted at their table to serve as a sort of buccaneer cautionary tale: cheery with no sign of the gash in my chest.  The couple I spent most of my time with consisted of a beautiful young stewardess from California with aspirations toward art-photography that her pleasant-but-cluelessly-earnest husband couldn’t grasp, and the three of us had spent the bulk of our time together, lazing under palm trees of the isles we visited, trying not to step on the deadly stone fish or attract the wild boars or get attacked by leeches in various underwater grottoes, and at night drinking kava together and making arrangements to all three have a reunion when we got back to the States.  In truth, I had a renegade yen for the stewardess that went into high gear when we parted each night.  The wall of my bunk was the wall of their bunk in the cabin adjacent, and after we said our goodnights with polite cheek kisses I would hear the thump of their lovemaking and will the stewardess to think of me. For the farewell ceremony, the passengers volunteered me to make the toast, and I borrowed the lust I felt for the stewardess to verbalize a genuinely fond feeling for everyone on the boat. But still, when the hugs were over and we were finally free to go our separate ways, I was relieved to be able to walk the empty streets of Lautoka by myself and not have to wear a smile for everyone, not have to steel myself to hear yet one more goofy joke, and to put my four-day crush in my back pocket, as it were.  To think about her, to long for her, even, but not every minute of the night….

With time to kill -- my flight back to the States wasn’t till the next evening -- I strolled the deserted docks of Lautoka in the calm hour before sunset and bought a felafel at the only shop that was still open.  I befriended the Muslim felafel dealer and watched him do his ablutions – the repetitively complex way he rinsed his ears was particularly impressive, like a skillful bottle washer at a busy airport bar -- as we talked briefly about life and death. I felt light and footloose, as though I’d been wearing ankle weights for four days and now I was unshackled. I asked how he’d suggest I spend the next 24 hours, and he surprised me by recommending a nearby island that boasted some local infamy as a wild party resort.     
It was only a couple of hours away by commercial boat, so I signed on to a 40-foot yawl and off we sailed.  It was 6 in the evening and I felt deliriously happy.  The sun was sinking like a rotten tangerine into the South Pacific and the wind was picking up rousingly and I was up toward the bow leaning against the mast sucking on a local beer, relishing my non-mascot status on this small boat that had only two crew members and three other paying passengers:  a white mother and daughter from Sydney and a mysterious black man in shades with sparse outcroppings of hair on his cheeks and a black vinyl case that looked like it housed a submachine gun.  I sighed with delight.  Feeling the wooden mast running up against my spine, I calculated that at that moment I was one of the luckiest people on the planet. Profoundly unfettered. 

The wind continued to rise.  After a while I noticed that my spine was smacking against the mast with each wave we were crashing against.  The skipper was hollering for me to return to the cockpit, and had perhaps been hollering for a while before I heard him.  The rocking made it difficult to keep my footing, but when finally I had stumbled back into the cockpit the mother cast me a worried glance.  “Are we all right?” she asked.  I had been watching a giant cruise ship far off our port side and I assured her that if things got really rough, we could always signal them to come to our aid.  The black man rolled a glance off me that was impossible to read behind his shades.  The sun had been gone a good while now and with the encroaching darkness our boat seemed to lunge into each wave more recklessly, violent foam lashing us as we bobbed.   
Then I saw a chilling sight.  The cruise ship in the distance was coming about.

“Where’s it going?” I yelled to the skipper. 

“Back to port,” he yelled to me.
It was evidently too rough out here for the giant cruise ship, and yet here we were, a mite upon the ocean, sticking it out.  The skipper judged that we were halfway to the party island and might as well keep going.

The next hour was dire. All was turmoil on the boat: glass shattering, ropes flying.  We were too terrified to be nauseated. The mother and daughter wept and prayed in each other’s arms.  But up above, the night sky was serene, the Southern Cross unconcerned. I wished I could be there among the stars, away from this earthly mire. It seemed impossibly stupid – ill conceived and small-minded – to think that my corporal body had to be stuck here at the mercy of the elements on this speck of a boat when I could see clearly where I had to go to get out of harm’s way.  Up there, away from this pitiless pounding! I fancied that if I stared hard enough, I could be transported there, above the fray. 
I’d had these simplistic sort of end-of-life thoughts before.  When a lover had cancer, I hadn’t been able to understand why it couldn’t easily be gotten rid of. Everyone knew what the goal was: was it such a difficult problem to get A [disease] out of B [the patient’s body] into C [a stainless steel surgical vat] where it could be laughed at? So too here:  the goal was to get A [us] off B [the boat] and into C [the sky] where we could be safe.  If the problem could be so reasonably laid out, why couldn’t it be accomplished?

Continuing to gaze skyward, I remembered when I’d once peered not up but down with the same yearning.  Leaving Philly on a 757 bound for Tampa, the captain announced that we’d lost an engine and would have to make an emergency landing. “Don’t be nervous if you see ambulances,” he intoned.  As passengers crossed themselves and located barf bags, I managed to make out a network of eminently land-able roads between the trees below.  So what was the delay in getting us down?  If I could see it with my eyes and comprehend it with my brain, why couldn’t my eyes and brain make it happen?  Smash through the clouds and screw the hold-up!
Wet-knuckled aboard the boat, I recollected the nautical charts I had studied on the cruise ship the previous four days, with this warning about the waters we were plying right now: “Uncharted.  Many sunken coral heads.”  If we sank, I knew our carcasses would be dragged across the coral heads, making us even more attractive to the sharks infesting these waters. I found myself mourning my four-day amour, its memory about to be mashed to bits in some motherless shark’s maw. Was there nothing permanent to hold onto anywhere? Mother and daughter continued to sob and clutch each other.  Should I make a vow to care for them forever, if only we made it to safety? It would be an easy vow to make and not so difficult to fulfill. Or maybe if I survived I should marry the stewardess from the honeymoon cruise, rescue her from her Neanderthal husband?  The imminence of possible death was giving me a clarity that rather shocked me, but it didn’t feel cruel to call him Neanderthal: merely objective.  Being a nice Neanderthal was no worse than being an asshole aesthete – ah, so that’s what I was! I chuckled with end-of-life insight. The Fiji Islands seemed a suitable place to enjoy such clarity, being one of the last places on earth where cannibalism was practiced. I felt capable of eating flesh myself – what was the big taboo?  If that’s what had to be eaten … eat it!  Do what had to be done!   

Down and up went the waves, bang! Like impossibly long breaths, with an occasional suspended gasp for punctuation.  The sea was respiring with us, for us, against us.  I was dumbly aware that each thought, each memory, could be one of my last. I flashed to the letters I’d been reading in my solitary bunk on the honeymoon cruise – letters from prisoners on the death row of Sing Sing Prison.  They did not seem sentimental to me now as they had then, merely commonsensical. “Dearest Sweethearts, We press you close and kiss you with all our strength, Lovingly, Daddy and Mommy,” wrote the Rosenbergs to their children in June of 1953.  “I do not believe I could describe how much I despise myself for this terrible thing,” wrote a prisoner convicted of murdering his wife to his sons in August of 1956. “I loved Mother.  I pray to God to forgive me and that my boys will try to soften the terrible hatred you have for me.”  His last meal consisted of barbecued chicken and strawberry shortcake with whipped cream – a sensible choice. There in the boat with the oceanic sizzle stinging my face, I appreciated his selection even if I did not share his appetite. 
But the prisoners’ children, why did they have to suffer?  I thought about my Alex and Marshall safely dry at home, and wondered what it would be like for them to grow up without a father.  I felt sad for them, but also happy, because I had given them the things a father could give, and knew they would be all right.  Besides, they’d be grown soon anyway, broken off into their own constellations of families. How alone everyone was – our only earthly connections splintering into blackness before we barely had chance to acknowledge their light.  My brain lurched from the miraculous to the mundane. I thought about the Muslim felafel maker, and how peacefully he had rinsed his ears.  I wondered if I had squandered my pagan life, and whether I was worthy of being saved.  Once again I turned my attention to the night sky that now seemed phosphorescent with life, mirroring the plankton twinkling playfully in the booming waves all around.  Were the constellations a form of plankton in the sea of the sky, or was the sea a form of star-life?  The words “frothy with eternity” seized me. I was witnessing life at its most inestimable and most primitive; from the one-celled to the infinite; both seemed equally intelligible and totally not.  Only an hour before I had exulted in my freedom, but now I saw plainly that plankton was our only witness – that and the halogen blue stars. Throughout all this I was calm and clutchy in equal measures, expecting each upcoming breath to be filled with brine. 


Without warning, the black man did a beautiful thing.  He unzipped his black vinyl submachine gun case and extracted an acoustic guitar upon which he started wailing.  I thought I recognized the song.  Then I thought I recognized the man, himself.  “Taj?” I asked.  “Are you Taj Mahal?”

Ayai yai, ayai yai, when we’re talking
Talking about the Fiji Island
Ayai yai, ayai yai, listen to me
Talking about the Fijian man
Ayai yai, ayai yai, listen to me
Talking about the Fijian man

An hour later, beaten beyond nausea and hoarse from bellowing desperate songs, all six of us saw the party island swim into view. At first I feared my eyes were playing tricks on me, and that the lights I spied were only stars low to the horizon.  But the lights were yellowish, as opposed to the blue white of the constellations; I dared to believe they were man-made. As we approached, the lights twinkled more insistently, and pretty soon they outshone the stars, and we were within sight of a black hump of land, and a launch boat was chugging out to meet us. The sea was so rough it took three minutes to lash our heaving boats together.   But soon the Taj impersonator, or whoever he was, was zipping away his guitar and we were on the launch, chugging towards shore.  It was a glass-bottomed launch, and I could see the plankton semaphoring beneath us, and I felt a connection I’d never felt before. One-celled beings were in this dance with us, for the instant it was supposed to last.  And then a clump of more complex-celled creatures was gathering on the beach, a crowd chanting what sounded like “Taj! Taj!  Taj!” and soon we were on shore with them, dancing and expressing our various life forces and hooting with abandon.  It lived up to its reputation as a wild party island.
Two months later the stewardess arranged to have an overnight in Boston and there we had our long-anticipated reunion.  I drove up to see her with my boys and we went to the New England Aquarium and saw the sharks looking resentfully tame behind glass. Alex was cutting up so much that I got harried and the stewardess saw me in a whole different light, not as a devil-may-care pirate of divorce but as a run-of-the-mill Dad with his dismal assortment of landlubber responsibilities.  I had to scold Alex; finally I had to send him, scowling, out of the cafeteria while we were eating our spinach lasagna.  The stewardess and I never saw each other again.

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