When I first met the sea, I ran to it, my initial steps awkward, then welcoming, like those of a foal. I chased morning’s tide, then waited, fleeing as it swung back for me, and later, I let it wash over my ankles, pushing me gently into the cool mud and foam underfoot. Those were days full of the sway of playground swings, nights brimming with the deepness of sleep and rhythmic dreams. I often dreamt of a bridge into the sky, as if it had an edge, innocent enough to believe that boundaries were well defined, naive enough not to recognize those that were.
When I first met Jenn, I left the sea. I left the battleship grey hulls, the teakwood decks. I left flocks of screaming, diving gulls. I left waves that crashed over the rails in monsoons. I left icebergs calving from Portage Glacier. I left the cold black waters past the Aleutians. I left the foreign look of Northern sky, its yellow tint hovering over green fields and dachas past the starboard quarter in the Sea of Okhotsk. I left the Pacific Ocean, I left my ship, and I married Jenn. Not long afterwards, she was pregnant.
I paced and smoked, paced and smoked, preferring the grey of the sky to the flat white of the room, the peaceful way the smoke rode the currents in the air and ascended, like sea-bladders, or blubbers, graceful jelly creatures. Occasionally, someone in a lab coat or green scrubs would pass through the door and join me, but they never spoke, perhaps not knowing why I was there, perhaps not wanting to know.
Jenn had been in labor for hours. I repeatedly excused myself from the room, excused myself from the pain which moaned from her in short bursts, building in intensity as her contractions increased their frequency. The nurse kept entering, kept promising, It won’t be long now. I prayed that were true, that a gurney would appear and carry her to the delivery room. I excused myself each time the nurse left, for one last pull to the lungs, one last look at the sky.
I paced and smoked, paced and smoked, then leaned over the second floor rail, even with the horizon. I let the fog drift hot from the back of my throat and out, rising slow in the cool air. When I angered, I could scream at the ocean, her response was always the same, comforting. I told her my innermost secrets, she shared them quietly, and only with me. And when I needed to be held, she rocked me to sleep, shifting the center of gravity, fifteen degrees at a time.
This was not the case with Jenn, there were things I could not share with her, not because I could say them, but because she could not understand, or would not listen. There were words I never wished to speak, not wanting to hear them from any source, especially my own mouth, but they crashed out of me one night as typhoon winds. These epithets rang relentlessly, pounded word after word, ripped the sea-bells from our shores, tore at the sand and roots, exposing.
But I didn’t stop there.
There are words that build amidst a lack of trust the way pressure intensifies against the body, atmosphere upon atmosphere, as one dives too deep beneath the surface, gasses boiling from the chest. If one descends too far, yet notices, and attempts to rise from the depths too quick, the fluids within spark, and joints weld to new positions. Should one survive, the body remains bent from the sea, an exposed truth, intrinsic and irrevocable.
“Push, Honey! Push!”
The room reverberated with “pushes,” from behind masked faces, filling every space between our green-clad bodies and rubber gloves and the polished arms that swung overhead, affixed to portable chromed bases, flush and heavy against the floor, gripping, spreading the whitest of lights, directing them.
Perhaps if Jenn admitted her infidelities, we might have smoothed things out, or at least made a cleaner break, but with irrefutable evidence of her missteps so early in our marriage, a harsh split seemed inevitable. Her ongoing affairs, one in particular, with an ex-boyfriend who groped her at our engagement party, teetered her through our apartment door, the red glow of morning’s sun fast on her heels. She rushed to shower, avoiding contact or conversation, then expired, only to awaken later in denial. She denied any impropriety, including her early a.m. arrivals, her drunken swaggering, and worst of all, she maniacally refused to address the growing bulge in her midriff.
Episiotomy, the sound of it was fathomless, scissors unzipping the tightness around a crowning head, matted black hair coated with vernix.
“I’m not pregnant! You’re fucking crazy, that’s what you are! Leave me alone. Just leave me the fuck alone!” I granted this request, but rage has a way of overtaking an abandoned spirit, the way a wolf stalks a straggling sheep or dark clouds menace a lost vessel.
“You’re blocking my light,” said the mask. I was entranced for a moment at the lack of blood from what seemed such a large wound, the deftness with which the stroke had been delivered, metal against temple, metal through folds, snip, the head eased out.
“You don’t trust me! You don’t believe in me!” Her shrill voice pierced the stolid architecture of our apartment. It was three in the morning, moonlight trickled through from the patio, translucing our skin a whitish white in the shadowless room where we collided, she on her way to the bed, and I on my way to the bathroom. I had not heard her come in, did not expect her in the doorway, nor do I wish to remember the remarks I made to her. All I remember is her washing against the wall in the passageway and sinking to the carpet, her knees folded up to her chest.
“Sorry.” I moved back. Jenn couldn’t see what was happening between her legs. It was just as well, she didn’t seem thrilled with experience, the wind whoofing furiously out of her as she strained, contractions twisting her face, her hands confused, as if there was nothing they could do. They alternated from her side, to her body, gripped at sterile table bottom, pierced my arms, nothing seemed right.
I placed my hands and arms on her, helping her forward as the next contraction kicked the breath from her. “Push, Honey! Push!” More than anything else, it was not knowing that drove those words from me. There was the fact that she was unfaithful, that she was pregnant, and that she lied about both. I had been careful. I wore condoms, despite knowing I was close to sterile, that my odds of fathering a child were in the miracle range. And now was not the time, we could not afford it, I was not ready. I told her things I could never take back, confirmed her greatest fears. It was over.
“You push motherfucker…” she spit, mellifluous as a barrel organ, teeth clamped, eyes clenched, her hair, bright gold at the tips, black earth at the roots, drenched and sticky with the mud of childbirth.
“I wish I could, Honey.” She didn’t know how much. I wanted to experience the closeness, to feel it growing, to know that life exits long before one sees it. “Keep going we’re almost there.”
“We…?” and she pushed. I leaned and kissed her forehead. “You’re doing great.” Salt lanced my tongue.
The crystals were part of the air, part of my being. They crusted my lips and cheeks, coated my lungs. They permeated the heavy blue threads of my foul weather jacket, gleamed metallic in the sun, wedged cracks from the black waxed wrinkles in my deck boots.
Green-clad shapes stood about the room, arms extending here and there, checking. Eyes and masks seemed to lack expression, and a pair of hands poised palms up, waiting as Jenn’s body contracted, the whole of her rolling, pushing.
The crew chipped, primered and painted daily, protecting the ship from rust, a monotonous and infinite chore. Men often swung over the side, precariously seated on boatswain’s chairs, a thick piece of board with rope. They swung as the ship turned and swayed, working their nailguns and brushes, the only thing between them and certain death, a thin lifeline, manned by an unseen shipmate far above on deck. Despite their relentless labor, when they rose from their berths in the morning, red sores could be found, trickling down from the grey bulkheads.
I would walk the ship at night, drawing as much of myself as I could from my surroundings, my sea legs carrying me as if on steady land, through the passageways and hatches, down ladders and up them. Eventually I would come to a light locker and step inside. I would batten the hatch behind me, placing myself in blackness, cut off from the only light available on the ship at night, the eerie red glow of passage lamps. Then I would feel for the door opposite me, its latches, the wheel in its center. Out I would go, dogging the door behind me, welcoming the sea. At night, sometimes all was black, and sometimes the waves were crested with silver, depending on the cycles of the moon.
“Did you want to cut the cord, Dad?” The mask pulsed in and out with the question. Whenever I returned from a walk about deck, long moments gazing into the rhythms of the waves, visible or not, but surely felt at the rising of the bow, an express elevator jumping several stories at a time and then down, as smoothly and quickly as before, or in the side to side motion on the fantail, which cradled seamen in its sway, rocked them gently in their sleep, I would pause in the blackness of the light locker, in the absence of sound, and wait for the sea to fill me as a child listens to a shell, my own rhythms filling the room.
“Did you want to cut the cord?” Brown-smeared gloves extended the scissors toward me. They were chrome, with loops for the fingers, blades bent at an angle, the lower blade, dull at the tip. These were the kind of scissors used to remove bandages, the same kind that leave birthmarks on foreheads.
I would sit in the passageway, outside the locker, at the foot of a ladder, bathed in a red glow. I would listen to the machinery, the creaking of the ship, watch, as no one passed by. There were only the rhythms, only that red glow. I would rise, tell myself goodnight, aloud, as if to reify my existence.
It screamed, eyes clenched beneath bright lights, its body shifting colors, whites and blues and reds. And there were arms, delicate arms and legs, bicycling slowly.
“Cut between the clamps.” The twisted grey cord was pinched closed by yellow plastic wheels with teeth, six or eight inches apart, close to the small animated frame. It draped, smooth as wax between the bodies, and within.
I would climb into my open faced coffin as the ship pitched and rolled, strap the safety belt into place, and sleep wash over me.
I cut and the contents spilled out. Its screams grew louder.
The sea resounds with the siren’s song, rhythmic surf that calls out to the soul, and men set out upon it dreaming of its depth, longing for it, but knowing all along they may not enter, for man crawled out of that womb eons before, cast from the garden. He must be content with riding on its surface, listening to her gentle slaps against the hull, when seas are calm.
“It’s a girl.”
I held her, with the echo of blood and screams rushing, her mouth gurgling, her small hands, smaller fingers and smaller fingertips, grasping. Warmth pushed up from the floor and through me, her heart beating, my arms cradling, my motions delicate and awkward. I beamed at her, grounded in the sway. I would take her to the shore when she was old enough to run. She would dream of playground swings and pointed toes and bridges into the sky. I would dream the same dreams on days we were apart, swinging, holding on to the ropes, only able to go so far, never touching the blue edge, but sailing through it, and letting it wash over me.