The first day on the raft I missed you. The second, I tried to accept the fact you were gone. On the third day I believed you were beside me, holding my hand, running your fingers through my hair as you fell asleep with your head against my chest. On the fourth day I spoke to you—constructed sentences of rage, passion, and apology. On the fifth day you were gone. As I slept your transparent presence slipped into the night air and went off in search of whatever it is the dead are supposed to do.
On the sixth day I tried to forget about you completely and think only of survival while my eyes attempted to focus on the unending blue horizon. But I remembered the things we said we would do if you were here. I told you once I would open a vein for you and watch in erotic delight as you placed your lips around the open wound and transferred my blood to your body. You told me you would slice off a portion of your calf for me and slip it onto my tongue.
“Like carpaccio,” you said.
But there is no carpaccio, no vein to open. There is only the Pacific, the sun, and the moon to keep me company as I wonder what life, if there is to be any at all, will be like when I get to shore.
There is a duffle bag on the raft, the one we filled together for situations such as these. In it are cans of food, solar stills, emergency flares, and other means of survival. We argued about what we should put in it. You said we should have a bible.
“You don’t believe in God,” I told you.
“If I’m stuck on a raft in the middle of the ocean I’ll start,” you said.
We searched the house for a bible but came up empty. We contemplated spending the night at a cheap hotel and stealing the copy next to the bed, but you found a black bound copy of Moby Dick and put it in the bag instead.
“It looks like a bible,” you said.
Neither of us had read it before, but I’m reading it now. I consider myself Captain Ahab, you Ishmael, and the whale the thing that keeps us apart.
On the seventh day I made friends—large fish with big heads, colors of blue and silver across their brows, who seemed to gain immense pleasure from bumping their heads against the side of the raft. I watched them throughout the day trying to figure out if it was defense or affection that kept them coming back. Some of them swam off into the distance, turned around, and came towards the raft like kamikaze pilots. Others circled me slowly, occasional rubbing their large heads against the sides off the raft as if settling in next to a lover.
On the eighth day I killed one. I took the spear gun from the duffle bag, knelt with it near the edge of the raft, and waited. Several of them came towards me from a distance, striking the raft with their torpedo-shaped heads and then swimming off into the distance before my spear had a chance to even touch the water. I waited, watching the ones filled with rage and fury ram into me. And then one of the others came, innocently approached the raft, his long tail swayed back and forth without worry or urgency. He placed his head against the raft near my knees. The tail continued moving slowly, the fish pushed himself into the large mysterious creature he had discovered. He looked up with one wandering eye as I fired the spear into his belly. The water turned red, the eye fluttered and the tail that had moved so slowly began to thrash in the water in an effort to escape the metal that had violated its body. I waited, holding the string attached to the spear as he tried to escape. His friends swam away, as if they were ashamed that one of their own had been so stupid and naïve as to trust an intruder in their pure world.
When the tail ceased to move I brought him into the raft and watched his gills open and close as he lay dying on the floor of the raft. I took my knife, put it through the eye and brought the bleeding socket up to my lips. There is fresh water inside the eyes of fish. You told me that once as you watched a nature show at night. I didn’t believe you.
I filleted the fish. I opened his belly over the side of the raft and watched his insides slowly sink to the bottom. Greens, blues and reds, things that once made him alive now danced uselessly down into the ocean. I cut thin strips of meat from his tail and hung them to dry in the sun. I wanted to use his bones for something so I could say I hadn’t killed him in vain, but I thought they would pierce the raft so I threw them overboard and watched them float hollow and silent out to sea.
The meat tasted like sushi we once ate together.
On the ninth day I thought of someone else. She was a woman I did not know, but had seen every day for a year. She worked in a store on Ninth Street that sold water pitchers, plates, glasses and dresses. The store was on the corner and had windows all around it. She would sit in one of the windows, amongst the plates and glasses, staring out into the world like a cat in the windowsill, its tail slowly moving back and forth, its eyes fixed upon something only it could see.
I would pass her on my way to lunch, at the same time, at the same place every day. She was older, with red hair, and a body that must have been firm at one time, but now required the assistance of tight, form-fitting clothes to keep everything adequately displayed. She wore too much make-up—bright reds on the lips, and greens over the eyes. After seeing her for three months I waved. She waved back.
Occasionally the plates, glasses and her hair would change with the seasons. I never saw anyone else in the store, and I never went in. And if the light at the corner was red, I would stare at her not knowing what else to look at. She would remain unfazed; looking at whatever it is cats in the window look at in the middle of the day.
One day I looked into the store and it was empty. Its white shelves and walls deserted, as if the unsold and unappreciated objects had got up and walked out on their own, hoping to have better luck at a different store. I never saw the woman again.
When she was gone I fantasized about her. I imagined that I had entered the store at lunch and without a word she led me to some unseen room in the back where we had forceful, anonymous sex. And when we finished she resumed her post at the window and I left, closed the door softly in an effort to preserve the silence and stillness that existed inside. The fantasy never changed, and occasionally, afterwards, I felt as if I had committed some sin against the unknown woman.
The raft slowly passed her store on Ninth Street. She waved me inside, forgave me, and we indulged in the lunchtime ritual I once imagined so well.
On the tenth day you returned and accused me of being with someone else. You sat across from me on the raft and refused to speak. I told you about the fish, how I had drank from the eye socket, and I told you that you were right—there was fresh water inside. You turned away, your face looking out into the endless ocean.
I told you about the solar stills, the ones we had bought together at the Army-Navy store. I inflated them until the words Army Surplus were visible on the sides, and let them bounce in my wake slowly transforming the unusable ocean into fresh water. On a good day, when the sun is bright and the sea is calm, I can extract almost two cups of drinkable water, which they say is more than enough to live on.
“It tastes like the inside of an old clam,” I told you.
You didn’t respond, and slowly began to disappear into the mist of salt water created by the light of the moon.
The raft is eight-feet by four feet, bright orange, with a floor that feels like a waterbed without enough water. It is shaped like a hexagon, its borders formed with large cylindrical tubes that inflated automatically as our boat went down. There is a tarp I can pull over the raft when it rains, or when the sun seems intent on infiltrating my every pore. It is like a convertible we rented once.
When we bought the raft, the sign above it said it was a raft for two. There was a picture on the box it came in with a suntanned couple sitting in the raft, with slight smiles on their faces, as if they knew they had just cheated death.
“They look like they’re on vacation,” you said.
On the eleventh day I took inventory. There was the copy of Moby Dick, the solar stills, a small journal and pencil in a plastic bag, a can-opener, a spear gun, five cans of assorted beans, pastas and soups, a flare gun with five flares, a knife, a compass, and some matches. In the bottom of the duffle bag was a tampon and I wondered when you had put it there without my noticing, and if its presence would somehow contribute to my survival.
In the journal I wrote you letters. I told you how I always hated it when you slipped into bed, in your own silent world and drifted effortlessly into sleep while I stayed up wondering what it was I had done to make you pretend that I was not there. In them I told you how good it felt when you slipped into bed and silently began the soft caresses that led to making love until you were satisfied and would then fall silently asleep in my arms, while I stayed up wondering what it was I had done to stir these moments of treasured affection.
I wrote other things in the journal too. I wrote that I had discovered when I was ten years old, that sometimes people just die. It was in my aunt’s apartment in Staten Island. My mother and I walked through the apartment as we had so many times before, but it was somehow changed. We stared at the crucifixes on the wall and statuettes of the Pope. There were pictures of my aunt as a young woman and they brought tears to my mother’s eyes.
In the car, on the way to the church, my mother told me that my aunt had spent the majority of her life alone in that apartment. She told me that no one should live alone like that and I promised her I wouldn’t.
We were the first ones in the church and the open coffin, surrounded by white flowers, lay before us. My mother straightened my tie and we walked hand in hand between the rows of chairs towards my Aunt, in a white frilly dress, her lips bright red, her face the color of the moon.
My mother and I knelt in front of the coffin and my mother whispered under her breath as her hands touched the coffin. I stared at my aunt’s closed eyes and I understood that she was dead. There was no need for my mother to explain anything. And while a certain sadness existed with in me, it was soon overshadowed by the arrival of cousins who took me outside so we could play in the parking lot.
Death, at the time, meant nothing more than putting on a tie and playing hide and seek with distant relatives.
Death is different now.
I tried explaining this to you when you came back to forgive me on the twelfth day. You sat silent on the other side of the raft, your legs pressed against your chest in an effort to escape the nighttime chill. I told you I must not have loved my aunt because when she had died I felt nothing. You asked me about the others who had died.
Not the old ones on machines in their hospital beds who left you their old golf clubs and fishing rods, who you knew would die someday, but the young ones. The ones who were taken in an instant, through gunfire, suicides, and trees along the highway. The ones who seemed invincible.
“I loved them,” I told you, and I knew it was true because when they died I sat and cried for them and when I looked at their young mutilated bodies in the casket I realized I would never see them again and that it could just as easily be my eyelids shut and my body in the cold wooden box. I cried because I realized I didn’t want to die.
“No,” you said. “You really don’t want to die.”
And then you left again.
In my mind I went to the place where I lost you—the night the boat went down. You stood at the wheel, and kept her at a steady seven knots, fifteen degrees south by southwest. I stood on the deck and looked through a sextant at the stars and tried to figure out where we were. We did not speak. We were five days out of the islands and words between us were replaced by routines of cooking, steering, and taking turns at navigation.
The sextant we used was an old one. A simple device that when used properly would tell us exactly where we were on the planet. It had a small mirror on it in which to align the North Star. The goal was to find the North Star, have it shine through a lens and reflect onto the center of your forehead. The mirror would let you know if you had succeeded. But it didn’t really matter if you succeeded or not. We had satellite navigation, radios, and other modern instruments of navigation that did not entail the aligning of stars with various body parts. According to the sextant, my forehead and my math we were somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
I told you this and you laughed, keeping her at 15 degrees south by southwest.
Before we left land I told you of the dangers at sea. The whales, storms, currents and reefs that could sink us in an instant. You said you weren’t scared. I told you of the tales told by sailors of rouge waves reaching as high as seventy feet that came without warning from the depths of the ocean and destroyed boats like sandcastles on the beach.
“I read Robert Louis Stevenson too,” you said.
But the night the boat went down you did not doubt me. I looked away from the North Star for an instant, watching you with your hands on the wheel, your eyes looking through the world at something nobody else could see.
When I saw it I could not speak. It was every bit of seventy feet and you looked so small and helpless underneath its white fury. You looked at me for an instant, turned around to face your monster, looked back at me in despair and turned the wheel in an attempt to make the boat face its predator.
I wondered then if you had read Stevenson. He once wrote that when he was in the South Seas and a seventy-foot wave had approached him, he simply kept her steady and rode the wave like a surfboard until it returned to the depths from which it had sprung.
The wave hit us broadside, capsizing the boat. It hit you first and as I held onto the mast I lost your yellow slicker somewhere inside the white rage. The wave continued to come, like an avalanche from some unseen peak, and the boat turned increasingly into the ocean. I cut the ropes that kept the life raft and duffle bag attached to the deck. It inflated instantly and floated like a balloon above the white water. The boat was on its side filling with water and sinking.
I remembered the voice of the man who sold us the boat, mentioning things like “self righting, self bailing, and unsinkable.” Then I saw you. Your yellow slicker and body caught in the rigging now under the water. The raft, attached with a rope to the sinking boat, waited anxiously above us. I swam to you and attempted to cut the steel wires and ropes that refused to let you go.
You spoke to me then in undecipherable bubbles. I imagined your eyes dancing a frantic tango in the pitch-blackness of the water. I ran my hands against your body and felt the tightness of muscles as they flexed against the cold steel cords and taught ropes.
I pressed my body against yours—we hung suspended and weightless beneath the aftermath of the wave you believed could not exist. We began drifting down, the cabin filling with water, and the sails lifeless in the sea. You grabbed my hand as I looked to see the bright orange of the raft on the surface, the rope connecting it to the boat becoming taught. I placed my hand on the back of your neck, like I had so many times before in moments of passion, rage and affection. And then, as if by some ill-fated cue, we both let go, and I untied the rope that kept the raft to the boat. You were still, your eyes straight ahead, your hands motionless at your side, and you left me as I floated alone with the rope in my hand.
It was then my lungs and brain began to feel the lack of oxygen. My body panicked as I swam to the surface, exploded out of the water into a clear sky and took in all the air I could. At the moment I didn’t even realize you were gone. The only thing that mattered was that single breath of air. And the wave, the one that had crept up behind you and taken you away, had been replaced by a calm uncaring sea.
On the thirteenth day you came to the raft, and asked me to tell you again, the way things were going to be. I told you how there would be dolphins in our wake, and stars to guide us once the moon disappeared over the horizon. I told you how we would walk around the boat wearing nothing but hibiscus flowers in our hair. I told you of deserted beaches, eating mangos from trees and lovemaking in the sand. “It will be our Eden,” I told you.
Somewhere I lost track of the days. This morning was the same as the morning before and the morning before that. Nights never differ—it is the same constellations night after night, teasing me with their knowledge of time and place.
I drink water from the stills, kill the large headed fish when they come, and speak to you when you are here. I peel my sunburned skin off in large layers, place them delicately in the water and watch them float out to sea.
When I see planes in the distant sky I fire a flare into the air, watch it explode and float back down into the ocean. For a moment it feels like the Fourth of July. But the planes never stop. They keep their course with their invaluable cargo, taking people to places they’ve never been before.
If the planes were to see me, in my floating studio apartment, and send their helicopters down to save me I may even tell them to go away and leave me in peace.
The shore is a reality I would rather not face. If I reach land there will be questions to answer, funeral arrangements to be made, and the constant reminder of what happened at sea. But here, in the unending ocean, there is still hope. There is always the chance you will come to me from the sea or the sky.
Here there is nothing to think about except the past.
On land there will be nothing but the future.
I have started to see birds. Large albatrosses with their 10-foot wingspans and airplane sized bodies. They fly silently above me, like vultures circling a corpse. Sailors used to say that the sighting of an albatross brings luck, but it doesn’t represent luck to me. To me the sighting of an albatross means there is land nearby.
You came to me the night I spotted the first one. You flew behind him in the night, and glided your way next to me in the raft. You asked me what I was going to do when I reached land.
“Eat a steak,” I told you. “With mushrooms and a potato and a good bottle of wine.”
It suddenly occurred to me that I would have to eat alone.
I slept through the night with you beside me. In the morning you shook my leg and spoke in a language I couldn’t understand. I looked for you but you were gone, replaced by an old man with no shirt, gray hairs on his chest, and eyes as bright as the sea.
He smiled a toothless grin and motioned for someone to come see what he had found. Beside him came a woman, equally old, with her weathered breasts staring at me from beneath a white sleeveless shirt. She handed me an old plastic milk container filled with water. They helped me into their small boat, the bottom filled with brightly colored fish and nets with sea cucumbers stuck to them. They tied the life raft to the stern of the boat. The woman placed a blanket around me, gave me some bread from a bag to eat and sat me down before her so I could rest my back against her sagging knees.
There was no land in sight and the old man began to row, gently humming a song. He looked at the woman at the other end of the boat and she laughed. They did not speak to each other, but smiled and gestured with slight bends of the arm, and nods of their heads.
The old man rowed until it was night. In the distance I began to see land. You were there in the saltwater sky but you didn’t come down. You simply disappeared, and left me between the sea and land, the man and the woman; you left me in the wells between the ocean waves, drifting between love and love lost.