There were various shapes of black, grey and brown lining rows and rows of seats. Clothing made for rain, the uniform, perhaps, for travelling in this manner. They were packed shoulder to shoulder, purses and backpacks hugged to chests or corralled by feet. Along the outdoor railing heartier–or new–passengers leaned as far as they dared, gawked at the waves and daydreamed. It was a long trip, nearly an hour, from mainland to island. The savvy ones, those who commuted daily for work or were frequent visitors to either shore, perused easy-to-read books or magazines, played on their phones, took out scones and apples. Many lifted tall cups of coffee as if in a symbolic gesture that united them all.
It was easy to be lulled by the engine noise, a steady drumming in the background. Those who well knew this route dozed without self-consciousness, chins falling forward or back, snores gaining volume until someone jostled the sleeper by accident or otherwise. But more were pleasantly dazed while kept awake by the movement forward, the sometimes boisterous waves. Being so close to each other might have been a boon; they had this in common, this journey from one place to another, each with private plans and needs, separate while thrown together on the four-thirty ferry. A gathering of humanity on pause.
She had climbed the steps from a claustrophobic belly of the boat–no, ferry, not boat! she chided herself– that was stuffed with autos and felt spit out onto the main deck. Tried to orient herself. It was as if she had chosen the wrong door and was forced to join aliens that milled about. It didn’t make sense, of course–she hadn’t lost her mind entirely–but she was as ill at ease as a rabbit among foxes. They knew what they were doing there and dispersed, a certain goal in mind. She was like prey who didn’t know where to hide, afraid to move one way or the other, certain her demise was at hand. They had been there before (or if it was their first time, as well, were not alone or riddled with fear), had crossed the waters that flowed, really, from the entire Northwest portion of the Pacific Ocean–“think of it as a gigantic lake”, a friend had suggested. No, not a lake of any sort. All the water that lay between here and there was unending ocean. This floating beast–the current, if secondary, leviathan in her waylaid life–was headed to the San Juan Islands and she was captive until she once more stepped onto dirt and cement.
She closed her eyes and tried to quell the shakiness that made each exhalation almost staccato. The seat she perched on felt too small for her bags and emotions. No one noticed except perhaps the old man who was watching her beneath bushy white eyebrows as he blew across the top of his thermos’ handy cup. She thought he was smiling–foolish girl, he likely thought, worried about a ferry crossing. His yellow teeth flashed beneath a ragged moustache, then he took a sip and looked away.
A vocal baby wriggled and reached in a mother’s arms right next to her. The curly-headed, honey-skinned infant–who ought to have brought a smile to anyone’s face– reeked of old milk and banana and other things. It was too much. She thought she’d lose her lunch so stood up, inch by inch, finding the slight but strange motion beneath her feet an enemy, then as something she must adapt to, could do if she was painstaking, careful. Inner ear and stomach each hesitated, gulped, then complied, kindly. She kept her feet planted apart a moment longer. She glanced at the old man. He winked at her.
When she noted a lanky teen-ager exit the enclosed shelter she followed, pushed through the door to see if she could possibly manage her insecurity better by facing it. That was what she often did, confronted the overwhelming thing she felt she could not otherwise combat. Or accept. Sometimes it worked. It was so windy and cold her eyes and nose ran immediately. The ferocious unseen god of winds was snatching her from safety and pushing her forward towards snaking ropes soon to be under foot. What had she been thinking to come out there? Much worse. She stumbled but kept an upright position, then managed to half-slide then speed walk to the railing. Her breath was taken from her, as if someone had punched her hard enough to get her attention, then left her alone to deny discomfort.
She was unshakably, divinely spellbound by her absurd fear. She loved to fly, had gone kayaking a few times, was a skier of mountain slopes. But there was more happening. Something else. Her long hair whipped about her and she fought to stick it back into her drawn up collar. And she settled her eyes to the place she didn’t want to acknowledge even though it was obvious she could not ignore it: that magisterial body of water, blue and black, a glowing pewter beneath whitecaps that flung their spittle up and out to crazed, chilled wind. There was no land. Well, far, far off, there in the distance a speck, a bump on the horizon. More likely a ship, a freighter or another ferry, yes, something that should not be able to bounce along the ocean’s permeable surface yet did, she now conceded. So supremely confident, whatever it was. Seaworthy, readied. Unlike herself.
Yet, the water shone. Above were clouds heavily weighted that now parted enough to spare a shard of sunlight; the water found it and wore it like a living thing. This ocean beyond her reach was dancing, moving back and forth. Trading caresses and slaps in an ancient ritual set to motion by above-and-below-surface topographical and temperature variations with currents and winds directing. What did she not know about this peculiar place? Everything, that was a fact, even though she had strolled many beaches. But the sea spoke to her now as if she had long known and adored it, then abandoned it only to plead for a forgiving reunion. Its voice roiled and laughed, echoed things. Soothed. She moved albeit impereptibly with the water and recognized there, in the sea, something in herself both resonant and dissonant.
The thought shook her. This was a theme she had longed to eradicate when she bought her ticket but here it was, a wearisome dog following her footsteps. This taking away and coming back to, this abandonment and loss and the endless attempts at retrieval of something good. Yes, something better. Something that more than just masqueraded as love. She spoke to the wind that word she had tried to not utter even in private. Love love love, she said, and they each floated away.
Not that anyone could have convinced her it would end like that. With her bitterness and sorrow. His lack of conscience. His offering her the world–his, yes, not much of hers–and then taking it from her when he tired of the offerings and her refusals then finally, against her better judgment, gave her ecstatic acceptance. Why was it that some people had to make the adventurous pursuit of another so meaningful–and the denouement so trite and unseemly? Ugly, even.
But he badly paid for it, didn’t he?
The water engulfed her thoughts, took from her his face, his hands, those words, that desire and hope, anger, longing and pain. Thrown against the ferry as that sea-changing wind pressed about her, she recalibrated a center of gravity and held on. The pale sunlight fringed clouds with softness, made them yielding until sky let loose a remnant of blue. She felt warmer though the her dark hair tangled and her jacket riffled. Tears slid from her eyes as gusts sheared her face. It was a near-violent thing, this crossing. It was a magnificent body of water, inviolate somehow, immense in its moods. Gracious to its cohabitating creatures. Tolerant of boats, only to a point. Generous with those who respected its bounty. But deadly, too. She felt its magnitude, drawn even to its fickleness. Like life, its unpredictability was either to be accepted or rejected and what good could come of rejection? It rolled on. It created, welcomed and nurtured. Finally destroyed. Every time a person set sail or even stepped onto a ferry such as this he or she took a chance and the thrill of it–of not yet jaded–was whether or not something wonderful might result from the risk.
Had he thought of any of this on that perfect and dangerous day? He had driven too fast in his well-tuned machine. He was so proud of it, had sunk such time and money into its well-being. He always did go too fast, attacked everything with the force of someone who thought they would lose out if they did otherwise. But that day, after he told her it was never fully in sync for him, both of them, he had to go–did he drive faster than even he knew was acceptable? Did he think to himself it might be an extreme risk that could make or break the heart of that moment? The sort he felt compelled to ever seek and find? But it finally undid him. He had left so fast it was like he hadn’t even been there that morning. A kiss on her cheek and the words, all of which were too heated.
Then, it was finished in entirety. She heard hours later. They came to her with halting steps and phrases and all she recalled was the warmth and then the cooling of his breath on her face as he left her. And could not get warm for days.
She lost her bearings, grasped the rail. The sunlight was erased first by a fine mist that dropped over all. Then came a blinding fog. It fell upon the ferry and those who persisted in standing there, damp and cold. Mesmerized like her. The wind slacked. There seemed nothing but greyness aorund the barest pearlescence where light persisted as light does. A soft darkness swallowed all. A beautiful darkness. She would have climbed up the flag pole if she had strength and madness enough left in her. She wanted to feel the veil of fog wrap her up and then unfurl again. She would have liked to be the one to see through to the other side, to site the first small ledge of land. If they yet made it to the island. Courage rose up and with it, a fledgling sense of safety. It was a clue: readiness for more to happen. She breathed in ocean breath, felt bathed in calmness that defied winds or cold or incessant waves. Onward the ferry moved, fast enough, casting off its shield of greyness.
When the light cleared a pathway over the water it was an explosion of jewels. She held hand to eyes and looked hard: there it was. The island. The place where she was going. The spot she had feared to land. To have to start again. The real worry had been who she would become, just what she could bear to discover. She understood so little, just odd snippets of things. Her own self seemed a haphazard thing at times. Everyone else seemed bigger. Fiercer. Maybe it was an illusion that she had to interpret. In time, she told herself, in time there would be a whole picture and her place in it.
The ferry slowed and idled, maneuvered this way and that until it came to rest. She searched for the dock in the shortening distance. Waiting for her was her aunt, that large, ofttimes overbearing woman who had lost a son to war and a husband to the trickster sea, the same one she yet floated upon. But still this woman carried on as if every day was something to design anew with pleasure and passion. She was the definition of indefatigable. And kindness.
“Come, learn the ways of sea and island, find good work to be done, eat and rest and sweat with the rest of us“, she had said over the phone as if it was the only answer. Despite her niece’s stubborness and that self-pity like a black flag hoisted high for months and months.
Her fear of these waters and this ferry had been the last barricade. And it had been so small, hadn’t it, just a simple thing for a woman who worried she could never make peace with her own self, just as that old man had divined. She wondered if he might get off here.
She let go of the railing. Her hands were reddened and tender. She flexed fingers, turning her face to welcoming sunshine. Her hair was smoothed back. Feet were moved forward. She faced the crowd assembling to disembark, then went back inside to find her way among them.