Wednesday, July 25, 2012


July 25, 2012 – Mustering

Suddenly an alarm goes off. Loud and persistent. I grab my life jacket, slam into my shoes and head to the Muster Station on the A Deck. Josh and I meet in the hallway and clomp down the stairs together. By the time we’re out in the open air the entire crew is already gathered, suited and life jacketed. I feel like a snail. It’s the competitive nature in my soul that says, “I’ll make better time the next go round.”

It’s Saturday out at sea. It’s drill time.

I’d been told that on Saturdays, when not at dock, work goes until around noon, then lunch, later, around 3:00 they run through afternoon drills and then the guys get a break until Monday morning. I’d felt some apprehension; the kind of trepidation that comes when I don’t know exactly how to do something, where to go, or what’s required of me. I reassure my fearful self with the thought that that’s what drills are for, to prepare everyone for the event of a real emergency.

“There will be a drill at fifteen-thirty,” the third officer Dan had warned me and Josh earlier when we were leaving the mess room.

“Bring your life jacket,” the second engineer told me.

I’d been prepared. Just not rushed.

I’m clipping my life jacket and adjusting the straps when the chief officer pushes a button on his walkie-talkie, “Chief to bridge.”

“Bridge. Go ahead.”

“Crew is assembled.

“Very good,” the captain’s voice crackles through. He tells the chief to check all equipment and then to go on to the next set of drills.

We all check the lights on our life jackets, test the whistles. The guys help me first, leave Josh to figure things out on his own. Making their rounds, both the chief officer and the third come to verify that our lights work; that everything is safe and set.

“If they don’t work,” Dan says, testing Josh’s light for himself. “I have replacement parts.”

The chief reports the end of the check up to the bridge and the captain orders the next drill to begin.
Josh and I are steered up a flight of stairs along with the cadet and the new crew we’d picked up in Philadelphia. The emergency boat’s door gets unlatched and we clamber inside. The boat is tilted down towards the water and I adjust my body to the slant and squeeze into my assigned seat number 6. I slide my arms through the shoulder straps and clip the seatbelt tight.

“You’re the first one,” Domin, the second officer, tells me with a smile, motioning at my seatbelt. I beam with pride.
Once we’re all in and belted, we each get a turn to start the boat. When it’s my turn, Valerii, the second engineer, motions me over and I climb into the driver’s seat. He shows me how to start the engine, where the boat release handle and the throttle are, and how to manage the steering. I press a button, flick a switch and the engine cuts off.
My turn is over so I get down out of the seat, climb up to the door and then I’m out in the open air again.

Once everyone has had their turn we go back to the A Deck.

“Okay,” Dan tells me. “You can go if you’d like. The crew has to run through more drills, but since you don’t have any responsibilities as passengers it’s okay for you to go.”

“Is it okay if I stay and watch?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says.

“And I can take pictures?”

“Of course.”

I turn and tell Josh what I’d been told. “You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. But you can watch if you’re interested.”

He slips away as if into the night and I stick around. 

The crew splits up to go handle various tasks. I tag along with the second officer who is in charge of the medical team.

“The crew has to assemble in three minutes or less when an alarm goes off,” Domin tells me. I mark my mental time clock to move faster next time. Joe brings a stretcher. I stand with him, Jay the cook, and Domin. We watch from the landing as another team runs through a simulated fire drill.
The guys put on fire suits and bring out tanks. Jake sets up against the port side of the ship with a hose. On the starboard side another team is doing a similar drill, but I can’t see them from where I’m standing.

They run through the motions and when the “fire” is out the chief engineer reports the success of the operation to the bridge. The Filipinos joke as they move. They literally know the drill. Their laughter, their teasing, their jumping into the frames of my photographs are just the diversions they use to break the monotony of their lives. They’re playing up to me. They like that I’m interested. So they move over, motion me around, and make others get out of my way so I can see everything that’s happening. When a group moves into the CO2 tank room, I’m up on the stairs. One of the guys waves me down, directs me inside. They all wait until I find a spot to watch from before continuing with the lecture.

The second engineer explains how to flood rooms with CO2 in the case of a fire, gives instructions on how to proceed, who to call, what to watch out for. There are real dangers at sea. This is not an easy life. These guys flirt with death, with accident, with the perils of weather and water every day. They try to not take anything too seriously except for safety, of course.
“Battle stations!” is the next call. They have some small defenses against pirates or attacks. Water pressure, brooms?
Nadia, the cadet, is next to me. She has a camera too. We smile at each other.

I say something like, “What do you think?”

“I think it’s funny,” she says. And she laughs.

When everything has been put back in its place we all go to the conference room. Dan reads out instructions about the pirate areas near the Gulf of Aden. “Just read the important parts,” the chief officer tells him.

Half way through a paragraph about navigation the electrician Marius chimes in, “This is not important. Read something else.” Marius just came on in Philadelphia. He’s Romanian, the same as Dan the third officer. They’d served on another ship when Dan was a cadet. Dan told me that he was coming on board; that they were friends. These two joke, argue, talk like brothers, like best friends. Marius comes in like he’s always been on this ship. That’s just how it goes from contract to contract, ship to ship. All these guys gossip like geese. When I see Marius at the table he knows my name without being introduced, he knows what I do, where I’m from, talks to me like we’ve known each other as long as he and Dan.

“You make Texas BBQ tonight at the party?” he asks one day at lunch.

I shrug and turn up a hand. “Why not?”

The Filipinos are talking to each other in soft voices, laughing, goofing off while Dan keeps on reading. I’m not really paying attention either. When Dan finishes, chief officer Ihor reports the progress to the bridge and the captain dismisses us all.
The air gets even lighter. The boys are off work. They swarm out and go to rest up and to prepare for the party later that night. In addition to the regular festivities it’s also the captain’s birthday. Some of the crew gathers around one of the walkie-talkies and they sing Happy Birthday up to the captain.

Work is over and done. It’s the weekend, kids!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Esprit de Corps or The New Kid

July 19, 2012 – Esprit de Corps/The New Kid

“The new passenger is getting on in Philadelphia,” the third officer tells me somewhere between Wilmington and Pennsylvania. “Usually I get papers with information from the captain, but I haven’t received anything yet. All I know is he’s young, maybe twenty-six or twenty-seven, and American.”

Young my foot, I think at the third officer, you’re not more than twenty-six or twenty-seven yourself. But I don’t call him out on it. After all, the new passenger isn’t a third officer. Not that I know anyway.

I’m the only one at breakfast the second morning we’re in Philly. “Good morning, Joe!” I call into the kitchen.

“Good morning, ma’am,” he says. He comes out. “You want eggs?”

“Sure. Thanks. Hey, have you seen the new passenger yet?” I want the 411.

Joe misunderstands my question, but soon we get it ironed out enough for me to find out the new guy’s onboard since yesterday, but hasn’t appeared at meals yet.

So much for the gossip.

I spend my day outside with Jo Ann and Donald, and when I come back I go up on the pilot deck and call my sister. From here, I can watch the last minute loading and see who’s coming back from a walk into town, from Target. The captain and the chief engineer come back together, with bags of stuff. The captain sees me, smiles, and raises an arm to wave. I grin and wave back, wave at Josko. He waves too. Right behind them is the third officer and the cadet.

They’re dressed up nice. I almost don’t recognize Nadia in the dress she’s wearing. I didn’t look that good when I went out. The sprig of jealousy wilts when I laugh at myself. You’re silly, I think. They look good walking together like that. Picture perfect. Too bad I left my camera in my room. I admire them from my perch. We all wave at each other. They come up the gangplank and disappear from my sight.

Awhile later, the AB (able bodied seaman) working the crane, sounds a short horn and I look up. He waves energetically at me. I can see the gleam of his toothy grin through the glass. I wave back. I’m stuffed full of friendliness. I feel like I belong. I feel a part of this. I find myself becoming territorial. This is my ship. My captain. My officers. My crew. My cadet. My deck. My port. I don’t want to share with some nitwit, some new goofy passenger. I hope he’s nice.

I’d better start being nice.

I’m telling my sister Michaela some story while all this is all going on. “Then my mom said,” I say. I laugh. Stop mid story. Catch myself.

“Your mom?” she questions.

“Yeah, I meant our mom.” We’re both laughing. I start from where I left off, “Then mom said,” I amend. I finish the anecdote then confess my territorialism to her.

“You sound like, what was it, the seagulls? In Finding Nemo?
‘Mine, mine, mine, mine,” she says.

“That’s kind of how I feel,” I tell her.

When I get off the phone I go grab my camera and go down to get some pictures of the DALIAN from the outside. I’d sent some earlier by text to my dad, but hadn’t gotten the full ship view because I wasn’t brave enough to walk through and around the workers and trucks and forklifts to get to a better vantage point. He’d texted me: Great pics. Can you get a pic like the last one but with the whole ship in view? It would be a good one to upload to Marine Traffic.

I’d told him no. I was going to try to get to the front of the ship to take a full view shot but there were too many trucks and forklifts so I came back on ship. Being back on ship seemed so final, so unchangeable. Once up the gangplank, that’s it, there’s no more going outside. But that’s just me being silly again and I don’t like to disappoint, especially not my dad. The dock has cleared off now and it doesn’t seem as likely that I’ll get run over if I walk to the front of the ship.

Jake is at the top of the gangplank, standing duty there.

“I’m going down to take some pictures of the ship,” I say. “I’ll be back in like ten minutes.”

“You want me to take your picture?” he asks.

“No, it’s okay,” I tell him.

But Jake never listens. He turns and gets the attention of Domin, the 2nd officer who is up a level, supervising the last of the work.

[His name is Dominador which is probably the best name in the world next to Optimus Prime.

“What do I call you?” I asked him one day when I came up on the bridge during his watch. “Sir? Second? Second Officer?”

“Call me my name,” he’d said. “Call me Domin and I’ll call you Amanda. Like brother and sister.”]

“I go to take picture,” Jake calls up. 

A little bit of hand miming, a show of my camera and we’re off.

He takes my picture. “Now this way,” he says. “Now that way. With the name of the ship? Okay. One more.” Then I’m done modeling. So I thank him and he goes back. I get some more photos with my phone and my camera. The phone ones I text to my dad. Sorry about the lighting. I tell him. I was shooting into the sun. I walk aft and get more pictures. Send them too.

Much better lighting. Dad texts, Aft? Sailor words!

I finish up as a photographer and head back to my cabin. I get another message from my dad: Btw.
Did another passenger come on board?

Yes. He did. I respond. Or so I heard from the steward and the third mate. I have yet to meet him face to face. He wasn’t at the breakfast table. Perhaps he will be there for dinner!

Dad sends back: A mysterious passenger on a cargo ship. Sounds like a character from an Agatha Christie book.

Oh no, I think. That sounds scary. I hope the title of this book doesn’t include murder! I don’t want to be the victim. That’s for sure. I don’t want any victims actually.

Dad makes it more my style: Unless it’s just that he butchers the Queen’s English. “His murderous tongue incessantly twisted good words into incomprehensible mangles of meaningless sound.”

Ha, I reply.

I’m the only one there at the table for dinner. At first. And then! The new passenger arrives. He steps over the threshold. He’s lanky. Long haired. Wrinkle shirted. He doesn’t know the meal time greeting is, “Good appetite.”

“Good appetite,” I tell him.

“Hi,” he says. Quiet. Kind of shy. He takes his seat. Joe must have shown him his place when he first came on ship. He’s got the spot to the right of the captain.

“I’m Amanda,” I say. “The other passenger.”

“I’m Josh.”

And that’s that.

Joe brings us our plates and we fork our food around for a bit. It’s quiet.

“So,” I say, going for information the old fashioned way (I’m having to resort to asking directly since my gossip sources have been crap so far). “How far are you going?”

“To Antwerp.”

I can see this is going to be a lively conversation.

“And what are you doing there?”

“I’m going to a conference in Portugal.”

“Really? Portugal. What kind of a conference?”

“It’s a conference for earthworm scientists.”

I almost drop my silverware. “I LOVE EARTHWORMS!” I exclaim in audible all caps. And suddenly I’m extremely glad we’re the only two at the table. I usually try not to let my strange obsessions come to light right away, but when it comes to earthworms I just can’t help myself. “You’re an earthworm scientist?!”

Turns out he just completed a Master’s Program Research project on the effects of an evasive plant
on the earthworm population. I’ve never been more thrilled in my life (I’m only slightly exaggerating).

“So,” I continue on, enthralled. “I can’t imagine that the earthworm scientist population is very large. How many earthworm scientists are there?”

Josh thinks for a beat. “Maybe about a hundred,” he says.

“I think I missed my calling,” I tell him. How did I not know!? “I had no idea there was such a thing.”

My mind is reeling. I’m filled with a kindred spirit enthusiasm. I can probably talk with this guy about how much I love my little composting earthworms that my dad is keeping for me until I have a stable home life again without appearing like an absolute loon. He’ll understand how the thought of them makes me smile. How I talked to them. How much I really love them.

I tell Josh that my dad gave me earthworms one year and it was one of the best gifts I ever got. My new passenger fears are vanquished, sure I can share with this guy, my “mine” syndrome disappears and I think, This is going to be a great nine or ten days across the Atlantic. If I can manage to eke out more than one word or two from him, I can imagine us sitting up on the pilot deck, staring out at the sea talking earthworms. I’m going to learn so much.

We sit at the dinner table for a few more sentence long exchanges. Then I say, “Good evening,” and run upstairs to call my dad.

The phone rings and I wait impatiently, hoping he answers and the call doesn’t go to voicemail. Just at the last second, my dad’s voice comes through softly, “Hello?”

“DAD!” I say. I hardly let him acknowledge me. I jump right in. “You’ll never guess what the new passenger is!”
Dad’s still at work (I’ve completely lost my sense of time or place) so he talks in a low voice, almost a whisper. “What is he?”

I’m not at work and I’m still speaking in all caps. “HE”S AN EARTHWORM SCIENTIST!”

Dad gives just the perfect response, something between a laugh and a hint of the excitement I’m feeling. We talk earthworms for a while. He lets me off the phone with the task of talking with the worm scientist about blue and red night crawlers. There’s something special or new about them. I’m too high too really hear what the blue and red hoopla is about, but I scribble Blue and red night crawlers in my notebook and say goodbye.

I have enough time to call my mom and grandmother (who were also curious about what the new passenger would be like) before I head up to the bridge to meet the newest pilot and watch us maneuver out of Philadelphia.

While we’re getting underway, I text my older sister Jesse: You will never guess what the new passenger is!

Then without giving her time to guess, I send the second text: HE’S AN EARTHWORM RESEARCHER!!! My life is better than fiction.


With that question, the world stands still, starts spinning faster—I’m not exactly sure which. I hadn’t even considered that possibility. Oh lord. Worms! On the ship! My heart speeds up to a dangerous level. My palms probably get sweaty.

The captain walks by me. He stops and turns. He gives me a look then he says, “Something’s changed with you. You look different.”

I’m glowing. Flushed.

“It might be this shirt?” I say. It’s one I haven’t worn before. It’s a blue that I think might bring out the color of my eyes.

“No,” he says. “Something else.”

How can I tell him that I’m glowing with earthworm love?

[“I had an earthworm glow about me,” I tell my sister-in-law later on that night by phone. “A glowworm!”

“I know that kind of humor,” she says wryly.

“Yeah,” I laugh. “It seems to run in the family.”]

How can I explain to the captain that I’m living such a life as I am? The kind of life that’s even better than what I could make up?

At least you now know what the title of your memoir’s going to be, Jesse texts me, Better than Fiction. Or: Earthworms and Me at Sea.

Now that’s a life!

Welcome on board, Josh!

Philadelphia Take 2

July 18, 2012 – Philadelphia Take Two

“Has anyone seen Jo Ann?” the tour guide asks the group.

“Last I saw her,” one of the ladies says, “she was playing a harpsichord in the street.”

This is one of my favorite stories about my friend Jo Ann. She’d been on a guided tour in a small Italian town and wandered off from the group, taken an enticing road up a hill and in the process of exploring had passed a harpsichord outside of a shop with no one around. So she’d doubled back, sat down and started playing. She might have been found by her group later seated at a table with three Italians (one of whom was the harpsichord owner) drinking red wine.

Another of my favorite stories is about the parties she’d attend at this Polish race horse owner’s home. He always served stiff martinis. Jo Ann said she could handle one then after that she’d take a sip then head over to the stables and give the rest to Captain Kidd (a champion race horse if my memory is correct) so she wouldn’t get smashed drunk. “He could handle them better than I could,” she told me.

She’d taken up scuba diving in her 60s and goes on yearly trips to dive. And, now in her 70s, she still goes skiing in the Rocky Mountains with a band of skiers who call themselves the Silver Streaks. I met her at my Colorado writers’ group and we’d get together occasionally for a glass of wine and conversation. She’s impetuous, outspoken and completely wonderful.

When I’d call her every couple of months from Peru she’d always ask me, “When are you coming home?”

“I don’t know,” I’d say. Wistful. Suddenly homesick for the mountains.

But she understood the alluring call of adventure. She’d listened to it, answered it. She still does. She recently got married, packed her things and her cat Lou, and moved from Colorado Springs to Pennsylvania.

I sent her an email from Wilmington, North Carolina wishing her mazel tov and letting her know what I was up to, where I was, and the basics of my tentative itinerary.

She writes me back asking how long I’ll be in Philadelphia. She and her husband live less than an hour away and, she writes, if I have time she’d love to see me.

I’m just back from my day outside with the chief engineer and I don’t know how much longer we’ll be in port. I call her anyways. Once we’re past the catching up and the joy of hearing each other’s voices we get down to business.

“Can we get together with you tomorrow?” she asks. “Donald is down for it.” I hear his voice in the background and it sounds agreeable.

“I’m not actually sure when we’re leaving. Let me go find someone to ask and I’ll call you back and let you know if I’m allowed to leave the ship tomorrow.”

I skip down the stairs and go to the ship’s office. The supercargo officer is laughing at something on his computer screen. He removes his headphones when he catches sight of me.

“Sorry to interrupt you,” I say.

“It’s just a movie,” he says, not convincing me that I’m more important than the show. “This is what I do most of the time.”

“Do you, by chance, know when we’re leaving port?”

“Cargo should be all loaded by around sixteen hundred tomorrow,” he says.

“So I should be able to go ashore again?”

“You’d have to ask one of the other guys, but I know my flight is leaving out of here at seven o’clock.” The supercargo officers are in charge of getting the cargo loaded and unloaded in the different ports. They don’t travel with the ships. And apparently this one isn’t even from town. He actually came in from Houston and he’s ready to get back home.

I thank the supercargo and let him get back to his movie. As if on cue, the third officer walks in.

“Hey,” I say to Dan.

“Hello,” he replies.

We exchange stories about outside and then I ask him if I’d be able to go outside again the next day.

“That should be fine,” he says.

“So long as I’m back by maybe noon?” I ask. I fill him in on the time table the supercargo officer had just given me.

“That should be fine.”

“Thanks!” I say, and I dart back upstairs.

Jo Ann and I arrange for them to come get me the next morning for a late breakfast or early lunch. “What are we waiting for?!” she says. I’m not real concerned that they’ll have any problems coming directly to the port since Philadelphia is so lax about security.

In the morning I stop by the ship’s office on my way out.

“Morning,” I say. I turn my attention to the chief officer. “If I go outside, what time do I need to be back by?”

“Work should be done by four o’clock. So be back before then,” he says. He looks up at me. “Four o’clock PM. Not in the morning.”

“Got it,” I say.

“Must be nice to go outside whenever you want,” the chief engineer says.
The other guys chuckle, start to join in the teasing.

“If you pay the company they’ll let you go outside whenever you want too,” the chief officer says. There’s a hint of a smile on his lips.

“Yeah,” I tell them all. “It does come with a price. See you guys later. I’ll be back by one or two,” I tell the chief. And then I’m out.

I cross the dockyard. When I’m near the gate I hear an energetic “Yooo hooo!” It’s Jo Ann. When I catch sight of her, she waves an arm over her head. I wave back. It’s been over a year since we’ve seen each other. Both our smiles are soul deep and blinding.

“They let you all the way in!” I say. They’re parked in the small lot to the left of the guard shack.

“They were very helpful,” Jo Ann says.

“How are you? Did you have trouble finding it? Was it a long trip?” The questions spill out like bilge.

We get distracted from the answers by Don’s approach. I’ve heard about him from the time when Jo Ann first met him at a cello workshop. We’d gossiped like high school girls through their romance. I’d loved that it was her not me having the stories to tell. I didn’t know what to expect. Don’s nothing like I expected. But it takes hardly any time for what was in my mind to meld with who he is, how he looks. He’s a mischievous as an eight year old boy. He takes my hand like a gentleman and holds, doesn’t shake. 

“So nice to meet you!”

“You too!”

We’ve both heard of each other. We smile like co-conspirators.

They take me out for an early lunch. Since it’s not yet eleven
we have to drive around until the Applebee’s opens. They’re precious together. Teasing. In love. Newlyweds.

They ask questions about the ship. About sailing. Tell me to be sure to have plenty of motion sickness medication and Pepto Bismol. Advise me on places I must see. Paint images of cities and hillsides and waterways in vivid verbal color. Tell me of past travels and of ones to come. They’re living in motion the way I am. 

“I’m very jealous of what you’re doing,” Jo Ann says, “but I’m also happy to be where I am now.”

It’s a good place to be.

And I’ve got a long way to go before I have half the stories that she does.

After lunch we still have time before I need to head back. I ask them if they wouldn’t mind taking me by Target so I can get a few things I’ve decided I need. Donald stays in the car. “You ladies take as long as you need,” he tells us. He’s got classical music on and a book to read.

Inside the store, Jo Ann and I split up. “I’m going to go see if they have some shelves that might work at the house,” she says. “Don’t check out without me.”


After a while she joins me where I am, browsing, slowly, not wanting stuff that won’t be consumed before the end of my voyage, wondering if I really need anything here at all. She picks out some anti-motion sickness medication and a box of Pepto Bismol for me. When it’s time to check out, she pays.

“Thank you,” I say. “You didn’t have to… I know you didn’t have to do that, but I appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome,” Jo Ann says. “It’s nice to be able to. I couldn’t do this before and now I can.”
Times like this I wish I were more flagrantly expressive. A quick hug-squeeze. A kiss on the cheek. I try to put those into my words. We walk side by side across the parking lot.
Don starts the car back up. We buckle in.

“It’s still early,” Jo Ann says. So we go shop for a refrigerator. We find a discount appliance warehouse where the tough guy who helps us calls me and Jo Ann “sweetheart” with frequency and a Jersey sounding accent. He doesn’t call Don anything. We look, but we don’t buy.
Then they drive me back to the dock.

“I’m so glad you guys had time and wanted to do this,” I say. “This has been really fun.”

“It has, hasn’t it?” Jo Ann agrees.

I hug Jo Ann goodbye. Don gives me a kiss on the cheek. I watch them drive away.

Today might not have been as eventful for Jo Ann as playing a harpsichord in a small Italian town was, though maybe it is something to say, “A friend of mine from Colorado came by ship into the Philadelphia port so we went out for lunch and shopped for refrigerators.” Because that’s what friends do.

Outside in Philly

July 12, 2012 – Outside in Philly

I knock on Josko’s door. No answer. So I knock again, a little bit louder. A second of silence. I wonder if he’s gone without me. Then the door opens.

“Ready?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say, “sorry it took so long. The agent just got here.” I’d been in the ship’s office waiting for the agent to make sure we really didn’t need an escort on and off port, and that I didn’t need my passport or a shore leave pass.

“No problem,” he says. “Just one minute, okay?”


He disappears and a few beats later he’s back carrying a seaman’s bag which he slings over his shoulder. I’ve got my messenger bag with my laptop, camera and some money. We’re set. We trot down the four flights of stairs, down the hall, wave at the officers in the ship’s office, then we’re out walking past the hold and the gangplank duty seaman, down the gangplank and onshore.
We hazard our way across the concrete towards the area where the agent had said the guard shack was. When we get to it—dilapidated, in need of a paint job, and sad looking—we peer in the windows to get the guards’ attention. One of the guys opens the door.

“We’re going out. Do we need to sign anything?” I ask him.

There’s a swimsuit issue calendar on the wall behind the second guard. The girl is bare chested, scarcely swim suited. I have a feeling there aren’t too many female passengers that pass through here. I have the feeling it wouldn’t really matter. Actually, to be honest, it doesn’t matter to me either. The model has really nice teeth.

“Nah,” the seated guard says.

“And you’ll let us back in?” I ask with a smile.

“Yeah.” They make it sound like I’m being silly. Like Houston and Wilmington hadn’t needed to see IDs and permissions and passes. Like they’re the norm.

“Is there a place for shopping?” Josko asks.

“Maybe an internet cafĂ©?” I ask, hopeful. Philadelphia will be my last stateside connection.

The guards look at each other. “There’s a bunch of fast food restaurants. There’s a Target and a Home Depot.”

Josko wants to buy some overalls and I don’t know what I need except for some time to check my email one last time and to post a blog. We look at each other and shrug. The guards give us directions. We thank them and get to walking.

It’s about a two mile walk and we pass the time in companionable conversation. I feel at ease. Happy.
We start with Target. I’m a little unsure how shore leave with a seaman goes. I don’t know if we’re supposed to separate to shop or if we’re in it all together. A day ago, Josko had asked me if I was going to go outside in Philadelphia and I had said I wasn’t sure since the taxis in Wilmington had been so much and I didn’t know if I wanted to spend that kind of money again. “We can go together and split the cost,” he’d said. It had sounded like a good plan.

I open my mouth to ask him what we do, but he’s already heading towards men’s clothing to see if they have overalls so I just follow. The lady working the sections looks sad when we ask for what they don’t have. “Do you know of any place that might have overalls?” I ask. Josko had said he hadn’t been able to find them except for children since he’s been looking for them.

She can’t think of any place.

“Do you think Home Depot might?” I ask.

Her face brightens. “Yeah, they might have them there.”

We hit the toy section. Josko has a two year old son and a three month old daughter of his own and a three year old neighbor boy that he also brings things home for. I tag along behind. Disregarding the instructions from my childhood to not touch anything, I touch and look at things and press buttons. I make some remark that prompts Josko to ask, “You don’t have kids? You aren’t married?”

“No,” I say, and leave it at that.

“Why not?” he asks it--the same question as many other have asked--but with him there’s no accusation, no, “what’s wrong with you?” implication, nothing in the words but a faint curiosity.

“I haven’t found anyone I like yet,” I say. 

“In a city of two hundred and fifty thousand you can’t find someone you like?” he asks, mocking me. I grin and shrug. I don’t know what city he’s talking about; Dallas where I grew up has 6 million people, Colorado Springs where my house is has 600,000 and Lima which I just left has 9 million. But yeah, point taken. It’s the proverbial, “It’s not you, it’s me,” line coupled with the fact that I apparently don’t want to be married at this point in time.

He rummages through some toys. “I have a brother-in-law. He’s a nice guy. He’s single.”

“Well,” I say. There you have it.

He finds a nerf football for the neighbor kid and that’s all the success we have at Target. We check out. There’s a Starbucks in the front of the Target. “Does the Starbucks have free Wi-Fi?” I ask the cashier.

“I think so,” she says.

“You want a coffee?” Josko asks.

“Yeah, if you’re getting one.”

We get espressos and sit. I pull out my gigantic laptop and power it up. Josko pulls out a very refined, small notebook or ipad or something. I don’t even know the names for these devices. I feel like a lousy American at times. He’s on the internet before I am.

I take up our time and check my email. Hastily scanning the text and responding to the easiest ones. I check up on the social networking sites I frequent and download the latest pictures of my niece. Josko and I are trading stories and I feel my attention is divided. I post a blog, worried that I’m keeping him somewhere he doesn’t want to be.

“Seamen know how to wait,” he tells me. “We’re used to it.”

I settle in a little better. It’s still early in the morning.

“How long do we have?” I ask him.

“I’m the chief engineer,” Josko says, “as long as I want.”

“If I were on a ship I’d want to be a chief or the captain,” I tell him. I don’t like being told what to do. Or where to be. I don’t like to be tied down, under someone else’s time schedule, or confined. Yeah,
I’ve got freedom issues.

He raises his eyebrows. It’s characteristic of him; something like a smile, something like an upturned palm, something like agreement.

We’re back in our separate worlds. I sip the last of my coffee. His is long gone and thrown away.

“Here,” Josko says, turning his computer device my way. “This is my brother-in-law.” I keep my grin inside. I’ve got to give it to him, the guy is nice looking. He’s playing with Josko’s son in the photo. Dark headed, good with kids (at least in pictures), the dude already has some points in his favor, I think.

“I’ll have to come to Croatia,” I say.

The raised eyebrows again. Then he shows me pictures of his kids, his wife, his town. I show him pictures of my niece. We’re up to par.

“I’m really almost done,” I say. It’s taking me longer than I’d thought. Then, finally, I am as done as I can be for now. I shut things off and close up my computer. We pack up and go across the road to Home Depot.

No one has coveralls or overalls for grownups. Not even the paint store. There’s a motorcycle shop across the street. I remember an ex-boyfriend and his obsession with bikes and all the fancy gear he bought. “They might have something over there,” I say, pointing at the shop.

“The captain told me about that place,” Josko says. He has a motorcycle and of course, doesn’t mind going to see what might be in stock. “Here,” he says, stepping his leg over to sit on a bike, “I’m like a kid in a candy store.” There are no overalls, but he finds a nice bike jacket. He tries it on and goes to see what the mirror has to say. After a moment, he comes over to me and says, “Can you take a picture?” He hands me his phone. I snap two shots and he sends them off to his wife for approval. We can stop back by later if we need to.

“It’s too bad we’re not close to downtown Philly,” I say. “It’s pretty nice.”

“We can get a taxi.”
So I call a taxi. It picks us up in front of the KFC. Eighteen some odd dollars later we’re at the Rocky Steps otherwise known as the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I’m glad Josko wanted to come. I’d told him I’d been there before and when I was trying to tell the taxi driver where to take us, he’d jumped in with that. It’s an easy landmark.
We watch a father and small son do burpees, run up the steps then back down again. They cycle through this workout sequence until the little guy has had enough. Then the dad continues on without him. Over on the other side there’s a built dude who reminds me of Clubber Lang. He’s taking the steps like they’re nothing.
There’s a statue of Rocky over to the right of the museum. Josko and I go stand close by until the other picture takers leave.
Then I take a few pictures for him, of him.

We’re about to trade off cameras and let it be my turn when a guy comes over, “You want a picture of the two of you?”

“Okay,” we say. 

He gets us to pose in the raised fist Rocky stance.

“Now pretend you’re fighting.”

I’m game, Josko’s a little dubious. It reminds me of my Colombian friend who I’d taken a similar picture with at an Inka Kola and Coca Cola sign. I have an instant of wistful nostalgia and miss my distant friend.

“Don’t be shy,” the man calls out.

He snaps the shot.

I go to collect my camera.

“Could you spare a dollar for a bottle of water?” the man asks. I figured he was a street worker, not just a handy picture taker. Today I can spare a dollar so I hand it to him and say thanks.

“Y’all have a good day,” he calls out after us.

We climb up the steps. I’ve run them before. I’ve done the celebratory raised arm jumping. I don’t need to do it today. Neither does Josko. From the top we admire Philadelphia. Now what? we both think.

“You want to go inside?” Josko asks.

I’d wanted to go inside the museum ten years ago when I’d been in Philly for a Judo tournament. But the day I’d had free was Monday and the museum is closed Mondays. I’d had no idea he’d want to museum, but why not. We go in and pay our entry fees. I’m not used to being with someone that’s not skimping money like me. He works hard for his money, spends months at sea away from his family and friends, he absolutely earns it, but I think (if I heard him right) that he makes more in one month than I spent altogether in the six months I lived in Peru. It bothers me that I think about money like this.

We store our bags in the coat room. “It’s complimentary!” the cashier tells us energetically, after she sees how big they are and advises us to check them.

We see a lot of art. I get to see the Gauguin, Matisse, Cezanne Arcadia exhibit I’d wanted to see and much much more. There are entire rooms from Paris, England, and the New York of the 1700 and 1800s. Entire rooms that were cut out and transported to this museum. So that when we walk up to them, walk into them it’s like walking into the past.

“Where is the television?” Josko asks, tongue in cheek, in a pale blue room with chairs lining the walls, side tables, a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and an imposing rug stuck in the middle of the floor. Did they yell at each other from across the room? I wonder to myself. It seems like such a stiff and formal sitting room. I’m glad I don’t have to socialize in it. I’m also glad I don’t have to wear dresses where the hip extensions are bigger than doorways or the bustles so bustly that sitting down isn’t an option.
There are facades and columns and fountains that have been removed from their in situ and brought here. I’m a little astounded.
We see all the kinds of weapons, guns, spears, swords, that men use to kill each other. There are swords that are taller than me. There are swords, thick as my arm, as Josko’s arm. “How did they even use those?” Josko asks. With both hands and a lot of might, I think.

We see all the kinds of protections, like armor and shields that men use to keep from being killed by others. “This one reminds me of the shield of Heracles,” I say of one gold shield in bas relief, taking a picture of it. “That I read about in the Iliad.” At least that’s where I think I read about it. Maybe I’m mixing up Heracles’ shield with Ajax’s armor. Or maybe Ajax cried about not getting the shield or Achilles armor. I can’t remember now. It’s all Greek to me.

Amid the saints and apostles and crucified Christs, there are creepy demon pictures, and even creepier images of cherubim or seraphim.

“They were obsessed with nudity and demons,” Josko says after I point out another creepy demonic looking figure.

“Yeah,” I reply. It’s like literature where it’s death and sex that sells. For art, it’s the nekkid and scary.

We hit almost all the sections, walking through room after room.
Tapestries, paintings, ceramics, illustrated books, whole rooms, statues—we see it all except for the modern art and the Asian section. I would have liked to have seen the modern art, but Josko’s not a fan. He’s said as much when we walked through the museum’s doors. By the time we even get close to modern art, we’re both cross eyed, hungry and more than arted out. Down a white walled corridor, I see a round red splotch which might have been modern art or my vision going. It’s enough modern art to satisfy me.

“I think I’ve had enough art,” Josko says.

I’m relieved. “Me too.” We herd ourselves out through the exit signs and collect our bags.

We ask two guys selling Rocky shirts at the first step platform if there are any restaurants around.
They point us in a nebulous direction and we go. We pass the church they’d given us as a landmark and I hone in on a lady carrying groceries to her car.

“Excuse me?” I’m trying not to startle her. She’s looks us up and down and accepts us. “Is there a restaurant close to here?”

“What kind of restaurant are you looking for?” she asks.

“One with food,” I say. I’m not being smart. I’m not being obnoxious or facetious. I’m just hungry.

“Oh sure,” she gushes. “Just up the street there’s a market or a pizza house.”

“Just straight up this street?” I clarify.

She nods. Then she gets excited. “There’s also a--” but I lose track of her words as she lists some other options. I know that straight ahead we’ll be good.

“Thank you so much,” I tell. “Thanks!” We wrench ourselves away and sure enough, just a block up there’s a pizzeria. Even better, on our side of the road just across the street is a pub. “You want pizza or pub food?” I ask.

“Let’s go there,” Josko says, pointing at the pub. “They’ve got Guinness.”

It’s an all-around win, especially when I see they have a black bean burger and sweet potato fries. We drink Guinness, fill up on food, and talk.

“You’re a very strange American,” Josko tells me when I can’t finish all my food (this is actually kind of unusual especially considering how hungry I’d been). He says this because I don’t eat my whole meal and because I’m not fat. He helps me eat finish off my fries. I feel bad for my country’s stereotypes. Sometimes, these days, I don’t feel exactly American, but then, I don’t feel exactly Un-American either. I’m still finding my equilibrium after being in South America for a year.

When the girl brings the check I make a face and say, “Sorry, I forgot to ask you to make separate bills.” She doesn’t fuss and brings the check back and processes our payments.

Our things slung over our shoulders, Josko and I head back the same way we came. “I think some people get the wrong impression about us,” Josko says.

“What do you mean?” I ask, taken abruptly out of my thoughts.
“Us being out together,” he says.

The guy who took our picture together for us, the girl bringing us a combined check—who knows what the seamen and officers think.

“Oh. Yeah. Right.” I take the thought in. Then, “Let them think what they want,” I say carelessly.

We both know what’s what.

“What else is there to see?” Josko asks me.

I try to remember what I’d walked around and seen ten years ago. What other things Philadelphia holds. “I know there’s some old buildings and stuff up this way,” I point out away from the museum, into the pile of skyscrapers. “The Liberty Bell is somewhere around too. I just don’t know exactly where.”

“I thought that by coming outside with you I’d get a good tour of Philadelphia,” Josko teases me.

I don’t know that I could give a good tour of Dallas where I spent twenty years of my life. I could show someone around Colorado Springs and the mountains, and I’ve got a tiny handhold on Lima, Peru. But Philly?

“I’m a bad American,” I confess. “I knew the Rocky steps, but the history stuff…” At least I know the Liberty Bell is in this city. That’s something.

My phone rings. It’s my sister-in-law.

“Hi!” she says.

“Hi!” I say, but more subdued. She’d called me while I was at the museum and I’d told her I’d call her in a couple hours. It’s been a couple hours. She’s beat me to the call back.

“Are you with someone?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say. I don’t know why I’m being shy.

“A guy?”


“Your seaman lover?”

I laugh. “No. No. Hey! Are you close to your computer? Can you look up where exactly the Liberty Bell is? I mean the streets?” I strain around to stare at street signs. “We’re at Eighth and Race,” I tell her.

She works her magic and tells me that we’re about twenty blocks away from the Liberty Bell. She gives me two options for directions and I thank her and promise to call her when I’m back on ship.

Josko and I decide twenty blocks is too much. “I’ll see it next time I’m here,” he says. I think he’ll probably be here again way before I am. I’m glad I saw it when I was ten years old. We call a cab and wait outside the Four Seasons hotel in front of a statue of some Polish guy in a tri corner hat who I say must be Ben Franklin.

“How can you say that looks like Benjamin Franklin?” Josko asks me incredulously.

“Well, you know,” I say with a wink in my words, “all statues look alike.”

We get dropped back off near the motorcycle store and go back inside. Josko’s wife had sent him a message that he could get the jacket if it’s good for winter weather and if he wants it. It’s not and he doesn’t, so he passes on it. And we walk back to the dock.

“There’s my ship,” Josko says.

I look up. There’s the DALIAN. Her cranes reaching up towards the heavens.

“There she is,” I say. “Waiting for us.” I’m overwhelmed. I wasn’t expecting this. It feels just like coming home. It’s a feeling I haven’t had for a place in over a year. Suddenly, I’m in love. With a ship.

We hardly get glanced at as we pass the guard shack. The guard only acknowledges us when I give him a subtle wave. “I feel real secure,” I say.

Josko raises his eyebrows.

But what does it matter? Who needs check points and hassle? Who needs shore passes and IDs? Who needs border control and citizenship differentiation when we can go up the gangplank and, there we are, at home?

The Sea, The Sea

July 17, 2012 – The Sea, The Sea

I go up to the Pilot Deck to sit and watch the sunset. To wait for the stars to come out. I take a book along just for company. In between sentences I stare out at the water. We’re in the Gulf of Mexico and the water is calm. Softly rocking, gently waving, lightly pushing us onward. Even though we left port in Houston less than twenty hours before and are moving at a slow and steady 16.6 knots per hour, there’s no land in sight. Not that my eyes can see. All around me is blue. Light blue. Dark blue. Steel blue. Aqua blue. Aqua marine blue. Green blue. Blue green blue. Slate blue. Ultramarine blue. Gray blue. Blueberry blue. And that’s just the colors in the sea, count the sky and I don’t know what else to add; baby blue, sky blue, periwinkle blue? I need a color wheel, a hue chart.

Some fluffy, halfhearted clouds try to break up the blue with limited success because they’re also tinged, lined, and shaded blue.

The air around me buzzes warm enough that I don’t need a jacket, but it’s cooled off from the strongest heat of the sun (which I’d basked in). A pleasant temperature. The ship’s engine hums, constant and comforting. White noise that doesn’t distract. The day’s work is done so there is no noisy rusting or chipping coming from decks below or above. Just me, the ship’s engine, the sea, the sky and my book.

I’ll sit here until the darkness hovers thick around me like a blanket. This peace is what I’ve wanted for so long. Solitude. Quiet. Peace, peace, peace.

But, as is so often the case with peace, it doesn’t last forever.

My nose is buried in words or my vision in blue when a slight sound catches my attention. I look to my right. Damn. It’s one of the Filipino crew. Not only that, it’s Jake. Double damn. He’s got a broom in hand and I have the faintest hope that he’ll be too busy with work to bother me for long. It’s a misguided hope. I’m pretty sure the broom is a ruse.

“Hello,” he says, his face bright with a smile.

“Hi,” I say. My up-to-this-moment contentment is still running full throttle and my smile is because of this. I can’t pull it back in time. He takes it for himself. Triple damn.
“What you are doing?” he asks.

“Watching the sunset,” I say.

He balances the broom handle against the Blue Bar’s door and comes over to where I am.
I’ve taken one of the two sitting chairs and moved it to face west where I can prop my feet up on the railing, where I can feel the descending sun on my skin. A long bench rests against the starboard outside side of the Blue Bar and the other chair is at the end of the bench. Jake takes a seat on the bench. I can’t stay where I am without leaving my back to Jake. That would be rude. Despite my own wants, I abandon my chair and stand with my arms crossed, my back to the sun (is that rude too?). I practice politeness.

He goes for small talk. Tries to be cute. Tries to get me to giggle. I hate giggling. I’d rather talk about what it’s like to live in the Philippines or about culture, what a seaman’s work is like, upbringing, sea currents, or even currants for that matter. But he doesn’t always understand my questions. And I don’t always understand his.

I turn and go lean against the railing. I stare out into the sunset that’s going on with or without an audience.

“You want me to take your picture?” Jake asks.

“No, I’m okay, thanks,” I say.

“No, I take your picture.”

“No, really, thanks.”

“Where’s your camera? I take your picture.”
Good lord. I give in and hand him my camera. He takes my picture. Balanced on the chair. Perched against the railing. Face turned out seaward. The photos turn out blurry, indistinct, shadowy. This pleases me for some strange reason. Later, I delete all but two.

When I’m in possession of my camera again I snap his picture. It seems only fair. This way I can use it to show my mom. She likes details nearly as much as I do. She likes to see the faces I see. Put a name to a nose, the ears, the jawlines I talk about. I’d already ruefully titled him my “Filipino Boyfriend” in our last phone conversation. “He doesn’t know that I’ll just break his heart,” I’d told her. It sounded less awful on the phone, in context. “Enjoy it,” she tells me, meaning the attention not the heartbreaking. “And keep them all at arm’s length.” I sigh inaudibly into the phone’s receiver. That’s the hardest part. “Keeping them at arm’s length is the hardest part,” I tell her. I imagine myself hiding under the bench. Locking myself in my room. Ducking behind doors. Running away, running away down corridors and across decks. It’s not a very peaceful picture. It’s kind of funny in fact, in a horrible sort of way. 

“No,” he tells me. “You don’t take my picture.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because if you show it to someone then maybe I get in trouble.”

I don’t know if there are rules against the crew fraternizing with the passengers. I wouldn’t be completely surprised if there were. After all, I’m kept sheltered during meal times in the officers’ mess room and housed on the captain’s and first officers’ floor. I’m in with the elite. No one gave me any rules (except for the Guidelines for Passengers in regard to Safety and Security which is taped to the wall above my writing desk and includes things like: *Do not smoke in bed!, *Always wear safe footwear, and *In some countries drug trafficking is punished by death penalty) and I’m enjoying being a passenger; neither crew nor officer.

I shrug at Jake. I’m not going to delete the picture. 

“You don’t show it to anyone?”

“I’m not going to show it to anyone,” I say. Maybe I should have said, “I’m not going to show it to just anyone.” Then it wouldn’t have been a lie.

“Because maybe one of the other guys sees it and gets jealous. Or if the captain sees it and he sends me home.”

“It’ll be a secret,” I say. I feel devious like a reporter. Sly and evil.

Jake starts at a sound. “Someone’s coming?”

I look around the corner. There’s no one. Just a lonely broom. “No one’s there.” I sit on the very edge of the bench and lean forward looking for the first stars.

“You sure?”

“Look, the first star,” I say. Right now it’d be the more the merrier for me.

He wants me to talk more quietly. The starboard bridge deck is right above us. He’s afraid the duty officer will go outside to check a view and hear something, suspect something. I’m not in the mood for subterfuge, clandestine meetings, secret love trysts or paranoia. I want to say, “Well, maybe you should go in then.” But I can’t get the words past my lips.

For him this seems like a delicious and dangerous rendezvous, for me it’s an imposition. He scoots a little closer. He wants to touch. A finger against my shoulder. A hand over mine if he could pull it off. A kiss if I’d turn at just the right angle. I move away. Slide farther over. Point out another star.  
If I stay, he’ll stay. There will be no solitary star watching by me tonight. I can’t afford the cost there’d be later on if I stayed here with him now. Expectations, disappointments, lead ons, let downs. 
I’m already running away.

Why can’t I be a fixed point? My own safe haven? It just doesn’t work that way.

“You stay here a long time?” he asks.

I make up a new plan. “No, I think I’m going up to the bridge for a minute.”

“You go to bridge?”

I raise my eyebrows. I don’t feel like repeating myself ad infinitum.

“You stay here and I stay with you,” he says.

“You can stay if you want, but I’m going to head up to the bridge.” I’m hiding behind the officers like a kid hiding behind a mother’s apron.

He wants hugs, gets dangerously close for kissing. I push away, gently, gently, but away.

“You go first and I’ll follow five minutes later so no one sees,” I say, wickedly. I’m still hoping for starlight.

He tries for another hug. I deflect as best I can. Then he stands up. “Okay, Jane, goodbye, Jane. Thank you, Jane.” It doesn’t sink in until later that he’s calling me the wrong thing.

He’s gone and I’m alone again. But the mood is spoiled. My tranquility has vanished with the sun. 

I go back over everything I said, wishing I could have been sterner, meaner, more like stone. Yet kind. I’m feeling distressed at myself—feeling misunderstood by boys who don’t know the silence I need, the negligence I appreciate, and the multitude of words I have affairs with—and wondering if this will complicate the next three weeks. There’s no where I could really go except overboard.

Maybe age, maybe experience brings a tempered compassion. Because (sometimes) even while I dread them, I wish I had the capacity to love all these boys. But I can’t. It’s not real to me. It’s not what I want. And to act other than I am would be to lead these guys on worse than politeness, a smile, a conversation, or human interest does. 

I feel bad telling on Jake. Telling this story. But it’s real. It’s what happens and how I feel. While I know I make light of the cultural differences I encounter, and while I run from these types of guys, I realize that Jake’s just a guy looking for love. Just a guy wanting to quell the loneliness of the sea, the monotony made in a ship full of men, the long days of work and short rests. Trying to get something he thinks would be good before someone else does.

But I don’t feel it.

Sorry Jake, sorry boys, I just can’t. Sometimes two is not company, it’s a crowd.