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.”
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.
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.