Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sail On, The Last Leg

August 25, 2012 – Sail On, The Last Leg

The days we spend in Antwerp stretch into lifetimes. I’ve never known any other way. My home is this ship. My house is this cabin. My family is this crew. My world is bus rides and walks with Filipinos, brick buildings, cathedrals, outdoor cafés, dark beers and wandering. I pretend the future—my signing off—is someone else’s reality, a dream, an imagining.

But it’s not. It’s mine. Time catches up. The mooring lines are untied, the door to the bridge unlocked, the stations manned, the pilot called and the tugs put to work. We sail away for Germany.

I’ve only got a few days left on the DALIAN. I want to lengthen the moments. I want to stay a little longer. I want to give a small thanks to all these guys for making me feel a part of things. I want to thank them for their friendship and their love. I don’t want to leave. But I know that things won’t stay the same. The chief engineer is signing off in Hamburg as well. “We sign off together,” he’d said with a grin. He’s been a good neighbor and my friend. It wouldn’t be the same on ship without him around. A new chief officer and new second engineer are coming aboard along with Josko’s replacement. New people, new dynamics. Part of me is glad to leave with the change. Nothing stays the same. That’s one thing I learned from the ten day Vipassana sit I did so long ago in June. Things rise and fall. Things are born and things die. Each here and now I can enjoy, knowing that it’s transitory and fleeting and leaves a mark on me like the imprint of a pillow on my face when I’ve slept too hard. And as the future slides into the present I slide with it as gracefully as I can.

It’s tradition on a birthday or when a magnanimous officer is about to sign off for the celebrator or officer to buy a beer for all the crew. It’s a way I can say thank you. Just before lunch, I find Joe and tell him what I’d like to do. He’s in charge of the ship’s store and of arranging the set up at the tables. We both agree to double check with the captain that a beer for all is okay, and leave it at that.

Later that afternoon, I’m writing, maybe pretending to write in my room with the door open when I hear the familiar jingle of keys. That sound tells me it’s the captain and no one else. I jump up and go into the hall. The captain and Joe are arranging things in a box and searching through the storage closet for tape to send gifts back to Romania for the captain’s one year old grandson.

“Is it okay if I buy a beer for everyone tonight?” I ask. “Because I’m signing off soon….”

“Of course,” the captain says. “I’ll add in some good wine or something with it.”

“What kind beer you want?” Joe asks. He lists two beers.  

I shrug. “Whichever one the guys like the most,” I say. I’m not really a beer expert. I can order a Bolleke now, I know what I like when I taste it, but other than that I’m pretty much at sea.

“The Becks,” the captain dictates. “That’s a better beer.”

“Okay,” I say. Joe and I exchange a look and it’s all arranged. “Thanks!” I skip off and they resuming the packing.

I’m the first one in for dinner. The beers are next to the water glasses at every seating. Joe comes in. “Good evening!” he sings at me, uncaps the beer and pours it for me before I can tell him I’m going to save it for later, give it to the chief engineer. Too late. “Salamat!” I tell Joe (thank you).

“Salamat po!” he returns in Tagalog (thank you very much).

He goes back to the kitchen. I’m suddenly nervous. I feel left out in the spotlight. Too much in the open. Like the center of attention when I’ve got mismatched socks on. I prefer to be backstage, observing or doling out my thanks one to one. I can’t go back, the beers are there. Just then, in my mid-embarrassed thought, the cadet rushes in, hovers near my elbow. “Happy birthday!” she says. She has her unopened Becks in hand.

I hadn’t anticipated the misunderstanding. “It’s not my birthday,” I tell her. “It’s because I’m signing off soon.”

“Oh,” she says, a little relieved. “I was thinking I needed to get you gift.” We smile at each other. It’s our first real connection. “Thanks for beer,” she says, and floats out again.

Right after her, the bosun comes into the officers’ mess room, stands next to me, and shakes my hand. He smiles his shy, shy smile. “Happy birthday,” he says.

“It’s not my birthday,” I tell him. It’s going to become a much used phrase over the course of dinner and the next day. “I wanted to thank all you guys, I’m signing off soon.”

“Okay,” he says—I’m not sure if he understood me—and he’s gone.

I fill my salad plate with salad. Pile the olives in a mound. Drizzle on some olive oil.

The third officer and the electrician come in together. “Good appetite,” we all say like a choir. I twist around so my back isn’t completely turned at them.

Charlton leans through the window separating the kitchen from the mess room. “Happy birthday,” he calls in at me.

“It’s not my birthday,” I say with a smile.

“Joe said it was your birthday.” Charlton turns around to talk with Joe in Tagalog.

I just shake my head. Third and Marius chatter in Romanian. I dig into my salad.

Third eats rapidly. When he’s finished, he takes his plate in to the kitchen sink. He comes back through, stops close to me. “Thank you for the beer,” he says.

“You’re welcome,” I reply. I want to tell him thank you for everything; all the conversations, the explanations, the jokes, the easy camaraderie.

“Good appetite,” he bids again and steps over the threshold and out.

The newest passengers, the father and son arrive at the same time as the captain. I’d met them when I went on bridge to meet the river pilot and watch us leave Belgium. Best I can guess, the son, not a young child like I’d anticipated, is in his early forties, and he’s actually the CFO of Rickmers, the company who owns the shipping line. He’s traveling partly for fun--bringing his septuagenarian father along for the ride--partly because he’s never traveled on one of his ships before, and partly for business.

I want to sit him down and tell him how to make things better for the crew. I want to tell him all the guys should have cabins at least as nice as mine. That the Filipinos shouldn’t have to share rooms unless they want to. But I’m not quality control. I’m not the HR manager. I’m just a passenger with four week’s experience. What do I know? 

He’d told me of his very successful life and told me that persistence pays off. Given me his card.

I’d been reminded of the contrast between workers and management. Between the crew and those in glass buildings who’ve never been to sea, never oiled a crane’s coils, never battled rust or heights, only crunched numbers and made executive decisions. Reminded that I’m just an observer of both worlds.

But I like the CFO. He’s personable. He’s well intentioned. He’s working at something he’s good at and enjoys. He’s a business man.

As they settle in their seats the electrician turns to me. “That’s what I like about you,” Marius says, he stands up, taking his beer in hand, “you don’t buy the cheap American beer. You buy the quality kind.” I puff up at the compliment. Thanks to the captain, I think. Don’t forget that, I remind myself.

The captain has brought two bottles of wine with him as promised. They’re good ones. A Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon. He opens them both and we sample them, decide which ones we’d like. Joe brings in my food. Joe brings in their food. We talk of wines and business and livelihoods. Or mostly the men talk and I listen. The CFO’s father sits in the cadet’s seat at my right hand side. He and I trade whispered sentences. “This is very good,” he tells me of the wine, holding up a thumb, “very good.”

The mess room door opens and the third steps in. “I need to make your photo,” he says. I look up. “Of all three of you,” he motions me, the CFO, and the CFO’s father. “To make IDs.”

“Okay,” I say. “Now?”

“No, no, you can finish up,” he says.

“Now is okay by me,” I say. It’s okay with the other passengers too.

Dan runs off to get the camera and is back soon. I stand against the wall and get my mug shot taken. Dan shows me the result and I say, “It’s good enough.” The CFO follows and then his father.

We linger over dinner, finish off the wine. The CFO, the father, and the captain leave their beers and I snag two of the bottles to take up for Josko. When I’d gone into Antwerp on the last night I’d asked him if he wanted me to bring him anything back. “A cold beer,” he’d said.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I’d replied. The seeing hadn’t done a thing and I’d returned empty handed.

When I get up to our floor, his door is closed. He’s busy working, filling in the hours, unusual at this time of night, but necessary for the work that needs to get done. I leave the beers in the plastic mail inbox outside his door.

A bit later, I hear the hall door wheeze open. I poke my head around. I trot down the hallway and nearly collide with Josko as he steps out of his door. “You give me heart attack,” he says.

“I brought you some beer,” I say, pointing at it.

There’s a red mark on his head. I stare up at it. A trail of blood is in the process of drying. “What happened?” I ask.

“These Chinese made ship,” he says. “My brain is leaking out.”

“Head wounds bleed the worst,” I say. It’s not dripping in his eyes. It’s not gushing. Ancient female nursing tendencies bubble up from somewhere deep inside me, but I sweep them away. I’m one of the guys, not Florence Nightingale.

I pull the beers out of the inbox and start to hand them over. Josko takes one and steps back inside. I keep the second one and follow. We settle into our spots, open our drinks. He tells me stories of the ships made by the Japanese and the Chinese. How they don’t fit well with his six foot four height. How on one Japanese ship he’d had to sleep cattycorner on the bed and even then he’d draped over. We finish the beers.

Josko touches the trail of blood where his hair meets his forehead. It doesn’t leave a mark on his finger that I can see.

“Is it still bleeding?” I ask. 

He looks at his fingers. Gives a negative motion. “Maybe I get stitches tomorrow,” he says. “I don’t tell my wife…”

“Or she’ll freak out,” I put it.

The hall door opens and the jingle of keys heralds the captain’s entrance. His figure silhouettes between the frames, and he comes in. He sits with us for a moment, makes a quick assessment of Josko’s head, tells a story then is off to do more captain things. It’s busy times.

“You want Johnny?” Josko asks me. He pushes his empty beer bottle to the center of the table. I push mine to join it and shrug an okay. Why not? We’ve nearly worked our way through the Johnny Walker whisky bottle. We’re all old friends by now.

The hall door opens and the cadet zips by, heading for my cabin. She sees me and come to a halt, backs up.

“I need your thumbprint,” she says. “For ID.”

She places an inkpad on the table and I stick my thumb down in the red and press it against the paper next to my printed out photo. It’s light, faint. “I don’t know if that’s good enough,” I say.

Nadezdha (pronounced Nadia by us all) looks at the result and says, “Maybe do it again.”

It won’t be an accurate print, but what the heck. I double print it. It’s not like I’ll be using the ID to get on or off the ship. It’s more for a memory.

She takes the paper, the inkpad, and is off.

Before we’ve gotten half way through our drinks, Nadezdha returns. Dan had decided the double print was a no go and reprinted my photo. So I make a better mark this time. Use more force, more ink.

The captain passes Nadezdha in the hallway on his way back to kibitz with us.

“Did you get it?” he asks me of the ID.

“Not yet,” I say.

“She only has one day until she signs off and now she get ID?” Josko teases.

“Nadezdha just came to get my print,” I say.

“Why doesn’t she like you?” the captain asks me.

“She likes me,” I say, without defensiveness. But I know what he means. There’d been a hint of wariness. There’d been the possibility of jealousy. The touch of resentment at not being the only girl on ship, of having to compete. Only I’d taken myself out of the game, removed any type of threat I could have been to her, stepped into the shadows. I did this because I’d tasted the bitterness of that resentment for one tiny moment when I found out another girl was onboard, and then I’d laughed myself silly for being absurd. I’d left the window open for friendship and realized that most of her standoffishness was a language barrier problem. I know what it’s like to be limited by words. She and I had orbited each other for the past four weeks and only now, with days left to go, is a true rapport starting to form. 
All this rushes through my head. I feel it’s too wordy to explain and wonder how to sum it up simply.

But the captain is past the IDs, past Nadezdha and me, and into another story.

Josko pours us more whisky. The captain waves off the offer to serve him some. Says he has to leave anyway.

I’m mixing a lot of drinks tonight and I wonder if I’ll feel it tomorrow. I’m certainly feeling something right now. Something like a mixture of contentment and the sentiment I sense in the captain’s words when he and Josko and I are standing in the hallway the next day talking about future plans. “We will miss you,” the captain says, and pats me on the arm.

It’s the best sum up possible, simple and truthful. It’s exactly how I feel.

I’ll miss you guys too.

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