Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Waiting for My Ship to Come In

October 22, 2013 – Waiting for My Ship to Come In

While in Oregon, figuratively waiting for my ship to come in, I get an email from my chief engineer friend Josko of the Rickmers Dalian freighter saying that they are scheduled to come to port in Houston at the end of September. “I really hope you can find some nice horse in Dallas and come to visit old friend,” he says.

Although September is months away that does not stop me from hatching a plan. From the start, I had intended to abandon my hospitable friend and the Cat and leave Oregon at the onset of the rainy season, but hadn’t settled on a date. In fact, I hadn't even been exactly sure where I would go. Now my future, which has been hanging on possibilities, on probabilities, on tremulous potential, is taking a nebulous shape.

And that shape is a familiar one. It’s the shape of home.

The time passes quickly and before I know it I'm back in Texas (by way of Eugene by way of Portland by way of Nashville). With no horse to hand, my mom generously volunteers me the use of her car and then I rope my sister Michaela into taking the road trip with me to Houston.

“Your old cabin is ready,” Josko writes me. “You and your sister can sleep on Dalian. I will send you an email after we pass Panama canal.”

Michaela and I spend the night at my second cousin’s house just outside of Houston as we wait for the ship to literally come in.

“How do you think you'll feel being on the ship again?” my grandmother asks me when I tell her where I'm headed. I don't remember how I respond. Excited, content, wishful that I were going to sea again, all of the above?

It's been over a year since I signed off as a passenger, shook the captain's hand goodbye, waved farewell to the Filipino crew, and glanced one last time over my shoulder from the backseat of a German taxicab to watch the Dalian get smaller and disappear from my sight. I know that Josko and the captain are on board, but I doubt that any of the crew are the same from my time there since they cycle nine months on ship and then one month home--switching from ship to ship as contracts are filled and vacated. And I’ve just missed the third officer by a month. I had wanted to congratulate him on his and the Russian cadet’s engagement. Rumors travel even off ship to me and I feel like family because of it. Rumors about me still haunt the ship like the ghosts the second officer Dom once told me about. Josko keeps me informed. “3rd officer ask me about you, did you write something new, I told him if he will be good, maybe you can include him in your next bestseller.”

I smile because I still think of the Dalian as my ship, the crew as my crew, the officers as my officers, the whole place as mine.

I see the cranes first. “There she is,” I tell Michaela, pointing, as we’re escorted by special permit taxi into the Houston port and down to Dock 26 where the vessel is berthed. It's like seeing a familiar face from across the room, and she's as beautiful as ever.

“Where is your cabin?” Michaela asks.

“There,” I point, “the fourth window up in the corner.”

The ship's only just come alongside. The gangway only just been put down. The taxi driver makes us wait inside the van while he checks with the crewmember standing guard. I don't mind waiting; that's what seamen do. Besides, I feel like a VIP, after all, the captain knows I'm coming and the chief engineer is my best ship friend.
A few moments later there he is, dressed in his usual black, grinning down at us as we come on board.

“I'm going to give him a hard time,” I whisper to Michaela. “Watch this.” As I approach Josko I say, “What's the deal with the black smoke?” and wave a hand back in the direction of the gently smoking smokestacks.

“Don't even joke like that,” he says, turning pale for a half second, and as a good chief engineer he can't help but glance at the smoke to make sure I really am joking. Then we follow him past the cargo and into the habitable part of the ship. It smells like oil, greasy and comforting, and I don't want to ever leave.

“Have you eaten lunch?” Josko asks.

“No,” I reply. We’d had snacks just in case, but Josko had emailed that he would tell the cook to make us something. We’ve arrived at twelve o’clock on the nose. Lunch time. We go up one level to the officers’ mess room. Out of habit I go for my old place setting and then I stop, “Where do we sit?”

He motions me down. It's okay. I haven't been replaced, at least not today. I'm in my usual spot to Josko’s right. Michaela gets the place to his left. After lunch we head up three flights of stairs to the D Deck. My cabin door is unlocked, the key to lock it back up while in port is on the table, there's a new vase of fake flowers up above the couch, but other than that it looks the same. Michaela and I put our bags down and Josko leaves us to see if the new chief engineer has arrived yet, and to supervise the inspections down in the engine room.

“I could live here,” Michaela says, looking in the closet, checking out the bathroom, testing the comfort of the bed.

“It's perfect,” I reply. “There's even a little fridge. Everything you could need right here.”

Time on the ship for me stands still, broken up only by mealtimes. What I mean is that time on ship doesn't matter. Everything is the same, everything changes from watch to watch, port life is locked down, hours are marked by the activity through the window of heavy material being loaded and unloaded, time at sea passes with the undulation of the endless, horizon stretched water.

I try to warn Michaela. We might or might not go out to dinner in Houston with the captain and chief engineer. We might or might not leave the ship again until tomorrow morning when Josko signs off to fly back home to Croatia. We might or might not be left to ourselves until that point in time. Fortunately, Michaela is not averse to this unknowing.

“You want me to show you around?” I ask her. We get up to go, lock the door behind us, and pass by Josko’s open door. He's there with the new chief engineer who I recognize from having replaced Josko when we signed off at the same time over a year ago in Hamburg. “It's okay if I show her around?” I ask, interrupting them apologetically.

“Of course,” Josko says.

I take her to all the places I can get into without having a key, the pilot’s deck, the Blue Bar, the mustering point outside the emergency vessel, the library and lounge. We spend uncountable minutes on the pilot deck with the wind blowing our hair into our faces.

“I would spend my time out here,” Michaela says. She shows me where she would hang a hammock from one beam to another. It would be a good spot, sometimes in the sun, sometimes in the shade.

“I spent a lot of time out here,” I say. I lean out over the rail wishing it were sea instead of dock beneath us, trying to remember what it was like to be so far away from land. Trying to remember the cadence of the Atlantic.

She and I fall silent, both dreaming of a kind of freedom, our own kinds.

Eventually we head back to the cabin. Moments later (hours later?), Josko’s tall form shadows the open door. He takes us on the privileged tour up to the bridge where he tells Michaela the details about the ship, the engine, the navigational system, the new expensive computer, the cranes, the maps, the ghosts. And then down to the engine room--hot and noisy and ripe with grease--where he explains the water and fuel and sewage systems. When our tour is complete we climb the stairs back up to the D Deck and he invites us in for a beer. Here again, I take my usual seat in the chair, Josko takes his place on the long end of the couch, Michaela sits on the short end across from me.

Their beers leave circles of condensation on the wood table and mine on the arm of my chair. We talk until a few minutes before six. “Chop chop?” Josko says, glancing at the clock as if surprised to find the time changed. If we don't hurry we’ll miss dinner.

As the cook brings our plates to the table the door opens and the captain comes in. “Good appetite,” he begins, and then he sees me. I stand up and grin.

Hugs, introductions, catching up on the time, dinner, stories from the captain--it's as if I never left.

After dinner Michaela and I go back to the cabin. We take out our books and read while keeping our ears tuned for anything that might be going on outside this comfortable space.
And then that something happens, later, after the port duties have been taken care of, when I hear familiar voices from down the hall. “Do you want to come with me to see what's going on?” I ask Michaela.

“I'll stay here and read for a while longer,” she says, snuggled up under the covers of the bed.

“Whenever you want to join, just come around.”

And then I'm back at Josko’s door. The captain sees me first. “Come in,” he orders. He and Josko finish their discussion and then, “What do you have?” Josko asks the captain. He’d emailed me a month ago to say, “I must warn you, captain already prepare some wine for you and your sister.” But the wine got used up somewhere in between the email and now. “You know,” Josko says, “this Amanda drinks anything.”

“I have gin,” the captain says, “but I don’t know if I have any soda water.”

 He disappears and a moment later he comes back with a bottle of gin and three cans of soda water. Then 
Josko has to go on a quest for some glasses.

“I take beer,” the captain says as Josko begins to pour drinks, waving off the gin and tonic, “I don’t have much time.” Then he turns to me, “Where are you hiding your beautiful sister?”

It's like this on the ship, flurries of activity amid the standstill. The captain leaves. The chief officer, another Romanian who asks me when I'm coming back on ship to stay, arrives and allows Josko to talk him into staying for drinks. Michaela comes in. The captain comes back. Josko goes away to handle an inspection. Josko returns. Stories fill the room, liquid levels diminish and are refilled, more stories are told. The captain leaves. The chief officer leaves. Michaela and I leave. Because it's time for bed. The sun is long gone, the night well advance, tomorrow not so terribly far away.

I fall asleep content, tipsy, and happy to share this place with my sister. I’m home, for the moment, before the wind carries me off to the next place.

“In my language,” Josko had emailed me, “they would call you vagabundo. I will explain it to you when
I see you.”

But it needs no explaining. I am vagabond. Wanderer, nomad, roamer. The one waiting for my ship to come in—waiting for the moment when I can come on board for a longer stay.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Tennessee Stud

October 8, 2013 – The Tennessee Stud

My uncle once told me he was going to sing The Tennessee Stud at my wedding. It’s this song that’s on my mind as I head out of Oregon—by foot, bus, train, car, plane—towards Nashville.

The Tennessee Stud was long and lean.

I'm on my way to meet a friend for the first time in person. Only days before this I’d read an article about how social networking sites prevent people from having meaningful face-to-face interaction, true relationships, and can serve to mask real personality. After all, a person can create the character they want to be when they have time to think through responses, set up for a video chat, play games from the comfort of their own couch, post the photos that represent who they want to be. What we end up with is a virtual world with self-created virtual people.

And yet, within all that webbing there is also the real world. A real person on the other end of the line. The Internet, and even those cursed social networking sites, can allow connection to people from all countries and walks of life. I’ve found this to be true.

Case in point, Nicole, who picks me up from Portland Union Station and takes me to the airport where we sit and talk for a few hours before she has to get on with her day and I have to go through security to catch a flight, and I had met three years ago in New York City when I'd gone there with another friend I'd also met online. We were all linked by the commonality of raw food and our individual quests for health. Now, years later and with all kinds of superfoods between us, she and I meet up again on the opposite coast and catch up in person on all the things we couldn't read between the lines in status updates and from photo albums. Friendship. Isn't that the spice of life?

The color of the sun and his eyes were green.

Country music is playing over the speakers at the Nashville airport. It seems only fitting. I wait for the obnoxious, beeping alarm and the following whir of the baggage claim track to start up as I text my friend to tell her I’ve arrived. I'm singing along, out loud, to the song when across the room I see a familiar face, one I've only ever seen before from the illuminated wall of my computer screen. I shrug my backpack into place, tuck my phone away, and head her direction.
It’s go time. That tricky moment when the virtual and real collide. The moment when we discover if we like each other as people in addition to our online personas. The moment when I wonder if four days is too long for a visit.

He had the nerves and he had the blood.

But I shouldn't have worried, we hit it off like gangbusters.
It's not my first time to Tennessee, but it is my first time to Nashville. Erin and her husband take me on a tour of downtown where I see the Symphony Hall and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, cross the new bridge over the river and see the skyline with the glow of the sun beating down on us. We drive by the bar that’s featured in the TV show Nashville which I’ve heard of but haven’t seen. The next day Erin and I take a walk through the tree-lined neighborhoods with two-story brick homes that hint of old money and past time. Later, we all drive into the countryside and hike down to where the old Montgomery Bell Forge used to churn itself around at the Narrows of the Harpeth.

And all the while we talk.

When we sit in the chairs under the tree in the front yard warding off mosquitoes and watching the leaves fall gently around us. When we take turns at the stove to make dinner. When we venture out to the life-size replica of the Parthenon which I’d only just learned about the week before. When we sit at the kitchen table with our coffee in hand. When we visit Radnor Lake. When we drive by the old prison where The Green Mile was filmed and I get yelled at by the security guard for taking pictures. When we stand with our feet deep in the backyard grass and listen to the kids play in the schoolyard next door. When we go out with her friends to dinner at a Turkish restaurant and talk about past life regression, astrology, psychology, our childhoods, music, food, and how each of them knows the other, how I know Erin.

The phrase, “we met online,” is no longer one to chortle at or to be alarmed by.

As I listen to the table chatter I think about this with regard to the article because it was both right and wrong, the Internet can limit and the Internet can expand the world.

At a break in the conversation Erin and I catch each other’s glance and grin. I’m all for world expansion and I’m glad I can now add Erin to my list of “have met in person” friends. I’m glad she invited me to visit. I’m glad the convoluted lines of travel brought me this way.

I’m partially listening to three simultaneous conversations as I follow my own thoughts down the “How did you meet?” trail. Maybe it’s simply my writer’s curiosity for details that makes me think it’s an interesting question for any connection--friends, lovers, long lost family, enemies--what brought you two together? 

A chance encounter, online chat rooms, a blind date set up by friends, common locations, mutual friends, mutual interests, an animal-led meeting at the dog park, work proximity, a wedding. Speaking of that, I may never get married. Or I may. But if I find that special someone online (or offline) there’s worse things that can happen to me than having my uncle sing Jimmie Driftwood’s song to commemorate the occasion. 
Because after all,

There never was a horse like the Tennessee Stud.