The Memory of Place Ch. 01byAdrian Leverkuhn©
What can you say about a marriage that dies, not quietly in the night, but in the harsh light of broken dreams? What could I say you haven't heard a hundred times before?
My wife had, once upon a time, been my best friend. We dreamed a little, conspired a lot, and had, I thought, been completely in love with one another. We had managed to build a pretty successful restaurant business up over the years - together - and then an unexpected opportunity had come along one fine September day. A friend wanted to buy our place, and it looked like one of those once in a lifetime shots at breaking away from the grind that you always hear about. Was that what we wanted? We were at the top of our game, making good money and enjoying ourselves to boot. But we'd both always been vagabonds at heart, or so I thought, consumed with more than our just share of wanderlust. We looked at the sailboat we'd bought a few years before - even then with distant horizons gleaming in our eyes - and we talked through that night about long-forgotten plans of sailing to faraway places and exploring distant beaches with our bare feet planted firmly in the depths of remembrance.
Remembrance? Why does that word resonate so?
Was it really so simple? Was it lack of connection we felt to our everyday life that pushed us past the memory of place, into the beckoning grasp of worlds we'd never really known? If that was what we had held on common ground - a lack of connection to the past - why did we hold our future in such high regard?
Look at in another way: could so much in common lead two people so far astray?
Liz and I had read books and magazines on cruising in sailboats for years, and while the journey itself always seemed through our mind's eye to be idyllic, seeing the world was secondary to living the journey. Had we become experience junkies? Had the means grown more important than the ends? Yes, and it felt good, too. Heady, enabled feelings ruled our outlook.
We had sailed from our home port of Newport Beach, California to Baja more than once over years before the big break, so we knew the reality behind the dream. We came to know this dream as a calling, and the call grew louder, more insistent with each year we denied it's tortured grasp on our souls, until finally our desire to cast away the ties that bind grew with shrill insistence into the drumbeats of lust. The crescendo came with the offer to buy our restaurant.
After talking about the choices over dinner, we decided it was time.
We moved aboard aquaTarkus after we sold our house. We actually said we were moving aboard for good, didn't we? For good. Not for better of worse, not in sickness and in health, but for good. It was our decision, wasn't it, to not go quietly into that good night? We would journey hand in hand, together, beyond the threshold of dreams. We would walk those faraway shores. For good.
Faraway shores, indeed. I smile when I think back on that night.
We sailed down Baja, then jumped off to make the 'coconut run' to French Polynesia.
I remember blue water. A lot of blue water. No storms. No howling gales. Just an endless expanse of the most startling blue sea, day after day of cerulean dreams come true. Maybe I remember most our first big landfall in the Marquesas. Kaoha Nui. Welcome. We were kaohi nui. Welcome to dream here among the pearl-like atolls and volcanic ridge-lines away from a world moving too fast. Time stopped for us in Nuku Hiva, in the shadow of the cathedral spires of Hatiheu bay.
After only three weeks at sea all our choices seemed vindicated, our future assured.
After a few months in paradise we sailed onward to Tahiti. When we arrived we weathered not storms on our approach to the island, but cruise ships and tourists flooding Papeete like an errant tide of affluent effluence, and it was here that we first perceived the ghastly contours of a world out of sync with itself. So many people in search of unsullied harmony were in the infinite progression of their quest destroying that which they sought. It was like we were all on a pilgrimage, seeking out the holy in an ever more profane world, and the reality of our explorations began to feel more and more like an act of desecration. Over the next year we ran into the same phenomena over and over again. They had built a six lane freeway right over what had once been 'off the beaten path'; commuter airliners disgorged hundreds of SCUBA divers on atoll after atoll, and even remote anchorages were filled with scores of million dollar yachts, and we were all in search of something ephemeral, some connection to our past, perhaps, but all in search of something missing from our lives.
That much was simple to see. It was clear, in-your-face, an unavoidable conclusion.
We were disillusioned. We were on a pilgrimage among disillusioned travelers, you might say, looking for the way to salvation.
Liz and I had both grown up in a world dominated by the aftermath of world war and the shimmering reality of nuclear holocaust just over the next horizon. Emaciated bodies of Jews rotting in lime-lined pits were nothing new to us; we had been schooled in the "realities" of genocide on a daily basis for, well, all our lives, and Vietnam had simply been our generations calling out. Liz and I had gone to college at UC Berkeley, and at the height of the anti-war movement, so we had grown to know one another in the course of our generations stated commitment to end warfare and violence, to gather on the grounds of resistance and to say to the world that we were better prepared to unravel the never ending cycles of history and pave the way for a brighter tomorrow.
Yeah. I know. Can you believe we actually believed that crap? It's hard to look back on it now without feeling a little embarrassed about it all.
Anyway . . .
Moving from the heightened sense of the possible we found at rallies and teach-ins to the corporate sensibilities of Orange County was, in retrospect, the beginning of our journey to the plains of dissolution. More and more, our lives focused on becoming successful, on making money, on buying a house, then a bigger house, that new BMW, a boat, a bigger boat - it was endless. It's hard to look back on it now - from the perspective of our unravelling - as we, like the world around us, slipped into quiet dissolution. But I guess somewhere along the way Liz and I sold out. We joined the Me Generation and never looked back. And it was so fun. Sorry, but it was. I bet Faust had fun until the bill came due, too.
But you know what? Devils always have the last laugh.
Sometime in our fourth year of traveling we decided we'd had enough enlightenment and decided to head back to the States. We knew we wanted to return there, we were just not exactly sure where. We couldn't go back to California, however. That place seemed to have gone wrong, terribly wrong, during our time there. Too many bogus lawyers chasing big bucks, prices out of control. Anyway, that's what we thought at the time.
I had grown up on a ranch outside of Durango, Colorado; Liz in Charleston, South Carolina. We decided, after many lively nights under the stars talking about the options to head for the Gulf of Mexico, maybe New Orleans, and open a new restaurant. Of course, we were at anchor in the middle of Milford Sound, on the ass end of New Zealand's South Island when we said this. Look at a map sometime if you want to get an idea of just how far off the beaten path you can get. Just how far it can be from where you are to where you want to go. Searching for a metaphor? By that point, it felt like we were stuck in the middle of an volcano. We were ready to blow, so we opted for the straightest course home, to buck the trade-winds and head straight for Panama. It was, in retrospect, a bad choice.
Sailing in a small boat hard into the wind and swells of the anything but Pacific Ocean is a job for the well and truly insane, as both Liz and I could attest to when we finally dropped anchor off Balboa, adjacent to Panama City, some forty seven days after leaving Whangarei on New Zealand's North Island. We were beat up, bruised, tired to the bone, and thought seriously of selling the boat right then and there. Anyway, we secured the boat and grabbed the next flight on American to DFW, changed planes, and about six hours later were in the heat and humidity of the South Carolina lowlands. I'm sorry, but you haven't experienced culture shock until you've tried something as harebrained as sailing a boat almost five thousand miles into gale-driven mountain-sized swells for damn near seven weeks, then hopping off your boat onto a still-lurching dock and into a twenty year old taxi, and a few hours later sitting inside a waterfront restaurant in the American South with your alcoholic in-laws.
Take my word for it. You ain't been there, and you don't want to go.
Let's get down to basics, right here, right now.
If Liz's dad was a pistol, her mom was an anything but small nuclear bomb.
Fritz Strohman had come back from dropping bombs all over Europe in 1945 and within a few years managed a Buick dealership for some of the local rich kids. He made a good name for himself, married the unimaginatively wild and beautiful Betsy Cummins, and somewhere along the way they managed to have some kids. Betsy was the hard-charging Duke alum, the real go getter type, went on to Georgetown Law before returning home to go through all the local boys like a hot knife through buttered grits. They were a team. A well-lubed team, too. Fritz went out on a limb in the 70s and mortgaged his soul to buy a Japanese car dealership, and, well, the rest is, as they say, History. By the 80s he bought the Buick dealership out from under the rich kids and never looked back, at least until his right carotid artery got so clogged up from cheese grits and chicken-fried steak that he almost died while banging away on one of his secretaries.
Then he found God.
Betsy Strohman? Well, the last time I had seen her she just didn't have any use for God.
Very practical woman. Liz was a lot like her in some ways. As I watched mother and daughter that afternoon in Charleston, so much became clear. Where mom was rapacious in her lust for power and control, Liz was demure, a little more manipulative when she wanted something from her daddy. I felt for the guy. He'd never had a chance.
Charleston isn't quite New Orleans when it come to haute cuisine, but, to be fair, some of the restaurants there come pretty close. Fritz wanted to go in with us and open up a restaurant, a world class place to put the city on the culinary map. Betsy did too, really she did. Wouldn't we move back, settle in, have some kids before it was too late? I think Betsy looked at her watch right after she said that. Liz, bless her heart, was licking her lips she wanted to come back so badly.
Like I said, Liz was a lot like her mom in some ways. I never had a chance.
We returned to Panama on American a few days later, got aquaTarkus all ship shape and readied her for her first trip through the canal. We rounded up some gringos at the local yacht club to help with lines in the locks, and as soon as the (required) Pilot from the Canal Zone was dropped off on the boat we shipped anchor and motored off toward the Miraflores locks.
You know what I remember most about that day?
The look on the Pilot's face when he saw our boat.
No, no super-tanker for this Pilot. A forty foot Hinckley. A sailboat! The poor guy looked so crestfallen it was almost heartbreaking. We motored across Gatun Lake looking over our shoulder as thousand foot long behemoths slipped silently through the water not a hundred yards off our ass. Our Pilot hid his face so their pilots - on those real ships - wouldn't see him stuck on this lowly gringo yacht trolling along a five knots.
I felt for the guy. Really.
We stopped off in the San Blas Islands after we cleared the canal before heading north across the Caribbean. Once these islands were famous, out of the way places. Now? They were overrun with tourists from a never ending flow of cruise-ships that plied the Caribbean, and hey, everyone was smiling, making money, having a hell of a time.
Me? I'd bought some local rum in Balboa. It was like rocket-fuel, so I was set. I'd even given the Pilot a bottle for his troubles before he hopped off the boat, muttering obscenities in spanish.
He almost smiled as he motored away. Almost.
They probably gave away better rum on the cruise ships. Poor guy.
A couple of months later we were sailing past Fort Sumter into Charleston Harbor, bound for a huge marina on the west side of the Battery. I wondered if it was just me, but why did the walls of the fort look like they were coated in old, worn out blood? What memories of place did those walls hold inside? More to the point, would history repeat itself in the world around these troubled waters? It always seems to, doesn't it?
Liz and I followed a subtle progression from happiness at our newfound sense of place after we arrived in Charleston, to a mild entropy as time wore on. As we drifted within this entropical paradise, found we were trying to be polite to each other, to avoid conflict at all cost. To not rock the boat. All of a sudden she was talking about buying a house, setting down roots, having kids. Hell, we were almost forty years old and she was talking about kids, not just one. The longer we stayed tied up at that dock the more insistent this talk grew. It was frankly upsetting, and she took on a wistful, pouty look when she hinted about moving back to the street she had grown up on as a kid; pretty soon it was like she was telling me it was her societal obligation to bring two or three more souls back into that world, and that world only, and well, when contrasted against the life we'd known the past four years her whole performance just struck me as being so delusional it was almost comic.
And I told her so.
Hell, I don't know, maybe I said that while I was looking at Fort Sumter off in the distance. Maybe I fired the first shots of our soon to be uncivil war. I don't know anymore, and in the long run I don't imagine it really matters. Anyway, she looked at me like I'd thrown acid on her dreams. I'd never seen so much hate on another human being's face in my life, and I looked at her for a moment - until she turned and looked away, looked at the old spires and buildings along the Battery looming out of the afternoon smog - and I shuddered at the feeling of desolation that swept over me. Had I really ever known her? Had we really been on such a different path? Had I really been so clueless?
Yeah, probably so.
I thought back on our first day back in Carolina. I found the marina Liz's dad had booked for us, and called them on the VHF as we sailed into the Ashley River channel. They said they'd send a boy out to help us into our new slip. We motored around in circles for a while until the kid bounced down to the docks, then I followed his directions and took the boat into the slip he pointed out to us, and Liz and I jumped off to help him get her tied off.
"Where y'all coming from," the kid asked us as he helped us with the lines.
"Whagarei," said I, ever the seasoned world traveller.
"Oh, that down in Florida?"
"New Zealand," I tossed back at him in my slowest deadpan. John Wayne didn't have nothin' on this white boy!
"Oh, right," the kid said, "down by Miami, ain't it. Heard of that place."
"Yeah." Me too, kid.
No one could relate to what Liz and I had just done, let alone what we'd been through emotionally. Funny I couldn't see what was coming.
I gave it my best. I tried to like her dad, I tried to like his country club and his brown Rolls Royce, but the poor guy was so sauced by noon he never remembered a thing we talked about. And Betsy, Liz's mom? Hell, the first time she slipped her hand under the table and tried to pull down my zipper . . . well, I don't know. Things between all of us just seemed to get weird after those first fateful encounters.
Maybe weird isn't the best word to describe events, but it's damn close. Things got weird. In a hurry. We opened the new restaurant down on one of the rivers, a pretty upscale river country place that soon hit the cool zone and was the place to be seen. Liz and I became local celebrities for a while, the book we penned about our adventures in the Pacific did a brisk business for a week or two, and things were beginning to shape up as, well, maybe predictable would be stretching the point, but things were at least tolerable between Liz and I. We were making money again, everyone was happy, and . . .
. . . She came back from a doctors appointment one day, told me she couldn't have a baby, that we'd waited too long. You're off the hook, she told me, but it was she who looked relieved. She had me to blame, I guess. I'd made her wait, or so the story went, so it was all my doing.
And nobody seemed to give a damn. Not her mom, not her dad, not the brother or sisters who dropped by the restaurant occasionally to claim a free meal. Surreal. But Liz did seem to care about not being able to have a baby, in a convoluted way that felt increasingly manipulative. I think there were so many conflicting emotions boiling around in there, well, I thought for a time she was just starting to come unglued.
No. She was thinking along different lines. She was plotting a different course.
We still lived on the boat; neither one of us could let go of that, but the space there began to feel small. It never had before, not in 12,000 miles and almost five years, but now we just couldn't keep out of each others way. Everything was out of balance. Everything seemed so confined.
I came home one night and found a Sheriff's Deputy waiting for me by the dock.
He served my divorce papers to me there in the early morning fog, and gave me notice that the boat - my home - was now off limits until the divorce proceedings settled questions of ownership. He would wait while I got some things off.
True to form, all Liz's things were gone too. The boat looked like a huge, empty tomb, now impossibly large. Had we really taken her half way around the world? The Deputy came below and looked around, and I talked to him about the journey Liz and I had made. He was impressed. Hell, so was I.
Had we really done so much together?
And learned so little?
The lawyer I'd found to handle incorporating the restaurant - one Lisa Mullins, and a real tiger by all accounts, as she was universally loathed by most of the divorced men in town I'd met - knew more about my life than I did by this time. Mullins told me not to worry, she'd take care of me. Within a few days I had rented a small loft near the Battery, and a small circle of friends I'd accumulated at the marina began to rally round. Lot of rum flowed in those first few days, though. It was dicey for a while. Things felt alright, like I might live, you know? Hell, stranger things have happened, but when your world gets rattled like this it takes a while to figure out which way's up.
I kept to a schedule. Walked to a coffee house up the street in the morning, got to the restaurant by nine to get things up and running, hit the office behind the kitchen to get caught up on all the paperwork, then out on the floor to get ready for the lunchtime onslaught. I hardly ever bumped into Liz, and she was cordial when we did.
The lawyer called after a few weeks. Liz and her family wanted all interest in the restaurant; I could have the boat and a little cash. Sounded like a good deal for them, not too bad for me, so I gave Mullins the go-ahead. Liz signed off on it a few days later, so the case went to court uncontested, and after a few weeks it was a done deal. Seventeen years of marriage. Done. Over. Faithful all the way, reasonably happy with each other, we didn't hit each other, bite each other, tell lies about each other. We had watched the idealism of our generation take hold and move the world, we had tried to reach out into that world, tried to understand the forces that always seemed to keep people at each other's throats. No matter. In the end we turned on each other. Maybe like everyone else in our generation, we just self-destructed when we realized the enormity of what we'd attempted.