Lift on a WavebyAdrian Leverkuhn©
Off the village of Tiputa, Rangiroa Atoll, French Polynesia
The woman sat in the sailboat's cockpit, her legs stretched out in the sun, her eyes fixed on the thatched-roof cottages that rimmed the palm-lined shore less than a hundred yards away. The sun had been up for less than three hours but already the morning air was thick and warm, and despite the steady trade-wind blowing through her hair she was already uncomfortably warm. She swatted absently at an unseen bug, swiped at a couple beads of sweat that ran down her neck and into her t-shirt. A boat loaded with scuba divers roared by on its way to the pass that led from the lagoon out to sea. She watched them for a moment, envied their mobility, envied the fact that in a few days all those smiling faces would load back onto the ATR airliner on which they'd so recently come and hop back to Papeete in a half hour or so, and then on to places like Paris or New York. She, on the other hand, would be sailing south with her husband to Papeete, and it would take days.
She was tired, tired of living her husband's dream, tired of living in a forty foot sailboat, tired of living in other people's idea of paradise. She thought, sitting in the boat's shaded cockpit, about what her idea of paradise might be now, now -- after a year and a half at sea. First and foremost, Paradise would be air-conditioned and Paradise would not rock and roll with each passing wavelet. When she heard thunder and saw lightning she would not fear for her life and if the wind stopped blowing she'd not become consumed with visions of dying of thirst, her bloated tongue black and hard, her mouth so dry she couldn't swallow. Every time she walked across a room she'd not have to worry about being flung sideways into hard furniture, and if she never had to look at a GPS readout again that would be too soon. And if someone, anyone ever asked her to start a dead-reckoning plot again... well, she'd be more than happy to acquaint the poor fool with dead, alright.
But still, there were times...
Like last night. David had miraculously produced a bottle of ice-cold Riesling to go with the lobsters fishermen had plucked from the lagoon earlier that day. He'd rubbed chilled aloe on her sun-burned shoulders and the tops of her ears, then he'd kissed her so gently on the neck that chills had run up and down her spine -- and he'd been so gentle and caring with his lovemaking that night. And she'd felt once again how the dome of the night sky out here millions of miles away from 'civilization' could be so staggeringly overwhelming. The Milky Way looked like thick white steam rising against a backdrop of infinite black velvet, and lying in the cockpit awash in orgasmic afterglow she'd never felt so connected to ebb and flow of life, indeed, to the very universe above.
No, she'd never felt more alive in her life. The whole thing was... a paradox.
If she tried to catalogue all she and David seen and done over the past eighteen months she knew she'd need hundreds, if not thousands of pages to document it all: Seattle to San Francisco, fog and logs, seeing a Great White in the Farallons take a seal pup; south to Newport Beach, where they'd spent a few weeks provisioning and making minor repairs -- and that quick trip to Disneyland; then south again to San Diego and Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas -- which had seemed more like LA than the sleepy Mexican village she'd been looking forward to. Then their first real ordeal: a month at sea, twenty seven hundred miles from Cabo to the Marquesas, the doldrums, the brief though indescribably violent line storms that pushed through with little, or at night, no warning.
But the boat always did just fine, and so had David -- in fact, he seemed to thrive more with each passing adventure. Only as the third week wore on had she begun to feel completely out of place, so stripped bare of all she'd once held so dearly. Then she'd begun to feel trapped. Trapped, like she was caught in someone else's dream, like she was just a minor, peripheral element in a vast unfolding drama that, frankly, she didn't care about in the least -- because, after all, this wasn't her drama. As the boat drifted through the doldrums she found herself looking at David and wishing she'd never met him, never married him, never borne him his child. Wishing he was dead and gone and somehow someone or something would miraculously appear in the very next instant and take her away from this never-ending nightmare of rolling seas. She needed, she told herself, to change course.
Thereafter she'd grown skittish and cross, she stopped eating and began avoiding David, even as the doldrums fell away and the wind filled-in, even as they began cracking off hundred-seventy mile days. Then one day David caught a tuna and seared steaks for dinner, a couple of land birds flew over as the sun set that evening and voila! the next morning -- right where David said they would be -- the jagged spires of Nuku Hiva lined the horizon and she'd simply broken down. She'd cried for hours and David had simply let her be. He couldn't possibly understand!
She was sure he wouldn't understand, either, even if she told him. He was just too wrapped up in his dreams, she told herself, to care about anything or anyone beyond the limited horizon of those goddamn dreams.
"Let's see, you're sixty-three years? Can you describe your symptoms?" the physician said, her French accent so thick the man could almost understand something like every other word.
"A dull, diffuse pain, back here," he said as he pointed to the back of his pelvis. "And now it hurts like crazy to take a pee. Not in that thing," he said, pointing to his penis, "but deep inside."
The physician nodded. "When was your last PSA test?"
The man crossed his arms protectively over his chest. "Oh, hell, now I'd say almost two years ago."
The physician bunched her lips and frowned, then walked over to a cabinet and took out a big tube of lubricant and a couple of latex gloves. "You know what comes next, no?"
"I was afraid you'd say that," the man said. "And this is only our first date!" He stood and pulled down his swim trunks. "Where to, doc?"
"Just lean over the table, monsieur."
'Why did it have to be a female? And a cute one at that!' the man asked as he shuffled around with his trunks around his ankles, then he leaned over, rested his forearms on the paper-covered exam table and did his level best to ignore the cold jelly that fluttered like diarrhea down the crack between his cheeks. He felt on gloved hand peeling his cheeks apart, then the cold, hard apex of her finger as it slipped through the goo seeking entry.
"Take a deep breath, and hold it..." she said -- and in it went -- pop!
"Ungh-h-h," was about all the man managed to say, then he felt her finger deep inside his gut, fire everywhere... "Oh, Jesus Christ on a fucking motorbike! Shit goddamn that hurts!"
"Has it ever feel dees way before?" she asked, yet she kept her finger up there, moved it gently around something.
"Jesus, fuck, NO!" he screamed when she hit paydirt. "What did you stick up there? A goddamn truck?!"
"Try to relax, monsieur; you are squeezing so hard you are going to break my finger!"
He tried to ease-off but his legs started shaking, he felt cold sweat break-out on his forehead, then her finger sliding out.
"Well, coming out of chute number two, it's Gonzo, the floppy chicken!" the men said in his best rodeo announcer voice. He decided passing out would be the polite thing to do about now.
"Oh, nothing, nothing." He was panting now, but the pain wasn't subsiding.
"Are you alright?" the physician leaned next to him. She had her hand on his shoulder.
"Oh fuck, that's a bad sign," he said.
"When the doc starts sounding sympathetic you know you're up Shit Creek."
"Ah. Oui, with the paddle. I understand this."
"Without. Without a paddle. And?"
"Oui, David. I think this is about where we are. Sit down, please. We must talk now."
He walked down a smooth, sandy lane, oblivious to the beauty around him for a while, then suddenly aware of nothing but. The tide was flooding in the pass, almost roaring as the sea forced its way back into the huge lagoon. All around him people were going about their lives with an easy rhythm that seemed almost in sync with the sea that surrounded them: fishermen were coming in and tying off at little piers, shopkeepers and fish-merchants were walking down to inspect the day's catch and little boys and girls were running down to look at the fish just for the fun of it all. Such a simple thing to do. Cancer was meaningless out here. This was life. Cancer... was anything but.
And Cancer had come calling.
So what to do?
Maybe he'd pick up another couple of lobsters, another bottle of wine. When the going gets tough the tough get... what? Drunk? Hide their head in the sand?
And as always looking at the rows of fish was a bittersweet symphony. So explosively vibrant in the sea -- and for those first few moments out of it -- the myriad fish now seemed muted and dull... dead... as indeed they were. What an odd circle of life this was, this being human. Somehow we'd made it out of the food chain, he told himself; or had we? Here he was, standing on a little pier in the middle of an indecipherable ocean, looking at men and women and children sorting and laughing and living. And loving. But we weren't on anyone's meal plan anymore, not like all these fish, unless we just happened along the wrong place at the wrong time. But sooner or later we come to the end of the line. That shark is always out there, circling, waiting.
Rangiroa: even the name was laced with potent magic! He looked across the pale blue lagoon, could just make out the slender line of treetops miles away on the far side of the lagoon. Another dive boat full of tourists cast-off to photograph the Silver-tip sharks and eagle-rays that hung around just outside the entrance to the lagoon, waiting for their next meal to come shooting by. He looked at the smiling faces as they passed, at their happy certitude and at the sense of infinite adventure just ahead. All that and more that filled their eyes, and feelings of his own rushed-in like the tide. It wasn't envy he felt, or sorrow for all the adventures he'd never have, but oddly enough, a profound gratitude washed through him. "My God," he said softly, "what a miracle to have just been what I've been... to have done what I've done. To have just been... me."
He looked among the dozen or so sailboats that swung at anchor a scant hundred yards off the village of Tiputa, then he looked for her, for her coppery hair and that defiantly bright white skin. There she was, sitting in the cockpit fanning her face with her floppy straw hat. He looked at her for a very long time, looked back over their journey, and he knew that though he loved her more than mere words could ever say the roughest part of the journey lay just ahead, and he was going to have to put her through it. There was no way around it now...
"But isn't this what it's all about?" he said out loud.
A fisherman turned and looked up at him.
"This mortal coil?" the fisherman said.
"You contemplate life, and death."
"Indeed I do."
"They are the same, life and death. There is nothing to fear. Just live while you can."
The man rocked back under the force of the man's prescience; the world seemed to grow cool and dim for a moment, winds from unseen storms filled his sails, the shark circled patiently.
When he looked again the fisherman was gone.
"C'est la vie," he said.
She turned, saw him standing among fishermen and villagers; he seemed so small standing there yet he had always been so much larger than life. Now everything was different. Now she was at an end -- they were at an end. She couldn't do this anymore, couldn't put up with the beating to windward and the constant pounding motion, the relentless fear that stalked her day and night. No, this was it. She'd decided sometime in the night. It was time to act.
It wasn't fair to take his dreams away. No, she wouldn't do that to him. She would fly to Papeete and then on to Seattle. She would move in with their daughter for awhile, just until she could sort through her life and figure out what to do next. She'd leave David to chase his rainbows.
Or were they windmills?
She went below and began gathering the few things she'd need to make the journey: some clothes and her passport, a wad of traveler's checks and a little cash, and she jammed it all in a little nylon duffel. She looked at the two pair of shoes she still owned -- a pair of musty old Tevas and boat shoes that had seen better days about six months ago -- and all she had left to give were bitter tears.
"I'm abandoning ship," she said quietly as she looked around the teak cocoon she'd called home the past year and a half. She felt betrayal in the air everywhere she looked: David betraying her, ignoring her own hopes and dreams; yet she was betraying him, had been. Hadn't she always consented to this madness, and with open eyes and not even the smallest voice of dissent.
Wait! She'd even been excited about it all -- once upon a time.
Not now. Not now.
She heard an outboard and looked out a port-light, saw David circling around to tie off at the stern. She tossed the duffel back deep inside the quarter-berth and walked up to help him get aboard. He had her little net shopping bag in hand as he stood in the Zodiac and he passed up a couple of nice looking tuna filets wrapped in plastic and some fresh fruit -- and another bottle of wine. She smiled, felt his love for her anew and she felt a little ashamed of herself, then she felt all the conflict return, she grew full of resolve to go ashore and head for the airport.
Then she saw the pain in his eyes.
The sun had been down an hour yet the western horizon was still pulsing with shimmering bands of orange and purple. Venus hung above the lagoon like a lantern, and fish broke the smooth surface of the lagoon as if trying to take wing and voyage among the stars. To the south, looking past the far side of the lagoon, towering cumulonimbus stood like evenly spaced sentinels; lightning played inside one of the larger columns. To the north, just yards away, a couple of new arrivals swung from just-set anchors. There were always new acolytes in search of the dream, that endlessly captivating dream to leave it all behind and voyage among tropic isles forever -- and here they were! Oil lamps being lit and dinners prepared, couples in all these boats -- all these homes -- sat mesmerized or engaged, lost in beauty or lost in the mundane details of living in an ocean-cocoon far from home, all engaged with living and life, this shuttling mortal coil. Everyone everywhere was consumed with what tomorrow might bring, how to deal with it. How to love and laugh amidst all the chaos.
And then the man leaned against the woman, and she held him protectively, fiercely, as it she never, ever wanted to let him go. One arm around his chest, the fingers of her other hand ran through his hair. His head, nestled just under her own, the very shape of it ingrained in her fingertips over decades, the smell of his hair now as it was almost forty years ago. She could feel his heartbeat, his every breath through the flesh of her breast. Such simple music. How she longed to dance in the light of such rhythms for all time.
"Thanks, babe," she heard him say.
"Um-m." She added a hymn of her own to the evening sky. "My pleasure, sweet-cheeks."
"Sweet-cheeks?" he chuckled. "Oh-me-oh-my; I haven't heard that one in a long time!"
"You remember that cake?" That cake she'd taken to his office on his fortieth birthday. A big flesh colored derrière with 'Happy Birthday, Sweet Cheeks' emblazoned across the top and bottom. "Remember how embarrassed you were?"
"Boy, do I!" He reached up and gently stroked her arm as precious memories danced again. "Wasn't that the year we chartered that first sailboat, with Bill and Alice?"
"Yes," she said as she too fell into chance dancing memories. "Tortola."
"God, that was such a fun trip."
"When we fell in love with sailing," she said, "Dreamed of sailing away someday."
"I know you've been miserable, babe. You want to call it quits?"
She felt a tenseness creep into the space between them, an unwelcome, intrusive tremor.
"Dave, let's not talk about it now. We need to find out what we're up against."
She relaxed. She'd half expected him to say something like "We! What do you mean 'We'? Nobody said anything today about 'We' having cancer!"
But he hadn't said that, had he?
Did he really feel that way? Was he really still so connected to her after forty years?
"Do you want to fly home from here? We could leave the boat..."
"No, no; let's get her to Tahiti, put her on the hard there if we have to. There's supposed to be a fine hospital there..."
"You don't want to go home?"
"I don't know. Maybe. The doc said there are a bunch of tests they need to run to figure out the best kind of treatment. Not all of them involve surgery, especially if it's advanced."
She felt a cold grip on her heart. Her father had died of prostate cancer when he was 67. His physician had missed it and missed it for years, discovered it only after the cancer had spread into his spine. She fought to push away memories of her father wasting away, morphine the only thing that kept the pain from annihilating his very soul. She struggled as an image of David stricken like that filled her mind and suddenly she felt like crying, like she was in mourning.
"Don't give up on me, babe."
'God, he said that like he's reading my mind...' The thought ricocheted around for a moment.
"I won't, Sweet-Cheeks. I promise."
Something bumped along the side of the hull -- hard enough to swing the mast.
"What the hell!" David said as he pushed himself up.
He leaned out of the cockpit, leaned to look down at the waterline, and she heard him take-in a sharp breath:
"June," he whispered excitedly, "come here. Be quiet about it, too."
She made her way to his side and leaned out, looked down on a Killer Whale calf not yet free of its umbilical cord. Its mother swam on her side not five feet away.
"Something's wrong," he said. "See the cord? It's wrapped around the pectoral fins, holding the little guy under. The placenta must still be attached inside the mother."
"Dave, should we do something?"
But he was already up. He jumped down the companionway and right back up; he put a Swiss Army knife in his mouth and without a word jumped overboard.
"Put the ladder down, would you?" she heard him say as soon as he broke surface. She leapt along the lifelines until she came to the boarding-gate, then unlatched the folding ladder and let it flop down into the water. With one hand on the ladder he grabbed the calf and hoisted its blowhole up onto his free shoulder. She thought it seemed very still, too still. Then she saw its fluke move once, heard it take a small breath, then David take his little knife in hand and open the blade; he cut the cord with one clean stroke and a little puff of black disappeared into the water, then he slowly unwrapped the cord from the little guy's body. The mother disappeared.
"It's not moving much," she said. "Maybe you should slap its ass!"
"Hm-m, not a bad idea. I need to tie the cord if she's not going to..." He rubbed the calf's body briskly, then slapped in gently a couple times. He saw the calf's eye then, saw it looking deeply into his own, and as suddenly it twisted free and disappeared beneath the purple surface of the water and was gone.