Passion Fruit and Passion

Posted on Feb. 14, 2019, 1 p.m.

Midnight found me, wind-swept and wave-lashed, gripping the forestay of our Panamanian schooner, wielding a sextant and sighting Polaris. Having weathered the worst of Poseidon's wrath, we were on track to cross 23°26’12.5” north by sunrise. Tropic of Cancer. A mid-Atlantic depression had delivered Beaufort Scale 8 winds, with attendant waves that lifted and lowered us with the smooth rhythm of a juicehead on the bench press. The tempest was now heading north-northwest, fuming and taking with it the Sargasso’s spume and spit. In several days it will make landfall, clambering across the continent and delivering to the heartland ceaseless sheets of February rain: weather that only the most perverse meteorologist could love. Heading aft, I observed our wake. In it, a sounding humpback and a vague memory of midwest winter.

A cashed 401K and a note to the landlord: 'keys in mailbox' were all that was required to begin anew. We abandoned our bloated eider down coats at the first Greyhound stop across the Georgia border. We would sail from Savannah. Once at the wharf, we sought the charter service with the lowest rating on Yelp. The horny-handed skipper eyed our outlet mall topsiders and cursed under his breath. But if the sight of us did not inspire his confidence, I can say that the sight of his weathered two-masted schooner returned the sentiment. Neither party was the picture of seaworthiness. But if we were green, our money proved greener. The captain accepted our charter, despite the ambiguity of our journey. South, an island. Which island? Any island. We stowed our only cargo: a duffle bag of beer and a plastic grocery bag of convenience store beef sticks. Having procured a ship, we turned our backs to the sea and our attention to finding a bar. The captain bade us farewell, ‘We sail at five bells on the morrow.’

We boarded the questionable vessel in the predawn, bleary-eyed but alive to the prospect of adventure. Only the barest hint of the coming sun in the east distinguished the dark edge of the ocean from the dome of the sky. Expecting to be shown to our quarters, we were instead subjected to a barrage of unintelligibly salty jargon. Bowlines hallyards cleats keels derricks fathoms luff rum sodomy the lash. Hell’s bells and buckets of blood! We weren’t only passengers on this junket. We were the crew as well. To the captain I stammered a confession of utter ignorance of sailing. He rejoined with contempt, ‘At sea, you’ll be a quick learner. Or you’ll be drowned. Anchors aweigh, lubber.’ The mainsail (I think) filled and we stood stock still as the mainland receded from us without so much as a by your leave. Sailing into the rosy-fingered east it dawned on us that the life of leisure and idleness we sought would be earned through trouble and toil.

On the occasion of our first sunrise asail, calm seas afforded me some time to check back in with the mainland. I framed up the brilliant magenta and ultramarine horizon #nofilter with the bowsprit providing a bold diagonal. The perfect evocation of the very spirit of freedom and headlong adventure, certain to demand follows and, soon after, sponsorships to subsidize our coming island life of sand, sun, and sea. Poised to share, my phone was rudely wrested from my hand by our captain, who had sidled up to me with feline stealth. With the flick of his wrist my phone was arced out into the vast, briny expanse. I stood agape in mute outrage. ‘You can leave it all behind you or you can bring it all with you. I was of a mind you had chosen the former.’ He tilted his head port, indicating a livewell, ‘Rig up some pilchards if you expect to eat today. You’ve spent your life cutting bait. Now you fish.’ Somewhere behind us, at some profound depth, my phone settled gently to the bottom and was swallowed by the silty bed of the ocean.

By the fourth day, our skin had been transformed an alarming shade of crimson that sent currents of searing pain through our bodies at even the slightest breeze. Our muscles ached with an intensity that even our most enthusiastic crosstraining coach had never even contemplated. Blisters, we prayed, would soon be calluses and deliver us from at least one bodily torment that threatened to undermine our resolve. The sea’s ceaseless churn bestowed nausea so complete, so consuming, that at any point one of us could be found draped like wet fabric over the gunwale, heaving and moaning, surrendering the contents of our stomachs to the waves. Each had considered, it was later confessed to the captain, admitting defeat and following our ejecta into the ocean, welcoming the embrace of Charybdis.  

The only respite we received was in our bunks when in fitful bouts of sleep our brains reprised the dreams that had originally driven us to sea: pulling passion fruit directly off lush vines, trade winds blowing over naked skin, fresh guava pulp leaving fingers and lips sticky sweet, strains of steel pan under star bright moonless nights, palm frond fans under thatch cabanas, crystalline lagoons revealing sunken Spanish galleons laden with dubloons, grilled spiny lobster and fresh conch drown in lime juice, mastering the cetacean dialect in the reef court of the Dolphin Queen dazzled by the neon kaleidoscope of schools one million deep all flashing flamboyance swarm intelligence impossible choreography Disney phantasm amid towering coral columns scuttling crustaceans and fluid grooving blue-blooded three-hearted octopodes who bid coy farewell in clouds of ink. Waves lapping at toes. And in the heavens the radiant orb warms the body and the soul. Roused from our bunks with renewed resolve, we stormed the deck prepared to devote our last ounce of strength to piloting our dream ship into safe harbor.

On the sixth evening the captain joined us topside bearing an unexpected gift: three bottles from our duffle bag. ‘I took the liberty of cooling a few of these down.’ He pried off the caps with his teeth. The breach of etiquette did not overpower the hospitality of the gesture and we took the proffered beers. The fruity hoppy nectar instantly exonerated the sun of our blistered skin, mellowed muscles constricted from constant exertion, and soothed nerves frayed raw by the inexorable perils of the deep. Never had our hometown beer tasted so sweet. ‘This may be the first reward you two have earned through grit and honest labor. The sea tests one mettle. And you met its challenge with backbone worthy of any swab I’ve sailed with.’ The three of us clinked bottles. The skipper continued:

'I took your charter because I knew you the second I laid eyes on you. Because I was you once. As a younger man I dug my car out of snow drifts to not be late. Scraped the windshield. Cursed myself for not waking up half hour earlier. Can’t be late. Can’t piss off the boss. Make the monthly nut. Rent. Utilities. Whatever’s left for the groceries. Catch a flick with what’s left of that. I imagined something else. A life where my heart beat to its own rhythm, not that of the time clock. But I punched in nonetheless. Couldn’t wait to punch out. Punched the wall in my apartment one night. Woke up with bruised knuckles and a bruised ego. Wasn’t sure who I was anymore. Next morning I set out again into the sleet, the slush. Steered myself to the desk where I put in the figures to be spit out and sent to the guy who would read the figures. I got memos. I forgot memos. And at five I pulled on a sock hat and went back out into another parking lot. Slid and swerved back home. Parked it in front of a space heater and closed my eyes. Saw the same warm blue waters you see. Fell asleep in front of the TV. Dreamt tropical dreams. In the day crunched snow under my boots from the car to the cubicle. At night dug my toes into sand and let the breeze blow my uncombed hair. Woke up and prayed the black ice wouldn’t claim me on the way to work. Put in the figures that someone else would read. Told myself that someday I’d read the figures someone else put in. That someday it’d be worth it. Title. Business card. Engraved nameplate. And then what? Day after day after day reading those figures? Polishing that name plate? The dreams got stronger. I could smell the salt on the wind rolling off the waves. Taste the sweet tang of fruit that never sat under the fluorescent bulbs of the supermarket. It got to where I knew there was only one way out. I packed a single bag and went south. Found my way onto a boat and didn’t stop until I hit an island. Never looked back. It wasn’t easy leaving. I left behind some things and people I loved. But letting go meant my arms were empty and ready to embrace something new.'

Standing now with three empty bottles and three full hearts we stared out into the fallen night. ‘We got weather coming our way. Tomorrow the sea will make its last stand. Attempt to break you. We make it through that and you’ll find yourself in your paradise. And you’ll have earned it. Get some sleep. You’ll need your strength.’

The morning was insignificantly brighter than the night. On deck the first gales slapped our cheeks, demanding satisfaction. A dark wall of clouds stretched across the horizon, punctuated at intervals by lightning that revealed the true bulk of the front. The storm announced its escalation with whitecaps. We held fast as our vessel heeled alarmingly. We screamed into the squall with defiance, heartfelt blasphemy against the thunderheaded god that loomed before us, emptying ourselves of everything except the dream that had brought us to this moment. You took my hand. We embraced the uncertainty, the fear, and hence, the possibility: ‘Heave to, Captain!’

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