The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Adrift

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“What a wonderful life I’ve had, if only I’d realized it sooner.”   ~Colette

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I’d been screwing around in community college for two years—signing up for classes, quitting midway—retaking the same classes.  It took me three attempts to complete Cultural Anthropology, a class I loved.  My best friend and I were renting a tiny clapboard house 5 blocks from the beach.  Blue hydrangeas flanked our front door.  Tapestry bedspreads billowed from the ceilings. Matisse posters crowded the walls.  We’d bought a set of dishes at K-Mart and a cast iron pan at the flea market.  I worked as an aerobic instructor and as a hostess at Golden West Pancakes.  I made ends meet by collecting food stamps which we once used to throw an extravagant “C” dinner party—crab, cookies, and Chablis—for the rest of that month we survived on top ramen.  I had no five-year plan, no dogged ambition.  I enjoyed writing, stories mostly.  I imagined I’d someday transfer to a university, become an elementary school teacher like my mom.  I liked kids, I liked the idea of college, and nothing else tugged at me.  But, in order for that low-grade ambition to take root, I would actually have to develop some drive beyond throwing a “D” party—dogs, daiquiris, and ding-dongs.

To further unmoor my already free-floating existence, I fell in love.  J was tan, handsome and kind.  He was a sailor with his own business and his own boat and a smart golden retriever who balanced milkbones on her nose and could bark her name, Ru-by.  He played the tuba(!), which was quirky and adorable.  He sold a little pot on the side, which meant there was a party wherever he went.  He was also thirteen years older than me.  He was calm and stable—things my erratic childhood lacked.  You see, by the time I was thirteen, my mother and I had moved ten times.  We’d lived in four cities. I went to five elementary schools.  With J, I felt rooted and that was intoxicating for nineteen-year-old me.  J took me sailing.  He took me to nice restaurants.  We lingered in bed on Sunday mornings watching cooking shows and then went to the market to buy the ingredients for Shrimp Vera Cruz.  He drove me past the sweet house he’d lived in with his ex-wife.  It was plum colored with a walnut tree in front and a picket fence.  I harbored vague wishes of someday living in a cozy house with J and his wonderful dog.

Somehow, during this time, when I was skipping classes, sunbathing topless on J’s boat, struggling to keep my checkbook balanced and reading Salinger, I managed to apply and be accepted to a five week summer writing program in a distant city.  I can’t recall what I submitted to get in, but I know they offered me a little bit of money and I was terrified.  I wanted to go.  But I didn’t want to be away from J.  I was afraid he would stop loving me.  I didn’t want to lose the comfort of belonging, of being part of a couple.  Plus and really, I was deeply afraid I wouldn’t measure up to the other students, and my secret love, writing, would become tainted by my mediocrity.  I think J too had some fears about me going because he conjured a job delivering a racing sailboat back from Hawaii during the exact dates of my program and he invited me to join him.  I turned down the writing program to sail across the Pacific with a man.

The sea was warm, dolphins weaved back and forth across our bow, the occasional rainsquall kept us cool, and from the start, I was miserable.  J had enlisted one other person to sail with us.  A curly headed man who had the habit of picking his nose.  While I can picture him—sunburned feet from running shoeless around the deck, hairy potbelly, Budweiser always in hand, the creepy smile of a guy who’d scored a girl’s phone number just before last call—I cannot recall his name.   He and J told raunchy jokes, talked about other yacht delivery trips they’d been on, looked at charts together and pretty much excluded me.  J was busy, navigating, adjusting sails, dragging a fishing line, arranging a watch schedule, repairing things, drinking Bud with the guy whose name I forget.  It was the first time in our relationship where I came second.  J didn’t adore me as much on the boat.  I was petulant and terribly seasick.  I remember retching over the rail while Bud-Guy laughed about my Technicolor yawn.  Because I was the only one who could stand up in the cramped galley, and I didn’t know a thing about sailing, the cooking duties fell to me.  I made a lot of Jiffy-Pop and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, scrambled eggs with limp saltine crackers on the side.  I pouted.  I longed to be at the writing program.  I imagined the great stories I could be writing.  I hated Bud Guy, J, and the boat.

One morning we were ripping along, the ocean a color I’ve never seen again, a blend of new Levis and turquoise, deep and clear.  The contrast of crisp white sails, cloudless sky—the day felt full of possibility, expansive and hopeful.  I slipped on my walkman with Jane Fonda’s workout tape and tried to exercise on the foredeck, scrunching up my grapevines, doing leg lifts propped against a sailbag.  J let out a holler.  He yelled for me to grab the wheel.  We’d hooked a bluefin tuna.  The fish battled. He leapt from the water, a glistening torpedo, rushed forward and then yanked back, trying to tease the hook from his mouth.  He was huge and determined. J and Bud-Guy worked to bring him in.  They yelled at each other, yelled at the “MotherFuckingingMonster.”  They laughed and slapped each other on the back.  Someone grabbed the gaff hook, and a net.  The fish thrashed against the siderail until he was hauled on deck.  He was elegant, yar, a saw-sharp fin along his dark back.  His underbelly was milk white to camouflage him from predators swimming below.  His steely eyes were clear, unlike anything you’d see at the fish market.  Bud-Guy took a knife and slit his gill.  The deck went instantly red.  I smelled the mix of man sweat, salt, fish and the tang of blood and I burst into tears.  The fish must have weighed 40 pounds.  There were only three of us. The fishermen glared at me, shocked and disgusted by my ungrateful display.  I ate none of it.

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Six days later when we should have sighted LA harbor, we were still far asea, caught in the doldrums.  Sails flapped listlessly.  J fretted about fuel.  We’d had to toss most of the bluefin.  We were sick of peanut butter and each other.  Bud-Guy didn’t even bother with clandestine nose picking.  He just went at it in the cockpit.  I stayed in my bunk, reading Gatsby and hating them, hating myself.

One night, with the ocean black and lake flat, the slapping sail a mere gesture toward the possibility of wind, I huddled on deck at the start of my 2 a.m. watch.  Iron Mike, the autopilot, was at work.  My duty was to make sure we didn’t collide with anything.   About two hours in, I noticed a light hovering above the horizon on the port side.  I watched, and slowly a cruise ship emerged.  The festive lights strung along its massive deck were mirrored in the calm water, making the ship doubly glorious.  In the stillness I could hear music, faint and twinkling.  I imagined dancing, dining, and daiquiris—my “D” party. I imagined Daisy and Gatsby getting drunk, behaving badly, and I so wanted to be in the midst of it—to be in the midst of anything other than the dead zone of my life.   And yet, I had no epiphany. I did not see in the listless sail above me a reflection of my own inertia…the job as hostess at the Golden West Pancakes, my lack of grit at the community college, my absence of vision.  All those glowing lights on the horizon made me yearn for was a hot shower and perhaps a job on a cruise ship.

Though it seemed like forever, it didn’t take many more days to get back to LA.  When we arrived J and I didn’t break up.  In fact, despite our terrible voyage, J proposed to me.  He said, “Isn’t this what people in love do?”  Yes, it is what people in love do, but was I in love? Even as I toasted my kind, sweet and stable new husband, I didn’t know. What I did know was that screwing cup hooks into the cupboards of our new apartment, learning to roast a leg of lamb, and sleeping beside someone every night was real and solid.  I married marriage.

Ultimately I transferred to a university and majored in English.  After five years with J, at age twenty-four I finally felt confident enough to recognize that the trade I was making—the bland stability of marriage in exchange for challenging myself and risking failure—was making me unhappy.  J and I weren’t distraught over our breakup.  All we owned together was a sunfaded and leaky Subaru that J signed over to me and I drove away, headed north.

It’d be simple to say I regret my choice not to go to the writing program, or my weeks at sea, or my marriage. Frankly, those are the regrets I thought I was writing toward when I began this essay.  It turns out my regret is that my first important life decisions were fear based.  Rather than risking failure, I took the safe route.  Rather than stepping fully into me, I stepped into a marriage that I knew was wrong.  If only I’d embraced the expansive possibilities, quit moping and learned to navigate, learned to sail, cut the fishing line setting the bluefin free, talked on the radio to the captain of the cruise ship. Or, gone to another writing program, wrote bad stories and good sentences, fear be damned. If hindsight is 20/20, the thing I see clearly now is not that I shouldn’t have made mistakes, but that I wish I’d known sooner that I was capable and resilient, that I could land on my feet.


Natalie Serber is the author of the story collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). She is the recipient of the Tobias Wolff Award, H.E. Francis Award, and John Steinbeck Award. Find out more at www.natalieserber.com More from this author →