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Sea Wife
Author: Amity Gaige

I

 

 

Where does a mistake begin? Lately I’ve found this simple question difficult. Impossible, actually. A mistake has roots in both time and space—a person’s reasoning and her whereabouts. Somewhere in the intersection of those two dimensions is the precisely bounded mistake—in nautical terms, its coordinates.

   Did my mistake begin with the boat? Or my marriage itself? I don’t think so. I now suspect that my mistake took root in an innocent experience I forgot to decipher, the mystery of which has quietly ruled me. For example, I remember standing beside a blindingly blue Howard Johnson’s motel pool at twelve years old, watching a couple undress one another through a half-drawn curtain, while my estranged father disputed the bill in the lobby. Should I have looked away? Did the miscalculation occur even earlier, as I sat on a rope rug in clean kindergarten sunlight, and I leaned toward the boy beside me and accepted his insistent whisper? I still feel his dew in my ear.

   And now I am sitting in a closet.

   Michael’s closet.

   I should explain.

   I moved in a couple of days ago. I came in here looking for something of his, and discovered that the carpet is very plush. The slatted bifold doors filter the sunlight beautifully. I feel calm in here.

   Hiding in closets is the habit of children, I know. I used to hide in my mother’s closet when I was a kid. Her closet contained some dressy silks and wools she never wore. I loved holding these fabrics against my body, or stepping into her high heels, as if onto a dais, rehearsing my future. I never felt ashamed.

       Surely there is some connection between seeking refuge in my mother’s closet long ago and hiding in Michael’s now, but that insight does not help me.

   Sometimes life just writes you tiny, awful poems.

   I am uncertain whether or not I can survive this day.

   I mean, if I want to.

   To go out, to go outside, requires preparation and composure. If I were to go out, to start walking around and seeing people again and going to the grocery store and getting on with it, invariably what someone would ask me is, Do you wish you’d never gone? They will expect me to say, Yes, our journey was a mistake.

   Maybe that’s what they hope I will say.

   But saying yes to the boat was my clearest act of loyalty toward my husband.

   I can’t afford to regret it.

   If I did, I would only be left with my many disloyalties.

 

January 17. 10:15 a.m. LOG OF YACHT ‘JULIET.’ From Porvenir. Toward Cayos Limones. 09° 33.5?N 078° 56.98?W. NW wind 10 knots. Seas 2–4 feet. NOTES AND REMARKS: We are 102 nautical miles ENE of Panama City, catching prevailing winds into the sovereign territory of San Blas. The shape of the coast is still visible behind us, but ahead is just water. Nothing but water. That’s when I realize there’s only one ocean. One big mother ocean. Yes, there are bays & seas & straits. But those are just words. Artificial divisions. Once you’re out here, you see there’s just one unbroken country of water.

    You would never feel this way on land.

    (Not in our country.)

    What a feeling. Generations of sailors have failed to describe it, so what are my chances? Me, Michael Partlow. Michael Partlow, who can’t tell you the title of a single poem. Just ask my wife, her head is full of them.

 

 

* * *

 

   —

       When I first met him, I thought, I’d never marry a guy like that. Too persnickety. Too conventional. No sense of humor! But I was wrong. Marriage and kids and the grind made Michael morbidly funny. He got funnier and funnier, while I, who had been funny, got less funny.

   There was this muscle shirt to which he was superstitiously attached when we were living aboard the boat. The memory of this shirt makes me laugh out loud. While sailing in hot climates, you start wearing as little as possible. And cruising kids, they dress like mental patients—grass skirts and flamenco dresses with muck boots and welding visors and shell necklaces—mementos of places they’ve been. I have no idea where Michael got the muscle shirt. Panama City? It was white, with huge armholes. Standing ashore, beaming, with his boyish face and unwashed hair, he looked like a prep-school kid who’d gotten lost on a hike about twenty years ago.

 

The crew of our vessel is fit and in good spirits. Bosun Sybil Partlow (age 7) is sitting in First Mate Juliet Partlow’s lap in the cockpit. Deckhand George “Doodle” Partlow (age 2?) is doing his best to stand upright in the small swell. He’s pantless, waiting for First Mate to let him whiz off of the side of the boat. His slightly delayed vocabulary is strictly maritime. Boat go, fish go. We were just visited by a very large sea turtle! Surfacing portside with a head like a periscope. Sybil says it’s a spy. Whenever Sybil says anything cute, she tells me to write it down. That turtle’s a spy, write that down in your book, Daddy.

    Pardon me? I say. Are you speaking to me? What do you call me underway, Bosun?

    She laughs. Fine, write that down in your book, Captain.

 

 

* * *

 

   —

       The muscle shirt was so funny because he’s normally such a neatnik, a dandy, and a rearranger. He needs almost no sleep. His mother said he’d always been that way. Here at the house, he used to work late into the night, sending emails and finishing reports, but mostly, man-tinkering. Learning about electrical wiring by gutting another appliance or making little toys for the kids. Sometimes he’d even go across the brook, where he’d built a fire pit, and we’d sleep to the rustic scent of wood smoke.

   In the morning, he’d leave for work as shiny as an apple. He wouldn’t let the children eat in his commuting car. Goldfish, Triscuits—verboten. But the family car, my car? Lawless. A layer of organic material composted under the seats. Mysterious objects thumped against the wheel wells whenever I made a sharp turn.

   I understand it now, sitting here. I understand how nice it must have been for him to have a little fiefdom—a closet, where shoes are paired, and the world is shut out, and you get to make all your own choices.

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