Looking for That Woman-Girl
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
A Year and a Half Before the Voyage Begins
Shit. Shit. Shit. I've done it again. My watch is set five minutes fast, and still there's no way I'll make it on time. I have to finish this e-mail, print tomorrow's assignment, and make copies of where did I put that book of engravings? Did I tell my sophomores Coleridge was an opium addict? Is there a faculty meeting this week? I could have sworn I put that book
Focus, Janna, focus.
Mitch's writing shows great improvement, and our support will only further his progress. If you have any other concerns, feel free to contact me.
OK, that's fine. That's tactful. It's fine. Now end with Best or Sincerely? Best.
OK. Reread. Reread. Reread. OK. Ready to send. No, Sincerely.
The student desks sit idle. My classroom is dark and cool. But someone has twisted the knob on the bathtub toy in my chest. flapflapflapflapflap. I start shoving stuff in bags laptop, student papers, an illustrated copy of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the red brick that is my bible: Norton's Anthology of British Lit. Now, faculty meeting this week? Check desk calendar. Yup, Wednesday. And 6:30 a.m. student government tomorrow. And community service permission slips due Friday. Last Friday. Damn.
By the time I lock my door, walk halfway down the hall, return to get a book for my philosophy elective, lock my door again, go to the office and make copies, go to the faculty room to print out the assignment I forgot to print in my classroom, go back to the office to make more copies, and rush to the front of the school, I'm twenty-five minutes late. My boyfriend, Graeme, who's always on time except when he's early, has got to be pissed.
I open the passenger-side door of his blue 4Runner, and the stale smell of Taco Bell wafts out. "Sorry. Sorry. Sorry," I say, bunching my shoulders. He's listening to the Mariners' game and doesn't respond. I look to the back of the SUV, which doubles as Graeme's closet: climbing gear, wrinkled work clothes, a spare tire, an outboard motor for his twenty-four-foot sailboat. Not a lot of room. So I haul my laptop case, my purse, and my book bag into the passenger's seat with me and weave the seat belt beneath the whole mess. Then I turn to him.
"Really, I am so so sorry for being late," I say.
He leans into the sound of the radio. Dave Niehaus's voice booms, "And the Mariners retire the side. No runs, no hits, no errors. Mariners five. Indians two."
Silent as a paperweight, Graeme puts the car in gear. The engine growls as we pull away from the curb. The mountain of bags on my lap is heavy, so I toe aside travel mugs and Taco Bell wrappings and Diet Coke bottles in the foot well, and stuff my bags down, bowing my legs around them. I lean toward Graeme and give my creeping underwear a tug. Then I fold my hands in my lap to wait.
I'll just be silent, I think.
Let Graeme cool off.
Wait till he's ready to engage.
Then I blurt, "Look, I really am sorry. So will you please just say something?"
His voice comes out slowly, stiff as cracked mud: "You want me to say it's OK. Like I always do. But the thing is, Janna, sometimes it's not." He clears his throat and looks away; confrontation for him is like the turn-and-cough test at the doctor's office. But he's had plenty of time waiting in the car to get his gumption up. "Being late is a sign of disrespect," he says. "It makes me feel like you value your time over mine."
Graeme continues for another two blocks, laying out "I feel" statements as gently as he would eggs, just like the couples counselor taught us. Everything he says is dead-on. Everything he says hurts.
"You're right," I say, when he's finished. "I'm so sorry I was late." The air between us hangs for a moment. Against my better judgment I add, "But I had parents to mollify. And copies to make. And. And" my voice is wavery and thin "there's just so much "
"I know there's a lot to do, Janna. I work for a living, too, remember?" He takes a deep breath and softens his tone. "You've got to prioritize. You've got to put yourself first sometimes. You've got to find balance." I glance at him, and when he moves his hand from the steering wheel I think he's going to put it on my knee.
He shifts into fourth. "You spend your school nights planning lessons. And your weekends grading papers. And your evenings going to proms and basketball games and who knows what else. Our relationship gets the scraps of your spare time, and meanwhile you're more stressed than ever." He sounds genuinely concerned, which, aside from being nice and all, feels like a medicine ball on my chest; it'd be easier if he just picked a fight. Then he says, "At some point you've got to add me to your priority list."
My mind flares. At least I'm prioritizing teaching, not rugby drink-ups, I think, recalling our college days when I elbowed for his precious time. "You know, Graeme," I say, picking a fight of my own, "teaching isn't just a job. It's kids' lives."
"Yeah, well. It's my life, too," he says, hitting the gas through a yellow light. "And I need you in it." He pauses under the weight of what he's just said. Yet it's what he reveals about me next that touches the back of my neck: "The real you. The flesh and blood you. Not this stressed-out ball of teacherly perfection that's unraveling before my eyes."
My defenses jerk: Teaching takes time! It takes energy! It takes commitment! But as quickly as the thought comes, I see that a relationship needs time and energy and commitment, too. And my brain feels thick now, muddied with revelation. I was always the caretaker in the relationship; he was the taker. When did all that change? I cross my arms, close my eyes, and lean my temple against the cool of the window. The tears are coming now. What's happened to me? I think as I feel the car stop at a light. When did I become such a stressed-out whacko? My insides mix the cement of my thoughts. And when did I get too damn busy for love?
This time when Graeme moves his hand, he puts it on my knee. "I love you, Janna," he says. Then after a while, "Life's not supposed to be all work and no play."
I swipe my eyes dry, and the trees begin to tick by: Evergreen. Evergreen. Deciduous. Evergreen. To my silence he tries one last tack: "Look. What happened to the girl I knew in college? Who was fun-loving and up for adventure? The girl who wanted to sail around the world someday?"
The houses threaten to swim again, and I bite my lips in that monkey face that comes before crying. More sad than bitter, I say, "Don't you remember, Graeme? You broke up with her."
I was fifteen years old when I decided I wanted to sail around the world....
I sit cross-legged on the living room floor, my parents' record collection surrounding me like flower petals plucked and tossed in He-Loves-Me-Not fashion. I record every album to cassette, analyze the lyrics for double meanings, and transcribe quotes from Cat Stevens, the Grateful Dead, and Simon & Garfunkel onto my denim-blue school binder. I think: I've been born in the wrong era.
But then, on Crosby, Stills, & Nash's Daylight Again album, I hear a song called "Southern Cross." And though I've missed the boat on Woodstock and war protests, I'm carried away by something else entirely: the Dream of Sailing the World.
"Southern Cross" is about a guy who mends his broken heart on a sailboat voyage to the South Pacific. It's painfully beautiful. Catchy, too. And that day, as I teeter between girlhood and womanhood, the idea of making the passage from love for someone else, to love of oneself, speaks to me.
I take out a blue batik-print pad of paper and, with my ear to the speaker, write down the lyrics in block letters. I listen over and over to get the words right. These get pinned, among photos and dried carnations and green honorable mention ribbons, to the bulletin board beside my bed. Then, in my family's gray atlas, I look up the places in the song: Avalon, the Marquesas, Papeete words that roll like primary colors off my tongue. And my dad explains the nautical terms "reach" and "off the wind," "waterline" and "following sea."
After dinner, I steal the globe from my brother's room and run my finger from California's Santa Catalina Island across four knuckles of open ocean to Tahiti. One knuckle = 1,000 miles. On my Walkman I press play and rewind, play and rewind.
I want to sail a-rou-ou-ound the world.
I want to be that woman-girl.
Who knows love can endure.
And so I fall in love with the sea. Not the literal, wet, let's-go-surfing sea. Nor the Cousteauian get-a-degree-in-marine-biology sea. But the lyrical sea. The transformative sea. The sea that inspires me, years before @ is anything more than shorthand, to end my senior quote in the 1990 Mercer Island High School yearbook with: FindMe@SthrnCrs.
To the extent that women-girls have pickup lines, "I'm going to sail around the world someday" became mine. Boys eat that shit up. None more than my college boyfriend Graeme.
Before meeting me, Graeme's great loves had names like Ingrid, Emma C, and Henrietta W the names of commercial fishing boats his family owned and operated up and down the Pacific Northwest coast. Graeme first went to sea at age five; his job was to keep the boat on course while his parents hauled in salmon and halibut and tuna. By age six, he was gutting fish himself. And at age seven, he was so used to boat rules (can't go on deck without your tether) that one day on shore, he asked his mom for his life jacket so he could go outside to play.
By the time Graeme reached college he'd been fishing for thirteen years. And while he didn't harbor any mad dreams of living at sea (been there, done that), he thought it a good sign that his girlfriend did; it showed she was fun-loving, carefree, adventurous. The kind of girl he might like to marry someday.
But ten years later, during that fight in Graeme's 4Runner, I realized how far I'd traveled from the woman-girl I'd been in college. I no longer felt carefree or fun-loving. Or loving. Period. I felt stuck. Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, painted into a picture I couldn't get out of. A picture that, until that day, I wasn't aware I wanted to get out of.
Because as fervent and romantic and unrealistic as my long-lost sailing dream had been, so had been my teaching dream: I thought I could change the world one student at a time. And while the efficacy and advisability of this scheme is highly debatable, I passionately loved my job. I just didn't love the person I'd become through my job: a harried, perfectionist, martyring workaholic.
1 anxiety attack
3 major fights with Graeme
5 months' soul-searching
and innumerable therapy sessions later,
I came to understand that I was ready for a change.
Which is how I end up on the back of a Honda 650 motorcycle speeding toward what Graeme and I have dubbed the B-HAG Brainstorming Summit. The past five months of fights and freak-outs have convinced us we need a B-HAG (that's Big Hairy Audacious Goal, in Graeme's business speak) to give us a new direction together. Whether a few months' adventure or a long-term lifestyle change, we're not sure, but it needs to be mutual, something beyond his obsession with mountain climbing and my obsession with teaching. And we need to do it now while we're still young, still childless, and still crazy enough to go for it.
I've dressed up for the occasion in a buttery beaded sweater set, cute black pants, and my number one accessory: a smooth-and-lift bra. But then Graeme tosses me a crusty, old rawhide jacket that looks like it's been in a wreck or two, which is precisely why he insists I wear it. And even though it's a hot August day, he vetoes my open-toed sandals in favor of hiking boots, and gives me gloves the size of moon boots to wear. "Safety first!" he says. When I pull on Snoopy-style goggles over my (neon yellow) helmet, the damage is complete. Sexy biker-babe Barbie? I'm Skipper, her dorky little sister.
Luckily, when you're riding on the back of a motorcycle going 50 mph with your arms wrapped round the man you love, sexy comes rushing back. We pull up at Anthony's, a splurge of a seafood restaurant at Seattle's waterfront, and in one swift arc I swing my leg off the back of the bike. I pull off my helmet and shake out my (limp, mousy brown) hair like in the movies. It's Saturday night. I'm ready to brainstorm.
Graeme locks the helmets to the bike while I rummage through my bag for my strappy sandals. There's my wallet, there's a condom, there's a tin of curiously strong mints. There are no cute, black, strappy sandals.
"Shitfuck" is the expletive my dad invented years ago to show my brother and me how silly we sounded saying shit and fuck every other word. It was so dorky it actually stopped us swearing for a while. But now, in my thirties, it's my invective of choice.
Shitfuck. No sandals.
I take Graeme's arm, push my shoulders back, and clomp gracefully toward the tall doors of the restaurant. I soon realize that if I had my (neon yellow) motorcycle helmet cradled under my arm, the hostess would at least have some context for my ensemble. But as it is, the expression on her eye-shadowed, diamond-nose-studded face reads: "Seattle fashion sucks."
When we reach our raised half-circle booth with its fantastic view of the water, I remove the jacket, scootch into my seat, and fold my feet clunkily behind the table's metal pedestal.
And that's our big, hairy, audacious start to the evening.
Anthony's is crowded and loud, and it takes a while for the server to get to our table. Graeme orders a 2000 Côte du Rhone big body, soft finish, hints of black currant and the B-HAG brainstorming begins: Move to Mexico. Bike across France. Become truck drivers. Of course, I don't bother mentioning that some couples our age go after that big, hairy, audacious goal called Marriage. Because every time the topic comes up, we argue. And, anyway, a wedding isn't going to get me out of this rut, or lower my stress, or help me find balance.
So we're sipping our wine and coming up with crazy schemes and looking out over the water. I'm off on a tangent about driving Graeme's orange and white 1973 Winnebago cross-country. "I bet we'd go to some pretty remote places," I say fingering the stem of my wineglass, "and maybe that would lead to some exotic outdoor, mm, extracurricular activities." My eyebrows do calisthenics on my forehead.
At this, Graeme turns back from the window and slaps both hands on the table. I think, He's taking this outdoor sex idea more seriously than I expected. But then he looks me in the eye and, in a why-didn't-I-think-of-thisbefore voice, says, "What about your old high school dream?"
I'm puzzled. "You mean marry Tim Fries, have two-point-five children, and impale myself on a white picket fence?"
"Noo," he says. "I mean" he points to the sailboat masts swaying in front of the windows "do you think you might like to buy a sturdier boat" he's smiling really big now "outfit it for the ocean" his fingers wriggle like centipedes "and sail it to the South Pacific?"
I look at him and I don't think, I like my outdoor sex idea better.
In fact, I don't even think: Do we have the sailing skills? Can we afford it? How do I leave my dog? my friends? my family? What if I get seasick? What if pirates attack us? What if a tanker or whale or hurricane hits us? What if he falls overboard? What if I fall overboard? What if we capsize? What if we die?
I just look at the man sitting across from me. The man I've loved off and on since I was nineteen years old. The man who's asking if I think I'd like to sail to the Southern Cross with him.
And I say, "I do."
Over Penn Cove Mussels in saffron and white wine broth, we plan: We'll buy the cheapest boat we can find. We'll take sabbaticals from our jobs. We'll sell our cars. We'll rent our house. And we'll go on a strict B-HAG budget: No more movies. No more restaurants. No more fancy wine.
By the end of the evening, we're both fully on board the Sailing Dream. All that's left is the biggest, hairiest, most audacious part of the plan: telling our parents.
Copyright © 2009 by Janna Cawrse Esarey