Friday Harbor

16 years ago I woke up to a message on my answering machine from my father, telling me he was okay, and that a plane had flown into the Twin Towers. I turned on the TV and there they were, one tower trailing a stream of black smoke. All throughout the morning- the tower collapsing, the women in the green dress jumping to her death, the news of the plane crash- I was convinced it was a dream. I wandered outside after a while, and stood stripping the bark from a tree out front. The birds were singing, and I hated them for it.

We crossed the straits quietly yesterday, with no wind, towards Friday Harbor. The first thing I did was hop off the boat and get myself a scoop of lemon ice cream from Lopez Island Creamery. Then I went on some errands and walked to the small airport. It was hardly the forest ramble I’d been hoping for, but the motor got fixed, and we were able to pump out the holding tank and get some fuel.

I also met Popeye, the Friday Harbor seal mascot, of whom there is a status on the green near the marina. I was walking on the dock and heard a splash, and crept up to see him rolling in the water, small and speckled, with one milky-blind eyes like a moonstone. After a while, he impatiently slapped the water with a clawed flipper. Some people nearby told me he was agitating for fish, of which there was none. Eventually he left in disgust, gracefully dropping below the water and undulating away. He was there this morning, too, upside-down and snorting gleefully in a slip by the sailboat, his gray and white spotted belly on full display. They really do remind me so much of dogs.

It is a beautiful warm day, with unfortunately no wind. We’re motoring up President’s Channel to Matia Island, with Sucia as our fallback. The islands are glowing in the sun, honey-colored fields and gray-and-beige bluffs, thickly forested with evergreen and madrona. Seal heads pop up from the water, inclining their heads grandly towards the sky. I am sunburned and thirsty and content.

Fort Flagler

When we came to the boat, it was covered in ash. The rain had not yet washed it clean. Our fingers turned gray as we readied her to leave the slip. I was still glum from saying goodbye to the dogs- even leaving for a week renders me slightly heartbroken.

The air was congested with mist and drizzle, the horizon painted in grays and blues, with the slate cutouts of forested islands before us, and dove and lavender land further on. The water was the color of lead. We left quietly, yawning, wishing for sun.

After turning past Whidbey Island we were running before a wind strong enough that we flew the new spinnaker. It is patterned in primary colors: red, yellow,a nd blue. It glowed from behind, even in the faint light, as I feasted my eyes on its brightness. The boat loped along at over 7 knots, the spinnaker full as a parachute. T got a sharp blow on his thumb trying to wrestle the sail, which luckily didn’t break it, but tore off his skin and left his nail a deep purple.

Eventually the wind died, and we were back to the droning hum of the motor pushing us forward. We got a mooring buoy at Fort Flagler, got into the dinghy, and realized that something was wrong with the motor; it died when shifted. In bursts and starts, we lurched to the dinghy dock and hiked through a forest of trailers to reach the path to the fort.

Fort Flagler is an old coastal defense battery from the early 1900s. The enormous mortars and shells are long gone, but many of the structures are still standing, including the huge cement-and-iron fort. One passes small doors leading to rooms marked “Tool Room” and “Power Room” in paint, and there is a long dark tunnel- which we lit with our cell phones- called the “Powder Room”, which makes me think of 1930s ladies bickering and applying makeup, not something hidden and explosive. The acoustics are amazing- we must gather the choir to sing there.

T went to bed early, and I gorged on cheese and caramel popcorn and finished Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”. That narrator! That twist! I didn’t realize they’d toned it down for the Hitchock film. I’m dying to read more du Maurier.

A peaceful sleep and an early start. The sun is shining and its reflection glitters on the water. Huge container ships dwarf us, out of Marseilles and Manila. We passed a herd of glossy, lolling seals, flopping across the beach and rolling in the water. I told T I want to be reincarnated as a seal. He pointed out that if I live a righteous life, I should be reincarnated as a human. I must seek out some kind of salty wickedness that would render sealhood a certainty.

We cross the straits today, and must moor at Friday Harbor for T can fix the dinghy engine. Also, we cannot anchor because I cannot handle the anchor chain and T’s grip is weakened from his injured thumb.

The horizon of the straits is flat and neverending. Seabirds preen and flutter. Here’s hoping for some wind.

The Last Day

On a shuttle to the airport. No air conditioning. I am coated in a thin layer of sweat and sunscreen. Unlike our taxi from the airport, this one at least has working seatbelts. Foreigner is playing on the radio.

I have the worst case of sea legs I have ever had. The ground heaves as I walk, and when I stand, I sway like a tree in a strong breeze. It is so strange to be on land, the stretches of sidewalk and hot pavement, the dirt and stones littered with tiny geckos.

**

In the airport now. It was such a jolt to go from paradise to long security lines and TSA patdowns, Starbucks and bad airport pizza. A teenager coughed on my neck all the way to the terminal. I bought a watercolor of a sea turtle at the airport.

I feel like this vacation has changed me but I can’t quite pin down what is different. I would like to say I’m less anxious, more mindful, or less selfish, but quite honestly I don’t think any of those are true. There’s just something slightly slanted, a little turned around, maybe even off-center. I’d like to be changed. I hope I can carry some remnant of different with me as I return to everyday. Or maybe it will just pass, like the movement of the ground, and as the earth grows still beneath my feet I will get lost in the shuffle of daily life and forget all about it.

Down in a Hole

An amazing dive today at The Blue Hole, a perfectly circular sinkhole down in heavy blue depths. The walls were full of bright red-banded shrimp, and the center was full of sharks. They circled and whirled, swimming by to eye us with their usual impartial gaze. Exiting the hole, we found a blunt-headed, spotted nurse shark resting on the sand, his gills slowly pulsating as he swiveled his eyes to stare at us. When I came too close, he turned his head with a lazy, resigned air, like a tired dog being spoken to by name. There was a sea turtle as well, paddling peacefully by, flanked by remoras. We had to come up too soon- the hole was deep and we were running out of air.

We pull into Nassau today. One more dive… I’ve been having work nightmares every night. Not that work is a nightmare, but it is my main source of anxiety and stress. I chose a stressful job, and it’s never boring, but psychiatry is a discipline where there is never one right answers. There might be forty, there might be none. It makes it fascinating, but some days I wish I could just follow a flowchart and be done with it.

I just got a contract in Hungary (back on email), which has be fairly thrilled. I love the thought of GTD being published in other languages- Portuguese, and now Hungarian. People in Hungary will read my words, but they won’t be my words, they will be in a language I cannot speak.

Take Me to Church

The first two dives of the day were at a site called The Church- another wall dive. I saw my first sea turtle, a rather worried-looking loggerhead flanked by two remoras. There was only one shark today. I’m learning instead to appreciate the small jewel-toned fishes, the drama of the hunt- whether it be a feather-duster worm filtering plankton or a huge grouper swallowing a smaller fish in one gulp.

There is something so meditative about being underwater. My mind still wanders off in flashes, but that’s more static than anything else. As I approach homecoming, of course, anxieties rise. I had work nightmares last night, but my nap dreams today were of little living bubbles, blue and green and white, and in each bubble resided a small creature. The green one took you to the forest, the blue underwater, the white one to the Arctic. It was all narrated in my voice like I was reading a fairty tale.

Afterwards, we snorkeled an airplane crash- a cartel plane loaded with cocaine plunged into the water and tore itself in two a few decades ago. I practiced my freediving into patches of fish and airplane wreckage. Silvery damselfish swarmed like a blanket of mirrors over and under the rusty wings.

Next was Close Mon Reef, very shallow. I greatly enjoyed the schools of bright blue fish that kept swimming up to me and regarding me in a very frank and serious manner. I also found some shed shark’s teeth on the coral, with a little bloody spot where they came loose, like a child’s.

Independence Day

I am salty and pleasantly tired, with water in my ears; I yell when I try to talk. We did another night dive last night- it’s always eerie. There is a moment before jumping in where some sensible part of myself says, “Underwater? At night?” We did see some lovely stingrays and a few slipper lobsters. I find their appearance hilarious. They look like a headless walking lobster tail.

**

I just dove Pillar Wall. I had my usual trouble with walls, the depths are so blue and inviting. The coral was teeming with baby fish, wide-eyed and multitudinous as blades of grass in a meadow, shifting this way and that. The sharks were curious, arcing over to examine us with their hard gaze. We are diving my first wreck in an hour. The seas are 3-4 foot waves. I cannot remember what it is like to be still.

**

The wreck was fascinating: a ship broken open, coral mantling old sinks and pipes and doors. Even more fascinating were the sharks, five of them circling us expectantly (another former shark feed site,) coming so close I could have reached out and touched them. Their skin looks like rich velvet, scarred here and there from who knows what. A gray grouper bigger than the sharks was heavily idling by, awkward and thick-lipped, hoping for food as well. A cloud of silvery fish became a circle around us as we rose up from the depths.

**

We stopped at a small island where one can feed Exuma lizards. They came running towards us, small iguana-like reptiles, snatched grapes, and ran. I spent most of my time paddling in the aquamarine shallows; it was like swimming through a jewel. A cigarette boat full of teenagers speaking Spanish rolled up. They began yelling and standing in the water smoking cigarettes, which I found hilarious. One began kicking sand at the lizards, I channeled my aunt Janet, protector of all animals, and hollered at them in Spanish. I think they found me amusing.

**

When we came up from our night dive, the captain was dressed as the Statue of Liberty in a bedsheet toga and cardboard crown, holding a volume of Hemingway. He shook our hands and gravely congratulated us on defeating the British. “Born to Run” was playing on the stereo.

Danger

Today I jumped off the boat into a cluster of sharks. We were at Danger Reef, where feeding sharks used to be the norm, and those sharks have memories. As soon as we moored the boat they were circling underneath- one with a fin piercing the water in classic style. I couldn’t wait to swim with them. Underwater, they cruised by me curiously a few times. They are dark gray fading to a creamy underbelly, with unblinking beige eyes like huge plastic beads. The Danger Reef dive itself was stellar, with every type and shade and shape of fish imaginable. Little fish with a neon blue front half and a fluorescent yellow back half are ubiquitous. They guard their tiny slips of goggle-eyed babies just above the reef. There are also blennies in the sand, backing into the little holes they call home, then inching out, then backing up again, like the world’s most indecisive agoraphobic. Coming up from the second dive, I spent my 15-foot safety stop staring down a huge barracuda the size of my leg. Silvery, prognathous jaw, inimitable eyes. I should probably take out my earrings.

The Wall (We Don’t Need No Education)

The first wall dive of the trip. It’s funny how 90 feet seems so deep from the surface, but underwater I feel like I could sink another 90 feet and be just fine. It was a beautiful dive: lionfish sporting their spines like striped feathers (even their eyeballs are striped), a murderous-looking barracuda. Tiny, fluorescent indigo fish scattered among the reef like iridescent violets. There is something about the pressure of the water holding me tight and close, that makes me feel I could take out my regulator and slowly fill with water, crawl through the coral and sprout gills.

The second dive was another wall. Despite my best intentions to stick to 60 feet, I sank to 85. A reef shark passed over me and wagged silently into the distance. A barracuda came right me, then headed for T, then receded. (“May follow divers unnervingly closely,” reads the fish identification book.) A huge grouper pouted at me while a bright yellow cleaner fish flicked over its cheeks and jaw. I went up onto the deck into the sun. The Chilean captain was playing “Scarborough Fair” on repeat.

**

I’m reading Larose by Louise Erdrich. It breaks my heart. Sometimes I think the best writing is the kind that breaks your heart.

**

We had a night dive tonight. I saw a violet blanket octopus. It was the most mesmerizing animal I’ve ever seen. First turquoise, then the peachy-gold of dawn, then marbles, it flowed through the water like mercury. Webs of skin scrolled around its arms, undulating like eerie veils, shivering every color of a tropical sunset. We gazed at it for what must have been 20 minutes when my computer beeped and I lost the light, and it swam off into the warm underwater night.

 

High on Ambien in the Tropics

Nassau-

Last night I opened the shower curtain to be  startled by a tiny opalescent gecko struggling for escape. I eventually cornered him with a washcloth and he perched on the rim of a plastic cup left on the counter (for water that isn’t safe to drink.) I looked him over delightedly while he slid sly glances at me out of a liquid gold eye slashed with inky pupil. Eventually I let him go on the cracked cement outside our room, and he wriggled away to the night shadows with relief.

I nearly died of the heat, arriving in my jeans. I was slicked with sweat. I paced the hotel room naked for a while, with the air conditioning on full blast, then donned a thin nylon dress and went in search of potable water. The cement was cool against my soles. I dodged dying Christmas beetles rolling in a frantic vortex, thick millipedes fringed with legs like eyelashes, more geckos darting in the dark. Eventually I encountered filtered water, filled up a couple of small plastic cups, and got lost on the flaky sidewalks crisscrossing between palm trees. It took me half an hour to find my way.

I had a terrible night. I simply could not sleep, despite taking my usual soporifics. I hesitantly took half an Ambien- I’m always scared I’ll wake up lost and naked- and tumbled into a thick pool of dream around midnight. I woke up again at 5 am, and despite my better judgement, took another Ambien, meaning that at 9:30 when I had to wake up, I was high as a kite. I stumbled down to breakfast, vaguely hoping for fresh fruit, but it was a tired platter of powdered eggs, limp bacon, greasy sausages lying in stiff military rows. T kept talking, but I couldn’t hear him- I had to lipread around his cup of coffee while I downed a pile of eggs and Tabasco sauce, and drank two cups of coffee in a vain attempt to counteract the Ambien and gabapentin. Back in our room, I took out my wallet- and immediately was struck by the soft glitter embedded in the plastic. I spent some time sitting and moving my wallet slowly so it caught the light and shimmered, marveling at its beauty. Then I went to the bed and lay down despite T’s protests. “Surely we have ten minutes,” I mumbled. I couldn’t sleep thanks to the coffee, just lie on the creaky bed with my face in a pillow and feel chemicals war in my skull.

Now we are taxiing past pink houses and luxurious-looking casinos and barred cigarette stands that sell earrings by the dollar. I don’t think I have words for how I feel- kind of a breathless calm, a restless, dizzy alertness, my head filled with cement. I couldn’t sleep, but nor do I feel I could move very far. I just want to write. It centers me in the haze.

My OCD was terrible on the plane. It’s terrible in general.

**

I am definitely still high. A trip to Starbucks was a disaster. “I’ll. Um. Okay. Can I get. A sugar-free cappuccino? I mean Frappucino. With no sugar.”

Woman: “No, I’m sorry.”

Me: “Oh. Then. Iced coffee. Latte! Soy. With vanilla. Sugar-free vanilla. Iced.”

I wish I was a normal person.

**

During our first dive, there was a rainstorm. I’d never seen one from below. The same glassy swells, pocked with crystalline spikes, rings of light and shadow flashing away from each raindrop, spheres of water rolling just below the surface.

I love the expressions of fish as I dive. Some glance at me slyly, some fearfully, some with a mischievous gleam. There are perky, smiling fish and fish with their jaws thrust forward pugnaciously as prize fighters. Some fish dart away playfully like children, some flee, some investigate me narrow-eyed. Some simply gaze back in an interested manner, as if they were exploring my home and not the other way around.