“We both have to do it. By tomorrow,” she says. “We’ve been talking about it forever.”
My best friend’s voice makes soft encouragements from a thousand miles away.
“I know,” I reply. “We need this.” We've both been in a rut.
Jamie and I are both working artists, painters mostly, but neither of us has ever committed to the risk of doing it full time. We usually show in galleries and shops a couple times a year and take on a few commissions, but it’s not really enough to live off of. So we go from day job to day job, making art at night on the side. We’ve worked in museums, restaurants, schools, offices, a pharmacy, and, most recently for me, as deckhand on a 137-foot yacht based out of Seattle. I haven’t even painted much lately, and most of my creative output is through photo editing, baking, or sending mail-art, none of which is exactly lucrative. We’ve been throwing around ideas – painting exchange, daily photo blog, someday starting a bakery/coffee shop/art gallery together – but we never seem to get them started. Time is passing fast, and every time I rev up for a big life change, something bigger comes along and shuts me down. But today she brings up a small idea that has a lot of potential. Starting online shops for our artwork.
I run my finger along the wood grain a foot above my head in the tiny boat bunk while we talk, outlining where my ex-boyfriend’s body used to sleep above me. The room still smells like him. The whole boat does. I know it’s the other way around, that the scent I had associated with him before I started working here too had actually been the boat and the boat house where it resided, some distinct combination of lake water and pine cleaner, diesel exhaust and vinegar, wax and cement and expensive carpet. It was in his hair and his clothes and even his skin, and every time I walk through the door from outside, he is the first thing I think of because of it. I probably smell like that now, too.
I tuck the phone further into the hollow between my neck and the pillow and pull the comforter tight around me. There’s something off about the comforter, a weird texture to the surface, something close to velvet or microsuede, that often catches on dry parts of my feet and gives me a little shudder. At the same time, I sleep so well under it. The boat cabin is so small I can barely turn around in it, and the beds are an odd shape, curving slightly with the shape of the boat, and narrow like coffins. I sleep well because I can’t move and because this room, the lowliest of the crew cabins, has no windows. Even in the daytime, when I get under the comforter, it is just darkness and the soft swish of water against the other side of the hull. I think about the Irish tale of the little boy, born of the Selkie, who takes to the sea at birth in a cradle boat, drifting alone through the isles.
I have been drifting, too, for a long time. The last year working on the boat has been a purgatory. I’ve escaped the stifling control of my stepfather as he waits impatiently for my mother’s cancer to subside, yet I’ve been bound up in a quiet trap as I’ve taken over the deckhand job from my ex-boyfriend upon his departure for another job that will take him around the world. Instructional notes and work lists written in his handwriting still surface occasionally, taking me by surprise.“Make sure the iPod is set to Abba. If the boss’ wife doesn’t have her Abba, she’ll get mad!” “Run kicker motor on the Eagle Craft once a week.” “Extra lifejackets behind the bathroom walls.” Every time I try to let him go, there he is again. It’s been over a year. I should have thrown these away by now, or retyped them at least. It’s been long enough.
Two Christmases ago I told him the rumor going around work: that the company was being bought out, that everyone would be laid off. For an office job, it wasn’t bad. I worked at a hip board-game company with an average employee age of 32 and a fridge stocked with ice cream sandwiches. I was in operations and sales and though I was slowly inching my way towards the creative team, I had been there nearly three years. I was ready for something to change. I was worried though, that another office job would leave me bored out of my mind.
“Maybe you could work on my boat. I can see if they need any help,” he responded.
He was a deckhand on one of the largest private boats in Seattle and was in training for his first Captain’s license, which would elevate him to a first-mate position. Growing up in a landlocked state, I could count the times I’d been on a boat on one hand. I knew nothing about them. But it planted a little seed in me, the kind that thrives off of adventure and travel and the allure ‑of stories and the sea. Nautical stuff is way cool. I knew he was planning to travel around the world soon too. He was waiting until he got his license so that he’d be able to find a better job starting out, one that would take him to the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and further. Not long after the job conversation, we had a different conversation.
“I'm really going to miss you when you're off traveling the world,” I told him.
“You could always come with me.” He said it with no pause.
“Maybe I will.” I had smiled.
A month later, when the game company announced that we would, in fact, be losing our jobs in a matter of weeks, I booked a ticket to Fort Lauderdale, a month in a crew house, and four courses in deck handling, marine safety, and hospitality. I read books on knot tying and power boat steering and what the life of a “yachtie” was like. My boyfriend and I signed up for summer sailing lessons on the lake. I daydreamed about renting a seaside apartment in France during the off-seasons where I could paint. We were set to leave that October.
But things fall apart.
Two days before my first class my boyfriend balked. “It will be really hard to find a job as a couple. Most boats don’t hire couples because they worry about it causing tension.” “It will be really hard to be long distance if we don’t find a job together, we will be in the middle of the ocean, working non-stop.” “I think I need to do this alone.”
It was too late to cancel the classes and by then our plan had become my plan.
On the first day, I learned about dressing wounds, the codes on the sides of fire extinguishers, flare signal, and how far away at sea you have to be before dumping food waste. On the second day, I learned about survival suits and hypothermia and inflating life boats. We did test jumps in the canal and made raft formations with our bodies: we were bundled strangers waiting to be saved. My suit leaked, and I was soaked with icy April water. I spent the evening in fever chills and heartbreak. On the third day, I found myself inside a burning mock-ship, flames roaring across the galley counter and along the ceiling towards us. “Aim at the base of the fire and keep yourselves low! It’s 300 degrees hotter at head level!” I could barely hear the instructor through the heavy gear and waves of heat. We moved in groups of three, holding on to each other in a chain through a smoke-filled maze in search of “victims” to rescue. I clutched the coat of the boy ahead of me. I could barely see my hand through the haze. Keep on living, I whispered to his back, to myself.
On the sixth day, I filled a large backpack and flew to Florida. I arrived at Neptune House after dark, the cab’s tires compressing the gravel out front with an awkward echo. It was balmy outside, and large palm leaves soon revealed a set of white french doors. Through the windows I watched a boy with sun-bleached hair doing dishes before heading inside. He was Australian and he showed me to the girls’ room, the large one on the end of the house with three sets of bunk beds. The other rooms were occupied by boys, two of whom were languid on the couch, absently watching “Greatest Catch” and sharing stories of cleaning salt deposits and climbing high on the masts on windy nights. I lay on my back in the dark of my bunk, listening to strange succulents rustle against the window. What am I doing here?
Crew houses are the hostels of the seas. The people change constantly. Some were there for the whole month I was, and others were gone within days. The boys had nomad eyes. They were tan boys with tattoos and mingled accents. The older ones had weary gestures. The younger ones were warm, beating with lust and mystery in their smiles. We talked of dreams and loss of dreams. We talked in Spanish, we talked in French. They smoked like they would live forever. They were from, and had been, everywhere and never knew where they’d be heading next. I found solace in this. There were a few girls, nice mostly, and one taught me the proper way to fold a fitted sheet and where the nearest grocery store was. We bought crayons and Cheddar Bunnies and made birthday cards for one of our favorite boys who left suddenly for a boat job in Dubai. He would be in Egypt for his birthday. We giggled and drew distorted hieroglyphics across cheap paper.
At first it was difficult, the constant introductions followed by sudden goodbyes. But everyone stayed so connected. The boats had patterns and schedules and usually returned to where they had started. There were as many reunions as there were goodbyes. The aching chasm in me slowly filled with sunburn and dirt as I watched the boys in bare feet kick a coconut around the yard. In my class with the old sea captain from South Africa, I learned how to navigate with a compass and calculate the distance between vessels on the horizon. He told us about steering by stars and hand gestures and how to recognize colors and shapes as directions, light patterns and noises in the fog, names and gibberish as calls for help and warnings. He told us that to live this life took constant vigilance. “Constant vigilance! From the moment your boat touches the water, the elements are conspiring to destroy it!” I saw sea turtles and dolphins and, on nearly every rock, iguanas sunning themselves. My skin grew golden, and I tried to heat away memories of my ex boyfriend.
On a day off, I took the water taxi through the canal to the art museum on Las Olas. Haitian artist Edouard Duval Carrie had created an installation of beautiful, glowing indigo rooms called Is Memory Water Soluble? The walls were made up of glass panels that each cradled images inside of them – anchors, birds, flowers, boats, relatives – all cast in an aqueous blue light. It filled me with desire: desire to create kingdoms of the heart – stories that would transform all of the love and longing and compassion that wrecked me each day – into beautiful images, colors, breaths; desire to see everything about the world; desire to keep moving forward and learning; desire and determination.
Outside of the museum, the humidity broke and I was suddenly caught in a mild tropical storm. The winds lifed my hair above my head and wrappd my dress around my legs. It was getting closer to hurricane season. The boats were heading to the Med, rounding up my friends with them. I longed to just stay on, to start my new life as a sailor immediately, but I knew I had to settle things at home – organize and sell my belongings, say my goodbyes. Just as quickly as it had arrived, the storm dissipated.
I spent the first week back in Seattle in a placid motion, finishing my last course - lifeboat operation - and sitting with my roommate for hours at the coffee shop across the street from our place doing crosswords, eyeing the cute barista, making future plans. I would spend the summer working at a cafe while scanning all my books and photos, uploading all my records, and having garage sales. In October, I would head back to Florida with my original ticket to find a job on a boat going to the Caribbean for the winter season. After that, I would do the Med summer season and then make my way down, Middle East to India and over to New Zealand. I’d take a break and work on organic farms there through the WWOOF program. Then I’d head to Southeast Asia, Japan, Hawaii, Mexico, South America – Galapagos for sure – and maybe even Antarctica. I would save enough money by living on boats for 3 - 5 years so that I wouldn’t have to take out loans to go to graduate school for painting. Or maybe I could just buy property somewhere. It all seemed so possible, so close.
But things fall apart.
On the eighth day back, my stepdad called. My mom had been feeling bad for a long time but had been downplaying it. But she was in pain, she could barely walk, something was serious. At the hospital they had whispered about her blood. Tests were done and more tests. Within the day came the diagnosis: leukemia. We tried to understand it, it was so strange, my dad had also had leukemia, when I was a kid. Were they exposed to the same thing? Was it growing up in the Midwest in the ‘50s, when all the fields were sprayed with toxic DEET? Was it hereditary? She had two forms of it at the same time. They weren’t sure how to treat her.
“You don’t have a job right now,” my stepdad instructed. “You can come down and be here.”
And it was true. So I filled my backpack, barely settled since my return from Florida, and boarded the train to Portland The ride was always beautiful and quiet. The evergreens blurred between stations, eventually dissipating to an expanse of water sprinkled with tiny islands. A slew of quaint towns appeared along the tracks as we entered Oregon.
At first, I tried to maintain a balance. I returned to Seattle every other week to see my roommate and go to yoga. My ex and I decided to follow through with the sailing lessons. Now that I was in his industry, he wanted to talk shop. I hoped that now that I was in his industry, he would change his mind about us.
May passed. June passed. My mom got worse. I went back to Seattle less and less.
Those were long days, full of process and pain for my mom, transfusions and chemo and the heavy unknowns. She threw up every single thing she tried until she had to be fed through a tube. Her weight dropped, her hair fell out, her skin peeled away. I joked to my brother, who was still in California, that she looked like Voldemort, and then I started crying. We would sit in her room for hours, mostly in silence, going to the cafeteria in shifts, or sometimes just wandering the halls. Twenty years after my dad was sick I was going through the same motions.
I couldn’t deny my own anger and resentment about my mom’s illness. She had done nothing but help other people her entire life, and then instead of relief, she was given a horrible disease. For myself as well, I had always given all my energy to others, and I had finally decided to follow something I wanted to do, and now it was being swept away. It felt like loss after loss. I had wanted change, but I had forgotten that not all change can be planned or controlled. The control is in the adaptation.
At night I ran away. Some of my friends from college had recently moved to Portland. They had a large community going, with music and art shows, game nights, movies in the park. We cooked food at 2a.m., rode bikes through the dark back streets. Summer nights in Portland were alive. I started making things again. I made posters for events, mail-art and music recordings. My friend Will and I lay on our backs on a set of bleachers at the park near his house. We watched the sky. Clouds moved fast across the stars as we told each other stories until dawn.
In August my mom’s first round of treatment ended, and she was able to come back home to do outpatient care until her scheduled bone-marrow transplant. I was out of money. I had long used up my severance from the game company and had been running on unemployment rations and a couple small shifts as a receptionist at a pilates studio. But I needed to find something real.
My ex called to tell me about an opportunity: a two-week charter to Canada as a backup stewardess. It was something. I called the captain and got an interview. What I didn’t know until I arrived was thatmy ex would be on the same boat. We would be taking the trip together. I knew it wasn’t the healthiest decision, but I was desperate for a break and a job. I accepted. My mom sobbed when I told her, terrified of me leaving. She had grown so small and dependent. “I can’t take care of you unless I take care of myself” I had reasoned with her.“I’ll still be close.”
Because of the ratio of men to women crew on this particular charter, a woman was going to have to share a room with my ex. They figured I was the obvious solution as we were “friends.” For the next two weeks, I slept below him in the bunks, listening to the rhythm of his breathing while I fell asleep at night. He was awkward, ducking into the bathroom to change. He liked the temperature set to what seemed like freezing so that he could bundle up to sleep. I burrowed myself down in my own comforter. The huge distance between us depressed me. What am I doing here?
The captain liked me, and when, a month later, my ex actually gave his notice, I was offered a part- to full-time position as my ex’s replacement. He stayed a month more, training me.
“Hey, look, we’re working together...on a boat.” I said one day during that month.
“Yeah…?” he looked at me blankly.
You are so dense! I yelled at him in my head. How could he forget his statement that it would be too hard to find a job on a boat together? I tried to remember why I loved him so much.
October came, and we held a going away party for him at a homebrew pub. He chose two beer recipes and everyone mixed the ingredients. I came up with names and illustrated labels for both: “Ghost Ship Oktoberfest” and “Sea Bandit Ale.” One of them made the brewery’s wall of fame. I thought about how cool it would be to design labels for breweries and wineries. I was acutely aware of how many of the decisions I made while shopping were based on the label or cover art.
Back at the boat house, after everyone had said their goodbyes to him, he lingered near my truck, flirtatious but cool. The old cassette deck flipped itself with a mischievous clink, and the nostalgic punk melodies of Against Me!, a shared favorite of ours, spilled out the open door and across the dock before being lost to the pitch of waves and the nearby highway. He kissed me, warm and familiar, for the next hour. And then he was gone.
* * *
“So, we're going to check in tomorrow, right?” Jamie rallies.
“Ok.” I pull the comforter away from my body and roll off the bunk sideways as it's too small to actually sit up in. “Okay. Yes. I'm going to do it right now.”
We hang up, and I switch on the dim cabin light and look in the mirror. I try to tame my hair. Tacked to the mirror are various notes – a deck-departure checklist, a magazine clipping of the Twilight trio (it’s 2009, and I live in Washington), an unfamiliar phone number written in my ex’s handwriting, and a drawing of a fox surrounded by Japanese characters.
I remove the phone number from the mirror with a sigh and tuck it into the top drawer with other remnants I haven’t gotten around to actually throwing away. “Kitsune,” I read above the drawing. Fox Spirit. Kiyo, the boat’s engineer, and I have been talking a lot about foxes and folklore. On his most recent trip to Japan, he documented all of the fox statues at temples for me. I’ve always been a sucker for the animals that have conflicting legends about them – mischievous or helpful? Good omen or bad omen? I have more empathy for the misunderstood.
I take my laptop to the crew lounge and click on the TV. I don’t really watch television, but I have recently discovered Fuel TV, an all Action Sports network that runs only shows about skateboarding, snowboarding, surfboarding – well, basically anything with a board, and bikes. Despite my utter lack of coordination on all boards, I have been completely smitten with them since childhood. Two summers previous, on my first hang-out with my ex, we criss-crossed the Seattle lakes in his small motorboat. As his friend steered, I held watch while he gently let himself out on a long line behind the boat. When we pick up speed, he skimmed the water, cool and collected in the early evening sun. I have never seen wakeboarding before, and when he leapt into the air he hovered a moment, and I was unsure whether he would stay there, flying before me, or be lost into the waves below.
Boys are too distracting. I turn off the television resolutely and open the laptop. Etsy.com. I never let myself go to that site, worried that once I see the hundreds and hundreds of listings of cute, crafty things, I won’t be able to refrain from clicking “Buy,” “Buy,” “Buy.”
But it is different this time. I go to Etsy and open a new account, a seller’s account. I have been turning names over in my head for a few weeks. Once it’s set up, it can’t be changed. I want something that evokes hand-crafted, and something that involves animals. I like name pairings, common in old publishers and small mercantile, that have friendly prestige. I want it to look nice on the spine of a book or on the tag of a t-shirt.
“Kitsune,” I say out loud.
I type in “Hammer & Fox” and then “hammerandfox” to fit with their format. I don’t have any books or t-shirts to list. I haven’t gotten that far. But I do have a few drawings and paintings I’ve scanned. I scroll through a folder of images and choose one from an ongoing series of dialogues between a rabbit and a skeleton who are in a dysfunctional relationship. My first listing is up, and I stare at the confused skeleton for a while before closing the computer and picking up a piece of rope that has been left for me to bind.
Training on the boat is a never-ending practice. Each day, I learn a new skill, task, tool name, or machine function. Our crew is small, only four most of the year, five when we have a chef aboard, and I am the youngest by more than ten years.
The captain is the same age as my dad, and he treats me like I’m a daughter, imparting life lessons and overbearing instruction.
“No! What are you doing. No! You need to think about every step. You’ve forgotten a step. No, if you do it like that, you will ruin the boat. Just your friendly talking-to for the day!”
I grumble internally that I already have two dads, and I don’t need another nagging me all the time. Then I think about his daughter, who lives three thousand miles away from him, who not long ago lost traction in her car while driving up a steep cliff road and fell, shattering her spine. One can never have too much family, I think, and bring him a coffee.
Kiyo manages to find jobs for me that feel more related to crafting. We sit, threading long needles through the ends of lines, as he teaches me how to bind them so they won’t unravel, even with years of tying and tossing from the boat to worn cleats and salty docks. In the boat house, he has me paint the anchor chain a different color every fifty feet. Then he sets up saw horses and lays out the boat’s large wooden nameplates.
“Like surfboards” he says, and shows me how to sand with great tenderness, and revarnish, layer after layer.
I listen to Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma on audiobook and wile away hours in a meditative state of surf fantasy and food politics. When something on the boat breaks, we take it apart and start from the beginning.
He explains the double engine torque as if he were teaching me to ride a bike. “When you turn left, the left handle comes back towards you, and the right handle pushes forward away from you. Same with the engine. When you put the left engine in reverse, and the right engine in forward gear, the boat turns left.”
They are teaching me how to think through my process: how to understand the way things work and engineer them in my head, and how to think about efficiency. They are also teaching me patience.
The owner’s knees are giving out, and he has trouble mounting the spiraling stairs to the pilot house. The captain shows me calculations using a CAD program, and we create the design for a spiraling railing. When the curve is just slightly off, we take the railing outside and use my truck in 4-wheel drive to add the resistance weight to bend it ourselves.
We rewire the navigation system, pulling dozens of wires through the maze of ceiling tiles from the floor below, matching color and size to function. When an oil leak appears in the bilge below the crew mess, I don a white painter’s suit and shimmy through the narrow channels, over the sump piping, under the water piping until I find the culprit. I boast of my yoga skills and they give me more strange jobs.
After finishing the rope binding, I head upstairs to the pilot house.
“Good nap?” the captain asks.
I nod and zip up my crew coat. The seasons are more subtle in the Northwest, but fall has started to creep in and the late afternoon air has grown chilly.
“Look out along the coastline,” he instructs me.
I press my face to the starboard window, knowing I’ll have to wipe the glass again later. The sky has grown gray, rain is coming, and the towering fir trees along the craggy Canadian border lean with the wind. There, just within sight, two dark shapes bob and sway against the waves. Whales!
I have been in the Northwest for seven years at this point and have yet to ever see a whale. I know what large beasts they must be, yet against this wild landscape they are but little beads. The boat dips and they are gone.
I move out to the tip of the bow to tie the club flag as we head north to the next harbor. The tiny triangle whips back and forth and bits of my hair sting my cheeks in a nasty tease. A cool spray of water coats the front of the bow, and the clouds churn uneasily. We are losing clear vision to a misty fog, and standing on the edge of the boat, I am suddenly at a precipice &nspace; at once so aware of my loneliness and the dull ache of constantly searching for something or someone, and yet feeling so alive out here in the savage elements, the rawness of a developing storm filling a primal and somehow greater connection to this Earth. Something is going to change again soon, I can feel this coming, but I don’t know what it is yet.
“I can't believe you!”
My best friend’s voice the next day. We kept our promises. We both started an Etsy site. It was time to get ourselves out there, to realize things weren’t going to happen on their own.
“You already sold something!!” She is incredulous.
I am too.
Within hours of posting my first piece of art on my shop site, it sold.
Hammer & Fox is in business.