We lived on the ship for almost a week, but I was seasick within the first hour, so the days and nights all blended together. I would close my eyes to the sunshine and open them to the white fire of the stars, and then back again.
They let me live on the deck. I felt best out there, with nothing separating me from the sky. I can’t remember very much about those seven days except the way the air tasted of salt, and how I was always thirsty, surrounded by water.
There were three crew members to teach us what it meant to live on the sea; the quintessential old man captain to play the role and yell “ahoy!” to the delight of us all, the young boy in his early twenties to attend to the difficult labor and become the mysterious and intriguing heartthrob to young girls everywhere, and a young girl around the same age, who none of us could quite figure out.
We had theories about her of course. We suspected she was the captain’s daughter. We assumed she and the young boy were having an affair. We both pitied and envied her life out at sea – such adventure, such romanticism, such loneliness. I wish I had taken the time to learn more about her. I can’t even remember her name.
But what I do remember was lying out on the deck one afternoon, trying hard to ignore the motion of the waves beneath the rocking ship, staring up at the perfectly blue sky. I remember the way she came and plopped herself down beside me, hastily, perhaps angrily, struggling to breathe. I thought she was seasick too.
And so without a word, I picked up my water bottle and handed it over to her. And without a word, she took it, unscrewed the top, and took a long sip. She gave it back to me. I turned my head toward her, smiling. She didn’t look back. I watched a single tear glide down the side of her face and onto the deck. And then she stood up, and walked away.
To this day, I’m not sure what to make of it. At the time I tried to create stories about what had happened – the boy had broken her heart, she was tired of living at sea, she hated all of us for intruding. But over the years, I have come to enjoy not knowing what happened. I like having only this small piece.
Because in those few moments of lying beside one another, passing a water bottle back and forth, out in the middle of nowhere, we shared something that can only happen between two people who know nothing about one another. It was a kind of tenderness that can only exist between strangers. She cried in front of me because it was safe. I let her walk away because I didn’t understand, and also, because I did.
And even though it had nothing to do with me, even though I was only there out of circumstance, it somehow made me feel special, both then and now, to get to be there for it. It was like witnessing something supernatural. It came and went as quickly as the passing days. She smiled the rest of the way home. Sometimes she laughed and yelled “ahoy!” I kept her tears a secret until long after I had forgotten her name.
But I think of that moment often. I think of the way we can simultaneously understand nothing and understand everything. I think of my love for stories and the importance I place on them, and how sometimes they are formed without even a word.
I think of the way all life is at sea – full of adventure and romanticism and loneliness, full of the endless rocking back and forth that can sometimes make us sick, full of strangers who offer to share their water and sit with us while we cry.
I think of the way I am forever drifting in the middle of nowhere and calling it home. I think of the way I am always thirsty for more, surrounded by joy. I think of the way the salty air out at sea tasted exactly like tears.