The man in the tower buzzed me through the gate into the parking lot. It must be called that, I thought—a tower, a control tower. It was a squat building with a lookout on top, it didn’t look right—like a clown hat. I parked and waited for your boat. I sat on the hood of my car and smoked and looked beyond the locks at the river rushing through the chain link fence. The current seemed to move through the steel.
I thought about the day we got back together. It was a heatwave. We were both looking out your window a lot, at the green valley and the grey smog. The trees looked so impressionistic and your sweaty chest hair made a wet whorled pattern on your T-shirt. The weather agreed with us—made everything blurry.
A cherry light flashed on top of the tower, a speaker was emitting a sustained beep. A horn bellowed for an answer, the lock doors clamoured, and the water rushed in. The boat made its way slowly because it was a tight fit. The deck was checkered with dozens of perforated iron partitions that had been painted white and looked like lace. Men on both sides of the boat threw lines of rope to men on both sides of the canal. The water rose and the boat rose. I picked up the yellow weatherproof phone and asked the man to open the gate and he told me this was the wrong boat.
I watched the wrong boat leave the locks. I thought, I can’t imagine your boat, a bulker, even though I’ve seen pictures. A ship is a major thing, I thought, I can imagine standing on deck, holding the railing, looking at the water. And I know what it feels like to watch them float heavily along, but that’s all.
Yours was next, it was bigger and it looked different. There were two steel houses and the deck was covered in hatches and hulking mechanical winches. I saw you and you saw me.
You pulled a big switch and a motor whirred and the ladder rattled down to meet me. I was afraid and so I climbed it like a child, bringing my feet together on each rung, before climbing to the next. You laughed at me. I winced as I climbed higher and your arm circled my waist and I was over your shoulder and standing on the ground or rather, the boat. And you kissed me with the firmness of a promise and I was embarrassed.
“I thought that boat that just went through was yours,” I said.
“The oil tanker,” you said, you looked surprised, “you didn’t notice they’re all Indians?”
The boats’ interiors were all beige metal and the metallic sign plates that said Stairwell A, and Level C, were stamped in modernist fonts. The beige didn’t make the metal warmer, or maybe it did. Your berth had a dim bathroom with a bucket next to the toilet, to make it flush. The bedroom was better. There was a built in shelf and a built in lamp at the head of the bed, like on an airplane. They made the rumpled sheets seem wrong. The writing surface of the desk was the same beige metal as the walls and the drawers were wood veneer, a warm oak, called golden oak—that’s more oak than any oak. The dresser was built in. The chair was an inelegant take on Danish Modern, the wooden arms and legs weren’t tapered, but that made it more endearing. You saw me smiling at it, and you said: I love that chair. I put my bag on it and you kissed me and I thought, you aren’t the you in my mind, but I couldn’t say how you were different.
When we had sex not even the shock of static from your scratchy blanket could make me feel like I was real. The late afternoon sun streamed through the porthole but the romance of it was a waste. I had to close my eyes to feel myself in you like a furry thing in its burrow. I fell asleep and you woke me, and told me you were going to put your laundry in the dryer and to meet you in the galley because it was dinnertime.
When I’d followed the square corridors that lead past every door on every level; I was sure the galley was the only door without a sign on it. I stood next to your boots and your waders and your windbreaker on the hook that faced your door. The way they sagged made me sad. You found me and you sighed at me. “There’s no sign on the door,” I said, “every door’s the same.”
The kitchen looked like any industrial kitchen: so much stainless steel the fish and chips looked out of place in the stainless steel hotel pans. The filet was thickly fried and great flakes of crust and whitefish came away with my fork. I was famished but I couldn’t eat. The men filed in past us. They asked, “it’s not what you expected is it?” Like I could expect anything.
There was an eating contest last night. You lost and now you made fun of the winner, Ronnie. He had a child’s face, and his laughter tithered. You introduced us, though we knew all about each other already, you’d told me about how your childhoods were so alike on the boats, how he’d also gotten engaged this year. We both smiled, our eyes darting at each other and back at you.
“Jay tells me you feed your dog chicken dinners,” he said.
“He eats what I eat, lasagna, whatever,” I said, nodding at nothing.
“That must be expensive,” he said.
“He’s sixteen. I’m trying to keep him alive,” I said.
He laughed awkwardly and said, “I wish I had a dog. Like my dad did on the tow when we were kids.”
“A lab?” you asked, your head cocked. I’d never seen you so solicitous. He nodded and I pictured a golden smear on a green slope. I tried to picture it sunning itself between the enormous steel hatch covers of the steel deck. I imagined the sound of a dog’s nails on the grate steps. And when you said, “boat dogs are the best dogs,” I wondered what you meant.
After dinner we smoked on deck. We sat at the picnic table you built. The wind whipped my hair in a satisfying way. You asked me about work and I talked about the low calorie muffin campaign, how the people at headquarters had that French Canadian taste for puns, which was why they weren’t doing the work in house anymore, and had suggested something that translates to “mufinately healthy”, which I had to elaborate for the team, as an adverbial phrase that makes more sense in french. You grinned but it was only a flash of glee, nothing to relax into, and my laughter was sad because here I was using a tried and true anecdote on you, and it was failing. I asked if the wheat the boat was carrying would make our muffins. You shrugged. I watched your determined face in the dull light of the cloudy evening, you watched the town on shore come closer. I watched it too, but by the time I could make out the houses and factories and churches, and wonder what was happening inside, they were gone, so I looked at the sky, but it wasn’t captivating, it was only big.
When you finished your shift you climbed into your little bed with me. You whispered, "We have to be careful." You told me that you were conceived in the hold of a Laker, and so was Ronnie, and the rest of you, whose fathers were sailors too. “There’s something about the boats,” you said, and you kissed my face. Your hair tickled my back and I lost myself in ticklish laughter and we made love after all. They woke you at four to tie up, but I slept dreamlessly until I woke up with you inside of me. My body was sweaty and heavy and aware of an exact tightness. The sky was dim with dawn. I watched the light off the water lick the ceiling. I’d always said I wanted it this way. When you finished, you said, it’s six in the morning, you can go back to bed. You said my name. You said, “When I got out there, there were Northern Lights, but I didn’t want to wake you.” I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say, that’s not possible, the Northern Lights are more northern still.
When you were on your way home, I was so apprehensive. I Googled: lonely; Google auto-completed: lonely synonyms.
When we kissed I wanted to work your teeth out of their sockets, to show you how sorely you were missed. The maxillofacial surgeon gave me my wisdom teeth in a glassine bag and you said—these are mine. They were tiny yellow bulbs with brown roots, hastening on your necklace. I felt them against my collarbone.
We were eager and afraid of each other. Trying to act like you lived there. You scowled at the dishes in the sink. I did them. You scraped out a jar of homemade barbecue sauce that had gone sour in a huff. You got stoned and told me the dog was too old, you said, “you should put him down,” not even we. I was so overwhelmed, but I only said, I know. Then, I told you the ending of the novel you were reading—“his father dies, it’s pretty dramatic.”
We used to walk well together, on stupid unscenic walks. So we walked to the movies.
“There’s so much random equipment on the boat. Me and Ronnie found these parts in a box and we put them together, whenever we had time. It was a week before we realized we were building an air cannon.”
“What did you say, when you realized?”
“You could kill somebody with this, we both said that.”
You hurried and I lolled, or I hurried and you lolled. I sighed and you didn’t sigh. I wanted to be talking to you and so I asked, “What are words you know but not what they mean?”
“What did you call it? That girl’s jacket?”
“Like a Toreador’s?”
“That’s a bull fighter.”
The movie was bad. We left before it was over.
When we got home we had bad sex. I made a sound that made you go soft.
“It’s just like this noisy thing in my face,” you said and made your fingers crippled and flourished them. You fell asleep. I fell asleep. In my dream, you killed me with a pretty knife. My guts fell out the front.
“I had a fucked up dream,” I said, when I felt you stirring. You looked at me but I was embarrassed.
“I heard the things you dream are things you want to happen.”
When I got home from work, you were there, of course, but it was always strange to see you there. You told me two of your co-workers got arrested in Toledo.
“They’re saying Tyler punched a lady-cop in the baby maker.” I stared at you. I was shocked by the word “babymaker” more than anything else.
I asked, “The cops are saying that?” You were texting, so I faced your brow. I had to tilt my face to look at all of you, chin tucked, hunched over, elbows heavy on your knees, thumbs furious, the face of bathos, I thought, and felt small and mean. “Where were they?”
“A McDonald’s parking lot,” you said, still texting.
“A McDonald’s parking lot? Were they smoking weed?” I asked.
“Why else would they be there?” you said and then you looked up at me, soberly, “this reflects badly on the boat.” I nodded. I had no idea who reflects on the crew of a cargo ship. If I asked, you would be annoyed and I would be too distracted by your face to hear you.
The next day, you had to go back.
It was the third Friday of the month, there was a catered lunch at work, I remember. I stood in line with the copywriters, Anne Marie was talking about a ten thousand dollar dental bill, and I was wondering if I’d ever get a permanent contract, if I wanted that. Once we were standing around with our plates full, she asked me if I was sad to see you go, and what you did again on the boats? I told her you were a wheelsman, which was what you were training to be, but you were actually a deckhand. Then I told her what you told me, that steering a cargo ship is like steering an apartment complex, in terms of scale. Anne Marie looked a bit awed and baffled, which is the look of anyone who asks about the boats.
In the toilet, the email notification startled me.
Subject: Re: I miss You
I keep trying and trying but it’s no use. I do not want
to get married.
I have become
less compassionate, less democratic and
more and more bitter all the
I really think you agree in some ways and it
best if we could
be nice to each other about this. Civil at least.
I know that
I am doing
the right thing
however I'm sorry that I can’t make it work. for now – J
Sent from my iPhone
I called you but when you answered it was only wind.
You left me a voicemail, “It’s so fucking cold. To talk to you I have to stand on top of the grain elevator. I don’t know what to say.”
I went home and my street was still my street. Once I was inside, I was thinking, I’ll cry. I smoked and looked out the window at the snow bright street until dusk made it grey and ugly. Every man, woman, or dog that walked past was unremarkable. I didn’t have the heart to really watch them or to draw the blinds and be alone. There was a birthday party for my friend who worked for a women’s rights NGO.
When the street had settled into the night, when there were no more people with grocery bags or children, I put on my coat. It never occurred to me not to go. I was not having fun, but I thought “fun” many times, and I smiled every time.
On my way home from the party, drunk, I got some pizza and fed the dog a slice. When I wept into his fur he bristled, as trembling as any condolence.
You called at five in the morning. I was still on the floor, with the dog.
“I know you don’t want to talk to me,” you said, sounding like you were crying. This anguished chirp couldn’t come from you.
“Carlos is dead. It was an accident, a bad accident. And he’s dead.”
“It happened and we dealt with it and then it was just us sitting around staring and I couldn’t sit anymore. I was like, I’m gonna go for a walk, take a civilian route.”
“What happened?” I asked. I listened to you crying in the street on the Reserve near the grain docks in Thunder Bay, I tried to see your face red with melting snow and cold tears. I couldn’t.
“And I can’t call anybody. I can’t call my parents.” Your thick voice was thin when you said, my parents. And I could hear you hearing yourself, and you began to breathe desperately.
“Can I come get you?”
“No. There’s an investigation.”
“I know you don’t want to talk about us. But the reason we broke-up was this job and this changes everything.” I love you, I thought. But you don’t know that there are no reasons. We want our lives to be more meaningful than all the things we say and do, but we reveal ourselves perfectly, every day. That man’s death made everything pulse with a terrible meaningfulness for you, but I could only feel that in the human part of my guts. I waited for my chest to constrict with longing or sorrow. For some specific aching to carry me back to you, but I only felt pity.
“Let’s not talk about us. I love you. But let’s not talk about us.”
“You need to deal with this now.”
“I love you.”
“I know. I love you,” you said and then neither of us said anything. “I have to go. It’s so fucking cold. I have to move.”
“Maybe we can stay on the phone and not talk.”
“I have to go.”
I Googled: What to do when somebody dies.
I woke-up and smoked and thought about Thanksgiving dinner on the boat with you and the man who died and the rest of you. I couldn’t eat all my food even though I had smoked some of your hash to make me hungry. It was surf and turf and the steak was cooked to a grey pink, I like it to bleed. I felt ungrateful. I asked him about Venezuela and about Chavez. The only thing I remember him telling me was that it cost less than five dollars to fill his SUV with gas there. You said he was a talker and he stayed and talked with us after all the other men left.
I called your best friend. He asked me about you and me. He seemed surprised but he might not be. He threw us an engagement party with three kinds of barbecued fish and chicken and beautiful salads, so I answered his questions. He told me what happened.
You were checking the ballast tanks with the man who died. I Googled: bulker ballast tanks. They’re in the double bottom below the hold, the hold that gapes, emptied of tens of thousands of tons of wheat. I saw you walking along in the dark. Did you have a flashlight? There must be floodlights, for loading and unloading at night. How many cramped ballast tanks had you climbed into already, or was it enough to open them and check? Which one was frozen? If it created a vacuum, did it make a sound when he opened the hatch? Did you watch him— did it look like falling? Your friend said that you had to go in and check that he was dead. Did you know, when you climbed in, you must’ve known, when you turned him over, and how did you steady your hands to tie the hitch to haul him from the hold?
The first time you asked me to marry you, you were on another boat and you’d just come off an eighteen-hour shift scraping coal from the cargo hold. You texted me a picture of your face black with coal, and captioned it Chim Chim Cher-ee. You called me and told me that flecks of coal sparkled in your shit. That you were worried you were taking too many muscle relaxants. The others were on steroids. I pictured the acne on their broad backs. The one who wasn’t on steroids was addicted to energy drinks and he shat himself the last time you were scraping out the hold.
They hired a new guy but he was a teenager and his legs gave out halfway through the scrape you’d just finished. You had to get him up the ladder. I asked, “How do you get someone up a ladder?”
“With one man above and one below.”
“Jesus, you just help him,” you said, and I relented. But picturing it gave me vertigo.
“I need you to be there when I come home. I need a home. Let’s get married.”
“That’s the kind of thing you need to say to my face.”
When you came home your toenails were black with coal, under the nail, it grew into the skin. You told me you started duct taping your pants to your socks to keep the coal dust out, but it was too late.