The strangest thing, for me, about waking up on a boat is that I never feel like I’m fully awake. The gentle rocking keeps lulling me, and I begin to feel like one of Homer’s lotus-eaters, fighting to not get trapped in the land of dreams. This, despite successive cups of coffee—which, on the ship called Orion, I had to keep asking for and receiving in absurd little six-ounce teacups because, as had become clear the first morning, Australians don’t drink coffee the way Americans do. On our third day, after one spent “at sea” over the Great Barrier Reef and another stopped at Hardy Reef for scuba diving, I felt so nearly pulled under that after drinking the coffee Will had brought to the room, I told him to go to breakfast without me. When he left, I crawled back into the bed and lay curled, fetus-like. The longer I lay, the sadder I felt.
One must communicate in relationships, I thought to myself—and yet, one must first discover what it is one wants to communicate. You can’t simply say, “I am sadder the longer I lie here,” and expect anyone to know what you mean by that, especially when you yourself don’t know. Maybe if I said, “Hold onto me now,” he’d get a sense of it, and that would be enough. But usually it wouldn’t. Because to lie feeling sadder and sadder is to have seen something, felt something, noticed something between the two of you or in the space around him. The sadness will be hiding a question—the question of what that something is. And wrapped around that question you will find a thick layer of fear.
Which, you discover, is what has made you sad.
A few people had already asked us if we were on our honeymoon. No, we would say, smiling, explaining that Will worked for a magazine and that he would be writing about this “adventure cruise.” We were among the only passengers under 50, always holding hands or stealing a kiss as we walked, so it made sense that they would assume things, and it pleased me that they would. Unlike Will, I had never had a honeymoon before, or a marriage, or a child. They didn’t need to know that Will’s divorce was only finalized six weeks before, or that we had been dating for only a few months. I didn’t want them to think this was just a rebound thing. “It’s not what you think!” I almost blurted when Will mentioned the recent divorce to one man he was telling about his kids.
From the bed where I lay, I heard Will open the door and momentarily, almost out of reflex, I pretended to be asleep when his shadow passed over the bed. But then I reminded myself that I was not doing things that way anymore. I opened my eyes and found his; watched his hand reach down to my forehead to rest there; watched him give me that questioning yet sympathetic look he offered whenever I was in a state. We stayed like that, with me lying in a loose arc around where he sat. But I said nothing. Where are we? I wanted to ask. What are we doing here? Why did you bring me here?
The sea rolled beneath us. Will distractedly played with the watch he was field-testing for a magazine. Since the trip began, he had so far spent a lot of time fiddling with two watches (one digital, one analog), a camera with an underwater casement, and a Smartphone—all for gear reviews. I had several times found myself turning to him anticipating a romantic moment, only to find him engrossed in the workings of some gadget.
And then I knew what to say. At least, I knew what to begin to say. “I feel very far away from you,” I announced. He didn’t move. I stared ahead.
We landed on paradise. From the Orion we sped on a Zodiac to a white, palm-lined beach on the uninhabited Middle Percy Island off Australia’s northeastern coast. The only structure was a large A-frame hut that housed the hundreds of sailing trinkets left over the years by yachts passing through. Names of boats and people scratched into weathered boards. Dates, buoys, even painted maps, all hung jumbled in dangling magnificence from the aging rafters of their weather-worn home. Something about it, about decay and remains, made me think of the way Will spoke of his marriage.
Everyone ate lunch on the beach—hamburgers and grilled prawns and rum punch. Then Will and I took one of the inflatable kayaks out, following the edge of the bay to its southern headland and rounding the rocks to a pebble beach where we were utterly alone. I had a surprising, sweet little memory of sea kayaking among Alaskan fjords with my short-lived first love. Twenty years old and smitten, one sunny day. Those first moments.
I glanced back at Will and reached to grasp his hand. He was peering into the water, holding a waterproof camera under the surface. “What are you taking pictures of?” I asked.
“I’m filming,” he said without looking up. “Whatever’s down there.”
I retracted my arm.
We pulled the kayak up onto a beach of dinosaur-egg-sized stones. Limpets clung to most of them. Others were covered with the broken ruins of what looked like long-dead barnacle colonies. I picked my way carefully over them. Standing first behind me, then facing me on the slick stones, Will asked me what was wrong. I looked up, eyes boring into nothing, my expression pressing.
“Life is hard,” I said at last, and he appeared to understand. I felt sudden, extreme relief. But then a pang: it wasn’t me he was thinking of.
I didn’t think it was his ex-wife. He said he didn’t miss her, and I believed him. But the family that he had lost, the idea of it—
“I wonder what happened with these,” he said, gesturing toward several nearby rocks encased in the wreckage of hundreds of tightly packed barnacle shells.
We picked past them slowly, pausing as we worked our way up the beach to poke at sea cucumbers and grab little hermit crabs, which disappeared into the depths of their spiral shells as soon as we lifted them up. I chased a small crab and almost had it when it slipped, sideways and backwards, into a crevice.
Life on earth arose from the ocean. When a human embryo develops, it passes through some of the earlier stages of our evolution before acquiring its final form. Sort of like vestigial organs, these stages are vestigial experiences. I think about how when we were each an embryo, each of us had a tail. And although we did breathe in the womb, we breathed like fish in their liquid, through gills, and not one of us took a breath of air until the moment we were born. This, I suspect, is why the ocean is such a potent archetype.
Back in the kayak I slipped out of my sandals and slid overboard into the jewel-like water—cool on my skin, soft on all sides, pale and perfect. Suddenly elated, I swam around the boat, did a flip underwater, burst out with a grin on my face. “It’s the Blue Lagoon!” I announced. Will smiled and took a couple of photographs, and then when I grabbed the back of the boat, he picked up his paddle and paddled hard, pulling me along with one hand trailing, my legs pulled out behind me, my hair in the water, my face in the sun.
Later, from the white sand of the beach with the A-frame, on a towel beneath a palm tree, I stared out at the spot where I had swum by the boat. “It’s strange to think this is the same ocean I grew up right next to,” I said to Will. I had been raised in west Anchorage—a five-minute walk from Cook Inlet, which was named after the same Captain Cook as Cook Highway in Cairns. I thought of the birch woods surrounding the bicycle path that followed its mud flats, through which I used to jog and walk.
The trees in autumn, yellow alders, white-barked birches. Flashes of my family, separate, individually, in a foreground, middle-ground, background of narrow trunks. Sinbad, our black Lab, gone now. My dad. My brother, age 17, with a glint in his eye.
The years flipping by like photographs. My brother, age 25, with our blond-haired sister. My brother, six months before.
“I have a feeling about the sea,” I continued, a bit unsteadily. “Like…everything that ever happens to you eventually flows into the ocean.” I squinted across the blazing sand to the big calm blue. “Then when you go swimming, and you’re inside the water, it’s like everything you ever had is surrounding you, all around you, in that moment.” I had to stop talking then, because I was crying.
I was holding steady, but tears were running out of my eyes. Gushing, really. Then, that tightening of my entire body; something clamping into me until I became the clamp. Gut, shoulders, temples. A paroxysm, it occurred to me—as Joan Didion described it in The Year of Magical Thinking, which I was reading on the trip. Bodily distress “occurring in waves.”
Will looked alarmed. “Are you crying?”
I was still explaining, inside my mind, about how the ocean is the only thing that’s big enough to contain an entire human life, so it makes sense that it would be the only place where a person could touch everything they had ever been and ever loved. But I had an inkling that what I was saying no longer made sense. Once my heaves stilled, I said, “The last time I saw my brother was on a beach.”
This in itself didn’t really make sense.
“The last time you saw him before he got sick?”
“Yes,” I said, but this too was wrong. He was already sick by then. I shut my eyes tightly and then squinted at the palm trees and tried not to feel the next wave of shock and sadness and tension. He must be in the ocean, I kept thinking to myself—had been in the ocean for seven years.
Tamarindo, Costa Rica: This was where we ended up, my brother and me. By the time we got there I had already seen signs that my brother’s recent bizarre ideas were too extreme to be just the workings of a creative mind. That they were symptoms of an illness. We were to meet our father and sisters in Panama in a month, for Christmas, and in the time leading up to that reunion I found myself watching him, and wondering.
If this was what I feared, then I would easily recognize it. Something of the “schizo” variety—I would know that even if the details were fuzzy. We had seen it at work in our mother through many years of her denials. I knew it with all the intimacy we reserve for the things we most despise. And I knew that while doctors might come later (and they did, uselessly), for now the mere suggestion that my brother might consider seeing a doctor sent him into a defensive rage.
Within days of our arrival in Tamarindo, he was spending nearly all his time in our darkened motel room, smoking marijuana constantly while I surfed, read, and hung out with other travelers. He spoke little, except to describe the elaborate hallucinations he saw, especially when he was high. Sometimes he got angry and yelled about things nobody had done. His condition was suddenly ferociously present, and it seemed to worsen by the day.
And here’s where it gets weird. I arrived in Tamarindo wondering if my brother might have some form of schizophrenia. But it was already obvious, before we even got there, that he did. I had spent a few weeks with him in Anchorage before we departed. I knew it and yet I did not know. Would not know. Could not know.
Each day I drifted out of that motel room, into the waves that pounded my surfboard and tumbled me. Afterward I walked along the beach in the hot wind, feeling it blast over my face, the sting of the dust it tossed up. I wanted to turn toward this, the elemental brutality of sea and air—into the water, into the furnace.
There are a few clinical words that might describe why this was the case, what was happening to me, but none of them really say it. Shock. Grief. PTSD. Magical thinking. None capture the experience. On the outside, I was placid, relaxed, bored even. Inside I was fragments.
My nights were a parade of faces and bodies, limbs and lips, salt and sand. My thoughts were on Tamarindo’s dark underbelly and on the beats of the pumping dance floors. I met a charismatic young Costa Rican coke dealer. I followed him obsessively, plummeted into him. I found myself in his bed, again and again, but when I remember it now it’s as if I wasn’t really there.
I wasn’t “there” again, really, until about a year later. By that time, I had told my family that it was clearly mental illness, progressing fast. I had returned to the States. I had found myself wandering grocery store aisles, fingering the food packages as I walked, spending half an hour letting them scrape against my skin, then leaving without buying anything. I realized that I could not hold a thought in my head. I realized I could not feel a thing.
I called my father, crying, saying something was wrong with me. Yes, he said, we would get me some help.
“I should have seen this coming,” I said to Will in the evening as we sat on the aft deck of the Orion, drinking wine at a small table for two that sat right up against the ship’s rear railing. “I should have known that being on a beach again would do something to me.”
It is odd the way we sometimes learn things, coincidentally, at the exact moment we most need to know them. I had read in Magical Thinking that there is a kind of grief called “complicated grief”—a kind that doesn’t progress and resolve in an orderly way, but instead grows more entangled with the psyche as time passes. Becomes inseparable from one’s anxieties and other sorrows, maintaining a relentless grip. My grief, I had instantly understood, was the complicated kind.
“Why,” I asked Will, “would that be?”
“Because your brother’s not dead?” Will suggested. “Gone, but not gone?”
That right there, the inability to see the obvious, might have been part of the process. I watched the churning water roll away behind, white on deep blue that faded from some shade of slate to sapphire and finally became inseparable from the glinting of the sky on each wave’s surface. “I’m thinking of that scene in The Hours,” I said. “The little girl asks Virginia Woolf where we go when we die. And she says, ‘I think we go back to the place from which we came.’”
“‘I don’t remember where I came from,’” he answered in a high, lilting voice, quoting the little girl’s reply.
“But maybe we do remember,” I said with sudden, inspired urgency. “Somewhere down deep, in some layer of the brain that’s from early in our evolution—the fish brain inside us—we remember the sea.”
He didn’t say anything after that, just gave a slow half-nod. I didn’t turn to see his face, which would have been placid, and vaguely detached. He would be looking out over the waves. I knew, and yet I did not know, what this meant.
I closed my eyes and slipped into the movement of the boat, over the sea.