I Can’t Hear
The Drums Anymore
Fragments from Life
Life and living are as the ocean and the tide. There is but one ocean, as but one life that all experience. All tides also are of one tide. They are each as our individual acts of living. Ocean and tide duel with the fire of our cryptic galaxy through the raging sun via its mirroring moon. And each person’s singular spark of life duels with a similarly enchanting, Herculean flame and its mysterious reflection of the cosmos.
Beating Toward Monterey
We are on a starboard tack, the water is kicking up over the bow, and I am fretting about whether we will make it into port or have to continue bucking the waves all night. It has been blustery ever since we came out of the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean. We’ve been combating the coastal winds several days now. John and Robert are sleeping and I am at the helm. It is about three in the morning and the moon has poked through a mass of clouds and lighted one broad acre of round, flat ocean like a snow covered back yard. I pulled past it about thirty minutes ago off to starboard. My compass heading is short about ten degrees of magnetic north and Big Sur lies off to the right.
Bob is snoring. John sleeps quietly. I think about Robbie and wonder how she is doing three thousand miles away in Florida. And Kathleen, wherever she is, how she is doing, and what it will be like when my sleepers and I finally sail into Monterey Bay and anchor out for a week to enjoy the town. To port, about thirty degrees off north, a bit forward, about a fifth of the way up into the sky, is a big, bright star blinking. I wonder if it is really a giant mass of burning gases as I hear suns are, or maybe only an electronic satellite. I can’t figure out how to tell the difference, so I just look at the blinking until I stop thinking about it.
Aft and starboard, a couple of hundred yards off the Big Sur coast, I earlier heard sea lions barking from rocks where they were resting. Now, they have gotten quiet. It is very quiet out on the ocean except for the splash of the water. The wind is about thirty-five knots in our face, which is a fair blow. Swells are coming in every ten to twelve seconds, and as we plunge through them the salt water splits over the bow, comes down across the deck; some runs out the scuppers, and a good chunk makes its way occasionally into the cockpit with me. I have on my foul weather gear, including a wool stocking cap and my knee length boots. I am dry and warm and comfortable.
It is good being alone in the boat, with Bob and John sleeping: to be able to think about Robbie and Kathleen three thousand miles off. I wonder if I had the chance to do it over again would I have the sense to do it right. I first saw Robbie when I was holding a trombone in junior high school. She walked into the band room in a tight red, white, and blue knit, sleeveless sweater and my heart dropped into my pants. I shouldn’t say it that way; it wasn’t sexual. It was just that she looked so good and lean and she had such pretty high, taut breasts; and that perky, lean nose; and that sharply outlined mouth, she had it too. No doubt about it. She was the first love of my life.
Now, sitting in the sloop in the Pacific Ocean, beating north against a thirty-five knot wind, it is finally clear she was the last love of my life. Which I guess is to say the only love of my life, actually the best thing I ever did, but blew bad, really bad. That part is the worst thing I ever did. I try to remember the first time we made love together, but I can’t. What I can remember is how afraid I always was that I was inadequate for her, not sexually, but in my mind. What I mean to say is that my mind would not be strong enough for her. You see, I couldn’t keep up with her when she talked about literature, which was her first love. What were metaphors and things like that? How did a second meaning slip into a story of cows that meant the writer was really talking about nature, or religion, or some other complex idea? That kind of thing was always running through my mind when we made love. What would I do when we were through feeling each other’s body? How would I react when she talked about a metaphor over coffee in the cafeteria next day after we made love and her lips trembled?
You see, when she would kiss me, her lips trembled as she did it. I wondered what was that? Was something the matter with how I kissed? The trembling was unique. I liked it very much. I’d kissed a lot of women in my life, but none of their lips had ever trembled when kissing me. What could it mean? I think I know now. I think it meant she loved me and that the trembling was her emotions all bunched up together. I think it meant she was yearning for me to love her too and that was enough, she didn’t care whether I knew what a metaphor was. If so, why didn’t I understand the trembling? I felt in the back of my mind that it was something terribly special that she was offering me, something uniquely hers that she wanted to make mine also. I think she wanted my lips to tremble back. That’s what I think now. I didn’t know what to think then.
And Kathleen, the daughter we had a year after being married. It was bad the way that happened. We were drunk one night. We’d been to a party at her English professor’s house near the fort where I was in infantry boot camp, and I didn’t use any caution; neither did she. It was three months after we’d been married, and it was two months after I’d taken the airline stewardess, who’d served us on our flight to Kansas City on our honeymoon, out into the park and made love to her on the grass under the swings. I tried to figure out for a long time why it went that way. I even spent eighteen months in the Veteran Administration’s psychological counseling program looking for an answer, and the best they could come up with was I hated my father because he was a mean son of a bitch, and so I slept with other women to show him I was independent, and that hurt Robbie, and it hurt Kathleen, and it hurt me, and I guess sometimes that’s just the way things are and it’s too late to do anything about it now but accept it. All I remember was that with the stewardess I didn’t have to figure out what trembling lips were about, because her lips didn’t tremble. She just got into the grass with me and it was all so mindlessly simple.
“Hey, how are things?”
That’s John yelling up at me from below.
“What’re you doing?”
“Just about the water. Go back to sleep.”
“Yeah. I’m sure.”
“You don’t need any help?”
John is quiet again now, and so is Bob, and so are the seals. I can still hear the wind and feel the waves, though; they’re very strong winds and waves. I bet you know what I mean. I’m sure you do. Things that happened to you when you were first young and you didn’t know what they were until years later. Those that hurt, mostly, are most important I think. They’re the teachers. And I think the questions are more important than the answers, maybe. It’s like figuring out what a metaphor is, you know? You can’t learn that out of a book. It comes from living one until it gets inside your skin and you don’t have to think about it to know what it is.
The moon just picked up another spot off to starboard. This one is also about an acre or two in size, flat and calm. It looks like snow on a back yard too. Strange how the ocean works that way at night. There can be swells coming in, but someplace, for some reason, there’ll be a flat piece of water that catches the moon and comes up into your eyes like it had some kind of meaning to it. The stars are that way too. Clouds aren’t. They’re just there, white and milky, with no meaning. But the stars, the sharp stars coming out of millions of miles and light years out in the heavens down to you, and the moon landing from two hundred and fifty thousand miles away on a little acre patch of flat ocean, and lighting it like snow on a back yard. These have some sort of meaning.
I wish I knew what it was.