Sailing lesson

I. EMBARKING

We embark on our nautical adventure
knowing and not knowing a few things,
separately.

You're not so sure about your sailboat motor anymore.
Like you, it's over 40 and doesn't like to admit
that it's always sore in the mornings.

You only run it for 20 minutes at a time, now,
just to be safe. And your depth finder—damn it,
the new one—is malfunctioning. 

You don't understand it.
And you don't understand
why I am still on the dock
when you are in the boat, 
motoring backwards.

I don't understand other things.
 
I don't understand how to tell you
that I don't understand other things,
yet.

I want you to think I'm every
possible kind of smart,
still.

I don't understand where you want my hands
when I guide the bow of the Belafonte
out of your slip. I am only a fast learner
when it comes to languages, kids and dogs.

I had no trouble with our old Jabberwock,
my father nodding his approval from
the stern, hand on tiller, cigarette
crammed in pursed lips. 

Here is what I do not say over the
low thrum of the motor in reverse
and our anxiety in forward:

These hands have not let you down yet,
O, Skipper, my skipper. Give them
a fair chance. Show them how you want
to be shoved, how you like your pushing.

I think you think that I don't know
what can go wrong in tight spaces.
I do.

I think you think that I can vault
over the side of your boat and its spider
web of childproofing like a gazelle
clearing tall savannah grass.
I can't yet, but show me how.

I don't want my skull crushed in
indigo ice water between
the hull of the boat and the dock.
What a way to spoil an overnight.
I wait.

You return to the slip for me: take two.
I clamber aboard, chastened, as a man with no horse
in this race expertly frees us from the dock, godspeed.

With you at the wheel, 
I silently plot a bolder course.

I remember what I understand completely:
the perfect heat of your hand on mine,
the curve of your lower back,
the morning I opened my eyes and
found you smiling
as if you'd
just come home.


II. LAKERS AND SALTIES

Son of Milwaukee, you are a laker.
Long before the neighbors built too high,
the lake watched you sleeping
and hoped each morning that
you would come out to play.

I am a saltie. Waves mean ocean,
ocean means Atlantic, Atlantic means
the Garden State Parkway, the Garden
State Parkway means downashore,
and downashore means 25-cent toll
booths and boardwalk and tram cars
and saltwater taffy and muscle shirts.
Downashore means rental cottages
with beach towels drying on porches
and moldering carpets full of sand.
 

III. NAVIGATION

You let me drive your Dodge Ram, your Kubota
mower and the Belafonte: the hat trick,
the love trifecta. We are going steady.

We sail north on Lake Superior through
a sprinkling of islands, the Apostles.
At the helm, I strain to see the telltales
trailing from the sails. The green plume
is up and out, but the red is drooping.

The green, he’s happy, I say. 
I turn slightly starboard, into the wind.
The red ribbon lifts, flying parallel to the green.
Look, she's happy too, I tell you.

You smile that smile, my favorite telltale of all.
You ask how I know which is a he and which is a she.
I tell you I just know. Sometimes, I just do.

 

IV. TRIMMING THE JENNY

You are very proud of your Genoa sail
(the jenny, you say, they also call it a jenny)
and its smooth-talking, no-nonsense rolling furler.

I envy this blithe jenny, smoothly and silkily rising
to take its rightful place in the summer sun.
So unlike your Jenny, who often twists and
tangles coming and going.

The jenny catches wind as you tighten the sheet.
I feel it: lift. We fly. 

The slightest breezes always stir my own sails.
They tug me this way and that.
From now on, my anchor will reside in the water, 
unless I have you along for the ride. I like the way
you trim this Jenny. If it's all the same to you,
I want you on my crew.

Now you trim the mainsail of the Belafonte
with your usual shatterproof concentration. 
I sneak glimpses of your extraordinary face
and stay the course as you call it.
A little to port, you say. We fell off a bit.
See that clearing on the island?
Aim for that.

Trim: It is a tidy, can-do word that suits you.
You are a trimmer by nature. The mainsail, the jib,
your daughter's pixie fringe, your firstborn's cowlick,
the green backyard, its grass regulation soccer height.

You do not like to waste food, or perfectly good wind.
You're pinching again, you tell me. I consider
pinching you, then pinching myself. How did
I get here, onto a rust-orange sailboat on
Lake Superior, with all that is you?

Pinching, luffing: for the record,
my father never used these words
on the Jabberwock.
I am sure he tucked them away
for safekeeping in his vest pocket for
a New York Times crossword puzzle.

I am still pinching.
I squint at the wind indicator whirring
at the top of the mast, trying to figure out
how to get the wind back into your sails.
I will always try to coax the wind back
into your sails, if you let me.
You'd do it yourself, I know.
You don't need me.
But I have a few tricks that just
might interest you,
from time to time.

 

V. LUFFING

Although I am a luffer, not a fighter,
the Belafonte likes me, I can tell.
I feel like I am steering myself.
She handles like I do,
is touchingly eager to please.

Clouds and sailboats and ferries
glide past on the edge of the planet.
The wheel feels good beneath my hand,
the rudder puts up no fuss.

Good job, you tell me, looking pleased
despite the occasional seagull flapping
of a sail.

You sit for a spell
(the highest compliment)
and scan the water with something
approaching contentment while your
last mate stays at the wheel.

I study your serious profile as you wiggle
your omnipresent baseball cap and yank
it lower, shading your eyes.

A time will come when I will no longer
fear failing in front of you, sailor.


I am still learning to trust that you will love me
despite my mistakes, my melancholy,
and my ungainly, lurching desires.
I am still hoping that I will not broach
from carrying too much sail.
I am afraid of getting too close to our
vanishing angle:
the maximum degree of heel after which
a vessel becomes unable to return
to an upright position.


I plead only these: your stunning soul,
your beautiful face. Don't even get me
started again on that jawline.

Sometimes when you look at me,
I forget to breathe. 
When I forget to breathe, 
I forget that you have chosen
me as I have chosen you.

But you are learning quickly
that your words and your touch
are my ballast.

 

VI. THE SOUND OF YOUR VOICE

That's Hermit Island. See the dark blue
strip of water up ahead? That means wind.

You love explaining what you love.
Not why you love it, but how it works.
The sun laps at my sweat while
I drink you in. I love the sound
of your voice, buffeted by the wind.

I feared how much I might love the sound
of your voice, which is why I waited for
your very first call to go to voicemail,
then pressed you tight to my ear,
refusing my daughters' pleas
for speakerphone. I had to hear
who you were on my own, alone.
Gentle tenor, the Wisconsin thick
on your tongue, the soft, shy
hammock sway of your sentences:
I was a goner, and I chose to welcome
the fall. 


VII. IF I WERE A BOAT

You chose the Belafonte, so perhaps
it makes sense that you chose me.

After all, she too is sturdy,
of 1970s vintage,
good with kids,
appreciative of sensitive handling,
prone to oversteering,
and benefits from small, frequent corrections.

I promise you:
I will heel hard from time to time, but I will keep you safe.
I will never tack or jibe without fair warning.
I will never, ever strike you in the head with the boom.

 

VIII. RECHARTING

It's late afternoon when the motor dies without warning—that is to say, without a grumble first. (The motor might well argue that it has given you plenty of warning, short of texting or emailing or telegrams.)

York Island, our planned destination for the night, is just visible off the port side of the bow. Now, sitting dead in the water, we realize we won’t be making it there. We are becalmed, a lovely word for unable to move due to lack of wind.

The weather forecast for tomorrow morning is sketchy. With no guarantee the motor will start, seeking anchorage by an island closer to the mainland is a wiser move. You pore over worn paper maps and depth charts. You point out our options as we wait for some wind to kick up. Oak Island is a good bet for the night's anchorage, with its gentle crescent shoreline facing west. It is the tallest of the Apostles, and beloved by bears. You scan my face, worried I will be disappointed. You listen intently to my voice for any clue that we should press on to York. 

Oak Island is perfect, I say. 
 

IX. SUNSET

Despite very little wind, no motor
and no depth finder,
we make our way to the waters
just off Oak Island.

You are not sure the anchor
will hold, but it does.

We eat rice and beans and diced tomatoes in
the white-dotted red tin bowls I bought for you
near the marina. You liked the red, you said.

The sun is setting still, but you climb into
the dim cabin to wash dishes. They'll get
crusty
, you protest.

Come up here, I plead. The sun's not finished
with you yet. 

You oblige me and come up top with a thin
comforter. We wrap ourselves in it, defending
against flies, mosquitoes and the approaching
evening chill.

The western sky goes glaring blue to molten orange
to ripe peach to rose quartz. Clouds become
pastel streaks of lavender gray. The sun takes its
curtain call, no encore, and still the show goes on. 

You tell me you have never done this.
How can it be, that you, beautiful you,
have never watched an entire sunset,
from start to twilight?

I have, but not once has it been like this.
This one will not quit.
Like you.

You fret that you are not enough,
that the old prophecies will come to pass,
that you don't have it in you.
You fear that your heart is stiff and finite,
like the musty walk-through
fiberglass heart I used to explore as a child
at the science museum near Rocky's steps.

You can't ask me to love you less
than I do, 
is what I say. 
I won't do that.

Then I tell you that I will make a box and fill
it with all the words you think your heart
can't yet fit. And that you can decide someday
whether you are ready to open the box.

Now you're going to make me cry, you say.
Which is how I know your heart can stretch
to hold this lake,
if you'll let it.

 

X. NIGHT

The stars and the fireflies come out
of hiding at the same time, vying for
our willing attention.

A man in motion tends to stay in motion.
This is the longest, sleep excepted, that I
have ever seen you at rest, my love. 

Look at the water, you say suddenly.
I do and I gasp.
I have never seen a lake mirror
the constellations overhead.

I like our swaps, our give-and-take.
I'll tell you all the sunset's secrets,
if you coax the stars to come
spend the night on the water
with us, from time to time.

We are alone at night
on a sailboat with a busted motor
on the mightiest lake in the world.
Our phones hear nothing. 
No one knows exactly
where or who we are.
My coordinates? The crook
of your arm and your mouth
in my hair. All around us, 
the stars are swimming.
They'll never tell.
The moon, as full as I, 
ascends over Oak Island, 
a latecomer to our party.
I rise too, and stand at the wheel.
Your slow grin in the shock
of moonlight tells me that
the red wine from your sister
did not hurt. 
 

XI. TACKING

We wake up with no children,
no dogs, and one thin blanket.
Hot tea, instant oatmeal and the
boat radio's weather forecast
are served.
Death: unlikely today.
You weigh anchor;
I weigh this love of ours. 

On the way home the wind is drunk.
One minute we are scudding along,
the next we are adrift.

The weather forecast is not dire, but it is
still less than ideal. Thunderstorms possible.
We are giving the motor the silent treatment,
which it likes. We're hoping to ration its mercy
and coax it alive in time to navigate the marina.

We tack—
zigzagging to chase
whatever breeze we can—
over and over. 

I know what my lesson is, I tell you.
You are more than happy to hear it.
See, I say, and you thought I just
bossed everybody else around.


XII. MY LESSON

Do not panic when tacking leads you
away from your desired trajectory.
Your destination is still there,
waving you home, even when it
slips momentarily out of sight.

 

—for ML