Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Janey's Turn

by Judith Mercado

I came up the companionway, soggy towel in hand. Why I thought hanging the towel on a lifeline would dry it out, I don’t know. Nothing dried in the muggy air of this stagnant Dominican Republic harbor.
My wife Janey stood in the cockpit, staring at a sailboat just coming into the harbor. I clipped my towel to the lifeline and held onto the forestay as I watched Janey.
She unhooked the VHF radio mouthpiece and spoke into it. “Stargazer, Stargazer, No Moss Here calling Stargazer. Over.”
Even with perspiration glistening on her forehead, Janey looked as if she had just felt the breeze of an air-conditioner. I, on the other hand, felt like someone who hadn’t taken a bath in six months, which wasn’t far from the truth. I hadn’t stepped into a real bathtub since leaving the Chesapeake to pursue Janey’s dream of living on a boat. It was a dream I first found out about upon my retirement as an international hydroelectric engineer.
I let my arm drop and headed for the cockpit. Face it, I loathed being in this tropical cesspool. I still couldn’t figure out how I’d let Janey talk me into this. 
Janey looked up just then and winked, which startled me. Was she psychic? Did she know that after years of roughing it on construction sites all over the world, the last thing I wanted now was to camp out in one Third-World harbor after another?
What I had really wanted to do upon retirement was to construct an English cottage garden for our house back on the Chesapeake.
Janey spoke into the VHF again. “Stargazer, Stargazer, No Moss Here calling Stargazer. Over.”
I knew what she was doing. She was trying to find the name of a laundress in our next port of call, but she got no response again, only sputtering static. I glanced at the grimy-looking sailboat anchored next to ours. Barnacles clung to her dingy hull. A bristling bear of a man lifted a heavy anchor crushing a tattered cockpit cushion. He and his boat fit right into this fetid harbor.
Thankfully, at least one of the boats in this anchorage, Windswept, was kept in Bristol condition. Anchored about two hundred feet away, the thirty-two-foot sloop was a testament to her owner Ted’s commitment to regular maintenance. He even swabbed the hull daily to make sure it didn’t get permanently stained by the harbor’s foul-smelling, garbage-ridden water. How long would that commitment last? I had given up long ago trying to maintain that impossible standard here.
No Moss Here. Stargazer,” a man finally answered on the radio. “What can you tell us about clearing Customs? Over.”
Here’s the raw truth, Janey could tell him. Customs will come to you, but they’ll most likely do it in a leaky wooden boat, and their shoes will be full of mud. The town had dug up the streets to install water and sewage pipes and then run out of money.
That’s what Janey could say, but she wouldn’t. She’d say that the local customs office was very accommodating, and they even do house calls!
If she could find the glimmer in this harbor, what if I told her the truth about what I really wanted to do upon retirement? Would she, for my sake, make as big a deal about sailing up and down the Chesapeake as she had about cruising? Disappointment never crept into Janey’s tone of voice. Not here, not in forty years of traipsing all over the world because of his jobs. It had never mattered if Janey knew the local language or if the maids stole her blind. Janey had always smiled.
She was still doing it. She even smiled last week while suggesting we use some of our scarce fresh water to maybe rinse out a bed sheet. Five weeks of cruising in isolated harbors had left us with linen stiff with salt and perspiration. Sure, you could always lash buckets astern while under way and let the sea motion slosh the clothes clean, but that wouldn’t work for sheets. You had to find coin machines or hire a local laundress.
You could be sure we wouldn’t do that here. There were no coin machines, and if we did hire someone, our sheets were likely to arrive speckled with mud or with the droppings of the chickens and donkeys roaming the torn up streets.
But how’re we going to dry the bed sheet?” I had asked.
On lines rigged to the halyards.”
Janey . . . .” It’s what I hated most about cruising, how the boats of even the most upstanding cruisers inevitably ended up looking like sharecropper cabins.
In the old days, this conversation would never have taken place. In the old days, Janey would have gone out and bought new linen before stooping to hang wet laundry to flap on deck for all the world to see. Now she washed her clothes while taking a shower, stomping on them as if they were grapes and then hanging them on lifelines to dry. Rather than see my boxer shorts on display, I’d taken to always wearing a bathing suit.
When Janey signed off the radio -- the arriving boat had no information about laundresses  --  I said, “We might as well ask them.”
She looked at me, her eyes blank.
I pointed to the disreputable-looking boat anchored nearby. I understood they had just come from our next port of call.
She looked over and grinned. “You think they’ve washed clothes at all in the past three years?”
I grimaced and then glanced at Irie Spirit, the fifty-foot trawler anchored at the other end of the harbor. Janey followed my line of sight and winked at me, her smile gaining strength by the second.
Did you know they have a washing machine and dryer?” she said.
I did.
I also knew they had every electronic gadget known to man and 250 gallons of water, not to mention a watermaker, but I didn’t risk saying that out loud. When I first agreed to go along with Janey’s harebrained idea of living on a boat after retirement, I began to talk about electronic this and electronic that to make our life aboard easier. Janey put her foot down. “If I want to live in a floating condominium,” she said, “I’d stay ashore. This is supposed to be an adventure.”
I’m going below,” I said now.
Nobody had asked me, but what I had wanted upon retirement was to set pavers in a radius alongside beds of lavender and poppies, lupine and antique roses in my English cottage garden. As a nomadic corporate engineer, I had carried one or another version of this garden design right right next to blueprints of hydroelectric plants, something which would have made my father howl if he had known. Every summer Dad had shanghaied me into his landscaping business until, after college, a real job as an engineer offered me an escape.
At the nav station below, I peeked underneath the nautical charts at the dog-eared garden design I had refined over the years. I’d hidden it among the charts because Janey would never go searching there. Navigation at least was something for which I could claim sole responsibility on this voyage.
Well, Janey had gotten her wish. We weren’t living in a floating condominium, just a forty-two-foot, blue-hulled sloop anchored in a squalid harbor. And in point of fact I had only myself to blame for being here. Back when I retired and we bought No Moss Here, I had asked Janey, “Where do you want to go first?” I figured that after schlepping after me for forty years, it was her turn to decide where to go next.
Around the world,” she said, not skipping a beat.
I had squeezed my eyes shut and barely muttered, “Around the world, Janey?”
Yes!” She started dancing across our kitchen floor, her smile already a grin. “Just think of it, Matt. Fiji! New Zealand! The Med!”
Fiji . . . .”
But first —” She stopped mid stride, her face now serious. “We should go to the Bahamas. That’ll be our shake down cruise.”
Ah, the Bahamas.” I became hopeful. Maybe once there, she would change her mind, and we could go back to our cozy house in Annapolis and cruise the Chesapeake one week at a time.
Then we can visit all the islands down to Trinidad.” Janey had continued, swaying again, her arms undulating in air. “Then west through the Panama Canal and on to Australia.”
Well, yes.” She fixed me with a stern look. “If we want to go around the world, that would be one of the logical destinations, Matt.”
Around the world. Where had this come from? It made me wonder if she had been the mastermind behind my entire itinerant corporate career! Is that what she had done at corporate cocktail parties  --  schmoozed with my boss to convince him to send us soon to the next remote posting?
We went to the Bahamas. The Bahamas did not cure Janey of her wanderlust. Her christening our boat No Moss Here should have given me the first clue. So here we were after six months of cruising and still no hope of planting the clusters of Lady’s Mantle I had wanted to place along the edges of my flagstone pathways.
I had to hand it to Janey, though. There had been moments in the last six months when forsaking my coveted garden had not seemed like much of a sacrifice. Like those times when in clear depths of thirty feet we spotted manta rays, purple fan coral, and hundreds of iridescent minnow. I would even admit to being a pushover for the pairs of dolphins who regularly leapt and plunged around our foaming bow waters.
But this was all sometimes hard to appreciate when the local stores proudly displayed freezer burned meat or the dinghy motor jumped overboard and the head backed up. Not to mention sweat-begrimed linen and soggy towels.
I heard Janey’s step on the companionway, I quickly closed the chart drawer.
You want me to fix your drink?” Janey asked as she poured herself a rum and coke.
Thanks. I’ll fix it myself.”
Okay, but, hurry on up.” Janey headed back up to the cockpit.
I watched her as she reached the cockpit and thought, I can’t wait to get out of this hellhole.
Janey stumbled, and I suddenly realized I had spoken out loud. I’d violated my vow not to make my true feelings about this cruise known to her. I stared at her back, noting her — yes — wrinkled shirt and shorts and held my breath.
Without turning to look back at me, Janey laughed and emphatically swayed her hips from side to side.
She plans on dancing her way around the globe, I thought as I poured myself a gin and tonic. I was about to go up the companionway when I noticed the books on the overhead shelf. I put my glass down and pulled out the latest book our daughter had sent me. She kept me supplied with every single book on cottage gardening she could find. She was also holding on to the original of my garden plan. I only carried a copy of it on board. She, too, said nothing about that to Janey.
It’s called the merengue,” Janey called out from above.
I examined my gardening book as I fixed my gin and tonic. The first photograph was of the back of a stone cottage. Rakes and hoes hung neatly on the wall. Clay pots clustered on the flagstone terrace by the door. I wondered if flagstone was something one could install without professional help.
Glancing behind me first to make sure Janey was not looking, I opened the chart drawer again and extracted the English cottage garden design. I smoothed the plan on the chart table. I had looked at the design so many times that the details seemed animated, the flower stalks bent over in the breeze. My fingers traced where I intended to place the lupine and roses.
You know,” I murmured, “maybe I should introduce more vivid colors among the roses.”
I laughed under my breath. It must be the corrupting influence of the tropics. Given how I felt about cruising through the islands, you’d think I’d flee torrid pinks and scarlets.
I peeked through the companionway at Janey sitting in the cockpit. How I wished I could walk up and talk over my design choices with her. After all, she had trudged with me through garden shows all over the planet. Of course, I had always let her think that my interest in gardening was just a quaint, nostalgic link to my landscaper father.
I could see Janey staring off into the harbor, not drinking her rum and Coke. Behind her, the sky was beginning its kaleidoscopic announcement of the coming sunset. Her shirt collar curled up at the tips,. She absently smoothed it down as if ironing it.
The gesture made me ache. Was it possible Janey could be missing a more civilized life as much as I? We were not that far from home. Turning back now was still manageable, not like it would be if we were already in Fiji or Australia. Maybe I should tell her about my garden, after all. Maybe she would say, Well, darling Matt, why ever did you keep that from me? Of course, let’s go home.
I had reached the bottom of the companionway when I noticed the soft smile on Janey’s lips. For a moment, I watched her unawares.
Then I stepped into the cockpit. “What’s the . . . mayraingay?” I said when I sat down.
Janey jumped up, raised her right arm in the air, placed her left hand on her stomach and began gliding from side to side along the five-foot length of the cockpit. I couldn’t hear any music. It was all in her head.
My sixty-three-year-old wife.
She was still laughing when she dropped down to sit beside me. “It’s the Dominican national dance. Remember when you went off to find their post office?”
I nodded.
Well, while you were doing that, I talked a local girl into teaching me how dance merengue in front of a blaring cantina. You should have seen us!”
What were you doing in front of a blaring cantina? I thought you were off checking out where to buy local groceries. But I only sipped my gin and tonic.
Look,” Janey whispered.
I raised my head. Her arm pointed toward the west. Before I turned to where she pointed, I noticed her fluttering eyelids, the moisture gathering in her eyes even as she smiled.
Then I looked to the west. The torrid vegetation lining the harbor was becoming darkened silhouette. As I watched the swirling oranges and reds in the sky, a cloying ripeness lingered in the air. Water lapped softly against the hull. Somewhere on land, the throaty miniature frogs kept up their chorus. We were far enough from the fifty-foot trawler that I couldn’t hear its generator rumbling and expelling water.
We sat quietly as the sun began its slow fiery descent into the undulating horizon. I thought about the garden design I had smoothed out with my hand earlier before sliding it back into its hiding place between nautical charts.
I kneaded Janey’s shoulder and smiled at her, thinking, It’s your turn now, Janey. I hope you’re enjoying yourself.

Judith Mercado’s fiction frequently explores conflicting cultural perspectives. “Janey's Turn” is part of a short story collection about boat live-aboards, inspired by her four years living aboard a trawler cruising from Martha's Vineyard to Venezuela and including Bermuda. Stories from that collection have been published in Nassau Review, North Atlantic Review, Gemini, Rose & Thorn, Rosebud.  and SNReview. Non boating stories have also been published in other literary reviews. Essays about multiculturalism have been published in various Latino blogs. She blogs at Pilgrim Soul: Her novels await publication.

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