The Clipper Ship Captain
January 25, 2017
It’s a bit after midnight in mid-August of 2006, about ten hours before I move away for college, and in the flickering light of a silent television, I watch her lose the battle between the tears on her cheeks and the white sheets she’s trying to defeat them with. Don’t go, she says, and I don’t know if she means right now or for good, but I have to get up early because the future waits for no one, so I shut her bedroom door after I roll four more bittersweet grenades across the floor: I love you I love you I love you and it’s only a few hundred miles.
In a supermarket line, the second week of April, 2013, I pick-up my phone to an angry voice on the other end saying fuck me for taking her friend to that dance, and, How come you didn’t ask me? Dutifully, I remind her, You have a boyfriend.
On a foggy night in 2005, I stand under the crepe myrtle tree and throw a gumball ring into the woods across the street. I’m out of breath from yelling about how she makes me feel inferior and swearing I won’t take it anymore. She bites her lip like she’s not even a little sorry and says that I’m acting like a child, and this time we’re both right.
We’re in my uncle’s pool in May of 2010, and the eyes of an entire wedding party are swimming all over us as she squeezes her thighs tightly around my shoulders to deliver the final thrust, then holds up a half-empty champagne bottle and shouts, UNDEFEATED! as the faces of our latest Chicken Fight challengers splash into the water. She bends down and kisses my head gently, then yanks back a handful of my hair and fills my throat with carbonated grapes and chlorine. I am Billy Pilgrim.
On a Sunday Morning Coming Down in the Spring of 2007, I lay in the hammock of a backyard ruined by a Saint Patrick’s Day party. I takes sips from a warm bottle of PBR and am not yet convinced that there isn’t a cigarette butt at the bottom of it, but I’ve lost the will to care. She got on the road about an hour ago, so Oscar’s sitting on the deck next to me, hungover but still willing to do damage control on a weekend that started when she showed up on our doorstep unannounced on Friday evening, having just been dumped by the first guy who wasn’t me. So I took her to campus and kissed her beneath the clock tower at midnight, and suddenly she was pressed up against me in bed, and twenty-four hours later, tugging on my green suspenders and reaching for my hand while my friends revived a row of flip cups. Now, from above the deck, I tell Oscar that every time she leaves it’s like getting my heart broken all over again. He wants to know why I do this to myself. Because we’re recovering addicts, I say, And the past is a powerful drug.
It’s Valentine’s Day, 2003, and the opening measures of the song I requested are reverberating off the walls of my high school gymnasium, but I still have no idea who I’m going to share this dance with. As Elton John sings, Ballerina, you must have seen her, I nervously approach an olive-skinned eighth grade cheerleader I must have said only twelve words to in my entire life. But for whatever reason, she wraps her arms around me and lets me lead her across the crudely polished floor. Somewhere out in the humid evening, a butterfly flaps its wings.
My phone chimes on a second-floor table of the law school library in September of 2011, and I find in my inbox several mirror selfies of her in a public restroom, and she wants my opinion on whether she should cut her hair. I tell her, You already know my answer to this one.
A few weeks after the New Year, 2009, I call her because I’m tearing my hair out about my latest break-up, and to my surprise, she’s newly single too and also frustrated because goddamn it she’s tired of starting all over and, How hard is it to find someone decent to settle down with? And of course the conversation turns into whether what we had was real. And, Has is screwed us up for good? And, Have we discussed all this before? But I suggest, nonetheless, Let’s hang out soon and hash it out.
I buy her a beer after she agrees to meet up with some friends of mine at a patio bar on a nearly freezing evening late in the Fall of 2014. The Cajun band covers Tiny Dancer, and I say, Your only hope of keeping warm is to put your dancing shoes on, but she tells me, Not tonight. Three weeks later, she blows up my phone about how I should take her dancing soon. So I do.
A rippling moon reflects off the surface of a classmate’s swimming pool during the summer after my junior year. She’s playfully trying to drown me in between volleyball serves because, she says, it would make her life easier, and I don’t disagree. Everyone thinks the cops are coming, but no one wants to turn down the music, and the keg’s already floated, but she’s hell bent on winning this last one, so when I spike the ball over the net, she leaps into my arms and shouts, UNDEFEATED! Then I grab the nearest bottle from the cement ledge beside us and fill her mouth with strawberry bum wine.
A few hours after Thanksgiving Dinner, 2008, I meet her at a party because we’re both back home for the first time in what has to be forever. She sits on my lap in a lounge chair near the fire so we can share a cigarette and cracks-up at all my college antics while her fingertips dance around my open palm. She tells me, I miss this, and I sigh and say that I’m seeing someone.
We sip screwdrivers on the front porch swing of my roommate’s fishing camp, July Fourth weekend, 2015, and she says, Dear Lord I’m so ready to be single for a while, and, How about we push our marriage pact back to 30? And of course the conversation turns into whether we were ever really in love. And, Has it ruined our expectations? And, Doesn’t this conversation feel familiar? So she suggests it’s best for us to just enjoy the weather.
It’s early winter, 2004. I park my car beneath the crepe myrtle tree beside her driveway like I always do. She greets me with a bandana hastily fashioned into a blindfold, explains that she has something to show me. Her hands tremble upon my arm as she guides me across the yard and over the threshold of the outdoor kitchen. Across the floor, with tiny candles, in letters two feet wide, she’s meticulously spelled out three words so terrifying for fifteen year olds to say aloud for the very first time.
At about 11:11 PM over the Summer of 2012, she sends to my phone a photo of a bookmark I gave her. Along the edge I can see the leg of a guy who’s asleep next to her in bed, but she’s reading a novel in the lamplight and thinking of me. Her message is so far out of left field, because I know we haven’t spoken in probably six months, but as I scroll through my texts, I find traces of conversation at least every other week for as far back as my phone remembers. I’m no longer sure in which direction time is moving.
I read to my senior year English class an essay I was assigned to write that had to be filled with descriptive language. It’s a two-page personification of my pulse when she’s around. The five seconds of silence when I finish is broken by a girl in the back who says, Jesus Christ. Our teacher weeps and dismisses us early.
A few weeks after the New Year, 2017, we run away to a buddy’s beach house in the Florida Panhandle. She falls asleep with her head on my shoulder along I-10, and suddenly I’m pressed up against her in bed, and twelve hours later, serving her bacon and coffee and planning a day under the eighty-degree sun. On the beach, Oscar tells her stories about our college antics, then she lights us a cigarette to share and says, I love that we decided to do this, and I reply, I love you too. And now we’re getting ready to call it a night, and I’m brushing my teeth in the bathroom mirror as she leans over the vanity in a towel to wipe the makeup from her face, and when she asks me how I’d feel if she cut her hair, the room shifts ever so slightly, and I slide down the far wall and onto the floor. She wants to know, What’s wrong? And I say that I have no idea what year it is.
Two days later, Oscar’s sitting on the counter above me as I lay sprawled across the kitchen floor next to a glass of whiskey-stained ice cubes. You shouldn’t do this to yourself, he tells me. But we’re recovering addicts, I say, And the fall from the wagon isn’t far.
When Oscar goes to bed, I shut my eyes and on the back of my lids can see her long locks of grizzly brown hair chasing the handlebars of her bicycle down a hill against the backdrop of an Indian Summer, or tangling around my face as we rip through the curves of an autumn carnival ride, or teasing the May Day wake of my father’s boat. God, it’s always her hair—the hair I consistently and iconoclastically encouraged her to cut off because I loved it so much. In one moment, her dad is drunkenly lecturing me in the garage because we fell asleep together in her bed after a Friday night football game, and in the next, her hand is riding the airwaves outside the window of my pickup truck to the beat of Motorcycle Drive By. Now I’m on a bended knee in the parking lot of a Winn Dixie jokingly proposing to her with a gumball ring I bought while my best friend was getting us booze with his fake ID, and then we’re on my ratty college couch and she’s toeing the party line for what must be the hundredth time by telling me that this just isn’t going to be, and I don’t believe her because I know how she sounds when she means something.
Each memory bleeds into the next, painting across these fourteen years a picture of something so unbearably raw and easy and innocent and idolatrous, a masterpiece of immense joy and suffering—evidence that, of all the vices the gods give out, to us was doled nostalgia. So be it. The past is real. And some things we never get over.