Where does a mistake begin? Lately I’ve found this simple question difficult. Impossible, actually. A mistake has roots in both time and space—a person’s reasoning and her whereabouts. Somewhere in the intersection of those two dimensions is the precisely bounded mistake—in nautical terms, its coordinates.
Did my mistake begin with the boat? Or my marriage itself? I don’t think so. I now suspect that my mistake took root in an innocent experience I forgot to decipher, the mystery of which has quietly ruled me. For example, I remember standing beside a blindingly blue Howard Johnson’s motel pool at twelve years old, watching a couple undress one another through a half-drawn curtain, while my estranged father disputed the bill in the lobby. Should I have looked away? Did the miscalculation occur even earlier, as I sat on a rope rug in clean kindergarten sunlight, and I leaned toward the boy beside me and accepted his insistent whisper? I still feel his dew in my ear.
And now I am sitting in a closet.
I should explain.
I moved in a couple of days ago. I came in here looking for something of his, and discovered that the carpet is very plush. The slatted bifold doors filter the sunlight beautifully. I feel calm in here.
Hiding in closets is the habit of children, I know. I used to hide in my mother’s closet when I was a kid. Her closet contained some dressy silks and wools she never wore. I loved holding these fabrics against my body, or stepping into her high heels, as if onto a dais, rehearsing my future. I never felt ashamed.
Surely there is some connection between seeking refuge in my mother’s closet long ago and hiding in Michael’s now, but that insight does not help me.
Sometimes life just writes you tiny, awful poems.
I am uncertain whether or not I can survive this day.
I mean, if I want to.
To go out, to go outside, requires preparation and composure. If I were to go out, to start walking around and seeing people again and going to the grocery store and getting on with it, invariably what someone would ask me is, Do you wish you’d never gone? They will expect me to say, Yes, our journey was a mistake.
Maybe that’s what they hope I will say.
But saying yes to the boat was my clearest act of loyalty toward my husband.
I can’t afford to regret it.
If I did, I would only be left with my many disloyalties.
January 17. 10:15 a.m. LOG OF YACHT ‘JULIET.’ From Porvenir. Toward Cayos Limones. 09° 33.5ʹN 078° 56.98ʹW. NW wind 10 knots. Seas 2–4 feet. NOTES AND REMARKS: We are 102 nautical miles ENE of Panama City, catching prevailing winds into the sovereign territory of San Blas. The shape of the coast is still visible behind us, but ahead is just water. Nothing but water. That’s when I realize there’s only one ocean. One big mother ocean. Yes, there are bays & seas & straits. But those are just words. Artificial divisions. Once you’re out here, you see there’s just one unbroken country of water.
You would never feel this way on land.
(Not in our country.)
What a feeling. Generations of sailors have failed to describe it, so what are my chances? Me, Michael Partlow. Michael Partlow, who can’t tell you the title of a single poem. Just ask my wife, her head is full of them.
When I first met him, I thought, I’d never marry a guy like that. Too persnickety. Too conventional. No sense of humor! But I was wrong. Marriage and kids and the grind made Michael morbidly funny. He got funnier and funnier, while I, who had been funny, got less funny.
There was this muscle shirt to which he was superstitiously attached when we were living aboard the boat. The memory of this shirt makes me laugh out loud. While sailing in hot climates, you start wearing as little as possible. And cruising kids, they dress like mental patients—grass skirts and flamenco dresses with muck boots and welding visors and shell necklaces—mementos of places they’ve been. I have no idea where Michael got the muscle shirt. Panama City? It was white, with huge armholes. Standing ashore, beaming, with his boyish face and unwashed hair, he looked like a prep-school kid who’d gotten lost on a hike about twenty years ago.
The crew of our vessel is fit and in good spirits. Bosun Sybil Partlow (age 7) is sitting in First Mate Juliet Partlow’s lap in the cockpit. Deckhand George “Doodle” Partlow (age 21⁄2) is doing his best to stand upright in the small swell. He’s pantless, waiting for First Mate to let him whiz off of the side of the boat. His slightly delayed vocabulary is strictly maritime. Boat go, fish go. We were just visited by a very large sea turtle! Surfacing portside with a head like a periscope. Sybil says it’s a spy. Whenever Sybil says anything cute, she tells me to write it down. That turtle’s a spy, write that down in your book, Daddy.
Pardon me? I say. Are you speaking to me? What do you call me underway, Bosun?
She laughs. Fine, write that down in your book, Captain.
The muscle shirt was so funny because he’s normally such a neatnik, a dandy, and a rearranger. He needs almost no sleep. His mother said he’d always been that way. Here at the house, he used to work late into the night, sending emails and finishing reports, but mostly, man-tinkering. Learning about electrical wiring by gutting another appliance or making little toys for the kids. Sometimes he’d even go across the brook, where he’d built a fire pit, and we’d sleep to the rustic scent of wood smoke.
In the morning, he’d leave for work as shiny as an apple. He wouldn’t let the children eat in his commuting car. Goldfish, Triscuits—verboten. But the family car, my car? Lawless. A layer of organic material composted under the seats. Mysterious objects thumped against the wheel wells whenever I made a sharp turn.
I understand it now, sitting here. I understand how nice it must have been for him to have a little fiefdom—a closet, where shoes are paired, and the world is shut out, and you get to make all your own choices.
My closet, just there on the other side of our bedroom, is haphazard. I gave up trying to neaten it when Sybil was a toddler. After months of hanging them up, I just left all the blouses on the floor, where they’d fallen after she’d pulled them off the hangers. She’d shuffle out of the closet in my shoes, unsteady as a drunk, and leave them where I’d never find them.
But I am a mother. Gradually, I just gave them all away, all my spaces, one by one, down to the very last closet.
January 17. 6 p.m. LOG OF YACHT ‘JULIET.’ Cayos Limones. 09° 32.7ʹN 078° 54.0ʹW. NOTES AND REMARKS: Made it here to Cayos Limones no problem & are anchored off small island with a good holding. Sybil is jumping off the transom while her mom is wrestling Doodle out of his swimmy shirt.
Smile! they used to say to sad-sack little girls like me. Then feminism came along and said fuck smiling—you’d never force a boy to smile. But as it turns out—recent studies show—that the physical act of smiling does increase one’s feeling of well-being.
So sometimes I practice.
I sit here in my closet and grimace.
January 18. 2 a.m. LOG OF YACHT ‘JULIET.’ Cayos Limones. NOTES AND REMARKS: We are inching toward middle of nowhere. Limones is an untouched archipelago of many sheltered islands w/ fringing reefs & clear waters. Not one single man-made structure. Only the sound of the surf crashing against the windward reef. It’s the middle of the night & I can’t sleep. Just cleaned all the corroded connections on the battery. More company here than I would like, due to proximity to the mainland. Folks from all over the world. At least our kids have other kids to play w/ & Juliet has other women to commiserate w/ over warm white wine.
I know it appears that what we are doing is radical. But the truth is, there are so many people out here. Sprinkled all around the hydrosphere. Sailboats, sloops, catamarans, re-creations of famous schooners, wealthy paranoids, retirees, people traveling with cats, people traveling w/ lizards, people sick of giving one quarter of their income to the government, free spirits, charlatans, and yes, children. There are thousands of children sailing this world as we speak, some who’ve never lived on land.
We say we want kids to be joyful/unmaterialistic/resilient. That’s what sailing kids are like. They climb masts & can correctly identify obscure plant life. They don’t care what somebody looks like when they meet them, they some- times don’t even speak the same language, but they work it out. They don’t sit around ranking one kind of life against another. 71% of the earth is ocean. These kids literally can- not believe they are the center of the world. Because where would that be, exactly? They measure their days against a candid & endless horizon.
Let me begin by saying that buying a boat was the most absurd idea I’d ever heard. I’d never boarded anything but a ferry in my life, and Michael hadn’t sailed since he was in college.
You’ve got to be kidding me, I said to him. You want me, and our two little kids, to live on a boat with you in the middle of the sea?
Just for a year, he said.
I don’t even know how to sail, Michael!
You don’t need to know how to sail, he said. All you need to know is which way to point the boat. I can teach you the rest as we go.
You’re insane, I said.
But even Juliet was hard to convince. How do you sell your wife on the benefits of assuming risk? After all, if your wife is like mine, she probably married you for your stability.
In order to convince Juliet to buy the boat, I had to channel that great salesman—Artist of Spit and Staples, Prankster, Tightwad—my dad, Glenn Partlow. Nothing made Dad happier than sailing on Lake Erie in his old Westsail 32. He’d bought her on a lark from some guy at work who was trying to get rid of her quick. Those days, apparently even a super- vising technician at the GM plant could afford a boat. He kept her at a marina on Lake Erie about a half hour’s drive from our house. My sister Therese joined us for the first several outings, but she got seasick. After that, it was just me & Dad on a boat neither of us deserved to sail.
The boat was named ‘Odille.’ Probably somebody’s old flame. My mom didn’t want anything to do w/ the boat. She was completely absorbed by raising us, which is not to say this was good for her or for us. It was just what moms like her in Ashtabula, Ohio, did at the time. She’d drive us around, handing us our trumpet case or our paper-bag lunch. When Dad & I went sailing on ‘Odille,’ she didn’t complain. At least not to me.
We couldn’t have taken more than 2 dozen voyages on that boat, but they clog my memory. I remember the sea- glass green surface of that windy lake, the short fetch of the waves. If I wanted to see my 13th year of life, I had to learn fast. Which sheet to pull, which one to tie off, how to ready the lines for Dad, when to ask questions, when to shut up. I didn’t want to bother him. He looked so important at the helm.
When I was in 10th grade, GM offered dad a transfer from Parma, Ohio, to Pittsburgh. For reasons I never inquired about, he took the deal & sold the Westsail.
He set us up in a modest brick house on a hillside in the City of Bridges, the steep streets of which had no traction in the ice.
This last detail, of course, rearranged my life.
Of course I said no. My first reaction was shock. I thought he’d lost his mind. Me and the kids living on a boat? Michael might as well have said, Let’s live upside down and walk on the ceiling.
More than once, Juliet pointed out that my father died when he was just a little older than I am now. So maybe I was feeling something breathing down my neck—i.e. eternal quietus? And she could understand how spooky that might feel but maybe could this particular psychodrama be solved w/ something less extreme, like a triathalon?
I don’t disagree! She was right. Every marriage needs one skeptic to keep it safe. But a marriage of two skeptics will fail to thrive.
Michael and I both recognized we had problems, we just couldn’t agree on the solution. I think what was happening was, I wasn’t just talking about the implausible plan to walk away from our house and the kids’ schools and Michael’s job, no matter how assured we would be of getting these things back. I was wondering, whether we were to go or to stay, what would we do— about us?
You think this will solve all our problems. It’s magical thinking, Michael. It’s the way a child thinks.