Issue 01

To Aoife, Always

Essay & Photos by Nathan Cameron Wheeler

Eight months at sea I was gone. I sailed the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, the Indian Ocean, traversed the Straits of Malacca, and the South China Sea; I navigated Selat Sunda and Gelasa and found myself in the southern hemisphere chasing wallabies down under at midnight. I spent a month in Singapore getting slung, and a fortnight in Phuket swimming through ladyfish, angelfish, and ladyboys. Here, there, and nowhere. On the sea for eight months is forever. You forget who you are, what’s important, why you sail to begin with; it isn’t adventure. Mariners sell ourselves sailing by great romantic boasts over the fluttering eyes of hula girls and the please-tell-me-mores of sycophantic landlubbers with third person daydreams; but the motivation for seafaring rests in the open arms of our wives, and the admiration—crudely hiding the grief of loss amongst their peers—of our children upon our return. At twenty, I started my life at sea.

Navy recruiting suggests the next four to six years of your life will be spent drinking cold beer in a Tiki hut, or jet-setting between Miami and San Diego, all while wearing your dress whites. While some of this is true, there are gross lies of omission, and the honest pamphleteer would paint a picture of a lone squid—a decade after military service—side-drooling over the gnarled table of the Fujairah Seaman’s Center while three Filipinas cover ‘80s standards at top volume. He’d add that helm orders, celestial navigation, and marlinspike seamanship would forever be your bread and butter, that—no matter what you do with that college money at enlistment’s end—you’re a seafarer for life, so, get used to it, ‘cause Davy Jones is a cold son-of-a-bitch.

Mariners aren’t all born in the US Navy, some are union men, some are failed architects, artists, or lawyers, all are poets—out of necessity. The bitter, lonely reality is far too grim to bear, so we make do with what’s available: The angry drunk morphs into the barroom brawler on a world tour; the broken hearted become Ricky Nelson’s Traveling Man. We’re all running from that last port where we tore the place up, the last woman to whom was given the wrong number, or—more importantly—the cold shame we must see looking back when we shave.

Whatever aspirations I held as a child, seafaring was my vocation order by destiny. I am the grandson of two sailors, and great grandson of a ship’s boatswain, and an immigrant from the Azores. If my ancestors weren’t effective seamen, I wouldn’t exist. One hundred percent Florida grown, I was a young surfer straddling a tri-fin in the morning New Smyrna air, marking the horizon the way I would later mark lines of position on a chart, and intuition became a fortuneteller saying, someday you must go.

 

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I met her before I went to sea, when we were kids, teenagers. The lens of that day is cerulean and opal; her shoulders, dressed in California blonde, frame two chipmunk cheeks, and a South Florida smile you could put on a billboard. That moment, that first day of summer in the middle of spring, I fell into the warmth of the sun, the soul of a girl. She was eighteen, me nineteen. As she drew near, I focused on her nametag, a name I’d never heard.

“Aoife,” she said. “It’s Gaelic.”

After shaking my hand, she spun round with a flirtatious sway, leaving a warm aura in her wake. That evening she invited me to dinner after work with her roommates and for a movie back at their house. Later, seated together alone on the back porch, we held a confessional and the night planted its flag forever on memory. She expressed the mistakes made in her lifetime; I expressed hope for the future. Her almond eyes flickered in the glow of the porch light.

During the first year of our acquaintance, my own immaturity drove an insistence on rapid romance even as she expressed patience and trepidation. Believing myself to be a romantic, I was actually a drunken fool. I embarrassed her at parties and, even though she expressed love for me—surprising me at the airport before a flight to Ireland, with her tiny pocket book and sweet, pensive face—I didn’t know how to love her. Shortly thereafter, I held her above all; my standard from that day forward. One night I called her.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Painting,” she said.

“Can you say that again?”

She did, and painting became a beautiful word, pure and magical. My love for her was incomplete; what was I to her, but a boy with little to offer? I sang her songs, wrote her stories and poems, bought her flowers, and made her mix tapes, but never admitted my love for her aloud as I hid behind the shame of the undeserving. Months added up to a year as I watched contemporaries find their niche in life while I denied my own; I wasn’t done playing the fool. Aoife said to me one day, “I love you. But I need someone with direction, someone who knows me and knows himself.” The summer passed; I enlisted in the Navy, and left Florida for the raging main.

We kept in touch over the years, and I was assigned to a frigate stationed in Mayport, Florida. She’d moved to St Petersburg, and soon we spent a summer drinking coffee in bed, professing love for one another, and laughing at how we’d hid our feelings for all of those years. Never again would fear blight intuition. During the seventh year of my enlistment I proposed marriage and she accepted. After years of wandering the open ocean and my own dreamscape with visions always of my beloved Aoife, always smiling sunshine, I had realized my mission: to make her my wife and love her eternally.

 

It’s been seventeen years since I went to sea. I spent three more years in the canoe club and left after we were married. I tried my hand at the good life, and soon discovered the most significant lie of omission: you can never go home again. The roving life, the fizzy loves, the hazy, crazy nomadic existence to which you become accustom is all a mariner knows before he knows it. He can try and fight it and wind up dead, or suck it up and accept fate and the paycheck, and he might get a beer in that Tiki hut for his trouble. It took me a little while to get there, to relent against the cold pull of the sea’s harpoon, but finally did, and now work in the merchant marine. And I love the sea, the time away from my Aoife being the lone sacrifice; the homecomings make it all worthwhile.

We have a daughter now, little Marin, six years old, our sailor star. We have had our ups and downs, but have maintained a partnership. Under the circumstance, this is no small task. A seafarer needs the anchor of stability at home to work effectively. My Aoife provides that. She takes Marin to school, prepares meals, works in a healthy routine at the gym, all while working forty-hours a week. I’m grateful to have a good woman back home, holding fast.

 

“You want Japanese, or American breakfast?”

The flight back from Manila connected in Nagoya, Japan. The passengers and crew were split equally between Japanese going on vacations and Americans returning home. The flight attendant asked again if I wanted noodles or eggs and bacon. I opted for the eggs and then stared at my flight mate who made the better decision as I scooped the runny yellow in the dish atop the flip table.

“So where you coming from?” he said.

Stan was a big German-American headed back to Detroit from a business trip to Vietnam. He worked in the auto industry.

“Merchant Marine? How long you stay gone?” he said.

“This time it will be eight months,” I said.

“Man, I couldn’t do it. You must have a helluva good wife. Should be some kind of welcome home,” he said.

He winked and elbowed me slightly on the arm. I smiled and nodded.

By the time I reached Orlando, exhausted after twelve hours seated in my Delta torture chair, I began to remember travel by air once was thought romantic. What were those people thinking?

“Daddy!”

Marin greeted me at the door with open arms. Aoife smiled gently, an old friend returned. Over the past eight months I had discarded my razor—as mariners do—and had meant to shave before returning, but in the bustle of leaving the ship, I’d forgotten. Aoife leaned over Marin and hesitated, her lips above mine, and smiled.

“I’m not used to this scruff,” she said.

She veered, landing a kiss on my cheek.

“Daddy’s home,” Marin said.

“Yes, he is. But he looks tired. You must be exhausted.”

We walked inside. Above the kitchen table a sign written in Crayola heralded my return. All this time Aoife had been alone to do the work of two parents while I toiled at sea. She had been busy, but took the time to go to the gym. She says it’s because she likes the way the workout makes her feel, but I know that’s only part of the reason. She’s been going for two years and the results are undeniable; her figure is breathtaking.

On the table, I found a meal prepared: salmon broiled in teriyaki, asparagus, and salad. The teriyaki caramelizes over the fish under the intense heat of the broiler, creating an outer crust hiding the delicate flesh underneath. It’s my favorite dish. We sat down to eat and Marin filled me in on the details she missed during our phone calls; about camp, the school year, and her new kittens. When she’d exhausted every aspect, Aoife and I looked at one another; the conversation became distant, superficial. While I was away, she’d purchased a new car and this became the primary topic of discussion. I tried to maintain focus, but a yawn escaped.

“Would you like to lay down on the couch?” she said.

We finished the meal. The last thing I remember is her pleasant smile as she put a blanket over me, kissed my forehead and that feeling of home, unique to soldiers and seafarers. I had so many expectations; I always do. They are always of Aoife, always toward her, trying to fulfill my love for Aoife, being with her, smelling her hair, hearing her precious voice.

When I awoke the next morning she sat on the edge of the couch with a coffee. I rubbed my eyes and sat up on my elbows. I wasn’t sure if I was really there. My eyes fell on hers and I noticed how removed she was, her face expressionless.

“Would you like a cup?” she said.

“I would. Thanks.”

She poured me one from the kitchen, her movements almost synthetic, and returned to the edge of the couch. She looked into my eyes without desire, or need.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” she said.

“Oh?”

Years before, when I was in the Navy, she’d sent care packages filled with candies, magazines, music, letters sprayed with perfume and signed with a kiss; she’d sent me a pair of her underwear to drive me crazy. But since Marin’s birth, she’s been a lot busier with things. She doesn’t always answer the phone when I call; when she does, she seems distracted, like someone else is in the room. I’d given her a hard time when I got out of the Navy, mostly drinking. Drinking is what seafarers do. We weather the storm, though. She’s always been my mermaid, since Marin’s birth, my mermaid mama.

“Yes. I wanted to wait until you came home to talk to you.”

“What? Do you want to get a divorce or something?”

I laughed. We’re always good at joking with each other.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes. I do.”

 

Ships passing in the night is an awful cliché when used to describe two people who lost their way. Ships communicate when passing one another; while I was home, we passed one another like roommates. Did you pay the phone bill? Yes. I’m working a double shift today; so, don’t wait up for me. Ok.

Aoife had become my ideal—a photograph filled with youth and memory, and I, as the gallant old salt, had become her ideal—neither one a human who must constantly become in order to flourish, we let the fear of letting each other down encapsulate us. But we breathe, and we swim, and we make love, and we sit together, and we eat. We aren’t our past, or our future. Although she resembles the girl from years before, she is no more that girl than the equally vanished naïve boy in the photograph holding her hand. Aoife is a woman, self-determined—and as alone and lost as I am.

And I am the broiled salmon, with the armored crust concealing the soft flesh beneath. I am the barroom brawler, and now the broken hearted. I’d like to blame the sea—to blame the tidal wave towers that think nothing of throwing supertankers under her troughs as a child does a bathtoy leaving lucky survivors forever expressionless except when aided by grog—but I cannot. For the sea simply is, while we must become. As seafarers sail, they risk staring too long into those endless depths that go on and never reveal, and arrive at their last port suffering amnesia, fatigue, and insomnia because they can no longer dream; and that is the greatest lie of omission.

Recipe by The Communal TablePhotography by Cheryl Juetten

It is well worth the price to find wild salmon for this fast and easy recipe. Our favorites are Sockeye and Coho, but anything caught from the icy shores of Alaska at the height of season will work.

Directions

Set the oven to 350°F.

Place the fish, skin side down, on a large baking sheet. Run your fingers along the flesh to make sure there are no bones. If so, remove the bones with needle nosed pliers. For a tutorial about how to do this, go here.

In a small bowl, mix the brown sugar, salt, soy sauce, mirin, garlic, ginger, and sesame oil. Rub this mixture over the fish until it’s thickly coated. Let rest at room temperature for about 20 minutes.

Bake the fish for about 25-30 minutes until it’s flaky and bright pink. Remove from the oven, cover and let rest an additional 5-10 minutes before serving.

Demetrius Brown

this is good…this is truth…we are what we are…its not even a job really but our way of life…

 

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Ernie

This is pretty good Nate. You got mad skills bro. You should be writing stores.

 

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Gregg Hale

Great writing. Simultaneously sad and hopeful, I love the way you brought the food into the story and then wrapped it into the ending.

 

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John F Leech

nate,

Great story, but saddest story I have Ever read.

John

 

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Jane macIntosh

Nate,

That was a lOvely but sad story.

Was slightly thrown off with the salmon recipe. Very unusual

JanE

 

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Adrian

Hi Jane, I agree. Lovely and sad. Like life, at times. I’m wondering: Were you thrown off that the salmon recipe was there? Or did you try to make it and were thrown off by the recipe itself? If you have questions about the recipe, let me know so I can answer your cooking questions. If it’s the fact that it’s there in the first place, well…life goes on…we all have to eat…Nathan likes salmon with teriyaki…wish him a hearty meal full of delight this very night…sometimes that’s the best we can do.

 

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