The Storm

On a sultry June day in 1984, I made a deal with God. Or at least I thought I did. I tried to. It wasn’t much of a deal, really. I got everything and offered very little in return. That day I asked Him to save my life in exchange for a 13-year-old’s version of devotion. He’d save me and my offering would be me. But I was a wreck, not a prize.

He did save me. I’m still alive. But it was not without some effort. It was quite a day.

I had just finished 7th grade and managed to coast into summer break with a couple of friends that I actually had phone numbers for. One of those friends was Meredith. We had spent most of our 7th grade year in the same classes and had cultivated a close friendship. We had promised each other on the last day of school that we’d get together soon.

Soon was today.

Meredith had invited me to go sailing overnight with her and her father. I hardly took a breath before shouting yes. I was always up for an adventure. They kept their 35-foot sailboat in a boat slip at Alligator point, named for the gangly pine trees that towered at the end of the strand in the formation of an alligator’s open mouth. If you happened to be standing directly at the pines and looking up, you would never know you were looking into the mouth of an alligator. But standing on the beach in front of my cottage on St. Teresa across the reef, it was an alligator, clear as day.

The back side of the point had the marina and a cute little store ideal for two girls who were not contributing to the sailing preparation one bit. We ran up and down the docks, shopped in the store, and then wound our way carefully onto her boat deck. Her dad was checking his lines and loading supplies. I don’t remember him asking us to do anything to help. He must have known that it was easier to do it himself than it was to herd two teen girls into working for him.

I leaned against the cabin and pulled the Eurythmics into my ears by adjusting my headphones. I watched Meredith as she gazed across the marina. Her blonde hair and green eyes looked like they were made for a day like this one. The sky was the color of Easter and dotted with a just enough wispy white clouds to keep it from looking like eternity. It was perfect.

“Whatcha listening to?” she asked me as her dad began to back the boat out of the slip with the motor.

“Here Comes the Rain Again,” I answered without pausing the song. I flashed the cassette cover. “Eurythmics!”

“You’re shouting,” she chuckled. “Turn it down!”

“Oh,” I whispered back. “Sorry!”

“Come on,” she beckoned. “Let’s go get settled up front.”

We climbed over the cabin and scooted our way up to the deck that was plenty wide enough for both of us to stretch out. I gazed out over the dignified point of the bow that sliced through dark green waters as we cleared the last of the slips and left the marina in our wake. We each put a rolled-up beach towel behind our head and laid down like royalty.

“Man, this is great,” I said, looking over.

“Isn’t it?” she said.

“Thanks for inviting me.”

“Oh, sure,” she smiled. “I’m glad the timing worked out.”

I thought about my parents back in town and wondered if they were thinking of me with envy. I knew my dad was. He would rather be out on the water than almost anywhere else. My mother was happy to wave at anyone from shore. She loved the beach, but was happier to be on the actual beach. She wasn’t a strong swimmer and preferred to be within an oar’s length of land.

“So,” I said, tugging my headphones off and resting them around my neck while Annie Lennox continued to sing.

“Yes?” She looked over. I had her full attention.

“We’ve been out of school a couple of weeks now. I’m sure we’re both way more mature.” She turned and propped up on her right elbow. “Nick Rhodes? Where do you stand on him?”

“Oh, brother!” She pulled her towel out from under her head to smack me with it. “He’s still hot. Maybe THE hottest.”

I shook my head in disbelief. Nothing had changed. During the school year, several of us had this same conversation about every other day in the cafeteria at lunch. Who was the best looking member of Duran Duran? Simon LeBon, clearly and scientifically the cutest one, was always my choice. He was the winner in the cafeteria poll. He’s since gotten fat and weird looking. 35 years has a way of twisting those leather pants into the grotesque. John Taylor was a sometimes choice for Meredith. He was the tall, lean bass player of the group. He wasn’t my thing, but I readily admitted that he had a lovely jaw structure. He was otherwise too skinny. But Nick Rhodes– Nick Rhodes was a choice I never understood. She had a button with his picture on it. He was the make-up wearing keyboard player.

“He wears lipstick the shade of my grandmother’s couch. It’s a tiny bit creepy.”

“Oh, Missy, be a little progressive. We’ve had this same conversation 400 times. When will you agree to disagree?” She stuffed her towel back under her neck and flipped onto her back again. I couldn’t see her eyes behind her mirrored sunglasses, as she struggled to get as cozy as she had been before.

“Probably never,” I answered truthfully. “But not today, for sure. Simon, always Simon.”

The boat glided along through the emerald gulf waters as we closed our eyes and let the sun drip down on us like melted butter. We saw a couple of porpoises that were happy to race us until they got bored and moved on.

The day went on like that for an hour.

But in the time it took for the second hand of my watch to tick from one number to the next, we both sat up.

Something had changed.

The wind had been filling the main sail till it was round and full like the too-tight dress shirt on a chubby waiter. Now the sail seemed empty and limp, flapping against the mast like the wedding dress of a runaway bride.

The wind was gone.

The skies were flanked with white puffy clouds that seemed to have thickened and matured as we sat there still in the water.

“This is weird,” I said. “Is this weird?” I looked around us. We were swaying in the waves in one spot like we were anchored. Like a plastic bobber on the end of a cane pole. “It’s totally beautiful out. But we aren’t moving.”

“Have you ever heard of ‘the calm before the storm?’” She gave me a sideways glance. “Well, there’s a reason it’s a cliché,” Meredith replied. “I think this is the calm before the storm.”

I had heard that expression.
I had never experienced it.

Meredith got up and grabbed her towel pillow and stooped under the boom. The mainsail was fluttering and slapping loudly against the mast. She shuffled back to the stern of the boat where her dad was 100% focused. His eyes were the color of a bad omen and he was fixed on the sea ahead. She was talking to him, but I stayed where I was. I was not a co-pilot. They didn’t need me trying to hone in on the sailor talk. My stomach rolled with the lapping waves as we seemed to halt between worlds.

I pushed stop on Annie Lennox, because the more still it became, the more I felt I needed to see and hear what was around me. Even the lapping waves had slowed to ripples that looked like small buckles in an endless sapphire carpet.

I looked over my shoulder again and Meredith was climbing her way back to me. She didn’t lie down as before. She leaned against the cabin and held her towel in her lap.

“Well?” I asked.

“A storm is coming,” she said. “Hopefully not too bad. But we should probably put our stuff in the cabin and do a little prep work.” She turned and crawled under the boom again and this time I followed her. In the amount of time it took me to maneuver to the back of the boat like her clumsy shadow, the buttery sunlight that had set such a cheerful tone succumbed to a much darker affair. Vengeful clouds, flinty and thick, dropped down from the wide open and boxed us in. “Come on,” Meredith urged, stepping down the three steps into the cabin below deck.

When we got down there, Meredith opened an overhead cabinet and pulled out two life jackets and shoved our towels into the space she had emptied.

“Here,” she said. “Buckle top and bottom and pull it snug.” I took the life vest from her and tried to read in her eyes something more than the basic instructions she had given me. She didn’t lock eyes with me. She was concentrating on her own vest. Her dad gripped the helm at 10 and 2 and whistled lightly as he navigated an entirely different sea.

“I think it’s okay,” I said, looking away from our captain and back at my friend. “He’s whistling.” I had announced it like it was a telegram of good news.

“That’s not a good sign,” she said, still fiddling with her own life jacket. “That’s what he does when he’s nervous.”

Oh. I looked back at him with that new filter applied and saw a different captain at the helm. He had squeezed the color from his knuckles and the skin of his face was the color of ash. He was nervous. Suddenly the boat lurched and I jounced awkwardly into the cabinets we had just pulled our life vests from. Meredith was still upright, but agitated.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. She didn’t look up.

“I can’t get my lower buckle to work. It won’t stay clasped.” She kept pushing one side of the plastic into the other, hoping to hear the satisfying click of safety.

“I’m sure the top buckle is fine,” I reassured her. I tried to assist but couldn’t get it to lock either. “You want to trade?”

“No, you’ll need it worse than me if it comes to that,” she chuckled.  If it comes to that. If it comes to what?

I didn’t have time to further process the heinous possibilities because I was having to flex my quads like Arnold Schwartzenegger just to stay upright. Meredith and I sat down on the padded bench seats on either side of the boat, facing each other. We each had a small 10” window to the outside world that was like a movie trailer for the apocalypse. I swayed dramatically to the rhythm of the boat as she fought the swells. I kept my eyes glued to that porthole. Because I never took my eyes off of it, I knew the moment that it changed. Where I had been seeing a dark sky and a darker sea, I was now seeing only water. It was the view of a person on a submarine. I sucked in a breath and whispered, “The waves. Over.” I pointed and she nodded. The swells were now higher than the top of the cabin and were crashing over, making it appear that we were submerged.

“Girls, come up here for a minute, please,” Meredith’s dad called to us between his perky little whistles. We both came to the doorway but didn’t climb all the way out. The rain was pelting us sideways, finding devious ways to infiltrate the corners that should have been cozy and dry. “I need you to listen to me carefully.” My stomach became the churning barrel of a concrete mixer.

“This is a bad storm and anything could happen,” he said, prying his gaze from the waves long enough to make intense eye contact with both of us. I tried hard to hear his words, but I felt woozy and small and wondered if I looked as strange as I felt.

“We’ll stay below,” I volunteered. Why are you talking, Missy? Goodness. You know literally nothing about boat safety.

“No,” he countered, with a kind but firm tone. “If this boat capsizes, being in the cabin is the worst place you can be. I need you by the door, ready to come up if I tell you to. If we capsize, we will jump from the high side. Do you understand? You have life vests on and everything will be okay. Hopefully we won’t have to act on any of this. Do you understand?”

He was finished. Meredith was nodding vigorously but saying nothing, her voice swallowed by a harsh swirl of salt air. I understood. I understood I wasn’t safe. I understood we had just been instructed on how to jump from a sinking ship into a lashing, hostile sea. I understood that I wanted to be home, in my family room, watching Hee Haw with my grandmother or scrubbing dirty pots with steel wool or cleaning rain gutters. Vacuuming. Talking to telemarketers. Anything but dying on a boat with my best friend and her dad. I understood that sometimes I was a jerk. I needed more time to not be a jerk. At least to my parents. My brother had it coming.

I understood.

Meredith continued to press the ends of her life vest’s buckle together, finally giving up when neither of us could make it work. We stood there together, at the foot of the tiny staircase, each holding a side and watching her father fight the storm. We were all silent. Only the sea was speaking and we didn’t like what it had to say. I tried not to watch the porthole as the waves broke over the top of the cabin and washed more weakly over the window on the opposite side. It gave me the nightmarish feeling that I was trapped in an aquarium with a great white.  I stood there, scared, wearing my fear like a rash. In the meantime, I began to pray. This is when I decided I should try to enter into an agreement with God. I prayed that God would spare us. That we wouldn’t have to jump. That I would see my family again. I bargained with collateral I didn’t have.

“If you just get me out of this one, Lord,” I thought, “I will do better. I will work harder. I’ll become a better version of myself. I’ll read my Bible more. I’ll be yours for life.”

Time passed. The storm did not. Through the opening to the stern, I saw a plane charge out from the gray wall of cloud and buzz overhead before disappearing.

“Wonder what that was all about,” I said. “Where was he going?”

“He was buzzing us to tell us to get out of the storm,” she replied. “That’s why he got so close.”

“Oh, that’s very helpful. If only we’d thought of that first,” I said.

“Yeah,” she chuckled weakly. “Too little, too late.”

When we had been standing at attention for what seemed like a generation, Meredith sat down on the edge of the bench seat and patted the seat beside her. I sat down next to her. We were determined not to get too comfortable.

My body was exhausted from remaining rigid for so long. About the time I felt I couldn’t maintain it any more, Meredith’s dad leaned in and said, “I think the worst is over.”

I closed my eyes and smiled.

Twenty minutes later it was if it had never happened. We were back in the world of sunshine and lollipops; back on the front deck thinking about reapplying sunscreen. I needed to sleep. We both nodded off a couple of times. When I opened my eyes and looked over, she was looking my direction.

“So, now we’ve been through a near-death experience,” I began.

“My answers will not change. Shut up about it.” She waved her wand in the air with fake authority. “Do you play Connect 4?”

“I never have,” I answered.

“Good,” she said, closing her eyes again. “I’m going to kick your butt.”

That evening, we putted into the cove of Dog Island where Meredith’s dad tied us up to a dock and attempted to hook us up to electricity. The storm had knocked it out. We settled into a dry and cozy cabin as the shadows of dusk retreated into the corners and our lantern light spilled across the table. Meredith pulled the Connect 4 game out of some secret compartment and began to set it up and explain it. Thirty-four years have passed since that night, and I still don’t know how to play Connect 4. All I know is that you are supposed to get 4 of something and nothing is supposed to fall. I never got 4 and my chips fell out of the casing like an overflowing slot machine.

She said she was going to kick my butt and she did. I usually hate to lose, but that night I didn’t mind so much. That night, losing at Connect 4, I had more fun than I could remember ever having. The electricity was restored around 10 p.m. Over the next 14 hours, Meredith continued to beat me at games, did not change her stance on Duran Duran member hotness, and almost got her head chomped off by a stingray with a 4 foot wingspan (I’m not sure I ever told her how close that creature got to her). We strolled the white sands of Dog Island most of the next day and when we sailed home Saturday afternoon, we did so without incident.

But I never forgot that storm. Not then. Not 6 months from then. Not 34 years later. When I walked into my house that Saturday night, frothing to tell my parents what I’d been through, I found a note telling me they were at my grandmother’s apartment having dinner. Well, that was an anticlimactic kick in the lederhosen.

Every step I took was fluid as I crossed the green shag carpet to the kitchen. My world was still rocking. I dialed 386-6262 and took in my grandmother’s “hello” like warm mug of cocoa.

“Hey, Mama,” I said. “Can I speak to my mom for a minute?”

“Hello?” My mother’s voice brought the sting of rising mist to my eyes that I blinked back.

“Mom,” I said.

“Hey, Missy,” she responded happily. “How was your trip?”

“We almost died, but pretty good overall,” I answered truthfully. She never quite knew how to take me and surely thought I was joking. “How long till you get home?”

“45 minutes,” she answered, without addressing my death reference. “You settle in and we’ll see you soon!”

I hung the green handset against the hook gently and leaned against the kitchen counter. Outside, my dog was roaming in the backyard. Dusk was settling and fireflies flashed along the edge of the tree line. Across town, my parents were sitting around a blond 1950s dining table with my Mama, scraping banana pudding off their plates. The world looked exactly the same as it had on Friday before I left. But nothing was the same, because I was not the same.

I wondered if what Meredith was doing right now. I wondered if I’d ever be invited to sail with them again. And if they did invite me, would I say yes? Would I want to go? I mean, deadly storms aside, it seemed a little tenuous to put my trust in a vessel where life and limb depended on the strength of a slip knot. A kid loses focus one Tuesday night in Cub Scouts and people die. But then, that was my mother’s voice in my head. Of course I’d go again if given the chance.

As I was wondering what to do to pass the time until they returned, I suddenly remembered my bargain. If I prayed unwaveringly, read my bible, and served food at a soup kitchen for the next 11 years, I might be able to fulfill my end. Without any further thought, I dug my bible out of the closet under the stairs and sunk into the couch to read.

It had been quite a day.