Driving through the upper half of Maine was miserable. In an instant, you could tell that the northern portion of the state was being sucked dry by the flashy, colorful quality of Southern Maine by places like Portland and Kennebunk. It was as if the autumn disappeared as we travelled further. The scenery got grayer and the highway got quieter as my best friend Eddie slept on a folded pillow next to me while his mom drove and listened to Joni Mitchell. We were only headed to Eastport, Maine, for an overnight. Eddie’s mom, a marine biologist, and her colleagues invited guests for a private whale watch charter. But even a short trip started to feel too long to be trapped in such a bleak state. I sat in silence for the rest of the drive, wondering how the drive home would look the next day and watching the gray slide off and turn into color like in The Wizard of Oz.
The next morning, we boarded the charter boat before the sun came up. All the marine biologists and their guests were yawning and holding Styrofoam cups of watery coffee. Even the captain rubbed sleep from his eyes, which worried me as we stepped off the sturdy dock and onto the rocking boat. He told us we would head northeast towards New Brunswick, to a place that is generally dead this late into the season, but has had a lot of activity recently—a pod was leaving for warmer waters late.
That morning looked eerily like this morning, three years later, as I dangle my legs over the railing of the small bridge at home.
Eddie asks, “Do you have something I can use as an ashtray?” And as if accepting a dance, I give him my hand, palm down. He blows out smoke through his nose and laughs because I’m kidding, I’m kidding, right? Instead, he tosses his cigarette into the rotting river below. The water used to be clear enough to see your reflection, but now it’s muddied—littered with beer cans and cigarette buds floating from one town to the next. But in the early morning darkness, you couldn’t really tell what decay formed below, and it was easy to ignore it.
“Would you hold my feet while I look over the side, so I can hear the water better?” I ask, to which he responds with, “Absolutely not.” He decides we should probably go home. I made him meet me because I’d been up all night and I knew he had to get to work at 5am, making him the only person awake in my life.
We live in opposite directions, so before we part ways, I kiss his cheek. Because he’s my friend, a best friend—and sometimes the extremely large paranoid part of my brain takes over and tells me he could get hit by a car on his way home, or trip and crack his head on the pavement, get eaten by a bear, have an aneurysm, choke on his spit. So, I want to cover my bases: big kiss, big hug. When we pull apart, he says, “Please get some sleep.”
Eddie has always reminded me of water. He taught me how to swim in a blow-up pool in his backyard when we were six. He pulled me out of freezing water by my jacket when I fell through the ice at the pond. I spent weeks at a time with him and his family in Nantucket while his mother took samples of sea to test in a big lab back home.
I watch him disappear into the slowly brightening morning before I start walking home. I don’t even notice how cold it is until I hear a little crunch of frost underneath my shoe as I cut through backyards. I move around and dance with myself so that the initial heat will send a shock through my body to warm me up. I put a cigarette out on the back of my hand before running the rest of the way home.
The engine sputtered and the boat rocked, water droplets splashing onto my grey sweatshirt. I shivered looking at the bottomless blue water and for a split second I wanted to pierce the freezing surface with my hand—to see if my skin would turn to ice or remain tough against the cold water like whale blubber.
My thought was interrupted as the charter boat cut through the sea like scissors through paper. My loss of balance felt more like a lack of gravity: there was nothing solid for miles, nothing binding—only this clunky charter that I was convinced was doing more harm than good in dizzying me by trying to keep me afloat. For a moment, I wanted less between the surface and me. That’s when I heard someone say, “If you’re feeling sick, look at the horizon, it tells your brain that you’re right side up.” I took this overheard advice and stared off the side of the boat, right to where the ocean touches the atmosphere, but I don’t think the trick ever really worked.
I would have stayed awake for another day if it weren’t for my legs. They were on backwards by the time I got home; I couldn’t even get through the doorway. My mom finds me struggling like a fish out of water as she comes down the stairs to make coffee before work. She pulls me up by my underarms and I try to laugh it off, like it happens all the time. I chalk it up to the run home from the bridge, something must have happened, and if I could just get to my room…
Her face is something serious, though, as she puts on sneakers, asking where I’d been all night. Then all of a sudden, the illuminated morning turned into florescent overhead lighting and a male nurse shoving an IV into my ashtray hand, taping the tube around my thumb. I immediately begin to rip at.
“It’s…it’s just my legs, just have the doctor switch my bottom half around, I don’t need this IV,” I shout. The nurse shushes me incessantly and I become so focused on the way his lips stick out with each “shh” that I don’t even realize he’s forcing me to sleep. Before my eyes close, I see my bare feet—right side up—connected to tiny ankles, and thin legs connected to bruised knees.
The charter slowed, the air crystallized. Hesitation surrounded the passengers, giving way to a loud snort. The sound forces everyone’s attention to the left side of the boat, rocking my unstable reality yet again. The captain tells us there are at least two humpbacks surfacing. Soon, rubbery, dark gray patches circle up to the surface, hitting the open air just briefly. Even without any sun, the blubbery bits shine when they rise above the water. Little islands of humpbacks, bobbing up and disappearing. Then, the water quiets.
The buzz around the tiny bit of whale we saw rejuvenated the sleepy bunch. We idle for a bit, hoping to see more. I moved to the other side of the boat for a moment, needing more horizon, even though the trick had been failing me all morning. A strange silence envelopes the boat—it reminds me of the spooky quietness after Susan Backlinie gets eaten up at the beginning of Jaws. It’s sinister, especially for how striking the sea is. The quiet, for a moment, made me believe there’s nothing in the water but salt.
Whales exceed humans in their emotional capacity. Intensely familial, humpbacks generally share their lives with their pods—which consist of family, friends, neighbors, other mother whales—to solidify a safe migration, time and time again. However, humpback whales can be excruciatingly solitary animals as well, who will travel by themselves for miles when they desire. They attend the party, then they walk home alone. They kiss their friends and disappear in the other direction. Sometimes, they get too lonely, suffering from more solitude than needed. They sing haunting lullabies that travel sorrowfully through waters warm and cold. Humpback whales will always find the singer of that lonely song and understand. The need for companionship and the need for separation harmonize for the humpback. No one asks, “Where have you been?” Instead they say, “Welcome back.”
I try to shake the eerie feeling after the short flashes of whale we just saw. Somehow, the silence of the open water was frightening loud, drowning out the chatter from the others on board.
When the humpback breached, it happened in slow motion. I took a breath in and it was as if I summoned the whale out of water. One of the largest animals in the world was suspended in air, suspended in time. It’s off-white fins waved to me, relaxed, like a neighbor waving from their lawn across the street. The biggest thing I’d ever seen was falling to earth, making a whale shaped imprint in the water, as I slowly exhaled. Ocean sprayed into my face from the waves of the breach against our boat, and people gasped with excitement. I taste the salt in my wide-open mouth, feel the spray in wide open eyes, but I don’t blink. Droplets get trapped in my frizzy, windblown hair and dampen my grey sweatshirt once again. I let out an edge-of-the-world laugh. I want to turn around to see everyone else’s faces, to see if they’re even still there but I felt deranged.
Before I can even decide to turn around, another humpback launches from the waves, this time even closer to the charter. My head moves up with the whale’s trajectory and for a second, there is no ocean anymore, just a humpback whale frozen in time against the slate gray sky. I don’t move a muscle until it hits the water, back where it belongs. The water calms as we wait for more, but that was the last of it. It was so deafeningly loud when the humpbacks snuck out of their liquid habitat to show us their massive existence, and now that everything is so still, I’m wondering if I even saw it at all. Maybe the humpbacks were just some sort of simulacra: hyperreal, dreamt.
That’s what frightened me the whole trip back to the port, back to the cabin, back to the car and back to Connecticut. The grandest animal showed itself so briefly, but startled me for so long after the fact. The image of the humpback hanging in the air chased me inland, lingering in my memory. There was a sea giant underneath me, living its life so quietly and peacefully until it decided to show how enormous it really is, leaping out of its dwelling so people can stare. But it’s not such a tragic life for the humpbacks. In fact, the colossus lives freely. It lives alone and it lives with others. It sings and is sung to. It shows itself and doesn’t care that people are scared. Below the surface, it lives shamelessly big every day.
When I wake up, I’m in the front seat of the car, my mom in the driver seat. Outside, the day is either just ending, or just beginning. I can’t be sure, but the sky is the exact same shade as it was when I left Eddie’s embrace on the bridge.
I stay quiet. I feel as if the past few days leading up to this had been one long breach—me shooting out of the water to dangle in the clouds before crashing back down, creating a spectacle, causing a ripple in otherwise calm waters. And then to hide beneath the calm surface. Though, I’m not hiding. Just because I’m underwater doesn’t mean I’m small. It means I’m swimming to where I want to be.
Back home from the hospital, I’ve determined it is dawn a day later. I crawl into bed and drift off to sleep from the mix of morning and medicine.
I dream underwater. I hear a familiar melancholy cadence and crashing waves. I see the bright surface above but instead of rupturing the calm separation between earth and sea, I follow the lullaby to warmer waters.