Authors: Merrill Joan Gerber
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #You Are Always Safe with Me
You Are Always Safe with Me
Merrill Joan Gerber
How could I know melancholia
Would make me so crazy,
Make of my heart a hell,
Of my two eyes raging rivers?
How could I know a torrent would
Snatch me out of nowhere,
Toss me like a ship upon a sea of blood…
With each new breath the sound of love
Surrounds us all from right and left
Now up we go, head heavenward
Who wants to come and see the sights…
—Rumi, Turkish poet, 12
Each night the boy named Barish took the rope in his mouth and dove into the sea from the railing of the boat. In the darkness he swam toward the edge of the cliffs where he clambered upon the rocks in his rubber fins, searching for an outcropping that could accept the loop of his rope. His shadow, illuminated in the beam of the powerful searchlight held by Izak, the boat’s captain, loomed and quivered on the stones. When Barish had found a jagged boulder and tested its strength, when he knew the knot was secure and would hold the boat steady in the currents till morning, he turned and gave the captain the signal that the job was done.
The guests on the
observed this ritual each night before the anchor was dropped in the cove. Some glanced up from their backgammon games or their post-card writing or their sea-gazing. Lilly’s mother put her paintbrush down on the railing for a moment and stared toward the cliffs. She was three months into widowhood and her eyes were hollow, although Lilly had not seen her cry once since her father had died.
Lilly watched the scene intently as she did at this time each evening, when the Turkish sun had dropped far below the horizon, when the first night winds blew over the deck, and when Barish, with his golden skin and beautiful back, swam back to the boat in the flashlight’s beam and climbed, dripping, onto the deck.
The boy was beautiful but it was the captain, Izak, whose presence affected Lilly. She could not take her eyes from him, this dark-skinned captain with his bare feet planted on the teakwood deck, with the powerful contours of his shaven head outlined against the blue-black of the darkening Mediterranean Sea. This was the moment when the heat of the day had relented, when soon the delicious and mysterious meal would be served, and when Lilly began to look forward to her night of sleeping on the thick foam pad of the deck under the stars.
Izak always slept on deck, on one of the narrow padded benches beside the boat’s helm. She could see his form from her pillow, his body wrapped in a light blanket. Sometimes she felt that only the two of them were awake under the dome of the dark heavens. Did he ever close his eyes? Lilly sensed that he never truly slept, but stayed awake to guard the passengers and the boat from harm.
The ship’s cook, Morat, was already below in the galley, slicing and dicing and heating oil on the stove. He was visible from the deck, just a few steps down, standing shirtless in the steam of the boiling potatoes. He sweated till he shone, the drops of condensation running into the curly dark hairs that climbed his breastbone. The men who managed Lilly’s life on this cruise, who fed her and cared for her, walked around her and leaned over her and steadied her against the sudden sea swells were always nearly naked. Barish, the boy, was eighteen. The two older men, Morat and Izak, were perhaps thirty-five and forty.
Having just passed her own fortieth birthday, Lilly did not generally entertain romantic reveries about men. Her life was orderly and rational; she had made peace with her single state. Large-boned and sturdy, she had never been the kind of girl that men rushed to admire. “You have lovely forearms,” her mother used to tell her and she knew, even in her teens, this was not a good thing.
Still, there were always men who sought out less attractive women, thinking they were easier to approach, easier to impress and perhaps easier to take to bed. She always knew when a man was measuring her vulnerability, her weakness for attention, her neediness. Though never deceived by their attentions, she was willing—even eager—to have some experience in the world. Twice, when she was in her thirties, she had let men court her, listened to their compliments, gone with them to dinners, to movies, and eventually let them take her to bed. Neither one had been a villain or a cruel exploiter. In fact, they had been professors, like herself, bachelors both, men as uncomfortable in the world as she was. But though she engaged in the events of these courtships under a faint veneer of hope, she had at heart known these men were only sweet, unlikely experiments, each one hopeless in his own way and as lacking in passion about their arrangement as she. The friendships ended—not badly, but necessarily. She had truly not counted on more.
Lilly lived now in a townhouse near the Florida university where she taught literature, fifteen miles from the house where she had grown up. Until her father’s sudden death, she had not been on particularly intimate terms with her mother. Now (and she hoped temporarily) she was her mother’s constant companion, guardian, and caretaker.
When her mother had asked her to travel with her, (“This cruise is a once-in-a-lifetime invitation, Lilly, but you know I can’t go alone…”) just the thought of it had seemed an impossible interruption in her life—an inconvenient, irrelevant, compulsory excursion that pulled her from her privacy, her routines, her carefully orchestrated, highly scheduled life. In this month at sea she was missing her yoga workshop, her piano lessons, and her Italian language class. She had two pieces waiting to be fired in the kiln in her art class. Keeping herself busy was her antidote to despair. She made a point of filling her life with activities since it had become clear to her that family life, a husband and children, were not going to be her fate.
She was just beginning her second scholarly book, that academic necessity. This one was to be about the symbolic uses of jewelry and perfumes in classical fiction.
“Glitter and Scents in 19th Century Sensibilities
.” She had brought some notes and readings for it in her suitcase, but the 19th century and a pedantic search of its details seemed ridiculously far removed from these Turkish nights (she felt closer here, among the ruins, to the 10th century), far removed from the velvety sheen of the ocean, from the swirling night breezes.
“Are you cold, Mother?” she called, as the wind ruffled the pages of her mother’s painting pad. “Do you want me to go down and get you a sweater?”
“No, I’m fine, darling. Besides, I see there’s a towel here I can just toss over my shoulders if I need to.” Her mother motioned to the foredeck where an array of snorkels and masks lay on the foam deck cushions, and where a few brightly colored towels lay drying across the two green kayaks that were there for the use of the guests of the cruise.
A cruise! Lilly had never wanted to go on one, to live on a floating city of 2000, to be entertained by cabaret singers and comedians, to play slot machines at sea, to be herded about into souvenir shops on tropical islands and stuffed to the gills with midnight buffets.
But this cruise was something else—there were only twelve souls on this sailing gulet, the nine passengers and the three Turkish crewmen. None of the passengers had paid for the cruise, they were all the guests of Fiona O’Hara, the dearest girlhood friend of Lilly’s mother, former actress and torch singer, widow of a philanthropist, hostess for this floating house party. The once-great beauty still sparkled under a bejeweled caftan. Lilly’s mother and she had been unlikely roommates together in a girl’s finishing college and over the years maintained their friendship via tea room lunches and hand-written letters. Lilly had known her all her life, this gaudy, rowdy, sparkling, energetic woman who stood in such contrast to Lilly’s lady-like, polite, low-voiced mother.
When Fiona O’Hara invested money in the building of the new boat, the
, it was as a favor to her son Harrison, a handsome playboy and ambitious businessman with a love for Turkish ruins and the idea that everyone else must want to see them. One of the perks that Fiona had arranged for herself as part owner of the boat was an agreement that entitled her to free sailing, for herself or for guests whenever there was cabin space available, to be used over the next five years.
What happened to give her this privilege so quickly was the earthquake that had struck and ravaged Izmit, a city only a few miles east of Istanbul. Television broadcasts to the United States showed the streets turned to rubble, tuned in to cries of those buried under the fallen houses and forecast rampant disease in the streets from the bodies decaying under the stones. The media reported dozens of large aftershocks and showed graphic scenes of families weeping at open graves and cities of plastic tents set up along the open roadsides.
The tourists who had booked passage on the virgin voyage of the
all cancelled their trips, forfeited their deposits, and planned safer vacations, no doubt relieved to forgo flying to Istanbul, the city that still shook violently days after the quake.
With an empty boat about to sail from Bodrum, where it was built, with its hired crew already aboard and the food storage lockers full, Harrison urged his mother to plan an instant party since he needed, in any case, to take the boat on its trial run. She must, he urged her, quickly round up a boatful of her friends for the
Thus, Lilly found herself a guest on Fiona’s traveling house party with her odds-and-ends of friends: Fiona’s son Harrison, the boat magnate, and his 24-year old wife, a bone-thin fashion model named Gerta who wore her blonde hair in two shining Dutch-girl braids. The other lucky- chosen included Lance, a widowed amateur astronomer, Marianne, Fiona’s former psychoanalyst (for a mere two weeks) who was now just a friend (Fiona hadn’t had the patience to sit still for so long to solve her problems), and Jane and Jack, a glamorous couple from the Silicon Valley in California who were on their way to vacation in Greece after this voyage to Turkey.
Now, as happened each night, Barish had swum back to the boat and, in the glittering dark water below, was hanging onto the silver ladder at the side of the boat, handing up his black fins to Isak, who received them and tossed them into one of the kayaks. The boy climbed, dripping, to the deck. Water beaded on his tanned skin. He gave one shiver as the wind passed over him. Lilly was close enough to see the golden hairs stand up on his back.
“Hoorah for our hero!” said Lance, the gentleman astronomer, who sometimes appeared on the upper deck in the middle of the night with his telescope, waking Lilly with the clank of his equipment and making it impossible for her to fall back to sleep while he fumbled and creaked. Now he embarrassed Barish, who dipped his head and rushed to the forward deck where he disappeared down the hatch to the crews’ quarters below.
Lance, who occupied the stateroom next to Lilly and her mother, came up beside Lilly and said “My, wouldn’t we give a lot to be that young man’s age again?” He smiled at Lilly, then winked conspiratorially, as if to suggest that he and she both would give a lot, maybe everything, to be eighteen. Lilly smiled back politely. She would jump overboard sooner than be eighteen now. She walked away and took a seat at the long wooden table.
Soon the deck lights came on in full brightness and Barish appeared, dressed in dry swim shorts, and began to set the table for the evening meal. He seemed to feel no embarrassment at performing this delicate domestic chore as he set out the pink plastic dinnerware, the silverware, the folded napkins. The captain himself came up from the galley and began doing the same at the other end of the table, gently setting down the plates, the plastic glasses, then going back below for two large bowls of freshly sliced bread. Morat appeared bringing the main dish of the evening.
The guests, drawn by the fragrance of lamb and sautéed eggplant, gathered around—some sitting on the thick foam cushion that served as a lounge by day and a bed by night, some taking seats on the chairs which were arranged along the other side of the table. Tonight, as every night, this was one of those dinners they could never quite identify or name, a stew of vegetables and lamb, a wonderful soup of lamb stock and heavy cream, a sauce of shredded cucumber and garlic and yogurt to spoon over the food. Always there were platters of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and bowls of shining black and green olives.