Nancy Drew, Mr. Drew, and Wild Boo were out of town the first weekend I was in Denver, and I busied myself in the kitchen, making dishes from Martha Rose Shulman’s Mediterranean Cooking. I made potaje de vigila and carrot, leek and apple soup, and food, and food and more food. Whenever I need to think something through without acknowledging that I’m thinking it through, I cook. It keeps my hands busy and my eyes distracted enough for thoughts to brew without conscious meddling. I had uprooted myself from Louisiana with no real plans, and landed in Nancy Drew’s house with the general understanding that I would be paid for childcare for as long as the arrangement worked for everyone. And aside from that, well, I wasn’t really sure what I was doing in Denver. To write–to give myself no other option but to hammer out something messy and honest–that is why I was there. But I hadn’t admitted and challenged myself to that yet.
I chopped and roasted the food, and chewed the inside of my jaw. While I waited for the chickpeas to soften on the stove, I Googled “deep sea divers.” I watched youtube videos and read about this thing called a diving bell. I pored over Wikipedia articles with black and white photos of broad chested men inside clunky metal contraptions. I stared out of Nancy Drew’s big windows, which overlook their wide lake, and I felt the tug of a story in which the people are tied together by unseen lines of desire. No, scratch that. The story I wanted to write was about how there is one world that both lovers can see, and there is another world that only one lover can see. And how that is like love sometimes. And desire. I guess I picture a ladder to the sky when I think of that, or dropping a rope underwater. Like, stretching out to connect to something that is bigger than you can get a hold of, and how that is like sex or desire or love or all three.
I started a story about a diver who was in love with a woman who worked as a cook on an artist commune. Of course the commune was in Nebraska, and of course the cook made potaje de vigila, and of course the place was suffering from a drought–all things I could smell and feel and picture.
I sketched a place much like the Art Farm, and I put Shulman’s recipes in the story, the smells of garlic roasting and the colors of the bright orange carrot. I put the two lovers as far away as possible—central Nebraska to the Gulf of Mexico, and tried to remember the smells of the Intercoastal Waterway where I had driven years before to get old hurts out of my system, and found boudin in gas stations and flood lines marked on storefronts. I wanted the lovers to be in two different worlds, down to the dangers and the way they communicate. I wanted to feel how hard they had to pull in order to keep their connection. I set up a story of distance and longing and, since I was pretty heart-bruised at the time, a story about love not working out, but for this invisible thread that connected two people despite distance. I needed more information, though, about the diver’s situation.
I poked around on my laptop until I thought to post on Facebook, “I’m researching a story. Does anyone know any deep sea divers?”
And SatsuMan and his girlfriend Satsu-Girl immediately responded, “Yes. We know two.”
When I first heard his voice, something turned over inside of me.
“I don’t know anything about your job,” I said. “But I’m a writer and I’d like to make a character in my story a diver, and I really want to know some basics about your world.”
“No problem,” the diver-man said. “I’d be happy to help. We’re a little-known community, and anything I can do to educate people about what our world is like? I’ll do it.”
<– Kind of what was in my head as we started to talk.
I started with my dumb questions—how do you go so deep underwater? How deep? What is an umbilical? Do you use a diving bell anymore? What is decompression?
Questions peeled away to more questions. Every time I started to feel focused on some detail I could use in a story, I’d lead him to explaining something beyond the detail that I’d need to understand better.
I think I asked something about the stuff he saw underwater after the BP oil spill and this opened us up to a whole new part of the conversation where he was explaining the kinds of stuff he’d see in the water before the oil spill. Each answer necessitated a story behind a story in order for me to understand that my questions came from a foreign world.
Let me explain
He talked about all the factors that produced a feast or famine work schedule, an erratic, nomadic lifestyle, and the resulting difficulties to maintain stable relationships. He brought everything back to the way a diver might see things, the way a person might see things if they didn’t understand the pressures of living offshore. He brought everything back to perspective. Here was a man who could hold two worlds in his hands and show you that reality changes depending on your point of view.
<—more of what I was picturing in my head.
Divers sometimes might have a string of shitty relationships because their relationship with the on-shore world is tenuous at best, he was telling me. The on-shore world operates one way; off-shore world operates another. Trying to merge the two without understanding the worlds is a recipe for massive cultural breakdown. As I dutifully took notes about tenders and hyperbaric torches, my heart kept asking Would a man like this ever be interested in a woman like me? Embarrassed, I scrubbed the question out of my head every time it floated up there to cloud my thoughts. I had never asked myself a question like that.
On the other end of the line was a man who was showing me an incredible talent for explaining his world, his struggles to find a successful relationship, and his passion for a job that often kept him from pursuing it.
He was far away but all the same. All the same he was extending something to me, making more of an effort to be understood than I expected him to. There was a lengthy, heavy-duty rope-ladder of sorts coming at me from him, more than a desire to clarify his often-misunderstood lifestyle of offshore diving and inspection and underwater manipulation. It was as if he was handing me this lifeline of sorts, for lack of a better word. Here I was, heartbroken and just starting to scab over, lost, and I was listening to a man open his heart and his mind in a way that I didn’t think was possible for me to hold with my ears.
Much later, he told me that he knew he had feelings for me while we were on the phone. It still kind of gives me the chills. Not creepy or magic–just chills.
It’s a funny thing, to fall for someone over the phone. I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but I knew I felt at home and excited at the same time. I don’t remember everything he said, and I can’t think of anything I told him about myself, so it wasn’t like we were getting to know each other by most standards. I felt intimidated but also like I could be the best version of myself. I was also scared of portraying myself as the best version of myself, because I knew that would crumble to pieces sooner or later. I felt like he was meeting me halfway on some road I hadn’t realized we were traveling. I felt like he was reaching out and giving me a handhold. How did I feel all of that? I don’t know–his voice, the way I recognized its low, energetic tone, and the way I was thrown by his phrases every once in a while. He hoped his ex-wife would one day “get her shit in one sock.” As soon as the phrase came out of his mouth, I wondered how much shit was in my sock, and somehow when he put it that way, it didn’t seem likely that much of my shit was in one place.
Today when we talk to people and answer the question how did you two meet, I am struck by where he goes with his side of the story. It’s not quite as passive as I tend to tell the story–“a connection over the phone and then email strengthened and before I knew it, I had to meet this man.”
His side of the story is about doing, and reaching. His side of the story is about pushing himself to communicate himself and to show me facts about his life that he usually keeps hidden. His side of the story always involves words like “pushing” and “reaching” and “challenge.” I found out much later that starting with our first conversation, the diver tried to get to me with his words, something he says he rarely does. He says that from day one, it was a sort of assignment he gave himself to lay himself bare. So I guess it makes sense that I had the sensation of a rope ladder working its way out of the phone that day.
I deal in words. I teach words, I arrange words, I judge the shapes other people make with their words; sometimes I judge people based on their words. More than sometimes. I sift through words to the extent that I have come very close to deceiving myself with my materials, because it’s second nature for me to format words in such a way to produce such a reaction in such a situation, so that I appear a certain way to certain people. I use words to hide and to mask my fear.
And the way he sped up, almost tripping over himself to describe how isolating his job feels at the same time he was describing it as the only thing that makes him feel powerful and alive. And then how he would be utterly silent, and waited for me to ramble and get to my point, never once interrupting me. Like he could convey that ache to be understood, the insight about how his job shapes his attitudes about the world, and the ways it’s changed how he sees the necessity to communicate, and then show all that…intention right back as a listener. That and all the ways you can make booze in the desert with Kool Aid. I tried to put on my best Reporter voice, and took notes upon notes, probably to have something to do with my hands, now that I wasn’t cooking, but I wanted to be sitting next to him, holding his hand.
And then his phone died. And I tried dialing his number, once, twice, three times. I paced around Nancy Drew’s kitchen, and tried his phone once again. And then, flustered, I put my phone on silent and went for a long run.
A few hours later, I listened to a voicemail he left me, telling me that his phone battery had been so low that it didn’t turn on at first when he plugged it in, and that it had to “take a knee,” and then he asked me to call him with any more questions. His voice battered and baffled me. No way, a stranger’s voice could make me feel that deeply, I thought. I was terrified of the overwhelming feeling of wanting to be near a man I didn’t know. I saved his voicemail, thought about calling, but couldn’t justify calling him back. All I wanted to do was to call him back and ask him to stay on the phone with me, but that was crazy. Who does that to someone they don’t know? It was just an idea for a story, anyhow, and how would I explain the need for more information after all of the notes he gave me about his lifestyle and his work, and his inability to find someone who could make a relationship work despite all of the distance between him and the 9-5 world? I had no excuse to contact him again, I decided. I saved his voicemail and tried to put him out of my mind, which meant I also stopped working on the story, because I realized I would be writing a love story using him.
“Please, let her call me back,'” he told me he was thinking later.
I did weird things like send away for brochures from diving schools, and watch youtube videos of divers completing underwater repairs. And I tried very, very hard not to think about the feelings that had surfaced during a conversation with a stranger.
The way I remember it, I wrote one word on one of his photos on Facebook. He and a friend went to the beach. I typed “Jealous.” This is what opened the floodgates of Facebook communication between us.
One snowy night I drove home to Starlily and Starman’s house, the night I decided not to settle for anymore half-assed love affairs, and what sealed the deal was an email I received late that cold night after commenting on his photo. “How are you doing out there?”
And “what is your address? I want to send you a care package.”
And I read his email and cried, because I always cry when I feel anything, but this was the sort of cry that happens when someone opens up a part of you inside and sees you as an ordinary person who is struggling to be okay in an ordinary way, and they do something that makes you feel seen, and that ordinariness is overwhelming and fragile and all they do is acknowledge that you are there being ordinary and vulnerable, because they see you, not the outside things you are trying to show people to convince yourself that you are doing okay, and not the stuff you say that prompts people to criticize your survival tactics. It is the sort of crying that can really take it out of a person, because it is the give and take of being seen, really seen, and the diver saw me through my laptop, right then and there, and he knew or guessed that maybe he needed to ask how I was doing, and that I probably needed a care package. I decided I loved him, but I decided in that secret way people do sometimes where they continue to go through the motions of being open and functioning in their daily lives. I found things wrong with perfectly nice people because I wasn’t willing to date in Denver, but I didn’t acknowledge it.
And so we became email and Facebook messaging buddies.
We talked about the prevalence of Subaru Forresters in New England, our favorite Haitian gods (His-Yemanja. Mine-Legba) the regions with the highest incidence of females wearing hoop earrings (“neckblockers” he called them; I said Brooklyn; he said southern Louisiana.) We talked about being at crossroads in our lives. He wrote songs about the dinners that Starlily cooked (baked fried chicken and lemon meringue pie).
We talked about Black Hawk Down, which I hadn’t seen, but which he recommended I see if I was going to review this book on warfare in Somalia. He told me to read Black Banners by Ali Soufan. I rented the book on 20 cd’s from the library, and before I knew it, my commute to write at the Lighthouse from Parker to Denver was narrated by Soufan’s expose of the inside story of 9/11 and the war against al-Aaeda. We talked about writing (but not that aborted story). We talked about his job, and how frustrating it was to not be working. We talked about pressures we felt to settle down and have a place to live. We talked about not knowing where our lives were going next. We talked about being in-between and feeling pressure to know where to settle down or to know what the next month or year had in store. We talked about wanting that, and then backed off.
We talked about Saabs from the early 90’s, and how I have always wanted an XJ6 Jag. We talked about Monte Carlo’s and how it was a white one with blue velour interior I envisioned driving in my early 20’s. We talked about feeling tied to writing and diving respectively in our lives, and how this complicated the idea of each of us being grown ups with “real” jobs, or how being a “grown-up” should look. We talked about frozen yogurt places that charge by the pound, and how we are both confused by this, but convinced that this is part of society’s message regarding what grown-ups should do. (Eat at these places.) He told me he was on the island of misfit toys, that the offshore world of diving and ship husbandry was littered with lost boys and exothermic torches for hyperbaric welding. He called me Wendy Darling.
When I say we talked, I should say we typed. I went to bed early to find him online; I took breaks at the Lighthouse to tell him something that had occurred to me in my thoughts as I wrote that day, or in my dream the night before. I took pictures of my world and sent them to him to try to make me real to him.
I was careful to mention “My diver-friend” only occasionally to my friends, as if acknowledging this invisible cord that pulled me to him would make it disappear, or worse, open it up to ridicule and hack it to pieces. I knew I was impractical, off-in-my-own-head, unrealistic. I didn’t need to open this up to everyone’s reminders. I walked the two blocks to Starlily’s mailbox every day for a week, expecting a care package, but none came.
“I was looking for the perfect pair of neckblockers,” he told me later.
And then in May, he sent me a wiki link to the character description of Leah Brahms from Star Trek: the Next Generation with the message “I don’t know if you watch Star Trek Next Generation, but this situation between these two episodes is what I am afraid of.”
And I sort of got it, but sort of didn’t. (Aside from the fact that I don’t watch Star Trek.) Basically, Leah creates a hologram image of herself and has a full on romantic relationship with a dude, who discovers later that the real Leah, worlds away, is cold and nothing like the Leah in his world who he loves desperately.
He then apologized, and told me that sending that link was the equivalent of a little boy pulling the ponytail of a girl he likes and then running away. “What I should have said is that I’ve grown quite fond of you,” he wrote.
Two days later I caught up to his speed, and in the middle of sending him pictures of the Lighthouse, and the snowy Parker roads I drove every day, I stopped and asked myself what it meant that I was documenting everything around me to send to him, and if that was something that would end well ultimately.
I was trying to put myself into his world, which was dangerous, I knew, when I wasn’t a part of his world, not the real me, anyway. And then I freaked out. On top of all of the ways I had made things difficult for myself–the delayed book project, my uprooting to Denver, now my tenuous employment for the cousin– it seemed like falling for someone I hadn’t met would be typical Alison Recipe for Disaster.
And then I told him that I shouldn’t talk (type) to him so much. That I had an active imagination, and that I could make up things online and with my words that weren’t really happening. That I’d love to see him in July when I went to New Orleans (I arranged the trip right after I said I’d do it) and that I thought meeting him would be a good idea.
He said he understood. And that he wanted to meet me, too, and July shouldn’t be too hard. And that he always likes getting messages from me, so anytime I feel like it I should feel free to get in touch.