LETTER TO A STRANGER: BARANOF ISLAND, ALASKA
BY AMY IRVINE
I climbed aboard your boat because my boyfriend down in the Lower Forty-Eight had just called to confess he’d gotten a blow job from a man. Apparently it wasn’t the first time. The news left me slightly queasy, mostly furious, because there had been no condom and after, he’d screwed me without protection. But I was also left wondering: Why wasn’t I that adventurous? Why, in a decade-plus of sexual encounters, had I only sought out milktoast lovers? So when you invited me to sleep aboard your trawler, with its neat white decks and red lacquered hull, I said yes.
You were the perfect hostess. When I arrived with nothing but a backpack and a sleeping bag damp from a rainy night of camping, you spread my things out to dry and then motioned me into the cabin. It was steamy and smelled of citrus. I also brought aboard two gay journalists, a couple from the Midwest. The three of us had just kayaked across the Sound, through a bloom of large white jellyfish that looked like a flotilla of wedding gowns. We were laughing so hard at our own jokes that we failed to notice when a cruise ship passed behind us, until one of the men turned to see the big dark wake coming. Our boats were parallel to it, and we damn near got dumped into the icy water. But we paddled furiously, turning the boats enough to ride the white foaming curl. We squealed with equal parts terror and joy as we were carried along.
I figured you wouldn’t mind my bringing them with me, not after our lunch that day, when you mentioned how you’d fucked every man and woman in your workplace—white, Chinese, and Native Alaskan alike. This happened after you and I met by the water fountain at the environmental conference we were all attending, having both skipped out on a panel discussion in which famous old white nature writers talked right over a Tlingit Elder. You held the button down while I slurped.
So I came aboard with the gay men in tow. You poured pinot grigio, served a baguette with salmon you’d reeled in and smoked on that very boat. The northern sky refused to darken, but the fog was thick; around us, other boats came in like specters, detectable only by the cut of motors, the splash of dropped anchors. The journalists gushed over the wine and dusted crumbs out of each other’s Thoreau-style beards. I chugged my glass and then poured more, hoping it would make me brave.
When the men left and the fog lifted, you opened another bottle of wine—this time, a deep, dark red. We talked for hours, as the boat rocked and the flame of a candle danced on the table between us. I studied you the way one studies maps: the shadowed valley at the base of your throat, between your collarbones. The reptilian ridgeline of your spine, just above the waist of your jeans, made visible when you stood and bent over to touch your toes. You said all our sitting was making you stiff. I wondered, as an ocean liner sounded its horn out in the bay, if that was an invitation to move back inside, so that the other fishermen—who sat on their own decks smoking pipes and drinking whiskey—wouldn’t see our bodies closing the gap between them.
But I was scared. And a sense of fidelity gnawed—although once I returned home, it wouldn’t last; nor would the relationship that awaited me there. So I pretended there was something in my eye. Went so far as to ask for a mirror, a tissue. And the moment vanished. As if the fog had closed in again. Next thing, I was climbing into my now-dry bag, down below, while you made yourself a bed on the couch in the galley. And then I lay awake all night, wide-eyed and breathless, with my body pressed into the curve of the hull. I listened to logs and fish and other submerged things bump up against the boat, to their knocking and knocking again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy Irvine's memoir, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, won the Orion Book Award and the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award. She teaches nonfiction in Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA program, but lives and writes in Telluride, Colorado. A longtime wilderness activist, she feels out of her depth in suburbia, and is grateful to the stranger who taught her to finally see herself not as Object, but as Subject, of her own desire.