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GOING ALOFT: Chapter 25: Postcards from Grand Bahama

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[A faded photograph of a luxurious resort on a private beach, with a patio and a wooden bar. Palm trees blow in the wind; the water is aquamarine and inviting. There are tables on a porch, at which sit happy people drinking cocktails in the sun.]

The photo must have been taken a few years ago, because the place is abandoned now. Broken glass covers the floor. Sections of the roof are missing. Captain thinks a hurricane hit, and the owners didn’t have money to rebuild. We had to walk down a vine-tunneled path to get here, but the ocean view was worth it. I can see why it used to be a resort. There’s a little canal leading inland from the bay, perpendicular to the beach; I guess there was a marina here, too. Saint and Captain go for a swim, but Artist didn’t feel like going so I stayed with her, even though I wanted to go swimming. There’s always another beach.

I said this place is abandoned, but it turns out it’s not entirely. There are two other people here, a Bahamian man and a woman, who look like they’re squatting. They’re middle-aged and dirty, and wear shabby clothes, and the woman seems like something isn’t quite right with her in her head. She watches us with a simple smile: eyes wide, teeth bared. It’s a little unnerving. Her expression never changes, and she never says a word. The man, who is either her brother or her husband, calls her over to him, saying “leave those people alone.” He builds a small fire of fallen palm fronds and puts a can of beans on it for their lunch. The smoke blows over the beach.

When Captain and Saint return, dripping with salt water, we eat a picnic lunch of tomatoes, bread, and some melon on the abandoned porch. The juice runs down my chin. Artist takes a photograph of us with the disposable camera she bought in the States. I take a big silly bite of a melon as she snaps the photo. Saint and Captain look at the camera and smile.

[A road surrounded by scrubby pines, overlooking the turquoise ocean. A signpost reads, “East End: 10 Miles”]

We’ve been driving around all afternoon, listening to Bahamian radio and peering in at all the little villages we pass. There are beat old boats everywhere. Most of the villages are too small for traffic lights, but are full of people sitting on picnic tables underneath awnings or umbrellas to stay out of the sun. We’re still getting used to driving on the other side of the road. More than once Captain has pulled out into oncoming traffic, barely missing swerving cars with honking horns. He drives like a man possessed, accelerating like a race car driver, which is incongruous for a slow sailboat guy like him.

[A deserted public park. A clearing in the woods, opening onto yet another beautiful beach. Everywhere you go on this island you can see the ocean. The beach is rockier than the others, and tidepools scatter across it. It faces a big cove and curves where we stand in the middle to a point on either side, far away.]

While Captain takes a nap in the silver sedan, Saint, Artist and I walk down the beach, laughing and joking around. We’re a good trio; we never run out of things to say, and we always make each other laugh. Artist is comfortable around Saint, which is big news because she’s generally shy and socially anxious.

We find a dead Portuguese man-of-war washed up on the beach, like a poisonous blue half-inflated plastic baggie. Saint and I take turns throwing progressively larger rocks at it until he lands one and the thing explodes with a sonic pop.

Earlier, Artist and I sat together on a bench in the woods while Saint walked down the beach by himself. I carved our initials, JCW and GLR, inside of a big heart on a pine tree with my pocketknife. The forest has echoes of coastal NC—there’s the same green pines and gnarled salt-sprayed oaks, and it’s flat and coastal, with marshlands full of great egrets and little lizards. It’s different enough to make me miss my home.

*    *    *    *    *

Finally we arrive at Taino Beach, a pocket of wild white sand facing south is surrounded by resort hotels. Artist and I briefly visited here when we were drunk with our Canadian friend Josh. There’s nobody around because it’s night now; the sand volleyball court and lifeguard stand and surfboard rental shop are all closed and empty. We’re eating a whole roasted chicken and good French bread with our fingers and passing around a bottle of red wine. Captain finally looks relaxed, and we’re all enjoying being together as a crew on this magnificent island night.

After dinner, Saint and Artist try to play volleyball with a ball they found, and Captain and I sit at the picnic table and pick at the chicken carcass as we take large sips of wine. For once, we’re just chatting, which is a weird new thing between us. We’re not having our usual discourse about work or philosophy or spirituality, and I’m not mentally transcribing his every word—because I’ve learned that not everything somebody says can be wise. We’re just pleasantly talking about the scene in front of us. The moon is rising over the ocean, and I’m pointing out constellations: Orion to the north, and Saggitarius and Scorpio to the south, low over the shimmering water. Captain looks out at the sea knowingly and wistfully, his eyebrows crinkle slightly with his jaw a little slack. He looks like an old turtle. He admits it’s how he always pictured himself. But I see him more as a frigatebird or perhaps a snow-white albatross—a bird of the open water, eyes always watching, tall and graceful and beautiful in movement, flying over the surface of the sea for a very long time.

For the first time, I see myself in him and him in me—we’re both mortal men, humans of the earth. The great things he’s done in his life, he started from the same place I am now. There’s an odd mixture of grandfather and father and older brother, a comfortable knowledgeable masculinity, a guardian and an inspiration. I know him as a taskmaster and a yogic partner, a friend and an ancestor, a leader who listens, a navigator-in-chief and a captain, a tough decision maker, but most of all Captain is a man. He’s a great man, who lives in his body and dreams with his soul. He’s a man who has achieved things on a scale larger than most people can imagine, but remains head down and humble and works hard every day and tries for something still greater, still moving upward and aloft, dreaming brighter than the moon and the stars, destined, perhaps, for legend and constellation and folk-worship. The person I know, who uses email and has a family and needs glasses to read, who loves his wife and young son and his dad and his mother in heaven, is no longer a demi-god but a human being who contains all the wonder it means to be a human wrapped in callused and sunburnt skin.

He sits beside me in his black shirt, painted with wild orange and green patterns. He watches the moon rise, high above the vast ocean he knows so well. He takes a swig of wine and a bite of chicken, throws back his head and laughs.

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