The Fact That You’re Smiling
“I wanted, this once, to be on the water. I wanted to be close to what Ty had loved, close enough to somehow touch him.”
Sailing into the East River, the scenery is flat and gray and damp from the storm, nothing like what I’d dreamed of when imagining New York City. The captain summons me to the helm.
“Manhattan,” he says, pointing to the buildings that have shot up off the starboard side after a series of turns leading us out of Long Island Sound. He wants me out of the way, I figure, and I’m grateful to be told where to be. The rest of the crew has trained for this. They each know their place. I’m just here to help when needed. I just try to keep busy.
“Brooklyn,” he says, pointing off the port side after he guides us through a stretch surrounding a narrow island, and I nod. Above our heads, the sails strain against the air.
“One of the busiest waterways in the world,” he says, pointing to where the bridges hang too low, it seems, over the water. Then he hands me the wheel.
He stays nearby and I’m sure there’s no real danger, but I’ve never been at the helm before. I keep my gaze straight ahead, where the Statue of Liberty is small as a doll in the distance.
We’ll be protected until the storm punctures the heat bubble radiating from the city, but I can already see dark clouds pushing to break through. Shadows shift over Staten Island. On deck, the crew is serious and silent. My knuckles are bloodless when I hand back the wheel.
The ship slides beneath a broad suspension bridge and out into the open ocean, clouds descending on the city in our wake.
Three years earlier, in the late-summer woods of northern Minnesota, Ty and I smeared soot from the campfire under each other’s eyes.
“To reflect the sun,” he said, fingers stained black, but it was something else, too. We wanted to mark each other, to feel ourselves marked. We wanted everyone we passed on that trail to know we were a unit.
Or maybe it was a gesture of inclusion, for my sake. In a class the previous spring, still nearly strangers, we’d been paired as counselors responsible for leading a group of eleven incoming students on an eight-day backpacking trip before their college experiences began.
Ty was older; he’d done all of this before. I was new to it, and nervous. All summer we had prepared, constructing a careful plan. We were going to read poetry; inspire reflection; instill confidence; encourage playfulness; lead them to love each other.
After handing one of the campers a map and a compass, Ty and I hung back at the trailhead, hoping to give the group a sense of ownership, to let dynamics develop without us. It was a time-tested strategy. “It’s your trip,” we had practiced saying with an indifferent shrug in response to any inquiries. The hands-off philosophy was a metaphor for college: they’d have to figure it out for themselves.
We were supposed to catch up with them on the trail a short time later and laugh about the perceived abandonment before really beginning to bond — the group looking, by that point, not to Ty and me as counselors, but to Jon or Jordan or Carolyn, whoever had emerged as the leader in our temporary absence.
But Ty and I didn’t catch up. We hiked, hard. When the trail turned to shadow, we dug out our headlamps, doubling back on our map, and back, and back, until we didn’t know which direction we were going.
“We’ll find ’em, buddy,” Ty assured me as we walked, and I nodded. “They’re smart. They have food and first aid and each other. They’ll be okay.” When I was too quiet for too long, he distracted us both by stumbling through a recitation of a Shel Silverstein poem he was working on memorizing. “So out and off goes Gimmesome Roy to the land that knows no time,” Ty spoke into the darkness, “up a trail no man could conquer, to a cliff no man could climb.”
We tried to put ourselves in the campers’ heads — what would they have thought to do, left alone in the wilderness? We went the furthest we figured they could have possibly hiked, calling out into the emptiness, but the only responses were echoes off far-distant cliffs and the night-chorus of frogs.
When we gave up, we tied a rope between two trees, cinching slipknots as we’d learned to do in class, and secured our small blue tarp in an A-frame for the night. We’d gone off trail to sleep, hiked over brush to the top of a hill so we could see further and hear clearer, should anyone be trying to find us. In our sleeping bags, I nudged close against Ty, and with his arm wrapped around me we felt the chill of the hard ground seep in. I had never play-acted parenting before. A shared sense of gravity sealed us together beneath that tarp, body heat merging to keep us both warm.
By the time we found the group the next morning, packing up camp down an embankment a half hour back, all the tragedy of darkness dissipating in the early sunbeams streaming through birch trees, those eleven students were so effectively bonded that they ignored us entirely. At every fork in the trail, as we hiked only a minute or two behind them this time, they fashioned twigs into an arrow pointing the opposite direction to throw us off their path. They didn’t want us. They didn’t need us. In a way, we had succeeded.
“The boat is leaking more than a sailor with chlamydia,” the captain says over dinner, and I just smile because he is the captain and I don’t know what that means. The ship is meant to leak a little; the bilge, slowly filling, is part of the mechanism, collecting the water that won’t be kept out.
We are anchored a few miles off Atlantic City, waiting out the storm. The ship has been rolling on five-foot swells all day and everyone is getting restless. Standing by on deck, seasick and bored, we try to fix our eyes on the horizon, but it moves up and down across the sky like a windshield wiper and there is nothing to do but wait it out.
I promised I would work hard, work for free, do whatever he told me to do. I promised I was a fast learner.
Deb, the deckhand, who at age fifty maintains that dog walking in Manhattan will someday find her some great fortune, shows me how to steady myself by watching the masts make circles in the sky. I lie back on one of the deck boxes and stare at the wooden beams circling again and again around the clouds. The two masts swing in sync, their heavy sails collapsed and bound in uneven folds on adjacent beams.
“Can you see the elephant in the clouds?” Paul asks me.
He is a mate, I’m not sure what rank, but he isn’t afraid to climb high into the rigging and reach for whatever needs reaching. He is tall with a long nose and a red face from too many rays reflected on waves. He doesn’t believe in sunscreen and instead wears a white cowboy hat except when he’s asleep. Lying back beside me, he gazes pointedly off in the same direction, but I can’t see an elephant and I’m not looking.
Ty told me once to keep an eye on the flag over the campus boathouse by the lake — “blue means windy but less than 15 knots,” he wrote; “I promise, next blue flag day I’ll take you out.” But I didn’t keep an eye on the flag over the boathouse, and we never went sailing.
The ship is over a hundred feet long, a replica of a pungy schooner. Emily, the first mate, had relayed its history as she showed me around the deck back in Rhode Island. Lacking a plan after graduation, I was working as a counselor at an educational summer camp and had met the ship’s crew when my campers went aboard to learn about whales.
They had enjoyed it, but not like I had — the time travel and weary romance of a tall ship; the slow shimmer of an apathetic ocean; the sense that everyone on deck is searching for something.
“Come if you want,” the captain had said to me off-handedly, referring to the next leg of their voyage, and though I wasn’t sure he meant it, a few days later I said goodbye to my colleagues at camp and showed up with two suitcases. I promised I would work hard, work for free, do whatever he told me to do. I promised I was a fast learner. I just wanted, this once, to be on the water. I wanted to be close to what Ty had loved, close enough to somehow touch him.
Of course, this ship is nothing like the dinghies Ty used to race so gracefully on Lake Michigan in college, white boats bending in the wind over the water like oversized gulls. Pungy schooners, I learned, were developed for hauling freight in and around the Chesapeake Bay in the nineteenth century. I keep meaning to ask why the hull is painted bubblegum pink, out of place in such a sepia-tone world, but I keep forgetting.
We’re navigating the ship back to its home harbor in Baltimore just as they would have done back then, with charts and a compass — though now that we’ve passed New York we mostly just follow the shoreline south, paying mind not to dip into Delaware Bay.
“It’s funny,” I say to Paul, propping myself up to look out over the rolling waves, and I don’t realize how funny it actually is until after I’ve said it. What I mean is: it’s funny how hard we work to make machines that move across the water, pulleys and coils and stitches in sails, and the ocean just throws us like a child’s toy, scoffs at our sweaty backs as we run from port to starboard and back again trying to steady the ship.
“It’s funny,” I say again, insisting, and it is. We laugh, partly because we are so small — because if they wanted to, the waves could rip the laughter from our throats — and partly because the observation is nearly as old as the ocean and sounds silly despite its truth.
But mostly we laugh because we are both twenty-two and awkward and lonely and there is nothing to do but laugh. We laugh and laugh, falling sideways off the deck box, until we both stop and Paul goes below deck to wash the dishes.
“Heave-ho,” someone cries so we haul the lines in unison — “heave” to prepare, “ho” to pull, and repeat — and the sheet slowly rises from its slumber into the salt air.
My cleaning task is the least desirable, but I don’t mind. When the dish sponges get old, they become the wall sponges. When the wall sponges get old, they’re handed to me and I use them to scrub the piss sprayed everywhere in the head. In weather like this, it’s hard to help the mess.
With each demotion, I cut another corner off the sponges so we don’t mix them up. Once a sponge has a corner cut, it doesn’t touch the dishes. Two corners, and I don’t dare use it to wash down the walls. The system is strict. We clean the entire ship twice a day. Salt water corrodes.
I’ve never felt comfortable in the water. When I was young — and then still as I got older, in college even — I tried again and again to learn to swim, but every time I got to the edge of the pool, I’d come up gasping, having suspended a single breath in my lungs through all the motions, every open-mouthed appeal for air. My crawl stroke looked fine, but I could never stay calm enough to propel myself forward and also breathe.
That’s not to say I couldn’t stay afloat, or that I avoided the ocean; for most of my life I’d lived on an island in the Puget Sound where water was inescapable. But I tended to stay on the shore, to keep my distance — not because of its vastness or the mysteries of its depths, but because of its temper. What scared me was a sudden submersion, an inability to find oxygen.
But Ty wasn’t afraid of any of that. When he visited Seattle the month before our backpacking trip, we found a hike in an old guidebook that promised waterfall views. The trail, as we walked in the direction of the roar, climbed away from the river’s edge, drawing us out onto wooden platforms for photo-ops over the crashing falls, the blue at the base turned a milky green in the water’s churn.
The word smile spread across Ty’s purple shirt. His hair had grown long, loose curls fringing out past his ears, face gone golden in the summer sun. He wanted to get closer to the waterfall, but there wasn’t an easy way down. Before I could express any halfhearted regret, he had trotted downstream to the place where the trail touched the river, his shirt discarded, his strong frame scrambling out over slick, vertical rocks.
I wasn’t a climber, but I wanted to follow — I wanted him to know I was willing to follow — so I gripped onto barely-rooted plants and dug bare toes into crevices, inching along the river until we were near enough to slip from the slimy rocks down into the icy pool below.
At the foot of the falls we floated on our backs in the spray. I kept close to a fallen tree where it extended from the edge — close enough to pull myself onto its solid body after treading for too long — but the water seemed kind that day. Above, on the wooden platforms, hikers stared down at the shapes of us, our faces to the sun.
The captain decides to haul up the anchor despite the unceasing waves. When its massive form is secured on the bow, dripping wet and dull with rust, we work to set the sails.
“Heave-ho,” someone cries so we haul the lines in unison — “heave” to prepare, “ho” to pull, and repeat — and the sheet slowly rises from its slumber into the salt air. When it stands erect, we move on to the next one; there is no opting out. My muscles fill with fire. The shoreline begins to slide away for the first time in a full day.
On my childhood island, the mountains held us in. When I’d scramble up the soft sand of the bluff at the end of the beach, perched like a bird over my watery kingdom, there was no uncertainty about its limits: to the left, the Gabelein’s red barn disappearing over the neighboring hillside; to the right, the jagged peaks of the Olympics out on the peninsula; and in the distance on clear days, Mount Rainier, standing alone on the smooth expanse of horizon. “The mountain is out,” we’d say.
But out here in the North Atlantic, there are no mountains; there is nothing. The sea extends all the way. To the south, you can sail straight to the Caribbean. To the east, to Portugal, or to nowhere at all, lost somewhere in the ocean with a minor miscalculation. The water out here can make you dizzy.
Staring out, I wonder what it’d feel like to be treading water in the middle of the night in the middle of a river and to know you are dying.
Three miles of water had stretched to the shore on either side of Ty that night, and the darkness in the distance was the Chesapeake Bay, waiting black and glassy if the current dragged him far enough downstream.
The river was calm, others said after they’d gotten ashore or been pulled out, waterlogged and weary. It wasn’t the waves that did it. He didn’t drown. He just got too cold. He’d been out with friends when the weight on the small deck shifted, and the sail submerged, and he got too cold.
Too many dives, perhaps, into the darkness, trying to free the life jackets. Too many hours in the water with a friend who couldn’t swim strong enough to get to land. A few too many minutes waiting for rescue, waiting for daylight. His body never got warm.
I’d sent an email to our campers, formal and detached. Despite the severed start, after a week in the woods they couldn’t help but adore Ty — his goofy grin and generous hugs; the childlike curiosity that bubbled beneath his easy intelligence; that low, relaxed laugh that sometimes caught on itself in its rush to be shared. No one could help but adore Ty.
Now, nearly three years later, I didn’t know how to address them, without him. At the bottom of the email, I included the last text I’d received from him a few days before he died.
“I think I figured out the key to being a happy and positive person,” he’d written. “The ability to smile, both with your face and your soul, and be internally conscious of it. Then the ability to smile at the fact that you’re smiling, ad infinitum.”
I check the bilge in the aft cabin to make sure the water hasn’t filled to the floorboards. Nearby, the captain sleeps in nearly nothing except tattoos, his curtain pulled open. I don’t try not to look as I grab the flashlight from beside his bunk and shine it into the dark spaces beneath the boat. Caught in the line of my light, the crowded characters — mermaids, dragons, sailboats, stars — rise and fall, slow breaths bringing them to life on a sea of skin.
“Have you ever been in love?” Ty asked once, prompted by a quote he’d shared during a snow-soaked month on campus when, attempting to buoy my wintry mood, he’d sent along every resonant reflection he encountered. There were quotes from renowned thinkers and travel bloggers and kids’ cartoons and strangers overheard on the street — there was, for Ty, no hierarchy.
We agreed we should celebrate a life well lived, and the phrase fell from our lips and hit the floor: empty, cheap, insulting.
Had I ever been in love? I told him that I wasn’t sure, I didn’t think so, but I knew how it felt to get someone’s smile stuck in my head. Then I told him about a dream I’d recently had in which I was in love with a nameless person, no one I’d met in my waking life.
“We were on the ocean,” I said, “just bobbing up and down, intertwined, watching lighthouses float by.” It was the kind of sensation that, upon waking, I understood to be authentic — so that is love — despite its foreignness when I’d first drifted to sleep. Maybe it was my fear of water, rendered irrelevant in the right embrace, that made me sure.
Back on deck, I ask over and over again how far we are from shore. When the response is, “About three miles,” I look out and wonder if I would have tried to make it. I know I wouldn’t have. It’s too far.
I watch the ship slice open the sea, water peeling away on either side. Below, the darkness is inky and alive. Starlight snags on the waves but doesn’t penetrate them — a shallow reflection in a broken mirror. I understand the ocean as well as it understands me, which is to say not at all, even while we are made up of the same thing, my watery cells recycled to these depths again and again as people go on living and dying, on and on.
As the water churns, tiny organisms flare up, oxygen transforming their bodies to soft light. During night shifts, everything belongs to Ty. Every sailboat we pass is his. Every emergency call scratching over the radio is his. Every one of our tired faces reflected in the water is his.
After the accident, tears came quietly from a part of me I didn’t know existed, a reservoir that dried up and filled again at unexpected hours. I stood in a room with our mutual friends, the counselors who had hiked with different campers on different parts of the trail, or on different trails in other places, and had since cemented into family.
We stared at the walls, the floor, the table — anything but each other’s eyes. We agreed we should celebrate a life well lived, and the phrase fell from our lips and hit the floor: empty, cheap, insulting. There was no longer any way to say the truth. Don’t say he was the best there was, because he was. Don’t say he was the smartest, the most beautiful. We stood in silence, waiting for him to walk in and comfort us.
I know about death. When we die, our bodies — empty — slowly soften into earth. It’s beautiful, I had thought. But it isn’t. It isn’t enough.
Where are the big questions Ty would ask on his porch in the afternoons as we watched storms pass through those primordial Midwest summers? Where is the pure passion that prompted him to spring up, arms flung outward, demonstrating with his whole being how the planes he might someday engineer would fly? Where is the song he used to whistle, skateboard wheels humming down the hallway?
We saw groups of students going somewhere, and the space between us expanded and warped, like seeing the world through water.
“Keep your eye out, Jayne,” he’d tell me before impromptu visits, and I never questioned his use of my middle name; everything, with Ty, was intimate in offbeat ways. Now I don’t remember the song — only the way the whistling of it made my blood rush, and the mutual flush that followed when his face burst into the doorframe of my dorm room and I knew that, for a couple of minutes, his smile would be turned only towards me.
We forgot to put grease on the foresail before sundown and now it creaks over every swell. We try to sweat the foresheet, throwing our whole weight against the line, hauling until our blisters sting, but it doesn’t budge. We give up, shrink back into our separate posts. The creaking sinks into the silence until we don’t hear it anymore.
Alone between watches, when I should be sleeping, I stare at the names of strangers etched into the bottom of the bunk above me and wonder where they are — whether they were soothed or unsettled dreaming in these bunks, beneath the surface; whether they still talk to each other; whether they ever went sailing again.
Through the damp air, I listen for the footsteps of the crew up on deck. Someone is pacing; someone is coiling a line.
In the week after Ty’s death, I’d sat with friends and pushed a puzzle around a wooden table, eyes hung open and heavy as we sorted the pieces and fit them together. We’d gathered at his old house, passed down when he graduated the previous year.
He was still there; we could feel him. But sometimes, for a moment, we could lose ourselves in a certain line or color or pattern and almost forget. Seldom spoken words slipped quickly away, afraid they may disturb us. One by one, hot air balloons took shape on the table, a hundred or more, bright and buoyant in a cloudless sky. I stared out the window for an hour, a day, a week.
I forgot to eat, couldn’t eat, until I woke one day with shaking hands and ate everything, tearing through cupboards and old pizza boxes until I couldn’t eat any more. Cars drove by. Trees drip-dried into summer. People passed on the sidewalk, pressing themselves into a future that existed everywhere except in that house, that house where we knew we couldn’t stay.
One morning, I eased open the front door and stepped out onto a street that felt far away and foreign. Walking to campus, we saw groups of students going somewhere, and the space between us expanded and warped, like seeing the world through water.
It made no sense to be there anymore, at college, in a town tipsy on cheap beer and birdsong. There was one month, still, until graduation. We stayed together, or else alone, inside our grief.
Ty was a friend to everyone, and I was one of them. Still, I never doubted that we owed a debt to some inexplicable force. Of all the potential pairings, we’d ended up together.
After he graduated, I would receive rambling letters, sentences spilling sideways into margins, envelopes postmarked from Virginia where he had moved to work for NASA, to see something soar. I would splay the pages across my desk and stare at them, still struck by my luck, to be cared about so tangibly by someone like that. When I dragged home from long days or lay in bed late at night, mind whirring with too much wine, there was redemption in those pages: my name — my name — in Ty’s meandering scrawl.
We take turns, eyes to the horizon even though we all know we don’t really need a lookout on such a small ship in such an empty ocean.
“I’ll find you,” I would often tell him before he moved, and it always felt like fact, like stating it was enough to make it true; all I had to do was walk outside, wandering along the lakeshore or winding through campus, and there he’d be, already immersed in some adventure.
A few months after we returned from the Minnesota wilderness, Ty emailed to ask why he hadn’t seen me around. I laid out a list — this paper and that one, a babysitting job, the ever-present mirage of stress and all the little things I had to do. “But after that,” I wrote, “after that I’m coming to find you.”
I flew to San Francisco. Other friends went too, or were already there. We called it a celebration. We pressed fingers into rocks etched with his name as if it was the most important thing. For two hours, it was. After the service, I walked to the hillside, pretending I’d just run out for a moment.
Countless times, Ty had told me about this place — the wildflowers that wash over it in the springtime; the spot, high up, where you can glimpse the bay; how on some days, the peak loses itself completely to an opaque sky. Alone, I offered strangled breaths to the wind, felt them slowly surround his hometown.
I knew we would all come together again. We would come together again and again. And he wouldn’t be there. But for just a moment, he would.
A slow hour passes and I’m back on deck. Beyond and beneath us, the swells have finally subsided. I check the bilge again, watch the tattoos rise and fall, pump the water back into the ocean where it belongs. I walk the perimeter, inspecting lines, tidying coils. In a few hours I’ll be awoken again — another watch, another piece of ancient ocean to pass over.
This time of night, everyone gets quiet. We take turns on lookout, whispering our small confessions to the sea. We take turns, eyes to the horizon even though we all know we don’t really need a lookout on such a small ship in such an empty ocean.
In the middle of the night I see a twinkling light and stumble to the stern, reporting it to Emily where she stands, hands on hips, looking out. She is strong and kind and knows everything about tall ships, has sailed since she was a kid.
“A ship two points off the port bow,” I tell her.
“Wait,” she says without looking at me, and I wait. The light does not change, but slowly, slowly through the night rises ever so slightly in the dark sky. I have reported a star.
“Once, on my first watch of my first job, I reported the moon,” Emily tells me, the corners of her mouth twitching upward, and I wonder if somewhere in the universe, someone is mistaking our sun for a ship.
Paul has come to the bow to relieve me; I see his white cowboy hat approaching in the night.
“Anything out there?” he asks.
I shrug, and smile, and guide myself below deck in the darkness.