Our family has lived in Old Harbor, Nova Scotia, for generations. My father is a cobbler, but many of my ancestors worked as fishermen on the Grand Banks or as whalers. My older brother always talked about going to sea himself. When he graduated from high school, he went down to Halifax and got his SIU ticket. After he left home and sailed away on a cargo ship, a post card would arrive every now and then from ports all over the world. I determined to find a spot on a freighter of my own when I was old enough, and follow in his footsteps.
I would go walking on the shore, along the green line of wrack at the edge of the surf, with salt spume blowing off the water and over my shoes. Looking out past the dark emerald rollers breaking with a roar, I’d imagine my ship disappearing over the horizon on the way to West Africa. I always pictured myself on the deck of a massive iron ship with wind in my hair and the flag of some Central American country cracking like gunshots on the mast reaching into the blue sky above me.
“I’m not asking you to take over my business,” my father would say to me. “You don’t need to be a shoemaker. But go to college. You’re a bright kid. Learn something about the world from books and professors, not from the crew of a rusty scow on its way down to Guyana.”
Instead of listening to him, I’d pull out my brother’s postcards and study the exotic pictures on them, and their strange stamps from foreign lands.
I attended high school in Black Hill. Old Harbor was too small to support one. My final year, I met a girl named Abbey. This was my first romance and I felt more than a little crazy most of the time.
“Your dad is right, Frank,” Abbey would say. “With your grades and test scores, and the hockey, you can go to any school you want to. If we choose the same one, we can stay together next year.”
Up until then, I had never had a second thought about my future, never a doubt. I knew what I was going to do. Now, I agonized. Abbey and I had gone farther with each other than with anybody else before. The time we spent together, a closeness more intense than we were equipped to handle, created a bond between us that kept Abbey on my mind every waking minute.
“How could she even like me?” I would ask my father.
“No, I mean it, Dad. I don’t know who she thinks I am, but if she ever wises up, she’ll drop me like a hot rock.”
In spite of my fears, however, she didn’t wise up.
“What about college?” she would say instead. “I’m sending in my applications. What about you?”
It reached the point where I couldn’t put off a decision any longer.
I might have chosen college if I wasn’t living so close to the sea, if I didn’t walk so often down a sand path through the beach grasses and saltbush to the shore, if the sound of the surf wasn’t in my ears every night when I lay in bed. I might have felt differently then, but the magic of that water, the sheer size of the ocean, spreading wide to the horizon, north, east, and south, deep and restless, infected me. Its color changed, from blue to green to gray to black sparkling with moonlight and phosphorescence. I couldn’t let it go.
We kept a small boat in the bay and I’d take it out when I wanted to think. Sitting out in the chop, lying on the oars, with the water clopping the wood of the hull, the ocean’s surface alive with sunlight in points and lines on the sharp edges of wind-kicked riffles, I would fix my eyes on the horizon. The boat bobbed under me and then, when the wind passed, it would settle to rest on the swells that passed underneath it.
I finally decided that if I went to college with Abbey, I might begin to resent her for preventing me from following my lifelong dream. On the other hand, after traveling the world, I could always come back to her. If she didn’t wait for me, it would prove she didn’t love me enough anyway. A thought away from that, though I didn’t admit it to myself, was that there would be exotic women in every port. The reasoning of a kid. One of the moments in life when a choice matters and will echo down the years.
Our romance took on a different feel after that, with Abbey applying to her schools and me obtaining a passport and applying to the seaman’s union. I had chosen my dream over Abbey and she looked at me in a different way after that. I was tearing us apart. Not some external force. Me.
We said everything that there was to say several times over and then we didn’t talk about anything that mattered anymore. We spent the time together. She wept. So did I, a time or two. We didn’t talk about why. I had doubts. They grew. I didn’t talk to my dad about them.
Abbey lived in Little Lawton and I’d drive my dad’s car over there and we’d walk along the cliffs above the water, or make our way down a split in the cliff cut by a creek, and follow the shore, holding hands, talking about life. Mostly, I think, we were just waiting for that final moment.
Just at the end of the school year, my brother Charley came home. He had had his hair cut in Halifax and bought a fresh pair of jeans and a new shirt and he was tanned and bigger than I remembered and looked healthy and happy.
He told us tales full of adventure and met Abbey and later she told me that she could see why I had chosen the life of a sailor over her. I wanted to say that it wasn’t so, but of course, it was.
Charley was surprised when he heard about my plans.
“Don’t do it, Frank,” he said. “I like telling tales but the truth is, I’m not going back to sea. I’m going to go to school like I should have in the first place, and like I thought you were now.”
I just stared at him.
“It’s a tedious life,” he said. “You don’t learn much. You don’t make many friends. The crews are small. With a girl like Abbey and your life ahead of you, you’d be a fool to go to sea.”
I told him that I didn’t believe him. He shook his head and shrugged and helped my dad in the shop, and made school arrangements in Quebec. My world turned upsdie down. I realized that, all of a sudden, I wanted to run back to Abbey and tell her the whole thing had been a mistake, but the idea seemed shaming.
I heard nothing about my union application. When I called the SIU, the man I spoke to told me that no application had been filed. When I hung up, I saw Charley watching me.
“I know a couple of the fellows in the Halifax office,” he said. “They were the ones who helped me find a boat in the first place. When I told them about you, they were happy to help me out by losing your papers. I’ve done you a great favor, Frank, believe me.”
“What am I going to tell Abbey?” I said. “I chose the sea over her. Now I go back and tell her you screwed it up for me? It’s too late for me to go off to college with her anyway.”
“Tell her the truth,” Charley said.
I drove over to Little Lawton in complete turmoil. I pictured Abbey slapping me in the face. I felt a relief beyond speaking, overlaid with confusion and anxiety that kept me from forming a single cogent thought. I was desperate.
“Abbey,” I said. “I was crazy. I was so wrong. I guess you can’t forgive me, but I love you and I don’t want to leave you.”
She took a minute and I saw several expressions cross her face.
“What changed your mind?” she said.
I wanted to tell her that my love overcame all, that I had known all along that I was doing the wrong thing. I wanted to lie through my teeth.
“Charley changed my mind,” I said.
She took another minute. She nodded.
“Good,” she said.
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