The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
The acceptable summer routine was to appear at dinner at irregular intervals. Since we were gon Friday and Saturday nights, that left Sunday afternoon and Monday through Thursday. Any more visit than that cut into our adventuresom natures. Any less and my parents became uneasy.
After making excuses for two days, we needed good food more than we wanted to avoid the cleanup necessary for us to pass the inspection that went with the meal. We hated to come inside while the sun was up, but after a fishing trip and a couple of days on the beach, it took some scrubbing to get clean.
It was hard to find time for primping. We were busy boys. Not to mention we needed to dig out clothes that didn't make us look like street urchins. I did anyway. Ivan had a closet full of new clothes he hung there after one of his mother's showings in Tampa. I had no such reserved clothing, relying on my spruced up cutoffs and the last t-shirt I wore up to Ivan's.
I could use the outside stairs to go up to my room to get clean clothes, but I didn't like to remind my parents that the stairs were conveniently placed for me to enter or leave my room without entering the house.
Getting prepared for my house wasn't easy, but it was even harder to turn down an invitation to enjoy Mama's home cooking. We could hold out for a day or two with lame excuses, but they lost their luster in relationship to how hungry we were for one of Mama's meals.
Once I got into the shower I couldn't get out, and the benefit of this was Ivan got tired of waiting and got into the shower with me. We did everything else together, why not shower together?
I heard it saved water and who couldn't get behind that? It didn't save any time however, once we began lathering one another up. It was a clean way of exercising the many impure thoughts I was having about Ivan in those days.
We did manage to accomplish the man goal with only modest diversions created by the hardest parts of our anatomy we spent lots of time washing. As we made our entrance, mother gave us her immediate endorsement. I think she was just glad to see we still had our arms and legs, but dirty ears or greasy hair were cause for worry. I'm sure Tom and Huck worried that they'd be found insufficiently clean from time to time, but we had no worries that day.
"I've never seen two more handsome young men," Mama said as she filled a bowl with the ingredients in one of the sauce pans. "I'm a little slow this evening. Glad you weren't early. It's almost ready."
I hugged Mama, pinching a piece off the pot roast and handing it to Ivan. When I moved back from the hug, I pinched a nice hunk for myself. Mama smiled as she watched me chewing the meaty feast.
"You boys look like you spent the day in the shower," Mama said. "I've never seen you shine before. I can't get over how Clay has grown."
"Cleanliness is next to Godliness, Mama," I said, and Ivan choked on the meat as he remembered our hour in the shower together.
"Yeah, I love a hot shower," Ivan said, and it was my turn to choke. "Clay uses all the hot water if I don't keep an eye on him."
Mama knew we talked in code. We were happy and that was okay by her.
Whenever I was with Ivan, I'm sure I beamed.
At dinner Pop couldn't stop talking about me working for Ivan's father. I wasn't sure why this made him proud of me. I was glad it did. Therein was the source of my freedom, no matter how much I worried about losing it.
We sat in the TV room and watched Gunsmoke. Mama brought rice pudding and a hunk of angel food cake for each of us. Lucy sat on Ivan's lap and broke off pieces of her cake to feed it to him. She was getting a little big for this, but Ivan didn't mind. He thought Lucy was the cat's meow.
We left carrying what we didn't eat. There were enough provisions to feed us for a couple of days, and that matched up with Mr. Aleksa's next time home.
It was a rough life but we weren't about to change anything.
Ivan was home most of that week before he wanted to talk about what he did at his mother's on summer vacation. He usually came out with it shortly after he came home, but this time he didn't want to talk abut it, until he did. Sitting on the deck the morning after pot roast, glazed carrots, and boiled potatoes, while eating our Sugar Crisp, he wanted to talk.
"I hate being in Tampa with you here alone. I don't like leaving you. I don't want to be away from you. It wasn't like that before. I have to go when she comes. We'd never have any peace if I didn't. This was the first time I resented being there."
"Don't ask me to go with you. I don't like your mother and I've never met her. You say you need to go when she comes for you, and if that keeps her off your back the rest of the time, it's only a few days, Ivan."
I wasn't accustomed to seeing Ivan agitated over something he was powerless to change. Once he turned sixteen there would be less chance his mother would seek custody of him. They didn't get along when he was in Tampa, the idea she would want him full time didn't add up, but Ivan's concern was for his father.
"Boris?" I asked, changing the subject only a little.
"He took me to box at the gymnasium on my first day there. He's in love with Betty Sue Sourgrapes. She's got a set of bodacious tatas, I'll give him that. 'Oh, Boris, can't we.... Oh, Boris, I want to....' It's a small apartment and I knew what she wanted when she guided him toward the bedroom. It wasn't like they didn't go to bed at seven thirty because of how tired she was after wolfing down most of the pizza and bread sticks," Ivan said, no sympathy for Betty's appetite. "She ate so fast I worried she might pass out from lack of oxygen."
"Where was your mother?" I asked.
"She was there. She ordered two pizzas, thinking that was plenty. Betty Sue got one and the rest of us got one. 'She has to keep up here strength,' Boris said to us. They screw all night. Even on the couch I could hear them."
"Your mother doesn't say anything?"
"She doesn't care. She goes into her room and watches television. I get to do anything I want. It's the only time I watch television. There's nothing on TV."
"Why does she come and get you. Does she take you anywhere?"
"Company picnic. There's a dinner from time to time and she takes Boris and me. Wants them to see her show ponies. That's where the new clothes come from. When she shows us off, she dresses us up first. It would be cheaper for her to just show off Boris, but I guess two ponies are better than one."
"I'm sorry," I said. "It was quiet here. Glad you didn't stay too long. I don't know what to do with myself when you're away."
"I think about you a lot, once it gets quiet. It isn't that they're like a couple of rabbits, but Boris usually spends a little time with me. I was on my own most of the time I was there. I have to admit Betty Sue was funny. 'Boris, I want...,' she'd say. I knew what she wanted. Boris wasn't that way before. He made time for me and he's had girls in the apartment since he moved there. None like this."
"It'll go back to the way it was when the novelty wears off," I said. "How old is Boris now?"
"He's seventeen, eighteen in January. He's my brother. He's had girlfriends before. We've always spent time together while I'm there. Boxing, playing pool, and bowling. Now he has a nice convertible we can cruise around in. Quite the chick magnet. Not to mention my brother is an Adonis. He's my brother and I think he's gorgeous. How weird is that?"
"Considering how gorgeous you are, not weird at all. So Betty Sue is the one?" I asked. "He's found true love?"
"She's easy is all. When we do go out, girls are always hugging and kissing on Boris. He's not going to go with just one, but Betty Sue would clamp hold of him every time we were ready to go out the door.
"'Boris, I want to...,' and he'd look at me and shrug like it was his job to service her. I bet she's been giving it up since she was nine."
"Good looking guys are popular," I said. "when someone is waving it in your face, a red blooded American boy isn't supposed to turn it down," I said, thinking about John-Henry, who was only a little older than Boris.
"We're brothers. Where does she get off coming between us? She can't leave him alone for a couple of hours? We'd get up to go and she'd be whispering in his ear, holding onto his arm."
"I'm sorry, Ivan. Boris is wrong for ditching you for her," I said. "He was letting her do it. He went along with it."
"He'd tell me, 'Give me five minutes, little brother. I'll speed this up so we can get going.' Two hours later I was tired of waiting. I'd be back in front of the television. That's why I couldn't wait to get home. We couldn't even go out. She knew what she was doing. She didn't want Boris spending time with me."
"You sound angry," I said, hearing it in his words.
"He's my brother. He's always spent time with me when I was there. I know he isn't coming back here to stay, but he could act like I'm his brother. It's the only reason I have to go to Tampa. I am angry with him. I know that she won't be there the next time I go. He'll have another girlfriend. He's got one brother and he ignored me so he could get laid."
"It takes two to tango, handsome. Boris knows what he's doing. You don't want to be there anyway. It motivated you to come home that much sooner. How cool is that?"
Ivan turned his head to glare at me. He did that from time to time when I was off base or I said something that defied his logic. We weren't arguing. I was glad he came home. I got that he wanted to spend time with Boris.
"If I've got to go there, I want Boris to pay a little attention to me. We spent all our time together when he lived here. Now he ignores me."
I'd never seen Ivan that upset before. I wasn't close to any of my brothers and I didn't know Boris. I knew Ivan and I hated seeing him agitated. Up until that morning, Boris was golden as far as I knew. The anger with him didn't suddenly appear in one visit. I wasn't sure what was really eating at Ivan.
It was obvious his relationship with Boris was important to him. I remembered they were once best friends. I wanted to help. I figured changing the subject might get his mind off Boris.
"I'll spend all my time with you. We can do anything you want," I said.
He turned his head and watched me for a few seconds before he spoke.
"I missed you. I mean really missed you. I couldn't wait to get home."
"Glad you came home. I expected you to stay another day or two," I said. "Glad you didn't. I get lonely without you to hang around with."
"I'm glad you were here, Clay. No matter how aggravated I am, once I see you, I feel better. Thank you for being here. I mean that."
"Oh, I didn't mind. I was going to wait no matter how long it took."
I giggled, made happy by his comment. I was happy. In spite of my mind playing with my head, I'd never been happier. I loved my life. I loved Ivan, and I felt no guilt over caring so much about him. In time my feelings might change, but I didn't know how I could love anyone more than I loved him. Telling him didn't sound like a good idea. I didn't want to run him off by saying something stupid.
Once again, he looked at me as we leaned on the railing. This was an investigative look. He wanted to see what it was that brought us so close together. I'd looked for the same thing. I don't think it was something he could see. It went beyond looks and mere presence. When we were together, it created something very special. That's what I came to believe.
I got good vibes from Ivan. I hope he got them from me.
"You're not the same insecure kid I met last year, Clay. You've grown up in the last year. You're developing into a nice looking man," he said, turning his head to look at me.
"That's what you see when you look at me?" I asked.
"I do. I know you're self-conscious and don't have enough confidence in yourself, but you're as good on the boat as me, maybe better. That's what I see when I look at you. In you I see someone as passionate about the world we live in as I am. You express it differently. You're introspective. I'm made angry by it."
"Thank you, Ivan. That's a nice thing for you to say," I said. "I didn't know you knew how much I love being on the Vilnius Two."
"It's true. My Pop Pop would say, 'You're destined to be on the sea, Clay.'"
Like so many of our conversations, this one had texture and layers. I wanted to hear how handsome and muscular I'd become, but passionate was good too. Hearing he respected what I did was even better in some ways. We didn't talk about the boat when we were home. We worked on the boat and I took that seriously.
He looked at me before looking back at the gulf. He held his hands together in front of him. His eyes scanned the horizon. The rough edge the conversation about Boris created had disappeared.
I moved close enough to slide my arm over his shoulders. It was the first time I initiated such contact. I feared returning most of Ivan's displays of affection for me. I wanted him to know how much I cared for him without knowing how deep my feelings ran. I didn't know words to express it.
Without taking his eyes off the water, he intertwined his arm with mine and his arm rested across my shoulders as mine rested across his. It joined us together in quite an amazing way. The contact was electric for me.
Our mutual affection for one another was clear, as our eyes scanned the horizon as I stood beside the man I loved. I struggled with the feelings I had for him. I knew he cared for me, but did we love each other in the same way? If I told him I was in love with him, would he like the idea?
"I was so mad at Boris, I wanted in get him into the boxing ring," Ivan said, revealing what he hadn't told me before. "I wanted to hurt him. He didn't treat me fair. He calls when he left here, 'Ancient history.' It made the deal with Betty Sue Sourgrapes worse for me. He spent time with her, even when we had plans to go out. I didn't like it."
"I don't know what to say. Did you tell him that?" I asked.
"No. He won't talk about how I feel. I want to talk about it, but he won't. We argue about it every time I go there. That makes boxing really important to me. He's stronger than me, but he can't beat me. I let up when I know I'm hurting him, but I feel like I want to hurt him."
"Like he hurt you," I said, finally putting it all together.
As close as we stood, he still turned his head to see my eyes. He smiled as if I'd made a discovery about him. He didn't like what he'd revealed to me and he was glad I understood how he felt.
"Like he hurt me," he said. "He just hurt me again. He senses I want to hurt him in the ring. He stays away from me. Uses those long arms to jab at me, keep me from getting in on his body, but I let him hit me so I slip a punch to get inside. Then I punish his ribs and stomach. He can't take that. I always let up though. I hurt him but I never hurt him bad, not yet."
There was nothing I could do but stay close and be there. No one could hurt you like family could. I remembered Russel and the physical beatings he took in Tulsa. He was always at my house because he was afraid to be at his house. I didn't know it then, but I'd figured it out over time.
"Don't forget. We'll grow up and get married one day. Have kids of our own, but our friendship, this friendship, will always be part of us, Clay. Remember that in case you don't think I care."
This was more than I wanted to hear. It made me think. There was a model for growing up male. You have boyfriends as a boy. You're closest to them as you mature. Then you have girlfriends, wives, and kids follow. The boyfriends disappear. The girlfriends, wives, and kids take up your time, along with the job that supports your family.
It may have been the accepted model, but I had no feelings for girls approaching my feelings for Ivan. I thought I was in a phase I'd heard about somewhere. My attraction to boys being a passing fancy. Then I met Ivan. What I felt was no phase. These were the most intense feelings I'd ever had.
Most boys were closest to other boys. Most boys would transitioned to being closest to girls while still in school. I wasn't most boys and there would be no transition. The accepted model didn't fit me and it never would. I'd love Ivan no matter what he did, I didn't think I would ever love anyone as much as I loved him. I didn't see how I could.
We didn't perceive marriage as a possibility because men didn't marry each other, but if they were in love, and I was in love with Ivan, why shouldn't we be able to get married? I wasn't one to spend a lot of time on what if, but what if it was different? What if Ivan loved me in the same way I loved him?
A model could be flawed if it's the only one. Not everyone was the same.
Forcing yourself into a model that doesn't fit didn't sound like much of a plan to me. I didn't know anyone like me, except Ivan. He obviously knew the model and it sounded like he intended to fit into it one day. I didn't think I could. I had no interest in girls, but I didn't get to decide what Ivan wanted.
Ivan and I were together and there was no end in sight. Being together until the end of high school was a long time from now. Our lives were filled with things that kept us together. There was no indication we might be pulled apart.
My feelings were growing. I feared I'd scare Ivan away. After what he told me about marriage and kids, I was no longer sure we felt the same way about each other. We had time. Being with Ivan was the most important thing now.
Dylan and the world he commented on were out of reach if we stayed on our beach. Hearing his lyrics alerted us to the danger in a world where we didn't live. It still excited Ivan without making a big impression on me. We were safe. We were together. I couldn't ask for more than that.
I wished Dylan well and I hoped the masters of war couldn't get his address.
The work on the Vilnius Two was hard but the pay was more than I deserved. New discoveries were the order of most days. Seeing the sails of distant ships drove my imagination to bold possibilities. Could it be a galleon of old, on a voyage of infinity, seen but never there, lost on the endless seas of time?
Great creatures that could only have come out of the depths, surfaced, teased us while we did all we could to get a closer look, returning to where they came from before we could reach them.
These discoveries always sank too fast and too soon, keeping their mystery to themselves. Huge birds flew near the sun, gliding like aircraft from an age yet lived, and we were helplessly bound to the Vilnius Two.
Adventure chased us and excited me like few things could.
We had the perfect days that never ended, until there was a storm that tossed, turned, twisted, and then released us to fish another day. The first time I'd sailed with Mr. Aleksa, seeing the last of land scared me. I couldn't be sure I'd ever see land again.
I lived to be at sea the summer I was fifteen. I lived to work and to see the fruits of my labor on deck and filling the holds. We worked hard. We played hard, and Kenny and Mr. Aleksa never thought anything was odd. We were free to be ourselves and I loved it. I was living the life I wanted to live.
Kenny was thinner than me, but not by much. His years of working added layers of muscles to a frame similar to my own. His shoulders and arms had the muscular sinew of a very strong young man. He was a quiet guy. I liked Kenny but no one knew anything about him before Mr. Aleksa gave him his job.
I was most intrigued by the things that came up in our nets and didn't make it into one of the holds. There were sea creates the likes of which I'd never imagined. At times they died in the net, not having the resilience of most fish. I was sad they died, but it gave me time to look them over. Nothing in a sci-fi movies equaled their ugliness, or beauty in some cases.
Each new discovery amazed me. The gulf was slowly giving up her secrets. No one cared that I poked or prodded something I'd never seen before. The first manta-ray to come up in the net was spread out on deck for me to check from the mouth under it and in between its wings to the wicked barb on its tail.
"Don't lose yourself, Clay," Mr. Aleksa warned. "Dead creatures have a way of striking one last time. That barb could ruin you."
I lacked the skill and ability to detect life in the seemingly dead things I checked out. Hearing his caution made me more careful. If something showed a scintilla of life, it went back into the gulf right away. The sturdy gloves I wore to pull the nets were perfect for examining something that might bite or sting me.
A Portuguese Man of War was something Mr. Aleksa pointed out to me. It was one of the times a huge creature allowed us to come along side it.
"Clay, come to the bridge," the intercom said, and I was there in a flash. "Off starboard. We're about to pass a Portuguese Man of War. I just spotted it and brought us around so you'll see it up close. Can't bring that baby on deck."
I leaned over the starboard side and Kenny grabbed my waistband to be certain I didn't make a nosedive into the slimy dangerous creature.
"If you're going for a closeup, you may as well get a good look. I got you, Clay," Kenny said.
It had red and blue veins running through the translucent body that made it look like an extra large jelly fish. Our speed slowed and I can only estimate that it was over twenty feet long, considering the tentacles spreading out behind it.
How do you measure a Portuguese man of war? Very carefully.
It's why I was anxious to get on the boat. Pulling nets was easy, once I got the hang of it. The first few days I thought my arms would fall off and my back was done for. The third time I went out with Mr. Aleksa, I knew what to do and how best to do it, and I never had stiff muscles again.
Kenny took the time to show me, stressing I should use my legs and not my back to pull with. It was so new to me. I didn't catch on right away, but when my back got tired enough, I figured out what Kenny was telling me. My back didn't get sore after that.
We didn't go out that often when we were fourteen. Mr. Aleksa knew we were mostly boys and the experience was good for us, but a little went a long way. A year later we went out with him once a week, and if I missed a week, I felt like I was loafing. I was much happier when I got out on the gulf to be part of what the Vilnius Two did.
In a year Kenny went from a big kid to a full grown man. The summer I was fifteen he had put on weight and his arms, chest, and shoulders had become manly. He was friendlier once he was accustomed to Ivan and me. He no longer feared we might take his job. Instead we were complimenting the crew and taking some of the labor off him. I think he liked that part of it.
Mr. Aleksa seemed to mind my need to see and understand the creatures we dredged up from the deep. Some to this day I haven't identified, and the only time I saw one was when they fell out of the net onto the deck of the Vilnius Two. It was possible I might see one again over those summers I was a fisherman, but there are those creatures I saw only once.
I did not record or write out the details of those encounters, having no idea they might become important to me one day. At the time they were individual encounters that proved how diverse and unknown our world could be.
In this floating laboratory that gave me more to think about than I'd ever thought about before, I was getting paid to be mesmerized by the wonders in my world and the grandeur of the Gulf of Mexico. I'd never found anything that could match its beauty.
Ivan and I were rarely out of each other's sight for long.
On the boat we would collapse into one of the four forward bunks, after the frenzy of pulling nets and getting the fish where they belonged was over. Sleep was something you did when there was nothing else to do. Weariness came upon you suddenly and left as quickly, when it was time to get the nets into the sea.
We could be up all night star gazing and tracking the shooting stars that crossed the sky, wondering where they came down. We were putting the nets out the hour before dawn, as the stars began blinking out. An hour after the dawn, the nets were folded back at the stern and ready to drop overboard again.
We'd be in the galley drinking the super strong brew we got on the Vilnius Two. It was when there was nothing to do that fatigue caught up with us, and we might fall asleep where we sat or go and drop into one of the bunks.
There wasn't a lot to experience once the sun was high in the sky and the day was beginning to heat up. There would be more coffee to drink and the picnic basket to raid, but these things could be done any time and at any speed. We slept, swam, and scanned the horizon as the day passed.
I didn't eat all that much while on the Vilnius Two. When we were at Ivan's, we went on binges when we ate everything and anything we could find. On the boat the food was in the picnic basket in one of the coolers and we took a sandwich out now and then. There were always small containers of goodies and awesome desserts, but they weren't all that appealing.
Sometimes it was too hot to eat. Sometimes we were too busy to eat. Then there were the times we were too tired to eat. It wasn't like on land, when we were always hungry.
When we swam off the boat, we didn't swim far. It felt safer staying along side the boat. When we dove off the boat, we climbed the boom to dive. This helped us burn off our excess energy during the lulls between work.
It was never dull and the days slowly became night, and we did a lot of the same things over again, but it was never routine. I never got tired of being on the water. I was left to wonder if there were fishermen in the Olson family.
Did my ancestors go to sea?
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]