I took several sudden gasps of air. My arms pushed down at my sides in full extension. Green and white shapes blurred before me.
These resolved into posters and framed prints on a riveted steel bulkhead.
Black and white images of prospectors and longboats and scrawny, half-naked Indians carving totems. Factoids about Puget Sound. Once again, I was in the cabin of the Puyallup ferry between Edmonds and Kingston.
I panted slightly, but my body was at ease. The frantic movements I had been making a moment earlier had ceased.
A man and his daughter were walking in my direction. They looked familiar.
It wasn’t just that I knew their type — tourists from California or Arizona, probably. They had that bronzed look hard to get up here in the Northwest. Both wore stretchy surfing shirts, too.
I guessed the father to be in his mid-twenties, just a kid, and the daughter to be about seven. He was broad but lean, and moved with the oiled grace of an athlete. Yet he was sluggish, tired, worn-out. The girl bounced on her toes, face open with wonderment, and moved in a series of clumsy sprints, from window to picture to vending machine, and on.
The girl rushed in between me and the picture I had been studying.
“Orca,” she said, touching the glass with tiny fingers.
The picture, in B&W, drably showed water and a wooded skyline. In the center, a long triangular dorsal fin stuck out of the water, attached to a sliver of black flesh.
“That’s good. You knew it wasn’t a shark.”
“It’s like Shamu,” she instructed.
Her father had been one step behind. He ushered her away with an apologetic grin.
“We’re from San Diego.”
I clasped my hands behind my back and turned to him.
“Welcome to — “ But as our eyes met, the familiarity struck me hard enough to take away my breath. I knew this man, these two. His features were chiseled, movie star good-looking, tanned. I was twenty pounds overweight, bearded, dressed like a lumberjack, and retired. He was a tourist and I was a local.
Yet I knew him!
It occurred to me he could be a celebrity. Someone I’d seen on TV or a movie. But in his pale blue eyes glimmered an echo of that same familiarity.
“Excuse us, sir.” He nodded, then lost his daughter as she bounded to the nearest picture window. A morose whiteness billowed beyond the glass — the Puyallup plowing into a fog bank. The girl smooshed her face into the window and gasped. A strip of black sea lay dully beneath the white.
“There’s birdies floating in the water!” she cried.
“More than that,” I said. “Seals, giant jellyfish, porpoises — even orcas!”
She whirled around, eyes wide with ecstatic awe. She sprinted for the door to the outer deck.
The man swung his gaze to me, not in annoyance, as I’d feared, but dull desperation.
“Do you — remember me?” he said. The daughter had succeeded in pushing through the heavy door and was lost to sight. The outer decks were slippery, visibility poor. There were railings, but accidents had occurred in the past. It was a long way down to the black, cold waters of Puget Sound, and the engines were loud.
“You do, don’t you?” He stepped closer.
“I — “
He made an all-encompassing gesture. “This — all of this. The picture, the window. I remember it all. We’ve done it all before. Not just once.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. Part of me wondered if he was on drugs. The other part knew exactly what he meant — the déjà vu. And then another part of me wondered if I were the one in another world.
“Say I do…” I said.
Something broke in his face then. “You remember! We’ve done this, over and over. I can remember it like a dream, faintly. I think — I think I made a mistake.”
The strange thing was, I could faintly remember him saying just that. And my response had been:“I’d say it’s a mistake to let a five-year old run around on deck.”
I said it again.
He nodded, eyes wide, but unconvinced. But he pivoted and ran towards the door, long strides covering the distance with enviable ease. He pushed open the door, shot me a glance, and then vanished into the whiteness.
The boat vibrated minutely under my boots. I felt alone now, although a quick glance around showed a huge Indian in plaid, napping next to the window; a blonde in a gray skirt suit, nose in a paperback; a paunchy white-haired man in an olive vest, assistance dog lying placidly at his feet. And more. A light load, given the 2600-person capacity.
But still, there was a feeling of being alone on a stage. I rushed to follow the man.
Outside, a cold and damp wind batted at my face. I saw the rubberized deck, steel tube rails, and the figure of the father and his daughter in her pink shirt, but beyond them was cottony whiteness, tinged with gray. The blankness hid the sky, the eastern coast, and our destination — Kingston and the western coast. Far below us, the jet water rushed along the green sides of the hull.
I took a deep breath of the chill air, enjoying the sensation after the stuffy cabin. This too, had the ring of familiarity. I approached the man and grasped hold of the rail. The girl fidgeted on the other side of him, poking her head through the rail and watching the sea.
“Careful,” I said. “Once I saw a little boy get his head stuck.”
She laughed. “Boys are dumb. Where’s the orcas?”
“Oh, you have to be very patient. We only get sightings a few times a season. They mostly stay up around the San Juan Islands.”
The girl pulled her head out and climbed onto the middle rung of the white-painted railing. “I’m going to see one anyway.”
Alarm thumped in my chest at her ascent. “Oh, you shouldn’t — “
The father detached her from the railing and set her back on the deck.
“No climbing, Kaylee. It’s dangerous.”
“I’m not going to fall.” No one said anything. Part of me reacted with humor, tolerance. Another part reacted by tensing every muscle in my body, as if I were watching a car skid towards another in slow motion on an icy road.
The man turned his head slightly towards me, but without making eye contact. “It’s always like this. I think I make a mistake here. Will you help me?”
He meant, I thought, that we were trapped in a cycle. It seemed very real to him. I half-believed him.
“It makes me uncomfortable that your daughter likes to climb the railing,” I said slowly. “Is that it?”
He shook his head fiercely. “No! I tried to stop that. It doesn’t matter, it still happens, no matter what I say or do.”
“If you just kept a hold on her?”
“It doesn’t work.”
Through mists of memory, I glimpsed images of vapor that threatened to break apart with the slightest movement. I held very still: I saw him ordering her, holding on to her with one hand, grasping her coat, interspersing himself between her and the railing.
My eyes flicked to the girl, who had a hold of the railing and, tongue peeking out between her lips in effort, was trying to get her sneakers up on the bottom rail so she could see over the top.
The man stared into the waters. A forty foot drop.
“It’s fifty degrees this time of year,” I said. “We’re going eighteen knots, or about twenty miles an hour. A fall like that could break bones.”
He shivered, more so than the usual tourist being the recipient of grisly local color.
“I’m not so good with heights,” said the man. “And open ocean gives me the willies. How long would it take? I mean, if you were in the water.”
I shrugged. The Sound was technically a bay, but it felt like the wide open sea in this fog.
“They say in twenty minutes, you’d go numb. And then you couldn’t swim any more. Up in Victoria, a bus driver told me you could get a heart attack if you fell in, but he was talking to a bunch of senior citizens.”
“They would rescue you? I mean, the crew has boats. Train for it and everything…”
“They’d try. Usually, the people don’t make it.”
I snapped my mouth shut, then. The sequence had a scripted feel, as if we were actors going through a well-grooved scene.
“I love my daughter,” said the man. She had both feet on the bottom rail, raising her a couple of feet off the deck in her quest for orcas.
“But she came too soon. I was still young.”
“You are still young,” I said. “But I know what you mean. Lots of sacrifices.”
He shook his head with a bitter grin. “Tell me about it. You have kids?”
“No. To my regret. No kids and my Bea passed away ten years ago.”
The man’s face became slack. “I know about regrets. My regrets could stop time.”
A strange turn of phrase. What could plunge such a good-looking, promising young man into despair?
He looked straight at me with pleading eyes. “Does it ever go away? Can you ever make it better?”
Yes, things seem to stink now, but just wait until you’re sixty years old, living on Social Security, wife gone, and you live in a studio apartment, and you’re so lonely you ride back and forth on the ferry for company.
Something urged me to help him. His problem was my problem. We were connected.
I just didn’t know how.
“Sometimes we’re given a chance to make it better.” Or so I’d heard. In my own life, I had never done anything of distinction. Now I was old, and it was too late.
“Like a do-over.”
I chuckled, though it was grim and the sound seemed to get trapped in the fog that surrounded us.
“I guess sometimes it seems like a do-over.”
“I have to do something different this time,” he said.
I searched his blank face, grasping for something to say, some advice.
There was a splash.
Considering how far beneath us it was, and the deep thrum of the engines, it was amazing we heard it. But we did. I grabbed the rail and scanned the waters. A flash of pink, a single thrash among the coursing white water shunted aside by the ferry’s passage. The high-pitched yelp, truncated, came back to me like an echo. I had noticed the splash first, then connected the cry afterwards.
The man’s eyes had grown wider than I thought possible on a human face — his lips pulled back from his teeth. He gripped the railing hard enough to bring up blood.
“Man overboard!” I shouted. “Man overboard!”
The man groaned. He looked back and forth between the water and the bridge window.
The little pink disturbance could be seen in the water. But at eighteen knots, it was falling fast behind us.
“They have people, don’t they? Rescuers?” he said through a choked throat. His legs bent under him slightly.
“Yes — they can’t hear, I think.” I could no longer see the girl. She was lost in the churning wake.
“I should — “ he said, but his head was shaking. He looked at me. He wanted me to tell him not to jump overboard.
Of course, jumping would be stupid. Let the professionals do their job. Don’t make them have to rescue two people in the freezing ocean. It was a long way down, and people don’t last long in that water.
“Man overboard!” I bellowed. No one was coming.
The man stared back and forth between me and the water.
“What’s wrong?” he said, through chattering teeth. “Where are they?”
He stood rooted to the spot and stared fixedly at the wake of the ship, quivering.
Do it! I thought.
But then something changed in his eyes.
That’s when I put a boot on the lower rail and jumped.
An instant later, I hit, and the impact was like a linebacker smashing into my ribs with a head of steam. I plunged into darkness, freezing wet blackness. I kicked, my soaked pants encumbering me, and stroked my arms toward the light. I broke the choppy surface and opened my mouth, but I’d gotten the wind knocked out of me. The sheer green and white sides of the ferry loomed in front of me, moving fast.
Whitewater rushed toward me, covered my head, pushed me under. The urge to gasp for air filled my every nerve. I pushed down, as if there were something to push off of — it all seemed familiar…