The first time I saw him, he was a head popping out from the canvass cover of a lifeboat. That’s also how I imagine his first sight of me, though he claims it was an arm, and that may be true.
Whatever we first saw of each other, there we were, two poor New Yorkers hopping onto a transatlantic cruise liner without having previously met or consulted about it. For a day we both lay low, and then as dawn made a very slight change in what sky we could see through the rope holes of the lifeboat covers, we both decided it was time to come out, forage, and especially take care of nature’s very urgent call.
When, heart pumping, I emerged from my hideaway, I gave a little jump that swayed the lifeboat. Just one boat away, a head was turning, looking around. It finally caught sight of mine, and started just as I’d done.
We toppled thoughtlessly from our swinging boats, and sort of hesitated on the deck. What do you do? Stand up and head to the side to relieve yourself? Slither over, so as not to be spotted by a sleepless, paying passenger? Pain from my bladder made me curl into myself, and so I ended up half-slithering, half-stumbling to the side.
It was easier for him, but I managed to do what I had to.
Of course, when we’d both finished, again we paused. What do you do in the extraordinary case when you’re not the only stowaway? Do you make friends with your fellow secret passenger, or keep to yourself? There’s no safety in numbers, after all; if he got caught or spotted, and we were shooting the breeze, willingly or not he’d probably lead them to me.
I didn’t know what the punishment for a stowaway would be in the middle of the Atlantic, and in these modern times. Did the ship have a jail? Could they throw me – us – overboard? Even if it wasn’t legal, they could pretend it was an accident. I really hadn’t prepared for this. I’d just done it out of a pressing need, worse than the one my bladder had made me feel. And I didn’t regret it, I just didn’t know – oh, heck:
“Hello,” I whispered to his silhouette.
He gave the second start of the night and hesitated. I guess what had been going through my head was probably going through his.
“Um, hello,” he finally whispered back.
It wouldn’t have been hard to make conversation: there was plenty to say. And even if there hadn’t been, I’ve always been a great conversationalist. I would have found something. But of course, I didn’t know how much he’d want to discuss. So I decided to keep it simple and very relevant to what was now probably our main concern:
“Do you know where we can find something to eat?”
It turned out he didn’t have too much against discussing this, nor a few other basic matters. It turned out we were both novices at the stowaway game. By the following afternoon, though, I couldn’t say that any longer.
Our baptism came a few hours later, when passengers appeared with the sun. Half of them were runners, taut and athletic-looking. The other half didn’t have that hard skin, and sat down in lounge chairs with little glass tables beside them, paper plates running over with fresh fruit and toast and eggs and….inside our boats, our mouths watered.
One woman nibbled absently on a cluster of green grapes. Suddenly, a little blonde-haired boy ran up to her, and she gave a barely perceptible sigh and stood up to follow where he was beckoning her. She’d left her half-full plate behind.
As I contemplated this, my fellow stowaway suddenly appeared in my line of vision, an unexpected mark, like a portion of thumb in a photograph. I almost yelled out – after all, the plate was just across from my boat, and I’d only been waiting for it to feel right, to get out. But suddenly, instead of heading back to his hideaway, he was racing right towards me. Before I knew what to do, I felt something fall on me – grapes like rubber balls – and then I saw his head again, this time inside my boat. I rolled over hastily and he pushed all the way in.
“Thought I’d share this with you,” he told me. “It only seemed fair.”
We nodded in a kind of understanding that hasn’t left us, and did our best to quietly gather the grapes, which had fallen everywhere. We divvied them up and each of us gathered them into a clasped hand.
“To adventure,” I found myself saying. We gently bumped our hands together, so as not to crush the grapes.
If you ask me what it is I do now, I could tell you I’m a secretary for a respectable English firm in a respectable part of a port city somewhere in Italy. But I could only tell you that now. Because tomorrow I’m leaving again.
It’s not the first time. That came years before, when he and I got off that boat, thrilled and a bit disbelieving that we hadn’t been discovered. We’d parted ways there in Marseilles, but the strange thing was, we kept running into each other.
Our lives had both taken a turn for the steady. No more rocking lifeboats for us. He’d gotten a job as an exporter of some kind. I’d found work as an English teacher.
It was nice to have a room you rented, and money to pay for it, and food you didn’t have to sneakily steal. It was nice to be in a city I found pleasant – and he did, too – with plenty of things to keep you busy.
But one night, there was a strange note in his mailbox. A hastily folded piece of paper, with a time and the name of a ship. I know this, because I was the one who’d written it.
I remember the wind whipping at my hair as I waited there early the following morning. I felt my knees trembling and wasn’t sure if it was over what I was about to do, or the prospect of doing it alone. And suddenly, there he was, hurrying along the docks, his movements back to the furtiveness they’d lost since he’d settled in to life in Marseilles.
We took the ship I’d named, and not as paying passengers, as you might have guessed. Back into our lifeboats.
The strange thing is, you may think that I knew my partner well. I didn’t at all. We never talked about why we’d left home – the first or the second – and we didn’t share a lifeboat except in emergencies, if that’s the kind of thing you’re thinking. And still, I could say we knew each other better than most people ever know anyone.
Our second trip was a short one. The ship docked somewhere in Greece.
There’s always a sense of being overwhelmed when you arrive, since you have no plans or connections, and very little luggage. Here, we couldn’t even read the language. But you try to push those thoughts away, like propellers and engines pushing at the water, creating such a distance from the banks of doubt. And we were right –we’re always right. Soon enough, we’d found jobs and homes. We could have lost each other in that city’s maze of white houses, lightbulb-bright under the sun. But once again we always met, two pieces of flotsam pushed together by the current, circling.
About a year later, I was the one who received a message. Boat name, time. I got there before he did the next day.
What we were looking for, was anyone’s guess. Maybe he knew. Maybe he thought I did. Maybe he thought I knew he knew. But I didn’t know anything. Only that there is something in the call of a lifeboat, swinging almost perilously over an endless ocean. There is something about being cradled by that marine rhythm, knowing that there are all sorts of mysteries below. And yet, you’re close to human life. So close to the ordinary and the orderly, close enough to feel safe. And the sea keeps you from feeling terrified. The call of a lifeboat, swinging, holding a suspended existence.
This time, it was different. We’d gotten bolder, and sometimes I would come out of my hiding place for a while and settle in an unoccupied lounge chair and sun myself. One day, I was doing just this, my lifeboat rocking ever so slightly in the corner of my left eye, when a middle-aged woman sitting a few chairs away muttered to me, “You see that fellow?"
I hadn’t given a start in years, which is why I made so much of them at the beginning of this tale. But now I started again, and stopped myself mid-start. I made my voice sound lazy, like a cat giving a long stretch. “The one over there?” A studied, languorous gesture from my arm in the direction of a well-dressed man about ten feet to my right.
“Yes,” the woman went on. “You recognize him?”
I looked carefully – and then pressed my backside firmly to my chair. It was him – my fellow stowaway – but how had he gotten those fine clothes? And what was he doing promenading around? Sitting was one thing, but strolling?
The woman didn’t wait for me to respond. “That’s Lord H------.”
I replied with an ambiguous, “Hmm?” – but in my mind, it was mostly astonished and confused expletives.
“He’s here alone, they say. He’s one of England’s most eligible bachelors. Maybe he’ll find someone on this ship! Could you imagine!”
I nodded and tried to keep quiet and think. A short time later, I could tell by the woman’s snores that she was deeply asleep. By now, the man had strolled away. I got up quietly and scurried over to my fellow stowaway’s boat. I glanced around, then ducked my head under the canvas – and found him looking quizzically up at me.
“Get in,” he said, and I understood why he sounded annoyed. This was the perfect way for us to get discovered – a lady sticking her head where it shouldn’t be. I climbed inside beside him.
“What was going on out there?”
I told him what had happened.
“Then why the hell did you need to come over here like that, in broad daylight?”
“I really thought it was you! I was just as outraged as you are now!”
As the day got hotter, we fell asleep – but with ears pricked, as always when you’re an outlaw of sorts. When I woke up in the darkness, I wondered, still half-asleep, how much of the day I’d dreamed. Maybe Lord H------ had been a heat-inspired hallucination. Or maybe I’d only seen my friend in him because on the ship, we only existed to each other.
A few nights later, I heard a movement just outside my boat. My whole body tensed. I wondered again, as I had long ago, what happened when they caught a stowaway. I’d never bothered to look into it.
I drew myself carefully up, and saw that the rope hole nearest the noise didn’t seem to be blocked. Slowly, I drew my eye to it, and looked out.
A man was standing at the ship’s railing. No one else was to be seen on the deserted deck. Looking behind him all the same, the man raised a leg and lifted himself onto the top of the handrail.
In spite of myself, I gasped.
My friend must have heard me, too. Heedlessly, like shots we emerged from our respective lifeboats, and flew towards the man.
“Stop!” I called out. “Nothing’s worth dying over!”
“Nothing?” the man turned to me – and I could see my friend’s face.
Only, he was there beside me, as well, saying, “She’s right. Please, sir, step back down. Let us help you. We’ve already risked our necks for you.”
When the man turned to face my friend, they both made little exclamations of surprise. I needed no explanation; it was like they were looking into a mirror.
The man on the railing collected himself first. “It’s all over for me,” he said. And then, “Good luck to you,” and plunged feet-first into the water.
There was no point searching for him, we knew. The churning waves, the submerged propellers, the height from which he’d fallen – we knew one of those things, at least, had killed him.
Still, we stared down. The water was black as jade. Strips of foam were scattered on the surface, like torn white ribbons.
After a time, our instincts came back to us, and we climbed back into our hiding places. Somehow, in spite of the shock of what I’d seen, the rocking of my boat on its cords must have soothed me to sleep.
I don’t know how long it was, but suddenly, I felt a hand gently tapping my arm. I shot up, expecting I’d been caught, expecting they were searching the entire ship for Lord H------ – and instead, I only saw my friend. He slid into my boat.
“Listen,” he whispered, “everything’s changed.”
“When we saw – what we saw last night, I did a lot of thinking. And I realized, I can be this man. I went to find a steward, and told them while leaning over the railing to look at the sea, I’d accidentally dropped the key to my cabin. I gave Lord H------’s name as mine, and I had the key to his room, and the steward personally escorted me, like I’d hoped.”
I heard a frenzied excitement in his voice, and I noticed, as he spoke, that he was now wearing fine clothes just like those I’d seen on his double.
“Everything is in there – address books, documents, even a journal. I think – I know he didn’t mean for it to happen this way – but I think H------ wanted to make it easier for people to tie up loose ends after his death – but after meeting me – I can’t help but think – can’t you help but think that --”
“—you should take his place?” I finished for him.
He nodded. “I can do his accent. And I know enough about business and banking to manage his assets well. And you’ll come with me.”
So, I was a part of his plans. After all, I thought, we’d lived together in a way, for years.
“I’ll say you’re my new assistant because…while on board…I hit my head and got a bit of amnesia…selective memory loss. Some things I recall perfectly – others, I may not.”
“It’s very unpredictable,” I said, trying on a professional-sounding voice.
When we reach shore, we will rest a few days and prepare, read together again over all of H------’s notes. And then, we’ll buy two tickets to England. For the first time, we will actually be paying passengers.
At times, the whole idea frightens me. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most is, really, how long can we stay in a normal life on land?
But then again, I reason, this will not be a normal life. We won’t be who we seem; on land, we’ll be stowaways still.