Chapter 8

Posted: January 23, 2012 in Letters to my Mother by Rebecca Heath

Chapter Eight

Blaine Hall, Room B102
University of Washington, Seattle
Dec. 12, 1956

Dear Mother and Daddy,

Norma and I finally heard from the American Friends Service Committee and they accepted us to the work camp program! We’ll be living in a village called San Pedro Tlaltenango, not too far from Puebla, just south of Mexico City. It’s really primitive – no electricity, no running water, virtually no roads. We’ll be helping the people of the village to build a school, and when I say “build” I mean that literally – even grinding stones to make concrete. We can hardly wait to go.

I submitted my term paper for the Anthropology of Oceania and received an A+ on it – the highest grade in the class…
When David called me the following Thursday evening after dinner, I sensed a note of excitement in his voice. “Kate, this is David,” he began as usual. “Have you seen the sky this evening?”

“No, I’ve been in since four-thirty. Why?”

“I’ll hold the phone, go look out the window.”

Mystified, I put down the receiver, drew the curtain aside and peered out. As far as I could tell, the night was unremarkable – cold, dark and moonless.

“I’m afraid I can’t see anything; it’s too dark.”

“That’s just it; there’s no moon. Didn’t you see them?”

“What?”

“The stars, Kate! The stars are blazing like lighthouses in the sky. The night’s so clear you can see all the way to Alaska. Can you be ready in ten minutes? We’ll go for a sail away from the city lights and let Sturmvogel drift. We can lie in the cockpit and study the constellations.”

“Are you crazy? The weather’s freezing. What about other boats? Is it safe to sail at night?”

“Perfectly safe. Sturmvogel has all the required navigation lights and we’ll stay away from the shipping lanes.”

“But I’m studying for my final in Oceania.”

“Forget Oceania. After the term paper you wrote about the sweet potato in Polynesia you don’t even need to show up for the exam to get an ‘A’. Please come.”

“All right,” I replied with a laugh, “but you really must teach me some constellations. I can only justify this trip on educational grounds. How cold is it?”

“Freezing, as you said. Put on everything you own, gloves, cap, everything. I’ll pick you up in a few minutes. Oh, one more thing. What time do they lock the front door on Thursdays?”

“On Thursdays … at eleven.”

“And you’re required to sign out?”

“Well, I’m supposed to.”

“Just for once, don’t. We may return too late. If I can’t get you back to Blaine before eleven, you can spend the night on Sturmvogel and give me the marina key tomorrow.”

We walked down the dock hand-in-hand, my right one clasped in David’s left, and both thrust deep in the pocket of his heavy wool jacket. Except for a few birds, the marina was deserted. Startled by our footsteps, an occasional seagull tumbled off the dock into the water and flapped noisily along the surface before gaining the speed to get airborne. The evening was cold, the silent, knifing cold of clear winter nights, and our breath condensed into a vaporous halo as we fumbled with the lines. I held the tiller and mainsheet while David walked the boat out of her berth; he pushed the bow away from the dock, gave one final shove, and jumped aboard. Sturmvogel ghosted out of the marina on a slight breeze and passed between the winking red and green lights marking the channel, and when we cleared the breakwater, I lay down, wrapped in couple of blankets, with my head on David’s lap. It must have been such a sky that inspired the Sumerians to study the heavens. The stars hung suspended in the firmament like a display of celestial fireworks, and beneath them Sturmvogel sailed on a star-dappled sea of ink.

“Look!” we exclaimed together, as a single light broke ranks from the stellar armada.

“A meteor,” I said, stopping to think for a moment whether the object was a meteor or a meteorite.

David corrected me. “Not a meteor, a falling star. Can you imagine John Donne’s writing “Go and catch a meteor?”

I shook my head. “How does the rest of the poem go?”

Go and catch a falling star

Get with child a mandrake root

Tell me where all past years are

And who cleft the devil’s foot.

Teach me to hear mermaids singing

And to keep off envy’s stinging

And find what wind

Serves to advance an honest mind.

David’s words hung in the air like the stars themselves and when he finished, I heard his voice echoing in Sturmvogel’s wake; the poem is out there still, hovering over the water like a haze. I turned my eyes up to where the mast was poking a hole in the sky, near the Dog Star Sirius. Logic told me the stars were fixed and the mast was moving, but the illusion was the opposite: the stars seemed to dip and sway in a giddy orbit around the slender spar.

David named a few of the constellations. “That’s Orion, the Mighty Hunter facing Taurus the Bull, and Orion’s dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, are by his side.” He pointed toward the north. “See the three bright stars forming his belt? Over there’s the Winged Horse, Pegasus, and to the east, the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux. Orion was the son of Poseidon, god of the sea. Do you know how he got up in the sky?”

“How?”

“According to the Greeks, the goddess Artemis fell in love with Orion and this made her brother Apollo so jealous he decided to destroy him. One day when Apollo and Artemis were out walking, Apollo spotted Orion swimming, and he challenged his sister to hit an object bobbing up and down in the water. Unknown to Artemis, this speck was Orion’s head. Artemis drew her bow and killed her lover with a single arrow; when she realized what she’d done, she was so overcome with grief that she placed him in the firmament among the constellations as a tribute to her love.”

“How beautiful! Aren’t you glad I don’t have any brothers? I know a story about a star too, a true one. Have you heard of Aldebaran?”

“Of course; Aldebaran is one of the stars used in celestial navigation.”

“The Aztecs believed the world exists in 52 year cycles, and at the end of each the gods meet to decide whether to destroy the earth in a cataclysm or to grant mankind a reprieve. When one of these cycles ended, the people extinguished all the fires in the Aztec kingdom, and the priests gathered for prayers and sacrifices on Coyoacan, the Hill of the Star, outside their capital of Tenochtitlan. They observed the movement of Aldebaran, and if the star passed the meridian, this meant the gods were conceding another 52 years of existence to the world. Then the priests kindled a sacred fire and from it runners carried burning torches to light all the hearths in the Aztec empire.”

“What a lovely story. The Aztecs must have had a bad press agent; the only thing I know about their religion was their proclivity for human sacrifice.”

“Even sacrifice is understandable if you examine the religion from their point of view. The Aztecs believed without human blood to nourish him, the sun would lack the strength to rise every morning. Therefore, sacrificing oneself was a supreme act of altruism because it enabled all other life to continue. If you accept the basic premises, their religion is completely logical, much more so than Christianity. Is Aldebaran visible this time of year?”

“Yes, it’s in the constellation Taurus,” David replied, pointing toward a cluster of several hundred stars.

I looked in the direction of Taurus and shook my head, laughing.

“Okay, maybe Aldebaran’s not that obvious. Sit close beside me and sight along my arm.”

I moved closer and put my cheek against David’s.

“See it? Aldebaran’s the bright one south of Orion’s Belt.”

Our faces turned from the sky toward one another and we kissed, softly at first, then harder and harder as David pressed me down on the seat. He unbuttoned his shirt and lifted my blouse, and as we touched, I felt his warmth coursing all the way to my toes. I could feel something else as well: David’s hand moving along my back, searching for the closure of my brassiere. I clamped my arm down over his hand and he retreated, only to try a few moments later.

“Why won’t you let me touch you?”

I was burning with embarrassment. When I didn’t answer, he repeated the question.

I buried my face against him. “I didn’t want you to find out … I wear padded brassieres.”

I felt his mouth crease into a smile where his lips touched my cheek.

“That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I’m not ashamed I do … I just didn’t want you to know. You’re going to be disappointed.”

“Kate, dear, it doesn’t matter.”

He slid his hand along my back again. “How do you open this thing?”

Laughing at his frustration, I sat up and unhooked my brassiere. David groped for my lips in the dark and, finding them, kissed me until I was out of breath. He rested his weight on one elbow, opened his zipper, and thrust himself between my legs. Something hard pressed against my thigh and, thinking it was David’s flashlight, I reached down to move the light aside. I touched the object, realized what it was, and withdrew my hand in shock, exclaiming “Oh! … I’m sorry!”
“Shh,” David whispered, “it’s all right.”
We drifted on in the darkness, rocking gently as if in a cradle, and all the world was still except for the sound of our breathing.

David sat up abruptly and covered his face with his hands.

“My God, what am I doing?” he whispered hoarsely. I sat up beside him, shivering; I straightened my blouse and pulled my jacket around my shoulders.

“What’s the matter?”

“Everything. I was a fool to bring you out here; I should have known what would happen. We haven’t taken any precautions … you’re hardly more than a child.”

I put my arms around him. “Can we anchor and stay here? The night’s so calm. I did what you suggested. I only pretended to sign the register, so no one knows I’m gone. Please? We can sleep on separate bunks … if you don’t want to we don’t need to do anything … I can’t bear the thought of leaving you, not tonight. Please?”

“We’re getting close to the shipping lanes. If we anchor now we’ll be run down in an hour. I’m sure some people would consider drowning a suitable fate for us, but I’d rather hoped to sail another day. As for your platonic two-bunk suggestion … Kate, I can’t even keep my hands off you out here. Down below I wouldn’t give us three minutes before…”

I reached in my pants pocket and pulled out a small cardboard box. “Yesterday I went to a drugstore and bought – well, actually, Norma insisted, and she bought them for me – these – just in case.”

He took the box from me, held it up to the instrument lights and squinted to read the label. “Nonoxynol-9. What the devil is Nonoxynol-9?”

“They’re … don’t know you what they are? They’re vaginal suppositories, contraceptives. They’re supposed to be inserted ten minutes before …intercourse.”

David regarded me with surprise and then reread the label. “I don’t know how effective they are.”

“I can use more than one.” I opened the box, removed a small package, and ripped the foil. A gooey mess oozed out. “Do you think they’re supposed to look like this?”

David took the package from me, examined it, and let out a string of Spanish oaths. “You had them in your pocket and they melted from the heat of our bodies. Oh, hell!”

I wanted to laugh, but I realized David wasn’t amused.

“I don’t care,” I said, slipping my hands around his chest.

“You ought to care; we’re going back.”

“We’ve been going out together since September, and you never even kissed me until Tuesday night. Please, David. Can’t we … ?”

“God dammit! You think I don’t want to? Do you remember the first time we sailed together, just the two of us, when you fell asleep in the cabin? I was sitting on the other bunk, looking at you and I kept imagining how I’d kiss you, you’d wake up and we’d make love. I played this scene over in my mind so many times that the projector broke.”

“What stopped you?”

He hesitated for a moment. “I’d like to think my better judgment prevailed. It probably needs some adjusting, but I do have a moral compass. We’d known each other for what – a week, two weeks? You’re so naive … even if you’d been willing, sleeping with you would have been tantamount to rape. At that point, I was still fighting the idea of getting involved with you. Maybe I wasn’t fighting very hard, but the intent was there.”

I put his head between my hands, turned it toward me and flicked my tongue lightly along the edge of his upper lip.

“Dammit, Kate, stop teasing me! I can’t take any more.” He was breathing heavily and the expression on his face was a mixture of desire and despair. Without warning, David pulled me to him.

“Oh, Kate,” he moaned, pressing me down on the seat. He reached for the elastic at the top of my pants and with two strong tugs yanked them below my knees. He pressed against me in a tight embrace and something warm and wet trickled down my thighs. David lay upon me for a moment as though spent, almost suffocating me with his body, then he shifted his weight to his forearms and remained in the same position for several moments longer with his face buried in my hair. He whispered, “I’m sorry,” and sat up heavily, without looking at me. When David reached down to close his zipper, the blankets slithered into the cockpit well; he picked them up and covered me, averting his gaze.

“You’d better get dressed.”

I lay shivering under the blankets while David went below to the cabin. The warmth that had burned so brightly within me just minutes before was extinguished, along with my pretensions of maturity. How young and clumsy I must have seemed to David. I wasn’t even sure what had happened. Could he have entered me without my feeling anything? Wasn’t intercourse supposed to hurt the first time? What was trickling down my leg? Blood? I ran a finger through the viscous liquid on the inside of my thigh and held it up to the dim light from the cockpit instruments; I couldn’t make out what it was.

David’s head appeared in the companionway and he handed me a cloth. “Here. You can clean yourself off with this.”

I wiped myself and inspected the fabric; still seeing nothing, I stuffed the cloth in my pocket.

Without a word or a glance, David lowered the sails and started the outboard. For once I welcomed the noise of the motor, whose steady drone spared us the need to talk. I sat wrapped in a blanket, leaning my back against the instrument panel. Normally David got annoyed if anything obstructed his view of the dials and gauges, but this time he didn’t even notice. I glanced at him, hoping for a smile, for some sign of acknowledgment, but he sat with his hand on the tiller, staring straight ahead into the darkness.

When we approached the marina, I got up to prepare the fenders and mooring lines, and as David brought Sturmvogel into her berth, I jumped on the dock to secure the boat. After I’d finished tying the lines, I knelt by a dock light to examine the cloth in my pocket. It was damp, but I couldn’t see any blood stains. David was coiling the mainsheet when I returned to the cockpit; he laid down the line and put his arms around me.

“I owe you an apology for what happened this evening; it wasn’t so great for me, either.”

“Please don’t apologize. You said I’m a child, and you’re right. I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was supposed to do to … satisfy you or anything like that. You must be terribly disappointed with me.”

“Kate, that’s not what I meant.” David looked at his watch and I sighed; we were always saying goodbye.

“If we leave immediately, I can just barely get you back to Blaine Hall by eleven.”

I sighed again. “All right, I’m ready.” I took the cloth from my pocket, found a dry edge, and daubed my nose, sniffing audibly.

“Dearest, please don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying.”

“Yes you are. I can hear you sniffing.

“I am not crying. It’s so damn cold out here my nose is running.”

Taken aback by my unaccustomed profanity, David began to laugh.

“You really didn’t sign out at the residence hall?”

“That’s right.”

“Do you want to spend the night here? Alone,” he added hastily.

“I can take the bus back in the morning.”

“Then let’s go below and warm up.” He smiled. “I mean, I’ll make us some hot chocolate”

“Will you promise me something?”

“If I can. What is it?”

“That you won’t look at your watch. If you look at it just one more time I know I’ll scream.”

He removed his watch and slipped it in my pocket.

Down in the cabin David lit the trawler lamp, pumped up the kerosene tank, and turned on the stove. He set the flowerpot on one burner and the tea kettle on the other while I huddled under a blanket, waiting for the makeshift heater to take the chill out of the air.

David went forward and I heard him moving the chain. “You’ll need something besides those blankets if you’re going to spend the night on the boat. I have a sleeping bag up here somewhere.” One anchor banged against another. “Eureka!”

He returned carrying a sail bag, from which he pulled the sleeping bag itself, a voluminous down-filled creature that mushroomed out over the berth and on to the cabin sole.

“This will keep you good and warm; the bag’s rated at zero degrees Fahrenheit, an arctic bag. I used it last summer, and even in Alaska’s rigorous climate I nearly roasted. If you get too warm, just open the bottom zipper.”

I hugged the first three or four feet of the bag to me with a giggle. “Sleeping in it will remind me of you.”

David sniffed the other end. “God, I hope not; the bag hasn’t been washed in months.”

Together we pulled out the settee on the starboard side, converting it to a double berth, and stuffed a couple of blankets behind us to serve as a backrest. David made hot chocolate, poured the remaining hot water into a thermos bottle, took off his shoes and climbed into the bunk beside me, pulling the sleeping bag over us.

He put his right arm around my shoulder. “Let’s get one thing straight. When I said tonight wasn’t so great for me, or whatever I said, I wasn’t referring to you. I was angry with myself, at my lack of self-control. We’ve reached the sexual Rubicon, you know. I want to make love to you, Kate, but not the way we did this evening. I don’t mean the cold weather or the hard cockpit seat, though God knows they were bad enough. I mean if you decide … if you agree … that yours will be a rational decision, if such a thing is possible, and not because you’re carried away by some sex-starved professor who has one hand in your blouse and the other in your pants. I made a bad mistake once because I was too foolish to consider the consequences of my actions and I’ve been regretting that mistake for 23 years. I don’t want to ruin your life the same way. You’re still very young and you have the optimism of youth; believing every problem has a solution is practically an American axiom, like thinking it’s never too late to change, or there’s always a second chance. But, my dear, that’s simply not true. Sometimes we take actions which are irrevocable, actions which alter the course of our lives forever. In 23 years you’ll be 42. How will you remember me when you’re 42? Will you think of me fondly as the first man who ever loved you, or will I manage to destroy your happiness, as well as my own?”

“Can’t we be happy just for this moment? I don’t even want to worry about next year, let alone how I’m going to feel a whole lifetime away. Besides, when I’m 42 what makes you think I’ll ‘remember’ you? Can’t I love you then, too?”

David smiled sadly and shook his head. “Dearest, when you’re 42 I’ll be 70; you’ll be in the prime of life and I’ll be an old man. One of these days you’re going to meet someone your own age and you’ll forget all about me. Don’t look at me so reproachfully; that’s the way it ought to be, and if I weren’t so selfish, it’s what I’d wish for you. But I’ll be honest with you Kate, I’ll be devastated when that happens, utterly devastated. I’m not asking you to make any promises you can’t keep. What can I offer you in return? Suppose, on the other hand, you don’t meet someone else. You’ll still wake up some morning full of regret because you’ve wasted so many years of your life on me. Do you remember telling me about your dream of being on a raft? Well, I’ve been on a raft too, just drifting along, not heeding where I’m going. Oh, occasionally I glance up and see the shoals ahead and I stick a feeble twig in the water to change course, but the current carries me on, inexorably. After Mateo’s letter … his death… I started thinking about us, where we’re heading. It’s rather obvious where we’re heading, and if we’re going together, at least I want a rudder, a compass, and some charts. And, most important, I want you aware of the dangers ahead, all the uncertainties. That’s the reason I asked you out here tonight, what I wanted to say to you, Kate, before we got lost up there in the stars. I can offer you nothing, not a name, not a home, not a child, not a future, absolutely nothing, and I’m suggesting … oh, I don’t know, I just don’t know.”

I laid down the cup of chocolate and put my arms around him. “ You have everything to offer me, all the things I’ve never had before – friendship, affection, understanding. I love you, David. This is the first time I’ve ever said those words to anyone. I love you so much that nothing else matters. I don’t care about tomorrow or next week or next year. I want to be happy now.” Neither of us said anything for a while. “David?”

“Yes, dear.”

My curiosity finally overcame my shame. “I’m awfully embarrassed to ask you this, but there’s something I simply have to know.”

“What is it?”

I buried my face in his shoulder. “After what we did … am I still a virgin?”

David was trying hard not to laugh. He smiled and shook his head slowly with disbelief. “Who but you could ask a question like that? I’m not making fun of you. If you were a virgin before, you still are.”

“Well I was… am.”

“I never doubted it for a moment.” David’s eyes were laughing. “What makes you ask me, anyway, couldn’t you tell?”

“I don’t know how … intercourse is supposed to feel and besides … what was that liquid? I thought it was my own blood.”

“Kate,” he said softly, “I never penetrated you. I ejaculated outside your vagina. That liquid was semen.”

“So much?”

“It’s been two weeks.”

I didn’t understand his answer. David continued. “I suppose there’s a remote – infinitesimally remote – chance you could become pregnant. When was your last period?”

My face turned crimson; I’d never even discussed menstruation with a doctor, let alone anyone else. “A few days ago.”

He sighed. “I wish I’d known that earlier. No, this way is better; at least you don’t have any regrets.”

“But if it’s how you said, then why am I … so wet inside?”

“Because, dearest, you’re sexually aroused. That’s nature’s way of giving pleasure to both of us and making it easier for me – when the time comes.”
“One more thing.”
“Mmmm?” David was nuzzling the nape of my neck.
“When we were in the cockpit and I reached under the blanket … I didn’t mean to … I thought that was your flashlight pushing against my thigh.”
David chuckled. “No offense taken. I think it would be safer to change the subject.”

“Ah.” I threw my leg over him playfully and nibbled his ear. We kissed again and the old feelings of desire welled up once more. He looked at me speculatively. “David,” I whispered, “can we…”

He leaped off the bunk, laughing, and sat down opposite me on the other side of the cabin.

“Yes, my little temptress, we probably could, but we’re not going to. I’m getting out of here before you rape me.” He put on his shoes. “Seriously, Kate, I need to leave now. I’m turning off the stove. I put plenty of water in the thermos and it should still be hot in the morning.”

David opened the valve and the pressure escaped from the kerosene tank with sharp hiss. He put on his jacket and I sat up, sighing.

“I’ll leave the padlock down here, just be sure you lock the boat when you go. Here’s the marina key so you can use the toilet. Do you know how to extinguish the trawler lamp, or shall I do it now?” We were saying goodbye again and I was starting to get depressed.

“I know how. I have some more typing ready for you. I’ll bring it tomorrow at three.”

We kissed goodnight and David climbed into the cockpit, letting in a blast of cold air as he opened the hatch. Sturmvogel rocked gently when David stepped on the dock. I pressed my face to a porthole and watched him as he walked toward the marina gate; he didn’t look back.

For the first time I was alone on Sturmvogel; without David the cabin was cheerless, and the varnished wood and gleaming lanterns on which he lavished such care only reminded me of their absent owner. I put my arms around the mast and pressed my ear against its surface. The hollow spar was like a sounding board, magnifying the creaks and groans of the hull, and from high in the rigging it carried the lonely sigh of the wind. I blew out the lamp, slipped into the down bag, and fell asleep. I never did see Aldebaran.
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