written by: George Gad Economou
Another merchant ship had just sailed into the port; I observed solemnly, and with faint melancholy, the crates filled with goods from a faraway land being lowered into trucks and driven away to the markets so the good people of this town could enjoy fruits from Latin America or Asia, or, perhaps, cheap clothes, or other manufactured goods. Whichsoever the nature of the goods it didn’t matter. I sat still at the edge of the port, away from the action so I wouldn’t disturb, yet close enough falsely to convince myself I belonged.
I observed the tanned, rugged, with their untrimmed stubbles, sailors heading to the nearby bar, which was “sailors-only”. However, I knew the owner, and was thus allowed entrance; besides, I was acquainted with a few of the sailors, too—especially those traveling often to this port—so, I was always welcomed in the bar. I think my excessive beer consumption also played a part in my being granted entrance, despite not being a sailor—no intelligent bar-owner would prohibit me from entering his bar unless he was willing to miss out on serious profit.
For the time being, I remained on my lonely spot; I lit a cigarette, as the cool breeze of the early afternoon hit my face bringing along the smell of the sea. Even though the port was located away from the ocean, the air contained a tiny scent of the open sea, of adventure, of the free creatures roaming the deep oceans, of the blood and sweat and tears that men had shed throughout the centuries in their attempt to conquer the vast blue world.
I enjoyed silently my cigarette, the heavy smoke filling up my lungs, while a gentle mist engulfed my mind. I needed the fog, I was in desperate need for something to erase all the thoughts and memories tormenting me. I put the cigarette out, placed the butt in my pack, and got up.
I strolled along the edge of the port, hungrily breathing in the salty air, embracing the scent of the sea. The large ship was still in port and would remain there till early morning when it would set sail once more toward some faraway destination and with unknown adventures on its schedule. Granted, this isn’t the 17th century anymore, when sailing across the Atlantic was a life-threatening adventure with hundreds of mishaps waiting on every mile of open water. Nonetheless, sailing across the vast oceans, being trapped in a vessel—no matter how large or small—alongside a few fellow men also thirsty for the adventure and driven by their lust to run away is still a much better prospect, and far unsafer, than remaining anchored in a small city, surrounded by domesticated men and women, whose only concern is their 8-5 job, and how to raise their children properly so to follow into their footsteps of a secure life.
I reached the small bar, with a plastic anchor hanging above the door that swayed gently with the wind. I opened the wooden door and stepped inside; instantly, the familiar scents reached my nostrils and filled my mind. The heavy, unwashed smell of the sailors, who had been at sea for who-knows-how-long, and hadn’t had the chance to take a proper shower; the spilled beer; the cheap perfumes of the prostitutes working the bar offering lust-tormented sailors a wild night. I heard the laughter, the deep conversations, the small-talk between men, who had become brothers after spending months enclosed in a tiny cabin. The bartender and bar-owner greeted me with a hearty smile. He poured beer in a mason jar and it was already awaiting me before I even had the chance to reach the counter. I thanked him, threw some coins on the counter, then turned my back to him; it was still early afternoon, hence everyone was drinking and was on high-spirits. When the night grew weary, I’d have my chance to talk to him; for now, I was content with sipping on my beer and observing the rowdy crowd consisting predominantly of unfamiliar faces. Janette, one of the resident prostitutes, noticed me and smiled; I lifted my glass at her and she winked. She didn’t approach me; she was busy conversing with the two sailors seated at her table. That was alright; she was working, she couldn’t be bothered to talk to me for free.
“You ain’t no sailor, are’ya?” A crude voice asked me and I turned about, almost startled.
“No,” I said calmly to the old man, who had somehow slithered to the stool next to me. “I know James,” I nodded towards the bartender, “so, I’m allowed in. You sailing with the ship that just arrived?”
“Me?” He grinned, dryly. “Nah, I sail no more, friend. Used to, though. I used to come here when James’ papa ran the place. Now, I only come for a beer, or two every now and then. See the new faces, recall the past. Ya know?”
I nodded and took a long sip of my beer.
“What brings ya’ here, though?” He then asked; I remained silent for an entire minute. I lit a cigarette, dragged a deep puff. He refused my offer for one. Used to smoke, he explained, quit when he got married.
“Well,” I finally uttered, “I come, ’cause I like to dream. It’s a nice place and talking to these guys is different than talking with someone from the city. They have so many things to say, they talk about strange lands, exotic places, whorehouses in Uruguay or Thailand, about bars in Shanghai and Melbourne.”
“Aye,” he nodded condescendingly, “sailing gives ya’ lot to talk about. I take it, you wanna be like’em, then?”
I choked down my beer. “Aye,” I then responded, “I think I do. It’s nice dreaming about it, anyhow.”
“Aye, dreams are always nice.” He said, coldly. “Tis reality that kills’em.”
“What do you mean?” I arched my eyebrow.
“‘Tis easy to dream life in the sea, of sailing about, of the bars and whores in all the ports of this world.” He drew a deep breath, paused briefly. I waited patiently, attentively. “You start doing it, though, ’tis a different thing. Nothing beautiful about it. Yer’ always tired, weary, exhausted. You long for a real bed, a real meal, a warm embrace. You cease desiring the cold kisses of a whore, you want someone to hold; to really hold, ya’ know?
There ain’t nothing compared to home, son.” He sank his beer and motioned to James for another. I received a refill, too, without asking for it. Perks of the bartender knowing you; he understands, even before you do when the desire for a second beer is about to hit.
“What if there’s no home?” I asked the man after we drank beer in silence. “What if, there’s nothing to hold you back, to make you want to stay? If the cold embraces, the strange places, the foreign faces, seem much more lucrative than what you call home; then what?”
“You make yourself a home, son.” His eyes were half-closed, serious, cold. “Ya’ can’t expect for a home to be built on its own; you gotta fight fo ‘it, fo’ everything. Y’ain’t gonna always win; Y’all lose, once or twice. Y’all fall in love, ya’ll lose that love; it’ll hurt like a mean mother, but, ya’ll get over it, with time. Y’all go back to it, find another to love. Maybe, it’ll go better; maybe, it’ll be the same shit. You gonna keep on fighting, son. Till the day comes it will get better.”
“‘Tis only then, you understand the real value of a home.”
I nodded approvingly and had a hit of beer, which coolness soothed my insides and lifted the mist in my mind. Was the old man right? I wondered silently, but did not wish to search for an answer. I sensed his inquiring stare fixed on the side of my head, but I had turned my attention back to the diverse crowd. Some men sat alone nipping on their beers in silence and lost in thoughts, whilst others chatted vividly with each other or were trying to impress the prostitutes. I could feel the warm breath of the old sailor, his inspecting gaze; I heard him sipping loudly, purposefully, his beer in an effort to gain my attention.
Eventually, and as I remained lost in my own train of thoughts, I heard his heavy footsteps. I turned, only slightly, and with the corner of my eye, I caught him heading for the door. As he stood there, door open, he turned back; our glances met one final time. He gave me a faint, yet meaningful, smile, then walked out, closing the door behind him. Did he have a point?
I drank my beer, trying to erase his words from my mind; I didn’t have a home, nor did I desire one. I’d tried, more than once, to accommodate to city life, to settle down, to start a home and a family. I did dream, on occasion, about the domesticated life, about children, about a wife, about a reason to sleep every night in the same bed next to the same person. I saw myself growing old with one person. I did dream of all this, once upon a time. Now, it was all taken away. I had no home and the sacrifices required to build one were far too great; I wasn’t willing to suffer through the pain and the devastation.
I lit another cigarette; James came up from behind me, tapped me on the shoulder.
“He didn’t bring you down, did he?”
“The old-timer?” I shook my head. “Nah, got me thinking a bit, I’ll give him that, but…nah, I’m good, man.”
“Here.” He slammed another jar of beer on the table; mine had almost reached its end. “On the house.”
I drained the beer and had a good sip from the fresh one, and nodded. “Thanks, mate.” I dragged a long puff. “Pretty crowded, huh?”
“Yeah; big ship, lots of thirsty sailors.” He smiled. “Excuse me.” He rushed to the other end of the counter.
I smoked and listened to the various conversations taking place all around me.
“… a wife in Melbourne, aye. She’s good but gets lonely, you know? But, it ain’t my fault. Have a girl in Buenos Aires, though; feisty one, that one.”
“Once, a shark seven feet long was swimming about our boat; we had gone down, pick up some things, and there he was, this monster, swimming about, weighing us. I’m sure he could take us all down if he wanted, but never did. I was never scared, girl, I’d have punched the fucker right in the nose.”
“…when the storm came, we all hit the deck. I worked on a fishing boat, then. We were eight, catching tons of sardines and small fish. It was the most ferocious storm I ever saw. The wrath of God! We lost two good men—fell in the sea, lost in the waves. Good guys, both of ’em; friends. They lived and died at sea; it’s our destiny.”
“…I ain’t sailing back. My contract’s up. I’ll stay here for a while, see my girl. I’ll find a new ship. Thinking of sailing south; miss the warmth. Perhaps, find me a good girl in Brazil, or Chile. She’s a good kid, but impatient. Wants marriage and kids. Aye, I promised to settle down, but I don’t want to. She asks too much.”
“…aye, said so to myself, too; too many times. It’s always the last journey; the final trip. Then I settle down, get married, have some little ones running around. It never stops. Always, there’s one more trip; sometimes, it’s the money. You need more, to have a home and family. But, money’s not that big an issue, mate. It’s…”
“…got three of ’em. One in Singapore, smart one. See him twice a year. Another one in Manila; cute one. Not very bright, but she’s pretty, has some future, I think. Th’other one is a baby, in Panama. Maybe he’ll grow up to be something. Have high hopes for them all, but…can’t be there too much. I doubt the two youngest will ever really know me.”
Tales I’ve heard before, in many variations; perhaps, the shark is six feet long, or maybe ten or twelve. Three kids, six girlfriends, four wives, all scattered around the globe; dreams of homes, of houses in islands or remote places. High hopes for the next trip, or tales of the time a huge whale was caught after a few days battling the waves and the wind. Waves that could swallow a skyscraper, wind that could sink a tanker. Exaggerated tales of bravery, cunning; and I took them all in, made them real in my mind. They were real in the storyteller’s mind, even if they knew the details weren’t as described, and thus, they were real to the listener, too.
“… he was a real son of a bitch, that captain. No recreation, all work, work, work. He’d yell, scream, do whatever to make us bow down. A real king of the world type; we reached port, we went to a bar, all together. He comes, too. Starts yelling about the drinking, the whoring. A couple of guys got up, beat the shit out of him. We were scared, we thought it’d be jail, whatever. Nothing, after that, he became quiet, he never spoke. Rest of the trip was good, you know? No more trouble.”
“…punched him right in the nose. Arrogant little shit he was. We were in Shanghai, and there I am, talking to this girl, and he comes up—a young, blonde guy on his first trip—and wants a piece of the action. He sits between me and the girl, starts joking. At first, I didn’t care. Then, when he started touching the girl, I grabbed him from the neck, took him out. He squirmed, cried, all that. He thought he was tough; had some tattoos, bulked up, city-kid thug. He wanted to fight, he threw a couple of punches, I let him get the first shot in. I then threw one punch. Right in the nose, broke it. He whimpers down the street, blood coming from his nose, he was crying. The girl was there, she laughed; took her to a nearby motel. Never saw the kid again; stayed there, I assume, went to a hospital. Captain scolded me, said we lost a sailor but didn’t care much, either.”
“… them navy boys are the worst. They think their smart uniforms and badges make their shit smell like perfume. We were in the Philippines, in a bar, having our fun. And here they come, five young-faced dogs, in their R&R, starting messing with us. We did nothing at first; we didn’t want any trouble with the military, man. They start hitting on the women, they push us around, all that. Show their supremacy or something. A fight broke out. We all ended up bloodied up like Hell, broken noses, missing teeth, everything. A huge fight on the street. After that, we made friends, we all drank together, bought beer for each other. They weren’t that bad; knew how to fight, showed some respect after they got it beaten into’em. Their captain should thank us.”
I ordered another beer and lit a new cigarette. I listened to all the stories—the scraps that reached my ears—and saw myself in all these situations. A citizen of the world, with nowhere to settle down. Traveling from port to port, gathering up stories to tell, to woo the prostitutes that pretended to care. Gradually, the crowd dispersed; some went to get some sleep, others visited the nearby motel with female company. The speeches became less articulate, the scent of alcohol grew stronger. I still hunkered down on the counter, taking it all in, wishing I would sail away the next day, unable to bear the knowledge I’d remain stranded in the same place.
“How are you doing?” Michelle asked and rested her arm on my shoulder.
“I’m surviving, as always.” I retorted with a vague smile. “How’s the night going?”
“Slow.” She sighed. “Most of them are all talk no action. Guess, they spent their wage on beer, so they can only brag now, with nothing to show for.”
“I hope you don’t think you’ll get lucky with me.”
She laughed, gently. “I’ve stopped having that delusion a long time ago.” She signaled James, and he arrived with a gin and tonic and a beer for me. We toasted—James was also drinking now—and straight afterward James returned to another conversation with two seasoned sailors at the other end of the counter.
“You know,” Michelle continued after she lit the cigarette I offered her, “the main reason I never thought we’d sleep together is because we’re too much alike.”
“I’m sorry?” I arched my eyebrows.
“Think about it…” She smiled widely. “Just like me, you’re here almost all the time; this bar isn’t just another pit-stop, a break from something. It’s home, in essence. I come here to work, to make my living. You…” She paused to drag a couple of puffs. “You, you’re coming here, to fuel up your dreams. You’re unwilling to give it up, but, you’re also unwilling to pursue it. You compensate for it by dropping by. I want to quit, I want to find a different life, but I can’t. It’s easy money, and I’m used to the hazards.”
“You can’t quit, either. Neither your current life nor your dream.”
I sipped on my beer silently; contemplating the dark truth her words withheld. “That doesn’t, however,” I then said dryly, “explain why we’d never sleep together. I mean…”
She put her finger on my lips, effectively shutting me up; she chuckled warmly. “Well,” she said, “we’re kinda like family. It’s like with James and the rest of the girls. True, you’re the newest addition, but, in the end, you’ve been coming here so often; you’re not a traveling visitor. Same with James; he’s been here his entire life. Owning this bar is the only thing he knows; he can’t quit, even if sometimes he wishes he did.
Same goes for me and the rest of the girls. We’ve been doing this for so long, and we’ve established a sort of dominance in this place—it’s our place, other girls cannot just waltz in and steal our customers. It’s safer than the streets and more profitable.
You could go to any bar; meet regular people and girls that would sleep with you for free. But no, you insist on coming here, talking to the sailors, listening to their stories—even if you know most of them are pure whaleshit—and, on occasion, sleep with Janette; the bar has become your life, too.”
I shrugged and nodded passively. “I suppose you’re right. It does make sense, but…I still want to believe I’ll one day embark on a ship, leave this hellhole behind, and have my own tales to tell, when I return for a night.”
“You didn’t get the reason I told you what I just did, did you?” She laughed, planted a wet, prolonged kiss on my cheek, then sauntered cheerfully to a table where four slightly drunken sailors had a deep philosophical discussion over more than twenty empty glasses of beer.
I nodded at Michelle, when she, after a while, walked past me, accompanied by two of the four sailors. I ordered another beer and chuckled dryly.
“What’s up, mate?” James asked; the crowd had dispersed almost completely, only a handful of sailors remained adamant in their conviction they were sober.
“Nothing, I…” I shook my head. “I don’t know, I guess, sometimes, questioning life is tough work.”
“Doing some philosophy inside your head, again?” He laughed warmheartedly and patted me on the shoulder. “Your problem is that you think too fucking much. You do not allow yourself the time to relax, to enjoy the simple things.” He poured two shots of scotch, we downed them. “You always have to see the details, think of the future, of how to do this and that, all that. You’re getting stuck with thinking and forget about living.”
“When did you become a philosopher?” I took a long sip of beer.
“Spend all your life serving beer to sailors and you’ll learn more than you would if you read all the books ever written.” He laughed. “Drunk people are the only philosophers worth listening to.”
“I hear that!” I lifted the glass, then gulped it down.
“Next one’s on the house.” He filled the mason jar up and I immediately took a long sip of the fresh, perfectly cold beer.
“Trying to get me drunk,” I then asked, “to see if I’m a good philosopher?”
“No reason to, I’ve seen you drunk plenty a-times.” He winked, then hurried to the staggering sailor leaning deep over the counter desperate to place an order.
It was three in the morning, only a handful of people left in the bar, but, I didn’t want to leave. The door suddenly opened and Janette walked in, confidently even in her visible exhaustion.
She came and stood right next to me, with a bright smile. We started talking for everything and nothing. After we shared a couple of beers—she was, as a matter of fact, one of the few people that could sometimes drink me under the table—she took me by the hand and led me outside. We didn’t go to the motel up the street. She took me to her tiny apartment, two blocks down from the bar, where I had been plenty a-times before.
When I woke up the next day, at about noon, I stared at the dirty white ceiling of her bedroom, while she slept peacefully beside me, her arm over my chest, her hand seemingly trying to clasp my slow-beating heart. And in the sleepy haziness engulfing my mind I realized the true meaning of Michelle’s words, which blared as war sirens in my throbbing head.
I glanced briefly at Janette; I saw her smiling in her sleep, her long, blonde hair lying over the pillow. I sighed deeply and closed my eyes. I quickly went back to sleep and let the harsh words of truth vanish into the everlasting mist.
George Gad Economou
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