A Guide to Kayaking (Or, When and Where to Look)
A little, boiling hell plays out in my heart every time my boyfriend looks at a passing woman. Regardless of where we are or what we are doing (eating at a restaurant, holding hands while walking down the street, shopping at the mall or picking up groceries) he will look at a woman from when she first enters, to when she last leaves, his line of sight. Glances are forgivable; I sometimes glance at attractive passers-by, acknowledging their prettiness or handsomeness. But my eyes quickly move on, because they’re exactly that: passers-by—of no lasting significance. I realized, however, that for my boyfriend, glances did not suffice. He found the need to gaze. He would study her figure with predatory precision, settling his eyes on her hair and lips and the way her clothing moved as she walked. Such lingering and chasmal watching. I wouldn’t wish the feeling this generates upon my worst enemy—the experience of such casual discardment and oversight. And the oily anger that follows. As though a laser bore through your skull and charred your brain; as though you shrunk to the size of an ant, and you watch, frozen, as a thumb descends and slowly presses down upon the husk of your body. Like being asphyxiated slowly, noose-like, by its betrayal and mockery, its embarrassment and shame.
He has never cheated. He certainly evidences his commitment through consistent, dependable actions, like spending time with my family, doing chores, running errands, listening to me read aloud my drafts and commenting thoughtfully, making sure we spend quality time together amidst a hectic schedule. He makes plans for the both of us. He builds upon his house with me in mind. He tends to me the way he lovingly tends to his vegetable garden—rewarding him with lush, dense overgrowth. All these things are true. And yet, his gazing sets all his positive precedents aflame, especially when he reiterates that it is “outside of his control.” It tears me down to a degree that bewilders even myself. Surely I have more self-security and esteem to not be so bothered. Surely I am being oversensitive. Surely, surely, surely. Nonetheless, reason screeches to a halt and a terrifying surge of anger, insecurity and pain floods my mind and uproots all the memories of his sacrifice, affection and devotion. They float with the rising water and gush out the open windows into nothingness.
His shameless reconnaissance came to a head over dinner during a sweltering August night. The following morning we were to attend our first Kayaking Basics class off of Pohick Bay in Lorton, Virginia. Neither of us had ever kayaked and we agreed that this class would satiate both our love of water activities and outdoors fun. The Friday evening before the class we went to Koi Koi, one of our favorite sushi restaurants in Falls Church. We were famished and ordered six special rolls delivered altogether on a petal-shaped, bone-white plate. As I began eating some spicy tuna, I caught him looking once more at a full-figured blonde outside wearing a snug gray shirt and black skirt. He looked from one end of the window to the other, his eyes trailing her curves as she bobbed up and down, up and down, in black-heeled boots, and didn’t notice me watching him. I forced myself to look at her too. My eyes also hounded her narrow, taut waist peeking out from under the hem of her tight shirt; her soft, shoulder-length blonde hair waving fondly in my boyfriend’s direction; and a pair of lovely, tapered candlesticks for legs that contrasted starkly with my own, thick brown ones. My lungs dried up and my mouth became a furnace. With diligence I continued to pick up piece after piece of spicy tuna, my rage betrayed only by the occasional slip of my chopsticks. I chose not to mention anything to him. Nothing about how my heart cracked and fell open onto our beautiful sushi platter in one sloppy mess, dead as the dead raw fish we were picking up to eat. I remained quiet and withdrawn after dinner so he knew something was wrong, but we needed to get a good night’s rest for tomorrow’s early class so neither of us brought it up.
The next morning I come by his house a little after daybreak and prepare some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As I fill up my water bottle, I hear him getting ready upstairs. He treads softly down and makes coffee in silence. We welcome the warm, dark, brewing smell filling the kitchen since the mixture of cold rain and humidity outside offer only a miserable and heavy wet-dog odor. We pack towels, hats, water, protein bars, sunscreen and first aid. My lightweight rain jacket keeps me well insulated. I put on his a lemon-yellow baseball cap, which I hope will cheer me up with its color. We eat cereal standing up, leaning against the counter and not speaking. To avoid each other’s eyes, we peek out the window every couple of minutes to see if the rain’s let up, but it hasn’t. We arrive at Pohick Bay and it rains harder. Two instructors wave us over to the far end of the parking lot, where a small group of unsure-looking individuals have already congregated. They tell us that out of twelve sign-ups, only seven made it out today. The head instructor breaks out into a large, toothy grin and congratulates us for making it this far. He has to raise his voice as the rain gets louder—thick curtains of water shatter onto the parking lot cement and the trees towering over us. The rain roars out the sad, tinny voices clamoring inside me.
For the first half-hour, we must learn the proper way to surface when capsized. We are made to select one of the several kayaks laid out in long, colorful rows of corvette red, ocean blue and lime green. They range from ten and half feet to fourteen feet in length and share a very narrow width. I choose a lime green kayak with a higher backseat for more support. We learn that if you capsize, you should: 1) tuck your head in as far as you can towards your lap, 2) slap the sides of your kayak three times in a row (the audio-equivalent of SOS), and 3) hold the edges of your cockpit as you slide out your legs. The PFD (personal flotation device) takes care of all the rest. Without even trying, our instructor explains, your PFD will pull your body to the surface. We practice a couple of times on the parking lot, pretending we are on the water. It’s a struggle to worm out of my narrow cockpit and my brand new water shoes continue to get stuck on all the clasps and buckles of my seat. The instructors reassure us over and over again how very little thinking you have to do in that situation—it’s more “instinctual”—but I still fear capsizing. We then carry our kayaks to the pebbled, sandy shore and stand next to them. The instructors show us how to walk into the water at about knee-length and then put our legs, one at a time, into the seating area—making sure the kayak stays as stable as possible. We wade into the water until waves lap around our knees. We all wobble about, splashing, rocking our kayaks, stumbling and flailing in our attempts. We all somehow manage to get in as complete novices and move through the water to a meet-up point about a hundred feet away from the shore, marked by a small rusted buoy.
During our round of introductions, one of the women there admitted to having a life-long fear of water. Now in her mid-forties, something was triggered and she decided to overcome the fear. She took her first swimming lesson a couple weeks ago and now she was taking her first kayaking class. When she shared this with our circle of beginners, I shook my head in disbelief. I couldn’t imagine the depth of motivation needed to try and overcome such a paralyzing phobia. Water plays by its own rules. Its minutest of gestures and temperaments can snuff out a life in swift silence. It constitutes the beginnings of the earth and cradles countless creatures—yet unknowable in size, capability and entity—that could reduce us to nothing. Even for myself, an avid swimmer, ruminating too much on the dark, undulating ocean waters gives me the shivers. And this lady was standing here among us, in the roaring rain with a cold cup of coffee, ready to take it all on. Her bravery seeped like anesthetic in my mouth. I found myself comparing the unfathomable contents of the sea to the inscrutable eyes of the man I believed I loved.
Once we all reach the rusted buoy, we learn and practice different types of paddling: forward stroke, sweep stroke and draw strokes. You have to use the core of your body, not your arms, to be able to paddle for more than a couple of minutes. To help ensure this, the instructors tell us to keep our eye on the end of the paddle as we execute the stroke from bow to stern and back—because it forces us to use our torsos. I focus hard on form. I hold my eye down to the end of my paddle as I practice the sweep stroke: front to back, back to front. Steady eyes, arms and torsos are imperative to moving efficiently in the water, I discover. My kayak carves large, perfect circles on the bay’s surface as I practice and practice. The draw stroke is more challenging because it’s not enough to follow the paddle—you must grip the paddle just right and move it side to side at just the right angle, making sure that you change its direction before the blade cuts the water too sharply. I keep tipping precariously on my side and almost capsize several times. The draw stroke is important because it allows you to sidle right up next to something, whether a fellow kayaker, an animal or the shore. So I grind down, fix my eyes on the paddle, secure the location and angle of my grip and the angle of the blade as I move it underneath the surface, watching the face of the water churn and bubble. It’s hard to keep vigilant watch, but I am able to navigate much better than before and I’m pleased when my torso begins to ache a bit. The sad, twanging cries that rang earlier in my ears are temporarily drowned out by my water-born progress.
The sky clears up and the humidity settles in heavily. The sunlight turns the bay into a brilliant sheet of glass. We begin to notice all the seaweed growing and swaying just beneath the surface in thick, dark brown swathes that go for miles. They catch on our paddles and doze upon our raised poles like large, fuzzy caterpillars, dripping water. You fight to move through them. I continue honing my technique—arms straight out and locked as appropriate, my wrists turned and placed correctly on the rod. I re-adjust the angle of my paddle in the water every couple of minutes in order to familiarize myself with its feel and look, rehearsing for when I will be comfortable enough to glide on my own outside of class. Sweat collects on my nose and trickles down my back and arms under my rain jacket. I finally look up because my arms need a break and suddenly I catch my boyfriend looking at me a few feet away. He’s sitting there calmly with his paddle resting across his lap, his eyes trained on me. His gaze does not falter; he makes no movements. He just looks. Then he breaks into a smile that marks me harder than the hot August sun. I smile back and raise my paddle, triumphant.
Although our necks, arms and abdomens start to fatigue, our eyes remain animated and tireless as we seek out all the flora and fauna flourishing in and around Pohick Bay. A bald eagle catches a fish out of the water. The wild rice sway from blossoming green stalks that rise out of the wet marshland islands scattered about. Ospreys circling above our heads search for underwater prey with unceasing golden eyes. And with this wild world as my backdrop, I have my closest encounter with a blue heron. As I paddle slowly through some wild rice, I eye a patch of blue and white incongruous with the green and brown background of the marsh. Although my eyes are still catching up, my brain lights up with the realization of what I’m looking at. Slowly but surely, my vision re-calibrates to distinguish the heron’s shape from the scenery, one pixel at a time: a perfectly still “S” shape, with one leg gracefully raised. A long curved neck. Each storm-blue feather is layered on top of another with cutting precision, reminding me of a card deck fanned out by a skilled croupier. Not a single one out of place. The long, sun-yellow pointed beak is sharp enough to pluck out my eyes with a flick of the neck. It looks right back at me with its bold, marble eye. I am a small, insignificant spectator—a plastic doll subject to the waves of the distant speedboats, the rough fresh water vegetation and the inherent properties and risks of water; my heart and brain once more reduce to a single point upon an unending blank canvas—a canvas that I have no control over, proferring no authority to delineate boundaries or outcomes. I want to be the heron—I want to see how it sees; I want to remove its foreign and free-willed eyes and replace them with my all-too-human ones. I don’t go any closer. My baby browns remain fastened on the heron as I quietly continue to paddle. I finally break eye contact to turn and face forward. A rustle of feathers and a brief splash signal the bird’s flight. Its stare—dismissive, wary and impenetrable—remains with me: an ice-cold pebble rocking to the bottom of my stomach.
After four hours of sweaty, humid practice and burning torsos, we return to shore and place our kayaks back onto the parking lot. The parking lot cement has now dried and we feel its heat emanate through our sandals. We pat our rental kayaks as though they were lovable strays and thank the instructors for all their help. The head instructor compliments me on my perfect form. My boyfriend and I strip off our raincoats and shoes and break for lunch on a wooden bench overlooking the bay. We don’t speak too much as we munch on our sandwiches. We watch the waves lap against the shore and the eagles and ospreys arguing overhead. We hold hands while we eat and I’m happy to be sitting here, with just him, the water and me.
When we return home, he asks why I had shut down again. I tell him about the night before, about what he did while we were eating sushi. He repeats the same answer as before, his exasperation apparent. This is something in his nature. He sees interesting beauty everywhere, in all things—whether young or old, male or female, human or object. I only notice the times when he happens to observe an attractive woman. Either I’m able to live with it or not. Hearing this, all I can do is turn away from him. I slump in the corner like an injured animal without any fight left. And I’m reminded of the blue heron I clasped eyes with: the intensity of its gaze, and yet, filled with utter detachment. I try to understand him through my pain, through the tears sloshing my eyes and fragmenting everything in the room. It seems impossible to accept. When I finally turn towards him, he is looking at me, looking longingly at me, longing for me. His head is tipped to the side, his lips closed tight as a dam. His right leg is bent as he leans against the bathroom door. I’m unable to read his eyes. We are treading unknown waters here, with me on one end and him on the other. In my mind, I laugh bitterly to myself. It’s almost comical how the human species, sharing the same chromosomal sets and anatomies, the unique property of language and civilization, can remain absolutely mystifying and alien to one another. Each of us continues to interpret the world in bafflingly different terms—understanding such concepts as love in ways so divergent it’s miraculous we not only succeed in finding and clinging to another, but in committing to another. You can’t help but chuckle, whether in despair or relief.
My boyfriend and I remain where we are in the room, two floundering flesh isolates, immobile upon the hardwood floors. We fumble for the right words, the right movements. Gradually, in a torpid but dogged manner, we remind each other of the tough wood-and-rock foundation we have built together. We remind ourselves of all the treasured reasons why we should sustain what we have; and like embers of a close-to-dying fire, we breathe our love back to life.
Helen’s work appears or is forthcoming in BlazeVOX, Sleet Magazine, Inertia Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Referential Magazine, Atticus Review and the Asian American Female Anthology, Yellow as Turmeric; Fragrant as Cloves (Deep Bowl Press, 2008). She holds a B.A. in English from Wesleyan University and is currently working on a novel loosely based upon three legend-worthy and chaotic generations of women in her family.
You can access her work at helenparkprose.wordpress.com.
Lea Bertucci is a sound artist and composer whose work bridges performance, installation and multichannel activations of acoustic space. As an instrumentalist, she focuses on an electro-acoustic preparation of the Bass Clarinet that heavily utilizes speaker feedback. In recent years, her projects have expanded to site-specific improvisation, compositions for electronics and instruments, multichannel sound installations, and music concrete collage. Lea is a 2015 ISSUE Project Room Artist-in-Residence and is a New Works Fellow at Harvestworks, and will be a 2016 MacDowell Fellow. Lea is also active as a curator, organizing performances of experimental music as both large scale multichannel performances, such as 2015’s AUDITORIUM, and underground events.
Alaina Stamatis is a poet, performance artist, and vinyl and used book dealer based in Boston, MA (formerly New York City). She is best known for her humor-erotica vocal work in live collaboration with musicians. Her active projects include an improvisational group, the Jazz Massagers, and a duet with cassette collage artist G Lucas Crane, Ogg Myst. Her most recent chapbook is titled, “Whenever I’m Finished,” and was illustrated by Am Schmidt.