by Michael McGrorty
I remember going out to sea on deployments that would last at least half a year. Civilians have no idea of how this wears on the mind. They think being kept from restaurant meals is the end of civilization.
It’s a mind-bending thing, living on a navy ship. You lose all the normal references. There are no days or nights; there is no ‘place’ whatever. There is no soil, no grounding, no scenery, no direction. There is only an undulating line dividing water and sky, or water and stars, or no line at all. You stand a watch, partially awake. You sleep and dream of standing watch. You perform drills like a drowsy puppet, return to work or to sleep or to watch, or perhaps eat. They call the meals their proper names but you take them in the middle of a timeless dream. You forget to be hungry, forget when to bathe, forget the last time you wandered, loved, sat by yourself.
You become crazy. It’s best to accept it. You assign new meanings to ordinary words. You enlarge details of your world like a prisoner. Insignificant things take on absurd criticality. You arrange your few possessions and shine your shoes as if these were the most important duties on earth. You listen to the same song for days, then to another, their lyrics becoming a dramatic summation of your life, or an order from god. When you shave the black hollows of your eyes stand out above the lather like mine shafts in a snowfield. You talk too much, in a voice that becomes a mumble over time, or go silent and only think you are talking. You write unfortunate letters.
Watch follows watch until at last the scent of land interrupts and you are rudely thrust ashore for a few chaotic hours. But there was nobody you knew in that foreign port and it wasn’t home. You were only drunk and asleep in long stretches and then it was time to get underway.
Toward the end of a long cruise you have adapted to this confinement. Perhaps you read. Perhaps you play a lot of poker. Perhaps you recede into yourself and simply hibernate. The best thing is not to imitate land-life but to let work and watch set your routine. Nostalgia will kill you. It’s best to live in the still moment between heartbeats.
The hour of return arrives. The pier swarms with total strangers, people who you have either altered beyond recognition or forgotten to reduce sadness. In any event they will not be meeting the same man. They don’t know you and you don’t either. You will henceforth experience the world as a turbulent event between cruises. Eventually you will look to the cruise as relief from the land-life. You will lock in the mindset quickly, abandon place and time, and float on that undulating margin until they won’t have you anymore.