The night is clear, a poem of stars and cool sea air and porpoises playing in the wake, but Third Class Cadet Joe Re is thinking about Shalimar, the perfume his girlfriend wears.
It has been more than a month since he's seen her, and as soon as the Coast Guard sailing ship Eagle docks in Norfolk, he plans to catch the first bus to Fairfax, and he doesn't care how late it leaves. He'll have three days of liberty, and on Saturday night he's going to take her to Annapolis and buy her an expensive dinner at the Maryland Inn. There will be matches on the table with his name inscribed in gold letters.
Tonight, however, Re is standing watch in the pilot house, watching the scanner arm play around and around the radar screen. On each pass it echoes little blips that are nothing more than whitecaps and throws yellow light across his face, deepening his eyes, shadowing his nose. He is here, but his mind is there, until a fly buzzes by his ear.
It bounces against the radar screen, and into a wall, and then out the door. "Haven't seen one of them in almost two weeks," Re says, and then he smiles. "I think we're supposed to see land by tomorrow.
He becomes silent and his smile fades. He pushes a finger toward the stars Polaris and Kochab and the constellation Drago, and calls them by name, savoring the words as they roll off his tongue. He swells a little as he does this, as if he is pointing out someone important in a restaurant, someone important he has come to know.
"I'm going to hate getting off Eagle," he says.
On a night like this, the end of a 2,000-mile ocean voyage, if you don't know what you feel, you know you feel something. You stand and watch the night and you know you're looking at something beautiful, but you can't be still to appreciate. You're not really seeing anymore. You're numb and you're sorry you are. You feel like you need to leave this ship, yet you are unwilling to let go.
Two weeks earlier, every sight and sound and every touch had been a needle in your brain. You saw water bluer than you'd ever seen and you couldn't stop staring. Here was a world of new definitions.
You began to notice that swells always came in groups, that the rain collected in a gray blur on the horizon and that you could just about tell how much time you had to get your slickers. You learned you could make that blind step down the shrouds without plunging 14 stories to the deck. The rock and roll of the ship came to have a pattern, and soon you could anticipate and shift your weight, almost walk a straight line.
You learned that if you set the sails a certain way, aimed the bow a certain direction, you could get a 100-foot ship to go where you wanted. Two hundred people had made that happen, but somehow you felt it was a triumph of your own. You thought maybe you were nature's peer.
But after a while you began to drown in your senses, realized how tiny you were. You felt the wind whip up suddenly and you found yourself falling. You were wet for days at a time, even when below deck. When the lifesized dummy was thrown overboard in a drill, you watched it get smaller and smaller while it took forever to turn the ship about and lower the lifeboat.
And finally, you just needed to be alone, needed something finite. You needed home and dry land. You felt lost and trapped in all of this magnificence, and it seemed like nothing at all.
Then came a common housefly and you wanted to stay forever, though you didn't know why until Eagle was finally moored and you stepped on solid ground after two weeks, and the buildings rocked and swayed as if you were still at sea.
You remembered those six days on board when sunspots blocked all news from the world and how you didn't miss it, and how when it did come--word of war, a flood, an international summit--you went back to watching the second reel of "Bronco Billy." You thought again about the sapphire ocean and the pale blue sky, the flying fish and the porpoises, the smell of bacon and the sound of breaking waves and the echo of rain in your ears.
You remembered the taste of salt on your lips and the way you felt weightless when you sat on the mast during a heel, the way you jumped up when Eagle came down from a wave and how you felt like you were floating.
And then you remembered that you were on land again, and no matter how late it was, you caught the first bus home.