Life is funny and sad. There are days that fit in the middle somewhere. Days have a way of sticking themselves in a lot of things, sometimes with the menace of dread and drear, others kindled by a warm hand that sends a shiver, its touch so secretly wanted. Yeah, days can find themselves middlesome.
Atayo watched the waters slowly ripple in. Some days, he would sit by the water. He’d smoke and think, cigarettes one after the other, with something bitter to drink and a head full of reflections. He’d roll over the day slow. Like the water, how the tide would creep in, then out. These days were rare, like sunlight in a world of rain. They were nice, yet, didn’t fill him up.
Boats would come and go and he’d watch as they slid by effortlessly. He knew how to become a captain. All he needed was a boat and a little water. Atayo could just sail out and name himself captain. So simple. He didn’t have the boat though. One cut in as he looked, in a slow purposeful motion it bobbed slightly, moving with the waves, passing on by him without pause. Another rolled in, it was a catamaran, he’d always wanted one of those. Atayo didn’t know much about boats, just that he wanted one, and that he’d wanted a catamaran.
His dad had always wanted a boat. Something to take out into the open waters, to run beside the waves. To feel that open wind and sharp salted air. He knew because he wanted that very thing. Tall, salt-water fishing poles were strapped to one of the passing boats. It was bittersweet, watching it grow closer, he could see it; line running out, caught in a fight with the of the fish of a lifetime. That part was sweet.
A waitress came up, Jen, she was nice and checked on him just enough to make sure he felt remembered. That was a sign of someone who knew their work. He was easy though, sit and watch and think, sipping slowly on that sharp drink. Too much and his thoughts would muddle. These days, the rare sunlit ones, he tried to stay thoughtful. Too quick and he could fall into that dreary spot, it was damp and solitary there.
Some boats he knew by name, they came and went daily, the ones, in particular, he’d dream of steering one day. Some day. A tear slipped down his cheek. He wiped it away quickly before anyone could see. He didn’t know how, but one day, he’d make it happen. A deep longing reached into his heart. It was stark and total. He could see it right there, barely a blink away. They would slip right on by though, riding in with the currents, out with the tides. Both in sun and night, by moon-lit and afternoon-blazed waters, they’d fall beyond his fingertips and sight. In his daydreams, he would sail beyond the bridge and into open waters. Still, like these rare sunny days, that didn’t fill him up.
He put out his cigarette and lit another. The next time Jen came by he asked for the check. It was cheap–he didn’t have much anyway. Enough for today, enough for what he needed. He wasn’t ready to leave, but sometimes sitting for a while, brushing off a caretaker, he wanted to ‘get outta dodge’, as they used to say.
Atayo left the cafe and made for the canal’s edge to sit, some days he would swim if it was hot enough. He’d watch the coming and going of the tide, or the schools of minnows that would swim along the water’s edge. Something about the water had always called and calmed him. Maybe he had filled his head with dreams of sailing, of how it must feel to be on the open water, taking care of yourself. To him, it was a place that made a man, to only have himself to rely on. Those that came out, on the other side, they were different. Some were stronger, others returned broken, or not at all. It was one of those things, and you never knew until it was finished.
The day slipped slowly by. Though, not as slowly as some of the boats, they’d teeter on the edge of antagonizing him. The afternoon faded, and Atayo found himself lying in the grass beside the canal. Small pieces of it poked him in random places, some unfelt until he moved, others a constant prick that he couldn’t help but notice. It didn’t matter to him. His thoughts were heavy. Atayo felt unsure of what to do or where to go, his direction was muddy. Like waters on the edge of a storm. His days filled themselves like this more often than not. A brewing uncertainty.
He watched a large two-hulled boat drift in under the tall bridge. It was a catamaran, the one he would wait for some days, one of his daydreams. It was white, bright white, the captain kept it clean. That was a sign of a good captain, some boats…he’d wonder just how they stayed afloat, not this one. This one looked like he could run ahead of a storm, buffeted on it’s coming wind, not that he would try that. He didn’t have a boat. He slipped into that place of want and watched as it came into the canal.
The boat slowed, everly so. It seemed endless. The man who steered it looked right at Atayo, his gaze piercing. They had seen one other countless times. Atayo could see his coarse, wrinkled hand atop the wheel, guiding it, bringing it home. It nearly whispered its presence, like it scarcely existed. Water lapped softly on the break-wall, that soft sound filled the air. The man walked from the helm, but Atayo was looking at the boat, it was beautiful. He could feel his feet on it, seafoam spraying up, wind whipping through his hair and worries.
“Hey, boy!” The man called to him, he had a gruff voice.
Atayo started, they had never spoken before. His feet hung over the edge of the canal wall, he had been lost in that day-long daydream. The man tied the boat off, tethering it to a moor by the water’s edge. He walked over to the rail, leaning on it and called out to Atayo again.
“Hey there! Can you swim?” He stared at the man. Where was he going with this?
“I can!” Atayo yelled.
“Swim out here then!” He said it roughly.
Atayo didn’t know what to think, but he stood up and after emptying his pockets dove into the water. It was a canal, and not exactly clean, but he would do anything to stand on that boat. He hoped that was what was going on. The water was warm, it was the middle of summer, hot and humid, even if he had to scrape grime from the hull, he wouldn’t mind. Better than smoking cigarette after cigarette and stuck on thoughts of sailing. As he swam he left those behind.
He found himself wondering what this man wanted, he could have asked first, but something told him to just jump in. Sometimes a thing just feels right. He knew, all too well how easy it could be to get trapped in not doing anything. Instead, he swam. Water has a way of making things further than they seem, it took him long minutes to make it to the boat. He pulled himself up, panting.
The old man stood there, looking down at Atayo. He had his arms crossed and -at first- he seemed to be angry, he laughed slightly and that visage slipped. He didn’t say anything, but, turned and walked back to the wheel. It was one of those that could have belonged on a ship two-hundred years before, maybe it had come from one.
“Untie us,” it was all he said.
Atayo didn’t know, maybe this guy was planning on taking him to the sea and sacrificing him to the gods of ocean and wind, people did some weird things. Maybe he just needed a hand or wanted company. He didn’t give a shit. He felt his feet on the floor, its pocked and slightly coarse texture felt right, like he’d pictured. He looked back to the canal wall, where his things lay, a few oddments and some cash he hadn’t wanted to get wet.
“My stuff?” Atayo asked.
“You can get it if you’d like, but, I’m leaving now.”
The man waited, Atayo looked back and cringed. It wasn’t much money, but it was all he had, he didn’t care about the other stuff. He didn’t want to miss this though…
It was a sharp moment, one that seemed hard, he started to untie the boat from the mooring. Every time his hand looped around the hitching, it got easier. By the time he threw the tether aside, he had forgotten about his things. Immediately the boat started drifting with the tide, it was heading out, into the bay. The man stayed quiet, it was a solid thing, something that seemed tangible. The silence wasn’t stern but felt implied.
Atayo stayed by the boat’s edge, he watched as the café and canal fell behind. Once they drifted by them, he turned his attention to the bay, beyond the bridge, where the ocean started to take over. The captain hadn’t said anything else, and when Atayo went to say something he was quieted with a gesture. Instead, he turned to enjoy the ride. The bobbing felt slight, easy like they were gliding.
The boat passed beneath the bridge, it loomed above, casting a shadow across the water. Once beyond it, the man called out, telling him to untie another rope, the one the held the sail. It took a moment and felt awkward at first, but the man didn’t say anything, instead, letting Atayo struggle, then figure it out. As soon as it was up, the boat leaped into motion. It no longer drifted with the tide, it flew atop the waves. The wind picked up, he felt its tug, its pull on his hair, it billowed against his face.
It was a moment before he realized the man was calling to him, waving him to come over. He did, and the view was even better. Boats of all sorts sailed and careened through the bay, others drifted along. They were pointed straight out, aimed toward the open sea.
“I’ve seen you sitting by the water, watching the boats come and go. Day after day.”
“Really? I didn’t think it was a noticeable thing,” Atayo said.
“Many things can be seen beneath the sun. Here,” he gestured, “take the wheel.”
Atayo hesitated, but it didn’t seem to be a moment to do that, he fought it, that quick jab of fear, and put his hands on one of the worn wooden spokes. It was heavy and that heaviness seemed to seep into his hands. It was a warm thing. He looked back, and the man was looking out to the open water, where the land let go it’s hold of the bay and ocean took over.
“How does it feel?”
“Good,” Atayo said.
“My life has been on these waters. I imagine all men have their troubles, their hardships. But, they also have their hope, their life, and love. I’ve seen how you watch the boats. It was the same way that I used to. One day, a man stopped and my life changed. I learned. Many don’t make it, even the ones that pay, that want, that dream, but sometimes…sometimes there is someone who wants it more than all around. Sometimes there is someone willing to learn what is needed.” He walked from the helm, Atayo still held the wheel. “And sometimes, they need someone to reach out and give them that chance. It happened to me.”
Atayo turned, any words dead on his tongue. The captain still stared straight ahead with an unmoving gaze, his eyes looked elsewhere, somewhere inside. Atayo felt awkward and turned back to look across the bay.
“Atayo!” Did he know his name? “No one can come and take you to your dream. No one is going to give it to you, you must chase it. This boat is simply a vehicle to get there, it isn’t the dream. Learn well, learn quick, your life is in your hands now. It always was anyway.”
There was a splash. When Atayo looked back, he found himself alone with the boat and the ocean. He searched the water for the man but didn’t find anything, the water fell quickly behind. Looking down he found a piece of paper with his name written on it.
“Atayo, the boat is yours.”
The wind whipped through his hair, it came and went in a wild way, he looked ahead, tears streamed freely. He felt like he was dreaming, but he knew he wasn’t. He didn’t even know the man’s name. He looked back again, maybe… Off in the distance, he thought he could see small splashes of someone swimming, but he couldn’t tell. Waves chopped the scene, making it hard to make anything out in the distance. His hands gripped the wheel, it didn’t slip beyond his grasp.
“One day,” he reminded himself.