BY - NANCY TERRELL
Beatrice Randolph, a lady in her late sixties, lolled about the cockpit of her classic Turkish Gulet, Finale, which was shared with her partner of many years. The vessel was named after the current epoch of her life, supposedly golden years but more recently characterized by frequent ennui than anything of an alchemical nature. A veracious reader, both by nature and profession, Randolph, as she was fondly called by those closest to her, due to the nature of her work and her long supposedly aristocratic Virginia heritage, had always looked forward to the years when she no longer had a schedule to keep or a family to care for – when she could actually leave the milieu of modern life and take to the sea, both literally and figuratively.
Having left her native land, with its increasing pockets of suburbia, for a cruising lifestyle some two decades ago, she seldom looked back over her forsaken routines or missed the accruements that she and her ex-husband had collected over a quarter century of living together. She had substituted, into its place, the distinction between the vastness of the sea with its brilliant sun-stars shimmering down a luminous pathway into her own personal vision and the discipline of writing. Finale was a classic yacht, bearing a sheer that was as regale as it was simple; Randolph loved the singular act of polishing the interior furniture, each piece lovingly handcrafted from South American mahogany by long ago shipwrights. A large yacht for two, by middle class standards, she carried no crew, but had the size been any greater the difficulty of cleaning would have appeared overwhelming to both her and her mate.
Randolph had kept the long, simply curled, naturally streaked blonde hair of her youth, hanging almost to her waist which she normally wore in two thick pigtails wound upon her head like a majestic crown, much in the manner of 19th century Swedes, or in a sophisticated twist reminiscent of a 1960s American model’s beehive. Because it was always falling into her face while out cruising, she would often let it fall long, flowing into a cinched ponytail from the rear of her favorite racing cap, usually featuring the name of an international regatta. Her face was gently lined and featured aging sun spots left by 40 years of bathing in both sunlight and sea. Light jowls sank in her lower cheeks and her neck was wrinkled to the point that a facelift would have been useless as both her upper arms and hands most definitely betrayed her age.
However, time seldom mattered to a journalist whose job was reporting about lifestyles that others only dreamed of. In her forty years of photo-reporting Randolph’s name was well known in sailing circles and she was a favorite of publishers, as well as editors, as her feature stories were always sent in before their deadlines and her facts were well researched; it was the personal impressions she gave of those she interviewed that led to her popularity with readers. Why had she, urbane and sophisticated, chosen to become an expatriate in middle age? Had it been the result of a long well lived but all too normal marriage or the fact of feeling unneeded when her children left home for university and adulthood? Or had it been simply a result of her political liberalism, as conservative as she personally was, when Reagan was re-elected president in 1984 she knew her beloved country was heading the way of the Roman Empire. Having left an array of family, friends and co-workers behind she had set out for an adventure during the last epoch of her life - with little thought, and less money - sure that it would all workout somehow which, amazingly, it had.
Living on the sea gave Randolph a freedom that she could not have found elsewhere; not only from national and community responsibilities but from intercommunication itself. Although she had frequent access to WiFi and daily used her computer, her life contained no telephone or TV, no newspapers or mail – solicited or not. While she could receive news and antidotes from the outside world - others could not receive from her, unless she so chose, and she joyously relinquished her hours into that of an uninvolved voyeur. No one knew or cared who she was while she was living on the sea, what she was doing or where she was located and this was just the way she liked it.
Although she had visited each individual country island, over thirty in all, the Caribbean actually reminded her of a small state with isolated towns throughout. Each island had its own culture, food and customs but also shared the historic grotesqueness of slavery and its decades of shame. When she had first arrived, over two decades ago, the islanders were friendly and shy; but twenty years of European and American chartering tourists, pockets bulging with saved money for vacations, had changed all of that. Now immigration and custom officials, throughout the islands, were demanding, surly and power hungry as if they could repay the treatment their forefathers had received at the hands of local plantation owners through discourtesies and rude behavior.
Nonetheless, Randolph still loved the locals, despite recognizing the fact that she would remain a stranger, through both birth and color, regardless of the number of years she cruised back and forth. This strangeness would always seem a metaphor involving cyclic events during which her life had been engaged, in resemblance to a gigantic set of waves beginning far out at sea and slowly heading towards their break line - involving the periods of her life as if each individual position of crests and troughs seemed to be stairs past an era during which she was swimming - through hours, months, years and decades.
The aqua waters of the Caribbean kept her interest throughout the boredom of the absence of urban culture. A pod of dolphins, racing Finale through the wake of surf under her bow, would revive Randolph’s curiosity in nature and life in the way that a symphony, held in a crowded overdressed concert hall never could. Viewing their sleek bodies, glistening in sunlight as they tossed and turned, revealing upwards their soft white underbellies, as they darted from starboard to port, reminded her of small children on a playground, each ready for their turn to shine on the swings or slides beneath the gaze of proud mothers. Hers was a sublime life considered more than satisfactory as she proceeded through the decades that carried one from middle age, through retirement and on to old age and demise.
Of her five closest women friends, during decades of just as many numbers, three had already joined their ancestors. One had succumbed to smoking, another to alcohol and the final of heartbreak, never having been able to accept the leaving of her attorney husband for a client’s younger wife. Living on the sea, with no cultural diversions and only weather as an eternal antithesis, Randolph knew the temptations of these illusions - alcohol, drugs and melancholy. She had witnessed, first hand, the downward spiral of a special friend due to vodka and sleeping pills and was determined that, as much as she liked her martinis, she would never conform to such a comfortable self-destruction. The written word, accentuated with colorful, full-focused visuals, would remain her final connection with the illusionary world – not a dirty condo on the beach filled with thirty empty vodka bottles and the shells of used limes. She could not deny the connection between the act of creativity and calamities she visualized happening around her - so she persevered in determination to defeat it, through all of tragedy’s many veils.
Randolph believed, as Simon de Beauvoir once said, that aging involved not only the recollection, but the introspection, of one’s life with the outer landscape of others. It is an essential fact of life that any successful writer, chronicling the events and behaviors of others, remain cognizant of time, historical fact & fiction, and one’s place within it. Speaking with friends and sailors she took great pains not to repeat herself. When she had difficulty sleeping she would awake, turn the anchor and exterior lights off, quietly slide open the pilot house door and go outside to sit beneath a dark sky, brilliantly accented by the glimmer of a million far away stars. There she could talk to herself, both asking and answering questions of trivia accompanied by past events in her life, so as to assure herself of sanity. For she had seen the destruction of time to such a point that she wondered if an old woman’s memory could survive in a modern world filled with answers at the mere ‘googling’ of a word. She had granted herself a partial excuse of her lapses of memory and usually, after a glass of warm wine, would return to bed and sleep until sun-up.
The importance of food took on a more significant aspect in her life as she aged. Stocking Finale’s refrigerator with numerous individual packets of smoked salmon or tuna (she did not eat mammals), creamed cheese and bottles of capers, enabled her to fix a protein snack whenever extra energy was needed; a passion for chocolate was filled at various islands with imported treats from Europe. Over the years she developed a taste for fine wines also, not caring whether they be rojo or blanche, but increasingly the best vineyards were becoming financially out of her reach, especially considering she could easily consume a bottle per day.
One of Randolph’s favorite escapades was to take a local bus along the island’s main road – usually circumferencing the outer perimeter next to the sea – stopping to get off and chat with locals. Classic boats fascinated her more than any other design and she would often come upon a building site where families and friends gathered together to construct, in the ways of generations past, a wooden vessel to put out to sea. Always having her small digital camera in her back-pack, she would ask permission of the family, after seeking out the patriarch of the group, to take pictures and record the event. Having their lives documented in print for posterity was thrilling, even to those whose ways most modern people would consider archaic, so they usually consented.
It was on one of these adventures that she came to an area of uncleared rainforest having left the bus stop several blocks behind. As there seemed to be an unobtrusive pathway she decided to traverse, exploring as she hiked – looking for wild orchids, a favorite tropical flower. She entered the fern filled forest overwhelmed by the size of gigantic varied palms, each majestic in both girth and form. As a tropical breeze was up that day the fronds swayed together in a harmonic ballet. Leaving the road and civilization far behind she stumbled upon a native couple on a nearby beach who were making love; she watched, totally fascinated, at the beauty of shimmering ebony skin highlighted by glistening sweat, pulsating to the same rhythm as the dancing palms.
The cadence of two bodies, interlocked into a tempo reaming of island beats and natural progressions, totally entranced Randolph; she stopped frozen in her tracks, lowering her backpack to the ground as she unknowingly moved her hand to her groin. The groping couple seemed to have dimmed her memories of plantation ruins, abandoned island sloops and native customs. Returning to Finale, she was asked about her trip but her answers were superficial and empty. All she could think about was the couple on the beach – a black pretzel seized in a frenzy of copulation, beauty entailing significantly more fervor, entwined with passion, than her celebrated search for meaning in a distanced world through writing. The sight dominated all she had visualized in months, taking her into a world filled by untamed senses and erotic pinings.
Randolph had trouble sleeping after this and resorted nightly to a routine that she had always abhorred, filled with more drinks than usual. Her dreams were sexual and she found herself sleeping apart from her partner, in an effort not to awaken him, embraced by a passion involving quiet manipulation, mostly unsatisfactorily. As she never received physical gratification, her days were filled with frustration. She began writing pornography; her life was filled with anguish as daydreaming took her to corners of her life not yet explored and never before missed. She fantasized magnificent lovers with cocks the sizes of small horses and orgasisms that reached the intensity of massive waterfalls.
Becoming obsessed with sex and the aliveness of it all, every visual image became transversed into unbridled passion. She mentally undressed every man she met. Her partner was alarmed by her outrageous physical desires on any occasion at all, no matter how decorous. All she could think of was sex, sex and more sex - with any object, inanimate or animate, becoming obtusely sensual. Finally, when she could stand it no longer she submitted to the sleep of drugs – stupor followed by long bouts of self stimulus accompanied by an innate fear of heart attacks. On a single day she found herself seated before a yellow lined writing pad on which she wrote every obscene word she had ever known or heard – many times over. What had begun as a downpour of aliveness, between a woman and man, evolved into a state of discomposure as to the reality that had always composed her life.
Randolph devoured massage, acupuncture and aroma therapy, with each leading to enhightened sensual desire rather than psychic emptying. She could not even look at a casual couple on the street, doing something as simple and nonevasive as holding hands, without imagining them coupling. Realizing the physical danger that was mentally reaching internally to take hold of her soul, Randolph's partner suggested cruising to an anchorage known for its beauty and solitude. The day held blue skies filled with cotton ball clouds, the night a promise of a full moon.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, thunderhead clouds accompanied by distant rumbles filled the trawler. The aliveness of it all beaconed Randolph as she veered to her customary chaise on Finale’s bow to view the impending storm. Stretching out she fell naturally asleep and dreamed of her childhood in Virginia, nestled under an old apple tree standing in her parents’ backyard. A caravan of singing Gypsies sauntered down the alley with their knife sharpening wheel followed by several barking dogs. The wind then seemingly picked up fragrant apple blossoms, filled with sea-salt, and Randolph was swinging from her grandmother’s rubber tire swing hung next to the barn. Her grandparents had been such simple country people. Should that have been the life she chose?
Raindrops poured onto her face and she remembered jumping into a nearby lake, fed by a waterfall, when she was young. She saw her mother leading her, stripped naked, alive and dancing as she dived beneath the falls. She was singing at the top of her voice, joyous at just being alive. Now Randolph followed what she remembered her mother doing – still partially asleep she unbuttoned her blouse, slipped off her shorts and dived – outside the railing, off the top of the bow of Finale into the cool moonlit water below, the sense of it all startling her into a reality that seemed so present, so alive that she knew she would never experienced anything like it.
Moonbeams danced just beyond drizzling raindrops. Suddenly she realized that she could die tomorrow and all would be true in her life – she had finally reached a certain closure with nature before the final climax of her existence.