The Quantity Theory of Narrative by Colin Dowling

I’m not an alcoholic. That would be too easy, too simple. I wouldn’t even mind that. At the very least, it’s something people successfully quit. It’s something else, something far worse being drunk on the world─rip roaring with possibility. And yet, it’s real and all around me even if it only occasionally feels like it.

I’m being responsible tonight. No vodka and Ting (perhaps the world’s greatest mixer), no back beat of shots between beers, just slow sipping a Presidente long neck because if I’m honest, drinking is required when you work for the 0.0000001 percent of the world, the global elite. It takes the edge off their ever expanding vacation expectations for this winter in the Caribbean.

It’s straight economics with these people. Why wouldn’t they expect to shell out $275,000 for a week’s worth of vacation?

My job looks great online though, working as a deckhand on a 200 foot luxury charter yacht, traveling and posting photos from the Carib to the Med and where ever the owner fancies. Of course, I’m only anywhere in the most literal, physical sense. I once got to drop some trash off on Santorini, filled some poor cafe’s dumpster to the brim then right back aboard the yacht and gone a half hour later. I’ve got a picture on the quay, so, it counts, technically. That’s what makes a night off worth it being on call 24-7, 365 days a year. It almost feels like I’m here.

I take another sip but can’t quite escape the habit of dulling, or is it deluding into what feels like a livable, soft focus reality? The one that stares out onto the horizon with young, fresh eyes and the sense of the world anew.

It’s still there. Through the bridge, up the channel and past the cardinal mark; endless and enthralling, something beyond the trades and tales that explain life away or make numbers or pixels of it. The dream of a grander fate that awakens the senses like being underway at night, the warm salty breeze and a faint but intoxicating mist, looking up to an innate marvel, a mystical glow in the scattered brilliance overhead as if only a black sheet were draped over the world, the light so bright and full as if piercing through defiantly from another dimension and with another enlivening glass I’ll genuinely believe and even feel that something remarkable happens.

There’s a picture online. Posted away as content, another reminder of the show I can’t quite live.

What do they always say? It’s symbolic? A symbol, a stray moment chasing, insisting a greater… No. Grander whole. Just like the story I keep telling myself I’m living, if even just to feel like there must be an ending to it.

“Did Roz’s boat get a Charter?” Amy asks.

It’s almost a relief in the crowded Soggy Dollar Bar in Saint Maarten, surrounded by screens, flashes and other yacht crews. She’s the Second Stewardess, in charge of the Third and Fourth, Sara and Meg. She’s like Thom, the Bosun ordering Geoff and me around on deck.

I know the answer but don’t want to. I’d rather just not know for a moment and kill the conversation, the one she keeps having at me, the one where I’m a ready excuse to ask about Roz and whatever it is that we’ve got going.

Is it an international friends-with-benefits?

It makes for a good story online though. Everyone back home thinks she’s from the UK. Maybe they want to? Brits really do have currency in America. Still, it’s odd being almost popular.

Everyone from grammar and high school friending and friendly after Roz dragged me back to social media. I feel like a stock character on people’s friends list, the awkward weird kid who spoke French and ended up abroad and is good for an interesting update. I’ll have to jump ship and disappear if I really want to keep it up. Last heard from in the South Pacific seems like the best option. Either that or running of with my Australian girlfriend. Why does it feel like such a cliche?

“Oh, of course she did. Have you seen this?” She continues phone in hand. It’s a picture of Roz and what looks like her crew and some painfully tanned chav throwing an arm around creeping over to the horny side of chummy.

Christ. Why is she showing me this? Is it a message, a symbol?

“Only 74 likes,” I somehow manage, before taking a long sip to wash away that sickening, pitifully human feeling. What smolders as jealousy before the drink seeps in and snuffs it out.

No. It’s nothing. Just another move in the great game every relationship ends up in. Or is this just what happens online? Where life is caught between too much information and too little meaning behind it?

Amy turns and snaps off a photo of our own crew scene then looks it over, pleased with the composition and capture. Another entry of what we post but never caption.

It doesn’t look very exciting, at least compared to that night off back in South Beach, Miami. It’s just a weathered deck overlooking a small basin of tenders and dinghys, ramshackle piers with wooden cleats, the crackling bright paint, the patio wall dark with tropical fungus, the bar made of lacquered plywood, the shower head that soaks anyone on the dance floor and the padded palm tree that still clocks crew on the way to the parking lot and the taxis just off the all hours excitement of Airport Road.

No. It’s just another Tuesday as the crew settles around a table on the deck, just another ice cold Presidente, the sweating glass cartridge and a sip and that starting lift of electric music, like some other current from the speakers, the wave on the DJ’s laptop as real as the one everyone here surfs around the world on an eternal spring break. The bar packed with other yacht crew, all at least sevens.

No one has been stuck anywhere for more than three months. Feral Aussies, wandering Kiwis, non-dom Brits, expat Zafers, roving Canadians and the odd, lost American.

Another drink and it’s not even magic. It’s brilliant. It’s lekker. There could be no other way to spend some time in your 20s. The senses awoken by the weather, the sun, the sea and almost pushing beyond, dreaming that the grand currents of the world, the heights of globalization are being ridden by the crazy, lucky few out there on the exciting edge of reality. Yes. That’s the stuff!

I read about unreliable narrators back in college, playing around with chronology and smudging the facts and jolting the narrative. And yet there’s something dangerously meta about the idea of living out an unreliable consciousness, fascinated at one moment, drifting off with the senses and all their lovely words. Then it’s almost like speaking French, as if someone else orders the drinks and carries them back to the table without a spill. You don’t even realize it’s happening. That comes later. Sometimes.

“Another round of provisions. Good man. Gotta keep morale up,” Mike, the Second Engineer adds, loudly, pulling the crew in like a commercial fishing boat Captain leading a tenth toast.

We throw the drinks together with mild cheer before settling back on course for the evening, chatting and hovering around the waypoint where someone leads the charge and answers the call to greatness and the club and all hours or everyone quietly slinks back to the boat for bottles of spring water and a plate of leftover green curry or the jerk chicken from the other night.

“Thought you said you were gonna pull a Geoff? Ride the settee and skype it up with your what’s her face?” Steve, the Chef grins almost as if he’s supposed to ask and get an answer on the record but just wants to get it out of the way with a little humor.

Should I have checked my messages before I left the boat?

No.

Best to let things steep, let a little scarcity, a little tension build.

Yeah, be canny, calculating!

And if I did go back, it wouldn’t be a quick hit. The little green dot would be on and a volley of messages before I even hit send then a skype with no negotiation or concessions and right into a protracted how-are-you-doing conversation which is really a veiled where-are-we-going that plods along until one of us slips out of the ridiculous play it cool game and admits missing the other.

She won the last one so by some shameful logic I have to let things sit. Maybe she’s on watch and I can slip back and send a quick message? Get some credit at no cost. Then again, she’s out there mixing it up, getting chummy, isn’t she?

And I’m not even flirting or anything. It’s only fair on balance. Two wrongs don’t make it right, but is it consensual?

I shake my head as if I can fling the thought off like a heaving line. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. Will it be any different when we get back to shore and settle into a normalcy neither of us can stand the blame for?

How could that not be settling after being out here in the world, swimming in possibility as we stare out to the horizon you can actually see from the veranda?

Another round of drinks materializes and with another sip, suddenly, definitively, there’s no better way to spend your 20s.

***

Then that phantom energy builds, the one that ascends with the music like a building swell, or is it the gravity of the down island tide, a massive body of drink where so many tanned and lovely figures bob and bray and laugh off another Tuesday in January, riding it, reveling it. Fuck. We’re in Saint Maarten. Where’s everyone else? Is this that club on the beach by the airport? I sniffle and clear my nose caught in the lifting, exciting impression of it all, just there and shooting up toward a glorious height.

I order at the bar and look around for the crew before turning back to a pair of vodka tonics. The first washes away the faint chemical drip down the back of my throat with a blast of lemon. I slouch into the second just off the dance floor and the two for $20 suddenly feels like a bargain.

Where are the crew? What course is the evening on? Another sip of indifference for the time and the club exerts itself with a digital thudding that finds a matching, racing beat in the chest.

The sound wobbles through the crowd who revel in a blatant undulation that throws the partiers together like an industrial process, as the last flatulent gasps hammer through and fade to a steady kick and something brushing, hypnotizing, in the foreground but miles off; there is a nodding, slow velocity carrying it all somewhere with a slap, a clap or a snap on the end. Then a stuttering, pushing synth, a melody sweeps in as the bass picks up and that last gulp lifts us into the surround, and fuck that sound, some other sense awakened and there’s nothing outside this ecstatic now carrying us aloft, coursing over the world, the very noise of floating over continents between places, just building, going further to that place, that plateau, that new edge of life itself, disappearing into the soundtrack of a planet; everyone in the room soaring beyond themselves grasping at a universal entrancing us all.

A pair of English DJs stoke up the club and all the other crowds, simulcast from Bangalore to Odessa to Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires. They cheer in unison, the speakers pumping out each city from a different corner of the club, borders crushed as a sheer human exuberance roars through the place. Then it takes flight. It’s not sound. It’s not music. It’s a place, some glorious pattern seducing the neurons and fuck this is it.

This is it. Until it finds another and the slow twist of a dial, a pitch or a timbre as if gravity itself were suspended and still it goes; another order, a pattern jumping across cultures or programming, that ancient yearning of transcendence lifting us from language, from history, somehow pulling beyond an entire club, entire continents, intuiting the fullest sense of a planet, reverberating through the body and pulling me into some other simpler, clearer beautiful space, as if the world and life itself disappear to a feeling, nameless, powerful and beyond. As if that something in the spirit awakens with the majesty of the sea herself…

There is a tap on my shoulder and Steve shouts something as he motions for the door. The pitched music fades as we navigate the crowd and end up out front, the islands return: chatting, cheerfully arguing in the parking lot as Steve turns.

“Yeah, everybody bailed. But it’s still early. Just a little off midnight. You down for a night cap?” He lumbers over to a cab, mumbling a destination, and haggling the price as the driver pulls away.

An indecipherable dancehall song fills out the lurching late model mini cab while the island flashes by in a wash of orange with a faint haze of a purplish sky before we stop in a gravel lot just up from the bridge. We dismount and the strip club bouncers just nod us in, yacht crew spending habits giving us an informal VIP treatment. I take a bar stool, the jaunty sound of Top 40 electro remixes crackle out the last before the DJ’s boredom fades and a soft chime of a melody dances over a digital rush, the lyrics whispering just before a digital symbol, then a fractured synth, expanding, building; the room disperses onto a softer ethereal plain and I can feel someone looking at me and turn. She forces a smile that somehow becomes her and a faint yearning lifts the senses, awoken to a planet, as if the immeasurable distance of culture and country disappears in the glint of our eyes and some other bewitching quality pulls us from ourselves. We’re so far from home, bodies caught in this infernal, global machine, still dreaming and falling with the outro as it fades into the shabby reality of the room.

“It’s kind of funny this is the only spot you can have a drink and conversation,” Steve observes, as a pair of low balls arrive. “I mean, Jesus, the club is like needles poking out your ears, that and they throw down on decent air-conditioning here…” he continues on auto-pilot, lighting another cigarette and toying with his Dunhill lighter.

She’s turned away and chatting with a fellow dancer and…

“Oy. You’ve gotta girlfriend or something like that,” Steve bellows and snaps me back from what suddenly accounts itself as seedy, bodily indulgence.

“I don’t know. Looks like there are some exotic options with very appealing spreads,” I say, and it is kind of funny before I wonder if it is even really a joke at all, or just the reality of everything made into humor coated resignation.

He breaks into a loud and lingering smokers laugh before shaking his head. “You have the most fucked up sense of humor.”

I take another drink and try not to look at her. As if I might cling to the illusion of a gaze and all it might be, feeling some other quality─a seemingly innate allure and mystery to her─that between us is not a game but a simple indescribable spark neither of us will ever understand but savor and cherish…

I must be delusional. She’s right there and oh, so possible. She’s just a few pieces of paper away and a trip up to the knocking shop, putting a condom on me with her mouth then a warm, numb jostling in a worn out bed, drowned in red light like a night watch in the wheelhouse, a pretty face bouncing above me before it ends and all that is left is just a trick for the senses and the body, just a monthly or weekly bodily obligation, like the lifesaving equipment check or the safety drill or the monthly deck maintenance schedule.

“I don’t know how you two do the distance thing, man,” says Steve.

I almost want to explain it. I could outline that not quite acknowledged leveraging of the distance: building up the longing and the want well beyond anything back ashore, anything resembling normal; pent up and instantly redeemed when we meet up, a great surge and rush then the human bits and it rolls over us like a wave. There’s excitement in every little detail, everything so dear in all the scarcity. Something we trade with promises and futures. Every instant dependent on where it is we’re going and not what’s actually happening. And you only fleetingly notice it before another glass and lusty enthusiasm pull you into a horny, helpless now!

I take a large, desperate sip. “We’re just having fun,” I say.

“Listen to you. All downplaying and shit. What would Gordon say? Having a laugh with a slapper,” Steve starts with a mocking but spot on British accent. “You can do way better. Besides, you really want to end up down under?”

“Is she a slapper?” I can’t un-ask. Just having a laugh. Just the sort of relationship that’ll do. Got to do better. Maximize the opportunities, work out the efficiencies, increase productivity and output, optimize, optimize. I realize a surge of energy and don’t want to acknowledge it beating against my rib cage.

Do I really want to settle down in the Commonwealth? South Africa? New Zealand? But isn’t EU the way to go? UK or go Continental? Western Europe? Med? Or what about the East? Language and amusing cultural differences to keep things interesting?

It’s all really for a passport and new place to live. Not a relationship at all but another quiet transaction, covered with charm and posted with novelty, unacknowledged yet inescapable. How to choose? Can you trade looks for the right country? Or personality? Does intelligence even rate? What if she wants to move to the US?

No. It’s so much simpler than that. The answer I know but doubt, that grandest externality of them all, as if some other quality cuts through life with a feeling beyond yet known, when a gaze awakens the senses as if before the sea herself, caught with her in the eternal and seemingly infinite…

Fuck. I’ve got to get out of this. I stare down at the tumbler. I can’t escape any of it.

Did it really happen all those years back? That feeling, that awful sad simple human feeling, almost in spite of the mind and the body, that mythical space between them, that spirit caught in a sheer lift, like the transcendence of a wave, the same exhilarating ride in life itself─just before the crash, wiped out and held under for years, thrown about until it relents and on the surface there is a flat and maddeningly calm sea.

“Getting a little quiet there, bro. Christ. Look at you. Your teeth are chattering. I’m not looking for a late one but this next shot might be medicinal,” he notes clinically, flagging down the bartender.

***

The beat of the marimba throbs with a backbeat through my skull. My eyes are bloodshot. My tongue is completely parched. The third, general alarm fires off and I acknowledge it with a fumbling tap just as Geoff grunts from the other side of the cabin and rolls over, “the fuck, mate?”

There is a several millisecond delay between the thought of moving the limbs and torso and their physical response, stumbling upright and into the morning routine.

I linger in the shower and scrub and scent away the evening, still evaporating from my pores. It almost seems normal quietly making down the crew corridor for the crew galley except for the thirst, that unquenchable morning after soif that will not be slaked.

I grab a cold can of Coke rather than coffee and Vegemite Toast. Oh, that wickedly medicinal sweet crackle and bite. Gotta pace it, I realize with half the can down. Calm, breath slowly. It’s going to be okay.

This isn’t nearly as bad as Monaco last season. Until it isn’t and what feels like a gut punch before a volley of heaves as I land my face in the sink and retch into the basin and fuck, someone heard it. Fuck, someone will smell it. Turn on the water, slosh it around before word of it gets to the Captain and the call to the wheelhouse and it’s over and here’s your ticket home and best of luck out there.

I head up the dock for a cigarette and try dulling the sticky, acrid taste of digestive fluid and Coke. I attempt a mouthful of water. It stays down with optimism before the stomach jumps again and I hang off a piling just out of sight and spill into the lagoon. Getting started is a feat. And, of course, I’m on deck. Even a wide brimmed hat and the best polarized sunglasses are nothing against this tropical light. The crisp optics everyone flies in for, broiling down and expelling whatever water is left in my body, now leaking from every pore.

Everything is flat, the world and everything around me happen in simple mechanical reality, determined, steady and anticipating. The body aches and creaks as a cheery lobe in my brain clings to the training like flotsam on the open ocean. There’s process and the reassuring simplicity of wet, scrub up, down, sides, rinse, blade and touch up with an absorbent chamois. The exciting trade of my time is gone. It’s just another job.

Do I really need to be here? Setting up the buckets of soap and water, laying out a hose to clean a soiled yacht to perfection? I slip into the routine, struck mute.

Geoff only bothers with the most perfunctory conversation, “Have you rinsed the portlight sill?” He comfortably mocks what is just a passing stage in his life. Just cruising through like a 21st century Redmond Barry, making the best of it and counting the days until he jumps ship and sets up in the UK. He’s certain to land as far from a dairy farm in New Zealand as one can possibly dare.

“Did you wet that bit?”

I would be back home, setting up shop in a condo kitted out with travel artifacts and a mass of volumes. Doing legal scut work with all the other legal assistants going to law school at night, toiling toward whatever simulacrum of a career exists post-2008.

“Where is the Black Streak Remover?”

Would it be different passing the bar, at best scraping together enough work to pass through some non-business expensed income, scouring restos and bars and affably begging for some word of mouth from third link friends of my brother? All of whom would wonder why anyone would give up such an interesting job on yachts to be, at best, a middle tier small town lawyer grafting and grubbing for a house let alone a boat to occasionally sail on the Chesapeake Bay and rekindle the feeling I’m supposed to be having here and now.

“Did you run a hose off the bow?”

It wouldn’t be enough, still clinging to an expired cosmopolitanism, those dated recollections of the world held together with a scatter of foreign newspapers in the browser history, amazon.fr orders, and discerning visits to Whole Foods for cheese. Maybe I would meet another ex-expatriate, obsessed with German of all languages, worldly but stranded, forever referring to that position she took at a gallery in Berlin as a few years back. Both insisting those other selves we knew, those instants we’ll never quite describe and never appreciate outside a yearning shared, powering the story we’ll wear. About it all simply being a layover, the feint then the excuse for coming in last to get a mortgage and a place to decorate with all the artifacts from failed sojourns, lingering in the caustic truth that you can never go home again. Another round of that middle pushing into upper middle game of where we’ve been or are heading, leveraging every place over so many conversations, what we saw no longer matters outside the story, if it ever did.

I’m worldly, a sailor. I’ve got South America and Africa, sub-Saharan, mind you. Back in a conversation it would take a year of BBQs and holidays and parties to wear thin, just sitting there as everyone else chats about the real world and life, just a polite friendship from the old days, whatever was and must be. Then one day casting that foreign eye on it all, that yearning for the world itself, for that feeling out there, almost mythical, as if some force or other. The one that really isn’t there at all kicking about from place to place, quietly making the trade of new, more exciting elsewhere’s against a home never found but perpetually fled. Obliviously, excitedly living out the tale of it all─as mechanical and predictable as the shurhold pole, extra soft blue brush and a frothy five gallon bucket of awl wash in the wet, scrub up, down, sides, rinse, blade and chammy cycle. That fitting return from another foolish night chasing what must; always remembered as grander possibility, out where things happen and drunk enough to let them and almost believe it.

“Bummer about watch,” says Geoff when we stow the gear in the Bosun’s locker and draw out the task with a quick tidy that eats up the last half hour. Of course, I’m on watch. “Skype your bird at least,” he adds cheerily.

I slip off the boat and up the dock for some air and a cigarette and hide behind a thicket of dense tropical shrubs next to the marina office. A massive Air France flight roars over the lagoon, banks sharply. It levels off and climbs between the low mountains before disappearing into the clouds.

They’ll be in Paris in eight hours, touch down at Roissy then the story through customs and that random schedule for the RER into the City. Catching the express always feeling like a feat, a stoked ride through the banlieu then hop off at Gare du Nord and down to the 11eme or past the labyrinth at Chatelet and St. Mich or on to Luxembourg and into an airbnb, a pleasing room with a kitchenette and bathroom appended to it, a pair of tall windows overlooking a small square at a collision of ruelles, a cafe, a tabac and a boulanger and then what?

It’s not really a dream. It’s just a story and don’t want to realize how necessary as the plane disappears into a cloud bank.

The radio calls me to the wheelhouse and I know where I am.

Colin Dowling draws on his experiences abroad: going to school in France, working on the Mediterranean and sailing the Atlantic. He writes to capture that feeling when you find yourself between borders, cultures and languages. As surfer, writer and sailor, he continues to explore globalization at the personal level. Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in his soul, he gets back abroad as soon as he can. He is currently querying a novel about his time working on a billionaire’s private luxury yacht. You can read him at: https://medium.com/@NotesfromAground or find him on Twitter: @NoteFromAground

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