The Gulf

by Bi Janus

edited by vwl, aka rec

I’m always taken by how much the greenish hue of the Gulf waters on Florida’s west coast contrasts with the colder, deep blues of the Atlantic on the east coast. From the balcony of my cottage on Indian Rocks Beach, I can see gentle Gulf Coast waves rolling shoreward. Mark, my husband, didn’t make the trip this year, but he often does. He wonders why we keep the place, but he knows that even in age, I’ll never let it go, and he’s a patient soul. We live now near a great river in the Pacific Northwest. For the past few years, I’ve come here only once a year, in the summer, to remember my first love and to visit with him at Sylvan Abbey, where he lies with his brother.

* * * * *

I was late up. Ramon would already be waiting. After taking care of my teeth and spraying on some Right Guard, I ran back to my bedroom, where I pulled on a pair of board shorts with no underwear and an old T-shirt with the local surf-shop logo on the chest. Sliding my bare feet into worn, low-cut Chuck Taylor All Stars, I ran downstairs to the kitchen and ate a quick bowl of cereal before throwing a couple of sandwiches together and grabbing a bag of Oreos.

Running through the dining room and living room, I yelled, “We’re taking the boat. We’ll be back for dinner.”

My mother’s voice called back, “Don’t run in the house, and remember the rules.”

The front door slammed as the last words of her reply reached me. Ramon and I had grown up together on the north end of Clearwater Beach, which seemed a different world from the mainland. In 1965, we didn’t lock doors, and fifteen-year-olds thought nothing of boating out into the Gulf to fish for a day; their parents didn’t give this kind of adventure much thought.

The rules were simple: be responsible and don’t lose sight of shore. Come in if you spot an afternoon squall line approaching. Don’t wreck the boat, which in this case was a new, pricey Formula 233 with twin 4-cylinder Volvo engines. My dad was a doctor, after all, and Ramon’s father owned a few McDonald’s franchises after emigrating from Mexico in the early 50s and becoming a citizen. Ramon and his older brother, Paul, were born here. Ramon had not anglicized his name; Pablo had.

As I approached the working pier across the street from my house where I had moored the boat the night before, Ramon tried to look pissed off. “I’ve been here for two hours, dipshit.”

I knew that was crap because Ramon had worked last night until closing at one of his dad’s fast-food palaces. He worked a lot, more than I did as a bag boy at the local Publix grocery store. “You are so full of it. I overslept—sorry.”

Looking at his watch, he complained, “Since you’ve wasted half the morning, let’s get going, carnal.”

I smiled at the Mexican slang for brother, with its accent on the second syllable. It wasn’t even 9:00 yet. I threw the bag with our lunches and the cookies to him, and we stepped into the boat. My dad and I had fueled it late last night and filled the bait well with live shrimp at the marina before bringing it here.

We stowed everything, checked the fuel and the shrimp, made sure that the tackle was in working order, and I threw the keys to Ramon. “Okay, carnal, the fish are calling.”

He fired up the engines while I hopped up to the bow to cast off before skipping back to take care of the aft line. I watched as Ramon carefully engaged the engines and pulled away from the pier. When we were clear, he headed due west into the Gulf. I couldn’t then put a name to what I felt when I looked at him, or perhaps I was afraid to. I did know that I felt more alive in his presence than I did with anyone else, and I suppose that I wished that we would always remain as we were. Years passed before I understood that I loved him in a different way than he loved me.

Then, as we increased speed until the bow of the deep-V hull rose above the water and the ride smoothed out, I noted how shallow was the veneer of his carefree delight. Ramon had lost his brother, Paul, last year and had not recovered. At fifteen, I thought that he and I could recover from anything. The day his family got the news that Paul was dead, I had sat next to Ramon on his bed, with my arm around his shoulders, holding him as he cried. After the funeral, he never wanted to talk about missing Paul or how he felt about Paul’s death other than the obvious sorrow, but he had become determined to follow his brother’s path.

I had never seen a dead man until I saw Paul at St. Cecilia’s before the funeral, and I was afraid to walk by the casket until Ramon took my arm and helped me. I guess his family could have had Paul buried in a military cemetery, but they wanted him close to home.

* * * * *

The engine noise was a loud hum now, and we didn’t feel the chop. I sat in the cockpit in the left-hand chair as Ramon looked out ahead to the other boats in front of us, passing parallel to the shoreline. Even concentration made him beautiful.

After twenty minutes, I turned to look shoreward and saw that we were at the limit permitted by the rule and expected him to throttle back. When he didn’t, I shouted over the engine noise, “We should stop; this is a good spot.”

He turned to smile at me. “You are such a little wussy. Bigger fish farther out.”

“Wussy?” I replied. “Bite the head.” This was a then-current piece of teenage flirtation with the homoerotic. I waited for the standard reply.

“Whip it out.”

Taking a chance, I stood and began to undo my shorts. His face betrayed worry, and he quickly said, “You better not, dickwad.” Then the worry on his face disappeared, and he added, “I just might bite it clean off.”

I was laughing and wishing that I had continued, but he was clearly worried that I would. Being naked with each other wasn’t unusual as we were growing up, and even now we would swim naked in the Gulf. I didn’t want to push it.

The shore was out of sight, and I was anxious. “Stop the boat, and let’s fish.”

Ramon shook his head with a tight smile. “You’re really scared?”

Irritated at his suggestion, I replied sharply, “No. I just don’t like breaking rules. If anything happens, we’ll never be able to use the boat again.”

He eased the throttle back until the engines idled. “There! I don’t want you to get into trouble.”

That was such a lie. We always tried to get each other into trouble with parents, but only minor trouble. We threw the anchor and attached the line to a bow cleat. Even here the water was shallow enough to use the anchor with a long line.

* * * * *

We lost our shirts and dragged out the rods. The shrimp were still alive but sluggish after overnighting in the well. We would probably get mackerel or reds, although occasionally a shark would try to take a fish we’d hooked. One reason I liked fishing with Ramon was the silence that spoke of a friendship that didn’t require chatter. We felt close to each other in the silence, and later in life, that feeling became my measure of the strength of friendships.

Where Paul was concerned, I’d adopted a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy long before Clinton tried it, with results just as disastrous.

I had developed a strong dislike for the war; I thought we were wrong to be there and that we were killing our best young men like Paul. I had never shared these thoughts with Ramon, because doing so would seem to him an attack on Paul and a slur on the manner of his death.

Since the day Ramon had told me that he intended to enlist when he was seventeen, I had been more than occasionally dispirited. The thought of Ramon coming to the same end as his brother was unbearable and finally brought me to the line I had vowed to myself I would never cross. I would chance crossing that line here, alone with Ramon in the Gulf.

We made a few casts in our accustomed silence without a real bite. Ramon was intently watching his line, and I was intently watching him. I felt the joy I always felt in his presence, mixed with dread about how he would take what I said.

“You shouldn’t go.” It came out before I thought clearly—not how I should have begun.

“Go where? I’m not going anywhere.”

“You’re going to enlist.”

“Yeah. So what? That’s not for two years.”

Our conversation played out as we cast our lines and reeled them in slowly, waiting for fish that never came. I was hurt, angry, afraid of losing him—not a good combination for thoughtful discussion.

“I don’t want you to end up like Paul.”

His silence was an indictment. I could see his breathing pick up speed and knew that he was controlling himself. “My brother gave his life for his country and for you and me.”

“I know that. Sometimes I think it was a waste.” I didn’t then understand how that must have sounded to him.

Now his silence screamed at me. He put his rod in a holder on the gunwale and stood. If he wanted to hit me, I’d take it. He came within a few inches of me, and we stood on the port side of the boat. He was coiled, and I could see how much he wanted to let go, to punish me. Before I could apologize, he turned and crossed to the starboard, toeing off his deck shoes and dropping his shorts, and dived into the water. I was unmoving, in shock for a few seconds before I could grab the ladder and hook it over the gunwale.

A few images from youth have remained with me, and his body as he dived overboard is one. I looked out to the seemingly endless, undulating surface of the Gulf, waiting for him to reappear. Just before panic overtook me, his head broke the surface twenty feet from the boat.

“Get back in the boat, you crazy fuck!”

He slowly swam to the ladder and hoisted himself up, water sliding from his brown chest and flanks. I turned to get one of the towels we kept in the cuddy cabin. When I returned, he was standing, still breathing hard. I threw the towel to him and he dried himself before wrapping it around his waist.

“What the fuck were you thinking?”

“It was either that or pound the crap out of you. Never talk about my brother like that!”

I stepped toward him, now furious myself. “I wasn’t talking about Paul, asshole. I was talking about you.”

His features softened, and he said quietly, “I’m not going to die over there. We’ll still go fishing when I get back.”

I was touched that he seemed to understand how upset I was at the thought of him disappearing from my life. I shook my head slowly as he began to smile again. The emptiness in the pit of my stomach, almost like hunger, remained.

“I’ll go with you.”

“Like hell you will. That kind of talk really pisses me off.”

“You’ll be alone over there.”

“Nobody fights alone, carnal. Besides, you’ll write letters, and I promise I’ll write back and let you know how I’m doing.” I did and he did.

Then the high-pitched whir of line paying out from his reel began, and we quickly moved to grab it. We stood on the gently rocking boat, shoulder to shoulder, while Ramon played the fish for ten minutes. Sometime during the fight, the towel slid to the deck, but I didn’t take the opportunity to admire him. Instead, I got the dip net and pulled in the nice redfish, big enough to keep. By the time I had secured the fish and turned around, Ramon was wearing his shorts again.

We ate our lunch in companionable and unstrained silence and watched as the clouds convected into thunderheads in the early afternoon, and the air cooled. We stowed the fishing tackle, dumped the remaining shrimp overboard, and pulled up anchor. One of the dangers of being out of sight of the shore is that if the anchor loses purchase, you could drift on the current and end up miles north or south of where you stopped. Fortunately, our anchor had held. I piloted the boat toward home and family and another dinner in what I thought would be a lifetime of dinners with Ramon at our table. A thunderstorm broke over our heads just as we tied up and covered the boat.

* * * * *

I was at university in 1969 when my father called with the news. How I wished Ramon was there to put his arm across my shoulders as I cried alone in my dorm room. Today, as I sit beside the flat, brass markers for Paul and Ramon and his parents nearby, I end my talk with him as I do every year. “I will always love you, carnal.”