from The Sea Is Quiet Tonight
The Dancing Bear
Michael H. Ward
We arrived in St. Thomas early on a Saturday afternoon. Though it was only mid-May, it was already very hot, a shock to those of us still recovering from the winter in New England. Mark and I had taken a 6:00 a.m. flight to San Juan, where we met our boat mates, then took a puddle jumper to St. Thomas. I had expected it to be lush, like Puerto Rico, but much of the island was rocky, more desert than jungle. The small airport was crowded with both locals and tourists, the latter identifiable by their expensive clothing and dazed expressions. The space was noisy and felt pleasantly foreign.
Mark took charge and commandeered a taxi. He had been to St. Thomas many times and knew exactly what needed to be done. After we piled our luggage and the Styrofoam containers of food into the boot of the jeep, the driver took us out to the marina and deposited us near the dock. Mark and Kirk then went on with the taxi driver to a market to buy fresh fish, milk, eggs, and produce. John and I stayed with the gear, moving everything via the long wooden walkways to our rental boat, the Dancing Bear.
She was a beauty, forty-three feet long, a heavy two-masted vessel with a wishbone rig that allowed the sails to be trimmed to suit the wind. Her decks gleamed white in the bright sun. Everything was clean and polished, including the wheel. Below-decks there was a galley, a crawl space for the engine, two berths forward where John and Kirk would sleep, and a tiny aft cabin where Mark and I bunked. I found the arrangement of space below claustrophobic, but I figured it would be manageable, given that presumably we would spend every waking hour on deck.
After stowing all our gear and the many bags of groceries Mark and Kirk brought back, we had a quick lunch and met with the leasing agent. Mark demonstrated his knowledge of handling the boat and paid the balance of our deposit. His signature on the contract made him completely accountable for the yacht and its passengers. Since both John and Kirk had some experience with sailing, they acted as crew. Knowing practically nothing about the tasks at hand, I tried to stay out of the way as we cast off from the dock and threaded our way through the marina. At last we headed out into the great blue sea.
We sailed for at least several hours every day, rain or shine, moving from one area to another: Trunk Bay, Robbins Bay, Great Bay. The vistas were even more beautiful than I had imagined. The Caribbean is filled with tiny islands, some just large outcroppings of rock, scrubby, mountainous, and dry. Brown-green shapes rose in the distance as we flew along in our boat. Mark used the engine as little as possible, except when it rained or there was no wind. The sun was fierce, especially in the late afternoon, and we kept the canopy up much of the time. We rarely wore more than our swimming trunks from one end of the day to the other. It felt sybaritic to me, so much flooding my senses: heat, light, the air on my skin as the boat cut through the waves.
Each day began with checking the anchor, which Mark did several times during the night as well, to make sure it had held and that we had not drifted. He then spent time poring over the charts to see where we might head and how the weather looked. We ate breakfast and did chores, then checked the lines, the supplies, and the engine before leaping off the boat into the sea.
At first, the others did the leaping, and I would climb down the ladder with my life vest on and reach out for a hand before I would let go of the ladder. I loved the feeling of the water, the color and all the life in it, but I still carried years of phobia about drowning. Both Mark and John stood in for Coach St. Onge, encouraging me, supporting my body when I would sputter. Snorkeling did not come naturally to me, despite my daily attempts to master it. John had a fit when he saw the fins Mark had encouraged me to buy, big heavy rubber things that were meant for scuba diving. Mark, being thrifty, said he hoped we would scuba one day; John, being pragmatic, knew that I would learn to snorkel a lot faster wearing the lightweight blue silicone fins he had, and he insisted I use them throughout the trip. No matter where we swam or snorkeled, I was hyperconscious of where I was, and for the first few days I was relieved when the adventure was over and I could clamber back up the ladder to the relative safety of the boat.
Kirk had more experience than John with sailboats, so he assumed the role of first mate, which meant, among other things, that he helped with securing the anchor. At the end of each sail, as we prepared to settle into a new bay for the night, Mark would recheck the charts and then station Kirk at the helm while Mark lowered the anchor from the front. Kirk had to move the boat very slowly forward and back until Mark felt the pull that indicated the anchor had set. This was a hit or miss proposition, as we soon found out. Mark would call out “forward” or “reverse,” and Kirk would respond with the boat in gear, then Mark would yell, “No, no, Kirk, too far! Stop!” When Mark did this the second time, Kirk lost it.
“Goddam it, Mark, stop yelling at me! You said ‘Forward’!”
“I know I said forward, but I only meant a little bit forward, not ten feet.”
“Well, how the fuck am I supposed to know how much forward you mean? Might you be a little more precise?”
John told me the first afternoon that our job during anchoring was “to look pretty and stay out of the way.” He also dubbed this daily event “the anchor snit.” John and I were both conflict-avoidant, so after that first day we would go down to the galley and begin cocktail hour during the anchor snit, no matter the hour, emerging onto the deck with a large pitcher of rum punch once the yelling had abated. There never seemed to be any bad feelings between Mark and Kirk, so everyone could move happily into the next phase, which lasted several hours.
We played music on the cassette player during cocktail hour, ranging from Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington to Peter Allen and Bette Midler. Mark usually swam a bit, a break from being in charge, and then set about preparing meals, ably assisted by Kirk. They both loved fine food. Mark had purchased excellent cuts of meat in Boston, prepared vegetables and stews which he had heat-sealed and frozen, and to which they added fresh produce. They also grilled the fish from the shopping expedition in St. Thomas. Our breakfasts and lunches were usually simple, but each dinner was an event. There was the occasional cooking snit when Mark made a preparation choice that Kirk disagreed with or vice versa. Nevertheless, dinner was generally my favorite time of day. The late afternoon and evening on a sailboat in good weather is as close to heaven as I imagine I will get in this life. Rum punch was plentiful, as well as wine with dinner, and the food was superb.
I announced one night at dinner, “You know what? This is male bonding! Drinking, farting, gross jokes, peeing off the side of the boat. I love it.”
“Darling,” Kirk said, “straight men would never put the effort into food that Uncle Mark and I have done.” We had taken to calling each other “Uncle” for some reason that no one could remember.
“Then it’s gay male bonding,” I replied. “And straight men don’t
call each other ‘darling,’ Uncle Kirk.”
“Not unless they’re giving or receiving a blow job,” John chimed in.
And so it went. John and I did all the clean up, starting with dishes and ending with scrubbing the grill, which got a lot of use. Kirk and Mark would kick back and relax, Mark often dropping off to sleep in my lap when I’d sit down with them after KP duty. We’d watch the sunset fade, then clouds move across the face of the moon, which was waxing into fullness during our week on the water. Mark and I were both Cancerians, and I felt caught between moon and sea in a delightful way. The universe felt very large.
I had spent limited time with Kirk and John before this trip, and I discovered that they could not have been more different from each other. Kirk was high strung, funny and quick-witted, but prone to taking offense and flying off the handle. John had an ever-present grin, a silly sense of humor, and an easy-going nature. He exuded an effortless maleness that I found both disarming and attractive. Mark was the link to each of us, and there was a moment at dinner early on when Kirk and I realized, as we had at Craig Jackson’s apartment, that we had each slept with Mark at the starting point of the relationship. After teasing Mark a bit about “flaunting his tail feathers,” we agreed that most friendships we had with other gay men had begun as sexual encounters. The Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969 had galvanized gay men and lesbians to fight police oppression and to organize politically. By this time the four of us had all been involved in the movement for years and had a defiant attachment to sexual freedom.
As our captain and chef, Mark felt the weight of his responsibilities. He didn’t sleep particularly well and was always ready to tuck in soon after dinner. Kirk would usually go below when Mark did, and their banter carried to the deck as they brushed their teeth. I wondered if Kirk had a crush on Mark. There was an emotional intimacy to their spats and their easy laughter. The thought made me more curious than jealous. In some subtle way we seemed to have paired off, Kirk with Mark and John with me. After John and I finished cleaning up the dishes, we would lie on the upper deck, still in swimsuits, watch the stars and drink more rum, Anejo this time, a Bacardi rum that tastes almost like liqueur. We would make jokes about the anchor snits or other amusing things that had happened during the day, and we also lay in companionable silence watching the night sky. My father and John’s mother had both been severely alcoholic when we were growing up. In obvious and not-so-obvious ways, our lives had been shaped by this fact. We traded stories from childhood, both painful and funny. Until late in the evening we lay under the stars, brilliant in the Caribbean sky, sipping our Anejo. By midweek I had a terrific crush on John, the adolescent version, supported by his mischievous humor and unfailing thoughtfulness. And he was handsome as the devil.
This kind of time with other men was new for me. From the age of fourteen I had worked after school and on weekends to earn the money for my school clothes, books, and tuition to a Jesuit boys’ high school. I had never been to camp, played team sports, or joined clubs. I had no idea how “normal” boys bonded in those situations. My sexual attraction to other boys isolated me in high school, and tortured me. While my nature is essentially social, the person I presented and the person I experienced myself to be were very different from each other. On the boat I felt a familiar discomfort in not knowing exactly how to belong. What were the rules in this “club”? I knew how to be in a couple with Mark in our ordinary life, but what about here, where our foursome was our whole world for a week, and in this club, in which the boys were gay and I was the only one who had not had sex with all three of the others?
For months I had anticipated that the trip would be very romantic with Mark, but the reality of four adults on a medium-sized sailboat meant that privacy was nonexistent. And Mark was preoccupied with all he had to manage. We had sex a few times early in the morning, but in a haphazard kind of way, more for relief than romance. We were good-humored and easy with each other but not emotionally intimate. I began to wonder if something had changed, if in the natural course of being together we were becoming “buddies.”
I was also aware of the deep level of respect I felt for Mark’s leadership. He was competent and tireless, managing the boat, getting us from one bay to another, supervising meals and cleanup. I could easily envision how this could be a career and a way of life for him, but where I might fit into that felt uncertain. Over the week I developed some skills in helping with the sails and taking my turn at the wheel. But the experience felt exotic, something to do occasionally and enjoy with friends but not what I could imagine as a lifestyle. This was something else to ponder: how could we possibly construct a future that worked for both of us?
Midweek we crossed from the American to the British Virgin Islands. That morning John, Kirk and I left Mark aboard the Dancing Bear and rowed into Road Town, on Tortola, where we had our passports stamped and paid duty to the British. The Customs House was unprepossessing, an old building with bales of hay stacked against an outside wall and a goat wandering around the dusty yard. An officious woman named Miss Meyers told us in her clipped British accent that, before she could perform her duties, we were to “make a neat line in front of the kiosk,” even though there were only the three of us and one man from another boat. We then walked around the area, enjoying the odd sensation of regaining our land legs. Kirk, who had visited the island as a child, surprised us by reciting verbatim the words on a plaque commemorating the visit of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, to Tortola in 1966.
By the time we rowed back out to the boat, clouds were gathering. Mark had used the time we were gone to reorganize the lines on the deck and straighten out the galley. He looked preoccupied and encouraged us to “step on it” as we came aboard.
“Tie the dinghy securely,” he directed. “We’re going to have some weather. I want you to make sure your things are secure below and let’s get out our raingear.”
John, Kirk and I said, “Aye aye, Captain!” in unison, which garnered a laugh from Mark, and we scurried below. We emerged back on deck promptly, all wearing ponchos, as the wind began to pick up. Mark took the helm as Kirk released the anchor and we headed into the wind toward Robbins Bay.
Soon the rain began pelting down, and Mark and Kirk frequently shifted sails to maximize using the wind. Once underway, we huddled under the canopy and discussed what we’d seen in Tortola, making jokes about Miss Meyers and her goat. Very slowly the wind died down, but the rain continued to fall in sheets. Mark increased the motor and we continued on our way for several hours. I made sandwiches and brought them on deck. Then Kirk went below to read, John to nap, so Mark and I had a little time to ourselves.
“Do you get nervous when it rains like this?” I asked. Mark seemed surprised at the question.
“Do I look nervous?” he asked.
“No, I guess not. You actually look very cute with your hood up. Sexy, even.”
“Men!” he said, quoting a familiar line from my mother. “You’re all alike. Are you nervous?”
“Not in the least. It’s weird how secure I feel with you. It’s as if, as long as you’re in charge, I don’t have a thing to worry about.”
“Well, there’s nothing to worry about today, that’s for sure. Are you having a good time?”
“Absolutely. I’ve loved every day.” While that was an oversimplification, this didn’t seem like the time to open a discussion of my ruminations.
“That makes me very happy,” Mark said. “I want you to learn to love the water like I do.”
We motored for another hour or so. The rain eased up, and I called Kirk to come help as we entered Robbins Bay. By the time we anchored, the rainsqualls were intermittent.
It remained overcast and humid through the evening and night. We had to have dinner below, Mark heating a stew he had prepared in Boston, Kirk parceling out what we had left for salad. It was hot and sticky in the cabin and we all got cranky. John had the patience of a three year old and kept irritating Kirk, interrupting and teasing him. Finally John and I were able to clean up from dinner and return to the deck, sprayed with Cutters repellant to fend off the mosquitoes, and drank rum while Mark and Kirk read below. “Another night in Paradise,” John said as we clinked glasses and watched the moon try to poke through the clouds. The air was cooling off and I was aware of John’s body lying next to mine on the upper deck. I wondered idly what he would do if I initiated something, but despite copious amounts of alcohol, common sense said, “Don’t fuck up a good thing.” Mark and I had an open sexual contract with several agreed upon limits, which included not sleeping with each other’s friends and not doing anything that would embarrass either of us. Clear breach of contract here, I thought to myself, and sighed. At least I was spared the risk of rejection.
The next morning was Friday, the beginning of our sixth and last full day on the boat. We all awoke early and were greeted by a luscious sunrise, layers of grey/blue changing to pink, then an intense orange/red. Dozens of pelicans were diving for fish. They looked prehistoric, long skinny birds with a huge wingspan. They would circle and circle, then--splat!--plummet into the water to snatch up a fish in their beaks. As they swallowed, they wiggled their tail feathers like hootchie kootchie dancers.
After a quick swim we ate breakfast and decided to head back to Peter Island, our favorite spot from the week. The wind was up and we had a spectacular sail. I’d been taking a turn at the helm for several days and felt thrilled on that day to be sitting in the Captain’s seat, wheel in hand, skimming across the water as the others adjusted sails or lay in the sun reading or dozing. I reflected on my last few years in Princeton before I moved to Boston, how constrained my life had felt. I never imagined that this feeling of freedom was possible.
Great Harbor and Peter Island did not disappoint. We anchored early in the afternoon and had plenty of time to read, chat quietly on the deck, and swim. By this point we were unselfconscious about being naked in front of each other, and John asked me to put suntan lotion on his back and the backs of his legs before he put his swimsuit on. It was briefly painful, a moment full of desire on my part, but in no time we were all jumping off the deck into the sea.
I never did fulfill my hope of snorkeling without the life jacket, but I did swim without it, both on my stomach and back. Even without masks we could see the remarkable variety of ocean life beneath us, brain and fan coral in fantastical shapes, fish darting in and out of their crevices. I jumped off the boat over and over and even made one aborted dive, which ended as a belly flop. It made no difference. We were all sublimely happy, and my mates praised my progress.
For our final dinner Mark grilled a butterflied leg of lamb, the last of the food prepared and frozen in Boston. It was perfectly tender and flavorful, as were the grilled potatoes. Kirk mixed up the last of the vegetables and we celebrated the feast with wine and music, Peter Allen belting out the lyrics to “I Could Have Been a Sailor” and Mark finally leading us in the old sea shanty, “Blow The Man Down,” eliciting a few bawdy changes to the lyrics.
As the full moon rose, John, Kirk, and I each made a toast to our Captain, who was tired and happy and only a little drunk. “Bravo!” we cried, pouring more rum, and we vowed to repeat the trip together in a year. We stayed up late, finally and with great care making our way down the ladder to brush our teeth and crawl into our berths for the last time. I curled around Mark, tucking him against my body. Just before I fell asleep I realized I had not had a last Anejo with John on the deck. I thought of having applied the suntan lotion to his legs and smiled to myself. At least that was something.
The following morning we were slow to move, feeling the effects of the heavy dinner and alcohol. We took turns working on deck and working below, cleaning and securing what remained and packing what went with us. Kirk pulled up the anchor for the last time and we headed toward St. Thomas, less than two hours away. Very little was said as we enjoyed a cool, clear morning, finally finding our way back into the marina.
Mark went to the office to complete the business of returning the boat, while the rest of us unloaded the gear and carried it up to the gate. Our original plan was to stay in St. Thomas overnight, then fly back to Puerto Rico for our flights home. But after looking at the dusty and crowded streets of Charlotte Amalie, Mark said, “I have an idea. Let’s go to San Juan for the night.” The crew cheered. Mark made a phone call to the airport and had us on a Prinair flight in slightly less than ninety minutes.
When we entered the airport in San Juan, we were buffeted by noise and stimulation. Other than our brief encounter with Miss Meyers, we had spoken to no one but each other for a week. Here at the busiest airport in the Caribbean, there were thousands of people, all seeming to talk at once. It felt like the Tower of Babel. We made our way to the baggage area, having no idea where we would go from there.
I called the Beach House from a pay phone, but they were completely booked, so we looked in a gay guide that Mark had brought and chose Arcos Blancos. It was also on Condado Beach, but the atmosphere was totally different. The two large white houses with arches were protected by a high security wall, which prevented passers-by from seeing the swimming pool where gay men swam or sunbathed, many of them naked. There was a bar and restaurant, open to the breeze from the ocean on the beach side, that was very crowded and cruisy. After a week sailing, the whole scene was a shock to the system.
Mark and I showered together, luxuriating in the abundance of hot water, shampooing each other’s hair to remove errant bits of sand and salt. He then lay down on the bed and instantly fell asleep. I was tempted to crawl in next to him but could hear the call of disco music, so I went out to the bar, where I found John and Kirk. They had conveniently positioned themselves so that they could see both the sunbathers and swimmers at the pool and also see the muscle boys walking along the beach. A handsome Latin waiter appeared at my elbow with a pina colada and purred, “Welcome to Arcos Blancos.”
In retrospect I would probably have benefitted more from the nap, but the three of us drank and laughed our way through a few pleasurable hours of cocktails and cruising. By the time Mark appeared, it was time to organize for dinner. We changed clothes and took a taxi to Old San Juan, where we savored our favorite moments from the trip over a great meal in the courtyard of Los Galanos. By the time we got back to Arcos Blancos I was exhausted. John and Kirk wanted to go dancing, and I made a weak effort to talk Mark into it, but I knew there was no chance. He graciously suggested that I “have a night out with the boys,” but I followed him to our room and fell upon the bed, still fully clothed. He helped me undress and we talked briefly about seizing the moment, but this moment was clearly about sleep.
We made up for that lost opportunity early the next morning. I had worried that the “buddy connection” I’d felt with Mark on the boat was a transition in the relationship to something less intimate, that maybe my expectations for a deeper relationship were too high. But our lovemaking was intense and passionate, with all the elements of lust and affection that made sex with Mark unique. Once again I was flooded with love.
The four of us had a quick brunch on the patio at the guesthouse and headed back to the airport. The goodbyes to Kirk and John were good-humored and sweet. After just twenty-four hours back on land, I was an adult again, not a fifteen-year-old boy with a crush. When I hugged John goodbye, I felt simply affection. Mostly.
Mark’s flight for Miami left an hour or so after mine to Boston, so he came with me to my gate. It felt odd to be without our crewmates, odder still to be in such a noisy and public place together. I wanted badly to hold his hand, but a kid on a bicycle had yelled, “Faggot motherfuckers!” as we’d loaded our luggage into the taxi at Arcos Blancos, and I felt self-conscious and mildly paranoid in this crowd of people.
“We seem always to be saying hello and goodbye,” I said.
“We’re still just getting to know each other,” he replied. “I learned some new things about you on this trip.”
“How silly you can be.”
“I assume that’s a reference to screaming and camping with John?” I felt myself tense a bit.
“Yes. And you don’t need to ask: I love you more for it. It’s a part of you that I don’t seem to bring out.”
I laughed. “Your sense of humor is more refined, I think.”
“Either that, or I’m too tightly wound.” There was a little silence, then he quoted Popeye: “I y’am what I y’am.”
“You’re a wonderful man, Mark Halberstadt. I really love you, and I’m beginning to trust the love, that it’s got a life of its own. I still don’t have the faintest idea how we’re going to work this thing out, where we’ll live or what we’ll do, but I want it.”
A woman’s voice announced my flight over the loudspeaker and we stood up. I had teased him earlier about kissing me goodbye at the airport, never imagining he’d actually do it, but he leaned up and kissed me firmly on the lips.
“I want it too,” he said.
Michael H. Ward is a retired psychotherapist. He was instrumental in the development of The Shared Heart, which presents the portraits and coming out stories of 40 gay and lesbian teenagers. The Shared Heart won the American Library Association's Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Book Award in the nonfiction category in 1998. It was also on ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults list in 1999. Happily married, Michael lives on Cape Cod with his husband, Moe, and cat, Jack. His new memoir, The Sea is Quiet Tonight, recounts the early years of the AIDS epidemic in Boston.