The morning’s first waves began to sway the boat as I lay there watching a circle of hot light move down the wall as the sun rose up through the port window. I was on a mat below deck on a docked sailboat in the town of Fethiye, Turkey, trying to sleep off a hangover.
At that particular moment, halfway through a three-year trip, it was my job to ride Turkish gulets up and down the Mediterranean coast, picking up a new group of tourists every few days and taking them around while they drank and sunbathed. It was my responsibility to serve them drinks and interpret for the captains, who often didn’t speak much English.
That day’s passengers arrived around 10am. It was a group of rich Australian grad students in their twenties who’d hired us to take them around the Lycian Coast for a few nights.
After serving them lunch we set out to sea.
It was fine weather. Plenty of sun, no clouds. I poured myself a raki and stood at the head of the boat, feeling the sea beneath me, feeling the wind on my face and hair.
The water for the first hour was smooth. The girls got into their bikinis and lay around the deck, wine glasses in hand, sunbathing. The guys took off their shirts, put on sunglasses and began bonging beers.
The captain steered us further out to sea and I stumbled around the deck, raki in hand, trying my best to appear like an important crew member. I pretended to check things. I pulled ropes to make sure they were tight. I looked closely at the side of the boat to make sure everything was in order. Then I went downstairs and poured myself another raki.
The seas grew increasingly rough in the afternoon. Dishes were smashing around in the kitchen. Two of the girls vomited into the sea. I just got drunker, and the drunker I got the more the water’s roughness pleased me. I stood at the front of the boat, stumbling back and forth in some strange drunken dance with the sea, loving the instability below, loving being tossed from one side to the other.
I went below deck for another raki. I knew that if I kept drinking that stuff I was going to make a fool of myself in front of all those strangers, but there was really nothing else for me to do.
Towards evening the waves died down and the sun came out and the sea and the coast assumed their illustrious evening beauty. We anchored in a cove near an island and the Australians leaped overboard and starting splashing around. When they were finished, a tiny motorboat collected the men and bounced off to take them skydiving, leaving the girls with me.
Captain Ali passed out downstairs and Jerhat, the first mate, begin preparing dinner. When I offered to help him, he said he didn’t need me, so I went up to play drinking games with the girls.
“Oh look,” one of them said about an hour later, pointing at the blossoming parachutes in the sky. “The boys.”
They began talking about the boys as though I were invisible. Who liked whom, sexual tactics, etc. I laughed. I didn’t care. I was being paid to be there drinking. From time to time Jerhat poked his head up from below deck and gave me a dirty look.
The men returned around dinnertime. After I helped Jerhat serve the food, I join the crew below deck, where we ate from a communal plate with our hands.
Jerhat and the other deckhand didn’t speak or look at anyone while we ate, and Captain Ali seemed in another world. We ate in silence, listening to the Australians upstairs shouting, clinking glasses, jumping around.
When the food ran out, we continued sitting in silence until, in what seemed an attempt to ease the tension, Captain Ali asked my impressions of Turkey.
I replied vaguely, saying that it was beautiful, full of amazing history and hospitable people. Perhaps the most hospitable people in the world, I said with honesty. Then I asked him what he thought of my country.
“Most Turks don’t like America because of the Armenian lobby,” he said. “I am one of those Turks.”
After dinner, I helped clean the dishes and then got so drunk playing drinking games with the Australians that I blacked out.
I woke in the middle of the night, lying on the hard deck with a keffiyeh wrapped around my eyes and someone poking me with their foot, telling me to get up and move. I fell back asleep. Then someone began dragging me by the arms. I jerked free and fell to the ground, angry and confused, and when I remove the keffiyeh I saw Jerhat standing over me.
“Get up you drunk!” he shouted. “We’re moving to another cove. A storm is coming!”
I tried to get up but fell over and passed out again. When I woke the engine was roaring and the boat was bucking across the water and I was soaking wet and cold and lightning was clawing the sky and for a moment I thought it was all a nightmare. Then I saw Captain Ali behind the wheel, wrapped in a black poncho, every few seconds illuminated by lighting.
“Where we headed captain?” I shouted.
He pointed into the darkness and said, “Hell”.
I don’t remember what happened next. When I woke again, I was under the kitchen table and the weather was calm and sunny. The Australians were splashing around in the water, laughing, having a big time. My head felt disconnected from my body. I walked to the edge of the boat and let myself fall straight forward into the sea.
After I toweled off I tried to offer my services to the crew again, but they looked at me with contempt.
“We don’t need your help, drunk,” Jerhat shouted over his shoulder as he prepared breakfast.
I ate among them in silence. After breakfast, I began drinking again. By noon I was drunk. The Australians weren’t exactly my crowd, but their company was preferable to the silent disdain I was receiving from the crew.
Every time Jerhat came up to ask if he could get anyone a beer, he would give me a dirty look. I seemed to be connecting with the passengers in a way he wanted to but couldn’t. If I were him, perhaps I would have disliked me too, but I wished he could see that my true desire was to become one of the crew, to be accepted by them, to be seen as something besides just a foreigner who had somehow gained access to this gulet for the sole purpose of drinking.
It was our last night on the boat, and by dinnertime it was clear that the evening was going to be rowdy and full of sin. Floating out there alone in the middle of the Mediterranean, freed from all cultural and moral restraint, the boat was a little world that contained only us, a world where all the pressures and built up constraints of society could be catharted. I ate dinner with the passengers that evening, intent on enjoying myself the final night.
Afterwards I went down to pour myself another raki and found the bottle empty. Nearby, Jerhat and Captain Ali were drinking the last of it. I called them bastards and stumbled back upstairs to join the Australians, focusing my attention on the girls. There were six in total and only two seemed spoken for. I set to work trying to seduce the other four.
By nine o’clock I had one – a blonde law student from Melbourne two years older than me. She was wearing cut-off jeans and a maroon bikini top, and after an hour of flirting we had moved so close that our knees were touching. I invented excuses for more physical contact, wiping imaginary smudges from her forehead, insisting we compare hand size, etc., but all this was disrupted when a dingy came bouncing towards us over the sea. It floated up and moored to the ladder, and then Carlos, the ship’s owner (Carlos was a nickname he used), crawled aboard, followed by a man with an eye patch carrying a box of rum.
I was pleased to see Carlos, assuming his presence would save me from my inimical crewmates, but he didn’t pay much attention to me. He had come for the girls and set immediately to his task, filling their glasses with rum and turning the music up so loud we had to shout to hear one another.
Unfortunately he wanted the girl I had been talking to and lured her away into a collective drinking game. I couldn’t do anything about it. I just allowed it to happen. Soon his arm was around her.
I sat at the end of the table, alone, drinking myself into a stupor.
The deck was only about fifty square feet with little room to move, but soon everyone was out there dancing. Carlos danced with a rum bottle in one hand, my girl bent over in front of him, woop-wooing, shaking her ass in the air. Carlos popped open another bottle and the drunkenness crescendoed.
With each gulp of raki, I floated further away from the boat and everything that was occurring in front of me.
A big freckled girl sat beside me and began caressing my forearm.
“Wanna dance?” she asked.
“I can’t dance right now,” I said. “I’m broken.”
She must not have heard me. Or maybe she didn’t care. She tried to drag me out onto the dance floor but I slipped away and ran below deck.
Captain Ali and the guy with the eye patch were down there playing backgammon. Ali acknowledged me with a nod.
“Have a seat,” he said.
I watched the game for a minute before I spoke.
“There’s something wrong with Jerhat,” I said. “He doesn’t like me, and I don’t understand why.”
“It took Jerhat five years to get work on this boat,” Ali said without taking his eyes off the game. “Five years of hard work, and he still works hard.”
He poured himself a fresh glass of raki. He was about to cap the bottle but stopped.
“You want some?”
“You on the other hand,” he said, filling my glass. “Landed this job in a single day. Not only that, but you really don’t have to do any work. You just lounge around and talk with the foreigners. And how much hard work did you do to get this? You’re valuable to Carlos because you speak English and know how to talk to the tourists and make sure they have a nice time. But you didn’t work for these things. Jerhat thinks it’s unfair. He’s jealous. That’s why he’s acting like that. But you can hardly blame him.”
After the backgammon game, Ali went to bed, and the man with the eye patch reclined back on the couch. From where he lay he had a direct view of the deck upstairs, where everyone was still dancing.
“Want to have a look?” he asked.
“I can see from here,” I said.
“Not at them. At this.”
He pulled his patch up to reveal his rotten eye. It was hideous.
“I didn’t really want to see that.”
“Don’t lie,” he said, capping it again. “Everyone wants to see it.”
A strange moment passed.
“Why don’t you join them up there?” I asked.
“Cause it bores me. All these cruises are the same. I’ve been doing this for three years. Tomorrow there will be a new boat and a new group of drunken tourists doing the exact same thing. They’re all the same. You’re new so it’s exciting, but just wait. You’re a thinker, I can see that. I can tell when someone’s a thinker. As a thinker myself, I promise you that all this will become so old you won’t be able to stand it anymore. You’ll see.”
By the time I made up back upstairs, I no longer felt like partying. Something had happened between Carlos and his girl and she was now actively avoiding him. I caught her eye as I came up, and smiled, but I didn’t have any energy for her.
The words of the one-eyed sage reverberated in my ears. All these cruises are utterly the same. These people come and go like dreams. I stumbled up to the front of the boat and lay down to keep the sky from spinning.
Minutes or hours later I was awoken by laughter. People were laughing and crawling all around me in the dark. I rolled forward across the mats to escape them and was slipping back into sleep when I heard a splash, followed by two more splashes, then laughter down in the water. I then felt an icy hand on my shoulder. It poked me a few times, then shook me until I opened my eyes.
One of the girls, I wasn’t sure which, was leaning over me, her hair brushing my face. I half-consciously lifted my blanket. She crawled in beside me. Her body was skinny and cold. She put my hand on her breast, which was small and cold. Her cold wet lips came over mine. Her breath tasted like cigarettes. I felt nothing when I kissed her. I wasn’t even sure who she was. For a moment I thought it might all be another strange dream. I nibbled on her ear a little, then my movements became automatic. She undressed herself, then undressed me. There were shadows, figures I couldn’t distinguish, all around us, watching.
The blast of the dinghy engine woke me in the morning, and I sat up and watched Carlos and his one-eyed friend motor off towards the mainland. It took a few minutes to recall where I was and what had happened the night before. I was lying on my back, naked from the waist down, my crotch covered by the discarded summer dress of the girl beside me, who was rolled up in my towel.
We were anchored in a cove. Birds were chirruping in the island trees nearby. I pulled the dress off and was disgusted to find I was still wearing a condom. I slipped it off and poked it down the mouth of a beer bottle, then looked closely at the girl I had slept with. She was the one I had been flirting with before Carlos arrived. In the well-lit pounding clarity of my hangover, she looked completely different.
A few feet away was the big freckled girl who had tried to pull me out onto the dance floor. She was lying on her back, hands on her belly, awake but unresponsive, perhaps revisiting events from the previous night, interpreting them, deciding whether or not they were real. Her eyes were locked on the sky and beside her lay a flaccid green condom.
Two other couples were also on deck, their naked bodies half concealed by sheets, awake but feigning sleep, reluctant to move, reluctant to face the consequences of the previous night’s behavior.
After we dropped the Australians at port that afternoon, I drank some raki and wandered around Fethiye in a daze. There was something wrong with my brain. Something felt loose. I thought I saw ex-girlfriends looking down at me from rooftops. Other faces were also appearing, among the crowds or at a distance, then, when I would look again, they would be gone.
It was a strange day.
I drifted to the shipyards, then over to a nearby cove, where I stripped to my underwear and waded into the sea. When the water reached my waist, I inhaled deeply and prepared to thrust myself in but found that I couldn’t. I couldn’t make myself go in. My body wouldn’t obey me.
For a fleeting instant I thought I was actually a different person, someone who had never learned how to swim. Was it the water? The water did look menacing for some reason, full of lurking things, tides, etc. But I had never been afraid of water before — why now?
I slowly submerged myself and paddled out. Everything seemed fine. I was okay. I could swim. Of course I could swim.
I mindlessly treaded water for awhile, looking at the sky’s reflection on the surface, then went under and came up swimming along the bay, free and full of bodily delight. After an hour or so, I swam ashore, laid my towel over the rocks and sat down.
For a long time I just sat there, listening to the little pebbles crackle and chink as the waves rolled in, my eyes closed, the sun on my chest and forehead. I lay down on my back, and before long I found myself fantasizing about some girl I had seen walking down the street that morning. I saw her on top of me. We were making love. It felt like we were in some apartment, somewhere in Istanbul, on the futon, the blinds open, the winter sunlight pouring in. My hand smoothed around her thigh, grabbed her and pulled her closer. Just then a wave climbed up the beach and over my toes, dissolving the girl and Istanbul.
I turned over onto my stomach and put my shorts over my face. With the cold rocks under my belly and the sun on my back, I tried to conjure the girl again but failed. The image I drew up was blurry now. I fell asleep.
When I woke the sun had gone down and the moon was up. I walked back towards Fethiye, thinking of where my life was headed. There seemed no direction to where I was going, no reason for anything I did. No goal. No purpose. Just aimlessness. Just like today.
Perhaps somewhere deep in the black hole of my mind I was searching for something, but whatever it was I couldn’t put it into words.
It wasn’t a lack of direction that bothered me, really, but the fact that I wasn’t bothered by my lack of direction. Some people could create meaning and purpose for themselves, and that was fine, but I’d given up on that project long ago. If you had to create all that stuff for yourself, what was the point?
So I had no center, no direction. I was okay with that. But did being okay with that make me crazy? And if so, was madness such a bad thing? It had its downside, obviously, but it also seemed valuable somehow, if only it allowed you to see a little deeper, a little further into the nature of things.
When I got back to Fethiy,e I crawled aboard the gulet and fell asleep on deck beneath the open sky.
Read in Bootsnall