In the mild November chill of Southern California, I sailed solo to San Diego, where I rented a temporary slip near the convention center within walking distance of Helen and Roddy’s condo. I was a boat person . . . officially. I started recognizing other boat people. I was part of a community, albeit a very strange community made up of solitary, somewhat introverted people. Something was missing, though, and as much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was lonely. I didn’t want to believe that it was Adam, because I couldn’t bring him back, but at the same time, I knew I wasn’t ready to date.
Dora and I met Helen at a small outdoor fish restaurant on Harbor Drive. I was wearing Adidas boat shoes, stretch pants, and a windbreaker pullover. She pointed at me as I walked toward her at the entrance of the restaurant. “Look at you; you’re like a salty sea captain, with your dog and shit.”
I laughed and then pulled out the tie from my hair, shaking it in waves onto my shoulders. I missed Helen. I missed her humor and loyalty.
We hugged, both of us vibrating with laughter. “That is true, my friend.”
Helen absently petted Dora’s head and then said, “Come on in. This is the only place I could find that would allow dogs.”
As we talked over lunch, Helen seemed hesitant to chat about wedding details. “Did you find a dress?” I asked her as I popped a French fry into my mouth.
“Yeah, it’s simple. Plain. Roddy wanted us to get married in swimsuits.”
“I like him!” I said fervently. Helen laughed.
“Well, I’m not having bridesmaids, just you, so you can wear anything you’d like. Seriously, except maybe that windbreaker.” Smiling, Helen looked down at Dora and said, “She’s so good, really docile. You want to bring her, too?”
“Maybe. And she is a good dog. I can’t believe someone gave her up.”
“Hey,” Helen said, “have you thought about signing her up to be one of those dog therapists?”
“Yeah, Seth and Roddy do a lot of charity work for Children’s Hospital. They volunteer and do events, and since I’ve been going, I noticed that they have dogs there that are really sweet and loving. They bring them in for the kids who have cancer and are in treatment for a long time.”
Helen was talking so fast I could barely understand what she was saying. I was thinking about Adam and cancer wards and sick people and the sadness.
“I don’t know, Helen . . .” I let out a long breath and looked down at Dora’s big eyes watching me intently. Her ears perked up like she knew we were talking about her.
“It’s called Therapy Dogs International or something. Google it. Just look into it.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll look into it.” I took a sip of water. “So, my dad and Chucky want to sail to your wedding on my boat.”
She took a bite of her sandwich and looked away absently. “Yeah, I know.”
“Who told you?”
“Your brother called me to get some details about the island we’d be on and where you guys could leave the boat until you’re able to sail it back in a year.”
“They’re crazy, right? Leaving my boat, it’s stupid.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, I kind of think you should do it. To get all this out of your system.” Sometimes Helen didn’t realize how obvious she was being.
I laughed. “You guys all think this is some sort of phase?”
She rolled her eyes. “No, not a phase. I know people can change, Charlie; it’s just been very drastic. I want my friend back.”
“Leaving my boat in Bora-Bora is not going to get you your friend back.”
“Then what will?” Her eyes started welling up.
I slumped in my chair. “I’m sorry. I know I’ve been all over the place. I haven’t been a good friend to you. This is supposed to be a happy time for you. Look, I’m going to see if I can rent the slip I’m in down here for a while. We can hang out and I’ll check out the dog therapist thing? Okay?”
“Okay.” She smiled.
After lunch, I left Helen to go speak to the man who ran the slip rentals and then I texted my brother and dad.
Me: Fine, I’m in. We sail from San Diego on Jan 1.
I knew it would be cutting it close.
Dad: I’m thrilled. Thank you, daughter.
Chucky: I wanna be 2nd in command
Me: Don’t press your luck and don’t bring any of ur shit music either.
Dad: Language Charlotte!!
Chucky: What if we encounter pirates or mutiny? You’ll want a 2nd in command.
Me: Ok Dad is 2nd in command. You are a lowly deckhand until you can prove your worth.
Chucky: Aye Aye Captain Fatbutt
Over the next month, I stuck to my plan. I prepared the boat and our meticulous course, tapping every San Diego sailing resource I could find, including anyone and everyone who would be willing to talk to me on the docks. I did several long weekend runs with the boat, some solo, some with Chucky and my dad. I spent more time with Helen, helping her plan the details of her wedding, and I even signed Dora up to be a dog therapist at Children’s Hospital.
I avoided Helen when she was with Roddy and I never asked about Seth, and no one offered any bits of information either. I did, however, run into his dog in mid-December. Yes, you heard me right. Obi-Wan is apparently the Jedi Knight of dog therapists.
It was on a Wednesday, two weeks before we were scheduled to leave on the boat and a week before Christmas. Children’s Hospital was decked out in holiday décor. I had been visiting the cancer ward with Dora for a month, since she had passed the test to be an official dog therapist. She was a natural, of course. Everyone called her Zen Dora because she was so mellow around the kids. She brought so much peace and joy to the children and, as it turns out, that very thing brought peace to me, a sort of completeness that I couldn’t get from being on the ocean or staring at Adam’s murals. I was grateful for Helen’s suggestion. I wasn’t grateful, however, for running into Obi-Wan.
I encountered him in the hospital parking garage where his handler, who was not Seth, was standing with him, next to the elevator bays. There’s no way a person can identify a black Labrador mix dog she has never met, unless said person has spent several hours staring at an image of him splayed across the abs of a professional baseball player. Seth’s Match.com profile photo displayed all the evidence I would need for dog identification purposes. In this case, because Obi-Wan had a very distinct feature: he had a patch of white fur on his chest in the shape of a light saber. Also, it was slightly phallic in nature, but I would never tell Obi that. It’s one of those things I felt kind of gross even thinking about.
His handler, I should mention, because after all, it is the point of this story, was a buxom, blond bombshell.
Fuck you, world.
“Oh, hello,” I said to Obi-Wan in my typical high-octave dog-speaking voice. The elevator doors opened and the four of us got in. Dora and Obi-Wan started licking each other’s faces and I thought idly that it was like Seth and me licking each other’s faces. Then they started sniffing each other’s butts. Fantasy breach. I looked up at the handler. “Hi, I’m Charlotte.” I stuck my hand out.
She seemed hesitant but reached out anyway, despite her obvious unease. “I’m Sara.” She was appraising me; I had no idea why.
“And who is this guy?” I said, even though I was pretty sure I already knew.
“This is Obi-Wan.” He looked up at her and wagged his tail. She scratched his ears and said in a baby voice, “Aren’t you just the cutest little Jedi?” If the woman wasn’t so obviously unaware of her beauty and sort of unabashedly silly, I would have hated her damn guts instantly, but I couldn’t hate her for some reason. The dog looked like he was in love with her. Of course he was, who wouldn’t be?
As we walked toward the hospital entrance, I looked back at her and smiled. “Have a nice day!”
“You too!” she said as she entered and headed down an opposite hallway.
I stopped and turned to watch her walk away. Fucking beautiful people. Have a nice life, Sara and Seth . . . and Obi.
There would be no moping, nor would I make any inquiries. I would continue with the plan.
Christmas came and went. Every single gift exchanged at the Martin household involved our trip to Bora-Bora. I tried to talk my mom into going, but she just kept rambling on about her rotary club responsibilities. Older people take their shit so seriously, though I was actually really proud of my mom for it; we didn’t give her the credit she deserved. And if I was like her—slightly directionless—I was proud that at least I knew I had her heart.
We spend so much of our teen years and twenties fundamentally rejecting our parents’ philosophies. I’m talking about that period between fifteen and your late twenties when you think your parents are the most fucked-up people because they’re slightly flawed. These toxic thoughts create a storm inside of us. We’re so terrified that we’ll be just like them that we overblow their less-than-perfect characteristics into something worse than they are. But then we hit a certain age and, click, it’s as if a light switch flips. Suddenly, our parents don’t seem so bad. In my experience, it’s called acceptance. We’re not born with it, and it takes a while to cultivate.
I think accepting our parents is a way of accepting ourselves. Once we’re able to accept them, it’s like surrendering or choosing, as Adam would say. That’s the moment when we finally say, This is who I am, this is how I look, this is what I’m good at. I’m different from my parents, but I’m the same, too. I’m a human, walking around this lonely planet, taking one breath after another, trying to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. And although they have more life experiences, they don’t have the same life experiences.
After Adam, I was closer to my parents. It was undeniable. I was finally appreciating them for who they were.
WALKING TOWARD THE docks on the day of our departure, I could see my father on the bow of my boat, wrapping lines, wearing a satisfied smile. I saw Chucky carrying supplies in front of me, and I watched Dora come out and greet him, then bounce along next to his legs as he continued down the dock. I stopped to take it all in. The sky was clear and crisp. It was a new day. A new year.
A gentle gust of wind caressed my neck, almost willing me forward, but I stayed where I was. “You’re here,” I said, under my breath. “I can feel you.”
Chucky abruptly stopped, turned around, and spotted me standing at the top of the dock, twenty yards away. Carrying a box, he could only motion with his head toward the boat. “Come on,” he yelled.
I nodded and closed my eyes. The wind picked up again. “I’m going, I’m going,” I said, smiling, thinking about Adam, the smell of the ocean reminding me how connected he and I would always be.