Only after we find common ground over military spending and education policy do we agree to meet again the next day. She talks about everything. I listen until I can’t commit any more to memory. I am fascinated by all the things she is willing to admit to a stranger. Her father is a lobsterman. Mine was in the Navy. She jokes about us both being Neptune’s children and confesses her shellfish allergy when I ask about lobster rolls. A space between her front teeth appears every time she laughs that I think looks cute. An entire notebook gets filled before we leave the bar. Once I explain the lists, she doesn’t ask any more about my notetaking. She talks. I write. That would scare most people away. She doesn’t seem like a person who needs to make lists for herself to stay organized.
We agree that dating apps are perfect social tools for engineering meetings between people who have absolutely no reason to be together. Her dating stories are better than mine and I understand her appeal for the men and women she tells me she’s slept with. I stop worrying about whether I’m making a good impression when she tells me she’s reading a graphic novel about vampires.
I’m in love a little bit by the time she closes the tab and tells me, “I can usually tell pretty quickly if I’m interested in seeing someone again by what my body tells me.” I have no idea why she’s bringing in dating physiology this late in the night, but am kind of into it. My own body reverts to the tension I felt walking here to meet her. She says, “With some guys, I just have this very physical reaction. Like some primitive signal for letting me know someone is trouble or might not be there for me the next day.”
Intrigued, I ask if that’s what she’s feeling for me now.
“Absolutely not,” she says, looking me over again just to make sure I’m harmless. “But let’s meet tomorrow morning for the mail run. The ferry really is the best way to see the islands.” I hate mornings and consider how nice it would be to get coffee and scones from the bakery across from where I’m staying after the sun rises. Instead, I agree to meet her in a few hours.
We walk a few blocks in the same direction before she stops in front a parked squad car. “Check this out,” she says, smashing the driver side window with her elbow. “Now you try.” She dusts off a few shards from her olive drab canvas jacket sleeve. I stare at her, absorbing every possible consequence of what she’s done. “You’re not going to make me do both, are you?” she motions towards the passenger window saying, “Too bad, I really thought I liked you.” A couple passing by slows to look closer into the shattered window. “It’s fine, we’re all fine here.”
The couple rounds the corner and I drop my elbow into the windshield. We run off laughing into the dark. I’m too excited to sleep when I get back to my room, so I consider if I’ve ever triggered physiological signals in women’s bodies. I bet Blake has.
When I see the back of her head under the ferry terminal’s fluorescent lighting, she’s wearing the same chunky bangle on her wrist to go with the same red pants from the cocktail bar. Her hair is in the same brown bun from the night before with the same chopstick poking out. Her lipstick is gone. She’s brought me coffee and a muffin. “Hope you’re not allergic to nuts,” she says, picking fat walnuts off the top of her own muffin between sips out of a steamy paper cup marked by faintly stamped pink roses. The roses appear symmetrical until I blink them into focus and see how different they really are.
“Is that from the place across from where I’m staying?” I ask.
“It’s across from my place. Did you already tell me where you’re staying?”
It turns out Cathy Patterson’s Bed and Breakfast is two houses down from Alex’s apartment between Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house and his statue.
When one of the ferry crew members asks where we’re from, Alex says Falmouth. He nods in approval. I say, “The suburbs. Just outside of Boston,” since all those places exist in relation to somewhere else. He nods. He seems like a nice guy who’s lonely, but curious to hear why two thirty somethings are riding the pre-dawn mail run on a Tuesday. There’s no one else to talk to, so we keep going.
He tells me he’s from right here on the next island. “Chub-ee-gue?” I ask. “Chub-i-gue,” he says. I laugh before he does. “My daughter lives in Boston now,” he says. “Very different from where she grew up, but she seems to like it.” He redirects my attention toward the end of his greasy finger, “If you look out that way, you can see Mount Washington.”
“Amazing,” I say, even though it’s obvious how beautiful everything is.
“My daughter says the same thing every time she comes home now.”
I’m sure his daughter voted differently than he did. I wonder if I’ve ever met her in a Cambridge bar or spilled half a beer on her knees trying to get back to my seat at a Sox game.
It gets really cold when we clear the harbor and start cruising towards Little Diamond Island to pick up kids going to school in Portland. I’m thinking about summer just to stop shivering as we pick up a group of senior citizens from Great Diamond chatting about their doctors and dentists. My notebook page tells me which island we are headed to next. I’ve written: Peaks Island, Little Diamond, Great Diamond, Chebeague, Long Island, Cliff Island.
Alex points out a civil war era fort, an oil refinery, and the lobster traps buoyed in the same lanes her dad uses. She wraps a scarf around her neck as the wind flicks at the chopstick in her hair. The ferryman is wearing shorts and a slicker, though it’s not raining. He throws a plug of tobacco in his mouth and swallows his saliva rather than spit into the wind. I’m cold, but don’t dare say so as the sun creeps out of the water to reclaim the day with purple streaks that match the veins on my hand.
Having guys like this who know how to navigate boats through the channels without charts would be a huge advantage for moving people and supplies. Looking around the deck, I realize what a treasure chest of survival gear comes with each seaworthy vessel: rope, chain, pulley, ax, fire extinguisher, flare gun, compass.
I think about how the fort’s position at the mouth of the harbor is just as dominant now as it was when it was built. Alex talks over the election process with the ferryman since they have different opinions about the results. She finds out her dad knows another member of the ferry crew.
By the time we return to the harbor we left from a few hours before, Portland’s commuters and students have brought the city back to life. He thanks us for keeping him company on the early run and tells Alex to come back any time. “Enjoy your visit,” he tells me as we walk ahead of a cart full of mail parcels across the gangplank back to land. Tourists form a line for the scenic route scheduled to depart in another twenty minutes. They take pictures of crew members in coveralls refueling while smoking cigarettes at a less than safe distance. The fluorescent lights of the terminal lobby are dead now as a voice announces boarding for the sunrise cruise even though the morning is well under way.
“Hungry?” asks Alex. “There’s a place you should check out while you’re here if you’re still looking for a lobster roll. It’s full of guys like this coming off the boats.”
“Are you sure you’re not going to have an allergic reaction?”
“I’ve been around this enough my whole life to know where the limits are. Just keep it away from my French toast and we’ll be fine.”
I’m taking this early lunch at a seafood diner with three dollar cups of homemade chowder as a sign that there’s still a chance Alex is interested in more than just showing me around.
When we order from a woman with white hair and a pink apron, I say “I didn’t realize there’s still such a huge commercial fishing industry here.” Her face tells me I’m another tourist who hasn’t done his homework. Her name tag says Angie. Two younger guys wearing waterproof coveralls smell like the mechanically processed canned tuna with the mermaid on it that makes me nauseous. Their omelet and pancakes look convincing, but I go for the twenty-three dollar lobster roll because that’s what everyone told me I should get in Portland. Alex doesn’t talk me out of it. Angie lets me know she knows I’m just visiting with her smile and two quick taps of her pen against a notepad. She pushes through the doors to the kitchen which releases a smell of oily fish and fried grease that covers everything else people are eating.
When Angie returns balancing our plates on her arm, Alex is telling me about how Portland compares to the rest of Maine. When I ask Alex what she thinks of the French toast, she shrugs and raises her coffee mug for a top off. “What’s next on the agenda for today?” she asks.
“Don’t you have to be at work?”
“I already called in sick. They won’t fire me. I don’t feel like calculating deductibles for senior citizens today anyway.”
We end up drinking beers next to the cryptozoology museum at the only brewery open before noon since we can’t decide what to do next. We talk about what a great idea putting a brewery next to Bigfoot and Nessie is for business. She tells me chupacabras are probably just diseased coyotes as I’m writing down all the animals I can think of that may or may not exist. When we run out of animals, we think of history’s most influential pseudoscience. I read what we have: Global warming, psychokinesis, cigarette carcinogens, eugenics-based compulsory sterilization, and Wilhelm Reich’s orgone box.
She says, “Might as well add America in there too.”
All the versions of America we can think of deserve their own list. I show her a new column where I’ve retraced the capital “A” a few times to make it stand out from merica. “Are we listing best, worst, most disillusioned?”
“Yes. All of those,” she says, naming a few periods straight from Howard Zinn’s People’s History. “I’d have to go with Cold War hegemon as my favorite. Strangelove style fear of The Bomb really gave us some good stuff: Lunar landings, deep sea exploration, polio vaccines, silicon computer chips.” I’m writing furiously.
“That’s all very practical stuff.” She says, “Plus, The Rolling Stones, Twiggy, highball cocktails, domestic tourism and oral contraception. It’s when we really doubled down to win or die fighting the red wave. We got some weird stuff too like state mottos, Howard Johnson motor lodges and psychedelic drug research.”
My wrist hurts, but I’m buying every word of her history lesson. I’m three words behind the one I’m hearing while trying to scribble faster without missing anything. I start a new column for State Mottos and start with the obvious: Land of Lincoln, Live Free or Die, The Empire State, Virginia is for Lovers. Alex adds some I’ve never heard of. Legendary, Native America, Big Sky Country, Life Changing, As Big as You Think. By the time I’m back in The Spirit of America, Blake will be golfing in the eternal bliss of The Sunshine State and Alex will be here entertaining someone else in…
“What’s Maine’s slogan?”
“I think it’s Must Be Maine now? They changed it. If you ask around here, a lot of people still tell you it’s Vacationland. The postcard nostalgia generation isn’t just going to ditch something that’s been on every license plate since the thirties that easily.”
“Must have been quite a different place back then,” I say.
“We still get our share of tourists,” she winks at me and clicks her tongue against her teeth.
On the way out, she says, “Want to see a parade tomorrow?” I think of inflatable Spiderman balloons, backup singers in tights warmed by choreographed movements, and commentators wearing earmuffs while they list facts for the next float.
“What’s it for? Arbor Day or something?” I realize how little confidence I have in what I just said when I hear it out loud.
“It’s Veterans Day. My office is closed.”
Instead of sticking around, Alex says she has to run some errands. The way she’s texting furiously and smiling into her screen tells me she’s probably doing more than laundry. I offer to come with and help. “No need,” she says. “I’ll let you have some time to explore things on your own.”
I’m jealous of whoever she’s about to meet. I make a list of all the things they’re probably going to do to each other later tonight while I’m watching a history channel documentary by myself about Armistice Day or something else no one cares about. I have another lobster roll for dinner at a place with local oysters and hamachi carpaccio. I don’t argue when the waiter recommends the Chenin blanc. He asks how many glasses I need for the bottle and I raise a lonely finger, thinking about what Alex would order at a place like this. There’s not a single pancake or pair of coveralls anywhere. There are plenty of couples and business people wearing sport coats. Everyone is drunk and oblivious to the news headlines reporting another coordinated attack in Midtown Manhattan claimed by New York’s Black Star resistance cell.
When the sun from the big windows hits me the next morning, I consider staying in bed. It’s too comfortable to leave and I can really do without facing the hangover. I stare out the window into a tree and consider the possibility of a day with nothing to worry about. Alex has already texted me the name of a cafe and the time to meet her there. I guess at what’s she’ll be wearing when I see her.
We grab seats by the window so we don’t miss the sloppy hubristic display from: Boy Scouts, American Legionnaires, VFW Post 832, The Black Rebel Outlaws Motorcycle Club, Miss Maine, Democratic State Representative James Thurghorn III, The Portland Brewers’ Guild, Firefighters from Ladder 6, Republican State Representative John Rollins, The Maine Lobstering Union, Our Lady of the Mountain Parish and Miss Teen Maine. They roll, walk, march and scoot their way down Congress Street along with plenty of cops keeping people off the curb.
I write them all down and imagine a celebration overlooking Casco Bay where thousands of lobsters are boiled alive and served with melted butter on toasted hot dog buns. The Boy Scouts could raise all the money they need for the year selling buttered bread and claw flesh to Portland’s students, fishermen, dentists, and artists at a reasonable markup. Angie would be there. The Halloween bartender with the snake tattoo would definitely be there. Maybe Alex’s dad would show up with his friend from the ferry crew. It would be more fun to bring everyone together on equal terms than stare at them as they walk down the street. Alex and I would be there too if it actually existed. Instead, everyone is back to their distractions before dinner.
“What do you think?” She says.
“Not quite sure what to think of these,” I say. “Did you hear about the attacks yesterday?” Her face is quiet.
“I know some people who were there.”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize. Are they okay?”
“Yeah, they made it out alright.” I see she knows more than she’s telling me.
“It’s nothing that’s going to stop a city like New York. They’ve fought this since the beginning. Black Star is testing for something bigger.” She runs fingers through her hair and I notice a tiny black star tattooed on her wrist.
Even though it’s my last day in Portland, I know I should feel scared and run from her, even report her to the police loitering along the parade route. Yet, I trust her more than anyone else I’ve met in the past three years. Fear can be such a unifying force. It makes you do things you don’t want to. I write a few of them down so I don’t forget: direct a documentary film, burn a flag, call my mother, vote, tell my sister I love her, cry in front of strangers, go to church.
I’m still writing when she says, “I’ve got to run and take care of a few things. We’ll be in touch.” When I look up from my notebook, she’s already deep into the dissipating crowd of parade spectators. She has my number and I have hers. I realize how little that actually means. A boy cries next to me. He’s lost his parents and I know how he feels. A squad pushes through the throng showing off its lights and siren.
I’m not afraid of looking dumb in public like all those vets in the parade. That kind of fear is nothing compared to what I expect to see if the violence between the government and Black Star keeps escalating. I like to think I’ll know exactly which side I’m on when the government starts killing Muslims more openly now that the camps are full. No one seems to be thinking much about that one yet.
I’m not really sure what to think about all the protesting and bombings. I’m not a revolutionary or anything. I want to make things better just as much as anyone else with a heart does. I’ve thought about what I can do. Maybe I’ll see if Blake and Jill are interested in getting involved, though I suspect they’re both probably too busy going out to brunch and catching up on all their TV shows to care about anything that threatens their leisure.
I don’t necessarily need them to lead a fundraiser, volunteer, or start a publication I could file as a 503c non-profit. I’ve got my own ideas for what I would call it. It’s not like I’d be the first. The problem I’m running into is that the best names have already appeared throughout the previous century. I write down the ones I know off the top of my head from reading history: Le Faux Soir, Robotnik, Samizdat, Combat. I’m sure I’ll think of something.
Eventually though, someone has to be the asshole who throws the first Molotov cocktail at the tanks they brought through Times Square a couple weeks ago. We’re in for a big wake up when all the gun shy liberal intellectuals finally realize we aren’t getting out of this one with another witty op-ed in The Atlantic.
Alex calls me at the office a few weeks later to tell me she started the Portland Community Foundation with the mission of advancing local interests nationally. She’s clearly still interested in more than just showing me around. Blake struts behind me and asks who I’m talking to. “Some girl I met in Portland,” I say, shielding the office phone from Blake. He high fives me. His eyes catch me writing detonation cord and plastic explosives on a list that already includes Drano, aerosol cans, charcoal, liquid dish soap, aluminum foil, and ammonium nitrate fertilizer under the double underlined heading Bomb Stuff. He walks back to his own desk with less of a strut and more of a glare.
The Portland Community Foundation has already raised several thousand dollars for Planned Parenthood. They’re looking for volunteers who might be interested in going beyond the typical fundraising activities into something more provocative. Making Director seems pretty fucking far away with Blake and Jill next in line for promotion, so I keep listening. Alex needs volunteers who aren’t afraid, who can stay focused no matter how bad things get. She needs someone who is organized, who is good at making lists and I’m writing everything down.