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At the End of the World: Chapter One

       Last updated: Monday, May 25, 2020 19:15 EDT



My Journal, 2012

May 29 (revised)

    My mom always had a knack for making friends. Friends who were men. If you know what I mean.

     That’s probably not the best way to start the first journal I’ve ever kept. But if I don’t lead with and explain that, you’ll get the wrong impression of her and of how I came to be on a ship when the plague hit.

    See, she didn’t want to leave me on my own in Los Angeles for a few weeks, but it was really the best move. For both of us. Ever since I was born, it was just the two of us. The deadbeat who was my biological father was out of the picture six months before I popped into the world. Then Mom’s otherwise super-religious Catholic family did a role reversal and tried to convince her that I shouldn’t be allowed to exist at all. Because: racism. They were worried I might have darker skin than theirs, apparently. Which is kind of weird, considering they were victims of discrimination their whole lives. But before they could disown my mom and me, she disowned them.

    We managed to hang on in New York until I was about eight. Mom didn’t start out with a great job, but between weekends at the closest community college and a few online courses, she managed to earn an associate’s degree. That allowed her to get into executive assistant positions, at which she was pretty darn good.

    And at every job, she always seemed to find friends. Friends who were men. It’s not like any of them took a lot of interest in me, but that was cool, because I knew what the deal was before I knew the words for it.

    Now it’s easy to make all sorts of nasty assumptions about a person who will approach their career that way. But here’s the deal. Mom got better jobs by changing employers. And every time she got a new job, she needed a new ally, somebody who could keep her from being a victim of office politics or other bullshit. And while she always liked the men she dated at her job, this wasn’t the life she would have chosen for herself. I mean, with me along and no family, she didn’t have any margin for error.

    But mom never said word one about that. She made sure I always had a quiet place to study, a patient ear to talk to, and, when needed, a single spank to set me straight when I was in danger of steering wrong. There was always food on the table, always a shoulder to cry on, always a person take care of the cuts and bruises that I got from all the fights. Which I didn’t win very often, cuz I’m not a big guy.

    So it was kind of a surprise when we had to pick up and move out to L.A.. I’m not sure why things went south so quickly at her last job. She didn’t say much, which was unlike her. She usually tried to explain things to me like I was a grown up, but this wasn’t one of those times. Looking back, I’m guessing her man-friend at the last job got married and his new wife couldn’t stand him having his former squeeze in the same building. Which meant she squeezed my mom out of her job. And that put us on a bus to the sunny City of Angels.

    I wasn’t too surprised that we didn’t see any angels. Instead, the real surprise was the cold climate we encountered in the Hispanic community. It hadn’t been like that back in New York. Maybe that was because there you were always surrounded by other ethnic groups and — since they are seen as the competition — you tended to be tightest with the people who came from the same culture and spoke the same language.

    That wasn’t the case in California. In our neighborhood, you almost never saw anyone from any other culture. Where my mom worked, almost everybody at her level was a Latino or Latina — just not as skilled or experienced as she was. She was willing to share what she knew and to pay her dues, but they didn’t want her help or her friendship. They just wanted her out of the way.

    Except there was one little problem with that. My mom was smarter and tougher than all of them put together. In just four years, she was working as an office manager. And of course, as she got better positions with each new change of employer, she always made new friends. Yeah, friends who were men.

    Me, I wasn’t so lucky with our new home. My school was like her first workplace: wall-to-wall Latino and Latina. And, like my mom, I was The Outsider, the kid from the wrong Coast, the kid who didn’t fit, and the kid who was so small that he was pretty much sure to lose any fight he got into. Which the other boys spent a lot of time proving my first year there. However, unlike my mom, I couldn’t change my gig.

    That’s why I got involved in aikido. I didn’t let anybody at school know about it because it had zero street cred. It didn’t look cool like kung fu or karate. And I was just one guy. So they didn’t notice any change, and I didn’t make any waves about it.

    But when I got to high school, the guys with stubble on their chin decided to make me their punching bag again. I guess it was to prove that their cojones were as big as their egos. Bad surprise for them. But I had to be smart about when and where I was willing to let something get physical.

    See, if you think there’s any honor left in big-city public high schools, you clearly haven’t been in one recently. That’s why I had to keep the fights as private as possible: one or two bystanders at most. That way, when a bully got dumped on his ass by a pipsqueak like me, almost no one saw or heard about it. And if I didn’t open my yap, he sure wasn’t going to either. Which, in turn, made him less willing to take a second chance at it.

    So by the time I was ready to graduate, I was pretty much left alone. I’d been an okay swimmer, a pretty fair soccer player by any standard outside of the Latin and Jamaican communities, and yeah, I did pretty well in school. Salutatorian, with A’s in pretty much everything except art. My rendering of the human form really hadn’t improved much since I was about four. Maybe it had gotten worse. Frankly, I didn’t much care.

    However, there was going to be one problem with that long-envisioned moment where I sat bored at graduation, not envying the valedictorian. And that problem was because — you guessed it — my mom had made a new friend.

    But this time it was different. She met this guy while he was consulting for her company for three months. He was a Brit, had a cool accent, was funny, kind, and seemed to genuinely like me. But if the relationship was going to have any chance to develop into something serious, Mom had to follow him back to London for a while.



    There was a professional angle to this situation, too. She had exactly what his company lacked, and really wanted, in their London office: an American woman with native Spanish fluency to help in their international marketing division. So this was a huge step up for Mom.

    The only hitch was that she had to go over in late May. That meant that she wasn’t going to be around for my graduation, and that I’d be on my own in La-La Land for better than a month afterward.

    So we put our heads together and found a way for me to get out of town after only two or three days on my own and get her even more time to prove her value on the job in London. It was one of a set of packaged trips chartered through some company called Sail to Discovery. They sent kids on supposedly educational sea journeys to places like the Galapagos Islands, the reefs off Cancun and Cozumel, and other sexy and cool places where there’s lots of sun and a reasonable chance of underage drinking, at least by American standards.

    Unfortunately, a latecomer like myself, who needed as much financial support as possible, couldn’t exactly pick and choose destinations. Particularly not when the really cool ones had been booked solid for almost half a year. So my ultimate destination — after shooting down the western side of South America and going around the Cape of Good Hope — was the oceanic ass-end of nowhere: South Georgia Island.

    Never heard of it? Neither had I. There’s good reason for that. It’s a fucking shit hole. Correction: it’s a fucking cold shit hole. But, because it was under-booked, and the charter company was able to save tax dollars by offering some berths on the cruise as scholarships for inner-city students, I was able to go for a fraction of the usual cost: it averaged out to only twelve dollars a day.  Hell, there was no way I could have lived for that low a rate in L.A., so it was a done deal.

    Which meant that, two days after Mom made a big batch of empanadas, kissed me, and then took off for England, I walked out the door to catch the bus that would take me to San Diego and Sail to Discovery. And to begin my journey to a part of the world where, in the old days, the maps only had a blank space and a legend such as, “Here be dragons,” or “Ultima Thule.”

    And that’s why I wasn’t around to see everything go to hell in a handbasket.

    Thanks to my mom and her knack for making friends.

    *     *     *

    This package to South Georgia advertised that over the twelve weeks, the journey would “make every Discoverer an experienced sailor.” So of course, the first part of the trip didn’t have a damned thing to do with sailing. We got shipped down to the Galapagos on what the company called a “liner.” I think a more accurate term would be “partially refurbished freighter.” The cabins, if you could call them that, were not much more than sections of the hold which had been partitioned into closet-sized bunks. The “amenities” and food were like the cabins: total crap.

    It’s not like the Galapagos has a huge marine terminal or anything like that, but it was the first stop on every “Sail to Discovery” itinerary. It’s where you went to hook up with your particular charter’s boat. Within two hours of arriving, I was being ferried out to the hull that was actually going to take me a third of the way around the world. The ship, the Crosscurrent Voyager, was a long-hulled pilot house ketch. She was seventy feet at the waterline and made for long-distance ocean sailing.

    Accommodations were still cramped, but well-designed, not refitted for the purpose. It wasn’t the best painted or shiniest ship, but it looked sturdy and the deck felt solid underfoot.

    And that’s where I met Chloe.

    Now, I have to be honest: when I first saw Chloe from behind, I wasn’t sure if she was a guy or a girl: she was, as the saying has it, sturdily built. Don’t misunderstand: that is not at all a euphemism for being overweight. Let’s put it this way: if I had to make draft choices for a woman’s rugby team, she would be my very first pick. Probably be in my top three picks for a men’s team, in fact.

    First time I saw her, she had her back towards me and was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. She was lifting one of the yardarms with two of the other people who were part of our Sailing to Discovery group. Then she turned around, and I realized my mistake in identifying her as male.

    No, I’m not talking about female body features. Well, I’m not just talking about those. What I mean is that she looked like one of the women you’d see in a Spanish painting of angels or their earthly assistants. At least that’s what I thought of when I saw the heart-shaped face, the almost feline eyes with long lashes that looked like they had been genetically altered to always have mascara on them, and lips that my mom’s co-workers in LA got from plastic surgeons. The first words out of Chloe’s mouth were utterly characteristic of who I learned her to be:

    “What the hell are you staring at?”

    Yep, that was a typical Chloe greeting. Although, once I got to know her, I realized that this was a pretty mild introduction. She used language so inventively obscene that, had I used it, I’m pretty sure my mom would have thrown me off the top of our apartment building. It was the sort of stuff you just didn’t say where other people could hear. But Chloe did. All the time. That’s just who she is.

    I blame her appearance and first words for what I did next, which made it quite clear to everyone else how totally at home I felt on the deck of the Crosscurrent Voyager. Because, you know, I’d read about ships. I’d watched YouTube videos about rigging and how you’re supposed to work the lines and catch the wind and all that crap. Which meant, of course, that I didn’t know shit about sailing.

    It was about thirty feet from the accommodation ladder at the stern to the knot of people standing amidships. In the process of covering that span of deck, I managed to whack my head into the davits for the dinghy, almost get hit by the now-swinging yard, and step into an unspooling line that tangled around my foot. Yeah, I cut a real cool nautical figure.

    Chloe laughed harder and louder than the rest, shook her head, and called me pequeño. Which just did wonders for my ego.

    In fact, I was so busy nursing my wounded pride that I didn’t notice that the line around my foot was tightening and preparing to saw through my ankle. But before that could happen, the Great Ghoul of the Ocean-Sea rose up out of nowhere to put me out of my misery.

    Okay, so the captain wasn’t actually a ghoul, but he sure as hell looked like one. Even stooped, he still stood an inch or two over six foot, and everything about him was long. His face, his beard, his eyebrows, his legs, and his stares. The last of which he fixed upon me with undead intensity as I tried to untangle myself from the rope. I couldn’t tell if he was annoyed or just waiting for it to amputate my foot. So that I couldn’t run away before he devoured me. Prior to full exsanguination, naturally. 

    Instead, without even looking, he reached to the side, grabbed a gaff, somehow got it into the tiny, shrinking gap between my foot and the spinning rope. Then, with only a directional nod of his head, he coached me into the one move that allowed me to escape a ring of rope burn that might have cut down to the bone.



    I looked at him, knowing I should say thanks, but all I could do was stare at him. I guess he saw gratitude in my eyes; he nodded and said, “Never on a boat before?”

    Now, I pride myself on having reasonable skill with words. I like to think that on first meeting somebody, I’ll have a remark or a quip which leaves them with a positive impression of me. I certainly displayed that skill on this day. Still looking straight into his eyes, I responded, “Um, um, yes, I mean, no, sir. I mean, never on a boat. Until now. Except the one that brought us down. Sir.” If I could have looked and sounded more like a jackass, I don’t know how I would have done it.

    Behind me, I heard Chloe crack up. I have to say, her laugh was the least pretty thing about her that day. She sounded like a cross between a hyena and a banshee.

    The Great Ghoul of the Ocean-Sea just kept looking at me and his mouth moved. I think that was a smile. Whatever it was, he hooked a cadaverous finger in my direction and led me back into the ship’s bridge. Well, pilot house, on this ship. It’s fully enclosed and is kind of perched over the weather deck, putting it a bit high for most sailboats. But, given where we were sailing, I guess that made a lot of sense; the weather around Tierra del Fuego is said to be some of the worst.

    Once the pilot house door was closed, he pointed to a table where old-fashioned paper maps were laid out. It’s not like he didn’t have electronic gadgets all over the place. From what I could tell, there were three different kinds of radar and two different kinds of positioning systems. But he just folded his arms, looked me up and down, and said, “You are Alvaro, right?”

    “Yes, sir,” I answered. A simple sentence, but a distinct improvement over the last one. I was proud of myself.

    He nodded. A very small motion. Almost as though he feared his neck vertebrae were so brittle that they’d crack. “So, you did pretty well in school, didn’t you?”

    What, was this a test? An ID check? Making sure he was about to indulge his undead penchant for eating only high IQ schoolkids? But all I said was, “Yes, sir.”

    “Good. I want to see what you can do with these maps, that calculator, and the charts.”

    I was this dumb. I said, “Do what — er, Captain?”

    He sighed. It was like the exhalation of a dying vole. “I want to see you chart the first leg of our course. Think you can get us to Valparaiso, on the Chilean coast?”

    I looked at all the papers and devices which had not looked intimidating only five seconds before. “I’m not sure, Captain,” I said. “I might need a little help.”

    He looked out the window (it’s not round so I guessed you couldn’t call it a porthole), and answered, “I expected as much. Let’s get to work.”

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