The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Ivan called the Sunday after we buried Sunshine.
Lucy yelled for me to come to the phone Sunday afternoon.
“Clay, it's for you!” Lucy yelled from the foyer.
I'd just put Dylan in his crib. I hesitated for a few seconds to see if he would wake up. He didn't. I headed for the door. As I turned the knob, I stopped, going back to make sure Dylan was breathing.
I went out on the landing and raced downstairs to take the call I'd been waiting for since forever. Lucy stayed to hand me the phone. She reached out to hold my free hand, knowing this wouldn't be easy.
I wasn't sure what to say to him. I was angry. Ivan wasn't here when I needed him. I knew it wasn't his fault, but that didn't help. I made it easy for him to go and call when he felt like it.
I never knew I'd need him the way I needed him now, but he was on his own mission. Why did I think he should race home to me because I was hurting? I didn't know a lot of things.
How could Sunshine just die?
There was a mixed bag of feelings by the time I got to the bottom of the stairs. If he immediately said, 'I'm on the way,' any more conversation would delay him. It was a nice thought but I hadn't told him about Sunshine yet. What could he do?
'Better late than never,' I thought, or was it?
Ivan didn't know trouble had come to the beach. I wanted to tell him how much I cared about him. How much I missed him. It didn't take long to figure out how much I needed him. I didn't realize there were times like these, until the time came.
My mind was a whirl of thoughts and emotions, points I wanted to make. How did I let him know how desperately I needed him to come home? I needed him to hold me. I needed him to tell me that we were all right.
Lucy squeezed my hand when I didn't speak.
“Ivan!” I said, trying to collect all those thoughts so I'd sound half way intelligent.
I watched my feet shuffling under me. My eyes were burning.
“Hey, how's it hanging, stud,” Ivan said happily.
Lucy hadn't said anything to him. She didn't know what to say either, but Lucy knew that hearing from Ivan might set my emotions off again. I was determined not to lose control.
“OK,” I said, watching my feet moving without me moving them.
I tried to swallow but couldn't. I couldn't think straight. I was fighting back the tears now.
“What's wrong, Clay?” he asked.
That was it. The tears rolled and the sobs came next. I put down the pone. Maybe Lucy might be able to tell him.
I headed for the stairs.
“Hello, Ivan,” Lucy said as I reached the second level.
She'd stayed close just in case. She knew her brother well.
“No, he's not doing too well. Sunshine died Monday, Ivan. We're all a bit low at the moment. Can you call in a few days? Bye.”
Opening my bedroom door, I waited until I heard Lucy hang up. I went to the crib and looked at my son, easing him into my arms. I took him out on the porch to rock him and watch the glorious Gulf.
I wondered if Dylan could dream yet.
The tears stopped. I had so much to say to Ivan. I was helpless without him.
What I feared, before I didn't say what I had to say to Ivan, was telling him about Sunshine and hearing him say, 'What do you expect me to do, Clay? I'm a million miles away,' and he was.
That was my fear but I was too lame to tell him about Sunshine, but now he knew. What difference it would make, I didn't know.
I didn't recall where Ivan had been last or where he was heading next, but during the night on Monday or early Tuesday, he was home.
I woke up in Ivan's arms.
I forgot we weren't together any longer. At first it was just like old times. Then I became certain I was dreaming. It wasn't unlike a hundred dreams I'd had since he left.
I didn't want to wake up. I liked the comfort I got from this dream. There was only stark reality that faced me when I woke. I'd had all the reality I could take for now. I wanted to dream nice dreams.
Hanging between sleep and wakefulness, wanting to be held forever, I heard Ivan's clear distinctive voice.
“Have I ever told you that I love you?” Ivan whispered in my ear as his arms tightened around me.
“Ivan!” I said. “Oh Ivan.”
Twisting in his arms until I could kiss his lips. The familiar feel of his body against mine was welcome relief from my misery.
Ivan was home. He hadn't disappeared when I woke up. This time the dream was real and so was our love.
Happiness surged through me. It approached pure joy. For a minute, as I hugged my body against his, I put everything but Ivan out of my mind. Life was perfect. We were OK. Ivan was home.
Then I cried. I sobbed. I shook with grief, and Ivan held me close until I fell asleep from exhaustion. I'd finally let my emotions out.
When I woke up, I felt better. Ivan was holding me. I looked at his face, watching his eyes open as he sensed me looking at him. His smile lit up the room.
“You OK, babe? I'm worried about you. I'm so sorry I couldn't get here faster.”
“I'm fine now. You came home,” I said. “I love you so much. You don't know how much.”
“I'm not a space cadet, Clay. I'm sorry I wasn't here for you sooner. I'll stay as long as you need me,” he foolishly offered.
“I need you forever, Ivan. I want to be together forever.”
“I know,” he said, realizing his mistake.
He wanted to stay for as long as it took for me to get back into the fight. He'd come home to be beside me until my strength returned and the ground under me became stable again.
He didn't say he put his search for Boris on hold for me but he did. I was grateful I could see him, touch him, and hold him close. I would take what he gave me. No matter how long he stayed, I'd want him to stay longer.
He came home without me asking. That said everything I needed to know. My fears that he wouldn't put his search on hold for me were unfounded. Even though we hadn't been together for a year, we were still together.
There were many kinds of love. His love for Boris had deeper roots than his love for me. It didn't make one love superior to the other but I was safe at home. He didn't worry about me. Boris was lost and there was no way to know what condition he was in.
Nothing was closer than family. We didn't always get along, and Mama may have loved one of us best, but these were the people who shaped me for better or for worse.
The tie to a good family was nearly unbreakable, even when you are breaking away from it. The family you grew up in is reinforced by the family you have. I'd seen all these cycles now.
If one of my brothers went missing, like Teddy, I wouldn't know how to go about finding him. When Teddy came to mind and I worried if he was safe or not, I'd go to Pop. So far each time the subject came up, Pop said, “Teddy's fine. You know I can't tell you more.”
Teddy was missing from my life but not from the family as long as Pop heard from him and knew he was safe. Ivan didn't have that reassurance. The government had the only information about Boris. The official word was, Boris Aleksa is an MIA, lost in a war zone, during a military action.
Unofficially there were almost fifty men who were in his company. They were in the battle with Boris. Unofficially they were the key to Ivan's search.
“What are they telling you, Ivan?”
“So far I'm getting the same story from each of them.”
“What's the point if they all tell you the same thing.”
“Not exactly the same thing, close though. Military men are indoctrinated to respond as a unit. There is group think because of their programming, but each gives me something I didn't have before. I figure there are a few who weren't as easy to program. They may have seen things from a different perspective and saw something their buddies didn't see. That's my hope.”
The family I couldn't wait to escape, once I went to work for Mr. Aleksa on his fishing boat, I ran back to when I didn't know what else to do. Now I depended on them in ways I never did before. The bond between us stretched but didn't break.
They took me back as though I'd never been gone. I left them but they never left me. We grew closer, stronger, until now, and now Ivan was the only one who could furnish what I needed.
As big a comfort as my family had become, Ivan was the answer to my prayers. He could save me from myself, which would give me time to heal.
I'd gone through a lot of transitions, thinking I was grown up, thinking I'd never grow up. My family never blinked. When I was living at Ivan's, my parents knew I was within easy reach. When I was gone for days on end, they knew I was with Ivan's father on his fishing boat. There was risk but it went with my employment. My parents didn't deny me that freedom. I was growing up.
Even now, when Dylan kept everyone up at night, no one complained. He was an Olson. He was the continuation of the Olson family. It didn't mean they weren't crankier than usual, but as difficult as Dylan could be, his presence revitalized us. The cycle had begun anew. Our family was young again through him.
Dylan and I would still be living in the conservancy house when Ivan finally came home for good, because our family lived there. It's where Dylan lived. It was the only home he knew and I would not move him until he was ready and willing to move, and over the years the conservancy house was a nurturing place to be.
I grew up with Mama's guidance and Pop's patience. They taught me by example to be a decent, caring person. That didn't mean we got along all the time. Even when I was misunderstood and not doing what they wanted, they knew I was a good kid. I knew they loved me. As far as Mama's too nosy, too angry God, she believed in him and the wrath he dished out to helpless humans when he had a bad day. To respect Mama I had to acknowledge her God as real, no matter how I felt on the subject.
Mama, her God, and I weren't done clashing yet. In spite of Dylan being the apple of everyone's eye, there were certain ideas Mama had that started with Sunshine and me. Dylan was also Mama's reminder of those ideas. I mistook her silence for acceptance.
I didn't realize how much Sunshine's death impacted Mama, but I'd find out once she assigned blame, according to her God of course. She somehow knew her God's mind and she'd only be capable of remaining silent on the subject for so long.
Pop's reaction to Sunshine's death was like mine. He was sad, depressed, and lost interest in most things. He worked to escape the house where Sunshine's light shined brightest. Sunshine was his daughter after all.
I don't know where Pop stood on Mama's God; he never said.
The people in the conservancy house lost their way after Sunshine was gone. The house grew quiet and it had an empty sound. Twila brought laughter and happiness in from outside. One would think she'd never known loss in her life, but she'd learned there was nothing to be done but go on. As close as she'd become to Sunshine, she took solace furnishing life sustaining milk for Dylan.
Twila's God was as real as Mama's but her God was easier on people when they fell on hard times.
As Ivan watched the goings on at our house, no one noticed he was in my bed each morning. Well, no one said anything about him being in my bed each morning. We were all delighted he was at the table each evening, and he had to sleep somewhere.
Each morning we received our wake up call between two and three. Ivan covered his head with the pillow and sighed, when I got up to move Dylan closer to the bottle we'd have warming soon.
Twila nursing Dylan at six most mornings and that was Ivan's next wake up call. I explained how it was Twila came to nurse Dylan. He was amazed by this, being in the dark about such things. If you didn't know what a wet nurse was, how'd you find out?
Ivan had none of the advantages I had. I don't know how he'd grown to be so strong and so smart, virtually on his own. In some ways I felt like he was luckier than I was to be on his own. That's until I went home to let my family protect me.
I suspected, because Ivan had so little family, his need to rescue his brother grew stronger. Boris was all he had in the way of siblings. His mother and father were not close. I lived at Ivan's from the time I turned fifteen, until I was eighteen, and I never saw Mrs. Aleksa. Working for Mr. Aleksa, I saw him on a regular basis.
The only time I saw Ivan's mother was when she came to the house next to the river to tell Mr. Aleksa that his son was lost. Like my father with Sunshine, Mr. Aleksa was sad, depressed, and he worked to keep his mind off of his missing son.
Ivan had one advantage I didn't have. He had two countries and a grandfather who told him all about the 'old country.'
Ivan's grandfather was an adventurer, a hero, he slipped the noose the Soviet Union had around Lithuania, and he escaped to the West. With his family hidden on board his fishing boat, and with an extra fuel tank he'd taken months to fill, the elder Aleksa sailed out of Vilnius harbor under the nose of the KGB agent the elder Aleksa plied with fish for the year before he made a run for it.
Ivan and his grandfather were close and Ivan spent the summers with him in the house next to the river. Ivan knew about the world in which he lived and he'd learned some Lithuanian, while learning about the country of his father's birth.
Ivan's father did not fish with his father. He lived with Ivan's mother in Tampa. Boris and Ivan were together as they grew. When the elder Aleksa died, Ivan's father moved his family into the house next to the river and took over the fishing boat he refused to fish on as long as his father was on it.
I came on the scene at fourteen. Ivan and I made fast friends. Once we were fifteen, his father allowed us to help on the boat with the kid, Kenny, he'd taken in when he found him homeless.
Ivan and I were practically inseparable for four years, until the news came about Boris when we were eighteen. Ivan got sad, depressed, and drunk in that order. Our relationship was on the skids, until he straightened his act out and decided he'd find Boris.
Ivan's family did battle and lived in different places his entire life. His brother loved him and deserted him. His mother was devious and determined to have her way in spite of Mr. Aleksa's wish to raise his sons on the water.
It was a family in name only, and yet when Boris was lost, Ivan made up his mind he'd find him. I couldn't imagine what that was like, but I knew Ivan was determined to do what he set out to do.
I didn't stand in his way. I didn't want to lose him, even when not objecting meant losing him for an unknown amount of time. Had I argued or been disagreeable, I'd be alone now. Instead the man I loved was holding me at night and helping me to grow stronger.
No one else could have rescued me and Ivan coming home meant he put me first, even when it came to his search. That meant a lot to me, even if I knew he'd leave in the end.
Ivan and I put aside our passion for the time being. I wasn't up to it and Ivan sensed that. He read me like a book. Being far more passionate than I was, it was another concession he made for me. We didn't go there but we shared more affection than we ever had.
I grew stronger by the day.
If there was such a thing as perfection at a time like that, I found it with Ivan. What mattered was that we were together.
The first time Dylan let loose with a scream the night Ivan came home, I deserted Ivan's arms, whisking Dylan up in a nanosecond. Working on my cutoffs with one hand, trying to soothe my son long enough to get downstairs to the kitchen.
I heard Ivan hit the stairs behind me as I left the foyer, entering the dining room. I hoped Ivan put his pants on. Mama or Lucy wouldn't be far behind me if they weren't already in the kitchen. When I hit the kitchen door, Lucy was standing at the stove. The bottle was in the pan of water and Lucy was turning on the heat.
“Morning, Clay. Morning Dylan,” Lucy sang, never being stressed by the early wake up call.
“Morning, Lucy,” I said. “Thanks. He's wound up this morning. He must have gotten plenty of rest yesterday.”
“Two or three minutes and we'll be in business,” Lucy said, looking at the timer she'd just set.
I opened the back door and stepped onto the porch. I found the night sky brightly lit. It may have been three or four, I calculated. There was no sign of first light as Dylan wailed on.
I considered investing in ear plugs if I intended to keep my hearing. Some divers used them to keep the water out of their ears.
I wondered if they'd work on Dylan's high frequency screams.
I had good timing. When I opened the door, Lucy was shaking drops of milk on her wrist to be sure it was OK for Dylan.
“What's Cumberland, Maryland like, Ivan?” Lucy asked, as I noticed Ivan sitting at the table in the shadows.
“It's rural. Cool at night. Wonderful sleeping weather. I rarely woke up at night.”
“Welcome to the wonderful world of babies,” she said.
“The people are OK, I guess. No babies to speak of. Not that I heard anyway. How can something so tiny make so much noise? I thought a jet was landing on the roof.”
I laughed, shoving the nipple in Dylan's mouth, savoring the instant silence when it hit my ears.
“You were in Cumberland?” I asked, as Dylan and I joined them at the table now that my son had what he wanted.
Lucy put a welcome cup of coffee in front of me. We all drank at the same time.
“I hit the highway right after we talked Sunday. A guy picked me up in five minutes. I was in Atlanta by nine Monday morning. It took two rides to get home from there. It would have been another half day's walk if the last guy didn't bring me to your driveway,” Ivan said. “I was here before midnight. That's all it takes, a bottle? Who knew? I was afraid he'd blow a gasket for a minute. I'd keep the bottle closer to the bed if I were you.”
“He does like his milk,” I said, watching Dylan drink happily.
“You look like you know what you're doing,” Ivan said. “When I left last year, you were just a big kid. Now you're a father with a kid.” Ivan said, sounding amazed.
“I guess we're growing up, Ivan,” I said.
He looked at me and then he looked at Lucy. He finally looked at the baby in my lap as he joyfully emptied the bottle.
“He's all wrinkly. Couldn't you get one they ironed first? He's pretty small,” Ivan said. “Does it scare you? I'd be scared I'd break it.”
“Yes, it's scary, but I'm all he's got now,” I said. “I'm the guy who is responsible for him for as long as he'll put up with me.”
I could see Ivan working on what I said. If he came home to be with me, he would need to deal with Dylan too.
A few minutes later, Mama came into the kitchen. I watched her eyes light up when she saw Ivan. Ivan stood up to get a hug. He was a head taller than she was. She hugged him warmly and I could see the delight in her eyes as she brushed the hair out of Ivan's eyes to see his handsome face. Ivan was one of the family and He'd come home.
“You could use some fattening up,” Mama said. “And a haircut.”
“He eating OK?” Mama asked, watching me watch Dylan.
“Yes, ma'am, it's all it took. He's happy as a lamb.” I said. “Aren't you, Dylan?”
It's the first time I got a good look at Ivan. I was sure he'd lost ten pounds or more. I could see his ribs.
When he came home to stay, Mama would fatten him up.
Lucy was in the habit of checking on me early each morning. If I was sleeping after a rough night, she took Dylan downstairs first thing in order for Twila to feed him in the kitchen and I didn't need to get up for a couple of hours.
My sister became good with Dylan the more experience she got and Dylan bonded well with her. She'd take him when she got the chance. Mama usually took Lucy to school while Twila was nursing Dylan.
I'd take Dylan until he fell asleep, which didn't take long after he ate. When Mama came in on the days she took Lucy to school, I took Twila to Harry's after Mama was back. The schedule varied according to the day.
On Ivan's first morning home, Pop was the only one who left the house. Lucy talked Mama into letting her stay home to take care of Dylan for me.
The week after Ivan came home my college classes began. The first month we'd cover the material I studied in the spring before I left school. If I intended to secure the credits I needed, I had to sit through the same material again.
On the first day of school Ivan insisted on driving me to school in Teddy's car. He sat in my classes with me, carried my books, and stayed close. My schedule was three academic courses in Fort Myers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The rest of my credits came from Bill Payne's instruction. I spent more time in my lab and in the Gulf of Mexico than I did in formal classroom settings, which suited me fine.
Bill was training the same three students along with me this semester. He conducted a variety of laboratory experiments and we had increasing amounts of dive time to teach us about the under water world we would inherit.
We were to be a new breed of marine biologist, spending as much time under water as on land looking into the Gulf. SCUBA gear created a type of marine biology that was as much marine as biology.
Florida was surrounded by water and depended on tourist dollars to keep the economy productive. We would attempt to hold back man's destructive influences by warning of the dangers of pollution. With that in mind we learned about the many species of sea creatures harmed by pollution.
Ivan was pleased that I was picking up the pieces of my life. He especially was interested in what I was studying. I had the impression it's what Ivan would be doing if he wasn't looking for Boris.
Since Bill had Harry stock the lab with state of the art equipment, he felt comfortable in the conservancy lab. Few labs in Florida were better equipped, which made his work enjoyable. Bill was right at home conducting classes there and I was close to home and my son if Mama got in over her head.
Harry wanted the Sanibel Island Conservancy to be known for its cutting edge biology laboratory. This meant I was learning on the equipment I'd be using while doing my job. My future was now, and I was even more comfortable there than Bill.
Ivan sat in on classes at the lab too and he took dives with us. It was like we were back together again, almost.
We used the Marina at the Cove for dives. Bill kept his boat there to take us diving. This meant I was close to home and easy to reach when I wasn't under water, but Bill's boat had a radio just in case.
This made it easier for me to leave Dylan. I still got up at night to make sure my son was breathing. I didn't know where the fear came from, but it kept me alert to my son no matter where I went.
Considering how long my days were, except on Tuesday and Thursday, I was conveniently located and close to home.
I was at work when I was in Bill's classes. My notes and specimens were at the center of many lessons, which was Harry's plan. As far as Harry was concerned, Bill and the conservancy laboratory figured into his plans for the preservation of the Gulf of Mexico. I was Bill's protege. The laboratory was home base.
At different parts of the year Bill was away from the lab and the Gulf. He did dives all over the world. He studied with marine biologists everywhere.
I was rarely far from my lab or the Gulf.
In 1969 it was difficult to see myself as a marine biologist and the main man involved with preserving the Gulf of Mexico, but that was Harry's plan. one day, when Bill Payne was off on his trips, I'd be the man who spoke on behalf of the Gulf. As far away as that seemed like it was, it was Harry's plan.
The Sanibel Island Conservancy's Biological Laboratory was to become a respected voice concerning the Gulf. A place where like minded people could come to read and study the information we gathered in my years there.
The future was at hand and Ivan was impressed by how comprehensive my education looked from his perspective.
“You'll make a good marine biologist, Clay,” Ivan said.
“Thank you, Ivan. I enjoy it. I want to be good at it.”
Having Ivan's respect was essential for me to be a success in life. Being in his arms every day that fall was essential to my healing.
At school, while changing classes, we'd pass an alcove or empty hall, and Ivan would pull me to him, hugging me close.
He'd whisper the words I loved to hear.
“Have I ever told you I love you?”
Driving in Teddy's car he might pull to the side of the road to hug me close for a few minutes.
On dives, when we were off by ourselves, he'd take my hand.
At night I fell asleep and I woke up in Ivan's arms.
It was almost like heaven.
I never wanted it to end, but as I grew stronger, I knew it would end soon. My life was back on track thanks to the man I loved.
Ivan had a mission. He'd interrupted it to comfort me. I needed him and he came home, but the time for him to resume his search was closing in on us.