Essay: Infinite Ocean

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The following is a micro-essay that first appeared on Twitter, which I’ve edited and pasted here in its entirety. Here are the others, in this, my series of micro-essays:

The Horizon Eaters
We Buy Gold
All the Boys and Girls


I don’t come from a family of water-lovers. My dad can’t swim, is terrified of the open water, and my mom, even when I was a kid—bless her—refused to get her hair wet at the lake and would send her sister, my aunt, in to play with us instead. But this never stopped me: I took swim lessons when I was a kid, was on an intramural swim team in elementary school, played water polo on the high school team and swam for one season, too. And I was spoiled, when I was younger: I grew up thirty minutes from Lake Michigan, a fresh water sea with no sharks, no predators (but a dangerous undertow in parts, yes), so I’d go on weekends with friends, wade out as far as I could, feel the velvety sand lake floor on my feet, and play in it for hours. Even now, I love the water: I love how it feels, I love the mystery of it, I love feeling so small being in it. Some of my absolute favorite memories from trips I’ve had are being in the water, watching, from my vantage, the beach, the scenery, bobbing there in the waves, a voyeur watching that mysterious land, studying it, its people.

The summer after my senior year in high school, the last summer before college, all I could think about was saving money. My job at Subway wasn’t cutting it, and a friend from church who worked as an assistant manager at a boating store—a popular brand of chain boating stores—said they were looking for someone. I applied, and although my family did not have a boat—and I had only been on paddle boats up to that point in my life—I was hired…as a cashier. That was my job—that’s it. Cashier. There was a quiet dignity, I thought. Stand there, check people out, make nearly $10 an hour (which, in the late ‘90s, was H-U-G-E). Enjoy the summer, get ready for college.

Most of my early days were spent watching the Nicole Kidman/Billy Zane/Sam Neil thriller Dead Calm on the VHS/TV combo that was supposed to be used to play a loop cassette of a boat wax commercial. Most days…it was dead, just me and a manager working, and when the cool manager was working, my friend from church, this is what we did. But, you see, boating stores are weird like that: You don’t get a lot of customers every day, but the ones that do come in end up buying sonar for fishing or night vision goggles (no idea why, but we had a huge collection of them), boat shoes, polish, you name it…and it added up quick. And, as summer pressed on, my solitude changed: As the weather got nicer, more boating-friendly, we became busier. What didn’t change, though, was the staff: it was still a small store, and unless it was a Saturday or Sunday, it was just me and a manager working. And that’s when trouble started.

Boaters would come in, almost always precipitous and harried as if this was their natural state, and me, up at the cashier, plunked right up front, was the first person they saw. This was fine. This was part of the job, and I knew this. They’d ask what aisle the wax was in (such a popular item, boat wax!), and I’d smile, and point them to it. Shoes, gear? No problem. Line (not ropenever rope)—I got this. But then, it changed: “Say, guy, I have a 24’ Glassmaster 244 Cruiser…and I’m wondering if you can show me the spark plugs and tell me which ones to get. I need to get this thing fixed pronto.”

Now, sure, there was a big yellow-page-sized book in the back that you could look up boat models and makes, find out what goes with what, and I could suss that out, sure, but I was dumbfounded. This wasn’t…my job, I thought. At first, when this started happening, I could pawn the customer off on my boss, whoever else was working. They’d know what to do without having to look it up. But when a rash of people would come in, all looking to me as some sort of expert (after all, I did work at a boating store!), I HAD to play along. At first I played up my ignorance: “I’m sorry, I don’t really know boats. I’m just the cashier.” But eventually that wasn’t good enough. Impatient boaters needed to get that ONE item so they could get back on the water, and I was standing in the way of that happening. So, I had to learn to play along. I had to become one of them.

So, I invented a fake history for my family—we were now a family of boaters who loved the water, loved everything about it. We were a boating family with a 30’ cabin cruiser of some kind—I don’t recall which…Arrowcat, maybe? Crownline? Chris Craft?—and we, gleefully, went to Lake Michigan on weekends and hung out and sunned ourselves and laughed together and lived the perfect life. (This pretend life was much better than we actually were, a dysfunctional family who didn’t really like spending time together, a family that had grown apart in so many ways.)

But it worked. Boaters began to trust me. It made my job easier. I went from getting side-eyed stares from my bosses (who, I think, didn’t actually like me), and stink-eye from the customers (Look at this non-boater who has infiltrated our realm!) to being king of the store. I would tell them what wax my family used, what shoes we wore, tell them about a vacation we took, and they took me into their fold: they told me jokes, anecdotes, gave me their names, their family’s names. They made me one of their own.

I hardly remember any of that now, any of my fake history. I do remember how easily I slipped out of it after that blur of a summer, back to my non-boating life. When I got to college I so easily left it all behind, the fake stuff, the hard stuff, to reinvent myself again—truer, this time, the real Rob for the first time, clawed out of West Michigan. It wasn’t the worst job I ever had, not by a long shot (looking at you, janitor job at the residence hall), but it was the strangest. I had never before been made to feel like I didn’t belong. I had never before been made to feel like I wasn’t good enough. That was what stuck with me—even to this day, all these years later: I still feel the need to prove myself, that I’m a good enough writer, publisher, editor, a good enough human being. I probably always will, too. Maybe this was part of my personality all along—brought out by a strange and odd lifestyle choice I still find utterly fascinating. Now, though, I’m comfortable with who I am, with who I’ve become, and I don’t invent histories any longer, I don’t gloss over the hard parts of life that are needed, I think, to understand where you’ve come from and where you need to go. But, if I’m being completely honest, a part of me will always be that awkward 18 year-old kid, eyes bugged out, palms sweating, listening to someone prattle on about their outboard motor, the cracks in their hull, the fishing trip they’re planning two weeks out, trying to get these people, these strangers, to like me.

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