Later that night I was on deck, staring at the lake. Moonlight shimmered steadily off the still water, so different from the jagged light that reflects off the choppy oceans I was used to. It was chilly and the only wind was from the 10-knot forward movement of the ship, so I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag, reached into my backpack and pulled out a wooden flute. I didn’t know how to play it, but I enjoyed making squeaky sounds, discordant notes floating out into the darkness, which – to a generous ear – might have sounded like freestyle jazz.
I played the flute, eyes closed, when suddenly I heard another wooden flute, and it was answering me. I played a riff… the other flute responded. Then the other flute played a few random notes… and I answered back. We went on this way, two flutes jamming in the dark, each one offering disembodied trills without sense or rhythm but somehow connecting. After a half-hour, we stopped playing and walked toward each other.
Rafael was my age, 30, my height, five-foot-ten, but we were different. I was muscular, wearing raggedy clothing, while Rafael was androgynously handsome and well-dressed: slim arms, with dark almond eyes and features that seemed at once chiseled and vulnerable. At first we spoke Spanish, but when we realized we were both Americans, we switched to English. He asked what I’d been doing in Peru.
“The tourist route: you know, Cuzco, Machu Picchu. Started in Mexico two months ago, hitch-hiking mostly. Gonna be spending a year, maybe longer, in Latin America. No real plans. Just making it up as I go along.”
“Ni-i-ice. So, what do you do? You know, when you have to make some money?”
“I work on ships. U.S. merchant ships. I’m a deck-hand.”
“Cargo ships, ammo ships, oil tankers, India runs, intercoastal runs, all kinds of vessels.”
“That’s really cool.”
“What I do is, you know, I work at sea for a few months, then travel ‘til my money runs out, then catch a job on a ship, get my trip back to the U.S. Takes a few weeks or a couple of months at sea, but that way I get back to the States and get paid regular union wages.”
“Sweet deal,” Rafael said. “It’s like you’re unattached. Floating on top of the planet.”
I grabbed a heaving line hanging from a stanchion and quickly tied a bowline. “On ships, mostly we use this, a bowline. The thing about it is, you can pull on it, the knot will never come loose.” I pulled. Hard. “In fact, the more you pull on it, the tighter it gets. It’ll never come loose. But… but here’s the thing. Once you’re finished using it, you can always pry it loose.”
With my thumb, I pushed back in the rear part of the knot. It came undone easily.
Rafael looked at me, sizing me up, smiling, aware that I wasn’t really talking about knots.
“Mira, I live outside La Paz. Why don’t you stay at my place? I think you’ll enjoy it.”