The Merchant Marine
I was 26 when my mother died. I felt at once bereft because there was nobody left in the world who really loved me. At the same time, I felt liberated – I was no longer responsible for anyone’s needs or expectations. I was free to go anywhere, do anything without worrying that I would be a disappointment to the one person who counted on me.
I joined the Merchant Marines and got a job on a freighter that traveled between the Gulf of Oman and Marseilles.
Sometimes, I’d meet a woman in a port bar – either a prostitute or a lonely, desperate, over-the-hill drunk who just wanted to be held and made to feel desired for just a few hours.
I never saw any of them again and that suited me fine. No bonds, no expectations, no one to answer to or disappoint. I was truly free.
It wasn’t until I retired at age 53, that I began to notice my loneliness. I wasn’t too easy for a grizzled old man like me to attract a decent woman. I had no idea how to be with a woman more than a few hours at a time. I didn’t understand how their brains functioned; what made them tick. They confused and frightened me, these alien creatures. I kept my distance. And soon, I, too, became a pathetic, lonely old drunk whose entire social life was passed in the pub down the road from my tiny flat.
I’d watch the games on TV with the rest of the drunks. Some were married but came down to escape their wives and screaming kids for a few hours. There were a few widow and widowers, who missed the familiar companionship of their spouses and sought a cheap substitute in virtual strangers. There were quite a few divorced men. It was hard to know if they were divorced because they drank or if they drank because they were divorced.
The women tended to wear their desperation more openly, and I, for one, didn’t want to drown in their messy emotional soup. I preferred to pay a pro and have it be neat and uncomplicated. Better than having some drunken old broad clinging to me as she cried in her beer.
When I was 61, I started to lose my memory. At first, it was only small things, which I told myself was just normal forgetfulness for a man my age. Soon, however, it became obvious even to the others that something was seriously wrong, although I lived in denial for a long time. Of course, as my dementia progressed, it was nearly impossible for me to see for myself how bad it was. I was often confused. Usually, after a night of drinking, one of the other men walked me home because I tended to get lost, even in the familiar streets I should have known so well.
One night, in the dead of winter, in the middle of the night, I went out for a walk in my underwear. I froze to death along the river in the spot where my mother had taken me on a picnic when I was seven years old.