Allison woke up spooned to Dave, the two wrapped in a comforter. Good Day Sunshine sang in the hallway, muffled by corridor footsteps. When her instinct said he is found, Allison knew what it meant, but not how or why she understood the meaning.
Dave stirred as Allison dressed. She crept out the door and padded to her cabin, passing Reyna in the hall, who winked.
They talked awkwardly through an omelet about weather and scenery, discussed flora and fauna over toast, and sipped coffee to avoid About last night. After exhausting harmless topics, Allison and Dave continued breakfast on the sundeck without words— until Dave said, “My, you’re a restless sleeper.”
“Ha.” A sudden release of tension. “You noticed.” Allison relaxed in her chair. “So did my ex. He made me sleep in a separate bed the last year we were married.”
“Want to talk about it?”
Allison set her coffee down and picked up a napkin. “About my ex or fish nightmares? No thanks to both.” Patting her belly, “I keep in what I take in.”
Dave lingered on the expression.
“Meaning…” Allison poked her index finger into her mouth. “I’d like to keep this morning’s meal inside my stomach.”
“I was referring to whom you were chattering last night. The words were weird, but I think you said something about the ocean. Are you afraid of the water?”
Allison leaned over and brought her voice down an octave. “Listening in on private conversations, were you?”
Dave raised his palm. “Sorry, Allison. I shouldn’t—”
She stood before he could finish, brushed crumbs off her lap, and adjusted the bottom of her bathing suit. “Those who know me call me Allie. Fancy you and me doing some kayaking today, Dave?”
With the experience of a sculler, Allison snapped her life jacket snug and eased into the back of a bright green, two-person shell. She watched Dave amble into the front seat holding his life vest and mesh bag, and almost capsize the boat. “Whoa, big guy. Don’t stand up.” She grabbed the porch’s toe rail and steadied the kayak, but Dave was on his way into the drink. A crewman stretched out a hand from the porch, Reyna holding onto the elastic of his pants. Just in time, Dave grabbed the teenager’s wrist. “Gently now, squat your butt into the seat,” Allison said. Dave obeyed, earning him, “Good boy.”
Dave looked at Allison from over his shoulder. “Man, that’s harder than it looks.”
She pushed his cheek forward. “Yes, it is, if you don’t know what you’re doing. Eyes ahead, please.”
Reyna pointed to cliffs a third of a mile starboard of the Amor. “There will be many interesting sights along Isabela’s rocks where they meet the sea.” Waving from the porch, “Have fun, you lovebirds. The rest of us will be snorkeling nearby.”
Allison shoved off with her foot. “I see loose straps on your life vest, Mister Wiggs. Buckle up.” Dave rotated in his seat again, this time in a real-men-don’t-wear-life-preservers glance. “Humor me, Dave, unless you want me jabbering forever in tongues.”
Two paddles hit the water, immediately twisting the boat into a tight circle. “Jeez. Have you ever kayaked, Dave?” He shook his head. “Then let me drive. Pull up your paddle. You’re working against me.”
Allison made long strokes in a turquoise sea, a sweep on one side, then on the other. The kayak was soon fifty yards off the Amor following a hawk soaring to the coast. “I’m steering us toward that outcrop.” Allison let her paddle drag, slewing the boat forty-five degrees. “I think I see penguins on ledges. Get your camera ready, mister.”
They floated past orange crabs peppering black boulders and fur seals basking on rocks. Now and then, brownish heads the size of a softball would poke their nose out of the water—sea turtles.
“Over there, Dave. Birds with blue feet.” Dave looked in the wrong direction. “Near the cave. Look left and up.”
“Damn, you’re right. Boobies at ten o’clock.” He started photographing. “You’ve got eagle eyes, Allie.” They drifted toward a hole in the rocks.
Echoing off shear walls came “ooh’s” and “ahh’s.” To her right, Allison saw yellow and orange squares bob on the surface. Two pangas were tied up behind snorkelers, with more wetsuits clambering over the side.
Swoosh. A massive gush of water near the zodiacs. Someone yelled, “Wah!”
Allison followed the sound but saw only waves. She tapped Dave’s shoulder and asked, “Can you see what’s going on over there?”
He stiffened his arms and lifted his body a few inches, craning. “Not really.”
Another splash, and then Allison saw it, a black dorsal fin taller than a man. It sped in front of a zodiac and dived. “Dave, tell me that’s not what I think it is.” Now more fins, a variety of sizes, half a dozen. “Oh, God.”
Dave stood and shaded his eyes with his hand. “Must be the orca pod from yesterday.”
“Sit down, mister.” Massive black and white bodies breached the water between the kayak and pangas. One turned toward the kayak. “That’s it. We’re out of here.” Allison dragged her paddle through the water.
“Allie, calm down. Enjoy the sight. They’re not after you.” Dave photographed nonstop.
The kayak wobbled, top-heavy. Allison tugged on the bottom of Dave’s shorts. “I said, sit down.” Then she paddled toward the deep hole carved out of the cliff.
Less than ten feet off the kayak’s bow, four hundred pounds of sea turtle took flight. The animal burst from the surface and rocketed fifteen feet in the air, propelled by a glossy black and white snout. Salty wash stung Allison’s face. “Jesus!”
“Woo hoo.” Dave pumped his fist. “It won’t hurt you, Allie. It’s playing.”
The turtle landed in the orca’s mouth, followed by an audible Crack! Three feet of shell fractured and splintered.
Dave fell to his seat. “Okay, maybe I’m wrong.”
The kayak plowed toward the cavern pushing three knots.
The sea cave opened onto an arching room, ovoid in shape, with muddy-brown walls. Daylight and worldly sounds faded. The ocean calmed, soft-sloshing and lapping against slimy stone. Allison paddled through a sensory deprivation tank and felt the peacefulness of a confined space. It feels like a womb, the voice in her mind said. More like death, she countered.
Allison allowed the boat to drift. At a narrow ledge, she stuck out her foot. She touched Dave’s shoulder and said, “Let me show you how to exit a kayak without capsizing us into the mouth of Jaws.” He twisted around to watch Allison lift herself onto the hull and straddle the boat. Then she shifted her weight up and over onto the ledge, one foot keeping the boat from floating away.
Dave repeated the move. “Is this how you keep in such good shape? If so, I’m giving up the gym. You’re a damn Olympian.”
“I rowed at Yale. Mostly, I jog now.” Allison studied the cave, stippled with crabs and barnacles, and then focused on the water. A chevron of ripples streamed towards them. A black blade surfaced halfway into the cavern. “Shit.”
Dave said, “That fin looks familiar.” He yanked the kayak out of the water, filling the remaining space on the ledge.” The ripplets dissolved when the fin slipped underwater.
“ ’Ol black and blue eyes is back, Mister Wiggs. We need us a plan.”
Dave laughed. “The plan is, we enjoy the ambiance for a while.” He clasped her fingers. “I’m sure your fish friend has places to go, things to do, other people to terrorize. She’s probably already on her way back to the pod.” Allison’s hands trembled. “You’re cold.”
“I face my fear, Dave. I’ll be fine.”
“What does that mean? You’re fine on top of the water, for sure, but I saw you paralyzed when you snorkeled, and that was before the orca showed up.”
Allison closed her eyes and said nothing for a long time. Steady drips reverberated around cave walls. The chills continued. Whispering, she said, “I never even told this to my husband.”
Dave sandwiched her right hand between the two of his.
She opened her eyes and stared into the void. Allison described a scene blurry by day but sharp at night, an experience relived at least once or twice a week, sometimes a hundred. “My dad liked to fish in Galveston.” Chuckling, “We had this stupid little boat. I remember it as being humongous, but it was only twelve feet long, I think. Pretty much every weekend since I was weaned, Dad would drive Mom and me down from Houston. We’d put the boat in the water before sunrise, motor into the Gulf, and fish until noon.”
“Sounds like fun.”
Allison squinted. “Sometimes we’d go all the way to a drilling platform and tie up to a leg, usually before the sun came up.”
“Oh. Nowadays you can’t—”
“One day while we were roped to a rig, a supply ship came out of the black and sideswiped us. Luckily we were wearing life jackets. Dad pulled me from the water and set me on a steel truss. Then he swam to help my mom out of the water.” Allison closed her eyes again. “He didn’t reach her.” Tears welled. “Mom climbed out of the water by herself, thank God.”
“Damn. And your dad?”
Allison held back tears. “They found him, I mean half of him, on the beach a few days later. The half the hammerheads didn’t want.”
“Holy…” Dave put his arms around her. “How old were you?”
“Oh, man oh man, Allie. Anyone would be scared of the ocean after that.”
She wiped her face with the back of his hand. “I was, but not anymore. For years, I couldn’t take a bath without screaming. I forced myself to swim in junior and high school. Eventually, I started jogging along the bayou and saw ospreys dive for fish. They were fearless. I joined Yale’s Women’s Crew to get used to being in unconfined water.” She pushed the kayak off the ledge. “Now I’m good to go—on or in—the ocean.”
“Um, shouldn’t we wait a little longer? What if your orca is still out there?”
“Get in. We’re heading back.”
Three days and two islands after their handshake, Allison and Dave had blossomed into kindred spirits. They even developed a ritual. After a Beatles wake-up call every morning, they would pillow talk to find a topic of discussion for breakfast on the sundeck. Sometimes they gossiped about famous architects. Other times, they discussed a building type, construction technology, or swapped war stories about contractors. Their mutual hate of MacMansions came up twice. Unlike Alejandro, debates with Dave never got heated, and after their first disagreement, were devoid of jargon. Here’s how that happened:
Holding a bagel, Dave said, “You can sure talk funny.” Allison had opened their “breakfast breakout session” with, “Today’s topic is texture. I’ll go first.” With coffee in one hand, a croissant in the other, she said, “Gehry’s materiality seems to be transposing.”
“I hate that word.”
“Materiality. It’s a ten dollar term for a ten cent idea. What’s wrong with materials?”
Dave, Allison noticed, spoke in simple phrases, devoid of “pseudo-intellectual babble,” as he later called it. Allison offered, “But the power of language can elucidate, animate, and celebrate the ambiguity of architectonic thought. At least, that’s what they said in architecture school.”
At first, Dave didn’t respond. Allison thought she saw hurt in his face. After a time, he said, “Us University of Houston grads have a different saying.”
“If you want an architect to hold a discussion, hire an Ivy Leaguer. If you want an architect who can hold a pencil, bring on someone from a state school.”
“Touché, Dave. But I can hold a pencil with the best of them.”
“Too bad. I use a mouse.”
Their most interesting talk was about climate change. At breakfast one morning, Allison said, “Architects can save the world from rising seas. Agree or disagree?”
Dave said, “Partially agree.”
“Partially doesn’t cut it. In my humble opinion architecture is how we save the world in general, and Houston in particular.” Allison pointed to the ocean. “The seas are rising and there’s nothing we can do about it. Big Oil screwed the human race big time. They’re bloodsuckers, Dave. But us architects can make things right.”
Dave flinched. “Bloodsuckers?”
“The fossil fuel industry sucks blood out of Mother Earth—oil, gas, coal—they’re like murderous leaches on the skin of babies.”
Dave contemplated the water.
“But architecture can adjust and adapt. We are Pachamama’s best friends. Reinventing life through design is how the human race survives.”
“If you live in a flood zone, especially along a bayou, your house should be raised on a plinth. It’s simple and doesn’t take expensive cut and fill. All you do is build three or four feet above the ground on piloti.” Allison hoped the word didn’t offend him. She dusted her hands like a job well done. “Problem solved. Now, on to ending war.”
“I wish it were that simple.” Dave finished eating his bagel. “I know something about hydraulics. Say you live a foot or two above the worst flood in your area of Houston. You think you’re safe, but you’re not. The Gulf will continue to rise and the city sink. We’re still building, adding more roads, replacing wetlands with concrete. Have you factored subsidence into your plinth design?”
“Yes. I mean, I’m not sure. I’m working from historical data.”
“Allie, that’s ancient history. Today’s floodplain maps are worthless. Houston hasn’t had a serious hurricane for a long time. Carla was almost sixty years ago, hurricane Celia nearly fifty years. We’ve had fast-moving cyclones since then and slow-moving depressions, but not endless rain combined with storm surge.”
“What about Hurricane Rita?”
“Rita wasn’t even close to the worst-case scenario. It moved fast out of the area. If we get a storm that sticks around like your namesake did in 2001 and we get a surge into the Ship Channel, water will flow the other way—up the bayous, not down. Instead of draining into the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf will push into Houston and combine with upstream runoff. You ain’t seen real flooding yet.”
“And don’t ask me what happens to refineries and chemical plants along the Ship Channel when that hits the fan. You don’t want to know.”
“What do we do?”
Dave thought for a minute. “Well, I’ve figured out what to do with homes along the bayous. Industrial facilities are more difficult.”
“You have a solution? A design solution?”
“What is it?”
He clammed up.
“We have another old saying from U of H, Allie: Wait and see, wait and see. Something lovely soon shall be.”
In bed that night, Allison shared her fear of a monstrosity sprouting on vacant land next to her house. Then she casually asked Dave if he thought they’d be seeing each other in Houston after they returned. He said he hoped so. He was taking a short trip after the cruise ended but would be back in Houston to wrap up a project nearing completion—a small house for himself that would survive any flood. After that, he’d be gone most of September.
“You’re building your own house? Where? Will you show me?”
“It ain’t in your Ivy League, Allie. You’d laugh.”
He was shy. And easily intimidated.
“I promise not to laugh, Dave. Lemme see it. Please?” She tickled him.
He tickled her back. “I’ve got a better idea. Let me show you something else.”
“No.” Allison pushed him away, laughing. “I’ve already seen that. The price of admission just went up. Tonight, your entry ticket is a tour of your house.”
“You misundestand. Have you ever been to Machu Picchu?”
“Say what? No. I mean, it’s on my bucket list, but…. Why do you ask?”
“I’m flying to Cuzco after we dock. Care to join me in Peru? You won’t believe what you can see from the Andes.”
Saturday August 19, 2017, the morning of Allison’s last day on the ship. Engines slowed as the Amor entered Baltra. George Harrison sang Here Comes the Sun.
Allison disentangled from Dave, landed moist soles on varnished teak, and padded to his bathroom. After showering, she wrapped a bath towel around her torso and rubbed her hair with a small cloth. She was sitting on his bed when an iPhone chirped, followed by a series of chimes that went on and on. After nine days at sea without cell or Wi-Fi, a hundred emails flooded in. Without thinking, Allison reached for the phone in the nightstand and saw a slew of incoming messages from Anthro Oil Company, each beginning with some version of, “Jack, we need ideas on platform number…”
Oops. This is Dave’s. My iPhone is still in my cabin. Ha, he’s got the same one I…Wait a second.
“May I have that?” Dave had his hand out.
Allison fixated on the lock screen. “These notifications are from an oil company. And they’re calling you Jack, not Dave.” She tracked his eyes, which refused to look back.
“It’s sort of a nickname.”
“Jack is a nickname for John, Dave. Is your middle name John or Jack?” He shook his head. Allison went back to his phone.
“Do you work for an oil company?”
“No, I work for myself. As I said, I contract to—”
“Bloodsuckers. You contract to blood-sucking carbon polluters. You told me you designed housing, whoever you are, but you’re contract labor for the people fouling our air and flooding our homes.”
“It’s not like that, Allie.” Dave sat up, stretched, and went for his phone.
She pulled it out of reach. “What are you, their drafting monkey? A computer jockey?” Allison yanked the hand towel off her head and threw it at him. “You’re a shit, Dave, in my humble opinion.”
“Allie, hang on. You’ve got this wrong.”
She threw his phone on the bed, her towel open and flapping wildly. “I don’t think so, Jack, or John, or whatever the hell your name is. I think I have this exactly right.” The towel fell on the floor. Naked with hands on hips, ”You’re not the shy guy I thought you were. You’re easily embarrassed, that’s all.” Allison looked around for her clothes. “You’re just like my ex. You caved in and sold out. I’ve seen this movie before, mister. I have frikken lived it.”
All this time Dave remained in bed.
Allison combed the tiny cabin, but only found her yellow socks. She put them on and then lifted the comforter. Nothing but a pair of hairy legs. “Jesus, I am such a fool.” She forced a smile at Dave. “Well, at least I’m a fool with a Masters degree from Yale.”
In an abrupt leap, Dave bounded up. Allison bolted out the door. She ran native down the corridor and slid at the end, skating into the salon as passengers finished breakfast. As Allison closed her cabin door, she heard Reyna say, “Now you know why we call our ship, amor.”
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Part 2 of the series is here.
Allison Rising is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Sojourn: A Novel Theory of Architecture.