that time I met the northern lights

The following post was sponsored by Fox Searchlight Pictures, presenting The Way, Way Back out today in select theaters. 
It was my grandparents 50th wedding anniversary and they invited the whole family on an Alaskan cruise to celebrate. My grandpa made us all matching t-shirts with wolves howling at the moon. We were to wear them to dinner because we were a proud pack of Woolfs on our maiden voyage to Alaska. 

But I refused. I was eighteen, after all.  How in the what did they expect me to wear a wolf shirt? I was an adult. I was a WOMAN.  Duh, you can't treat me like a child. Are you being serious?
photo-2 my grandpa Milt rocking his wo(o)lf shirt with pride!

Except now, as a not-eighteen-year-old, I realize how wrong I was. I would happily rock a matching wolf-howling-at-the-moon shirt with my entire extended family these days. With pride. PRIDE! Because I'm a grown-up now and there's a difference between being a woman and a grown-up.

But in the summer of '99, weeks after I turned eighteen and was deemed legal to vote, have sex and buy Playgirl mags at 7-11, I was on a cruise ship with my family, refusing to wear a wolf shirt.

And that's when I met Mark.

Mark was a bartender on the ship. He was charming and strong-armed, older and British and in my novice opinion, completely perfect for me.

I was hooked. I spent the first two days stalking him with my entire extended family.

"Hey, Rachel. Want to go the bar with me for another Shirley Temple?"

"Hey, David. Want to go for a walk past that club over there?"

And then I remembered I had a fake ID.  And it was summer. And I was eighteen. And he was hot. And English.

"I'm Sarah," I said, introducing myself

"I'm Mahk. Fancy a drink?"

"Yes, hi. I do. I fancy a drink, Mark. I fancy a glass of chardonnay and also I am twenty-six years old here's my ID."

Mark knew it was fake, obviously, when I tried to order a drink our first night at sea.  I told him the truth about my age because I didn't want him to get into trouble for serving someone under 21.

"My name is Rebecca, actually, not Sarah."

He shrugged and served me anyway.

The following six days consisted of us sneaking around behind closed doors and pretending to be strangers out in the open. He'd serve my parents, my grandparents, my cousins and leave me notes on the backs of napkins with times and locations.

9:45, third door on left outside of bar. 

And I'd excuse myself and meet him and then five minutes later I was back in my seat.

"Bathroom lines are so long for women, am I right?"

In my head, this was my new life. The week would end and my family would exit the ship and I would stay with Mark and live with him on the cruise ship. I would get a job as a hostess and we would float around the world together hooking up in wine cellars until the end of time. Because why the hell not? I mean... Mark and I were clearly in love. Clearly. Why else would he have told me that he had never felt this way about any other cruise ship passenger ever?

Why else would he say that, you know?

One night, Mark slid a napkin under my door. "If you're awake, meet me at the bar in ten minutes. Bring a sweater."

I was awake. I was always awake in those days, so I grabbed my coat and wandered pajama-clad through the silent ship and into an empty bar where Mark was waiting in his pajamas. Suddenly we were both children and he smiled and I smiled and he held his hand out for mine and I took it.

"Where are we going?"

"It's a surprise."

Mark had stolen a bottle of wine and a pack of smokes from the bar just for us and situated them atop a crisp twin-sized duvet. It was our last night together and he just wanted to talk.

See? I told you it was love.

The Northern Lights shone bright above us, something I had never seen before and haven't seen since.

I gasped.

"This exists?"

"This exists."

I stayed up there with him until dawn. We drank and smoked and talked and made out under a green and pink bowtie sky, surrounded by hat-headed crew members coughing steam.

I wanted to live inside that moment forever. I told him so and then I cried because it was all over and this was the end. This was goodbye forever and now I had to leave the ship and be an adult for real and I wasn't ready even though I was ready even though I wasn't.
When we said our goodbyes the following morning, Mark gave me a present. He wanted me to open it when I got off the ship so I did. I waited for his shape to recede before tearing the package open between my knees.  It was a tiny book about Feng Shui that had nothing to do with anything at all. He just wanted me to have something to remember him by and he happened to have a book of Feng Shui in his cabin and that was kind of it.

It wasn't until later that I recognized its significance. The orientation of structure and energy--the alignment of time and space. Of wind and water and rearranging the furniture in my heart to make room for more chairs, better views, a red door...

Remember the lights. 


That wasn't the last I saw of Mark. We kept in touch over the years, wrote letters, hooked up when we absolutely shouldn't have and then never spoke again.

I don't know where he is now. Not physically anyway. I mean, he's here, you know? He'll always be here. I think of him often. Of how bad I wanted to be the girl on the ship. The orphan, the vagabond, the girl with the sky in her hair and the napkins in her lap covered in time stamps. The girl with all the secrets - big and old and far away from all the Woolf shirts, in love on a ship under a blanket of lights. I wanted to live behind the scenes. Employees only, no trespassing... 
last night of the cruise, summer '99

My friend, Ashley sent this to me a few weeks back and I've had it taped to my computer ever since and it totally applies to this post and to every post, hopefully. It applies to every story told and lived and lost. 

It's words were recited by Anne Patchett at Sarah Lawrence College in 2006:

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which, aided by several detours - long hallways and unforeseen stairwells - eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn't a bread crumb in sight - there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you're supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?

I don't know that I'll ever go back to Alaska. I don't even know that I want to. But inside of me is that trail of crumbs. I can feel it grating against my bones like sand and when I allow myself to turn around, I can find my way back. It's an uncomfortable road where nothing fits and the soles of my shoes have mouths and all of yesterday's faces are warped, but the path exists nonetheless and I'm glad it does. 

I can find my way back.

I can find my way back into the darkness of those early days of adulthood when I wanted so badly to be the wolf with one O. The fearless recluse, bad girl, wild child. No, wait, wild woman. WOMAN, damnit! 

I can feel my way back to that moment on the ship when I pulled myself up the ladder and onto the roof and there they were. 

The lights, curling across the sky like a treble clef.

The world, endless and freezing, dark and puckered with stars.

The entire cruise staff, stoned, passing bottles and talking over each other, welcoming us with a mixture of reluctance, solidarity, love...

And me rearranging my heart to make room for more chairs. For more guests and regrets and moments like this that end before they even begin. That's the beauty of summer, isn't it? It's finite. Like Saturday on repeat until the battery dies and Monday returns with a sneer.

Mark was the summer. The bridge between Spring and Fall. A flash in my memory, a crack in my heart.

"And these are the northern lights," the voices sang.

Those were the northern lights.