Creative Nonfiction: The Righting Line by Elizabeth Muller

We started sailing, whether we knew it or not, because we needed an escape. I don’t know what my husband was looking for. For me, getting as far as possible from the shoreline was the only chance I had to leave reality or forget.

He first told me about his drug use when we started dating. Years earlier, his girlfriend at the time had given him Suboxone after a knee surgery, when his post-op painkillers ran out. Suboxone is used to wean people off of drugs like heroin and oxy, but its main ingredient is an opioid. By the time we were dating, H had been using it for years. I was newly divorced with two small children. I told him I couldn’t be with him unless he got clean, and he promised me he would. A few weeks later, he told me that he had. I was eager to take him back. But the truth was that he never stopped.

I came to sailing as I came to love: idealistic, hopeful, and naïve. There’s the sailing you see in J. Crew ads, models in crisp khakis and Sperry shoes, languid on the bowsprit. Then there’s Beachcat sailing. Think of it as the cousin who shows up to the garden party in a leather jacket with a Marlboro hanging from between his lips.

My husband was that brand of cool to me, that reckless. The man who had been around the world, from the Bering Strait to the Arabian Sea. I had never been anywhere—my greatest adventures were at the edge of his bed. I thought H getting clean for my sake meant I’d earned his love. Years later, when I found out he was still using, he clutched my ankles, he wept, he begged. He fell asleep in my lap as I stroked his hair, singing a John Denver song.

When he woke up, I could offer no more comfort. The white-hot shock was waning and I could feel the blister of anger taking shape. It was different from when he’d told me about his drug use when we were dating. Then, ending our relationship was as straightforward as ending a phone call. Now, I was standing in the home we owned together, our wedding picture on the wall, my children sleeping in their rooms upstairs. The possibility of my second marriage collapsing felt far more personal than the first. This time, I had something to prove.

Desperate for something to either link or distract us, we decided to buy a Beachcat. It came down to which one. I wanted something safe. He wanted something fast. Maybe we weren’t just talking about boats. Hobie cats are the kind of boat you can rent for a day at a Sandals resort, but Prindles are designed for racing. People in the know call them thoroughbreds, they call them rockets. They say, “on a boat like this, you’ve gotta hold on.” I felt more comfortable with something I could sail alone. H was still getting high every day, as I came to learn that finding out about his drug use was different from him stopping it.

“What if something happens to you while we’re out there?” I asked.

He said, “That’s true. Good point.”

And then we bought a Prindle.

***

Every part of a Prindle has an obscure name that seems maximized for a sense of adventure: trampoline, traveler, trapeze. Everything is meant to get wet. When you tack, you shimmy underneath the boom as fast as possible, grazing it with the ridges of your spine, across the thick mesh trampoline to the opposite hull. With the right wind, you can sail with half the boat out of the water, hanging off the upended side to keep from flipping.

We started sailing in the early spring, full wetsuits, the Atlantic water snarling cold and churning grey. Everything took effort, muscle. Even getting the boat into the water meant hauling it first across the sand. But I enjoyed the chance to strain, for once, against something I could touch. On the water, there was no easing into the journey. Trimming in the sail was like flinging open the gate on a rodeo bull. It was flight, and from the first frosted sting of sea spray in my face I was hooked.

There was a powerlessness in sailing that appealed to me. I could do my best to trim the sails, to put my weight where it needed to be on the hulls, but there were things beyond my control—the water, the wind. Surrendering to these elements felt like freedom, especially in a life where I had to barter for small shreds of control. I could let H know that I wanted him to stop taking pills, but I could not make him. Still, it was difficult, if not impossible, to accept that there was nothing I could do. With sailing, letting go felt like the point.

When I was younger, I rode horses, and sailing the Prindle was like riding at a full gallop if the ground was also alive. There’s a science to it, a reason why the wind creates lift, mechanical engineering to explain the feeling of defied gravity, but I preferred to think of it as a miracle. Maybe I just needed to believe that those were still possible, somewhere.

Our first sailing season, H was taking Suboxone every day, but getting it from a doctor instead of from his ex. A more consistent supply meant he could take it with greater regularity. He was supposed to start getting tapered off and I was supposed to be patient.

I was making the best of it, like with sailing. Even on the days when the water was flat and we sat like idle seagulls, I was still on the boat. When we came flying onto the beach and everyone around stopped to stare, open-mouthed, I could see the surprise, the envy, like we’d just parachuted in from some exciting mission. Admit it, I’d think. It’s pretty cool. And that’s part of enjoying anything—the validation. Like having a husband, any husband, after the first one said “no one will ever love you again.”

 

A year went by. The dose that H was being prescribed, paid for in cash, did not diminish. It went up. I asked if I could go to an appointment, meet this doctor that was supposed to be helping. Each time, H scheduled his appointment during a class that I couldn’t miss, a workday that I couldn’t take off of, a day when the kids were home. He told me, over and over again, that next time, he would ask for a smaller dose.

This process began to wear on us. While Suboxone had originally given H a boost of energy, it now drained him. He fell asleep in restaurants. He stayed in bed till noon. Once, when he thought he had accidentally thrown away his pill bottle, he searched the garbage can with bare hands while I stared in disbelief. There were hospital stays for ambiguous illnesses where I bit my tongue when he answered “no” to the question “are you taking any medications?” I made excuses for his behavior, but felt the shame of my own complicity. I didn’t even understand the nature of the drug that he was taking. A Google search yielded the term: “rich man’s meth.”

***

It was February and we were in the middle of a blizzard. I knew H had an appointment with his doctor. I knew he would go despite the state of emergency, because he was out of pills, and I knew then, finally understanding, that he would go because he was addicted. Weaning off was a myth I had believed in, unable to bear the truth.

“I’m coming with you,” I said.

I saw the whitewash of his face, every muscle in his body tense.

***

The doctor was very put together. His degree on the wall was from the same university I went to, one with ivy-covered buildings. I asked him when he would start tapering my husband’s dose. He looked at my husband, then me, then asked me to leave the room so he could talk to H alone. When they came back to the waiting room, the doctor put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Just be glad your husband found something that helps.”

Helps what? I wanted to scream. My fingers clenched into a fist. I didn’t strike the doctor with it, though he, a now obvious perpetrator of a pill-mill, deserved the punch. When we got outside, I landed it on my husband’s face.

***

How to right a Prindle:

Make sure the sheets are not cleated. Otherwise, the sails will fill with water, and you will never get the boat to right. Turn the boat so the trampoline is facing into the wind. Tie the righting line to the hull that’s out of the water and swim to the bottom of the boat. Stand on the center of the submerged hull. Grab the righting line and lean back. The wind hitting the trampoline will push the boat up and your weight will use gravity to help the hull back down.

This method doesn’t always work. Sometimes you don’t have enough wind, enough weight.  Sometimes you need outside assistance.

***

When we flipped the Prindle, we had maybe five seconds to react. As it tilted upward, I scrambled up the tramp and threw my body over the suspended hull, eight feet out of the water, thinking with ridiculous optimism that my weight would be enough to pull the vessel down, to stop it from flipping, to prevent whatever catastrophe might come as a result. It was a 400-pound boat. The weight of my body did nothing. The boat answered back, flinging me off of it, my body purpled with bruises from shoulder to shin.

I loved the illusion of danger, the feeling of freedom while sailing, knowing shore was always in sight if I just turned around. But after we flipped, treading water thirty feet deep a mile out from land, I realized how weak I was compared to the strength of the current, the water indifferent to whether I sank or swam. The boat turned completely upside down, the mast scraping the muck bottom of Raritan Bay like a needle on a record player.

We tried everything we were supposed to. We uncleated the sheets. Shifted the boat to face into the wind. Threw the righting line over our shoulders and pulled and pulled. Exhausted and scared, we waved down a powerboat. Throwing them the line, we held onto the hulls as the powerboat lurched forward, turning the boat back on its side and then level, soaked sails already gunning to life as we scrambled up onto the tramp.

Later, I tried to figure out where we went wrong. I watched tutorials. I found a doctor willing to help him. I read a new book on sailing techniques. I wondered how to tell his parents. I practiced tying knots at home. I went to every single one of his appointments, I measured doses, I found a new place to hide the bottle every time. I had more time to learn about sailing now that I’d quit my job to focus on his care. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, my life shrinking down until it fit into the bottom of a bottle of pills.

***

If I’m being honest, sometimes when we were on the boat, I wished I could fling myself off into the water and sink down. What I wanted wasn’t death, but a new life where I wasn’t trying to fix someone else. Altogether, it took two years and six months to get H clean. On our first visit, the new doctor held up the last bottle of pills H had been given and said, “This could have killed you.”

Toward the end of his detox, there were fevers and night sweats and mood swings, new vices ready to race in like wind filling up sails. But eventually, there was a light. Eventually, there were no more pills. Almost a year later, I broke down crying in my own doctor’s office, all of the fear and rage that I’d kept coiled up inside spilling out. I didn’t realize until then how I’d been holding on—to save him, to save our marriage, to save myself from what I thought was failure.

We sold the Prindle, but sometimes we talk about getting another boat. This time, I will pick the make and model. This time, it will be a vessel I can sail alone. There are waters I need to navigate, lessons I’ve begun to learn. That my draw toward danger stemmed from a belief that I did not deserve safety. That this has been replaced with a desire for something tender, the sea salt kiss above my brow and the great blue wild beyond. That even though I love H and am proud of him, love is something I already deserved and didn’t need to earn.

Elizabeth Muller is a New Jersey writer and sometimes sailor. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, X-R-A-Y Lit, and others. You can find her on Twitter @brokengleams

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