“You can poop in my hat,” he said.
We were camped at the deserted Highland Beach, 100 miles into a 150-mile kayaking trip in the Gulf of Mexico, paddling from Florida’s Everglade City to the Flamingo Visitor’s Center and back.
I had a suspicion then, which has since been confirmed, that this was my relationship test. Don’t pretend you have never been subjected to one or devised one yourself. My practical-to-the-extreme and water-savvy new boyfriend had been a kayaking instructor with Outward Bound, and he wanted to make sure his new girlfriend, me, could make such a trip.
Though admittedly not the most athletic person on the planet, nor the most fearless (not fearless at all for that matter), I had only one thing going for me: I don’t get sea sick and we were encountering unseasonably rough seas.
But by the third 20-mile kayaking day, my forearms squeaked like rusty door hinges when I tried to move my wrists or my hands. Later, I learned the medical term for this, which is “crepitus,” making it sound like the death of an arm, which in some ways it was.
And then on the fourth day, we ran over a shark in the shallow waters between mangroves, and I had a little tantrum. Okay, a big tantrum, which is quite a feat considering I was squeezed into my kayak compartment like a wrapped mummy. In case you are wondering, it is nothing like a real skirt.
“It’s just a nurse shark,” Practical Boyfriend said.
“So?” I screamed. “Shark! Shaaaarrrk!”
“Calm down. I don’t even think they have teeth.”
I grew up in the 1970s at the height of the Jaws paranoia. And most of my friends would not set one toe into the ocean. While never that extreme, the sight of a dorsal fin brought me right back to my five-year-old self and the trochaic meter of that Jaws music, the thrashing, and the blood blooming like a red begonia under the sea. One now has to wonder why parents ever let their small children see such a film.
And for the record, Nurse sharks do have teeth.
But so far I was passing the test, I found that out later. I paddled through my crepitus and didn’t sink the boat during said shark tantrum. I even agreed to hitting a fellow boater over the head with a paddle, if needed. A school group was out at a rough point, not ironically called “Shark Point.” Their canoes had tipped in the wind, and the waves were lashing at their boats and their now-submerged bodies. They were screaming. A lot.
“Listen,” Practical Boyfriend said, “I have a tow line. We’ve got to go out and get them.”
“We do?” I asked. My question was not rhetorical. Apparently this particular corner of ocean was popular with the Hammerheads, who even Practical Boyfriend admitted had teeth. But Practical Boyfriend had been a Boy Scout and an Outdoor Trip Leader, and there was no way we were going to paddle past them in their time of need. They were all bobbing about the angry gray sea like eggs boiling in a pot. One of their canoes was upside down. The other was out of their reach.
“But if they try to grab at you,” Practical Boyfriend warned, “hit them with your paddle, so they don’t capsize the boat.”
I was poised with my paddle, but still, as you might imagine, full of doubt. How could I crack the head of someone in need with my hard plastic paddle? Thankfully, Practical Boyfriend saved the day with his tow line and his quick wits and no head-smashing was called for. I certainly would have failed that test.
That night, we arrived to Highland Beach on our way back up to Everglade City and set up our small blue tent between two palm trees. We watched bald eagles try to steal fish from osprey, and then the salty sky turned blue to pink. The sun streaked across the sea; its face tilted on the edge of the ocean, the neck, a pathway of light to the sand. Scattered conch shells shined white like bones. The wind rustled the palm fronds above and kept the black flies away. A hawk caught in a draft of wind, flashed a brown triangle tip of wing, a red tail.
At first I thought there must have been an explosion in the distant horizon because of the brewing electricity over the sea. The storm erupted like a volcano, a commotion of orange and yellow light flashing from the line between the black sky and gray sea. We listened to the transistor radio with its mechanical warnings to small craft about the electrical storms, the high seas, the winds. There on the horizon, it seemed so very far away.
But not for long.
We woke at dawn, and the radio issued new, more urgent warnings to the small craft that had been dumb enough not to heed initial warnings. Then the rain fell in pleats against the roof and walls of the tent. Then the rumble of thunder. But still an ocean away. Or so it seemed. Even Practical Boyfriend didn’t seem worried, so we reached for each other.
That is until the rain turned to hail stones and the small tent lit up with each new crack of lightning. And the distant rumble of thunder became detonations on our sandy beach, between our two lovely palms, around our little love tent.
“Listen,” Practical Boyfriend said. “If anything happens, here’s how you call out on the radio.” He showed me.
“What do you mean anything? Why would I call? Who would I call?”
“If anything happens to me,” he said. This is not a man who overreacts, so I tried to concentrate on what button to push and when.
“And we better get in lightning position,” he said between cracks of thunder and flashes of lightning. The air smelled like burning things. My hair was standing on end. Until this moment, I had always thought of this as a cliché. But sometimes, I learn, there’s truth in cliché.
“Okay,” I said. “Lightning position. What’s that?”
Practical Boyfriend demonstrated. He rolled up his thermarest, kneeling on it. I copied him. “You have to have your knees and feet together,” he warned. “So even if we are hit by ground current, there’s one entry and exit place. It’s safer that way.”
“Ground current?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Kneel like this.”
So I did.
I didn’t find out what this meant until later, that if lightning strikes close enough, it could reach us by travelling down one of our palms and through the sand. Practical Boyfriend knew a fellow outdoor leader who died in exactly this way. One point of entry and exit means less burning of the body.
So there we kneeled, naked and knees together on our thermarests. Not a terribly romantic position, as you might imagine.
Then when it got to be too much, I started to cry.
“It’ll be okay,” Practical Boyfriend tried.
The blue tent lit up with each strike, followed by another crashing ka-boom. And the smell of something like sulfur. I was scared, but it wasn’t that, well at least it wasn’t that exactly.
“I have to pooh,” I finally admitted. And the fear plus this knee-together position meant that I might not be able to hold it. It’s one thing to be scared of sharks in front of a new boyfriend or even fail to smash a fellow boater in the head with your paddle should you need to. This was another thing entirely.
But ever Practical Boyfriend reached for his knit beanie and he said the six words every woman longs to hear: “You can poop in my hat.”
Let me be clear: Practical Boyfriend had not yet told me he loved me, or even that he liked me, but this was something more even than that.
But of course I could not poop in his hat. Willpower is also something else. Because of my practiced yoga postures, a strong will, sheer embarrassment, and an offering of the hat that I interpreted as true love, I was able to hold off until the storm finally moved on, and I could sprint from the tent and squat in privacy behind a palm.
In the end, it was Practical Boyfriend who passed the test, one I never could not have devised for him. Practical Boyfriend is now Practical Husband, and for the record, I have never, ever pooped in his hat. At least not yet.
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Suzanne is the author of Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, which won the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award, as well as four collections of poetry, most recently Plotting Temporality (Pecan Grove Press, 2012). She currently writes and teaches in South Lake Tahoe, California. For more information, please visit her website at www.suzanneroberts.net
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