Liz and I were on a cargo ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with the sun setting and a light wind. The scene resembled one of those retirement brochures in which a couple stares wistfully across the open sea and into their future — except she and I barely knew each other. It was our 10th date.
How did it materialize?
Two weeks prior, we had been drinking wine in a small Chinatown bar — a last-ditch effort to drum up romance. I had connected with Liz through work a few months before, and we had gone out on several dates that felt promising.
Then she called to tell me she didn’t feel ready. Her actual words were: “My astrologer says it’s not the right time.”
I’m not a big believer in the stars, so I hung up, turned to my friend and vented about that astrologer (who definitely hadn’t been out on any of our dates). How could the position of the stars on the day Liz was born derail my dating life today?
The next morning, I settled into the familiar letdown of losing something that had barely begun, resigning myself to more of the noncommittal dating that so often characterizes relationships in New York City.
A few weeks later, Liz messaged me as I was returning home from a friend’s wedding overseas: She had changed her mind.
At the bar in Chinatown, I showed her a photo I had taken during my flight of a cargo ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Seeing the ship made me think about how we no longer know the size of the world because we don’t feel the distance when we travel. What would it be like to experience how far North America is from Europe? To travel by sea, as my grandparents did when they came a century ago from India?
“Let’s do it,” she said. (She’d had two glasses of wine.) “Let’s take a cargo ship across the Atlantic together. It will be our next date.”
We both laughed. The next morning, I woke up and texted to tell her I was still thinking about the cargo ship.
“Anytime in the next three months.” I was mostly joking, but it was also kind of true: My work as a consultant for start-ups allowed me to set my own schedule. (Her work gave her similar flexibility.)
A few hours later, she told me she had booked it. We would leave in two weeks.
Time Together in a Cargo Ship
I gulped. Things weren’t supposed to move that fast. We had never spent more than five consecutive hours together. I hadn’t told my friends or brother that I was even seeing her again. (Last they knew, an astrologer had sunk my chances.)
We had never spent the night together, and now our next date would involve a 10-day trip with a only few other travelers and crew on a cargo ship?
Yet, I knew I had to say yes. Why not take a big leap?
As we planned the trip, we stuck to logistics; it seemed too risky to get to know each other more before we set off.
We bought books about celestial navigation, shipwrecks and personality tests, and made lists of ways we could decorate our cabin.
An Overwhelming Feeling?
When I finally told my family, my parents tried (unsuccessfully) to meet her, and my brother sent me YouTube videos of dates gone bad on cruise ships. It all started to feel overwhelming, and like a very bad idea.
The Not So Fancy Room on the Ship
After we boarded the ship in Halifax, it was clear that our room hadn’t been built with romance in mind. Two bolted-down single beds lined a wall; our small bathroom reeked of sewage and diesel. The ship was 15 stories tall and as long as three football fields, carrying 3,800 containers and 1,300 cars from North America to Europe. Its hallways were disorientating, narrow, windowless and lined with identical-looking doors. There were only 28 people on board, including the captain and 18 crew members.
My side of the room felt like a dormitory, while hers felt like home, so her side is where we stayed. As we laid on the single bed, adjusting to each other, shipping containers were being stacked with hard thuds outside of our window.
We fell into a rhythm as our journey began: reading, sleeping and sharing stories with the other travelers. We befriended a Dutch couple who had been traveling the world for six years in their modified Toyota Land Cruiser. They called themselves “overlanders.”
Moments of Adventure
The big excitement involved emergency drills, where we would rush through hundreds of meters of container-made ravines and water-sealed doors, up a five-story metal staircase on the ship’s outer edge to the escape vessel at the stern. We spent our afternoons camped out next to the espresso machine. One night, the Filipino crew hosted karaoke, after a traditional meal of sinigang and breaded fish.
Idleness Lead To Bonding?
All the idleness meant that Liz and I had no choice but to get to know each other. Mundane interactions turned into deep dialogues about our pasts. Hearing the captain tell a story about sending money home to his daughter led Liz and me into a long conversation about our relationship to money and how it has evolved over time. Every day on the ship felt like a month of dating in New York. Over those 10 days, we spent more than 160 hours awake together, shared two dozen meals and made out more than the average couple does in five months.
By the third day, I told Liz I loved her. By the fifth, we were talking about the future. By the eighth, we were arguing.
If we had been back in New York, I would have left and met my best friend at a neighborhood bar to complain about her. He would have supported me, and I would have felt entitled to move on, repeating the dating cycle I had been stuck in for more than a decade.
On the ship, however, there was no escape. I walked to the outdoor deck underneath the bridge and sat on a metal box filled with life vests while she stayed in the room. For the whole afternoon I just sat there, replaying our conversations.
Moving Slowly in A Fast Paced World
There were moments she had told me she needed space; I just hadn’t heard. Did we really need to be more social? Where did that come from? Why did I feel that way? There was no one to talk to, to tell me I was right or wrong. The conversations in my head felt so familiar, repeated from past relationships where I blamed the other person and moved on, patterns that suddenly felt so obvious. I had never allowed myself to move slowly enough to truly understand what was being said. I never recognized the gap between what I said, what I did and, most importantly, what I wanted.
Hours later, as the sun set, I walked back through the windowless corridor, entered our room and sat down next to her on the bed.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I am too,” she said.
We fell asleep on her single bed.
Calling the Relationship Home
Two days later, we arrived in Liverpool, England. In ship time, it was almost our one-year anniversary. We checked ourselves into a four-star hotel, ordered room service and watched a bad movie.
On the plane back to New York the next day, we opened a bottle of champagne. A few weeks later, we went to Liz’s astrologer for our first relationship reading.
“You’re a match,” the astrologer said.
My Aries, Liz’s Aquarius, the rising sign and the sun and the moon were all on our side.
A few months after we returned, our New York apartment leases expired simultaneously, and we decided to move in together. Then we got engaged. And more recently, as the coronavirus brought our city and country to a terrifying standstill, Liz and I decamped for my family’s home in Victoria, British Columbia, where the two of us (and her brother!) are all, as I write this, quarantined in a small house across the street from where I grew up.
It’s OK. We don’t mind isolating ourselves. For us, it made all the difference.
About the Author
Dev Aujla, who lives in New York, is the author of the book, “50 Ways to Get a Job: An Unconventional Guide to Finding Work on Your Terms.”
Modern Love can be reached at [email protected].
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Source: The New York Times