Come Back to Me

Two lives, both stormy as the sea, are put back on track by a mysterious stranger.

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Come Back to Me

A man strode toward me across the dock in Charleston, South Carolina. I didn’t recognize him, but he sure seemed to know me.

“Stuart!” he said, clapping a heavy hand on my shoulder. I only had a second to look at his face before another meaty paw clasped me to his breast in a rib-cracking hug. “It’s me, Fred. From Bequia. Don’t you remember? You saved my life!”

Saved a life? That I would remember! The only saved life I knew of was my own. A life I almost lost as a hopelessly drunk sailor. Which made me think twice. I did know a Fred once back in those days. And it was in Bequia. But he wasn’t this guy. 

This man was clean shaven, dressed in immaculate whites. On his shoulders gleamed the four stripes of a yacht captain. I glanced again at the elegant boat docked next to my own. But that didn’t help me ID the man in front of me.

“Yes, I’m her skipper,” he said. “And I wouldn’t have this job—I wouldn’t even be here—if it wasn’t for you, Stu. Do you really not remember me at all?”

“I knew a Fred,” I said. “But you’re not... you can’t be...”

I tried to imagine the smartly dressed captain in front of me with a dirt-flecked beard that hung down to his waist. That was the Fred I knew, a hulking man with an equally filthy and long-reaching ponytail.

That Fred had no yacht. He lived on an old, wooden sailboat, wandering around the Caribbean and Bahamas. His life, like mine, was the sea.

We shared another passion: drinking as much and as often as possible. The last time I’d seen Fred, in Bequia a couple of years earlier, he’d been out of work for a long time.

I reassured myself that I wasn’t as bad off as him. I, at least, could sober up long enough to get a boat from one place to another. I had no idea how Fred supported himself, or paid for his liquor. How could that guy have turned his life around?

The new Fred nodded, as if he knew what I was thinking. “Same guy,” he assured me. “Hard to believe, isn’t it? Now do you remember the last time we saw each other?”

It was off-season. Fred’s boat and mine were among only a few in the anchorage that night. The two of us pulled off a gargantuan bender at a dockside gin mill. It was after midnight when I stumbled toward the door.

Fred was still in the process of hoisting himself off his stool. On either side of him, ready to grab him if he fell, was the bartender and a waitress. Neither of them looked big enough to support him. But what really struck me was the look on their faces: a mixture of pity, disgust and loathing. 

That’s what they think of Fred, I thought. Because he’s a drunk. Then they both turned and noticed me standing at the door. They looked at me with the same expression.

I hurried fast as I could to my dinghy, revved the engine and motored out to where my boat floated. I wanted to get as far away from Fred and those judgmental faces as I could.

A haze had come in from the sea while we’d been at the bar. A near full moon cast an ethereal glow over the water. My boat appeared a ghostly grey ahead of me. I looked over my shoulder at Fred’s boat on the water. The tranquility of the scene cut through my alcoholic haze. I was transfixed.

The waves lapped in the moonlight like a familiar lullaby. I remembered why I’d become a sailor to begin with. I wanted to live my life surrounded by God’s work. So why was I spending most of my time blind to it? What was I doing to myself? Maybe Fred was beyond hope, but I wasn’t. Not yet.

That night wasn’t the last time I had a drink, but it was the start of the big change in me, a change that eventually led me to quit. It was an important night for me, and Fred would always be part of it. But Fred knew nothing about it. What did he mean about me saving his life?

“All this time I’ve wanted to thank you,” he said, grabbing my hand and giving it a vigorous shake. “You disappeared before I had a chance to that night. But I never forgot you.”

“Thank me for what?”

“For being my angel!” he said.

“You’ve got the wrong angel, dude,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“Listen. After I left the bar that night, I started up my dingy to get back to my boat. I got a little ways out. Then my engine quit.” It was every sailor’s nightmare. The water in the anchorage in a place like Bequia is full of strong currents and wind, all pushing out to the open sea.

It was too strong to row against. A sailor whose engine quit would quickly find himself floating fast out into the open Caribbean, too far out to swim back. Nobody would see him again until fishermen found his mummified body floating somewhere at sea.

“I drifted right past my boat,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t make it back—rowing or swimming. I remember calling out as I drifted past the headland of the anchorage. I was sure I was done for.

“I felt calm. And sober. And I prayed for the first time in a long time. I prayed mostly for you, Stu. I prayed you wouldn’t end up like me.

“Then, out of nowhere, your dinghy came tearing around the headland with a humongous white bow wave—like you were throwing open the very gates of paradise! I had never been so happy to see anyone in my life. Next thing I knew, you had tossed me a line and were towing me back to my boat.”

“You saw me in the dinghy?” I said.

“Didn’t I?” Fred said. For the first time he looked unsure of himself. “I guess I couldn’t actually see your face. All I could see was the stern light as you towed me. The haze made a halo around your head. It had to be you.

"When you left me at my boat, I asked you to come aboard. You didn’t answer. But a few seconds later, when you’d motored a few yards away, you called over your shoulder, ‘Come back to me.’ I always wanted to ask you what you meant by that.”

A chill ran down my spine as I realized who had really spoken to Fred that night. He was rescued by an angel, all right. We both were.

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