by Marianne Ruane
Learning to live at forty.
Whether it was all of the rocking the boat did while stalling for us to photograph the whales, or the fact that I was getting chilled, or those Denny’s breakfast sausages I probably shouldn’t have eaten, I don’t know, but all of a sudden, I was not feeling well. I had about ten seconds of indecision before I ran to the side of the boat and puked overboard. It was at 10 am, the exact time of my birth – 1 pm on the east coast.
This wasn’t just any birthday – it was my fortieth. I had been tracking forty for years, ever since I saw the Soviet movie classic Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears (Moskva Slezam Ne Verit). The film’s heroine, a single mother who works her way up to an executive position at a factory, finally finds love at the end of the film, announcing that “life only begins at 40.” I was stunned. At half that age, I felt angry, cheated – that was just too long to wait! Probably scores of Russian women have watched the movie without becoming panic-stricken, perhaps without being moved at all – the film was meant to inspire hope, after all, not terror – but that little bit of dialogue followed me for 20 years, like a psychic’s prediction burned indelibly into my palm.
I tried to ignore it, deny it, defy it – but there it was: forty, looming on the horizon like an evil behemoth, sucking time out of my dreams. It grew larger with each passing year, each unwritten idea, each failed relationship. What if the adult life I had envisioned for myself never materialized? I might never own my own home. I might not marry. I might not have children. I might not write a book or make a feature film. I might never earn my living as a writer. I could rent a cheap apartment along the 10 freeway indefinitely, always struggling to make ends meet, promising tomorrow to write. What if what I had now wasit? What would it take to break me out of the miserable existence I was so comfortable with?
In the past, I’d actually had quite a bit of success. I was valedictorian of my high school class and got my undergraduate degree at Cornell. I won a poster contest for eye health when I was in elementary school and had my picture in the newspaper with the mascot, a tall man dressed up like a guard at Buckingham Palace. (What was his title?) I lived in Russia for over 7 years and went back there to shoot my thesis film for graduate school, a feat which earned me an award for best film production student. When I was in middle school, I won a prize for writing the best myth, as part of our unit on Greek and Roman culture. After graduate school, I worked on a film as 2nd 2nd assistant director and covered for the 2nd assistant director who was never around. When she got fired, I was officially trusted with both positions (with no increase in pay). I read Little Women when I was only 8 years old, against the admonishments of the school librarian who insisted I was too young. (And I loved it.)
Yet somehow, in the last eight years or so, I had stalled. Sure, I found part-time gigs so that I would have time to write and enough money to manage my expenses in a one-bedroom apartment by myself. And while chunks of free time did allow me to start a blog and write several essays, I wasn’t committed to a writing schedule, and I certainly didn’t have a career. I was always able to make ends meet, but barely, and the stress of constantly searching for the next job left me too cranky to be grateful for what I did have. I dreamed of marrying a man with a house, with enough money to provide for us while I took the time I needed to maneuver myself into a lucrative existence as an author. While each relationship was better than the one before, I still hadn’t found Mr. Right, and unfortunately, patrons and benefactors for the arts seemed to have gone out with the 1800s.
As forty pulled me closer, I decided to reframe it as a benevolent force, smiling at me, proud of me. Why not let my life start now? I had only a vague idea what that meant, but I decided to get things off to a strong start. My friend Nancy came out to Los Angeles with Galina, her Russian mother-in-law visiting from Moscow, for a four-day birthday road trip to Sequoia National Park, Monterey, and Big Sur. We planned to commemorate the day of my birth with a whale watching tour in Monterey. There is an underwater canyon in the Monterey Bay, so the area gets a lot of marine animals that would normally only be found much further out where the water is deeper. Along the California coast, gray whales migrate south to Baja in Mexico every fall and winter and then back north in the early spring, and I’d been wanting to do a tour since I moved to LA. At the Point Mugu State Park Whale Festival in Malibu one year, I ran to the shore with everyone else every time the bell was rung to announce a whale sighting, but I missed every one. Whales stay underwater for a very long time and are hard to follow – for me anyway. I wasn’t convinced that we would see anything, but a glimpse of those majestic creatures in the wild – up close! – would be a wonderful way to start a new era of my life.
I had met Galina a handful of times when Nancy and I were both living in Russia, and I welcomed the opportunity to refresh my Russian skills. Like many older Russians, Galina liked to remember the Soviet era fondly. “U nas ranshe problem ne bylo.” (“We didn’t have any problems back then.”) It made Nancy and me laugh, as we indulged our nostalgia for what had always seemed to us lunacies of the Soviet way of thinking, but the heavy, inflexible restrictions of the Communist system, their sheer reliability, really did provide a level of comfort to Soviet citizens.
Galina told us how difficult it was for her when her twins were born (one of them was Nancy’s nearly 40-year-old husband) and she already had a 3-year-old. Her husband was in the army, stationed several hours away from Moscow, and his request for a transfer so that he could live in Moscow and help with his family was refused. (“Of course,” Nancy and I nodded knowingly, “back then, when there weren’t any problems.”) They lived on the fifth floor of a five-story walk-up apartment building, and lightweight, easily foldable appliances for transporting children – any children, let alone multiples – didn’t exist back then. Both she and her husband had moved to Moscow to study, so neither of them had family there. She was so frightened in the hospital with her two babies, that she seriously considered leaving one there. She rallied though, and sent her older son to live with her parents, almost two days away by train, in the Ural mountains. It was a decision that still seemed to cause her a lot of pain.
Since we were on a “girls’” road trip, we talked a lot about relationships. The most searing indictment of men that dropped from Galina’s lips was “otsov sobakami ne naidyosh” (Even with search dogs, you won’t find good fathers.) Ouch. She obviously had not had the happiest marriage. “Men who cheat come back to their families, so I never worried about it. Who’d want him anyway? Men were never meant to be with one woman. I never cared.” Galina had accepted her fate without complaint, finding fulfillment instead through her career and travel. Nancy said Galina’s husband had always grumbled that she didn’t pay enough attention to him. Now he has dementia and she cares for him around the clock.
When I woke up on the morning of my big day, I actually forgot that I was officially 40 until Nancy and Galina showered me with kisses and cries of “s dnyom rozhdeniya, Mariannochka!” I had been preparing for 40 so long that it was a little anti-climactic once it did arrive. After a big egg and sausage breakfast with Galina’s oatmeal kasha and the requisite hot tea, we set off to Fisherman’s Wharf. I had forgotten my acupressure wristbands and was a little worried about seasickness. I hadn’t been actually sick on a boat in at least 10 years, but we found a drugstore, and I picked up three sets of wristbands, over $10 each, but worth it, I figured, if they worked. (Obviously, they didn’t.)
It was very cold out on the water, probably ten degrees colder than the temperature on land, and insanely windy. The boat motored out for about 45 minutes, and then we saw them. There were lots of whales, and though none came especially close to the boat, they did dive under, giving us fabulous views of their flukes (tails). We saw mostly humpback whales with an occasional blue one further out, as told over a microphone by a marine biologist narrating our trip. The boat stopped for almost an hour as we all ran from side to side of the boat taking pictures. The damn creatures were very hard to capture – my camera seemed always to need a second or two too long to focus once I’d located a whale surfacing, and I’d only get the end of the fluke or last sputter of the spout. At one point I even put my camera away, convinced that the whales were remaining unnaturally long underwater to spite me or that they were being lethargic and boring on purpose, when two whales in tandem dove down fairly near to the boat, regaling us with a spectacular double display of flukes. It was a performance worthy of SeaWorld – which none of us caught on camera.
The boat had drifted pretty far out when the whale activity died down. Right after the captain announced that we would be speeding up again to go out deeper in the canyon, I lost my breakfast. Nancy and Galina offered me water and wrapped me in an extra scarf. Galina gave me a piece of lemon to suck on, pulled from the stash in her purse, a crumpled Styrofoam cup with a few tea bags and individual portions of honey that she had pilfered from the restaurant. She had an obogrevatelwith her – an electrical contraption of a twisted metal loop that could be inserted into a cup of water to make it boil – and she was planning on having tea later that night in our hotel room. The thought of it made me laugh; I hadn’t seen one since my student days, living in a dormitory in Russia.
Piece of lemon aside, I threw up not one, but two, more times. I’d make my way woozily back to my seat, take a sip of water, wrap myself back up in the scarf, get all settled in with my lemon piece, and then have to throw everything off as I ran to the railing again. I was miserable. I really did not want the boat to go deeper into the canyon; I wanted to go back to shore.
Not content to be left out, my intestines had to get in on the action, and I spent a good portion of the rest of the trip in the bathroom, to what I’m sure was the great chagrin of the passengers waiting in line when I emerged. I hated to leave though: sitting on the toilet and staring at the straight line of wood molding even with my eyebrows seemed to be the only way to calm my insides. I listened to the biologist recount the remarkable variety of marine life – apparently there were hundreds of bottle-nosed dolphins racing and diving alongside the boat, and I was missing all of them. Why? Why was I celebrating my fortieth birthday in the bathroom instead of enjoying the cruise? Why did all of my friends have successful careers, families, homes, while I was still living like a recent college graduate? Why was I letting life pass me by?
I was staying inside my comfort zone, avoiding the responsibilities of adulthood, of a home, of a family. I was evading judgment of my writing – what if my writing wasn’t good enough? Or worse – what if it was? What changes would success bring to my life, to my relationships with my family members and friends? Despite my academic and work achievements, I was the incompetent one in my family, the one with no sense of direction and poor judgment in men. I was the one struggling for money and crying over my most recent breakup. How would everyone relate to me if I wasn’t the one doing those things? Would they pay attention to me at all if I no longer needed their help? I groaned and pulled myself up. It was time to find out.
The teenage boy working the boat’s galley gave me some ginger candy and recommended that I stay on the outer deck, in the fresh air. He suggested that I watch the horizon, but I found that staring at my feet helped me more. I was still queasy, but I seemed to have lost all that was in there to lose. I asked Nancy and Galina about the dolphins, but neither of them had taken any pictures. Somehow I knew that would be the case. I needed to experience life myself.
We were on the boat a total of 4 ½ hours. Galina was completely exhilarated by the experience.
“I love the sea!” She told us, breathing in deeply. “I even thought, I wonder what would happen if I just jumped overboard, off the boat.”
Nancy laughed. “Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t try it!”
“Yeah,” I added. “You’d be swimming in my puke.”
“Oy, Marianna!” Galina exclaimed, “I don’t even know how to swim.”
I thought about Galina, her wonder and zest for life, her willingness to jump into the thrilling cold water to experience something new without concern for her fate. If she, at 70, could greet each day as a new adventure, despite the numerous tribulations in her own life, surely I could meet my 41st year head-on. I could take on the responsibilities of adulthood myself, without waiting for anyone else’s help. I could write and earn enough money to buy my own place, adopt a child – maybe even get a dog! The possibilities began to excite me. As the last remnants of my younger self (and nasty breakfast) swirled away under the boat, I was most definitely, irrevocably, off to begin my life.
Marianne Ruane won the Cruise Silver Award for “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Puking: A Whale Watching Tour in Monterey” in the Fifth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.