A friend of mine went missing this year, although I didn’t know it at the time. Sure, emails weren’t returned over the summer, nor texts, and that was concerning. But then my friend was the type of person who would vanish, a woman who had sold everything and moved from Houston to Hawaii and fallen off the grid a few times since. So unreachable didn’t necessarily mean lost. It merely reflected her spirit, one inclined to disconnect from her past to pursue a new future. It’s the kind of passion that is to be admired, if one that leaves her friends occasionally in the dark.
My wife and I were eating dinner. Pizza. It was late, after eight, and I turned on the DVR and started the CBS Evening News. I record it nightly. The world “the way it is” collected into thirty pristine minutes. No opinions. No chatter. No debate. Just the facts as best they can be discerned. For a couple days there had been a story in the news that I had ignored, not just missed but intentionally ignored. It was about a rescue at sea. Another fucking sea rescue. Like mass shootings they appear with far too regular frequency, if remarkably less often than the now routine murder of innocents by rogues wielding AR-15s. The story of the rescue appeared on the screen during my first bite of pizza, so no avoiding it without ditching my slice for the remote, and that was a no-go. So it played. And at the first sailor’s name, my wife uttered an explicative and then, “That’s Fer!” (Fer for Jennifer Appel, a friend of mine for almost thirty years.) I refocused on the television. There was my friend on a Navy ship smiling that shit-eating grin of hers. What the hell?!
I met Fer in 1988 when we were students at Texas A&M University. I had placed an ad for an attendant, someone to bathe me, dress me, lift me into my wheelchair. The job paid near volunteer wages and required a parental degree of dedication, but Fer said she was in. I hired her on the spot.
Fer wasn’t your typical co-ed. She was a sorority girl, a professional motorcycle racer, a stripper at Rick’s Cabaret in Houston. And my attendant.
My 5’3″ new helper’s feet didn’t even reach the ground from her 1100cc Yamaha, but that didn’t stop her from riding it to my apartment four mornings a week. It didn’t take long to realize that little stopped this tiny girl from upper crust Houston. She was a force of nature whose college fund had been plundered by her father on his way out the door and who was doing what she had to do in order to pay her way and her brother’s way through school. Like I said, unstoppable.
Fer was my attendant for two years, and relationships between the disabled and their attendants grow akin to family, for better or worse. (Ours was for better.) But ours was also temporary, like most relationships formed in college. So after our graduations we rarely saw one another, yet reconnected quickly when we did. And during those reunions I heard stories and saw proof in her high performance vehicles of her all-or-nothing approach to life and business, as she pushed hard and scored good income, then repeatedly lost those gains in dramatic fashion, only to recoup her losses again and again by her all-in tack.
One of the last times I saw her, though, she was changed. She had been in a motorcycle accident, a bad one that had temporarily left her in a wheelchair and permanently, emotionally, different. She soon sold her assets and moved to Hawaii and onto a boat. The suburbs wouldn’t do, mediocrity was still not an option: Retire big or stay home.
Our visits were brief but real the few times I saw her between her move to the islands and her five months at sea. There was no pretense, just that reality, her reality, a reality unlike anyone else’s I have met — Fer’s playbook was and is her own. So when my wife and I saw her on that Navy ship, we uttered the same thought, I am sure, that was echoed by everyone who has known her, “This doesn’t surprise me!”
I quickly checked Fer’s Facebook wall for a post. Nothing. I emailed her, asked what she had been up to, “Anything interesting been going on?” I didn’t hear back, and so I repeatedly returned to her wall, where I increasingly found posts from people who did not know Fer but who had heard claims of aggressive sharks and massive storms that didn’t line up with marine science or weather reports and now were, for reasons that are inexplicable, offended. Their posts were brutal, vicious, damning. The story of the lying sailor took on a life of its own as media scrutiny became more intense, more aggressive, more personal, not because Fer had harmed anyone — in fact, the reports of the Las Vegas shooter had been more objective — but because her tales from five months at sea didn’t ring true with experts. A British tabloid then went after her private life, because her adventurous sexuality was easy to judge and appealed to the inner prude in all of us. Nudes were posted on that same paper’s website. It was a tawdry affair, not Fer’s private life but the public expose that cloaked itself as “news.” Jennifer eventually emailed me. She asked for a place to hide. My wife and I immediately agreed. Our friend had been attacked, and friends take care of friends who have been mauled by animals.
Fer arrived last night during an ice storm; the weather was befitting. At the airport she looked like one who had suffered through a long illness and nothing like the joyful sailor aboard that Navy vessel on day one. She and Tasha, her friend who with her spent five months at sea, crawled into my van with their two dogs in tow. Fer told me her firsthand account of their days at sea during our slow drive home. It was nothing like the reports I read in the media.
I will leave it to Fer to write about what she and Tasha experienced at sea and about these horrible days that have followed. Suffice to say their story is much more mundane than that reported by the press and far less controversial. They weren’t without propulsion nor were their lives at risk until the last couple days when they called for rescue. They were instead, while at sea, healthy and happy and enjoying their adventure, if at times afraid of the unknown. It wasn’t until they returned to dry land that true peril found them.