A friend of mine went missing this year, although I didn’t know it at the time. Yeah, 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. And so in her case unreachable didn’t necessarily mean lost. It merely reflected a spirit inclined to disconnect to pursue a new future. It’s the kind of passion that’s to be admired, if one that leaves her friends 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: The world “the way it is” collected into thirty pristine minutes with no opinions, no chatter, no debate. For a couple days there had been a story in the news that I ignored, not missed but ignored. It was about another fucking sea rescue. They appear with far too regular frequency, if remarkably less often than the routine murder of innocents by rogues wielding AR-15s. The story of the rescue appeared on the screen during my first bite of pizza — no avoiding it without ditching my slice for the remote, and that was a no-go. So it played. My wife barked an explicative at the first sailor’s name, “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. She was responding to an ad I placed for 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 up for it. 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″ 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.) Fer was a force of nature whose college fund was plundered by her father on his way out the door with his mistress and who was doing what was necessary to pay her way and that of her younger brother through college. Unstoppable.
Relationships between the disabled and their attendants grow akin to family. But life moves on and after graduation we rarely saw one another. But during our few reunions I heard stories and saw proof in her expensive vehicles that her all-or-nothing approach to life had carried over to business. She pushed hard and scored good incomes only to lose those gains in dramatic fashion and recoup them again by her all-in tack. She was a walking talking example of boom or bust.
One of the last times I saw her, though, she was changed. She had been in a motorcycle accident that left her temporarily left in a wheelchair and permanently, emotionally, different. She soon sold her assets and moved to Hawaii and onto a boat.
I only saw her a couple of times between her move to the islands and her five months at sea. Our visits revealed her to be less sturdy than she had been before her accident. She was still driven by impulse, but those impulses seemed less grounded. She seemed more adrift if no less ready for her next flight of fancy. And so my wife and I uttered the same thought when we saw her on that Navy ship. I am sure those same words were 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.