Chapter 6: Gayla

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The wedding itself was no fancy affair, not the kind of event I’d attended that put brides’ parents in hock to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. (What would the Quakers say about the excesses of a twenty-first century wedding?) And the preacher was no Father Mapple, though we married at Seamen’s Bethel and I could swear I felt Ishmael’s spirit observing. A silly fancy, given that Melville hadn’t yet written him.

All too often in those New Bedford weeks I had the feeling of walking the pages of a book. So much of my preparation had come from the page that the reality felt almost unreal. I was all too aware that Melville himself was even then on the sea, his whaler Acushnet just eight months out. But when I felt tempted to treat a day as a costume drama, I would be brought back to reality by the drawn face of a woman whose husband’s ship was overdue. This isn’t any padded period piece—it’s deadly serious business, emphasis on the “deadly.”

Still, I found myself with the touristy impulse to snap pictures of New Bedford looking so “quaint,” though of course I had no camera to hand. A camera is a rare thing, and I was surprised by my new husband’s suggestion that we have a picture made. An item off my checklist, and without any machinations on my part. Had I been paying attention, that should have been my first clue that I wasn’t going to be at the helm of this experience.

I can’t describe my tangle of emotion when I saw the finished photo that was already so familiar to me, Obadiah’s stern face and my somewhat quizzical one staring back at me from the freshly processed print. It’s the picture that started me here—and I think that’s when the enormity of what I’d done finally hit home. I could clearly see the plaque that would hang beside it: “Sextant owned by Captain Obadiah Starbuck, shown here with his wife Gayla Harper Starbuck—an unusual woman in that she sailed aboard her husband’s whaling ships.” Even 175 years from now, the adjective that will live on regarding me is “unusual.” I’m not sure how to feel about that.

Sometimes I’m just plain not-sure-how-to-feel… And our wedding night was certainly one of those. Though I wasn’t inexperienced, I’d been accustomed to longer dating relationships (even a brief marriage) and knowing someone more intimately before engaging in physical intimacy. There was no question in my mind that we would be consummating our marriage, but I found myself as nervy as if I had been the virgin my new husband no doubt thought me. (And into the bargain, I still wasn’t sure how best to explain that particular circumstance. Though he wasn’t an active practitioner of his father’s Quaker faith, he undoubtedly held the Puritan sensibilities and expectations that are the social norm. I didn’t want to implode his regard for me right off the bat, especially when I still had the tricky business ahead of getting myself established onboard.)

I didn’t find him unattractive—he had a physical vigor about him and an occasional quirk of humor that appealed to me. His wind-weathered face made him look older than the forty-one years I knew he had, born with the century, and I wondered how many years he thought separated us. Unworn by childbearing or poor nutrition, I looked younger than the women around me who shared my thirty years (though, so strangely, not my birth year).

Whatever he thought my age or inexperience, he picked up on my nerves. “Come here, lass, I’ll not frighten you tonight. A new ship needs eased into the water.” He picked up my hairbrush, brought with my few effects from the dockside inn, and wordlessly began to stroke it through my hair, after a few moments gently pressing my shoulder to seat me on a chest at the foot of the bed. It didn’t happen immediately, but I felt myself relaxing under his touch when he began to follow each stroke of the brush with one of his other hand. I don’t know how long he continued to brush and stroke, but my breathing had settled and my shoulders loosened by the time he set down the brush and held out his hand. “Let’s get accustomed to one another some. Bring thee here.” It was the first time I’d heard him use Quaker plain speech, which I would come to recognize as a sign of emotion in him, slipping into the usage of his upbringing. Its forbidding (to me) formality would add emphasis to his angers, but in this moment it sounded remarkably tender. He drew me down onto the bed, still dressed, but instead of turning me toward himself or climbing on top, as I half expected, he turned me away from him, wrapped his arm around me, and nestled me in against him. And he began to talk.

It didn’t have the cadence of a planned speech, but he couldn’t have planned a better approach. Honestly, I don’t even remember much of what he told me, just the soothing tone of his talk and the unaccustomed weight of his muscled arm tucked around my waist. I believe I fully relaxed for the first time in months, and after letting his voice surround me for a time, I found myself speaking. “Obadiah, I’ve been married before. I thought you should know.”

I tensed again in the moment of silence that followed, then sighed at his soft answer. “Aye? I’m sorry for your loss, lass.” It was still deceptive of me, I know—letting him think I’d been widowed rather than wickedly divorced, and knowing he’d assume I’d only been with my previous (rather, ex) husband. But it seemed the best effort I could make at honesty, and I felt lighter for having it out. I would necessarily have to live with some untruths, given the impossible nature of any truthful explanation, but I resolved in that moment to be as honest with him as I possibly could. And that is my most intimate memory of our wedding night. The physical joining was pleasant (if a little awkward and clumsy, as people are when they’re new to one another—especially when there’s been no prelude of “making out” to pave the way) but it was the resolve of honesty that made me realize I was doing more than going through a set of “predestined” motions.

I’d accomplished the daunting—I was married to my captain. Now I just had to accomplish the impossible. And I decided to go about it by behaving as if the “impossible” were inevitable. Of course I was going with him.

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