Through meditations on race, culture and family, Carla Rachel Sameth’s debut, ONE DAY ON THE GOLD LINE: A MEMOIR IN ESSAYS, tells the story of a lesbian Jewish single mother raising a black son in Los Angeles. Through her moving essays, she examines life’s surprising changes that come through choice or circumstance, often seemingly out of nowhere, and sometimes darkly humorous. An excerpt from her celebrated, new book release.
THE BURNING BOAT
That night on the ferry from Italy to Greece, I felt I was performing a sort of tashlich, the Jewish New Year’s tradition of symbolically casting off sins and regrets of the previous year in the form of bread crumbs tossed into flowing water. Earlier that evening, the warm ocean night had wrapped me in a peaceful feeling of embarking on something new while leaving behind my recent losses, as if I had tossed them into the ocean.
It was 1991, and I was thirty-two years old. I was fighting to recover from what felt like the biggest loss. I had been engaged and living in San Francisco when I accidentally got pregnant. I dreaded having another abortion. The first one, two years prior—while in another doomed relationship—had felt necessary. But it had left me sunk so low that I was like a poster child for the anti-abortion movement. This time around, not realizing I was pregnant, I had been taking medication that could harm the fetus. After much research and agonizing indecision, I terminated the pregnancy. When my fiancé and I split up, I lost hope of having a baby in the near future and in the dreams I had for a lasting relationship. The quicksand of unrelenting regret threatened to swallow me up again.
I had made a new plan. Go away on a magical trip overseas—Europe, Greece, maybe Turkey and Israel. Then return and buckle down to the serious business of job, house, and baby—but on my own.
A noise broke into my dreams, ending the blissful quality of my sleep. Drunken sailors, I thought and rolled over, hoping to recover my dream. The pounding and shouts of “Wake up, get out!” in broken English continued. Groggy, I tried to sit up. I staggered out in my pajamas, no bra. Passengers had fallen asleep curled up against one another, languid, cozy, on top of blankets strewn about them, children sleeping on parents and dogs sprawled in between. On the ship deck the idyllic scene had shifted to chaos. Dozens of sailors tried to climb the mast of the ferry, fighting with some kind of mechanism to lower the lifeboats, clearly something they had never had to do before. Other sailors stood looking agitated, puzzled, waving their arms and shouting orders in Greek. Families and lovers whom I had envied the night before seemed frenzied, panicked. Children and parents clung together—some cried, some held babies. Dogs ran the length of the deck barking or huddled with the children, whimpering. The sailors managed to lower the lifeboats, which dropped one by one into the water with loud, messy splashes.
Sailors shuffled women and children onto the lifeboats. Some couples refused to be separated. Strangest of all were the dogs: some men remained on board while the dogs went on the lifeboats.
I ran back to my cabin and grabbed my Grandma Stella’s silver etched ring from Mexico. She had given it to me when I was in my twenties and was suffering from the aftermath of a breakup, and I’d told her, “Now we are engaged, Grandma.” That ring was one thing I’d hung onto over the years. Something enduring and unusual for me, because I hadn’t lost it yet. Running my fingers over the etching, I felt something familiar, which added to my oddly calm demeanor, though my extraordinary grandma had not been known for her nurturing.
On deck, an Italian man attempted to comfort both his wife and me, though I was dry-eyed. Like me, all the usually elegant Italian women were braless, but the men must have gone to bed with their Italian suits pressed and ready to jump into, because that’s how we saw them now. They were beautifully and immaculately dressed, not a wrinkle.
I was hustled along into a lifeboat by momentum. No one stopped to ask if I wanted to be saved, but I got in, obediently. In my lifeboat people were crying and crossing themselves. A German woman insisted desperately to herself, “My husband—he is still on the ship. But he is a good swimmer.”
A lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. In the middle of the night. Complete darkness as we drifted away from our ferry. I wondered if our ship was sinking with the remaining passengers and our belongings. Would these few people around me in my lifeboat be the last ones I’d see? I didn’t know them, had barely spoken with anyone on this trip. Who besides my family would feel pain at my going? Would my ex-fiancé feel any regrets? Had I left anything undone? I imagined my parents and my siblings, and I felt a prick of sadness for them; after all, I would hate it if one of them died.
I was no longer afraid. I had been more frightened the day before, when I was in Bari, a steaming, dangerous port.
Instead, a relief washed over me, as I no longer beat myself senseless with self-blame, regrets, ruminations. I thought, I’ve led a good life. At thirty-two, I’d experienced a lot.
I remembered the love from Henry, my safe, longtime Filipino boyfriend from my twenties; my family; my friends; the places I’d traveled, the magic of Chaco Canyon. Finding my muscles in Simpson Meadow. And now here—the middle of the Mediterranean—what better place to go? Besides my family, a few close friends, who would miss me?
I wanted to believe that Henry would mourn me. I remembered how he first got my heart when we saw a lonely older person pushing a cart down the street. It’s so sad to grow old alone, we agreed. And then he said, “I know it’s too soon to say these words, but I’d like to grow old with you.”
Henry used to beg me, “Just have the kids, and you can go off and do your thing. I’ll support you through medical school. I’ll say, ‘Mommy had to work,’ and I’ll take care of them.”
I had always thought I could just check in when I was ready for children, and Henry—or someone like him—would be there. That didn’t happen. Instead, I broke his heart when I fell into the seductive orbit of a Nicaraguan man with six kids. Now, several years later, I was alone. Henry, too, was part of the collateral damage from decisions I’d made, addictive love I’d run with—part of my tashlich. Regret seeped in and undercut the brief serenity and gratitude I’d felt a few moments before.
I glanced over at the one other woman not crying. She rocked her baby and sang softly, eyes locked with her infant’s. No room for anyone else. Magic. I gasped as I realized how much I wanted that. I remembered having had that life inside me, how I’d already felt like a mother. “No!” I said out loud, and then the boulder inside me that kept the tears in rolled out, and I wept. I was not ready to die without having had a baby.
With the first light of dawn and a striking sunrise, I started to think that I should have grabbed a camera instead of the ring. People seemed to have fallen silent—for how long? A large ship pulled up. They threw down a ladder, and we climbed in.
Passengers on our rescue ship moved over, made room, and offered us food. We found out what the problem was: engine fire. Apparently engine fires are the biggest potential danger on passenger ferries like ours. Everyone assumed their cars and belongings were gone, and we were just happy to be alive. The honeymooners didn’t see a bad omen—their life going up in flames. Instead they saw a new beginning.
And I decided to do the same.
Reprinted with permission of the author and Black Rose/Rare Bird Books.>
A writer, educator and mother, Carla Rachel Samath teaches creative writing at the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP) at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA), and at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). As a frequent fellow and scholar-in-residence, Carla was selected as a Los Angeles Writing Project Fellow while attending the 2016 Summer Invitational Writing Institute at CSULA and was awarded a PEN in the Community Teaching Artist Residency in 2016. Carla has been published in numerous anthologies and publications, including ePen (the online publication of PEN Center USA); Brain, Child; Brevity Blog; The Nervous Breakdown; Anti-Heroin Chic; Collateral Journal; Narratively; Mutha Magazine; Tikkun; Pasadena Weekly; AOL/Patch and La Bloga, among others, and she is the most-published contributor to Angels Flight literary west. Her personal essay, “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” originally published in Narratively, was also selected for Longreads‘ “Five Stories About Addiction.” Carla helps others tell their stories through her communications business, iMindsPR. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University of Charlotte. A member of the Pasadena Rose Poets, she also is the co-founder of the Pasadena Writing Project and a writing instructor and mentor for incarcerated youth through WriteGirl.
ONE DAY ON THE GOLD LINE: A MEMOIR IN ESSAYS was published in July by Black Rose, a division of Rare Bird Books. Please join Carla in for a reading, signing and conversation with Pasadena Weekly editor Kevin Uhrich at Vroman’s, Pasadena, Thursday, August 29, at 7:00 p.m. Learn more about Carla and her upcoming readings and events at carlasameth.com.