Ketchikan is run down at first, with long lines of rust on the sides of fish warehouses and rain cisterns, but as we get into town, the paint awakens and fish houses are filled with fur-covered Swiss cruise patrons. Krystyna owns a huge red, “brand spankin’ used” truck, which is what the shiny license plate says. She’s two years younger than me, in her fourth year in the Coast Guard, and moving to Sitka for two years. She asked her ex-boyfriend to move with her but he wouldn’t leave Minnesota, and she says, staring straight ahead at where an old cannery decays onshore, “I don’t do long distance.” It strikes me that I might never have any idea who she is. Inside her truck are her things: a huge brown teddy bear, another lifeless stuffed toy with only one ear hanging out of the cup holder, pink and purple ribbons and bags, and sentimental country music CD cases. We have lunch with her friend Mike who’s also in the Coast Guard and either gay or in love with Krystyna. I can’t tell. I’m not sure it matters, but what does is I am not used to being around strangers at such lengths anymore, and I feel like I’m stuck in the middle of being young and not old.
We run into Ed at a breakfast diner at the edge of town as I’m squeegying yoke off my plate with a piece of wheat toast, and he doesn’t make eye contact with me once. He says, “You’re 26 going on what? 20?” There’s an edge there that had been, apparently, smoothed out by the boat before. He has his laptop, he needs to find wireless, and he might see us later in the day after he hikes and writes. Urgency: there’s that too, in the men who come on short trips to take in all of Alaska.
Over the water, an eagle and a raven and float planes swoop down and fight for space. A 12-story cruise ship puffs its way out of town with a man on top who’s running laps against the muscles of the wind. When we make it back to the house, full on breakfast and a lunch of blackened halibut tacos and beer, we sleep hard and sweaty on two big green couches while the sun makes it slow way west over mountainous islands with ribbons left by boats in-between. The smallness of being me returns throughout the day while I watch the sky play with the waning light.
When I wake up, I walk for a half-an-hour down to a small marina with a hamburger and shakes shack and a few plump, pink little girls who are looking for a towel. From the boardwalk, thousands of needlefish catch the light on their silver scales, darting over each other and back in a choreographed blob of pivots and decisions. I’ve heard they stick together like that so they appear to be one big fish. I drop a penny into their circular system and they spread like tumbling pick-up sticks.
Getting back to the ferry for the next boarding call means waiting on the netted ramp for three hours until the sun has almost come back up. I call my mom and tell her I’ve met a friend and didn’t have to hang out with the homeless people in Ketchikan. Krystyna’s back is against the driver’s side window and her knees are pulled up to her chest. It is almost 3 in the morning, but filling time this early is the same as filling it late. I realize that some people's stories mean little to nothing to me, but this girl whom I barely know and all these men and all these people in all these remote places and myself, we all want at least one thing, which is to be listened to as someone who’s distinct, and that's worth not falling asleep.