One of my best memories is a canoeing trip I took with my friend, let's call her Ona. She was an immigrant from Lithuania who had been in the United States on vacation when the Soviet Union fell apart, so she was allowed to stay. We met when she showed up to train at my dojo. She was six-feet tall, strong and statuesque, given to swearing in Russian.
“Is best language for cursing,” she would say.
Ona’s husband was abusive. Criticized her when she gained weight. Would make her sleep on the floor. We went canoeing so Ona could do some hard thinking about whether she should seek a divorce. To me, it was a no brainer. But how could I understand her position? He was the only thing that remained to her of home.
We set out in our rented car to make the hour-long drive from Philadelphia. Before long we were paddling through the tea-colored water of the Mullica River. We had chosen a two-day trip despite not having a tent, or even much food. I don’t know what we were thinking, but the Barrens smiled upon us. The rain stayed away, as did the bugs. We talked about men, about karate, about adventures. We talked about how to be true to yourself. The sound of our paddles dipping through the water and the smell of pine restored our souls.
Another party showed up maybe a half hour later. They were like a mobile city. Five canoes, three tents, flood lights, heaps of food and a gallon jug of Seagram’s 7. They were generous, tolerant people, shaking their heads at our lack of a tent. They gave us food. They gave us Seagram’s. Jackpot. Best campsite neighbors ever.
They may have come to regret their generosity. Ona and I got righteously drunk. She attempted to teach me a Lithuanian folk tune phonetically. I started to bellow Pogues’ songs. I’m sure they counted our drunken snoring as a profound relief.
We woke early. When you’re out in Nature you wake with the sun, whiskey or no whiskey. Our neighbors were friendly as they shoved off ahead of us. They said, “Nice to meet you ladies.” Such cool people. If I knew who they were I’d send them a fruit basket. Apologize for being a sodden fool.
Ona and I set off in our canoe, still drunk. We felt fabulous. We had plenty of water, so we sucked that down to ease the buzz as we paddled along the most beautiful section of the river.
By the time we got back to our car, Ona had reached her decision. She would leave her husband.
We drove back to Philadelphia, the stinky, crowded city. Me, back to my demons. Ona to face an extremely hard thing in a life already harder than this white, yankee-born woman could fathom.
Ona went home to Lithuania after a crazy time stateside (really, I could write a book about her and I might some day). I’m glad she’s with her family, back in her culture. But I miss her.