On our first full day in Seward, Alaska, we boarded a boat in the rain, heading on a nine-hour tour of the Kenai Fjords. On the tour, we saw a pod of orcas, breaching just enough for us to see their flukes, which are, apparently, peerless as our own fingerprints. We saw humpback whales and copious sea otters; those on their own were very curious about us, and those in pairs played, spinning around one another, doing somersaults in the water. We saw sunbathing stellar sea lions, and various seals. We saw horned and tufted puffins, and common murres. Toward the end of the trip, we were accompanied by a daring pod of porpoises which darted in and out at the bow of the boat, back and forth beneath the ship itself. There was no telling how many of them there actually were.
It was frigid outside, and the light rain turned to sleet when we came to a stop before Northwestern Glacier, a massive, faceted jewel of ice which groaned and thundered before expelling a waterfall of ice for our benefit. Seals and sea lions rested on the ice floes just past the calving, nonplussed, as we stood, unable to feel our faces, blinking in surprise at the glacier’s endless activity: we were expecting silence, stillness, a wall of unmoving ice.
Nikki is always telling me she has never spoken this much in a relationship before, and in truth, I have never spoken so little. There is a middle ground we have reached over the years, long periods of quiet between us that do not read as silence. A lot of our time on the boat was in that hushed space. The boat, the air, the water, the ice, all of the other people — except one — made so much noise that we muted ourselves, hung on together at support beams.
Although it was cold, we spent most of those nine hours outside, watching the slice of the boat on the water behind us, looking out for wildlife. We were not the only ones who weathered the weather this way: another young woman, alone, sat along a bench at the back of the boat, observing everything in silence. I almost fell on her twice, trying to move around the deck as the ship rollicked on the sea. She made eye contact but did not smile back when I sheepishly apologized.
At some point, I told Nikki that I was glad we were traveling together; this was such an exhausting venture I wasn’t quite sure I could have done it myself. The silent stranger was listening, and soon after we arrived back in Georgia, Nikki saw her post on the tour company’s social media account, saying she overhead two other travelers saying they couldn’t possibly do this alone; she was very pleased with herself for her independence, considering our lack of it.
There was a moment after reading her response that I recoiled, became self-conscious. I cannot remember the last time someone insinuated that I was not an independent person. But upon further reflection, I realized I knew her well: I have been in her shoes before, quite often. I have done many difficult things entirely alone, enjoying myself, feeling stubborn and smug about it. The same can be said for Nikki.
We have lived long lives in our 30-something years, longer lives than most people our age and, in some cases, people much older than we are. We have proven ourselves capable of many feats that have confused our friends and families, that have fractured relationships that begged for more attention. We have arrived, together, at a point of mutual appreciation: she is my companion, and when we are companionate, I want nothing else.
When I said I didn’t think I could have done this particular trip by myself, what I meant was that I didn’t want to. I was moved, sharing this otherworldly journey with her, precisely because she is my every day. We cannot help but bring such things home with us; it is impossible not to. We experience them together and alone. The quiet between us is simply a verbal distance we can explore with time, should we want to. Really, though, nothing need be said.
As far as I am concerned, no one but the two of us saw that calving glacier or kayaked among icebergs in a fog wall. All the other travelers’ faces are gone now. There is nothing now but her hand on my lower back, helping to steady me against the wake as we watched the earth change shape forever. Being with someone — truly with them — has proved more challenging, to me, than being alone. Doing it well, and with gratitude, is also a point of stubborn pride.