“Come,” he says, “I want to show you something.”
I almost ask, “What?” but I enjoy the little tremor of suspense, so I don’t.
He puts me into his car, and I wait in the darkness while he walks around to the right, gets into the driver’s side, and starts the engine.
There is just this. There’s no before, where we’d come from, where we’d been, just this driving through the dark streets beside him, down towards the foreshore, where the sailors and the dockworkers hang out. Where I’ve always been told it isn’t safe.
I have never driven here before, and as he weaves his way through the warren of narrow streets, I begin to feel lost. But there is always the mountain as a landmark. Even at night, I can look for its slate-gray, granite bulk crouching against the sky like a colossal elephant, and I can get my bearings. He is heading towards the harbor, and the further he drives away from the city lights, the more we shrink into the pool of darkness, with just his headlights streaming ahead.
It is hot, the middle of summer, and he rolls down his window. The southeaster hasn’t blown for days, and the cloyingly sweet smell of the docks and the sea, hanging like a pall over the city, is particularly pungent here.
He slows, and puts the car into first gear. “I’m going to turn off the lights and the engine,” he tells me.
There are no streetlights, and now with no headlights it is almost inky black. The silence settles around us, and the only sound, coming through his open window, is the crunch of the tires rolling slowly over the gritty surface of the dockyard. He applies the brakes, and we come to a complete standstill. The water slaps against the harbor wall.
“Now look!” He suddenly turns on his headlights.
I don’t know what I’m looking for. Then I see some heads swiveling in our direction, and I make out a group of large, sleepy seals blinking at us in the light. He waits for only a few seconds before switching off the lights again so as not to alarm them. He puts the car in reverse, and we back away slowly, leaving them in peace.
It’s a few seconds, that’s all, but it’s indelible. I carry it like a talisman when I move to another city, another career … another country. Folded into the history of the now bright, upscale, reclaimed, renovated V&A Waterfront, are the dank and seamy shadows where seals would bed down for the night, and the quietly watching, impressionable, half-formed young woman who was from there.
Judith Krummeck is a writer and broadcaster living in Baltimore. She immigrated to the States from Africa in the late 1990s, and is the evening drive time host of Maryland’s classical music station, WBJC. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore.