November 17, 2012 – I Like Big Boats I Cannot Lie
Cruise ship or not, it’s not very comfortable sleeping in a non-reclining chair. I think back fondly, wistfully to my cabin on the DALIAN. Despite the sign on the wall that says “Do not put feet on chairs” and something like “Do not try to move the chair” which I think is bolted into the floor – I eventually put my socked feet up on the seat next to me and try to curl myself into sleep. With the help of music I block out the very loud Italian group who has descended upon the room like a gaggle of geese, and find a few fitful hours of rest.
In the morning, the Loud Italian Group (LIG) is up early and off to get breakfast. Or to crinkle plastic bags for an indefinite amount of time. Or to walk by me, as one old man does, and poke my feet with his rule-enforcing finger.
I glare at his retreating back. Seriously? I turn up my music, growl internally, and try to get back to the dream I imagined I was dreaming.
It’s no good. So I call it a night and get up.
In a situation like this, what’s called for is a cappuccino. I go to hunt one down. At the restaurant entrance, I glance at the menu. Too much stuff. It’s not as expensive as I would have imagined, but I don’t need anything extravagant. I just want a good coffee and a croissant.
There’s a restaurant steward standing by the line and I tell him in Spanish, “I’d just like a cappuccino and a croissant.”
“You can’t get that here,” he says. “You have to go to the bar for that.”
“Gracias,” I say and go to find the bar.
There are a few wait staff members milling about near the bar. There are a couple of other people sitting in the plush seats in the seating area. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to seat myself or order first. I stand in the middle of the room trying to get one of the staff to notice me. I go sit in a chair. I get back up and look for a menu. It’s no good. It’s like they’re trained to ignore. Even the girl behind the bar won’t turn around. Another couple comes in, they head straight for a side desk where I now notice a cash register, get the attention of the male staffer, order their drinks and get served as I’m telling myself, “So that’s how it’s done.”
I pretend I haven’t been standing like a witless fool for the past five minutes and go the register. The man there is my old friend who’d told me all about pilot boats in Italian the night before. He remembers my name, calls me by it as he gives me my receipt. I give him a friendly smile and go hand the paper to the girl at the bar who magically has come to life now that money has passed hands somewhere.
I get my cappuccino and a croissant.
A bite or two into my breakfast the restaurant staffer comes in and approaches me. “Did you get what you wanted?” he asks.
“Yes, thank you,” I say, feeling the irony that now that I’m served I get attention.
He gleams at me and goes back away again. The pilot boat staffer is standing behind me talking with another staffer and I’m afraid at any minute he’ll come talk to me. It’s not that I don’t like him. It’s just I’m not feeling very social and my Italian is so limited it makes things interesting, difficult, and exhausting. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep and that always makes things even harder. If only I’d learn to just walk away. If only I’d just learn to try not to understand at all. I finish off my breakfast and beat a hasty retreat.
My plan is to go up on deck, find a quiet, lonely spot and stay out of sight for the remainder of the trip. There are ten hours to go.
Up the stairs and out in the open air, I take a walk around first. For a while I lean up against the starboard
side railing and stare out into the blue. I’ve missed the sea. I’ve missed the changing textures of the water. I’ve missed the way the sky melts into the horizon, into the waves. Ah solitude, how I love you.
Just that quickly it’s gone. One of the LIGs comes alongside me and stares off into the distance as if that’s all he’s doing. But he doesn’t fool me. Especially when he starts talking. After I tell him that I don’t speak Italian very well he tells me that we should be able to see the shoreline of France at some point, that he’s with the Loud Italian Group for a five day Spain tour, that he’s separated from his wife (or she’s dead, I’m not sure which), that he has kids, and that he takes trips quite often.
I smile and nod politely, and when I can, I excuse myself and rush away.
The aft side is peopled, blast it all, so I go down a level and sit underneath the stairs. I’ll be out of sight. I’ll be out of the way. I’ll be in the sun. I put my music on and open my book up. This is the life.
Then the door next to me opens and out comes my restaurant staffer. He looks down at me and smiles. I smile back, but cringe inside. We chat a little. In English and in Italian.
He’s on a quick break and as he’s heading back inside he asks, “Do you want some water?”
“Actually,” I say, “That’d be fantastic.”
He goes back in and returns in record time with a cup of ice water. I thank him properly and then get back to my book.
The water churns out beneath the boat, the sun gathers strength, I read on.
The door opens again. It’s a different guy this time. He looks down at me and holds out a cup with cubed pineapple. “Do you want some?” he asks.
I don’t know that I’ve ever said no to fresh pineapple. “Thank you very much,” I say and take the cup.
With his act of kindness accomplished he disappears.
I enjoy the pineapple, think about moving into the shade for a while, and keep on reading.
The door opens again, it’s my restaurant friend. This time he has a foil package in his hands. “Would you like some grapes?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say. At this rate I won’t need lunch, possibly not dinner. I’ll take free fruit anytime. Thanks, Cruise boys. I open the package and start to pull off a bunch of grapes.
“No,” he tells me. “You can have the whole thing.”
“Really? Wow. Thanks so much,” I gush a little.
With my grapes, with my book, with the sun, I’m left in peace for minutes, maybe hours. I sit there long enough that I get hungry again. My boys don’t return with any other treats so I gather myself up and go to the deck bar. I order a bad for me snack and get an individual sized bottle of wine.
The guys at the bar speak Spanish and I chatter at them like a loon. I may not be bilingual, but I’m fluent enough to understand. It’s like putting on a well-worn coat. Comfortable. Warm. I wonder how it’ll be when I’m back in the States and I won’t feel guilty about not knowing the local language.
I take my wine and go sit at a table out of the main throng. When the cook hands me my snack I tell him “Gracias.”
“A ti, corazon (to you, sweetheart),” he replies, and I’m not offended by the term of endearment. It doesn’t feel like a come-on. But then again, what do I know? He tells me about his family and life at sea and I can finally ask questions and tell him I bet they’re beautiful. From across the way, the LIG old man is staring at me. I give him a friendly grimace and turn my attention back to the cook. Once we’ve gotten through his kids’ education he goes back to work and I determine to finish the last twenty pages of my book.
All the while I can feel the steady, intense, creepy gaze of the LIG. I try to ignore it. I try to act natural. But I feel vulnerable. Defenseless. Like prey among a boatful of predators. It must be the lack of sleep, the crunched-chair slumber that has me thinking in such extreme terms.
I glance around. The old man is still staring at me.
Am I ugly?
Am I beautiful?
Do I have something in my teeth?
These are the questions I write in my notebook to make a mockery of myself.
I finish my book. I finish my snack. I finish off the wine. I’m thinking about coffee again.
Just when I’ve decided to get up and order a cappuccino the LIG stands up and comes over. Huh, I think.
“Would you like a coffee?” he asks me.
“Uh sure,” I say, or something along those lines. There’s nothing like honesty. I figure he’ll get two coffees and we’ll chat like solitary traveling souls and that’ll be that. But he comes back with only one espresso. “Do you take sugar in it?” he asks in Italian, and he adds sugar to it and stirs it up before pushing the cup over to me. “Enjoy,” he says.
Now I’m hoping he’ll go away. He hovers for a moment. “Do you mind if I sit?” he asks.
What can I say?
He sits. “Please,” he says, pointing at the coffee, “drink.”
It’s like being on display. Awkward. “Thanks for the coffee.”
He talks to me and I listen. I figure everyone just wants someone friendly to talk to. Why do I have to look so friendly? It really messes with my need for solitude. It’s a long standing problem. I should work to resolve it.
“Tu ves bellisima (you are beautiful),” he says, apropos of nothing. The language slows me down. Keeps me from understanding what’s going on. Dulls the words, make them a simple compliment and nothing more.
“Uh, thanks,” I say, thinking I’m probably the only non-attached single female on this ship.
He reminds me that he’s separated, traveling, out seeing things. He asks me if I have a boyfriend. I lie and say I do. “He’s back at home,” I say.
The old man takes the news in stride. When my coffee is drunk I collect my things. I’m looking for the words to say thanks and then gracefully break away when he says, “Would you like to take a walk?”
We make it halfway down the starboard side when he puts his arm around me. We make it a few steps more when he tries to kiss me. Um, hello. Wake up, little naïve thing. “No, thanks, but no,” I tell him in Italian. I know that much.
“I’m so sorry,” he says. “I apologize.”
I put some space between us, but he’s not that easily cowed. He goes for it again. Maybe old men are just braver. Maybe it’s just Italians. I should have known there was no such thing as Good Will Coffee. Why couldn’t the pilot boat staffer have tried to kiss me? I wouldn’t have let him get any farther, but at least he was cute.
“No, thanks, no thank you,” I say again and make more distance. I wish I had the fortitude to run off screaming dramatically. We make it kisslessly around the ship, thank goodness. He apologizes throughout. I don’t know how to tell him, “Good on you for trying.” and “They do say that persistent will get you all kinds of places, they just didn’t realize that it wouldn’t work with me.” and “I didn’t mean to give you the wrong impression.”
He wants to sit on the ledge of the pool. He wants to put his arm around me again. I’m done. I’m jaded. A touch of anger stirs inside me. Just leave it, man, I think. What about my boyfriend back home? I stand. “Thanks,” I say. “I’m going to go now.” I wave in a friendly manner and leave him by himself.
I don’t have even a twinge of guilt. I’m angry at him, the lonely old lecher. I’m angry at myself for missing the signs. For being oblivious. For being too innocent when I should know better.
Rule Number One, I chide myself. Say no to everything. Including coffee.
And another thing, if they tell you you look beautiful – in any language – that’s a warning sign.
I sigh again.
Will I never learn?
Sick with disillusionment, heavy with cynicism I find an even lower deck and hide. It’s a place that I think I’m not really supposed to be on as a passenger. But I don’t care. I’m hiding from everyone. Because I don’t have enough sense, enough jungle smarts, to be out among the animals.
Eventually the warmth of the sun evaporates the edge of anger. The familiar motion of a giant boat stills my disenchanted soul.
But the magic, if it had ever been there at all, is gone. I’ll take a freighter over a cruise any day, I think. It’s more like being at home instead of at a club where you can’t find the exit.
It wasn’t a glitch free ride from the start there either, I remind myself.
I know, I remember.
Sure, it had taken me a moment to find my place on the DALIAN, to fend off a boy or two, but I knew where I belonged, I quickly learned how to navigate and before long I fit in.
There’s just not time for that here.
“You have to go forward to go back,” Willy Wonka said. And I realize that there’s no going back. Those thirty days aboard the DALIAN can only be relived in memory, in the written word, through pictures, through the friendships I gained. If I am fortunate enough to make another voyage like that someday it’ll be perhaps on a different ship with a different crew. And, it’ll probably be a different me as well.
How can I stay the same? I’m changing every day.
I look out at the sea. This boat is a whole different kind of boat. A whole different kind of world. I turn my music back on, lean against the metal wall of the ship, and wait for us to reach Barcelona. I’d been right all along; I’m not suited for cruises.