08 August 2014

Continuations on a Caribbean Note

Can I get past the thirty thousand word mark on my novel? Not without desperate struggle. Can I type five thousand words on my phone on a seven day Caribbean cruise? Absolutely. I've published the heart of my Caribbean tale over at Hazlitt. After you've read that adventure, enjoy the outtakes below. 

On one's literary influences:
Armed with Patrick Leigh Fermor's The Traveller's Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands and with the memory of David Foster Wallace's "Shipping Out" never far from my mind, I record my adventures on and around what captain and crew unerringly referred to as "the stunning Crown Princess." If you're pressed for time, you're probably better off reading the DFW because my impressions are nowhere near as well-written and because his cruise ship takedown from the mid-90's, with the references to throwing himself off the top deck, wrist-slitting, etc. was the first piece I thought of when I heard he'd killed himself. It all might have been different had he gone on a luxury cruise with his parents, as I did...

On the scene in Port Everglades:
DFW has overcooked it a little to compare the baggage claim scenes at FLL to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Saigon--in the same paragraph!--we proceed without issue to a fast cab line (fast when compared to the queue outside the Chili's Too). Though if they're going to call it Port Everglades it ought to have more orchids and alligators. 

Stepping onto the greenhouse of the ship's gangway, I see a smaller point of entrance underneath ours. Is there a status beyond Platinum? Yes. Elite is for the people with 16+ cruises under their belts, the people who may have their shoes shined as many times as they want--until the bootblack's arm falls off--at no additional cost.
Standing in front of me is a pair of line jumping, non-Elite cruisers who are notable for a) their youth and b) the two cases of diet soda they are carrying as hand luggage. The young gentleman, in an elaborate faux hawk overlaid with a brand new Red Sox hat, tries to step past more patient people while his giggly girlfriend, though also anxious to "get this party started," holds him back by his tank top.

On one's dining companions in the Botticelli Dining Room:
Our fellow traveler Richard is very upset about the narrowness of the roads on the Isle of Wight. He is, as his delightful wife Barbara says jollily at least once an evening, "not well." There is some sort of indentation on his forehead that one suspects is a manifestation of his difficulty. It's quite rare that I am significantly larger than another adult man and, as such, I want to kiss Richard right where that kindly English doctor has been perforating his skull. He has a better hit percentage on witticisms than I, though they are dispensed more rarely. He has sailed the English Channel in his own boat. At the Indian restaurant in his town, Poole, he always orders the Meat Madras, for which he gets a 10% locals discount.

I am put off by the incredible length of time it takes for the remaining couple at the table to say the words "Rio de Janeiro." The husband has enough money to send his brittle-looking wife to a surgeon who's shaped for her a little ski nose, it's very 80's. I am not a gifted conversationalist but it seems an outsized struggle to converse with two people from Rio (where I've been) about Brasil in general (which I love).

At a certain point you look around the table, into the souls of your fellow cruisers, and decide whether they have the intestinal fortitude to do six more nights of two-star conversation and five-star dining. We murmur to ourselves that the couple from Brasil will not be back. They are not back. 

On the scene at Eleuthera:
As our humid tender putters along, we listen to a man who could only be from South Florida. His tan is total and he has a built-in armrest over his waistband. He is the hero in his own story about a previous jaunt to the Bahamas that involved outswimming a rip current while his indolent wife sipped piña coladas onshore. My mother does well to press him, earning the admission that he panicked at first, swam in the wrong direction and was 40 lbs. lighter on the day in question.

Later, as I walk through the reef, an older lifeguard presides over the point of rocks above me, singing to himself under a grey handlebar mustache. He is in different rhythm than the steel tinkling of "No Woman, No Cry" ashore. We observe the still gulls on the rocks, their beaks open and soundless.

On writing at sea:
The desk in my cabin faces opposite the movement of the boat but if I crane my neck I can see out the window into a blinding sun, the ocean a dazzled tinfoil edged in gold. When it comes to stateroom accoutrements, I always grab the small notepad while rejecting the pen (ballpoint, ew). The Princess Cruises logo runs along the top over the motto/exhortation: escape completely. I think that, if I were to escape my life completely, I would race for a room like this. It is about the size of my apartment, though the bathroom is smaller. There is a writing surface and six mirrors--me everywhere--the sea inside and the sea outside. I mostly lean back and daydream on the reflection of waves on the ceiling, another quilted coverlet.

On the pizzazz of formal night:
It's not all rose petals and puppy dogs on the couches alongside the Explorer's Lounge. After a few minutes of pretense that I'm reading The Traveller's Tree, I give myself wholly to eavesdropping on the conversation of the North Carolinians seated behind me. Two well-heeled couples expound at extraordinary length about easements and sump pumps and property lines and how boring the conversations are with ignorant builders who don't know diddly about floor covering upgrades. I see that the ladies are, by American cruise standards, quite slender, in throwback taupe and mauve pantsuits. I'm transported to a different time, with Virginia Slims and fad diets and Designing Women on the television. Hair is molded in fine points on top of their heads. One wife makes the kind of bitter statement you can never take back: "I will never work with him again--I don't care if I have to side my next house in the cheapest vinyl." She may or may not have mic dropped her Old Fashioned.  

Formal nights are magic and I always camp out to watch the parade of early seating diners. The glitz, the glamor, the Reba McEntire of it all. I like to imagine everyone's kept their prom dresses just to re-wear on this occasion. Women and children sport poorly chosen hats and there's enough fuchsia to sustain several tropical isles. One gentleman is in an all-aqua-everything leisure suit ensemble down to the matching boat shoes and another wears a large rhinestone in the center of his orange bow tie.

On the less-appealing parts of St. Maarten/St. Martin:
I'm jealous of Fermor's main advantage--arriving at an island (so tempting to call them "unspoilt") in a group of two or three people instead of a pod of three to five cruise liners. I feel self-conscious about disgorging ugly Americanism on the docks but I remind myself that it's for the controlled adventure, especially when it comes to reptiles in my bed linens, that I love cruises. 

On our tour, we blow by piecemeal estates studded with donkeys and outbuildings of concrete block. Random red roofs decorate greened-over hills. The Dutch side has many brothels that are far less dubious-looking than the many Chinese buffets. The French side has no whorehouses but boasts a Domino's, a Church's Chicken and a Burger King. 

Downtown Marigot lives up to Fermor's description of it as the ugliest capital in the Caribbean. Disheveled white men who have been in the sun too long wander under a huge clock face outside a closed jewelry shop. It shows the wrong time. We find an unoccupied art gallery filled with suboptimal oils but an outstanding back garden crisscrossed with darting birds and island voices. Everyone else in town has joined a funeral procession led by a constant European klaxon.

On the proper sign off for the inimitable Lissa:
I can't decide the best epigraph to give her: Frank O'Hara's "You just go on your nerve," or Jay Z's "poverty's a disease / gotta hustle up a cure." I'm already looking forward to her inauguration as president of a unified, independent island nation.

On early mornings in St. Thomas:
It's not long after dawn when we pile off the ship at the island Fermor found beautiful but also shockingly commercialized in 1947: St. Thomas. Things have metastasized far beyond the Coca-Cola billboards the author viewed with alarm but it's still scenic as all get out. In the open air bus to the marina, the sun stretches dew drops off the roof and it smells green, like golf. I think: "Day clean. Gone." in a flashback to The Sly Company of People Who Care, the fabulous moment when the narrator plays "Thunder Road" for his lover and the lyric "you ain't a beauty but hey you're all right" gets him in all kinds of trouble. I need to find a cruise that stops in Guyana.

The soundtrack on the bus does not follow my overarching desire for all Caribbean public spaces to play only "10 Unknown Reggae Favorites." I nevertheless enjoy the trip, the complicated honking conventions the drivers have with each other. There's the same sense of safety one gets from riding a narrow gauge railway at a children's zoo.

On the warm milieu aboard the Adventuress:
As we settle into our seats for a safety lecture from Capt. Teresa, a teenager cusses out her mother for not bringing a sufficient supply of Dramamine. She whips off her aviators with Maverickian vigor so her eyes can glint at their most malevolent. The young lady is still inexpert at mascara application. It's a standoff reminiscent of the Donners' when the last boiled bootstrap came out of the pot that winter. The most petulant gets the last pill and turns to face the sea, revealing a tattoo of two dragonflies forming a heart with their illustrated contrails.

While considering how much salt water I swallowed while snorkeling, I look back and wonder what's the name of those damn trees ashore? No, not the palm trees--the other, better looking ones. The one's in that Britney Spears video.

Brittany has one and a half dimples. She tips a can of peanuts directly into her mouth while receiving the attention of a schoolteaching mother of two who just found out the limits of her brand new underwater iPhone case. She gushes first about Brittany's eyes (it's true, they're Icee blue) and continues with a rather intimate discussion of tan line management that results in Brittany pulling her top down even farther for the purposes of "evening things up."

Megan says tourists always come up to her and ask why she would move to St. Thomas from San Jose, California, where it's already so sunny. She looks at me intently and says, "but you know it's not the same up there as it is down here." I do. 

On the true highlight of the entire trip:
The bus brings us back to the shipside St. Thomas mall where I must find a group gift for coworkers. As I wait with a bag of island taffy, I feel the hair on my arms stand up. From the sundry shop sound system I hear tinkling the opening strains of LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live." 

I turn to my mother and say the most serious words in my repertoire: "This. Is. A. Jam." I mean, name a great song that wasn't written by Diane Warren. I tell everyone within earshot that I will not be leaving the store until the conclusion of these glorious four and half minutes.

"If I had to live without you / what kind of life would that be?"

The clerk, understanding the gravity of the moment, takes her time in finding the boxes for my family's exquisite knickknacks (do you have a tape dispenser filled with blue water and floating dolphins?).

"If you ever leave / baby you would take away everything real in my life" 

The cashier is so moved by my gentle swaying and lip-syncing that she plays a reprise as I walk out.

"How do I go ooonnnnnn..."

On being distressed in Grand Turk:
The museum on the island's history is not short on conch shells. Photos of the main drag in the 60's show few improvements in infrastructure (though the Turks did present a visiting Queen Elizabeth II with a writhing pile of enormous lobsters that she glances at with long-faced trepidation). The anglophilic exhibits reveal what Fermor and regular visitors to the Caribbean already know: the former British possessions are often the worst.

On the dusty walk to the "white gold" Salt House visitors center, two men are having a row outside a four table bar that blasts a song I believe to be a guy rapping in patois over a banjo. In spite of the romantic idea you might have, it turns out it was not a lot of fun being a salt breaker and raker. A promotional DVD playing in a loop speaks in reverent tones about the quasi-slave labor in the days before the dread refrigerator obviated the need for salt captured in natural ponds.

The highlight of Grand Turk is a dusty pharmacy in a dust-colored strip mall. It is as well stocked as a Walgreen's and the Sudafed is cheaper. The three women working there laugh continuously while we're inside.

On a most entertaining filmic interlude:
I arrive back to my cabin smack dab in the middle of a film I believe to be The Vow. My first and, in the end, most lasting impression is that it was funded by the Cable-Knit Sweater industry. There's a tremendous C-Tates montage where he plays 30 plaintive seconds of acoustic guitar, moves out of his apartment and emerges shirtless and studly in a back alley where he spontaneously adopts a stray cat.

On British colonialism:
At dinner I have the best debate of the cruise with the couple from England. They loved Grand Turk and thought it a proper Caribbean island, what they had imagined in their mind's eye (uncrowded beaches, burros still used as a means of transport, etc.). I scoff at the notion that such poverty and lack of development is to be applauded. But when I praise St. Thomas, it occurs to me that I might really mean, "I prefer it because there are more white people and better shopping." It gets a little tense so we talk instead about the Brontës--they've visited the family house in Haworth and I'm jealous.

On Dejan:
Svitlana introduces us to Dejan, her assistant waiter, a permastubbled Serbian you must trust with your unfinished wine bottles at the end of the night. Like Chaplin, he moves in smooth silence around the table, opening his mouth mostly to call the men "mister" and further confirm his superiority.
His greatest moment came when a shipboard photog approached me and Lisa and gestured that we should get closer. Dejan's vaudevillian eyebrows arch just the right amount when he sees the pained look on my face as I lean in.   

On an alternate reality with Lisa:
In a stage whisper, my mother indicates her belief that Lisa uses her time on ship for hookups and I agree instantly. Lisa claims that she is going to buy the portrait of us and tell her coworkers I'm the "boy toy" she met on vacation. It's some kind of legacy. 

On meeting again with old friends:
After too long apart, I pass in the Emerald deck hallway the charming couple from embarkation just as the young man is shouting, "if the boat's a-rockin' don't come a-knockin'!" I love this idea, that they are engaged in coitus each moment the ship is in motion and restoring themselves only with Coke Zero and pillow mints.

On the occasional melancholy of the sea:
Reading The Princess Patter, the shipboard paper of record, I see a shoutout to a man who has spent 2046 days at sea (doing the math on my calculator that's five and a half years). He's the kind of proper gent who owns a black and a white tuxedo jacket. (The record holder for this voyage might be another man I overheard saying, "we decided to make our seventy-fifth cruise a Transatlantic.") I scheme a way to rack up more days on the water: Princess needs to sponsor a writer in residence program, a tasteful update to Road Rules: Semester at Sea

My favorite part of the ship is the stern because from there I can see the massive wake and be reminded of Matisse's Bather again. I think about the painting all the time. The way that, in the Caribbean blue behind the knee of the bather, there are pieces of his flesh, an undercurrent done in his color. I'm trying to finish a poem I drafted while walking around a different Princess Promenade Deck two years ago but it's hard to capture the power of aquamarine trails cut in navy water by the colossus.

Skywalkers Night Club has presided over innumerable bad decisions and dance moves aided by the roll of the ship at midnight but I'm just here to read and watch it storm. Water pours over the empty pool deck and down the stairwells.

Three laughing teenagers bundle into a hot tub with their sunglasses on. They've intuited Fermor's method of waiting out the rain: "the Gaudeloupean stratagem of hiding in the sea, standing with our bodies encased in warmth and only our hair and cheeks exposed to cold falling arrows."

I was never that young.

On one's reentry into society:
I didn't have a strong desire to return to Ft. Lauderdale but, as they say, any port in a storm. 

They also say things happen in threes. At the head of the Express Walk Off queue is Zoe. She is ineffectually suggesting that passengers make one line instead of two. We ignore her. A more senior staffperson sends Zoe on her sad little way and makes harsher demands over a microphone.

All the while there's some hissed xenophobia behind me, a reminder that we're going back to the real world:

"Next month we'll be letting Roma gypsies in like they're indigenous Indians."
"Oh my."
"That's why our infrastructure is so poor. The government is stupid. Just stupid."

Disembarkation seems to last forever but it takes 15 minutes. And the cruise lingers--white sand will pour onto my rug when I unpack my luggage, in my own shower I'll feel the rocking of an imagined boat and in my final thoughts before sleep I'll ponder where Big Twin Lissa's been today, whose lives she's improved, going fast on those narrow Maartenian roads.

No comments: