Cruises are weird. I think we can all accept that. Despite that stipulation and the tacit agreement between author and both devoted readers that I am, above all things, not in any way weird or to be associated with the creepy, uncool or remotely unsexy, I agreed to go on a mega-Caribbean cruise with my family (father, step-mom, brother, sister-in-law and my adorable niece and nephew, for those who stalkerishly crave specifics). Despite being an interloper of the worst sort, and a genetic discordance to rival any one of Alexander the Great’s barbarian whore-queen, Roxana, the deadly Ebola virus or radioactive cobalt-60, which parasitically binds to DNA, scrambles otherwise stable, happy molecules and converts contented bone marrow to a bewildered phosphoric dust, Arual accompanied me on this Marlovian journey. Arual is even more afraid of cruises (and cruise people) than I, but also knows I can no more be trusted around them alone than I can with a band of traveling French meth-gypsies.
Our cruise liner was monstrous. Truly, an elephantine eye sore of sex-ed class disturbing proportions. As we crossed over the intercoastal and approached the mega-docks that make up Port Canaveral, bleary-eyed and exhausted at such an absurdly early hour Saturday morning, this ivory behemoth bleated out the trying sunrise and a healthy chunk of the Atlantic Ocean. Our boat was dubbed the Freedom of the Seas by someone with obviously a deep sense of irony, and is reputed to be the second largest vessel on the earth, having recently passed the title of largest to another abomination of human industriousness from Royal Caribbean Cruise lines. The Freedom could carry around 4,500 passengers – which actually seemed like a lot less than there were, as I watched the hordes of seafaring morons around me pour into the ship like Noahachian cattle during an accelerating and doomsday-suggestive rain. Not surprisingly, loading this large of a vessel can take some time. The boat wasn’t going anywhere for a while and the cabins on board had presumably been assigned to particular passengers, but you would never know it from watching the Fall of Saigon-like shitshow of a boarding process. After a few minutes questioning the humanity of the world, I couldn’t help but secretly hope that there simply weren’t enough lifeboats for everyone getting on board, including maybe me.
People, as a general principle, are rabid whore beasts, and have virtually no respect for themselves and certainly none for others. I generally give old people a pass, because they can presumably sense the Godless impending darkness slowly closing in around them and they need to make the most of every fleeting, bone-creaking, breath-attenuated moment, even if that means feigning a deep unawareness of distance and tactility to push and jab at strangers with flabby, flailing elbows, batter shins and unsuspecting achilleses with wayward walking aids, or, worst of all, refusing to find an appropriately crowd-remote location to blast fart their ancient, fetid, organ-compost stench. As bad as clueless old people are, children (excluding my niece and nephew, of course!) are worse. I don’t so much give them a pass as I have simply exhausted my indignation for these horrid little animals. They are inadequate as human beings, definitionally, and their lack of decency, interestingness or charm, their pure and total disregard for the basic tenets of social cooperation, is something I have simply learned begrudgingly to accept – like the existence of nightmares, natural disasters or Tim Allen.
What is truly abhorrent to me, however, is watching a grown adult, presumably of thinking age and with some awareness of social mores, debase themselves for incomprehensibly marginal gains. As waiting passengers are released in boarding sections toward the long, serpentine walkway that funnels into the boat, these shameless people accelerate into an uncomfortably labored and knee-popping speed walk that appears simultaneously dislocative and subtly apologetic, as if to say “what? I am walking, just like you, it’s not like I am running or something totally obscure and pathetic”. Toddlers not long-legged enough to equal their parents’ gallop are dragged by distended arms in their frothy, exasperating wake. When they reach an impasse or slow point, or anything requiring an elective route, they panic in primal fear of the less efficient choice. Frantic to achieve their goal (whatever that is exactly….) they wobble indecisively and often have to back track a bit when the realization sets in that they took the line with a few extra people in it – “Cheryl, shit, wait, no this one”, a rushing husband waiving idiot arms above the crowd to flag down the dragging-ass wife 50 feet back sherpha-ing a distorted and angular collage of bags and strollers. “Cheryl, Cheryl, catch up, this way…” they careen around corners, only to come to a standstill at the next entry checkpoint or security station, where they stand irrationally too close to the person in front of them……I can feel their hot dead-inside breath on my back, as they violate every Western civilization code of personal space. Here is an easy rule motherfuckers, if I cannot fully pivot in place without the turret of my shoulders grazing your drooling idiot face, you are standing way too close to me. Watching this travesty unravel, I keep hoping, at least a little, that the gangway just ends a few hundred feet above sea level and thousands of these clueless bison run themselves right off the edge to be fished out, cleansed and de-hided by scruffy, barnacle-hearted Norwegian boatmen. That wasn’t the case, unfortunately. They just got onto the boat like everyone else.
Luckily, once on the boat and fully disembarked, everything gets much better. During our six days at sea, we drank, we swam, we sunbathed, we gambled, we danced, we wall-climbed, we zip-lined, we played basketball over the indifferent ocean, we surfed on fake waves, we ping ponged and, above all else, we ate. Eating is, by a substantial margin, the primary distraction, chosen or otherwise, on the cruise. It is not a foodie’s paradise by any stretch, but certainly not for lack of quantity. Food is the most pervasive element of every part of every day. The signs all point you to it, hovering tireless PA voices in the gangways won’t let you forget it and passively-aggressive white-capped crew people sidle and lurk around every corner to catechize any person then not slopping food into their gullet about whether they had somehow not heard about the endless assortment of deep fried meats available for consumption at trough 23, or the traveling tapioca ice cream station making its way through the pool area on deck seven, or the 4:00 pm sushi samba party that is absolutely not to be missed. Protestations of a full belly or mispresent hunger are met with complete and utter, head-titled, cheek-squinted bewilderment. “Too hungry for ice cream and sushi? You do know that the lobster and steak dinner isn’t served until 6:30, right?”
Food is the key component that keeps things running smoothly and the guests serene. The staff, from the captain on down, want each and every person on board grazing at all times and always feeling uncomfortably full. It is the sedative of the cruise masses, the selenium-filled locoweed that gives the human cattle the blind staggers all day, counteracting the natural sway of the boat, so that they blissfully waddle from casino to bar to shopping center to pool area to comedy show to movie. It makes the sunbathing more lazy, the need for giant and terrible Tommy Bahama shirts more pressing and usually-prudish wallets more whorish. Most importantly, the meals create the internal clockwork of the cruise. All events are scheduled around them. More than any screeching imminent-departure whistle, they remind the herd at each port of call when to get back on the boat. They are the lotophagic siren song for the wayward and potentially rambunctious Oddysseans, keeping all in line and too digestively focused to even consider mutiny. I was reminded of the last stanza of Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters when the sailors are self-aware of their own sedation.
But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
Like a tale of little meaning tho’ the words are strong;
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil;
Till they perish and they suffer—some, ’tis whisper’d—down in hell
Suffer endless anguish, others in Elysian valleys dwell,
Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labor in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.
At least for me, there was always a general aching sense of uneasiness on the boat, perhaps borne of the possibility of all dying together, or a hovering Damoclesian fear of losing equilibrium and going all Billy Zane in Dead Calm crazy. I have a deep love of terra firma, and tend to feel slightly unhinged on boats. It’s sort of like the first few seconds on an escalator that isn’t moving, my next step feels totally contrived by third parties who don’t really understand my physiognomy. This subsides a bit over time, but it shampoo effects at random moments when my guard is down. I kept it together pretty well, actually, but you can tell from the behavior of others that I was not the only one suffering from this dislocation. We behave just a little differently on cruises. Freer perhaps, but mostly detached, the weightlessness having pulled loose the attenuated threads of conformity that otherwise tether behavior to earthly limitations. If someone offered mushrooms out to every passenger on board, I have the sense that 80% of the ship would take them with glee. People tend to get strange on the open seas, where the hysteria of the moon-goddess Luna is empowered by the narcissism of her own reflection.
Another issue for me is that I spend most of my time imagining the ship being taken over by terrorists/pirates and/or sinking from some rogue wave, and contemplating exactly what my reaction would be. Though a Titanicesque sinking is probably much more likely, as a child of the Die Hard generation, I am incessantly under the delusion that, at any moment, I might need to crawl through ventilation shafts between bouts of fighting angry and strandy-haired German mercenaries. Not prone to combat, or really heroics generally, I would have to use the resources of the boat’s infrastructure and my high-wit everyman charms (and a blood-stained white tank-top, of course) to overcome nearly impossible odds and save everyone not super annoying and coke-heady on board. Shockingly, nothing of the sort ever happened. Indeed, there wasn’t even an iceberg crash or an elitist, jealous and murderous rich guy for me to tussle with. I even asked several young betrothed women to let me draw them naked, but found only horrified stares of confusion when they saw my artwork, which is really more organic late-stage Jackson Pollack than charcoal drawing portraiture. Either way, if the boat did sink, I can damn sure tell you that my muse and I will be taking turns on top of whatever floating door we wrangled from the wreckage, lest I find a water-weakened cellist to overpower. In any case, the boat didn’t sink, as all the icebergs had apparently been turned to harmless slush in the boiling Caribbean seas.
Although the cruise had its flaws, and the strangers around me were largely detestable, Arual and I actually had a really great time. I got to spend a more significant amount of time with my family than I typically do. Family visits and/or trips together, as almost everyone knows, can be a lot of work. You often spend a good deal of time trying to appease irreconcilable differences of opinion and taste, which generally blunts the fun across the board. Cruises, however, really allow each constituency in a larger group to apply their personal flavor to the group dynamic. Food options are broad enough for varying tastes, and casinos, movie theaters, spas and shopping all intermingle seamlessly while offering to sate divergent interests. The kids had an amazing time, playing with other boat children, slap-happy bouncing from one activity to the next, and eating sweets with impunity, all of which makes for happier parents, grandparents and drunken uncles. Of all the distraction offered on the monster ship, I probably spent the most time enjoying the rollicking delights of the casino and hemorrhaging money into the judgmentless international abyss. The best part was that my brother and dad enjoyed it equally, so we were able to meet up and bond nightly at the blackjack or craps tables after our respective women had grown tired of the waking day and/or the absurdity of our existence in it, or both. My people, at least on my father’s side, clearly come from a long genetic line of fiscally irresponsible and desperate gamblers. When things are going poorly at the table, something truly idiotic, a primal flickering red self-destruct button deep in our chromosomal constitution, argues convincingly that the best remedial course of action is more and stronger cocktails, larger bets and even less self-control. This could generally go on all night, growing more unmoored and crack head-fidgety with the entropic acceleration of an inflationary universe, or at least until shooed away by sympathetic, cringing pit bosses that can no longer stomach the sheer horror of our tilted monetary demise or dragged away by cartoon pajama-ed significant others who awake alone to trembling and very reasonable fears of a debtor’s jail in their future. Royal Caribbean can certainly have our hard-earned middling money, even our fledging dignity, but if we walk away of our own accord at the first sign of our unequal bargaining power, then the terrorists win, and that is something we three American heroes can simply not abide.
For a real discussion of cruises, you really should read the late David Foster Wallace’s amazing article in Harpers – http://www.harpers.org/media/pdf/dfw/HarpersMagazine-1996-01-0007859.pdf. DFW was, as always, brilliant beyond measure and writes without all of the sophomoric verbosity (yes, I made that word up to replace verboseness, which I find both literarily inadequate and less evidentiary of the eponymous flaw) that has become my overwrought calling card. I am well aware of my shortcomings, but if only authors equivalent to DFW wrote, we would have little or nothing to read.