Be Real, Got To Be

Part I.

II. Wednesday-ish

The motion of the boat is both amusing and reassuring. At first, I wondered if Sunday night’s dinner was going down. Then I wondered if it might come back up. Then we started drinking, which had the unexpected side effect of making unsteadiness on my feet relatively normal.

On Sunday, we met Youlia, our waitress. She might be 22, speaks four languages and hails from Kiev. She’s obviously very bright. She suggested I buy beer by the bucket. I considered making out a will and leaving her my jewelry but Monday night, I didn’t order the bucket of beer. No, as Siobhan and I annoyed a random German kid and a Christian family during Steven Page’s Vanity Project show, I nursed a beer I would have preferred smashing over the sound man’s head. After an hour of soul-crushing boredom, I allowed as how the Vanity Project show had been a bland aggregation of mid-tempo songs about agonizing breakups unfolding in slo-mo and never actually concluding. The German got up in a huff and stomped off. We assumed it was over between us and him, or for that matter anyone offended by my hugely charitable critique.

The little theater was packed but emptied. We stayed, moved closer to the stage by joining a mother-son pair we’d met at lunchtime We understood who we were dealing with when he said he lived in Georgia but once made a pilgrimage to Kevin Smith’s comic book store. She ranged between pleasant company and socially toxic at unexpected intervals. She made a fried chicken and watermelon joke that left me positively speechless, so I turned my attention to ambushing a waiter since there was no way for us to leave. We were comfortably seated in a cushioned round booth while around us hundreds of people pressed body to body, waiting for the next show. When I turned back to Siobhan, she appeared to be mouthing words that made no sound. The son, somewhat aware of our shock, said, “Now, Mom, people don’t say those things anymore.”

The show we were waiting for was both simple and complicated: BNL’s Steven Page and Harvey Danger’s Sean Nelson presented the songs of Paul McCartney. Siobhan and I had seen Sean Nelson earlier. He is a rumpled giant whose hair makes him even taller. He looked like a Far Side character wandered into the bar, was taking offense at something said by the piano, and I don’t mean near it.

I did not at all mind Page and Nelson talking about how they as young musicians suffered for their love of McCartney. The stories were vastly more interesting than the songs. Siobhan and I both enjoyed hearing Let ‘Em In and Just Another Day, but it was late by then. Enough people had lost interest that I could see an almost clear path to the door and did not doubt my ability to clear the rest of it, so we went. It was after midnight and we had a 7:15 wake up call, which I assure you is always an authentic, crappy experience.

It is worth noting that the television in our room has ABC, NBC, CBS, Discovery, and TNT subtitled in Spanish. In the afternoons, I can indeed catch a few minutes of All My Children before I konk out but even that does not come without an undercurrent of extreme weirdness: these channels come from Colorado. They’re two hours earlier than Eastern Standard Time and they warn constantly of blizzards and 58 degrees and pleasant. I can’t tell what time it is or if I need mittens to step onto the balcony. I have mixed feelings about this, knowing that Pete shivers in the pitched gray of New Jersey while I’m slathering goo on sunburn. This, like everything else about the trip, has been for me a sharp lesson in whom I’m oppressing and how. Last night, a drunken woman at the next table in the lower level formal dining room who kept shouting, “I know what I’m saying! Sweet poontang! Poon-TANG! Poon-TANG!” Boy, did I want to oppress her. Tonight, another table full of drunks held a symposium on their relative anatomical strengths at the same improbable volume, causing Siobhan and I to swear off the lower level dining room for the remaining duration of our journey, but not before the waiters put on a dance extravaganza we could not actually see. This was fine by us until one of the drunks turned to our waiter, a dignified, professional waiter of some years who happened to be black, and slurred, “Aren’t you going to dance?” Yes, I wanted to oppress that asshole with a baseball bat.

It’s another story when we get off the boat Tuesday in bathing suits to lie on the beach on Grand Cayman. I awoke to find the Disney Magic, taller than anything I could see on the island, parked about 150 yards outside my bedroom window, two more cruise ships further away and, as I discovered later, three more on the ship’s other side. They reminded me of cattle, so I named the boats Matilda, Martha, Bessie, Bertha, Edna, Enid and Cowpurnia. Then I went to breakfast, because it’s hard to sunbathe glamorously on an empty stomach unless you’re a famous anorexic.

Siobhan and I took the water taxi, mysteriously called a tender, to the shore, where we were herded into a caged room plainly decorated by Albert Speer during his seldom-documented tropical period. Then we were herded to an outdoor concrete bus stop thing, after which we were marched to a parking lot. By this time, I expected cocktails by I. G. Farben, but we stuffed ourselves onto small, exotic buses. A bored woman in an ill-fitting uniform drove us through a traffic pattern that put Rube Goldberg to shame to a stretch of highway lined with evidence that every major conglomerate owned a piece of Grand Cayman, and no scrap of property was too scrubby to be left for the people who lived there. At least, this was my impression as we passed the Blockbuster Video, Subway, Quiznos, KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, pre-fab malls and a slew of familiar chain hotels. After we disembarked, we were herded to a small section of beach with deck chairs and left to our own devices for several hours, during which Siobhan took odds on the domestic dispute two rows over. Yes, the beach was pretty. Yes, the water was gorgeous. Yes, we turned interesting colors on a Caribbean beach, but the whole thing is and was a shamefaced lie, and it was harder to talk to our bus driver when at 10 a.m. we passed smashed tourists hanging from every window and deck of Margaritaville and The Hard Rock Café. It’s either Percy or Geertz who said that our presence as tourists changes the place, and though I knew that, I was ashamed of my complicity in the theft of this island from its people, not to mention two KFCs within a shitty one-mile stretch. Naturally, I bought Pete a t-shirt so we never have to go back.

Siobhan waves goodbye to an island that’s already lost.

The show the night before and the episode on Grand Cayman convinced me that I was done going along to get along, and from then on, I went my own way – often on the jogging track. And it went pretty well until I went my own way barefoot.

Part III.

Stories Are Told, Rumors Are Started

This morning, I awoke in my bed, staring up at tiny Topaz staring down at me from atop a set of old stage flats that passes for the headboard of my bed. This would have been more remarkable if I had known how she came to be seven feet straight up above my head. Later, I saw her climb hand over kitty hand to the top, which explains why in a week Topaz looks fitter. Thus, my first thought this morning was, ‘Holy crap, how’d she get there?’ and my second was about canned tuna.

“But Ta,” you’re saying, “Where’ve you been?” Ah! This strange story may take a bit of telling. I wrote some notes. Join me in a bit of fresh time travel, won’t you?

I. Last Monday-ish

We had breakfast on our balcony. I can hear Anthony Bourdain scoffing at the pure pasteurized excess that is having 6 tiny wedges of grapefruit and orange join a grape on a plastic plate for complimentary room service on an 8’x4’ janitor’s closet open to an outside wall, but I can’t deny the mind-bending beauty that was sucking down coffee in 78 degree sunlight as Cuba rested peacefully on the blue horizon. Goddammit, it was wonderful.

A thousand years ago, I struggled as every freshman comp student does with the anthropologist’s notion of authentic experience. I can’t remember if the writer was Walker Percy or Clifford Geertz, but I do recall apprehending immediately the difference, lost now on many Americans, between touring Europe and It’s A Small World. Yesterday, we whooshed! through customs in the Port of Miami like the country couldn’t get rid of its nerd rock fans fast enough, while two days ago, Newark Airport – I am NOT calling it by its Newspeak name – was an armed camp full of unsmiling automatons. It’s all bullshit, you know. There’s no such thing as safety, which if you didn’t know before you might finally understand when at karaoke the first night of the cruise two utterly unconscious California housewives did a horrifying 6-minute rendition of Rapper’s Delight. One thing you should know about Barenaked Ladies fans: they are white people. I’m not saying their skin is on the melanin-light side; no, I mean they are white-white-white people who look like they’ve never even held open an elevator door for a black person. It’s like a frat party exploded on this ship, with exciting harmonies. I don’t know what to make of it. The two or three black people I’ve seen on this boat out of uniform looked a bit annoyed and, though I’m not black and I can certainly sometimes be blind to the glaringly obvious, I stared open-mouthed at those two women pretending to be the Sugar Hill Gang. Don’t get me wrong. I’m old. I went through one of the best-integrated school systems in the country at the time, and I know all the words to this song. I would never in a gold-plated million years stand up in front of a crowd and pretend to be black. How does doing Rapper’s Delight differ from doing a karaoke version of Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff, as a drunken damsel did two performers later? I don’t know. It just does, and I was astounded to realize I was in a room full of people who might not make that distinction. Then again, someone had the butt-clenching bad taste to torture us with My Heart Will Go On on a fucking cruise ship. I begged our waitress to bring me another beer. “I am not drunk enough for these people,” I sobbed. “Next time, get one of those buckets of four beers,” she said sympathetically. Live and learn!

Siobhan’s view from Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman.

What does this have to do with authentic experience? Absolutely nothing. In fact, cruising like this is designed to eliminate authentic experience of any kind. I just left 26 degrees and raw. Why is my cabin air-conditioned? There’re piles of Canadians on this boat – so pale you could read the paper through their ski – if there were newspapers. There aren’t. Contact with the rest of the world is prohibitively expensive. It costs $2.49 per minute for me to call Pete, which become much less shockingly exorbitant if I eschew swearing:

Fine. You?
Fine! Miss you!
Miss you! Tomorrow at 11!

It’s too expensive to ask, “What?” No, that is the kind of clarification one does not demand when subject to international roaming rates. Further, texting is cheaper but when we talked about staying in touch that way, both Pete and reflexively told those kids to get off our lawn. We are essentially out of touch then because internet service runs250 minutes for $100, and I spend that much time every week reading and re-reading Orcinus because Dave doesn’t just make a point. No. Dave sharpens his point of the lathe, sending sparks flying everywhere and skittering across the floor, honing that point to razor-sharpness, to the microns-wide point beyond which there can be no narrower, sharper point without a nuclear collider and Kali help us which is wildly unlikely, arguing is a waste of time when your argument lies bleeding on the floor before you’ve noticed the filleting. Being small and covered with fur, I have to work to understand what’s going on there. This week, Dave Neiwert is a very expensive date, let alone Pete, who, no question, puts out.

Please know that in the months since we met again in July Pete and I spent two whole nights apart until I got into the cab for the airport. Siobhan and I have traveled together before: to the S.C.A.’s Pennsic War a bunch of times, to Syracuse, to radio conventions, and to Vegas. We have shared rooms, cabs, bathrooms and beds, in a pinch, not to mention a stray boyfriend or two or four. Eh, so personal boundaries can’t be a big issue with us. Even so, I left home to rest in the sun. Siobhan came here to boogie all night. What a wild duet! I spend almost every waking moment on the boat in some state of needle-pinning emotion. The boat is GIGANTIC. The ocean is SO BLUE. Breakfast on the balcony is ASTOUNDING. Dinner last night was SCRUMPTIOUS. Omigod, I’m exhausted, just thinking about leaving the cabin. A few more STUPEFYINGs and I might pass out, and while all this is thrilling, it’s 85.7% less fun than it would be if Pete were standing next to me, giggling, because I suck at math.

My heart might stop, with that much excitement. That sounds like an authentic experience.

Part II.