Off the Ship

Indulgence. What is it precisely? A week lolling about a ship? Doubtless. The real question being, what are the constructive uses of lolling? For those of us driven to produce and perform, inactivity can feel downright threatening. And in a life of doing nothing, interspersed with doing things that are enjoyable, what happens? I watched with bemusement as Jane departed our stateroom just moments ago in search of a Rumba class. Everyone should study the Rumba, or have the right to do so. I might just turn up at the class and demand my own dancing rights. But no need. For I have already well asserted the latter.

On two occasions aboard this ship, Jane and I have hit the dance floor. The last time I did this on the high seas my dance partner was dying. And I seemed to be dying of self-consciousness and embarrassment or, more precisely, loss. It was a big deal four or five years ago to make my nominal effort at waltzing and foxtrotting in front of all these people. This time, not so much. The oddity has become normalized, whatever statement it makes mine. That Jane and I are a couple and enjoy what we can together. That I have wounds, but also a few other things. Including a notion that taken from the annual Minnesota Men’s Conference…that I am an elder. Time to assert that role, assume the mantle of leadership.

And since one doesn’t know what this means, there’s only one way to find out. Stand up and dance. More or less. Hold Jane, sway with the music, dipping and swiveling. It may not be Balanchine, but it was enough to induce the band’s black trumpet player, from Chicago, to give me a verbal pat on the back. You made my day, he told me.

To misquote Ken Kesey, you are either on the ship or off the ship. One of the major advantages of seven nights eastbound on the North Atlantic involves jetlag. There is none, just a gentle and persistent advancing of the clock, one hour each day. Jane and I have theater tickets for the day we arrive. Normally this would be a big mistake, the effects of a darkened theater being what they are on someone fatigued. But, no, when the lights go down at Sadler’s Wells, the spirits will go up. But this doesn’t do it justice, the lack of time-change exhaustion. No, I have had a week of being. Of well-being. Of seeing my suburban California days more clearly. The background anxiety that translates into poor concentration, or avoidance of concentration.

Of course, get yourself half relaxed and life will concentrate for you. Beginning with a reminder of beaches and their essential vitality and statelessness. The only explanation for why it should come back to me now, a memory of 1980. And why remembering here, the beginning of the English Channel and the final farewell to Clear Channel and all things American. Stinson Beach shrugs off California like so much sand, placing this memory anywhere. But it was about five years after the death of my father, me at age 34 with my first full-time job…and this my summer holiday. With all family remnants invited. Me, my mother, sister and brother. Not to mention a few friends. The great crashing waves pounding 24 hours a day, loosening everything like a massage. And when the week was over, bags packed and cars loaded, I recall my mother quietly saying how much she regretted going home to her empty apartment. Not stated with self-pity, just wistful, honest and said adult to adult.

Did I reply that the same circumstances applied to all of us? Very likely. Either stated or thought. In any case, I wasn’t getting sucked into guilt. Just seeing my mother as an adult, a lonely one without a lot of options. Headed nowhere in particular. With life onrushing. Creating something between blank mystery and tragic certainty. All of which I could feel, but not understand. But she was a person, and I was a person, and we were headed wherever we were headed. And we had had this week. An unfamiliar family, edges and gaps pummeled flat by the sounds and breezes of endless rolling surf.

Who knows why we remember anything? Or why on the final night aboard ship it strikes me how awful it would be if Jane died. The ship and our week on it stirring associations. Until we were up and dressed, breakfasted and after several times of exiting this ship, falling in behind another wheelchair for an early escape down the gangplank. Then the very green fields of a sodden England rolling past the train windows. The latter being just enough to make a man roll off in search of a pee. An event unthinkable in my youth. As unthinkable as life in a wheelchair. But there you are. And here we are crossing the Thames near Staines. All that water. And peeing now urgent. The once unthinkable wheelchair-accessible toilet is right behind me. It is a round space with a door that slides open at the push of a button. Now closed and locked, I stand and complete the offloading of fluids most successfully. Pausing occasionally to remove the one working hand from the grabrail to readjust aim. When a track lurch knocks me to the left, my fingers just missing the safety bar…and I am tilting over, the toilet my fulcrum, the floor my doom…but for an opposing lurch that knocks my hand back into range of the grip. Never again, I tell myself. Never again, I tell Jane. And 20 minutes later we are in Waterloo Station fighting for a taxi. Shipboard life is over. And why do I put myself at such risk to travel?

This question comes at me in hot flashes of anger over the next two days…as do wonderful matters of happenstance. Including a simple dinner in a French corner of Soho with cousins Barbara and James. All of us happily off to the theater. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s version of Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ being so enchanting as to send Jane and me out into the rain, heading for our hotel in the Euston Road, busless and cabless…and joyous.

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