5. Social Life and Anti-Social Life: On a Cruise You Really Can Have It All!

As I have expounded on at length already: It was clear to me and my husband, within a couple hours of boarding this ship, that the apparent majority of the guests were Red Sox fans from Massachusetts. We didn’t have to interview anyone to figure this out; we did not ask the cruise director, “Can you give us a demographic breakdown of who’s traveling with you this week?” Simply walking around, we heard the nearly inimitable squawk of Massachusetts everywhere we went; and the Red Sox t-shirts, caps, and conversations were all around us. One evening I stepped into an elevator and there were a few people standing in there silently; the man against the back wall looked at me and said, “15-2 Sox!” (I think that’s what he said. Frankly, it went in one ear and out the other.) I said as politely as I could, “Yes? I don’t really follow the Red Sox.” A woman on the wall opposite me said, laughingly, “A Yankees fan!” I grinned and said, “No, no. I’m from Connecticut and to be completely honest, I just don’t give a crap about baseball.” A woman standing to my right let out a whoop and held her hand up for me to high-five. “I did go to Fenway Park once,” I admitted, “when my husband dragged me. But I read a book through the whole game.” The man at the back wall looked chagrined and mystified, and everyone else in the elevator laughed.

It wasn’t that there was no one on the cruise who my family could “match” with socially — but we were definitely outliers of some kind in this artificial community. As such, we did not socialize with others in any kind of organized way — there was no “hey, you all wanna go to Family Karaoke tonight?” or “How about we meet you at the outdoor chessboard on Deck 7 tomorrow afternoon?” No: we kept ourselves to ourselves, for the most part.

The Red Sox fan of our household is the least socially outgoing person of the three of us; the more outgoing adult member of the household (that would be me) doesn’t give a crap about sports and uses sportsball games mostly as punchlines to comments either insulting to sports fans or marginally self-deprecating. This combination put us at a disadvantage on this particular ship. Nonetheless, my husband I enjoyed walking around people-watching. There was, for example, the time we were strolling through the atrium and saw a guy who was dressed, head to toe, including tips of hair, exactly like Rod Stewart ca. 1982. We smiled and walked on, waiting until we were a discreet distance away before we began to giggle and discuss “how weird do you have to be to be a guy in his late 60s walking around outfitted to look exactly like Rod Stewart?” We figured, “Benign loon”; agreed that he definitely added to the ambience of the place; and moved on.

The more time we spent hanging around the big public spaces, like the dining rooms and the pool areas, it became clear that most of the people in our age group were traveling in large packs — family reunion type situations, or the kind of thing where two or three families had banded together to do a huge group vacation. It was obvious to me and my husband that we would be spending a lot of time just the two of us, or just the three of us, with our daughter folded in, since we didn’t have automatic friends on board. This was fine, but I did think it’d be nice to have someone else to talk to once in a while.

This did happen a few times. One fine morning when most people were on port excursions, my husband and I went to sit in one of the hot tubs and we spent a few minutes talking with a woman in her 60s from Massachusetts, who joined us after we’d been in the tub about five minutes. She told us that she was part of a very large group of travelers who were on the cruise to see a show being put on by a group of pop singer impersonators. “They’ve got a huge fan base where we live,” she told us. “They’re doing a show Friday night, you should go!” Apparently somewhere in central Massachusetts there’s this crew of guys who get up regularly at various clubs and they do Rod Stewart concerts, Elvis Presley concerts, and one of them is, we were told, an excellent Mick Jagger. “That explains the Rod Stewart lookalike we walked past the other day,” I said to my husband. “It also explains the Elvis I saw last night,” he remarked. I said, hurt, “You didn’t tell me you saw Elvis last night!” He said, “I guess it slipped my mind.”

I met one woman, from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, who was traveling with one of her girlfriends. “Usually there’s four or six of us who travel together,” she told me. “We been doing this twice a year for years. This time it’s just me and my one friend, and she’s not coming out of our room — she’s been in bed every day so far.” “Is she sick?” I asked politely. “Nah, she’s not sick, she’s just got some problem, I dunno.” The lady was having a terrible week because she’d thought she’d have company on the trip but in essence she was traveling solo. Talking to me was probably the most fun she’d had since she’d left Woonsocket, and that’s really not saying much. I felt bad for her. That night I saw her from afar in the dining room and she was seated all alone at a two-top, eating and looking out the window very sadly. It was obvious that for some people, like the lady from Woonsocket, this was a vacation that was just a huge flop. There wasn’t anything I could do to fix it but I did cross paths with her a couple more times, as the week went on, and I always stopped to chat with her. When I ran into her on Friday afternoon, I told her to go see the Legends show, happening that night, which it turned out she didn’t know about. She seemed genuinely happy to have something to look forward to — besides getting back to Woonsocket, I mean.

The matter of “who you dine with” is apparently a big deal on most cruises. I’ve read Tina Fey’s essay about going on a cruise many times, and she had a lot to say (pretty much all negative) about how it sucks to be on a cruise where you have to eat all your meals at an assigned table with assigned tablemates. David Foster Wallace’s classic cruise essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” also talks about this phenomenon. One aspect the three of us really liked about the cruise we went on was that we didn’t ever once have to sit at a table with anyone else. Call us anti-social snobs if you must; but we really wanted to just eat by ourselves. Our meals were the times when we re-grouped as a tight family unit: it was basically just like eating dinner at home, except, duh, I didn’t have to cook and no one had to clean up afterward (except those getting paid to do so) and we didn’t have cats yowling up at us trying to stick their filthy little paws into our chicken cutlets. (We did all miss our cats, to be honest, and spent a lot of time speculating as to what our cats might do if set loose in the dining room.) I think that for more extroverted people, the assigned-seats style of cruise dining might be a pleasant thing, novel and exciting. For us, it would have been utter fucking hell. In this very important sense, it is very clear to me (in retrospect; I hadn’t really thought about it before we actually booked the trip, astonishing but true) that the “freestyle” cruise mode is the only way we can go, if we’re going to travel this way. Otherwise, to be blunt, I think my husband will have a nervous breakdown. If he has to be charming to strangers for more than about three hours in a row, he gets too tired; to have to engage in that kind of thing, three meals a day, for 7 days, might kill him. I get it.

Our household motto might be something like “You don’t annoy me too much, I won’t annoy you.”

There were a few mottoes, spoken or unspoken, of the majority of the guests on this ship. These mottoes were not second nature to us, since we are boring quiet people who don’t wear shirts with obscenities printed on them. These mottoes were, roughly, in no particular order, “Party All the Time,” “Speak Loudly and Carry a Big Drink,” and “Don’t Worry About How You Look.” As a general rule, people traveling without children were either buzzed or downright drunk, regardless of the time of day, and this same population seemed to have little care for what we might call personal dignity. It astonished me to see the manners of dress (or lack thereof) people didn’t mind putting out there. My qualms aren’t based on prudishness but are obviously based on something we could attribute to, I suppose, class snobbishness or my own general sense that there is a way to present oneself and a way to never present oneself. The men on this ship were so sloppily attired, it left me at a loss. Married, as I am, to a man who basically cannot bring himself to wear shorts in public, on the grounds that it’s undignified, if not downright slatternly, I’ve gotten used to a certain look on men to whom I stand in close proximity.

That look was hard to come by that week; proximity, easy. I saw a lot of men walking around in ill-fitting t-shirts, ill-fitting tank tops, both often printed with slogans and images not printable in a family paper. (My husband told me about some that he’d seen, horrified, and asked me, “Who wears these things in public? Who?” All I could say was, “Well, those guys do, I guess?”) You can just imagine the sorts of shorts I saw all over the place. It was Thursday, I believe — the cruise was almost over — before I saw a man other than my husband strolling about the ship wearing pants and a button-down shirt. (He looked good.)

Where I live, there’s definitely a lot of sloppy clothing, and God knows there are a lot of people who are not interested in being fashionable or stylish. Even so: it’s clear that even without taking these things into consideration, there is a kind of decorum assumed, across this city, across ethnic, class, and other demographic lines, that just did not exist on this ship. I spend time in posh neighborhoods here, I spend time in seriously not-posh neighborhoods. I’m all over the damned place. I’m on foot, walking around all the time, I’m on buses, headed crosstown. I see every kind of person there is to see in this little city, and I’m telling you, the attire that was normal on this ship would be garnering some clucks of disapproval here in New Haven, regardless of neighborhood, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity. Now maybe, maybe it’s true that if we took New Haven and said, “pack for a week-long cruise to the Bahamas” we’d wind up with some people who dressed the way these people on this cruise did. But in all seriousness: I don’t think there would be nearly so many t-shirts with boob jokes on them. A few, maybe. But not this many.

Some of you may be wondering, “What did the Hausfrau wear on her vacation?” and the answer is, I wore pretty much exactly what I wear when I’m going about my business at home in the summertime. I wore a black cotton blend pencil skirt, black or grey t-shirts, and comfortable shoes (on this trip, mostly leopard print clogs). When it got chilly I put on a denim jacket. There was nothing at all shocking about what I wore, nor did I look sloppy or slatternly, thank you very much.

Much as my wardrobe did not change while I was on the ship, my basic behavior did not turn toward the particularly hedonistic, though I was politely urged to let my hair down many times. I had two drinks, on two separate occasions; this is the equivalent, on a cruise, of being teetotal. My husband had a few gin and tonics over the course of the week, a couple of beers. The majority of guests, however, were — and I really don’t think I’m exaggerating — always walking around with some big tall drink in their hands, and I’m not talking about a Dunkin’ iced coffee. When I noticed people swaying as they walked, I had to think about whether this was a question of sea legs or sobriety. It was, if I stopped to think about it too hard, a bit of a bummer. Men seemed to party harder than women, and have less sense of propriety overall, perhaps because they were partying so much harder. And I write all this, mind you, as someone who didn’t spend time hanging out in the casino at night, or at any of the dance clubs or karaoke bars or anything like that. This was just me, a matronly type, skulking about the boat looking for places to read my book between the hours of, say, 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

There was one time when my husband and daughter asked me to meet them for dinner at a restaurant and I wound up getting horribly lost on the ship and had absolutely no clue how to get to my desired location. There are maps and guides all over the place but the fact remains, fore and aft don’t come naturally to me and given the multiple elevator banks on any given deck, it’s easy to get confused and disoriented very quickly. Thus it was that at 7 p.m. I found myself weaving back and forth on the ship — stone cold sober, mind you — trying to figure out how the hell to get to this one restaurant that I thought I knew how to get to.

I mean, here’s the thing about being on a cruise: your options are deeply finite. You can only go so many places on a ship, and it has a definite beginning, middle, and end. It’s not like being on a lonely road someplace where you think, “Well, I’m in Springfield, if I keep riding I’ll wind up in Northfield, that’s not so bad, right?” No. You’re on a ship. Eventually you will hit a wall or a railing and on the other sides of those walls and railings are ocean. So you will turn around and start over again.

Honestly, I think I spent twenty minutes circling around, walking through the casino (iccchh) and then thinking, “Aha, I’ve found it,” heading confidently toward the right only to realize I had landed myself in a very dimly lit bar where people were gearing up to sing Aerosmith and Taylor Swift to the best of their abilities. I walked up half-staircases and down half-staircases and I went hither and thither and yon and I only found my family by the grace of good luck when they found me, actually, coming through the Photo Gift Shop, or whatever they call the place where you’re supposed to drop wads of money on pictures of you and your family and friends having such an awesome time on your cruise.

“Where’ve you been?” my husband asked me.
“I have no fucking idea,” I said truthfully.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that we were not willing to pay whatever astronomical charges would be asked if we wanted to use our cell phones on the ship. Roaming charges, wifi fees, whatever: we were too stingy to rack up these charges. As a result, we could not communicate with each other in the manner to which everyone’s accustomed nowadays. I couldn’t text my husband saying “Jesus, I just got lost in a karaoke bar, how do I get to you?” and have him reply, “You moron, you go LEFT at the karaoke bar, then left again, and we are here.” Not that my husband would ever text me telling me I’m a moron, that’d be deeply out of character.

No: for us to keep in touch with each other, we got in the habit of leaving handwritten notes — written on paper — on the bed in our cabin. “Gone to read and look at water,” a note might read, “meet you at cabin at 12.” “Meet you for dinner in Garden Cafe at 6.” “Gone to return library book, back soon, 4 p.m.” It was, to be honest, all very quaint.

It might be, I suppose, that everyone else is drinking so much because they can’t find the people they’re traveling with and they don’t know what else to do with themselves, so they figure, “What the hell, I’ll just go have a drink, Bob is sure to walk by eventually….”

Life on a cruise is, in a lot of ways, a throwback-to-the-year-1995 experience. For example, I met someone and became friends with them purely on the basis of chance. How often does that happen these days?

This was one of the Port Days, when most people scurried off the ship to go do wholesome things with their kids or to go get snockered on an actual beach somewhere. On this morning, my daughter went off to hang with whatever small number of kids signed up for the cruise kids’ program that day, my husband went off to go read his book, and I went to get a pedicure at the cruise ship’s spa. This would turn out to be an enlightening experience — I learned, a la the heroine in Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, that I am not taking care of myself the way real women do*. I was seated in the waiting area filling out paperwork when a woman with greying-blonde wavy hair sat down across from me with her own little clipboard of paperwork. “Taking advantage of the massage special today?” she asked me conversationally. “Oh, no,” I said, “I’m just getting a pedicure. That’s more than enough excitement for me.”

The woman chuckled and as we finished our paperwork we chatted. It turned out that she was from New York City, and had worked in publishing for many years. I said where I was from, in Connecticut, and that I’d been a bookseller for a long time, and she told me that her in-laws lived in my small city, too. It turned out we had quite a few overlapping life-elements — little interests, common tastes — and she said, “We should get together and have coffee sometime! Like we would if we’d met in real life.” I agreed wholeheartedly, and we exchanged first names just as my name was called: it was time for me to enter the spa and become a new woman. Or get some newly painted toenails, anyhow.

I followed the petite salon staffer, a woman with perfect hair and nails, natch, into a room where there were a few of those big puffy vinyl-covered salon chairs lined up facing a bank of windows; I had a remarkable view of the Atlantic. I picked out my nail polish color and as I sat in the chair the beautician turned on the massage panel and the chair began to beat up my back. There must be people who like that sort of thing, but I really don’t; however, I would have felt bad saying anything about it, so I let my back get mauled by the chair while the lady soaked my feet and clipped my nails and began to try to draw me out. It was clear to me immediately that this young woman was mystified by me: at the time I sat down in her salon, I did not already have polish on my feet. “How long has it been since you had a pedicure?” she asked suspiciously. “Maybe three years? Four years? It’s been a while,” I said. She examined my feet. “You have a lot of calluses,” she scolded me. I tried to explain that I walk everywhere and as such my feet have calluses, but she would have none of it. She soaked my feet and worked on my nails and eventually took up a cheese grater to scrub at my feet. “That’s a Microplane grater!” I said with amusement. “How do you know that?” she asked, looking at the device in her hand. I explained that I own several Microplane graters and that I use them in my kitchen. She seemed skeptical that a Microplane would ever be used for something other than removing calluses. “For grating cheese, or ginger, or chocolate,” I explained. “They’re very well-made.” “Well,” she said, scrubbing at my feet, “they are. And they are very easy to clean,” she added pointedly. I watched as my dead skin piled up on the paper toweling at the foot of the puffy chair. It was vile, but also fascinating. She worked so hard,  with religious zeal: she was obviously shocked and horrified by me, and mystified as to how an adult woman could not care about her feet this much.

Mind you, I feel like I take fairly good care of myself. And I do care about my feet; it’s just that foot beauty isn’t one of my highest priorities. I clip my nails and stuff like that! Other aspects of personal aesthetics rank more highly. My hair, I can assure you, is in great shape. Since far more people see my hair than ever see my feet, I really think I’ve got my priorities straight.

The beautician, having painted my nails, then tried to get me to purchase a number of expensive skin-and-nail-care products, none of which I considered for even a moment. I walked out of the salon with my new feet and as I walked past the waiting room I remembered the lady, let’s call her Beverly, who I’d met an hour before.  I paused, and then went up to the reception desk. “Hi,” I said. “There was a blonde lady who was about to get a massage this morning, is she still around?” I explained that if she was, I’d like to leave a message for her. The staff established that she was, in fact, still on-site, and kindly gave me a piece of paper and a pen so I could write her a note. I scrawled, “It was nice to meet you — if you’d like to get in touch to have coffee sometime, here is my room number.” I left the spa feeling cheerful. Even if our paths didn’t cross again, I’d made a good-faith effort to make a new friend, and there’d be no hard feelings if she didn’t get in touch (after all, time is limited, on a cruise); it seemed like a mitzvah, really, to even make the gesture. Also excellent: as it was only 10.30 in the morning, I had the rest of the day to loll about on lounge chairs reading. 

I was ambling across Deck 12, thinking I would head back to the cabin to meet my husband and then we’d find our daughter and go have lunch, when I ran into Beverly, the blonde from the salon. Translated into my local vernacular, this would be like running into a new friend on Orange Street, the morning after meeting at a cocktail party at which you’d discovered that you’ve both been living in the neighborhood for six years, two blocks away from each other. In other words, it should have been inevitable, yet somehow it wasn’t.

“I got your note!” she said happily. We compared notes on our mornings (unanimous positions: pleasant; though I imagine she enjoyed her massage more than I enjoyed having a cheese grater applied to the soles of my feet) and I said I was looking forward to having my family make fun of my toenails. “Speaking of which, I need to find my family,” Beverly said. She had a vague idea of where her husband was, but her son and parents had gone off together and she was unable to locate them. “They’ve gotta be around here somewhere,” I said. “The library? The games room?” “That’s what I’m hoping,” she said. She said she’d phone me after she conferred with her family about their plans for the next day or two, I said Fabulous, and off we went.

Late in the afternoon when my family convened in our cabin for the pre-dinner changing of clothes and so on (adding a sweater, changing shoes, going from bathing suit into shirt and pants), the phone rang. Everyone in the room froze. “Who could be calling us?” my daughter asked, real alarm in her voice. She had been led to understand, thanks to us, that phones were useless on the ship.

“I bet it’s my new friend!” I said. Everyone looked at me with surprise: I’d made a friend? Who would phone me?

Sure enough, it was Beverly. “Hi!” she said. It was like a totally normal phone call from someone I knew, except it was happening on a ship, in the middle of the ocean, with a total stranger. My husband and child listened, bemused, as I made plans for an actual social occasion. “It’s great that you made a friend,” my daughter said when I got off the phone. “I made a new friend at my program today too.”

My daughter, by far the most gregarious of the three of us, had made so many new friends by the end of her week on the ship that she could fill an autograph book with notes from them all. My husband — surprise, surprise — made no new friends, though, true to form, I’m not sure he cared or even noticed. I am now Facebook friends with Beverly, and we’ve had some amusing little exchanges online, and discovered that her husband knows a guy who used to live down the street from me, whose ex-wife is still a day-to-day friend of mine. I expect that if Beverly ever comes to town to visit her in-laws, she’ll send me a Facebook message when she needs a break from family, asking, “You wanna meet for coffee while I’m in town?” and I’ll say, “sure, there’s a place about three blocks from your in-laws….”

We will, of course, exchange phone numbers, then, in case we need to text each other, and we will bring our acquaintanceship up to 2018 standards. But it will always have begun in an old-fashioned way. It’s just a shame, really, that when we met for our breakfasts (bagel and lox for me, a croque madame for her) we couldn’t really dress for the occasion the way it deserved — and we were, unfortunately, still surrounded by people wearing dopey baseball caps and t-shirts with crass slogans. We needed hats worthy of Rosalind Russell and Myrna Loy; we needed car coats and dress gloves.

Beverly, when you come to New Haven, we’ll go shopping. I know just the place

*there’s a scene in this novel when Our Heroine goes to a salon and is told by the facialist that she’s RUINING HER FACE by not using special skin care products and that using soap on one’s face is a moral failing on a scale you cannot begin to fathom because it’s so awful. 

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