After the death of Kit’s husband

“But her eyes remained open, staring upward almost as fixedly as those beside her. These were the first moments of a new existence, a strange one in which she already glimpsed the element of timelessness that would surround her. The person who frantically has been counting the seconds on his way to catch a train, and arrives panting just as it disappears, knowing the next one is not due for many hours, feels something of the same sudden surfeit of time, the momentary sensation of drowning in an element become too rich and too plentiful to be consumed, and thereby made meaningless, non-existent.”

–Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

Scenes from Park Slope

They attend their first summer concert in Prospect Park. They’re smug about already possessing the yuppie picnic essentials: blanket, cooler, baguette, rosé, lawn sports. But she doesn’t remember that she packed her paddle ball set until the concert is over and dark has descended on the Brooklyn leisure class. No matter. She’s determined to play anyway. “But you won’t be able to see the ball,” says her companion. “Of course I will,” she says. They take to their feet with their paddles. He hits the ball, which is dark blue. She swats toward where the ball might be. The ball lands in the grass and disappears forever. “Told you so,” says her companion. Nearby picnickers catch her attention. They are playing the Italian game of bocce with glow-in-the-dark balls. It’s as if these picnickers came to the park just to taunt her with their lawn sport superiority. She realizes that she now lives in a world where owning a paddle ball set is not enough to illustrate her status as a Park Slope elite. She must now acquire a paddle ball set that glows. A paddle ball set that overcomes the natural limits imposed by night and day, good and evil, pinot noir and rosé. She must own a paddle ball set that makes a mockery of the seasons and rejects the rotation of the earth. She will paddle at midnight, in winter, underwater. Suddenly the Cheeto stains on her picnic blanket seem all the more glaring.

“Yes,” says the bagel shop owner, “we do sell gluten-free bagels.”

She feels that people take her career more seriously now that she lives in Park Slope. Professional writers abound in her zip code. There are few public benches in her neighborhood not occupied by middle-aged men with MacBooks in their laps, staring at her as she passes, willing her to do something story-worthy. (She never does.) A new acquaintance who might have considered her a hack when she lived in Bed-Stuy, now thinks she’s Margaret Atwood by virtue of her new address. “So tell me about your craft,” he says. “Like, what is your typical morning like?” “Well,” she says, “I wake up, make some coffee, then surf the internet for an hour or three.” “God,” he says, “it’s so fascinating what you do.” She badly wants to prove herself worthy of his delirious respect while she answers his questions about word count and creative process, but she’s not used to being treated like a professional and it makes her self-conscious. She wonders how long it will take her to start identifying as a Park Slope Writer and not a Murder Avenue, basement-dwelling amateur. For now, however, she can only enumerate her bathroom breaks to her number one fan while secretly battling a sea of cognitive dissonance.

On their way to pick up a beautiful, like-new, 8 x 10 rug that retails for $1,500 but one of their Park Slope neighbors is giving away for free, they pass an espresso machine on the sidewalk. Upon scoring the rug, an additional dutch oven from Le Creuset, and a set of twins, an espresso machine is the only thing they need to complete their transformation into average citizens of Park Slope. So she puts the freebie machine into her canvas tote bag and starts fantasizing about iced lattes. Once they’ve collected their rug, they take a different route home to see if they might dumpster-dive some other brownstones. Sure enough, they find a stack of unopened cardboard boxes on the pavement next to a manicured shade tree. The boxes contain pristine cans of illy Italian gourmet espresso with a combined street value of about $300. She is surprised not to encounter a windfall of soy milk in the final blocks home. Maybe tomorrow.

“Yes,” says the girl behind the counter, “of course we serve vegan gelato.”

Happy hour

It’s 3pm and they’re on their second round of margaritas. The Mexican restaurant had lured them in with an unprecedented happy hour special. They’re holding hands at the bar, which gives her less manual control over her wedge of lime. She accidentally squirts juice into his eye when optimizing her drink order. He dabs at his face with a cocktail napkin, but still retains his focus on the bar television set that seems to be powered by decorative chili lights.

“Whoa,” he says.

“What is it?” she says. “What’s wrong?” She knows her boyfriend is watching the local news because she overheard a segment about school closings while staring at the side of his face, willing him to turn his attention back to her. They have so many urgent things to tell each other. How in love they are, for instance. Little jokes.

“A car crashed on the BQE and six people were killed, including a baby.”

“That’s terrible,” she says. She glances briefly at the TV, but decides she doesn’t want to see the footage. Instead her heart goes out to the place on the road where the figurative bomb was detonated. It really is terrible. All those people. The bartender brings them complimentary chips and salsa.

She and her boyfriend are both quiet, drinking, as he continues to watch the news anchor’s concern drift from fatalities to traffic. Maybe she can use this moment to start a conversation that will deepen their romantic bond.

“You know,” she says, “I’ve always wondered what the Dalai Lama would do if he were hanging out, enjoying a margarita, and then he was told that a baby had just been killed in a horrific car accident. Would he acknowledge the suffering, then go back to drinking his margarita? Would he get bummed out and stop drinking his margarita altogether? What’s the mechanism for going from happiness to tragedy and back to happiness, or do you just stay in an emotional place that lacks polarity, so you drink your margaritas in a mental zone that precludes any extreme feelings whatsoever about car crashes? But does that seem fair to dead babies?” Her boyfriend looks at her distastefully from the corner of his citrussed eyeball.

“You’re killing my buzz,” he says.

“Oh,” she says. “Okay.” He tunes into the weather report. Thunderstorms. She had really hoped for a different outcome to her conversation starter.

“You know,” she says, “one could argue that randomly bringing up a dead baby during happy hour is more of a buzzkill than philosophizing about how the omnipresence of suffering might coexist with inner peace.”

“I’m not going to apologize for what’s on TV,” he says. She lets go of his hand and buries it in the basket of tortilla chips.

“And I’m not going to apologize for trying to have a meaningful conversation with my boyfriend,” she says. “Who thinks I’m a buzzkill.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t overthink things so much.”

“So sorry that my reality harshes your mellow. I’ll try to keep my reality to myself next time.”

“Can’t we just have a date without you turning it into an intellectual symposium?” he says.

“Can’t we just have a date where the television isn’t more important than me?” She’s fixing to abandon her boyfriend at the restaurant when the bartender brings them two shots of top-shelf tequila.

“We didn’t order these,” she says.

“They’re from me,” says a cherubic voice to her left. She spins around to find a ghost baby nestled in a Bumbo on the neighboring bar stool.

“Wow, thanks,” she says.

“Cheers,” says her boyfriend, reaching over her to clink glasses with the ghost baby’s bottle of beer before taking his shot.

“You’re not that baby who was just killed in that awful car crash on the BQE, are you?” she says.

“I am,” says the ghost baby. She tears up.

“You must be so distraught,” she says. “Your life was just beginning.” She tries to lay her hand on the ghost baby’s chubby arm in sympathy, but his body seems to be made of a cloud.

“Here’s the thing,” says the ghost baby. “When your mind is disciplined, suffering can only disturb it superficially. Your attitude dictates how badly things will hurt, and for how long.”

“But if a person has graduated to enlightened suffering,” she says, “and his loved one is still devastated by loss because she’s not a Buddhist, can the person still extend the full range of his compassion without being able to feel the full depth of her misery?”

“Yes, because he’s been there before. Maybe even in a past life. But then he trained his mind to transcend pain.”

“Interesting,” she says. “But do I really want a hug from someone who’s better than me?”

“People cross the world to cuddle with the Pope and the Dalai Lama.”

“True,” she says. “But take my boyfriend here.” She points her plastic drink straw to her right, flinging liquid everywhere. “What if there’s a discrepancy between the amount of love I feel for him and the amount of love he feels for me? In time won’t that just increase my suffering?”

“Love is infinite,” says the ghost baby, “in any amount.”

“Well, but at least I don’t watch TV when he’s trying to talk to me about serious shit.”

“In Buddhism there are three mental poisons that lead to suffering: ignorance, attachment, and hatred.”

“No, no,” she says. “I don’t have any of those. I think I’m just a little drunk.”

“Hey babe,” says her boyfriend. “The World Cup game is about to come on. And your girl what’s-her-face is playing.”

“Sweet!” She high fives him, then swivels back around to the ghost baby. “Do you like soccer?”

“I’ve always liked balls,” he says.

“Great! Then this might be your sport.”

“Hey kid,” says her boyfriend to the ghost baby. “Chill out with us for a while. The next round is on me.” She wraps her arms around her boyfriend’s neck and kisses him on the cheek.

“What was that for?” he asks.

“For not being sad or angry anymore. For getting your buzz back.”

“My buzz has always been very resilient.”

“Just like the Dalai Lama’s,” she says.

“Exactly,” he says. She shifts around the bar stools so the ghost baby sits between them. By halftime the Bumbo is gone, and she and her boyfriend’s hands hold on for dear life in the place where the baby had been.

The Shaman of Broadway

I lie on the sofa in my ruffled bikini, crying. It’s the last weekend of summer 2014. An hour ago my best friend canceled our day trip to Coney Island while I was at the store buying us beach Doritos. Once again my life is in shambles.

I am almost 34 years old. I’ve essentially laid waste to all those years and counting. I’m broke. I miss my dad, who is dead. Cockroaches scale the kitchen cabinets. My boyfriend sometimes wants to kill himself. I sometimes want to kill myself. We take turns hiding each other’s pills. I haven’t slept for two nights because of the fighting. Alcohol is a factor. The only words I’ve produced in six months are sadsack diary entries and advertising copy for septic tank companies. I’ve eaten all the beach Doritos myself. And the beach Cheetos. And the cookies I’d baked for Coney despite knowing they’d inevitably get sand in them. The sky is cloudless but the curtains are drawn and I know my tears are the closest I’ll get to the seashore today.

I recently collaborated on a young adult novel about five teenagers with problems that far eclipse my own. After putting them through the wringer for a bit, I took pity on these disordered kids and in my infinite mercy endowed them with spiritual cores that could withstand every calamity by reshaping pain into gratitude. I felt this was the right thing to do. Helping the youth is its own reward. But I have to make a confession: I’m a phony. I never dreamt of internalizing the abundant life lessons I showered upon my characters. I wrote the book with blinders on, caring for those 16-year-old psyches while neglecting real life’s rampant dysfunction. I gave the kids souls when I was in despair about having lost my own.

On the last day of summer, after I’ve cried all the tears and put on some underwear not made out of Spandex, I have a vague notion of turning my life around. But a concrete strategy eludes me, so for the next two hours I devour inspirational quotes on the Internet. Three or four hundred inspirational quotes later, I’m finally ready to leave the apartment. “It is never too late to be what we might have been” (George Eliot). I intend to wander around, look at things, maybe buy some cheap fruit from Mr. Kiwi.

The Brooklyn sidewalks are riddled with people whose beachy dreams seem equally crushed, but I am staunchly determined to get over myself and fall madly in love with life because “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have” (Hyman Schachtel). And when an ambulance driver gives me the middle finger because I’m teetering like a drunk astronaut on the curb, I remind myself that “Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling” (Margaret Runbeck). And by the way, who are these enlightened people on the Internet, and have they ever sleep walked down Broadway in the sweltering heat with a death wish and nacho cheese indigestion?

In my aforementioned novel, a spiritual healer materializes out of the New Mexico desert and sets my tormented teens on their path to enlightenment. “This is ridiculous,” I’d muttered to my computer as I brought the shaman into being. “This is so YA. This would never happen in real life, to a real grown-up.”

This intersection looks like a good one to flop myself into. Perhaps I can get run over by something official, like a police car or a fire engine. But no, that’s stinkin’ thinkin’, because “If your compassion does not include you, it’s incomplete” (Jack Kornfield). And I must recognize the beauty in every moment, because “Happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them” (Leo Tolstoy). And I need to force myself to “Enjoy the little things, for one day [I] may look back and realize they were the big things” (Robert Brault). The J train screeches on the tracks above me as if its cars are dragging the chains of hell. I take a deep breath and vow to wake up to the wonders of the world.

An elderly lady stands beside me on the curb, patiently waiting to cross the street. She’s loaded down with so many plastic shopping bags I wonder if the cement is going to fracture beneath her. I don’t want to offend her by asking if she needs help because her back is straight and she can’t have more than 70 years on her. I say something plaintive about the traffic light. The preternaturally-preserved woman studies my face for a full count of five before agreeing that yes, this intersection could use a pedestrian signal. I self-consciously overtake her when we cross, but I’m still drawn into her orbit. She walks a few paces behind me, on the same sidewalk, past the same vendors of tube socks and cell phone cases. I want to turn around and confess to her how black my heart is. I sense that she’d be down for this discussion. Maybe we could have it telepathically. The air between us is just that charged.

In my YA novel the shaman makes his grand entrance with a pet coyote. On Broadway I see nothing of the kind. Maybe a mangy dog slipping under a barbed wire fence as if he’s just been kicked.

At the next intersection the elderly woman sidles up to me. “Would you mind doing me a favor?” I’m relieved that she’s making the first move. She lacks a free hand to adjust a strap on her shoulder, but won’t permit me to carry her bags, saying that even though she has three great-grandchildren, she still plays basketball and can run a mile without breaking a sweat. She has no need for my strength. I desperately need hers.

I cannot shake the feeling that this woman is extraordinary. Being enclosed in her energy’s orb is like entering a messianic tent revival. She’s the human embodiment of an inspirational quote. And not one by Donald Trump or Tony Robbins; I mean one by Confucius or Martin Luther King. So I trot along beside her, savoring bits and pieces of her life. As a girl she wanted to be a Freudian psychoanalyst. She became a teacher.

We arrive at her destination: Fat Albert’s, a discount home goods store I know all too well. My new friend gathers that I’m loath to leave her so we continue talking on the sidewalk. We grew up in the same small town 200 miles away, 40 years apart. She wants to know my birthday. “You’re a Libra,” she says, peering into my diminished, flickering soul. “You need to meditate in order to hold your center, and you need to live near the water.” I haven’t felt my center in years and the only water I’ve known lately has been boiling.

And now I am a sniveling child, inexplicably undone by this woman and the spiritual medicine dispensed by her gaze. She’s not sentimental about the dumb heartache writ large on my face. She tells me that I’m smart and strong, like her. In front of Fat Albert’s, she matter-of-factly reveals the secret to a happy life, and I promptly forget it. Something to do with love. Though I don’t retain a word, I cling to everything she says, everything she is. Before we part I hold her hand in mine. I haven’t felt anything so soft in skin and so formidable in presence since my grandmother’s hand when she was dying. The woman gives me her number and says one of these days I should come over for pie.

Walking home, my heart wells up with the world and its magic. The second I resolved to see beauty again, I was sent this emissary from heaven who’d transformed a filthy square of Broadway sidewalk into a dropped pin on a rainbow. You can’t make this stuff up in Yeah books. I smile at everyone I pass, and they smile back. I’m having the best beach day ever. I glide across the sand dunes in front of Fat Albert’s, breathing in the sky’s salty mist. I pause next to an overflowing trashcan near Mr. Kiwi’s watermelons and feel the ocean’s ecstatic power. My eyes fill with grateful tears. I am alive I am alive I am alive. God bless America.

But no, that is not my eureka moment. That moment comes the next morning after I wake up feeling sad and dyspeptic again and am dismayed to find that yesterday’s blessed burst of enlightenment hadn’t carried over to Day 2 of the rest of my life. “WTF?” (Wistar Murray). I realize that I’ll need to restart the process from scratch, perhaps with a quiet sit or 500 more inspirational quotes. Because it’s hit me that happiness is something you must fight to inhale every second your airways are open. It’s a book you must keep writing and reading on a continuous loop, so the kids inside it won’t lose heart. Naturally the book will never be finished. It will always be in the midst of happening. In fact it’s happening right now, at this urban intersection, while we stand together in our bathing suits and wait for the light to change.

Model Fancy

She decided that she’d like to help him with his career. “That’s sweet of you,” he said. “What did you have in mind? Updating my web portfolio? Helping me set up the monolights on Tuesday? I told Anichka and Danya that I’d have sushi for them on set except the place they like doesn’t deliver…” But she was an autodidact zoologist and these services sounded beneath her.

“I’d like to art-direct your next photo shoot,” she said. He turned from the naked female image he was editing on his 27-inch computer monitor and faced his girlfriend. She sat primly on their couch wearing his boxer shorts and an XL t-shirt with an anthropomorphized cartoon of a goat on it. She’d recently dribbled Nutella down her chin.

“But you hate fashion,” he said.

“No I don’t,” she said. “Even though fashion is responsible for decimating the beavers and for yanking the hair out of millions of angora rabbits and for driving one more wedge between rich and poor, I can still respect your job.”

“You’re rich and I’m poor,” he said, smiling, “and it didn’t drive a wedge between us.”

“But I know fashion photography isn’t about that stuff for you,” she said. “It’s more about making art. Which is why I want to get involved.”

“I saw that the coffee shop across the street is hiring,” he said. “It might do you some good to get out of the house, away from your terrariums.”

“No offense, but I think all your editorials are starting to look the same.”

“That’s actually the most offensive thing you could have said to me.”

“You could use an outsider’s perspective. Like, why do all your photos have to be so gloomy, and shot in black and white?”

“Because heavy contrast is on trend right now.”

“Is it?” she said. “Or has everyone just run out of ideas? Here’s what I think. Have you ever read Cat Fancy magazine?”

“No.”

“Well the reason Cat Fancy magazine is so popular is not because the quality of its photographs is especially high. It’s because the magazine features cats.”

“Sure, that makes sense.”

“Cats are really fun to look at. They’re gentle and beguiling and often quite colorful. Plus they have such charismatic personalities that a photographer doesn’t have to do much to make an image sparkle.”

“Okay.”

“If you look at the success of Cat Fancy magazine, a few things leap out at you. Or pounce, I should say. One, the art directors aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel with their stories. They don’t feel the need to take the cats out into the desert and, like, shoot them rolling around naked in the sand in front of giant sheets of gauze like they’re Kim Kardashian. A staff photographer just puts the cat in front of a solid, neutral background in a studio, takes a snapshot, and tada, there’s your cover.”

“Right.”

“I mean you can change the background color depending on whether it’s Christmas or whatever, but for the most part it’s pretty simple. That way it’s all about the cat, you know?”

“Sure.”

“Two, no one is trying to tell the cats they need to lose weight.”

“Right. I know you hate that.”

“So with your 19-year-old anorexic Polish models on Tuesday, I think you should just, like, put them on the floor there, so they’re kind of lying in that patch of light from the window, and maybe scatter some catnip around so they’re kind of happy and docile, but not with those dead eyes you like so much, no offense, because all your models seem to be on heroin, which is another way in which your art is sort of dated.”

“Okay.”

“And then I think you should, like, optimize the image for poster or billboard size. And maybe Photoshop some words into the background that could easily be a speech bubble coming from a cat, or a motivational message that a cat could be thinking, or perhaps just existentially representing, you know?”

“I get you. You want the image to capture a feline essence. Even though it’s people.”

“Right. I don’t want to say ‘Garfield’, because that’s too obvious and plus I know you like things to be sexy, but just take a look at Cat Fancy when you’re doing your mood board for Tuesday. I have a whole bunch of back issues in the bedroom.”

“Okay, sounds good.”

“I just really want you to break out of your artistic rut, baby.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that.”

“You’re welcome.” She went back to reading Misty of Chincoteague.

“Hey sweetheart,” he said.

“Mm?”

“I know you promised you were going to get me that Canon 85mm fixed 1.2 lens for my birthday, but I was wondering if you could order it a little early, especially since it would really help with this upcoming photoshoot you’re art-directing. Which is going to be awesome, by the way.”

“But I thought you wanted the Canon 5D Mark III camera for your early birthday present?” she said.

“That too,” he said. “You’ve inspired me.”

“Thought so,” she said with satisfaction, and went to get her credit card.

137tn

The Big Island

Her aunt and uncle dropped by while she was carving out a watermelon, so she began force-feeding them watermelon at the kitchen counter. She told them that she and her boyfriend were going to Hawaii in June. Her aunt and uncle had just been there during whale season, so for a while they rhapsodized about the islands. Her aunt said that some parts were like being on the moon. She said the only negatives about Hawaii were that it contained no monkeys, and she’d been expecting monkeys, and that all the coconuts on the Big Island had been removed from the palm trees as a preemptive safety measure. Apparently one too many tourists had already been injured by falling coconuts.

They were all standing there in the kitchen, eating fresh watermelon, trying to figure out where each island was in relation to the others, and their comparative sizes, when her little brother walked in and pointed out that her uncle had all the islands of Hawaii on the souvenir t-shirt he was wearing. So they all turned to his t-shirt for the answers to their questions.

Lincoln Park Zoo

She stumbled upon the harbor seal show, which was actually just a perky blonde woman talking about fish into a microphone while veterinarians checked the seals for tumors. When the vets blew their whistles, the animals flopped across the rocks like performing slugs.

Super genius saves the world on her lunch break at the DMV

It’s hot enough outside to liquify rubber and she wants to continue using her five 30,000 BTU window air conditioning units around the clock. Unfortunately, every so often she feels guilty about the toll that her 62-degree apartment takes on the environment, especially when she’s hard at work in her DMV kiosk for eight hours a day, unable to luxuriate in the cold air blasting away at home. Therefore she uses her Thursday lunch hour to devise a series of ingenious solutions for global warming and its consequences.

First she conceptualizes a tree that generates its own water supply via photosynthesis. This vegetation makes absolute sense on a Post-It note partly stained with fried lasagna. When the sun is shining, the tree’s roots produce enough water to hydrate the surrounding soil and replenish local aquifers. When the sun is not shining, the tree simply produces oxygen, and sometimes apricots. People will plant these chemically-enhanced trees in deserts and in two years those same deserts will be deciduous forest. Even people who don’t get out much into nature will go bonkers for these trees. When planted in clusters, these trees will sculpt out deep ponds where before there had only been desiccated craters. These trees will either cost nothing or be available at deep discount after federal tax rebate. These trees are gods amongst thirsty men.

Her second ingenious solution has to do with population control. She will move everyone in the world onto a single continent. This continent will probably end up being North America for the sake of her own convenience. When humans see how many other humans exist on Earth and begin to feel claustrophobic, they will probably not want to have sex with one another. Within a few generations, cities will revert to a manageable, medieval size. Meanwhile plant and animal populations on the remaining six continents will bounce back because they’ll have more food and territory at their disposal. But if anyone misbehaves in North America, they will be deported to Australia, same as before.

Her third ingenious solution addresses the frying of the oceans. The oceans need to be cooled. What cools water? Ice. What objects are made of ice and can be dropped into the ocean like rocks into a glass of Smirnoff? Moons. Just off the top of her head, she can think of two icy moons that are currently going to waste in the immediate solar system: Europa and Callisto. Europa alone has enough ice on its surface to chill Pacific bathwater into polar bear central for at least five years. All it takes is a space rocket and the kind of machine that breaks up highway cement. But she is not in charge of logistics. She is the idea person.

Lastly, air pollution. This is a no-brainer, at least for anyone who has ever had a connecting flight in Phoenix or Las Vegas. If power plants and oil refineries are to be located exclusively in North America, where all the people are, there is no reason why industry, in its entirety, can’t be situated inside the Grand Canyon, which the Senate will have covered with a tarp. The toxic gases will collect under the tarp, then get sucked down many miles of canyon into a giant vacuum built for that purpose in Lees Ferry. There, the pollution will feed into a factory operated by Original Americans who will know how to convert toxins into something innocuous, like fresh breeze or a cancer vaccine.

But what is to be done about the existing atmospherics, the extreme weather conditions and the deteriorated ozone layer that humanity lives with everyday? She would prefer to leave this job to Obama, but she shouldn’t stop now, not when she’s already come so far and still has half a Diet Coke left. Her solution is this: if chemists in New Jersey can put disinfectant, cheese, and hair product into aerosol cans, surely they can determine how to spray an element into the air that will rise up in a heroic cloud to bind with CFCs, causing chlorine to fall to earth in the form of raindrops. And if scientists play their cards right, they could even get the chlorinated raindrops to descend directly into untreated public swimming pools, thereby saving the government money. Every human will receive two of these specially formulated aerosol cans free of charge, care of the House Budget Committee, and he or she will use them liberally, though always after reading the cautionary label which provides instructions for what to do if someone’s eyeball is sprayed accidentally.

Now that she’s done her part to save the world, she can’t wait to get home and lower all five of her AC units to a goosepimpling 55 degrees. She’s bored of her entire August wardrobe and has been longing since April to sleep under a pile of blankets in her fuzziest flannel pajamas. Before bed she’ll crank both her bathroom and kitchen sink faucets so her apartment will sound like the Colorado River in the midst of winter monsoon season. Then she can rest easy, knowing the government has it from here.

A fun thing I’ll keep doing whenever I have the time and the money

When David Foster Wallace set sail on a luxury cruise ship in the mid-90s, he was pampered to the point of despair. Sending a brilliant, hypersensitive, agoraphobic depressive on a solo Caribbean cruise is like sending a gregarious jock who does his best thinking aloud and in his underwear to an artist’s residency. It somewhat exceeds the bounds of journalistic ethics to assign such uncharacteristic vacations to these poor souls.

Fortunately for me, my 4-night Royal Caribbean cruise coincided with a period of my life when I’m all jacked up on antidepressants and boat drinks have never been more appealing. I had a blast. I did not miss land at all. If I could go back in time and direct my career less towards becoming a writer and more towards becoming an officer on one of these buoyant utopias, I would do it in a heartbeat. Even now I’m considering joining the Navy and/or pursuing a degree in hospitality. If I had a job, I would retire from it immediately and move myself and all my earthly belongings onto the Liberty of the Seas, where we would be more comfortable.

To explain my newfound love of cruising and to proselytize to my family members who think cruises are cheesy and who don’t get goosebumps when they hear “the flatulence of the gods” reverberate across the water, I offer the following highlights from my Royal Caribbean vacation:

No one ever told me “no”

On board the ship, my every request was met by the crew with a fervent “Yes, Madam.” The closest we came to negative treatment was when a crew member politely asked M not to drink his bottle of Corona in the whirlpool sauna that hovers 11 stories above the ocean. It was probably 2am and we’d been hitting the bars pretty heavily since 9 the previous morning, but still, we were shocked that anyone would make such a request when broken glass is so easy to remove from a hot tub. Shortly after this outrage, however, the crew member came to his senses and returned to pour M’s Corona into a complimentary Royal Caribbean keepsake cup and ask us if we needed any more alcohol or fresh towels.

I was entertained by war orphans

As part of the on-board entertainment showcase we saw Canadian ice dancers and Russian aerialists and people of unknown origin dressed like pandas, but one of my favorite boat performances took place in a near-empty theater at 4 in the afternoon. We’d first seen these child performers while waiting to embark from Port Everglades. There were about 100 of them—97 girls and 3 Justin Biebers. In line we were intrigued by the group’s numbers and their monochromatically blond ponytails and their matching blue t-shirts. They told us they were a youth dance troupe from Australia and this was their first time performing on a cruise ship. They usually danced in Disney World. I made it a priority to see them perform, whether or not that would interrupt one of my six meals of the day. The choreography was severely limited by the size of the troupe. It’s hard to coordinate 200 jazz hands while also doing feet. There was actually no reason whatsoever why the dance troupe had to be so large, unless the kids were recruited by a benevolent stage mom as a way of liberating them from abusive Australian orphanages or child prostitution rings and getting them onto a boat where they would be safe, in a sort of Schindler’s List scenario. Which is of course what was going on. The kids only did one show and roved the pool deck unchaperoned for the rest of the time. M and I often saw the older teens bobbing seriously in the hot tub, steam camouflaging their tears, likely discussing the wretched lives they’d left behind.

I learned to fold towels and napkins into exciting animal shapes

My daily program came with me everywhere and I consulted it religiously, not wanting to miss activities like the International Belly Flop Competition and the Captain Meet & Greet. But one of the hottest activities on board was the napkin-folding class that took place in the piano bar everyday at 10am. Though I didn’t participate personally, I watched in awe with a breakfast margarita in my hand as the ship’s resident folding expert belted instructions into a microphone and young couples on honeymoon hunched over their bistro tables with furrowed brows as they tried to construct 3-dimensional swans out of 1-dimensional fabric. On the last day of the cruise the more advanced students learned how to fold bath towels into the shape of baby elephants. I never would have considered this a useful vocation if I hadn’t I walked into our stateroom one afternoon and found a penguin sitting on our freshly made bed, wearing my sunglasses. I almost took him home with me, but I was afraid he’d get smashed out of recognition in my suitcase and I wouldn’t have the skills to rebuild him.

I came to know the joys of binocular ownership

It’s unclear to me whether dolphins feed on chum or a more exotic bait like puff pastry, but in any case I was annoyed that the ship didn’t have an entire crew dedicated to attracting these aquatic mammals for my viewing pleasure. Left to my own devices, I trained my binoculars on the wake behind our ship countless times a day, hoping that I’d see dolphins frolicking in our sewage. I also searched the ocean for castaways on a pretty regular basis. One afternoon I saw what I thought was a raft containing a solitary man who had probably eaten his fellow shipwrecked crewmates, but it was just a log with a bird on it.

I met fascinating people 

M and I could barely get through a shuffleboard tournament without meeting people we would’ve happily spent our lives with on dry land. On Deck 4 we encountered an elegant woman who used to take pictures of Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra. I lent my binoculars to a retired firefighter who once responded to a call where a man on a railroad track was so drunk he didn’t realize a train had taken off his leg. And then there was the whirlpool crowd, who were always a joy to be around, probably because the hot water lowered their defenses.

I ate so many desserts

At least three with every decadent meal. In for a penny, in for a pound.

I got off the boat only long enough to get on another boat

On excursion day in Cozumel, my travel companions and I boarded a catamaran at 11am with a small group of passengers that included four female dentists who were each about three pina coladas deep. These girls were better at partying than they were at snorkeling, so they spent most of our time at the disintegrating reef clinging to the handsome dive master. The stronger swimmers among us saw rays, parrot fish, barracuda, and bottom-dwelling scuba divers who seemed oblivious to our presence. I liked to float above these latter creatures because the bubbles from their scuba gear tickled my skin in an arousing manner. On our way back to the cruise ship the catamaran crew served us drinks and blared dance instructions masquerading as songs, leading us in Mexican interpretations of the Macarena, the Cupid Shuffle, etc. After a few spins around the deck the dentists became over enthused and started doing keg stands which resulted in them flashing their sunburnt boobs to a passing motorboat. It was good to spend the day observing the natural world before humans managed to spoil it.

I was encouraged to dress like a hoochie mama

Four-inch heels were standard discotheque attire. Not since our time in Miami had I so keenly felt my absence of butt implants.

I became overly emotional at the piano bar

According to M, the piano bar is always the most happening place on a cruise ship, at least in the realms of nightlife and napkin-folding. (I would argue that in the afternoon the Sprinkles soft-serve ice cream machine beside the children’s swimming pool was the center of our maritime universe.) The piano bar was home to a comedian-pianist who’d been playing cruise ships for 24 years and was a one-man Library of Congress as far as music and lyrics were concerned. He frequently recruited members of the audience to join him at the piano, and he had an uncanny ability to size up strangers and determine which songs they’d know from memory when he handed them the microphone. These impromptu performances were an emotional roller coaster. We saw an old man sing “You Make Me Feel So Young” from his wheelchair while his daughter videotaped it. We heard a young couple’s duet of “Endless Love” that would have Christina Aguilera’s Voice chair spinning in circles. And I was moved to tears by an elderly lady’s rendition of “Cabaret,” during which she got the whole crowd singing and took us all back in time to a 1940s nightclub where she wore a slinky red dress and rolled seductively across the piano and was the hottest ticket in town. I don’t know how the pianist managed to keep it together night after night. The sound effects on his auxiliary keyboard seemed to help. If one of the guest singers left him reeling, he’d just hit the fart button.

I appreciated the crew’s sense of irony

For instance, AA meetings took place in the Champagne Bar. Actually, that’s the only example of irony I can think of, and it was probably just poor planning on the crew’s part.

We outsmarted the casino

It only took us $20 to realize that we were not going to win $1,000 on the machine that has you maneuvering a pole into an irregularly shaped slot, thereby causing cash money to fall into a dispenser, making you rich. After we realized that the money was fastened securely to the roof of the machine, only to be dislodged by tidal waves or maintenance men, we made it our business to swing by whenever we walked through the casino. There would inevitably be a crowd gathered around the machine as one sweaty individual tried for the 60th time to make a square peg fit into a round hole. We always tried to counsel these people into letting go of their impossible dream, but we were only successful about half the time. The arcade proved to be more challenging to our wits, and we lost about $100 playing skeeball, coming away with only a packet of fruit erasers.

I did not pick dead skin off my feet in the hot tub

That must have been someone else.

I thought of DFW two times total

Once when gazing down at the black water at night from the uppermost deck of the ship, I felt that force in the ocean that wants nothing more than to swallow you. The feeling was so visceral and terrifying and primitive—despite DJ George’s soundtrack of club hits playing in the background—that I had to step away. And another time, off the distant coast of Cuba, I saw a small black bird squawking on the sun deck, appearing extremely disoriented. I think it had fallen asleep on the ship when we were docked at Port Everglades and then had woken up in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless there was some aviary on the Liberty that I didn’t know about, there were no other birds around for miles, and I watched as that fact seemed slowly to dawn on this bird. His lonely presence made me appreciate the company I was with all the more.

I had a hard time saying goodbye

This week I’ve been experiencing intense cruise ship nostalgia in the form of maintaining my day-drinking regiment and feeling our new apartment in Chicago rocking back and forth as if the waves are hitting our starboard side. Even though it’s freezing cold in Illinois relative to Florida, we still see the occasional Midwestern man walking around in flip-flops, and I want to accost him to see if he’s recently disembarked from a ship, so we can talk about it, and then maybe he’ll join us for a tequila sunrise in a local piano bar. We’ll sing mournful songs and reminisce about the days off the coast of Florida when we were all sea captains and despair was just a lost bird that eventually flitted away.

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Where the sand goes

On the same day we see a 6-foot tiger shark at the beach where we like to bob for hours in the water, we see a young woman emerge from the ocean, lie flat on her back on a towel, and proceed to bury herself in sand from the neck down. When she’s done digging herself into the beach like a nesting turtle, she rubs the sand into her bare belly in a sensual, exfoliating motion, and then gets out a book. I applaud this head and two arms reading amongst the seashells.

The sand spills out of his tennis shoes and disperses under the kitchen table in an area he likes to call his litter box. I tell him it’s his turn to sweep the condo.

Clumps of sand adhere to my scalp when I return from the beach and I gleefully pull the grains through my hair likes bits of scab.

Every morning a Sunny Isles employee turns his leaf blower to the Sisyphean task of clearing all the sand from dozens of public access pathways to the beach. It’s unclear why these long carpets of blue rubber that lie on top of sand and also terminate in sand must routinely be cleared of sand when sand is obviously their element. I worry sometimes that the Sunny Isles employee will eventually get carried away and blow the entire beach back into the ocean with his infernal machine.

The first thing I’m going to do when I get old is buy a metal detector.

What’s the proper etiquette for shaking out beach towels from condo balconies? I’d normally hesitate before raining sand upon our neighbors at lower levels, but no one else in Florida seems to use the balconies, because that would require experiencing a world without air conditioning.

Never have sex in the ocean. Revenge will be exacted on your genitals.

The heavyset Latina women stand in the breakers, pointing toward the water and yelling in Spanish to their heavyset husbands, who are drinking beer on a sandbar. It’s comical to watch the men dash toward the shore juggling beer cans and snorkels. Then I realize that they’re running from a shark.

Through the hourglass. Only one more week in Miami.