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IN PANIC MODE


I'm in panic mode as I write this. In two days we must quit the house and take the train to NYC, spend two days in a cheap hotel and take a taxi down to Pier 11, Wall Street, where we will catch the New York ferry to Red Hook, Brooklyn. After we disembark, we will follow the crowd to the Hudson River where an enormous ocean liner squats down in the choppy wavelets, tied up by cables to a row of pollards. The end of the narrow street leads directly to the embarkation lobby where we will have our papers checked, including boarding passes, luggage tags, passports, and our luggage will be x-rayed, and opened up to inspection if the screen indicates something suspicious like a pair of scissors, a knife, a gun, something that looks like a stick of dynamite, or the black bulges of more than two bottles of wine. If we are passed through, we go to a larger hall with rows of chairs where other passengers are sitting, their faces blank, their eyes curious enough to follow us as we look around for empty seats. Kids will be playing with their stuffed toys, teens will be stretched out on other seats half dozing as they await their assigned number to line up for boarding the Cunard Queen Mary 2.

            Outside lies the Atlantic Ocean in all its gray expanse, concealing its motives and desires as we gaze into its dissembling serenity. Our route to Southampton, England will come within sixty miles of where the Titanic went down with 1517 passengers clinging to its sides. The North Atlantic is notorious for its sudden storms and raging sea swells, some of them so deep their troughs look like they might touch the rocky bottom of the seabed. We will be bobbing along behind a crowd of eager but slightly anxious travelers lugging carry-ons and pulling on kids craning their necks to take in all the splendid sights of the giant ship's lobby, the casino, the immense winding stairs going up to a higher deck. Others will be tapping their walking canes and checking to see they haven't left anything behind at the boarding hall. We will all be together for seven days without sight of any landfall. The staff is suited up in immaculate dinner jackets and skimpy one-piece body socks, stationed at various places as we make our way toward a wide corridor lined with tableaux of the different continents. They are smiling and gracious, and ask for our boarding passes and indicate with a flick of a finger which of the many hallways we are to follow to get to our staterooms.

            All the twists and turns we have taken since boarding the ferry at the foot of Manhattan seem intended to make us realize that we are severing our lives from dry land and our old ways of life and entering the great unknown. The ship's vast iron body does not conceal the fact that it is bathed in a comforting soft light and humming with the sound of an unpredictable fate. We are smiling somewhat rigidly and concealing our doubts behind the immediate expectation of finding our beds, and following more signs to the observation deck where tables are set up and bottles of champagne are icing down in large silver-plate ice buckets. Flutes will be arranged neatly on trays and we are to take one and move along, mixing slowly with other chattering voices and casual hellos, and to try some finger food as we stand there watching our fellow travelers gathering in groups here and there.

            The sea is beneath us, is holding us up with its silent power, sprawled out in all directions and descending into the chilly darkness of its domain. The champagne is a bit tart, a mild sedative to ease our nerves and to reassure us that this is a luxury cruise meant to delight all our senses. Everything is planned. The theater will present a magic show or a cabaret variety act, a live band. People will get there early and subtly burp into their hands from a heavy dinner. We are orderly and meek, and accept our seats even if there's a pillar partly blocking our view. We are children in this great black-hulled Noah's ark, and will be lulled by the bland entertainment that is about to begin. The house lights dim, the speakers blossom into taped music, and the performers enter to a round of fuzzy applause. Our ship has left port and is now covered in the thick black silk of nightfall. Our lights cast a strange aura onto the waters below. The fish observe us from the deeps as our vast black shadow is pushed forward by four gigantic propellers. You can feel the will of the machinery through the soles of your feet. You are being numbed by the music and the fast movement of the performers who are eager to get applause.

            I want to leave the auditorium and get a drink at any one of the dozens of bars and watering holes scattered over twelve decks. I can feel the whiskey in my throat and my eagerness to be in a quiet corner of a room talking to my wife. I can only think of that refrain  in Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat," "Why in the name of the seven mad gods of the sea was I allowed to reach this close to shore. . . " But as I sit there, the monotonous energy on stage is having its way with me, making me forget I am setting off on a long voyage,  being pulled away from certainty with every thrust of the pistons far below. We are sliding heavily over a universe of strange creatures, giant squids, blue whales, great white sharks, schools of tiny, luminescent swimmers performing intricate choreography much the way swallows and starlings do in the sky.

            When we do crawl into bed on our first night, someone is quietly sliding a program of tomorrow's activities under our doors. There will be yoga classes, bridge tournaments, the rec room will be open until eight or nine o'clock. The kids will be shepherded into a play room, and the hungry will find breakfast buffets and afternoon tea with snacks. The more sedate can repair to the library and check out two books to read, or send a few emails out on the available computers. The days will pass like this, crammed with enticements, lured by the smell of barbecue from some alcove, or guided to the promenade deck somewhere above where you can walk off your excesses of the night before. You can gaze out at the quivering tin canopy of the sea and imagine the depths below, hidden from sight but not from the imagination. You can go back to lie in bed as the ship vibrates with all its power and might, and drift off into an internal sea of thought and awake as your wife informs you it's time to join the others for tea or supper.

            In two brief days all this will begin and there is nothing I can do about it or even want to. Except to say, I willingly sacrifice my fate to the urge to plunge myself into the mystery of my fragile existence. And I will.

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