After leaving Mexico, we had one full day at sea before we disembarked at Galveston. We were still cozily wrapped in the envelope of a dream, but now fleeting glimpses of the waking world danced before us. Thoughts of work, studies, and pets entered our minds. Loose ends needed to be tied up onboard too. There was a sense of premature sobering-up throughout the Freedom, the way a drunk person might be brought back to alertness in an instant by the heat of a nearby car explosion.
We checked our invoices on the Carnival app and noticed some discrepancies. There appeared to be double-charges for couples that didn’t make sense. We had also been charged $100 for gratuity, which we took umbrage with as we’d been giving cash tips to staff all week. As I said in previous posts, the staff on the Freedom worked incredibly hard, so we didn’t want the company getting so much as a dime of those tips.
There were anxious rumblings throughout the ship as more people started to check their billing info for the first time. Pretty soon a massive line formed at the customer service desk that went all the way through the Atrium and into the theater. We quickly learned that other people were having similar issues. Folks in line told us they had been waiting for an hour to get to the desk. People were getting agitated. The mystery charges, the alcohol, and the return of the stress of the real world all combined to create a volatile situation.
One guy lost it at the customer service desk and started screaming, so they called security on his ass and he was taken aside, possibly thrown overboard. I couldn’t make out the nature of his complaint but I assume it was similar to everyone else in line. The security team lingered in the Atrium for a spell and a few people engaged them in conversation once the trouble had been dealt with. One guy asked them why they didn’t have guns. He argued that they were ineffective without guns and said they wouldn’t be able to do anything if we were suddenly boarded by armed attackers. I don’t know who the fuck he was expecting to burst through the Atrium windows and take us hostage. ISIS? The League of Shadows? Alan Titchmarsh? It speaks to a paranoia among right-wingers that borders on the fetishistic. This idiot reminded me of the people that advocated for arming schoolteachers with guns in the wake of mass shootings. You hear about such people on TV or the internet and you can’t believe it, but then you travel to the U.S.A and realize with a chill that these whackjobs are real. Anyone that equates safety with guns deserves to choke to death on a bag of compost.
Annoyed, I told my friends I was going to check out the photos on the deck above to see if any of ours were up yet. But it seems the tension wasn’t limited to the Atrium alone. As I waited in line with a few photos from the evening before, an argument was breaking out between a couple of guys and one of the staff at the kiosk. One guy in particular was enraged at the suggestion from the staff that he had stolen some photos.
“You think I need to steal photos? I can afford a cruise, can’t I? Why would I steal?” he shrieked.
He and his friends didn’t just seem angry- I detected a note of sadness too. They felt like a judgement had been made about them based on the way they looked. The staff for their part looked extremely nervous and were scrambling to remedy the situation. I don’t know how it had started exactly, but I’d been wondering all week if people didn’t just help themselves to photos when no one was looking. There are thousands of them spread out across the floor in racks, and they’re not cheap either. It’s like 16 bucks per photo, and there are photoshoots every day. There is nothing physically stopping anyone from just grabbing their photos and walking off with them. So the operation runs in no small part on trust.
There was one member of the photoshoot team I’d seen a few times throughout the week. A tall, Scandinavian fella that seemed a little crazy. He took our photo just before we boarded the Freedom at Galveston. We were always pointing him out because he seemed so eccentric. But on this occasion he was conspicuously muted. I saw him trying to calm down the guy accused of stealing and if you were to look at them without any context you’d think that he was comforting someone in grief. The gangly fella noticed I’d been standing there for ages and quickly took my order. It was the first time I’d seen him not joking around, and it was just weird to see him so grave-looking. Perhaps we were all waking up from this dream.
I went back downstairs and asked Aaron and Anne-Marie if this had happened on their last cruise. Did things start unraveling at the end?
The health protocols became suddenly more stringent too. Had something happened? The staff were acting funny, like they were hiding something. Perhaps a passenger had contracted the coronavirus, we wondered. During the last day or two we were required to sanitize our hands before entering the restaurant, and they had a couple members of staff to make sure that everyone did so. It was the emergence of small measures like this that, taken together, contributed to a fear that we were going to end up like those quarantined ships in the Pacific.
We’d had an amazing time but we were ready to leave. If it weren’t for the virus situation (as well as real world responsibilities and obvious financial constraints) I could have happily kept going for another week. I wasn’t feeling seasick, claustrophobic, or socially fatigued. Ted said that he’d read about a cruise that circumnavigated the entire world and lasted approximately four months. I have no idea how anyone could afford something like that, let alone set aside the time to do it. You’d have to be both exceedingly wealthy and retired, with no pets or kids to hold you down. We pondered whether we could manage it- mentally speaking- if we had that kind of time and money. I honestly don’t know. I don’t think I could do it without my friends, that’s for sure.
As I’ve said in previous entries of this series, my favorite aspects of the trip were the unplanned ones. Those moments of spontaneous, unscripted camaraderie. But why not just hang out at the apartment and save our money? Well, the cruise facilitated these moments. The environment informs the humor, and it’s when you are truly detached from the reminders of the real world that you can focus intensely on those around you, and the business of having fun. The best part of the cruise wasn’t the food, the weather, the hot tubs, the bars, or the shore excursions, but rather the way it served as a theater for our enjoyment of each other’s company.
I think that as you get older, the little moments count for a lot. And by that I don’t mean anything sentimental, but simply that you realize more and more that time is finite. You accrue more in responsibilities, as does everyone around you. I hadn’t seen Aaron and Anne-Marie since their wedding in September of 2018, but it didn’t feel like too much time had passed, because we couldn’t realistically have seen each other sooner. A break of the same length would have felt much longer when we were younger. As indeed it did, during a similar stretch of time between the end of my student exchange in December of 2012 to my return to the USA in June of 2014. That hiatus had felt like an age, and when I reconnected with Aaron again at Dooley’s Pub in Eau Claire, WI I remember feeling like I had to get used to being around him again. My point is that as life goes on, the opportunities seem more infrequent. A week together, even a few days, becomes more vivid, more massive.
Before the cruise came to an end, we returned to the comedy club a few times. For regular evenings I’d wear a thin sweatshirt, jeans, and my Jordans, and on the designated elegant evenings I’d wear a button-down shirt, dress pants, and the leather shoes I’d worn to school prom in 2009. Clothing was actually something that occupied a not insignificant amount of real estate in my head prior to the cruise. Usually I wouldn’t put much thought into how I dressed. I would never buy clothes with a sense of purpose, thinking about how they’d look on me or what they’d look good with. I just kind of saw things I’d like now and then- usually something that referenced sports or video games- and just buy them unthinkingly. It had never occurred to me to consider fashion as something to actively maintain, the way you would diet, fitness, or hygiene. But this time, I decided, I was going to make an effort.
A couple years back I was meeting a girl I liked at the local Costa Coffee, and the day before Aaron messaged me saying “If you wear some kind of Star Wars graphic tee then I’m going to get the first plane to Europe and slap you upside the head.”
I ordered a bunch of new stuff for the cruise that I figured would appear more, I dunno, adult and sophisticated. I even ordered boring things like cargo shorts for the first time in my life. It was time to grow up. Aaron and Anne-Marie helped me out a little bit, even going so far as to order me a fancy leather belt for my dress pants. It was important to them. They always want me to try, to look like I give a shit about myself. When I look at them, I feel as though every action they take has purpose. By contrast, I tend to drift through life aimlessly sometimes.
So I knocked on their door that evening, feeling rejuvenated, but also hoping that my new turtleneck wouldn’t earn comparisons to Ted Bundy, and Aaron let me in.
“All refreshed, big guy?” he said, clapping a big American palm on my shoulder. Fuck sake, I thought. He looked like Marlon Brando. Anne-Marie, as per usual, looked like she’d stepped off of the front cover of Vogue, wearing a stylish linen blouse and high-waisted pants. In contrast to how I often dressed, Anne-Marie’s choices in particular always seemed to coalesce into a distinct outfit. She has a knack for knowing what looks good on her and for the occasion, whereas I tended to gather random articles of clothing that never combined into any kind of style. But I think I’m getting better. As I entered the cabin, Ted and Sylvia both complimented me on my turtleneck.
Of the three comedy nights we’d attended, my favorite was a woman with a brash, self-deprecating style of shock humor. I can’t repeat the jokes because they might be too lewd even for TumbleweedWrites, but rest assured they were in equal parts clever and outrageous. She even made a cheeky remark about the Green Bay Packers, to the effect that their namesake has something to do with the outcome of eating too much cheese. But it was delivered in a way that even we laughed at it.
I’m not much of a laugher though. Even when I find something funny, I don’t tend to audibly laugh. I can’t tell you why, but I just seem incapable of laughing too much. And if I’m expected to laugh, I find it extra hard. I usually have to get taken by surprise. My friends however laugh both easily and heartily. I’m convinced that they’re going to live another twenty years after I snuff it. And when we’re together and they’re cracking up, I can sometimes feel a little conspicuous.
When the show was over, we stopped off at Ted and Sylvia’s cabin and continued chatting into the night. We got into some interesting family trivia, narrated inimitably by Ted with a sense of comic timing that rivaled the standups at the Punchliner. An anecdote regarding Dick’s Sporting Goods was brought up and something in the room came loose. Sylvia had snapped, falling with helpless abandon into a noiseless, uncontrollable laughter. This triggered something in Anne-Marie. Unable to form words, she simply pointed at Sylvia with a trembling finger so that we could see what was happening. It was like the room had been slowly filled with laughing gas.
And that’s when I broke. A kind of lunacy had befallen us, and throughout the whole ordeal Ted had kept going with his stories. In the context of what was going on, the events he described seemed even more crazy. I burst out into a fit of insane, grotesque, nauseous laughter. My eyes were screwed shut. I gripped the wall as I felt myself losing balance. And my throat ached with a very real pain. I honestly felt like I was going to puke. Ted kept right on going, completely unfazed, and I thought: Please stop before I plaster these walls with half-digested pudding. This of course set Aaron off, and the whole thing was like a chain reaction of hysteria. The whole house came crashing down. I hadn’t laughed like that in perhaps a good year. I felt ugly yet cleansed, obscene yet light, like I’d undergone some kind of intense therapy.
And that’s where we shall conclude this travel series. I hope you liked it and thanks for reading! I will be back with new content soon.