“She’s had a lot.”
I lowered my head to hers. “What was that?”
Four levels below us, down on the floor of the seven-level atrium that comprised the heart of the Majesty of the Seas, our cruise ship, thirty or so business-casual passengers were dancing to “The Hustle,” its deliriously cheerful piccolo piped (thunderously) from a half-dozen speakers. Scattered along seven levels of balcony railing, my wife and I and maybe an odd hundred stood and watched.
It was our first night aboard.
“Jes,” I said.
Jes looked at me, questioning, then made an “o” with her mouth, and put out her thumb and pinky. She tipped her thumb to her lips.
“A lot to drink,” she said loudly.
I followed the motion she made with her chin to a stretch of balcony sandwiched between two glass elevators that shuttled up from the atrium-floor. A woman there had muscled past her friends and was now dancing at the fore, her hips swaying deliberately and her arms held loose above her head, a bottle of beer waggling from each hand.
Jes settled back against the railing.
“So do you want to join them?” she said in the same half-shout.
Below the cruisers were Travoltaing, awkwardly—not enough room on the dance floor. I leaned in beside her.
“Not really,” I said. Then, catching myself: “But I will if you want to.”
She considered this. “No,” she said finally, and smiled. “But it is sorta fun to watch.”
Little did Jes know that with those seven words (see “But” to “watch”), she had summed up my philosophy re: dancing in general, and also re: things like cagefights and gallon-challenges.
In a prophetic turn, I’d say she also did a fair job of summarizing what became our experience of the cruise.
To be sure, we did do stuff after that first disco-infused night. We didn’t just watch. We had beach days in Nassau and Coco Cay, for example. Made a pilgrimage to Hemingway’s house in Key West, and to Sloppy Joe’s. On her Majesty we sat poolside, ate extremely well, read when noise permitted, listened to classically trained guitarists, laughed at/sometimes even enjoyed karaoke performances, and attended game shows.
Cruises, it turns out, are excellent opportunities for doing stuff.
But there’s doing stuff, and there’s doing stuff. And the distinction between the two hinges upon the extent to which a doer invests herself in the stuff being done.
Things like sex or empathy work better the less you engage with them analytically, the less you step back and watch yourself doing them. In those rare instances when I not only danced but enjoyed dancing, my pleasure arose not from any interior monologue—oh Gandhi, everyone will see I can’t Cupid Shuffle—but from a kind of self-forgetting, an utter investment of myself in the task at hand. In those moments, the ongoing analysis—of myself, of others, of an environment—shuts off, and I learn, briefly, how to be.
Such moments were hard to come by on our cruise. If not always literally, then at least figuratively, Jes and I spent a lot of time at that balcony railing, watching the crowd dance. The gold-gilt glitz of the central atrium; the non-stop party atmosphere; the parade of diversity among the ship’s crew vis-à-vis a passenger-profile that was mostly white and upper-class—all of it was too foreign, or too disquieting, to fade comfortably into the background of experience. Instead, the circuits in my mind would flash, and I’d be down the rabbit hole of discernment.
- At the Nassau-dock, faced with a veritable labyrinth of touristy kiosks and hawkers: What does it do to a culture to be always on display? Is this a deliberate exaggeration of some preexisting culture? Has the exaggeration become the culture? Can tourism really be that toxic?
- In the dining room: We’ve sat by this family every night for half a week, and we’ve never said a word. Actually, nobody talks to anybody outside his own party. How lonely is that?
- At the railing at the dance that first night: This is reminding me of high school prom, except with older people. NOTHING SHOULD REMIND ME OF HIGH SCHOOL PROM.
Rarer were the moments of unalloyed experience, like on the last night when Jes and I lay out on the deck after most other people had gone to bed and watched the stars. That was fun. The rest—the rest was fun, too, only in a more conscious, you-are-now-having-fun sort of way. Sorta fun, really.
And, no, I haven’t read that David Foster Wallace essay.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.