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JACKSON MONK

A MONK AT SEA

ONE

I got into the shower. I had been looking at myself in the mirror. I stuck out my belly and was taken aback by the way it made me look like a pregnant man.

The water was hot. I soaped myself, thinking this was luxury enough. All the people working here have never eaten food as good as they get in the crew mess, which isn’t even that good.

I like sitting in the shower. It relaxes me.

Always the same memory: half hours of steamy reflection, sitting on the floor of the shower in the little apartment. The first discovery of masturbation. I would stop to wonder if my mother knew. I would lay on the floor of the shower, eleven, the whole world in my head, my youth in my hand, hopefulness and melancholy. The purple I can’t stay away from, no matter what I’m painting.

But what did I long for when I was eleven? I had everything. Not everyone though. And those were the ones I was hung up on. So stupid. And the teasing. Couldn’t handle that. Still can’t. Maybe I always thought one way, but really knew it was the other way. Maybe that’s why I can feel so sad.

I’ve yet to get over the fact that the universe might not only not revolve around me, but not care at all whether I’m here or not.

And yet I feel God so strongly. But do I imagine God? Do I stir up that feeling and call it God? Those loving fingers, are they imagined? Is there nothing in the silence, or is it God’s voice? Have I made it up to keep going? Why do I doubt it? Is this a crisis of faith? I know I feel it. I feel something. Maybe it’s gas.

I got up slowly, dizzy from the hot air, and turned off the shower. I toweled off, creamed up, deodorized and thought how much I love Pete Townshend.

 

TWO

The meeting was set for eight. I hesitated. Should I wear the cap? Should I wear the wig? This made me laugh, but did not make me comfortable. Bald with big, bushy sideburns is a strange way to go. I sure am The Eggman. An egg with sideburns, how nice. I’ve never seen anyone with a buzzed head and sideburns. It’s the new look. Everyone’s going to rush to do it. TV and magazines will fill with bald idiots sporting full sideburns. I should just go without anything to show I’m comfortable with how I look and who I am. It doesn’t matter anyway. God bless her, how she can think I’m handsome and actually still want to sleep with me looking like this.

I looked in the mirror again, chagrined. I’m better without the sideburns. I can deal with it without the sideburns.

Man this shirt stinks.

I’d put on the same shirt I’d been wearing all day. I’d walked a mile in it. What is wrong with you? I exhaled. Change the fucking shirt. What’s it gonna cost you? I opened up the green suitcase and found the red long sleeve. It calmed me momentarily.

I have to get over this. I can be out like this without the cap. People aren’t fixating on me anyway. Even if they do recognize me, what’s the difference? So they’ll laugh. They’ll have a good laugh at my expense. So what? What’s the big deal? It’s just hair. Or the lack thereof. I’m a handsome egg with sideburns. Whatever. Be an adult already.

I opened the cabin door and stepped out, pausing for a long moment. There was the vision of mass destruction again. I stepped back inside and grabbed the cap.

 

THREE

I took the elevator to deck 6 but there were only cabins. Oh, it’s on 4. I don’t even remember which ship I’m on. There’s no difference from one to the other. Space and time don’t exist here. It’s The All You Can Eat Twilight Zone.

I hit the number 4. Two boys stood across from me. It sounded like Italian. The adolescent had gel in his hair. It shined black like in a comic book. Too much, but he’s going for something. Can’t blame him. Lots of teenage girls here. Mad with puberty. Glad that dissipates somewhat. It’s hard to want girls so much and not know what to do about it. He’s in a cabin with that kid and who knows who else, so he probably can’t relieve that tension very much for a week. He’ll find the time and the way, I’m sure. I wonder how much everybody masturbates. It’s probably different from person to person based on how old they are, if they’re married, if they have kids. I wonder how many people on this boat are having sex right now. They probably do it as soon as they get in their cabins if they don’t have any kids with them. Like when we got to the Inn at Lake Joseph. What a hand job. She’s really perfected it.

I got half an erection standing there.

The door opened at deck 5, the two boys got out, and I was left chuckling. I could see the size and thickness of my sideburns in the mirror that covered the back wall. Just above them was the visible area of buzzed hair leading up to the bottom rim of my cap. I hung my head and laughed the laugh of the embarrassed. At deck 4, I walked out and to the left into The Bar.

I didn’t see anyone. Dick had asked me to go to schmooze the lady in charge of booking the entertainment for the entire fleet. But I did not see Dick or the other guys, so I walked through the casino and hopped another elevator to deck 11 and The Café for a late dinner.

I had pasta with red sauce and a salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It was this that reminded me most of home.

Look where it’s taken me. I wear a wig for a living and feel nauseous on a daily basis. Thousands of people stand up and cheer when I’m done. I’m lucky, right? I’ve been all over the world. I’m away half of every month. When I get back, my daughter is different since the last time I saw her. Alone in paradise, chained to this gigantic love, days and days going by without seeing them. I gotta get out of here.

I could feel the anxiety again. I put my hands on my eyes, trying to rub the panic away. When I opened them again, a woman with the biggest breasts I’d ever seen in person walked by carrying a plate of food. She was easily six feet tall, with bleached blonde hair, and an attractive but somewhat ruddy face. She was dressed in tight shorts and a halter top.

What the hell is this? Ding, ding, ding. Those are the biggest tits I’ve ever seen. How does she even walk upright? My God. Tit, tit, tit, tit, tit, tit, tit. Who’s the guy who gets to nuzzle those all night? Oh, there he is. Plain. Tall enough. How does that work? What about him attracts her? Money? Huge cock? Smart? Talented? Does he own a car dealership? Plastic surgeon? Nicest guy she’s ever met? And what about her? Is she nice or smart or fun to be with? Or is it just her body? Why did those two look at each other and think, that’s the person I want to sleep with?

My girl’s got a great body. And she’s kept herself so fit all this time, and so great since the baby. Lots of chicks let themselves go. And what an added bonus that her boobs got bigger. Maybe we should have another kid.

Time is so perverse here. It’s not time, it’s me. I know, I know. Time is time. It never changes. It just feels like it does depending on your head. Yet another cosmic joke. When you’re a kid, a year is forever. Summer camp was a thousand years away. Then it starts flying. Five years is a hiccup, a burp and an orgasm. Next thing you know, there’s a baby, and nothing before ever existed. And then it slows down again. A week here is seven years. I think my head might blow off of my body. I’ve got to go see Weiner again.

Should I go play? There’s probably someone up there. I don’t like to play in front of people. Like they want to hear my versions of Billy and Elton songs…Well, they probably wouldn’t mind. I don’t know. It’s too weird. I don’t want to impose like that. I hate when people are all like “Hey, listen to me!” Why do I make such a big deal of it? Either there’s someone up there or there isn’t. If there is, you’ll feel it out. I don’t want to be here. Where’s my kid? She’s probably anxious again by now, rolling around the bed.

I decided to wait. I’d played earlier so I’d gotten my little fix. I went down to deck 8 and logged on. It was fifty cents a minute, but I had to see if she’d written. She had. I read it three times.

I was crying at The Internet Café on deck 8.

There was also an email from Eddie Ray.

“Bruce Springsteen inducts U2 into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Complete transcription included. Ram on.”

The things that make you cry. What a fag I am. I’m out on Kyle’s driveway playing basketball after school. I’m thirteen. The garage door is open so we can hear MTV. What is that sound? We run inside and it’s four guys in the snow, one of them carrying and beating a snare drum. They don’t look like rock stars. The singer has the most passionate voice I’ve ever heard. Hey, I’m thirteen. The guitar sounds like a diving WWII bomber plane. It’s all ice and wires. They’re really young. I can see the singer’s breath. The song ends and I have a new favorite band. I ask Stacey about them. They’re called U2, she says. I borrow her copy of War. I put it on and there’s that voice again. It’s Bono. The Beatles had always been, and The Who, and Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. But U2 was different. They were all mine. And they still are. And there’s Bruce inducting them into the Hall of Fame, and I’m crying. What a fag I am.

FOUR

Back in the cabin, I was listening to How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and thinking about September 11th. It had been three and a half years and I still couldn’t believe it. The wounded city, the city of everyone. Whatever kind the human, there’s a good chance there’s at least one in New York. Pygmies, maybe, don’t live in New York City. Eskimos. But everyone else.

How could those fruitcakes do that? What losers. How bad does your life have to be to plan that kind of thing, train for it, and then actually make it happen? Yeah, I know what I’ll do next year: hijack a plane and fly it straight into the World Trade Center in the name of Allah. Then I’ll go straight to heaven and eternally fuck forty virgins. What a sham. Those guys got screwed big time. Imagine their collective disappointment when they discovered there were no virgins waiting for them, they weren’t heroes, but villains, and they disappeared into nothingness forever.

Like I needed another reason to hate flying. It isn’t nauseating and frightening enough to get into that metal tube, breathe that stale, recycled air, eat that terrible food and suffer that interminable turbulence. And the lines at the airport for security. Jesus. Yeah, I’m the one you want in my Yankee cap with my laptop bag and my guitar case. And that old lady who can barely walk, now she’s a top candidate for blowing something up. Born in the U.S.A. and made to feel like a suspect in the name of political correctness. How about when the guy came on the plane and dragged me out of my seat because my name came up on that random screening process thing they got going there? What a joke. I’m in my Yankee jacket and cap, already sitting in first class, and they take me off the plane to re-check me. Incorrectly projected paranoia. The skinhead with the iron cross tattoos goes right on with no questions, the Arab guy in the white robe with the beard a mile and half long is seated with no problems, but the little Jewish Yankee fan has to get off and get frisked.

It’s fine to come to this country and get your degree or whatever and then badmouth it up and down every chance you get. If it’s so terrible, stay in your own country. Anyone who comes and gets an education should be made to practice that education in some way that benefits this country before they go back to wherever they came from. And maybe serve in the army as well. Like Israel. You want to be here, serve a year in the armed forces. Earn it. I hate that bitching that America is the evil empire and on and on and on…You don’t like it, get out. It’s hard not to feel hate. These people want me dead. They want my family dead. Where are they when the natural disasters hit? Are they helping or giving? Hatred is fear. That’s why they hate us too, I guess.

I rubbed my eyes. I thought of Mr. Terry, who had perished on that terrible day. He was a great man, a husband and father, and his only crime was working for a company that had its main offices at the top of The World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. I thought of him often, as I was close with his family. The shattering was so enormous, I could not ever get my mind around it. I could not imagine what it was like for his family; their patriarch, their Plymouth Rock, snatched away so savagely, so insanely, by such ferocious evil. I was a satellite member of their family and I was devastated. What must it have been like for them? Could I ever pray enough to attempt to ward off such evil from my life, from my family? The seemingly random chaos of the world, the scope and constant presence of danger, “the wolf always at the door,” like Don Henley said. “In a New York minute, everything can change.” The shiver went through me. I rubbed my eyes again. I could see Mr. Terry’s handsome and proud face in my mind. I looked in the mirror and was crying. Please God, protect my wife and baby. My family and friends. Israel. Let the Terry’s know peace and solace. Don’t let the world fall. Hear me Lord.

Enough. I turned on the TV and lay down. There was nothing on. I willed myself to not further obsess about the sorry state of television. I closed my eyes and fell into an uneasy sleep.

FIVE

Dreams are funny. They’re unreal and yet based in feelings you have or have had, so they’re kind of real at the same time, which makes them unsettling if they’re bad. This same thing makes them fun if they’re good. Like the ones about seeing Prince play live where I was the only person there. Or the ones where you’re having sex with some woman you’ve never met, and her breasts are cartoonishly big. Melons in your mouth. Smells of heaven. Those are fun.

I got out of bed, turned on the laptop, cued up Mirage, and had the orange. It was sweet. Fleetwood Mac was special. Artists at work. And at war, as their road was a rocky one, made of fire and anguish, but also great respect and mutual need. That’s where it comes from: The crashing of waves inside a collective where the end result is greater than what any of the involved could have come up with on their own. The Beatles were the greatest example of this in the history of the world. I looked in the mirror and blinked. I looked at the time on the laptop. Two and a half hours. I’d listened to Mirage three times.

I couldn’t believe how in my head I could be for so long. It couldn’t be good. Yet another reason I loved my wife. She let me be there. She gave me room. Although there were times my head was too big for the room and I got neurotic, paranoid and incoherent. She always put up with me. I didn’t deserve it.

I remember in college, lonely and isolated, fumbling for direction, thinking one day I would meet a woman who would love the fact I owned every Beatle album. This would be the one I would marry. I wrote it in my Music History notebook: “I will marry a woman who loves the fact I own every Beatle album.” I still can’t believe I met her. Then I screwed it all up. Jesus. And you know even then no one else will come close, but you go anyway. 24 and you can’t imagine sex with this and only this woman, no matter how great and gorgeous she is, for the rest of your life. Unthinkable. You have to grow up. Experience, disappointment and pain is just what the doctor orders.

I’m still not proud of myself for what I did and who I did it with. What shallow and depredating escapades looking for something that was right under my nose the whole time. Nobody learns a thing until they scrape omelet off their face. My mother, my father, everyone told me she was the one. And I knew it, but I had to date other women. It was impossible not to. Why was that? Why was the urge so great even in the face of recognizing my soul mate? So melancholy thinking I had met her too early. We were twenty. Young to meet your soul mate. Wishing I could have met her at thirty instead. And I would feel terrible for thinking that, I was spiting God, who had been good enough to send her to me in the first place. It took four years. Four long years and a string of embarrassments you could hang a month of laundry on.

St. Thomas was proof I had looked too far away. Crazy Jaime, the brick shithouse, with language and attitude to match, out of the pages of some Playboy magazine I’d stowed in the back of my still-adolescent mind: Strawberry blonde redhead, 5’6”, a hundred pounds, a young Ann-Margaret with real 36 Double D’s. Her pubic hair was the same amazing color as the hair on her head, except thicker and curlier. A wet dream come true…except the dream was a nightmare and young Jaime was out of her fucking mind. I had never met a girl who actively sought out other girls to get into drop down, hair-pulling, eye-scratching fistfights with. Nor had I ever met anyone who could drink so much. A mutant fish. Maybe it was the swampy heat of West Florida that zonked her mind growing up, maybe her background, or the fact she had been raped by a guy she thought was a friend a few years before.

Either way, she ran all night like a racehorse on steroids but wanted nothing to do with the jockey stick whacking her ass. In the week we were in St. Thomas together, she didn’t go near it once, although she was more than happy to let it go in and out of her night after sweaty night. She knew one speed: Insanely Humpingly Fast. I thought sex should be a dynamic sort of musical experience with two partners improvising off each other, hence the term “making beautiful music together…” Not with Jaime. Musically speaking, it was a thrash metal concert after consuming ten mixed drinks and a bucket of Michelob in the parking lot. The peak of the week must surely have been the night I woke up on a soaking wet mattress with Jaime snoring like a walrus next to me. After a night of seriously hard drinking and screwing, my young Ann-Margaret had involuntarily pissed the bed. She was so out of it, she didn’t even want to move from the mess, but I forced her into the other bed in a silent fit of self-loathing embarrassment and rage. What was I doing there? Why would I be so beholden to some physical beauty to the complete exclusion of maturity, logic, reason, restraint, sensitivity, emotional stability, or just plain old compatibility? Simple, really. At that moment in my life, I was as desperate as I’d ever been.

I met her in Florida playing an outdoor concert with the band I was in at the time. There had been plenty of cheap, Rock and Roll chicks along the way and copious amounts of cocaine usually done through rolled up dollar bills on a backstage table. I didn’t have sex with anyone and I didn’t do any drugs. What a time I would have had if I had just gone in for those sort of things. Thanks to how I viewed my mother and a storeroom of fears I had stocked for years, I had certain standards going in, so none of the girls I met on the road were worth pursuing; although truth be told, not because they weren’t smart, nice or sensitive enough, but because they weren’t good-looking enough. What a hypocrite dog.

Jaime was another story. Quite gorgeous enough to talk to, and on the surface, sweet. A humble, down-home quality I found charming, although she could have spoken in gibberish or profanity or both and I would have gone after her. It was two years into my separation, I was rabid. My wife was involved in a serious relationship at the time, which only fueled my desperation, so when I saw Jaime bopping along in the front row and looking closely into my eyes, I knew I would meet her after the show and invite her straightaway to St. Thomas where the band was booked for a host of shows the following week. It’s ridiculous now, but that’s how it happened. Shouldn’t I have known she was trouble just from the fact she accepted my invitation so quickly? Dogs will be dogs.

She wore an American Flag bikini and her ample assets were painfully obvious, so much so I had to force myself not to fixate on her breasts. There wasn’t much talk, and what talk there was, was small. But there was mutual attraction and Jaime was conveniently pissed at her boyfriend, who had smacked her face, left her at the concert site and lumbered off in a drunken stupor. So what did she do? What any normal twenty-one year old would do: Hook up with a musician she’d just met and go off to St. Thomas with him for a week of sunning, drinking and fornicating. It was as if God was saying, “Here it is, Jack. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, but you seem to want it, so you might as well see what it’s all about. There is one thing, though: She’s a massive alcoholic and likes to get in fights with other girls. Other than that and the fact she wants nothing to do with the male member at large, she’s a Queen. Cheers!”

I spent half the week screwing her and the other half trying to teach her to be a better person. Like I thought I could save her. I couldn’t just recognize it for what it was and do it all the way; I had to implement my conscience into the equation, impress my morality upon this made-to-order concubine. Yes, come with me to the Virgin Islands for a week of hedonistic debauchery but listen to my self-righteous sermonizing about how wrong it is to get into fistfights and drink so much whenever we’re not fucking. Silly boy, no one changes, no matter what the situation. The only real changes are physical, brought on by age. I was never a partier or philanderer, so what was I doing impersonating one? A fish out of water dropped into a vat of whiskey sour. I expected her to change for me though. Why wouldn’t she? I was the way to go, wasn’t I? Older and wiser than her, I had come to save her, to pull her from her nowhere life in the swamps. I was more naïve than I even thought. It’s a fucking miracle my wife took me back.

SIX

The day went slowly. I walked around the track on deck 12, breathing in the warm sea air, marveling at the horizon line wrapping around me in flat perfection. No one ever talks about that line. Columbus was pretty hung up on it, and he was right that the world was round, but when you get a look at how straight it is, you understand why folks back then thought the world was flat.

I liked to see things that were vastly bigger than me: The sky, the sun, the moon, the ocean, the horizon line…it made me feel better, soothed, like there was no way there wasn’t God. How could this all have come to be without God? I could feel it strongly in those moments, in a way I could understand, a conviction that took my mind off of me, if only for a minute or two. Inching ever closer, a snail’s pace evolving, a tortoise on the highway. I wished for more moments like that; they were the only times I ever felt completely OK.

I went up to play the piano and a few songs in, a chubby young man came in to see who was playing and complimented me straight away in an accent I could not recognize. I could barely understand what he was saying, but his smile was bright and did most of the talking for him.

“That is wonderful,” he said. “Are you professional?”

I nodded and smiled. “Thank you. Yes, I play for a living.”

“Are you playing on the ship?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m in the band that performs Monday night.”

“Oh good. What kind of music? Like this what you play now?”

“No, it’s other music.”

“Oh. Very good. Very good. I will come see. Thank you. It’s wonderful. Thank you.”

With that, he smiled and bid me adieu. French? Whatever he was, he was friendly and his good feeling made me feel good as well. I rode it the rest of the day. I wondered who he was, a guest or a musician on the boat. Anyone who ever said anything when they heard me play was a musician, because most people were either shy, unaware or uninterested if they were even the room. Which is why I always tried to go up when it was empty. I didn’t want to deal with anyone sitting there and imagining what they might be thinking, if they were thinking anything at all. Insecurity. Why do I care so much about what other people think? What does it matter? They probably think I’m terrific anyway. I am terrific. I’m good. I breathed in. I’m OK, I guess. I’m a fucking basket case is what I am. I thought again of the chubby Frenchman and the smile he shined my way. I must be pretty good. He seemed impressed.

When did I switch from knowing how terrific I was to questioning my worth every single day of my life? Was it in high school? College? That whole big fish/little fish/pond thing? Was it never becoming a star? I still think I’m going to be a star. I’m thirty-five years old. When the hell am I going to be a star? At fifty? Better get going on it soon or I’ll be the first geriatric rock star. First number one album at ninety-three! A new record! Oldest man to have a number one single! Congratulations! You’re an idiot and you’re going to die on your first tour, you’re so old! But everyone goes at their own pace. Tortoise on the highway.

It’s so stupid, the fame thing. They’re all black holes in Disneyland anyway. Such a ridiculous life. No privacy, no reality, no morality. Just press. Good press, bad press, it doesn’t matter. No such thing as bad, right? Do O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson think that? Maybe. Courtney Love? What must her life be like? Does she love being famous? She must. But everything you hear is so bad. She’s that girl in school who did everything she could to get attention no matter what. Got to keep on the cover of the supermarket rags or you’re yesterday’s papers, right? That’s why all those kid stars do drugs and get arrested and their lives go down the toilet. Celebrity is the worst thing in the world. Unless you’re Bono or Bruce, or Tom Hanks. Then it’s just the necessary evil required to get the job done. Someone killed John Lennon, for Christ’s sake! Some lost, empty loser with a celebrity Jones of his own walked up to him in the dark and shot him full of holes in front of his wife with his baby boy upstairs waiting for him to come home from work. Celebrity. It’s a curse on society.

So why would I want it for myself? Do I even? Is that why I never went after it? I know what it is and how awful it is. I don’t want it. Now rich, yes. Filthy fucking rich, that’s another story. You can keep fame. I’ve known many rich people, and every single one of them was happy as a pig in shit. That stuff about rich people being unhappy is B.S. Famous people are unhappy. Rich people that no one’s heard of are pigs in shit.

SEVEN

Back in San Juan. One group staggered off and a whole new group piled on, all wide-eyed and excited, checking out the ship, holding fruity drinks. Lots were already out on the sundecks, getting their rays. People cannot wait to get in the tropical sun. Some sit out all day and bake. By the end of the week, there is a predominance of very red skin. They come on as people and leave as lobsters. It was never my thing; so much not, I developed an aversion to suntan lotion. In many times at sea, I had only gone in the sun if my family was there. Without them, I saw no point in it at all. Doing anything resembling vacation-like behavior (sunning, beaching, sight-seeing…) made me feel a combination of guilt and loneliness that was too much to bear. I spent most of my time in the cabin.

I had begun writing a short story. It helped pass the time, but I was not very good. Whatever I wrote seemed awkward or contrived. I was a bit disappointed my stuff read so flat on the page, but my wife was always the better writer/communicator, so it made sense. My enjoyment of her writing obscured any feeling of inferiority. I wished I could be that way with everyone in every context. Oh well.

I picked up my cell phone, remembering we were in Puerto Rico, which while not a State of the Union, was close enough to allow transmission. Being at sea for a week at a time with only one stop in the United States made calling home expensive. International rates were high, so much so I found it hard to call from those places on principle alone. The one day I was within reach was a special day. Having an army furlough or a one day parole from jail. Eating after starving for several days, such was the filling effect of hearing her voice. And then whenever she put my daughter on, it was a whole other level of want.

I’d known craving before, but nothing like how I wanted my little girl. One of the things about having a child with someone you love is they reflect that person in their purest sense. The reflections resonate deeply. To hear my daughter’s voice was powerful to me because it was a baby version of my wife’s. But even cuter, raspier, sweeter. Overwhelming every time: Love bigger than anything I’d ever known combined with insatiable longing brought on by huge distances of time and space. Being away from a child for weeks at a time is hard because they change every day. My wife looked and sounded the same when I got home, but my daughter was different - bigger, saying more words, funnier, more independent. With every week I missed of her, I swallowed such anguish I could barely see straight.

“Hi baby! It’s me!”

“My love!” she responded. “Oh my sweet boy, how are you? Oh Jack, I miss you so much.”

“Yes babe. I know. I miss you too.” I was close to breaking down from the wanting of her.

“Are you hanging in there?” she asked.

“Yes. I’m nauseous but I’m hanging in there. It’s alright. How’s my baby?”

“She’s good. She’s playing with her little guitar. She’s so cute, and she knows just how to hold it. You should see her, she’s singing “A Hard Day’s Night” and she’s really in tune and she’s strumming the guitar right and making a whole lot of noise! It’s great.”

“Wow. I wish I could see that. Our baby loves The Beatles,” I said proudly. Delicious disbelief.

“She sure does. And she’s singing “Nowhere Man” and “She Loves You” and it’s awesome.”

“Oh Jen, I can’t take it.”

“I know Jack. It’s hard. So many days. It always reaches that point when we’ve had enough. I’ve had enough. I need you. I need you in the bed. Rachel’s had enough too. Her tummy is not steady when you’re away. After four days or so, she gets uneasy. She doesn’t sleep as well. She rolls around the bed. She says ‘I want my Daddy.’”

“She does? Oh I can’t bear it. Good God, I’m sorry I’m away so long.”

“That’s OK, baby boy. You’re working hard for us. We’re alright. We just miss you.”

“Can I talk to her?” I asked.

“Yes. Rachel. Rachel, come here baby. Daddy’s on the phone. Daddy. Hold on Jack, here she is.”

I could hear my daughter’s voice and the dual feeling of love and anguish came over me again. I felt sick.

“Baby girl! Baby girl, it’s Daddy! I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you Rachel Lynn!”

“I love you Daddy,” she said in that voice of sandy sugar.

“How are you, Baby Girl? Are you playing with Mommy?”

“Yes.”

“Are you OK?”

“No.”

I blinked. “You’re not OK? What’s wrong, baby?” I asked.

And then the thunderbolt hit.

“I…don’t…like…to…be…away…from…you…Daddy!” my daughter said and then burst into hysterics. I could hear her wailing. My wife got back on and for a moment I couldn’t hear anything. 

“Fucking bastard phone! Jen! Jen! Are you there? Is she alright?” I shouted into the mouthpiece.

“She’s OK, Jack. I’m holding her. She’s calming down.”

“Good God,” I sighed.

“I can’t believe she would say that that way,” Jen said. “Isn’t that amazing?”

I was in shock. “I can’t believe it. She’s not even two and a half and she can communicate that kind of thought like that? I…I’m speechless.”

“I know,” Jen said, “She’s something else, isn’t she? She’s so smart.”

“Thank God,” I said, as I did in moments when our daughter seemed even more incredible than we already thought. It’s one of the killers about being a parent. This little person you had a hand in making says or does something that blows you away, and not even because it’s that amazing, but because it’s your baby who said or did it. It was still mind-boggling. I was aware this was now the most significant thing that had ever happened to me.

This moment on a cell phone with my daughter erased everything that came before it. The slate was clean and I was new again for the first time since I was a child. My daughter wants and misses me and told me so in plain, perfect English. Having such an epiphany was yet more palpable evidence. God was allowing me to be cognizant of the most wonderful moment I had ever experienced and making sure I knew it. It was an instant of totality, of true aliveness more than any other. In thirty-five years, I had known rapture, joy, ecstasy, pain, frustration, anger, euphoria, emptiness, loneliness, longing, yearning, vulnerability, desire, need, satisfaction, vindication, apprehension, fear, love… Moments in which I could strongly feel the presence of God and other moments where my ability to know that feeling seemed gone from me. I would feel these things again and again, hopefully for a long time to come, but I had never known anything like this. My daughter wanted and missed me and told me so. All I could do was pray.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Giddy with emotion, desperate for this child and her mother, euphoric to know she wanted me, she thought about me and being apart from me upset her. Not that the image of my child crying for me made me happy. No. To want to jump off the ship, swim to shore and charter an airplane home, yes.

“Jenny, Jenny. I love you so,” I said. “Please tell her I love and need her, and I’ll be home soon. And that I think of her every second!”

“I do, Jack. I tell her every day, many times a day,” replied my wife, the person who had brought this ultimate gift from God into my life. And the only person who could have. As if I didn’t love her already for everything she was, the most incredible person I had ever met. I didn’t think I could love her more. Wrong. The rush of feeling was so wave-like, I thought I would like for Jennifer to get pregnant again, something I had been oscillating about for the last year. To think there was a time I couldn’t picture having one child. To have a baby someday, but far off in the distant future. Having my daughter didn’t make me want to have another child at first either, given how all-encompassing she was from day one. “How do people have so many children?” I asked my wife several times that first year and a half. “It’s insane how much goes into caring for a baby! There’s no time for anything else!” My wife would nod or laugh.

She had known far more than me about everything that matters since the day we met. I was amazed she continued to have such patience as I was constantly playing ‘catch-up’ on the grand evolutionary ladder. Women are higher up on that ladder than men, but the distance between my wife and I was several thousand rungs. This tried the patience of both of us over the years, but it was also a good balance, as she was a teacher by nature and I was a student. Yin and yang, sun and moon, woman and man. I was so happy when she confided one of the main reasons it never worked with any of the other guys she dated was they were all “too nice.” The laugh we had and the relief I felt when she recalled how she told another boyfriend, “Hey, I’m the nice one, not you!” She couldn’t hang with them for long because it would become a competition to see who could be the most kind, the most charitable, and all the while they struck her as self-serving in their charity whereas she was just genuinely giving. It annoyed her. I couldn’t say I’m sorry it did. I was glad they were all so sickeningly nice. Grateful I could be such a prick. At least I was genuine, and she knew that. And for whatever reason, which I have yet to understand, she liked it. Which is not to say I’m the worst person in the world. I just don’t fake it to impress anyone.

Having our daughter forced me up the ladder faster than I would have climbed it without her. By the time she was two, I was feeling adult for the first time. It was still hard to give over to the fact the things I liked to do would all have to go second from now on. It got easier as she got older. I was anxious watching her by myself, which I did often. Scared I couldn’t take care of her well enough, having never taken care of anyone before. I couldn't take care of myself, what was I taking care of this precious little baby for? It could only lead to disaster. There were also many days the sublimation of my own will to this dear child’s needs actually made me angry. I wanted to write songs or read my music books or watch TV or practice guitar, but I had to play LEGO and dolls with this baby. From the vantage point of an isolated cabin at sea, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I now longed to take her in the basement and play whatever games her little heart desired. I felt guilty for ever feeling that way and I prayed for forgiveness. All the stuff I wanted to do while looking after my child was stuff I could readily do here. There was nothing else to do but write, play the piano and listen to music. It wasn’t nearly as fun though. All I wanted now was see my baby.

Balance. There’s got to be a balance. If you can find it, it’s clear sailing, as it were. I was still trying. The patience of my wife came to mind and I was again grateful. She had sacrificed much of her independence with the birth of our daughter, but she never complained. She went out of her way to make time for us, to be enthusiastic and sexual with me, and she let me go off and write or practice or whatever on a daily basis. All the while teaching full-time and keeping our house as wonderful as it was. Again, the guilt. Always the guilt. Did I take advantage? Did I place too much on her? Was I a terrible husband and father? I didn’t think she thought that, but I did. I punished myself about it. Dr. Weiner said, “It’s alright. God loves you anyway.”

“Oh Jen, I love you so. It’s only another couple of days,” I said.

“I know, Jack. We’re OK. Don’t worry. We’re fine. We’re going to get into bed and watch Cheers and dream of you until you come home to us.”

“Alright. I wish I could watch Cheers.”

“I know, babe. We’ll watch it together when you get home.”

“Alright. Love her up for me. I can’t stand to be away from her.”

“She knows. She said, ‘Is Daddy sad?’”

“Really? She said that?”

“Yes. She knows you miss her.”

“That’s important to me she knows that,” I said. It was. I prayed every day for a time when she was older that I could tell her how deeply I missed her during my time at sea.

“She does, Jack. And she loves you so much.”

“Oh Jen, it’s so much to feel. And so far away, it’s magnified so much.”

“I can’t imagine being away from her as long as you have to be,” my wife said to me. “I don’t know how you do it.”

I was amazed by my wife’s ability to sympathize with me while she was the one holding down the fort and caring for our child while I was on a giant cruise ship with all the food I could eat and nothing but time to sit around and do whatever the hell I wanted.

“It’s not easy,” I replied. “I appreciate that you would say that to me, though. It makes me feel better.”

“I know how hard it is for you, Jack,” she said. “But you’re almost home to us. Only a few more days and you’ll be back in the bed.”

“God willing,” I said.

The boat was pulling out to sea again. Not much time left to speak. Holding on for dear life to an imaginary thread on which my entire reason for living was being transferred to me from very far away. As it sailed away from San Juan, I ran to the very back of the boat and stood at the railing, looking out at the lights of the city as they began to fade in the distance. Life support slowly slipping away.

“We’re moving, Jen. I won’t be able to talk much longer.”

“Alright, my love. We’re OK, baby. Don’t worry. Have a good rest of your night and don’t think too much about it. We love you and we can’t wait to see you.”

“OK. Thank you for everything you do and I love you,” I said, closing my eyes to ward off the anxiety.

“When will you call again?” she asked.

“I’ll call from Miami. We fly there from Cozumel.” And then the phone went dead, the screen saying ‘Call Was Lost.’ I felt the urge to throw it into the sea, but that would be cutting off my nose, so I redialed and my wife picked up again. “I’m sorry, Jen. We’re losing reception.”

“It’s OK, baby. Call me from Miami. That’s only two days after tomorrow! It’s not that bad.”

“Yeah. OK. I love you Jen. Be well and safe and love up that baby girl for me.”

“I will, Jack. I love you.”

“I love you too. Good night. Sleep well.”

“You too. Good night.”

“I love you.”

“I love you.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

The void again.

I walked back along the side of the ship with my head down and the sound of the waves below. In through the sliding doors and down two decks to my cabin. I was numb. I put on Tusk. I hit the light, laid down on the bed and my mind began to wander the darkness, soothed by melody and the three magical voices that carried it. This is why people love music, I thought. Succor like little else. The world would just tumble out of orbit without it. I failed to recognize I frequently served this same purpose for other people just as Fleetwood Mac had so often done for me. It was hard to see in the dark.

I wonder if monks masturbate, I thought. How do you not? That’s strange to ask humans to do, the abstaining thing. Like priests. How do they go their entire lives? Well, we know now a lot of them don’t, do they? Hell, it’s a natural act. It’s one thing to never have sex with anybody, but to never masturbate? How do their heads not explode? Very evolved. Well I have to right now or my head’s gonna explode.

So I did. I thought of my wife and different experiences we’d shared. There were many great ones to choose from in the bank. When I was away from her for a long time, I didn’t fantasize about anyone else. When we were together for long stretches, my mind would wander to past experiences with other women. Variety. I’d always had a struggle with that: Why would I need to fantasize about anyone else when I had the greatest playmate in the world? When we were younger, she raised that question once or twice. I felt guilty but it really didn’t mean anything. She came to understand that as we got older and were with only each other for many years. Like listening to music. You don’t just listen to The Beatles although they’re your favorite and always will be. Sometimes you want Zeppelin or Stevie Wonder or Blondie. The same with food. You can’t eat filet mignon every night… You’d tire of it eventually. Sometimes you want a grilled cheese or pizza. It’s that old Eddie Murphy bit about Ritz crackers. They get real boring if you eat them all day long, but once you haven’t had them in awhile, you can’t believe how delicious they are when you finally get a piece again. “These are the best Ritz crackers I ever had! Damn, these are good Ritz crackers! When can I have more of these delicious Ritz crackers?!” My chuckle disappeared into dark.

Having postponed the process long enough, I got down to business and had a sufficient orgasm, inasmuch as it got me closer to sleep. I stumbled to the bathroom, cleaned off, and got back into bed. “I love you, Jenny,” I whispered to myself. “I love you, baby girl of dreams.” I closed my eyes and drifted off as Stevie Nicks sang “Beautiful Child.”

EIGHT

Performance day was better. More to do. More to keep my mind on. We did an early sound check and the shows were set for 7 and 9 that night. My feeling was decided by one all-important thing: How the monitor sounded. The monitor was the box at my feet through which I heard my voice during the show. If it sounded loud and clear, I would enjoy myself that evening. If it was muddy sounding and hard to hear, I wouldn’t. There were exceptions to this rule, but not often. I wouldn’t even care what the crowd was like if I could hear myself well, although an enthusiastic crowd always made performing easier no matter what the hearing conditions. But if they were reserved, I wouldn’t even mind as long as the monitor was good.

Every once in a while, the monitors would be great, the crowd would be great, and I would be great. This was rare. Most nights, there’d be something off, be it the monitor, the crowd, or me, and I would just have to do my best. Some nights, two out of three would be off. Then there were the nights when all three were out. Those were the nights I tried not to think about.

My voice was temperamental. I never knew when or how it was going to show up. Some guys I knew could sing anything at any time, no matter what was going on. I was envious of that. Sure, I’ll smoke all these cigarettes and drink Jack Daniels all night with a shot of Rumple mints thrown in and I’ll be fine! Hell, I’ll be more than fine. I’ll be great! Nothing can stop me, I’m Super-Voice! What, no monitor? No problem. I don’t need a monitor! I’m Bat-Vocal-Man! Oh, my chest is clogged up with Rheumatoid Bronchitis, I’m at death’s door and there’s a show in ten minutes? No worries! I’m Spider-Throat! I closed my eyes and said a prayer my voice would show up.

There was one week of shows I literally had no voice at all and had to sing the full two and a half hours every night. It was being awake inside a nightmare. The humiliation was so high after each show, I felt like giving everyone who paid for a ticket their money back myself. There are few things harder to do than sing over a loud rock band. When you’re sick, it’s that much more impossible. But not for Spider-Throat or Bat-Vocal-Man. No, they can sing for seven hours straight standing naked on the North Pole with eagles picking at their livers. Alright, enough. Some people are built differently, that’s all. Good for them. I said another prayer.

The monitors were not great, but sufficient enough to get me through the shows. The first crowd was loud, thus more fun to play to; the second was semi-enthusiastic, which was also fine by me, given I didn’t have to strain to hear or sing. At the end of both, we got standing ovations and I felt satisfied with the performances. After seven years of all kinds of ups and downs on stage, that was enough.

After the second show, I broke down my equipment, packed up my costumes and headed back to the cabin. Once I had dumped everything, I put on the cap and took the elevator to the very top, to the jazz lounge on deck 14. Check out whatever band was playing and have myself a daiquiri to unwind. I noticed the keyboard player in the band, a four-piece covering popular rock songs and ballads. It was the chubby Frenchman with the wide smile and enthusiastic broken English. That explained it. And he was great. As the band played “How Deep Is Your Love” and “Superstition,” I was excited. I had never seen a band I even liked on any of the boats before. These guys were tight, but loose, all four virtuosos, singing in strong three-part harmony. Every song was done with exuberance. The chubby Frenchman was as good as I’d ever seen, the drummer had an easy, swinging style, the bass player was rock solid with a high singing voice and the lead guitarist was the most accomplished player I’d ever had the privilege to hear in person. He looked just like the chubby Frenchman on keyboards.

As they tore through “Long Train Running” and “Evil Ways,” a song I was never even that fond of, I was aware of the phenomenon that occurs when gifted musicians play together. It didn’t matter what they played, they were so good. They were metaphysically connected, a creature with four heads, ribbons of energy flowing back and forth between them. A palpable sense of telepathy in their interplay transcended them all, and it was invigorating to be part of it. And I was part of it, sitting in my chair, moving to the music, witnessing this blessed event.

People make music and other people behold it, take it in and give it back tenfold to the ones making it. A holy exchange. The relationship between performer and audience is crucial to the creation of music and the audience is even more important than the musicians, because without them, it would be a vacuum with no greater exchange. There was hardly anyone in the room, but it didn’t matter; the people who were there knew something special was happening. Everyone was smiling and moving to the rhythm. It made me re-evaluate what I did onstage. I made a point to remind myself the audience is the most important thing in a performance, not the other way around, as I was prone to thinking, given my vanity and insecurity. I realized they didn’t exist for me…I existed for them. The greatest I’d ever seen all had this awareness: Freddie Mercury, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Stevie Ray Vaughn…and they used this knowledge to achieve the ultimate goal: Sharing music on a spiritual level. It was the first and only time I ever felt at home at sea.

 

“You guys are great,” I said as they each came off the stage.

“Oh thank you,” said the chubby Frenchman. “And you are too! You play piano and your voice…it’s very wonderful.”

“Thank you,” I said. “It was great to hear your group. You are a tremendous keyboard player, and the band is great. Really tight, really fun to hear.”

“Yeah, we have fun. It’s good, eh?” he said, his accent puzzling me.

“Yes it is. You guys are really special. Where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“We are from French Quebec, Montreal.”

“So that’s it,” I shook my head. “You’re French Canadian. I couldn’t place your accent.”

“Yes, and this is our second contract. We’ve only been together six months.”

“Wow, really?” I said, impressed. “How long have you been speaking English?”

“Six months,” he replied.

“Six months?” I asked, shocked. “That’s amazing. You speak beautifully.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” replied the chubby French Canadian, a big smile on his round, rosy face. “It’s hard, but when everyone speaks English, you…eh…start to pick up. We all have to learn very fast.”

“I am amazed,” I said, and I was. It boggled my mind someone could learn English, or any foreign language so quickly. There was no way I could do it and I said so.

“Oh yes you could, if everyone around you spoke another…eh…language, you would learn very fast, eh?”

“I guess,” I answered, although I doubted it, and hoped I would never be in that position, given how staid my mind had become. I thought how spoiled I was as an American. Here were these four great musicians from French Quebec, never having spoken English in their lives, and they all learned within six months on a cruise ship. I wondered if American baseball players who went to Japan to play learned Japanese. I couldn’t imagine what that must be like, and again, I didn’t want to. I was still struggling with English.

“Well, it’s a pleasure meeting you and hearing your group,” I said.

“Thank you, thank you,” the chubby French Canadian replied. “I am Frederic,” he said, extending his hand.

“I am Jack, and it’s very nice to meet you, again.”

“I love your music,” he said, smiling. “You have a pure voice and I like the way you play so simply. It is beautiful style.”

I was touched, as this was one of the finest musicians I’d ever met.

“Coming from you, this means a great deal to me,” I said, “as I think you are one of the finest musicians I’ve ever met.” He shook his head and smiled. “And is that phenomenal guitarist your brother?”

“Yes, that’s Dominic,” he replied. “Yeah, you like him, eh?”

“He’s probably the best guitarist I’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah, he’s good. We are twins.”

“That’s amazing,” I replied. “And one of you took to piano and the other to guitar?”

“Yes, I like piano. I always did. And Dom picked the guitar. It works good, eh?”

“I would say so,” I said, my head swimming with appreciation for the talents and dedication of these charming Canadians. Like Rush or Joni, I thought. There are some talented people in Canada. Must be the air or something up there. Cleaner and colder.

“And you,” he said, “you are a special talent yourself. I love your voice and the songs you sing. I could listen all day!”

We both laughed, shook hands, and I put my other hand on his shoulder. It felt like a natural extension of the beauty he had just been involved with onstage and that I had had the privilege of witnessing.

“When do you go on again?” I asked. “Do you go on again?”

“Yes, yes,” he replied. “We go on fifteen minutes.”

“Well I can’t wait,” I said. “Now I must excuse myself and go to the restroom.”

“OK,” he said. “See you soon. Have a good time,” he chuckled, and we both laughed.

I was excited to have met him. I went to the men’s room feeling lighter than I had in a long time.

NINE

I sat down on the small toilet. I was struck by the feeling of release and the extreme odor I was creating. Like every other bodily event, be it eating, sneezing, having an orgasm, defecating always felt new. There was a kind of excitement to it, I thought. What’s more, I liked the smell. It was disgusting and rank, obviously, as bad as could be, but I sat there enjoying it all the same.

I must be out of my mind, I thought. But I like it. Why deny it? It’s gross, it smells terrible…anyone else who came in here would faint dead away from this smell…but I dig it. God must do that because we would all die instantly from the awfulness of our own feces. Nobody would survive, because no one would want to do it, it smells so bad. Everyone would become impacted, leading to the eventual demise of the race. You have to kind of like the smell of your own shite, or life would be too much to bear. Does anyone else think about this kind of shit when they go to the bathroom? They have to. Everybody thinks about the same stuff when it comes up, or out.

Like having an orgasm. The most powerful thing the body can feel, without any outside help. Pretty earth-shaking. And yet, it’s basically the same sensation each time, so why doesn’t anyone get bored of it? Some do, and they’re the ones who reach for other stimuli to help things along. Most people must think an orgasm is fine the way it is, and don’t get tired of having one (or more). I chuckled, squatting there on the toilet in the men’s room on deck 14.

The thing about The Big ‘O’ is that each time I’ve had one, I’m barely familiar with what it feels like, and then, BOOM, there it is, and I remember. Another one for the books. Then a little time goes by and I almost forget again what it was like. I know it was great and I look forward to the next one, but it’s a faint memory. It hangs in the back of the brain, biding its time. It only gets ornery when I don’t have one for awhile. Then it becomes more and more nagging in the day to day. Man, I’m starting to hate everybody again and have no patience for anything. I can’t see or think straight, I just want to jump out the window. Then the realization: Oh, I haven’t had an orgasm in four days. No wonder I’m this miserable wretch. Better get to it. Clear out the cobwebs and flush out the pipes. It’s usually better to have an orgasm with someone else present, but masturbating gets it done pretty well too. There’s just something extra satisfying about someone else helping it along and witnessing it in all it’s ridiculous glory. I wish my wife was here.

Has anyone ever described an orgasm accurately? I know I can’t. It feels great, but I don’t know how to describe it. I’m sure many have tried. An incredible build-up resulting in a crashing release, a fabulous letting go, a giant dam breaking. Doesn’t get the actual feeling of it. What is it? There’s an oozing sensation to it, in the best way I can imagine that word. An exploding and oozing forward. A slow, delicious vibrating that lasts both forever and barely at all. It’s over in seconds, right? But it’s like a slice of eternity inside that small, fantastic window. I don’t know. It’s beyond me.

There’s also differing degrees. Some are dead on, right square down the middle of your existence, perfect. Those are the best. Everything is cleared away and the computer is successfully rebooted. Those are the ones where sleeping is the only exactly right thing to do afterward. Then there’s every other one, even the bad ones, which like Woody said, are all “right on the money.” Some are half-hearted, depending on where you are or how you feel. Always a little disappointing. There’s a lot of expectation built in to the orgasm. Some waiting involved, all kinds of pushing and pulling leading up to it, great anticipation. When it happens and it’s not that perfect, earth-shattering thing, it’s a letdown. Not that bad, like when The Yankees lose or pizza stinks; I mean, it’s still an orgasm, but it’s a little weird.

I’ve had plenty of those. Alone or with any number of partners. Most of them, actually. Hardly ever got it right with any of them. In the end, it’s mental. Who you’re with has a lot to do with the quality of the outcome. Never had a great one with a woman I wasn’t in love with. Always empty in a way, no matter how great the attraction or how hot the sex was. I was in love with Jen, but it took years for us to get it to that place. It takes open communication and complete trust between two people to realize the full potential. Other guys I know aren’t like that at all. Dick could screw a hole in the wall and have the perfect orgasm. He wouldn’t know the fucking difference. If she’s breathing with a heartbeat and a vagina, he’s satisfied. Not me. It’s got to be right. But I’m sure that has a lot to do with how nuts I am. Yeah, go on and think about it more, that’ll help you get it right. What a schmuck. I over-think everything. Everything! Just shut up, come and enjoy it already. Then move on. Jesus.

I shook my head trying to clear it of all the shite it was full of. I had done it with my rectum, but it was always harder with my cranium. I pulled on the toilet paper and began the arduous task of wiping.

Now here’s a treat. A hairy ass stained with the residue of a major bowl movement, and a handful of thin paper to wipe it until it’s clean enough to pull up your pants and move on with your life. It takes three to four dowels of toilet paper, using each one at least twice, to get my anus satisfactorily clean enough to declare the toilet experience over. Sometimes that’s not enough and only a wet wipe will do. How fun. Opening the stall door with a crumpled piece in your hand and your pants around your ankles to quickly turn on the sink so you can get a good wet wipe in. I’m astonished by how embarrassing life can be. I am standing at the sink, trying to moisten a hunk of toilet paper in order to better clean my butt because I just took a shit so big and mushy it can’t possibly be cleaned by dry toilet paper, and I have to jolt back inside the stall before anyone else walks in. Ha, ha, ha. Why does shite have to be so messy anyway? I can deal with the smell, but the mess, that’s something I can’t deal with. Sometimes you have that perfect shit that plops right out without leaving a single remnant. You wipe yourself, nothing. Those are great. Like great orgasms. Great pizza. The Yankees winning it all. I wish I could have those all the time. But I don’t. Most of the time, it takes seven to eight wipes to get it even acceptable enough to walk out. What a pain in the ass.

I was still in a good mood from meeting Frederic the Chubby French Canadian, so all this bullshit just made me laugh, which was good, because it usually rattled my head until I was bummed out and dizzy. Being a neurotic basket case with a brain that hardly ever took time off to chill wasn’t easy. I could have started crying right there in the bathroom stall, but I warded it off, rubbed my eyes, deemed the wipe acceptable, pulled up my pants, and stepped out to wash my hands. I caught my face in the mirror. All I could see was the balding and the bags. What a complementing shade of purple. You self-pitying loser. You look good. You look fine. Very acceptable. You’re a man’s man.

That is if the man is a self-pitying, neurotic, allergic fuckin’ loser.

I dried my hands, opened the door and walked out back into the lounge.

If anyone knew what I think about on a regular basis, they’d either walk the other way when they saw me coming or create a petition to send me away to some home in the country for awhile. Not a bad idea. I felt good at the Inn at Lake Joseph. Maybe we should go back there.

I closed my eyes. It’s a good life, I thought, it’s just scary and stressful sometimes. I wish I could not take everything so seriously. Like Emily says in “Closer To Fine” and “Galileo.” But I don’t know how to do it. I’ve got to work on it. That’s what Jen says all the time. She’s lucky that way. She gets as stressed out as me, but she handles it better. Sees the bigger picture, better perspective. It’s all the end of the world for me. No way to be. Brain racing with thoughts of disaster and awful things all the time. I’ve got to stop. I’ve got to stop.

I have no control over those things anyway. What’s the point of anguishing? It doesn’t do anything but make me crazy and upset the people who care about me. It has to have an effect on my daughter. Sees me warbling around, talking to myself like a lunatic, you think that doesn’t make an impression? I’ve got to go see Weiner again. Call when I get home. That is if the ship doesn’t sink or the plane doesn’t crash.

I sat down at the bar, ordered a daiquiri and watched as the four French Canadians got ready to play their next set. They opened with “Coming Up.”

TEN

Music. What would I do without it? After all the time I had spent at sea, ironically because of music, the only thing that time and time again would give any solace was music. Whether being entertained by this newly-discovered group of French Canadians playing it so well, sitting at the piano playing songs to myself, performing it onstage, or staring into the laptop screen listening through my library of records, the one thing that never tired, become stale, or let me down was music. In so many years of loving it, listening to it, making it, hearing it, thinking about it, beating up on it, blaming it, thanking it, shutting my ears to it, shaking my ass to it, air-drumming to it, making love to it, eating food to it, doing the laundry to it, painting the house to it, playing Scrabble with my wife to it, presenting it proudly to my baby girl, music had extended itself to me and asked nothing in return. It was just a gift from God, and I could plug in whenever I needed to, which was often.

Back in my room after a fine time in the lounge on deck 14, I turned on the laptop and cued up the library I had dumped into it. The luxury of having twenty plus years of a record collection housed in a device that could go wherever you went. The technology that allowed me this luxury was beyond my comprehension but not beyond my gratitude. Without it, my time at sea would have been too much to bear.

I programmed a random mix of one hundred songs from the fine year of 1976 and got into bed. I thought of how much I loved music, not only for the sound, the power, the pleasure of hearing a singing voice or rhythm, chords and harmonies that excited me, but the capacity of it to provoke thought. I could sail along the intricacies of the structures or chord progressions, the poetry and meanings of the lyrics, the endless variety of voices, guitar and drum sounds, keyboards, horns and strings, the arrangements, the production of the records, the sound of them, the history of them, the people who made them, their lives and the conditions under which they worked, my personal attachment to each song, taking me to different times and places in my life…Music is the ultimate time travel machine. And it strung me along in my loneliness for miles at a time, like I was in the middle of the ocean, hanging on for dear life to a magical kite string that floated high above and kept me from drowning.

With each song that played, a river rushed through my head. “Hejira” by Joni Mitchell, beautiful and longing, a glimpse of a fellow traveler, alone on the road, grappling with her muse and her mortality. Would her work transcend her time? Would she achieve immortality through it? Would she get over her blues and find love again? What does it all mean, if anything? All these questions wrapped in a song of deep harmonic sophistication. I had known it since I was fifteen, and with each passing year, it grew in significance. I lay in my cot, remembering the winter I first heard the Hejira album. Time travel so powerful, I could feel myself lying in bed in the old townhouse. The anxiety of separation from my first girlfriend who had gone off to college, leaving me to face the rest of high school alone. Why we didn’t just break up and remain friends, I’ll never know. It would have been too easy, too mature. You have to make mistakes, right? Yes. Everyone tells you, but you never listen. The rest of high school could have been fun, I could have dated other girls, made the most of it, but no. I had to hold on to something that wasn’t even there. When we inevitably broke up the following summer, we couldn’t be friends anyway. I lost a girlfriend and a good friend at the same time, and all that time was wasted, pining away, shutting myself off from everything else. Hmmm, sounds familiar. I haven’t changed much. I want what I want and who I want, and I’m not interested in much else. So be it.

But what a winter it was. Listening to Hejira and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, pining away in my room, only Joni’s voice for comfort, languishing in melancholy. It was enough, in the end. It was not enough now, however, lying in my cot on the ship, away from the love of my life and the baby we had made. It was almost, but not quite. I was twenty years older, and with each day, I had the constant nagging feeling of time running out, that every day was precious, there might not be another. What if I never got to see my baby again? What if I never got to make love with my wife again? No wonder I was such a basket case. The worrying, the pessimism, the hapless cynicism, and for what? A daily battle to push it aside and conquer it. I had yet to. Some days were better than others, but every day at sea was hard. I was so far away, so out of contact. To suspend my fear was difficult for someone so innately fearful. Is it the Jew in me? I asked. I referred to it as Holocaust Mentality. After all, if six million could be destroyed like that, than why wouldn’t everything be able to go horribly wrong in my little life? Fucking crazy and I knew it. But I couldn’t shake it.

There were moments I felt I had perished in the Holocaust in a previous life. I didn’t know whether this was imagined because of my fear and fierce imagination, or whether it was true, and I had been there. Most Jews had these feelings, I thought, some kind of connection to it, so huge and grave that turn of events had been and so tireless the effort to make sure no one would ever forget it. My teachers in Hebrew School would regularly cite there were only fourteen million Jews left in the world. Fourteen million out of four billion people. Not a huge percentage. Hitler had accomplished something, hadn’t he? Nearly wiped us all out. He would have too, had it not been for the inherent stupidity of attempting it in the first place. Brilliant move, Adolf, committing genocide on one of the smartest, richest groups of Germans in your country. Had he not spent all that time and money destroying all those loyal German citizens, things might have gone differently. All those Jewish minds either fleeing to other countries or going up in smoke in the furnaces of the concentration camps might have made the difference in his mad campaign to take over the world had he not been so hell-bent on removing them all. He might have gotten the Bomb first. What a sick dude. And what a strange group of people following him like that? When I saw footage of Hitler orating, I was struck by two things: He was a charismatic orator, and he was silly looking. With his hands flailing and clenching and that funny little mustache, he was ridiculous. Chaplin nailed him. The guy was goofy and out of his fucking mind. How could an entire nation fall under his spell? I asked this rhetorically, as I knew the answer, and was too lazy to read through the endless amount of books written on the subject. I’d gotten my fill of it in school. Either way, whether it was the fear of something terrible happening or just my everyday paranoia, my Jewishness had something to do with it. And while I enjoyed the privileges and relative security of being an American citizen, with the endless tensions in Israel, the shadows of September 11th, and the gratuitous Jew-bashing in The Passion Of The Christ, I felt my paranoia was not completely unfounded. As George Costanza remarked: “You know who’s responsible for Astroturf…The Jews!”

The voice of my wife interrupting: “Sweetheart, has anyone ever discriminated against you for being Jewish, ever?”

My impotent response: “Well…no. But that doesn’t mean they’re not thinking something!”

“Jack, that’s ridiculous.”

“Is it? Is it? If it happened there, it can happen here!” I would say. “Somebody could come in the middle of the night, break down the door and take me and the baby away! She’s half, you know! She doesn’t look it, but she’s half. Just like in Life Is Beautiful when they take Begnini and his little boy away and his wife gets on the train too to follow them!”

“Jack, that’s silly. This is America in two thousand and five. Would you please calm down.”

“Everyone thinks we run and own everything, and everything is our fault,” I ranted on. “Even black people think it. They hate Jews. That bullshit about Jews financing the slave trade? Right? Remember when that Public Enemy guy said that? I couldn’t believe it. How could a group of people who spent their own four hundred years in slavery do something like that to someone else? If there’s two groups who should unite, it’s the Jews and the Blacks. And throw in the American Indians while you're at it!” I was on a roll. My wife just shook her head. But I continued.

“The day of September 11th, the day, we’re standing outside Steve’s house, everybody’s freaked out, and that blond asshole Pete Pennant is standing there, and he’s going: ‘You know this is because of Israel.’ I stood there in shock. I wanted to slug him.”

“He probably didn’t mean it like you think he meant it,” she answered.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I shot back. “He’s pinning it on Israel because those fucking bastards hate America and just took out the fucking World Trade Center and the Pentagon! And why not blame the Jews? We get blamed for everything else! 'Hey, it rained today; those fucking Jews! The stock market dipped a hundred points? Fire some Jews! Arabs hate everybody and have all the oil; damn that Israel. Why don’t they just give that seven miles of land back to the Palestinians and all move to Florida, for Christ’s sake?' He should be grateful for Israel, that idiot. They’re the only civilized nation in that whole part of the world!” I was out of control.

“Sweetheart, please calm down,” said my wife, laughing from my insanity, which was what she usually did, thank God. “I love you, you crazy boy, but you’ve got to stop this endless worrying and paranoia,” she said. “All it does is make you crazy and upset. It’s not like that here, thank goodness. With each passing generation, there is less prejudice and more acceptance.”

“You’re like a saint,” I said. “I’m amazed you can think that way. I’m envious.”

“There are all kinds of bad people in the world, Jack, but most people are good.”

This made me shiver, imagining something terrible would ironically happen to her or our daughter, my wife now having said something so naïve, and I would be left to say to myself, “Oh well, guess one of the bad ones crossed our path today…What can you do?” I shut my eyes to will it away.

“You just be well and safe, Jen. And that baby of yours too,” I said. “And I’ll do my best to calm the fuck down.” We laughed at how different our natures were. The sane, grounded woman of faith and her paranoid, rambling man cynically searching for proof.

I chuckled to myself in my cot. I don’t know how many songs had gone past, but I was worn out and I faded into another restless sleep.

ELEVEN

I dreamt I was flying. Like the dreams I had when I was young. I flew over the tops of the old apartments, the place of my first imaginings. I used to fantasize I was Luke Skywalker. Recently I had felt more like his father, marching ever on towards the dark side. Nothing if not melodramatic. The flying was joyous and liberating and I flew in and out between the chimneys and rooftops, smiling with the wind in my face. I broke away then and headed higher out into the sky, turning left and flying up above Kearsing Parkway, the two lane road running up the hill from Rt. 306, dividing Victoria Gardens and Blueberry Hill. Where it began as effortless joy, soaring became less easy, I could feel the gas running out. As I got to the top of the hill, the ability ceased and I fell.

Before I hit the ground, my whole body lurched awake in the bed. It was pitch dark. I couldn’t see a thing except the expanding galaxy screen saver on the laptop. Disoriented, I rolled over, stretched out into the flaccid pillows and closed my eyes. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” played quietly, which was in itself ironic. That song should never play quietly. That’s like asking clouds to thunder quietly. Or the Black Gate of Mordor to open quietly.

I thought of my wife and my daughter. I felt unnaturally comfortable and completely lost. Falling out of the sky just ain’t no fun. I prayed I’d never do it for real. I chuckled sadly in the dark. You’re such a fuckin’ lunatic. Snap out of it already. Go to sleep, you loon. Fucking lunatic. You’re almost there. God help me.

The laptop played Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia.”

TWELVE

The sun came in. I was already up. I made sure everything was packed. The suitcase was already outside the door. I looked back to see if I’d left anything. I put the bag over my shoulder and walked out of the cabin. I grabbed a sugar donut at the café on deck 5. I met the others at the gangway. We disembarked into the hot tropical sun. We gave our passports and were passed through customs. They hailed the transport. We heaved up the bags and guitars, got on and drove away.

There was nothing I would miss about the boat. Ever. I’d be back soon enough.

 

THIRTEEN

The only motion I hated more than sailing was flying. Made me sick to my stomach. It had taken a million miles in the air to control the anxiety of getting on a plane. I still felt it, but I had trained myself to contain it. Sometimes the urge to upchuck would swell again inside me anyway. My blood would run cold, skin would crawl, my life-force stolen away. Especially during turbulence, my favorite part of the joyride. Whenever the plane would hit a bump, no matter how small, we were all doomed to fall out of the sky and I would perish, never seeing anyone I loved again. Irrational, but real enough at thirty thousand feet. I prayed and prayed and prayed when on a plane. Weiner told the joke about the guy who prayed so much and wondered why God wasn’t answering. He finally got God on the line and God said, “Hey, will you shut up, I’m trying to sleep.” Encouraging joke.

Every second of it; the stale air, the cramped seats, usually three to a row, smaller than most people could fit into. The smell of the commodes wafting through, people sneezing, coughing and farting, the shitty food (when there was food), everything tasted bad no matter what it was, the weird weightless sensation, a disconnection from anything, not like driving in a car. You could feel the ground in a car, I liked that. You couldn’t feel anything on a plane. It was not normal. For something so modern and miraculous, I found the whole thing nothing short of barbaric. As Woody Allen said, I’d be great on a camping trip.

I had struggled to keep my head for the last week and a half, finally made it off the boat, and before I could taste the pleasure and comfort of home, I had to jump through these last few hoops in the air and at the airport. Airports were right down at the bottom of the list too. Especially ones in foreign countries. Like they were designed to prepare you for how shitty the flying experience would be. With the hike in security, the whole endeavor was just a pain in the ass. I don’t ever want to talk or think about it. Then you had to wait in some half-built gate area to get on the shite-stinking, sardine tube turbulence maker and endure the four and a half to six hour flight from the edge of the world. I prayed like a fiend. I’m sure it annoyed The Maker. Who wouldn’t it?

I sat down by the window, stowed the laptop under the seat in front of me, buckled my seatbelt and pressed my head against the hard plastic to the left of the window. I hadn’t slept, I never did the night before a flight and having started this trek at seven that morning, made the hour and a half bus ride from the ship to the airport and trudged through the obstacle course there, I was exhausted. I could never sleep on a plane, never comfortable. Only when I had a full row to myself and could lay down the width of it did I ever manage to almost fall asleep. This was not the case now being a full flight and all. Squished up against the window, a tall man sitting next to me with his big arm fully taking up the armrest, I repeated the names of my wife and daughter to myself and began to daydream. Actually nodded off. Almost. It was a gray haze.

I stirred to the sound of the stewardess asking if I’d like something to drink.

“Water, please.”

“With ice?”

“Yes, please.”

She poured some into a plastic cup and handed it to me past the overweight woman in the aisle seat and the tall man in the middle seat. Barbarism. I drank it down like my life depended on it. A few minutes later, they served lunch. A dry ham and cheese sandwich on a stale roll, baby carrots in a bag and a few chocolate covered peanut chews. I had finished Dylan’s autobiography, a captivating piece, like most everything else in a career spanning the last thirty plus years, and I thought of where Dylan quotes Malcolm X’s take on eating pig. Malcolm X stating that pig is a dirty animal, one third rat, one third cat and one third dog, as reiterated by Dylan, was enough for me. I didn’t touch the sandwich.

I did tear into the carrots, again like my very life depended on it. If you want to taste God, eat a carrot. Or an apple. Any food that comes from the ground, good chance it tastes of God. Within 60 seconds, the carrots were gone. I went to work on the peanut chews. Had there been a dozen of them, I’d have eaten them all.

My thoughts returned to my family. I couldn’t wait to see them, to kiss and hug them, to take my baby in my arms and smother her with kisses. The guilt over being separated from her was enough to make me want to jump out of my skin, out of the plane, off a bridge…the impulse was to jump, in some way. I wanted to make love with my wife, perhaps impregnate her, this excited me. Thoughts of sex with her took me through the rest of the flight. It was the only thought that could balance out the dread of being there in that barbaric steel tube. John Madden and Aretha Franklin don’t fly. I know why.

And what do you get for your trouble? For all the discomfort and effort spent trying to withstand it? The descent, that’s what. If going up wasn’t hard enough, coming down was a whole other waltz through the garden. “This is an amazing thing,” I thought. “Mankind should be commended for such an achievement. Giant manmade structures flying through the air, traversing great distances, carrying thousands of pounds of weight. Amazing. And if I didn’t have to do it, I’d think it was great.” I couldn’t even laugh at myself, I was so nauseous.

I thought of my next door neighbor Scott, who had taken me up in the sky on his Ultralite flying machine, a cross between a motorcycle and a hang glider. I’d gone twice with him, two of the most exciting events of my life. A motorized vehicle that could go up to seventy miles per hour two thousand feet in the air. Like riding a motorbike in the sky. Like that scene in E.T. but better. Like dreaming but you’re awake. Scott was an expert at this extraordinary hobby and I never felt for one second uncomfortable or in danger as we glided high above the beautiful earth, flew right over our houses, rode the waves of the air like Han and Luke above wetlands deep and green with the summer. Anyone who ever thought New Jersey wasn’t a beautiful place would change their minds after ten minutes in the sky on Scott’s incredible flying machine.

I sat in back of him, like on a motorcycle, both of us wearing helmets with headsets. For the first fifteen minutes, I couldn’t stop laughing. It was unlike anything else you could ever do other than if you could actually fly. I suppose skydiving was akin, but you’re headed for the ground when you do that. No two ways about it. Here in the sky, completely open like riding a bike, with the control of a motorized vehicle coupled with a hang glider apparatus, the unbridled feeling of freedom was euphoric. That kind of flying I could tolerate.

My mind shifted again.

I had stood on the top deck of the ship, the moon hanging in a cloud above the sea. It seemed lonely, forever suspended in a courting dance with the untouchable vastness below. If I jumped right now, I thought, no one would ever know. Let the ocean erase me and all my petty bullshit. Get closer to the silent voice. I could see the white capped waves fourteen decks down, they didn’t care either way. I pulled back. I would miss my daughter too much. It would be unfair to not attempt to live as long as I possibly could. 

The next thing I knew, we had landed. My eyes were closed, dreaming I was Luke Skywalker, or was it more like the guy in Camus' The Stranger? The plane touched down and I whispered, “Thank you God.” Maybe He was awake after all.

I was in a daze as the bag and the keyboard came up the chute and onto the belt. I had traveled a great distance. I had made music for people. I was still looking for God. I wasn't mature enough yet to know God was there the whole time.

My wife pulled up to the curb with that light in her eyes and that smile I hung my heart on. I could see my daughter's cherubic face as she excitedly moved back and forth in her car seat, hungry for me. I put the luggage in the trunk and got in beside her. My wife leaned back and kissed me on the lips. I kissed my daughter's face. "I love you," I whispered into her ear. "I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you."

"I love you," she said.

We drove away. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, holding my daughter's chubby little hand. Thank you Lord. 

I was nauseous the whole way home.  

Copyright 2005 by Jackson Monk.