I spy a midnight chocolate buffet

My husband and I have few regrets, but one we return to often is the cruise.

It was in the dot com years, the early days of email and the use of the internet by non-governmental agencies. Who knew computers could be so much fun?

He called me at work one afternoon, “I have booked us on a cruise,” and “I got it from an online auction at work,” and, “It was really cheap.”

This was before eBay, before you could buy a vintage Heals dining table and chair set.

When we got married there was no thought of going on a cruise for our honeymoon. This was never in our shared radar of experiences we yearned to have. We are not “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” people. A cruise was something my grandparents did. They would come up to New York from Florida and we would see them off on a ship from the west side. It was a slow, safe kind of tourism. You might disembark and see another country but you were home for dinner.

Our one ship fantasy was about when and if we ever left the UK that we would return home on a cargo ship with our cats. And that was really about how much we love our cats, reading and each other rather than aspiring to whatever a cruise promises. Or rather, for us, the appeal of shipboard life, the choice of cargo versus cruise, was the absence of the other people.

Beyond sipping apple juice in a staticky dress in my grandparents cabin, watching The Love Boat, and noticing the pale, impractical resort-wear that appeared in fashion magazines and department stores after Christmas, that season which precedes “sping,” I had no idea what cruises were all about. Or rather they were about a comic romance, an emotional scar and some plot involving a member of the crew.

We had been abroad for a year when this moment of online cruise-booking madness happened. We jumped at a chance to be in the US, to be somewhere warm and buy duty-free liquor.

We would fly to Miami and set forth into the US Virgin Islands for a week. It was the same ship my husband’s parents had been on 40 years ago. It would be rather fab and corny and we could eat dinner in Miami at this cool Cuban restaurant that had been written up in the New Yorker.

Our journey to Gatwick was the primal stuff of a dream of unpreparedness. In college, this is the dream where you turn up late for class and your thesis is due. When you live abroad or travel for work, you are oversleeping with half an hour to check in for an international flight.

We woke on time. Our bags were packed, but our minicab didn’t turn up. There was a tube strike. We needed to get from Hampstead to Victoria, from North of Central London to its Southern edge. It was rush hour. I think it was also lightly drizzling. I remember being crammed onto a bus, having scraped the fare from the bottom of my purse, this was before Oyster cards, going through Gospel Oak, where Sting lived. And eventually getting to Victoria where we caught the train to the airport. So instead of the soigne cruise passenger, I would be the crazy lady with the disheveled hair and the bird cage or we would be the Vaudeville couple last up the gangway. If we missed the flight the ship would sail without us.

We spent a night in a rather dodgy Day’s Inn in Miami. Dire and sad in the way that coastal places can be when they are not weathered and austere working fishing villages and instead are paved over concrete with a sense of dissipation, with crack addicts in sandals, but this is not where the regret lies. It was just a motel. Just one night in a motel, and the dinner was good.

No, the regret is that once on the cruise ship, which was like an expensive but somewhat gauche hotel, with slot machines and a casino, we kept to ourselves. The first night we were randomly seated at a table for dinner and we ended up with some mildly tiresome people. When we realized there was a chance to have a table for two we signed up for that and while we did it to escape the horror of banal chatter and opposing political views we actually missed out on a key part of the cruise.

We were young and frankly anyone over 35 was going to pose a bit of a challenge. We skulked about on the edge and kept ourselves buffered against the enthusiasm and hokiness of our shipmates. We rubbed elbows only when disembarking at the islands and peeled away as quickly as we could, disengaging from our fellow passengers and their merriment and bad taste. Their chatter about that night’s floorshow or how they were going to photograph the midnight chocolate buffet was embarrassing; what were we doing with these people?

One night we went to the casino and there was a gallery of photos of the passengers that had been taken against a fake railing with a fake night sky. Two fat men, one big, one small, stood together, in a three-quarter view pose, faces turned unsmilingly to the camera, in Hawaiian shirts against the garish sky.

We woke early and claimed deck chairs, free water, clean towels and enjoyed the empty dawn, the soft, Caribbean air, accompanied by a whiff of diesel and the roar of the engine.

A few times, I eavesdropped on conversations and observed that for many of the passengers, the cruise was a reward. It was the apotheosis of a successful venture, dramatic weight loss or record-breaking sales or, more often, a recovery from an illness, a tragedy or a loss. Being here, with the endless supply of clean towels and bottles of water, the open sky, the promise, every other day of putting your feet in white sand and warm seas, was part of the healing process, and so in this way, we were like a ship of damaged people seeking some kind of mass restoration.

Shortly after the cruise the regret kicked in. I should have taken notes. I should have written about it. Then my friend sent me David Foster Wallace’s article on his cruise experience, in which he articulates so well many of the same things we had seen, sensed or felt. And I have lived with that regret ever since. And then the other night, listening as I do to Radio 4, I heard about the CIA’s cruise of spies.

One-hundred American spies boarded a cruise ship in an effort to create some trust and transparency, to recruit, to engage the people, to neither condemn nor deny waterboarding. It’s spying for the 21st century, where the enemy is an abstract noun and weapons can be detonated with hair gel, where skulking about on the periphery will get you nowhere.

Now the spies, some of whom are children of the 70s and would have watched The Love Boat on Saturday night, have created their own bizarre special which mirrors the formula: a comic romance, an emotional scar and a plot involving a member of the crew.

The cruise director is bringing a couple to your table. They are dressed immaculately, smiling broadly. He may or may not be involved in assassination. She was in the step class this morning. Invite them to have a drink. You might learn something.


2 Replies to “I spy a midnight chocolate buffet”

  1. did i send you that DFW article on the luxury cruise? i still have the hard copy of it. just thinking about it still makes me smile. i think i read it on an nyc bus and was laughing out loud to myself… note to self: reread it!

    as an aside (or as the main point; the above was the aside), we are contemplating a cruise for the girls’ spring break. in fact i was looking at one web site today (mildly disturbing: one port of call is in Haiti). after reading your piece, i can’t decide if it is just a bad idea, or a stroke of genius.


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