Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Nihao, Madame Sunset

This is a little story of one isolated event that happened to me during the cruise. It's hard to tell because so much is unknown but I will try to render as complete a picture as I may.

Thursday evening, July 2: we were entirely at sea for the whole day, leaving Geiranger, Norway and heading back to Harwich, England. I didn't mind the two at-sea days we had. What we lost in getting onto land and exploring a foreign town, we made up for in exploring the ship's facilities and discovering where exactly we were and were not allowed to go.

I did not wish to attend the theater performance after dinner--I did not realize it was tacitly expected of me to attend each show, if for no other reason than to represent myself as part of the family--but walked Rebecca to the theater and then went to peruse the photo gallery.

There is a small team of individuals who are charged with getting photos of passengers at nearly every opportunity. Sometimes this is as simple as a life-saver with the name of the port on it, mounted on an easel and set before a gorgeous backdrop, and sometimes as complex as having a young man dress up in a traditional Scottish costume and pose beside us while we're trapped at the dinner table. Not while we're in, near, or heading to Scotland, mind you: this was during our first day, sailing from Le Havre, France.

You don't have to buy the photos. One day after the pictures are taken, they are presented in wall racks and grouped by days/themes. You look through them and find the ones you like (of yourself or your family, though there were a couple of unrelated and unknown hotties whose pictures I would have liked to bring home), and you pay for them (and copies of them) at a counter. If you don't want them, you can remove them and place them in a receptacle to be destroyed. I spent about 15 minutes searching for pictures of myself and Rebecca and our families but, at $19/shot, I didn't purchase any.

I went down to the Centrum Bar in hopes of seeing Lorenzo, a bartender from the Philippines who promptly exhibited his ability to remember names and faces as well as drink preferences. He was absent, and in his place was Ali, a pleasant if disinterested young man. I asked what the drink of the day was--the "Bahama Papa" (all the drinks' names were slightly changed for no reason I knew of)--and brought it out to the port-side observation deck. On these decks, on most levels, there were rows and rows of loungers and deck chairs, just as one sees in old English movies but in plastic-coated metal tubing rather than wood-and-canvas contraptions.

Right by the doorway a Latina in her late-20s was having a smoke break, so I chose a seat several chairs down. I stretched out on the lounger, rested my tropical frou-frou drink on my thigh, and closed my eyes to the bright sunset before me. The warmth of the sun defeated the breeze from our velocity, so I was comfortable enough in jeans and the sweater I bought in Ireland.

A third person came out to join us and I must break to explain something. Among the couple thousand passengers was a group of individuals who were either all related or very close friends and associates. I was unable to determine their nationality because I am ignorant: by their faces I would guess they were from Hong Kong, but by their dress I would peg them as Taiwanese. There were two or three men in the group, well-groomed and appointed, in classic, understated black suits. Mainly the group was female, and by their haughty carriage I would guess they come from considerable wealth and social station. The youngest women hovered silently and respectfully near the older women, and all held their heads high and kept their gaze fixed somewhere on the horizon, regardless of being indoors or outside. The women favored stiff, sheath-like dresses with a broad, paneled shoulder wrap of the same material, which was of pastel hues and scintillating with gold or metallic threads. They were a glamorous lot, a little intimidating to be near, but I'm entirely willing to concede that my lack of education and exposure leaves me unqualified to reliably interpret their non-verbal behavior. These are my impressions as a complete outsider.

One of these ladies had joined us, alone. Her bearing was imperious and proud--I never saw this group speak to anyone outside of their group, aside from waitstaff--and she paused by the sliding doors to assess the environment. The time was almost 9:00 PM but the sun was still quite high even as it was setting (the sky would not darken until midnight) and still bright. The air was clean and brisk, not strong enough to unruffle a hairstyle with sufficient product to hold it. I had long since foregone counting on my styling gel and surrendered to the wind-blown look, which was not an undesireable effect.

I glimpsed my environment in pieces, glancing for a moment before resting my eyelids and letting the sunset glow upon my face, or interrupting my repose to sip the Bahama Papa. There was just the Latina, smoking, and I closed my eyes. I looked, and the elegant (a bit too young to properly entitle "matriarch") Taiwanese lady took a seat by the door to light up a cigarette. Rebecca asked me if it were a long, very thin cigarette as this would have helped establish nationality, but I never did clearly see the item in question, just the gestures that suggested its existence. Both women were downwind of me so there was no issue of me having to breathe their smoke.

I closed my eyes again and settled into the lounger. I heard conversation to my left and realized the Latina had pulled out her cell phone and began a long and giddy conversation with someone--the roaming charges would sting her, and how fortunate was she to get a signal in the first place. When I opened my eyes, the elegant lady was seated beside me.

My heart stopped for a second, I was so surprised. I was not particularly well-dressed, only the polite side of casual. I was holding a goofy drink in my right hand and appeared to be stretched out for a little nap in the sunset. Yet, out of 30-some lounge chairs around me (many more beyond the sliding doors, or further in either direction), she quietly strode up and took a seat beside my chair. I was stretched out the full length of the lounger but she was seated demurely at the end of hers, next to my Doc Martens (self-consciously I wondered whether I should politely retract these), her back turned to me.

As the ship had been at sea all day, so was I in this moment. Did this mean anything? Was she merely escaping the annoying phone conversation? If so, why sit so close to me, a callow American of common birth? Did she merely wish to sit not entirely alone, or... was this a cue, an inscrutable, impenetrable cue for me? Honestly, it felt like a sublimely tacit invitation: "You may speak to me now." It would not do for her to initiate a conversation with me, but she had established a context in which I could politely begin speaking to her, and she might politely respond.

And yet, and yet...

I know I tend to overthink these things, questionable circumstances which are in all likelihood completely innocuous yet have the potential to bear greater meaning. Generally it's safest for me to shelve my paranoid delusion, pretend nothing's going on, and do or say nothing at all to distinguish myself or set myself up for an awkward situation.

And yet, and yet...

I closed my eyes and rested. I heard some rustling and opened them again. The lady had with her a royal blue plastic bag, a Royal Caribbean shopping bag, and she was poking through it to examine her purchase.

Yet it didn't feel like that's all it was. It felt like a subtle reminder of her presence, far more subtle than someone gently clearing their throat. She fussed with the bag momentarily, then resumed her tranquil pose to regard the sunset. She sat upright but with her spine slightly curved as though her knees bent gently to the right and her ankles rested gently to the left, evidence of a social finishing America has long forgotten.

Confused, I slid a couple more chips into Probably Means Nothing and placed my bet: sipped my drink, closed my eyes, and focused on breathing calmly.

When I heard the ringing metal sound of a katana being drawn purposely from its sheath, my eyes snapped open, sunset be damned. The elegant, possibly Taiwanese lady was not standing over me with a sword in her hands, preparing to execute me for my neglect: she had merely pulled out her iPhone and the sword foley probably accompanied its activation or that of some function on the iPhone. I thought it was awfully cool and very nearly started a conversation on that point alone.

But I was still quite intimidated by her and didn't want to speak up and be accidentally rude, or at least presumptuous. If she was inviting me to speak up, I do hope she understood my silence to be that of respect rather than something negative. I'll never know, of course, because the next time I opened my eyes she was gone.

Did I blow it? I hope it wasn't an opportunity for me to blow. I hope it was meaningless coincidence of innocuous events. There's no way for me to know and it's probably best to push the whole thing out of mind.

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