Story — From the December 2013 issue

I Can Say Many Nice Things

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Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.

A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

And yet, when Fleming thought about it, this welcome packet, fucked-up though it was, even though he hadn’t read it, most certainly had more readers than he did. More people, for sure, read this welcome packet than had ever read any of his books or stories. This welcome packet commanded a bigger audience than he ever would with his sober, sentimental inventions of domestic lives he’d never lived, if that wasn’t too flattering a description of the literary product he willed onto the page with less and less conviction every time he sat down. Maybe he’d actually learn something about writing if he read the welcome packet.

The room spun and he clutched the bed. It would be two straight weeks of this seesawing, punctuated by mind-raping workshop sessions in a conference room and the occasional blitz of tropical sun if he could stand it. He had planned to get in shape for this trip, just to medicate a minor quadrant of his self-loathing apparatus, but when that hadn’t happened, when instead he had fattened further, he went out and bought new T-shirts, one size larger than last year. He looked okay in them. Not really that bad. He would just make sure not to take one off in public. Even in private, actually, he had cut down on the nudity. These days the shame followed him indoors.

His wife and baby had stayed home, thank God, even though Erin had wanted to come with him, wanted to bring the baby, made a case that it would all be so fun for little Sylvie, even though little Sylvie had not shown an aptitude for fun, or, well, happiness in general. Don’t blame the baby, though! Don’t blame the baby, you monster! He wouldn’t, if he could help it. The baby would be blameless. Cute little thing.

Anyway, if he’d brought them, and paid for them, because their passage was not included in the deal, they’d be going home in the hole, financially. Don’t let’s go home in the hole, he’d sung, trying to be funny. Erin hadn’t laughed, because that wasn’t even a line from anything, and that wasn’t how jokes worked. She’d just looked at him beneath bangs of razor perfection, the whole of Erin so fatally sharp that he was silently criticized by her appearance, for more or less everything he’d ever done, even things from before he knew her, rebuked by the mere sight of her, and she didn’t have to say a word.

So he was alone, with nothing much to account for except, of course, the morning’s reading, the prep, and then the fucking horror of holding a class on this ship.

But he was so lucky! This was so great! How amazing to go on a cruise. His colleagues had stood around pretending to be jealous, and he’d held his ground pretending to deserve it, swallowing his dread. He’d had no choice in the matter. His student evaluations stank. Wouldn’t this trip be a chance to collect a batch of raves from his little cruisegoers, who would surely be more susceptible to joy, with all the sunbathing and cocktailing and theme dancing, and therefore more likely to pass on that happiness to him?

Or are the happy just more profoundly stingy with their mood, having finally arrived at bliss, clinging to all of it and in no way inclined to transfer such riches to the likes of him? Maybe so. But this time he had a strategy. Some old-fashioned hoo-ha from the school of please-don’t-hate-me. He would get his students to praise him by stroking their egos so hard — relentlessly stroking the shit out of every region of their egos, stroking them down sleek and smooth — that the students would curl up and mewl like stuffed animals with robotic voice boxes, purring and saying gaga and dada and yes, please, give me some more.

Up on deck nothing was happening. It was dark. The ocean, the sky, the ship. Sweet hell the silence was nice. Whatever waves had gripped them earlier were gone. Everything was still. Not even the waiters were awake. Something was doing in the kitchen, though. A light burned under the door. Powdered eggs were getting mixed in water by a big industrial paddle, maybe. Frozen planks of scored sausages, ridged like washboards, getting knifed into singles.

He sat by the pool, leaning against the railing because the deck chairs weren’t out yet. The boat felt much steadier now that he was outside. They’d left New York Harbor yesterday, so where were they now? He had no idea how fast they were going, or how you would begin to calculate whereabouts, and it didn’t really matter. It was, actually, pretty great to be surrounded by dark space and dark water and nothing real. A fairly delicious portion of wind pumping off the sea at the perfect temperature. He wanted to thank someone for that and say, Nice going. You nailed it. Perfect use of wind in this setting. Erin would, of course, really love it here, on her way to the islands, the occasional dirty coast threatening in the distance, but mostly just water. Hot, salty air in the afternoon, stinging her sunburn. She’d be out on the deck early — not this early — swimming laps before the kids took over the pool with their savage games. Even little Sylvie, if you could keep the fast-crawling gal on a leash so she wouldn’t splash overboard and disappear forever, even Sylvie, his daughter, wrapped in so much flotation she looked like a life raft, would very certainly, if he had only let her come, have had lots and lots and lots of fun on this boat.

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is the author of The Flame Alphabet. His next book, Leaving the Sea, will be published in January by Knopf.

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