The whirling need to drown myself in male attention first opened up its shipwrecky spiral in Colonial Williamsburg. I was fifteen, and my parents were taking my sisters and I on some educational trip none of us wanted to be on, a death-march of enforced family togetherness and feigned conviviality. At the end of each day, we were supposed to report on what we liked best from the daily roster of horrible things like a trip to Pottery World or an exhibit on making soap. My parents seemed determined to make me put stupid shit on my head on this vacation: a colonial bonnet, a baseball cap with a pun on it, a paper hat at Fuddruckers. In the photos, I have the same expression a cat has if you try to dress it in people-clothes: hateful and forbearing.
But trailing along behind my parents in a Cure t-shirt and cut-offs and the red lipstick I had taken to wearing once I had gotten my braces off, I noticed something major. Boys were looking at me. To be clear: boys at my school in New Jersey did not look at me. There was a hot guy two lockers down at my high school who once thrillingly sang an impromptu song to me about sucking his dick, forcing my name to rhyme awkwardly with the word penis but that was it. At home, I wasn’t one of the girls guys looked at. But taken out of my context, cool behind a trendy pair of green sunglasses I wish I still owned, throwing AVAILABLE-vibe into the swing of my fifteen-year-old ass as I walked? Wanted. Desirable. I kept count, like a road-trip game where you count all the Toyotas you pass on the road: how many glances, how many shy smiles, how many cracked hellos. It didn’t matter who they were; all attention counted equally.
I had been kissed by exactly one boy by this time, a boy from my church youth group, which was where I went to get it on before I discovered the mall and its trove of older men with shitty morals regarding teenage girls. The youth group was awesome– there was an annual sleepover in the church where boys and girls got to sleep in one room, and we played sardines, that game where you squish in under the furniture with people, hiding. I wanted to rub up on every person there. We also played that game where you tuck an orange under your chin and have to pass it to the next person in line without using your hands. Someone’s breath on your cheek, their hair tickling your neck? Awesome. But that was all the attention I was getting, until that pivotal family vacation.
I don’t remember anything about Colonial Williamsburg; giant, gaping history nerd that I am, I would today LOVE to go to Colonial Williamsburg. An exhibit on old-timey candles or colonial medicine would be right in my wheelhouse now. But one thing has not changed: I would still look for some man to throw my fucked-up smile at, just to see if he will catch it, and toss it back. So maybe I am hardwired to lower my considerably older eyelids at men now, twenty-five years later, when my mother and stepfather invite me to come along with them on a cruise to Bermuda. Although they still try to make me put shit on my head for photographs, these days I dig spending time with my parents. I think they are hilarious. My sister and her husband are coming along too, and it speaks volumes about my naivete that from this I fail to deduce that the next week will be spent with roving cruise photographers snapping shots of first my mother and her husband, and then my sister and her husband, before turning to me to ask if I would like a picture of me by myself.
I watch for self-pity with a stern fucking eye; afterall, I am on a cruise to Bermuda. But my aloneness, which in New York means I can go to whatever yoga class I want, flirt with some hot guy at Starbucks, and then run around with my friends, has a very different meaning on a cruise ship. Cruise ships are like Noah’s arks of fat Americans, everyone partnered up. My parents booked me a studio cabin in the interior of the ship—the rooms, like so much of life, assume you are half of a couple, and normally you need to pay double, like a tax on being single. On a ship filled to capacity with five thousand souls, these dark cubes in the center of the ship, the singles’ rooms, are deserted. There is a special “singles-mingle” lounge, upholstered in white leather (“You need a special singles key to get in,” my mother tells me knowingly), and I have literally not seen one other person in there. The only person I have seen in the singles-hallways is the steward who sneaks into your room to fold your towels into animal shapes and dress them in your sunglasses.
With my special singles key, I have access to a stocked bar, free, and unguarded. This lack of prudence, that someone would give me a key to a stocked bar, is astonishing. It’s not that long ago that I would have emptied that entire bar right into my face, and then fallen directly into the ocean.
Everywhere else: married people. There is an entire contingent wearing t-shirts that read Nolan and Trish’s Anniversary Cruise: 50 Years of Smooth Sailing. We dress up for the cruise’s dress-up night, the entire purpose of which, it seems, is to stand in front of backdrop with your spouse while the photographer takes a photo. I crash my parents’ photo, smiling my fucked-up crooked smile as best I can, while the lounge singers croon about how they can’t help falling in love with you. A friend of mine claims that this Elvis song always ruins her day: this, or hearing “Nights in White Satin.” I feel the same way about the song “Celebration,” which is playing poolside on a loop. It’s all just so middle-America and not good, and I am starting to worry I will never get the judgey look off my face.
My parents and my sister and her husband keep inviting me to do things with them. It’s a family vacation, and I ruined enough of those as a child, so I smile, and cheerfully agree to put whatever my parents want on my head. Besides, there is no place to go, no attention to garner. I can’t text my friends, or put a picture of myself doing something tricky on Facebook to see how many people like it. There are no online dating sites; there are no single people. There are no yoga classes where I can show off my bendy spine. There is no blog, no checking my traffic stats, counting views the way I counted how many boys smiled at me when I was fifteen. There is just me: anonymous, uncoupled, bobbing in my aloneness, staring out at the relentlessly gorgeous navy expanse of the Atlantic. I’ve never been on a ship before and I did not know that it gets bluer the deeper you go.
I am in the Bermuda Triangle of my fucking soul. I think back to the fallout with Sketch, and how I secretly wanted things to run south so I could be single for this cruise. I picked this. I fucking chose it. There is something here for every active addiction but mine: the alcoholic bulimic gambler beholds a smorgasborg of vices, but the sex addict goes hungry here. A fat man in flip flops waddles past on deck, looking like a meatball in pants, and someone is playing a non-stop tambourine beat across from a buffet afloat in fried cheese. Last night I went up to the party deck, hoping to dance and lose myself, to be a body amidst other bodies for a little bit. Everyone was just standing around with their partners, drunk and sunburnt and stationary and married, and I pretended that I only came up there by accident, before turning around and retreating to the singles chambers, a purgatory both uninhabited and strangely noisy; someone keeps sliding a closet door open and closed along its metal track. I picture a spinster endlessly looking for something to wear to a party she has no invitation to.
I forgot that this is the other part of family vacation: wanting it to end, wanting to be able to go back to being the person that I am when I am on my own, where nobody tells me what to do. When we reach the shores of our hyperbolically beautiful destination, I meet a gorgeous Bermudian on the beach; he is renting paddle-boards to tourists and his skin is the minor-key dark. His accent, which sounds like a British accent would if you poured it full of rum and made love to it for 200 years, undoes me. He tells me about a beach party: music, bonfire, locals. I casually mention to my mother that I will be going ashore later; the beach is a couple of hundred meters from the ship, which sits bloated with Americans and their horrible children in the dockyards. My mother tells me, the child who backed out of her uterus 40 years ago, that I can not go. I won’t allow you to go, she tells me, which triggers some long-buried adolescent fury shipwrecked deep in my chest.
Of course, she can hardly stop me from doing what my grown-ass feels like doing. But I can not watch her limping along the deck of the ship and ignore her panic. She needs a knee replacement, and she is losing all of her hair from stress; I know she is scared of the black boys that I find so delicious, and so I promise her I will stay aboard, a hairball of love and pity and hatred in my throat. This is what happens when you accept gifts. Today she treated me to a dolphin encounter, and she finally had to tell me to stop crying into my goggles, I was just so emotionally overwhelmed by the whole thing. We swam with a dolphin my exact age, and I ran my hands along the dolphin’s sides, along the rake scars from the teeth of other dolphins, the battle scars in the smooth silk of her hide. Normally, they only live to be about twelve, which is how old I feel now: bored, trapped, angry, emotional.
Shipbound, I keep drifting up to the rock-climbing wall on the upper deck, where a Kenyan guy belays my beginner-ass up the advanced handholds. I like a challenge; I ring the bell at the top, and stick around to flirt. His eyes are wide and startled, like those of an animal you could only ever see at a distance. Hanging around some guy, complaining about my parents feels weirdly familiar, like an old, no-longer-fashionable pair of pants you are astonished to find still fit you. Several decks down, my parents are fretfully looking for me, locked out of singles-land. They want my attention as badly as I want the attention of the Kenyan, and as he and I make plans to cross paths later down by the shuffleboard after midnight, I resolve to try harder to keep my priorities from disappearing into the triangle of my lust and my loneliness and my lack of self-esteem.
I drag my past around behind me like a fishing net, indiscriminate in the things it snares and holds tight: dolphins, mermaids, other people’s trash. It is déjà vu all over again: I have been here before and I will likely be here again, still fishing for compliments, and for things to write about. Just because you remember the past doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t still doomed to repeat it.