Close to You, Part IV
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
Click for Part I.
Click for Part II.
Click for Part III.
I hauled both 50 pound suitcases, my fiddle, and a backpack around the Sydney airport, much to my concert pianist's chagrin. My belongings had been carefully divided between the bags, which made it so I didn't have to pay over-weight baggage fees, but couldn't leave one bag at home. The weather on this journey was supposed to range from summer to winter, so I needed all kinds of clothes anyway. Plus, there was a chance I could perform a show with my pianist, so I wanted some glamorous dresses and my makeup, just in case. But he was irritated to no end that I'd brought everything with us that I'd arrived with in Oz.
I normally love flying with a significant other -- airline seats are so small, but next to your boyfriend you can cuddle up and spill over a bit into the seat beside you. But not this trip. We flew uncomfortably like awkward new acquaintances over to Brisbane, to join our ship.
She was a small vessel with a dark interior, like an elegantly decorated old hunting lodge, a few decades out of style. We went into our cabin, which had a king sized bed squeezed into a rectangular room, not much larger than the bed. A hanging lifeboat blocked our view from the window, and the bathroom was triangular and small, like those in the crew quarters of the other ships I'd worked on. One desk had a large vanity mirror with a stool, but otherwise, the only place to be if you wanted to hang in your cabin was on the bed. I don't think that'd be a problem for us normally, but we were no longer normal. This cabin left much to be desired.
The heat turned on, and a musty smell reminiscent of mildew and charcoal blew through the vent. Disgusting. I had researched this ship out of curiosity before our arrival, and apparently she was just returning from dry dock to sail a postponed world cruise, after a huge fire that started in the laundry killed a few crewmen and took her out of commission. Evidently some smoke damage still lingered in the circulated air.
As we argued over where and how to stash luggage, we both became congested. Thank God he'd made sure we were both stacked up on allergy medications, but I was crushed. Just another kick in the gut while I was down. I had hoped that I could feel normal after leaving his apartment, which I'd been so allergic to, to come embark on a ship, since I'd basically been living at sea for the previous year and a half; and maybe that would help us. But nope, the universe wouldn't even grant me that.
"I saved that whole stack of drawers for you to unpack, darling," he said.
"Oh thank you, but I won't use it, " I replied. "No sense in unpacking then having to pack again. You can use it if you like."
"But where will you store your things!?" he was way more flustered than I thought he should be over this.
"I'll just open the suitcases and slide them under the bed, and use them like drawers," I explained. "Unless you need that space for something."
"No, I don't."
He was so agitated by that, and I'll never understand why. I am a very independent person and I guess that offends the people who try to do what most would think are nice things for me, but why should I pack a ton of stuff to visit him, then expect him to manage my luggage? That seemed more rude to me than declining the drawers he'd offered, but now the tension in the room was unbearable, so I proposed a change of scenery.
"Would you like to explore the ship?"
"Not now darling, I need to check my emails before the ship heads out to sea and I lose reception."
I headed out on my own, which was a relief on some level. All I wanted was fresh air, so I made my way to the roof deck pool, and sat on a lounge chair in the cold, letting my sinuses and lungs clear. I sat until the setting sun made shadows long, the ship maneuvered out of the harbor, and I started shivering.
Here we were back on a ship routine, like when we'd first gotten together. Wait for the cruise director to decide when your shows are, sleep a lot, dress nicely for formal dinners, have sex. Or in our case, try to have sex. Just once. It was a messy disaster, and was the last time we ever attempted to "have a root". Such an embarrassing ending to a start that had been the stuff of soft porn.
Instead we watched some DVDs he'd brought, mostly murder mystery crime documentaries about cases his dad had worked on, with his father interviewed throughout the unfolding investigations. Watching blood, guts, and psychopaths wasn't the most uplifting entertainment, but it certainly fit our mood. How funny I'd met the head investigator in these clips, that he knew who I was. Meeting the parents is usually a big deal, and maybe it had been planned to be that way, but this trip I'd become a ball and chain my man trudged around with, that he tried to pretend he didn't find embarrassing -- and by chance he just needed to speak with his dad while I was attached.
At night when the smokey cabin air constricted my throat, and my man thrashed fitfully in his sleep, I would get up and wander about the ship in my pajamas. The pool deck was too cold for me to last long, so I found myself in the library, dozing off in a brown leather chair with his father's book in my hands. I always returned before he woke up, but wondered if he'd noticed I was gone -- wondered if the knowledge of it would make him relieved or upset.
We dressed for dinner one night, and made a date out of attending the formal dining room. He indulged me in interesting conversation with a tender sadness -- at least he wasn't angry with me. Was that a bit of remorse I detected in him for how our relationship had declined?
When we'd exhausted our capacity for crime documentaries, we made our way into the auditorium, where he was scheduled to perform his show, using the excuse with the stage manager that he wanted to get acquainted with the piano. We jammed for a few hours, which used to be exhilarating and collaborative, but now seemed like me making demands on his supernatural talents while he charitably complied out of guilt. I recorded them in Voice Memos, and listening back later, he didn't sound like himself when he spoke, but instead like a teenager who was angry for reasons he couldn't articulate, all the while trying not to explode lest he suffer a worse punishment.
We sat on the edge of our bed, wondering what to do next. I had no heart for anything, I was exhausted from trying to figure out what about me had been a turn off, how I'd failed him. If he'd been game for anything I would've complied, but I was coming up with no ideas. This also seemed to distress him.
"I think you should leave," he said, with a hounded look in his eyes.
I didn't know I could possibly feel any more heartache, but there it was, that feeling of severing off my own leg -- intense pain, suffocating longing, and the guilt of betrayal.
"We should go to the front desk and make arrangements for you to disembark," he pressed, the color draining from his face.
"If--if that's what you want..." I stammered.
"Fly back to Sydney, stay at my place," he continued.
"No. I'll get a hotel." I don't want your help, I want your love, my mind screamed.
"Then you should fly back early to the states,"he decided.
"Absolutely not!" I showed anger for the first time. How could he think he had any right to tell me what to do after asking me to leave?! "This is the first vacation in my entire adult life that I've been able to give myself, and I intend to have it! I have money, I'll be fine."
It was true, I did have money -- not money coming in, but my severance pay in the bank.
"Then let me pay half," he insisted.
"No," I icily put my foot down. I don't want your charity! I want you! "I knew that coming here was a risk, and that should we decide not to be together anymore I'd have to figure out other accommodations. I wouldn't have come if I couldn't afford that."
We each stared at our hands for what felt like hours. My life had finally become the nightmare I was dreading. I had officially lost everything I'd ever worked for or dreamed of. This is what rock bottom felt like.
With nothing left to lose, I finally had the courage to address the elephant in the room: "Why did you decide to go off Pristiq during my visit?"
"I didn't have any heavy concerts for a few weeks, and that's how long they say it takes your brain to adjust to living without the drug."
"Makes sense, but...we planned this trip in January. When did you and your shrink decide it was time to take you off the meds?"
"Sometime in March, I guess."
"And you knew I was coming in May. So why did you agree to it?"
"Why didn't you at least tell me?!" I pressed.
"I guess I didn't believe it could be that bad."
"But why did you agree to do it while I was supposed to be here?"
Cornered and overwhelmed, he muttered weakly, "I guess I thought you'd make me feel better."
When next he was willing to speak to me, we went down to the front desk to arrange for my departure.
I was surprised to find the lady working the desk was a friend from my first ship, which was also a tiny vessel like the one we were on. The cruise world is so small, that even coming from a ship that had 300 crew, I'd board another ship in another fleet with 300 crew and find at least one person I knew. I was happy to see her, she had always been a soothing presence during what had been a turbulent contract, that left me with more than a little PTSD (and no, that wasn't the ship that fired me). On that fleet, despite not knowing each other well, the crew was family, and we stood by each other in difficult times.
"What are you doing here?" she exclaimed, coming around the counter to give me a hug.
The pianist looked bewildered.
"We were traveling together," I started cautiously, not wanting to paint him in a bad light in front of the company that hired him. "I was his guest, he's the concert pianist guest entertainer."
Eleana looked back and forth between us. The pianist swayed between his feet and looked about to vomit.
"But something came up, and I need to disembark at the next port."
"Oh! I see, is everything alright?" she questioned.
"Yes," my eyes welled and I tried to hide it. I'm a terrible liar. "There's just been...an emergency."
"I see... Well. I'm certainly sorry to hear that," she cooed with genuine concern. "Tomorrow is a sea day, but the day after we'll be in Hobart, Tasmania. Will that do?"
"Yes, thank you."
She looked at me with concern. Had he not been there, I would've told her everything, since that's the kind of friendship we'd had before. But she knew I couldn't, and I could tell she was wondering if she'd ever get the chance to hear what was going on.
She guided us through the paperwork, and I think I blacked out. No chance to put on a guest entertainer show with him. No chance to watch the gig he had back in Sydney after the contract ended. No chance to reconcile this broken romance that had brought me to life more than anything before or since, and taught me how to love, for the first time, the fact that I'd been born a woman. Forever a tremendous void in my mind, my sex life, and my heart, replaced with the social embarrassment of having failed at every risk I'd ever taken, ever calculated, ever worked for.
We thanked Eleana and wandered to a lounge, where we logged into the wifi and purchased a flight for me to get back to Sydney.
While the computer was online, my Facebook dinged with messages from Rob, a guy I'd been cornered into dating while on board the ship with Eleana. He knew I'd been in love with the concert pianist the whole time, but was convinced he could turn my heart. Seems good news travels fast -- he'd heard I was on a ship with my pianist, that the relationship had imploded, and I was disembarking -- and wondered if I was ok, if there was anything I needed. He was always arrogantly swooping in, sticking his nose where it had no business being, assuming people needed a hero. It did nothing but make me really fucking angry. As if I needed any more humiliation.
The evening before my disembarkation was the night of the pianist's first performance on board. At least I'd get to hear him play, to watch him work his magic on an audience, one last time.
We reported to the auditorium for sound check early in the afternoon, which he'd asked me to attend since I had a good ear for EQ-ing the piano mic, just in case the sound engineer was incompetent (as is often the case on ships). It made me happy that he still knew on some level I was useful. To our delight, this guy really knew his craft, and I suggested the pianist come into the house to hear it himself. I took my turn at the piano, and from the seats, I heard him say, "Woah -- that's fantastic."
"Darling," he instructed me. "Will you play something that really pounds the keys? I want to see how the mic takes it."
I'm a pitiful pianist with a very limited repertoire, but I pulled a tune from the recesses of my mind that I thought would do the trick. I laid in with all my strength.
"No, no, no," he was instantly irritated again. "Just let me do it."
I hustled off the bench. Great, now he's sad and angry. But I bet I'm better at piano than you are at violin.
He hastily banged out the beginning of the first Tchaikovsky piano concerto, and the belly of that grand rang out five times louder than I ever could've managed. Poor thing likely wasn't used to being played by a titan. I had to giggle a little bit, I couldn't help myself.
"How'd it do?" he asked.
"It did just fine -- sounds great!"
He would wear a suit for the show that night, and as his companion, I felt the need to dress comparably. I put on a tiny, elegant, navy blue satin cocktail dress, and took the time to do hair and makeup. At least being high maintenance gave me something to do for two hours.
I curled my hair at the vanity while the pianist lounged on the bed reading, looking forlorn, like he'd been rammed in the gut, with his eyes bulging as if he hadn't slept in weeks. I wanted nothing more than to comfort him, to take away his pain, but I didn't dare get any closer. I'd already suffered all the rejection I could take.
From the corner of my eye I saw the book slowly lower to lay on his chest. He seemed to be staring at me, and when I turned to look at him, he lowered his gaze and blushed. I resumed styling my hair. He reached for his iPhone on the night table beside him. Some minutes passed, and I saw him raise it up with the camera aimed at me, and there it lingered. I turned to him again.
"What are you doing?" I timidly asked.
"I just...wanted to have...something to remember you by..." he forced a whisper as he turned his face away.
To remember me by? I'm right the fuck HERE, from all the way the fuck on the other side of the WORLD, to see YOU, and you told me to fucking LEAVE. But you want to REMEMBER ME?
Spend time with me! Hold me, touch me, smile at me! I could barely persuade you to take a photo with me this whole trip, but you want a picture now? After all my hopes and dreams have imploded, while I put on this facade to look as if I have any business being by your side?
If I only knew then what I know now about the behaviors of withdrawal and addiction.
Tears welled, which doesn't make putting on makeup any easier.
He devoured me with his big blue, suffering eyes when I finished getting ready, which I suppose gave me some satisfaction. Was it because I resembled how I had looked when we'd met, for the first time this trip? I don't wear much makeup unless I'm required to, and in this case it was warranted.
We walked linked arm in arm to his concert, where he went backstage. I seated myself on house right, away from the crowd. Audience members prefer to sit house left, where they can watch the keys, but I wanted to be alone -- and from this angle, I could watch his face.
The cruise director introduced the pianist with a quiet, sincere dignity, and out the pianist strode with the impish charisma back in his gait.
He was the master of disguising discomfort. Smooth as mahogany on the outside, falling to pieces on the inside, to use his own words. He played his usual ship show repertoire, "solo piano's greatest hits" as I like to describe it, and he invited the audience in with well practiced sensitivity and gentle humor. Even with a simplified song list, his brilliance and virtuosity were blatant, and they adored him; which only served to make me feel the loss more keenly.
The image of his face reflecting on the black piano top froze in my mind forever, as I watched an anguished expression furrow his brow during Debussy's Clair de lune. There was nothing theatrical about it. To this day when I hear that piece, I flashback to sitting alone in that black room, with one light aimed at a tortured man in a black suit, playing on a glossy black grand piano.
Click for Part V.