I KNEW SOMETHING WAS WRONG before the gate clanked shut. Every pot and bowl and piece of tupperware in his place had been filled with water and placed in the yard, and a thirty pound bag of kibble had been cut open and laid in front of the dog house. Inside, fast food bags stuffed with fast food bags littered the kitchen counter and the coffee table. That huge TV was on, some show about snipers: a breakdown of their weapon systems and the surprising amount of math involved in killing a person from a mile away. Apparently, it isn’t the curvature of the earth that needs to be accounted for; it’s the rotation. We forget sometimes, for years at a time, that it is spinning. But when I touched my son’s face I could feel it spinning. His skin was rubbery like an old carrot. I walked outside, looked up, and expected all the birds in the world to fall out of the sky at once.
Two rust-colored grackles landed on the rock wall, contemplating a dive for Rocky’s kibble. I walked back in for the leash, into the smell again, and my heart broke for that hounddog, strangely, before it broke for my wife or my son or myself — just lying there in that tarpaper doghouse with his dusty snout poking out into the June sun, smelling his best friend turn with a nose a thousand times more sensitive than my own.
When Ben was very young, just learning to stand, he fell backwards and his head made a horrible thud on the hardwood. And he just lay there, stunned, without any idea what to do. It wasn’t until he saw the pain in my face that he began to scream. And that’s how I felt. That’s the only way to describe it. Until I saw Jackie’s face, I felt like a little baby who didn’t know how to hurt. Her face broke, smashed like some fine porcelain thing that could never be glued back right. And in that moment, I swear to God, everything in the world went high into the air and came down on my head.
If pain can take away pleasure, can pleasure take away pain? That’s why we decided to go on the cruise anyway. We told our families that it was because it was too late to return the tickets, which was true. We couldn’t tell them everything, of course. I’ve lived fifty-six years, long enough to stop expecting people to understand. Jackie needed to die just a little bit. And then gradually come back to life. There’s no reason to suffer any more than you have to. There’s no reason to feel any more than you have to when all you feel is panic. She needed the pills. It was anesthesia. She might as well have been on an operating table.
THERE WERE TWO TIT PRINTS AND, further out, two hand prints on the glass elevator that must have been fresh. A small cult of people in pressed, talcum-white uniforms wiped the ship down constantly.
“Fake,” Ron said.
“How can you tell?” Jackie asked.
“I think I see a vin number,” I said.
Ron licked the glass. “Titty flavor. I’ve got a weakness.”
We descended onto the gilded promenade deck, which was filling with passengers in immodest swimsuits and white robes. A Filipino cleaning woman boarded when we got off, and we watched her wipe the glass as the elevator floated away.
“Imagine the DNA on that towel,” Ron said. “We could freeze it and repopulate after the apocalypse.”
“For Christ’s sake, Ron,” Beth said.
“I’m sorry. It’s pathological.”
“We weren’t going to come,” Beth said. “Ron’s been a mess since Ben died. He tries to hide it, but he’s very sensitive.” I slapped at his dick with the back of my hand and called him sensitive. We all had a laugh. The first call we made was to Ron and Beth. They helped raise Ben for the first ten years of his life, before they moved to Oklahoma City. And we had helped raise their girls. We met when we moved into adjacent duplexes and the integration was total: sex, sleep, dinners, parenting. I like to think we weren’t the swinging type. Ron was in law school and Beth taught middle school. I had just dropped out of a PHD program in geology to start my rock wall business and Jackie… Maybe Jackie was the type. Just the kind of beautiful person who fell in love with everyone she saw. And I can assure you, as the man who has known her and loved her best, that it is the hardest way to live.
The chef from the TV show Jackie watched had a restaurant on the American Odyssey. He had dyed blond hair with a black stripe down the middle, hotdog-pink skin, wrap around sunglasses, and gave off what Jackie called a “rapey vibe.” There was a strong contingent of guys on the ship that could have been mistaken for him in a lineup. They tanned for weeks before they boarded and shaved their pubic hair clean off to make their cocks look bigger. We avoided them. They fucked like they were being filmed: all porno-tricks, no tenderness. The nubiles and the truly beautiful ones, they didn’t know anything about tenderness either. They looked at us like flies in the pudding. I loved the old hippies who walked around with all day Viagra hard-ons poking out of their robes. They remembered light touches.
The cheeseburgers were obscene. They came wrapped in butcher paper in a wicker basket. The chef had pinned three gherkin pickles and three chèvre stuffed olives into each with cellophane tipped toothpicks. The brochure called it, “The first four-star restaurant with booths and paper napkins.” The fries were laced with truffle oil. The beef was kobe, allegedly. In international waters, you could say anything was anything.
“This place looks like a diner after too much plastic surgery,” Beth said. The front end of a polished ’57 Chevy was mounted on the wall like game, and the vinyl on the booths was tight and new and flecked with metallic sparkle. The coin slots on the retro chrome jukeboxes were ornamental. Nobody carried change or folding money. We carried seacards on lanyards; that’s how they got you. A dollar a song. None of the money was real until you got home. I chose A-6 — “Only You (And You Alone)” by The Platters — to belt through the din and swiped my seacard through the sensor.
“I wonder how many of these young people have even seen a real diner,” Ron said. “Not just some nostalgic recreation. You can’t even smoke in here. When we die off it will just be nostalgia for nostalgia.”
“I worked in a real diner when I was seventeen,” Beth said. “The Del Rancho in Clinton. The old waitresses — well, they seemed old to me then — used to talk about how it was before the interstate took over Route 66. Eccentric drifters. Traveling vacuum salesman you’d get to know, the kind that wore dress hats. So maybe it’s always been that way. Maybe there’s never been a real diner, or there was just one real diner, like, in Mesopotamia, and all the diners since are just copies of copies of copies. God, I had a body that could make a freight train take a dirt road then. I never knew men were like that.”
“I miss smoking at the dinner table,” Jackie said. “A cup of coffee and a cigarette after a big meal. People talked then. I haven’t had a cigarette since I was pregnant with Ben.”
“That kid was special,” Beth said. “Bighearted. He would have made such a good father. It might have even saved him.” Ron was eating a grilled chicken salad with no cheese and balsamic vinaigrette on the side. Their white robes were open down to the waist. Ours were three sizes too big and cinched above our clavicles.
“You guys hit the tanning bed pretty hard,” I said.
“Beth got me the tanning bed last Christmas. If I don’t get a decent base going, I’ll burn to a crisp.”
“You look great,” Jackie said.
“We’re doing the paleo,” Beth said. “This is my cheat meal.”
“It’s great! You should do it,” Ron said. “Steak, chicken, eggs, bacon — it’s on the table.”
“These new meds are going to blow me up,” Jackie said. “I can already feel it happening? I’m hungry all the time.”
“You look great.” Ron read the jukebox and Beth picked at her burger.
“How are the girls?” Jackie asked.
“Good,” Beth said. “Kara is in law school. Beck does art and lives with her girlfriend. We love her to pieces.”
“Karen is like the son I never had. She got me into woodworking,” Ron said. “I made a coffee table.”
“I don’t think you’re allowed to say that,” Beth said.
“What? I don’t think she’d be offended.”
“Alana is working in hospitality for the Native American casino,” Beth said.“We got to meet Smoky Robinson!”
“Can you believe Smoky Robinson is still around?” Ron said.
“I saw the pictures on Facebook,” Jackie said.
“Of course celebs are coming in there all the time. And there were so many we would have liked to meet. She has to be professional about it, you know. But she knows how we feel about Smokey. Such a nice man.”
“Ben would have been a great father,” I said. “My father left purple marks, and you’d feel it in your head and neck for days after. I never laid a hand on Ben, but I scared him with my voice, and I scared him with my eyes. I scared him on purpose. He would have been better than me. He would have found a way to teach his kids without scaring them.”
They watched me eat the entire burger and pick my teeth with my fingernail.
“I’m tapping out,” Beth said.
“That’s Kobe beef,” I said. “Have some respect. These cows got sake massages every night. They probably had names.”
“I couldn’t possibly finish,” Beth said. I took her leftovers to our cabin and let them rot in the mini fridge.
THE INTERIOR CABINS WERE MORE AFFORDABLE, but the sun gives vitamins and wavelengths that incandescent bulbs can’t replicate. Staying in the belly of the ship too long could make you feel like a frog in a shoebox. Jackie had her head on my shoulder and her little hand on my heart. Passengers darkened the stripe of light under our door with their feet. Her breath on my neck was a comfort.
“It’s hard to imagine them in that fucking tanning bed. Calling their asses glutes. I don’t know why it bothers me so much. These meds wipe me out. I’m mostly here for the food at this point. If I have to watch them eat grilled chicken all week, I’m not going to be able to enjoy anything.”
“It feels strange to be on a cruise like this under the circumstances.”
“What’s strange about wanting to be around all of this love, Kenny?”
“Love doesn’t smell like suntan lotion and lube. This is something else. Let’s be honest with ourselves, finally.”
“This is love. You can’t feel it? All around us? You can’t see it? The act of love?”
“I’ve seen a lot of pierced genitals. I saw a man with a T-shirt that said ‘Pee on me.’ I don’t think it was a joke.”
“It’s still love, Kenny. Children are being conceived all around us. Life. There is no wrong way. Chicken nuggets are still food. Who knows what the fuck is in them. But they’re delicious.”
“Pajama party!” The light pushed in first. Ron was dressed in white terrycloth robe that seemed to gleam against his thin, nutbrown body, and Beth was wearing an aquamarine negligee that pushed her breasts to her neck and covered her stomach. I wanted to hold her loose, mother-of-three belly skin to my face like a hot towel. If I have a fetish, it’s mom bellies.
“If you feel like being alone, we understand,” Beth said.
“The more the merrier,” Jackie said. “More of everything.”
“We’ve got to start coming on these every year again,” Beth said. “I feel so much older than I did on the last one.” Ron kissed his wife and grabbed a handful. We went on the swinger’s cruise every year during the boom years from eighty-eight to two thousand and eight. After the crash, the intervals between cruises became further and further apart. I put on the requisite robe and silk boxers. When in the common playrooms, it was considered courteous to fuck on the robes. And to use them to wipe down the weight-bench upholstery on the angular furniture when you were done.
“What are you going to wear, hon?” Beth asked.
“This.” Jackie was wearing a threadbare Hardrock Cafe sweatshirt and purple velour sweatpants. She put on a pair of red, duck-down slippers that made her feet look like speed bags. “It’s chilly up there. You’re going to be wishing you had these.”
THE WASHED-UP BANDS on the early cruises had been replaced by DJ Skrill. The stern of the ship was an open coliseum, and the lights and lasers whirled and pulsed like they were connected to his turn tables. I liked to dance, but I didn’t like the way the young ones looked at me. It was cute to them, or it was sad to them. Jackie wasn’t hung up like me, about getting old, about our guts and our hair density. This lifestyle was her idea in the beginning. One day, after afternoon margaritas with Beth, she asked me, ‘What’s the most honest way to live?’ It made sense, not having to conform to society’s moral code. Stress positions are considered torture under the Geneva Convention.
We found a table and Ron put a round of fruity drinks on his seacard.
“I like it,” Ron said.
“What?” I asked.
“What’s to like about it?”
“I never wanted to be the kind of man who stopped listening to new music after thirty. I swore I’d never let that be me.”
“Do you like it, or do you want to be the kind of man that likes it?” Beth asked.
The DJ called the sexy pajama contestants up to the front of the ship and Jackie stared at the frayed sleeve of her sweatshirt.
“I wish we had some blow,” Ron said. “Remember our first trip? We got lit and shared a beautiful night with a twenty-year-old bartender named Adan.”
“This blue drink tastes like blue,” Jackie said.
“One of these kids has to have blow. Come on, beautiful,” Ron said to Jackie. “Let’s show ’em how it’s done.”
Jackie and Ron looked ridiculous on the dance floor — an old man in a bathrobe and and old woman in sweats and puffy slippers — dancing to house music under lasers blasting in artificial smoke.
“How is she doing?” Beth asked.
“She can’t stand for me to leave her side. I have to shit with the bathroom door open.”
Beth embraced me with her cheek on my cheek. She reached inside my robe and gave my penis a light squeeze. Jackie was able to mimic the ass-trembling squats of the younger women on the dance floor. She told her sister, Graciela, that it was a swinger’s cruise, so I’m sure it was whispered around. It was difficult carrying the shame around for the both of us. If it had been her who died, and I (as her recent widower) decided to go on a swinger’s cruise two thirty two days later, I would have been thrown in jail for murder. It’s all the evidence they would have needed. It was humiliating. I did not want to be there. But when your wife, who has spent more days in bed than out lately, says that she wants to get out of the house, see the sun… When she says she is ready to feel absolutely anything other than what she’s feeling on dry land, even if it’s guilt…When she begs you to go on the cruise, to engage with her in every type of distraction possible, there is only one thing a good husband can do.
Jackie pulled her hands into her sleeves on her way back to the table.
“It is chilly out here,” Beth said.
“I told you it gets chilly at night,” Jackie said.
The young ones were fellating in the disco cages, fucking against the walls, dancing like washing machines filled with cowboy boots. A deluge of pink soapsuds filled the dance floor, delighting the revelers, who blew them at each other playfully and used them to cover their genitals. I remember wishing that it was bleach.
“It’s like this never-ending autopsy. Except you’re not weighing the organs; you’re weighing every mistake you ever made, everything you’ve ever done or failed to do, every pain and indignity you could have spared him,” Jackie said. “If I could have turned everything that hurt him into sharp little obsidian rocks, I would have swallowed every one.”
“I know you would have,” Beth said.
“But you can’t do that. It’s the hardest thing about being a mother.” Jackie’s eyes did that thing — where they focused on some far away nothing — over the railing, over the sea, into the starless night. My father used to stare off into the TV like that sometimes. It scared me. As a child, it seemed like he was staring through the tubes and the transistors, through the beaming signals into broadcast towers. He never talked about Korea. I’m not even sure he ever thought about it. But there were times when he seemed to be two places and no place. I can’t explain it. We knew not to talk then. We sat in front of our TV trays and did not dare to chew our food.
“That girl is the spitting image of Monica Tidwell,” Ron said. “I bought a ten dollar Playboy from Steve Garrison when I was twelve years old. This was the seventies. My allowance was two dollars a week.”
“What a savvy little businessman. I bet that kid’s a millionaire now,” Jackie said.
“It was the best investment I ever made. I’ve never gotten as much pleasure from any amount of money. I was so terrified that my brother or my mother would find it that I buried it in the yard next to the hydrangea. I’d dig it up once a week and try to burn every curl of Monica Tidwell’s auburn bush into my memory before I put it back in the ground.”
“You couldn’t sneak it with you to the bathroom?” I asked.
“Do you know how many times my mother caught me jerking off? I lost count. She could sense it. And she could open any lock in the house with a bobby pin. She started timing my showers. Busting in. She tried to have me committed.”
Ron seemed hurt when we laughed.
“I’m not kidding. She drove me to Langley Porter, the same hospital she was a patient. I had to look at a bunch of ink blots and pretend they weren’t vaginas. It’s not like I was doing it at the dinner table. She was the one breaking in trying to see it.”
Beth held Ron’s hand and Jackie rubbed gentle circles on his back. I had watched Jackie and Ron make love more times than I could count, but that light hand on his back filled me with a jealousy I can’t explain.
“She waited until I was out of law school to kill herself,” Ron said. “And I know that wasn’t easy. We were married. Kara was a baby. I think she figured it was too late to really fuck my life up at that point. I spent my whole life trying to make her just — smile. God. Just to get a genuine smile out of her. I taught myself magic, how to imitate Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr. You can’t make anyone want to live, Jackie. We thinks that’s our job, for the people we love, to make them want to live. But sometimes you can’t be enough, you can’t fill them up. It’s not your fault, and, goddamn, it’s not Ben’s fault either.”
“Do you remember holding your babies for the first time?” Jackie asked, removing her hand from his back and tucking it back into her sleeve. “Do you remember how empty they were? How light? That first weird black-tar poop? Because they didn’t even have any bacteria in their intestines yet? No thoughts? Just empty? I don’t need a reprieve. Not from you.”
“I’m so sorry, honey,” Ron said. “One day you’ll find a thing to tell yourself, something that works for you, and it will help.”
“Stop crying, Ron,” Beth said. “This isn’t about you.”
RON COULD STILL SNIFF OUT THE PEOPLE WITH COKE; that’s how we wound up back in Oscar’s suite. The room had lemon-cream walls with dark wood accents, fresh white flowers, and a sliding glass door that opened onto a small outside deck. Oscar was a pudgy, recently divorced tropical fish dealer from Tampa who must have been in his early thirties, and he had boarded the ship by himself. It was his first swinger’s cruise, and Ron had found him sitting at the bar, flummoxed and unsure how to infiltrate the scene. He was a member of the ship’s saddest contingent: awkward men who wanted sex but were unsure how to go about getting it, men who were under the misconception that the “swinging” conceit would make the process easy and straight forward. Oscar didn’t have any coke to sell, but he snuck on a little to party with. He was stingy with it, but it was nice of him to share at all. Ron had wrangled three more people into the party with the promise of cocaine: a dreadlocked couple from Portland who talked about Burning Man incessantly, and a female college professor covered in regrettable spring break tattoos. They were in their late thirties, old enough to understand that the bodies we were showing them were inevitable. I ordered a bottle of rum on the seacard and Jackie shared a few bars of Xanax.
The four of us made love on the sofa. When Ron and I got into each other, Oscar seemed out of his depth. He sat across from us on the end of the bed, tugging on his limp cock while the adjunct professor rubbed her ass on it to no avail. He said, “I’m sorry. That lady looks like my mother,” indicating towards Jackie with his eyes.
“Excuse me,” Beth said.
“I’m sorry. My mom has the exact same haircut.”
“You should have stayed at home and jerked off to the brochure.” I stood up to say it, so that he was eye to eye with my fully erect eight-inch penis. I wanted to put him on the floor and pull his arm until I heard a snap.
But Jackie took his face in her hands. “I bet you she’s a real sweet lady. I bet she loves you more than you can ever know. I bet you she’d die if anything ever happened to you.”
Oscar pulled his covers over his naked lap. “She is a sweet lady.”
She ran her hands through his thinning hair and kissed his sweaty forehead.
MY HIPS MOVED AGAINST HER like the waves lapping the starboard side of our docked cruise ship. The heavy curtains to the promenade were open. Outside, through open windows, bodies–two, three, six at a time–moved in and out of each other like wind-up toys in the dramatic lights and lines of the gilded deck. A man about my age, balding like a neglected lawn, tugged at his tiny cock. A young couple lay in bed, nude, eating giant gourmet cheeseburgers and watching something funny on an iPad.
Their eyes flipped past our room like a billboard on the highway, to younger, tighter bodies — to a woman attempting to insert a third finger into her husband’s anus. I don’t judge. That’s the one universal rule on the ship. Each couple has their own rules. There are soft swap couples who only do oral, couples who have to be in the same room. Most couples have a safe word. Ours is goldfish.
From the outside, our lovemaking must have seemed joyless. But sometimes it isn’t about hitting the spot and making it gush. It can be anything when you know your partner well enough. It can be ecstatic; it can be scary, and it can be a comfort.
I COULD FEEL THE SHIP LEAVING PORT, could feel the water under us getting deeper. Ron walked into the cabin wearing a souvenir T-shirt and holding a wood carving of a native with a giant penis that curved toward the sky like a drawn bow.
“Fertility god. He reminded me of you, big guy.”
“Thanks.” I laughed, stared down at the penis dangling out of my robe, and thought about the beautiful boy it helped create. I could feel the weight of him, five months old, snoring lightly on my chest while I watched football. I looked at Jackie, who was staring blankly at her feet poking out from the comforter, and I hated her for a moment. I wanted her to carry it, just for a little bit — what life we had left: the bills, the laundry, the questions, the casseroles and the deli trays and the plates of cookies that arrived at the door with well-meaning friends that I had to talk to, had to make feel appreciated, had to reassure that they had done something, consoled us, made us feel better. I wanted to be too weak to be there for her. To be the one who got to lock myself away. I wanted to take all of her pills and watch TV until they wiped me clean.
“Aruba was so beautiful,” Beth said. “The beach was like baby powder.”
“The moon is fucking huge right now,” Ron said. “You’ve got to see it.”
The wind on the bow was cold, and the black water was far down. A full moon glinted off of a million swells. Couples passed us hand in hand, wrapping their robes together to break the wind.
Jackie took off her sweatshirt and draped her breasts over the railing.
I imagined infant Ben dangling from her right breast and over the dark water like a fish on a hook.
“He’s everywhere now,” Beth said. “Nothing dies. I really believe that.”
“Everything dies,” I said, and immediately regretted saying it.
“Then where does it go?” Beth asked. “The feelings and the thoughts? The everything that isn’t meat?”
“Where does the light go when you flip the switch?”
“The energy is still there, Kenny. Even if it isn’t lighting the filament. The light just goes out of us. Dissolves into the universe.”
“I can’t feel him,” Jackie said. “Even when he was at school, or far away, I could feel him existing. Like there was a compass inside of me that was always pointing right at him. And now it’s just spinning and spinning.” She was looking into the water, though the surface where our eyes stopped. Like she could see the very bottom, and like she was at the very bottom, looking up at us.
“The moon is huge,” Beth said.
“The moon is always the same size,” I said.
Ron climbed onto the bow, threw his hands in the air, and yelled, “I’m the king of the world! What? Someone had to do it.”
I hung my head over the rail, over the passing black water, and I felt the universe split. I was holding on to the rail for dear life, and I was tumbling over it. I heard Jackie scream and saw her reaching for my falling body, and I felt her cold little hand inside my robe, scratching my back. I felt her dry hair blowing into my mouth, and I felt the great ship’s wake spinning me like a blender.
“Goldfish,” I said.
“Come on, my love,” she said. “Let me take you back down below.”
Casey Gray teaches writing at New Mexico State University. His work has appeared in Ploughshares and his first novel, Discount, is available from overlook press.