A Slow Boat to Paris

Ten years ago I was a twenty-six years old woman, through college and on my way to Paris.  It was time to get past art history and art appreciation and down to capital A-R-T… art itself.  This was to be the trip of a lifetime, so I didn’t fly to France… I took a boat. It was a cargo ship that has a few cabins, for passengers who are not in a hurry.  It was going to take almost three weeks to reach Marseilles and most of another day overland to Paris.  I had studied French so I could study texts in their original form. I am comfortable and fluent in the language.

My cabin was small, but clean and comfortable.  There were four other cabins on the ship, two near mine and two on the other side of the ship.  My cabin was smaller than the others were, but it was all I needed.  I spent most of my time on deck, anyway.  I just loved the feeling of the ship when it trembled with the effort of plodding through the rolling waves.

The first night out, the captain invited all the passengers to have supper in his cabin with him.  The captain sat at the head of the table, and asked me to sit on his right.  I introduced myself, Paulette Lake, and explained my reason for this voyage.  On my right were a tall, beautiful black woman about fifty years old and her nephew, who was about twenty.  The behaviour between them told me that he was not really her nephew.  The woman was a French poet, returning home after a successful tour of readings at universities around North America, and I was sure that the rather gorgeous young man was her lover, not her nephew.  A fifty-year-old woman doesn’t share a cabin with her twenty-year-old nephew, but a twenty-year-old lover is a different story.

On the far side of the table sat an older man, tall and lean, with a handsome, angular face.  He was a violinist with an orchestra that was going to tour Europe for the summer.  He hated to fly, so he was going on this boat ahead of time so he could meet the orchestra members who were flying over together.  Beside him were two men in their thirties.  They occupied the cabin next to mine and were obviously gay.  The short, overweight one was a theatrical costume designer and the tall lean one was his assistant.  For “assistant” I substituted the word “lover” in my mind.

The ship rose and fell quite a lot out on the Atlantic.  Fortunately, I had taken some patches that I wore behind my ear.  They prevented seasickness, and I was able to enjoy the action of the ship pushing through the water, sending salty spray into the air.  Each day I took a brisk walk all the way around the ship’s deck.  I circled the ship fifteen times, and that equalled a couple of kilometres.  It was a healthy workout, and it gave me a chance to see the crew doing their duties.  They seemed to be cleaning and painting some of the ship every day.

There were shipboard flirtations, of course.  It was hardly avoidable with a handsome captain aboard, and several big, strong crewmen always around.  The only women aboard were Agnes, the ship’s cook, Gardenia Comden, the black poet, and I.  The men aboard who were not members of the crew were the violinist, the costume designer and his “assistant,” and Gardenia’s “nephew,” Bradley.  The only lone passengers with private cabins were the violinist, Barnard Trumble, and I.

One day, the wind was quite high and the sea was rolling. Tall breakers had white foam dancing on their crests; I took my daily deck walk all the same.  I had to travel more slowly, with one hand on the railing to steady myself.  I wasn’t afraid at all… I was up for everything on this voyage.  I had chosen this method of travel for exactly this kind of excitement.  I had been buried in academia for quite long enough, and it was time for me to taste some sharply flavored life.

I was passing Gardenia Comden’s cabin when an especially wicked wave smacked the side of the boat.  I was thrown against the wall where her cabin porthole was.  I grabbed for the handrail below it and held on for dear life.  The ship rolled to the port side and gravity as well as wind pressed my face against the glass.  I didn’t intend to look, but I opened my eyes and found myself staring into the cabin.

Bradley was standing behind his “aunt.” He was stark naked, shining like chocolate. He had zipped down the back of Gardenia Comden’s dress, and reached around to fondle her bare breasts. She squirmed around in his arms and kissed him hard. They fell back onto the bed.

I was embarrassed and excited at the same time. I looked away. As soon as the ship righted itself, I made my way back to my cabin. I sat on the edge of my bed.  My whole body was tingling while my mind kept re-running the brief scene. The boat swayed and shuddered in the sea swells. I imagined what they were doing on their swaying bed.  What if they had seen me? How would I face them tomorrow?

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