heaven on earth
The spa is on the aft end of the Aloha Deck. This means Janice has to walk about a mile to get there: her cabin is on the fore end of the Heaven on Earth’s “Inspiration,” which accommodates approximately 2000 passengers, not including the crew of waiters, room stewards, cooks, cleaners, bartenders, sailors , and of course, the entertainers.
There is one entertainer Janice adores—not one of the Vegas-style dancers who performs in the Proscenium Theatre, but a lounge singer named Michael Rorah who plays the piano in the Starlight Lounge.
Janice and Hal happened to hear him last night on their way to dinner. He was playing “Benny and the Jets.” Janice loves Elton John. Hal muttered something about fruit-cakes, but Janice tuned him out just like she does when he talks about stock quotes on his cell phone right over a song she loves on the radio.
Michael Rorah wore a tuxedo, and he looked truly happy as his hands fluttered about the keys. Janice promised herself she would return each night to the Starlight Lounge to see him play.
The spa is lovely, really. Today they’re at sea, sailing between St. Thomas and Aruba, so it’s the perfect day for beauty. Janice checks in at the front desk with a pretty young girl whose gold name tag reads “Hailey,” and then, “England” right below it. Hailey wears a white uniform dress—very professional and sanitary—Janice thinks, and promptly directs Janice to a waiting area to fill out forms and wait for Deirdre, her Swiss Cellulite Solutions consultant. It sounds official enough. She’s heard they’re very healthy out there in Switzerland. Hailey hands her a clipboard and a Heaven on Earth Cruiselines pen. After sitting down and placing her bag at her feet, she rests the clipboard on her crossed legs and begins to check off boxes: her medical history, caffeine intake, smoking habits, weight, and allergies to drugs. She is then asked to write a few sentences explaining what she hopes to gain from this “experience.” She thinks for a moment, tapping the pen against her freshly shaven thigh, and then looks up at the girl crouching down in front of her.
“Janice? Hi, I’m Deirdre.” Deirdre’s voice is squeaky; she can’t be older than nineteen, and her corkscrew curls remind Janice of Shirley Temple. Her nametag at least indicates that she is Deirdre from Switzerland. “Hello,” Janice answers, finally. “I didn’t answer this question.” She points nervously to the six blank lines where she is supposed to describe the dreams she has for her thighs. Deirdre smiles, reaching for the clipboard. “That’s okay. No one ever does that part. I’ll just grab that and we’ll get started.”
In minutes, Janice is lying on a massage table half naked, coated in goop. A poorly frosted birthday cake. This pretty nineteen year old girl with freckles and bouncy hair rubs a cold metal rod up and down her thighs. In many ways, this scene is more erotic than any she’s experienced in years, she thinks, pathetically. Except this rod isn’t exactly as pleasurable as its shape would suggest. It’s plugged into some electronic device mounted on the wall, and as it buzzes and drones across her thighs, she feels like hundreds of needles are prickling her all over. Tiny steel pins plowing into her bones. “This may feel a little uncomfortable,” Deirdre says at the beginning; the pamphlet had said “painless.” So Janice makes conversation to pass the time. “You speak perfect English – I mean, you have no accent at all. It’s remarkable.” Deirdre blushes. “Well I’m not exactly Swiss. I’m from Queechy. It’s in Vermont. I’m not really supposed to say anything, but it’s, like, sort of hard to pretend you’re Swiss when you don’t even speak any other languages. Elka, our director, is totally crazy.” She perks up. “I do have some Swiss in me though, so it’s not a complete lie. They put it on the tag, you know, because of the cream and all…” “Oh, sure. That makes sense.” Janice feels sorry to have said anything, and a little let down that the girl who’s supposedly going to make her look better is a fake. So she down shifts into cruise small-talk. “Have you been on the ship long?” Deirdre wipes some excess conductive cream onto a towel and gets back to work on the left thigh. “Well, I’ve been on this ship for three months. But before Heaven on Earth, I was on Dreamlines for a year, where I met my husband.” “You’re married?” Janice doesn’t mean to sound so surprised. She then notices the ring on Deirdre’s finger, a small diamond muted by the grease caked up around the bezel. “I should probably take the ring off with all this cream, but I can’t bear to be without it. It’ll be seven months in May. My husband is the cruise photographer. He probably took your photo after dinner last night in the doorway.” “Oh, right. A tall guy dressed up as a pirate, blood seeping out from the corner of his mouth?” Deirdre giggles. “That’s him.” She stands up. “Isn’t he so gorgeous?” “Um, sure.” “Are you married?” She walks to the sink to rinse the towel out. “Actually, today is my tenth wedding anniversary. That’s why we’re here—celebrating.” “Wow! Congratulations. That’s amazing.” “Thanks.” “Ten years. We haven’t even gotten to ten months! Well, I have to run to the bathroom. I’ll be right back. Here—you can sit up now. Just be still while your cells desensitize.” Deirdre wipes her hands off on a towel hanging and leaves the room. For a moment, Janice tries to remember what the pirate looked like. Hal didn’t want to take the photo. He said it was just going to be something else they tried to charge them for at the end of the trip, like the bottled water in the room. But Janice insisted on the photo, holding up the line as she touched up her lipstick. She now decides that Hal must have put on a weird smile to purposely ruin the picture for her. The spa room is chilly, and Janice instinctively moves her hands towards her lap, but having to adjust her position to avoid the cream, she chooses to rest her arms across her chest, hugging herself awkwardly. Her palms are cool on the skin of her upper arms, her thighs cold and slimy. She closes her eyes and tries to pretend she is somewhere else. She doesn’t know why, but she envisions the thick grass of the Campus Arts Quad where she and Hal went to college. Except Deirdre is there. As she envisions Deirdre, she is presumably studying with friends: she lays on the grass propped up by her slender elbows, the pages of a novel blowing in the breeze. She doesn’t pay any attention to the novel as she talks, waving one hand about with an occasional theatrical gesture. When she tips her head back to laugh, her Shirley Temple curls twist out into the grass like probing fingers, searching for something. She wears a bright plaid skirt, and she dangles one of her sandals off of a meticulously painted toenail. Her friends laugh and laugh as she tells them stories. Janice opens her eyes when she hears the door open. “I’m back. How are you feeling?” She clears her throat and looks at Deirdre in her white uniform. “Fine.” “Good. I brought you some water. It’s important to stay hydrated.” Deirdre examines Janice’s upper thigh with a cylindrical magnifying glass, frowning, as if in the deep concentration of someone performing brain surgery. The collar of her white jacket grazes against Janice, picking up some cream. “Oh, sweetie, you’re getting some cream on your—” Deirdre looks down. “Don’t worry about that. There are about a hundred others. We—all of us girls—just give our dresses back at the end of the day to be cleaned. We get new ones in the morning.” “Sounds easy enough.” “Yeah,” says Deirdre. She begins to scrape off the hardened cream with a warm washcloth, the last step of the process. Janice watches the young girl, suddenly confused about something.
* * *
Back in the cabin the Celtics are playing like shit. He’s never seen anything like it. Put the ball in the fucking basket. Dribble the ball, for Christ’s sake! Move your fat asses across the court! Hal suddenly realizes he’s screaming at the television. He has a tendency to do this when he gets fired up over a game. There is a knock at the door. “It’s open!” He assumes Janice is already back from having the fat sucked out of her—if this is the case, then the whole thing is most certainly a crock, as he suspected. But instead of his wife, a tiny Asian man pokes his head around the door.
“I make up room now?”
“Oh, hello. Yes, sure.”
Hal gets off the bed, walks over to the dresser, and pulls an It’s Always Sunny in St. Thomas T-shirt Janice bought for him yesterday. The man scuttles over to the bed and starts to tug and tuck sheets more adeptly than anything Hal has ever seen. His veins pop out of his arms as if he is lifting weights at the gym. Hal always chastises Janice for insisting that Charlie, their eleven year old, make his bed before school every day. Now, he watches this man tuck sheets under the mattress until there isn’t a wrinkle in sight, smoothing the coverlet up over the pillows to finish off the job. When he moves towards the bathroom, Hal can see his little gold nametag, which indicates that he is “Benny” from Japan.
“Is that your real name?” “Excuse me, sir?” Benny steps out of the tiny bathroom—he’s already gathered up a pile of soggy white towels and tucked them under his arms. Hal pulls out the chair between the dresser and the bed and sits down so as to not mess up the perfectly smoothed coverlet. “I’m sorry to bother you. I was just wondering if Benny was your real name.” Benny smiles. “Oh no. This just easier for passengers and other crew members to pronounce.” “Oh. Well what’s your real name?” Benny tells him. “Yeah. I guess that would be hard to say all the time.” Hal opens a bottle of Evian beside him, the same bottle he told Janice not to open yesterday because he knew the ship would charge them for it (he had exaggerated and told her they’d charge twenty dollars for it, as he always does when trying to scare Janice out of doing something). “How long you been on this ship?” “Eleven months, sir.” “You don’t have to call me sir.” “Yes, sir.” Benny leaves the room for a moment to throw the towels into a hamper that hangs off the side of a cart he pushes up and down the hall. Hal laughs as Benny darts around. “This guy’s a riot!” On the television, the sports announcer declares another basket for Chicago. Hal has no idea who he was just talking to. “You gonna get off this thing soon?” Benny returns with freshly folded towels under one arm and a spray bottle filled with blue cleaning solution and a rag under another. “This my last month. Then I return to Japan. My wife just had a baby last month.” “Well congratu-fuckin’-lations!” “Thank you.” Benny blushes. “I have picture.” Benny walks timidly towards Hal, reaches into the pocket of his uniform, and retrieves a photo of a pretty young woman holding a tiny baby wrapped in a yellow blanket. She has a pink flower tucked behind her ear. Hal looks up at Benny and then back down at the picture. Benny wouldn’t look half bad with his arm around this gal. That’s what’s missing from the picture. She looks sort of lonely. Hal notices, as he holds onto the picture a second longer than he would usually hold onto such a thing, that she has smooth skin.
“My second son,” Benny tells him, excitedly.
Hal returns the photo to him, holding the edges of the paper in the way that Benny handed it to him. Benny places the picture back into his uniform and buttons up the shirt pocket, as if sealing an envelope containing information that could cost him his life. He makes his way to the bathroom to hang up towels and wipe down the toilets and mirrors. Hal can see him moving swiftly in the reflection of the bedroom mirror. He is finished in minutes. “Good-bye, sir.” “Bye, Benny.” And he is gone. Hal looks back at the game. The noise has started to bother him. He turns it off. He pulls out the stock quotes he retrieved that morning and reviews them again from the chair. His eyes wander over to the bed. He stands up and takes a look at the bathroom. The towels are all hung up evenly and straight, the washcloths folded above them, the mirror cleared of toothpaste speckles and water stains, the toilet left with a seal that states “THIS TOILET HAS BEEN DISINFECTED.” Hal has never cleaned a bathroom in his life. He goes back to his stock quotes, his eyelids heavy. He has no intention of going outside to the pool, to lunch, to the casino, or to one of the lounges. He thinks of Benny’s wife. Hal’s never dated a woman who wore flowers in her hair.
Tiny blue veins bend and curl around her calves like rivers on a detailed map. Hal is watching Janice fidget with her dress in front of the mirror. She yanks it down so as to smooth the creases around her stomach, but then she hikes it back up when she sees that her breasts look less perky. Hal knows this, not because he’s been watching her voluntarily, but because she has been narrating her little performance for a half an hour.
“Do you see these cottage cheese thighs, Hal?” Janice pulls up her dress, back to the mirror, squeezing and poking at her behind. “Three more treatments and these fat lumps will be all gone.”
“That’s super, honey. You want to turn up the volume for me?”
Janice reaches up to the television mounted in the upper corner of the cabin to turn up some action movie. She hadn’t anticipated Cable TV on the ship. “I still can’t believe you can watch television in the middle of the ocean. Seems sort of strange.”
“The wonders of modern technology,” Hal says, propping his head up with a pillow. “I can even get stock quotes in that Cyber Cafe. Great job picking this cruise-line, sweetheart. Great fucking job.”
“Thanks,” she says. “It’s about time for dinner, you know. We have the early 5:30 seating, Tonight’s dress is semi-formal, so I’ll lay your suit out for you. So did you get out to the pool today.” Hal looks up at Janice. “Oh, sure. I was playing water volleyball all afternoon. I nearly threw out my back I spiked the ball so many times.” Janice frowns. “Really?” “No, not really.” Hal watches Janice take his suit out of the garment bag in the closet and thinks that he’d rather be cleaning toilets with Benny than sitting in that dining room and making small talk with a bunch of senior citizens. Janet goes into the bathroom to touch up her make-up. She wonders what Hal will have planned special for dinner—maybe flowers or a gift waiting for her at the table. Her heart races with anticipation. Soon, they are both ready to leave. Janice exits the door and holds it open for Hal. Before he reaches the doorway, he stops, looks at Janice more intensely than he has since she can remember. “I’m not going,” he says. And she looks back at him. She knows what he means. She watches him loosen his tie, pull off the suit jacket, walk towards the bed and sit down. Looking away from Hal and down to the floor, she pictures Deirdre, down in some dark cabin below water level, making love to her husband. How they must crave one another; how they must fill each other with possibility. She feels the cells in her body constrict like once buoyant balloons, shriveling up with a stab to the surface. Turning around to walk down the hall, she will take the elevator to the Starlight Lounge. Once there, she will find Michael Rorah at his piano and request to hear a song she’s never heard before.