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Elisabeth Haen

photo of Liz reading her narrative©2012

Just Shut up and Direct Me

After sitting through a week-long education conference, I signed up for a harbor cruise to celebrate my first trip to San Diego. The meager fee for the cruise didn’t bother me—it wasn’t until much later that I realized I needed to supply my own transportation to and from the harbor. This epiphany prompted an emotional breakdown. To soothe my crisis, the director of the conference provided me with instructions on how to get to the cruise. A flurry of words like “taxi” and “train” and “red line” bombarded me. I barely ride the train in Minneapolis, but now I was expected to explore one in this new city. As I wrung my hands in front of the director, he had no idea what images were rushing through my mind. Most of these visions ended with me living on the streets on San Diego for the rest of my life because I missed the last train to my hotel room. I was a mess.

I knew how to help myself: go back to my hotel room and pick a great outfit to wear to the cruise. Apparently, this seemed like the best way to calm myself—I read somewhere that extreme stress can trigger horrible lapses in judgment, and I clearly was suffering from that. At the time, I thought I certainly couldn’t go in what I had on. I looked like a tourist with my large “I heart San Diego” t-shirt, capri jeans with frayed ends, and discolored blue sandals. The only items I was missing from this terrible ensemble was a neon colored fanny-pack and a large straw hat. I couldn’t go looking like this—I had to take a shower, put on make-up, and straighten my hair. Once I stepped outside, however, I knew the error of my choices. In my desire to look good, I dressed using multiple layers and long jeans in weather that required shorts and a tank top. In the few blocks walking to the train station, every crevice on my body was damp with sweat despite the cool air sweeping across my skin. Unfortunately, a breeze can’t quell inappropriate attire and frayed nerves. I glanced down to my watch as my hair started sticking to the back of my sweaty neck. I was late and I was going to miss the boat.

As I approached the train station, I knew to search for the red line, the only phrase I remembered from the cruise director. My breathing started becoming more labored as I realized that every tram was called the “red line” and now I had no idea what to do. I searched for a friendly face at the train station and found none. I walked towards the ticket clerk but immediately turned around when I found he was engaged in a heated discussion with a homeless man. I couldn’t take this, so I called my husband at work.

“Hello, Wells Fargo Commercial Real Estate, this is John.”

“JOHN! Oh my god, I’m doing to die at the train station! I hate the director of this stupid cruise!”

This is not an uncommon phone call for my husband to receive in the middle of the day. Whenever he hears me reference dying in an unfamiliar place, he knows exactly what he needs to do: lead the simpleton to her destination. He quickly pulled up directions to the harbor cruise and calmly described any landmarks I’d see as I turned a corner or what the next street sign would be. Since I was in the midst of a mental catastrophe, I was anything but nice to him. I snarled whenever his directions were slightly off. I barked orders at him. I growled “just shut up and direct me” when he tried to talk about how nice it was in San Diego. A few times I may have threatened him bodily harm.

As I reached my destination, I noticed that the boat hadn’t left. As my husband was explaining he hopes I have fun on the cruise, I curtly told him that “I’m here” and hung up. I grabbed my ticket from the director and scowled at him for putting me through this. My husband called me back. I answered and without listening to him, and I coldly stated, “I’mhereandI’lltextyouwhenthecruiseisdonebye.” I couldn’t talk now; I had to get through the gauntlet of kids.

Toddlers ran up and down the narrow walkway onto the vessel while teenagers congregated and completely blocked the entrance. A screaming four year old shattered my eardrums as I entered the first level of the ship; his mother had just denied him Goldfish crackers being sold at the dust covered bar that a twenty-something cruise employee was manning. His shirt said “Ask me anything: I’m helpful!” but I begged to differ. Even as my fellow passengers ordered drinks from him, he never took his eyes or hands away from his cell phone. I clenched my hand as I thought about grabbing the employee by the collar and demanding the snot-nosed kid get his damned crackers. Instead, I scrambled for the stairs to reach the top level of the boat.

As I reached the top floor, I scanned the deck for an open seat. Again, running and screaming children assaulted me along with drunk Brazilians screaming “We are speaking Portuguese; we are from Brazil. Isn’t our English amazing?” I was about to punch one of them, a short blonde woman who was wearing a large t-shirt as a very small dress, when I noticed an open spot in the middle of the deck. I decided to lunge for the spot and start going to my happy place. This pleasant harbor cruise was turning into Dante’s journey through the bowels of hell. I needed my happy place, or I needed a stiff drink.

As I sat there, a young mother and her two children sat down close to me, still within an arms length of me. A young girl, about four years old, sat closest to me as the mother cradled what looked like a groggy infant. I purposefully avoided eye contact as I didn’t want to be asked to help with something. This woman, who brought two kids on a cruise by herself, was clearly missing some sense; she would probably ask a complete stranger to change her child’s diaper or even worse. And if this four year old hadn’t caused trouble already, she would soon join the rest of the kids that were crying or screaming. Just as I started to consider all of the unthinkable things this girl and her sibling were capable of, she looked up at me and smiled. Could she be trying to win me over only to ask me for something? But it didn’t take me long to realize she wasn’t looking at me; a man was walking towards both of us.

This man was obviously not a stranger as the girl ran towards him and jumped into his arms. He carried her back to the mother, and the infant cooed as he sat down. He had the good sense to sit on the other side of her and nowhere near this sweaty, grumpy-looking mess. Both the mother and he looked young but weathered. His hands were dirty and calloused, and she had circles under her eyes. His shaved head shone with a caramel color, causing the tan lines around his eyes to stand out. He looked like a construction worker. Yet his voice was gentle with the girl and mother, barely above a whisper. I had to strain to hear what he was saying, as if he was sharing a secret intended only for them. Both the mother and he wore clothes that had seen their last day but lived on. His t-shirt was faded black with gold lettering that the little girl was tracing with her fingers. He had a tear in his jeans at the knee, the reason being obvious after he put the girl down and knelt next to her. The mother’s white long-sleeved shirt had a few faded stains on it, obviously from the infant experiencing a meal for a second time. Her mousy brown hair was pulled back not for style but for utility. Once in awhile, the infant would grab at a loose strand that she would then tuck behind her ear. In contrast to the man, her skin was fairer. As the man was kneeling down with the girl, I overheard the mother say to herself that she needed to “stand up to stretch my legs.” She slowly swayed with the baby in her arms, cradling it and scrunching her nose and softly giggling. Her loose jeans were held up only by a belt. Even the infant’s socks were one size too big as the left one dangled off of its toes. The gender of the infant was unclear, as the socks were pink, the pants blue, and the shirt a soft green. The scene reminded me of the Naked Emperor; this family was enjoying their time as if no one told them that their clothes were disheveled. But, their afternoon wouldn’t be ruined if this revelation of their clothes came. They were enjoying each other, fashion be damned. No one in that family sighed with exhaustion or frustration. Instead, the adults played with the baby, laughed quietly with the little girl, and rubbed each other on the shoulder.

I looked at myself. I had laid out at least three shirts to see which would best go with my favorite pants. The time I spent picking out my shoes was ridiculous and I even tried on a few different sandals to see which one made me most resemble a model. I carefully considered what shirts had complimentary colors and could be worn, and I would never have dipped into the dirty clothes pile. I had purchased some new clothing in San Diego, but the decision was made that they were too “touristy” and would make me look awful. The frustration with my wardrobe, let alone the trip getting to the cruise, overwhelmed me and pushed me to the brink of insanity. However, this family was calming.

“Daddy, can we go see the dolphins?” the little girl asked, pointing to a mass of people on the left side of the vessel. The thought of entering this crowd made me cringe. But without a word, he took her hand and walked towards the railing.

“Lily, don’t get too close. Stay by me.” I heard him say as her hand left his. It wasn’t a shout; it was more of a simple warning. Instead of turning around and snapping at her father for bossing her around, as I would’ve done, she leapt back to his side and tugged on his pants. For a moment, she looked back to her mother, but the infant had her preoccupied. Instead, she met my eyes. At first, I was flustered for being caught. After watching this family for the last fifteen minutes, I knew what this girl would think of me. My eyes darted in a different direction, but I caught myself looking back towards the father and girl. Again, she caught my gaze. Instead of immediately looking away, I smiled. She started to hide behind her father’s legs, but then she peaked out and briefly waved at me. A warm feeling rose in my chest, and I sunk back into my seat. I realized that up until this point, I had been sitting at the edge of the bench as if waiting for the first moment to flee.

The trip itself was generally eventful. The military base we cruised by had helicopters coming and going. Sailboats in the harbor came right next to the ship and offered everyone a warm welcome. Fat sea lions hardly moved as they sunbathed on rocks, unfazed by the hoards of people taking pictures of them. Despite all this, I was still mesmerized by the family. After the dolphins, the little girl wanted a snack and proceeded to dig out crackers from her backpack. A game developed between her and her father, where she would throw the crackers into his mouth from a couple inches away. He would cheer when she made it and tickle her when she missed. A few rounds of this game passed, and I found myself wanting to play. I wanted to be invited to share in the fun.

My desire to play was cut short as I noticed we were returning to the dock. The family slowly started to pack up while others rushed past them to be first in line to exit. Typically, I would be one of them, pushing through the elderly to be the first person off. Yet, the pressure to escape did not envelop me this time. I slowly got up and passed by the family. I smiled at the girl one last time, and she again waved. The father and mother had not noticed me throughout the trip, and I would be leaving no impact on them. The infant was now sleeping in its car seat that the mother rocked with her foot. Their life would be moving on while I would be stuck in this moment.

As I walked down the stairs to the main floor, the crowd gathered near the exit of the ship. I lingered at the back, continuing to watch the people around me. My earlier scornful look had been replaced by a peaceful smile as I listened to a nearby child quietly ask questions of his mother about where they were going next. It seemed that everyone had been taking hints from my family upstairs. No child was screaming, the Brazilians quit yelling, and that lowly employee actually put his phone away to help some patrons. My body was no longer covered in sweat and I relished the coolness of the harbor air. When I got off the ship, I leaned over the guard rail to listen to the slow and methodic waves beat against the wooden dock. It seemed like I was the only person there, and it felt lonely. Not the lonely that begets sadness, but the kind that encourages hope that you will have someone, or many people, to share these moments with.

This is the feeling that persuaded me to call John again. I knew I should call him to ease his concern that I had perhaps died on my travels. I also wanted to share this tranquil moment with him; I needed to share it with someone, so why not the person I love most? I made my way out onto the sidewalk and retraced my steps to the tram station. Because of John’s help, I could easily find my way back to my hotel, and I smiled.
I dialed his work number, and he didn’t pick up. Maybe he was out to lunch or dinner, so I called his cell phone. He still didn’t pick up. I called his work number two more times, and his cell number three more times. Still no answer.

“Damnit John, why are you never around?!” I said aloud as I waited for the red line. I could feel the sweat starting to cover my skin once again.