the day after i turned 16, i flew into yokohama and boarded a ship that took me around japan and its island chain, down to taiwan and finally hong kong. there were no passengers my age, not even close. after the first few days of self-imposed, teenage isolation a couple of the ship’s crew approached and invited me to an “after-hours” party. they said to keep it on the down low. i arrived around 10, down below deck in the “no-passengers-allowed area” to an already sodden, international group of lunatic fringe dwellers from the ship’s crew. i sat by the entrance to the room, trying not to be seen. to my young, untraveled perception this was a bacchanalian orgy straight out of a hieronymous bosch painting. in reality, it was a bunch of mostly young 20 and 30 year olds drunk on unattached life and the companionship of fellow travelers. my greeting party saw me and approached after a minute or two. it was the ship’s doctor, a forty-something, south African; good looking with that montgomery clift, 40’s era strength and vulnerability. His counterpart was a lithe, blonde australian dancer, who i had taken notice of on my first day and later found out was 23.
Rachael looked at me confident, unblinking, gorgeous. my heart slipped into my stomach. she took my hand and we made the rounds with the doctor performing the introductions: the cook, the magician, the piano player, first mate and of course the ship’s gigolo.
“gigolo!” i thought, but didn’t blink. i was inside the underground here, accepted for now, and i didn’t want to blow it. of course there’s a gigolo on the ship, for all the rich, old ladies. whatever, but i looked at him funny for the rest of the trip.
rachael was still holding my hand. it had been 5 or 10 minutes (maybe 2 or 3) and she was still holding my hand. oh man. she was beautiful and decidedly not american. these folks were from all over: lisbon, rome, moscow, helsinki, palm springs. these were my guides, my guardian angels and devils for the next 30 days, whenever i could join them.
especially rachael, who had tour duty when we were in port. i was glued to her the whole time and she seemed to actually enjoy it. laughing at the 1,000,000 buddahs and 1,000,000 japanese schoolgirls and the 1,000,000 japanese businessmen literally packed into subway trains. they drink a lot in japan, by the way. a lot.
one night in taipei, towards the end of the trip, the doctor introduced me to what he called the most civilized drink in any port, a JB on the rocks. after about the 3rd or 5th JB, i noticed his accent would kick into overdrive. so much so that, for instance, if he was to say “juggler” it would come out sounding like “gigolo”. stumbling down an alleyway, arm in arm between verses of waltzing mathilda; i confessed to the group my simple misinterpretation of the “juggler’s” role on the ship. they went mad. it was all i could do to scrape them off the road and get back to anchin port to make call in time.
my last night on the ship came quick. hong kong was the final port of call. all the crew, who had been together for the last 6 months, were going their separate ways. there was an “official” crew party. and by “official” it meant that i was not allowed. i wasn’t really allowed to hang with them at all, but they kept it low profile the rest of the time. now the captain and stiffer members of the crew would be there; off-limits to passengers. i was crushed.
i sat alone in my cabin with the guitar i had been given when my parents got divorced. i was trying to play a cheesy elton john song or something; milking the self-pity. there was a light knock, almost apprehensive. i quickly got up to answer and opened the door to rachael, holding two champagne glasses and looking like a golden-era movie star. my heart exploded and i swelled in all the right places.
she sat across from me and forced me to play her something. i’m sure i was awful but she acted like it was special. there was silence. i was a deer in the headlights. she took my guitar from my hands, laid it up against the wall and sat down next to me. she said, “to new friends in old places” and we clinked. there was silence again and i knew this was my chance, but i was fucking frozen. she smiled and looked at me, like you would look at a puppy chasing its tail. and i felt her coming closer (at least in my mind). i stopped breathing completely and began to let go of everything, it all stopped.
then there was a terrible banging and everything shattered. i leapt up in fear and scrambled to the door.
it was the doctor, dressed as a pirate (it was a costume party). “not to fear, i have a plan!” he noticed rachael and gave her an imperceptible wink, then looked at me as if he knew what he may have interrupted, but was too drunk to really care. he handed me the extra costume he was holding which he explained would hide my status as trespasser, especially at this late hour of inebriation. with great love and loathing for this gin-soaked, south african doctor who came to “rescue” me, I changed. and the three of us joined the festivities below deck and drank it in until dawn.
morning came hard, but it came nonetheless. we were so tired and littered by the end of the night, i think we all made our way back to our quarters without even saying goodnight or goodbye. i met my grandparents, whom i had barely seen on the trip and we made our way to the hotel in hong kong, where we would stay until our flight left the next day. that afternoon, on a guided tour in the downtown marketplace, my thoughts wouldn’t leave rachael. i felt i at least had to say goodbye, let her know.
i was waiting in some tailor shop to get fitted for a suit my grandparents wanted to buy me. i made some excuse about not feeling well and was off into the streets of hong kong. i made my way through the rain which battled the humidity in a death match for supremacy. a lot of running, wrong turns and a few aborted taxi rides later, i was at the ship. there was the doctor, wheeling his trunk down the landing. i could barely catch my breath.
“where (cough) is (cough) rachael?”. he smiled and looked as if he knew everything that was in my head and heart.
“dunno, man. she left 45 minutes ago. gone.”
“good luck, chris, good knowing you then.” a wink and then he was gone.
i ran around the general vicinity for a while, so soaked from rain and sweat my clothes began to slip off. i hunched down on some steps and tried to catch my breath. i stood up after a while to head home. she was standing right across the street; waiting for a light with a bunch of people i didn’t recognize. she saw me two beats after i saw her. her eyes brightened and then she looked slightly worried (a look i had never seen on her). i noticed there was some guy holding her hand. i wanted to run away, but i was pulled by an unseen hand, a tractor beam.
i got an awkward hug and a quick intro to her fiancée. no kiss in the rain, no happy ending.
i arrived back in l.a. to the summer high school party scene. i got high in a sandbox i used to play in when i was 5 and told my friends i was done with high school girls. it was older women from now on. like 18 or 19 year olds. maybe even 23