It’s the hush before my final game of pool; I opt to chalk the cue stick and scatter the balls on the last-exit cruise. I want to play out these last months with no false hopes reflected in the white ball. No death deniers in the black. No hospital wheelies, no zombies, no Jell-O-jigglers. The fewer pill pushers, the better.
Boris Schechter upon learning he has death-dealing pancreatic cancer, 2019, Vancouver, Canada
Outside these ceiling-to-floor windows the surface of Deer Lake ripples. The moss on the unused canoe that links the house to the lake sparkles with dew. When I open the door I can smell my missing partner Art, I’m sure he’s reclining on that motionless cloud. He designed this view for me. Without him and without health my outlook skates the surface; I own my body but live at a distance from it.
I count five hundred and three steps down the road and sigh as gravity pulls me my world-weary torso into Thunderbird’s hell-bent-for-leather seat. Crack sound bones as I torque my stiff neck to check back through the window.
On the highway, I set the heater to broil. My tolerance for this bone-chilling dampness lessens each day. The afternoon light clings to the side of my face. The modulated voice of the CBC radio newscaster rehashes two of Canada’s wins in the Tokyo’s Olympics.
Crossing the bridge, my fingers squinch the wheel. My achy ankle hinge flexes to release the pressure on the gas, my arthritic toes point to the heavens. The slightest miscalculation could send me plummeting. Saliva wets my guinea pink gums. Squinting over the edge, I make out a lacework pattern. Whatever’s hidden under this bridge scares the bejabbers out of my soul. The water’s magnetic pull brings nausea and hunger at the same time.
Disasters flick balloon thoughts in my skull. I imagine collapsing steel, firebombs and then worse: the inside of Art’s hospital ward. The funk of his slow death mixed with antiseptic cleaners. These subside as Birdie’s tires hit land, the ball of my foot pressing the pedal evenly. Cars mutate into ear-splitting gas guzzling trucks and I turn up the radio and drive with a hungry eye. My stomach flip-flops at each fast-food intersection.
After months of tap, tap, tapping – emailing and faxing I unearthed Beyond Travel Agency, the go-between company that sells passages on the ocean liner Luminous Liminality. Mister Singh, the company’s tight-lipped mouthpiece, wouldn’t talk about the cruise on the phone. Instead he gave me directions to his office: “Pass the used car dealership to the strip mall. Around back you’ll find our cargo container spray painted 1012/4 .”
“That’s it?” I ask.
“That’s all, sir.”
Couldn’t find the building on Google Earth or the business on the Internet, but just as he promised, here’s the godforsaken mall off King George Highway. Still no reading on the GPS. Is this really the place? The walls of my stomach quiver. I park behind the mall and pop the GPS back in the glove box. I welcome a breath-strip onto my tongue. Then old school, I stretch my lips in front of the mirror, checking my teeth for flecks of food. No need to check my yarmulke bald spot; I’m sure it’s still there.
My paunch expands when I unleash the seatbelt. Bi-bip! The doors lock as I cinch my raincoat, then I walk my grandfather’s camera-cane towards the rust-coloured container resting on blocks. There’s no sign indicating that this is a travel agency. The graffiti number is right and through the door’s window I can see a fax machine and the edge of a metal desk. Two crate-stairs up, I pull the door to stop the buzzer’s racket that’s tripped when I open the door.
Not one of the seven people greets me. I imitate the buzzer. There’s no posters advertising cruises. Only a faded framed 1972 business license hangs crooked on the steel wall behind him; the TV mounted catty-cornered plays CNN muted. Mister Singh’s name-tent sits on the middle desk at the third computer in this shipped modular office. The man behind the desk sips from a stained Melmac cup. Mister Singh’s my age, late sixties, with a grey uncombed beard, no part in his hair, and a saffron tunic that crumples around his rotund body. The circles under his eyes look packed. He could use a makeover. But then, I could lose 50 pounds.
Mister Singh clears his throat. When he peeks at me his bags droop and his head nods – approach here. When I stop, I am dead centre of the container looking at Mister Singh’s child-sized shoes.
“What do you want, Mr. …?” Mister Singh rises from his plastic chair and extends his tiny hand; his rings cool on my palm. His eyes cue me to sit down on the seat with the ashtray and seatbelt still attached. A red and black airplane seat, for Christ’s sake. Ripped from what crash?
As I wipe off the seat with my linen handkerchief, I expose my initials BS. The stench of the ashtray zaps me. I want to ask if I need to fasten the seatbelt, but instead I say, “Schecter. Call me Boris. I called about the Luminous Liminality.”
Confusion flickers in Singh’s eyes when he says, “Indeed, sir. You’re too young!”
“About the cruise?” I say thinking Duh. The ship is bound to be filled with older folks and people who are sick like me. I really really hate old people. They think one dumb thought and say it over and over again. Since Art died, I like my own company best. Still I need to chart somewhere to die.
Singh lifts his cup asking, “How’d you unearth us?”
“It’s…it’s a bit new-agey.”
Singh sips and shrugs at the same time.
“I took a drug Oxaliplatin and within minutes had this hallucination,” I tell him. “Men and women were screaming medical terms. They knew me, but I had no name. A cacophony of trucks honking, phones and doorbells ringing. There was an annoying buzzer involved. Like yours. When I put my hands over my ears the din changed into underwater sounds.”
Singh’s eyebrows form downward sloping question marks; his pupils the periods.
“Imagine plunging from heavy metal into Erik Satie.” I go on. “During the ocean’s piano concerto, a figure lounged on the sundeck of a sloop. His bathing suit was sun-baked, his hair too neat, and oiled like his shimmering skin. The skull on the cane was a dead giveaway. A nightmare really. I stopped taking the drug.” I shiver remembering. I don’t mention the screaming pleas that jolted me out of it.
As Singh balls an extremely loose piece of paper, tosses and misses the bin. He says, “Nightmares are inside us?”
“I was determined to find you.”
“Signalling Morse code?”
“Sort of. I asked others if they knew of a last-exit cruise. If this didn’t exist, I thought I should write a business plan to develop one.”
His head nods a couple of times and I add, “Us serial entrepreneurs don’t need original thinking; we need to listen carefully. My business savvy brother agreed the cruise could be a viable business. He had heard about a Dutch euthanasia ship for Zoomers.”
His eyebrows raise so I say, “Boomers with zip.”
His smile wanes, “The LL is not an assisted suicide boat.”
“I take your point. I emailed a friend of Art’s in the Caribbean ― he gave me the name that he got from a friend of a friend: Luminous Liminality. The name resonated. Still does. I tracked the ship on Earthwatch and did a round-the-world probe to hunt out your agency. You’re not an easy find.”
He smirks, “Beneath the radar.”
He picks up a hand-printed recipe card from his desk. “No matter green or gold, where can one find greater solitude or silence unmoored?” he waits. I pinch myself and say nothing. He continues, “The singing sea, isn’t it?” Singh expands his lungs, sizes me up and slips on his marketing manner as if a pair of glasses. “Luminous Liminality is the queen of possibility… Picture this:” he reads from the card, “fifteen decks, fine dining, two executive helicopters, an observation tower, a greenhouse, and a retractable onboard marina.” He drops the card and our eyes meet. “The ship travels around the world in two years. Dolphins swim along side. The naturalist will tell you where to view the humpback whales.” He reads louder, “Designed to meet all the traveller’s ‘end of life’ flights of fancy. There are spiritual facilities, two pools and an Aqua spa. The décor is out of this world…”
“Another world?” I interrupt. Before Art’s death and my delusions I could never fathom this; now I imagine him beside me and other worlds are plausible.
Singh says, “Once you step away, another life unfolds in the alluring ocean. Chandeliers illuminate your new path. The Norwegian ship’s futuristic design is beyond world class. Throw open your doors to your private teak balcony and contemplate the art of slow travel. Each stop well, … humm, ” there is a pause, “… a landscape painted by a master.” His head bobs, “All for the price of 元 250,000 a week.” He looks at me, “No more than renting a penthouse in the Four Seasons.”
I don’t have four seasons. To me, right now the land of the living is well…for the living. ‘For the birds’ as my mother would have said. Aleha ha-shalom.
Singh continues, “You will be treated like a King. Mmm…royalty.” He bows his head, “Your wish is their command, although some may cost extra.” I zip my lips thinking that the ‘wishes’ is a Disney line. “The price covers cuisine for the intrepid― never the same twice ― unless requested. Chefs serve ingenious avant-garde soul menus. The rate includes your own cabin and ports-of-call transportation. As the Buddha said, ‘better to travel than to arrive.’”
I want to be present in my baggage-body for my last days, instead of divorced from it. I ask, “Better than world class?”
“I said ‘beyond’ sir. The vast queen is the world class last chance.” Singh joggles his pot, the smell of chai creeps into my nostrils. I sway my head. Singh jolts up, his spiral buckle cants towards my eyes. “One moment sir.” His leather smell dissipates as he leaves me for the bathroom in back. The spring in this airplane seat irks my back; the whole thing teeters. If I was younger, I’d let this go. Now I take a stir-stick from Singh’s desk, break it into three, and place it as a shim to prop me evenly on the soiled pressboard floor.
Settling back into his chair, Singh continues. “The journey’s planned with your spirit and body in mind, isn’t it? Each port-of-call explores local culture: they’re telecast for the ship-bound travellers. Our thousand passengers come from each corner of the map. The legendary Buzz Strong cruised on this ship.” I glance at his cluttered desk searching my memory to recall what Buzz Strong looked like. I picture two blond mermaids fawning over the astronaut, although Singh hasn’t mentioned mythical half-human sea creatures.
“All that’s necessary, is your doctor’s form signed with your expiry date, plus verified bank statements.” He takes more air ― even this stop has been practised. “Three hundred ports. One hundred and fifty countries. One address.”
My super inner conflict kicks in. I am a homebody but travel could be my chance to connect with the domain of my body and play my last game of pool. That’s only if I can convince Dr. H. ‘If’ is a puny word for a monumental requirement. I ask, “Is there a brochure? A website? Facebook? Twitter?”
His arms stretch behind his head revealing symmetrical saffron sweat stains. “None.”
“This an experiment?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Who won’t risk the ocean?”
I ask, “What’s that?”
“Hmmm. Anyone from Canada gone on this cruise?”
Singh raises an eyebrow and in a hushed tone says, “Sir, no stowaways, one must qualify. Since we’ve been here.” He looks towards the light at the door… “let me see, one couple from Hope, a man from Desolation Sound, and a woman now in Point Roberts.” And louder with a smile, “And you?”
“What does it take …to qualify?”
Singh lifts himself using his desk as a crutch, “Isn’t this putting the cart before? No, no, we’re not there yet Mr. Schecter.”
“But.” I say, surely he knows that I’m not long for this world.
He lowers himself back down and says, “All in good time. All in ―”
“Those people?” I hesitate. “Did they buy from you?”
“We organized the couple over the phone.” He leans towards me. “Never again. The woman used the UK office.”
“How’d it go?” I ask.
“Well…” Mr. Singh sneaks a look at a postcard tucked in his Slinky mail holder. “The couple died within a day. Husband first.”
“Assisted?” I ask.
“Can’t say. I’m exclusively front-end.” He looks earnestly into my eyes, “I don’t think death serves as a good last memory to have of someone, even of a kitten. Personally, I’d rather go see the Taj.”
There is a long trailing bleat. And then another. The phone rings five times before the woman in the buttercup coloured sari progresses, her cross-trainers screech on the floor. I glance at her. A reflex: eyes go to movement. She whispers into the receiver, “Beyond Travel. Where on earth do you want to go?” My life, crammed with contradictions, needs a set course to give it grace. I desperately want this stop skating on the surface like a water bug; I want to go out in style. I can clear my throat louder than anyone I know. “I have an expiry date.”
Singh’s face rearranges from sympathy to now-we’re-talking attention. “And…?”.
“Every lead asks the same thing, ‘what is the date?’ My GP has the specialist’s date but he won’t discuss death and refuses to give me my expiry date unless he talks to someone who has been on the cruise.” I explore Singh’s kind brown eyes, while I hope he doesn’t notice my own pool. I take a breath, “Dr. H is a pharmaceutical get-better therapies guy. A scientist who needs the facts, objective data. Dunno what I’m supposed to say. Will you talk with him?”
Singh says, “Send him over.” The theme from Mission Impossible rings on a cell phone and the woman in the tomato sari answers.
Even in my most hopeful fantasies, Dr. H wouldn’t travel here. And if he did, there’s no way this office or Singh would convince him to give me my due date. He’d deny me on the anomaly of the address alone. But NO is not an option.
“He’ll call?” I say testing the waters.
“No information over the phone, sir.”
I nod. “Can you send someone over to his office?”
His back goes way up.
I don’t believe the meek will inherit. How am I going to pull this off?
He opens his desk drawer, moves paper clips and memos, “Provide your expiry date, then proof of finances. After that we can look at the schedule.”
“My accountant considers me rolling in money.” I am certainly at the head of the middle class. “What a guy he is, humourless as a tumour.” My eyes shift as I make myself look at Singh’s face, “Could you help me out here? Root out someone to produce my expiry document?” I knead my skull. “I’d show appreciation.” I do believe anything’s possible with money.
The corners of his mouth letdown, “Boss, you have only one expiry date.” He pronounces expiry as if it were a God.
I fill with shame, at my age I should judge character better. My eyes focus on the crack between the container door and floor. I say, “Kidding. Only kidding.”
Consummate salesman, he laughs, “Of course.”
A limp awkward handshake follows. I hold my head high, the door buzzes. I want a future, the future is death, it’s complicated. Or is it simple? My legs vibrate as I step past smelly bins. Without a plan, I sink into the car.
Four grey cars sit dully in the lot. Without a plan, I sink into the car, my nervous system past recommended voltage. For a long time I sit, stare at nothing, forget about starting the engine. This is a long high mountain like everything these days. Maybe I want this chance to crown my life in champagne too much? But I’m up for the challenge. In time I pull away from the lot in my metal-protection-against-the-world.
My eyeballs scratch. A stomach of squirrels grab my gut and demand a mound of Tex-Mexness. No, I don’t want to walk into one of those places in a food court that features Wendy’s and Tim Hortons’ doughnut shop in one, reminiscent of my high-school cafeteria. I am what I choose not to eat. I let the “I-don’t-know-what-to-do-now” attention-seeking pangs demand away.
The mall retreats and the waterfall in my mouth swamps the bottom teeth as I cross the bridge. There’s that water. The aerial perspective makes me stupid with dread. Five years ago, AIDS acted like a threadbare blanket to smother our retirement scheme of sailing the world with a crew and chef. I paid for attraction to my own. Nothing is going to get in the way of this voyage. I pound the steering wheel. Nothing.
I haul out my walnuts from the glove box, and munch the little brains as I drive. Walnuts with their three-dozen neurotransmitters for brain function will theoretically improve performance for tomorrow’s crossword. The question is how many more crosswords do I get to fill out? Death is an e word with seven or ten letters – endgame or extinction.
With my cheeks packed, impressions of the cruise flit in my head and compose me. That, and traffic moves nicely in the HOV lane. Inspired, I imagine an easy way out Noah’s Ark triumph: flying colours and textured surfaces, fresh sea breezes, waltzes under the stars, and the finest liquor. Beauty prevails within the Liminality’s decompression chamber. The vessel provides a made-to-measure leave-taking with a smooth-sailing dance with death and a blinding moment of peace. That is a place for my dust to settle.
The fecundity of foods engulfs me; I visualize pyramids of melon balls and lamb Vindaloo. No diets. No eating to live nor even living to eat but dying to eat. Simply taste and refinement. No junk, no bridges to cross or floss, merely the ship’s bridge and the bridge that I will shape with my masterful hands to sink the blue ball in the corner.