Heaven and Hell
Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. — Woody Allen
I led David to the nose of the ferry — it was a gusty day and the sea was choppy, so the ride was sure to be thrilling, and I didn’t want to miss a bump. The only other people who chose to sit in the bow were two older couples traveling together. When the boat pulled out of the Los Angeles Port and reached full speed, anyone attempting to stand was tossed about like jeans in the dryer. The two men and two women chatted and laughed about the tumultuous ride for a bit until one of the women grew quiet. Complaining of motion-sickness, she fixed her eyes on the horizon with laserlike intensity. When the novelty of the real-life roller coaster wore off, I turned my gaze to the book in my hands, silently thanking the fates that I’m not one of those people who gets ill from reading on planes, trains, cars, or, in this case, boats.
The passengers settled into their seats for the hour-long ride to Catalina Island. All, that is, but one.
He appeared to be the oldest among them (like, 80-something). To overcome the constant roar of the motor (and his probable impaired hearing), the man spoke in a near shout that was impossible to tune out. He and the seasick woman sat in the very front row, their backs to the prow, facing the rest of us. Evidently uncomfortable with silence, the man never let more than three beats go by before he continued his bellowing thread about his days during The War. He was a loud and annoying encyclopedia of facts — the total number of troops sent to Saipan, the number of Marines lost on Iwo Jima, and how many Japs were killed. Yes, he called them “Japs.”
For 55 minutes, I wanted nothing more than for the man to fall mute. Even the people traveling with him seemed fatigued by his clamorous monologue. But having been inculcated with the adage “respect your elders,” my brain would not allow my mouth to tell an old man to shut his goddamn yap. So, instead, I did what any respectful young woman would do in my position — I glared at him. It was my hope that his spectacle-free eyes could focus as far away as my face and that, noting my displeasure, he would shut his goddamn yap. I could have sworn that, on a few occasions, he looked right at me, but either he was numb to the daggers I was blasting at him from over my book or he reveled in their sting, because he never let up.
I’ve always considered myself a direct person. But despite my willingness to speak my mind in most situations, I shy away from unpleasant confrontations, even if I end up suffering further as consequence of my reticence. It wouldn’t be so bad if I could actually brush things off and simply shy away, instead of fester and stew and grow increasingly resentful of whomever it is I find irritating. I guess I experience with my boiling bitterness what Buddha meant when he said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” In situations where confrontation would mean upsetting some old guy who’s trying to relive his glory days, I’d rather clutch the hot coal in my hand than use it to burn him.
When it comes to younger — and, in my eyes — less innocent offenders of my peace, I wish I could be more like my friend Ollie. Ollie doesn’t hesitate to voice his frustration with those who tread on his tranquility. Once, as we were sharing coffee and a muffin inside Bread & Cie, a guy started digging through the trash bin a few feet away from us. He was up to his elbows in slop and I was dying to say something to make him stop because I was about to lose a blackberry, but the moment Ollie opened his mouth to tell the guy to knock it off, I begged him to let it go, and he graciously complied. Even indirectly, even though I wanted nothing more than for that guy to go away, I cringed at the discomforting idea of someone asking him to leave. Everyone, however, has her limit.
The first two evenings at Two Harbors on Catalina Island were quiet and blissful. David had planned the trip to be just that — he wanted to take me away from all the hullabaloo of home, to a place without Internet, TV, or phones, where we could hike through the hills spotting bison, stand watching the waves lap at the sand, or just sit in our room overlooking the sapphire-blue harbor, sipping wine we’d purchased from our favorite seller in L.A. a few days before. For two days, we walked and lounged and romanced — it was a taste of heaven.
If I have learned anything from dualism, it is that for every heaven there is a corresponding hell. On the third day, as if in punishment for our scandalously selfish and corporeal activities, David and I were cast into our own personal Hades. On that day, the harbors were besieged with children, as there was a regionwide Little League championship being held there over the weekend. A few groups of boys and their male parents (mothers were conspicuously absent) were staying at the same bed-and-breakfast as David and me. Though we feared the worst of them, the children turned out to be harmless, shrieking imps that were easy enough to avoid or intimidate into silence. The worst came in the form of one of the chaperones, a man who was Satan incarnate, evil lord and premier antagonist. He and at least a half-dozen feral boys shared with us a wall that was as audibly opaque as vellum. I could hear them breathing.
We did not suffer much the night they arrived — they were tuckered by the time they got in at 11 p.m. The torment began the following morning when, at 6:30 a.m., Lucifer began yelling at the children. Not the usual kind of parental yelling one might overhear, but really mean shit, like, “You’re a moron; you’re not even supposed to be here!” to a kid I assumed was not his blood, and “You idiot, why are you wearing those socks!? Stupid moron!” The yelling didn’t stop. David and I sighed heavily and complained to each other, and still, the assault continued unabated. I stood and stomped around, thinking that since their footsteps vibrated in our room, mine might give the man pause. But here’s the rub — if a person doesn’t stop to think that screaming at dawn might offend neighboring guests, or to consider whether spitting such vile things at kids who couldn’t have been more than seven years old might be unnecessary and/or damaging, he sure as hell is not going to have some kind of epiphany prompted by the sound of a few footsteps. After all, this was the Beast of the Underworld I was dealing with.
I wanted to rail into him, to humiliate and emasculate him in front of the children. I could tell from the brutish and juvenile things he was shouting at kids that it would be easy for an adult with a substantial vocabulary and a shred of psychological insight to make short work of him. But I didn’t want a scene, and from what I had heard so far, it was probable that Beelzebub would end up taking out his embarrassment on those poor wretches, demonstrating his strength in order to compensate for his weakness. So I muttered, “Jesus!” under my breath and continued stomping, to no avail. David, lying on the bed, looked as exasperated as I felt. I needed to be more direct.
I stepped up to the wall and slammed my fist against it in three deliberate thumps. The Prince of Darkness scrambled across the floor, and his voice fell, but I could still hear every word: “Shush, shh, I said be quiet, dammit!” When he was finished shushing and I was sure I had his complete attention, I spoke in a forceful tone, emphasizing every word so as to be sure he realized just how thin that wall was, “Can you please keep it down.” It was not a question. As I suspected, the devil turned out to be no more than a dog, and the yelling ceased. I climbed back into bed beside a grateful David, and realized, with relief, that my proverbial hand had finally stopped burning.