The Decadence of Memory

I’ve been on several Caribbean cruises. I’m also terrified of next month’s automatic bill payments. The juxtaposition of those two facts, both as true as they are incongruous next to one another, is something I’ve had to learn to understand, live with, and acknowledge as part of myself.

My parents tell me they both spent their youth in drudgery, mired in the continuous labor that the US expects of even teenage immigrants if their parents are sickly or non-Anglophone. Mom had nothing; Dad lost everything to the Communists. These days I wonder how much of that story is true, how much embellished afterward to suit their politics, but they have the photos to show that they bought the house we lived in in New Jersey when it was a carved-out shell that probably merited demolition, right out of high school, and spent the next several years renovating it on their own before starting to have children. A seven-year gap between marriage and childbirth was unheard-of in that community, in those days, but that is what they put in to make their lives look the way they wanted.

Dad leveraged a frugal lifestyle and business acumen to funnel his sales-floor earnings into real estate, and from there, into investment properties that required little maintenance. Dad flipped houses and rented houses, and eventually, he could just do that. Even more eventually, we could sell the most laborious properties and keep the ones that needed only the occasional repair, while otherwise living off of investment interest. Dad’s sense of which way the economic winds were blowing is and was a superpower, and he managed to settle into South Florida’s real-estate market at a time when dozens like him were making fortunes on it. That fortune made sure we lived well.

I went to a private university in the United States and a public university as an international student. I do not worry about student loan debt. What little I have has my parents’ name on it, and they paid everything my 50% scholarship didn’t.

I didn’t have an allowance. My parents handed me $20 and $40 and $60 at a time, usually unasked-for, to make sure I was never cornered into using the credit card they gave me, also unasked-for, “for emergencies.” When I started making money on my own, I spent my earnings on online shopping, mostly for Beast Wars merchandise and D&D miniatures. Debt and interest were far scarier, to this family of new money, than these indulgences.

The enormous cruise ship Oasis of the Seas, until recently the largest in the world, docked at St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.
Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, where my family was invited for a family friend’s quinceañera. Until recently, this was the largest cruise ship in the world.

My family went on many cruises. We started with Royal Caribbean, a higher-end cruise line, and switched to less-expensive Carnival over time. We visited the usual sites: Cozumel, Antigua, New Providence, Tortola, St. Croix, Labadee, Santo Domingo, Curaçao, Aruba. We cavorted on beaches and drank with strangers, we took historic tours and bought shot glasses. I have a painting of fish I bought in Santo Domingo, a carved mask statue and local spirits bottle I bought in southern Mexico, maps I ordered online from a web site I saw advertised on a ship to make sure I can always look up and see my roots and hers, and a whole series of other souvenirs. Cruise ship dining halls are how I discovered and first sampled a variety of dishes I try to replicate now and then, and how I introduced my family to amaretto and myself to port wine, and how I learned the difference between Camembert and brie. Cruise ship dining halls are some of the last places where I shared meals with my parents that were genuinely nice and without hidden acrimony.

I had lunch for breakfast with strangers in a cruise ship dining hall, after nursing a hangover well past breakfast hours. That’s how I discovered salmon almondine.

I danced salsa in onboard cigar bars and taught my cousin’s wife what a good lead feels like in the onboard nightclub. I watched the starkest display of intra-POC hostility I have ever seen as the two largest groups in that nightclub—African-Americans and Cuban-Americans—traded off American and Cuban music and all vacated the floor with a hiss and a glare whenever the other’s songs came on, with the harshest words from the lightest skins. I read in libraries with wine vending machines between the shelves. I drank Corona from plastic bottles in hot tubs with my siblings and piña coladas at swim-up bars, with brother and sister beside me sharing in drunken laughter.

I learned the layout of the ships, and where I could go if I wanted to simply disappear. I found places my relatives wouldn’t think to check and hardly anyone else would even see, so that I could lie out and tan in a Speedo without drawing any attention to myself, or read quietly, or nurse a tropical mixed concoction over my own thoughts, and make sure my time was my own. I remember being too in denial to admit that I wanted that privacy because what I thought of then as pecs I think of today as breasts, and what I thought of then as “introverted and weird” I know today as “autistic.” I remember agonizing over whether to visit the Friends of Dorothy space on my last cruise, knowing something wasn’t what I thought it was but not yet comprehending it. I remember not visiting.

I remember the dark wine stain some of my linen pants, and never telling my family that it happened because the older woman I’d seduced on the dance floor knocked over her wine while we were wrapped around each other. I remember the stars.

I may not get to do any of that again. I have fled the strange, disturbing, beautiful place that made Caribbean ocean liners far more accessible to us than they are to most Americans. It will be decades before I can even begin to imagine such an extravagance again. What I experienced as a desperately unsure egg, I may never get to recapitulate, revise, and remake as a magnificent trans lesbian, with years more culinary verve (thanks, Ania!), years more historical knowledge, and years more understanding of just how rare those experiences were.

My parents didn’t grow up wealthy, but they made sure I and my siblings did.

That’s a hard tangle of memories to work through when next month’s rent isn’t guaranteed, when the medical expense of getting rid of the rest of my offending hairs is going unpaid, when my Beast Wars collection is packed in boxes here and gathering dust in Miami because I can’t afford to finish it and maybe never will, when the sheer decadent joy of sailing around my ancestors’ conquered homeland eating fine food and drinking copiously feels so distant it might as well have happened on another planet.

Add that to the list of things I miss.

The Decadence of Memory