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Kaleena Madruga

On a Cruise to Mexico

short story - fiction

I’m on vacation with my wife and kids in Mexico. A seven day cruise along the Gulf. We’re on day three and my wife is stretched out on a lounge chair next to the pool. No one informed me that the pools on cruise ships use salt water, and I’m a little unpleasant about it. My wife is small and bossy and has copper colored hair. Most of the wives on this cruise ship are fat with unflattering hairstyles, which makes me feel pretty good. I have my Boston Red Sox hat over my face so she can’t tell if I am sleeping or not.


“Where are the kids?” she says in a tone that suggests she isn’t particularly concerned about their location.


I peek through one of the small air holes in my hat to see if she’s looking in my direction. She’s not, of course. My wife wears giant sunglasses that make her look like a bug. A tiny droplet of sweat makes its way down her collarbone towards the neckline of her jade swimsuit. I think to reach over, wipe it away with my finger and taste her, but I decide to continue my pretending-to-be-asleep charade for a bit longer instead.


The entertainment crew has come out onto the deck and they are clapping their hands to lively music. I can hear the fat wives and their husbands begin to join in. Cruise employees are part of the inclusive experience. They perform party games and dance around in bright-colored shirts to remind you that you’re on vacation. They’re young and tan and happy in a way that’s too insincere for my taste. I remove my hat from my face and squint over at my wife to see if she’s clapping along. She isn’t. She looks irritable.


I turn to my left to see my wife’s younger sister Catherine sheep-dogging my son and daughter towards our chairs, looking frazzled.


“Can you take them, please?” she says.


“What happened?” my wife asks, lifting her bug glasses up on top of her head.


“Olivia started her period.”


Olivia is my daughter and she is twelve. She is kind of a brat, but I think she means well. I like her a lot. Right now Olivia looks miserable. She has a complimentary striped green towel bunched up around her waist and her face is red and she’s squinting. People think Olivia is dumb or angry or both because she squints a lot, but she actually just can’t see very well. We got her glasses but she refuses to wear them most of the time and says she looks like a complete moron in them. I really can’t fight her on that one.


“What?” my wife says, jumping up from her chair.


“Yeah. Can you take her?”


My wife pulls Olivia over to her chair for some girl time. I guess Catherine is technically a girl too, but I doubt Olivia wants to spend that kind of time with her. Catherine invited herself on this trip right after her and my wife’s father passed away. With my wife losing her dad and the kids missing a grandpa, I suggested that we cancel the trip altogether. My wife said something along the lines of “don’t be ridiculous,” and before I knew it, Catherine was agreeing to help out with the kids and charging her room on our credit card. “It will be fun,” Catherine had insisted. “You need to lighten up.”


Women are always telling me what to do.


Olivia looks like she’s going to have a melt down of some sort so I turn my attention back to Catherine and my son David.


“What did he do?” I ask, pointing at David.


Catherine looks up at the sky. “The ice cream machines on this boat are out of control. There’s one in every corner! He’s had a lot.”


I think to lecture Catherine on allowing our six-year-old son to have so much sugar, but my wife will be much better at it. Plus, I know that she doesn’t like me all that much.


“We’ll take him. Go shower and rest. You’re still going to help them get ready for dinner? I think it’s at six.”


“Six-thirty.” My wife barks. Catherine bolts off before I can say anything further, almost knocking over a flamboyant cruise dancer on her way. She’s kind of high maintenance. I think she should lighten up, actually. “Alright,” my wife says to me. “I’m going to take Olivia up to our room. We’ll see you for dinner.”


Dinner? That’s like three hours from now. I look over at my bloated son and I actually kind of miss Catherine. I turn back toward my wife to object but she is already pulling Olivia away.

“So,” I begin. “How was the ice cream?” David shrugs his shoulders and looks around the deck. I know that fathers and sons are supposed to get along, but David much prefers the company of his mother. Olivia will always go to the movies with me or ask me about stuff in the garage, but David doesn’t care. He just wants to be babied. If David wasn’t so persistent about going on this cruise for his birthday, I think he’d be equally satisfied sitting at home cuddling next to my wife with his thumb in his mouth. Sometimes I wonder if we’re doing anything helpful for our children.


If David answered me, I missed it, so I ask him if he wants to take a seat next to me and enjoy the sun. He tells me he’d rather go in the pool.


“Really?” I ask. “It’s salt water.”


“So?” he asks.


“So it burns your eyes. It’s like being in the ocean. Plus there’s a million people in there.”

“Isn’t it the chlorine stuff that burns your eyes?”


I frown.


“Ok, what about the hot tub then?” he asks. The hot tubs are not filled with salt water but there are usually kids with runny noses and large men with hairy chests inside them. Not my favorite combination. I know my wife will be mad at me if I don’t go with him, so I secure my baseball hat atop my head and stand.


“Let’s go.”


David splashes into the hot tub too aggressively for my taste. I ease in next to an older couple and a larger italian man who, of course, is covered in a forest of black chest hair.


“How’s it going?” I say, trying not to sound completely uncomfortable. The hot tub goers tell me their names: Jane and Dave are the couple, William “call me Bill” is the hairy man. The children don’t introduce themselves.


“That’s my son David.” I gesture to my son, who is rotating in circles in the center of the hot tub. Dave brings attention to the fact that they share a name, and David seems perturbed that someone so much older could have anything in common with him.


Jane asks us where we are from and I say New England and she looks at her husband like this is a very exotic place. Bill tells us he’s been out that way. “Good food, good people,” he says. Neither of these things are true but I nod. Jane and Dave are from Arizona, and while I really don’t want to know anything about Arizona, it does intrigue me that all of us are on this boat, sharing a hot tub.


Dave asks if David is my only child. I tell him no, that my wife and daughter are upstairs. I don’t mention Olivia and her period or the fact that Catherine is with us, too.


“How lovely,” Jane says, and I can tell she means it. “Dave and I never had kids. He used to be a lawyer and I worked as a nurse for many years. Always too busy! We’ve gone on a few cruises together and it’s nice. But I love to see the families. Children are such a blessing.”

I ponder this. How many times I’ve wanted to be alone with my wife. How many times I’ve dreamt of the two of us on a sandy beach drinking Mai Tais, having sex all night. Jane is jealous of me and my bossy wife and ice cream addicted son and menstruating daughter? She doesn’t know anything.


I can’t honestly tell if my wife likes being a mother, but she definitely doesn’t seem to like being a wife.


Once we became parents, it was pretty apparent that she didn’t want to be at home doing the mom thing all the time. We found out we were pregnant with Olivia about five minutes after we got married. My wife handled it better than I did. Olivia was an easy kid, she really was, but I could see that my wife was antsy to go back to work. She always makes the kids their lunches in the morning and hugs and kisses everyone, but sometimes I think she’s going through the motions of it all, like she robbed herself of a more eventful life.


We chat for a while until David interrupts, telling me he’s ready to go. I nod to my new hot tub friends, saying nice to meet you, and I try to step out without kicking anyone. David does not assert the same effort.


I decide that I want a cocktail and I ask David if he wants to come with me to the bar. He nods excitedly. I order a Jack and Coke, David orders a Shirley Temple. I tell him that that’s a girl’s drink and he looks at me in a way that makes me feel like a shitty person. We sit in silence for a while, enjoying our beverages. Dave and Jane walk by us and wave. When our cheap glasses have nothing but ice cubes inside them I tell David that it’s probably time to head up to the room and deal with the girls.


We walk to our cramped quarters, room 208, and I see David tugging at his motion sickness bracelets.


“Please,” I say to him. “For the love of God, do not take those off.” David looks up at me with big guilty green eyes. We enter the room and Olivia is laying on the bottom bunk, looking like a little frog.


“Where’s mom?” I ask.


“Shower,” she responds flatly. David sits at the desk and immediately gets enthralled in his hand-held video game. I sit next to Olivia and tentatively pet her head. I’m pretty sure periods don’t make your head hurt, but I don’t want to piss her off. I can tell Olivia wants to cry more, but now that I’m here she won’t.


Catherine bursts through our door, looking a little less ragged than usual.


“Let’s go,” she says to Olivia and David, throwing a thumb over her shoulder. She takes the kids to her room to get ready and I mouth “thank you” as she exits. She rolls her eyes.

The bathroom door is open just a bit, and I peek inside. I can see the outline of my wife as she showers. She is slow and methodical as she shampoos her hair, turning her body one way and the other. I think to join her, but I know the water is scalding hot the way she loves it, the way I hate it. She tilts her head back and the soap waterfalls away from her scalp. We spend so much time this way. Close but distant. Me wanting to touch her, and then wanting to let her be.


I walk back to the bed and slide into the bottom bunk. I hear the water shut off. My wife comes out moments later in a robe and a towel wrapped around her head. She smiles at me, asks if the kids are with Catherine. I nod.


“Poor Olivia.” she says, taking a seat at the ugly desk chair. I make a weird grunting sound, unsure how to respond.


“You know I met a couple in the hot tub today that was jealous of us?”


“You went in the hot tub?” She scowls and it makes me laugh.


“Yeah. The wife said she wished she had had kids to go on vacation with.” My wife snorts but her face does not look unkind. She seems like she is searching for something loving to say.

“Well…” she allows. She looks around the room. “Can you believe how scheduled these dinners are?” she asks. I shake my head. “Next vacation we’ll do something less controlled.”

“And maybe something we want to do instead of what David wants to do.” My tone isn’t as nice or playful as I wanted it to be. I see my wife’s lips tighten.


We are quiet for what feels like a while. She asks if I wish we didn’t have children. Her sharp chin is resting on the top of her hand, making her seem like a little girl to me.


“Where did that come from?” I ask.


“I don’t know,” she says. “I was just thinking it.”


“I love Olivia and David. They’re the best. But sometimes I wish I could have more time with just you.”


My wife looks surprised, as if spending time with her is a strange thing to want. She doesn’t say anything else, just smiles.


“Do you want to get ready for dinner?” I ask. She shakes her head and gets up from the desk to lay beside me, a cramped space for us.


“No,” she says. “I want to just lay here.”


My hand finds hers and we both stare at the crappy wooden slates of the bunk bed, feeling the movement of the waves far beneath us.


“How much do you want to bet David is going to take his motion sickness bracelets off and puke on Catherine?” I ask. My wife laughs loudly. I like it so much.


I wonder what Dave and Jane laugh about when they are alone together.

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