Jan 23

Jaime and I woke up for breakfast surprisingly easy, considering neither of us got more than two hours of sleep. I was nervous about going to the dining room after last night, embarrassed about her possible reaction to the poem. But, as always, she was all smiles. I had finished eating and was on my way out of the dining room when she stopped me and said, "Thank you for the words." I was hoping she would lead me to one of the lifeboats and jump me, but a warm thanks was better than a punch in the nose.

I went back to bed on a full stomach and fluttering heart. I woke up to Jaime yelling at me to get dressed, we were going to land. I scrambled up and made it out to the gangway in time to find out the weather and sea, snowy and choppy as usual, were too much for a landing. Instead we were going to get a zodiac ride around Pleneau Island. The Naked Shackeltons, now officially Jaime, Unmarried Gay Couple, Steve, and me, and not Sharon and Michael, wound up in a zodiac with a married heterosexual couple named Mary and Steve, with Angela as our driver. Bob immediately called our boat The Best Zodiac Team Ever, like a kid would call a roller coaster or a flavor of Now And Laters The Bestest Ever!

No truer words had Bob spoken Ė the trip was amazing. The dense snowfall cut any visibility down to about twenty yards and none of us could tell which direction we were going, much less which direction it was back to the ship. And every direction looked the same. Unnerving as that was, the limited scenery was breathtaking. We were surrounded on all sides by magnificence. Bobbing penguins punctured the bluish-green sea around us. Thirty to fifty penguins at a time would arch up, out and over the water, then plunge back down only to resurface two seconds later twenty feet away. The whole movement was so fast and fluid. It was strange to think that these were the same animals that won my award for Clumsiest Land Animal. They have little duck feet on spiny legs with no knees. They waddle instead of walk. And when they get tired of walking they fall over onto their stomachs and push themselves along with their flippers. Watching them scale rock faces is one of the most tedious things Iíve ever seen in nature. They canít take steps so they hop, and for every five you watch try and hop up a mountain one will fall over and tumble down head over webbed-feet.

Golf ball -sized snowflakes fluttered at us from every direction, and between them we saw patches of land Ė unforbidding chunks of pure, white nothing. Occasionally we spotted yellowed mounds of blubber Ė leopard seals Ė huddled together saving energy.

And we saw icebergs. Some were (relatively) small and featureless. One time I had a bag of white chocolate chips. I left them in the car one summer day and they turned into a creamy blob. I stuck it in the fridge where it ossified. They were no longer good as cookie chips so I instead spent a week chipping away at it with my teeth. Thatís what most of the icebergs looked like Ė nibbled chunks of white chocolate. Some of the more extraordinary icebergs, however, were grand and chiseled by wind and water into marvelous shapes. One in particular was round and tapered in where it met the water, like an ice bouquet coming out of the sea and drooping on all sides, or like a soggy mushroom cloud. We rounded the berg. In a zodiac the rule is to take the height of the berg, double it, and stay that far away. This precaution prevents ripples from capsizing us when large chunks of ice calve and fall into the water. As we came around to the far side of the berg we spotted a secret opening where inside stood the most alluring aqua-colored pool. I have no words to describe the rich color, the smooth lines or the mystic aura of this sight. So I wonít.

When our time was up we took the long way back to the ship because Angela could sense our unwillingness to return (or, like us, she was hopelessly lost). There was another zodiac docked at the gangway so Angela took The Best Zodiac Team Ever for a couple of high speed laps around the Lyubov Orlova.

We peered into the low-level cabins trying to find someone we knew so we could rub our rosy cheeks up against their porthole window (yes, those cheeks). We saw no one. When we got to Jaime and Iís porthole it was so dirty we couldnít even see in. Even the outside of our cabin was messy.

Lunch was a BBQ set up on the aft deck. The cooks even pulled together some vegetarian BBQ goods. These folks were doing a bang-up job and I was growing the gut to prove it. Naked Japanese Man smuggled a watermelon in his luggage all the way from Japan and shared it with everyone. How is it that one man can be so darned zany? Even as a team we canít touch the eminent tom-foolery that must roll around in this manís brain at a constant pace. He put 15,000 miles on a huge piece of fruit, transporting it across four continents, five oceans, and the mildest of all waterways, the Drake Passage only to share it with complete strangers. Some social pundits might think he has an extra chromosome, but I know he is just a role model of the highest order.

Natasha was out on deck wearing a cute little hat with earmuffs. I still felt a little awkward around her after giving her the poem, and trying to talk to her with a mouth full of potato salad was probably not a smart move, but I couldnít help myself. I knew better than to press about meeting tonight so I left it up to chance.

Four trips to the fruit bar later I threw my plate in the trash and succumbed to the overwhelming lure of sleep. When I came down for a nap I was frustrated to find that our door now wonít open. Something in the mechanism refuses to trigger the latch properly. I was finally able to jimmy open, but it looks like were stuck open for good now. This is not a problem for me, but I have a feeling it might be for whoever passes our room when Jaime and I are in any state of undress. Maybe this is good because there have been reports of a Japanese woman arbitrarily entering rooms on our floor thinking they are hers. Perhaps she will see our mess and realize that no human should have to sleep among it, least of all her.

I slipped a bandana over my eyes and drifted off. I dreamt it was the middle of the night and I was running laps around the top deck. This shipís endless meals, coupled with our tendency to sit down all the time, prompted me to try to stay fit, lest I come home twice the man I left as. The faster I ran the louder the Snacktime! announcements rang. The shipís PA system was unavoidable. Everywhere I ran I could hear the tinny fast-food drive-through voice offering up some sort of tasty, fatty treat. I woke up in a hot sweat and sure enough, a voice exclusively associated with mealtime was coming over our roomís speaker inviting me to join them in the library for Snacktime. Today we were fed delicious fruit-filled, sugar-covered pastries. Believe it or not, I overate and went topside with a few more in my pocket.

I was mindlessly watching the icebergs drift by when a high-pitched shriek snapped me to attention. On the starboard side stood Naked Japanese Man (wearing his patented bamboo flip-flops and no socks) and two small Japanese women hysterically pointing over the water. I saw a small cloud about 200 yards off the ship. A long minute later and half the distance away I saw another plume of mist jettison from the sea. It was a whale! And it was nearing our ship! The closer it got, the louder the girls became. Their screeching brought people out on deck, probably expecting to see the New Kids On The Block. Once the whale was within 200 feet of us it started putting on a show. Rob, probably smelling the whale from his cabin, came out and confirmed that it was a humpback, then proceeded to give us a play-by-play, often predicting what the whale would do beforehand. I asked why we hadnít seen any killer whales yet and he explained that killer whales were spotted all over the planet, but since they moved in packs one could go thousands of miles without seeing any. Furthermore, killer whales, he explained, are members of the charismatic megafauna family. The term applies to humanís attraction to black and white animals Ė killer whales, pandas, penguins, Dalmatians, zebras, etc. There was a good chance we werenít going to see any killer whales, but the humpback was plenty interesting. For over an hour it rolled, waved, and fluked for a captive audience. In between acts of showmanship it would rustle down some air bubbles, scaring the ever-present krill into a tight, defensive bunch, then shoot straight out of the water with itís mouth wide open and expertly filled with millions of krill.

The onslaught of new and overwhelming experiences inspired me to head below and work on another poem for Natasha Ė this time foregoing all ambiguity. I even used the word "kiss" in it. Iím such a slut.

I stuffed the poem in a drawer and went topside to join up with the Naked Shakeltons. Bob was heading a deep philosophical discussion on whether or not pulling our pants down in Antarctica meant that we werenít actually pulling them up? Robert also proposed a slogan for the older passengers: Incontinent On 7 Continents.

The dinner bell eventually rang and we crowded in for another choice meal. In between her delivery of fresh bread baskets I discreetly asked Natasha, "Tonight?"

"I think Yes," she mouthed back.

After dinner I hung out alone on the upper deck and assessed my trip thus far. Typically, I can break trips down into three categories:

1 Ė Short, purposeful jaunts. Visiting grandma and grandpa for a few days, or driving to L.A. to play a weekend of shows are short enough not to get attached, but long enough to require a change of clothes (whether or not you use them).

2 Ė Long, harrowing experiences. Some of our tours through Asia and South America were trying, to say the least, but the adventure and unexpected hardships make them the most memorable. All trips are good. Being away from home is always good. But sometimes you canít recognize that until youíre back home working some irrelevant job.

3 Ė Vacations. These are trips where I have no desire to come home.

This trip definitely started out #2, but it is quickly turning into #3. I have already made deep friendships. I have seen sights, indescribable sights, you can not see anywhere else and that I may never see again. And best of all, all the trials of getting here are over. Itís just hanging out and being an ass from here on out.

I ran a few laps around the ship then went down to take a shower before coming back to the dining room for a possible rendezvous. When I showed up, Natasha and Vika were sitting at a table with a huge pile of silverware in front of them. One by one they dried off each fork, spoon and knife. I offered to help, citing my many, many experiences as a dishwasher, but was told to come back in an hour.

I went to the bar and watched Michael commandeer the kareoke machine. As with his ability to play cards, he was precise, calculated, flawless. He nailed the melodies, never once looking at the screen for a lyrical cue. Ideally, it might sound impressive that the man was so adept at memorizing and tunefully reciting so many popular songs, but the sad fact is that man must have packed everything for this trip except soul. It was like listening to Nintendo. Iím not saying Iím any better, because I canít carry a tune any better than I can speak Russian, but at least I usually break something when I do kareoke. Before I had a chance to break something I went back to the dining room.

Shane was sitting with Natasha when I arrived. I made a silent gesture that I was leaving, but Natasha held up a finger instructing me to wait. Wait I did, as Shane didnít seem to care that I was standing there. He didnít say good-bye to me either when he finally did leave.

Natasha and I spent the rest of the night talking more comfortably than one might expect from two people who share a vernacular. When it was considered "very late" I walked her up to her room and gave her Poem #2. My body language is as easy to read as a book on tape, and it was saying "Take me now." Herís was almost as comprehensible. It said, "Itís late and Iím going to sleep because, unlike you, I have to work in a couple hours."

I went back to the bar to see if anyone was still there. Mary, wife to Steve and honorary Naked Shackelton, was there with a video camera. She came expecting members of the Naked Shackeltons to drop trou at any request. We didnít want to disappoint, but we didnít want to be predictable either, so we left her hanging (no pun intended). Bob and I gave her the Offensive Threshold Test and she passed with flying colors.

Robert, Steve, Melanie, Mr Masu (70 years old, remember!), and some lady who left as soon as we got there.

The kareoke was worse than before. While I was gone, the Japanese diplomat, Mr. Masu, the only Japanese to hang out regularly with us honkeys, the man who could be found with a martini in his hand at all times (glacier ice only), the man who looked 55 but was actually over 70, the man who beat every single person on this ship at Connect Four, apparently did a rousing rendition of some Frank Sinatra numbers. But the quality had since digressed so I signed up. I did "Careless Whisper" by Wham! so horribly I was forced to take my pants off as a diversion.

After lights out, Jaime and I talked the pros and cons of love until we fell asleep.