It was a crisp autumn day. Though it could have been March. I really can’t remember.
I’m living in London, teaching at St. John’s Church of England Infants and Junior School, and taking thrice-weekly classes at The Actors’ Workshop, a Method drama school in a city world-famous for the other style (studying The Method in England is like learning to play ice hockey in Hawaii.)
I need a break.
English food is…you know. I don’t need to pile on. All I’ll say is there’s only so many steak and mushroom pies you can eat, remaining vigilant that they don’t give you steak and kidney pie by mistake (the kidney bits are shinier than the mushrooms, but it’s no easy call.)
I decide to go to Paris, where the food, even on a minimal budget, in reputed to be better. (It is. But what really knocked me out was that they sold wine in cafeterias. I’d been frequenting them my entire life but not once had ever left a cafeteria drunk.)
I’ll talk about that trip another time, although the main thing I remember I already mentioned. “I just ate in a cafeteria. And I’m drunk!” My other memorable experience was attending a production of The Odd Couple done entirely in French. I knew enough French (five years studying in High School) and enough Odd Couple (having seen productions in New York, Toronto and London) to easily follow the plot. The French rendition did have its own unique flavor. More garlicky, I believe.
Anyway, to get to France – this was before the Chunnel, which now transports you from England to France via a tunnel beneath the waters – you had to take a train from London to Dover, on the English coast, then get on a boat that would take you to Calais, on the French coast.
If the Nazis had wanted to invade England, they could have bought tickets going in the other direction. Instead, they, inexplicably, did something else, involving bombing the crap out of London. I never understood why they did that. Maybe they thought if they pummeled London thoroughly enough, Churchill would offer them free tickets on the boat to make them stop. That’s probably not the explanation, but I’ve never heard a good one.
Anyway again, I buy a ticket in London that will take me to Dover that will take me to Calais that will take me to Paris. I get on the train, and I find a seat. A window seat. I enjoy a picturesque view of the English countryside, after we finally leave London, whose outlying areas sport a surprising number of dwellings that retain outhouses in their back yards. I imagine these were some of the blokes I ran into when I was availing myself of the tubs at the Oasis Public Baths.
A man settles in the seat beside me. A lived-in-looking character, a cross between Gary Busey and Mickey Rourke, which, when you think about it, is not much of a cross, since they’re pretty much the same guy.
The most distinguishing feature concerning my seatmate is that he is accompanied by an enormous dog. I have little knowledge of dog breeds, but judging from its size and girth, its appeared to have had genetic contributors outside of the canine species. It was, like, bear, mixed with wolf, mixed mountain lion, mixed with maybe a different kind of bear.
The animal seemed docile enough, resting placidly by my seatmate’s legs. Muscular legs, I took note, which could squeeze the life out of the dog, if it started channeling its more dangerous predecessors. My judgment was it was unnecessary to change seats.
I can hear myself breaking the ice with some memorable cleverness, like,
Whatever I said, it got the ball rolling. We immediately struck up a lively conversation. I don’t remember the details, but I recall the whole thing feeling particularly “grown up.” We were two Men of the World, one traveling alone, one with canine companion, our sites set on the fabled excitement of Par-ee.
The train reaches Dover. We de-train, and board the boat. There is no question of separating. We’re travel buddies. We find seats together on deck. A waiter drifts by. We order pints of English beer.
The image is slowly materializing.
Men of the World.
Drinking on the crossing.
Our order arrives. We exchange “Cheers!” and casually quaff our room temperature brew.
The boat disembarks. We’re on our way. The sea is noticeably choppy. A brisk breeze stings our reddening cheeks. Nothing matters. I’m living in an English novel. I feel tweedy and content.
My travel buddy needs to avail himself of the “facilities.” He asks me if I’d mind watching his dog. I say, “Bob’s your uncle!” (I don’t, but I wish I had. It pretty much means, “That’s easily done.”) I take charge of the dog. And he heads off to the Gents.
So there I am, bobbing atop the Straits of Dover, a pint glass of “bitter” in one hand, a heavy, leather leash in the other.
And then it hits me.
The most excruciating seasickness I have ever experienced. This is big-time mal de mer. My temples are pounding like pistons, my stomach’s doing flip-flops, and my face is turning green. Strangers are coming up to me and asking if I’m okay. Usually adding, “Smashing dog!” before continuing on with their lives.
Forgive me for being indelicate, but what I needed most at that juncture was to go somewhere – very quickly – and puke my guts up. The problem is, I can’t go anywhere, because I’m babysitting a dog. I mean, what can I do, hand him over to somebody else?
“Listen, this isn’t my dog. Would you mind taking care of him until somebody you never met before comes back for him?”
What would you say if a stranger asked you that? Even one who looked like he was about to die?
My only option was to the take the dog with me. This option became immediately unavailable when I got up and tugged on the leash. The dog didn’t budge. (This may have something to do with his master’s having instructed him to “Stay!” before he took off. Or, more likely, because the dog weighed three hundred pounds.) I yank on the leash as hard as a seasick person can yank. Nothing. It’s like trying to move a building that you’ve roped with a lariat.
I now have no choice. I just have to sit there. Feeling sicker. And sicker. And sicker.
Finally, the dog owner exits the Men’s Room. Quickly sizing up the situation, he picks up the tempo of his return. I hand him the leash, and I race to the blessed sanctuary of sinks and toilets.
Racing into a stall, I proceed to evacuate foodstuffs from my body, dating back to the early Fifties. Birthday cakes from when I was eight years old come flying out. Hot dogs from forgotten ballgames. Souvenirs from “All-You-Can-Eat” brunches. Hello, lamb chops and blintzes!
I entirely empty the vault.
When I finally emerge, I rejoin my travel buddy. But it’s not the same.
We were still two bon vivanty Men of the World.
But one of them had a little throw-up on his windbreaker.