Jul 25 • 20M

The Longest Night

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Family comedy one disaster at a time.
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Looking back, I have a hard time believing this story really happened. It seems more like the fever dream of someone younger, hipper, and more energetic than me. Yet the blurry pictures prove it was all real. For a week straight, my wife Lola and I, the two lamest people I know, were the hardest partying passengers on a boat of two hundred souls. We stayed up late and woke up early, out drinking and outlasting people older than us and younger than us and everyone in between. It all came to a head in one of the wildest, most unbelievable nights of our lives. There are no pictures of that part (thank God), so you’ll just have to take my word for it. This is that tale.

I’m the exact opposite of a socialite. In meet-and-greet scenarios, my go-to move is to curl up in a ball and hope everybody goes away. Strangers can’t see you if you don’t move, right? For a long time, I thought I didn’t like these situations because I didn’t like people, but in reality, I just didn’t like the stakes. I can’t have any fun at my wife’s work party if I might get her fired or myself canceled by doing something horrible, like being myself. Those people will remember me, and that’s a problem.

But what if I could be somewhere that the people I met would never see me again? We could just have fun with new friends without pretending to be decent human beings. (Okay, Lola really is a decent human being. I’m the one pretending.) Such a place would have to be on another continent with a captive audience, preferably trapped there by water on all sides. Oh, and there would need to be an open bar. You’ll never guess where this is going. On our river cruise, Lola and I made it a game to befriend literally everyone, and it was the most fun we’ve ever had.

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We started on the first night of the cruise. After a long flight across the Atlantic Ocean followed by a full day of walking around Amsterdam, Lola and I returned to the ship and hit the lounge. That was the most important room on the ship because it had the bar. I grabbed two drinks and surveyed the room. A couple sitting nearby was unfortunate enough to make eye contact with us. I pounced.

“Can we sit here?” I asked as I was already sitting down. They were lifelong Wisconsinites. She delivered mail, and he ran a cheese factory. If I made that up, it would be an offensive stereotype, but you can’t be mad this time because it was completely true. After a few minutes, they found a polite excuse to dodge us, and we moved on to the next duo. The only thing we had in common with the new couple was that we were all from North America. We had a delightful conversation about snow. There was never a lull. Over the next day and a half, we bounced from doctors to IT guys to generals (Okay, there was only one general) without a break, legitimately having fun connecting with everyone. We had nothing in common with these people other than that we had all flown a very long way to have a good time. And a good time was had.

My friendship extended to exactly one boat. Everyone on all other boats will forever be strangers.

That first night, we ended up back in the lounge, where we closed down a bar for the first time in our lives. It sounds impressive, but this was a boat for retirees, so last call was at 11:30 pm. Whatever. It still counts. As most other people went to bed, Lola and I unexpectedly found two other young couples—although I should put “young” in quotation marks since they were our age, which is still old as hell. For the last hour, we had the lounge to ourselves, including the lounge’s classical pianist, who we soon discovered took requests. Instead of Bach, we asked for the Eagles and Billy Joel (Obviously, we wanted “Piano Man.”). We drank and played cards in the lounge until the bartender literally shut off the lights. Then we took our party to the ship’s library, where we kept things going until the other two couples got tired and went to bed. Lola and I were the last ones up, which was wild since the only sleep we’d had in the prior thirty-six hours were a handful of uncomfortable moments on the plane. I have no idea where we got the energy. As far as I can recall, we didn’t do meth. Apparently the adrenaline from not messing up basic social interactions was just as strong. We headed up top.

The top level was completely dark. That’s what happens when the sun deck doesn’t have any sun. Other than the guy driving the boat, we had the whole place to ourselves. Unlike the U.S., Europe doesn’t seem to reserve its best waterfront real estate for expensive homes. Outside a scenic stretch of castles deep in Germany, most of the Rhine was lined by a mix of vineyards, cow pastures, and chemical plants. The cows and vines didn’t look like much in the dark, but the illuminated chemical plants were oddly beautiful in a dystopian kind of way. They were the Christmas lights of Armageddon, and we loved it. Around 2 am, we made our way to our room, not because we were done having fun, but because we worried that if we didn’t, we would literally die. It was an amazing night, but we couldn’t possibly do it again. We promised ourselves that the next day we would take it easy to make up for it. Dear reader, we did not.

The next morning, we got right back to our endless quest for friends. Not all our new pals were random. I strategically scoped out the room to find the people who looked like the most fun. The guy with the walker who takes nine minutes to walk up the boat ramp might be a fine human being, but he was unlikely to shut down the bar with us that night. I set my sights high. As Lola and I worked room after room, there was always a guy holding court with a very full glass of wine in his hand. Everyone around him always seemed to be having the most amazing time. I vowed to Lola that by the end of the cruise, we would be Wine Guy’s friends. We couldn’t just barge in there and interrupt him for no reason, though. We were too socially calibrated to do something so clumsy. We’d make it happen naturally or not at all. We had something to prove to ourselves. We could do this. Maybe.

A few days into the cruise, it finally happened. We befriended an orthopedic surgeon who later brought us into a conversation with Wine Guy. “I see you guys EVERYWHERE!” he said. His name was Jamison, and Lola and I were on his radar. I’ve never felt so validated in my life. The three of us hit it off immediately. When I drink, everyone is my best friend. As we shut down the bar yet again, Jamison invited us to have a drink with him and his husband Brad the next night. They had the suite all the way at the back of the boat with the wrap around balcony. That was a big deal. It was the nicest room on the whole ship. Thanks to our no-holds-barred socializing, Lola and I had stumbled our way into a circle way above our station. I wondered if the invite was real. In the morning, would he even remember who we were? Would I?

The next day, I didn’t see Jamison anywhere. As far as I could tell, he was so eager to avoid us that he changed boats. Ouch. Lola and I pushed ahead, making other friends and amusing ourselves. We had another amazing, super late night. Meanwhile, Jamison had vanished from the face of the earth. I tried not to take it personally.

Wednesday afternoon, Jamison reappeared. Once again, he was at the center of the action in front of the bar. When we walked in, he recognized us immediately. He said that since Brad used a cane, they’d skipped all the shore excursions that involved walking, so we hadn’t crossed paths. Our invitation to the back suite was reinstated. But I’m a Midwesterner. With an invitation comes obligations. I couldn’t just show up empty handed. That night, the boat was docked at a tiny German town. Jamison mentioned that he and his husband had bought chocolates filled with brandy on prior trips there, but that they hadn’t gone out to get any this time because of Brad’s leg. I saw my opening. I boldly declared that Lola and I would track down the mythical chocolates. I grabbed Lola and headed off the boat.

There were just a few problems with this plan. First, this was Germany, and Germans speak German. Jerks. I, of course, can barely handle English and definitely don’t know any other languages. Helpfully, we were in a cell phone dead zone and Google Maps didn’t work. Somehow, we fumbled our way to a German grocery store, which was my best guess for where the chocolates would be. They didn’t have them, but they did have liquor, which was a nice consolation prize. I grabbed an eight-euro bottle of vodka for the next time the ship’s bar shut down. Was the price a red flag? Absolutely. For that value, it was likely straight-up poison. But the most expensive vodka the grocery store had was only twelve euros, and it was Russian, so I felt morally obliged to go with the cheaper stuff. Next, we checked the liquor store next door, where the cashier spoke English. He didn’t have the chocolates, but he did have local wine, which we bought. We immediately recognized our mistake. Since we were walking everywhere, we should have bought all our bottles at the end of our journey rather than at the start. Heavily laden with liquids, we kept walking. We had narrowed down our search area to “the rest of Germany.”

After a few clues from helpful locals who sort of spoke English, we made our way to a block of local shops. It was nearly 6 p.m., and everything was starting to close. We had to move fast. Well, I did. Lola decided to do some shopping for other stuff. I worked my way down the strip, asking about the chocolates filled with brandy. The person at each store pointed me farther and farther down the street. Finally, a lady at a dessert shop said that she, in fact, had the chocolate and brandy combo. That’s what I thought she said, anyway. She spoke the least English of anyone I met in Europe, so the situation was a little confusing. Nonetheless, I was relieved. I was nearly at the end of the street and didn’t have anywhere left to search. But what she made weren’t chocolates at all. They were basically milkshakes with brandy dumped in. Still, this had to be right. How many different combinations of chocolate and brandy could there be in a small German town? Two, apparently. Moments later, Lola showed up and informed me that I had, in fact, bought the wrong things. I had failed. Worse, I had wasted thirty-two euros. It was the most painful loss in the history of the world.

The ice cream store didn’t have carrying cases, so the lady behind the counter gave me a random cardboard box with the flaps torn off. The whole set up looked more than a little sketchy. Lola led me and my sad box of milkshakes next door to a store I had just passed, where she easily bought two boxes of the correct chocolates. It was ninety degrees outside, and my spiked milkshakes began to melt. For some reason, the paper cups could handle semi-solid ice cream but not liquids at all. The brown goo seeped through the cups and box and onto my shoes. There was no way they would survive the fifteen minute walk back to the boat. Lola tried to eat one, but she is very small and didn’t even get halfway through. I offered the other three to a German couple watching the river. They took one look at my stained, dripping box and politely declined. Their loss. I threw all the milkshakes away. A few steps later, a homeless guy asked us for food. Now I felt extra terrible. I wasted money twice, first by buying the wrong things and then by trashing them instead of giving them to him. I was on a roll for making the worst possible move. But the trip was still technically a success. We had extra booze and two boxes of the right chocolates, thanks to Lola. I had nothing to be mad about, but I’m still super petty and plan to brood over those thirty-two euros for the rest of my life.

Back at the boat, we found Jamison and Brad in the restaurant many drinks ahead of us. Lola and I did our best to catch up. When they found out we had the chocolates, we were treated as conquering heroes. Yes, Lola did the conquering, but we’re married, so I get to steal partial credit. We finished dinner. Jamison and Brad said they’d meet us back at their suite. It was time for that fabled drink. Lola and I went back to our room to grab the chocolates and have a quick conference. We wanted to make sure we were on the same page. We had satisfied the most sacred of our midwestern duties by securing a gift, but there were other potential social pitfalls. These guys were cooler than us, and probably better than us, too. We had been punching above our weight socially for the whole cruise. Now was no time to blow it. Get in. Be light. Be fun. Get out before we overstay our welcome. Back at home we never could have handled this, but on the other side of the ocean among people we’d never see again, maybe we could pull it off. Our time was now.

We went to the end of the hall and knocked on Jamison and Brad’s door. They let us in. That’s when I learned something about them, and about life in general. I knew that their room was more expensive than ours, but until that moment, I hadn’t pondered just how big that wealth gap might really be. Their room didn’t just come with extra rooms and balcony space. It also had its own personal waiter, and that waiter was actually the manager of guest services for the entire boat. And this wasn’t Jamison and Brad’s first cruise in the last year. It was their fifteenth. Flying internationally wasn’t a big deal for them because they used to hop from New York to London first-class every weekend if they wanted to eat at a particular restaurant or catch a play. They were at the stage of money where they get vague when anyone asks them what they do (or did) for a living. When they mentioned their friend was with [insert giant mega corporation], what they really meant was that that friend owned [insert giant mega corporation]. And I was still seriously pissed about wasting those thirty-two euros. We were not the same.

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And yet, somehow, we were. We were from totally different places and backgrounds and stations in life, but our values were oddly aligned. The way we viewed the world and treated people and wanted to be treated were all in sync. One drink turned into many and we had a brilliant time, gazing out the panoramic windows at Germany’s most beautiful chemical plants. I stuck with the same bottom-shelf vodka I’d been drinking all cruise, but now, someone brought it to me at the back of the boat. No more walking all the way to the bar on my own two legs like a filthy commoner, at least for a few hours. Lola, Jamison, and Brad demolished the chocolates. Lola said we should have gotten more, but I was definitely never shopping in Germany again. Then, right when the fun was at its peak, we made our graceful exit. We stuck the landing.

Lola and I pranced out of their room positively giddy from socializing and booze. It felt like we’d been there a few minutes, but it had actually been hours. We didn’t want the night to end. Thanks to our earlier grocery run, it didn’t. The bar was closed, so we swung by our room for our emergency booze. Next stop, the dark top deck. We thought we’d be alone, but we saw a gathering at the very back of the boat. It was a night for new discoveries. We investigated. We found the crew, unwinding after a long day. They invited us to join them. I passed around my bottle of eight-euro vodka. It was exactly as terrible as I expected. I was roundly mocked for my selection, but everyone took swigs from it all the same. Soon, Lola and I were trading jokes with a group of twenty-something Bulgarians like we’d known them our entire lives. We’d gone from drinking with a couple richer than God to drinking with people who couldn’t afford to be on this ship if they weren’t employed by it. It was social whiplash. And yet, we had an equally amazing time at both ends of the spectrum. Our plan to befriend everybody took us in a direction we never would have expected. I have no idea who those crazy, hard partying, uber extroverts were, but they couldn’t have been me and Lola. We don’t do things like that. At least not before. We ended up drinking with the crew into the early hours of the morning every night for the rest of the cruise. We became good enough friends that I felt guilty asking them for anything when they were on duty. And don’t worry; at the end of the trip, I tipped them very well for putting up with me.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. A big thanks to my paid subscribers, whose support finances all of my free and paid content. I promise not to waste any more of your money on melted brandy milkshakes that leak all over my shoes.

James