birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

...And There's No Cure

For whatever reason, all the people in my office took cruises when they went on vacation. Spring Break, New Year’s, Summers in Hawaii, Winters in the Caribbean, couples, families, Carnival, Disney, Norwegian, Princess or Royal Caribbean I was the only landlubber in the bunch.

I admit I was jealous. I wouldn’t mind exploring exotic ports of call and being waited on by sexy cabin stewards, but unlike my coworkers, I was single. I had only one income coming in. I was responsible for all vacation expenses, and with the single supplement charged by the cruise lines, my vacation expenses would be hefty.

I voiced this frustration after looking at yet another Facebook post of happy colleagues zip lining through Costa Rican jungles. My boss, a part time travel agent who specialized in cruises disagreed. “Flexibility and careful planning are the keys, Bob” he said. “If you’re willing to go during the off season, and don’t mind an inside cabin near the elevators. I can find something in your budget.”

Carnival had recently been sailing out of Mobile to Cozumel. I could drive from Birmingham to the port, so there’d no airfare. I’d assumed I’d have to get to Miami or Fort Lauderdale or another port city to take a cruise. Off season meant leaving in February or October. That might be chilly or down right cold in Birmingham, but pleasantly cool in a tropical city like Cozumel, Mexico. Even with the single supplement, the cost for a four-day, three-night cruise was only $278. For a cruise! Why hadn’t anyone told me this before?

Since then I’ve taken a cruise every year, on either Carnival or NCL. On that first Carnival voyage I had an assigned dinner time, at an assigned dinner table, where I ate with the same people. We were strangers the first meal. When we went around the table introducing ourselves I felt like something of a loser admitting that I was a software tester for AT&T.

On NCL I ate whenever the hell I felt like it. I still sat with strangers, people who were also eating whenever the hell they felt like it, who felt like it the same time I did. The next day I was put at a table with different strangers. The first night when we went around the table introducing ourselves and Dan said he was a doctor and Mary said she was a lawyer and Bill said he was a retired Judge and Lorraine was a teacher and Joe was sportscaster, I was damned if I was going to be a software tester for AT&T. When it was my turn I said I was an adult film star. At lunch the next day I was the chief veterinarian at the Birmingham Zoo. At dinner on the 2nd night I was a psychic.

When I was the zoo vet at lunch it was hard to carry on a conversation at our table due to the loud guy dominating the conversation at the table next to us. He was in his mid-thirties. Every time his wife spoke he corrected her.

Loudly.

He rolled his eyes letting the rest of the table know how he suffered, being married to such an idiot. I wasn’t privy to all their conversation, but the snippets I heard didn’t seem to justify his frustration or even his corrections. She didn’t seem to be saying anything wrong, just disagreeing with him. Oh sure, maybe she said it rained the day they left Atlanta and he said it rained the day before, but is that worth such theatrics and eye rolling?

When I showed up at dinner in the Seven Seas Dining room that night the hostess led me to my seat. Once again, I was placed with a table full of strangers, except two on them weren’t really strangers. We’d never met, but I’d seen them. Mr. Eye Roll and his suffering wife.

I discarded the identify I’d chosen for the meal in favor of a new one, chosen on the spot, and without preparation.

I always make sure I’m the last person to introduce myself. I need to make sure no one else at the table really is a veterinarian or adult film star. I don’t want to be caught in a lie by the real McCoy. As far as I knew my job title tonight didn’t exist, but the qualifications did, and it wouldn’t do to have any shrinks or G-men at the table.

Eye Roll’s real name was Randy. His wife was Melissa. When it was my turn to introduce my self I said, “I’m Dr. Byrd.”

Elaine, a heavy woman with more chins than willpower said, “Oh, do you know anything about backs?” Her husband tried to shush her.

“I’m afraid not,” I said. “I’m a psychiatrist. I’m not in private practice though. I work for the FBI. I’m one of their profilers. My official title is Social Diagnostician.” I made up some mumbo jumbo about reverse diagnosing psychoses of serial killers based on crime scenes. I kept it very general, giving no specifics., giving as a reason, that we’d be eating soon and “no one wants to hear such gruesome things before dinner.”

The talk of working for the government led to a general discussion of Obama, recently elected. Randy not only corrected Melissa, but once or twice, corrected a couple of other people at the table, just as loudly and rudely as he’d done with his wife.

One of our waiters came to the table to ask if anyone wanted the molten lava cake, which takes extra time to prepare. Melissa said that sounded yummy. Randy corrected her and said she didn’t want that, she wanted cheesecake.

“I had cheesecake last night,” she said. “I want the molten lava cake tonight.”

He rolled his eyes, then took the rest of us in, inviting sympathy. Poor Randy, such a dingbat he’s married too. He sighed. “Honey, you love cheesecake.” He reminded her.

She told the waiter she’d have the cheesecake. The waiter gave Randy a look, but knowing where his tip was coming from, left it at that and left the table.

I said, “it’s an interesting thing about diagnoses. You go to the doctor because you aren’t feeling well. You present an array of symptoms. He’d much rather base a diagnosis on signs.”

“What’s the difference?” George, on his honeymoon with Karneisha, asked.

I was grateful for my time as a corpsman. “Signs can be observed and measured. Like pulse, temperature and blood pressure. Those are your vital signs. If you have a fever, for example, that’s a sign that can lead to a diagnosis. A symptom can’t be observed or measured. If you tell the doctor that you have a headache, that’s a symptom.” I gestured to Elaine. “Or your back hurting. That’s a symptom.”

“What if I have a tumor on my spine?”

“A tumor can be observed and measured. A tumor is a sign of cancer.” The blood drained from her face, a sign, not a symptom. “Not that I’m saying you have cancer!”

I took a sip of water. “But as a social diagnostician, it’s my job to make a diagnosis based on signs other than tumors and blood pressure. For instance, look around this table. There have been signs and symptoms all night long.” I held my left hand and extended my index finger, counting off. “Four people looked uncomfortable every time Randy corrected Melissa.” I extended another finger. “Three people looked down at their plates when he rolled he eyes, avoiding eye contact with him.” Another finger. “The first time he did it, all but one of you smiled politely. The last time, no on smiled, indicating a lack of patience with his actions.” Another finger; I was down to just my thumb. Randy was giving me the fish eye. “One of you made an involuntary noise twice when he corrected his wife.” No more fingers but I kept going anyway. “The last time you made a noise your wife placed a hand on yours—a sign to calm down? These are signs, not symptoms.”

“What of it?” Randy asked, not pleasantly.

“It’s enough to make a diagnosis.” I took another sip of water. I had the rest of the table on my side but wanted to make sure Randy knew it. “It is my expert medical opinion that you’re an asshole.”

Lone Wolf

Night Market City