Linda Catchup and how I met my husband…
Being unemployed and back in school at 34 years old, to finish my undergraduate degree, was not quite where I thought I’d be in January 2010. I’d been out of work for a year-and-a-half by then, after layoffs on Wall Street. I’d used my severance package to travel for a year, and then returned to school full-time instead of looking for a job. It was all about me and what was good for me. I’d avoided finishing my degree for long enough, and there was nothing like being unemployed with the masses to give me the boost to return to studies.
After breezing through six courses at Hunter College, with a perfect GPA, I decided to reward myself. I booked a cheap JetBlue flight online, out of JFK and into Puerto Plata, for the end of May. I deserved a vacation. Just for me and just for relaxing, not even sex was on the itinerary. I was going through something.
Incidentally, during my unemployment I became more of a Facebook addict than ever. I wasn’t using Twitter yet, but through Facebook I reconnected with lots of old acquaintances from my past. Mariana was one of these reconnects. She friended me, and I accepted, because she’d once worked with my ex-boyfriend and I vaguely remembered her. Then we met for coffee and I mentioned my trip to DR in casual conversation. By the end of coffee, Mariana was booked on the same flight to DR that I was. Just like that. It just happened. She was so insistent and smartphone-ready.
I remember the day we left for our trip…
I’d arrived way too early to the airport that Saturday morning, anxious to tan and wash away four months of textbooks and finals. No more hallways of Hunter College. Just beach for days was on the agenda. With coffee and $70 worth of Cosmo and other latest mags in-hand, I just wanted to sit at the gate and read, and possibly get a chair massage at one of those XpresSpa places that had just opened at the airport.
Well, I didn’t get my alone time because Mariana arrived way too early too, and just a few minutes behind me. Shit, I’d thought, here comes Mariana.
Mariana was very plump, and she’d plumply flip-flopped towards me with her wet curly hair and flailing arms. It was embarrassingly obvious that Mariana was bound for a beach destination. Actually, she looked like a straight-up beach ornament.
“Hey Jun,” she’d screeched ignoring my shushing her and continued, “Damn, I thought I was early!”
She was early, and so I’d kissed her cheek that she’d shoved at my lips. Mariana was also way too loud for 6AM, and I’d discover soon how loud she was no matter AM or PM. I regretted ever telling Mariana about my trip in the first place, and I regretted having friended her so quickly on Facebook. Somehow my solo trip had turned into the “girls trip” Mariana had always wanted, and a 4-girl girls trip at that. The thing is, there were two more girls coming with us.
I barely knew Mariana. I’d be blind-vacationing with the other two, Joanna and Jeena. Sisters. Mariana knew them her whole life, she’d said. They’d all grown up together on the same block in Queens. She’d vouched for them.
“Jo” and Jeena eventually arrived, late and in all their incredible and stereotypical Queens-Italian glory. There were multiple screeches of heys, and what’s ups between the four of us, as if I’d known all of them my whole life too. I was drowning in their perfume and getting their acrylic nails caught in my hair during all the hugs and air-kisses. There we were, a Korean, a Greek, and two red-wine-blooded Italians boarding JetBlue Flight 811. In that moment at the JetBlue gate, I felt like I was making a big mistake going on the trip.
But it was too late, and I stayed put. I deserved this vacation. I intended to enjoy it despite my qualms.
* * *
I slept most of the flight, because that’s what Dramamine does to me even in non-drowsy form. It turns out I was one of the lucky ones on the flight who did sleep. When we touched down in Puerto Plata, Mariana told me that Jo and Jeena had fought like drunk cats for most of the flight but not to worry. So I worried, and I sized the sisters up in my peripheral vision while waiting at Customs. I felt like I was burning up in the Dominican heat waves of the Puerto Plata airport and the added stress wasn’t helping.
I knew Jo could easily take Jeena down, as she had at least 100 pounds on her. Jeena had escaped the fat gene in the family but had instead been bestowed a pair of hips as wide as a doorway, and an ass that three people could play poker on. Jeena also happened to have the personality of a poker table, unless she was drunk, and the IQ of one too regardless of sobriety. Yet she still fought like a maniac with her 300-pound older sister.
Both Jo and Jeena still lived at home with their parents. They both worked at their family’s tiny cannoli shop in the same neighborhood. It was deep in Queens, as was their New York accent.
By the time our shuttle bus got us to the hotel I was craving some space of my own to slumber in the sun. I wanted to get away from the potentially insane travel mates I’d arrived with. Sharing one week’s time with these girls was looking bleaker by the minute. Then we got to our hotel. The vibe was just all kinds of wrong.
Mariana had booked the hotel because I “had booked the flights,” and Mariana had insisted on being “partners” in the planning of the trip. I’d been okay with that, but had asked that we stay somewhere decent. No dumps, I’d told her. Of course not, she’d replied.
It turned out to be a dump. The hotel lobby was musty and warm when it should have enveloped us in chilly air conditioning. There was no colorful welcome drink nearby either. Large parts of the floors ran with mildew here and there. My jaw dropped open, just like it does anytime I’m about to lose my shit. Mariana had booked a hotel and not a resort, which you can get away with in Punta Cana but not in Puerto Plata.
Mariana pretended not to notice the grimy lobby while Jo and Jeena looked a little skeeved. This relieved me, but we were still stuck in that hellhole hotel. None of us said anything while Mariana checked us in at the front desk, and not a word was said in the elevator ride up to our rooms. We were all waiting for someone else to say something, and I knew Jo or Jeena would blow up any minute now. I waited for it, knowing it would be worth the wait.
The hotel seemed to be bustling, but with locals. It turned out our hotel opened its grounds to locals on Saturdays for a small fee. Mariana had not only booked a dump of a hotel, but she’d checked us in on the worst day of the week for a deeper discount. I knew our hotel was too cheap to be good. We got what we paid for and there were no pretty European boys to be eyed in sight, just unsupervised children running about. The “private beachfront” turned out to be less private and more local human traffic, and I felt like I’d watched lots of movies start out like this where all four girls don’t make it out alive.
My thoughts were interrupted by an old man’s voice. A cute old white man with a cane wearing a Hawaiian shirt, asked me if I could walk him to the hotel restaurant right there on the beach. It turned out he was blind. I thought he was gangster for getting on a plane and vacationing in the Dominican Republic, alone and blind. His accent was British. I’ll never forget him.
I walked him to the restaurant, and it turned out to be a buffet lunch. I told him so, and I asked him if he’d like some help plating his lunch. How else was a blind hotel guest supposed to eat at a buffet? I shook my head at his situation, and at mine too. It was all too odd for me.
So I’d grabbed the blind man a tray and plate, and I walked him around the serving stations describing what was what and what looked good. I told him at the salad bar that the tomatoes looked soggy and there were flies around the cucumber, and he laughed and said he’d pass on those two veggies. When I saw actual chicken feathers on some of the wings at the hot bar I asked the old man if he’d like me to pick the feathers off for him, or if he’d rather go with the pork instead. He went with the pork, and he had some soup. I grabbed bread and butter for him, and I sat with him while the waitstaff brought his drink. He asked me a question while we waited.
“So are you and your friends having fun?”
I wanted to tell him that the three monsters on the beach weren’t my friends, and that I hated the hotel but I didn’t. I answered instead something cliché, because he didn’t need to know how much this vacation was sucking for me. He sensed something though, and he spoke again.
“You’re a doll for helping me the way you did, but you wouldn’t be here sitting with me like this if you were having fun.”
I laughed. He called me out. Despite his blindness he could still see everything. His drink arrived, and I grabbed his hands as I said goodbye. This isn’t the worst place to be in the world, he told me as I walked away. I had to bite my tongue because I wanted to tell him he’d see what a shit-hole the place actually was, if he could see in the first place. Then I realized what he’d actually meant. There were indeed worse places in the world to be. It still didn’t mean I wasn’t leaving.
When I got back to the beach the three girls were fighting. Of course.
Jo and Jeena had inevitably ganged up on Mariana for picking a shitty hotel. They were all so loud and rolling their eyes at each other simultaneously. My vacation flashed before my eyes. I started to my plan of escape.
I calmly told Mariana to go to the front desk and cancel our rooms for a full refund, and that the rest of us would grab our bags and meet her back at the front desk. Jo and Jeena finally shut up and nodded in agreement with me. We were going to stay somewhere else. Mariana flapped her lips in disagreement and so I told her she could stay. I would leave without her is exactly what I’d said.
Mariana shuffled off to the front desk, and twenty minutes later we were in a taxi heading up a few beaches to the RIU resorts. I’d stayed at the RIU before, and I trusted them. The cab ride was a nightmare. We were all sweaty and cranky.
Mariana was pouting like a baby pig about all the bullshit she’d gone through having to cancel our reservations.There was a chunk in penalty fee for the two cancelled rooms, and a 2-week waiting period for the money to be put back on Mariana’s credit card. And the two sisters were still bickering.
* * *
We finally reached the RIU resorts. The lobby was dry and cool and there were signs of good vacation life everywhere. It smelled like coconut and the sea breeze. It felt right. I didn’t care when Mariana asked me to pay for our room, because she’d maxed out her credit card on the last hotel.
I did care when Jo and Jeena asked me to pay for their room, because they didn’t own credit cards. They’d brought cash, and not enough to cover an unexpected hotel room for a week. They assured me that they were good for the money and as if it was collateral, they promised to take me to their family’s cannoli shop when we got back to New York if I wanted. I can’t even make this shit up. I didn’t care about cannoli in Queens. Here we all were, four adult women around the same age, and I was the only actual adult.
So I booked two rooms on my credit. I decided half the day wasted was enough, and I honestly didn’t have the heart to say no anyway. Leaving them in the Dominican Republic “homeless” is easier said than done, and I couldn’t do it. They were good for the money.
I’d get my money back from all of them eventually, right?
* * *
Meanwhile my future husband, Davy, was back in Ghent getting packed for his planned guys trip. Davy was en route to the same RIU resort in Puerto Plata that I was now in, with his three colleagues from work. Guys. Colleagues, because that’s what Belgians call each other, and really it sounds better than “coworkers.” Davy and the guys all worked at the Port of Ghent. It was a Belgian dockers trip, and each guy carried a chip on his shoulder worthy of a short story of its own.
Mind you, I had no idea what a docker was at the time.
And it should be said that the four dockers themselves didn’t know that much about each other either, outside of work, except for bare bones. There was Wally and Ludo, who were closer to each other than they were to either Davy or Koen. Koen was the fourth man, and last-minute addition to the crew. Koen had taken the place of another docker who was laid-up in the hospital missing one leg, after a crane accident on the docks just before the trip happened. I remember thinking later how their work sounded so dangerous, and how hot they must all look at work. But they were all so different from each other the four Belgians.
Wally and Ludo shared one room, but they also shared lots of other things in common. On the surface they were both short in height, and they were from the rougher parts of town back in Ghent, and they carried the air of being up to something bad. They got along for a reason.
Wally was single and reckless, living at home with his parents at almost 30. He suffered from a very short fuse, literally and figuratively, but was fun to have fun with. His chip sat on his shaved shoulders. He shaved his whole body twice a week, for nobody in particular, and for anybody he could get naked with. He was always read to party.
Then there was Ludo, undeniably a ginger but his very closely shaved head looked fuzzy blonde most of the time. He was married and restless in middle age, and he was the oldest of the four dockers on the trip. Back in Belgium he lived with his wife of 2 years and 7 children. They were children he’d neither fathered nor raised, but he was their faithful dad for years. This was the first real vacation Ludo had ever taken in his life, and he already dreaded going back home to Belgium before the trip even started.
Then there was Koen. Koen had striking dark eyes and hair, and a square jaw that ran in his family line of men. He was always thinking, either thinking about or thinking through something. I noticed this about him right away. He was also the most reserved and the only single one too, in the group. He’d share a room with Davy on the trip.
Last, but not least there was Davy. He and Koen both had a mop of hair, Davy’s blonde and Koen’s black, compared to the shaved heads of Wally and Ludo. Davy was also one of those guys who always had a girlfriend, but always smelled single anyway. Single has a scent.
Everything about Davy intrigued me first and most, of the four dockers.
Davy didn’t know it yet, but he was packing for the trip that would change his life forever.