Light Baked Alaska
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Light Baked Alaska

Light Baked Alaska
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FIRST I WALK down the aisle and then I walk the plank.
Here I am, boarding the MS Rotterdam for a seven-day cruise along the Alaskan coast, at the promise of seeing a whale or two. It’s not in any brochure. In fact, the brochure has an asterisk, and is careful to deter people like me from drawing such conclusions. But friends have told us. And there are the Internet posts. I expect to see wildlife; I expect to see something foreign. We may still be in our own country, but I expect to see something extraordinary.
My honeymoon, and the first order of business is to strap a standard issue orange-coated life jacket to my chest, gather my new wife (a title that has yet to settle in), and rush to the nearest deck, careful not to dally in the narrow hallways or get a sandal caught in between the thousand other tourists conducting themselves exactly as I am told. The ship’s captain, a deep Scandinavian voice over the radio, calls this an exercise, but I know it’s really a drill, which reminds me of the dentist, as well as bomb threats that frequently emptied my elementary school into single-file lines, both of which still frighten me today.
We all crush into each other and hover around the lifeboats, trying not to think of the Titanic. Stewards shuffle about, making sure our vests are secure and properly looped. If there is a string quartet nearby I don’t see it. There are only two places to look: at naked and gnarly vacationer feet or up into the Alaskan sky. My head falls at first. In turn, so do my eyes. I notice toes, painted off-white, the French manicure chipping, and taking over the straw flip-flops bought in a rush back at Anchorage International Airport. These are my wife’s feet and for the first time ever, I realize the toe right next to her big one, the this-little-piggy-stayed-home toe is longer than the one next to it. I dart my head skyward. Dizzy now, I see the light. Even surrounded by all of these eager people, and my wife of five whole days, I couldn’t feel more out of place. In the midst of my confinement, an oval-shaped man goes on about icebergs and steps on one of my own piggies—it’s official, I,too, wish I had stayed home.
As we’re given the thumbs up to return to our cabin, another passenger mentions the northern lights. I’m excited to see the stars without the light pollution that soaks the skies over Arlington, and the apartment complex we live in that sits two miles from the Washington Monument. I imagine it’ll be like a planetarium, without the annoying docent—the hours I’ll spend alone out on the patio of Room 169B. The boat sets off slowly, or does it? Another cruise ship is beside us and I can’t tell if we appear to be moving because they are, or vice versa. Even with patches behind our ears for motion sickness, the ship feels as though we’ve set sail. It’s just an optical illusion, someone in the crowd says; the first of many I’ll later realize.

The view from our own balcony does not disappoint. It strikes me as a painting, a collage, perfect, unreal, like looking at a movie backdrop. The open ocean and its glaciers. The mountains we pass and the pines covering their tops with green, hair-like wisps. Even the Alaskan coastline looks like it’s smiling at me, showing off for the brand new digital camera I have wrapped around my neck and chest as though it were a canteen holding the only water supply for miles.
The stars are different here, too, in the summertime, when the heavens open up and reveal what’s been there all year, hidden under a veil all along. They are droplets of light; they are pinholes in the black above. I stand now, under their canopy, a married man on his honeymoon, slicing through Alaska’s Inner Passage aboard a cruise ship, leaning over the balcony of the suite we just “had to have.” Although August has arrived, the night still has a certain chill. It holds on to the air, just as I do the cabin’s railing, the same way the snow does in winter, which the locals at each port swear will begin again next month. Snowfall in Alaska is also striking, so I’m told, especially at night, in those months when it finally goes dark in the early hours. I can see it in my mind—the flakes shimmering in headlights and streetlamps and against the backdrop of blinking aircraft lights as the ice crystals wave by, seen but not heard. But snow eventually melts, disappears from the sky, and the earth, and all five senses, while the stars still remain. At least they’ll stay that way for the next week, in their place at nightfall, which stands this day at roughly nine o’clock. That’s what the captain reports overhead. Like the great and all-knowing wizard, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.   Two days earlier: the train from Anchorage skirts the terrain. We stretch our necks to see wildlife, something, anything move, as though the 360-degree glass compartment is not enough. Roughly halfway through the four-hour excursion, a lone moose in a canyon drinks from a pool of rainwater. Shutters fly. Our photos blur. The moose is a brown ink spot on our digital cameras; the trees, green streaks. They could be anything. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t bother to flee when the train rushes by. She knows we’ll never truly see her clearly so why waste the energy. My wife and I have certainly wasted our own energies over the past six weeks, planning a wedding, a twenty-thousand dollar pool party. We don’t talk much. Not about anything real or concrete anyway. We simply exist. Coexist. Go through the motions. I suppose we watch enough tennis and reality TV to survive the silence and justify a life together: for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; ‘til death do us part.
Death. If death is near I plan to eat my way into its arms. Aboard the Rotterdam there is breakfast, any way you’d like. Lunch served, on or offshore. There are snacks that the mainland would consider meals. There’s a five-course dinner every evening and a themed buffet each night. You must try the Baked Alaska, our waiter will say…the opposite of Baked Alaska is Frozen Florida. We give him a courtesy laugh and tell him “Not tonight.” There is no check. No bill. Meals are all-inclusive, according to the brochure, and the brochure wouldn’t lie. At least it has something right. Afterward, we collect sweets for later. A short Indonesian man hands me a fig and a napkin that feels more like a blanket. He doesn’t speak but he smiles plenty and I call him “Fig Man.” Without fail, like a statue, a creature of habit, with the confident orbit of a star, he reappears at exactly nine o’clock. In my heart, I believe he understands the little bit of English I do say. But my head doesn’t know what to think.
We return to our suite to find a swan made of bath towels resting in the middle of our bed, twisted up like the balloons clowns make at carnivals and birthday parties. A pistachio cookie wrapped in cheesecloth is also on each of our pillows as well as a personal invitation from the Scandinavian captain to a reception the next night. We doze with the suite’s track lighting still lit and the television tuned to CNN International.   The reception is dressy and for those onboard celebrating special occasions. The categories include: milestone birthdays, anniversaries, family reunions, honeymooners like us, and couples renewing their vows. We’re the only newlyweds so there is much congratulations to go around. We have our picture with the captain. He’s shorter than his voice suggests. Nevertheless, I hold on tight to his belt during the photo op. I’m safe and secure. Only later, once the photograph is developed and delivered to our room in a plastic frame made to look metallic, that I notice the life preserver hanging on the wall behind us.
Back at ten o’clock, my wife brushes her teeth, laces her face with moisturizer, and turns in early, exhausted by the flight, time difference, and all the attention. Sleepless, I retire to the deck. I stand against the railing, craving a cigar and glass of ginger ale, but I do without. Instead, I look into the black of the ocean. I only know it’s there for the foam the boat makes, and the way the stars end so abruptly at what must be the horizon. I imagine how many people have stood there and wondered the same things that race around in my mind. I think about jumping. How cold is the water? How long would I last? What’s out there in the darkness? It’s a lot like tinted glass, only without the reflection.
Odd as it sounds, I don’t feel so alone in that moment. It doesn’t even strike me as strange that I’m standing there by myself on my honeymoon. The conversation is good, and the company even better. After all, growing up in Florida, at the doorstep of space flight, I’d always wanted to be an astronaut. So the stars fascinate me. With constellations for companionship, I don’t feel lonely. I’m struck that what I’m looking at that night is actually millions of years old, that far away, and that far into the past. Whenever I have a chance, I make it my mission to pick out the planets from the starlight. You see, stars pulse and wink; planets are simply single points of light—the difference between a lighthouse and a lamp. Mars might show up red or Mercury blue, but never go on or off. They remain constant, spinning but perfectly still.
The lights take over Alaska.
The sound of the ocean hushes conversations and any laughter from adjoining decks. For an hour I stare into space, hoping to see a shooting star, or a circle of bats out for the night. I’d even take the light of another cruise ship passing us by. I try counting the stars one-by-one. But like guessing how many jellybeans are in a jar, I continue to lose my place and must start over and over and over again. I’m at someplace around nineteen when one of the stars I’d just cataloged begins to move. At first I think it’s just another star or planet. It must be. I wipe away any smudges from my glasses and rub any sleep from my eyes. But whatever it is it still moves. In and out, north and south, the light grows then shrinks. I estimate the light is a mile away, maybe less. It doesn’t blink, like an airplane or helicopter or lighthouse would. It comes with complete silence. I hear no engine. I hear no wind. No noise at all. There is just this unidentified light in the sky moving toward me, and then away, as though it holds just as much curiosity about me.
I’m convinced of its presence, of its unidentified identity. I think about calling out, but what good would that do against the strength of the ship’s wake. I consider startling my wife, but why rile her skepticism. Instead, I reach for my camera and snap away but all I capture is emptiness. Through my own eyes, I still see it—see them? Can they see me? Do they even have eyes, as I know them? What do they make of me standing here? Can they see through me? A broken man? A lonely man? What am I? Am I a man to them at all?
Then, it’s gone. Just the stars remain. I can hear laughter once again, echoing off the ship’s hull. Did they see it, too?
It was a UFO. Of that I’m sure.   It takes two full days to reach Sitka and apparently there’s no place to park. No port exists, so Scandinavian captain drops anchor a mile from shore and anyone getting off for the day must take a ferry in, which is really just an oversized speedboat. Again, we must don life jackets and face our own mortality.
No roads lead in or out of Sitka either. Legends are passed down because of places like this. I notice the weather is changing. Heat settles in as the day moves. We’ve packed for 60s and rain, a misty rain, and now it’s eighty-five and sunny. Not a cloud. Not a bird. Nothing. Natives remark how it’s rained all week, until we arrived. Is it because of what I saw, I wonder. Is it their arrival instead that has brought unseasonable heat to Alaska?
I try and concentrate on why we’re there: wildlife. So far, no good. Yes, there was that fuzzy moose and a few birds here and there. And my new wife thinks she saw an owl, but admits it could have easily been a nest of pinecones instead. So to see bald eagle we visit the Sitka Raptor Center, which finds broken-down birds and literally nurses them, with baby bottles, back to health. The star of the show is “Sunset,” a bald eagle of considerable height. She stands at least three feet, with a yellow beak and talons to match. Her handler, a local volunteer, must wear thick leather gloves during each presentation. They have a six-foot wingspan she says. I’m six feet. The talons are like knives, like a horror show. I think this bird could kill me Freddy Krueger-style, if it got free of its leather bindings.
To see salmon we must find them in tanks. Deep blue above ground swimming pools with ten thousand fish in each. They attempt to escape by flopping on top of each other, stacking themselves as close to the outer lip of the tub as possible. It must take a year or more, I estimate, for any salmon wedged at the bottom to climb his way to the surface. One particular salmon struggles. I name him George. My wife snaps off a few pictures. But the water is dark and the salmon don’t appear as pink or orange as I expect. The shots are useless, unless people back home want to see photos of large blue fish tanks. I buy a bag of salmon jerky, my only souvenir, and eat it thinking it’s one of George’s relatives that never reached the top. 
Back on the ship I pay to use the Internet café. I want to check the Yankees box score, but more importantly, the local news for any eyewitness reports of strange lights, or unexplained objects in the sky. Nothing. Nothing in the Daily Sitka Sentinel or from KCAW Public Radio. Perhaps it was just an optical illusion. Wishful thinking? A prayer for abduction?
In real news, the Yankees beat the Blue Jays, 6-2.
I avoid the balcony that night. I’m curious but also fearful. I want to tell, tell what I saw, or tell what I think I saw. I’m about to spill it all when my wife kisses my neck. It’s the one and only time we make love during our honeymoon. My stomach hurts afterward. It must be the jerky.   We pull into Smugglers Cove at seven and find a parking spot in front this time. In Skagway, an old mining town stuck in time, we rent a car with cash and drive north into the Yukon of Canada, traveling the Klondike Highway, which makes me long for ice cream. I keep an eye open for wildlife—bald eagle up above, bear in the brush, another moose, even a snake crossing the road. Nothing. Not even a hawk or crow flies. We are truly alone.
I’ve not been to a foreign country before. The concept is alien to me. Will I feel different when we cross the border? We stop at a Kodak scenic outlook. "You are here. Welcome to the Yukon Territory." Other tourists, some from the Rotterdam, some from a Carnival cruise ship on roughly the same course, mill about the sign. They touch the face of the carved wood as though it were a golden Buddha, rubbing for good luck. I fear splinters and keep my hands and fingers and toes inside the ride at all times.
We stop for gas in Carspot, a town of rust and dirt roads and nothing but a gas station and abandoned railroad. Although most of the signs are in French, there’s one above the single gasoline pump that reads, "Unleaded Fuel Only". The U-F-O causes me to jump. I consider telling her about the light, about the UFO. I want to tell her, or at least someone. But I decide against it, which allows me to pump and both of us time to stare straight ahead.
The next day we arrive at Hubbard Glacier and I find it’s no different than ice in a glass, floating on top of the water, white and blue with cold. The ship does a one-eighty, which at its size and weight, allows passengers an hour and a half to “ooh” and “ah,” and use up their memory sticks on things that don’t appear to move or change. Perhaps they see themselves in the icy sculptures—aging slowly and hopefully with grace, only when a large chunk falls into the ocean do they notice the difference. With the sun beating down, but the air nipping about, I feel like my body is one of those Baked Alaska—hard and scorched on the outside, my insides melting away.   The remaining days flit by without another sighting, wildlife or otherwise. I manage to give away a hundred dollars betting on black at the roulette wheel, while the Yankees manage to win three more times that week. In fact, of all the strangest occurrences, I find New York Yankees nesting dolls in Juneau. They sit on a shelf with other Russian nesting dolls: hand-painted pictures of boys and girls and Eskimos and a set with portraits of the Soviet leaders. Derek Jeter is the largest. He has a face that looks nothing like the baseball legend, and more like mine in fact. Popping the tops, hiding one inside the other, I find: Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod), Bernie Williams, Hideki Matsui, and Jorge Posada. What I wouldn’t give to be Jorge, to be George, hidden, and surrounded by such a cocoon of safety and protection.
On the walk I think about telling her again, confessing all my secrets in fact, but we reach the Governor’s Mansion before I can find the words. It’s only a few blocks from the shops on Main Street, fit snuggly inside the most common of Juneau neighborhoods. To my surprise, much of the land is hilly and many of the sidewalks bend. There is white picket fence after white picket fence, and Cape Cod architecture. If I didn’t know any better I’d say we were in a beach town, somewhere along the Gulf Coast of Florida perhaps.   The last night aboard and again we’re asked about the Baked Alaska. This time I say yes, mostly because of the factoid in the menu: An Englishman (George Sala) who visited Delmonico’s, the New York City restaurant that named the dessert, in the 1880s said, “The  ‘Alaska’ is a baked ice....The nucleus or core of the entremets is an ice cream. This is surrounded by an envelope of carefully whipped cream, which, just before the dainty dish is served, is popped into the oven, or is brought under the scorching influence of a red hot salamander.” My wife asks what a salamander is and all I can think of are the lizards of my youth.
Our Baked Alaska is brought to the table frozen. A blowtorch sets it flaming, a ball of fire, a comet arriving, crash-landing on a silver plate. I enjoy the lightshow. For a moment, my eyes paralyze in the flames. Then, the light is gone. We dig at both ends. At times, our utensils touch and we both pull away. She eats her side with a fork; I eat mine with a spoon. The meringue is light and melts in my mouth as quickly as the ice cream. The sweetness touches me and I am content. With each bite, I feel more and more whole. After dessert, I look for Fig Man. Yes, although I’m fulfilled, I want one last fig. I hope to tell him about the Baked Alaska. But he’s not there. I check my wrist: 9:05. I wonder and worry. A few more of our shipmates seem to be looking for him, too. Even my wife appears worried. We wait until 9:45, but he never arrives. Perhaps it’s his day off my wife suggests. Perhaps it’s abduction, I think. Lucky bastard.
I return to the balcony that last night, for one last look. Although the planets have moved ever so slightly to the naked eye, I see the same stars, in the same places. I see the pinholes of light, winking, sprinkling the black carpet above. I spend an hour transfixed on the sky, searching, hoping, wondering how crazy this cruise has made me. I feel the patch on my neck. I have forgotten it’s there. At least something works according to plan.
At long last, some of the whites begin to move again. But these spots against the night are different somehow. They move slowly, like a leaf on the breeze. They’re thicker and less round, less perfect than the stars. They fly at my nose on cold air. Is it the snow the locals have talked about? This early?
With the light in my eyes, and the laughter of one last night at sea, it’s hard to tell the difference. But it’s wet and it’s cold, and they’re right in front of my face.
It’s snow. I’m convinced of it.
Should I tell my wife, I wonder? No, not now.
I’ll simply scream it out loud on the inside. But in front of her, I still won’t say a word.   .

Also by Michael J. Solender



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