Once or twice a year, when I've grown tired of slinging chicken and beef at 30,000 feet, when the high-pitched shrill of passenger complaints reaches an unbearable crescendo, when my polyester uniform begins to cling to my body like an ugly second skin, I take advantage of my airline travel privileges and fly away for some well-deserved R&R. But sometimes, a vacation can be just as unnerving as the job -- even if you're lounging at Club Med.
Back bruised and aching, skin lightly broiled from the South Pacific sun, I hobbled to my thatch-roof bungalow on the French Polynesian island of Moorea. A moment earlier, I had been water skiing. Or to be more precise, I had been making an attempt at water skiing. During my third try I lost control and ended up with an intimate understanding of the agony of defeat.
Slowly, cautiously, I limped across the room and sat down next to the big, black duffel bag laying open on my bed. Because I was traveling alone and didn't own a big, black duffel bag, the air grew thick with suspicion.
Shuffling Quasimodo-like, I searched the place for more signs of the intruder: In the bathroom I found a toothbrush with flattened bristles and a family-size bottle of Scope; beneath the bed, a pair of flip-flops large enough to fit Shaquille O'Neal; in the closet, a trio of exceptionally gaudy Hawaiian shirts. Baffled and a little pissed off, I left the bungalow and made my way to the check-in counter.
A stiff, humorless French G.O. (group organizer: a Club Med employee) eyed me from the opposing side of the desk. I told her that there had been a mistake -- although I specifically requested a single, someone had been assigned to my room. Though I winced in pain during occasional pauses in my story, she remained expressionless. When I finished, she just looked at me. Abruptly, and with the casual indifference of a weary Parisian waiter, she stated that "zingal" room status allowed for the pairing of a roommate.
"That doesn't make sense," I said. "A single room in any other lodgment usually indicates occupation by one individual." She shrugged her shoulders, tossed her head to one side and hissed between her teeth. C'est la vie. The G.O. said that I must not have read the fine print in the contract (she said this and then grinned smugly as she had probably done to many "zingal" guests before me). A contract materialized. It turned out she was right.
Dejected, I hobbled back to the beach. Club Med Moorea is blessed by sugar-white sand that disappears beneath turquoise water far too beautiful for words. There, nudged by a gentle breeze that swept beneath twin coconut palms, I pouted like a first-class airplane passenger who'd been relegated to a center seat in coach.
Upon entering the bungalow later that evening I was greeted by George Langley, a jolly Canadian with the robust chuckle of a department-store Santa Claus. He extended his hand immediately and offered an apology that was as sincere as his smile. It seems the front desk G.O. had given him the "zingal" room lecture as well.
George turned out to be a great guy. We talked furiously throughout the all-you-can-eat dinner buffet, shared a couple of laughs at the campy Club Med cabaret show and later at the discotheque, besieged by bad music and too much beer, we spoke about our jobs. I told lurid stories about passengers screwing in airplane lavatories. He spoke passionately about corporate accounting. Despite our differences, we really hit it off. We clicked. We bonded.
The bond between two strangers loses considerable glue, however, when one has a habit that drives the other crazy.
George dozed off in his twin bed while I read a Stephen King thriller in mine. The protagonist had just stumbled over the tip of a buried alien spacecraft when my eyelids grew heavy. I flicked off the light and settled in for a good night's sleep when suddenly, I heard THE SOUND.
My body went stiff. My eyes flew open like window shades. I prayed that my ears had deceived me. But like an earsplitting scream from a Roger Corman movie, the horrible sound repeated itself again and again and again. Mr. George Langley, my illustrious roommate, was snoring.
At first the racket was almost bearable. George whirred spasmodically in short raspy hitches, like an economy-car engine that wouldn't catch. But the snoring deepened almost immediately, shifting into long, gargling reverberations that thundered in my ears like native drums at a virgin sacrifice. Finding it impossible to sleep through the noise, I was overtaken by an urge to strangle my unwanted roommate until every last gust of Canadian wind had been exorcised back to the provinces. An eleventh-hour wave of humanity washed over me before my trembling hands could find his neck. I decided on a more civilized course of action.
First, I buried my head in a pillow (smothering George might have been more appropriate). After nearly suffocating from that, I stumbled to the bathroom in the darkness and stuffed bits of toilet paper in my ears. The primitive earplugs not only didn't work, but it took me 15 minutes with a pair of tweezers to remove a few stubborn shreds.
As a last resort, I limped over to my bed, donned my Walkman headphones and cranked up an Anita Baker tape to a volume sleep could withstand. That worked for a while, but George's relentless howling drifted between pauses in Anita's angelic voice like a backup singer from hell.
I'd had enough. I raised myself on one elbow and in a hushed voice called out to him.
"Dammit, George!" I screamed. But the howling Canadian hurricane simply shifted to a position from which more damaging winds could be unleashed.
This time it worked. George's snoring broke into a cacophony of snorts that sounded like a bush pig achieving orgasm.
Finally there was silence. Beautiful silence. I shut my eyes and prayed that I would fall asleep immediately. But just as I began to drift off, old George's engine kicked over again, sputtering and roaring until 7 a.m.
Through swollen, bloodshot slits I watched my roommate wake up to a glorious day which had been handily ruined for me. After yawning for nearly 30 seconds, he leapt to his feet like a kid on Christmas morning. The mad Canadian whistled on his way to the bathroom. From there, he began to gargle with a fervor only a dentist could love. His gigantic flip-flops slapped violently against the floor during the triangular trek between bathroom, closet and dresser. Irrevocably dressed in Bermuda shorts and one of those eye-bulging Hawaiian shirts, George donned a pair of mirrored aerodynamic sunglasses and exited the room with a boom box tucked beneath one arm.
The following night I found myself curled up in bed, poring over the same novel. This time I was basking in the quietude of my own private room. One look at my puffy eyes, my exacerbated limp and my otherwise battered countenance, and the front desk G.O. felt sorry for me.
I flicked off the lamp, stretched out in bed and listened to the faint musical chirping of sleepy island crickets. Moonlight crept through spaces in the wooden shutters and the ceiling fan blew languid good-night kisses. Just before drifting off, I heard a whisper from the adjacent bungalow. The sound grew steadily. Louder. Louder still. To my abject horror, I realized that I shared a common wall with another snoremonger. Each time he inhaled, it sounded as if he were choking on a giant chicken bone.
Though Anita Baker tried to help me sleep for the second night in a row, her voice tired, warbled and finally gave up altogether. The batteries in my Walkman had died.