They packed 35 of us onto a catamaran and drove us out to where we would snorkel with a dad who believed he knew everything. The captain plugged in an iPod of loud music I mostly didn’t recognize. But it was catchy, and fit for drunken partying. And we were promised rum punch. As much as we could drink. But it wouldn’t be served until after we’d finished our dive, our swarthy sea captain informed us. So all of us sat staring at one another, like this were some seventh-grade dance, until we reached the spot where we’d do our snorkeling.
A tall and skinny man stood next to my wife, choosing to use his spot on the long plastic white bench for his backpack rather than for sitting. I didn’t pay him much attention for most of the ride over. But at some point, my wife leaned in to me as she put on a pair of flippers. “Did you hear that guy talking?”
I shook my head no, her grin contagious.
“You should. He’s the daddest dad who ever dadded.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant yet, but from that point on, I listened, and it was as glorious as promised. Running across neurotic people, for a writer, is like finding a five dollar bill on the sidewalk. You almost always hope you get some annoying sexist seated next to you on a plane, or encounter a marital spat when you’re pumping gas or eating pizza.
An old ball cap drooped over the dad’s head like the sun was melting it. He was pale and wore a white golf shirt and khaki shorts. He leaned against a pole, bone arms crossed, no smile, listening to his family’s conversation, eyes flitting back and forth. He didn’t seem to be yearning to be a part of this conversation. Rather, it seemed as though he was playing some conversational form of Tetris, waiting for the moment to drop in the perfect piece of correction to complete the discussion. At one point, his barely teenage son was sizing his mask when his dad pulled it out of his hands, suddenly looking like the featured speaker on the TED stage.
“You need to make sure the mask is sealed on your face.” He placed it on his own head to illustrate.
His son nodded, not quite meeting his dad’s gaze, took the mask, and started again to resize the rubbery strap.
The dad seemed so pleased with his lecture that he looked around as if he’d stumbled onto the secret to life and needed to share it with anyone who would listen. That’s when he caught me looking. And I swear his mouth twitched in a pre-lecture glee that shook me to the core. I cut my eyes away as quickly as possible so as not to encourage him. There’s a reason they tell you not to feed the animals at the zoo.
I didn’t know it, but I had broken some seal in that moment. With reluctance, that looked painful from the corner of my eye, the dad turned back to his family. I didn’t dare stare again, but I continued to listen with amusement as he lacquered them with coat after coat of useless bits of dad-formation and unwanted dadvice. Try not to breath in the water, it will choke you. This sun’s hot, maybe the kids could use another spray of suntan lotion. He poured himself into the dad role like a man desperate to prove his importance. I have little doubt part of him truly believed his wife and children would shrivel and die apart from his professional level dadding. It was a glorious thing to behold, from the outside.
It’s easy to reduce people to what annoys you about them. Like the co-worker who won’t stop talking about his model trains. A middle-school teacher who treats every adult she encounters outside work as if they’re 13. A counselor who can’t turn off her analysis of every friend she has. Other people’s flaws bug us up close. But we love seeing them from a distance.
If that’s not true, I’m not sure why we enjoy the flawed character so much in our entertainment. Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces is correctly described as a “Bag of wind”, and someone we’d never want to be buds within reality. But readers love him. Mr. Darcy is the obviously flawed love interest in Pride and Prejudice. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a reader who doesn’t wish she could steal him from Elizabeth. Monica Geller from Friends, who puts her burden of obsessive cleanliness on anyone close to her, would drive most people away. But we love seeing her antics from our couches. We like to be entertained by those with overwhelming faults, but when we have to experience people like them, we get uncomfortable. Who knows? This dad might be a top-notch pediatrician, or on the verge of finding a cure for Cancer. He might be a doting husband and father who gives half his income to the poor. But he will always only be delightfully annoying to me. Watching his apparent character flaw, and the seeming comic gloom it brought his family, was as enjoyable to me as any free rum punch might ever be. Until it was aimed at me.
When we climbed back onto the boat, having seen a 300-year-old shipwreck, arms and legs rubbery tired, all we wanted was free rum and to sit. Nearly every person on the boat, including the dad, had been in the sea. We all dripped salted, clear-blue water. But he pitched nervous glances at us as we dried ourselves with towels, working to get his lips around the words he wished to say to us as we sat next to his thirsty dry backpack.
Like wildlife photographers, too excited by their subject to recognize they’ve gotten too close to the beast, we found ourselves in his grip. He politely pointed to his backpack, asking that we not dampen it. This was fine. Then, oh wretched life, he began to enumerate the ways in which we could solve this problem. Removing our life jackets and placing them under our seats, for instance, or sitting on our towel so it would soak up the excess water. He said these things as if our minds could not have conjured them lest he give them as gifts. We might as well have been his third and fourth children, helpless to do anything but listen.
We stood for most of the rest of the trip back, even taking a few extra steps away from the plastic white bench on which his bag now sat atop a few folded towels. We took advantage of the free libations, laughing and talking with some of the other passengers. Maybe we laughed too hard, found too much joy in the waves and sway of the boat as it carried us back to land. But not, I think, because of the alcohol, but something else entirely.
The dad’s family sat a few feet away, slouched shoulders, staring blankly at a rocky sea. The tall man stood over them like a watchful hawk over a mischief of rats. Drunk on relief more than rum, my wife and I realized we’d flown too close to the sun, our waxen wings slumping in the heat. But, we’d somehow survived and, unlike this family, we were forever free.
Photo: Getty Images