By Jill Kato
Featured Image: Breezing Up (A Fair Wind) by Winslw Homer, 1876
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
I like to get to the ship early. You’ll usually find a couple of old-timers waiting by the bar, itching to sip a Tom Collins or a whiskey sour on the rocks and get their vacation started right. This is the best time to build rapport and I’m their gal. At this point, they’re still excited about their trip and have a thick wad of cash in their billfolds. Their wives are in their cabins getting settled or making appointments at the spa or booking excursions for when we dock. The bar is quiet and they have me all to themselves. They can pour out all their troubles, and I can pour them all the liquor they need, at heavily marked-up prices. I haven’t even finished restocking the tabasco and maraschino cherries when a salty dog of a guy walks in. His name is Jerry and he’s on board to celebrate his wife’s sixty-fifth birthday. I ask him what he does, and he says he used to own a manufacturing company in the fashion district but now he’s retired. Left the business to his son. He says he built his company from scratch. Even though his shirt is ugly and has hula girls on it, I tell him I like it. I tell all men I like their shirts. I garnish his glass with an orange slice and tell him I admire men like him, self-made men who do things like run their own companies. And I do.
We chat some more and I laugh like his jokes are the cleverest things I’ve ever heard. I make Jerry promise not be a stranger during our three-day cruise. Before he heads out, Jerry says thanks and slides a five in my palm and leaves his hand on mine for a beat too long. It’s okay. It’s sweet, actually. Before the Paradise Lounge, I used to work as a cocktail waitress in the after-hours club below deck. Old-timers like Jerry are harmless. A little hand-holding is nothing compared to the molestation that occurs down below. I make less in tips, but bartending is a skilled job and I get more respect, even in these low-cut tops.
Randy is getting situated in his cabin. Randy is my husband. After you’ve passed your six-month probation, the Majesty Cruise Corporation allows you and your immediate family to tour the seas for half price during the off season. Randy and I got hitched eleven months ago; I was pregnant and getting married seemed like the thing to do. I lost the baby in the second trimester. We were supposed to take this vacation together as a couple, not when I was scheduled to tend bar, but Randy said this was the only time he could get off work. That’s a lie, but I had just lost the baby and didn’t feel up to a fight. We’re still trying to work things out.
About two hours into my shift, Frank, the manager, joins me behind the bar. Frank fits right in with the old-timers. They can relate to him, and as a result he makes off with good tips. He owns a bar called Delilah’s out in Long Beach. It’s named after his wife. The way he tells it, they fell in love at first sight over frog dissections and have been together ever since. The way she tells it, he tormented her by shoving frog guts in her face and love came later. Either way, I love hearing that people were high school sweethearts.
They’ve been married for thirty-two years now and have three kids and two grandkids. Janet, his youngest, was my year in school, and that’s how I got hooked up with this job in the first place. Delilah is real sick now. It’s a shame. She’s got stage four breast cancer, so Frank needed a job with health insurance. He calls her every chance he gets. He’s really a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy.
I usually stay on the Coronado Deck with the rest of the staff, but since Randy is on board, I’m staying in one of the staterooms like I’m a guest. When my lunch breaks rolls around, I head up to our stateroom like we planned, but Randy’s nowhere to be found. I run into Marlen in the halls and we head down to the galley to grab a bite to eat together. Besides Frank, Marlen is probably the closest thing I have to a friend on board. She taught me the ropes when I was first hired on as a cocktail waitress and covered for me when she found me crying in the ladies’. She told me I should always find a way to touch the male customers and drop sexual innuendo into a conversation, but I figured I’d just stick with telling them I like their shirt.
Marlen is in her element down in the club. She is its queen. She can flirt like nobody’s business and handles herself, no problem, if guys get a little too touchy-feely. That kind of stuff doesn’t seem to bother her. She says for $200 a night in tips, she’ll let any man, woman, or child cop a feel. Marlen likes to say outrageous stuff like this.
My shift is scheduled to end at midnight, but Frank tells me to get out of there by 11:00. He tells me I should go spend time with my husband. I go up to our room, but Randy’s not there yet again. He must have just left, because I catch a hint of the cheap but tasteful cologne I got him a few months ago for his birthday. I don’t mind that he’s not there. Really. I’m kind of relieved. After a night behind the bar, it’s nice to be alone. It’s nice to be in a room, all quiet, and take a shower and put on one of the white terrycloth robes that are only for guests. It makes me feel pampered and it makes me feel rich. I close my eyes and pretend that it’s me on vacation.
The fire alarm goes off at 4:32 a.m. and wakes me up with a start. I can’t tell if I’m more startled by the alarm or by the fact that Randy is actually in bed beside me. He must have had a lot to drink last night, because I don’t know how else in God’s name he can sleep through this alarm or my elbows to his chest. I nudge his stupid buzzed head one last time before I slip on some shoes and a sweatshirt and head out the door. Everyone is covering their noses and mouths, pulling up shirt collars or holding towels to their faces, anything that will keep the smoke from our lungs.
Eddie, one of the guys from the security crew, is barking orders. “There has been a small fire in the engine room. No need to panic. The engine crew has put it out. We’re asking everyone to evacuate as a precautionary measure. Please follow the emergency lights up the stairs.” We do as he says and shuffle down the hall, dazed and groggy, in flip-flops and shoes with laces untied.
I go up to Eddie. “It doesn’t seem like the fire is out,” I say waving my arm at the smoke. Eddie leans close to my ear. “It’s not,” he says. “Something’s wrong with the pipes too.”
Randy catches up to me in the hall. “Just my luck,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve gotten to take a real vacation and a goddamn fire breaks out.” Randy is one of those guys who think that everything bad happens to them. After I lost the baby he said the same thing. I thought he was upset about the miscarriage, but it turns out he was just upset that he got married for no reason at all.
By dawn, there’s sewage seeping through the ceilings and the carpet squishes with foul liquid with each step we take. Everyone’s angry that there isn’t any power and even angrier about the plumbing. Who can blame him? We’ve all been told to relieve ourselves in the shower if it’s number one and given plastic bags for number two. The reek and filth are so stifling in the staterooms that I can’t imagine anyone is heading down there to follow directions. The staff is angry too, but we’re told we have to put on a good face for the guests, and for the most part we do.
I report to the Paradise Lounge as scheduled. It turns out Jerry was my last good tipper. The place is more crowded than usual, and the passengers are restless. Something about their impatience, their air, the lack of tips, tells me they feel like they’re owed cocktails on the house. I guess management agrees, because two hours into my shift Frank tells me it’s open bar and the place goes wild.
The words “open” and “bar” spread like wildfire. Randy shows up fifteen minutes after the announcement in his best T-shirt with the arms cut off. I think it’s odd that he’s decided to come to my bar until I see that he’s close on the heels of what appears to be a bachelorette party. I’m too busy to pay him much mind. I’ve got people clamoring for free booze and they’re pulling out all the tricks to get me to serve them next. It’s a total madhouse. The elderly and reserved are driven out by the young and rowdy. Hands and empty glasses are thrown in my face. They yell, “Hey!” or “I’d like a” to any of us, all of us, behind bar.
Guests are reaching behind the bar to cart off entire bottles of the hard stuff. The Gran Patron is the first to go, followed by the Johnny Walker Black. The bachelorette party is getting out of control. One of the girls climbs behind the bar and offers men body shots, and another hoists herself up on a table to perform a striptease that makes me uncomfortable and a little sad. I catch Randy at one of the side tables with the Gran Patron in his right hand and a stupid grin on his face. He loves this.
The captain gets on the loudspeaker to tell us that a tugboat is on its way. He says that unfortunately there isn’t a tugboat in the surrounding waters, but to sit tight and they’ll get one to us as soon as humanly possible. Sit tight? Are you kidding me? I’d like the Captain to get his ass down to the train wreck that’s the Paradise Lounge and see how tight he can sit after that.
Marlen usually works the late shift, but she’s been asked to pitch in given the circumstances. Every word that’s coming out of her mouth is several decibels higher than I think humanly possible, but her approach seems to work and she’s able to keep the crowd in check. Frank is happy to let her take control. He’s too old to deal with crap like this. After the sun goes down, all we have to light the bar are a few strategically placed flashlights. We’re stocked for a three-day cruise and by 1:00 a.m. of day two we’re completely out of booze. The passengers are up in arms, but we’re thanking God Almighty that the Majesty of the Seas is bone-dry.
I go back to the stateroom I’m sharing with Randy, but it looks like he’s cleared out. The staterooms are uninhabitable. There’s sewage everywhere and the air is vile. I wish I could shut down my sense of smell, close my airways to the burn. I grab some belongings and get the hell out.
The passengers are setting up tent cities with their bed linens in the open-air areas. They’re tying their sheets to the railings and sleeping on the mesh chaise lounges. I run into Eddie from security. “Got any insider knowledge?” I ask.
“They have no fucking clue when we’re going to be rescued. There’s nothing remotely close that’s capable of tugging us to shore.”
I hope I don’t look as beaten and sullied as Eddie. From the look and smell of it, there’s vomit on the front of his uniform. He’s exasperated.
“Fuck,” he says, and shakes his head.
“Yeah,” I say. Fuck is right.
I follow the shrieks and squeals of the bachelorette party. My hunch proves correct; I find Randy nearby. He’s set up camp the next aisle over.
I stand over him and look around. It’s amazing how black the night is when you’re out of power and adrift at sea. Despite the blackness, Randy is wearing sunglasses. What a tool.
“Don’t you have a place where the staff can stay?” he says. He’s playing music from his phone at an obnoxiously loud level and doesn’t turn it down when I speak.
I can tell I’m cramping his style, so I stand there and enjoy it a bit. I glare down at him and put my hand on my hip and say, “You think the crew has a secret hideaway somewhere with working toilets and showers?”
Randy shrugs. Actually, I do know there are some staff cabins that are sewage-free, but I keep this information to myself.
“I guess I’m going to have to find other accommodations,” I say as I motion toward the single chaise lounge Randy’s claimed. “I’ll find Marlen.” I walk away slowly, in a way I hope says that I could care less about what he does. I mean, I made it easy for the guy. I got a job that takes me away for days at a time, and then what does he do but follow me and give me grief for intruding on his fun like I’m his mother.
I go down to the crew cabins at the bow. Those rooms are fine. After the third knock Frank opens the door. It’s obvious he had already fallen asleep. His hair is smashed to the side and his eyes are adjusting to the light.
He motions for me to come in. “What happened to Randy?” he says.
I slip off my shoes, shed my clothes, and crawl into Frank’s bed. He crawls in after me and I snuggle up on top of his chest. We’re both sticky with spilled booze and salty with sweat, but there’s not much we can do about it. We lie there together, like we do most nights at sea, quiet with the comforting weight of our bodies. We’re tired from a shift that wouldn’t end, a shift aboard this nightmare, and tired from our lives on land.
I tell him I like his shirt. He laughs. He knows that’s my bit.
We don’t talk about Delilah and we certainly don’t talk about Randy. We don’t pretend this arrangement is anything more than it is. I know Frank’s not in love with me, but I know some sort of love is there. We like being in each other’s arms, arms that will hold us, and that’s about all we need.
On day three, the captain makes an announcement that a tugboat is on its way. Marlen coughs the word “bullshit” into her fist. If the tugboat doesn’t get here by end of day, the Coast Guard will drop off supplies via helicopter.
“Tell them to bring condoms!” shrieks one of the girls from the bachelorette party. This comment is followed by a bombardment of hoots and giggles. The look on Randy’s face says he couldn’t be more pleased. Like he has a chance.
The weather takes a turn and drops below forty at night. The Sun and Sky decks look like a first-world version of a refugee camp. Passengers look like they’ve wandered away from some sort of institution, with their matching terrycloth robes and hair and bodies that haven’t been washed for days. The bachelorette party packed for days at the pool and nights at the club. They’ve layered sarongs over their skanky dresses and bikinis for optimal warmth. Some passengers have teamed up to try and spell out the word “HELP” with their bodies on the pool deck. They get bored with this and move on to S-O-S. Forming the double curve of the letter “S” proves to be more of a challenge and there are a lot of backseat drivers offering up directions.
“Arch your upper back more.”
“You got to pretend you’re a snake.”
“Suck your stomach in for the picture.”
Without refrigeration and power to cook, food options get more unappetizing with each passing meal. Everyone’s cold and hungry and takes it out on each other. The galley crew is pasting bread together with nothing but ketchup and slices of raw onion. People must be desperate, because the line for these sandwiches goes through the promenade and past the gym.
“There are babies waiting in line!” Marlen says. “That baby’s going to be grown by the time it gets to the front!” I must be as hungry as the rest of them, because an onion and ketchup sandwich doesn’t sound half bad.
I run into Jerry and his wife in the sandwich line. “How’re you doing?” I ask. “You hanging in there?” Jerry says he’s out of his medication and his back is killing him. His wife, one of those stern overly coiffed sexagenarians, chides him for not bringing extra.
“What were you thinking?” she says.
“I only planned to be here for three days,” he answers.
By day four, people are crying. I go to the Sky Deck to watch the helicopter drop off supplies. Security has trouble keeping the passengers at bay. Really primitive stuff is going on. People are already hoarding food and defending their turf, so I don’t want to imagine what will happen if security can’t hold the line. The most exciting thing that’s been dropped off is a generator. Otherwise it’s mostly bottles of water, antibacterial hand sanitizer, and loads of granola bars. They didn’t even bring diapers for the poor suffering babies.
Life aboard the Majesty of the Seas is becoming pretty bleak. The wind smacks us around and keeps our spirits down. Some passengers have formed a Bible study group and are meeting starboard on the Sun Deck. They sing hymns and hold hands in a circle. They sing something about lifting their souls, “Lift up thyself, my soul, above this world’s control.”
I catch Randy throwing champagne glasses over the railing into the Pacific. Randy definitely doesn’t lift up thyself or anyone else for that matter. The bars have been left unattended. He must have stolen the glasses out of the South China Seas Bar. What a bastard.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he says, and throws another glass overboard.
“That’s bad for the environment,” I say.
Randy looks at me, then throws two more glasses into the water, one right after the other.
The wind picks up speed, and the glasses crash against the side of the ship before the shards fall into the waves.
“So what,” he says. He raises his eyebrows like he’s challenging me and throws in one more for good measure.
He really couldn’t be more of an ass. What was I thinking to have ever been with a guy like him? I’m going to do it. I’m going to tell him about me and Frank. I want to tell him about all the nights we’ve been together. When I see him these days, all I want to do is hurt him. Hurt him bad. There’s probably not much I can do to hurt him, but maybe I can still get at his pride.
“You know how I said I was with Marlen.”
“You know, I didn’t have to marry you,” he says, and stares at the champagne flute in his hand. “Everyone told me I didn’t have to. People have kids and don’t get married. It’s not like it’s the goddamn 1950s. But I wanted to do right by you and the baby. I wanted to get at least the beginning part right.”
His face softens.
“I know things are messed up,” he says, “but I wanted you to know, at the beginning, I wanted to do right.”
I suppose this is as much of an apology as I’m going to get, and it’s not like I’ve been a saint either. Randy and I met in high school, like Frank and Delilah. He’d jet out of class to catch me between periods, then sprint like mad when the bell rang so he wouldn’t get a tardy slip. Before prom, he raided the drugstore for bags of gummy bears and picked out all the red ones and stuffed my locker full of them. All because he knew they were my favorite. Those days are a lifetime ago.
I pick up one of the glasses from the plastic crate. It’s light and airy. It weighs next to nothing. Randy’s a guy who will be panting at the sight of bachelorette parties his whole life. The only people who will employ him are family. There are only a half a dozen champagne flutes left in the container. I put three of them in Randy’s hands and pick up the other two. “On the count of three,” I say.
We hurl the glasses into the sea and lean over the railing to watch them tumble into the spray. Randy steps back and stumbles over the crate. He falls flat on his butt with a thump. I laugh and then he laughs too. The laughter surprises us, sort of how a hiccup catches you off guard.
The waves chop into the side of the ship, against the smooth white plane of the hull. I imagine that they’re pounding into me instead. Every time the water slaps the sides I brace myself and grip the railing a little tighter.
“You okay?” Randy asks.
“Yes,” I say, but I’m not. We’re not like Frank and Delilah. We’re not going to raise three kids with not much more than love to keep us afloat. We’re not going to buy a house we can’t afford or watch our grandkids play in our yard. We’re not going to nurse each other if one of us gets cancer. Randy wouldn’t get a second job aboard a fetid cruise ship to save his own life, let alone mine. Sometimes you like the idea of something more than the thing itself.
“We should get a divorce,” I say.
We stare at the swirls of water. The waves beat the hull, one after another. I wonder how long it will take before the glass from the champagne flutes is ground up by water and sand. I wonder how many years will pass, if any, before it washes up to shore in smooth frosted pieces.
“What were you going to say about Marlen?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I say, and we continue to bob along in the Pacific with everyone else.
Jill Kato graduated from the Programs in Writing at the University of California, Irvine. She is the recipient of the Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation’s Henfield Prize for Fiction. Her work has appeared in the The Threepenny Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and in Buffalo Cactus & Other New Stories from the Southwest.
Originally appeared in NOR 17