Maiden voyage

She was an impressionable 19-year-old passenger; he was the worldly cruise ship photographer. When he said, "Take off your shirt," what was she to do? By Susanna Stromberg.


Susanna Stromberg
October 7, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

People get lonely on ships. People get bored cooped up on a floating island the length of a football field with 3,000 strangers. People get lustful sitting in the cocktail lounge, sipping their second Bloody Mary at 10 a.m., with nothing but time, watching the wistful blond gazing out the window onto the aqua-colored glaciers as the ship floats by.

"Would you like another?" the cocktail waitress propositions, coyly, handing you a third, fourth, fifth drink before you can answer.

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"What the hell. Charge it," you say with reckless abandon, pounding your fist on the table for emphasis, flinging your room key toward her with a flip of your wrist. You've got nothing to lose. You don't know any of the other passengers -- you've taken a cruise to meet someone, after all. In all likelihood, you'll never see them again. Besides, you say to yourself, what's life if you don't live it?

People develop a false sense of confidence talking to the bartender in the disco, leaning across the bar, dipping their fingers into the bowl of maraschino cherries, dancing with men twice their age, exchanging flirtatious glances across the room with Paul, the ship photographer.

"So, is it going to happen with us?" Paul whispered as he settled into the booth next to me. Our thighs touched beneath the table. He took my face between his hands. "Well?"

I set down my Electric Lemonade -- the bartender was right, you couldn't taste the alcohol -- and considered his question. Paul was wearing a fluorescent green sweater that glowed like anti-freeze under the flashing lights of the disco ball. The room spun. A couple dressed in shiny blue leisure suits pranced onto the dance floor. He swung her between his legs then pulled her in close to him and dipped her into a low back arch. Everyone let out an "Oh!" Then the room was filled with applause.

Nineteen-year-old girls on a cruise with their family get lightheaded and giddy in a hot, dark room filled with music and cigarette smoke and booze. They feel flattered by the attention of men with deep blue eyes and chiseled jaws -- "He looks just like Val Kilmer!" Distracted, my mind swam away from Paul's question into the sea of glitz and Electric Lemonade, past the curl of his upper lip, his lovely English accent. People become disoriented. Frozen. Mesmerized. Silent. What was the question? How should I answer? I was a novice at dating, never mind a 10-day affair with a cruise ship photographer.

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"I'll take that as a 'yes,'" Paul said, stroking my thigh. Then he took my hand and led me out of the bar, down long, windowless halls to a flight of stairs and into the bowels of the ship, to a door marked "Photographer."

"You're not supposed to be here," he hissed, looking around him. "I could get in a lot of trouble." An adventure. Suddenly I felt careless and daring. I pushed open the door.

The room was filled with three large color photo processors. Photographs hung by clothes pins from plastic cord spanning the room -- like the colorful laundry that you see hanging between buildings in photographs of Italy. Only here the laundry was pictures of people. Other passengers, posed with their families, wearing their most elegant attire. Photos taken that evening before dinner. I thought I saw a picture of my grandmother, her smoke-gray hair coifed neatly into a dandelionlike puff. But many of the passengers were old like my grandmother. Their gray hair and sallow skin gave the "laundry" a decidedly drab tinge.

Then I noticed a bulletin board on one wall, layered with different photos: topless women, women in underwear, women with puckered lips, pouty lips; women whose expressions were so seductive my legs tingled.

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"This is my studio," Paul said. "Take off your shirt."

This was all my grandmother's fault. A hassle-free way for the 10 of us-- my parents and sister, my three cousins, their parents, Grandma and me -- to spend some quality time together, to merge our otherwise disparate lives into a common experience: a cruise to the Inside Passage of Alaska, on the Love Boat.

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The ship had plunged through the icy gray water of San Francisco Bay trailed by streamers, confetti, seagulls and champagne bottles as we headed under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a regal boat, bright white, gigantic. My sister Elizabeth and I had leaned over the railing at the back of the ship and stared into the churning water. A witch's brew of mysterious potions loosened from the bottom of the ocean swirled into the salty spray as we sailed away, leaving behind our cares and woes, charging into new territory: glaciers, killer whales, dolphins, salmon hatcheries, dreary fishing towns, Electric Lemonade and topless photo sessions.

The irony of a family cruise to Alaska on the Love Boat was not lost on us. My sister, cousins and I were all between 17 and 19 years old. The point of a cruise on the Love Boat was to give your lonely soul some respite from its loneliness. The point was to wake up in the arms of a smiling stranger and feel at home. And not "home" in the mom-dad sense of the word. Because if you did happen to hook up with a fellow passenger, a crew member or, say, a Russian double agent, this is not something you'd want your parents to know.

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Going on a cruise is a little like being stranded on an island of wannabe hedonists, people doing their damnedest to escape the gritty reality of their daily lives in Kansas, New York, Oregon or Texas. Everyone has the same goal: to step out of reality into the nebulous padded room of their ultimate fantasies. It is a virtual heaven where the crew are the angels. The angels' job is to make your experience airy, care-free and relaxing, to encourage you to behave devilishly, to forget your sorrows and your responsibilities, to appease your every whim. It is a little like being king or queen of your own island where total strangers (the crew, other passengers) are automatically your friends. Where everyone smiles because they too are king or queen. Where you are indulged at every moment.

In other words, if you don't like something, just send it back.

"I wanted steak," my cousin Marcy said, tears welling in her pale blue eyes. Her blond hair draped across her shoulders like a shawl. Her fingers trembled as she clutched her linen napkin to her mouth.

Marcy and her twin, Casey, had ordered halibut steaks. They were shocked when they were served fish rather than beef. I looked from Marcy to Casey to see if she was crying, too. Like frightened Italian greyhounds, their bodies quivered from the shock of being served the unexpected. This was not supposed to happen on a cruise. Prepaid experience was the point, after all. And they were the queens. Twins. Wide-eyed. Terrified. Shaking.

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"Feesh!" said our waiter Guiseppe, with a flourish of his Italian accent, as he removed the halibut steaks from in front of my cousins. He was an excellent server. His skill and personality were just solicitous enough that you felt special but not so much that your personal space was invaded.

"Ha! Ha! What is feesh, anyway?" Guiseppe crooned. "Take eet away. Bring these preetty girls a real steak!"


Paul shared a small windowless room with Philip, his assistant. Philip was the guy who wore the clown suit and posed for photos with the passengers. I'd watched the two of them together flashing knowing glances as clown-Philip posed with a female passenger, one arm around her shoulder, the finger of his other hand pointing at her breasts, his jaw dropped in
mock surprise. In another photo he posed with an old man, this time with a gigantic smile, pointing at his bald head.

Philip had the top bunk.

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"I've never brought a girl down here," Paul said. "Usually it's Philip that's the playboy."

Whenever Philip brought a woman to bed, Paul said he'd hide under the covers and pretend to sleep.

"Not that it's possible with the creaking springs overhead. It's just an unspoken rule between us," he explained. "What girl? In whose bed?"

Presently we were alone in Paul's room. It was already the sixth day of the cruise, and until now we'd always gone to his studio. Unlike in his studio, photos of his family and some postcards decorated his walls. Several shot glasses and a miniature Eskimo carved from ivory -- "To remember Alaska by" -- sat on his dresser. He poured me a stiff drink from a bottle he pulled from the dresser drawer. We sat quietly on his bed, suddenly shy. There was no strobe light to impair my vision, to set my brain spinning. This was my first drink of the evening. After dinner, we'd run into each other by accident as I was heading to my room to change before going to the disco.

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"Come with me," he said. "I'll show you a little about my life."
His room was not at all like the plush blue mini-suites my family and I inhabited on the top deck. Everything -- the walls, the dresser -- was painted a dingy "regulation" white. The bunk bed was a narrow twin.

"Are you cold?" Paul said, pulling an oddly shaped brown synthetic fur blanket around me. Absently, I fingered the fur, running my fingers along the length of the piece. There was a sleeve, a leg.

"What is this?" I said. "A bear suit?"

Paul nodded, leaned toward me and kissed me sloppily. I leaned back on the mattress, the bear suit falling away. Just as he slid his hand under my shirt, the door knob rattled, then there was the sound of a key in the lock.

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"Shit," Paul said. "That's Philip. You better hide. Lie really flat and don't move." He pulled the bear suit over me and sat on the edge of the bed.

The synthetic fur smelled musty and dank, like a kid's playroom, a mixture of sweat and potato chips. I listened to Philip rattling the lock. My heart was beating so fast I felt sure that the pile of fur was moving like a sleeping animal. Silence. I
held my breath and counted to 20. Nothing happened.

"Phew, that was a close call," Paul said, breathlessly. "You can come out now." He peeled the brown fur off of me, my fists still clutching it around my head. He laid it on the floor like a rug. Then he lay down on the bear suit.

"Hey, down here," he said, beckoning me to the floor. "You've got to have at least one authentic experience. Don't you want to do the nasty like the Eskimos did?"

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My grandmother's idea of authentic was forcing all of us to tour an Alaskan salmon hatchery on our first shore stop. She was
equally excited when the ship detoured from its regular itinerary and headed toward the port of Ketchikan, Alaska, a real fishing town. But just as the fish/steak had been a consternation to my cousins, Ketchikan was a shock to me. After nearly a week of floating past beautiful, pristine glaciers and forests with a perpetual high, Ketchikan was like waking up to a terrible hangover. It was a shabby, weatherbeaten place
of worn, splintering wood buildings, built on a narrow piece of land wedged between a sheer rock wall and the water. The buildings looked empty and dark. It seemed impossible to me
that people actually lived there.

From my perch on a velveteen couch in the ship's lounge, Electric Lemonade in hand, Ketchikan appeared to offer nothing in the way of comfort or beauty. Perhaps if I'd paid more attention to the ugly little towns along the way instead of my pretty Paul, Ketchikan wouldn't have been such a blow. At the very least I might have suspected that the bubble that had surrounded me, protecting me from remembering the world
outside, might soon deflate.

The look of disgust on my own face stared at me from the reflection in the window, and for a fleeting moment I felt ashamed for the way I was thinking. Yet I quickly blinked away this thought, sucked down my drink and watched a large group of seniors who were laughing and telling dirty jokes, oblivious to the dreary existence of the world outside.

The cruise director suddenly gathered 20 pairs of these seniors onto the dance floor of the lounge. "Boy, girl, boy, girl," he yelled, pairing them off. He handed out belts with aluminum cans attached at the waist to the women. To the men he gave belts with strings attached at the waist. At the end of the strings were stones that dangled between their legs. They dutifully strapped them on.

"OK, boys and girls, guys and gals, who knows how to play
Ketchikan Catching Can?" He howled in the voice of a sportscaster, passionate, robust, as if something really important was happening.

"Remember, no hands," he said, and pressed "play" on a tape player.

Olivia Newton-John's voice filled the room.

"Let's get physical, phy-si-cal. I wanna get phy-si-cal ..."

The seniors promptly clasped their hands behind their backs and began to gyrate, rotate and thrust with their hips, knees bent, deaf to the beat of the music. I watched in awe as they engaged in a geriatric rendition of Jennifer Gray and Patrick Swayze in "Dirty Dancing: The Golden Years."

After several minutes of grunting, wheezing and sly laughter, a thin voice rose from the writhing mass of bodies and creaking bones: "We did it!"

The cruise director raced over to the winning couple -- their bodies pressed firmly together, chest to chest, belly to belly, waist to waist -- and raised their arms in victory.

Sure enough, the man had managed to swing the stone on the string to the height of the woman's waist. The woman had swiveled her hips, bent her knees and caught the stone in the can strapped to her waist -- the Ketchikan Catching Can.

The last night of the cruise I stayed late in the disco well after the rest of my family had gone to bed, waiting for Paul. After that night in his room, things had tapered off. I wanted to see him one last time. At last he arrived, slobbering drunk. He tipped his head toward me and then slouched into a booth nearby. We exchanged glances for several minutes until I got
up the courage to talk to him.

"Well," I said. "What's going on?" I felt angry and insulted that
suddenly he was ignoring me.

"You won't be seen with me in public," he stammered. "It's like you're avoiding me. We say two words, I buy you a hot chocolate. I go to pay. And you've disappeared." This was true. Several times on deck he'd bought me a frothy hot chocolate in a tall parfait glass with whipped cream. I'd taken one sip, set it down, then disappeared. Secrets. Shame. Self-consciousness. I'd felt awkward about socializing with Paul during the day, when everyone -- my parents, my aunt and uncle, cousins, grandmother, other guests -- would see. What would they think of me if they knew what was going on?
Somehow this mattered. I hadn't forgotten that one day the
cruise would end. This wasn't how I was in my real life. The
alcohol-inspired boldness that propelled me through the night had no power in the bright light of day. So, while I thought of Paul constantly during those 10 days, by day I avoided him. It never occurred to me that he'd ignore me back.

I picked up my drink, took a deep breath and swerved over to his table. "Well," I said, with a mock English accent. "Is it going to happen with us, or what?"

"Oh," he said, scanning the room, suspiciously. "There are spies on this ship. My girlfriend, she has spies. I've received a warning." Girlfriend? Spies? I scanned the room. He had to be joking.

As he uttered the words, a tall, slender woman with bad teeth and bouncy red hair pushed her way past me into the booth. I recognized her as one of the cabaret dancers who'd spread her legs for the audience the first night of the cruise -- in the dance where they straddled chairs, rolling their pelvises back and forth as if they were riding horses, polishing the seats with their buttocks.

"He's got a girlfriend, you know," she said, glaring at me from below her hooded eyelids, painted with a smoky shadow.

"Buzz off, Rochelle," he said. "We're just friends."

By then I was feeling disoriented, disappointed and out of sorts. Suddenly I realized that while this cruise was my vacation, for Paul, it was his life. At the very least, it was where he lived for months at a time.

"I'm warning you. She'll hear about this when she gets back," Rochelle said, and stomped away on her high black heels.

Then Paul got up and headed for the exit. I followed him.

"What's happening?" I said, catching up with him. He smelled of garlic and onions and alcohol. He looked somber and sullen. "Walk me to my room, at least."

"I can't," he said, leaning toward me with his lips puckered. He was so drunk that he lost his balance and pinned me against the wall with his body. We would've made good partners at Ketchikan Catching Can. Missing my lips, he planted a slobbery kiss on my neck. "I can't help myself with you."


On a cruise, when you drop your napkin, someone picks it up. When you break the plate glass of the coffee table in your mini-suite, as I did, someone replaces it. You become deaf to consequence. At the same time, you consciously or unconsciously assume that for the duration of your cruise,
time has frozen in the outside world, and that world will be just as you left it when you return -- the gray buildings, the purple mountains, the geography that you call home.

Not much can wake you up from this daze, but the baritone rumbling of a glacier calving can. It began quietly -- like the deep, thick purr of a large cat far away moving closer. The sound filled my ears and settled onto me like thick clouds or
volcanic ash. Then a chunk of ice the color of the
Caribbean broke off and began to tumble, followed by an avalanche of smaller pieces, plunging into the sound. A spray of icy water rose high into the air, almost as high as Old Faithful. For a split second, everyone on the deck of the ship was silent. Frozen.

I had never seen anything like that, something so beautiful and graceful and powerful at once. I had never been totally paralyzed when I wasn't scared.

Time, as it turned out, hadn't stopped while we were floating around. Suddenly I felt mortal. The myth of care-free, no-consequence vacationing was exactly that, a myth.

On the 10th day, my family disembarked together, following our fellow passengers like cows to a slaughter. Everyone looked tired, their shoulders slumped forward carrying suitcases. This was not the same spunky group that had boarded 10 days earlier. I saw Paul at the bottom of the gangplank snapping photos as the passengers stepped off the ship onto the dock. His skin looked pallid in the morning light. He was wearing his blue nylon Love Boat baseball jacket with the name tag that said "Richard Avedon" pinned over the left pocket.

I held my breath as we approached the bottom of the ramp. My jaw clenched and my body went rigid. Would he say something to me? I hoped not.

Instinctively I looked past him. Still, no one could know.

"Have a safe trip," he said to the passengers in front of us, his standard farewell.

"Wait," he said, as we started to pass. He touched my grandmother's shoulder, willing her to stop. Then he motioned us to cluster together.

"One more photo with a grizzly bear," Paul said, motioning behind him. Philip appeared next to my grandmother and draped a furry arm around her shoulder. We all clustered around her and posed for the photo. I could not see Paul's expression as he raised the camera in front of his face and snapped the picture.

As he lowered his camera, our eyes met.

"You folks have a nice trip," he said, turning to the next group. Then we stepped onto land.



Susanna Stromberg

MORE FROM Susanna Stromberg

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