When David Foster Wallace set sail on a luxury cruise ship in the mid-90s, he was pampered to the point of despair. Sending a brilliant, hypersensitive, agoraphobic depressive on a solo Caribbean cruise is like sending a gregarious jock who does his best thinking aloud and in his underwear to an artist’s residency. It somewhat exceeds the bounds of journalistic ethics to assign such uncharacteristic vacations to these poor souls.
Fortunately for me, my 4-night Royal Caribbean cruise coincided with a period of my life when I’m all jacked up on antidepressants and boat drinks have never been more appealing. I had a blast. I did not miss land at all. If I could go back in time and direct my career less towards becoming a writer and more towards becoming an officer on one of these buoyant utopias, I would do it in a heartbeat. Even now I’m considering joining the Navy and/or pursuing a degree in hospitality. If I had a job, I would retire from it immediately and move myself and all my earthly belongings onto the Liberty of the Seas, where we would be more comfortable.
To explain my newfound love of cruising and to proselytize to my family members who think cruises are cheesy and who don’t get goosebumps when they hear “the flatulence of the gods” reverberate across the water, I offer the following highlights from my Royal Caribbean vacation:
No one ever told me “no”
On board the ship, my every request was met by the crew with a fervent “Yes, Madam.” The closest we came to negative treatment was when a crew member politely asked M not to drink his bottle of Corona in the whirlpool sauna that hovers 11 stories above the ocean. It was probably 2am and we’d been hitting the bars pretty heavily since 9 the previous morning, but still, we were shocked that anyone would make such a request when broken glass is so easy to remove from a hot tub. Shortly after this outrage, however, the crew member came to his senses and returned to pour M’s Corona into a complimentary Royal Caribbean keepsake cup and ask us if we needed any more alcohol or fresh towels.
I was entertained by war orphans
As part of the on-board entertainment showcase we saw Canadian ice dancers and Russian aerialists and people of unknown origin dressed like pandas, but one of my favorite boat performances took place in a near-empty theater at 4 in the afternoon. We’d first seen these child performers while waiting to embark from Port Everglades. There were about 100 of them—97 girls and 3 Justin Biebers. In line we were intrigued by the group’s numbers and their monochromatically blond ponytails and their matching blue t-shirts. They told us they were a youth dance troupe from Australia and this was their first time performing on a cruise ship. They usually danced in Disney World. I made it a priority to see them perform, whether or not that would interrupt one of my six meals of the day. The choreography was severely limited by the size of the troupe. It’s hard to coordinate 200 jazz hands while also doing feet. There was actually no reason whatsoever why the dance troupe had to be so large, unless the kids were recruited by a benevolent stage mom as a way of liberating them from abusive Australian orphanages or child prostitution rings and getting them onto a boat where they would be safe, in a sort of Schindler’s List scenario. Which is of course what was going on. The kids only did one show and roved the pool deck unchaperoned for the rest of the time. M and I often saw the older teens bobbing seriously in the hot tub, steam camouflaging their tears, likely discussing the wretched lives they’d left behind.
I learned to fold towels and napkins into exciting animal shapes
My daily program came with me everywhere and I consulted it religiously, not wanting to miss activities like the International Belly Flop Competition and the Captain Meet & Greet. But one of the hottest activities on board was the napkin-folding class that took place in the piano bar everyday at 10am. Though I didn’t participate personally, I watched in awe with a breakfast margarita in my hand as the ship’s resident folding expert belted instructions into a microphone and young couples on honeymoon hunched over their bistro tables with furrowed brows as they tried to construct 3-dimensional swans out of 1-dimensional fabric. On the last day of the cruise the more advanced students learned how to fold bath towels into the shape of baby elephants. I never would have considered this a useful vocation if I hadn’t I walked into our stateroom one afternoon and found a penguin sitting on our freshly made bed, wearing my sunglasses. I almost took him home with me, but I was afraid he’d get smashed out of recognition in my suitcase and I wouldn’t have the skills to rebuild him.
I came to know the joys of binocular ownership
It’s unclear to me whether dolphins feed on chum or a more exotic bait like puff pastry, but in any case I was annoyed that the ship didn’t have an entire crew dedicated to attracting these aquatic mammals for my viewing pleasure. Left to my own devices, I trained my binoculars on the wake behind our ship countless times a day, hoping that I’d see dolphins frolicking in our sewage. I also searched the ocean for castaways on a pretty regular basis. One afternoon I saw what I thought was a raft containing a solitary man who had probably eaten his fellow shipwrecked crewmates, but it was just a log with a bird on it.
I met fascinating people
M and I could barely get through a shuffleboard tournament without meeting people we would’ve happily spent our lives with on dry land. On Deck 4 we encountered an elegant woman who used to take pictures of Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra. I lent my binoculars to a retired firefighter who once responded to a call where a man on a railroad track was so drunk he didn’t realize a train had taken off his leg. And then there was the whirlpool crowd, who were always a joy to be around, probably because the hot water lowered their defenses.
I ate so many desserts
At least three with every decadent meal. In for a penny, in for a pound.
I got off the boat only long enough to get on another boat
On excursion day in Cozumel, my travel companions and I boarded a catamaran at 11am with a small group of passengers that included four female dentists who were each about three pina coladas deep. These girls were better at partying than they were at snorkeling, so they spent most of our time at the disintegrating reef clinging to the handsome dive master. The stronger swimmers among us saw rays, parrot fish, barracuda, and bottom-dwelling scuba divers who seemed oblivious to our presence. I liked to float above these latter creatures because the bubbles from their scuba gear tickled my skin in an arousing manner. On our way back to the cruise ship the catamaran crew served us drinks and blared dance instructions masquerading as songs, leading us in Mexican interpretations of the Macarena, the Cupid Shuffle, etc. After a few spins around the deck the dentists became over enthused and started doing keg stands which resulted in them flashing their sunburnt boobs to a passing motorboat. It was good to spend the day observing the natural world before humans managed to spoil it.
I was encouraged to dress like a hoochie mama
Four-inch heels were standard discotheque attire. Not since our time in Miami had I so keenly felt my absence of butt implants.
I became overly emotional at the piano bar
According to M, the piano bar is always the most happening place on a cruise ship, at least in the realms of nightlife and napkin-folding. (I would argue that in the afternoon the Sprinkles soft-serve ice cream machine beside the children’s swimming pool was the center of our maritime universe.) The piano bar was home to a comedian-pianist who’d been playing cruise ships for 24 years and was a one-man Library of Congress as far as music and lyrics were concerned. He frequently recruited members of the audience to join him at the piano, and he had an uncanny ability to size up strangers and determine which songs they’d know from memory when he handed them the microphone. These impromptu performances were an emotional roller coaster. We saw an old man sing “You Make Me Feel So Young” from his wheelchair while his daughter videotaped it. We heard a young couple’s duet of “Endless Love” that would have Christina Aguilera’s Voice chair spinning in circles. And I was moved to tears by an elderly lady’s rendition of “Cabaret,” during which she got the whole crowd singing and took us all back in time to a 1940s nightclub where she wore a slinky red dress and rolled seductively across the piano and was the hottest ticket in town. I don’t know how the pianist managed to keep it together night after night. The sound effects on his auxiliary keyboard seemed to help. If one of the guest singers left him reeling, he’d just hit the fart button.
I appreciated the crew’s sense of irony
For instance, AA meetings took place in the Champagne Bar. Actually, that’s the only example of irony I can think of, and it was probably just poor planning on the crew’s part.
We outsmarted the casino
It only took us $20 to realize that we were not going to win $1,000 on the machine that has you maneuvering a pole into an irregularly shaped slot, thereby causing cash money to fall into a dispenser, making you rich. After we realized that the money was fastened securely to the roof of the machine, only to be dislodged by tidal waves or maintenance men, we made it our business to swing by whenever we walked through the casino. There would inevitably be a crowd gathered around the machine as one sweaty individual tried for the 60th time to make a square peg fit into a round hole. We always tried to counsel these people into letting go of their impossible dream, but we were only successful about half the time. The arcade proved to be more challenging to our wits, and we lost about $100 playing skeeball, coming away with only a packet of fruit erasers.
I did not pick dead skin off my feet in the hot tub
That must have been someone else.
I thought of DFW two times total
Once when gazing down at the black water at night from the uppermost deck of the ship, I felt that force in the ocean that wants nothing more than to swallow you. The feeling was so visceral and terrifying and primitive—despite DJ George’s soundtrack of club hits playing in the background—that I had to step away. And another time, off the distant coast of Cuba, I saw a small black bird squawking on the sun deck, appearing extremely disoriented. I think it had fallen asleep on the ship when we were docked at Port Everglades and then had woken up in the middle of the ocean. Unless there was some aviary on the Liberty that I didn’t know about, there were no other birds around for miles, and I watched as that fact seemed slowly to dawn on this bird. His lonely presence made me appreciate the company I was with all the more.
I had a hard time saying goodbye
This week I’ve been experiencing intense cruise ship nostalgia in the form of maintaining my day-drinking regiment and feeling our new apartment in Chicago rocking back and forth as if the waves are hitting our starboard side. Even though it’s freezing cold in Illinois relative to Florida, we still see the occasional Midwestern man walking around in flip-flops, and I want to accost him to see if he’s recently disembarked from a ship, so we can talk about it, and then maybe he’ll join us for a tequila sunrise in a local piano bar. We’ll sing mournful songs and reminisce about the days off the coast of Florida when we were all sea captains and despair was just a lost bird that eventually flitted away.