For the past decade or so, I have been obsessed with news stories about cruise ships, in particular the idea of minor disasters at sea on a floating pleasure dome: norovirus outbreaks; engine room fires that result in drifting without power for five days off the coast of Mexico; crimes that go unreported or unprosecuted because there are, after all, no laws on the high seas. I also read accounts told by crewmembers of their appalling working conditions, low pay, and lack of rights.
This ongoing obsession with cruise ships gave rise, as novelists’ obsessions will, to a novel about a cruise ship. I didn’t write about one of the new behemoths, those vast impersonal hotels with computerized drink bracelets and eighteen decks. My fictional ship, the Queen Isabella, is a relic, a smaller ship built in the 1950s. She is taking her last voyage before she is sent to Bangladesh to be dismantled on the beach. It’s a nostalgia cruise, featuring mid-twentieth-century foods and styles and music, a particular species of American elegance that has fallen away from our culture and become almost defunct.
The Last Cruise is about what happens on that intended two-week jaunt from Long Beach to Hawaii and back. The three characters who rotate points of view in the novel are Christine Stewart, a Maine farmer who has been invited to join her journalist friend and former colleague Valerie Chapin as her plus-one; Mick Szabo, a Hungarian chef working in the galley; and Miriam Koslow, the elderly Israeli second violinist of the Sabra Quartet, part of the entertainment staff for the cruise.
The chapter you will read here is told from the point of view of Christine. The scene takes place three nights into the cruise, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Christine opened her stateroom door to find Valerie at the small table by the window, in her bra and underwear, painting her nails.
“There you are,” Valerie said. “We have to go up soon. I’m so excited.”
Somehow, by befriending the sultry Brazilian lounge singer who was the girlfriend of one of the senior officers for this cruise, Valerie had finagled invitations for herself and Christine to that night’s captain’s table dinner, which Christine found herself both dreading and looking forward to. It would be black tie. They would meet the senior officers and the captain himself.
Before the cruise, Christine had bought a strapless, emerald green gown with a lush bodice and a tight mermaid skirt. She’d found it in a vintage thrift store in Portland, in a vaulted former bank where the rouged-and-mascara’ed old woman behind the counter always made everyone check their bags because “hoboes” liked to come in, she said, and “steal her wares.” The store was jam-packed with old clothes from various bygone elegant eras, all monstrously overpriced. Trying on the dress, looking at herself in the store’s flyblown full-length mirror, Christine was shocked at how good she looked. It had been so long since she’d dressed up. She preened a bit, almost embarrassed to be equating vain words like “hourglass” and “statuesque” with herself, even if only in her head. Then she just went for it, adding long white gloves, black satin stilettos, and a dazzlingly complex rhinestone necklace. It cost almost four hundred dollars, all told, which she charged to the farm credit card and didn’t tell Ed.
Now, she imagined his face when he got the bill. Well, it was her money, too.
When she came out of the shower wrapped in a towel, Valerie was in the emerald dress. It puddled around her. Her elbows stuck out like slender wings as she tried to hold it up.
“My dress!” said Christine.
“I know,” said Valerie. “Sorry. My own dress is kind of too modern, in the context of this cruise. But relax, your gorgeous gown is safe from me. Too big. Got nothing to hold it up with. What I wouldn’t give for your curves. I’m such a stick.”
Valerie stepped out of the dress with a tinkly laugh and gave it back to Christine. As she took the dress from Valerie’s outstretched hand, Christine was suddenly hyperaware of the contrast between them, how sleek Valerie’s body was compared to her own sturdier build. Maybe the dress had been a bad idea. Who was she to try for glamorous? She was a farmer. She handed it back to Valerie.
“Put it on,” said Christine.
“It falls off me.”
“We can make it work,” said Christine. “We can pin it around you. The color is great with your hair.”
“It’s okay,” said Valerie. “The urge has passed.” She was back in her chair, carefully painting the nails of her right hand, steadying her left hand on her knee as it held the little brush. “I want to see it on you.”
Self-conscious under Valerie’s frank gaze, Christine slid the dress onto her own naked body, zipped up the short side zipper, and bent forward to nestle her heavy breasts into the bodice. She brushed her hair and put it up in a loose knot with a large hairpin. She slipped her feet into the black stilettos, put on the necklace, and looked in the mirror.
“No makeup?” Valerie asked.
“I look like a cheap whore in makeup.”
“No you don’t.” Valerie studied her. Their eyes met in the mirror. “Put on some lipstick, that outfit is begging for it.”
“It’ll just smear all over my teeth and come off on the rim of my glass.”
Valerie shook her head. “Put on some lipstick.”
To appease Valerie, Christine uncapped a tube of dark red lipstick and ran it over her mouth. She grinned at Valerie. “See? Cheap whore.”
“You look fantastic,” said Valerie. “Perfect.” She waved her wet nails around and flapped her hands. “I’m going to be fast, I promise. We won’t be late.”
All through the dinner, as she ate the luscious lobster dish, there was a thin, buzzing wire stretched tightly between her and Captain Jack.
The Captain’s dining room was off by itself down a short private hallway from the fine dining restaurant. When they arrived, the invited guests were gathering in the antechamber, a teak-paneled lounge with a hand-painted mural of a jungle scene above an inlaid mother-of-pearl mahogany bar. The captain held court in the center of the room in his whites and insignia and brass epaulets and buttons, clustered with three similarly attired senior officers. Christine couldn’t help noticing that they were all youngish, passably good-looking men, and the eight guests were mostly female except for a couple of suave-looking young black men, identical twins. She recognized a young female Disney star standing by the bar holding a champagne flute, talking with theatrical self-awareness to another young woman Christine thought was a hip-hop singer, although she couldn’t remember her name. Tameesha, that was it.
Valerie went up to a woman in a low-cut clingy black dress with a slit almost all the way up.
“Beatriz,” said Valerie, “hi!”
“Valerie!” Beatriz hugged Valerie, then looked her up and down. “You look stunning.” She pronounced it “stoning” in a husky voice and an alarmingly sexy accent. Her skin was flawless; she exuded a heady, warm scent so potent, Christine found herself leaning closer to breathe her in.
Valerie preened at the compliment. She was wearing a shapeless but wildly stylish charcoal gray dress made of a dull, sturdy material with a square neckline, short sleeves, a simple Empire bodice, and a long flared skirt; it had been designed by a Williamsburg wunderkind, and had cost so much money that Valerie wouldn’t tell Christine the amount, even after Christine told her how much her own dress had cost.
Valerie leaned again the bar. “Oh, Beatriz, this is my friend Christine.”
“Nice to meet you,” Beatriz said and promptly turned back to Valerie. They talked in low, fast voices while the bartender handed Christine a glass of wine and busied himself with mixing Valerie’s order, a cosmopolitan. Although Valerie was aggressively au courant about fashion, internet trends, music, and gossip, she was endearingly un-snobbish about food and drink. Christine had always loved this about her.
Christine leaned against the bar and sipped the chilled, dry, spectacularly good wine and eavesdropped on her neighbors. Nearby, the Disney star was saying something earnestly to Tameesha, the hip-hop singer. Christine remembered the Disney star’s name suddenly: Cynthia Lopez. In real life, up close, she looked exactly the way she did in photographs: she had an enormous round head like a doll’s and small, pretty features. “So I was like, ‘If you have to discuss this right this freaking minute, let’s go somewhere quiet so she doesn’t hear you.’”
“She was listening, right?” said Tameesha, who was so tall and willowy and big-eyed, she looked like a humanoid grasshopper.
Before Christine could figure out what this conversation was about, the two male twins she’d glimpsed earlier descended and flanked her. They were, she guessed, about her own age, in their late thirties. They wore identical smiles. One of them wore a plum-colored velvet smoking jacket and black checked trousers; the other was in a tuxedo.
“Hello,” she said to them with a smile. “You must be brothers.”
“How did you guess?” said the starboard brother with a laugh. “I’m Tye Blevins. And this is my brother James.”
“And you?” said the port brother. “Where do you hail from?”
Their diction was so courtly, it prompted Christine to reply in kind. “I hail from Maine,” she said. “My name is Christine Stewart. And how did you two come to be on the Isabella?”
“Oh, we love the mid-century era,” said James. “We’re cultural historians. Tye is a history professor at Yale. I write historical mystery thrillers. We thought it would be a lark, there’s an old word you don’t hear anymore. Our last chance to sail on the Queen Isabella. They don’t make ships like this anymore. For us, it’s all about how convincing the period details are.”
“So tell me,” said Christine. “Are you convinced by the period details?”
“We were the historical consultants for the cruise,” said James. “So we’d better be convinced. Otherwise we’re all in trouble.”
“Are you convinced, that’s a better question,” said Tye.
“Absolutely. I’ve been drifting around the ship for days, feeling like I’m in a time warp,” said Christine. Her chest was warm from the wine. She snatched a small dark snack from a passing tray. It turned out to be caviar and a dollop of crème fraîche on cocktail rye with a sprig of dill. She put it into her mouth to free her hand and quickly took another one before the waiter moved away. All the waiters on the cruise, male and female, seemed to be short and dark-haired and -skinned. But according to Valerie’s research, Cabaret hiring practices dictated that there couldn’t be too many people from the same country, speaking the same language, or they might organize and band together against their working conditions. So they probably hired a variety of similar-looking people who spoke different languages. Christine found this disturbing on several different levels.
Valerie, hoisting her cosmo aloft, tipped her head at Christine.
“Excuse me,” Christine said to the twin brothers. “My date is beckoning me.”
The muted, entangled, melodic sounds from the stringed instruments, the wafting heat from the candles, the clean smell of the sea air, and the booze made Christine feel momentarily overwhelmed.
“Captain Jack Carpenter,” she heard Beatriz say as she approached Valerie, “this is my new friend Valerie Chapin, a journalist from New York City who is working on a very important book for a big publisher, and she is writing a chapter about this cruise. She’s hoping for a chance to talk to you.”
Christine eyed Beatriz with respect. She’d said it all so smoothly in her ravishing accent; Valerie, with her unerring schmoozer’s instinct, had chosen the ideal liaison.
The captain of the Isabella was a tall, bald, cinematically handsome man with salt-and-pepper sideburns and broad shoulders. He looked the part so completely, white teeth and twinkling eyes and all, that Christine almost laughed aloud.
He turned to Christine, offering his hand for her to shake. “You don’t look like a journalist,” he said. His accent was Midwestern. His aftershave smelled so suavely attractive, Christine was hit by an insane desire to make out with him.
“Well,” she said. “I used to be a writer. But now I’m a farmer.”
He looked her up and down with blatant appraisal, lingering on her breasts, displayed in the strapless green dress. Christine flashed a look at Valerie, who was watching this mating dance with the same eye-rolling bemusement Christine had felt when Valerie had tried on her dress.
“What kind of farm?” the captain was asking.
“Vegetables,” Christine said, politely forcing herself to match his earnestness despite her amusement. “And chickens. My husband and I own about twelve acres in western Maine.”
“Oh. I grew up on a huge farm in Wisconsin,” he said. “We grew corn. Nothing but. It’s nice to have a little variety, don’t you think?”
“Captain,” said Valerie, interrupting them with a businesslike expression.
“Yes?” he said, turning to her with a hint of reluctance.
“I’m the writer,” said Valerie. Her voice was brisk, professional, the opposite of flirtatious. “Beatriz offered to introduce me to you. I’d love to interview you at some point on this cruise, when you have a minute.”
“Of course,” said the captain, smoothly refocusing his direction, as if he’d hit a button on the control panel in his forehead and his internal rudders had swiveled, far below. “What kind of story are you telling?”
“I’m writing a book about the service industry,” said Valerie. “The story of this cruise will be one chapter in it, or at least, I hope it will be, if I can talk to enough of the crew without bothering them too much.”
“I can arrange that,” said the captain.
“Oh. Yes. That would be fantastic.”
“What’s the book about?”
“I’m interviewing workers at the lowest levels in different industries, the people on the ground, so to speak, the people who keep things running, in fashion, entertainment, food, business, IT, hospitality, and so forth.”
Christine, listening to this, tried to urge Valerie telepathically to downplay her angle; the Captain wouldn’t want engine-room lackeys and dishwashers and laundry-room attendants spilling their guts under his watch.
Too late; the Captain looked wary. “What kinds of questions are you asking them?”
Valerie’s face was vivid with the pleasure of discussing her work with someone who showed interest in it. “Who are they, and what are their experiences, in this increasingly global economy? It’s sort of a ‘beyond the American dream’ thing. The American dream has given way to something else.”
“But what is that something else?” asked Tye Blevins, who’d suddenly tuned in to this conversation; he’d been talking until now with total absorption to Cynthia Perez. Christine had overheard snippets as he lectured Cynthia on her latest movie, which he’d seen and had theories about. He said now to Valerie, in the same high-handed tone he’d been using with Cynthia, “The quote-unquote American dream is a historical myth. It never existed to begin with, in my opinion.”
Valerie gave him a sidelong stare. “Dude,” she said, “a myth to whom? To my grandparents, who were immigrants who came from poverty and worked their way into the middle class and raised kids who went to college? The American dream is a reality to them, and I’ll give you their phone numbers if you’d like to ask them directly about it.”
“I’m a descendant of a whole bunch of African slaves,” said Tye. “And yes, I see where you’re going with this, but my point is, all due respect to your grandparents, if you’re black, the American dream, quote unquote, wasn’t something you could work your way into, if you consider it, as I do, to be the mid-twentieth-century lifestyle, the two-car-garage ranch house in the suburbs with a patio, and a job with a decent income and possibilities for your children to have a better life than you.”
“You have a better life than your parents, right?” said Valerie. “You worked hard for it, I know, but you did it.”
“I teach at Yale, sure, but I’m subjected to racism every single day of my life, in ways large and small. In truth, the color of my skin is more telling of who I am to many people than my PhD or anything else I’ve ever accomplished. In a lot of hypothetical and actual real-life situations, my entire identity boils down to one thing only, and that’s race. I am a black man. That’s it.”
“Well, I’m a woman,” said Valerie. “So I know the feeling.”
“A white woman,” said Tye.
“And you’re a black man,” said Valerie.
She and Tye had a brief, charged stare-down. Christine had the distinct feeling that they both knew Tye had won, but Valerie wasn’t budging.
Christine had never met a billionaire before. She wondered if they all existed in this weird, ultra-concentrated, individually wrapped atmosphere.
“Hello, everyone!” called Kimmi, the tiny blonde sprite of a cruise director. She had appeared seemingly out of nowhere in a floor-length spaghetti-strap pink sheath with a feather boa and a rhinestone tiara; she had a way of popping up suddenly, Christine had noticed. She looked like a flower fairy in a community theater production of a long-forgotten Victorian play. She held a glass of champagne, which she raised to the room at large. “Welcome to the captain’s table! It’s a very special group tonight. You’re all such spectacularly accomplished people in so many fields, from the arts to the . . . arts! It’s good to see you all getting to know each other. And I’m so excited to say that I’ll be joining you tonight, on special invitation from Captain Jack.”
“Hear, hear,” said the captain. “Welcome, everyone. Cheers.”
“Cin cin!” Kimmi took a sip of champagne. “It looks like everyone’s enjoying one of our bartender’s special concoctions or a selection from his fabulous wine list. And we have a fantastic menu prepared by our very own Chef Laurens van Buyten, who hails from Brussels, Belgium, and the music will be provided by the Sabra String Quartet, who’ve come all the way from Tel Aviv, Israel. We are in for a treat! So everyone have another drink, enjoy the oysters and canapés, and we’ll be going in shortly.”
A while later, as the noise level of the guests’ voices was reaching a slightly drunken pitch and Christine had just begun to wonder when dinner was, two of the waiters flung open the tall double doors at the end of the captain’s lounge to reveal a cozy dining room, the tables set and waiting.
“Now, there are place cards by everyone’s plate,” Kimmi was saying. She had silenced the quartet just before they began the scherzo and prefaced her announcement with a spoon dinged delicately against her champagne flute. “I can help you find yours, if you’re lost. Oh! And Rivka and Larry Weiss are just arriving now. Hello! In case you don’t already know them, folks, this is the owner of our beautiful ship, Larry Weiss, with his wife, Rivka Weiss, a very famous composer, and they live in Palm Beach, Florida, and Tel Aviv, Israel. Mr. and Mrs. Weiss, I hope you’ll introduce yourselves to everyone during the evening so the guests all get a chance to chat with you.”
With a minimum of fuss, thanks to Kimmi’s place cards, all fourteen of them managed to sit around the table in the right places, with just enough chairs, so no one had to stand alone when the music stopped: the Captain at the head flanked by Rivka Weiss and Cynthia Perez, James the mystery thriller writer on the other side of Rivka next to Valerie, Tye the Yale historian between Cynthia and Christine, Tom the dashing Chief Officer between Christine and Tameesha, Mike the burly, clean-cut Chief Engineer between Valerie and Beatriz, and Kimmi at the foot of the table between Larry Weiss and Philip the Hotel Director, a slender man who had a voice so deep it sounded like a foghorn. Christine had been sure at first that he was just putting it on to be funny, but he’d kept it up all night.
She noticed that all four of the ship’s top-ranking officers were American, white, male, ostensibly Christian, and ostensibly straight, although of course you never knew. And all of the guests were a mixture of black, Hispanic, female, Jewish, and possibly gay. She noticed this with the same bemusement she felt about the waiters’ disparate ethnic identities but undeniably similar looks: were they Filipino, Mexican, Malaysian, or Dominican? They could have been all or none of these things.
The waiters moved around the table with hand-lettered menus, pouring wine. “Oh, Lobster Thermidor,” said Tye Blevins on Christine’s right. “They served it once in New Haven. An even blacker black tie event. It’s cool. It comes right in the lobster shell.”
The muted, entangled, melodic sounds from the stringed instruments, the wafting heat from the candles, the clean smell of the sea air, and the booze made Christine feel momentarily overwhelmed. She took off her long white gloves slowly, finger by finger, intending to drop them under her chair for safekeeping, but just as the second glove slid from her fingertip, a waiter was there at her elbow to take them. “I will bring them back for you after dinner, Miss,” he said very quietly.
She gazed into his dark eyes. His face was round, brown, snub-nosed, and his hair was a black thatch. He looked uncomfortable to be stared at directly, to have a cruise guest make this unexpected eye contact with him. She looked away with a useless sense of unease, useless because this was how things were. It did no good to feel guilty about it. She imagined that he just wanted to do his job, to be invisible.
As Christine cut into her iceberg wedge with Roquefort dressing, she glanced at the head of the table and met the captain’s eyes. She realized with a flattered zingy rush that his gaze felt frankly lustful. She leaned forward with feigned innocent absorption in what James was saying across the table from her and exposed a little more of her cleavage. Inwardly, she was laughing at herself for being so blatant, but she was totally unable to resist this temptation. She hadn’t flirted in so long. She hadn’t felt so juicy and alluring in years. The captain’s blue eyes looked hot and glinting when she darted a glance back to him to see whether he was still watching. She smiled at him. He smiled back. All through the dinner, as she ate the luscious lobster dish and drank her wine and made conversation with everyone around her, there was a thin, buzzing wire stretched tightly between her and Captain Jack, so tightly that if one of them leaned back, the other felt the pull. Christine allowed herself to enjoy this even as her wedding ring shone on her left hand. She was far from her husband, in the middle of the ocean, and she wasn’t dead yet, for God’s sake.
Across the table, Valerie caught her eye during a lull and said with pointed half-mockery, “Tell him to take a fucking picture.”
Christine just laughed and drank more wine.
At the foot of the table, Larry Weiss, part-owner of Cabaret Cruises and of this ship, had assumed control of the conversation. His voice was penetrating, sharp as a radio, as he interrogated Kimmi about something to do with the cruise. Her agreeable, chirpy replies blew away on the wafts of string music, whereas Larry was like a superheavy, ultradense neutron star generating his own gravity field, operating according to his own singular nature. Christine had never met a billionaire before. She wondered if they all, like Larry, existed in this weird, ultra-concentrated, individually wrapped atmosphere. It was nothing he said or did. He was understated and subtle. But his abstract, intangible assets somehow magnetized him, transferred themselves to his body itself, so he was able to be rich and powerful without doing anything. He seemed preternaturally relaxed. He laughed at something Kimmi said, a full, genuine laugh, ringing and merry and warm, and suddenly, against Christine’s own will, she laughed along with him although she hadn’t heard the joke. It was impossible not to.
The moonlight made a gleaming path on the dark waves that ran far below the balcony with a low calm murmur.
Between the entrées and dessert, Kimmi leapt from her chair and dinged her wine glass again. The table went quiet.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Kimmi, “while you await your fabulous dessert, I would like to present to you one of the most talented and famous musical stars today. She is going to sing a song for you by the wonderful composer, Sam Cooke, first recorded in 1957, the birthday year of the Queen Isabella. Here is Tameesha, who hails from our very own home port of Los Angeles, California, singing ‘You Send Me.’”
Tameesha got up and stood in front of the quartet. She was a hip-hop star whose two or three enormous hits even Christine was familiar with; they were as impossible to forget as advertising jingles, repetitive tuneless ditties, half-spoken, half intoned with auto-tune through electronic effects. Christine had always assumed that Tameesha couldn’t sing, she was all attitude and provocation.
Now she stood with her hands by her sides and her head thrown slightly back and her eyes closed. She crooned the love song in a full-throated easygoing voice, as familiarly as if she’d been singing it for years. Her face was filled with a kind of pleasure Christine had been missing in her own life for a long time: the joy of allowing her full self to come out, holding nothing back.
When several of the men wandered out to smoke, Christine and Valerie got up and joined them. The night air was soft and clean and salty. The moonlight made a gleaming path on the dark waves that ran far below the balcony with a low calm murmur. Christine and Captain Jack smiled at each other again, but it was friendly now; the flirtation had run its course. It couldn’t go anywhere but to ground. Oh well, she thought, feeling half disappointed, half relieved.
“Nice ship,” said Valerie to Larry Weiss. “It’s yours, right?”
“I’m one of her owners,” said Larry. Christine could almost hear a “little lady” hanging in the air as he turned to face Valerie and leaned against the railing, rolling a lit cigar in his long fingers. “This cruise is a good escape. No cellphones! I’m usually on three of them at once, all day every day. I haven’t felt this free in years. I feel naked without my earpiece. I could get used to naked. I’m almost dreading Hawaii.”
“So you’re firing your workers?” Valerie said.
Unruffled, he slid a lazy sideways look at her. “Where’d you hear that?”
“And you’re hiring refugees for a lot less money?”
First rule of journalism, Christine thought, never reveal your source. Second rule: don’t get thrown overboard. She hoped Valerie knew it.
Larry sucked manfully on his cigar. The end sparked, ashes blew off in the breeze. “It’s a business,” he said. “We have to compete in a global economy.”
“Right,” said Valerie. “But why not give them all raises and better hours instead? That’s good for morale, and morale is good for business too.”
Larry smiled at her. “I will take that under advisement,” he said, laughing. “I appreciate your concern for my workers.”
“Do you really?” said Valerie, but she had relaxed in the warm breeze of his easy, mellow charm.
Larry and Valerie went on bantering. Christine turned and stared down at the water. She was quite drunk, she realized. Below the ship, the ocean looked like a rolling sheet of thick black oil. Electric light fell in choppy bands on its surface. Christine felt a cold gripping loneliness in the pit of her chest. She hoped she could stave off these fits of hollow, pervasive dread until she was back in Maine, planting seedlings, hatching chicks, caught up in the cycle of renewed life again.