Platonic Love Letter to a Cruise Ship Lookout

by MICHAEL MEYERHOFER

When most people think of cruise ships, they picture sleek, Olympian vessels painted the color of a wedding cake, with flags and swimming pools and lots of eligible singles milling about, brandishing drinks the color of sunsets. Our ship was more like a rusty freighter whose stabilizers were so bad that half a day out of Fort Lauderdale, the crew literally went around and started taping barf bags to the walls. In the dining hall, glasses and centerpieces kept tipping over. Three-fourths of the passengers got sea-sick, including me, who spent the first day swearing whenever the ship rolled and the toilet seat came crashing down on my head.

By the second day, though, I was feeling almost human—good enough to walk, at least. After navigating the ship end-to-end, I realized that at twenty-one, I was easily the youngest person on board. Most of the passengers were senior citizens except for a widow and her thirty-something daughter, but my dad and brother had already called dibs. I couldn’t argue. Eighteen months since Mom died and of the three of us, I seemed to be handling it the best. Then again, I was filling my hard drive with pornography and poems about suicide, so appearances can be deceiving.

Our first stop was Blue Lagoon Island. According to our tour guide, this had been the preferred filming site for Gilligan’s Island way back when, though when most people think of Blue Lagoon, they remember that Brooke Shields movie with all the nude, underwater swimming footage set to a melodic soundtrack by Basil Poledouris. In the movie, two shipwrecked kids grow up on paradisiacal island-prison until adulthood comes over them as quietly as new body hair. Eventually, after a lot of stress caused by questions nobody’s around to answer, they fall in love over coconuts and hammocks.

We went to Nassau after that: a Bahaman straw market full of accented, mocha-skinned people selling tee shirts made in Taiwan. I had my eye on an allegedly hand-carved walking stick—a shoulder-length thing crowned with a bearded dragon—but my brother told me they’d never let me take it on the plane. I insisted I could limp. I already had fused ankles and a kinked spine due to my not quite coming out all right so I was pretty sure I could be convincing. My brother looked hurt, the way Midwestern families always look hurt when one of their own challenges the daily bread of denial. Still, I don’t like confrontation. So instead, I spent my money on the biggest bottle of vodka I could find.

That night—our last night at sea—the cruise ship seemed almost deserted. All the old people had gone to bed. No music, no laughter, no bikinis. My dad and the widow were spending time on lawn chairs on the top deck while my brother and the daughter shared drinks in her cabin. Meanwhile, I hugged my bottle and just kind of walked around the ship, over and over. After a while, I settled on a route: up this set of stairs, down that one, past the abandoned dance hall and the crew quarters where strangers eyed me like an interloper, then up the stairs again, out onto a deck washed in night air and silence.

After a few rounds, I noticed a guy staring at me.

He was tall and thin, indiscriminately ethnic, with an easy smile. He wore a suit with stripes on the sleeves and his post seemed to be a stark, cramped room on stilts, so I figured he must be the lookout. I was smiling too, thanks to the vodka. I waved each time I passed him. Then, fourth time around, I saw him waiting for me at the top of the stairs. He smiled again. I smiled back.

“You have a beautiful body,” he said.

And just like that, I realized I was being hit on. Thanks to birth defects (which I’d tried to assuage by weightlifting), I didn’t have much confidence in my appearance. Flattered, I tried to think of a way to change topics without hurting his feelings. Then, looking around, I saw what appeared to be the ship’s library right next to us. The door was open but the lights were off. I wondered what stories were in there, dusty and unread, just waiting to be opened. Unused libraries have always made me sad. So I decided to change the subject by saying the first thing that came to mind.

“Hmm, looks like nobody goes in there.”

As soon as I said it, I recognized my mistake. The lookout’s eyes brightened like signal flares. He touched my arm and complimented my body again. I mumbled something about having to go find my family.

“Are you sure? We have some time.”

“Oh, no thanks,” I said, I hurried off, feeling guilty.

One other thing worth mentioning: I was wearing this sweatshirt I’d picked up at the straw market—a tight thing that Dad said would show off my arms—except that the neck hole had apparently been designed for conjoined twins. The result: especially after a few drinks, the sweatshirt kind of hung off my shoulder like I was an aerobics instructor from the 80s. But I digress.

I went back to pacing the ship, slightly altering my route so that I could avoid being an unintentional cock tease. I decided to shy away from the crew quarters, too, since I got the feeling that a couple of them were taking in me an interest of a different kind. Eventually, when walking became more trouble than it was worth, I made my way back to the top deck and that stark field of lawn chairs. Dad and the widow were gone by then. (According to my brother, this night also played host to one of the most awkward sexual encounters imaginable as the two couples did their business, separated only by a curtain.) So I chose one lawn chair and collapsed.

There was just a sliver of moon. After lifting the bottle for the third time and tasting nothing but air, I realized it was empty. I scouted around and spotted a tiki bar nearby, surely set up to tempt passengers into overpriced drinks with Bahama in the name. A quick investigation revealed that they’d forgotten to stash the booze. One bottle of coconut rum had a name I couldn’t pronounce. I helped myself: my first experience with shoplifting.

I tried lying down again so that I could think deep thoughts but the world started spinning so I got up instead. I stumbled over to the railing and gazed out. The stars were veiled behind clouds the color of a well-aged but not-yet-healed bruise. There was still that bony fingernail of moon, though, and it quietly palmed the ocean one dark swell at a time.

I thought about jumping then remembered I couldn’t swim. Meanwhile, our sad little freighter continued on its way, looping on the Atlantic before cruising back to Florida and the next stop in a sales pitch built on overpriced timeshares. Our ship full of heartbeats, passing nothing but its shadow. And even now, sometimes I want to find that nameless foreigner and thank him for whatever it was he was offering that I could not accept: wine, I think, when all I could stomach was water.

MICHAEL MEYERHOFER'S third book, Damnatio Memoriae, won the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. His previous books are Blue Collar Eulogies (Steel Toe Books) and Leaving Iowa (winner of the Liam Rector First Book Award). He has also published five chapbooks and is the Poetry Editor of Atticus Review. For more information, please visit troublewithhammers.com.