Of course, since none of us had been on one before, almost any ship would do. But this one, three stories of white against the blue of a Baltimore sky, practically had our names on it. And since it would be our home for the next ten weeks, we stood mesmerized for a moment before we walked on down toward the gangway, duffel bags over our shoulders. The early June breeze tossed our hair and fluttered the flags on the boats that dotted the waterfront.
This might possibly be our last summer together, but no one said that aloud. We were so excited, we almost sizzled. Like if we put out a finger and touched each other, we’d spark. We needed this calm before college, this adventure at sea.
Pamela had received a half-scholarship to a theater school in New York; Liz was officially accepted at Bennington; Yolanda was undecided; and Gwen and I would be going to Maryland. But right now the only future we were thinking about was that wide span of open water ahead of us.
“Which deck do you suppose we’ll be on?” asked Liz in her whites. She looked like a sailor already.
“Ha!” said Gwen, the only one of us whose feet remotely touched the ground. “Dream on. I don’t think we’ll even have portholes. We’re probably down next to the engine room.”
“What?” exclaimed Yolanda, coming to a dead stop.
“Relax,” Gwen said, giving her arm a tug. “We’re not paying customers, remember. Besides, the only thing you do in crew quarters is sleep. The rest of the time you’re working or hanging out with the gang.”
“With guys!” said Pamela, and that got Yolanda moving again.
It’s a wonder we were still breathing. Five hours earlier, four of us had been marching down an aisle at Constitutional Hall for graduation. And when picture-taking was over afterward, we had stripped off our slinky dresses and heels and caps and gowns, pulled on our shorts and T-shirts, and piled into Yolanda’s uncle’s minivan, which had been prepacked that morning for the mad dash to Baltimore Harbor. The deadline for sign-in was three o’clock. Yolanda had graduated the day before from a different school, so she was in charge of logistics.
It wasn’t a new ship. Completely refurbished, our printout had read. But it was a new cruise line with two ships—the Seascape and the Spellbound, though the Spellbound wouldn’t be ready till fall. The line sailed from Baltimore to Norfolk, with ports in between. The only reason all five of us were hired, we figured, was that we got our applications in early. That, and the fact that when we compared the pay to other small cruise lines along the East Coast, this line offered absolutely the lowest of the low. But, hey! Ten weeks on a cruise ship—a pretty glamorous end to our high school years!
A guy in a white uniform was standing with legs apart on the pier, twirling a pen in the fingers of his left hand. A clipboard rested on the folding chair beside him. The frames of his sunglasses curled around his head so that it was impossible to see either his eyes or eyebrows, but he smiled when he saw us coming.
“Heeeeey!” he called.
Pamela gave him a smart salute, clicking her heels together, and he laughed. “Pamela Jones reporting for duty, sir,” she said as we neared the water. Flirting already.
“I’m just one of the deckhands,” he told us, and checked off our names on his clipboard. JOSH, his name tag read. “Where you guys from?”
We told him.
“Singular. There was only one,” Gwen corrected.
He scanned our luggage. “Alcohol? Drugs? Inflammables? Explosives?”
“No . . . no . . . no . . . and no,” I told him.
“No smoking on board for crew. They tell you that?”
“Got it,” said Liz, then glanced at Yolanda. We’re never quite sure of anything with Yolanda.
“Okay. Take the port—that’s left—side stairs down to crew quarters, then meet in the dining room for a late lunch. Follow the signs. You’ll get a tour of the ship later.”
We went up the gangplank, and even that was a thrill—looking down at the gray-green water in the space between ship and dock. Now I could really believe it was happening.
On the wall inside, past the mahogany cabinet with the ornate drawer knobs, was a large diagram of the ship, naming the major locations—pilothouse, purser’s office, dining room, lounge—as well as each of the four decks: observation deck, at the very top; then Chesapeake deck; lounge deck below that, and main deck, where we were now. Crew quarters weren’t even on the map.
A heavyset guy in a T-shirt and faded jeans, carrying a stack of chairs, called to us from a connecting hallway, “Crew? Take the stairs over here,” and disappeared.
“How do you know what’s port side if the ship’s not moving?” I asked, confused already.
Nobody bothered to answer because we’d reached the metal stairway, and we hustled our bags on down.
Gwen was right; we had no porthole.
There were five bunk beds in the large cabin—large by shipboard standards, they told us. Ten berths in all, and other girls had already taken three of the lower berths. We claimed the remaining two bunk beds, top and bottom, and Gwen volunteered to sleep in the empty top bunk of an unknown companion.
“Ah! The graduates!” said a tall girl with freckles covering her face and arms and legs. She looked like a speckled egg—a pretty egg, actually. “I’m Emily.” She nodded toward her companions. “Rachel and Shannon,” she said, and we introduced ourselves.
“First cruise?” Rachel asked us. She was a small, elflike person, but strong for her size—the way she tossed her bags around—and was probably older than the rest of us, mid-twenties, maybe.
“We’re green as they come,” Liz answered.
“Same here,” said Shannon. “I’m here because I’m a smoker.”
We stared. “I thought there was a rule . . . ,” Pamela began.
“There is. I know. I’m trying to kick the habit. Compulsory detox. I figure it will either cure me or kill me.”
“Or drive the rest of us mad,” said Rachel. And to us, “She’s a dragon when she doesn’t have a cig.” She looked at Shannon. “Just don’t let Quinton catch you if you backslide.”
“Who’s Quinton?” I asked.
“The Man. The Boss. You’ll see him at lunch”—Emily checked her watch—“in about three minutes. I worked under him on another cruise line a couple of years back, so I know some of the people on this one.”
“What’s he like?” asked Gwen.
“Pretty nice. He’s fair, anyway.”
The last two girls arrived. The younger, Natalie, had almost white-blond hair, which she wore in a French braid halfway down her back, and then there was Lauren, with the body of an athlete—well-toned arms and legs. Only three of the girls had worked as stewards before—Rachel, Emily, and Lauren. And out of the ten of us, Lauren and Rachel seemed to know the most. Rachel, in fact, was a wellspring of information, the kind of stuff you never find in the rule books. Like Quinton’s favorite drink when he was onshore—bourbon on the rocks—and how to keep your hair from frizzing up when you were at sea. She chattered all the while we put our stuff away, cramming our clothes in the three dressers provided. We’d been warned about lack of space, and I’d managed to bring only my duffel, my cloth bag, and the new laptop I got for graduation.
So here we were—ten women in a single room with a couch, a TV, and a communal bathroom next door. The walls were bare except for notices about safety regulations, fire equipment, the dress code, and various prohibitions: no smoking aboard the ship; no food or alcohol in crew quarters; no pets of any kind; no cell phones when on duty; no men in the women’s cabin and vice versa. . . .
The first thing we did was eat—on crew schedule, as I’d come to learn—and we were starved. I guess they figured that “stews,” as we were called, would pay more attention in training later if we were fed. There were thirty of us in the dining room, counting the chef and his assistant—ten female stewards, ten male stewards, and eight male deckhands. We sat down to platters of hamburgers, potato salad, fries, and every other fattening food you could think of.
“Don’t worry,” Rachel told us. “You’ll work it off. That’s a promise.”
But we weren’t doing calorie counts as much as we were working out the male-to-female ratio. All the ice cream we could eat, guaranteed not to settle on our thighs, and two guys to every girl? Was this the ideal summer job or what, lowest salary on the Chesapeake be damned!
The guys, who had come in first, were grouped at neighboring tables, and we could tell from their conversation that most of the deckhands were seasoned sailors, older than the rest, who had worked for other cruise lines in the past. They were undoubtedly paid a lot more than we were. A couple wore wedding bands.
“I just decided to ditch my theatrical career and devote the rest of my life to the sea,” Pamela breathed, after a muscular guy in a blue T-shirt grinned our way.
“Yeah, and what will you do in the winter months when the ship’s in dry dock?” Lauren asked her.
Pamela returned the guy’s smile. “Three guesses,” she said.
I tried to imagine what this dining room would be like in two days’ time when passengers came on board. The large windows spanning both sides would be the same, of course, but I’d seen pictures on the cruise line’s website of white-clothed tables with sparkling glassware and candles. It must have been a special photo shoot, because this ship hadn’t sailed before—not as the Seascape, anyway. Still, I bet it would be grand.
Quinton came in just as the tub of peanut butter ice cream was going around for the second time. We’d met Dianne, his wife, when we’d picked up our name tags. She did double duty as purser and housemother, Rachel told us, but it was Quinton who called the shots.
He looked like a former basketball player—so tall that his head just cleared the doorways. Angular face, with deep lines on either side of his mouth—the sort of person who always played Abraham Lincoln in grade school on Presidents’ Day. Dianne was as short as Quinton was tall, and it was hard not to think of her—with her curly hair and the bouncy way she carried herself—as his puppy.
“Welcome, everyone!” Quinton said. He had a deep, pleasant voice and the look of a team player, standing there with his shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows. “Glad to have all the new men and women on board as well as you old salts who have worked with Dianne and me on other cruises.”
He gave a thumbs-up to two more guys who’d just come in, still in their paint clothes.
“This will be a first for all of us, though, as the Chesapeake Bay Seascape takes her maiden voyage,” Quinton continued, “the first, we hope, of a long and successful run on the bay. This fall her sister ship, the Spellbound, will be launched. Dianne and I are from Maine, but we’ve both worked and played on the Chesapeake and are familiar with all that the bay and the eastern shore have to offer. . . .”
There were lots of handouts—work schedules and tour itineraries, names of officers and crew. There were lists of nautical terms—abaft, bridge, gangway, starboard; another list of emergency procedures—fire, man overboard, abandon ship; and Quinton and Dianne took turns doing the rundown.
“There are no days off, no vacations,” Dianne reminded us, “though you’ll get two or three hours of downtime in the afternoons and occasionally an evening out at one of our ports of call. You are going to be asked to work harder, perhaps, than you have ever worked before; you will have more rules regarding your appearance and behavior than you’ve ever had to follow. . . .”
I thought of all the requirements posted on the wall of women’s quarters—earrings no larger than the earlobe; clear polish on the nails; hair worn back away from the face, especially for servers at mealtime.
“And for every minute you are in the public eye,” Dianne continued, “you are required to be friendly and professional, even though, at times, you may be faced with the appalling conduct of a guest.”
We gave each other rueful smiles.
Quinton did the closing remarks: “Remember that you are in a unique situation. You’ll be living in close quarters, eating and sleeping on odd schedules, and working ridiculous hours at low wages.” General laughter. “But you’ll make some good friends here, have some fun, and will, I hope, look back on this summer with pride and say, ‘I signed on for the maiden voyage of the Seascape.’ And now let’s get to work.”
* * *
The stewards were divided into three groups. The first group went off for a tour of the ship with the first mate, a toothy, good-natured young man named Ken McCoy. The second group was to go with Dianne for a demonstration of cleaning the staterooms, as the passenger accommodations were called. The third group consisted of the stewards who’d worked on other ships before, and these went with Quinton to tour the galley.
To begin, all the inexperienced people were appointed housecleaners in the mornings, dishwashers and busboys at night. After we proved we were reliable and could get along well with the passengers, we would be able to wait tables at breakfast and lunch, pass out the next day’s programs, and turn down beds at night. And after the third or fourth week, we could take turns on the most coveted shift—sleeping in a little in the mornings, going on laundry detail, and serving the evening meal. But even then, Dianne told us, no one would work more than a week at a time in the galley, because with setup before meals and cleanup afterward, it was exhausting.
The staterooms were about the size of small bedrooms—a dormitory room, maybe: twin beds, with a narrow aisle between them; a dresser with four drawers; a small desk and chair; a closet; a picture window; and a bathroom the size of two phone booths. To bathe, a passenger stood in the small space between sink and toilet, pulled the waterproof curtain in front of the closed bathroom door, and turned on the shower—over himself, the sink, the toilet, the works. That was why the toilet paper was in its own closed container.
“Wow!” said Natalie. “I hope this isn’t the luxury suite.”
We laughed, Dianne included.
“Actually,” Dianne said, “all the staterooms are alike on this ship. The Spellbound is a larger ship with eight suites, but the Chesapeake line is trying to keep costs down to stay competitive.”
Getting down to the nitty-gritty, we learned about cleaning products. How you always wore latex gloves and never used the same cloth or brush on the sink that you’d used on the toilet. You cleaned all the corners. You vacuumed under the beds. And you never, ever, opened a drawer or a bag or the medicine cupboard. Theft called for immediate dismissal. You’d be dropped off at the next port of call. Find your own way home.
We were each assigned a few cabins in a row of staterooms on the lounge deck, where the rooms opened onto a narrow outer walkway that went around the whole of the ship, as it did on the deck above. Only the main deck, where the dining room was located, had cabins with doors that opened onto an inner hallway—no wraparound walkway down there. Dianne went from room to room watching us work, making suggestions, giving her critique.
I knew how to clean a bathroom. You don’t grow up in a motherless house with a dad and older brother and not learn how to help with everything there is to do. Even after Dad married again, he and Sylvia and I managed to keep the place clean ourselves, but I had heard Sylvia tell Dad that after I left for college, she was hiring a weekly cleaning service. Fair enough, he said, because she was working full-time too, just like him.
Dianne’s only complaint about my work was that I was too slow.
“You’ll have fifteen rooms to clean in about five hours, Alice,” she said. “You can’t take a half hour per room, but your work is excellent.”
Great, I thought. If I never get hired as a school counselor, I can always clean the building. I wiped one arm across my sweaty face.
A sandy-haired guy named Mitch was cleaning the room next to mine and gave me a sympathetic look. “It’s even slower when the passengers get here, they tell me. Then you’ve got shoes and bags and shaving stuff in your way.” He was making hospital corners on the sheet he’d placed over the bed. No fitted sheets on the Chesapeake line. The flat sheets had to do double duty.
“How you making out?” I asked Pamela as we passed on the deck. She gave a soft moan. There was no time to pause and observe the Baltimore skyline or the two guitarists performing on a sidewalk of the Inner Harbor. If any part of my job in housekeeping was supposed to be fun, I hadn’t hit upon it yet. But we were so incredibly lucky to have this job—that all five of us had gotten hired together.
We cleaned up the last remnants of dust and lint and grout that builders and decorators had left behind, and each stateroom would be inspected carefully, possibly cleaned again, when we were through. As the afternoon wore on, we began to find shortcuts, better ways of doing things. Dianne applauded each completed room and gave us a breather when she went to get more towels.
Shannon and I rubbed each other’s backs as we leaned over the rail. She was a round-faced girl with blue eyes who reminded me of my friend Molly.
“Tell me I don’t need a cigarette,” she said as I massaged her shoulders.
“You’d like one, but you don’t need it,” I said. “How’s that?”
“I don’t know. I think this might have been a mistake—signing on here. Some people can quit cold turkey, but that’s not me.”
“Ever tried it before?”
“Then hold on,” I said.
It was around six by the time our group finished the few trial rooms we’d been assigned. We knew that the rest of the cabins had to be cleaned the following day—because passengers arrived on Sunday and the Seascape sailed out that evening—but we didn’t see how that was possible. We were already sore, muscles stretched from squeezing ourselves into tight places and from twisting to clean behind the toilets. Somehow the promised tour of the ship didn’t seem as wonderful as it had before. All we wanted to do was to sit down.
But when we exchanged places with the first group and went back down to the dining room for fruit and cheese and crackers, we found ourselves ready to go ten minutes later. We followed Ken McCoy back to crew quarters on the lowest level and checked out the engine room, storeroom, laundry hold, machine shop. No daylight down there.
Then it was back up to the main deck and a tour of the galley.
The lounge deck, next flight up, where we’d been working, had a lounge at one end—a huge room with a wraparound couch at the bow, game tables, a bar, and a library along one side.
The Chesapeake deck above that was all staterooms, including the pilothouse and the captain’s quarters. A row of mops and brushes outside the rooms marked where the first group was now learning the fine art of housekeeping.
But our favorite level was the observation deck at the very top of the ship, with deck chairs, a few exercise bikes, and a shaded area for quiet reading. I stood at the rail listening to the sound of the ship’s flag flapping, and as I watched the gulls circling and calling, I thought of Patrick and wished he were here.
Why couldn’t we ever do something really fun together—I mean, for more than a day? More than an evening? Why couldn’t he have taken the summer off from his studies—just one lousy summer—and spent it with me?
We could sit up here after dark and watch the sky as the ship silently plowed the water; visit the ports of call when we had the chance, our arms around each other, my head on his shoulder. I knew I’d probably watch some of the others pair off—the usual summer romances—before the ten weeks were over. But I’d be alone.
In one more week Patrick would be on his way to Barcelona to help one of his professors finish a book. And he’d be there for the next four quarters, getting in his year of study abroad now instead of later. “After that, I’ll be back to stay,” he’d told me.
But “back” was the University of Chicago, not Maryland. Meanwhile, he’d be seeing the sights of Barcelona alone. Or not. It wouldn’t be me at his side, in any case. We wouldn’t be watching a sunset together or walking along a beach or taking day trips into the Spanish countryside.
I was overcome suddenly by a wave of . . . homesickness? . . . that immobilized me momentarily—the same kind of sadness or panic you get when you’re on a sleepover for the first time or that sinking stomach-twisting anxiety you feel as a kid when you’ve wandered away from your parents in a department store.
It lasted only six or seven seconds, then receded, but it left me feeling vulnerable. What was that all about? I wondered. Patrick as parent? As home? Security? My breath was coming back, and I inhaled slowly. Gradually I tuned in to the conversation around me, as other stews were pointing out the aquarium, the baseball stadium, and Federal Hill onshore.
I gripped the railing and looked straight up, squinting into the late afternoon brightness, watching one solitary gull fly a huge oval above the ship, its wings barely moving, and wondered if it was enjoying its solitude or missing a mate.