The Royal Experience Cast Member Handbook and Procedure Guide recommends that if there is a natural catastrophe of any kind (e.g. hurricanes, tidal waves, icebergs) that cast members of Royal Experience Cruises are to remain as calm as possible in order to prevent possible hysterics or rioting among the passengers. It says nothing about terrorists, which is admittedly striking in this day and age, but hiding in the laundry folding closet, we all have come to the agreement that terrorists are at least as dangerous as icebergs. Everyone in the closet has seen Titanic.
David from India, whose real name is Venkat Raja, relays to us a very depressing anecdote of the band on the Titanic who played music for the passengers until water was lapping at the soles of their shoes. We all joke to ourselves about the number of crew who survived the Titanic (twenty-four percent, a percentage point lower than the poor steerage passengers locked in the below decks. We have since confirmed these numbers to be accurate. Also, that none of the surviving crew members were musicians, a fact which was relayed to us by Oscar, whose real name is Jesus. None in the laundry folding closet is a musician by trade, although Michael—real name Shridhar—can sing the theme song from the movie Jodphur Jovialities in a manner that is very convincing and moving to us all as the movie is about pirates and we all feel deeply for the main character's plight as a cabin boy, all of us but Oscar/Jesus, who has not yet seen this film. A shame.)
Rebuilding the scenes in our head now, we envision how we could surge forth with the rest of the Royal Experience cast members, the housekeeping staff plus Usiku from entertainment. We imagine there are cells of similar groups of survivors, engine room workers below, entertainers clustered under the crawl space in the stage outside of the atrium. We try tapping out an SOS on the pipes and wait to hear a response, but the return is the inside of a conch shell, somehow both quiet and also a roar. There is no requirement for a cabaret performer to know SOS, but from this silence, we have come to an agreement that the deck workers, the traditional sailors that made our vessel go from one beautiful location to the next, must have sadly passed on. We say words of respect in our native languages, which between the eight of us totals fourteen gods and six words meaning "grace."
We construct in our heads our noble deaths, the clips of our lives, the grainy pictures borrowed by family members for a touching montage. We know there would be a cinematic tribute, at least one if not more, and we each select the Hollywood actor who will play our roles in it. Michael is always a showboater and wants Keanu Reeves while Alex/Arivindan and John/Usiku both select Harrison Ford as their theatrical doubles. Neither has spoken directly to the other since this disagreement, but later Alex mentions that he has written his will on the back of a dry-cleaning receipt and asks Oscar to witness the signing. Oscar then reads to us all the line from the will that requests the producers of any film depicting the dramatic events aboard the Majesty of the Seas should suggest Mr. Ford for the role of Arivindan Ganesha Rathmanajami. Oscar then announces that Bruce Willis will be playing the role of Jesus Jaime Escobar and we all have to admit that this is a pretty good choice. It is too late to change our own selections. There is only the one dry-cleaning receipt.
This is what happened: We did not have the 0715 bell on the second day, so we knew that something was wrong, but we continued with our daily routines in the absence of the deck crew. What other choice was there, in light of the Cast Member Handbook and procedure guide? And quite honestly, we had more trepidations about the passengers than any potential reasonings for the crew's disappearance.
This voyage's manifest had strange ratios of demographics. Normally, we count on a moderate percentage of senior citizens and families mixed with empty nests and corporate outings, but mostly it was kids fresh out of college with their first real world paychecks making them feel secure enough to deserve a four day weekend at sea, a cruise out beyond the international waters so they could spend money in our duty free shop, then back to Long Beach, California, in time to get to work on Monday morning a little sunburned and a little worse for all the rum. They were fond of calling our vessel the “party barge.” This was not their parents’ cruise ship, after all, as a new Royal Experience ad campaign assured them over a background soundtrack of Timberlake, which was enough to repulse the Greatest Generation and their families. However, some usually managed to sneak through on low fares and shallow promises of swimming with sting rays. On this voyage, the cruise to nowhere, we had already been alerted to the fact that ninety-nine percent of our passengers were under the age of thirty and about half of them were under the age of twenty-four.
On Friday night, the first night out to sea, Deck 11 and Deck 12 poolside had looked like a television commercial for a popular beer. John/Usiku reports that when he simply crossed over the promenade, he saw the bare breasts of at least four different women and Venkat himself had witnessed a sexual act behind the statue of Neptune. Tom/Manicka relays that out of a manifest that topped two thousand, his breakfast crew had only fourteen guests in the entire Magellan dining room and two instances of vomit. During a non-hurricane voyage, a one-to-seven ratio is very high for vomiting in the main dining room. Other Michael shares with us that after the first night, the hospitality manager issued a notice that all bartending staff were to underpour the drinks, an order direct from the captain.
Indeed, on Saturday morning, the passengers returned to the pools and hot tubs and recommenced waving for drinks, hands up in the air like they just didn't care. They had shouted this at Other Michael and his peers, the not caring, causing Michael to grumble that they would care enough if they got tequila instead of vodka, or no booze at all, how would they like that? The executives of the Royal Experience Cruise Lines must have been very happy about hitting this sweet spot of passengers. A single passenger usually pays fifty dollar less for their passage than it costs to host them, so our goal is to ensure they spend at least one-hundred dollars while on board this vessel, be it on wine at dinner or chocolate-covered strawberries delivered to the room, or maybe an attractive piece of artwork for their dens back home. Many of us in the laundry folding closet have risen to our position based solely upon our talent for the upsell. At eleven to fourteen dollars per alcoholic beverage, it is not a difficult proposition, certainly, but not everyone can be smooth as us on the hospitality teams.
The day's events were as follows: The bar staff ran out of commemorative Royal Experience shot glasses at 1100 on Saturday morning. The medical officers were seen responding to a call on the bridge and no one noticed that they had not returned until a girl stepped on a broken hurricane glass and needed a shard extracted from between two toes. She was taken off somewhere behind the sushi bar by two pool waiters and we assume someone did the necessary. Other Michael reported that the managers and bosses had been watching over the proceedings with stern visages but then stepped away from their posts sometime before 1700 to report to the happy hour in Crustacean's Cove Lounge on Deck 7. Around 1600, Arivindan's team of room attendants reported that the ship's air conditioning seemed to be malfunctioning, but his calls to the engine room went unanswered. The entertainment director lead everyone through the Electric Slide, during which a fist fight broke out between two men with the odd coincidence of having both been named Chet. The filling out of the incident report took longer than normal due to this confusion. Other Michael signed this report himself when he realized that he was the senior member of the pool staff in the area. The passengers chose to eat at the Buffet of Enchantment rather than dine on fillet mignon and lobster in the Magellan dining room, which was stifling and an entire elevator ride away from the pool decks. A near riot broke out when the hungry masses exhausted the supply of cheese teasers and buffalo drummies. It was a bad evening all around.
Attempts to contact managers on their communicators at 1800 were unsuccessful. As the sun sank into the ocean, Venkat scanned the waving arms and muscled backs and watched as the fore bartender craned his neck towards a darkened doorway, then rushed through it as though to avert a crisis. The bartender did not return and soon, the fore beverage station was overrun by boys in colorful swim trunks trying to spin bottles of rum over their head and impress the girls in bikinis.
It was about this same time that we all heard a new voice on the Public Address system requesting that all hands report to the bridge. The Royal Experience Cast Member Handbook and Procedure Guide requires that all announcements made through the public address system be made by employees with either a neutral, British, or Norwegian accent, and clearly, at this juncture, the enemy had already taken hold; though like so many things, this is more clear to us now than it was at the time.
When the door to the laundry folding room opens for the first time in ten hours, our first thoughts are of our supervisors catching us in the act of being cowards; our second thoughts are of the terrorists. But we shine our flashlights into the intruder's face and see that it is only a woman passenger.
Other Michael puts down his can of spray starch and Michael sets down the bartender's corkscrew. (When he is not manning the pool bar with Other Michael, Michael works in the Schooner Bar on the Deck 5, off the solarium, so his corkscrew is always at hand for those too good for the umbrella drink.) The musicians from the Titanic are in our minds as we fight back the urge to ask her if she would like a nice Rum Runner or perhaps another pillow.
She squints in the light of our torches, and in concert, we point them to the floor, to her feet; her toes are not polished. We see a thousand-times-ten passengers' naked toes throughout the voyages, all shiny like polished red apples and adorned with flowers or insects, or pink with the tips of the nails painted with a single white line, as though grains of sand would not dare to get trapped beneath the nail. Already, she is unlike every other female passenger on this ship.
We exchange looks and confirm that she is not one of our passengers; does not sit at our tables nor occupy our particular cabins; has not been waited on by any of us, so we can't address her by name as we are instructed to do by the Hospitality and Care Of Passengers section of the Royal Experience Cast Member Handbook and Procedure Guide.
"Can we help you, miss? Are you lost? Do you need assistance getting back to your cabin?" Micheal/Shridhar is the first of us to be able to speak.
“Hi,” she says, then sits down on a stack of clean pool towels. This is how we come to be introduced to Anne. It is our tenth hour in the laundry folding room.
We offer her water, some blankets, a guest robe, and half of a peanut butter bar that Alex has not even told the rest of us about. She refuses everything, so one of us gives her a flashlight and Michael gives her a spare set of keys from a trouser pocket. The keys, he explains, unlock closets and cupboards in areas we can not reach from our crèche in the bowel of the ship, not without traversing dangerous areas that David/Venkat has reported might be patrolled by the intruders. Michael explains that she can hold the ring in her palm and then lace each key between her fingers, creating a set of spikes that could be used to rake against an attacker's face. He does not need it; with his corkscrew, complete with an inch-long foil cutting knife, he is the best armed of us all. He can afford to be generous.
We would not admit it amongst each other but each man is pleased to have her in our midst, even though our close quarters already mean that we have spent the last few hours in a dreamless half sleep crushed up against legs and feet on either side, which is preferable, we have all agreed, to accidentally snuggling up to a cohabitant as a man would to a wife. We have calculated how many hours are ticking down on the back of the door with a cake of hardened laundry detergent: thirty-seven hours before the boat is supposed to leave its anchored position forty-five miles off of the coast of Ensenada, Mexico; another three until it would enter US Coastal Waters; another four before it is due to pull up to the dock—which means that we will be spending at least one night asleep in this closet.
With eight people now in the closet, the night's sleeping arrangements will be sticky, but that is only in the back of our minds. We think about how soft she looks, in just a thin t-shirt and loose sleeping pants, her breasts moving freely under the cloth. We are happy to have her. You are no longer hiding if you are protecting.
She looks down at her gifts and nods, then sighs, a crumpling sigh that makes many of us want to punch the intruders and some of us want to punch the man standing next to him.
Other Michael extracts his courtesy card, which would usually be placed inside his cabins on pillows or next to the courtesy bar. The card reads, "My Name Is Michael I Am From Malawi. Please Let Me Know How To Make Your Vacation Delightful On Royal Experience Cruises." The rest of us follow suit, handing her our table tents and courtesy calling cards. Venkat quickly conjures an anteater out of three clean hand towels and then places his card in the snout.
"Please, Anne, tell us what brings you to our humble closet?" Tom/Manicka is a head waiter and has achieved a complete and utter adaptation of the flat American accent. He is admired by us all, except perhaps Oscar, who utters "puñal" under his breath.
"I followed him." She nods to Venkat. "There's no one left, anyway." She stiffens.
We all look to Venkat, who doesn't say anything, then caresses the ragged edge of a blanket as though he is extremely pleasured by this movement. He had chanced a trip out of the closet for some bottled waters. He reported that he could hear sounds coming from some of the cabins on Deck 2, terrible wet sounds, voices as moist as the earth, and sped back to report that he had not been seen by anyone.
"I said not to leave, Puto. Chica saw, how many others you think spotted you, eh?"
Venkat says nothing. Manicka shrugs. "Please, let us make peace. Mistakes were made, but we have a guest now."
"Can't you hear the announcements down here?" She fans through the hospitality cards in her hand, which are impossible to read in the light of misdirected torches.
Shortly after the strange announcement in the thick accent, we had all heard the captain asking that someone spare his life via Public Address, followed by silence, and then an alarm, and then nine bursts of gunfire over the period of approximately forty-five minutes. This is what sent us out of our cabins and into the laundry folding closet. We have all come from lands with civil war and recognize the sounds. It traverses speech, but you listen to the instincts to hide.
After, we heard the mumblings through the public address system, but without opening the door, we could not understand what they were saying. The laundry folding closet door did not have a lock, but if the intruders were in the Laundry wing of the Crew Only hold, a cracked door and our bobbing torches would be very visible immediately and we felt that lack of movement was our best defense.
"My friend Melissa is with them, I think. Those men." We wait for her to continue but she again pulls back.
"They took your friend, Miss? Do you know where they took her?"
Miss Anne looks around the room wildly, looking at each of us in succession as though we are children. "Everyone. Everyone's gone. I don't know where. I just found you. That's all. The thing I can't puzzle out is what they're doing. Terrorists don't split all of the pretty girls up from the rest of everyone and send them down to Deck 2 to– to– for–" She hiccups and for a second her face fades, then she swallows the words back into herself. We want to know what is happening on Deck 2, but we can wait. It will come out later, as many of our secrets have already come out in the previous ten hours.
"Pardon, miss," Oscar speaks with a tone that is so strange and unrecognizable that it surprises us all. "I don't think they are actually terrorists. Terrorists would have blown up the boat by now, flown a plane into it or something? These aren't terrorists, Miss Anne. They just might be pirates, nothing more." He takes her hand and pats it and we are all shocked by his boldness and envious at the same time.
Anne stares into a dark corner of the closet. We watch her face in the near darkness and are aware of how the smell in the closet has changed now that she has joined us. Whereas before there was the sharp smell of industrial laundry detergent tinged with our own aromas of sweat and cardamom (which seemed to mostly to emanate from Shridhar), now there is an afternote of lavender and sweet milk, a fragrance that seems to waft from the folds of her soft gray sleep clothes. Later, when we talk about this moment after everything is over, we will all agree that we wanted so badly to bury our noses into the space between her pillowy breasts and inhale deeply. David will confess that he was most overcome not by the scent, but rather, by the idea of rubbing his cheek against her stomach, feeling enveloped by her femininity, and by the way her cotton shirt would catch slightly against his five o'clock shadow. During these needful moments, when he is saying nothing in the laundry folding closet, this is what he is considering.
Oscar continues, "The way I’m thinking, they’re going to do whatever it is they’re going to do in two days. Then they have to be gone, because at six-thirty a.m. on Monday, the owner of this cruise line is going to wonder why their boat isn’t showing up at Long Beach. These guys are up on the bridge; they know the itinerary. So if everyone's gone, then maybe they are too. We just have to keep hiding, señorita, wait here until the day after this one. Not so hard, eh?"
"I need some air." Anne stands up, still clutching the towel anteater.
Manicka rises from his position on a shelf full of sheets and stands in front of the door. "I'm afraid, Miss Anne, that I cannot let you put yourself in danger. These are desperate men and we will protect you."
She smiles. "They're not in these passages. I didn't see anyone. You," she says, and glances down at the card in the anteater's snout, "David. You've been out. Did you see anyone?"
"No, Miss Anne."
"You’re forgetting something. If they're not terrorists, if they're pirates as you say―although the name makes me think of men in plumed hats with swords rather than semi-automatic weapons―then they are only self-interested and are taking what they want. They had their chance with me before and..." She shrugs again.
"Did you see them?" David tightens his grasp on his light, focusing it on her thigh.
"One, just. He was just normal. Like… normal. But with a gun. He made everyone go to the theater. Then he sent the pretty girls one way, and then later, the men—all the men—were sent the other way, leaving me with some old women who are still probably sitting up in the auditorium, waiting to be told what to do.
"When I was crossing the promenade deck, I saw a sparrow. That means that we cannot be too far away from shore, yes?" She raises a single eyebrow and we do not have the heart to tell her about the scores of nests tucked in lifeboats and riggings. What do the birds think when they are at sea, when they see land and suddenly, they are in Mexico or Jamaica or Alaska? It must be a shock.
"There are lifeboats. They are huge and I tried to get them down but I'm not strong enough." She sniffs and looks into that darkened corner and then smiles at it as though it were a suitor approaching for a dance. In the darkness we are transfixed. We want to lift up our voices and sing songs to her in our own languages. We want to give her a new name, whisper it into her ear, gather up her muddy blond hair in a crown atop her head and make her into a princess. In the space of ten minutes, we love her so angrily that we are without words. In the back, Usiko clears a thickened throat.
"So I need help launching the lifeboat. I can get help to come rescue us, but you have to help me first." With this, she looks at each one of us but none of us can meet her gaze with the exception of one.
We try to stop her, remind her of the math, the number of hours left, plead with her to wait, wait with us, let us tell her stories. We are not performers but perhaps she will allow us the honor of being her entertainment. We do not want her to go. We want to cover her with our burgundy Royal Experience uniforms, to hold her close within our laundry folding closet and scavenge tiny bottles of gin and lukewarm sauvignon blanc for her.
Except that we do or say none of these things.
We dutifully follow her up to Deck 7, her bare feet making no sound on the thick carpeting of the stairs. We are aware for the first time in weeks if not months of the boat rocking in the waves like a needle skipping along a warped record album. We are spinning at thirty-three-and-a-third revolutions toward something inescapable and she stands at the middle of us all, turning, turning.
Each of us already knows how to unshackle the lifeboat from its mooring, as it is a part of Royal Experience Cruises basic safety training. White as a storybook whale in the moonlight, the name Majesty of the Seas is printed in letters on the side and already we know it is stamped on every ration tin and life vest inside the boat itself. It only takes two abled men to launch the boat, but all seven of us unlock the crane and unleash the cover while she stands against the deck wall to steady herself against the rocking. When the boat is lowered to the level of the railing, Usiku unlocks the gate and gallantly stretches out his hand to take hers. Each lifeboat can hold one-hundred passengers but like those launched from the Titanic years ago, Boat 14 will be pitifully undermanned. Alex takes her other hand and together they guide her between a row of twenty–foot-long oars. At least two men must be left behind to lower the boat six stories to the inky ocean below, but Oscar jumps the railing and straddles a bench next to Anne and then motions for the rest of us to lower the two of them down. So we do.
It is night, deep and dark and alone. The bioluminescent jelly fish glow faintly just below the surface, marking their path to sea. We are uncertain which way is California and which way is Hawaii; we do not know the elements of seafaring, only that the stars are pretty and the moon is bright. The Milky Way shows in perfect cross section and from above we can hear Oscar explaining to Anne which stars were important to Cortez and Pizarro. We listen without speaking. In the dark, we know that the sound of gunfire makes your mouth taste metallic and we are waiting for the sound. As the lifeboat hits the waves, we want to reach out and grab the moon jellies and construct glowing pink life preservers from the diaphanous strands, lash ourselves with tentacles, and drift away through a red tide toward Baja.
We do not return to the laundry folding closet, but instead make a single file line and walk up nine flights of carpeted stairs to the pool deck to see their departure better. In the light of the moon, we can see that each pool has been overcome by a coral reef. Without thinking, Manicka flips on his torch and the Royal Experience cast members are clustered together beneath the water, linked with chains, pale limbs swirling as anemone. We recognize head waiters and porters, pool boys and cabaret singers, whorled barnacles for fingertips. Over the starboard side, we expect to see a pirate boat but there is none. In its place, we can see a minefield of life vests, beacons blinking in the night, all drifting toward Bali or perhaps San Diego. We are musicians without instruments. We each pick a deck chair, sit down, and wait for an audience.