My Cruise Ship Love Affair
by Dan Barker
Darlene and I met while working in the entertainment department of a large cruise ship sailing the Western Caribbean Sea. Darlene danced in the not-quite-Vegas-style stage productions, and I hammed it up on the mic as a host of not-quite-high-concept spectacles such as the Men’s International Hairy Chest Competition and Late Night Adult Dodgeball. I took the job mostly because it seemed adventurous, but also because I had been jumping from one dead-end job to the next since graduating college and constantly struggled to pay for food, shelter, health care, and recreation. Ship life offered all those things free of charge, plus about $1,500 a month for my position, which was enough money to make timely student loan payments and buy wholesale-priced beers at the crew bar from the moment I clocked out until last call. Darlene joined the production cast as her first gig straight out of dance academy. She probably made at least twice my salary and apparently thought that the opportunity was good enough to leave the U.K. and her live-in boyfriend of five years.
Darlene had been on the ship for a while before I joined the crew. She and her castmates all signed-on at the same time, worked together every day, and were assigned cabins in the same small passageway on Deck A, so they naturally formed a pretty tight social clique. With that, plus my being busy learning important things like never to make a joke when calling the O69 ball in bingo and how to say “port” instead of “left,” I ended up not even speaking to Darlene for my first two or three weeks. Sometimes it was my job just to sit in the audience during Darlene’s shows with a microphone in my lap, because every so often, the curtain would drop mid-performance, which meant that a footlight caught on fire or a trombonist fainted in the pit or the ship’s engine blew up or something, and it was my responsibility either to distract the audience with calm requests for their patience until the show started again or announce the evacuation to muster stations, depending on the situation. Most of the time I just got to sit there and enjoy the show, and I would watch Darlene prance around, dramatically lit and wearing a huge smile and a tiny sequined showgirl getup. She was young, beautiful, and mysterious, and I was immediately and deeply infatuated.
One night, still having never officially met, Darlene and I were hanging out with a small group of people in the crew bar, all of whom trickled out to hit their racks or smoke on the crew-only open deck, leaving just Darlene and me sipping our boat drinks. I don’t remember the first words she said directly to me in her Midland English accent, but I do recall that the way she said it was bewitching, sort of side-eyeing me and smirking. We drank Malibu pineapples and talked about our mutual appreciation for velvet Elvis paintings and creative writing. She planned to write erotic novels under an alliterative penname, and I would write a feature-length screenplay for a madcap sex-farce set on a cruise ship. We understood each other, we enjoyed each other, and we were totally hot for each other. Soon we began to spend all our time together. We slow-danced together on formal nights among the gussied up guests at the live band’s late-night sets on the promenade deck. We ate four-course dinners in dark romantic corners of the ship’s steakhouse. I kissed her glowing skin on the white sand beaches of island nations. We held each other and smiled under the stars on the open deck, waves pulsing against the hull and gently breaking further out, warm salty air passing over our lips and through our hair. We made love and fell asleep in each other’s arms in the tiny curtained bunkbeds of our windowless cabins, the subaquatic caverns of our desire. We had dream jobs that let us become dream lovers, and we began to believe in the kind of forever only teenagers and diamond companies seem to understand.
One day, the ship was laying anchor off the coast of Grand Cayman, and while nearly every one of the 2,000 guests onboard would have to disembark for their Stingray Sandbar Tour or their Booze Boat and Snorkel Session on 7 Mile Beach, they would have to be ferried to shore only several dozen at a time in four to five locally operated tender boats, as no dock on the island was large enough to accommodate the 88,500-ton vessel. What that meant for me and the other entertainers was that, since our department had the greatest number of English-as-a-first-language speakers, we were tasked with the ancillary duty of facilitating an intricate crowd control system in the early hours of the morning to shepherd the masses ashore. The base of operations for gangway crowd control was the theatre, where I met three other hosts, five dancers, and the assistant cruise director installing ropes, checking mics, and chatting over walkie-talkies with shore excursion staff, security, the cruise director, and the hotel director.
Mamie, the assistant cruise director, my immediate supervisor, and a youthful Midwestern morning person, asked me where Darlene was, as she was scheduled for gangway duty — watching as passengers embark and disembark. Mamie asked me specifically for the whereabouts of Darlene and seemed sure that I would know them, because Mamie knew that I had been sleeping with Darlene. Everyone in the department knew. How could they not know? They saw Darlene throwing me winks from the stage during shows. They saw us buying each other drinks and playing nerdy late-night Uno in the crew bar. They saw us in the crew mess eating every meal together, chuckling flirtatiously and playing footsie under the table. Our bunkmates had walked in on us doing sexy things to each other’s bodies. This last recurring event became understandably problematic. Darlene’s assigned bunkmate, a fellow dancer, made clear to Darlene that she disapproved of my sleeping in their cabin. And my bunkmate, a videographer, had so disapproved of my canoodling with Darlene in his and my cabin that he sought the support of his immediate supervisor, the entertainment technicians manager, to solve the issue. His boss then told Mamie, and Mamie took me aside to talk about boundaries while we were backstage doing accounting for bingo game sales. I saw these people every day at work, at every meal, every night at the bar, whenever I entered or left my cabin. They were inescapable to me, and I to them, and they all had a systematic if not bureaucratic means of dictating when and where I was considered not welcome to experience physical intimacy. Viola, the dance captain, a feared but wise Australian, had the same conversation with Darlene as Mamie did with me, and we both resented it, so we just started having sex in other places like the backstage dressing rooms and the comedy club soundbooth.
Anyway, contrary to everyone’s belief, I did not know where Darlene was the morning she was AWOL for gangway duty, because we feared continuing to sleep in the same bed would get us written up or possibly fired. I called her cabin twice, waking her very angry cabinmate, who said she wasn’t there and quickly hung up. Shirking my own gangway responsibilities to look for her was out of the question, so I had done all that I could do. Mamie woke up another dancer to take Darlene’s place on the gangway, and the day went on, and I dismissed the whole affair. It turned out that Darlene was eating breakfast in the mess when I called her cabin, and she had simply misread the schedule for gangway rotation.
The first time I saw her later that day, she appeared distraught, told me that due to her absence at the gangway that morning, Diego, the cruise director, a middle-aged former DJ whose father served in the US military, issued her a written negative performance review and was convinced that she would be fired soon, because this was not the first time she had been in trouble. In fact, perhaps a week before the gangway incident, I had been waiting with her backstage during a free moment between hosting daytime trivia contests. The ship’s clock read 2 p.m., which was the starting time for Country Line Dance in the printed daily program schedule distributed to every guest cabin each morning. From the backstage monitor, we could see that the house was not as full as it usually is for that class, which Darlene knew because she conducted that class every week, so she decided to wait a few minutes to see if more guests would saunter in fashionably late, as they tend to do, because they are on a leisurely vacation. Diego, perhaps not coincidentally, passed backstage around 2:03 p.m., and commanded Darlene to get onstage immediately. She threw open the curtain and ran onstage to greet the audience, and I could hear in her voice how unnerved Diego had made her. He looked at me almost with a sense of pity, said something about how it was not my fault, and huffed away. Everyone seemed overly emotional about the whole thing. Still being sort of new, I just chalked it up to Diego being kind of an asshole, which I have known plenty of bosses to be. I expressed a skeptical view of the dance class tardiness and one gangway schedule mix-up as grounds for termination, to which Darlene replied with the admission that it wasn’t the first time she had been absent or late to an ancillary duty. In fact, she had been presented with five written negative performance reviews for similar offenses before I ever joined the crew.
Darlene wrung her hands about her possibly being fired to everyone who would listen, and they all tried their best to calm her down. To her face, they told her not to worry, that her missteps were not related to her primary job as a dancer, that her offenses were not egregious enough to warrant termination, that she was an integral part of the production cast, that removing her from her friends and her new love would be cruel and unusual, even in Diego’s eyes. Behind her back, though, rumors started flying around about the Six O’Clock Knock. My fellow crew members informed me that when you work on a cruise ship, if your department head decides in Grand Cayman that he wants to fire you, he doesn’t tell you about it when the ship is in Grand Cayman. He doesn’t tell you when the ship is in Belize or on a Day at Sea. He doesn’t tell you the day before the ship docks back in home port. He waits until the very day the ship docks in the home port, which typically happens early in the morning, then he knocks on your cabin door flanked by security personnel, your immediate supervisor, and the nurse-on-call, and only then does he tell you that you’re fired, and that you must pack all your possessions immediately, and that you must disembark the ship as soon as possible, and, in the case of a non-U.S. citizen, that you must return to your home country immediately.
For my own part, I was convinced that the Six O’Clock Knock was a myth, and that the idea of Darlene being fired was ridiculous. The night before we pulled into our home port of Tampa, Lizzy allowed me to stay with Darlene in her bunk to soothe her troubled spirit. I smiled and looked straight in her eyes and told her that if Diego fired her, I would quit and move to England with her. Darlene got out of bed a few times and started packing her things, certain of the imminence of The Knock. I dragged her back into bed and told her to get some sleep, because she had to perform in the Welcome Aboard Show the following evening. We stayed awake all night. Six o’clock rolled by, and nothing happened. I laughed at the absurdity of losing an entire night’s sleep, and I felt triumphant in my refusal to believe in the ruthlessness of the Six O’Clock Knock.
Then, at 6:25 a.m., Darlene, Lizzy and I heard a wrapping at their cabin door. My heart sank. I felt dizzy. Darlene and I looked at each other in silence for a moment, and then she climbed down from her bunk to open the door. Diego, Viola, a female security guard, and the nurse-on-call stood across the threshold. Diego looked at her with a head-cocked pity frowns, motioned for her to step outside, looked into the room to drop me my own pity gaze, and closed the door behind her. When she came back to the room, she was crying, and started packing again. She indignantly informed Lizzy and I that the nurse offered her a handful of what I later figured out was diazepam, a drug used to treat anxiety.
It took about an hour for Darlene to pack, collect her last paycheck, and get cleared by customs officials, all of which took place under the security guard’s surveillance. I followed her everywhere, too, kissing her and hugging her and telling her to hold me closer, tiny dancer. Cast members trickled in and out to say their sympathetic goodbyes and offer their well wishes. When the bus to the airport arrived, security was notified and assertively requested that Darlene make her way to the crew gangway. We embraced one last time in front of the gangway with the security guard about six inches away from us. I stood still and Darlene rolled her luggage away. She tossed her hair to look over her shoulder at me one last time through watery eyes, I held out a longing farewell hand, and then she disappeared into Tampa’s bright morning light.
I made what was at the time a very difficult decision to stay on the ship and finish my contract, thanks to an onboard friend, Pattie, a youth counselor and fellow-Ohioan, who helped me realize the true foolishness that leaving my job and my country for a girl I had known a few months in a dramatic environment. Darlene would have agreed, because Elvis sang that only fools rush in.
“Feeling blue,” is a phrase coined from a custom among many old deepwater sailing ships. If the ship lost the captain or any of the officers during its voyage, she would fly blue flags and have a blue band painted along her entire hull when returning to home port. I flew a blue flag for Darlene for quite a while after she left. I spent a lot of my free time in my windowless cabin playing with a Rubik’s Cube. Tears dripped down my cheeks in the darkened house when I had to usher the production shows and saw someone else in Darlene’s blocking. I spent hundreds of very expensive minutes on the ship-to-shore phone lines and Internet service provider to talk with Darlene and figure out how we could get green-card-married someday. My job was to make people have fun, though, and doing my job gradually made me feel better. The frequency of our correspondence dipped sharply after about two weeks, and Darlene quickly went back to live with the man she had been with for years before she had a three-month affair with me.
In a bizarre epilogue to this star-crossed romance, Diego began to take interest in my career growth when I started to act a little more normal after a week or two. He invited me to perform as his sidekick in the morning call-in show that is shown on the closed-circuit TVs in all the guest cabins. When I signed on, Diego made me shave my beard into a goatee in order to conform to the corporate personal appearance policy, but in my post-Darlene rebirth, Diego allowed me to grow it back to a full beard. At the end of a cruise, he would invite me up to his enormous balconied cabin on Deck 8 to drink bourbon and talk about motorcycles. He appointed me Employee of the Month for April and wrote me a glowing end-of-contract performance review. To this day I cannot discern whether Diego genuinely wanted to mentor me, or he pitied me, or he just wanted to avoid my plotting to throw him overboard for ripping Darlene out of my life. In any case, he showed me a kind of professional respect that made me forgive his role in my personal trials.
The job was fun, I spent a lot of time in exotic locales, I met an incredible array of new friends, and the mentorship Diego eventually offered me was flattering and helpful at the time, so I ended up signing on for one more contract at the cruise line. I ultimately found, though, that the trauma I experienced with Darlene exemplified the immense lifestyle sacrifices I had to make while working at sea, and no superior or colleague ever matched Diego’s level of support, so my search for love and work now continues shoreside.
Dan is a storyteller currently living on the small exotic island of Manhattan.