It’s your first cruise. It’s kind of a big deal. Your parents are paying, because you could never afford this, this boat—the Disney Magic—this room—the Deluxe Oceanview something-or-other—this many nights—five—this vacation on their dime for themselves and for you and your wife and twin daughters, this sun and this sand and this food, food, food, food. We’re talking freaky Roman Emperor levels of food.
You’d heard about cruises and about food, but this is insane. Every meal is all you can eat. Every deck has snack bars and eating options between meals. Room service is 24/7 and free. Ice cream spigots have been fastened to the walls of multiple decks. Chips and salsa are rarely more than an arm’s reach away. If you have to stand to eat, you’re working too hard.
Drinks too. Drinks are abundant, but the drinks are not free. However, because your parents are covering everything else, because they’ve agreed, this night, to open the door between your adjoining rooms and watch your girls, you and your wife have decided, tonight, to indulge, or, anyway, to give indulgence a try. You’re thirty-five. Your wife is thirty-six. Indulgence doesn’t mean what it used to mean. What passes for indulgence, these days, post-PhD, post-kids, post-fulltime job, is more like a mojito, then a half hour of Cartoon Network before bed.
Used to be you’d stay out late. In college, 2:00 a.m. Waffle House runs were not uncommon or even regarded as odd. Used to be you’d go to concerts, Better Than Ezra and Everclear, you in your hemp necklace, she in her leopard-print miniskirt. Those days are over. And you don’t miss them. Or, if you miss them, you miss them the way you miss childhood, which is to say with a wistfulness and nostalgia and fondness for a time to which, nevertheless, you’d still rather not return. You like your life. You love your wife. You love your kids. You enjoy being a married father of two. You are not an unhappy person, and you don’t think you need to pretend to be unhappy in order to be taken seriously as a human being with, like, a soul.
So, no more Everclear. No more leopard-print miniskirts. You and your wife have opted, instead, for an hour in Keys, the ship’s late night lounge. It’s a piano bar, and it’s pretty much what you’d envision when it comes to late-night cruise ship piano bars. The lounge is medium-dark. No open flames allowed on ships, so no candles, in lieu of which the mood-lighting is provided by little flickering tabletop bulbs. At the front of the room sits a low stage on top of which sits a really pretty, polished Yamaha.
An older man with painfully kind eyes sits at the piano and plays love ballads and songs from Phantom of the Opera while a dozen couples talk or snuggle and half-listen. You used to play piano, and, though you know the trick to what the piano man is doing (chords with the left hand, melody with the right, a judicious use of the soft pedal to quiet a missed note or the damper pedal to smooth out a messy interval, bake at 350 degrees and transpose any difficult key to C), it still impresses you to see someone who can take requests and seemingly call up any song from memory. You test him out with a request, “God Only Knows,” by the Beach Boys, objectively the greatest American song of the last century. No way the piano man doesn’t know the song, but probably it’s too moody for a cruise. Instead, he gives you “Surfer Girl,” which is okay but not really in the same league as “God Only Knows,” which is, objectively, the greatest American song of the last century.
You are ready for drinks. Just as you’re ready, a server appears. This will happen a lot on the cruise. Employees will kind of read your mind, knowing just when they’re needed, when to appear, when and how best to serve you. They’re generally very good at what they do, though, for a few, there’s some kind of professionalism gap going on when it comes to conversation (more on that in a minute).
Being waited on makes you uncomfortable, mostly because you’ve been in the server’s position before. All through high school and college, you waited tables. You started at Chili’s before working your way up to Outback, then Carrabba’s, then spending a summer in catering, during which other people’s weddings would tend to strike you as funny or terrifying, and often both, from the New Age priestess whose vows included the couple pledging to “canoe together down the river of life” to a toast in which the father of the groom said, “Last night, as my son and I sat up late, talking, he told me, ‘Dad,’”—and, here, the father, full of fatherly pride, had to pause to fight back tears, before continuing—“‘Dad,’ he said, ‘she’s just like Mom. I’m telling you, she’s just like Mom.’”
All of which is simply to say that you know how weird and tiring it can be to wait on people. You tip too much. You tip even when the service is bad. You say “thank you” when a server does anything from filling your water glass to walking by with a smile. Smiles in this world can be hard to come by, and you try to be grateful for them whether they’re genuine or not.
This server’s smile seems genuine. The server wears a vest with Mickey heads on it. A nametag gives you the server’s first name and country of origin. Your wife orders an amaretto sour, her go-to cocktail, and you order a French 75.
A word about the French 75: It’s an old drink, but it’s new to you. Recently, you had dinner with some writer-friends, one encouraged you to try it, and you loved it. The French 75, for the uninitiated, is an effervescent mix of gin, sugar, champagne, and lemon juice. It tastes like lemonade, if two glasses of lemonade also got you drunk. So, you’ve recently tried this drink and loved it, and this is, after all, the Disney Magic, and Disney is supposed to be the place where dreams come true, and though the potent French 75 is generally more expensive than your average cocktail (since the making of a French 75 typically requires the opening of a fresh bottle of champagne), and though you and your wife have been trying to get by on one salary so that she can stay home with the girls an extra year, you decide it’s okay to splurge because tonight, again, is all about indulging, which, you’ve decided, means drinking the drink of your choice, and you don’t care what it costs.
So, you order the drink, and if there is such a thing as a triple-take, the server does one. You assume the server’s misheard you or maybe never heard of the drink. Instead, the server asks who you are. This puzzles you. You don’t tell the server you’re a writer, which often solicits well-intentioned but ultimately unproductive and agonizingly long conversations about the book this other person has always wanted to write, or about the book this other person has written and wants your help finding a publisher for, or about the idea for a book this other person has that he or she knows would be a bestseller if only he or she could just find someone to do, you know, the writing part, oh, and would you be interested in doing the writing part, not that he or she can pay you, which he or she wouldn’t really have to pay you seeing as how, surely, the book would make you both famous because, surely, the idea for the book’s a goldmine, this book just waiting to be written by someone who, you know, knows where all the commas go. So, when the server asks who you are, you say you’re from Florida, and you leave it at that.
“It’s just,” the sever says, “it’s just…” The server looks around, surprised, then leans in with an expression of confidentiality. The server goes on to explain that, just last night, another man ordered a French 75. Before that, the server had never heard of the French 75. Even the bartender had to look the drink up. Then you come in the very next night and order the very same drink.
You admit that, yes, those are long odds. You see why the server would be startled. You’d be startled, astonished even, though you yourself have noticed this phenomenon in your own life, how you move through the world, and just as you learn about some new, obscure thing, that new thing seems, suddenly, to pop up everywhere, in movies, on TV, in other people’s conversations, as though learning some new thing summons that thing into being and endows you with the power to summon its presence elsewhere in the world, until, in a way, in the end, nothing new seems new, everything seems old even when obscure, for already it was known, if not by you.
Granted, two French 75s in a row on a Disney cruise is a weird one.
“Do you know him?” the server asks.
“I’m sorry?” you ask.
“The man,” the server says. “The man who ordered the French 75.”
“I’m sure I don’t,” you say.
“Hold on,” the server says, heading to the bar, and you’re unnerved. You’re worried that the server is about to do what the server is, in fact, going to do, which is to tell you something you have no business knowing. It will be like the day before when another cruise ship employee volunteered the information that the mother of the Vice President of a prominent North American airline was a “handful” when it came to thermostats and the issue of what she considered a comfortable indoor temperature, allegedly demanding major changes that, when they were made, even to the dissatisfaction of fellow cruisers, the mother of the Vice President of the prominent North American airline remained unhappy and, worse, in one case, either failed to notice the change or seemed, to this individual, to have forgotten the very demands she’d made in the first place. All of the above is the kind of thing that you, a writer, really don’t want to know because it’s too juicy and knowing it means you’re bound to throw it into an essay, the throwing in of which will make you worry and feel guilty because you’ll spend a while wondering if someone from Disney will read the essay and try to track these people down and fire them—which almost certainly won’t happen, though, if it did happen, you’d never forgive yourself, since no essay is worth another person’s livelihood. So, you provide few details in the hope that no one perp can be effectively fingered, and you use words like “allegedly,” not just because you want to avoid libel charges but because you can’t be sure the things that you’ve been told are even true (the mother of the airline’s Vice President thing being only the tip of the big, weird professionalism-gap conversational iceberg careening through your Disney week, but that’s a-whole-nother essay), though, for the record, for the most part, the things you’re told, seem, to you, to have the ring of truth to them.
The server returns with the other French 75 drinker’s full name.
“Do you know him?” the server asks.
You do not.
“Hold on,” the server says, returning to the bar. The server appears to be going through last night’s receipts.
Please, you think, please just don’t.
The server returns with the man’s room number.
“You’re sure you don’t know him?” the server asks.
“I’m sure,” you say.
You don’t say you’re sure that, given this information, you could probably, if you wanted to, commit some sort of nefarious cruise ship activity, like signing receipts with this guy’s name and room number and getting the rest of your cruise drinks for free, or maybe slipping cryptic notes under this man’s door, calling him out, telling him you know things about him, like his favorite late-night drink. You won’t do anything like this, of course, but there are people in the world who would, and it seems like a violation of something, however slight, that the server’s entrusted you with so much unsolicited information about someone else. You’re not sure any laws have been broken, but you’re reasonably sure that there are rules on cruises and at hotels when it comes to giving out people’s room numbers and names. For sure, you won’t be happy if, the next night, the other French 75 drinker returns and the server gives out your name and the number of the room in which your children are sleeping.
You want to say as much, to say, “Please don’t give out our room number,” or, “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t be giving out people’s room numbers?” but then that thing kicks in where you sympathize, perhaps overmuch, with people in service positions and you can’t bear to say anything for fear you’ll come off as rude or chastising, even when this is sort of a safety issue. The server before you seems to mean well, excited to be of help.
And, so, you say nothing. You say nothing and you hope that, if this other man returns and if, indeed, your room number and name are given out, that the man turns out not to be a psychopath or a sexual predator or a stealer of identities. And you drink your French 75. And you hug your wife. And you enjoy the rest of the cruise, even amid the overhearing of certain things you’ll wish you hadn’t overhead, and even amid being told certain things you’ll wish you’d never been told, because, in the end, it will be a good week. Magical, even.
Mostly, though, in the end, you’ll think about that one dish you sent back, or that time your kids acted up, or how you walked out of one of the evening shows. You’ll remember these moments, and you’ll wonder, right now, what’s being said about you.