Bunking Up: Chapters 1-2 Preview
A lot of my coworkers think of the Captivation ironically, as if we’re all trapped on this cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, stuck in this loop, day in and day out. In a sense, it’s true; after a few employment contracts come and go and you’ve made your one hundred and seventy-sixth trip from your home port back to that very same home port, you realize that’s it’s the same sea, the ship is the same, the passengers are basically the same, and you are exactly the same too. By then, almost every crew member thinks the same thing: we’re stuck on this merry-go-round called the Captivation, and we’re not even the passengers on this carnival ride. We’re the horses.
They may feel that way, but not me.
As I entered the stateroom, I caught a glimpse of the Caribbean Sea through the glass door to the balcony. A light green, mixed with turquoise, like shimmering fabrics spread out on a luxury bed. It was hard not to appreciate the scenery here, even if I had to wait until I was cleaning staterooms to actually see the world. I work in the Caribbean. I live in the Caribbean Sea. How many twenty-somethings, or even thirty or forty or fifty-somethings, from a small town in Florida, can say that?
Okay. Maybe a few. Or a few thousand. But that’s not the point.
I pushed the cleaning cart into the cabin. A life-size, cardboard cutout of a man with spiky brown hair, brown eyes, and a cheesy grin, stared back at me. I raised an eyebrow; I didn’t recognize him, but I wasn’t up to date on the latest celebrities. Still, it wasn’t every day that I was met with a life-size poster. A note was left at the cutout’s feet, addressed: MISSES HOUSEKEEPER.
I checked the guest log for this week’s itinerary: stateroom 9592: several adults with various last names, probably a group of friends. I read the note:
This is Fred.
Fred bitched out of the trip.
Work, work, work.
A typical slave to the man.
You know how it is.
This is the best we could do.
Please treat him well.
Your Friends in 9592
I tilted my head, eyeing Fred. His name was on the list. Was Fred bummed to be missing a trip to the Virgin Islands? A typical slave to the man. You know how it is. I laughed. While we might be horses enslaved on this merry-go-round, at least until we made it to Tortola, I personally found delight in the strangers that boarded cruise ships. Like Your Friends in 9592.
After I put their suitcases underneath the beds and tucked another beside the couch, I straightened the phone charging cords on the table, ‘Fred’ watching me the entire time. I shimmied my shoulders, imagining I was in a scandalous french maid uniform and Fred couldn’t help but stare at me. Oh, you like that, Monsieur, the way I wrap this velcro cord around the cable like a professional woman? A real cleaning lady.
There was something amusing about the weird things guests thought was okay on vacation. I’m not talking about the lack of hygiene or the copious amounts of condoms left all over the shower stalls (it wasn’t impressive that they used that many condoms, but that they seemed to have actually fit more than a single person in the stateroom shower), or even the overflowing trash cans full of Red Bull and Pepto Bismol (because sleep or food poisoning sure as hell won’t stop these guests). And to be honest, that kind of thing is way more common than you’d think. I’m talking about the truly weird things the guests did, like Fred.
I made the bed, then looked from Fred, to the bed, back to Fred.
What are you planning to do to me, Mademoiselle? Fred seemed to ask. What are you thinking, you dirty, dirty maid?
I thought, Oh, Freddy, my love, what won’t I do to you?
I wasn’t about to lose my virginity to a cardboard cutout; papercuts galore wasn’t exactly a turn on for me. But I did need to do something to Fred, to give stateroom 9592 that Livia Evans touch, the one that might make them tip me a little more when they checked out in a week.
I wiped down Fred with some cleaner, then gently pulled the comforter and sheets back from the mattress on the queen. I removed his body from the cardboard stand, then settled Fred into the middle, sliding his body down so that only his head poked out. I wrote a note on the back of theirs:
Fred was tired from traveling,
I thought I’d tuck him in.
“Someone yacked on the lido deck, chica,” a shrill voice called from the hallway. “And they’re short deck stewards, again.”
“Already?” I asked. Concentrating on keeping the bed smooth and tight, I slid the folded note underneath the top of the flat sheet. I turned towards the doorway with a bright smile on my face. A woman in the same plain uniform I was in, (not a glorious, sexy French maid uniform, mind you, but a plain, red, beige, and blue uniform, with less shape than a paper bag), faced me. Her tanned skin was luminous as if she had sunbathed recently, and her dark hair was piled into a large knot on the top of her head. The dangling earrings with red gems shining in the light were the kind of touch that could make anyone forget that the woman in front of you was wearing a boxy steward’s uniform.
Enter Sofia, my best friend.
“What are you doing?” Sofia asked.
“Tucking Fred in,” I said. I pat the bedsheet. “He was tired.”
I shrugged. “Guess he couldn’t make it.”
Sofia sighed. “What will they think of next?” She motioned to follow her. “I need your help, chica. Hurry.”
We stowed our carts, notified the chief cabin steward, then made our way to the lido deck using the staff elevators.
“Have we even left port yet?” I asked.
“Like an hour ago,” Sofia said.
“And we’ve already got a puker?” I wrinkled my nose. “Seasickness?”
Sofia shook her head. “Drunk assholes. Hold your damn tequila like it means something to you.”
“Don’t the bartenders know when to cut people off?”
“They don’t have to clean up,” Sofia mumbled. We acquired the correct tools, then made our way to the pool. Loud house music vibrated through the walls before we had even entered the main area. Yellow tape surrounded a few rows of the lounge chairs.
“It’s not like it’s norovirus,” Sofia said.
“You know that poor puker is stuck in the med unit,” I said.
“You think that little cruise ship passenger should be pitied? They drank too much and now the stewards have to clean up after the children,” Sofia scowled. “I love cleaning up a good time as much as the next person, but poor us, chica! Poor us!”
We stared down at yellow and brown chunks of digested food, mixed with bluish, greenish stomach acid. My guess? A made-to-order pizza washed down with a hurricane or two. I scooped what I could with a plastic shovel, dumping it into the garbage, then joined Sofia in mopping.
“At least it’s not as bad as the last time,” I said.
A loud surge of music signaled the beginning of the Sail Away Party. I turned towards the raised stage in front of the pool: our cruise director, a suave man with black hair styled into the perfect pompadour, grinned like a devil getting ready for a kegger, and the six happy faces making up his backup crew, a blend of men and women, cheered behind him. His personal pep rally squad, and part of the entertainment team: The Royal Six.
And then I saw her: Julie Conway, the pregnant performer.
I studied her round, bulbous belly, wondering how long it would be until she officially popped. My sister had gotten pregnant in high school, so I knew there was a relatively short road from showing to birth. Julie must have been in her third trimester, or at the tail end of the second. How long would she perform? Was she planning on dancing like a chicken with its head cut off until that very last day?
“I have you both listed as off during the evening mid-shift tonight,” the chief cabin steward said. I quickly resumed vigorously cleaning the deck. “Are either of you willing to clean the dinner theater tonight? It’s the marriage show, and they need—”
“I’ll do it,” I said. I straightened my shoulders. “Absolutely. Ready. I mean, can I? I’d love to.”
The chief cabin steward raised his eyebrow. “I’ll let them know.”
After he walked away, I gazed at the stage. They were pulling different guests onto the stage for a dance-off competition, pure bliss on each vacationer’s face. I dreamed of being on that stage. Maybe I wasn’t that great at dancing, and I knew I couldn’t sing like any of the Royal Six, but the exhilaration of being on that stage, of being seen as something other than a shadow, would be worth it. To make people happy, to make them cry from your music, to show them the world with a few words from a song.
But I wasn’t meant to be in the spotlight. People like my sister, Penellope—blond hair, blue eyes, a full, voluptuous body—were meant to be seen. It didn’t matter if you were gay or straight, a man or a woman; people liked looking at my sister. She was a mermaid in an oasis. A peacock waltzing in a meadow. A sunset drifting away on the coast.
And me? With a gap in my teeth big enough to hold a cheese cracker sandwich? I was an ogre under a bridge. A pigeon in the middle of the road. A bland, overcast day.
I shook my head, shaggy brown bangs covering the tops of my eyes. A thick low ponytail of unruly brown hair stroked my back. It’s not that I was ugly; I wasn’t. But I wasn’t the kind of person that made it onto the entertainment team. I wasn’t Royal Six material.
But sometimes, I dreamed of what it might be like to be one of them.
“You want the mama’s place?” Sofia asked. She pulled the lever on her mop, squeezing out the excess soapy water. “They must be interviewing soon.”
“I’d love to audition,” I said. I had tried to, once. Auditioning sounded glamorous, as if you were meant to be in Hollywood, like Penellope. But auditioning for a cruise ship’s entertainment team was different. My mother and sister used to laugh at cruise ship performers. It’s where art goes to die, Penellope once said. What neither of them realized was that cruise ships had packed audiences every night, because where else were the guests going to go when they were stuck at sea? And in all honesty, it didn’t seem that bad. And since I knew my sister would never, not in a million years, end up on a cruise ship, I thought, hey, why not give it a shot?
At the Journey Cruise Lines Job Fair, the chief cabin steward had stopped me. Are you sure you want to audition? he had said. With your background, you’d make a great steward. It’s a reliable position, you know. You’re in college, right? We can work with your academic schedule. In the end, the whole academic thing wasn’t an issue. But the hesitation in my eyes at the mention of college made the chief cabin steward add on the last bit: I can’t make any promises about a position on the entertainment team, but I can guarantee you a job as a cabin steward. It’s not exciting, but it’s good, honest work.
Honest. Good. Reliable. Qualities someone should want in a job.
I guess the whole performer thing was more of a dream, anyway. Who knows if I would’ve made it on the entertainment team. And besides, I like it on the Captivation. I met Sofia on the ship, and she’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had.
“You think I’d give up working with you?” I asked her.
“You’re telling me you’d rather clean up vomit than sing up there?” Sofia asked.
A loud voice called over the speakers, interrupting our conversation. The cruise director crossed the platform. “That’s right, we’re sailing away into paradise, ladies and gentlemen! I’m your cruise director, Sir Kenneth Watson, A. K. A. the most famous, most handsome man of the sea, your BMOCS, and for those of you who can’t decipher an acronym fast enough, your Big Man On the Cruise Ship. If that’s too hard for you to remember?” The man lifted his sunglasses. “You can call me Sir Kenny. I’m at your service. Now let’s get ready for the Wet Toga Contest!”
“Wet Toga Contest?” Sofia shuddered as she said the words. “What’s the point122 of that?”
“Maybe we can tell him about the hairy chest competition idea from the other night. Sounds better than wet togas,” I said.
She slapped my shoulder. “Chica, if you tell that ass what we dream of at night, I swear I’ll—” Sofia stopped for a moment, then put a hand over her heart. “I will praise you for making my dreams come true.”
I grinned. “What about you? Why don’t you audition?” I asked. “You hate cleaning.”
“Only if I’m cruise director or something,” she said. We made our way towards the steward quarters. “And you know that ass isn’t going anywhere.”
“But you hate housekeeping.”
“It’s not a house,” she said. It was her favorite way to correct others: we weren’t housekeepers; we were stewards. Almost like the favorite refrain of crew members in general: it’s not a boat; it’s a ship.
“But you’re good at organizing parties, and people swarm to you, and—” I stopped. What couldn’t I say about Sofia? She was as perfect as the sun.
“At least we don’t have to worry about keeping our jobs, you know?” she said. “They always need stewards. But seriously, chica, if you don’t audition this time, I will personally torture you by making you enter the tricycle races with me.”
Me, on a tricycle, for the crew day competitions? That was a threat.
“I can’t dance,” I said. “And my singing is untrained.”
“Go find someone to help you,” Sofia said. “With seven hundred of us, and who knows how many of them,” she said, eyeing the wall, as if we could see the guests through it, “Someone will help you.” When I didn’t respond, she furrowed her brows. “You owe it to yourself, Livia.”
The first name came out. She was serious.
I sighed, listening to the parade of the Royal Six rallying the group of guests into a wild frenzy of delight, the bliss loud enough to come through the walls. As part of the Royal Six, I wouldn’t be singing my songs, but I would be repeating the awful musicals I grew up listening to and the top chart hits that were capable of numbing the brain, plus I had knobby giraffe knees and hated dancing. But to be there? Being up there, seeing those smiles and tears of joy? That would be worth it, wouldn’t it?
What did I have to lose?
If I could get the judges to look at me, that is.
The only thing worse than getting a failing exam result for your dream job, is getting that email while serving lobster—not a single serving, but two large tails—to a cardboard cutout of some dipshit frat boy, because his friends insist that the paper man needs it.
“Where are Freddy’s lobsters?” sunglasses man asked.
The next bro, wearing a bandana over his head, sat up. “Freddy specifically ordered two lobsters,” bandana man said.
Sometimes, I wanted to punch guests like them. But I knew better than to mess with my money. It was only lunch, and with my luck, they’d come to the dinner theater, and I’d be stuck with them again.
Them and Freddy.
“My mistake,” I said. “Are you sure he’s cut out for two lobsters?” I asked. “He looks paper-thin.”
Bandana man stared blankly at me. I guess he didn’t appreciate the joke.
“Just get us the lobster,” tank top man said.
I plastered a smile on my face. “Two lobsters for Freddy. Would he like some white wine with that?”
“That’s a good idea. How about a round of rum and cokes?” sunglasses man asked.
“Six?” I asked, which would include the cardboard.
“See? He gets it now,” sunglasses man said.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. It was time to leave before they added more waste to the order. As long as they ate the lobster, I didn’t care, but with the amount of food that they had already ordered? Fat chance.
Once I was out of view, I checked the notification: Programming Language Certification Exam: Failed.
Why fucking bother in the first place?
The group of five men and one cardboard cut out cackled. Someone was moving ‘Freddy’ like he was actually laughing.
Why bother? Because the service industry had sucked the soul right out of me. That’s why.
I told the bartender I needed six rum and cokes, then headed to the galley for the lobsters.
“These people and their lobster,” the chef said as he shoved two plates with steel dome covers forward.
If he only knew.
It was hard to remember how I had ended up on the Captivation in the first place. Uncle Turner knew someone who knew someone else, and when my uncle asked for anything, I couldn’t say no. Not after he protected my mother, and especially not after he took me in.
But being around rowdy groups of people was pure torture for me. Even worse to be serving them food. The only benefit was that I wasn’t a stand-in for the Royal Six anymore.
When I returned to the bar, the bartender winked at me as he lifted a shot. “I’ve got one for you once you’re done. Looks like you need it.”
“Thanks,” I said.
People weren’t all bad. I could accept people like Uncle Turner, or the bartender and the chef, the kind of people who could see the world for what it was, the lack of care for others, the loss of gratitude. But the world was largely made of people who threw out everyday courtesies as soon as they were on a cruise ship, all in the name of ‘vacation.’ Like the frat boys. And fucking Freddy.
Freddy, the cardboard cutout, would be better as shark bait.
I placed the two lobster trays in front of the cardboard cutout ‘sitting’ (lying against the chair, slanted back, as if he had taken too many shots) in the corner seat.
“Finally,” bandana man said.
I passed out the rum and cokes, placing one in front of Freddy. “Enjoy, gentlemen,” I said.
After my section had been cleared and the bussers were busy, I excused myself to reread the email. I was short of the certification by eleven measly points. What was worse: failing by a landslide, like it was a joke to take the test in the first place, or almost making it, and still failing?
Before heading down to the dinner theater to start prepping for the specialty dining of the Bedrocks of Wedlock show, I headed to the crew cabins to change uniforms. I passed a few familiar faces in the hallway, but I stopped when I heard Nick’s voice and Cheston’s hesitant response.
“I mean it, man. Please. Give it back to me, man,” Cheston’s nasally voice whined.
What the hell was Nick doing now?
“What? You don’t like titties?” Nick asked.
“It’s my computer, man,” Cheston said. “Come on. Give it back.”
I stopped outside of Cheston and his roommates’ cabin, looking in to see one of my own roommates, Nick, more of a pale boulder with arms than a human being, holding Cheston’s laptop, Cheston’s furry twig-arms grasping for it. A black screen with a slideshow of naked women and men pulsated on the screen. Nick chuckled as he typed in the search bar. He clicked on the first link. A woman with blond hair, blue eyes, and big, natural tits, appeared on the screen. Her tits undulated below her as she got rammed from behind. A classic look, but not my kind of woman.
But that wasn’t the point.
“Come on, man,” Cheston said. He was as hairy as he was pathetic.
“You got something against Penny Kisser?” Nick said.
Penny Kisser? What was that supposed to mean?
How the other men, if you could even call them that, didn’t do anything, was almost as irritating as watching Nick bully Cheston as if we were stuck in high school. We were all in our mid to late twenties, for fuck’s sake, way past the bullying stage. But even in the adult world, people like Nick existed.
“Give him the laptop,” I said.
Nick swung around, shoving the laptop into one of his follower’s arms.
“This doesn’t concern you, Theo,” Nick said.
“Do you want another black eye?” I said. “Or can you learn to respect your crew?”
Nick blinked hard, remembering the night from a few months ago. It was one of the few times I had actually made it to dry land for a late-night off, and found Nick with his hands down a server’s shirt, who was protesting it, vehemently.
I’m not a violent man. But it’s… beyond irritating to see others get taken advantage of. And sometimes, you have to do something, even if you know it won’t change anything. That was one of those cases. The black eye wasn’t my intention, but it had been a consequence.
“Let’s go,” Nick said. He nodded towards his followers. “These two love birds need the room to themselves.”
I watched them leave, making sure they headed out of the crew cabins.
“Hey, thanks, man, really, I appreciate it. You’re like, the man of men, man—” Cheston started to say. I swerved out of the cabin and into my own, across the hallway, the one I had to share with Nick. The whole room reeked of his stench, B.O. and booze. I changed uniforms, getting out of the main dining outfit and into the specialty dining uniform for the dinner theater: a white button-up shirt with a black vest and a bow tie. “You had my back when I didn’t even know I still had one, man. It’s not that I don’t like porn, I do, but—”
Did he ever stop talking?
I ignored him as he babbled on about how much of a jerk Nick was, as if I didn’t know, as if I hadn’t defended Cheston from Nick’s brutality many times before.
“So, what do you think, man? Do you think I should request a cabin transfer?” Cheston asked.
“Wouldn’t make a difference,” I said.
“Wait! I could transfer to your cabin. Do you know if any of the—”
“I bunk with Nick,” I said.
“Oh. Right,” Cheston said, his shoulders slumping. “But do you think—”
“Look,” I said. I turned and faced him for the first time that night. “A cabin transfer isn’t going to change anything. My advice? Get used to it. If it’s not you, it’s someone else.”
“But if we report him—”
“Reporting doesn’t do shit,” I said. “It never changes anything.”
I would know. Even when I reported domestic abuse to the police, it wasn’t enough to make my mother leave her ex-boyfriend.
Instead, she left me with her brother.
“What about Sir Kenny?” Cheston asked. “He has his own room.”
“Because he’s the cruise director,” I said.
I turned back to the hallway, eager to find the crew elevators and distance myself from Cheston. But he followed, mouth open the whole way, still chattering away like a video stuck on replay mode.
“You’re a good friend,” he said. He reached up and patted my shoulder. I grimaced.
Friend? Good friend?
“Back off,” I said.
“Hey, man. I was trying to give you a compliment, man.”
As soon as we reached the correct deck, I sprang out. Cheston followed. Two more months until my contract was over. Two months until I could go back to Arizona. Two months until I could shut myself in my bedroom, and not even Uncle Turner would bother me. I would finally find a position where I could work from the comfort of my solitude, where I wouldn’t have to serve another lobster only for it to be wasted, where I wouldn’t have to watch out for the people who didn’t know how to get the hell out of the way. All I had to do was pass that fucking exam, and get my certifications.
If I did that, I would never have to come back to this captivating hell hole again.
I swung the door open to the galley. The silverware station had maybe twenty cloth napkins ready to go, not the hundred and fifty we needed. I rolled the silverware, and Cheston did the same, rambling the whole time. As soon as I had enough napkins, I took them to the dinner theater to set them, almost as a test to see if I did have a living shadow, if Cheston could be by himself for a few seconds.
A brunette mopped the stage, her thick brown hair tucked into a ponytail, swishing on her shoulder in time with the mop. Her soft pink lips puckered as she stared at Sir Kenny barking orders. A birthmark, the size of a quarter, grazed her neck. Her eyes were big and wide, as if she was actually happy to be cleaning the theater. I guess it was better than a stateroom, but it was only a stage, not even a nice one at that. But as she watched Sir Kenny, her smile was pure, the kind you only saw when someone experienced snow for the first time. Even in steward’s uniform, you could see the way her hips rolled down, thick mounds I imagined squeezing with my hands. I licked my lips.
The brunette saw me staring. She covered her mouth like she had been caught eating candy. The guilt at something so innocent as daydreaming, when she should’ve been cleaning, was almost cute.
But it was misguided too.
In the galley, I prepped the house salads. As the guests filtered into the dinner theater, I seated them, and sure enough, cardboard man and his fleshy entourage joined the audience. Cheston had them though. Good. It was better that way. He wouldn’t question the food waste.
Two more months.
After I took my section’s orders, I returned to the galley to add the tickets and grab the drinks. When I came back, I swerved around Cheston carrying his full tray back to the galley. He must have screwed up the order.
“Watch where you’re going,” I hissed.
“Man, I’m real—” he started to say, but Sir Kenny, after turning to greet some chick, spun right back around and shoulder checked Cheston, knocking all six of his drinks onto the floor. On purpose.
“Oh, shit, job opening, am I right?” Sir Kenny said, looking down at Cheston. “Nerd alert! Get out of the damn way next time, m’kay?”
I placed my tray on the table and walked to Sir Kenny. I stared him down. Cheston got up from the floor and stood behind me.
“Whoa, Theo, my good sir,” Sir Kenny said.
“What did you say?” I asked. “I didn’t hear you.”
Sir Kenny watched me, gauging how far he could take it. He narrowed his eyes, then relaxed. “I said it was an accident,” he finally said. He shrugged. “My mistake. Everyone makes them. You know how it goes.” A sly grin crossed his face, and I wanted to smack him back to the rock he crawled out from under. He flinched at my glare and looked at Cheston. “I’ve been there before, my good sir. Theo here knows my personal struggle.”
In the early days of the Captivation, Kenny had been a server and asked for my help with auditions for the entertainment team. That was before he rose to the position of the cruise director, and before he became the self-appointed Big Man on the Cruise Ship, before the birth of Sir Kenneth Watson. Back when I still played guitar in the lounges, and when I occasionally subbed for the Royal Six.
Sir Kenny made his way around the traffic jam and I grabbed my tray. The overhead lights flickered, the first warning that the show would begin in a few minutes. I glanced at the stage to see if the brunette was still cleaning, and had seen how much of a dick Sir Kenny was. But with only minutes to spare, she had to be finished. The stage needed time to dry.
The ruched curtains hung low. She was nowhere to be seen.