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Passeridae


by Wendy Wimmer



The Royal Experience Cast Member Handbook and Procedure Guide recommended that if there were ever a natural catastrophe of any kind (e.g., hurricanes, tidal waves, icebergs) that cast members of Royal Experience Cruises were to remain as calm as possible in order to prevent possible hysterics or rioting among the passengers. The handbook said nothing about terrorists, which was admittedly striking in this day and age, but hiding in the laundry-folding closet, we all had come to the agreement that terrorists were at least as dangerous as icebergs.

Everyone in the closet had seen the movie Titanic.

David from India, whose real name was Venkat Raja, told us of the band on the Titanic who played music for the passengers until water lapped at the soles of their shoes. We all joked to ourselves about the number of crew who survived the Titanic. Twenty-four percent of the ship's total crew survived, a percentage point lower than the poor steerage passengers, most of whom had been locked in the belowdecks. We have since confirmed these numbers to be accurate. As well, none of the surviving crewmembers were musicians, a fact relayed to us by Oscar. None in our laundry-folding closet was a musician by trade, although Michael whose real name was Shridhar, could sing the theme song from the movie “Jodphur Jovialities” in a manner that was very convincing and moving to us all, as the movie was about pirates and we all felt deeply for the main character's plight as a cabin boy—all of us but Oscar, whose real name was Oscar, who had not seen this film.

Building the scenes in our head, we envisioned how we could surge forth with the rest of the Royal Experience cast members, the housekeeping staff plus Usiku from entertainment. We imagined there were cells of similar groups of survivors: engine room workers below, entertainers clustered in the crawl space under the stage. We tried tapping out an SOS on the pipes and waited to hear a response, but the return was the inside of a conch shell, somehow both quiet and also a roar. There was no requirement for a cabaret performer to know SOS, but from this silence, we agreed that the deck workers, the traditional sailors who made our vessel go from one beautiful location to the next, must have sadly passed on. We said words of respect in our native languages, which between the eight of us totaled fourteen gods and six words meaning “grace.”

We constructed in our heads our noble deaths, the clips of our lives, the grainy pictures borrowed by family members for a touching montage. We knew there would be a cinematic tribute, at least one if not more, and we each selected the Hollywood actor who would play our roles in it. Shridhar was always a showboater and wanted Keanu Reeves, while Arivindan and Usiku both selected Harrison Ford as their theatrical doubles.  They wouldn't speak directly to each other after this disagreement, but later Arivindan mentioned that he had written his will on the back of a dry cleaning receipt and asked Oscar to witness the signing. Oscar then read to us all the line that requested 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 announced that Bruce Willis would be playing the role of Oscar Jaime Escobar, and we all had to admit that this was a pretty good choice. It was too late to change our own selections. There was only the one dry-cleaning receipt.

This was what happened: we did not hear the 0715 bell on the second day, so we knew that something was wrong, but continued our daily routines despite the absence of  deck crew. What other choice was there, except to follow the instructions so carefully laid out in the Cast Member Handbook and Procedure Guide? Honestly, we had more trepidations about the passengers than any potential reasons for the crew's disappearance.

Normally, we counted on a moderate percentage of senior citizens and families mixed with empty nests and corporate outings, but this voyage's manifest was nothing but young men and young women fresh out of college, 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, all in time to get to work on Monday morning a little sunburned and a little worse for all the rum. They called our vessel the party barge. This was not their parents' cruise ship, as a new Royal Experience ad campaign assured them over the background soundtrack of the Timberlake. Maybe that was what repulsed the Greatest Generation and their families despite the assurance of low fares and the shallow promise of swimming with stingrays. On this voyage, the cruise to nowhere, 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 the first night out to sea for this particular trip, the eleventh and twelfth decks poolside had looked like a television commercial for a popular beer. Usiku reported that when he simply crossed over the promenade, he saw the bare breasts of at least four different women, and Venkat himself witnessed an act of a sexual nature right there on deck, behind the statue of Neptune. Manicka relayed that out of a manifest that topped two thousand, his breakfast crew had only fourteen guests in the entire Magellan dining room and yet two instances of vomit. During a nonhurricane voyage, a one-to-seven ratio was very high for vomiting in the main dining room, very high. Usiku shared with us that after the first night, the hospitality manager had even issued a notice that all bartending staff were to under-pour the drinks, an order direct from the captain.

On Saturday morning, the passengers returned to the pools and hot tubs, recommenced their waving for drinks, hands up in the air like they just didn't care. They had shouted this at Usiku, the not caring, causing Shridhar 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 passenger demographics. A single passenger usually paid less for their passage than it cost to host them, so our goal was to ensure that they spent their dollars on board the vessel, be it on wine at dinner or on 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 had risen to our position based solely upon our talent for the upsell. At eleven to fourteen dollars per alcoholic beverage, this was not a difficult proposition, certainly, but not everyone could be smooth as those of 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. 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 needful. Usiku reported that the managers and bosses had been watching over the proceedings with stern visages but stepped away from their posts sometime before 1800 to report to the happy hour in the Crustacean's Cove lounge on Deck 7. Around 1700, Arivindan's team of room attendants reported that the ship's air conditioning seemed to be malfunctioning, but calls to the engine room went unanswered.  The entertainment director led everyone through the Electric Slide, which caused a fistfight between two men. Usiku signed the incident report himself when he realized that he was the senior-most cast member in the area. The passengers chose to eat at the Buffet of Enchantment rather than the filet mignon and lobster in the Magellan dining room, which was stifling and an entire elevator ride away from the pool decks. The hungry masses exhausted the supply of cheese teasers and buffalo drummies, but attempts to contact managers on their communicators at 1800 were unsuccessful. As the sun sank below the deck railings, Venkat scanned across the waving arms and muscled backs and watched as the fore bartender craned his neck toward 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. It was at this juncture that we were now certain that the enemy had already taken hold, although, like so many things, this was more clear to us later than it was at the time.

~

When the door to the laundry-folding room opened for the first time in ten hours, our first thoughts were of our supervisors catching us in the act of being cowards; our second thoughts were of the terrorists, but we aimed our flashlights into the intruder's face and saw that it was just a woman passenger.

She squinted in the light of our torches, and in concert, we pointed them to the floor, to her feet; her toes were not polished. We saw a thousand times ten passengers' naked toes throughout the voyages, all shiny like polished red apples and usually adorned with an artistic rendering of 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 was unlike every other female passenger on this ship.

We each exchanged looks and confirmed that she was not one of our passengers. She did not sit at our tables nor occupy our particular cabins, had not been waited on by any of us, so we couldn't address her by name as we were instructed to do by the Hospitality and Care of Passengers section of the Royal Experience Cast Member Handbook and Procedure Guide. We would have remembered her—she reminded us of our aunties and a grade-school teacher we'd once deeply loved.

The musicians from the Titanic were in our minds when we fought back the urge to ask her if she would like a nice rum runner or perhaps another pillow. Usiku put down his can of spray starch and Shridhar set down the bartender's corkscrew. When he was not manning the pool bar with Usiku, Shridhar worked in the Schooner Bar on the fifth floor, off the solarium, so his corkscrew was always at hand for those too good for the umbrella drink.

She said hello, then sat down on a stack of clean pool towels. This was how we came to be introduced to Anne. It was our tenth hour in the laundry-folding room.

We offered her water, some blankets, a guest robe, and half of a peanut butter bar that Arivindan had not even told the rest of us about. She refused everything, so one of us gave her a flashlight and Michael gave her a spare set of keys from a trouser pocket. The keys, he explained, unlocked closets and cupboards in areas we could not reach from our crèche in the bowel of the ship, not without traversing dangerous areas that Venkat had reported might be patrolled by the intruders. Shridhar explained that she could 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 did not need it, because with his corkscrew, complete with an inch-long foil-cutting knife, he was the best armed of us all. He could afford to be generous.

We would not admit it amongst each other, but each man was pleased to have her in our midst, even though our close quarters already meant that we had spent the last few hours in a dreamless half sleep crushed up against legs and feet on either side, which was preferable, we had all agreed, to accidentally snuggling up to a cohabitant as a man would to a wife. We had calculated how many hours were ticking down on the back of the door with a cake of hardened laundry detergent. Thirty-seven hours before the boat was supposed to leave its anchored position forty-five miles off of the coast of Ensenada, Mexico, another three until entering U.S. Coastal Waters, another four before pulling up to the dock, which meant that we were going to be spending at least one night asleep in this closet.

Now with eight, the night's sleeping arrangements would be sticky, but that was only in the back of our minds. It might have been how soft she looked, in just a thin t-shirt and loose sleeping pants; her breasts moved freely under the cloth. We were happy to have her. You were no longer hiding if you were protecting.

Usiku extracted his courtesy card that would usually be placed inside of his cabins on pillows or next to the courtesy bar. The card read, “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 followed suit, handing her our table tents and courtesy calling cards. Venkat quickly conjured an anteater out of three clean hand towels and then placed his card in the snout.

She looked down at her gifts and nodded, then sighed, a crumpling kind of sigh that made many of us want to punch the intruders and some of us want to punch the man standing next to him.

“Please, Anne, tell us what brings you to our humble closet?” Tom/Manicka was a headwaiter and had achieved a complete and utter adaptation of the flat American accent. He was admired by us all, except perhaps Oscar, who muttered under his breath.

“I followed him,” she nodded to Venkat and stiffened. “There's no one left, anyway.”

We all looked to Venkat, who silently caressed the ragged edge of a blanket as though he was extremely pleasured by this movement. He had chanced a trip out of the closet for some bottled waters. He had reported that he could hear sounds coming from some of the cabins on Deck 2, terrible wet sounds, voices moist as the earth, and had 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 said nothing. Oscar wiped his face as though the warmth in the laundry-folding closet had only just then occurred to him.

“Please, let us make peace. Mistakes were made, but we have a guest now.”

She fanned through the hospitality cards in her hand, impossible to read in the light of misdirected torches. “Can't you hear the announcements down here?”

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 was what sent us out of our cabins and into the laundry-folding closet. We had all come from lands with civil war and recognized the sounds. It traversed speech. You listened to the instincts to hide.

Since then, we had heard mumblings through the public-address system, but without opening the door, we could not understand what they had said. The laundry-folding closet door did not have a lock, but if the intruders had been in the Housekeeping wing of the Crew Only hold, a cracked door and our bobbing torches would have been very visible immediately. We took our inspiration from the turtle and felt it was our best defense. 

“My friend Melissa is with them, I think. Those men.” We waited for her to continue but she again pulled back, then looked at each of us in succession as though we were 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 hiccuped and for a second her face faded, then she swallowed back into herself the words.

“Pardon, miss,” Oscar spoke with a tone that was so strange and unrecognizable that it surprised all of us. “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. Pirates, nothing more.” He took her hand and patted it, and we were all shocked and envious of his boldness.

We watched her face in the near darkness and were aware of how the smell in the closet had changed now that she had joined us. Where before there had been the sharp smell of industrial laundry detergent tinged with our own aroma of sweat and cardamom, now there was an afternote of lavender and sweet milk, a fragrance that seemed to waft from the folds of her soft, grey sleep clothes. Later, when everything was over, when we talked about this moment, we all agreed that we wanted so badly to bury our noses into the space between her pillowy breasts and inhale deeply. Santosh confessed that he was most overcome not by the scent but rather the idea of rubbing his cheek against her stomach, of feeling enveloped by her femininity. The way her cotton shirt would catch slightly against his five o'clock shadow. During these needful moments when he was saying nothing in the laundry-folding closet, this was what he was considering.

Oscar continued, “The way I'm thinking, they're going to do whatever it is fast. Then they have to be gone, because at 6:30 a.m. on Monday, the owner of this cruise line is going to wonder why his boat isn't showing up in Long Beach, and I am thinking that someone is probably wondering why no one is answering the communication with the port anyway, so it might even be sooner than that. 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, wait here until the day after this one at most.”

“I need some air.” Anne stood, still clutching the anteater made from twisted towels.

Manicka rose from his position on a shelf full of sheets and placed himself 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 smiled. “They're not in these passages. I didn't see anyone.” She glanced down at the card in the anteater's snout, “You, David. You've been out. Did you see anyone?”

“No, Miss Anne,” Venkat whispered.

“You forget 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.” Here she shrugged again.

“Did you see them?” Venkat tightened his grasp on his light, focusing it on her thigh.

“One, just. He was just normal. Like . . . normal. A frat boy asshole with a gun. He made everyone go to the theatre and then he sent the boys, all the men one way, and then later, all the pretty girls 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 lifted a single eyebrow, and we did not have the heart to tell her about the scores of nests that were tucked in lifeboats and riggings.  What did the birds think, when they were at sea, when they saw land and suddenly they were in Mexico or Jamaica or Alaska?

“There are lifeboats. They are huge and I tried to get them down, but I'm not strong enough.” She sniffed and looked into that darkened corner, addressing it as though it were a man. “I'm not the type of girl who walks away from these things, you know? Women like me, we're casualties, not survivors. That's got to mean something, right? It's got to mean that I'm gonna make it out of this, you know?”

Here she smiled again. In the darkness we were transfixed. We wanted to lift up our voices and sing songs to her in our own languages. We wanted 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 had come to love her so angrily that we were without words. In the back, Arivindan made a sound like a sob, or maybe it was a gulp, and Usiku cleared 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 looked at each one of us, but none of us could meet her gaze with the exception of one.

We tried to stop her, reminded her of the math, the number of hours left, pleaded with her to wait, wait with us, let us tell her stories. We were not performers, but perhaps she would allow us the honor of being her entertainment. We did not want her to go. We wanted to cover her with our burgundy Royal Experience uniforms, wanted to hold her close within our laundry-folding closet and scavenge for her tiny bottles of gin and lukewarm sauvignon blanc.

We did and said none of these things. We knew that we needed to speak against her, but not one man among us could bring himself to do the needful.

We dutifully followed her up to Deck 7; her bare feet made no sound on the thick carpeting of the stairs. We were 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 were spinning at 33 1/3 revolutions toward something inescapable, and she stood at the middle of us all, turning, turning.

Each of us knew already how to unshackle the lifeboat from its mooring, as it was a part of the Royal Experience Cast Member Handbook and Procedure Guide basic safety chapter. It took only two able men to launch the boat, but all seven of us unlocked the crane and unleashed the cover while she stood against the deck wall to steady herself against the rocking. When the boat was lowered to the level of the railing, Oscar unlocked the gate and gallantly stretched out his hand to take hers. Each lifeboat could hold a hundred passengers, but Boat 14 would be pitifully undermanned like those launched from the Titanic years ago. Oscar guided her between the rows of twenty-foot long oars then jumped the railing and straddled a bench next to Anne. He motioned for the six of us to lower he and Anne down. So we did. Were we Bruce Willis in the hijacked airplane or Bruce Willis on the asteroid?

We did not return to the laundry-folding closet. Instead we made a single-file line and walked up nine flights of plush carpeted stairs to the pool deck to see their departure better. It was night, deep and dark and alone. The bioluminescent jellyfish glowed faintly just below the surface, marking their path to sea. We were uncertain of which way was California and which way Hawaii. We did not know the elements of seafaring, only knew that the stars were pretty and the moon was bright. The Milky Way showed in perfect cross section, and from above we could hear Oscar explaining to Anne which stars were important to Cortez and Pizarro. We listened without speaking. In the dark, we knew that the sound of gunfire made your mouth taste metallic, and we were waiting for that sound. As their lifeboat had penetration with the waves, we wanted to reach out and grab the moon jellies and construct for each other glowing pink life preservers, lash ourselves with the stinging tentacles and drift away through a red tide toward Baja.

In the light of the moon, we could see that each pool had been overcome by a coral reef. Manicka flipped on his torch, and the Royal Experience cast members were clustered together beneath the water, linked with chains, pale limbs swirling as anemone. We recognized headwaiters and porters, pool boys and cabaret singers, whorled barnacles for fingertips. Over the starboard side, we expected to see a pirate boat, but there was none, just a minefield of life vests whose beacons blinked in the night, drifting toward Bali or perhaps San Diego. We were musicians without instruments. We each picked a deck chair, sat down, and waited for an audience.


Originally published by Blackbird, Vol. 9, No. 2
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