1. In the Schooner Lounge of the Rhapsody of the Seas cruise ship, you can pay six dollars for a bottle of beer or four dollars for a heavy pour of Maker’s Mark. You order it from the square-jawed Filipino waiter who speaks limited English, but who says “For the honeymooners!” every time he delivers drinks to you and your wife. You try telling him, again, that you’ve been married for four years, but he does not listen. He simply laughs and says, “honeymooners!” again and then looks at you with an expression that translates across any language: he is happy for you because he believes you have either recently had sex or are going to have sex imminently. Then you sip your drink and look out the window for an hour, hoping to catch a glimpse of a whale, relaxing your eyes like you’re looking at a Magic Eye poster, and every now and then asking your wife: do you think that was one? That spray of water, maybe it was from a blowhole? That splash? Your wife looks too, and she sips her drink, but she’s tired. She had her gall bladder removed in an emergency surgery a month ago and is still in recovery, her discomfort exacerbated by the boat’s unsteadiness. The motion sickness meds make her fuzzy and drowsy and she feels distanced from everything. You see a disturbance in the water and lean closer. Was that a dorsal fin? Your glass is empty again, and you’re not sure when it’s appropriate to get another.
2. Relative to other cruise ships, the Rhapsody of the Seas is pretty small. It needs to be able to navigate narrow passageways and fjords that other cruise ships would be too big to handle. By the middle of the week, you recognize almost everybody on the boat. There is the middle-aged African American couple that dresses like sea captains and never, ever smiles. There is Sidney, the trivia expert who gets free passage on the ship for delivering a one-hour lecture on the geography of Alaska. There is the young honeymooner who wears sweatpants every day with the name Mrs. Padilla bedazzled in cursive across her butt. There are hundreds of people with little quirks that annoy you when you’re stuck in a crowd and that charm you when you’re able to sit at a distance with your wife and mock them. You and your wife are not popular among the other cruisers.
3. The only way you could be talked into getting on a cruise ship in the first place was to be assured you wouldn’t have to sit at a dinner table with strangers every night. You have no interest in spending a week bonding with new people. You do not want to hear stories about their children, or about their hometown, or about the other cruises they've been on. Cruisers love talking about going on cruises beyond all other subjects. You want to be left alone with your bourbon and your decadent food and your search for whales. Your brother-in-law and his wife are the outgoing, personable ones. They are energized, rather than completely drained, by socialized with strangers. They enjoy the scheduled activities. By the third day, everyone seems to know them, greeting them as they walk the halls, smiling at them, high-fiving them. They’ve won a team obstacle race, a hula hoop contest, a handful of trivia contests, and who knows what else. They become the stars of one evening’s entertainment, a Newlywed Game-style show. In the morning, people stop by your breakfast table just to tell them how fun they are. “You must have a great time hanging out with these two!” they say. And you do; otherwise you wouldn’t have gone on the cruise in the first place. Though at night you wonder what it is they have that makes it so much easier to just talk to people, to be friendly, to be able to turn off that nagging critical voice in your head and just enjoy yourself. All of these tasks get a little easier after you and your wife split a bottle of wine at dinner.
4. Because you are an MFA-holding white male of a certain age, you have of course read David Foster Wallace’s famous essay about taking a cruise, and you have of course written your own poor imitations of it, and you of course spend an incredible amount of time on the boat telling everyone about this particular essay and its relation to your own experiences. It’s hard to imagine a more annoying behavior, and even as you’re doing it, you think: stop talking, stop talking. But you do not stop. Later you feel like you need to assure everyone that, yes, you are having fun. You really are. For real. You’re just not good at showing it.
5. Cruises are famous for their deferential and obsessive service—it’s one of the things you pay for, to have every whim satisfied—but there is a desperation to the service that is upsetting if you consider the plight of the workers themselves too deeply. Your waiter is charming and sweet and so concerned with your comfort that you begin pretending to like some meals to avoid upsetting him. He is excited because he is going home to Manila at the end of the trip. Most of the workers spend six months on board the ship and then go home for a few weeks to see their families before returning to the boat again. It paints a grim picture of life at home, of the options available to men like him, of the toll trying to make a living takes on everyone. When he shows you a picture of his son and seems to be holding back tears, it crosses your mind that this whole story is a con to elicit a bigger tip at the end of the week, but you don’t want to be that cynical. You can’t be.
6. You discover the one exception to the obsessive service ethos when your wife requests, and is denied, gluten-free food options, even though she provided medical documentation and arranged for them in advance. On the second night, when none of the entrée options is gluten-free, the dining room supervisor, a grim Estonian man with the build of a comic book henchman stops by the table, puts his arm on her shoulder and leans in. “You must understand,” he says. “What you want is not possible.”
7. During one of the Captain’s addresses, he reels off a variety of context-free numbers meant to impress you: the size of the boat, the speed it travels in knots, how many hours it took to construct the boat. Then he adds one you do understand: the average passenger on this cruise will gain four pounds during the week. The audience laughs guiltily, everyone remembering the midnight snacks they had sent to their room, or the second entrée they got last night just because, or the ice cream they had to pass the time between breakfast and lunch. You want to rush to the edge of the boat and purge everything. Consumption on that level feels monstrous, feels, even to someone with no religious inclination, sinful. You’re not going to stop, but when you order a second helping of braised venison, you will at least feel badly about yourself.
8. Most nights, you return to the Schooner Lounge after dinner and sit with your wife and your bourbon, listening to a pianist named Rosemarie, who is the least popular act on the boat and therefore seems very appreciative that you’re there. When you applaud, she looks to you and smiles, covering her mouth with her hand. When you see her elsewhere on the boat, she has her mouth covered with a veil. You never figure out whether this is some sort of religious modesty thing or if it's self-consciousness thing or maybe a thing where she just has bad teeth and has been told that the customers should never be allowed to see them. When her show ends, you migrate to the room next door, where a Filipino band called C-Wind plays covers of American rock hits. You consider asking your wife to dance but she’s falling asleep and also you’re not a dancer, and also how do you dance to Credence anyway?
9. You don’t leave the boat often. There are stops in Juneau, Skagway, and Victoria, BC. Victoria is bustling and beautiful and you wish you could spend a week there instead of just seven hours. In Juneau, you and your wife wander away from the main street into the woods, past the many signs warning about grizzlies, and you pretend these signs don’t concern you deeply. You walk on and around a glacier. You see eagles soaring overhead. You enjoy the brief freedom of not being managed from one event to the next. In Skagway, you board a helicopter, which flies you over a landscape that is beautiful and alien and so bright you can barely look at it. It lands on Denver Glacier, where you follow a safely marked trail to a dog sledding camp. This excursion costs almost as much money as the cruise itself. You meet the dogs and hold puppies, and then you get hitched to a sled and feel the power of eight howling, excited huskies pulling you at full force across a glacier, and you wind whips cold against your face, and you know you will never experience anything like this again. After a short run, a dog named Roo jumps up and licks your face, and you picture some other version of your life in which you were more adventurous and you actually liked nature as much as you wish you liked nature and you lived on a glacier with sledding dogs and didn’t have time or energy to worry about all the petty things that keep you up at night. You try to think of anything that brings you as much joy as pulling this sled brings to the dogs.
10. One morning, you wake up at three o’clock because the captain says you won’t want to miss the sights. The sun is already rising, and a small boat pulls alongside yours. A skilled pilot boards so that he can navigate you through the Tracey Arm Fjord. You’re exhausted, but it doesn’t matter. The world is bright and incredible. In the middle distance, you see the humps of whales surfacing, great clouds of water spurting from their blowholes. Mountains of ice rise out of the sea and as the boat glides close to them you consider reaching out to touch the walls. The boat stops in front of an enormous glacier wall, and the color is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s blue, but not really. It’s like the blue of the ocean from another planet. Below you, on a patch of ice, there is a seal lying in a pool of blood. At first you think it’s been killed by a predator, but then you see a pup lying near the mother’s belly. While you’re watching the seal, there is a tremendous rumbling. A house-sized chunk of the glacier breaks loose and crashes to the sea; in its volume and power and prodigiousness, it is the most impressive thing you will ever see in your life. Earth is enormous and the universe is bigger and you are so small it hurts. In the future, every time you begin to complain about the inconveniences of your cruise, you remember what an amazing opportunity you had. You’re four thousand miles from home and doing something relatively few people will ever get to do; how petty is it to complain about inadequate meals in the face of everything else? Before you pull away, a Belarusian staff member approaches you with his camera. “Picture?” he says. He stands in front of the glacier, pointing at it, smiling so widely it looks like it hurts. When he gets home, he will show these pictures to a family that can’t believe the things he’s seen. And you think: what a weird, lucky life this is.