SHIP OF THE LIVING DEAD
Last February, Oliver made an announcement. “For our 24th anniversary, we are going on a cruise!”
He might as well have told me I was getting open heart surgery. For decades, I openly disparaged cruising -- even the gay kind in the 1970’s. My past boating experiences consisted of turning different shades of green on the Staten Island Ferry; knuckles turning white against the frigid rails of the Circle Line; heart leaping violently to my throat on a rocky trip from Manila to Cebu, where a heartbroken passenger jumped overboard to her death on Valentine’s Day. But Oliver is very persuasive and will not desist until I relent. He immediately booked us passage. On the Titanic.
“You are so dramatic, oh my God,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s called the 'Danish Diamond'.”
“OK, if we sink, I got dibs on the floating door. I will let you go, Jack.”
“Oh. My. God.”
“Remember Gilligan’s Island? And that Italian ship the captain crashed into a cliff? Ciao, bella!”
“You go on planes, and there’s always some crash.”
“And those cases of salmonella? People turning into zombies! My immune system can’t take it!”
“So bring probiotics.”
When we reached our ship, I was gobsmacked. I had lived most of my life in New York City, and these giant, floating structures were docked right beside a major highway. I must have passed them a hundred times but never once noticed them. My deep prejudice against boats must have precipitated this hysterical blindness, just like that story about South America natives who couldn’t see the Spanish galleons heading for their shores. Turns out the story was bogus, but I’m telling you right now, I wouldn’t have noticed a cruise ship if it went sailing down the Garden State Parkway.
The Danish Diamond is a 12-story floating hotel. Looking up at its bow, or stern, or whatever it’s called, will make you dizzy. The bottom of the boat was decorated with painted cartoon jewels, outlined in thick black lines. It would look better bedazzled, I thought.
Checking into a boat was a breeze compared to checking into a plane. The reception lobby was literally buzzing with passengers on motorized wheelchairs – clearly, flight travel must be ornery for the wheelchair bound. After walking through a series of endless corridors, we found our stateroom, which Oliver had upgraded to an ocean view. I was puzzled; shouldn’t all the rooms be ocean view?
It looked eerily familiar – where had I seen it before? And then it clicked: HGTV’s Tiny House Nation. Having lived in a tiny apartment in NYC thoroughly prepared me for tiny living, so I hunkered down and put away all my stuff in cleverly designed tiny closets. Into the tiny drawers I tucked my brand new belts and underwear, the only extravagant purchase I allowed myself before our trip.
Our ten day cruise would take us to the Caribbean, docking at four islands. I must say, sailing from NY harbor on a giant boat offered a breathtaking view of my adopted hometown like no other. Bobbing beneath the Verezzano bridge, flanked by Manhattan’s famous skyline, was a sublime experience. Looking down from our balcony, though, I understood what Homer meant by “the wine dark sea.”
The first three days are called “sea days”, which is when you earn your “sea legs”. Some people get seasick, if they don’t get their sea stomachs. Thankfully, Oliver and I were fine, and we spent most of the day sleeping in a queen size bed that took up most of the space. We averaged 18 hours -- running two Flic Spas sure built up our sleep debt. I also managed to read six books in those three days.
As we sailed further and further south, the wine dark sea took on a lighter, turquoise hue, and the air grew warmer and tasted more briny. Since our cruise ship had “freestyle dining”, we headed for the buffet whenever hunger overtook us. The buffet room is where we were first introduced to our sea mates, all 3,000 of them. I met Canadians escaping their brutal winters, retired Long Islanders with fully paid-off homes, spending what was once their mortgage money; Russian and Chinese families quietly keeping to themselves.
I also met various nine-year-old girls, empty plate in hand, who habitually cut the buffet line in front of me. After each line-cutting incident, I would just mutter a silent curse and let it go. But really, I was astonished how, at nearly every meal, a different kind of nine-year-old girl with an empty plate in hand would cut right in front of me. Breakfast: Filipino nine-year-old girl. Lunch: Russian nine-year-old girl. Dinner: Chinese nine-year-old girl. All of them unchaperoned, their multinational parents nowhere in sight.
The crew was composed mostly of Filipinos, Indians, and citizens of assorted Eastern European countries. At the Duty Free Shop, I met a salesman from Transylvania who told me he only worked nights. Obviously, I thought. Of course you do.
“It’s like a slave ship,” I whispered to Oliver. “Except with furlough. Behold neo-
“OK, Debbie Downer. It’s nice to be with your own peeps.”
“No, I’m Reilly Realist. I hear there’s a mutant octopus running the heating system,
spinning all the valves at the same time. Saves on employee costs. But don’t quote
“Somebody please stop him.”
What they don’t tell you: More than half of your trip is spent sailing on the ocean. The ship’s Director of Entertainment, a slim, blond-from-a-bottle Midwesterner who flirted with all the Asian women aboard, ran a program for every minute of every sea day, from non-stop buffets to smoke-filled casinos to Broadway-style shows. By Broadway style shows, I mean a white-haired Baltic magician with cardboard props performing disappearing acts where you accidentally spot what’s going on behind the scenes.
“There goes a leg!” I whispered to Oliver.
“Yes. The curtain opened by mistake.”
“Nope. Enjoy the show.”
“I am! In a behind-the-scenes magic-tricks-revealed video kind of way.”
“I’m going to make you walk the plank.”
We arrived in Puerto Rico on the fourth day. We walked along the coast of Old San Juan, which reminded me of Manila’s centuries' old walled city. Alas, something was wrong.
“Puerto Rico is swaying,” I told Oliver.
“That’s your sea-legs.”
“Well, I’m about to sea-puke.”
The next day, we reached St. Thomas and St. John. We were given six hours to explore both islands, which was barely enough time to go snorkeling. We spent all of 20 minutes on a beautiful stretch of white sandy beach. As we headed for St. Martin, Oliver and I went to the buffet late. I was reaching for a plate when – you guessed it – a nine-year-old girl cut in front of me. I muttered a curse under my breath and reached for my own plate.
“Sir, please washy washy!” The crew member spoke in a suppressed scream, aiming a large industrial sprayer filled with hand sanitizer squarely at my face. I thought she was going to swat my hand away.
“I did washy washy!” I protested.
“Sir, please do not get your own plate. Or else –“
“Or else? Oh my God, are there zombies on board?”
Three hundred passengers had turned into zombies! The crew tried to keep it secret from the uninfected humans, but word quickly got around. Apparently, the victims were infected by Zombies from Puerto Rico.
“Sir Lerrick, this rarely happens,” said our Filipino attendant to me, addressing me like I was a knight.
“What’s going to happen now?”
“Don’t worry, Sir Lerrick, we have a plan in place. Just remember to washy-washy.”
“But where are the zombies?”
“Self-quarantined. Along with their families.”
“Who will probably be turned.” The attendant tossed me a knowing smile. I suddenly remembered a Canadian family we met on the first sea day. I hadn’t seen them in days. I suspected they were thrown overboard, or made to walk the plank. I felt relief at the thought, but outwardly, I feigned pity.
“I feel so sorry for them,” I lied to Oliver.
“It’s their own fault, turning into zombies,” Oliver said ruefully. “They didn’t washy-washy!” He threw me an accusatory look. “You! Washy washy!”
The next morning, the ship’s captain broke out some disappointing news over the loudspeaker, in a maddeningly effervescent voice:
Ladies and gentlemen, due to the mild zombie infestation, St. Martin’s officials have
rejected our request to go ashore. We have welcomed St. Martin’s Health
Department to come aboard to assess our zombie situation, as well as the steps we
are taking to contain it. We remain optimistic that St. Martin will be pleased with our procedures and allow non-zombies to enter St. Martin territory.”
We learned later that one zombie had escaped self-quarantine and swam in the ship’s saltwater pool. And vomited a plateful of brains. Into the pool. In front of people. People from Le Département Des Affaires Zombie de Saint Martin, from the island’s French side.
To prevent a mutiny, the Director of Entertainment announced a dance contest to be held next to the recently drained and refilled saltwater pools. A barely clad tall woman with wild hair and long legs joined the contest, dancing with the biggest selfie stick we had ever seen. She seemed oblivious to her surroundings and talked non-stop with her i-Phone. The audience booed her roundly throughout her performances. Oliver and I named her "Sophie Selfie".
The following day, we were allowed entry to Tortolla, an island nobody heard of before, and clearly had no functioning health department. We were allowed four hours of furlough. All the non-zombies from the Danish Diamond and two other cruise ships scampered out like insects onto the beach, sinking Tortolla about three inches into the Caribbean Sea. We were lucky to find chairs on the shore.
On the sea trip back to New York, Oliver became a zombie. I fed him probiotics, Vitamin B liquid, bananas and tea. I tried to keep his condition a secret, but the Filipino crew glared at me suspiciously and evaded me in the halls. I went on the buffet line to get Oliver more bread, which I deftly stuffed into my pockets. Top that, Baltic magician! I thought. A nine-year old girl cuts the line in front of me. I muttered a curse under my breath. And stepped on her foot. Very hard. By accident. Really.
“OK, Oliver,” I said as soon as I got back to our room. “Where are we going on our next cruise?”
“You are such a jerk.” He threw up into a tiny wastebasket.
“Hey, I’m just asking,” I said cheerfully. “Washy-washy!”
We are happy to arrive in New York. Oliver is now only half-zombie, and, to his temporary delight, eight pounds lighter. I am sure that our zombie fellow passengers are walking dead around New York, but with a little rest and plenty of fluids, their condition should clear up in a few days.
We take a Lyft home to New Jersey. In my rush, I realize I had left all my new underwear and belts in a tiny drawer. As we drive away, I glance out the car window. A tall woman with bottle-thick glasses and a staid expression stands primly on the corner, her long legs straddled over the curb, her hand raised, hailing a cab. It is Sophie Selfie.
I reach for Oliver's hand. I say to him, "Happy Anniversary, Mr. Zombie."
I am on a desert island, crawling on the burning sand. It has been four years since the zombie apocalypse and the collapse of human civilization. My skin is blistered, my throat and eyes scorched and shrunken. I am desperate for water, and can think of nothing else.
Suddenly, I see it in the distance. An oasis! I crawl towards it, asking God to give me strength, just enough to reach the water. After an eternal struggle, I reach the edge of the turquoise pool and stretch out my arm, my fingers about to break through its mirrored surface.
A nine-year-old girl with an empty plate steps in front of me. She steps on my hand. Very hard. By accident. Really.