Thursday, August 9, 2012


July 25, 2012 – PARTY!

I’m hanging out on the bridge during the third mate’s watch and we’re talking about the upcoming weekend’s party. “It’s the captain’s birthday too,” I say, even though I know it is, “right?”

“Yes,” Dan says. He leans against the chair in front of the consul. “I don’t even know how old he is.”

“I think he told me he was born in ‘52,” I say. “But I might have misunderstood him.” The captain had been telling me about a ship made in 1952 whose steel was in better condition than the steel of the newer ships.

“They don’t make things like they used to,” I’d said, and then I’d wondered if that held true for both people and ships.

“Ah.” Dan turns. “I have everything I need right here.” He pulls out the captain’s passport from the boxes all our passports are kept in and flips through it. “’52,” he says.

“He’s turning 60,” I say. I say this without calculating the years--it’s easy since that’s the year my dad was born. I wonder if the captain knows that this is the year of the water dragon and should be lucky for him. I wonder how he feels turning this age without having his family to celebrate with him. Maybe the same way I’d felt when I couldn’t be there in person to celebrate with my dad. We’d been in the same time zone but different hemispheres. I’d felt distant and connected at the same time. Sometimes that’s how it is.

Saturday morning I get up early enough to make a birthday card for the captain. I draw a picture of an old sailing ship on a folded 3x5 card and write a short birthday wish inside. It’s the best I can do.
On my way to lunch we meet up on the stairs, just outside the mess room door.

“Here,” I say, feeling a little shy as I hand him the card, “Happy birthday!”

He looks it over, reads the inside. I suddenly wish I’d written more than what I had. But he seems touched. There’s a watery depth to his eyes and he gives a sincere, “Thank you,” as he holds the door open for me and I step inside the mess room.

We sit at our spots. Joe pours us wine. It’s the captain’s birthday; everyone gets to celebrate.

As the other officers arrive they say, “Good appetite. Happy birthday!” They bring their glasses over to tap the captain’s and to wish him health. They exchange handshakes and hugs.

“All the best!” the captain says in toast.

“All the best,” we chime.

We’ve already gotten our plates when Josh comes in. He looks like he just woke up. He probably did. He takes his seat to the right of the captain and looks with raised eyebrows at the wine glasses.

“It’s the captain’s birthday,” I tell him.

“How old are you turning?” Josh asks.

Josko chokes back a laugh and the captain laughs. I smile.

“Sixty,” the captain says.

“That’s a good age,” Josh says. That’s more or less the end of that conversation. Our bites are
interrupted by well wishes from other crew members and then it’s over.

After lunch I read some. Then there are the drills. Then I’m on my own until dinner time comes. I’m not sure if the party rules out regular dinner or not. I’m a little hungry so I go down to check.

Joe looks surprised when he sees me. “Oh! You no hear about party?”

“What time does it start?” I ask.

“Maybe seven.”

The cook comes around the corner and sees me. He stops, wipes his hands on his apron, and comes closer. “What’s your name?” he asks.

I tell him. He repeats it.

Joe teases him. “I told you her name,” he says. “And you don’t remember.” They’d gossiped about me. Nothing stays secret on this ship. News travels faster than flying fish.

“Filipinos are the best at gossip and entertainment,” Charlton, one of the Filipino crew tells me a few nights later.

“What’s your name?” I ask the cook.

“Jay,” he says. I’m starting to think that all the Filipinos names start with J. Joe, Jake, Jay.

“How long have you been vegetarian?” Jay asks.

“Four years now,” I say.

“You don’t even eat fish or chicken?”

“No,” I say. I shake my head as if I’m ashamed. I don’t know why I always feel I have to justify my dietary choice. “I became vegetarian for health reasons.”

He nods as if this explains everything and segues right into, “Are you married?”

“No,” I say. Still honest.

“Why not?” he asks, surprised. For him, for the other Filipinos, for the Latin American men I have talked with, it’s a strange thing for someone to be alone. Even odder for a person (especially a girl) to want to be alone or, god forbid, to like it. It’s not normal.

Joe’s worried I’ll starve so he pours me some of the leftover wine from lunch. Jay brings me two big pieces of sticky looking cake. “Cheesecake,” he says. It looks like hardened flan. I perch on the arm of a chair and chat with them while they work getting meat lined up for BBQing at the party and throw together some side dishes. I eat the cake, sip the wine.

Jake comes in and sees me. “You drunk?” he asks, looking at my face and pointing at the glass.

“No,” I say. I touch my cheek. It’s warm. I haven’t checked a mirror and I guess I must be red. “I’m sunburned.”

He starts to pick up my glass then makes a gesture to get permission from me. I shrug. He takes a drink. Guys come and go, taking things upstairs to the Blue Bar, getting snacks, stopping to say hi to me, and then leaving again. Jake leaves to take up some plates. I finish my cake, swallow the last of the wine.

“Salemat,” I tell Jay and Joe, “thank you” in Tagalog the Filipino common language.

I go to my room and mill about until it’s just a little after seven when I head upstairs to the party.

The chief engineer, the second engineer, the second officer, the electrician and many of the crew are already there. The electrician opens a beer for me with the tail end of a fork. The Filipinos already have the BBQ going. Josh arrives. The third officer and Nadezdha, the cadet, show up together. The chief officer comes alone. There’s merriment in the air.

“Your friend is very strange,” Josko says, motioning subtly at Josh.

“Why’s he my friend?” I ask.

Josko shrugs his smile. “You’re American, he’s American.”

I shake my head. Josh is a nerd, what do you expect? I want to reply, but these are words I don’t know how to convey correctly. Josh’s nerdism is something precious and understandable to me. I’m on the inside with the crew and officers, on the outside with Josh, all around. I feel a part of everything.

A few minutes later, Valerii, the 2nd Engineer comes up close to me, beer in hand. “Amanda,” he says. My face reflects from the lenses of his sunglasses. “I know why you are here. So you can concentrate. For your writing. But why is your friend travelling this way?”

As if I’m the expert on the new passenger. Because I’m also a passenger. Because I’m American. But I know the answer. “He doesn’t like to fly,” I say, “and he has the time.”

The captain arrives and the merriment escalates.

“Happy birthday,” I say.

“All the best to you,” he replies. “Whatever you want; editors, publishers--” then he leans in, “I don’t know whatever it is you want.” He whispers the next words for my ears only. “Maybe it is a husband.”

I give a noncommittal shrug and say something. Maybe “Thank you.” Maybe “Well.” Maybe nothing at all. Maybe I only grin like a goon. These men think I lack something, that I’m incomplete. Maybe I am and I just don’t know it. It’s no kind of night for this conversation.

It’s a party and there’s lots of food, lots of drinks, and then comes the karaoke.

“These Filipinos love karaoke,” the third officer had told me.

And they do.
Joe especially sings his heart out, if not with perfect pitch, at least with joy and enthusiasm. As the night goes on I think that no matter how much one has had to drink Filipino karaoke is always bad. But it’s fun. They sing happy birthday to the captain. We all join in.

One of the able bodied seamen, Ian, takes charge of Josko’s camera and acts as the party photographer. I get my picture taken with almost all the crew individually. They love having their picture taken. They love having their picture taken with me. I begin to feel like a celebrity. “I like you very much,” one of the guys tells me as we smile for the camera, his hand possessively around my waist. What can I say to that? I don’t even know his name.

I don’t let any of them stay too long, get too too close. I cling to Josko’s side like a barnacle, he’s my protection. I also enjoy his company. He’s brought his computer up to fix something with the sound system and when the problem is fixed he shows me pictures of his hometown Rijecka and places he’s visited all around the world.

Later, after the sun has set, Ian breezes back over. “You two should come outside and I’ll take your picture,” he says. “The moonlight is nice.”

“You want me dead?” Josko asks. “We can’t take moonlight pictures together.” He has a wife. I get the impression she’s a spitfire.

I throw back my head and laugh.

I leave the party when the chief engineer leaves. We part ways at his door and I go to my room. It’s late and I’m sleepy. I tumble into bed and sink into the motion of the ship, it rocks me, a lullaby of movement.

As I drift off into dreams I think, I survived a party at sea.

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