I needed a break. So when my brother gifted me the cruise ticket, it felt like he’d done something useful for once. But there was a catch.
“It sinks on purpose,” my brother said, laughing. “Like, while you’re on the thing. Straight into the ocean, down it goes. The whole big ship. And they don’t tell you when, it’s a surprise. One minute you’re over by the pool deck in margaritaville or whatever, and then—wham! The boat is sinking, just like that. You’re gonna love it.”
Byron worked in real estate and routinely ended up with promotional items that nobody could ever want outside the fever-dream of 30-year mortgages. Over the years, he’d given me a rubber ham you could heat in the oven to smell “authentic ham smells” and a golf club you can pee into discreetly, just like you’ve always wanted. Did I play golf? No. Did I love ham smell? No. But was I sure my brother loved me? Sort of. This season had been kind to him, which always meant his sort-of-love would be more pronounced, a trait he’d no doubt inherited from our father, another sleazeball if ever there was one, and he must have really fallen into some big commissions because he significantly upped his game and got me passage to this new cruise line experience where, apparently, the ship sinks while you’re on it and then you get heroically rescued.
A cruise is nice, but after the past shitty year—or decade if I’m being honest—what I really wanted was a whole new life. Sort of like the cowardly lion, tinman, and scarecrow all wrapped up into one: a new personality, a new body, and a new brain would be great, thank you very much. But for now, this ridiculous cruise would have to do. In some respects, the trip itself wasn’t such a terrible idea, I had to admit; by transporting everything about me into entirely new surroundings, perhaps I’d feel different by mere dint of the juxtaposition. That’s probably why people travel in general, I thought: not to see new places, but to fool themselves into thinking they’re new too. The artist Josef Albers could make the exact same blue look completely different just by putting it next to different shades of pink. I wanted that to happen to me. Maybe this insane cruise could be the shade that rendered my life anew. Like Dorothy, suddenly in technicolor.
“You’re gonna love it,” he said again, taking a bite of tortellini. “It’s pathartic.”
Pathartic? I didn’t ask Byron to clarify if he meant “cathartic” or “pathetic” because, while either option seemed plausible, my inability to discern the difference seemed especially apt. “Thank you,” I said. “I really appreciate this.” I might have meant it.
The trip commenced in two weeks. I needed to prepare.
I scheduled time off, packed “only the necessities,” a task that gave me no shortage of absurd anxiety—What are the necessities? What do I need? Do I really need a toothbrush? I think I do, but what does that say about me? Why can’t I rough-mouth it like a real man, like my ancestors?—and soon found myself standing on a crowded dock in a busy sunlit harbor, half-empty suitcase in hand, staring up at the gleaming white facade of the Grande Calamity Diamond, preparing to embark on “The Disaster of a Lifetime” and really wishing I had brought a goddamn toothbrush. What the hell. I’ll be the last person they rescue, I thought, if my screams emanate a week’s worth of theme-restaurant halitosis.
Maybe I could purchase one at some overpriced harbor store before departing? I scanned the seaport. Lines of people in cargo shorts, sandals, and floppy hats weaved around each other like thick ropes grinding into an ever-tightening knot of leisure and luggage. The glint of a newsstand kiosk reflected above the throng’s heads, but it might as well have been a hundred miles away. I’d have to get a toothbrush onboard at the Sink or Swim Souvenir Shop. Far out over the water, I saw clouds darkening the horizon, a storm headed north toward home. I was glad to be embarking on the cruise, headed south, away from all that grey into a bright new blue.
The embarking process was long, but soon I was settled on the ship and into my private cabin. I had a single bed, a desk, a chair, cubbies to stash my belongings, and a few feet to stretch myself out. A diminutive porthole afforded a view of sweaty tourists en route to their own ships, but soon it would cast about over endless ocean waves. I was genuinely looking forward to it. A horn sounded, announcing our departure.
Back at home, I’d watched orientation videos breaking down the cruise’s itinerary. With R having only just moved out, I welcomed any distraction from my thoughts. The basic parameters of the sinking were outlined by a man with a bright smile and light blazer. At a designated hour, he said, alarm bells would ring and the ship-wide intercom system would inform passengers of a critical hull breach. The catalysts differ each outing, but past causes included icebergs, coral reefs, and mythical creatures like kraken and kaiju.
In reality, a series of doors in the ship’s exterior are deliberately opened, allowing for the methodical intake of water followed by gradual descent into the ocean, a process monitored continuously by experts. Passengers can enjoy the excitement on deck, then gather on lifeboats, or float about with inflatable vests to watch the process unfold. VIP passengers can even stay aboard throughout, riding the boat deep beneath the surface in sealed rooms. A nearby contingent of medically-trained staff emerges on dinghies and helicopters after the spectacle is complete, ferrying passengers to a second luxury-class ship where the remainder of the itinerary can be enjoyed.
Unpacking my bags, I recalled the candid online reviews I’d read while trying to avoid the pile of things R left behind on the table. “It was amazing and life-altering,” wrote one woman in a 5-star review, “I honestly thought I was going to die.”
I tried to understand what could possibly motivate these people, myself among them now, to want this.
Tired from the sun, I dozed in and out of sleep as I recalled Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström,” wherein the characters feel drawn to a massive whirlpool near the edge of the world, desiring its depths despite the danger. Is this what I wanted? I recalled that as a child, I was obsessed by kidnappings. I thought about them often in grade school, their own maelstrom of strangers, hands, and cars. I carried impromptu weapons in my pocket: chains, pens, anything that could hurt someone if I was dragged into their vortex.
After what seemed like seconds, I woke suddenly, jerked by some force. Unsure of how much time had passed, I looked out the porthole and saw only ocean, the harbor long gone. A safety bell rang out, followed by static. Was this it? Were we about to sink? An announcement did not declare a hull breach; rather, the ship had diverted course to avoid choppy waters from the storm to our north. Was this part of the act? Still half in dreams, I stared at the waves. They looked motionless to me. “Be sure to try the salmon croquettes at the Reef Bar,” the announcement added. “Complimentary today only.”
The thought of eating reminded me: I needed that toothbrush.
I stepped out of my cabin and into the hall. Rubbing my eyes and making my way toward the main deck, I passed families encumbered by endless bags, elderly couples trundling bravely arm in arm, twenty-somethings well on their way to inebriation, dumbstruck kids covered in sunscreen and chocolate, giggling teenagers headed for the pool.
I didn’t realize kids were allowed on the cruise. I wondered if they’d appreciate the experience. Inspecting a “you are here” map, charting my route to the souvenir shop, I mulled the common conception that young people remain oblivious to existential concerns, a myth perpetuated by those who have forgotten the mystery and insanity of their own childhood. “Thin places” are locations where our world and other realms are supposedly closest together, where hauntings and strange traversals are most prevalent, and pretty much everything is a thin place to young people, I thought. I took a left at a large arcade, passed through an impressive casino, and ascended a chain of escalators. A frenzied crew member rushed past me as if pursued by an assailant, her blue polo shirt drenched in sweat. Two additional crew members, similarly harried, followed soon after, pushing me roughly aside as they passed.
My sleazeball father pushed Byron once when he robbed our house after my mother kicked him out. I must have been six or seven at the time. I arrived home on the bus to see my dad surrounded by police, blood dripping down his shirt. He claimed he was only there to take “what was his,” which apparently included my brother’s bike and my television. What if, rather than just random objects, I wondered, he’d thought of me and Byron as rightfully “his” as well?
For months I feared he would show up at school or while I was out playing. The fact that, at the time, I still loved him desperately—and could not comprehend his new absence—complicated these fears. Byron was home at the time of the robbery and absolutely terrified. He told the police he “couldn’t tell if it was really happening.” We never spoke of it. Afterward, he could only sleep with the closet door firmly closed. I think, more than anything, I was jealous of his proximity to that rip in reality, to that thin place. I wanted to be dragged through a hole in our universe, wanted the twister to pick me up and drop me in a new world, where I could become something else, too.
But become what? A shitty real estate agent?
I arrived at the souvenir shop and was shocked to find it much bigger than anticipated. Three stories tall at least and the width of a city block. Organization was chaotic, encouraging passengers to browse longer and purchase more, so I roamed the aisles haphazardly in search of a toothbrush. The items were the kind of crap that Byron would love. Stupid, corny, impractical. Yet, like Byron as well: clearly profitable. What would happen to all of these goods when the ship sank? Did they have some method for protecting it all? I did not understand the underlying economics of this cruise. Should I get something for Byron? I realized it was quite possible I had never given him anything other than a card, let alone authentic ham smells. The thought made me want to disappear. What would it be like to go missing here? I recalled a safety video I’d seen when I was six or so, a video that provided instruction regarding exactly what a child should do if they were lost.
I recalled, in fact, trying to orchestrate a scenario in which to enact those very instructions.
Browsing in a department store with my dad, who I did not yet understand to be a sleazeball, I waited for the right moment—and then fell quietly behind his stride. I slipped down an aisle when he wasn’t looking. Soon I could hear him calling for me through the shelves but did not answer. When I felt I was sufficiently “missing,” when I knew I had crossed over into that other realm, my own land of Oz where rules faded away, I took off as fast as possible toward the store’s information desk, where I could, as the safety video suggested, drag myself back to reality by requesting the woman behind the counter page my dad over the intercom. I recalled the thrill of that experience, of being gone from this world, and of the anguish in my father’s face—and my confusion at having caused it; I thought of R, too, and how I had fallen quietly out of step with her as well. How I wasn’t there when she looked for me. I thought of the anguish in her face, and my confusion at having caused it, as I pondered the cruise and its promise of disaster.
Still no toothbrush.
Rack after spinning rack of postcards, keychains, shot glasses, snow globes, and pewter dolphins called out to me, but there were no personal hygiene stands. Nor did there seem to be anyone working here. Or even shopping for that matter. I was essentially alone in this knickknack wasteland. An old fear gripped me in that isolation, but only gently. For the first time, I noticed that seat belts were built at regular intervals into the floor. They looked surreal and out of place. Like an ear growing from a back. Maelstrom of people, cars, and hands. Maneuvering myself around one of the spinning racks of trinkets, my body rotated like the hand of a clock as I tried to get a better look at a pair of sunglasses, and I recalled the only time I probably could have been abducted—were it not for my use of a similar rotating maneuver.
Eight or nine at the time, I wandered our quiet neighborhood alone, deep in summer, when a small red car began tailing me. Within, I could make out the face of a middle-aged man with greying hair. His car slowed to my walking pace. Anxious, I turned around and headed the other way, just in case. Moments later, I heard tires twisting in the loose gravel on the country road behind me. He had also turned around; I was the cause, or perhaps the prey. My suspicions affirmed, I ran ahead, around a corner, and into a tall stand of bushes near a field, slipping behind the leaves, only seconds before the car rounded the corner into view, trailing after me. The driver pulled up next to the bushes and drove forward to peer around them. I rotated along the tall shrub, staying just out of sight. He reversed to check the other side. I slid again in the opposite direction, always keeping the bush between us. We repeated this dance until he either came to the conclusion that I wasn’t there or tired of the steps. I ran home, terrified. The police confirmed that a man in a car of similar description had been beckoning young boys to ride away with him. What world awaited within the red car? Regardless of my fascinations, I cowered when faced with the actual prospect of abduction. I didn’t feel new. I didn’t feel changed. I felt awful.
I consulted a confusing store map, travelled up and down the floors, and eventually found the check-out register. The cashier, a small, bemused man of indeterminate age wearing sunglasses, was sorry to inform me that the Sink or Swim Souvenir Shop did not sell toothbrushes; however, he was delighted to share that a complimentary brush in the shape of a shark could be delivered to my cabin, free of charge. Armed with this assurance, I exited the knickknack wasteland. I emerged empty handed, yes, but also with relief, vowing never to return, and stepped into the late afternoon sun.
Except it wasn’t the sun boring down on me now—no, it was rain.
Heavy, hammering the deck in torrents.
I took shelter under an awning, but cold gusts of wind sent sheets of water horizontal, pelting my legs, soaking my shorts. Across an expanse of chaise lounges, wooden tables, and poolside chairs, half-naked passengers ran for cover, holding pool floaties and towels over their heads, signalling that rain had only just arrived. Clearly, the distant storm I’d seen earlier had veered off course and intersected the Grande Calamity Diamond’s route. Feelings of futility washed over me, a sense of inescapable greyness. There was no outrunning the clouds I thought I’d left at home, no land of Oz, only a farm covered in dust. R was right about me. No wonder she left. The same with my father. Of course he didn’t kidnap me. Who would? Lightning shot down from the sky into the water and a clap of thunder rose up over the roar of rain. I cringed at the cliche of my own mind. I still didn’t even have a toothbrush.
A brief sprint delivered me to the warmth and dryness of the Deep Dive Bar, a large room decorated in the style of an old dockworker’s pub, where I found a coterie of stunned passengers huddling in wet clothes. I leaned on a knotted table to catch my breath and turned back toward the open door, out of which we all could observe the downpour—in addition to a new phenomenon made plain in our stomachs: the tilting of the ship, its slow rise and lurching descent. I found the feeling worse when looking at the sea and so turned toward the bar’s interior. Heavy ropes, wooden barrels, and wide nets completed the ambience. Amid the small crowd, I spotted the same sweaty crew member who had hurried past me earlier. She looked terrified.
Over the intercom, a voice burst through static: “This is the ship’s captain. You may have noticed the inclement weather. Please avoid open-air common spaces until it passes. As well, out of an abundance of caution, we regret to inform you that this outing of the Grande Calamity Diamond will be unable to sink as planned, because the ship’s systems will require thorough post-storm maintenance before attempting any dive.” A wave of groans resounded among the sopping passengers. “Your safety is our first priority. Complimentary tote bags will be delivered to your cabin. Game rooms will be free for the remainder of the trip. Open-bar hours are hereby extended indefinitely.”
Above the din of bitter murmurs, the bartender called out, “Well, anybody want a drink?”
With nowhere to go, we all got to know each other over beers, but it was the frenzied crew member, Julie, clearly at the end of her rope and ready to share company secrets, who set the tone for the evening. She divulged the real reason our sinking had been cancelled—not merely “out of an abundance of caution,” but something much worse: our sister ship had capsized in the storm.
The one carrying our rescue team.
A ship just like ours, caught off guard in the same rough waters, now wrecked in the sea.
Luckily, they were able to rescue themselves, but would be unable to do the same for us.
That’s why she and her colleagues were running around so frantically earlier in the day—because they didn’t know what the hell was happening. And now look where we are, she said, waving toward the door.
Her transparency, along with a little alcohol and shock, loosened everyone up, and soon folks were describing why they had hoped to sink into the ocean. I mean, these things weren’t shared directly, but were shared nonetheless.
For example, one woman, empathizing with Julie, vented at length about her job, about the incompetent assholes that lorded over her, and the need to let off some steam; only as an aside did she mention her mother’s recent passing, the painful year that had preceded it, and the sense of mystery that still hovered over mundane tasks, the ethereal veil draped across her days and through which she could only barely seem to reach, and the distance that stretched between her and her children, her husband, her siblings. In the book, The City and The City, two different metropolises occupy the same exact space, each folded into the other. The woman’s story felt much the same.
Or there was the young couple who cited a love of adventure, listing off various daring climbs, jumps, and glides they’d undertaken together. One might easily have missed the jokes the man made throughout, gags about the adorability of not understanding one another, the amusement of never seeing each other completely, with punchlines that felt innocuous on their own but which, in their steady accumulation, betrayed a kind of shadow mirroring how the couple’s hands never touched. As the storm bellowed onward, I had the feeling that the only true “thin places” were other people. Apparitions and strange traversals.
Even the older man who blathered on about his joyful desire to submit himself to the vast beauty of the natural world could not avoid referencing a quiet feeling of dissociation barely kept at bay by chasing some novel experience.
I tried to imagine what I betrayed about myself, other than my terrible breath, when I asserted to everyone that I was really only here because the ticket was free, mostly to appease my brother, and that I just needed a break after a hard year, and that I hoped to feel different, or at least to not feel like this anymore. I mean, could they see my fear, could they see my father standing behind me, always reaching his sleazeball hand around my face in the dark to pull me backward through myself and away from my life, from R, from Byron, from anything I tried to love? Or, rather, could they see that my father had nothing to do with it and that it was always my own hands that wrestled me from what I wanted? Was this pathartic? There was no telling—because in a moment we learned the sinking was back on, but not for a reason any of us could have wanted.
The frenzied crew member’s walkie-talkie foreshadowed the news. It beeped three times before an authoritative voice on the other end inquired if she was with passengers, then stated flatly, “Julie, we need you to usher everyone to the VIP hold—now.” Julie’s eyes widened and everything about her demeanor changed. In seconds, she was out of her chair, back straight, keys in hand. The intercom clicked on and the captain informed us that circumstances had deteriorated, the surface conditions in the water had become life-threatening, and we would shortly attempt an emergency dive in the hopes of waiting out the storm below.
Someone asked if this was really happening. Was it part of the cruise?
Julie assured us it was really happening. Then, after consulting her walkie, she outlined our emergency route to the VIP hold, a sealed space where we could ride safely into the deep. This VIP hold was apparently the one and only Sink or Swim Souvenir Shop, and reaching it involved a short sprint across the deck. The rain-soaked dash afforded a quick glance into the storm. Its scale resisted comprehension.
Under a green sky, strong currents dragged our ship horizontally, amid a procession of smaller boats and debris, hundreds upon hundreds, some tipped or sinking, in what looked like an enormous gyre, spiraling all in a great arc.
Despite there being over a thousand passengers, the Souvenir Shop easily accommodated everyone. Once within, Julie directed us to an aisle where we could lie on our backs and make an L shape with our bodies, our feet propped in the air against a shelf of dumb t-shirts. The shelving unit would act as our seat, she said, once the ship tilted vertical for its descent.
The ship will soon tilt vertically, she repeated.
The aft deck would be in the air above us, with the foredeck leading the way into the depths below. Sink or Swim Souvenirs is pretty close to the back of the ship, she added, so we’ll end up pretty high in the air. You’re going to feel it. The floor, which would soon become a wall, contained those same surreal seat belts I’d spotted earlier, safety features intended to prevent passengers from tumbling down to the store’s distant edge—soon to be fifty feet below us. The sound of a motor echoed through the space, and thick metal doors descended along the perimeter, sealing us in with a vacuum hiss.
The ship shuddered, and the shelves rattled flimsily. Staring straight at the ceiling, I fastened my seat belt and heard it click. My mouth tasted terrible. The seat belt was too tight. I felt for a moment like I was finally getting into that red car.
Then the ship began to lift.
It happened quickly, much faster than I thought it would. We arced forward into the air, as if catapulted in slow motion, reaching a zenith and hovering there only for a moment. Dangling. Silence. Like the top of a rollercoaster. Then, with a lurch, the descent commenced. People screamed.
Seated to my left, the man from the couple at the bar turned to me and said, “I think this is all just part of the act. This is what we paid for.” He was crying and looked as if he wanted me to answer a question that went unasked. I didn’t know what to say and certainly didn’t mention what I’d seen of the storm as we ran across the deck—the long, dark arc of some enormous gyre in which we currently spun, headed who knows where.
The image immediately brought to mind again Poe’s “Descent Into the Maelström.” How did that story end? Curiously, I recalled that the plot revolved around two brothers, and that both of them ended up in the maelstrom, slowly dragged toward its center on a small, powerless boat. I couldn’t help but picture the two as Byron and me. Trying to escape the spinning waves, one of the brothers figures out that the maelstrom functions like a sorting machine, dragging heavier objects inward and spitting lighter objects back out, returning them to the world. They would need to abandon the safety of their heavy boat and take hold of something lighter to escape. One brother stubbornly rejects this theory and hangs tight to the security and familiarity of the vessel. The other escapes by letting go—but helplessly watches as their sibling, gripping tightly, falls into the dark center of the world.
But which brother was I? Was I holding on or letting go?
I thought of my empty apartment, Byron’s dumb job and big smile, and I could feel my stomach rising upward as the descent quickened.
The man next to me grabbed my hand. I closed my eyes and squeezed back.