There came a time when this megacity suddenly seemed too small to me. Too comfortable. I needed to get away for an adventure in a place where I wouldn't run into a familiar face around every corner. Which is how I ended up on a cruise ship wearing a sequined gown while singing the hits of yesterday and today accompanied by someone on the FBI's 10-most- wanted list. I've learned to be careful what I wish for.Initially, the idea of cruise ship employment sounded glamorous: exotic ports, free room and board and a paycheque in American dollars. Reality set in the minute I signed on as a crew member and relinquished the idea of choice. Mealtimes are clearly mapped out, and if your stomach works on a different schedule you're left with overpriced gummy bears from the gift shop.
You will not set foot on land until they say so. You will be back on the ship an hour prior to sailing. If you're late they will happily leave your passport with the port agent and sail without you.
It took me about a week to give myself over to this concept and let others dictate my schedule, but when I returned home I spent hours marooned in my apartment, incapable of making decisions.
The ship itself reminded me of a film set or a theme park. Passenger areas were dressed up with faux antiques in rich jewel tones, but take a wrong turn or go through an unmarked door and suddenly it's a grey, utilitarian world. That's where we lived, in the underbelly of the vessel.
Our "shared accommodations" were 6-by-11-foot closets with bathrooms so small you had to sit on the toilet to shave your legs in the shower. There was nary a trace of natural light, so sleeping clear through lunch was easy but left you counting the hours until the food was unlocked for dinner. Our particular hallway housed the nightclub show's five cast members as well as the five band members, so Peter lived four doors down from me.
Peter was the pianist in our band, a fierce talent locked inside a soft-spoken, balding middle-aged man. One night, when the seas were deemed too rough for the show to go on, he volunteered to give a solo concert. He dazzled us all with Scott Joplin rags and Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue.
"What are you doing on a cruise ship?" I once asked while rehearsing an operetta piece with him for that week's talent show. He shrugged the question off with what I mistook to be modesty.
There's a non-negotiable hierarchy in this industry, much like the military. The captain is considered the master of the ship, and what he says goes. Now, if you're picturing Captain Stubing from The Love Boat, I beg you to think again. Next in line you have various officers, by no means gentlemen, who think status overrules sexual harassment policies. Working with superiors for whom you have no respect is uncomfortable enough; living under their thumb can make you forget what freedom tastes like.
There are also crew members who become your onboard family, people with whom you share meals and pictures of loved ones at home. Which is why our hearts broke when word arrived that Peter's parents had been in an accident and he was needed. He had not befriended any of us in particular, spending most of his days exploring ports on his collapsible bike, but he was behind us onstage every night during the shows. He disembarked quietly one May morning, promising to return as soon as he could.
The sterility of our surroundings and the very fact that a uniform was needed if you wanted to venture above Deck 3 made getting off the ship imperative. However, doing so wasn't always an option; this particular form of hell is a consequence of "port manning." It dictates that a third of the crew must stay onboard while the ship is in dock in case of emergencies. So every third day we had to wave to our friends as they headed off to explore Rome or Florence and then retreat to our cabins to watch The Wedding Planner for the 28th, 29th and 30th times.
Technically, they don't have to allow you off the ship at all on these days, but we were allotted one hour to run free and kiss terra firma. The question was, what possible use we could be if there were an actual emergency? The only procedure we were trained in involved lowering lifeboats, which would be redundant considering we were in port.
The onboard soap operas had all the juicy components necessary for daily entertainment. There was the flagrant affair between the officer and the nurse that ended suddenly when his wife embarked for a visit. One night the nurse was spotted sobbing by the Deck 11 elevators, and the next she was having drinks in the sports bar with her boyfriend and his wife. Did the wife know about the indiscretion? There was the couple who came onboard as art auctioneers and discreetly (or so they thought) started searching for couples to join them in their cabin after hours. The gossip was rampant and vicious, which is generally what happens when 300 people are locked up together for months on end with no access to cable television.
Weeks passed and no word came from Peter, despite repeated e-mails sent by our cruise director asking for an address where she could send the things he'd left on the ship. He faded from our day-to-day thoughts. That is, until we arrived in the mess for breakfast one August morning and saw him being arrested on CNN Europe. There he was in handcuffs being led away from a school in Bangkok -- only his name wasn't Peter. He was Eric Franklin Rosser of the FBI's 10-most- wanted list.
The man who once ate cornflakes across a table from me is a convicted pedophile, known for producing and selling child pornography so offensive that a worldwide search led him to hide out on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean.
Cruise time is different from real time. There's a distinct sense of unreality in a situation where there's no recourse to outside laws and, while sailing, no escape route. Between days in tourist-choked cities and nights filled with yet more karaoke renditions of My Way, you start to lose yourself in the vacuum. Which is why I went into shock at midnight two weeks shy of the end of our contract when the company declared bankruptcy. As anxious as I was to go home, I hadn't prepared myself to re-enter the real world.
The last night onboard, after the passengers had all been flown home, we took over the pool deck. In seven months it was the first time I'd roamed the ship in anything other than my hideous uniform. Lying in the jacuzzi looking up at the stars over Civitavecchia, Italy, I pondered the difference between what I'd imagined these seven months would be and what the experience had actually offered me.
I realized I hadn't escaped the claustrophobic feeling of Toronto's streets, but heightened it by shrink-wrapping my day-to-day world. However, I had also gambled in Monte Carlo, celebrated my birthday in Dubrovnik and sailed around the island of Capri. Perhaps the sense of endless possibilities I'd found at sea was something I hadn't even known I was looking for.