It was when, amongst the endless, winding lines of people, she and her family were waved straight through, that Katya thought, “Ah, this might not be so bad after all.”
She had made a last minute decision to join them. But, if she were being honest with herself - which she was not wont to do - then this vacation had been months in the making and, really, her being there was downright inevitable. So much so that her parents had booked the cabin next to theirs, all expenses paid for, and all she had had to do was sort out her flight. Of course, she had gotten Fena to book it and had endured the continuous teasing from her that she would no doubt be spending twelve nights surrounded by sixty year olds and families thinking they were the next Kardashians, or whatever normal people held up to be the pinnacle of luxury nowadays.
Still, being Concierge Class apparently ensured jumping all the queues and a glass of mediocre champagne upon arrival. Although it pained her to have her ID photo taken on a webcam that looked like it belonged back in 2008 (the flashbacks…), it did bring her great satisfaction to see that her sea pass card was gold instead of the regular blue, and her pillar box red lips looked killer on screen regardless. Her foray into getting the tiniest dose of filler had paid off. She had more money than sense, and more vanity than money.
She hadn’t been to Fort Lauderdale before, never having reason to, but she had been slowly making her way around the world. Her one goal in life was to visit every single country before she died and, as she didn’t plan on living too much longer, her thirties had been filled with planes, trains and automobiles, taking her to the very ends of the Earth before, unfortunately, dragging her back before she could drop off the edge.
She wasn’t the type to visit a place and find a home there but that was more because she didn’t belong anywhere, settling, therefore, in LA. Because that was the best option. Most days.
The cruise terminal was nondescript and grey and made her feel like she was in a shipping container, ready to be sent off somewhere unknown with her fate decided for her. She wondered if this was what sardines experienced, packed in their cans and awaiting consumption, and quietly laughed to herself as she repeated, “Wiggle wiggle, little fishy,” under her breath, “Don’t suffocate, now.”
Her mom and dad were used to her antics. Her mom had sped ahead along the first gangway, anyway, ever the fast walker, so it was only the few excitable passengers around her that did a double take. She was probably the most interesting thing they’d seen that day.
Besides the ship itself.
Coming out onto the port side with her trolley dolly suitcase behind her, she couldn’t help but crane her neck in wonder at the sheer size of it, anchored in the green blue of the ocean. It was difficult to tell how far the hull went below what she could see, where the windows got smaller and rounder, the waves jumped up with an inconsistent rhythm and, she supposed, where the crew resided, a far cry away from the balcony rooms on the upper decks.
“Welcome! Welcome! Have your sea pass card ready!” An attendant in white, stood under a small gazebo, called out to all the new arrivals, holding out hand sanitiser.
Katya hurried along to catch up to her mom and gripped the gold plastic so hard that it dug into her palms, suddenly worried that she’d drop it into the sea. She fumbled to rub the sanitiser into her hands all the while - quite the feat - and scrunched her nose up at the alcoholic smell. Then, she trotted up the gangway, huffing a laugh at how her father was already cracking his same old jokes with the crew and how her mom was rolling her eyes, having heard it all a million times before. Her heels were a little cumbersome but she had struggled through worse and soon she was being waved through, through the obligatory metal detectors and security checks and then, onwards and upwards, to the giant glass elevators which whisked everyone up to midship.
“I think they’ve done it up a bit since we were last on board.” Her dad commented, to the agreement of her mom - and also a middle aged couple who were squashed up next to them in their completely unnecessary Berghaus jackets. It had been a wonderfully pleasant 78 that morning so Katya questioned their sanity, or their body’s temperature regulation at the very least. Katya tuned out the rundown of renovations, checking her reflection and straightening her blunt fringe. She had recently had it cut a little shorter, edging upwards at the sides, into her temples. The rest of her hair fanned out in white blonde waves, eye catching but relatively low maintenance for days when she could just about manage to put it into a messy bun.
They got out with everyone else on Deck 4 but, whereas some “less seasoned cruisers”, according to her mom, went to reception, one of the many bars or to explore the seating area and general grandeur of the atrium, they made their way to the restaurant. Apparently it was imperative to check that they were booked in for their half seven dining slot each night and that they were absolutely not to be put on a table with another party or two. Katya, in that moment, understood exactly where she got her misanthropic inclinations from.
She praised a god she didn’t believe in that their preferences were indeed registered on the system, the maître d' thus being spared the wrath of her parents’ very kind but very direct tellings off, and so, with the knowledge that they had prevented any very-serious-indeed dining mishaps, they ambled up to the Lido deck to get a spot of lunch at the buffet nearer the back of the ship.
“That’s called ‘aft’.” Her dad supplied with a nudge before applying even more hand sanitiser as they entered Ocean View Cafe. Katya assumed she’d get used to the ritual but, for someone who admittedly often forgot to wash her hands at the best of times, it was rather alien. All of it.
Grumbling when he couldn’t immediately find somewhere for them to sit, her dad began weaving in and out of tables.
“Jesus, Katya, he’s doing my head in already. I’m so glad you’re here.” Her mom linked their arms and begrudgingly followed along, smiling and nodding at a waiter who wished them both a pleasant afternoon. Katya soon began to notice how the male crew members were all extra nice to her. They must have really been deprived. Being cooped up in gendered living quarters would sure have that kind of disastrous effect on the straight ones, Katya mused, looking out over the sparkling sea, her father finally having found a free table that was to his liking. Close enough to where the curries and other hot food were without being bothered by passersby every few seconds, and next to the floor to ceiling windows so they could soak up the view, if Katya guessed correctly.
She just about remembered to respond to her mom and deadpanned, “Thanks, mother dear, means a lot.”
“Oh you know I love having you around no matter what.”
“What’s that?” Her dad chimed in and the two of them deftly distracted him with remarks about spotting his favourite kind of cake over by the dessert section.
Lunch wasn’t as bad as she had assumed it would have been. She didn’t think she’d eaten from a buffet since the nineties but she had to admit that there was something pleasant about tucking into an elaborate hand picked mezze above the waves and squinting towards the horizon, to where she would be taken next. She didn’t have to think, she didn’t have to wallow. She could relax into the floating feeling it gave her, being so high up that even the few birds soaring through the cloudless sky were beneath her. The couple of glasses of prosecco might have added to her lightheadedness, too.
“Sail away is at four so we should get a good spot up top, maybe have a little lie down and a sunbathe.” Her mom suggested like it was a serious plan of action, then hiccupped. “Maybe sober up a bit.”
Katya leaned into her as she laughed. It was nice.
‘Up top’ actually just meant where the rows of loungers were, overlooking the pool on Deck 12 and arranged all around the circumference of the ship. It was busy already, even though other passengers were still boarding, people with cocktails and branded beach towels getting into the swing of doing very little. She was sure to have a bit of a panic at some point later over how she would keep herself occupied so the demons didn’t come and find her but, for the time being, Katya put her case on a lounger next to her mom’s, held onto her sea pass card and her sunglasses like they were her life raft and wandered off in search of the bathrooms so she could change into her bikini.
Whilst her parents had stayed in a hotel the night previously, Katya had flown in that very morning and had met them at the cruise terminal, standing out in her Louboutins, strappy black dress and red fringed jacket. She had been sweating profusely the entire time and it was a relief to take off her layers. Her dress was of a simple cotton, tight on her body, which she kept on whilst walking around the ship. She did feel like a bit of a poser in heels when her slides (the ones Fena threatened to throw at her every time she wore them in her presence) would have done just the trick, but dressing up was a frivolous novelty and, yes, she was shallow.
She took what joy she could.
The breath she let out once she had settled onto her sunbed was long and releasing. She closed her eyes, tilted her face towards the sun and made the conscious effort not to think about anything other than the warmth spreading through her.
The speakers dotted around the deck were playing pop music she didn’t care for and she was vaguely aware of the chatter of a couple beside her, but the exhaustion she didn’t want to properly acknowledge she had been putting up with kissed at her senses, pulled her down into a lazy doze, away from external forces.
“Katya.” She heard, who knows how long later. “Katya, we’re due to set sail. Wake up, honey.”
She would have grumbled (affectionately, of course, being a model daughter and all) at her mom were it not for the loud blast of the ship’s horn signalling their departure. She scrambled, bare foot, to join her parents at the glass barrier opposite them to look out onto the sea as they began to move. They had ordered a cocktail for her and her father placed a tall glass filled with icy pina colada, complete with decorative umbrella and cherries, into her hand. She needn’t have lifted a finger.
“Cheers, darling.” He said. “It’s lovely to have you with us.”
“Cheers.” Her mom clinked her glass of wine against both their drinks and they all turned to watch the land they had been on that morning slowly fade into the distance.
“I’m glad I’m here.” She murmured, too quiet to be heard. The live band had started to play somewhere near one of the bars by the pool. It seemed like a promise, somehow, one she wasn’t sure if she was able to keep, and so she smiled at her parents, kept sipping her drink and savouring the sweetness of it, too used to having a bitter taste in her mouth, a trouble swallowing down her feelings.
Her parents went to lean on the railings behind their loungers, to watch the goings on and the singer, female and jokey with the crowd that she had immediately lured in, begin a lower register cover of Madonna’s ‘Holiday’ accompanied by an acoustic guitar.
Katya kept her eyes on the water for a while, accepting when her vision became blurry. The tears weren’t persistent enough to spill over. She blinked behind the security of the black lenses of her sunglasses (come through, Marc Jacobs) and finished the last of her drink, bringing her face over the edge to peer down at where the ship cut through the waves like scissors through midnight blue silk.
She would have stayed like that for longer had a family with two young children not sidled up beside her to do the very same. She retreated, avoiding the husband’s lingering gaze, and straightened her back, holding off a sniff. She hurriedly rubbed at her nose then went to the bar to give her glass back. It was busy and all eyes fell upon her but she refused to take any more notice, unless the attention was given to her by a woman. She didn’t know if lesbians went on cruises but she was fully aware that she wasn’t so lucky as to come across a hottie. And she had accepted her special kind of loneliness a long time ago.
Her parents had come to lie down again when she returned to their spot. She had grabbed a few sodas from the bartender, even though she supposedly wasn’t allowed to order multiple drinks onto one sea pass card, and put them under the shade of her mom’s sunbed, cracking open a coke for herself. She took off her heels, arranged her bikini bottoms where they had shifted a little to the right (she was lopsided in more ways than one, it seemed) and settled, closing her eyes.
“Ok, the next one I can guarantee all of you will know and if you don’t, I will meet you after the show and give you a lecture, complete with powerpoint presentation, about why you shouldn’t be allowed human rights. I love this artist more than anything else in the world. Yes, even more than cheese, thank you, and I’m from Wisconsin. Here’s some Dolly Parton, 9 to 5, to make you even more glad you’re not at work right now. Hit it!”
Katya huffed a laugh to herself, a harsh exhale through her nose that surprised her, more so when she realised she was grinning from ear to ear. That yeehaw singing bitch sure had a personality, she thought as the music played, and she didn’t sound so bad either. Usually Katya would rather have sawed her own arm off than listen to people cover other artists’ music and, although her taste of Russian pop and Industrial Electronica was, in fact, impeccable, she wasn’t one for going to live performances. Too many people, too much standing, too much sweat, on her and everybody else.
She had no choice in the matter, right then. She couldn’t be bothered to rummage for her headphones and she didn’t quite want to either, enjoying the anticipation of what the singer would say next in between tracks.
As the last note of the song rang out, there came a range of polite clapping to whooping cheers. She almost joined in.
“Thank you. And thank you especially to the little girl up front here. I see you busting out your moves, reminding me that I’m thirty one and have back pain and creaky joints. It’ll come to you too, though, and sooner than you think, so make the most of your youth.”
She then broke out into a country-style, PG rendition of Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’ and Katya didn’t stop smiling, even when the sweat on her upper lip dripped into her mouth. She tasted the saltiness, mixed with her sunblock, then mouthed along to the singer as she inflected, “Keep on turning it up, chandelier swinging, we don't give a— Film star, yeah I'm deluxe, classic, expensive, you don't get to touch, ow!”
If she kept copycatting the ‘ow!’ for the rest of the afternoon and during their traipse to the theatre to complete the mandatory muster drill, then she merely delighted in the fact that, so far, even something that might have gotten under her skin was actually sitting with her, accompanying her on her careful walk down the stairs to Deck 5 and keeping her spirits up.
“What the fuck is mustering, anyway?” She asked her parents, who then explained that no matter how many times you cruised, you couldn’t wheedle your way out of the safety briefing.
“Even when you’re three sheets to the wind.” Her mom added, definitely speaking from past experience.
She made it through the drill without clawing at her skin but was very much relieved when her parents suggested they all start getting ready for dinner. Their cabins were up on Deck 10, with their own concierge and extra snacks whenever they wanted them. Katya waved her parents off into their stateroom and opened the door to her own, which was completely identical save for the bottle of champagne on the coffee table by the balcony doors.
“Ooh.” She cooed, spotting her luggage that had been delivered and leaving her mini suitcase behind her to skip over to the note left next to the ice bucket. “Dear Katya, welcome on board. We hear it’s your first time cruising and we are delighted that you have chosen to join us as we sail the Caribbean. Your parents informed us that you’ve been having a rough time recently and so we want to make sure you have the best possible opportunity to relax with us. They have booked you in for a Thai Herbal Poultice Massage tomorrow, 23rd December, at The Spa on Deck 12. We look forward to seeing you there at 16:00.” The card was signed off by the hospitality team. Katya rolled her eyes at how fucking cute her mom and dad could be.
She opened the doors to the balcony and stepped out, her heels clacking against the wooden floor. There were two loungers facing the horizon, the still-clear sky. She popped open her bottle, poured herself a lonely glass of champagne and sat, sipping it with the sounds of water crashing into the ship’s side and drowning out the self pity laying in wait.
“I love myself. I love myself. Huh huh huh huh huh, I love myself.”
The red sequin, low cut jumpsuit she had put on really did bring out the best - or the worst, depending on perspectives - in her. She cackled like a maniac at her reflection, sprucing up her hair one last time for volume before grabbing her Stella McCartney crossbody bag and checking that she had what she needed: lipstick, phone (thankfully now without a signal), sea pass card, tiny matryoshka she took everywhere with her.
“Ow!” She slapped her own ass, jutting it out before spinning on the spot and dancing to an unheard beat, kicking her leg up every now and then like she was showing her shoes off to the heavens. No one was watching from up there. She laughed at herself again, relishing in the ache of her cheek muscles, took one last look around her room for the next twelve nights then went to knock on her parents’ door.
“Look at you!” Her mom exclaimed. “You look fabulous.”
“Thank you, so do you. Both of you.”
Her father admittedly did scrub up well when he tried, wearing a pastel coloured shirt tucked into some dress pants, and her mom, with her short blonde hair and bold pink lipstick, showed off her petite figure in a purple cocktail dress.
Her parents led the way to the restaurant where two queues had formed by the doors. They joined the one on the right and Katya by this point knew that there would be a reason for it. So, she listened to her mom and dad retell what had happened on a previous cruise when they didn’t book select dining (it was a travesty!) and went along without much consideration. A waiter brought them to their table, taking them across the garishly carpeted floor to the right side of the restaurant, up by the windows, and introduced the trio who would serve them that evening.
The sommelier took their drinks orders and their sea pass cards, and the female waiter served them artisanal bread to tuck into whilst they scanned the menu. It was all explained to them in good detail and, once they’d made their choices and the food came, it was very much up to scratch.
Katya hadn’t eaten as much as she did that night since she could remember, fit to burst as she trudged lackadaisically to the theatre for the 9pm show. She had decided to humour her parents by attending it with them for the first night but planned to escape and do her own thing from then on. Unless Irina Allegrova, Svetlana Loboda or the entire Russian ballet decided to perform for them, there was not a cat in hell’s chance that she was going to endure or survive terrible musical theatre, ‘cabaret’ or magic tricks.
And it was exactly as dire as she had imagined, the only saving graces being the acrobats who swung from the coloured glass ceiling, flipping and doing all sorts of gasp-worthy gymnastics. She sighed in relief when the house lights went up and her dad proposed they went to the ice bar. She was pleasantly tipsy, having steadily consumed more alcohol throughout the day than she trusted herself to have on her own, and so, three more cocktails down, she could no longer tell whether the waves had really begun to roll or if she was drunk.
By half eleven, her mom and dad were ready to turn in and so she waved them off and wandered up to Deck 14 again, seeking out the wind to cool her reddening face and perhaps a view of the stars. For all she struggled with how alone she was most of the time, she still valued her own space, a slice of peace and quiet to reflect and re-energise, away from the noise/judgement/distractions of a crowd, of people who didn’t understand her and who she did not understand in turn.
She got out of the elevators and walked to where she had sunbathed that afternoon. The loungers had been put away, fixed to the inner railings to prevent any damage or sliding, and so she had a lot more space to zig zag aimlessly, the running track beneath her feet not as stable as it had felt before. There were a few others on deck but, as the outside bars closed by a certain time, she could hear the draw of the sky lounge, forward of the ship, where guests were rounding off their day with more live music and dancing.
And then, if she listened closely enough, she could hear her.
She didn’t move right off the bat, as much as she was inexplicably drawn to that voice, that way of engaging an audience. She rested and inhaled the fresh ocean air and let it wrap her up, protective like a blanket yet enticing and entrancing too, until the swaying calmed like temperate water. She collected herself, dabbed at her heated cheeks with the back of her hand and straightened the v neck of her jumpsuit. As if she was preparing herself.
The entrance to the lounge wound around, crystal beaded curtains obscuring a seating area of crushed grey velvet sofas and easy chairs. The carpet was printed, though there was a large dance floor carved out, and windows swept around almost the entirety of the lounge, offering an unobstructed view in the daytime and an illusion of complete darkness at night, as if there was nothing for miles except for that room. As she reached the main bar, its marble countertop and matching white leather stools, she turned to her left, to the stage, and stopped in her tracks, uncaring that she had gotten in the way of a group of men trying to order.
There she was. Singing Believe by Cher, this time with a full backing band in dapper navy suits and an electric Fender instead of whatever acoustic she had played before. She looked nuts. Positively crazy and out there and perhaps a little cheap. But Katya got it, she saw the influence of Dolly and backwoods Wisconsin, and she couldn’t take her eyes off of her.
“Excuse me.” One of the men coughed.
Katya shook herself like she had got a shiver and stepped to the edge of the dance floor where she could continue her observations uninterrupted.
Her voice wasn’t overbearing or theatrical. Gentle, actually, emotive, as if she still took the lyrics to heart, even if she was just singing a song that she had to include in her wheelhouse because of how universal it was. Katya, however, always associated Cher with the gay clubs, memories of mixing with the bears and the leather daddies and the twinks - becoming the star of the show, admired and revered, if only for her fashion taste, before finding herself a woman for the night.
Katya bit her lip, eyeing the hemline of her dress and the chunky thighs it showed off, the patent platform boots that exaggerated her tanned legs further, the bell sleeves and vintage vibe that otherwise covered her up, kept her modest, proper and professional.
It might have been in poor taste to think so, but Katya was pretty certain she was only one of those things. And the urge to find out was growing by the second.
The song came to an end, the whole place erupting with applause. Most of the children had cleared out and gone to bed by then so the floor was filled with couples, friends and relatives all toasting the start to their vacation, their Christmas away. It didn’t feel like Christmas, even with the decorations dotted around the ship that Katya had paid meagre attention to. She wasn’t a festive person - Scrooge had nothing on her - but there was something relieving about travelling through a hot climate, not having to worry about schedules and gifts and food, whilst everyone back home was fretting or freezing. She went to her parents’ every year and it was lovely enough. But this year was different. She needed a change and she was more than ready for some light.
“Thank you, thank you. Please, everyone give it up for the boys in the band!” The crowd cheered again as the men in suits waved and nodded their heads in humble appreciation. “So, I have been reliably informed that it’s Christmas very soon. And you’ll be wondering how on earth I could have forgotten but, lemme tell ya, the concept of time goes out the teeny tiny cabin windows when you’ve been on this thing for nine months and every day looks like something off a postcard. I live a very hard life, I know, feel free to cry tears of sympathy at my feet.” She cut herself off when a man made a move to actually do it, staring him down until he retreated and the rest of the audience laughed. “Anyway,” She widened her eyes and shook her head in played up judgement, “This is ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’.”
Katya bit her lip, conscious, this time, of how big her smile was, how maniacal she probably appeared. All alone, her entire body covered in sequins and crushing on a stranger. Wow. Perhaps in her twenties that would have been tame, but now - dear god. Maybe she was going through the midlife crisis she just assumed lesbians escaped, considering how coming out was enough trauma in and of itself, enough actual turmoil for a lifetime, enough to stave off the kind of drama straight men made up to excuse shit like cheating and buying a sports car...
The song’s first line overtook her (very, very rare) thoughts about men and, before she knew it, she was mouthing along again, half willing the singer to look at her and see something in her that resonated or intrigued.
And when she did, she wasn’t at all prepared for it, the vulnerability of being caught watching, of being seen. Their eyes met and it was like being bulldozed over. Her breath caught in her throat and her sleeves felt tight, constrictive around her armpits, all too close for comfort. And then she was being pointed at, serenaded by the final line, “All I want for Christmas is you, baby.” She didn’t know what it was that compelled her, but she just had to, it was too much, and so she fled, running as best she could in her heels down the three flights of stairs and back to her cabin, accidentally letting the door slam behind her and diving head first under the bed covers like a child hiding from a ghost.
She nudged off her shoes and took deep inhalations, chasing the scentless detergent that had been used to get her sheets such a pristine white. The mini chocolate that had been left on her pillow had slid off and onto her wrist once she had lifelessly flopped on top of the mattress, altering its centre of gravity. “Yeah, I know the feeling, bitch.” She huffed a humourless laugh when her eyes focussed upon its foil wrapping.
She bit the air, snapping her teeth, then sighed and rolled onto her back, too uncomfortable to fall asleep fully clothed. A shame, as that would have been all too in keeping with her maudlin overreaction. Heaving a sigh as she stood, she stripped off, leaving her jumpsuit in a pile of sparkling red, pawed at her face rather pathetically with a wipe, then got back into bed, naked.
The gentle rock of the waves and the sound of the distant shush of them brought her back to some semblance of an even keel. She had forgotten to turn the lights out but darkness chased her, nevertheless.