DAY 1 — From the quay, their children flaunt miniature flags, all smiles and sunscreen. They arrange themselves along the narrow dock ramp, single-file, and wait for the captain to check their names off an admittance list that verifies their cash deposit—or as it was designated on the registration, "booty" deposit. The crew, in black uniforms with red waist sashes, fake earrings, eyepatches, hand out goodie bags filled with chocolate gold coins and tiny bottles of rum. One at a time, I guide them through the medical waiver and show them where to sign, right next to the x. They are dressed the part: in old t-shirts torn at the neck, skull and crossbones drawn on with marker. They wear bandanas and felt tricornes, brandish plastic swords (the kind you buy for your niece and nephew at toy stores and gift shops) or keep them ensconced in plastic scabbards. They have on fishing boots and snow boots under their ripped and tattered pajama pants. These are the kids who never grew up; or in some cases, the grown-ups who never had the chance to be kids. On the main deck, the planks creak and moan underfoot. The planks do not really creak and moan; the wooden planks are only a laminate. The ship is steel. Small speakers are concealed beneath the floorboards to simulate the sound of creaking and moaning. (This is what you get for the price.) Once everyone is aboard, the sails are raised. Black chests thrust out proudly. Birds scatter from their perch. However, again, the ship is not actually powered by the wind, but rather four 4860 kW diesel-electric engines (all together, maxes out at roughly twenty-seven knots). They are muffled with plumes of soundproofing material, which is so effective that even down in the engine room they sound at the very worst like a small hive of bees. The jackstaff is mounted at the bow, and the Jolly Roger, your standard issue black and white, is unfurled and hoisted. The sky is cloudless, the sun is shining—a perfect day to set sail.
DAY 2 — The first full day at sea is a festive occasion. I spend little time in the infirmary and most of it on the main deck with the others. Rum swells from bottles and tin cups. We pass them around the deck and sing drunkenly at the top of our lungs—"99 Bottles of Beer" and the soundtrack to Peter Pan. At night, under the star-pearled sky, we swap sea stories from our short time aboard.
DAY 3 — Two pirates in swimming trunks stop in for directions to the pool. I remind them where they are, and tell them that if they want something to do I saw some of the other pirates sword-fighting and wrestling on the quarter deck.
DAY 4 — A small pirate with a gimp visits the infirmary to ask for Tylenol for his pounding headache. I tell him that we don't have any Tylenol—this is a pirate ship. If he wants, I can prescribe him malt whisky. We get to talking and I find out his name is Leon Snackley—"Snack-Attack" among friends (owing to, I reason, his bite-sized proportions). He manages a direct mailing operation, and the gimp—which I assumed was feigned—is in fact the result of a snowboarding accident in Tahoe. I ask him how Tahoe is. He says it is nice. We exchange pictures of our families. I don't tell him that the smiling, blue-eyed blond in the photograph is my soon-to-be ex-wife, that the "mild pressure" he feels "just around his temples" is a blessing compared to the irremediable pain I feel in my head and heart. That sort of exposition is not for introductions. We agree to play a round of golf after we disembark.
DAY 5 — Aside from a few scratches and bruises, the infirmary is quiet, and I am left thinking about home. In my life on land, things have been stormy of late. Gwen, my wife of twelve years, found my trumpet rolled up inside of an old sweatshirt in our closet. She didn't understand why I had been keeping my trumpeting a secret. She asked how long I had been taking the lessons. I said four months—which was true. Previously I had been learning salsa dancing, and before that, ice skating. I would tell her I was working late, a dependable alibi. I don't know why a couple feels they have to share everything with one another. I like the idea of having a part of me buried away. I have never been unfaithful. I don't drink excessively or gamble. But I can't communicate everything; I need a little something set aside for myself. She made it so I would never have to share anything again: When I returned home from work the next day, Gwen and my two kids were missing. There was a post-it on the refrigerator saying that they had gone to stay at her sister's house. She called a week later to tell me they were flying down to Disneyworld, and we would file the divorce papers when she got back. I made my appeal, which, if I had the chance to repeat, I would have handled differently. I asked her what she would do for money, sell drugs, turn tricks, and threatened to cancel her credit cards. She hung up. So while they are at Disneyworld, I am taking my own vacation. I needed to get away—from my medical practice, from the life we built together—and if I was lounging on some remote beach, I would wind up spending all my time thinking about her and the mistakes I have made. At least this way I am distracted.
DAY 6 — The first altercation takes place between a pirate and one of the waiting staff. He is tired of mutton and hardtack and wants a big porterhouse, medium-rare, and a glass of merlot instead of rum. The waiter informs him that neither of those items is available. They get into an argument, which escalates to some light shoving, and finally the pirate takes a swing. He is dragged to the brig, where he is chained and gagged.
DAY 7 — A pirate complains about having to defecate in public. He says he has a phobia about it. There is nothing the captain or crew can do about that.
DAY 8 — The first case of scurvy appears in a pirate: Caucasian, mid-forties. His gums are receding like a low tide. I prescribe him lemon juice and malt wort to be ingested three times daily. As for me, the early symptoms of home sickness are beginning to set in: I feel depressed and anxious, can't sleep (perhaps due to the rocking), and most of all, I am lonely. I wonder about the dog—who will get the dog?
DAY 9 — The pirates are unhappy about the lack of pool, the size of their cabins, the dearth of television and digital recorders, and above all, the terrible tasting food. The captain assures the pirates that their concerns have been taken into account; however, his words fall short of appeasing them.
DAY 10 — The seas of insurrection are brewing. Some of the crew suspect that the pirates are organizing. They observe them shuffling in and out of cabins, collecting in dark corridors, between the dim electric lights in sconces, scattering like rodents when approached.
DAY 11 — To date, according to my records, there have been six reported cases of scurvy (though one turned out to be a common cold), three cases of typhus, and one case of gangrene. The pirates with scurvy and typhus have been prescribed moderate to heavy doses of lemon juice, egg yolks, and malt wort. The gangrene patient was given a swig of whiskey and a sweaty bandana to clamp his teeth down on while I hacked off his left leg with a rusted saw. Even though it is not the pirate spirit, I can't help but think that were we anywhere outside of international waters I would have had my medical license revoked.
DAY 12 — The day is breezy and cool, and as I watch the wake roil behind the ship, I think of my wife. Beautiful, beautiful Gwen. I even wrote her a poem. I am no William Carlos Williams. Anyone who knows anything about poetry would call my rhyming couplets a crime to art, probably a crime to Hallmark as well, but it made me feel better to write them. I keep coming back to this charity dinner, a couple years ago, when I confused the age our kids and Gwen corrected me in front of two work colleagues and a city councilman. We made it through the night, but the next morning I told her never to undermine me like that again. She cried and said that I should know the ages of my own kids. I told her that I did know their ages, and that I had been tired. She undercooked my omelette, more than usual, and brewed the non-decaffeinated coffee which she knew would irritate my stomach. I tried to make it up to her: I showered the bed with rose petals and hired a twelve piece mariachi band to play outside of our window. How was I supposed to know she couldn't stand mariachi music? Make it up to your children, she said. They're the ones who need you.
DAY 13 — A scythe of moonlight slips out from beneath a bevy of clouds, only to be covered back up again. It is a dark and quiet night and the crew, including myself, has gathered in the captain's quarters to discuss defense strategies in the case of a mutiny. The captain warns us to stick together, travel in twos, and remain vigilant. Always vigilant.
DAY 14 — It is the shot heard around the ship. A pirate socks the captain in the mouth. The mutiny begins. Pirates climb the mast, swing from the gaff and bowsprit, brachiate from rope to rope, throwing eggs and rotten meat from the crow's nest onto the bewildered crew. All day long the infirmary is full of pirates and crew with concussions, black eyes, bloody noses, and broken arms. There is not a bed in the place without an injured body writhing in pain.
DAY 15 — The crew is overthrown and sent down to the hold. With his hands tied and plastic swords pressed to his back—a gloriole of dorsal fins circling below—the captain is forced to walk the plank.
DAY 16 — The pirates find a loaded pistol in the captain's quarters and a map leading to the safe with their booty deposits. They spend the day, map in hand, searching the ship for the safe. They have not yet discovered the cockpit or engine room (though it is only a matter of time), and continue adjusting the sails, even if it does little to vary their course. They determine the ship's latitude by measuring the distance between stars with their fingers.
DAY 17 — Reported cases of scurvy and typhus have risen twofold. Our supply of rum and malt whiskey is running dangerously low, and weevils have holed up inside the bread supply. The pirates are meeting to consider raiding a fishing yacht or cargo vessel and stealing the supplies they need.
DAY 18 — I meet with the new captain, an overweight man, late-thirties maybe, with a scruffy orange beard and stuffed bird, the mascot for a popular children's cereal, tied with fishing line to his right shoulder. He goes by the name of Calico Doug. He wants to know if he can trust me. I tell him that I am only a doctor. But he seems uncertain of this, and suspects I am harboring some hidden allegiance. I appeal to Leon, who stands to the left of Calico Doug. He looks down and fidgets with the drawstring around his waistband.
DAY 19 — I am confined to the hold with the rest of the crew. We trap the rats and mice that tickle around in the corners and divide them up twenty ways. (I would even take my wife's cooking over this.) All the cargo has been removed and taken to the main deck. Every few hours the pirates select two prisoners, usually waiters, to fight to the death for their entertainment.
DAY 20 — I talk with a young cabinkeeper named Becky. She is a pretty little thing with sandy brown hair like my daughter's. Before this trip, she says, she hadn't traveled farther than fifty miles from her hometown. After graduating from high school, afraid to fly, she took a job with the cruise company as a way to see the world. She tells me this as she picks the infinitesimal tendons and bones from her teeth with the sharpened tips of her nails.
DAY 21 — A violent squall lashes out. The ship bucks up and down on mounting waves. Most of us in the hold are disoriented and throwing up in fits. Thunder sounds and the rain comes swashing down. We look out the porthole and see the jagged flashes of lightning, close at hand, locking horns with a dark and livid ocean. Had the voyage gone as planned, we would have made port today.
DAY 22 — Sometime in the early morning, while we were still asleep, a speedboat pulled up alongside the ship and boarded. Its smooth egg-white hull is bobbing idly in front of the porthole. A fierce struggle rages above us, and we can hear the clangor of metal on plastic, the loutish grunts, the leaden thuds, the sporadic gunshots. The ship seems to be creaking for real now. We take turns lifting each other and peeking through a hole in the main deck left by a shotgun shell. The shrouds are torn, and the mizzen, main mast, and foremast have all fallen and lay cluttered together like a tangled handful of jacks. A thin sheet of water laps at our feet. We don't know who to cheer for; in any case, it seems unlikely we will survive this battle. Alas! Soon enough, we will be at the bottom of the ocean, with the other wrecked and barnacled ships, eels and rays threading up through a coppice of bones. I imagine, on a Disney-themed beach, artificial sand enough to fill a million hour glasses, my son is playing cowboys and Indians with a boy from New Jersey and a boy from Wales. From behind a sinewy palm, the Welsh boy shoots my son with his pointed finger. My son clutches his heart, dry heaves, and collapses to the sand, resisting the urge to smile just longer than the others.