1. “When you get to Copenhagen, don’t give your grandfather a hard time,” my mother says at the airport. We’re to board the QE2 in Copenhagen and sail with my grandparents for two weeks. I’m 17. My grandmother, who has owned her own travel agency since the 1960s, specializes in group travel. She’s got groups of 15-50 wherever she goes and if she’s sells enough rooms on the QE2, they throw her an extra one for free. Like this time. She’s the kind of woman who is one the phone pitching trips while making beef barley soup and setting the table while my grandfather smokes his Winston’s. Her job never stops and I suppose she doesn’t want it to.
On the plane, my younger brother and much younger cousin hold a farting contest while my grandfather sits in first class where you can smoke cigarettes freely. I consider lighting up in the back of the plane, but the boys would tell on me and there’s no satisfaction in that. I slide the lock on the airplane bathroom door. A sign reads: “This lavatory is equipped with a smoke alarm.” I light my cigarette and exhale smoke in the toilet thinking it will escape out the back of the plane, wishing I could do the same.
2. “We’re not going to an amusement park,” my grandfather says after the lady at the hotel suggests Tivoli Gardens. My grandfather shuffles us in a cab. We’re going to a race track. I’ve never been to the track with my grandfather before because he says I talk too much. There are rules with him: you don’t talk while fishing, you don’t ask questions about splitting cards while playing blackjack and you don’t ask if he won at the track. “If he wins he has to share with Nana,” my brother explains. We drive through miles of dense evergreens, sleeping through most of it. We get to the track and it’s closed. My grandfather curses a few times outside the car, lights a Winston and tells the driver to take us to Tivoli. No one cheers.
3. In the morning, the QE2 pulls in. My nana waves from the deck. On this trip, she’s got a group of 30. They call her every morning to complain. She changes rooms at least five times on a trip. “As long as people change rooms, they’re happy.” Inside, she tells me over and over the QE2 is a grand ship. That kings and queens have sailed it. Presidents. Men wear tuxedos to dinner. That we’re lucky she got free rooms for us. “You get your own room on the floor below. The boys will be up here with us.” I drown in layers of adulthood, purring as I fold my clothes. In my own room. Nana introduces me to some “young people” that she met. A cute, curly-headed, 19-year-old guy who goes to Brown and his younger sister who is my age. They’re from South Africa. He has a beautiful accent.
4. I meet other kids on my own. Three of them are from Los Angeles. One girl has a travel aspirin container filled with little balls of cocaine. She’s cruising with her grandmother too and this was a present from her boyfriend. When South African Guy and his sister come to my room, I’m breathless. I’m cleaning the walls because who knows if the walls are ever cleaned on a big ship like this they only make the beds and wipe the mirrors and is there a broom in this room. South African Guy and I tear down the stretches of hallway to the ballroom. It’s about 2 a.m. I slide across the waxed floor in my socks screaming, then fall to the ground, staring up at the crystals strung from the massive chandeliers. He curls up next to me and runs his hand up my shirt, under my bra. “You have to kiss me if you’re going to feel me up,” I say. “It’s just weird otherwise.” He kisses me, but I cry and cry and it doesn’t stop. He walks me to my room and we just lay there gazing at my clean walls.
5. The next port is Amsterdam and I write a post card to my best friend. “I DID COCAINE!” I put a stamp on it and mail it to her. We climb the tiny staircase of the Anne Frank Museum. In the book it seemed like they had real living quarters to hide in. My box-like room without the window on the ship is larger than this. I convince my Nana to let me explore with my new friends. “Promise not to visit any of those coffee shops,” she says and waves her red umbrella for her group to follow. I buy a dime bag and an eighth of weed along with a cup of coffee.
Back at the ship, I roll up the eighth in a plastic bag, then shove it into a full Paul Mitchell conditioner bottle so I can sneak it through customs.
6. The QE2 collides into a rock in the Garonne River just outside of Bordeaux. There’s a gash and it needs fixing. They’ll bus us to Paris for two days while the boat is grounded. Because I have my own room on the ship, I’m going to have my own room in the hotel. South African Guy is surprised when I don’t let him sleep over. I’m surprised. He’s gone up my shirt, down my pants and I gave him (my first) half a blow job. He gives me the Come on, but I’m scared to let him sleep in my bed. What if we have sex? What if we fall in love? The dark floral wallpaper intoxicates me, cramming the room with heavy shadows, reminding me of images of my childhood, like when my father and I made elephants in the mirrored wallpaper in my parents’ bedroom. I want to sleep in my Nana’s room now. But I’m too old. I triple lock the door and watch French TV.
After two nights, we load back on the ship. One more night in Paris. We—the LA kids, South African Guy and his sister plus my brother and my cousin—head to a club. The bouncer points to my 11-year-old cousin. “Not him.” So I lead my cousin to a cab. “Drop him off at the QE2,” I say to the driver. My cousin wants to stay with me. I give him money and tell him not to talk to any strangers. In the morning at breakfast, my grandmother is half-hysterical. My grandfather puffs on his Winston. He could have died, they say. I think of what my aunt and uncle will say. I turn to my cousin who I expected would be smiling—he’s always a happy kid—but he digs into his eggs. I picture the red and blue flashing lights from the club and the Parisian guys who wanted to make out. I miss my mom.
7. I wrap myself in a blanket and sit on the pool end of the ship. No one is swimming. We’re cruising for two or three days until we get to Barcelona, passing through the Strait of Gibraltar which my grandmother insists is where the true explorers travel. It’s foggy and the land is choppy in bursts of beige and green. I stare ahead at the Atlantic imagining the waters melding into the Mediterranean. The blue dust of the sea sprinkles my face at the edge of the boat, the pipes climb and climb around the ship past the horizon; ladders of rails and barriers wrap from one level to the next.
What’s stopping me from jumping over? What’s stopping anyone?
8. My brother and I walk through customs back in New York and I don’t tell him about the weed rolled up in my Paul Mitchell conditioner bottle. The customs officer asks me where we’ve been. “Everywhere.” I say. Everywhere.
Hayley Krischer is a freelance writer living who lives with her family in the tundra, otherwise known as New Jersey. You can follow her on Twitter @hayleykrischer.