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I have now seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2,100 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as “Mon” in three different nations. I have seen five hundred upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced. I have (very briefly) joined a conga line.

I have seen a lot of really big white ships. I have seen and smelled all 145 cats inside the Ernest Hemingway residence in Key West, Florida. I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters and watched a woman in silver lamé projectile-vomit inside a glass elevator. I have pointed rhythmically at the ceiling to the two-four beat of the same disco music I hated pointing at the ceiling to in 1977.

I have learned that there are actually intensities of blue beyond very bright blue. I have eaten more and classier food than I’ve ever eaten, and done this during a week when I’ve also learned the difference between “rolling” in heavy seas and “pitching” in heavy seas. I have heard a professional cruise-ship comedian tell folks, without irony, “But seriously.” I have seen fuchsia pantsuits and pink sport coats and maroon-and-purple warm-ups and white loafers worn without socks. I have seen professional blackjack dealers so lovely they make you want to clutch your chest. I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the ship’s Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the trapshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is. I have, in one week, been the object of over 1,500 professional smiles. I have burned and peeled twice. I have met Cruise Staff with the monikers “Mojo Mike,” “Cocopuff,” and “Dave the Bingo Boy.”

I have felt the full clothy weight of a subtropical sky. I have jumped a dozen times at the shattering, flatulence-of-the-gods-like sound of a cruise ship’s horn. I have absorbed the basics of mahjong and learned how to secure a life jacket over a tuxedo. I have dickered over trinkets with malnourished children. I have acquired and nurtured a potentially lifelong grudge against the ship’s hotel manager, an almost reverent respect for my table’s waiter, and a searing crush on my cabin steward, Petra, she of the dimples and broad candid brow, who always wore a nurse’s starched and rustling whites and smelled of the cedary Norwegian disinfectant she swabbed bathrooms down with, and who cleaned my cabin within a centimeter of its life at least ten times a day but could never be caught in the actual act of cleaning—a figure of magical and abiding charm, and well worth a postcard all her own.

I now know every conceivable rationale for somebody spending more than $3,000 to go on a Caribbean cruise. To be specific: voluntarily and for pay, I underwent a seven-night Caribbean cruise on board the m.v. Zenith (which no wag could resist immediately rechristening the m.v. Nadir), a 47,255-ton ship owned by Celebrity Cruises, Inc., one of the twenty-odd cruise lines that operate out of south Florida and specialize in “Megaships,” the floating wedding cakes with occupancies in the four figures and engines the size of branch banks. The vessel and facilities were, from what I now understand of the industry’s standards, absolutely top-hole. The food was beyond belief, the service unimpeachable, the shore excursions and shipboard activities organized for maximal stimulation down to the tiniest detail. The ship was so clean and white it looked boiled. The western Caribbean’s blue varied between baby-blanket and fluorescent; likewise the sky. Temperatures were uterine. The very sun itself seemed preset for our comfort. The crew-to-passenger ratio was 1.2 to 2. It was a Luxury Cruise.

© 1997 David Foster Wallace. Also published as the title essay in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Little, Brown).

From “Shipping Out,” which appeared in the January 1996 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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