This is me. I smile with my mouth open when I’m nervous.
I’m sailing on the Carnival Breeze with a singular mission: become the most popular person on it. Because if I can't learn to befriend strangers on a ship that's literally designed for fun, then I might never be able to do it back ashore.
I want to feel universally loved, but specifically invested in. I want to be the nerdy girl who wins prom queen but leaves the dance early to attend her real friend’s art show. I want to meet cool people who promise to meet up with me later — and then do. No cancelations. No feeling forced. No, “Sorry, just now seeing this!” Just good ol’ fashioned, mutually invested hanging out (that happens to be aboard a 130,000-ton floating piece of paradise).
If my favorite teen movies have taught me anything, it's that becoming popular takes effort. To rule the school you must be dedicated. You must check your quietness at the door, sexify your look, and break into popular cliques no matter the consequences. You have to try really hard.
In so, I start by stalking people. I follow around those who I think are in the “it crowd.” Most are good-looking. Some are European. None put their vacation on hold to ask me why I keep choosing the lounge chair right next to them.
I broaden my approach. I linger behind a family at Guy’s Burger Joint — named for its founder, Guy Fieri — and I say, “Here we are!” while opening my arms up wide. I hope the royal “we” will confuse the family into accepting me. The mother smiles, turns away, and asks for more pickles.
On the upper deck, I try a handful of “Hey theres!” to crowds below me. They don't notice me. They mull about, seemingly distracted, as if they have headphones in. I imagine a common tropical melody playing in their heads as they stroll — their hips sashaying to a silent disco that no one bothered to tell me about.
Maybe I'm bad at meeting people, I think.
Haha, no, that's silly. It's just my appearance.
I change clothes, opting for a brightly colored shirt and a bucket hat with bananas on it. I imagine strangers whispering to each other: "Have you met banana hat guy? He's the most fun person on this cruise!"
I run into a guy wearing a captain's hat in the hallway. He's not the captain. His fake captain hat is just a statement piece too. How embarrassing for us. I ditch the banana hat and immediately book an appointment at the onboard spa.
My spa associate is named Lerato. She's from South Africa. She speaks slowly and carefully, as wise people do. She says to me, "To do what you want to do, you must become a fun-maker on the ship." Then she asks why I scrunch my forehead so much.
I continue onward with her encouragement, bouncing between hot cruise hangouts, unabashedly introducing myself to people, and resolving that as long as I look good and talk a lot, I'll become popular.
Just get in there! I tell myself.
Always say yes! I tell myself.
Keep trying to make fetch happen! I tell myself.
I start by asking the bartender if I can serve drinks to people, so they're at least forced to make eye contact with me.
Turns out margaritas are kinda hard to make, and "ice types" isn't a conversation topic.
Next, I try photobombing couples at the portrait booths in the hallways.
My hands hover above their shoulders. We all smile big — some of us through our teeth.
I sign up for team sports. It's volleyball. I dive a lot to prove my worth.
One teammate says I should only try to hit the ball "if it's coming right toward" me.
At rock bottom, I try third-wheeling two lovebirds during their private hot tub moment.
“Hot! But not too hot!” I say.
"Yeppppp," the guy says.
I dry off and go for coffee. I determine that my most recent approaches have been effective in getting my face recognized but ineffective in forming lasting bonds. I've been getting smiles and nods and warm greetings, but I don't sense that my presence is sticking around. I consider whether, in my desperation to be memorable, I'm sorta becoming repellant. I feel like a chatty co-worker, or worse, a guy texting "U up?"
I'm reminded of why I tasked myself with this challenge. I'm reminded of how badly I needed a vacation, and of how blah my personality was becoming back on land. I sit with my coffee, imagining my rigid, landlocked self wearing blazers, complaining about student loans, and being bad at parallel parking. I see takeout boxes, swipe-lefts, and other people's babies being born on Facebook. I see happy hours missed because whatever, and strangers avoided because obviously. I see my social life plateauing as my adulthood beats onward.
I vow to try harder.
I go for another coffee (and a tiramisu because I'm on a cruise and I can do that), and I hear a crowd of happy cruisegoers sweeping down the hallway. I notice that they're pacing behind this beacon of light:
Matt Mitcham is the cruise director of the Carnival Breeze. When you see him wave across the promenade, the ocean comes to a screeching halt.
Early on, I notice that Matt is extremely popular on the ship — like celebrity popular. People flock to meet him and return to stand near him. Of course he's been given a head start, what with all that professional authority, insider knowledge, and diamond-green eyes you'll want to snorkel in, but even so, much of his charm appears to be organic. People like him. Everyone requests a selfie with him.
Boldly and with double caffeination, I ask Matt if he'll sit down with me for a bit to tell me about the Breeze. Being a yes-sayer, he agrees(!).
I sense a change in tides about to come my way.
The sun finds its way from behind the clouds, through the porthole windows of the hall, and onto his goatee. I sense the cruise gods blessing our table. I reveal my goal of becoming popular on the cruise and ask him, point blank, "What types of people make a lot of friends on cruises?"
"Honestly?" he says. "People who just don't care."
Hmm. But those people sound careless. I don't really know what to ask next.
He continues, "From day one, there's always one guest on every cruise who everybody knows—"
"That's who I want to be!"
"Yeah, [it's] the people who are just crazy. Harmless crazy, like fun crazy. Outgoing. They just come here to get what Carnival gives — and that's a good time."
We talk about memorable guests from some of his past cruises: people who won dance competitions in crazy ways, held court at the clubs until closing time, wore yellow Speedos with smiley faces on the crotch, etc., etc.
I ask Matt to take me under his wing as he meets people on the ship. Within minutes we have more conversations than I have had in days. We meet a guy who just won $1,500 at the casino, a couple on their umpteenth anniversary cruise, and a woman who told Matt that he reinspired her love of Motown music the night prior(?!).
I marvel at Matt’s relaxed vibe and ability to make a lasting impression on people. I try to mimic it. I try to stand like him, walk like him, and speak in a British accent like him.
He says to me, "It's always nerve-racking at first, and then you look back and think, It was not that hard, was it? That was fun."
On the main deck, I see Matt talking to two women who I later learn are named Tyreen and Jennifer. They laugh about partying and Cozumel and whatever fun people laugh about.
I look onward, noticing how sweet Jennifer seems and how cool Tyreen’s sunglasses are. They ask me to take a photo with them and Matt. I oblige.
But then, to my surprise, THEY ASK TO TAKE ONE WITH ME TOO!
I feel my heart beat quicker and wonder if this is the tipping point I've been seeking. Tyreen lowers her phone from selfie position, and I ask her what she and Jennifer are up to the next few nights. They tell me they'll probably "hit the clubs," but they're "playing it by ear."
Playing it by ear. My dwindling, flaky, onshore social life comes to mind.
"Maybe I'll see you there," I say defeatedly.
I hear a chorus of cruisegoers chanting, "MEX-I-CO! MEX-I-CO!" come rallying through the main deck. I take note of how very little they seem to care about anything.
Matt finally has to sneak away to do real cruise work. I feel like I've gotten close to the flame of popularity but haven't quite managed to touch it. I give a goodbye handshake to Matt, but not before asking him for one more piece of sage advice.
"What do you think I should do tonight?"
"Do karaoke," he says. "And get a few happy margaritas in you."
It's surprisingly easy to get a slot on the karaoke lineup, especially when you show up exactly at 7:00 p.m. As the room begins to reach its capacity, I feel the butterflies start up. This could be the only time I get this many eyes on me at once. Stakes are high.
A crew member named Orlando calls my name. I jog to the mic. Much to Cruise Director Matt's recommendation, I take a shot of tequila onstage.
Orlando hits play. I hear the triumphant first few measures of my song choice and immediately panic. I don't know this song as well as I think.
The trouble is I chose the song because I wanted to dance with somebody. I chose the song because I wanted to feel the heat with somebody. I chose the song because I wanted to dance with somebody, but I didn't choose the song because I knew how to sing it.
All the while, I know it's an important song. It's a known song. It's a song that people care about.
But now there's no turning back. The clock strikes upon the hour and the sun begins to fade. The words on the screen in front of me turn yellow, and a wretched sound tumbles out of my throat. It's like a squeaky toy falling down stairs. My voice strains, trying, trying, trying to reach the pitch.
I dance side to side and clap in hopes of distracting from the singing, but it becomes clear that I was born with no rhythm. I start singing "woos!" wherever I can place them.
I pull my eyes off the words on the screen and brace for tomatoes being thrown my way. But instead, I actually see people clapping along, laughing, and cheering, "You go, white boy!"
I've butchered a classic and no one cares, I think.
And so, for the rest of the cruise, I don't care either.
I stop trying to get it right. Propelled by cheers, I jog into the audience looking for a backup singer. Almost immediately, a brave, poised, and compassionate stranger, Sam, agrees to come up onstage and finish the song with me. The audience bursts into even greater cheers for our duet.
Many lives before me have been made greater through the magic of karaoke. I do not feel unique in this. However, I feel special onstage. I'm the first performance to really bring down the house. I begin to think of myself as a "fun-maker."
The song comes to an end, and I thank Sam for her help. I secretly wish we exchange Instagram handles, but we stay in the moment instead.
For the remaining days and nights on the Carnival Breeze, the air gets lighter, and new friends come out of the woodwork. People start to recognize me as "The Guy From Karaoke." I have the energy to wake early in the morning, fill up on the hearty egg-and-pancake breakfast that my life at home never allows me, and build my network of interesting, fun, carefree friends throughout the day.
I meet a guy who claims to have been going down the same slide for hours. I join him.
I meet a couple who got engaged on the ship.
And then another...
I attend an offshore excursion called "Salsa, Salsa, and Margaritas" where you learn how to do all three of those things. I hang with a group of veteran cruisers and they choose me to be one of the two guys who gets to wear a sombrero.
My dance partner Debbie and I are awarded the "Most Fun!" award. I'm beside myself.
Debbie tells me that her friends and fellow cruisers Steve and Frances ALL MET EACH OTHER ON A PRIOR CRUISE. THEY MET ON A CRUISE AND NOW THEY GO ON CRUISES TOGETHER.
This is my dream.
By dinnertime, the crew has no trouble getting me to clap along as if I feel that happiness is the truth.
As the moon comes out on one of my final nights aboard the Breeze, I press the button to the ship's glass elevator, intending to head back to my cabin for a rest.
And although I've had so much fun over the past few days, I note to myself how I've yet to achieve my original goal. I've yet to make plans and follow through with them. I chalk it up to circumstance. People on cruises are quite busy with their daily adventures to meet up with you for a second cocktail. They're detoured by the unlimited froyo or seduced by dueling pianos in the lounge next door. Making plans is hard wherever you are.
Then, I see two familiar faces step out of the elevator: Tyreen and Jennifer, the women who took selfies with Cruise Director Matt and me.
"TYREEN?! JENNIFER?!" I say much too loudly for an elevator bank.
"Oh, hey! You!"
"Are y'all going to the club tonight?"
As I spin in a go-go cage with Tyreen and Jennifer, I imagine myself being crowned King of the Cruise the next morning. I picture all my new friends coming to the main deck to congratulate me on my success, each signing a certificate that verifies my supreme popularity. Cruise Director Matt raises a pool noodle above his head and drops it on my shoulders as if to knight me.
I hear crowds chanting, "RY-AN! RY-AN! MEX-I-CO! MEX-I-CO!"
The beat in the club changes, and I snap back to my purply blue reality.
I don't really care about this assignment anymore, I decide. I like these people, and I like this song.
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