“Do you want to know my version of hell?” I whispered to Meril. We were standing side by side in our matching blue and black uniforms, smiling and nodding at the people in the lounge.
“Hell is being on a ship, where the most wonderful food in the world is served. Anything you can imagine. Everything is drizzled with crème fresh and seasoned perfectly and served with a fresh garnish of something or other picked just yesterday. And the desserts! Crème brule and pudding, delicate layer cakes and pink squares of something or other and chocolate mouse- all day long, whenever you want it.
"In my version of hell, you hear about the food all day long. You smell the food wafting up from the kitchen. Everywhere you look, there is a television screen broadcasting the menu de jour. You can’t avoid it. The food is everywhere.
"But! And here’s the thing: you can’t have any of it. Not one single bite of the food can be placed in your mouth.
"You don’t starve- if you starved, you would eventually die or become so weak you would have to be removed from the ship, and this hell is eternal. In this hell, you are served three meals a day and you have absolutely no reason to complain. You are fed and there is enough food for you to have as much as you want.
And eat you should, because whatever you do not eat today, you will be served tomorrow. The crust around the sausage sticks will deepend and harden with every re-heating, until there is no meat whatsoever but just some sort of tough, breaded exo-skeleton. Eventually, all your meals will be oblong in shape and indecipherable.”
Meril nodded. “Don’t worry” she whispered in her lilting Louisianna acent, “Your meal will be covered in a pool of ranch dressing. So it doesn’t really matter what shape it is.”
I love to talk with Meril because I know she won’t go running to the captain.
I’ve grown to love the Chief Engineer, Pat, and I’m afraid they are going to take him away the way they took away Dave Horner, the guy who built the ship that I loved so much but we left him on shore.
I was asking Pat yesterday what they do with those trays of fancy desserts if they don’t all get eaten. “Do they go into the trash?” The thought was terrifying, yet hopeful. If only I could get to them first….
“No,” said Pat, who has one arm tattooed like a robot arm. “The night shift deck hands eat them. Those deck hands survive on sugar and caffeine.”
“I’ve got to befriend a deckhand.” I said out loud.
Later that night, after Laurie and I had turned the light out, there was a knock on the door. The sound was confusing to me- nobody had ever needed me enough on this ship to knock on my door. Then the knock came again, and after a long pause I said, “Come in.”
The door opened and Pat came in. I was very confused because I had been sleeping, and because I’d taken a sleeping pill on a nearly empty stomach, which is the only way those things work anymore.
“Are you sleeping?” He asked, entering our tiny room. “I brought you this.” And he reached between the makeshift curtain I’d built around my bunk, made out of Patagonia layers, and placed a little pot into my hand and a spoon.
“It’s dessert. I stole it for you from the kitchen.”
I ate about three bites- it was a flambayed banana bread pudding- and then I realized I was going to choke. I was too drugged up to swallow correctly. I put the pot on my bed side shelf and fell backwards into sleep.
In the morning I saw it there, and I remembered the entire incident. And waking up I knew the day was a little different than any other day before on the ship, because someone had snuck something out of the kitchen, and figured out which room I slept in, and brought it to me in bed.