In this day and age, the decision to cross the Atlantic on a ship instead of in a plane requires explanation. I did it—in April, aboard the Queen Mary 2—because I wanted to sit for a week and stare at three-thousand nautical miles of saltwater nothingness. I’d been away from the States for a long time. I spent a month in Bali, made a quick stop home for Christmas, then did three months in Paris and one in Edinburgh. My friends wanted to know if I was Eat Pray Love–ing. I didn’t quite have an answer. No job, no school, no relationship was pulling me to any one place, and if I was going to spend most of my time typing on my computer, I might as well see Bali or Paris when I looked up. “Maybe you go for a walk today,” suggested my landlady’s Balinese housekeeper as she watched me type. “Maybe you come back next year and bring friends.”
“Probably not,” I said, smiling. Smiling is de rigueur in Bali. I was relieved to get to Paris, where it is not. Mostly I was alone in Europe, unnoticed by the Parisians and Edinburghians, existing in a state of pleasant adriftness, burdened only by the sometimes exhausting freedom of deciding what to do with each and every second of day upon day. When I boarded the QM2 in Southampton, I was starting a long, slow journey back to my parents’ empty house in San Diego to dog-sit while they went off on a Eurail trip like a couple of teenage backpackers. I was ready to go home, to have more of a social life and smaller phone bills, but I sensed an idyll was ending. It was only an inkling, but it was correct: I was returning to a month of anxiety dreams and catatonic TV-watching while I waited for my first novel to come out.
The QM2 was at the end of a world voyage when I boarded, and there was a small contingent of hardliners who had been at sea for a hundred days. I have a theory that some people have repurposed the ship as an expensive nursing home and so cross the Atlantic only as an indifferently endured side effect, a consequence of existing in comfortable, perpetual transit: Cape Town appearing out the buffet windows one day, Osaka another, Dubai another, separated by days and days of empty water. George H.W. and Barbara Bush were aboard, George in a motorized wheelchair and Barbara looking so spry and unchanged since 1987 that I suspect she might be immortal, preserved by a dark, Bushian enchantment. In the mornings, she and her Secret Service guy power walked laps around the deck. One day, a journalist onboard as a guest lecturer gave a talk about Air Force One, projecting slides of presidents and first ladies onto the ship’s movie screen. Barbara appeared, waving from the plane’s staircase thirty years ago in a tweed suit and white blouse with a floppy bow at the neck. Barbara, in the audience, regarded herself with a faint frown.
I had no ambitions beyond sitting and reading and watching the ocean, no desire to hit up the casino or see the Irish comedian or play bridge. But most people like to chatter with other people on ships, and some people I encountered worried because I didn’t have anyone to chatter with and decided to help out by chattering with me, which forced me to take evasive measures, skulking furtively through the corridors and stairways, peeking around corners to make sure no one was going to appear and drag me to solo travelers’ coffee with the gentlemen dance hosts. I arrived late to lectures and left as the applause began. I meandered through long, lazy workouts in the empty gym. I found the most inconspicuous nooks of the buffet deck to eat my breakfast. On the first day, I failed to anticipate that if I went to the seated dinner, my tablemates would be offended if I didn’t show up on each of the subsequent six nights. Dinner on the QM2 is at least a two-hour affair, involving formal wear and many courses, and I can think of no other situation in which I would sign on to share seven long dinners with seven randomly selected, elderly strangers.
Used to being alone and suddenly hemmed in by the bodily needs and endless verbal torrents of thousands of humans, I felt like a disgruntled loner in a colony of yammering, gluttonous, complaining penguins, all trapped on an ice floe together. We were so far from any other people that their existence was irrelevant. During the emergency drill before we left Southampton, everyone laughed about putting on the blocky orange life vests, but, just as when a plane’s engines fire up for take-off, there was a sense that whatever happened would involve all of us. In his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” David Foster Wallace famously chronicled a seven-day Caribbean luxury cruise and the despair brought on by the presence of his fellow passengers, the grinding, unsettling pressure to have fun, and the presence of the ocean, which he called “an enormous primordial stew of death and decay.” And he was talking about the Caribbean. Some afternoons, when I felt claustrophobic and cranky, I took refuge in the hot tub on the stern. Swimming outdoors in the North Atlantic’s forty-five-mile-per-hour winds and forty-degree temperatures was unpopular, and I had the tub to myself, a small circle of turquoise water inside a giant circle of gray, white-capped water. My wet hair turning stiff with cold, I sat and watched the ocean.
IN THE PLANETARIUM on deck 2, you recline in the dark beneath a dome-shaped screen, feeling your movie-theater chair push up against your back as the ship climbs a swell and then drop out from under you as it descends. Robert Redford’s disembodied voice attempts to convey the magnitude of the universe while slick graphics fly out of the darkness. Planets, then stars, then galaxies, then galaxy clusters, then the wide-open universe. In four billion years, Robert Redford says, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will collide, but the Earth is so small it will probably skate through the galactic fireball unscathed.
If crossing an ocean is an exercise in insignificance, thinking about galaxies while crossing an ocean is equal parts soothing Zen meditation and colossal mind-fuck. The ocean is inconceivably enormous, but it is also infinitesimal. I, the lone inhabitant of my body and life, am inescapably large to myself but also ridiculously, inconceivably small. At sea, my sense of scale oscillated wildly. I was a speck of dust, a subatomic particle, but I was also going to be really mad if all the scones were gone before I got to afternoon tea. The voyage felt more like a function of time than space. It could have been a light show played out a static disc of water and dome of sky. There was the noise of the engines, the churned-up fan of wake, the roll of the swell, but forward motion was undetectable. We were always at the very center of the disc, beneath the apex of the dome. On the TV in my cabin, one channel was devoted to navigational information. A never-ending reel of upbeat synthetic music cycled by while a series of graphics displayed the temperature, wind speed, barometric pressure, swell height, and then an airplane-style map of the ocean with our position marked by a dot at the end of a green line stretching back to Southampton. When we were halfway across, while the captain was making his noon announcement that we were very, very far from Europe and very, very far from North America and sitting on top of thirteen thousand feet of very cold water, I watched a group of dolphins swim toward the ship, heading north, fins popping up and down at a businesslike clip, the only sign of life I’d seen all day except for a stowaway sparrow cheeping its confusion under one of the lifeboats.
WE REACHED NEW YORK before dawn and in a dense fog. Off my balcony, where there had been the blackest blackness, a Coast Guard escort zipped along, lights flashing. We could hear the traffic on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge well before its lights broke through the gloom. The city was invisible, just more night. The Statue of Liberty, when we passed her, was only a vague shape, her flame lost in the murk. It had never occurred to me that those immigrants coming to have glaucoma checks on Ellis Island and then go off to populate our country might have only seen mist when they reached the New World—no skyline, no statue.
As I walked down the gangway, I didn’t have the sense of having completed a journey. I felt like I had cheated. Travel is usually a series of disorienting jump cuts: dreary, dehydrated hours in an airborne metal tube followed by emergence into a new city, new landscape, new climate, new T-shirts in the souvenir shops. Here I had changed continents but wasn’t jet-lagged, having set the clocks on my various devices back one hour on five of the nights at sea, and that felt somehow wrong. I’d been conditioned to expect abrupt transitions in my life, and this one was too smooth, too slow. It had the odd effect of making me feel, at first, like the months away had never happened. Crossing an ocean, it turns out, doesn’t feel so different from floating in place. The world is supposedly shrinking, its far corners made more and more accessible by accelerating technology and expanding infrastructure, but really we’re just making it easier for ourselves to ignore its enormity. Then again, as Robert Redford would have planetarium audiences know, the world is, in the very grand scheme of things, tiny. The bigness and smallness of everything can be neither separated nor reconciled. There was nothing to do at the bottom of the gangway but get a taxi and get on with it.
Maggie Shipstead is the author of the debut novel Seating Arrangements. She is a recent Stegner fellow and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.