The pier was hectic with a festive, summer camp sort of commotion, busy with families, girlfriends, boyfriends, and cadets—trim teens in bright white shirts and dark navy pants, their "salt-and-pepper" uniforms. They towered over their parents. Mothers held bunches of balloons. Fathers lugged big portable coolers, cases of soda, cases of juice. I worried that we were unprepared—we had no juice—and puzzled over the balloons. At least a dozen families had brought bunches of them. They seemed an odd, child's birthday party touch.
My father stopped short and I ran thud into him, like a vaudeville act. Disentangling ourselves and our rolling luggage, I wondered, Is this how it's going to be? Frick and Frack? I looked around to see if anybody had noticed.
Turning onto Dock 19, where the ship was tied up, I saw that the pier was named for A.F. Olivet, the no-nonsense captain during my father's cruises. I paused to make note of that, and of the dinghies moored under a protective wooden roof leading to the ship. They had bold, forward-straining names: Courageous, Freedom, America, Magic.
Looking up, I saw that my father, the good New Yorker, had kept walking. I called to him—"Dad! Wait!"—and he turned, "I'll go slow," he shouted back. But he didn't go slow. He strode toward the ship. I hurried after him, the luggage wheels humming against the concrete.
I got alongside the ship, almost to the gangway, just in time to see him go up without me, lugging his suitcase, a wide smile spread across his face. He said something pleasant to the officer at the top of the gangway, and disappeared inside the Empire State. I stood on the pier a moment, shocked, then raced after him, hefting my suitcase in both hands and clattering up the awkward low metal steps. After months of arranging—the conversation, the phone calls, the formal letters, the visits—I had figured that our boarding the ship would be an obvious moment of high drama: an exchange of loving glances, a pat on the back, a shy filial smile, a fatherly ruffled of the hair, a deep breath and up we go together, arms linked. Ta-daaaaaah!
Not in this life.
"What's your hurry, sailor? I hissed, out of breath, catching up to him at the cabin, C1, marked by a note card reading MR. STIENBURG SR. and MR. STIENBURG JR.
He offered this explanation: he wanted to get his suitcase aboard before the tide came in, raising the angle of the gangway, making it more difficult to walk up. He actually said this. Stunned, I turned away, puzzling whether his excuse was a mountainous lie or, worse, a sincere delusion.
Then the anger, a hot fluid at the back of my brain, drained away, and I almost laughed—the tide, so ridiculous—and I remembered that, up to this moment, I had been genuinely worried my father wouldn't get on the ship at all. That despite his promise, when the moment finally came, he would freeze up in the gangway. Many times I had imagined, not entirely without pleasure, him grasping the handrails, white knuckled, rigid, me behind him, ramming the heel of my hand into the small of his back, forcing him forward, "get on the goddamn ship, Dad!"
That had been the preconception. The reality was 180 degrees opposite. Instead of hanging back, fearful, needing a shove, he had raced ahead, excited, forgetting all about me. Realizing this shocked away the anger. It struck me that, all all these years, I didn't know my father at all. Not a bit.