Julie threw her overstuffed duffel bag on the bed in her stateroom. So far this vacation was shaping up to be a crummy one. They’d waited in a line for over an hour to get onboard the ship. Halfway through the line, her flip flop fell apart, leaving her to hobble through the line, feeling the eyes of everyone watch her awkward procession, especially the cute guy in the cargo shorts a few spots back. Once on the boat she realized that she’d forgotten to put her motion sickness patch on in advance, and the imperceptible waves beneath her feet were doing a number on her stomach. At this point Julie was ready to write an angry letter to the family therapist that had recommended her newly-blended family take this cruise so they could bond as a family unit.
Some family. She still didn’t understand why her mother had felt the need to alter the family they already had. Julie and her mom had been on their own for ten years, and in Julie’s opinion, had done pretty well for themselves. But about a year ago everything had changed. Robert and his daughters had barged into their lives and nothing had been right since. Robert was fine. His two daughters, Naomi and Margaret, were weird, but nice enough. She just knew that everything would change. Although Julie knew her mother’s remarriage was inevitable, her heart still stung when her mother finally confirmed the news. And now, here they were, six months into their new family on this vacation trying to act as if they were one big happy family.
The stateroom door opened and Naomi and Margaret walked in. “Do you want to go swimming with us?” Margaret asked. Julie remained silent for a minute, deciding whether or not to acknowledge her step-sister’s question. “Sure.” Julie mumbled. As she changed into her swimsuit she peeked at her reflection. Julie found it terribly unfair that at thirteen years old she already had cottage cheese thighs. But there was no helping that now; maybe a little sun would improve the situation.
Up on the deck, Julie looked around at all of the people who had claimed the desirable real estate close to the pool. If she hadn’t changed her swimsuit three times, perhaps she could have beaten the crowd. She self-consciously adjusted her towel as she scanned the crowd for fellow teens, especially of the male variety. She noticed Cargo Short Boy casually tossing his little brother into the pool. Sigh. A real family. And not a bad looking one either.
Julie finally found a vacant chair about fifty yards from the pool. She tried to read, but the ship had finally set sail and the wind was blowing her hair into her face, not to mention causing hundreds of little goose bumps to pop up on her newly-shaven legs. Argghh. Fine, she’d give up on reading and just close her eyes in hopes that her stomach would forget she was on a moving vessel. As the ship and her stomach rocked and lurched, Julie’s mind began to wander. She knew that she should just be happy. Not every teenage girl gets to go on a cruise. But of course, not every teenage girl has to pretend that she loves her new family just to keep the peace, either. As was often the case when these moods struck, Julie tried to pray. God, why did you put me in this family? You must love me just a little bit less than all the other kids who get to live with their real parents. And they probably don’t have to buy cheapo flip flops that break the second time you wear them. They look cute in their expensive bathing suits and Gucci sunglasses. . .
The next thing Julie knew, the sky had changed. How long had she been asleep? She looked around for her step-sisters, and caught sight of them playing shuffleboard. Man, those girls were weird. Shuffleboard? That game was reserved for retirees, wasn’t it? Then Julie sat up, alarmed, they were playing shuffleboard with Cargo Short Boy. This was the disaster to end all disasters! With no discernable social skills and hand-me-down bathing suits, Naomi and Margaret were probably completely humiliating themselves, and in the process, killing any chance Julie had of salvaging her pride after today’s flip flop debacle. As she lifted herself off her chair and rearranged her towel, she felt a faint stinging on her backside. Of course, in her haste to get to the pool, she’d neglected her sunscreen and now she imagined her back half was well cooked. Oh well, she had more pressing issues at hand. Julie casually sauntered up to the girls and tried to appear breezy. She quelled the rage that bubbled up inside her, imagining all of the dreadful things that had already transpired with Cargo Short Boy in her absence. Naomi, blissfully ignorant of the choppy water she was treading, made the introductions between Julie and Steve (so that was his name.) Julie immediately decided that she had been misinformed about the finer features of shuffleboard, and that it was a perfectly acceptable game for the under sixty set. It was a cruise ship after all.
The game was proceeding nicely, and Julie’s heart rate had almost come back down when out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Robert. Oh no. There was no mistaking her step-dad, as his inhumanly white chest reflected the suns rays and was thrown into deep contrast by the blackness of his socks, which were pulled all the way up to his knees. “How’re my girls?” he boomed as he grabbed all three of them and locked them in a bear hug. Julie endured the embrace as long as she could and then squirmed out. Robert looked at Steve and Julie half expected him to make some comment about the girls finding a handsome young man to play with, so she was relieved when all he said was “It’s almost time for dinner, so it’s time to go back and change clothes.”
Dinner was somewhat pleasant that evening. Julie’s mom seemed truly happy. Her sisters provided her with interesting information about the ports they would be visiting in the coming days. Her parents (that phrase sounded weird in her mind) had even uncharacteristically decided that she and her sisters (even weirder sounding) could attend the teen disco that night. As they hurried to leave, Robert must have noticed Julie’s apprehension about going because he pulled her aside and whispered, “Sweetie, just dance like no one’s watching. You’ll have a much better time, I promise.”
The teen disco was loud and dark. After sitting on a stool with the other wallflowers for about fifteen minutes, she was restless. Robert’s words replayed themselves in her head. Her sisters, neither of whom were gifted dancers were dancing their hearts out and by all accounts, having a good time. Julie summoned every ounce of her courage and joined her sisters on the dance floor. She wasn’t a very good dancer, but after this week she’d never see these people again, right?
After a rather rowdy rendition of YMCA, Julie knew her sweaty hair was not doing her any favors, and to her horror, Steve was coming her way. It was too late to salvage her look now. “You really know how to have fun on the dance floor, don’t you?” he teased. Julie smiled sheepishly. The DJ had decided to play the chicken dance, again, and Julie was not about to risk that level of humiliation in front of her newfound friend. They found a less obnoxious place and sat down. As they talked, Julie discovered that there was much more to Steve than his trendy cargo shorts. He’d recently lost his father to a heart attack; the cruise was his mother’s way of bringing a little cheer into a pretty rough season of their lives. They parted ways when the disco closed, Julie feeling oddly connected to him.
As Julie negotiated her sunburned posterior into her tiny bed that night, she reflected on the events of the day. She spent quite a while reconstructing her conversation with Steve, but after fifteen run-throughs her mind wandered to her family. She thought about her misperceptions regarding Steve’s perfect family and wondered how many of the other perfect families weren’t so perfect either. She wondered why she had been holding on so long to her resistance to form a new family. Yes, they were different. And yes, her mother was no longer hers to keep for herself. But hadn’t Robert referred to her as one of “his girls?” And hadn’t her sisters faithfully included her in all their activities, however strange they might have been? Dinner hadn’t been insufferable. As she drifted off to sleep, Julie felt her grip on a perfect family and a perfect life begin to loosen. Maybe this was good enough. . .