A GUY WEARING SKINNY JEANS and a neon-blue fedora is leaping into the air, vaulting up onto the backs of the people in the crowd, waving like crazy and shouting, “Baby Tom-Tom! Baby Tom-Tom!” like a man on fire calling for a bucket.
The dock is a zoo. Fans, maybe two thousand fans, are crammed into the space on either side of a red carpet that extends from the limo drop-off point, all the way up the dock, up a narrow gangplank and onto the luxury cruise liner, the Extravagance.
It’s dawning on me that I’ve made a terrible mistake: I walked.
My parents dropped me off way back at the ship terminal after besieging me with last-minute instructions about everything from cell phone usage to alcohol poisoning.
I should have come with Vivika. She begged me to join her in the limo her dad rented for her. But, eh, I felt like I didn’t want to show up like some pseudo-celebrity in a rented limo.
Well, it turns out that when you’re boarding a cruise that’s filled to the brim with wannabe rock stars and reality-TV almost-rans, you want to be chauffeured. A limo means you wind up on the right side of the security guards and the red velvet cords.
I see a curvy, tan girl with a razor-straight brown pageboy haircut get out of a Hummer limo (yes, they make them) at the start of the red carpet.
It’s Sabbi Ribiero, the Brazilian heiress from Teens of New York, along with several wealthy sidekicks. They all look polished and gorgeous, but not quite as polished and gorgeous as Sabbi, herself. Of course.
The fans go ballistic.
Uniformed bellmen start unloading stacks of leather matchy-matchy suitcases and hanging bags and valises and, God, hatboxes (hatboxes!) out of the trunk of the monstrous Hummer.
The lanky fellow in the blue fedora yells, “Sabbi! Sabbi, we love you!” and puts his hand on my head, to push off me like you would a fence post.
“Hey!” I shout. “That’s my head!”
But he doesn’t care. He’s yelling to some off-site friend on his phone. “This scene is insane! I’d give anything to get on that boat!”
Hmmm, I feel the exact opposite way. I sorta feel like I’d give anything not to get on that boat. How did I let my best friend talk me into coming on this-the Solu “Cruise to Lose”? The most famous cruise since the Titanic?
I have to get onto the carpet. Vivika’s already on board and her texts are getting apoplectic in tone. I don’t blame her. I’m late, as usual.
If the ship is going to leave on time it’s leaving in the next, yikes, twenty minutes.
Okay, I tell myself. You can do this. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
Being pushy is not really in my wheelhouse. But I told Viv I’d come with her on this freak show and unless I get through this crowd and onto the other side of the red stanchions, it ain’t gonna happen.
So I start shoving.
“Out of the way! Make way! Coming through!”
I elbow and push, dragging my mom’s rolling suitcase behind me and using my extra-large handbag (which Viv calls “the Boho beast”) as a kind of very soft and lumpy weapon. My guitar, safely strapped to my back in its hard shell, isn’t helping, although I do thwack a few irritating people on the head with it (by accident, mostly) on the way.
Finally, I make it to one of the guards standing at the left side of the red carpet.
“Hi!” I say.
“I need to get in.”
He eyes my guitar.
“You gonna play for change?”
“Oh,” I say. “That’s funny. No. I’m actually a passenger.”
He arches his eyes in surprise.
“Yeah, I know,” I say. “Strange, but true.”
“You just walkin’ up, huh?”
He’s enjoying this now. “Just walkin’. You a local?”
I nod. He’s really having fun. People are pressing up behind me and cursing my luggage.
“Couldn’t get a lift or nothin’?”
I rifle in my purse and come up with my ticket case, a slim padded leather case embossed with the single word: SOLU. Some kids behind me jostle forward as another celebrity passes on the carpet. I think it’s a famous chef guy.
“Ease up, now,” the guard bellows to the crowd behind, “this girl here has a ticket!”
I feel like Charlie Bucket for a second as people around me gasp and stare.
“Who is she?” a girl whispers.
“I don’t know … Nobody, I don’t think,” her friend answers.
Nice. (True, of course.)
I flash the man my ticket. The people around me are now taking my picture with their phones as the guard inspects my ticket.
“Maybe she’s a rock star!” somebody guesses.
Yeah, right. (I’m an amateur classical guitarist.)
“It’s legit,” the guard says, regarding my ticket. People around me literally gasp.
The guard unhooks the stanchion and lets me onto the carpet.
“Hey!” he yells. “We need a bellman over here!”
I shoulder my handbag and pull my mom’s rollaway bag onto the red carpet and stand there like the dork of the century.
Here’s the picture:
Awkward, slightly chubby girl.
Most of wavy, strawberry-blond hair escaping the “Easy Crown Braid” hairstyle I tried-really-hard-and-failed to copy from Seventeen magazine.
Guitar on back.
Freckles. Too many. Everywhere.
Combat boots on feet with wool socks my grandma knit peeking out the top.
Cool white Indian tunic from India Bazaar now crushed, sweaty, and ripped at hem.
Jeans shorts looking dumb when I thought they’d look rocker classy.
My face blushing beet red under the numerous freckles.
My expression clearly showing that I would like to sink into the red carpet and disappear forever.
Also, I should have worn more makeup than Carmex and mascara.
Then, fate intervenes in the form of a slim black man with a magnificent handlebar mustache, dressed in a fashionable seersucker suit with a pocket square in a calming shade of lavender.
He strides toward me, holding a clipboard and looking like he was born and raised to run a red carpet.
“Darling! It’s me, Rich. Rich Weller, the publicist for the cruise,” he says, feigning some prior acquaintance. (As if anyone on earth could ever have met him and then forgotten him.) He kisses me on one cheek, then the other. I think we’re through, then he kisses me again on the first cheek. Three kisses.
“Come with me, sugar,” he says. His tone is intimate and friendly and clearly conveys that he knows I am a fish out of water and is doing his best to try to help me not make an ass out of myself. (Ass-Fish? Fish-ass?) “Leave your bags.”
When I don’t move immediately, he says, “Just drop them.”
I let go of the handle of my mom’s suitcase and, of course, it plonks over onto its belly with an awkward thomp. A grinning Indonesian bellman sweeps in and lifts the bag onto a cart.
“May I carry your instrument, miss?” the bellman asks, gesturing to my guitar. He gives me a friendly smile.
“That would be loverly, Imade,” Rich says for me. Rich takes the guitar off my shoulders and hands it over.
Now I’m conscious of the sweat stains on my back. The tunic, well, it’s a little see-through when you sweat like you’re facing the guillotine, so everyone can now see the back of my bra where the sweat has made my shirt transparent and the chub that flows over and under the band. This just gets better and better.
Behind us, there are screams as a new celebrity (an actual celebrity, I should say) arrives. Thank God, the attention’s off me.
“Tootsie pie, listen to me.” Rich murmurs. “Shoulders up, now. That’s good. Now you go and walk that carpet, sis. Come on, stand up straight or they’ll eat you alive.”
I gather myself up and square my shoulders to the carpet and the banks of photographers on either side.
You can do this, I tell myself.
I take two steps forward, and whack, Rich spanks me on the butt.
“Go get ’em, girl,” he tells me.
The photographers, God love them, don’t take my picture! Oh, a couple do, but most of them are angling to snap some shots of the guy coming up the gangplank behind me (he’s a reality-show God-survived on nothing but grubs for two weeks on some island where apparently all they have to eat is grubs).
At the top of the gangplank, a line is forming-the boarding passengers are backed up.
It’s a check-in line, where you give them your ticket and they hand you some kind of ID card, but that’s not why there’s a backup.
There’s a weigh station.
You hand them your card, then hop on a scale. They record your weight and swipe your card.
Okay, so I knew that this cruise had a weight-loss contingent. The Solu Cruise to Lose has been all over the talk shows and tabloids for months now. Solu is this new diet sweetener that not only sweetens your coffee, but makes you lose weight. And when the divorce between Viv’s parents became final, it seemed pretty clear that Vivvy’s dad would give her pretty much anything she wanted. Well, this was what she wanted. To go on the cruise. (She’s been unhappy with her weight since preschool. I remember her love-hate affair with graham crackers and apple juice.) They say that each of us will lose 5-10 percent of our body weight during the cruise’s seven-day trip.
So I knew all that. And I agreed to go because-well, a luxury cruise? For free?! And living in Fort Lauderdale, we’re always seeing the big ships come and go. I was so excited to actually be on one. To wave good-bye from the prow is something I will never get to do again in my life, I am sure!
But I did not know that we’d be publicly weighed before we were allowed to board the ship!
I fumble in my giant purse for my cell phone. I’m going to do some angry texting to Viv. At least, she could have warned me! She knows I’m shy about stuff like this-weight is private. And, yeah, I could stand to lose five pounds (okay, fifteen) but that’s nobody’s business but my own.
To be weighed in public seems like a big fine to have to pay to go on the cruise.
Then I hear the deep, raspy, heavily accented voice all of America would recognize. Sabbi Ribiero: the infamous, hard-partying, and Maserati-wrecking Brazilian heiress.
She is talking. To me.
“Can you believe this?”
“No,” I say. “It’s so demeaning. It’s insulting. I mean, are we to be weighed like cows? Like luggage?”
Sabbi blinks her twenty-inch-long eyelashes, looking at me like I’m speaking a foreign language.
“I haven’t waited in line since I immigrated to America, when I was six years old,” she says pointedly, like I’m an idiot. To tell you the truth, I kind of act like an idiot because I’m mesmerized by her mouth. She forms each word like it’s a little masterpiece. And her voice is like a jaguar purring.
She cocks a perfect eyebrow at me, waiting for a response.
“I wait in line all the time.” I shrug.
One of her groupies laughs, then cuts it short when he sees no one else thinks I’m funny.
Sabbi tosses her hair and turns her back on me, without another word.
When Sabbi is motioned up to the scale, she removes her aqua-colored leather jacket and hands it to one of her people. She’s wearing a curve-hugging aqua-colored sweater and aqua pants with a little gold belt. She kicks off her gold stilettos and steps onto the scale. (It could be that her shoes are made of solid gold. That would not surprise me at all.)
Sabbi looks right at me, holding my gaze steadily and proudly, as a lady checks the scale and enters the figures onto a laptop, then swipes Sabbi’s ID card and hands it back.
Two uniformed crew members thank Sabbi, help her down, and hold her hands as she slips back on her gold stilettos.
What the hell has Vivika gotten me into?
It’s a relief when I get up onto the deck. Some of the people are super-famous, like Sabbi, and then there are the fat wealthy people. Those are pretty much the two categories-young, gorgeous semi-famous people who look like they are probably here for free, and wealthy people who want to lose weight. I guess there’s a third category-people like me who don’t look like they belong in either category. And jeez! There’s a fourth-people serving the passengers. There’s an awful lot of them!
Waiters in white jackets are circulating champagne flutes on trays lined with lavender-colored linens. The deck looks like a five-star hotel, tricked out in polished wood, brass, and crystal. There are bouquets of lavender-colored flowers here and there. (What’s with all the lavender?)
An elderly man and a frumpy-looking Asian lady are making rounds, shaking hands and welcoming people on board. They must be executives from the Solu Corporation. Standing a few steps behind them is a bald guy with a clipboard who is incredibly muscly, like, about to burst out of his suit. It’s like the old guy has Drax the Destroyer for a personal assistant.
I see “Baby Tom-Tom” with a TV crew, over by the railing.
Okay, so I am now looking at my childhood crush, Tom Fiorelli. With my own eyeballs.
Once upon a time, he was the tubby child star of everyone’s favorite sitcom, The Magnificent Andersons. We all watched him grow up on screen. (By “we all” I mean the entire United States of America.) They canceled the show when he hit fourteen and his voice started cracking. Since then he lost weight and tried to be a serious film star, but his films were bad. Really bad. So bad that I had to leave the theater during Double Fang.
It was about a gang of teen boys who turn into were-vampires at night. (Yes, werewolves who are also vampires. And the film was not a comedy.) Baby Tom-Tom was their leader. His name in the film was ‘Cisor. (The film should have been a comedy.)
Maybe he couldn’t make it as a film star because he chose dumb movies to star in, but maybe it was because everyone still calls him Baby Tom-Tom. There’s just no way to take that name seriously.
And there was the whole thing with the pop singer Bonnie Lee Finn. That horrible breakup and the leaked voice-mail messages he left her where he sounded really sad and kept telling her that he did know how to have fun. He couldlearn to loosen up.
I felt really bad for him.
I crane my neck to get a better look at him, over the heads of the small crowd gathered around him.
He’s only eighteen or nineteen, but he’s handling the large crowd like a pro, grinning and jovial. This is what he does now-hosting stuff. He’s always on a red carpet or talking about who wore what. He’s good at it.
He sure looks like he knows how to have fun, right now.
“Now, lots of people have asked why Solu decided to hold their launch event on a ship. Do you know?” Tom holds the microphone out to a pretty girl in a halter dress. She shakes her head and giggles.
“Anyone?” He offers the mike out.
“Because cruises are awesome?” the girl suggests.
“True! But not just that,” Tom says. He gestures over the edge of the ship.
“Look down here. See those crewmen waiting down there?”
I peer over the side of the boat, with everyone else.
There are two workmen in overalls waiting on a wooden platform that’s been lowered down to sit just above the level of the water. They have cans of black paint with them and large rollers.
“Once all the passengers are on board,” Tom continues, “those crewmen are going to paint a line indicating the ship’s weight. When we come back to this port, in seven short days, the ship will sit at least ten feet higher in the water! That will indicate a combined weight loss of at least five thousand pounds from the Extravagance‘s five hundred passengers! And it could be even more!”
The people around Tom cheer. He beams at them all.
I sort of want to raise my hand and say, “What about the weight of the food we will eat? What about the fuel? Won’t those things affect the weight of the ship?”
But I’m not going to be some kind of lame whistle-blower on their promotional idea.
I have to say, it’s weird to look at him.
It’s Baby Tom-Tom, grinning that grin we all know so well.
I feel like I can see ghost images of him over his face-there he is as a toddler, as a saucy seven-year-old, as a chunky eleven-year-old wiseass, and then there’s the present Tom.
The baby fat’s gone now-he has a hard, etched jaw and his body’s lean and muscled. You can see his pecs kind of straining at the fabric of his shirt. He’s not that tall, but he has an electric charm coming off him. And hotness. (Coming off him in waves.)
Have I mentioned the hotness? Because he is scorching hot.
Then something surprising happens: Someone I can’t see says, “Cut,” and the smile drops off Tom’s face. One minute, he seems to be having a great time and the next, he’s totally serious. Over it. Huh. (Maybe he doesn’t actually know how to have fun, after all.)
“Laurel! There you are!” Viv crushes me in a giant hug from behind. “Stop gaping at Baby Tom-Tom like a dork.”
“I wasn’t gaping!” I protest.
She drags me away from the little crowd.
“You have to see our room!” Vivika exclaims. “You’re going to D-I-E die!”
Excerpted from Sweet by Emmy Laybourne. Copyright © 2015 by Emmy Laybourne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.