For years I dreamed about sailing on a great ocean liner. As scenes from old movies and sepia-toned snapshots flickered through my mind, I saw myself waving goodbye to envious friends as the ship slipped away from the dock. Soon, tucked into a cozy rug by a solicitous steward, I was reading in a deck chair. Later I sipped cocktails in a glittering salon, watching discreetly for Cary Grant to smile and gesture me over to his table. Early next morning, leaning close to a darkly handsome stranger, I marked the sunrise from a lonely post at the prow.
But until I saw the Queen Mary looming across the harbor of Long Beach, I had never booked passage. Once, when I tried to tempt my husband with a technicolor multi-page brochure, he reminded me, gently, about seasickness. Veteran of several transatlantic crossings, he of course was immune, James said rather smugly, but did I remember how I'd felt on our calm, sunny four-hour voyage to a Sicilian island? Could I recall lying prone on a bench, my face covered by a scarf?
So I had given up my fantasy until that winter Saturday in Long Beach. Late in the afternoon, after my literary conference had ended, James and I had walked in a gray, gusting rain along the sands of Long Beach. Looking up, and blinking away the rain, we could see the great ship in the distance. Even though we knew the Queen was now permanently moored, a tourist attraction and partly a hotel, her glamour shone through the gray mist. Just then, a deep mournful whistle cut the air. It was as seductive and haunting as I'dheard it in my dreams. "Last call," my husband said without a trace of a smile. "Everyone going ashore had better get off. She's about to sail."
I was hooked. On Sunday, though I was coddling a lingering migraine, we had a few tempting free hours before our plane left. The sun had come out; the day promised fair weather and calm seas. We packed our bags and set off for the Queen.
Though the Queen's gangplank resembles a convoluted entrance to a Disneyland attraction, I pretended as I strode up it that I was boarding for a long voyage. At my side, James whispered to me that our trunks would have been labeled and whisked away at the dock, to appear magically later in our cabin. Our map directed us first to the Lower Decks and engine rooms, but, with my head beginning to pound harder, I knew where to place our priorities. Sun, water, fresh air.
Before long we were at the stern, gazing out at the water. I tried to feel like a passenger. But, facing the crowded shores of Long Beach, I couldn't quite pretend we were two days from land. Ahead of us in the harbor squatted several oil islands, with incongruously planted palm trees and odd cement towers. I squinted and turned to shut out as much reality as possible, hoping to savor the feeling of relaxing in the sun on deck. But the wind was brisk, and despite the sun, I felt a little chilly. "They always sell deck chairs before the ship pulls out," James said off-handedly. "Then, when you're really out on the Atlantic, it's usually too cold to sit out here." We walked on.
The Promenade Deck was satisfyingly long, though its scuffed and weathered floorboards showed the age the Queen hid so well from a distance. I imagined myself as a passenger on a walk, getting her regular exercise. From a placard I learned that four times around the deck equaled a mile. At home I circled our three-mile city lake daily, watching the seasons change, noting different birds, greeting other regular walkers. How would I feel about 12 laps around the Promenade Deck? Would just an unending sweep of water fascinate me, lap after lap, day after day?
Halfway down the Promenade Deck a stairway led into the ship, where a bakery/cafe had just opened its doors. The bakery walls were decorated with larger-than-life-size photographs of some of Queen Mary's famous passengers. Looming over the pastry cases was Greta Garbo, shielding her face from the camera. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, arm in arm on the deck, smiling brightly. Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill, Clark Gable.
Farther along the deck, we wandered in and out of other exhibits. More photographs of more celebrities. I thought of them strolling up and down this Promenade Deck, hidden behind sunglasses. When I was a young girl, I thought of movie stars as leading golden lives. Now, with most public reputations awash in a littered tide of telltale biographies, I know better. Looking at the blowup of Gary Cooper accompanied by his wife, Rocky, I thought of his unhappy love affair with Patricia Neal. I wondered about Garbo, so seldom smiling. I shuddered a little at the Windsors, whose sad and wasted lives now read like a modern morality tale.
I wanted to see a real cabin. We followed our map to Piccadilly Circus, a radiating center of shops mostly selling Queen Mary teacups and sweat shirts, and then to a series of reconstructed rooms. One exhibit, a cutaway section of the Queen's famous nightclub, showed two mannequins seated at a minuscule table, while a waiter hovered over them and a pianist sat at a grand piano inches away. The black carpet, a sign said, had been a decorating sensation in its day. Passengers could dance and dine here till 7 a.m.
I thought about spending a whole night at that cramped table, surrounded by black carpet, in a darkened room deep inside the ship. I imagined trying to keep conversation going till 7 a.m. with even the most intriguing escort. I saw myself rising woozily, to circle once more around the dance floor. "Listen," I said to James emphatically, "let's just find a first-class stateroom and then get out of here."
It was, in fact, not just a stateroom but a suite: sitting room, bedroom, bathroom and maid's room. I liked the gadgety bathroom, with its capacious claw-foot tub and double set of fresh and salt-water taps, but I now felt quite foggy, and the narrow hall seemed stuffy. I looked anxiously toward the small portholes that served as windows. Of course they weren't open. "Even in here I hear a slight hum," I said to James. He nodded. "The engines are going all the time," he told me. "And the fans have to keep recirculating the air."
I wished I could lie down for a while. I looked speculatively at the bedroom adjoining the living quarters. I love art deco furniture, and the bed frame was an elegant bird's-eye maple. But the ceiling was low, the light dim -- and the porthole seemed to shrink as I looked at it. Even without a migraine, how could I sleep here? I wondered what it would be like to have a migraine and seasickness at the same time.
Taking a last turn on deck, we stopped at the Queen's Salon. It was a large magnificent ballroom, whose damask drapery and furnishings, though slightly shabby, recalled nights of lavish entertainment and high revelry. Nothing was cramped here, and the room rose to an impressive height.
I could envision an orchestra, dozens of tables with white linen and sparkling crystal, music, laughter and swishing long skirts along the polished floor. Here I could at last see Gable and Garbo, Crosby and Astaire, even the Gary Coopers, all of them released from their human frailties. They danced the night away, stopping only for bits of lobster and glasses of champagne, tossing ermine and dinner jackets over the backs of chairs, turning their best profiles easily toward the ship's photographer. They had been turned again into Stars. The Queen Mary, once more the ship of my dreams, was also a Star.
But I am not, I thought. As we emerged onto the deck again, the sun was almost unbearably bright on my headache-glazed eyes. No matter how or where I travel, I said to myself, I remain just who I am: a bit claustrophobic, prone to migraine, not liking parties, drinking very little, wanting to go to bed early. Not the ideal profile of a Queen Mary passenger. Not, probably, an ideal passenger on any long voyage. "You know," I said thoughtfully to James, "I have a feeling that these past two hours on ship have saved us a lot of money."
We slowly descended the gangway toward a world of parking lots, freeways and airports. I looked backward toward the Queen, whose tilted red smokestacks looked as gallant and racy as ever. Just then, perhaps because it was noon, the Queen's whistle blew, a loud, commanding note quite different from the mist-softened reverie we had heard on the beach the night before. What was the Queen telling me? To stay away? To come back? Had I perhaps now jettisoned all my excess baggage? Would I be able to plan, finally, an ocean voyage free of false illusions?
"On the other hand," I said to James as we drove away, "this may not have been a fair test." He rolled his eyes slightly but said nothing. We turned into the endless current of California traffic, cars flanking us like moving walls. I thought of the Queen far out at sea, slicing through the water. I mentally lay back in my deck chair, watching the waves toss and waiting for the steward to bring me a cup of tea.
The Queen Mary (P.O. Box 8, Pier J, Long Beach, Calif. 90801, 213-435-3511) is open Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., through Labor Day. From Sept. 4 through June 30, the ship is open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission, which includes a tour of the nearby Spruce Goose, is $17.50 for adults and $9.50 for children 5 to 11; senior and group rates are available. Guided 90-minute "captain's tours" are an additional $5.
Susan Allen Toth's most recent book is "How to Prepare for Your High-School Reunion and Other Mid-Life Musings."