Fiction

Cynthia

By: Earl Smith

He stood on the upper deck, watching the distance to Key West widen. Could not escape the feeling he was leaving part of her behind. Yet he could feel her standing next to him. An echo of all those times they’d left one port bound for another. While some took vacations to the same place each year, they had explored the world from the decks of one floating hotel after another.

Mary had struggled valiantly but, towards the end, was like a dying leaf in a cold, harsh wind. Her pain was still with him. He needed to get away before those memories dragged him down. This cruise was to be a celebration of their life together. To leave behind the bad times and reprise the good ones.

Their final cruise was on this ship. He was staying in the same suite. Two bedrooms, a sitting room and balcony. Mary’s deteriorating condition required a separate bedroom for the nurse. Both knew it was to be their last trip together. It was a mistake too late. The constant presence of the nurse, the urgent calls for the doctor, the weeping afterwards.

There were occasional good times. Breakfasts on the balcony. Quiet times holding hands. The smile on Mary’s face when they shared a sunrise. But, when they disembarked in Miami, a chapter closed on their lives. They both knew it.

They left the ship only twice during that ten-day itinerary. Once in Cozumel for lunch at Pedro’s Backyard, their favorite restaurant in all the Caribbean. A second time in Georgetown, Grand Cayman. They took a research sub eleven hundred feet down. Kissed and held each other. She joked it was the deepest kiss they had ever shared. On the ship, they mostly lounged, read, talked and, for moments, forgot the advancing ending.

This cruise was to be a final acceptance of loss. Mary was gone. But memories of her and their lives together were still very much alive. Emotions, not always happy ones, washed over him at unpredictable times. A sound, a scent, a sunset, music coming from a lounge, the noise of the slot machines in the casino, the ship’s horn as they left port, or a bit of conversation between couples strolling the deck could rekindle echoes of their life together.

The rail was crowded. He arrived early. Chosen the spot with care. Where they had always stood. She saying her goodbyes. His arm around her. He had draped her windbreaker over the rail. Rested his hand on it to keep the wind from stealing it away. He almost lifted it, but could not bring himself to see part of her drift away like that.

He heard two women talking and turned to look. They were standing close together. “I’m glad we decided on this. It’s going to be so liberating. Although the guys are going to be a real pain.”

“This is only the second day and I’ve already been hit on five times,” said the younger, slimmer of the two. There was something in her voice. A hint of unease.

“Well, Cindy my love, you attract that kind of attention. The way you dress doesn’t help,” her companion responded.

“What’s wrong with how I dress? I thought you liked it.”

“You know I do. But it’s a flashing red neon sign that says to the bulls ‘I’m available.’”

“Let’s get another opinion,” Cindy said and turned to Basil. “My good sir, you seem an experienced man of the world. I would like your frank opinion. This is my first cruise. Am I dressed appropriately?”

“My lady, your manner of dress is perfect for the occasion. No one, not even the most experienced traveler, could have done it better. The colors you have chosen suit you. The lightness of the fabric plays well in the breeze. Your jewelry is understated and tasteful rather than ostentatious. The hat is a nice touch. You are clearly a woman of taste and discernment. But your friend does have a point. My wife used to say the clothes you choose, mirror your inclinations.”

Her companion nudged Cindy, “Your wife sounds wise. I’d like to meet her.”

“I’m afraid that’s no longer possible. Mary passed away two months ago. We were married for over five decades.”

“I’m so sorry,” Cindy said. “I can’t imagine being with someone for five decades, then losing them. How can you stand it?”

“Some of it’s magic, and some of it’s tragic. But we had a good life all the way”.

“Jimmy Buffett, He Went to Paris,” Cindy said brightly. “I love that song.”

Basil noticed a middle-aged man was watching them. He realized Cindy started up a conversation, in part, as a kind of cover. Tell the guy to ‘forget it and move on’. It was a more direct message than the one Basil had read behind her smile.

“Key West is fading over the horizon. I have said my goodbyes. I suspect you ladies would like to get off this deck without being inconvenienced,” he said with a wink. “Perhaps I can be of assistance. Would you join me in the Schooner Lounge for a drink, and some casual conversation? It’s where Mary and I always went after leaving port. I offer protection, company, and libation. Sir Basil, at your service.”

Cindy liked the idea, but her companion said, “I’m going to our cabin to clean up. Why don’t you go on? I’ll meet you by the pool.” She left. The middle-aged man didn’t watch her go.

“Well, in that case,” he said with a slight bow, “I’m Basil Scott, ever happy to rescue a damsel in distress.” He offered his arm. “How may I call you, my lady?”

“I’m Cynthia Fielding, and most pleased to be rescued by such a gallant knight.” She smiled and took his arm. They headed down the stairs leaving the huntsman to search for new prey.

As they entered an empty Schooner Bar, the bartender called out, “Welcome back my friend. And who is this companion I see? Your niece? Your granddaughter? Or some damsel you have rescued from the terrors of a fire breathing dragon?”

“This disreputable looking man is my friend Manolo. A faithful companion through many adventures. A man of great discretion but otherwise dubious character,” Basil said with a grin. “He makes the best margaritas and mojitos.” He paused and gave Cynthia a sly wink. “He should, since I taught him an art he should have learned in bartender school. Manolo, this is Lady Cynthia Fielding, recently rescued from the jaws of a vile predator. I have escorted her to the shelter of your humble establishment so she may recover from the experience. Brave Sancho, will you offer her your protection and see to her needs?”

“Even after such undeserved abuse, I am bound to honor your request,” Manolo said returning his grin. Turning to Cynthia he said with a solemn nod, “My humble establishment, such as it is, and its protection, are always at your disposal.”

They went to a small table in the corner. Manolo brought drinks. A mojito for Basil. A frozen mango margarita for her. “This is wonderful. I’ve never had a better margarita.” She looked at him as if for the first time. “You are strangely dressed for a knight. You have rendered me a service and, for that, I’m grateful. It seem to have chosen wisely. I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone named Basil. How did you come by such a name?”

“Ah, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. Although I’m not as dashing, the reference is somewhat appropriate. My father was Scottish, born in Edinburgh. My mother was Greek, born on the island of Santorini. They met in London. Both incurable romantics. Basil is one of those Greek and Arabic names. It means royal, kingly, brave, valiant, chivalrous in Greek. Brave, fearless, intrepid in Arabic. I have tried to live up to it but, most of the time, it has been more farce than success. And you are Cynthia. Is that how you like to be called?”

“Mostly I go by Cindy. There’s not much to tell,” she said hesitantly. “I’m an orphan. Never knew either of my parents. Mother gave me up when I was born. I’m not sure who gave me the name. I’ve tried, but never found anything about my parents.”

“It’s harder to know who you are when you don’t know where you’ve come from,” Basil said quietly. “But you are who you are today, and that’s what’s important.”

His comment unsettled her. She seemed on the verge of tears. But she regained control. “I know even less about who I am today. At least I can tell you I was born in Ohio. A hospital in Cincinnati. About the orphanage. I don’t remember much but at least there’s records. But it stops there.”

They sat in silence. Manolo brought them a platter of bread, cheese, meats, and black caviar. “My Lord, I have prepared this personally to your exacting specifications. Then tasted each part to ensure your satisfaction and continued health.” He bowed solemnly. “I hope my humble efforts please you.”

Their playfulness lifted Cindy’s spirits and she smiled. After Manolo left, she said, “You seem to be well known here.”

“Mary and I were regulars on this ship. We loved it because she isn’t one of those huge factory cruise ships with thousands of passengers. An old girl who’s been around and we loved her for it. My friend Manolo has been a bartender on the ship for at least seven years. During one cruise, we spent several hours perfecting the ultimate margarita. As now, there was no one else in the lounge. We mixed, sampled, and discarded until we had it made perfectly. He named it Margarita à la Basil.”

After a pause, he said quietly, “You seem to be dealing with some sort of crisis. If you don’t mind confiding in a stranger, perhaps I can help.”

“You’re right. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I do. And I don’t. I’ve always been able to push through. Now, I’m not sure I can make it.” A shudder went through her. “Damn, I’ve had enough of me. Let’s talk about you. Anything but about me. Please.”

“It’s well our voyage is a long one. There is much to tell. My father went to Glasgow University. Became an engineer. Served during the War. Met my mother while preparing to disembark for D-Day. She was attending St. Andrews. He survived the initial landing. Rotated back to England for R&R. Searched her out. They were married a month afterwards. I was born a year later.”

“After the War, we moved to the States. Lived in Belmont, Massachusetts. Dad taught electrical engineering at MIT. Mother worked at Tufts Medical Center.”

He paused, shifted his gaze to the window, then proceeded more slowly. “It was our generation’s time that left its mark on us. And none, neither parents nor children, could have anticipated the world we came of age into, and its imprint on us.”

“Like so many white American baby boomers, my life, through my 20s to 40s, was unlike any prior generations’ experience. And, unlikely to ever be experienced again. We were children of certainty and plenty. The war effort produced a mighty economic engine. FDR’s New Deal and the rise of organized labor were foundations of a society that lifted most boats. Born towards the end of the War, or shortly thereafter, we came of age during a time of abundance and seemingly unlimited possibilities.”

“As a generation, our character was formed by circumstances beyond our control or understanding. It was not just that we were optimistic; we certainly were. We were taught to think, not what to think. Before STEM turned every University into a trade school, and the arrival of rampant political correctness. We became infused with a certainty that the world was changing, and we were to be its architects. It was the age of Aquarius. Dawning of a new epoch. We would let the sunshine in, and love would rule the world.”

Basil stopped to look at her, realized she was struggling. “I’m sorry. I’ve upset you, Cynthia. Please forgive an old man for prattling on.”

“No, please don’t stop. I can’t … You must … Oh, damn this life. I want to hear your story. I need to hear it. Please! Hearing it is helping.” She reached out and touched his hand. “It sounds like a wonderful time,” Cindy said. “So much certainty. So much potential. Why do you think it turned out the way it did?”

He looked at her with new respect. “That’s the seminal question of the age, Cindy.” He stopped. “I would rather call you by your given name. Would it insult you if I did?”

“Nobody calls me Cynthia, but I think I would like it if you did.”

“Then Cynthia it shall ever be. Now, where was I? Oh yes. It was the beginning of the final flowering,” he said with a flourish, “of the Liberalism that the likes of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, and Machiavelli set in motion during the long sixteenth century. And, in that final flowering, our golden aspirations morphed into leaden nightmares. We sought ourselves. Not so much, at first, through capitalism but eastern thought. The poison of capitalism came later with its greed and deceit. We mixed Buddhism with science. Mysticism with rationality. We would strive to advance human understanding during the day and retire to our marijuana and magic crystals in the evening. Along the way, we lost much of our ability to connect with each other. We laid the foundation for increasingly narcissistic subsequent generations.”

“Back then, there was a sense of manifest destiny. We were convinced we represented a radical change from the world into which we were born. The sad truth is we were merely the penultimate act of an imperfectly written play. Most of what we claimed to represent was only a chance occurrence synchronized with our births.”

“I know too much about narcissism,” she broke in. “I am a child of the narcissist’s national anthem.”

“I’m not familiar with that one,” Basil said.

“The greatest love of all is easy to achieve. Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all”, she half sang. Tears came. “We bought into that crap. And all it did was leave us isolated within ourselves. Everybody loving themselves. Less and less capable of loving anyone else. I remember proudly singing ‘I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow. If I fail, if I succeed at least, I’ll live as I believe. No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.’ God, what a delusion. What dignity? What belief? What I wouldn’t give for a shadow to walk in occasionally. There is no dignity in narcissism, Sir Basil. There’s nothing but a void, burning disappointment, and raging anger.”

Her rising intensity shocked him. Something hard and destructive moved across her face. “Being alone is a new experience for me,” he offered. “After all those years with Mary, it’s still intensely painful. I don’t understand what you’re going through. I haven’t experienced it. It’s such an alien idea to be so alone.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said wiping the tears away. “I’m afraid you’ve rescued a damsel in more distress than you ever imagined. Not just from a horny man in mid-life crisis. I have no right to intrude on your grief. I should go. Thanks for rescuing me.”

He grabbed her hand. “What kind of a knight would I be if I let things end this way? Besides, Manolo would take offense at your leaving so abruptly. Perhaps I have a spare shadow you can walk in for a while.”

She looked at him and smiled faintly. “Maybe it’s a good thing that I met you. If that turns out to be the case, I must remember to thank the predator who brought us together. How did you and Mary meet?”

He settled back and smiled. “It’s a long story. I will tell it but, be warned, I do tend to ramble on. Shall we have a code word, so that you can let me know when I am rattling on or touching upon a sensitive area?” he asked. “How about Vatican Cameos?”

That brought back her smile. “Sherlock! God, I loved that series. Benedict Cumberbatch is so sexy. Okay, Vatican Cameos it is. Now, on with your story, Sir Knight.”

“It was a spring evening. Some friends and I went to a concert at the Hatch Shell, a wonderful outdoor venue on the Charles River in Back Bay, Boston. The Pops were performing The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. There was never a more appropriate sound track for what happened that evening. As the concert began, we were chatting about some arcane philosophical issue. I noticed this girl sitting alone on a blanket. Not ten feet away. She looked at me and patted the blanket next to her. “Wouldn’t you rather study Stravinsky than go on about some moldy philosophical stuff,” she asked as I sat down?

“It was love at first sight. We married two years later. I proposed in a restaurant in Cozumel.” He grew silent for a bit and then smiled sadly. “She always said the same thing. “This guacamole is so fresh, it’s still breathing!” I always waited for it, and we laughed when she finally said it. We always sat at the same table. Where I had proposed. Every visit to Pedro’s took us back to that moment. Mary said yes before I finished asking. Then insisted I get back on my knee and do it all over. “It’s the most loving question. I want to hear it again.” A tradition was born. Every visit to the restaurant began with a reenactment.”

A shudder went through him. “This will be the first time,” he said sadly, “that I will visit Pedro’s without Mary to propose to.”

He let it drift off, then continued. “I studied philosophy. Became an academic. Nietzsche, the postmodernists, the neo-pragmatists attracted me. I received my master’s from Stanford. Then earned a Doctorate from Columbia University. Now I teach philosophy at Boston College.”

“Did you have any kids?”

“A son and two daughters. Dave is a doctor. He and his family live in Boston. Mary, our oldest, died of cancer at twenty-six. Carol is an emergency room nurse at Boston General.”

“I’m sorry about your daughter. It must be nice to have a family. So different from my life.”

“We were a different generation. That much is true. Our parents came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War. They experienced deprivation and hardship. They knew death and struggle. Theirs was a world of limitations and shortages, and the enduring scars of global tragedies.”

“What they had, they earned. Within that cauldron of adversity, brewed a sense of common purpose and common cause. There was pride in having saved the world. Of having sacrificed so that others could escape the shackles of fascism. It led to a global view which preached lifting, and improving, the lives of others. They built the mountain we were born atop.”

“Vatican Cameos”, she whispered with an impish grin,

“Right. Thanks for that. As for Mary and me, maybe it was just dumb luck. Being in the right place at the right time. The truth is I don’t know why we fell in love and spent the next fifty-six years immersed in that love. We just did.”

He stopped and looked at her. “Now, that’s enough about me. What about you? I sense you need somebody to talk to, and maybe a shoulder to cry on. I offer both. You seem to have a certain kind of relationship with your friend. Is that part of it?”

She looked at him with surprise. “I was hoping that wasn’t obvious. I was trying hard that it wouldn’t be. You can’t call it a relationship. Linda’s a new friend. I met her during a personal improvement retreat. A gathering of narcissists.” She smiled sadly. “She’s alienated from her parents, and I don’t know who mine are. So, we bonded. Later I discovered her sexual tendencies are different than mine. She convinced me to take this cruise to see if we could work it out. It’s been okay. But I’m not sure it was a good idea.”

“Well, the huntsman on the upper deck didn’t seem to notice. But then I suspect he wouldn’t notice much,” Basil said with a grin.

She frowned and said, “That’s always been the case. I seem to attract that type. I’m so tired of being chased by those one-trick-ponies.”

“And now, I’m thirty in two days. Celebrating my birthday on a Caribbean cruise with a lesbian roommate. Yeah, that’s me alright. I’ve got nothing against Linda or her inclinations. She’s welcome to them. It’s my lies. The truth is the only reason I’m with her is my desperation to be close to somebody. Anybody. What kind of a person does something like that? Linda thinks …”

She paused. Clearly at the edge. “I can’t seem to hold on to anything. I feel like I’m falling all the time. Down one damn rabbit hole after another. Not to Wonderland, or through any looking glass. Just into the void. Emptiness. Always getting worse. Never gets better.” She briefly sobbed, looked away then continued. “I used to be so hopeful. It was supposed to all work out. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this. It’s just one fucking thing after another!” She caught herself. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t use that kind of language. Sometimes it just comes crashing down and I get pushed to the edge.”

They sat in silence for a long time. He began slowly. Carefully. “It’s strange to think how different the worlds we live in are. Mine was full of certainty. Education meant something. People meant something. Mary meant something. My life meant something. Even politics meant something. There was purpose to all of it. I don’t understand your world. It seems to be plowing through seas of uncertainty. You are hungry – starving for – what was always there for me in abundance.” He caught himself. Then said, “But we are the same in what we want out of life. Friends who care about us. People and things worth caring about.” He paused, “Maybe you just need to find a place to start over.”

Cynthia looked at him confused, then grew angry. “My world is Mars to your Earth. Yours is full of life. Bursting with the joy of living and loving. Abundant. Welcoming. Giving. Mine is full of death where there used to be life. They say some big rock hit Mars. Blasted away its atmosphere. Wiped out every living thing on the planet. Your generations threw that rock. That’s my world. The dead remains of what was. And can never be again.”

“More than a dozen of my friends have ended their lives. I’ve thought about doing it myself. You probably grew up with local businesses who knew you and your family. You probably knew the owners and they cared about you. My world is full of big corporations that want me to pay as much as possible for as little as possible. Running up profits so the CEO can buy a bigger yacht or hump another mistress. They even turned me into an employee. Have you checked out of a supermarket lately? The bastards fired a bunch of people – real people like me – and replaced them with machines. The stores you were welcomed at have been put out of business with this online bullshit. Just so one super predator could become a multi-billionaire and make thousands unemployed. You mattered as a person. You were a customer. I’m a product. They sell me to the highest bidder without even telling me they’re doing it. I should have a brand on my forehead. ‘Property of ….’

She shrank back into the cushion and began to cry. “I’m so sorry. You’re being so kind to me, and I’m …”

Manolo started over. Basil waved him back. “Go ahead, get it out. It’s just the three of us. A rescued damsel, an ancient knight, and his faithful companion. You are safe here.”

His words seemed to have no effect. “I feel like a black hole. Isolated from the world around me. From the Schooner Lounge, you, and Manolo. From the mango margarita, and the caviar. I have disappeared into myself.”

“Help me find a way to show you there’s a world worth living for,” Basil pleaded. But she was gone to him. Trapped inside her own pain and despair.

 “Narcissists always tango alone,” he whispered to himself.

“What did you just say?”

“Nothing. I was just hoping I could find a way to show you there’s a world worth living for. Different from the one you have found.”

“I heard what you said,” she almost screamed. “Don’t lie to me! You said narcissists tango alone. God, that’s so right. It sums up my life and future. The dance of love they call it. Alone on the dance floor. Just me with me. No others. No partner. No orchestra. No audience. Just a grotesque dance of self-love.” She was bordering on hysterics. Manolo headed over. This time Basil did not wave him away. But, before he could get to the table, Cynthia stood up abruptly. Her manner changed as if a switch was thrown inside her. Jekyll back to Hyde. Dark suddenly became light. Hysteria became resolve. A forced smile crossed her face. “I’m not fit company for such a good person. Thank you for rescuing me. I am sorry to have burdened you with my problems.” She left without even acknowledging Manolo as she passed him.

“What was that all about?”

“Cynthia is having a bad day,” Basil said. “And likely will have more before this cruise is over. I want to help her. Not sure I can.” He shook his head sadly. “I have my own journey to see to, and I could use some company.” He sighed and settled back. “It’s quarter to three. There’s no one in the place except you and me. So, set em up Manolo,” he half sang. “What do you say a couple of old friends spend some time reminiscing?”

“It would be my pleasure, Sir Knight. Let me refresh your drink.”

They spent an hour in quiet conversation. Two couples and a small group wandered into the Lounge but, finding no bartender on duty, quickly left. The stories of the search for the ultimate margarita, Mary’s playfulness once she caught onto their Man of La Mancha game – she quickly assumed the role of Dulcinea – her interest in Manolo’s family. “What it was like being away from them for such long times.” Cynthia and her problems faded away. He left Manolo refreshed and back on course.

As a single traveler, he wanted to avoid dining alone. Had requested a seat at a table for six. His dinner companions were a diverse lot. He found one of them particularly engaging. Iris had written some very important novels. Her fearlessness drew Basil to her. Brave from decades of experience and surviving tragedies, she talked about things that mattered – really mattered. When she learned about Mary’s death, it was clear she knew a great deal of what he was going through. They talked about loss and living with it. About memories and what they meant. Her directness, and total lack of fear, reminded him of Mary.

After dinner, they went to the Schooner Lounge. Basil introduced Iris to Manolo. “I’m glad to see that you are keeping better company,” Manolo whispered to him. The evening was spent sharing life experiences. As they were getting ready to leave, Iris looked at him through pale grey eyes and said, “You seem to be carrying a new scar. I wonder what it is?”

He told her about Cynthia. The meeting on the upper deck. The trauma in the Lounge. “Narcissists are dangerous animals,” she said quietly. “They are to be avoided. You always think you can help. Always want to. That’s their trap. But, to badly misuse Kierkegaard, narcissism is a sickness unto death.”

“I’m sure I’ve seen the last of her,” Basil said.

“I would be surprised if that turns out to be the case. Beware the asp.” They both laughed.

The next morning Basil had breakfast in his cabin. It arrived just before sunrise. For the first time, he sat on the balcony of a cruise ship alone and watched the glory of returning light. Mary’s windbreaker was his only companion. Afterwards he went back to bed and slept until almost eleven. Then had to dress quickly. Lunch with Iris was on his mostly empty schedule.

One of the best kept secrets of cruising is that the main dining room is almost empty during lunch. Most head up to the big self-serve restaurant. She was already there when he arrived. “I’m sorry to have made you wait. These old bones need more recuperation these days. I got up early and watched the sunrise.”

“It’s something you needed to do,” she said. “But I wouldn’t recommend you make a habit of it. Some ports should be visited only once.”

They shared a delightful lunch. Talking to her reminded Basil of how wonderful it had been to talk to Mary in the same way. “You are thinking about Mary, aren’t you?” Iris asked.

“Yes. Sorry to be distracted.”

‘Nonsense,” she said. “It’s a tremendous compliment. Tell me about your life with her. And don’t worry, it won’t end up in a novel. I’m through with that.” He told her how they met. About the concert. The proposal at Pancho’s, and its repetition. The adventures that their life together became. And the hard ending.

“Oh, that I were younger, and had the old fire. If ever there was a story that should be told, it’s yours. I wish I had met Mary. She sounds wonderful.”

“She was. You would have loved her.”

After lunch he went back to the cabin and changed into his pool outfit. Mary insisted he needed to be pool presentable. Swim trunks, a light shirt and open toe sandals. He took along a novel that Iris had given him. Her last before retiring.

The indoor pool was sparsely populated. He headed to their favorite spot and settled into a lounge. Two chapters into the book he was interrupted. “There you are,” Cynthia said. She had on a sundress and broad-brimmed hat. But it was her smile that caught his attention. It was brilliant and warm. As if they were old friends. “I’ve been looking all over the ship.” She sat down on the lounge next to him. Not bothering to move the windbreaker. “I’m afraid I owe you an apology. I behaved badly yesterday. You were so kind to me, and I returned the favor by being rude and ungrateful. Please forgive me if you can. I’m not used to the kindness of strangers.”

He smiled at the movie reference. “You’re forgiven. I assume you’re feeling better about things today?”

“Yes, I am. I get wrapped up in the melodrama my life can become. Just run off the tracks sometimes. I’m on this wonderful ship in the middle of the Caribbean. I’ve been rescued by a gallant knight. Manolo made me another of those wonderful mango margaritas. Would you give me another chance? I loved our chat. At least the part before I messed up. Please!”

He would rather have continued with the novel. Iris was an engaging and crafty writer. The book had drawn him in. But Cynthia seemed genuine in her request. “Of course. Let me take the windbreaker you’re sitting on so that you can settle back and relax. May I order you another margarita. They are not as good as Manolo’s but very drinkable.

As she settled back, she said, “You know, I’ve never had a family. What was it like? Tell me about your son. Doug, wasn’t it?”

“Dave,” Basil replied. “He was named after my grandfather on my father’s side. An outgoing kid, we thought he might end up in show business. Maybe an actor or director. Always going to movies; mostly alone. We sent him off to college and were surprised when he came home from freshman year announcing he wanted to go into medicine. He was certain. We supported him. After graduating from Holy Cross, he went to the University of Texas medical school. Ended up specializing in cardiothoracic and vascular surgery. Now he’s head of the department at Mass General. Along the way, he married a wonderful woman. They have two kids. The first one made me an official grandfather,” he said with a proud smile.

“Sounds like he’s living a wonderful life. And has a wonderful family. I guess he got that from you.”

“Mostly from Mary. We were always big on family. Helped them grow into the people they are today.”

“All that university time had to be expensive. Did you help with it?”

“Yes. We saw it as our contribution to his future.”

“I wonder how different my life would have turned out if I had that kind of support,” she said. Cynthia grew quiet. A deep sadness seemed to wash over her. She said softly, “Tell me about your oldest daughter. Was she named after your wife? It had to be so hard to lose her.”

“Yes, she was named after Mary. Her life was so bright until the diagnosis. They caught it too late. The cancer had metastasized. Invaded her lymph nodes. It took her almost two years to die. The last months were pure pain. We did what we could, but it was beyond all of us. The doctors ran out of drugs that would ease her pain. Towards the very end, she begged to die. We could not help her.”

They sat in silence for a while. “Such pain and tragedy. And I go on about my problems like they are the weight of the world. How foolish I must look to you.” When he did not respond, she decided to change the subject.

“Tell me about Carol,” she said brightly. “What’s she like?” It took Basil time to respond. Still lost in thoughts of his wife and daughter dying in much the same way. “Sorry, I was drifting on a melancholy sea. Carol was a gift. She was always the nurse in the family. Not just with the deaths, but with the hurts and disappointments. She would bind them up. She never wanted to become a doctor. Surely could have. But Carol said she wanted to stay closer to those in need. She and Dave have become close since our five have been reduced to three. But that’s enough about me. What about you. You seem more settled today. Has something happened between you and your friend?”

“You might say that. Although not directly involving Linda. Just a sorting out for me. I have a much clearer idea of where I’m going and what I want out of life. You’ve helped me find it. I keep getting deeper into you debt, Sir Knight.” She stood up abruptly. “But now I must be off to the sunny pool.”

Basil tucked Mary’s windbreaker under his arm and headed out to the pool deck. He found Iris, alone in one of the hot tubs. He did not much like them, but decided to tolerate the experience in exchange for some distracting conversation. “Mind if I join you?”

Once settled in, he said, “I’ve had another encounter with Cynthia. Can’t figure her out. Maybe you can help.”

“Glad to. Tell me.”

“She seems to have latched on to me. Clearly troubled. I’d like to help her. Can’t see how.”

“Beware young women bearing troubles. They are like black holes.”

“Interesting that you used that description. She did earlier. What did you mean by it?”

“Black holes are the narcissists of the universe. Everything is about them. They suck in all that comes within their range and give nothing back. There’s a thing called an event horizon. Strangely more appropriate with people than black holes. If you get too close, there’s no going back. You get sucked in and cease to exist. Black holes are an invitation to oblivion.”

“I’m sure there’s no chance such a thing will happen to me,” Basil said. “But thanks for the warning. I’m getting tired of the drama. This cruise is to be about Mary and my memories. Enough of Cynthia. Let me introduce you to one of my haunts. We’re docking in Cozumel tomorrow. Mary and I always had lunch at Pedro’s Backyard. It’s a restaurant all the way at the end of the main street. Any taxi will know the place. Would you care to join me?”

“I’ve never been to that one. Count me in.”

“Wonderful, see you at noon then.”

The next morning, Basil took his time walking to Pedro’s. It was a brilliant day. The proprietor of his favorite leather shop welcomed him and gave him a great deal on a leather belt. At the restaurant, he was welcomed as an old friend and given his regular table. He put Mary’s windbreaker on the back of the chair to his right. Iris arrived.

They were a merrie couple. Two old warriors enjoying each other’s company. They added up the years and realized they had almost a century and a half under their combined belts. Decades lived through the same time and, in many cases, the same places. At the start, the talk was mostly about Mary. But, as the afternoon wore on, they talked about their lives and what they had learned. Iris said, “This is a setup for a joke. An author, and a philosophy professor walk into a bar …” They laughed. Genuinely laughed. It was the first time in a long time for Basil. He found himself relaxing with a new friend and began to see a life after Mary.

He raised his glass. “I would like to propose a toast.”

“As long as you’re not going to propose to me,” Iris said with a grin.

Basil realized what she said did not hurt. That he could smile even through the thought that he would never again propose. “To new friends and the gifts they bring.”

“To new friends,” Iris echoed. “We are the legions of new life. Old chapters are closed. We have found something that will see us through to a renewal. I’m so happy that we discovered each other.”

“Oh, there you are!” Cynthia was dressed in the same outfit she’d been wearing when they met on the upper deck. “I hope I’m not intruding. You said such nice things about this place. I just had to drag Linda down for lunch. Look at this glorious red scarf she bought specially for me. Isn’t it wonderful? Our table’s over there,” she said pointing to Linda. “It’s all so clear to me now, Sir Knight. I could not have seen my way forward without your kind assistance. I will be ever grateful.” She headed back to Linda without acknowledging Iris.

“I assume that’s your blackhole,” Iris said.

“Yes,” Basil replied. “She seems better today. And that’s her friend. They seem to be getting along.”

“I would be careful of that one,” Iris said. “There’s something about her that reminds me of one of my characters. Can’t remember which, but it’ll come to me.”

When lunch was over, Iris insisted on paying. A taxi took them back to the ship. Basil found the suite less populated by specters. He fell asleep on the balcony. The sound of the ship’s horn woke him. He rushed to the upper deck. There he found Iris holding a space for him and for Mary’s windbreaker. “I’ve been expecting you,” she said. “Come and enjoy the view.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It began with an early morning call to the front desk. A passenger complaining about a loud radio in the next cabin. The steward knocked several times before using his master key. He found Linda’s naked body sprawled on the bed. Her face was badly mutilated, her breasts were almost removed, deep cuts shredded her groin. There was blood everywhere. The steward turned off the blaring radio and called security.

At eleven, Manolo knocked on the door of the suite. Basil had not shown up for their usual mid-morning visit and he wanted to make sure he was alright. When there was no response, he used a master key to enter. He found Basil lying on the bed. A leather belt wrapped around a throat that had been savagely cut. A bloody windbreaker covered his hips. There was a card next to the body. “Vatican Cameos,” was scrawled on it. A note was pinned to his chest with a steak knife. “I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs. A lonely place to be. And so, I learned to depend on me”.

The door to the balcony was open and a red scarf was knotted around the railing. A thorough search of the ship did not locate Cynthia Fielding.

Categories: Fiction

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