Travel Story Two
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Stroke of Midnight

Part Two


Story written by Rick Archer
First published: March 2006
Last Update: August 2011

Chapter Six - The 2001 SSQQ Cruise Begins


Sunday, August 18, 2001 - The Ship Departs

The day had finally arrived for the long-awaited cruise to begin.  T
he disappointment of Marla's Miami trip with Chris was no longer a sharp ache, but it had definitely put me in a bad mood.  I had finally given up all hope on Marla. 

The Miami incident had changed my attitude about this trip.  I was no longer excited. 
In fact, I was about as cynical as I had been all year.  Romance was for other people, but not for me.  Perhaps I would hook up with some woman on the trip and have a good enough time, but I wasn't sure how I was going to get rid of this sadness that kept nagging at me. 

I boarded the Carnival Celebration with bittersweet feelings.  On the one hand, I felt elation that I had been able to organize a group of 101 people.  This event was a source of real satisfaction for me. I did not do this for the money; I did it as a service to the studio.  It had been fun. I had talked a lot of people into going on this trip and written plenty of stories in the SSQQ Newsletter.  Putting together this huge group was definitely an accomplishment.  I was pleased at how excited everyone was.  This was exactly how it used to be back in the Eighties when we went skiing or took a trip to the Bahamas.  I was proud to be Leader of the Pack once again.

However I was also pretty darn lonely.  I did not enjoy life as a solitary man.  I much preferred to share an experience like this with someone who enjoyed my company and could appreciate all the work I had put into this trip.

There was no one special in my life.  There was no one pining for me back home.  Not even remotely.  My daughter was the only person I had feelings for.  I wasn't even hanging out with the group.  I taught classes and minded my own business.  This was the longest stretch of alone time I had experienced in 25 years.  I didn't blame anyone but myself for my loneliness.  I was a loner at this point by choice. 

On the other hand, life as a one man band was simply not my idea of the road to happiness.  I would have preferred to have a girlfriend to join me on this trip.  Or better yet, I wish that I still had my fantasies about Marla to look forward to.  But I was sick of thinking about her.  I supposed I would get back into the dating game at some point.  I just wasn't ready for anything serious at the moment.   Obviously I was in one of those blue moods again.


In the Midnight Hour


Once I got to my cabin, I noticed a schedule of the cruise activities laying on my bed.  As I scanned the list, I noticed there was a Midnight Singles Dance in the Disco.  This dance was open to everyone on the ship, not just my group.  I circled it.  Well, if I am going to hook up with somebody, that's as good a place to start as any. 

To my surprise, I actually felt grim.  What an odd feeling!   I assumed I would find someone to dance with, but I didn't have much enthusiasm for it.  Finding a woman wouldn't be too tough, but finding one I liked was a different story.  Well, I told myself, let's get it over with.  Maybe I will meet someone who will cheer me up.

When I showed up for the Midnight Dance, I saw 100 people milling around.  As I scanned the room, I did a sudden double-take.  Of all things, Marla was standing alone by herself on the other side of the room.  Unfortunately, it also looked like she was getting ready to leave.  Marla had one foot inside the door and one foot outside the door.

I could not believe this opportunity had materialized out of nowhere.  Just when I had completely given up on Marla, this might be exactly the chance I had been waiting for.  Maybe now I could clear up some of those mysteries. 

As I made my way across the room, my heart was racing.  I tried to remind myself not to get my hopes up. 

Typically when a woman gives me the brush-off for six months, that is not a reason for optimism.  On the other hand, I didn't have anything to lose except a little more self-esteem.  I had been nursing a serious crush on this woman for a long time.  It had first started with the lightning bolt back in November.  Then came March, April, May, June, July, and now August.  In all that time, I had gotten absolutely nowhere.

I am no saint; there had been a couple of brief encounters along the way.  Since Marla never gave me the time of day, why be a hermit?   However, in the eight months since the divorce, I had been completely unable to let down my guard with anyone.  I would bounce off and move on.  And every time my mind would return to Marla. 

Why was I so hung up this woman?  After that Miami phone call, I had told myself before the trip that I had given up all hope.  Well, guess what.  Seeing her standing there, I had just changed my mind. 

I had no idea what stroke of fate had placed Marla in this spot at this time, but this was exactly the chance I had been waiting for.  I was determined not to blow it.  Before the night was through, I wanted an answer to the question that had troubled me for six months - if Marla was in a six-year relationship, then why was she on this trip alone?

For that matter, I might even ask her why she was alone at a dance called the "Midnight Singles Dance"?   Is she looking or not?   Maybe she didn't even know herself.  Well, this is it.  I am going to get an answer tonight.  I may not get the answer I want and I may not like the answer, but I was going to do everything in my power to get an answer of some sort one way or another.   

Once I reached Marla's side, I did everything in my power to seem cool, but I was overwhelmed with feelings.  No matter what else happened, I could not let Marla leave the Disco without speaking to her. 

 


Breaking the Ice

"Hi Marla, what are you doing here?"

Marla smiled.  She seemed relieved to see a familiar face. 

"My roommate Sherry wanted to come to this dance.  She insisted I come along for company."

"Ah, you are the dutiful roommate. So where is Sherry now?"

Marla pointed to the dance floor.  I spotted Sherry out on the dance floor.  Then I turned back to Marla. "Would you like to dance?"

Marla smiled and nodded yes.  But first she had a favor to ask.  "Rick, would you mind putting my room key in your pocket?  I don't have a pocket of my own." 

I took a close look at her curve-hugging blue dress and approved.  Yes, this was the kind of dress that did not call for something practical like a pocket.

So I took her room key and put it my pocket.  It was a simple request, but I took it as a good sign.  She obviously trusted me a little bit.

We danced freestyle.  Thank goodness for dancing.  It was the easiest way known to man to approach a woman and signal interest.  I would have preferred partner dancing for a simple reason - I was dying to put Marla in my arms as soon as I possibly could.  Unfortunately the rap music playing in the Disco wasn't very helpful.

I was surprised to realize I felt a bit self-conscious.  At one time, I had been an excellent freestyle dancer.  Tonight, however, the rap music didn't seem to mesh with my dance moves.  I didn't feel fluid at all.   Then it dawned on me there might be another reason.  Maybe it was my nerves. I had never had any luck with this woman before.  What were my chances now?

I still couldn't figure out why Marla always seemed so pleasant to talk to, but so remote at the same time.  What gives with this woman?   Would I have any better luck tonight getting past her mask? 

After dancing a few songs, we decided to take a rest.  Marla and I went over to sit at the bar. I offered Marla a margarita.  To my relief, she accepted.  That made three good signs - accepting a dance, accepting a drink, plus giving me her key.  Maybe there was hope.  Did I dare believe as much?

Now I began to probe, although cautiously of course.  No point in scaring her off.   My heart was begging for me to ask, "Marla, what in the hell are you REALLY doing on this cruise without your boyfriend?"

However, I thought the indirect approach might be more appropriate.  So what I asked instead was, "How did you get to the ship?  Did you drive down by yourself?"

"No, I dropped my car off at my boyfriend's house and he drove me here.  My car is in his driveway."

I frowned. That was definitely NOT the answer I wanted to hear.  Not a good sign.  However, he was there and I was here.  That would be my mantra for the night.  I wondered for the millionth time what guy would ever let a woman who looked like Marla come on a trip by herself.  It made no sense.  I was Cary Grant, Marla was Deborah Kerr, and if I had anything to do about it, Chris could be in big trouble.

I went back to the old standby.  "What made you decide to come on the trip?"

Marla replied, "I love to travel.  This is my eighth cruise.  I thought it would be fun to get away for a week.  Plus the chance to dance for four days with my friends was a nice twist."

Hmm.  I liked that answer better.  I made a mental note to frequently ask her to dance.

As we sat at the bar, we talked for a while about Marla's previous trips and her love of travel.

I discovered that earlier in her career Marla had been a buyer for a sporting goods company.  This had required her to take long trips to Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines, South Korea, and Hong Kong to scout for the latest trends.  Marla had been to Hawaii, Costa Rica, Alaska, Germany and Switzerland.  And that was just for starters. 

I frowned.  Shoot, I hadn't been to any of those places.  I found myself feeling envious.  Marla was quite the globetrotter.  I had never met anyone with this much travel experience before and told her so.  I smiled because she was clearly enjoying telling me about her adventures.  I noticed we were having a very animated conversation.  Good.  I took it as my fourth good sign.  We were making progress.

I have to admit I winced every time she brought up a trip she had taken with Chris, but I made sure not to let it show.  The important thing was that she seemed to be warming up to me.  That was all that mattered.

Of course I had no way of knowing, but Marla was having an unusual conversation with herself. 

Marla had just realized she liked talking to me.  That actually surprised her a little bit.  She was a seeing a side to me that was new to her.  I was warm, direct and not even remotely superficial.  I seemed knowledgeable, something important to her. Usually Marla had to work at keeping a conversation going, but this talk was no effort at all.  We were jumping from one topic to another like we had known each other all our lives. 

Marla felt puzzled.  This was nothing like the conversations we had back at the studio.  At the studio, Marla's impression was that I was superficial. She would watch as I flitted from one person to the next, giving each person three minutes of my time, then moving to the next person.  Now I seemed like a completely different person to her. 

 

At this point Marla's roommate Sherry came over to say hello.  Sherry had noticed me dancing with Marla earlier.  Now she wanted her turn.  This was an awkward moment for me.  I liked Sherry, but my night hung in the balance.  I was terrified that dancing with Sherry would give Marla an opportunity to slip away and head back to her cabin. 

Marla seemed to be enjoying the conversation, but I didn't want to take any chances.  If I took Sherry out on the floor and Marla was gone when I came back, I would never forgive myself.  This was the magic moment I had been waiting for.  After all my misery, I sure the heck didn't want to blow it on another duty dance.

Unbeknownst to me, Marla was having a similar debate.  When Sherry arrived, one part of Marla said that Rick was the host and that she should free him up to dance with whomever he wished to.   The other part of Marla said that she didn't feel like sharing me at the moment.  What if I got too involved in the dancing and this conversation came to a sudden end?  Marla didn't want that to happen.  She was surprised at herself.  Ordinarily she didn't behave selfishly, but this conversation had become important to her. 

So what to do about Sherry who was standing there waiting?  I solved the dilemma by inviting both women to dance.  I took the hands of both ladies and escorted them to the floor.  I took turns partner dancing with both women, but lived in constant fear that Marla would tire of this and split on me.  I felt like I was so close to solving the mystery; I couldn't bear it if Marla left now.  To my immense relief, out of nowhere Martin from the SSQQ group showed up.  He cut in to dance with Sherry.  I was so happy to see Martin I wanted to hug him.  Martin had just saved the day. 

Martin's sudden appearance was my fifth good sign of the night.  Now I was even getting some breaks. 

Marla and I danced a while longer.  Then we went back to the bar to finish our first round of margaritas.  Our thirst from dancing made the drinks disappear quickly.  I smiled and asked if I could I get her a second round.  Marla returned the smile and said sure.  This was the sixth good sign of the night.  Marla had just signaled her willingness to continue the conversation.  I was starting to feel encouraged.  Good.  It was about time.


To my delight, Marla started to ask me some personal questions about myself.  Now this was a change!  I could not remember when she had ever asked me a single personal question.  Marla's questions were not invasive, but I recognized them as the female equivalent of "The Interview".  This was a very good sign.  Finally!

At long last, Marla had decided to check me out.  I smiled to myself.  Now we were getting somewhere.  As I carefully patted Marla's key in my pocket for reassurance, I told myself this was the seventh good sign of the night. 

Seven good signs and just one bad sign.  Good start.  Best of all, Marla seemed relaxed.   No ominous fidgeting.

Marla seemed to be enjoying the conversation as much as I was.  I could tell she wasn't in any hurry.  Even better, her questions had quickly shifted from name, rank, and serial number to things like how I was coping with my divorce, what had gone wrong, how was my child adjusting, and what my current relationship with my ex was.

I was pleased.  These were the kind of questions a woman asks a man when she is interested.  Good!  I answered her questions as candidly as I could.  I had nothing to hide.  She could ask me any question she wanted.

I asked some questions too, but I deliberately avoided asking about THE BOYFRIEND.  I was here and he was there.  Out of sight, out of mind. I had no desire to remind Marla of his existence at this particular moment.  Plus I had resorted to using love potions.  I was counting on Senorita Margarita to send the boyfriend to the farthest corners of Marla's mind.  I wanted all thoughts of Chris sent to oblivion.

I noticed that Marla did not ask if I had a girlfriend.  Maybe it was her sales background, but she wasn't aggressive in her questioning.  However, out of the blue, Marla did ask me who my roommate was.   I smiled.  "I don't have a roommate.  I didn't make a cent off of this trip, but I did at least get a room to myself."

For some reason, Marla liked the answer.  She nodded and her smile definitely seemed to widen.

 

Marla did indeed like the idea that I was rooming alone.  This meant I didn't have a girlfriend along for the trip. 

However, Marla was very puzzled about something.  She could not figure out how I had managed to become so much more interesting than I had been back at the studio.   Marla recalled that our conversations back at the studio had been cordial, but dry and businesslike.  Tonight she was seeing a totally different person in action.  Now that I wasn't bouncing from one person to the next, I seemed genuine.

Marla liked this side of me much better. She felt a connection to me that made her happy.  Her impression was that I seemed warm.

However, Marla still felt confused.  Marla thought she already knew me fairly well.  But now I was totally different.  If she didn't know better, I had mysteriously improved right before her eyes.  How had she missed this side of me?  How was it possible that the same man she had talked to dozens of times at the studio suddenly had her mesmerized?  It couldn't be the margarita.  Marla hadn't had that much to drink.

Tonight I wasn't the Rick she was used to.  Instead it was more like my interesting twin brother had magically swapped places with me.   If Marla didn't know better, someone had cast a spell on her.  Was this some sort of fairy tale?  Was she dreaming?  Or had someone from Midsummer's Night Dream given her a love potion to hide my true identity?   In her daze, Marla felt like Titania awakening from her pixie dust slumber.

If so, thank goodness I was a little cuter than the donkey Titania had kissed in Shakespeare's play upon awakening.  Marla smiled at the thought.  Whatever the explanation, Rick had just turned out to be a lot more interesting than she had previously realized. 

But that still didn't answer her question.  Why had it taken her so long to notice me?  No one enjoys feeling hypnotized.  I had been standing next to her for six months and she never seen me in this way before. 

In a flash, Marla thought of the gypsy.  No way!!   Suddenly she gulped.  This was much too weird.  This wasn't just weird, this was Twilight Zone weird.  If Marla didn't know any better, this scenario was playing out just like the fortune teller had predicted. "...take the journey.  You will meet somebody on the trip who will change your life.  And you already know him...."

How had she missed on me?   I had been right there the whole time and she had never seen me.

Marla reached for her drink and took a big swallow.  This was shaping up as a very interesting evening.  

 

 

Marla took another sip of her margarita.  My eyes grew wide as she downed it in one gulp.  After a moment, she put the glass down, turned back to me and smiled.  There was a peculiar look in her eye.  I wasn't about to ask, but something had just happened.  If forced to guess, Marla had just made up her mind about something.

The last thing I had said was that I had a room to myself.  I wasn't quite sure why that had made a difference.  I didn't think she was interested in going back to the room with me.  That didn't seem her style.  What crossed my mind instead was that she had just concluded I had not come on the trip with anyone.  That seemed to cheer her up.  This was my eighth good sign of the night. 

Where did a night like this come from?   I had gotten nowhere with this lady for six long months, yet suddenly Marla was right here at my side.  Even better, Cinderella wasn't showing any signs of leaving the party.  Far from turning into a pumpkin at Midnight, Marla had let down her guard and magically shown the interest I had dreamed about.

I smiled at her.  Marla smiled back.  She grabbed my hand, got up from her stool and said, "Let's dance!"

Excellent!  This was my ninth good sign of the evening. Unless I had misread her completely - which I doubted - Marla had just given me the green light.  She had buckled up her seat belt and told me to drive.  Good.  Let's go!

Out on the floor, Marla was clearly enjoying herself.  She was having her very own Cinderella's Ball.  I wasn't sure if it was something I said or Senorita Margarita's special love potion, but Marla was definitely in a good mood.

As for my part, I was thrilled beyond words.  Something had definitely clicked in Marla's mind.

This time we danced a long time... freestyle, then partner dancing, then freestyle again.   As long as Marla wanted to dance, I was game.  This was my turf.  It never hurts to let a lady see a man doing something he does well.   

We danced the night away.


Finally we were tired.  Seeing the enthusiasm with which Marla had attacked her second drink, I decided to try a risky move.  Without asking, I ordered a third round of Margaritas.  There is an old saying that tequila has helped women lower their standards for centuries.  Since I fully intended to permanently pry this woman from her boyfriend of six years, I would take any advantage I could get.  If a third application of Love Potion #9 would help, then so be it.  Bartender, another round, please.

This was a test.  I believed Marla had signed on for the full ride, but it didn't hurt to see if there were any limits.  I took a deep breath and steeled myself for a word of protest.  When I heard nothing, I smiled.  Marla clearly did not have her foot on the brake pedal.  She was enjoying herself.  

This was my tenth good sign of the evening.  When we got our drinks, I was feeling pretty confident.  Now for another test - the ultimate test.  I smiled at Marla and said, "I'm really enjoying this conversation, but it is kind of loud in here.  Do you think we could go upstairs where it is quieter?" 

This was a big step.  Asking a woman to leave the safety of the crowd to be alone with a man is an important step.  If she says yes, it means she likes the guy and trusts him.  A cruise ship is a very safe place, but this was still a symbolic act of trust.  I held my breath.  This was the most important moment of the night.

If Marla said yes, that boyfriend was in a lot of trouble.  This was a decision that would be hard to turn back from.  In fact, if she said yes, I would venture to guess that boyfriend was history.  I was already sold on her and Marla looked like she was just a few more questions away from signing on the dotted line as well.

Marla didn't even blink.  She just smiled, reached for the third Margarita, then gave me her free hand.  Lead the way.

I gulped.  I was a little frightened at how powerful this evening had become.  But I was undeterred.  I took Marla's hand in mine and headed for the door. 

We climbed the stairs up to the deck to look for a place to sit and talk.   My poor little heart was going pitter-patter.  I could barely contain my excitement.  I had been waiting for this moment for so long!  I could hardly believe my time alone with Marla had finally come.

 


It was a Dark and Stormy Night

To my surprise, outside we were met by a stiff breeze.  Wow!  Fortunately, it wasn't chilly.  The temperature was cool and comfortable.  Perfect.  At the very back of the ship, we found two lounge chairs.  We pulled them side by side to face the ocean.  What we saw was amazing.  The moon, the sky, and the ocean had combined to create an incredible night.

There was a stunning full moon above, but we could see only pieces of it.  The moon was shrouded in clouds.  The wind was very brisk, almost howling. The wind had really picked up since earlier in the day when we boarded back in Galveston.  I had forgotten that Hurricane Chantal was nearby in the Caribbean.  Obviously our ship had entered the distant outskirts of the storm.  We were definitely feeling a touch of the hurricane's immense power.  The wind was kicking up the sea. The waves were turbulent and made huge splashes as they crashed against the ship.

Overhead loomed huge, ominous rain clouds that threatened to come our way and engulf us at any moment.  There was no rain where we were, but we could see dark rain squalls off in the distance.  And oh what a moon!  The eerie full moon did a fan dance.  It appeared and disappeared behind the thick clouds racing by in the strong wind. 

It was exciting to have a hurricane in the distance!   We had the all the necessary elements in place for our very own enchanted evening.  The night was perfect for romance.  It was now 2 am.  Marla and I were completely alone.  

I wanted very much to get to the romance part, but first the time had finally arrived to ask The Question.  If ever there was a right time to bring up a sore subject, this was it.  I asked Marla to explain her mysterious relationship.  Marla did not hesitate for an instant.  Marla started by saying she was furious at Chris and had been for some time. 

I was amazed at the venom that poured out of this woman.  Beware the wrath of a scorned woman! 

Just as I suspected all along, Marla said she had come on this trip mainly as an act of defiance.  Details of Chris and his French girlfriend, his frequent trips to men's clubs with his rugby pals, and unconfirmed suspicions about other women quickly came pouring out.  Even last weekend's trip to Miami had been a total disaster, a small detail that cheered me no end.  Good.

It was like lancing an ugly boil and watching the puss ooze out.  Marla was totally disgusted with Chris.   She admitted the relationship had been on life support for some time now.   At this point, they were just going through the motions.  If ever there was a woman ready to jump ship, I was looking at her. 

Inwardly I smiled.  After a guessing game of six long months, it was incredibly satisfying to know my instincts had been right along. 

But now I had to clear up the biggest mystery of all - if her relationship was so bad, why didn't Marla ever show any interest in me? 

Marla replied she had been asking herself that same question all night long.  For one thing, yes, she was angry at Chris, but she didn't believe in being disloyal.  Furthermore, tonight was the first time she had realized I was a lot more interesting than she had ever suspected.  She could not remember enjoying a conversation this much.  In fact, she was a little surprised herself that I had been so easy to overlook.  Maybe if I had been more outgoing and less businesslike.  But most of all, she had no idea I was interested in her.  Why didn't I say something sooner? 

Good question.  I explained that I had a huge crush on her, but all she ever did was talk about that damn boyfriend. Why didn't she encourage me a little? Marla shrugged her shoulders. "Isn't it the man's job to make the first move?"

I frowned.  Yes, I suppose so, but I pointed out the woman can generally try smiling a little.  Marla grinned.  "I am smiling now. Isn't late better than never?"

I asked Marla to explain a little bit more about her job.  When I realized that Marla could set her own hours, that was the final key to unlock my heart.  I had seen several excellent relationships back in the Eighties go to ruin simply because girlfriends with day jobs wore out from lack of sleep.  Once I realized Marla could adjust her schedule to fit mine, I knew this relationship had a real fighting chance.  I was ready to try my hand at love again. 

As I watched the moon play hide and seek in the dark skies above, I could feel myself falling in love right there on the spot.  I was stunned at this turn of events. I had just gotten divorced.  I was scared out of my wits.  Hadn't I told myself I never wanted to risk getting hurt again in my life?   But Marla was irresistible.  I really liked her! 

I invited Marla over to my lounge chair.  We didn't do a lot of talking after that.  We stayed there together till the sun came up.  This had been a truly amazing evening.  It was "Love at First Night".

 

 


Part Three - Failure to Communicate

   
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