Travel Story Three
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Stroke of Midnight

Part Three

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

Chapter Seven - The Fairy Tale Comes Unraveled


Starting at the stroke of Midnight, the wee hours of Monday had been some of the happiest moments of my life.  Throughout the darkness, I grew closer to Marla than I ever could have imagined.

Now as the sun rose in the east, I was sad that our long night was over.  However, I thought nothing more of it.  I expected that daylight would bring nothing but further happiness.  Isn't Dawn the eternal symbol of new beginnings?  Maybe so, but not today.  Monday would become one of the most painful days of my life. 

Marla didn't turn into a pumpkin at dawn, but she did manage to mysteriously change nonetheless.

As the sun rose in the sky, I invited Marla to go back to the cabin for much needed sleep.  Marla shook her head.  She said she preferred to go to her own cabin. 

I furrowed my brow.  That wasn't exactly the fairy tale conclusion to the evening I had hoped for.  Weren't we supposed to fall in love and live happily ever after?   To me, that meant staying together.  As I would find out, modern fairy tales are much more complicated.

Marla asked if she could have her key back. 

I was very surprised.  I took that as a bad omen.  Just as handing me her key had been a good omen, asking for her key back was the opposite. 

I wanted her by my side, so I protested.  Perhaps she had misunderstood my intentions.  I explained that when I said 'sleep', I said I meant 'sleep'.  There had been no hanky-panky.  Any mischief was of the hugs and kisses variety.  Pretty innocent stuff, actually.   I told her I fully expected we would both keep our clothes on.  I just didn't want to be apart.  I wanted to wake up with her beside me.

Marla shook her head.  She wasn't going to change her mind.   Then she added some very unsettling parting words. 

"Rick, first I need some rest, then I want to give my relationship with Chris a little thought in the light of day before making any final decisions."

That didn't sound good to me, but I nodded okay.  I didn't think revealing my sudden pang of insecurity would help matters. 

I handed her the key.  Marla hugged me, kissed me, and left.

I just stood there watching her go.  I felt hurt.  What had just happened?

A Failure to Communicate

Misunderstandings between men and women are the stuff of legends.  Shakespeare's play Much Ado about Nothing gives testimony to the damage that can be caused by gossip and rumor as well as the danger of jumping to conclusions. 

Presented as a comedy, I never took the play too seriously.  My attitude was that in real life, there was no possible way people could get this confused over love. 
Or could they?

Marla would later say what she meant by her statement was that her mind was pretty much made up to end her six-year time with Chris.  But six years is six years.  Marla wanted to get some rest to clear her mind.  First she wanted to review the events that had doomed her relationship with Chris. Then she wanted to give her feelings for Chris one last look before signing off on the decision.   This time alone would be her own private 'goodbye ritual' of sorts. 

At that point, she would ready to move on.  Marla added that the context of her parting hug and kiss should have made all this perfectly clear to me.

Presented that way, Marla's plan made sense to me.  If that is what she had said, Marla's wishes would have been perfectly clear and not so ominous.  But that's not what she said and that's not what I heard

It was classic Venus-Mars.  In her mind, what Marla said meant one thing, but what I heard meant another. 

What I heard was that Marla was still considering returning to Chris.  Marla needed time to think about it when she had a clear head.  And she didn't want me anywhere nearby to pressure her.

Decisions Decisions

When I awoke at 9:30 am, I was still upset at how we had parted.  After the night we had together, I couldn't imagine Marla ever returning to Chris.  Nevertheless her parting words threw me off balance.  There was now a definite seed of doubt planted in my mind. 

As I ate a quick breakfast alone, I thought long and hard.  At daybreak, Marla seemed to be distancing herself.  I was definitely worried. 

I tried putting myself in her shoes.  Marla had put a lot of time into this man.  They had a long history together.  They had similar interests and had their schedule down pat.  For lack of a better description, her relationship with Chris was comfortable and convenient.

Based on our talk last night, there were two main problems.  First, Chris took Marla for granted.  This was a huge hot button for her.  Chris seemed to have not a clue how lucky he was to have her.  He behaved as if he assumed Marla would always be there.

Second, and more serious, Chris seemed to be cheating.  Marla had lots of circumstantial evidence, but it was mostly excuses and explanations that didn't quite ring true. There was nothing solid she could pin on him.  Instead she was left with a constant feeling of distrust. 

Marla had been unhappy for well over a year.  Unfortunately for Marla, she didn't trust her misgivings enough to take action.   Did Marla really have the guts to break up with Chris without cold, hard evidence? 

So I could see why Marla wanted to spend time alone thinking it all through again.  From my point of view, I wanted her to cut the guy loose now and turn her attention to me.  But from her point of view, there was less urgency.  After all, she was giving up a sure thing, albeit flawed, for a man she had just met.  Why make an impulsive decision?  What was the harm in examining her thoughts after some rest?

So what would Marla decide to do?   Of course I hoped that Marla would decide the events of last night was a clear indication her relationship with Chris was no longer worth pursuing. 

However I also figured there was a strong possibility that Marla would decide to postpone her decision.  In that case, she would spend as much time as possible with me for the duration of the trip while she mulled it over further.  If so, I had three more days and nights to help persuade Marla I was indeed the better man. 

The thing I feared was that Marla would awaken and find herself beset with guilt.  She would have second thoughts.  She would realize that she was lonely and vulnerable, but that last night had been foolish.  She needed to get her priorities straight.  Casting away the security of a comfortable relationship for a potential gigolo wasn't in her best interests.  She would retreat into a shell and spend the remainder of the trip reevaluating how to patch up her six-year relationship. 

If Marla truly wanted to return to Chris, of course that was Marla's right.  I would be heartbroken, but I would find a way to accept it.

So what should I do until Marla made her decision? 

For starters, I didn't think interfering was a very good idea.  In the past, I had once lost a relationship in its early stages because I followed a woman around like a puppy dog.  Elaine got sick and tired of seeing me everywhere she turned.   I could tell Elaine was pulling away, but I was clueless what the problem was.  Elaine wasn't the type to talk things out.  All I knew was that it came to a quick and sudden end.  After a couple dates, Elaine said it had been great and see ya later alligator. 

I was baffled at the time.  What did I do wrong?  Fortunately my roommate had watched me interact with Elaine and was able to suggest what might have happened. 

I learned my lesson.  Women do not like men hanging all over them.  I didn't want to make that mistake again.  Marla had hinted that she needed distance.  Fine.  You got it.  I would give Marla as much distance as she wanted.  No smothering from me.  Let her make up her mind without pressure from me. 

I thought my decision to back off until she had time to think was the fair thing to do. 

As it turned out, my decision to leave Marla alone was a very bad decision. 

The Ill-Fated Dance Class

It started with my 10 am dance lesson.  I planned to teach some Western Swing patterns to members of our dance group.  Operating on three hours of sleep, I clearly wasn't at my best.  But my biggest problem was that I didn't know how to act around Marla.

Complicating things, I was late to class.  This meant I was unable to talk to Marla before entering the room.  As a result, I could not ask her in advance what role to play.  Should I acknowledge her or keep things secret?   In the absence of any direction from Marla, I decided to pretend she was just one of many.  I expected to talk to her after class and I would explain then... except that she disappeared before I could talk to her.

During the dance lesson, I kept my distance from Marla.  I had a reason.  Marla's last words to me were that she wanted to think about her boyfriend.  I doubted seriously that Marla would decide that last night had been a mistake.  However I wasn't going to make things awkward for her by behaving in a way that would tip off her friends.  Yes, we had kissed last night, but it had stopped there. We had not crossed any lines that Marla would have trouble explaining if she decided to return to Chris.  Better to keep things private until Marla had the chance to think things through in the light of the day like she had asked.

Of course I said hello to Marla when I saw her... but I whispered it.  That immediately bothered Marla.  Why was I whispering?

The problem, of course, is how to avoid someone for their own good, yet find a way to explain why you are avoiding them.  It was impossible.  There were curious eyes in every direction.  There was no way I could communicate my reasons with two dozen people watching.  I had no choice but to avoid speaking to Marla. 

As it turned out, my chivalry - if you could call it that - totally backfired.  'Stupidity' might be a better word. 

That said, my intentions were decent, not sneaky.  I was simply giving her some room like she asked.



Unbeknownst to me, Marla was upset.  Marla was stunned that she was getting the brush off.  What the hell was wrong with me?  Last night had been wonderful.  Had something changed in the past three hours?  Why didn't I pay attention to her? 

Marla was perplexed.  My behavior made no sense whatsoever.  

Earlier this morning when Marla returned to her cabin, Sherry had awakened.  Sherry wanted to know what had happened.  When Marla had told Sherry about our night together, Sherry mentioned she had heard a rumor about me that I was a ladies man.  Maybe Marla should be a little more careful.

Marla was old enough to take those words with a grain of salt.  However, now that I refused to pay attention to her, suddenly Sherry's casual comment took on new meaning.  Watching me smile at every woman in the room, Marla got suspicious. Was there another woman in this room I was trying to avoid tipping off? 

It hurt her terribly to think I was chasing someone else in addition to her.  However that was one reason that might explain my distance act.  What other possible reason could explain why was I acting so aloof? 

When I failed to ask her to breakfast during class, this was yet another brush-off that stung terribly.  Hurt and angry, she left the class early in a huff.  Marla had completely misinterpreted my actions.  

I didn't even see Marla leave.  I certainly had no idea what was going through her mind.   By the way, just to be clear, there was never another woman. 

Since Marla took off without speaking to me, I had no idea what was going on in Marla's mind.  I thought it was odd that she didn't stick around, but I assumed she wanted more rest or maybe she had chosen this moment as her "time to think".  

As for me, I still had a lot of sleep to catch up on.  I was exhausted.  On my way back to the room, I had an unsettling thought.  What if Marla had already made her decision to return to Chris and didn't have the courage to talk to me about it after class?  That would explain why she seemed to be avoiding me.  That thought sent a huge chill through me. 

When I got to my room, I laid there wondering what she had decided to do.  If she had decided to return to Chris, I didn't have to panic.  He was there and I was here.  Surely it would all work out.  With that, I shut my eyes and took a nap.

What I didn't know is that I was in the middle of a dangerous misunderstanding on both our parts.  It would fester and strengthen all day long with serious consequences.


By coincidence, that afternoon Marla and I both returned to the same deck where we had spent the early hours of the morning.  Except that we arrived separately.  While I sat on one side of the deck doing a crossword puzzle, I had no idea Marla was nearby.  I may not have seen her, but Marla was definitely on my mind. 

Meanwhile, my fate was being decided just twenty short feet away.

Marla was engaged in some serious thinking.  My behavior that morning had put a real scare into her.  It's one thing to fall into another man's arms at 2 am with the help of Senorita Margarita and a night of sexy dancing.  It is quite another thing to willingly jeopardize a six-year relationship for a man you barely know after you sober up, especially when the same guy mysteriously acts like a complete jerk the next morning. 

Marla decided to handle one guy at a time.  As she expected, Marla realized she felt absolutely no guilt over the events of the previous night.  Marla concluded that last night would have never happened if the relationship was more solid.  Her relationship had been going nowhere for a long time.  Marla decided the time had come to end the relationship with her boyfriend.  She was sad, but certain this was the right thing to do.

Marla quietly said goodbye to Chris in her thoughts.  No tears, just regrets.  And with that she threw him overboard.  Six years had come to an end.  Whether things worked out with me or not, it was time to move on. 

As for me, she placed a serious question mark next to my name.  I had some explaining to do.

There was a dance coming up in an hour.  Marla decided it was time to start getting ready.  As she got up, that's when I saw her leave.  Expecting to meet again at the Captain's Reception, I let her go without a word.  I was still in my "give her space" mode.  I figured I would discover my fate soon enough. 

Chapter Eight - The Captain's Reception

That evening was Formal Night on the cruise.  There was a Captain's Reception in the theater.  This was a fun event for our group.  While the ship's orchestra played Big Band music, the dancers were allowed up on the stage of the theater.   Not only did we have lots of room to dance, we had great music and a huge audience as well.  Being on stage suited us just fine.  It was a huge ego boost to be up there.  We felt like we were performers.  In fact, we were so much fun to watch that many people in the audience thought we had been hired to entertain them.

At times, there were as many as twenty SSQQ couples up there.  Every couple danced like a pro.  Once the general public saw the caliber of our dancing, they had no desire to join us and risk comparison.   Consequently the stage belonged to SSQQ.  We danced Swing, we danced Foxtrot and we danced Whip.  Every one of us felt like a star.  We waved to our friends in the audience and enjoyed our moment in the spotlight.  We were the Show!

Marla and I arrived separately.  I danced with Marla the moment I saw her.  Then I danced each subsequent song with a different lady. However I saved the last dance for Marla.  The band chose Stars Get in Your Eyes, a great song from the past.  I was so happy.  The song reminded me of last night. 

Although Marla and I had still not talked, the moment I had her in my arms, I was no longer worried about losing out to Chris.  Marla's smile said it all and the warmth of her touch underscored the message.  Reassured that Marla had feelings for me after all, I melted. 

I could no longer continue the charade from the morning.  No more distance.  I was definitely in love.

I held her very close and Marla returned the gesture.  I guess I wasn't fooling anyone.  Sure enough, our dance on stage did not go unheeded.  As I had suspected, I was hardly the only man who had his eye on Marla.  She had just dashed the hopes of at least one other man.  In the theater when I wasn't looking, a gentleman touched her hand and very pointedly asked Marla if the two of us were dating.  Marla just smiled and gave a non-committal answer. 

The curtain came down and show was over.  I was about to walk Marla to the Dining Room when someone put on a tape of disco music just as we were all leaving.  Aha.  This was great Whip music.  Here was one more opportunity to show off!

By chance, Jill, one of my instructors, was close by.  Jill was not only a very pretty lady, she was a great dancer.  On an impulse, I invited her back up to the stage.  We put on an impromptu Whip solo.   People stopped leaving and turned around to watch.

Ordinarily I do not like to perform, but my dance with Marla had me feeling very confident and happy.  I danced to the top of my abilities for one single reason - I was trying to show off for Marla.  She had never actually seen me "dance" before.  I wanted her to be proud of me, so I turned up the energy.

Jill and I put on quite a show.  We got a big hand when the song was over.  However, when Jill and I finished, Marla was nowhere to be seen.  That bothered me.  I thought it was odd that Marla hadn't waited for me.  Oh well.  So much for impressing her.  I headed over to the Dining Room to search for Marla.  She wasn't hard to find.  Marla was standing amidst a large group of SSQQ people.

They were all lined up outside the Dining Room waiting for the doors to open.  Marla and I stood there for a good ten minutes talking to each other and to different people in our group.  I assumed Marla and I would dine together. After seeing how happy she had been dancing with me on stage, it didn't even occur to me to ask her to dinner.  I assumed standing right at her side was all that was necessary. 

Unfortunately, there was a serious problem brewing that I was absolutely clueless about. 


Inner Demons

Unbeknownst to me, Marla was upset for a number of reasons. Until the Captain's Reception, I had not spoken to Marla the entire day... and the only talking I did there was to ask her to dance.  During the day, Marla had plenty of time to think. As they say, idle hands are the devil's workshop.  Nietzsche once put it another way - too much time to think is the parent of psychology.  He may have been on to something.

When I had deliberately kept my distance from Marla at dance class earlier that morning, my actions had seriously spooked her.  And why didn't I seek her out during the day?  She had no idea what was going on with me, but she wasn't happy.  Marla was almost certain I had been playing games all day long. 

After making the decision to end her relationship, Marla spent the rest of her time thinking about me.  Despite how wonderful last night had been, during the day Marla had begun to worry about my character.  She had heard rumors about me.  My behavior that day didn't help matters.  Questions abounded. 

Was I really a walking time bomb with an anger problem?  Was I a womanizer?  Did I take women for granted and discard them at leisure?   Did I have other women lined up on this trip?

A strong possibility had crept into her mind that I had avoided her during the morning class to keep my options open with other women.  What if there was another woman at that dance lesson that I was also chasing?   That was a very disturbing explanation for why I had avoided showing public interest in Marla.  

Marla could not have cared less about protecting her "reputation".  Quite the contrary.  What Marla wanted was for me to openly show the same affection for her in public that I had shown last night in private.  She wasn't the type to fool around behind closed doors like some cheap hussy.  If I was truly interested in her, then show the world. She wanted me to welcome her at dance class with enthusiasm.  Try a hug for starters and then improve on that.  Instead I had limited my response to an inaudible whisper and pretended like she didn't even exist. 

Marla had lost her temper and left when I had my back turned.  Now she regretted her decision.  She wished she had stuck around in the shadows to see what I did next.  Her departure had given me the perfect opportunity to invite a woman back to my cabin for the rest of the morning.  All kinds of doubt crept into her mind.    

Unfortunately, trust doesn't come easily to Marla.  Marla had been the victim of betrayal in her marriage which caused her great pain.  Later on, her snake of a boyfriend Chris had likely betrayed her as well, but he was too slick for her to be sure of the full extent.  For that matter, when it came to slick, I was a little too smooth for my own good as well.  I seemed to know my way around women.  I was starting to behave just like Chris.  

At this stage of her life, Marla had no desire to rush blindly into another mistake and get hurt again.  Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me.

More insecurities had arisen during the Captain's Reception.  Marla wasn't sure why I kept escorting one lady up on that stage after another to dance.  Marla had never seen me in any situation other than dance class.  Marla knew so little about me that she wasn't really sure what I was up to.  All she knew for sure was that I was ignoring her again to spend time with other women.  When she wasn't dancing herself, she studied me very carefully for possible clues.

Marla thought back to last night when her roommate Sherry had come along in the middle of our conversation.  Sherry's presence had forced Marla to debate whether to keep my attention or set me free to dance with anyone I wanted to.  Marla realized that my dancing with the masses could be easily explained as courtesy and good business.  On the other hand, there could be a darker explanation as well.  Watching me smile and talk to the women while I danced, I did absolutely nothing to dispel her fear that I was courting at least two and maybe even more women all at the same time.  What was I whispering to them up on stage?  Was I lining them up like bowling pins to be knocked down as the opportunities arose?  Was my mind in the gutter?

It did not help that various woman from the studio had warned her that all dance teachers were womanizers.  That kind of gossip acted like acid on her confidence.  Was she being played for a fool?  Yes, she had heard that I had a solid reputation during my marriage, but could any dance instructor really be trusted? 

Now that she was paying closer attention, as far as Marla could tell, I was fulfilling the stereotype to a tee.  On the other hand, Marla accepted there were other explanations as well.  One of my nicknames for Marla is "Both Sides Now".  I have never seen anyone work harder to see things from all angles than Marla. 

True to form, throughout the Reception, there was a great debate raging in her head.  It frustrated Marla no end that she didn't know which was the correct explanation for my behavior.  She had just spent six years dealing with a man who lied through his teeth.  Marla certainly did not want to go through that again, but damn it, here she was stuck in the same agonizing guessing game again.  She felt like she had just stepped from the burning pot to the frying pan. 

Then came our romantic slow dance at the end.  Marla had just gotten the reassurance she needed.  Finally she got a much-needed glimpse of the same man she had grown fond of the night before.  Marla was just about to dismiss her day-long fears as ancient, but groundless phobia.  Why had she felt so insecure?

Then it all fell apart the moment I asked Jill to dance the Whip on stage.  That was my downfall.

Marla and I were hand in hand after the important slow dance.  The orchestra had disappeared behind the curtain.  We had just begun to walk out of the theater when someone put a tape of some Blues music.  It was being played as background entertainment for the people as they left the area.

On an impulse, I literally let go of Marla's hand, grabbed Jill who was walking with us and hauled her back up on stage.  Jill didn't mind a bit.  She is a natural performer.  Once she made it back upstage, she turned on the juice and enjoyed herself.  I think she enjoyed the opportunity. 

Meanwhile, Marla was left standing alone in the middle of theater aisle.  She couldn't believe I had just left her without explanation and climbed back on stage.  Now I was strutting around up there like I was thought I was Mick Jagger or something.  Marla immediately frowned.  She thought that was rude.

As Jill and I danced, a man who had stopped to watch us dance also noticed Marla as she stood there half-staring and half-glaring.  He came up from behind and stood next to Marla.  He said, "I saw you and Rick dancing up there a second ago.  It looks like you and Rick dating.  Are you?"  

Marla took her eyes off me and stared at the man for a second.   She was surprised that our connection had been so obvious.  Marla said, "Nah."  That's Marla for you.  We were practically in love, but we weren't dating.  Therefore, in her mind, that meant "no" was the correct answer. 

Marla knew she had been abrupt.  On the one hand, she was pleased that our affection had shown to other people.  But she was also still peeved that I had l left her side.

The gentleman did a double-take at Marla's curt answer.  Marla's answer didn't feel right.  He was just like me.  Marla had a way of saying things that didn't always jibe with a person's observation.  He stared at Marla for a second and almost asked another question.  Then he changed his mind and left the theater. 

Marla turned her attention back to our dancing.  Marla was growing increasingly unhappy.

It had nothing to do with Jill.  Marla wasn't jealous of Jill or upset with her for dancing.  Jill was not the problem at all.

The problem was my behavior.  First, she was mad that I was showing off.  The curtain was down.  Playtime was over.  How many times did I need to show the world that I could dance?  Plus the thought crossed her mind for the umpteenth time that it might not just be her I was showing off for.

However what really had Marla on edge was that I had interrupted our first romantic moment since last night to go back on stage.  She was getting increasingly tired of sharing me with every woman on the ship.  Last night she thought she had finally met a nice guy.  Now Marla wasn't so sure any more. 

Marla had just decided to end a six year relationship based to a large extent on the surprising strength of her feelings for me.  However, that man had disappeared.  Now as Marla watched me show off up on the stage, I was a million miles away.  Marla felt like a fool.  The man doesn't even know I exist.  Damn Rick anyway. 

Marla left the theater alone.  She was seething mad inside.

Chapter Nine - Marla Meets the Most Fascinating Man in the World

Dinner time on a cruise ship is one of the most important features of the entire trip.  This is a time reserved for friendship and romance.  Every cruise ship goes out of its way to make sure the dining experience is as pleasant and enjoyable as it can possibly be. Evening Dining is typically a popular occasion for everyone.  If a couple is traveling alone, this is a moment for private conversation.  For a group like ours, this is a time to see friends and to share the experiences of the day. 

Considering I had deliberately avoided Marla all day long, I was more than ready to be with her again.  Our intimate slow dance just moments earlier had made it clear to me that Marla's decision had included me in her plans.  She had not held back at all.  Now I could not wait to introduce Marla to all my friends.  I was so excited! 

I caught up with Marla at the dining room.  It was fifteen minutes until the doors opened, so the entire SSQQ group was busy talking up a storm in a tight space.  The area was very crowded with people.  Marla seemed a bit quiet, but I had no idea that anything was wrong. 

As we stood milling about, a young couple from our group approached me.  Back at the studio, Doug and Jamie had taken several private lessons from me to get ready for their upcoming wedding dance.  Now they had a question for me.  I don't remember what their concern was, but it was involved enough that I turned to face the two of them. 

It was noisy in there and this was only way I could hear both of them speak at the same time.  This meant that I had to turn my back to Marla.  Thanks to a childhood accident, I am blind in my left eye.  Normally this poses no handicap for me, but I have no peripheral vision to my left side.  As a result, I never even noticed that Marla had started to walk away from me.

Trust me, if I had any inkling Marla was angry at me, she would have had my full attention.  What is absurd about this situation is that I was on Cloud Nine and Marla was in the depths of despair.  We were a chasm apart and I was clueless.  It doesn't seem possible but it was true. 

To this day, I have never quite understood why turning my back upset Marla so terribly.  However, Marla insists that my behavior really bothered her.  At this point Marla was evaluating my every move with a jaundiced eye.  So I can only assume Marla was hyper-sensitive about everything.   

For a long time, I assumed Marla's complaint was another case of wondering if was disguising evil intentions.  Did I turn my back to avoid tipping some woman off that I was standing next to Marla?  But Marla later explained that wasn't the case at all.  Her frustration with me was my lack of courtesy.

Yes, it was true Marla had been upset about watching me show off with Jill, but she had already gotten over that.  Now her concern was about manners.  It really irritated Marla that I seemed to have forgotten that she existed.  She pointed out that I spent five minutes talking to Doug and Jamie.  During this time I did not introduce Marla to them, I did not once halt the conversation to check on her, nor did I have the courtesy to ask her to have dinner with me.  Instead I let Marla stand there alone for five solid minutes with my back turned to her.  Marla felt ignored and disrespected.

This was just another example of me paying attention to everyone on the ship but her.  As far as Marla was concerned, I had either avoided her or acted like a jerk all day long.  And now this.  Not that turning my back was much of a crime, but it was the final straw. 

Marla had two problems with her ex-boyfriend.  One was his deceptiveness.  The other was his tendency to take her for granted.  As for me, I had spent the day acting just as suspicious as Chris ever had.  Now I was ignoring her to boot.  Had Marla just traded for the same stupid horse?   This was ridiculous. 

Marla lost her temper and took off.  She was determined to teach me a lesson - Do not to take her for granted.


With my back to Marla, I had not noticed her leave.  When I saw that people had begun to move, I turned back around to escort Marla.  I was shocked to see she was no longer at my side.  I looked up and realized she was fifteen feet away moving towards the dining room.  Marla was walking very rapidly.  Nor did she glance back to see if I was coming. 

I was confused.  Why didn't Marla let me know the doors had just opened?  Now she was moving so fast it would be hard to catch her.  I didn't want to believe it, but her speed made this separation seem intentional.  It looked as if Marla didn't want me to catch up.  I actually began to sprint, but it was too late.

When I entered the dining room, Marla was already seated at a table with her roommate Sherry on one side and a handsome young man on the other. Nor did Marla make eye contact as I passed by.  She turned and asked Sherry a question.   There were no other seats at her table.   That left me with no choice but to sit at a different table.

I was crushed.  Why had Marla ditched me like that?  I found this situation extremely baffling.  I was lost.

During the meal, I watched Marla out of the corner of my eye.  It seemed to me that Marla was laughing and having a very good time.  I stared in horror.  In six months of watching her like a hawk at the studio, I had never once seen Marla flirt.  Not with me, not with anyone.  Now, however, there was no doubt in my mind.  Marla had just turned on the charm.  She was definitely flirting with the young man sitting next to her.  She was good at it too.  Too good.

In fact, her behavior scared me to death.  Laughing, touching, giggling, smiling.  Marla acted like she was sitting next to the most interesting man in the world.  Not once did she ever look my way.  I no longer existed.  I began to feel incredibly insecure.  The pain of losing her made me sick to my stomach with nausea.

How could this be?   Just fifteen short minutes ago I had held this same woman in my arms.  We had slow danced to a beautiful song.  I had held her close enough to tip off that man watching from afar.  Marla had smiled at me for the entire song and looked in my eyes.  Now she was openly laughing and flirting with another guy.  Nothing made any sense.  I could not think of any explanation.  I was being punished for something, but what?

I wasn't much company at the dinner table.  I barely touched my food.  Nor did I say a word unless someone asked me a question.  All I could think about was how hurt I felt.  I was lost in my confusion.

Someone asked me if I was okay.  I smiled wanly and replied, "No, not really."  In fact, I was feeling faint.  I got up and excused myself.

I literally staggered back to my cabin.  I collapsed on my bed and stared at the ceiling.  My mind raced as I tried to figure out why Marla had rejected me so coldly.  I couldn't help but believe that Marla's performance had been directed at me somehow.  It felt like payback of some sort, but what had I done to deserve it? 

Then a painful thought stabbed me in the heart.  It had just occurred to me that this might be related to Marla's decision to go back to her boyfriend after all.  She didn't have the guts to tell me to my face.  This bizarre dinner display was her strange way of telling me last night was a mistake.  I felt like someone had just stabbed me in the stomach with a knife.  That thought was more than I could possibly accept.

I had completely opened myself up last night.  I could not believe Marla had decided to return to that man.  That completely contradicted everything I believed about our night together.  Even if Marla did decide to return to Chris, surely she would have the decency to break it to me gently.  This dinner behavior was not the way a lady would handle rejecting someone who had obvious feelings for her.  It had to be something else. 

Then an even more painful thought popped up.  Let's say Marla had indeed decided to end the relationship with Chris.  That meant she was a free agent now.  What if Marla had already found someone else she preferred to me?  I gasped in horror.  What if Mr. Fascination had taken my place?  

No way.  Surely no woman is that fickle.  But maybe...  I shook my head in confusion.

Whatever the story, Marla's dinner behavior was a cruel blow.  Just the thought of losing her caused me deep anguish. 

This sudden turn of events left me completely flat-footed.  I didn't see it coming, I didn't know the reason why, and I had no clue how to react. 

Was last night just a dream?  Right now our Midnight Encounter seemed more like a fantasy than a reality.  I could not believe how sure of myself I had been last night.  I thought Marla was the real thing; how could I have been so wrong?  I had never in my life seen a woman flip like this before.  Her behavior bordered on the bizarre.  I had no logical explanation for it. 

Whatever the explanation, I felt like I had lost her.  I was beside myself with pain.  Why did I risk so much so quickly? 

First the divorce eight months ago.  Then there was my crush on Marla that had gotten me nowhere.  I cringed as I recalled all my months of pining for a woman who had never shown the slightest bit of interest in me.  Then suddenly all that had changed last night.  Or had it?  I thought we were both in love.  I really did.  Now I had just been ditched in such a heartless way.  I didn't even know who I was being ditched for - the guy back home who didn't give a lick about her or some new guy she had just met on the cruise!  

Either way, I felt so betrayed.

Lost in my pain, I knew I wanted to love and be loved like anyone else.  Everyone needs love, but why does it always have to be so difficult?   This feeling of loss was unbearable.  Having felt warm emotions for the first time in ages, I could not bear to have my hopes taken away from me.  This was so unfair.  Why?  I hadn't done anything wrong to deserve this.  Was I supposed to believe last night had meant nothing to this crazy woman? 

Her laughter was still ringing in my ears.  Was she laughing at something her new boyfriend said or was she simply laughing at me?  Or were they sharing a joke at my expense and laughing at me together?  Were they jeering at me?  I felt embarrassed and humiliated.  Ha ha, Rick.  Look what you get for sticking your neck out.

Finally I just couldn't be brave anymore.  I wasn't remotely strong enough to face this kind of disappointment.  At this point, the dam broke.  Eight long months of bitterness, frustration, insecurity, loneliness, and disappointment all hit at once. 

I broke down completely.  It was a pretty rough moment. There was a lot of pent-up emotion in there.  I turned on my stomach, buried my face in my pillow and sobbed uncontrollably. 

I hadn't cried like this since my parents announced their divorce.  Suddenly I was nine years old again.  Abandoned.


Chapter Ten - The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Back when I was in graduate school in the early Seventies, a woman named Jan told me she was in love with me.  I felt the same way about her. Jan officially became the first woman I had ever fallen in love with. 

Unbeknownst to me, one night a week later while I was studying, her old boyfriend came knocking.  Jan let him in.  The next thing Jan knew, she had two boyfriends.  Jan had plans to leave town in one month to get ready for college in another state.  Rather than choose, she decided to keep us both.  For the next month, Jan tried to juggle both men.  Keeping me in the dark, Jan told me one lie after another to explain her mysterious absences. 

I spent an entire month confused out of my mind trying to make sense of her strange excuses.  I basically went through the same thing with Jan that Marla would later go through with Chris.  It wasn't till Jan left town that I finally discovered the truth from her girlfriend who took pity on me.  I was stunned.  Jan's blatant deceit caused me the worst heartache of my life. 

The pain Jan caused was almost too much for me to bear.  Thanks to her, I had so much anger and distrust of women it was three years before I had another girlfriend.  I could not let down my guard again until I figured out a way to protect myself from the next treacherous woman.  I vowed I would never allow myself to be deceived like that again.  From that point on, it became my habit to question the suspicious behavior of any woman I was developing feelings for.  I refused to trust a woman blindly.  They had to earn it.  If something in their story didn't make sense or sound right, I would back off. 

No one was going to make a fool of me again like Jan did.  I was determined to use vigilance and direct questions to prevent that kind of pain from ever happening again.

I thought I had learned my lesson from Jan, but I was wrong.  I was completely blind-sided by Marla's sudden desertion.  Memories of Jan were definitely in my mind during my crying spree over Marla.  Even though I barely knew Marla, the pain was identical.  Just like Jan, I believed Marla had seemed to love me only to turn around and find she had been playing me for a sucker.  The pain seared through my body.  I cried my guts out.  I suppose it took me fifteen minutes to regain control.  

After the pain subsided a bit, it was replaced by a vicious anger.  No woman has the right to treat me like that.  I had done nothing to deserve this.  Yes, it was a woman's right to reject me, but no woman had the right to torture me in the process.  I could feel that ancient darkness start to wash over me.  It was scorched earth time again.  I can be just as mean as the next guy when I feel burned.  Two can play this dirty game. 

I was full of rage mixed with hurt.  I wanted to retaliate in the worst way. I wanted to find a way to pay her back.   I decided I would find some other woman and give Marla a bitter taste of her own medicine. 

I sat on the side of my bed seething with anger.  After ten minutes of pure hate, I finally began to cool off a little bit.  What good would retaliation do?   First I had felt pain, then I had felt anger.  Now I just felt sad and empty.  Okay, Marla had made a fool of me.  Ha ha ha.  However striking back had virtually no point to it. 

After I calmed down enough, I realized my eyes burned.  I went into the bathroom to wipe my eyes and clean the salt off my face.  As I looked in the mirror, I just stared at myself for a moment.  Marla's behavior didn't make any sense.  A completely different thought was struggling to be heard. 

Who was this woman I had spent a long romantic evening with the night before?  Last night had revealed just how lonely I was and how much I wanted to care for someone again.  Had my heart chosen the wrong person?  Was I so determined to fall in love again that I had invested all this feeling in a woman who did not even remotely feel the same way? 

A small voice in the back of my mind said there was no way that our time together last night had been a fake. Some genuine sparks had flashed between us.  Furthermore, there was no way that our dance on that stage tonight was a fake either. The small voice was certain this was true.  Something was wrong, yes, but Marla had shown genuine affection for me.   That possibility cheered me up a bit.  Maybe I should go out and find her. 

Then I hesitated.  All my distrust of women came surging to the forefront.  Bitter memories of problems in my two failed marriages stopped me in my tracks.  Thoughts of Jan's deception warned me to watch out. Don't be such a fool!  Just like Jan, this woman is playing me for a chump.   Marla had obviously gone out of her way to slap me around tonight.  What on earth was I doing taking another chance on her?

That is when I had to sit back down and mull this over.  I realized I barely knew the woman.  She was a complete mystery to me.  I had no idea what Marla's true character was.  What was the explanation for her behavior?

They say the Heart is a Lonely Hunter. 

When someone is as lonely as I was, they wander through life with their judgment impaired.  In this weakened state, their heart makes a foolish lunge at the first person to come along who might be "the one".  Was this what I had done?   In my desperate search for love, had I risked too much of my heart on the wrong person?    

A raging debate erupted in my brain.  Was Marla a she-devil or a nice girl?  I shook my head in consternation.  I could think of examples to support both positions.

Whenever I face a problem, I always rely on my ability to reason.  But tonight my brain wasn't working.  I was too upset to think clearly.  Faced with these contradictions, my brain simply couldn't figure Marla out. 

Ordinarily I fear relying on my instincts.  But my brain was useless.  I decided to turn to my instincts.  What did my gut say? 

My gut replied that deep inside I truly believed that Marla liked me.   

I took a deep breath.  How much could I trust my instincts?  I had trusted my instincts about the secret of Marla's boyfriend for the last six months.  Last night I discovered my instincts had been right.  I was proud of myself for guessing correctly, but what about this time?  

My gut said, "Only a monster would behave the way I thought Marla was acting."

I asked my brain to comment.  My brain told me that Marla was not a monster.  She might be mixed up, but she wasn't a monster.  I had been watching Marla for six months.  Marla had behaved like a down-to-earth, decent person the entire time.  There was nothing phony about her.   Furthermore, throughout the intensity of last night's encounter, Marla had conducted herself with dignity.  Marla had been a lady in every sense of the word.  No, Marla was not a monster.  It had to be something else.  

My mind replayed Marla's command performance.  Tonight's behavior at dinner was radically different from every other time I had ever seen her.  At one point, Marla had actually leaned sideways against the man's shoulder for support as she laughed her head off!  Just thinking about her laughter made me angry again.  If she was trying to piss me off, she could not have done a better job.  I was jealous beyond jealous.

I took another deep breath.  Now that some of my pain had subsided, I was able to think more clearly.  A new thought crossed my mind.  What if Marla's flirtation had been an act?   At the time, I assumed Marla was just trying to hurt me.  Now I considered the possibility that maybe she was sending me a message.  For me to accept Marla's dinnertime behavior at face value, our time together the night before had been nothing but a lie. 

Why would any decent person spend six solid hours last night lying to me? 

And why would any decent woman snuggle in my arms on the dance floor, then jump into another man's arms 15 minutes later?  

My word for it was 'Taunting'.   She was flaunting her attractiveness to men to prove some sort of point.  Marla was showing me I wasn't the only guy who was attracted to her. 

If so, I already knew that.  The look of pain on that man's face at the Captain's Reception was evidence enough.  Furthermore, I didn't appreciate her effective public demonstration of her attractiveness to men one bit. 

But Marla had NEVER flaunted her looks before.  I had known her for six months.  Marla was not a tease.  That wasn't her style.  Tonight's behavior was totally out of character with the woman I thought she was. 

Up to this point in my life, I could only remember one or two women who had taunted me like this and that was all the way back when I was in my twenties.  Yes, there were women who played these games, but usually not for the sheer fun of it.   In fact, I could not remember a grown woman ever behaving like this before.  The kind of women I am attracted to don't play games like this without some sort of provocation.   

Ordinarily a woman behaves like this either to attract a man or to punish a man. 

Was I being punished?  If so, what did I do to provoke this?  I shook my head in confusion.  Nothing that I could think of.  I had done nothing to deserve being punished for. 

That meant Marla must have been trying to "get a man".   My mind wandered over to Mr. Fascination, the object of Marla's affection. 

What about this new guy?  Marla had mentioned being interested in some guy at the studio for a while, but I didn't know who the man was.  I doubted seriously it was Mr. Fascination.  For one thing, he was at least ten or more years younger than Marla.  Furthermore, I would be very surprised if Marla even knew this man before the trip.  They never came to the studio on the same night or took similar classes.  

I racked my memory.  I had not seen Mr. Fascination dancing with Marla at our "Welcome Aboard" cocktail party early yesterday evening, but I couldn't be sure.  I had definitely not seen this man at the Disco late last night.  If something had clicked at the "Welcome Aboard" party, Marla  would have been with him, not spending the entire night talking to me.

Or did Marla just discover him today?  Mr. Fascination clearly wasn't on the deck with Marla when I doing my crossword, but he had taken my dance class.  Did Marla connect with him during dance class?  Hmm.  Maybe that's why she left class early this morning.  If so, the two of them sure moved quickly.  However, assuming they met today for the first time and got all hot and heavy as Marla's behavior led me to believe, then why didn't Mr. Fascination accompany Marla to the Captain's Reception? 

Furthermore, if Marla had experienced some sort of afternoon delight, that why did Marla spend her last moments before dinner in my arms?

In this world, anything is possible, but there are laws of probability.  For Marla to be so attracted to this man, they must have really hit it off in the morning.  Except that women don't typically turn their feelings on and off quite so easily.  For this to happen, Marla would have to be fickle in the extreme.  Marla didn't fit that description.  Marla's typical demeanor was cool and collected, not hot to trot.  For example, no woman who is 'fickle' would come to my studio in the middle of a shaky relationship and choose to date no one for six entire months.   If anything, Marla seemed loyal to a fault.

None of this was adding up.  If my reasoning was accurate, Marla had no idea who this guy was.  Now that I thought about it, at dinner this man seemed surprised at the extent of Marla's attention towards him.  Or was this just wishful thinking on my part?   I doubted Marla was quite as interested in this man as it seemed on the surface, but my confidence was pretty low and maybe I wasn't thinking straight.  Could I trust my own judgment?

I concluded Marla was probably putting on an act, but this was just a guess.  So what's new?   I had spent six months guessing about this woman.  I was right about her boyfriend, but what if I was wrong this new guy? 

I decided I was not wrong.  If that was the case, then maybe I should go talk to her.  As shaken as I felt, did I have the guts to approach her tonight based on another hunch?

Fear of More Rejection

I shook my head in despair.  I was much too vulnerable to be wrong.  I could not afford to make the wrong move.  Some guys can take rejection and let it roll off their back.  Not me.  My feelings for Marla were much too strong.  If Marla brushed me off a second time, it would be a long time before I bounced back from this.

I had already been terribly hurt once tonight.  I didn't know if I could face the chance of feeling that kind of pain again.  I knew I couldn't take another fifteen minutes of violent sobbing, that's for sure.  I frowned as I stared at my tear-stained pillow.  It was still soaking wet.  I hated feeling so weak.  This was pathetic. 

My catastrophic fantasy was that Marla would say, "Aren't you old enough to read signals, Rick?  Do I have to spell it out for you?  I thought I made it clear at dinner that I had already made my choice of men.  Get lost and don't bother me again."

Unfortunately for me, based on Marla's performance at dinner, this harsh possibility seemed much too real.  Given her state of mind, approaching her again tonight seemed like a huge risk.  I obviously did not have a clue what was going on in Marla's mind.   If Marla had indeed changed her mind about me and rejected my next move with the same energy she had at dinner, I didn't know if I could handle it like a man. 

I recoiled at the thought of letting her see how hurt I was.  Would the pain show on my face?  Would I say something ugly I would regret?  Would I be so hurt that I had go hide to avoid losing control in public?   I had silently cared about Marla for six long months.  To be so close to her one night and have my heart ripped to shreds the next night by the same woman was more than I could thought I could take.

I turned white with fear. 

Maybe I should wait until tomorrow.  Approaching Marla now would take more guts than I had ever risked before.  I reviewed my thoughts one more time.  My pursuit of Marla had been an uphill struggle now for six months.  From the beginning of March all the way till now, I had faced an unending series of negative signals.  If it hadn't been for my instincts, I would have given up long ago.  Now I had to search inside one more time before taking action.

My instincts had been right last night.  In fact, my instincts had been right all along.  Then again, maybe not.

My instincts had not predicted tonight's rejection.  I was completely blindsided by that.  Did I dare trust my instincts now? 

Historically, I have always been far too analytical for my own good.  Trusting my feelings is something I have always been uncomfortable with.  However, tonight I could see my brain was completely fried.  No matter how hard I racked my brains, I could not come up with a no-doubt explanation for Marla's behavior.  I didn't like trusting my feelings on something this important, but what choice did I have?  

I was preparing to take a leap of faith.  I have learned over the years that in the face of uncertainty, instincts often work better than reason.  So be it.  In the face of so much uncertainty, like the ancient Greeks who turned to the Oracle of Delphi for answers, I asked my instincts to guide me.  

My instincts replied that perhaps something I did not know about had gone wrong.  I did not know what it was, but that might explain why she had lashed out. 

My mind drifted back to the thought that Marla had been punishing me.  "Ordinarily a woman behaves like this either to attract a man or to punish a man."

Ridiculous.  I had already been through this.  Why punish me?  I was guilty of nothing.  My conscience was absolutely clear. 


If Marla wasn't chasing Mr. Fascination, then the only other explanation that made any sense was that Marla was punishing me. 

Maybe my brain wasn't working because I didn't have all the facts.  Maybe my gut was right - I couldn't figure it out because of an unknown factor. 

Maybe someone had said something negative about me.  Maybe someone had planted some sort of doubt in her mind.  What if Marla was worried that I was a womanizer and a cheat?  If so, maybe Marla had concluded that last night was an act on my part... in fact, maybe Marla was thinking the same fearful thoughts about me that I was thinking about her.   Marla one night, some other girl today.

Maybe Marla was just as scared as I was.  Hmm. 

What other explanation could account for Marla's flirtation?  Marla was not a monster.  Furthermore Marla liked me.  Something must have triggered her dinner show.

Now my mind wandered back through the day.  What about my dance with Jill?  Maybe it was Jill. 

In a flash, I suddenly remembered that Marla had mysteriously disappeared while I had danced with Jill.  Finally a clue.  I got excited.  I finally had a hunch that was a real possibility.  Had Marla been jealous of Jill?   Did Marla think we were dating?  Had someone told her that Jill and I were dating? 

I had never dated Jill, but watching us dance might give that impression.  Or maybe Marla didn't appreciate seeing me show off with Jill when I should have been at her side instead.  Whatever the exact answer, this was the first thought I had all night that might explain the mystery. 

Sometimes people who are in love do crazy things when they get afraid.  Maybe Marla was just as scared of getting hurt again as I was.  I nodded.  No one said love was easy.  Marla had to be paying me back for something, I was sure of it.   

Whatever Marla was thinking, I was certain she had come to the wrong conclusion.  I refused to give up without at least an explanation.  Now I had to overcome my anxiety and go find her.  Faint heart never won fair maiden.  Let's go find out what the real story was. 

I changed out of my formal clothes and put on some jeans.  I took one step towards the door, then stopped cold.  I still wasn't ready.  I really wasn't looking forward to this.  Based on what had happened at dinner, I saw no reason for optimism.   What would I do if Marla was still with Mr. Fascination from dinner? 

If Marla was hanging out with him, I guess I would have no choice but to back off.   I suppose that before entering any particular room, I might want to peek around a corner first.  On the other hand, I certainly didn't want to appear to be stalking the woman.  Running into the two of them together was just a chance I would have to take. 

Shaking my head in disgust at all the uncertainty, I walked out of my cabin.  To my surprise, Marla was right there in front of me!

Well, not right in front of me, but almost.  Marla was walking down the hallway with her back turned to me.  She and Sherry were about fifty feet ahead.  I assumed they had left their cabin just seconds before I did.  Hmm.  Another interesting coincidence. 

I watched them walk away from me while I thought about my next move for a moment.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief that Mr. Fascination was nowhere in sight.  My heart jumped a little bit.  Maybe I had a chance after all.  Then it occurred to me they were walking to his cabin.  Now I frowned.

Oh, what the hell.  Take a risk.  I decided to chase them.

I ran half the distance, but when I was near enough, I slowed down to regain some dignity.  I didn't want them to think I was sneaking up on them even though that was exactly what I was doing.

That is when I called out to Marla.  "Going to another singles dance?"

Marla whirled around.  There was a look of shock.  Marla was definitely surprised to see me and who could blame her?  Where the heck did I come from?   The hall was empty just seconds ago. 

My heart skipped a beat.  Was Marla smiling or frowning?   I couldn't tell, but she and Sherry were clearly waiting for me to catch up.  Good enough. 

As I closed the gap, I smiled and asked, "So where are you guys headed?"

Marla smiled, "We are going to see the show.  Would you like to join us?"

I nodded with relief.  Yes, indeed I would.  I took Marla's hand and we walked down the hall together.  I had a feeling this was going to work out after all. 


Chapter Eleven - The Two Faces of Rick

After the show was over, we returned to my room.  We began another talk that lasted till dawn.  That made two nights in a row.  Unfortunately, tonight's talk wasn't nearly as much fun.  This time we got down to business.  As wonderful as the romantic first night had been, the second night was unbearably stressful.  

What had gone wrong?  In Marla's mind, I was two people:  Night and Day. Good and Bad. Jekyll and Hyde.  Last night I had been Prince Charming.  Today I had been Mr. Toad.  

Marla had watched me avoid her for an entire day for no obvious reason.  She carefully explained the progression.  First, I had not said a single word to her at the morning dance class.  I had not smiled at her and I had avoided eye contact.  Nor had I invited her to breakfast.  Second, I had not looked for her the entire day.  Based on my behavior at the morning dance class, my absence could very easily be explained by the presence of another woman in my private cabin. 

Third, my behavior at the Captain's Reception didn't make any sense.  Why had I danced with every possible woman in the room?  Was I playing the field?  How many women was I chasing?  Marla had almost been able to put her suspicions out of her mind when we danced the last song together.  But then I couldn't wait to show off with Jill, the devil in the red dress!  So, Rick, who had really gotten the Last Dance?  Was it Marla or Jill? 

In Marla's mind, it was Jill who had been given the honor of the Last Dance.  It didn't help that Jill looked damn good up on that stage.  Wearing a short red dress that showed off her long legs, Jill was a very sexy dancer.  Marla noticed every man watching Jill up on stage was mesmerized.  They couldn't take their eyes off Jill the Thrill.  Nor did Marla blame them.  Jill had a lot of talent; she was putting on quite a show. 

I had been wrong about one thing.  It turned out that Marla was not jealous of Jill.  Marla had let go of her two-timing fears when I danced so close to her on stage.  That was no longer the problem. 

Now her anger switched to something else.  Marla felt insulted.  Rick had to have one more dance with a member of his flock.  It was more important to Rick to show off than to be a gentleman and escort Marla to dinner.  Marla was just one of the many.    Marla had gotten her duty dance, then it was time for the next woman.  It was tough to feel special when Rick dashed from one woman to the next with the greatest of ease. 
Hurt and confused, Marla left.  I almost got back in her good graces when I chased her down while the group waited for dinner to start.  However, when I turned my back on her for five entire minutes without bothering to do something as simple as ask permission, here we go again.  Everyone gets Rick's attention but Marla.  That was the last straw.  Marla felt forced to demonstrate she would not be taken for granted. 

If I wanted Marla in my life, then I better learn to pay attention to her.  She could play the field too if she wanted.  So, yes, she did some flirting of her own with another guy.  Yes, she agreed her flirtation was a nasty lesson, but under the circumstances I deserved it.  In the future, show some respect or pay the consequences. 

There was a part of me that felt the punishment exceeded the crime, but I definitely got the message. 

Now that she had gotten some of her defiance out of her system, Marla calmed down a bit.  At this point, she patiently went over today's events to show how avoiding her had done so much damage.  It all started when I avoided her in dance class this morning, then it got worse!

As I listened to her explanation, I frowned.  First I lost one relationship for puppy dog behavior; now I had almost lost another by staying too aloof.   I was perplexed at getting chewed out for giving Marla too much space.  Wasn't this the same woman who said she needed "time to think"?   

What bothered me most was how totally clueless I was about her suspicions and anger.  How was it possible for me to spend the whole day adoring her and alienating her at the same time? 

What man can ever possibly understand a woman?   I am sure I am not the first man to throw up his hands in exasperation.

Nevertheless, despite my frustration, I paid attention.  Marla had clearly begun a "teaching moment" as they say.  Told from Marla's point of view, I slowly began to grasp how Marla arrived at her series of wrong conclusions. 

I didn't agree with everything she said, but I was definitely sorry to discover how I had inadvertently hurt Marla just as much as she had hurt me.  At least I could finally grasp where the seeds of doubt had come from.  In my mind, I had done nothing wrong, but then I had the advantage of knowing exactly where my heart was. 

On the other hand, Marla was forced to operate in the dark for most of the day.  She was almost convinced I had brushed her off and might even be two-timing her.  Although our slow dance together had solved that problem, my blatant disregard of her moments later first with Jill and then in the dinner line had gotten me in trouble again. I wasn't showing much respect.  Marla wanted to show me that if I was going to spend the entire day ignoring her, she could find other friends.  Marla's dinner show had meant to demonstrate that she was not dependent on me for friends.  She could make friends all by herself.

Unfortunately, while Marla thought she was merely teaching me a lesson for ignoring her in the dinner line, I assumed something far far worse.  Marla had no way of knowing her little act could possibly have caused so much heartache.  She just wanted me to pay better attention to her, but I completely misread her behavior.  Talk about Venus-Mars.  I was so confused that I was almost ready to jump off the side of the ship. 

I groaned in disbelief.  Surely there was a better way to handle her uncertainly than her grandstand performance in the dining room, but I had to admit I had read a lot more into her actions than necessary. 

So who was more guilty of overreacting?  I suppose it was a toss-up.  At one point Marla had me dating every woman on the ship. For my part, I had definitely gone off the deep end when I saw her flirting with Mr. Fascination.  Now I felt sheepish.  I could not believe how easily I had been manipulated.  Marla had accidentally hit right on top of the most sensitive nerve in my being - my fear of being deceived.  I took everything she did the wrong way.  Yes, Marla may have her share of inner demons, but obviously I would not have gotten so upset if I didn't have a few demons of my own. 

Marla is obviously scared to death of deceitful men.  And I am obviously just scared of deceitful women. 

I found it very strange that it was so easy to fool the other person.  Obviously we both had developed excellent masks to hide our true feelings.  Both of us had felt inner turmoil the entire day, but to the world we appeared happy go lucky.  Although I assumed my pain was written all over my face, Marla said she had idea I was falling to pieces inside at dinner time.  All day long, neither of us had the slightest clue how the other was feeling!  Consequently we both assumed the other person could have cared less.  It was scary how easily we were both misled by the other.

Now that I saw how much damage my 'mask' had caused, I decided it was high time to become more transparent.  At this point, I began to dredge up the past.  I shared my experience with Jan as a way of explaining why I had overreacted so badly.  Marla turned around and did the same.  She spoke of Chris and of other problems from her marriage to Tom.  Our long talk brought back painful memories for both of us.  After listening to her stories, I realized Marla had just as much right to be on guard as I did.  I wasn't the only person terrified of being hurt again. 

No one wants to distrust another person, but once a person has been hurt badly, distrust will always be present for the rest of their lives.  The only solution is communication, but when a person's hurt feelings are on the line, that is much easier said than done.  Take my word for it.

Faced with a series of highly ambiguous situations all day long, Marla's past experiences made her worry that she was developing feelings for a man who would betray her like the others had.  Now that I saw things from Marla's perspective, I understood how she had every right to arrive at her conclusions. 

So, yes, although it is a shame I had to be taught such a hard lesson, Marla's wakeup call did a lot of good.

Let's face it, last night had been so powerful that today we both feared we were moving too fast.  We both sensed that we had invested a lot of hope in a person we barely knew.  Love is the ultimate "risky business".  Our instincts told us we were dealing with a good person, but after all the crap we had been through in earlier years, our hearts needed a lot more evidence of good faith before moving onto the next step.

That night it took me four hours to work my way through all my psychological scar tissue.  Finally, thank goodness, I was able to reach the point where I felt safe again with Marla.  It had definitely been a hard day's night.  Marla felt the same way, exhausted and frazzled.  We were both very vulnerable, no question about it.

This entire day had been fueled by misunderstanding on both sides.  There are times in life when trust is in short supply.  I am proud that I found the courage to take one more chance to find out what the truth was, but it still bothers me that I almost didn't take the leap of faith.  Neither one of us was very good at this "Trust" stuff.  But once we were able to admit our fears to each other, the problem went away. 

I ended our talk by telling Marla I didn't want to see other people.  Nor did I want to play any break up and make up games or do anything further that would make her suspicious.  Let's commit to one another right now and see how far we could go.  Marla said that would make her very happy indeed.  And that's how our long talk ended. 

Our problems on the second night turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Our ability to overcome this rough patch gave us both the confidence that we could handle anything the future might bring. 

Watching how hard the other person was working to solve the problem also helped bring us closer together.  It served to deepen our sense of commitment to each other.  It was gratifying to learn right from the start that neither of us would quit at the first sign of difficulty.  Instead we knew the other person was willing to talk through our problems till we found a solution. 

From that point on, it was smooth sailing for the rest of the trip.  Thanks to our long talks, by the time the 2001 trip ended, we were about as tight as two humans could possibly be.  

Marla and I agree that we were married from the Stroke of Midnight on the first night of our cruise. 
We boarded the cruise as two people, but we left the cruise as one.  We have never been apart since.



So why did I share such a personal story?  Because many people don't believe there is such a thing as romantic love. 

This story serves as living proof that romantic love is not a myth. 

Before I met Marla, I certainly didn't believe in love.  When I boarded the cruise ship, I was in the darkest, most cynical 'scorched earth' mood imaginable.  After my divorce, I didn't believe 'romantic love' even existed.  And then to my surprise... and relief... I discovered I was wrong.

Marla and I spent six consecutive months leading parallel lives without the single spark flashing between us.  We were both lonely, but not miserable enough to actually take action to change direction.

Then suddenly - without any warning whatsoever - love magically appeared out of nowhere to give us both a fairy tale romance.  Except that it wasn't a fairy tale... it was real. 

Every single thing that I wrote in this story is the complete truth.  That means that no matter how skeptical the reader might be and how improbable my description of the twists and turns might seem, that is still the way it happened.  Gypsies, lightning bolts, crushes, coincidences, misunderstandings... all true.

I wrote this story to remind people that if this experience can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. 

I had another reason to tell my story as well.  I wanted to address the fragility of love.  This story reads like a well-crafted plot from a Shakespeare play.  Othello and Romeo and Juliet are two examples of plays where Shakespeare demonstrated how easily doubt can arise through circumstance, lack of knowledge and rumor.  As Shakespeare pointed out, love is easily destroyed by misunderstanding. 

Misunderstandings between men and women are as old as Adam and Eve. It was a shame Marla didn't have the benefit of reading my mind (or me hers for that matter), but I am convinced these things can and do happen to all of us.  The meaning of words can be easily twisted and actions can be misinterpreted.

I was subjected to a frightening view of the damage that misunderstanding can create between new lovers.  Fortunately, after a very painful struggle to overcome my fears, I had the sense to do what needs to be done when a misunderstanding occurs.  Communication isn't easy, but I had to try.

There is no other way.  Through all the hurt, pain and confusion, a person must find the courage to reach out to the other person and learn what is wrong.  Certainly you will be scared to death to stick your neck out and, yes, your attempt might even fail.  Success is never guaranteed.

But when it does work, you might end up with the finest relationship of your entire life.  Love is worth the risk; Fortune favors the brave.

Stone Walls

I realize I am not saying anything that hasn't been written in a thousand self-help books.  However sometimes it is good to hear the same advice from someone like me who has actually shed some blood while learning this valuable lesson.

Back when I was in my twenties, an older man named Philip told me the biggest struggle of his daily life was to maintain hope and sensitivity.  He told me that all the bitter experiences of life can easily make a person cynical and suspicious.   In his opinion, most men his age date younger women because all the women their own age were either too smart to fall for their games or had run out of patience.  Then he added that most men his age were too scared to take a chance on someone who might actually be a good match for them.  It was easier to find a plaything.

Philip said that adults learn to hide their feelings behind a stoic mask.  To show emotions is to show weakness.  Showing weakness gets you hurt.  On the other hand, while becoming hard and well-defended might promise safety, it also guarantees loneliness and a superficial existence.  Philip concluded the smart ones try to have it both ways - they mask their feelings until they learn who they can trust.  Then they remove their outer shell.

During my four-hour ordeal with Marla, I thought of Philip while I struggled to cut through my "psychological scar tissue".  I wanted to trust Marla in the worst way, but the events of the evening had scared me out of my mind.

I had to ask question after question after question until finally my fears subsided.  I was in pain the entire time.  It physically hurt to talk about my fears and find ways to cope with them.  My stomach was in knots, I was gripped with nausea, my shoulders were tense, my head throbbed, and I trembled with fear.  I had become so hardened with bitterness and suspicion that I was in agony as I tore down the stone walls around me. 

It was an ordeal, but I am glad I did it.  The reward far surpassed the pain.   It was worth the struggle.

I guess my other point is this - there is no such thing as a perfect person.  During this story, I made my share of mistakes and so did Marla.  Surely the reader kept score.  Furthermore, I have two divorces, Marla has one divorce plus a failure in a long-term relationship.  So don't think for a moment we are perfect.  We are no better than anyone else.  If there is only one skill that we can point to, it is our willingness to share our thoughts on everything.  No secrets.  No deceptions.

Thanks to our commitment to honesty and transparency, our relationship has none of the drama and intrigue that was so much in evidence during our cruise ship courtship.  Once the walls came down, for the past ten years we have done everything in our power to keep them down... permanently.

Trust is the very foundation of love.  Trust is a fragile thing.  Never do anything to hurt it.  Once you lose someone's trust, you may never regain it. 

Who among us hasn't been burned?  We all have war stories and scars to prove it.  It isn't called the "Battle of the Sexes" for nothing.  By the time we make it to fifty, we all have enough bruises to justify allowing ourselves to stay hardened and cynical. 

Sensing it takes real courage to care, most of us take the easy way out and make fun of love instead. 

"I never knew what real happiness was until I got married; by then it was too late.  My first marriage was a three-ring circus: Engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffering."

Obviously the institution of marriage is fertile ground for humor.  I laugh at jokes about marriage all the time.  So does everyone else.

However some people mistake the jokes for 'wisdom' to live life by.  This cynical approach is a shield for the people who have given up on finding someone to care about.  They just don't have the courage to risk opening up again and taking the chance they might get hurt.

My response is that loneliness is rarely any fun.  We are social creatures.  Don't be so afraid of the fire.  While it is true that getting too close to the fire can get you burned, if you approach it just the right way, the fire will also keep you warm.  Find somebody you can trust and open up.

I believe life's experiences are a lot more satisfying when I can share them with someone special like Marla.  The one thing I learned from my first two nights with Marla is that when we communicated, we communicated well.  As I struggled with my fears about women, I believed if only I could break through to the other side and find trust, there was a great chance we would make excellent companions. 

I was right.  From the moment we connected on that trip, Marla has been the very best friend I have ever had. 


Ten Years of Adventure

Given the success of the 2001 Cruise, it is no surprise that we decided to organize another cruise the following year.  This time Marla wanted to help.  She was just as committed to making the next trip a success as I was.

To our delight, the 2002 Cruise had tremendous magic in its own right.  It became crystal clear to me that my dance studio and these dance cruises were a perfect fit for each other.  I wanted to do more of these trips, but I also wanted the studio to benefit rather than hand the proceeds over to some travel agency. 

It was on the 2002 trip that I first spoke to Marla about the possibility that some day she might be willing to organize the cruise trips herself.  Marla had every talent in the book - love of travel, knowledge of travel ins and outs, organizational skills, and salesmanship.  I knew she was a natural... and Marla knew it too.  She said yes.

2002 was special in other ways too.  My friend Gary Richardson demonstrated the importance of photography to me.  He also showed me how important it was to provide as many dance opportunities as possible for our guests.  George Handsome taught me the importance of the hot tub and Phyllis Phrog taught me the importance of causing trouble.  People behave too much at home.  The ocean is the perfect place to misbehave.  

Working as a team, in 2002 Marla and I spent time getting to know people in the group on a personal basis.  We formed friendships with many people who shared our interest in travel.  The people we grew close to in 2002 would go on to take one trip after another with us.  They became the Founding Fathers of our Travel Club.  

From that point on, Marla and I may have been co-captains on each new trip, but we also had an army of friends who came along to contribute in their own way.  Each new trip saw this 'army' make sure the newcomers were quickly included.  The newcomers were so appreciative, many of them decided to come again the next year.  As a result, every subsequent trip we took began to feel more and more like a family reunion.

Slow Dance and Romance at Sea

Over the years, Marla and I have observed the SSQQ Slow Dance and Romance Magic is just as strong at sea as it is on land, maybe even stronger. 

Now obviously not everyone has the good fortune to meet the love of their life on a cruise trip like we did, but you would be surprised.  Each ocean voyage has an uncanny ability to touch people on a deep emotional level.  Over the years, my story has been repeated several times on SSQQ cruises.  In fact, irony of ironies, the young man Marla flirted with... yes, Mr. Fascination himself... met his wife on our very next cruise!   Don't tell me there isn't more to this world than meets the eye.

Whether they meet someone or not, I can say without hesitation that the singles have the time of their lives stuffing hot tubs, posing for pictures and dancing the night away.  A cruise trip is quite the playground for fulfilling fantasies of all sorts.  I think in many ways I am guilty of the same thing as the the TV Show "Love Boat".  Each episode focused on the antics of the wild and crazy singles and their hijinks aboard the ship.  I suppose I do the same thing.  After all, the singles are not only entertaining to watch, they are fun to write about as well.  Except that I can't tell you the really juicy stuff or I would get thrown overboard on the very next trip. 

However, there is so much more to each trip than the shenanigans of the singles. What about all those quiet married couples and people in committed relationships? 

I believe our trips help bring couples closer together. Back at home, we get so busy we don't pay enough attention to one another.  A cruise trip can change that in a flash.  I have noticed that Marla's cruise trips attract a great number of married couples who originally met at SSQQ.  It is great to have these couples come along.  Not only do they love dancing together in such a beautiful setting, but they delight in reconnecting to the same group that helped bring them together in the first place.  In a way only they can understand, they appreciate that SSQQ Slow Dance Magic works just as gracefully at sea as on land.

That Romance Magic seems to work on a group level as well.  Shared joys make friends of us all.  Whether it is the silliness of 30 people stuffing a hot tub or 40 people taking a bus trip to see David, Michelangelo's masterpiece, these powerful shared experiences bind us all together.  Marla and I have taken great satisfaction watching our guests use these trips to form friendships that will last a lifetime. 

And of course there is the dancing, always the dancing.

I have documented time and again the power of dance to create romance.  Dancing played a huge role in bringing Marla and I together.  Dance has done the same thing for countless other people in our group as well.

On any given trip, there are literally dozens of couples within our group who owe their relationship to dance.  Small wonder that dancing is just as popular on our cruise trips as it is back at home.  Dancing is not only the perfect way to meet someone, it is also the perfect way to keep the romance strong.

The beauty of social dancing is that it works just as effectively on the group level as well.  Dancing is truly the common thread that holds us all together.  It is the activity that links us into our extended family.  

I marvel at how many people try to dance with every single person in the group before the trip is over.  One good trip around the dance floor seems to make friends out of all us.  There is no other social skill on earth that is more conducive to bringing a great number of people together.

The reason of course is that dance is unquestionably one the finest skills for meeting people ever devised.  In our case, is there an easier way to break the ice and introduce strangers than a 'welcome aboard' dance party?

Once two people are in each other's arms, dancing has been known to melt fences faster than Cupid on his best day. It is perfectly acceptable for a man to put a lovely woman he barely knows in his arms instantly. 

Dancing is a team sport. Two people who have just met have the delightful task of seeing if they can cooperate together to move around the floor.  It requires knowing a secret language known as "lead-follow" to play together.   If they succeed... and they usually do... at the end they are grinning at their accomplishment.  Their dance skill allows them to share a smile.  From this point on, they have the start of a great friendship.

Dancing creates love, it creates warmth, and it creates unseen ties that bind us all together as a community.

And of course we owe our thanks to Marla, the love of my life, the lady of the fateful Midnight Hour.

Ten years ago, I had a headache - how could I ever figure out a way to have a relationship and be effective as the social leader of my dance group at the same time?  One of the many facets of Marla's cruise magic is that she has helped me solve my age-old dilemma.  Marla's cruise trips allow not just me, but both of us to participate in the social side of SSQQ and enjoy our relationship too.

When Marla first met me, I was very much a loner.  In the ten years we have been together, Marla has seen me become much more at ease with my role as host on these trips.  It's true.  I have indeed become far more outgoing.  And I suppose we know who gets the credit for that.

Thanks to Marla, I have finally found the answer to my problem.  A cruise trip allows me to be happy in our relationship and contribute to the energy of every cruise without having to be single and miserable. 


I am certainly not the only person to benefit from Marla's talent.   Now that many of us finally have some free time on our hands, we have the chance to act on our lifelong dreams to see the world.  Thank goodness Marla came into our lives at the perfect time.  Marla has accomplished at sea the same thing I once accomplished on land - she has helped to create a huge community of friends who enjoy travel. 

Thanks to dance, thanks to travel, thanks to Marla, thanks to me - and thanks to many of you!! - the future is bright.  The whole gang has all these incredible memories to look back on and all these great places to look forward to.  Marla and I look forward to sailing and dancing across the Seven Seas just as long as we possibly can.... not by ourselves, but with our friends along to share the fun.

It has been a great ten years.  On the Tenth Anniversary of our cruise-inspired relationship, we both thank all of you for giving us the chance to serve in this way. 

Rick and Marla
August 2011

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