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Fiction Fantasy Drama

Racing around to different canvases on the lower deck with my five year old was surprisingly fun as a grown woman. Julian and I loved speed drawing so much that we stuck around for the next activity. Egg drop. Peering down four stories in the fanciest part of the ship, I understood why people got swept away by the magic of a cruise. Everything glittered. Double spiral staircases. Endless pastries, unlimited drinks (depending on your wallet). 

From the top of the balcony, ready to drop our bubble-wrapped precious cargo, I glimpsed her: a slender brunette singing on a small circular stage on Deck 5. What a wonderful world, she sang, with three band members. There was a slight accent that caught my attention. It sounded familiar. Italian? Russian? Israeli? The way her pants sat low on her hips seemed to me to be another clue. I pulled the daily schedule from my back pocket and checked the ship events. The name of her band was So Cool. So lame

Our egg didn’t make it but we were happy because we got to keep the plesiosaur drawing. Julian held my hand as we returned to the cabin. 

“Mommy,” he said.

“Yes, my love.”

“This cruise is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

I stopped in the hall and bent down to give him a hug and a kiss. “I’m so happy you are having a good time,” I said. It was our first cruise. A birthday present to myself. I survived 40 years.

Mom was already asleep in the cabin. I tucked Julian into bed and slipped back out the door. I figured she could help him if anything happened. I felt an urge to figure out the deal with that singer. Was she just a guest act? Was she a lifelong shipper? Where was she from? Was life so boring back home that she left it all behind for adventure on the high seas? I tracked down So Cool, Azure Lounge, 9pm. 

After a stroll on the port side, I arrived at the aft lounge on Deck 8. They were still setting up. 

“Anna, can you try not to speed up too much for At Last?” Said a tall man with a mop of a head. The bassist. 

“The band is supposed to follow the singer, Dan!” She clapped back as she adjusted the microphone down to her petite height. 

Good for you, Anna, I thought as I sunk into a couch in the back of the lounge. I had hardly settled in when a server came around. The service on the ship was impeccable. 

“Something to drink?” asked a woman whose name badge read Veronica, Colombia.

“Sure–Gin and tonic. Blue Sapphire.” 

After a few minutes, a handful of couples came strolling in. Couples from Ohio, if I had to guess. Retirees from Arizona. The average age was 80. 

“I just wanna make you happier baby,” the singer crooned. She was swaying her hips ever so slightly. Not in a provocative way: in a lounge singer way. 

After a handful of songs, the entertainment director came on stage. He was a short, pudgy man with a shining bald head. “Give it up for the talented Anna Davidovich and So Cool!” 

Russian, I mused. 

“The band has been with the company for 10 years. How about that?” 

The retirees clapped politely. 

Anna took back the mic. “And before that on other ships. The last 15 years at sea. How about that? Every night at a new port,” she beamed. I couldn’t tell if her face radiated genuinely or if it was part of her showmanship. 

Fifteen years ago I too had aspired to be a world traveler. I thought I would jump from country to country. I was committed to living abroad–I was living in Athens when the war in Iraq started, and I was a bit disgusted with American hypocrisy. 

Now I was on a cruise with my son and my mom after having spent most of the past decade on American soil. So much for my dream of having multicultural babies. My son was fully White. His dad was as American as mass shootings. 

What was Anna’s life like? Did she have a home somewhere on land? Was the bassist her lover? Wait, were they in a fight? 

Veronica came back with my drink, and sipped it slowly while listening to melodies from decades past. Soooo cool. The gentle sway of the ship was more pronounced on this lower deck. The Blue Sapphire loosened my tense body. The Azure Lounge penetrated my mood. 

“Anna?” The bassist called in a loud whisper. It was coming from behind me. “Anna? Funky Town?”

I turned around to find the man with a moppy head looking right at me. The lights were also on me. I looked around. The dark lounge was barely perceptible. Was I… on stage?

The warm mic dropped out of my hand. I jumped off stage and pushed out the heavy doors to the portside plank. I must be drunk. I gave myself a hard slap. Aside from the gentle rocking, I felt sharp and sober. Glass windows! I peered in. Slender. Short dark brown hair. Low jeans resting on my pelvic bone. I haven’t been this skinny since high school. My face: made up for the show. What the fuck was happening? 

“Anna?” A bald man called out. The entertainment director. “Darling, are you okay?” 

I stared at him blankly. 

“Darling, are you okay?” He repeated. “Are you quite well?” His British accent almost made this seem like some ruse put on by the ship’s staff. 

“I don’t feel myself,” I whispered.

“It’s okay, darling. Go back to the room. I’ll be there shortly—I’ll just go close out your set. No worries darling. I hope it’s nothing.” 

He turned and left. I had no idea where to go. I clearly couldn’t go back to my room. Mom would scream and throw me overboard in self defense. My son might be fine having a new mom–he was pretty compliant. I waited, peering in through the portholes, eyeing the lounge doors. 

After a few minutes, a familiar face came into view. My own. She went up the central stairs to Deck 7. Quickly in pursuit I ran after her. She went through a door marked “Staff only” and down to a suite on the starboard side. I stopped out of sight, ducking into a utility room. She searched her pockets, and finally clasped the key card hanging around her neck, realizing that she wouldn’t be able to get into the suite. After a pause, she turned back and sprinted down the hall. I checked all of my jeans pockets and found a plastic card. I swiped into the suite. The interior was probably triple the size of my own. There was a large bathroom with a jetted tub. “Wow! Does every act get a suite?” I said aloud, falling onto the king bed. “Nope, just the ones fucking the entertainment director,” I chuckled. 

The door jingled. In came the bald man. “Darling, are you feeling better?” He asked. 

“Yes,” I answered from the bed. Anthony peeled off his shiny black loafers and climbed on top of me. His body was heavy and warm, and smelled surprisingly good for a pudgy Brit who spends his days shuffling around a cruise ship. I froze. This was escalating quickly. There was a knock at the door. He groaned and went to answer. 

“Darling, it’s for you,” Anthony called from the door. “Lisa, from Michigan. Your cousin’s friend?”

I propped myself up. She entered the room uninvited. Anthony stood there, frozen. “Hi Lisa,” I said, thinking quickly. “My cousin told me you would be on this sailing. But you must know, she’s not my actual cousin. How are you enjoying the cruise?”

She glared at me with the intensity of a thousand daggers. How many times had I used that look on my husband before he tripped into the bed of his colleague? 

“It’s wonderful,” she said with a sharp edge to her tone. “It would be great if you could show me around,” and, turning to Anthony, “You don’t mind, do you darling?”

“I have no clue what’s going on,” he said. “But sure. Remember, there is a captain’s dinner if you are feeling quite well, darling.”

“What the fuck is going on?” She demanded when we were alone in the hallway, coming quite close to me. 

“Not sure, but I’ve figured out that we have switched,” I said as we entered the open air pool deck. The singer named Anna straddled the end of a deck chair as she grilled me. 

“Who are you?”

“Lisa. From Michigan. But you figured that out already. I’m here with my son and my mom. It’s my first cruise.” I don’t know why I was answering all of her questions so eagerly. “What about you?”

She was still processing my response. “OK, Lisa from Michigan. Can you sing?” 

“Not really,” I said. “But I have your voice, right? You know it’s not the same as it was,” I tried to sing earnestly. 

Anna scowled. “Fuck fuck fuck.” 

“Yeah, likewise. Do you know how to be a mom?” I asked. 

“I’ve been living at sea for 15 years. Do you think I have maternal instincts?” she said.

“Where is it?” I asked Anna. “The Captain’s Dinner?” 

“Are you crazy? You can’t go to that! You don’t know anything.” 

“Unless you have another plan, I suggest we try not to draw too much attention to ourselves.”  Grabbing a napkin and a pen from behind the bar, Anna told me the names of her bandmates and other key players onboard. Her lover, Anthony, had insisted they keep their relationship quiet even though everyone seemed to know and not give a shit, she told me. 

“If he tries to fuck you, just say you have cramps. It works for me.”

“Yeah, he kind of already tried to fuck me. You knocked just as he was about to mount me. Don’t you want to know anything about my life?”

“Your son is Julian and your mom is here. Not really. I’ll figure it out.”

“Julian has some potty issues.” I warned. 

“I’ll figure it out!” We made our way down to Wayfarers—the restaurant that you have to pay extra for. 

“And here she is, ladies and gentlemen, ready to sing for you!” There was a hearty round of applause from passengers and entertainers…for me? Sing for you? The band was playing a tune I didn’t recognize. I motioned to my throat, and shook my head. Dan, the bassist, grabbed the mic. 

Once I was seven years old,” he sang. The eager faces turned away from me once they understood that I was not going to sing for them after all. 

Lisa from Michigan sat down at a table near the back of the restaurant. She ate a small bite of chocolate mousse–a dead giveaway–the real Lisa would have gone through three desserts. 

I walked around and quietly greeted the guests, asking how they were enjoying their dinner. I was not great at customer service, only grant administration, which was probably the furthest from the service industry that you could get. Some 60-year-old cowboys from Texas bought me a shot of whiskey, which I chugged halfway before coughing mightily. I hadn’t had a shot since my wedding reception. I enjoyed the attention, even if it was really meant for Anna. Anthony laughed with the captain at the next table, nervously glancing at me from time to time. 

Dan the bassist loosened up as the night went on. He and I ended up singing a sailor’s shanty together–What Will You Do With a Drunken Sailor–before moving to the casino lounge. Some of the other entertainers came with us. Lisa from Michigan quietly fumed from behind a slot machine, slowly adding bets as she glared at Anthony getting handsy with me. I felt like I was 25 again. If I was in some alternate hellscape, I might as well enjoy it. “I’m free,” I muttered to myself. 

The singer was hovering close by. I kept track of her every movement, as she did mine. Suddenly Anthony noticed her. “Lisa, right?” he asked, pointing at her as he wrapped his arm around my slender waist. 

“Yup. Just taking a late stroll. Time to get back to my little son and elderly mother,” she said. 

“Good night!” I called after her. “I’ll find you in the morning!”

“Who is that, again?” 

“Lisa from Michigan. Just a friend of a friend. Nobody, really.”

We pushed in the door and tumbled into bed. 

The next morning was very bright. It was a whole day at sea. My first show was at 10:30. Waking up at 9, I had to look through the whole suite like an idiot for anything to wear. I pulled on a pair of joggers and a blouse. 

When I entered the cafeteria, the hostess informed me that I couldn’t eat with the guests. She was confused when I asked her where the staff ate, but directed me to the mess, where the staff had already devoured most of the breakfast items. There were some cold scrambled eggs and soggy hash browns left. 

I tried to follow the set list best I could. Dan was giving me looks. Finally, I pulled up lyrics on my phone and managed to blunder through it. During my 30-minute break I jetted up to the cafeteria and scanned the seating area. There, at a window table, sat my son, my mom, and a person who looked like me but wasn’t. 

As I neared the table, I heard the sweet comforting voice of the singer. “When you finish your breakfast, we get to go to the pool,” she said. 

“Am I big enough for the waterslide?” he asked. 

“No darling, not just yet.”

Mom just watched, smiling, and eating it all up. “Glad to see you are in good spirits today, Lisa,” she said, giving her a rub on the back. Mom had never said or done anything remotely affectionate to me, I fumed. 

The singer looked up. “How could I be in a bad mood with a relaxing day of sipping Mai Tais poolside with my best guy and my amazing mom?” she said, staring right at me. 

I checked my watch. Time for the next set. Then I was scheduled to tag team the trivia in the casino. After that, So Cool opened for the musical on the main stage, followed by a set in the Italian restaurant, another opening for the late show, and closing out the night with a set in the Azure Lounge again. Dan was visibly upset with me. 

“What’s going on with you?” he asked. “You’re way off today. Since when did you need to read lyrics?”

“Sorry, Dan, that I don’t have every song from the 80s, 90s, and today cataloged in my head. I had little sleep last night. Please excuse me, I’m going to bed now.”

Everything ached when I got back to the suite. My feet had blisters from the heels I had worn all day. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I drifted into a deep sleep. 

At some ungodly hour I was awakened by the smell and touch of a sweaty Brit getting handsy with me. 

“I have cramps,” I moaned, and turned away from him. 

The next day was a port day. Most of the staff were occupied with getting passengers off the ship, and I didn’t have a show until the afternoon. After breakfast in the mess, actively avoiding Dan or anybody else, I staked out a lounge chair on the pool deck. Knowing that staff were not permitted to actually lounge, I wore a baseball cap low over my eyes and wore a flowy dress to fit in with the tourists. I brought a book to read, only to realize that it was in Russian. 

Down near the wading pool, my son Julian was being lathered with sunblock by his fake mom. My own mother was relaxing nearby, sipping a fancy red and orange drink. Julian gleefully ran around the wading pool with some other kids. The singer joined a competition among the guests to find as many spoons as possible in the plunge pool. She and a good looking man in his fifties were teamed up. She jumped in, swam around, and emerged triumphantly with three spoons before tagging him in to find more. It was the carefree vacation I had been dreaming about. 

The sun glared down, heating the deck so hot that I couldn’t touch it with bare feet. I had forgotten my flip flops. I was stuck, hiding in the corner of the pool deck with a book in Cyrillic that I couldn’t read. Some obnoxious Brit was constantly trying to mount me, and I had to sing all day on a rocking boat for unappreciative retirees. I couldn’t even go to port. I had the urge to go to my son. My bare feet landed on the hot deck, sending shocks up my legs. 

Next thing I knew I was in the cool water, feeling much refreshed. The handsome older gentleman was holding his hand out for a high five. I looked around. My son was playing with a newfound friend nearby, and my mom was looking like she was having the time of her life. 

I gave the man his high five. Racing over to Julian, I picked him up and gave him the biggest hug. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Anna, the singer, hopping up onto the lounge chair to get off the hot floor. I gave her a brisk wave and a smile when she looked my way, and jumped back into the plunge pool. 

May 10, 2023 17:54

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2 comments

Sarah Hurd
13:37 May 18, 2023

This was a fun 'It's a Wonderful Life'-esque read! You really created an effortless, surreal tone that carried throughout the piece. I think you developed the backstories of your characters well for a shorter piece, but both Anna and Lisa are very intriguing and I'd love to know more about how they each got to where they are. You describe Lisa's physical sensations and experiences in such a delicious, sensory way—I was drawn right in. Nice work!

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S N
16:08 May 16, 2023

I really enjoyed this. The twist was unexpected but well done. I think so many of us, especially us moms, can find ourselves wondering what life is like for someone else from time to time - wondering about the glamorous lives of strangers. Only, they may not be that great or at least aren't as right for us as the lives we already have. The change in perspective was made poignant with the change in eyes. Great job!

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