Dolores sealed the last box of her mother's memorabilia and shoved it into the corner of the bedroom. All the furniture had been sold off weeks earlier. Now, at last, mother's knick-knacks, photos, hymnals, holy cards, and sets of rosary beads were neatly buried in the boxes. Packing up these religious treasures made Dolores feel guilty, but Delilah, her rebellious alter-ego didn’t.
"Just do it!" Delilah coaxed. "There's no point keeping this stuff. My plans for the future don't include reminders of the past. They're good for nothing more than motivation to get moving and start living. I’ve been dead too long!"
Delilah was right. Dolores' time had come. Mama hadn't let her do anything she wanted, not because she was mean but because Mama was scared. Mama had sheltered her, protected her. No one, especially a man, was going to do to Dolores what that womanizer, Clive, had done to her. Clive had said all the right words way back when her head was full of romantic ideas of finding a good, handsome man to marry. He'd spun her naive Catholic girl's head around with his fancy talk. She’d eaten it up like communion at Sunday mass. She'd believed Clive would make her whole, but all Clive had done was make her pregnant. Then he'd run off, leaving her with Dolores. Mama vowed to never let that happen to Dolores.
So, like a pair of nuns, Dolores and her mother, together with her bible-quoting parents had lived in the little house on Church St. Dolores’ grandparents had kindly looked after mama and her bastard grandchild; that was the godly thing to do. With her eyes forever downcast and apologetic, Dolores' mother had worked in their grocery store at the front of the house, her baby close by at all times. She never looked directly at any of the male customers who came into the store, and whenever possible, she busied herself in the stockroom. It was easier to avoid temptation than to face it. And as Dolores grew, she became the unwilling victim of her mother's fear and pain.
"No, Dolores. You cannot go to Linda’s birthday party if boys are attending. Boys become men with only one thing in mind when it comes to women. They will only hurt you. Mama will not allow you to be hurt by men. You'll thank me one day. The answer is no."
So Dolores watched her youth slip away. The mirror image of her mother, she barely looked at boys but forever wondered what it was like to be with a boy. Her school friends giggled and laughed and shared secrets she didn't understand. She eavesdropped as they talked about Danny giving Sherri goosebumps when he kissed her neck in the car at the drive-in. She blushed when Donna confided she'd felt Tony's "weapon" pushing hard against her during a slow dance in the school gym. The nuns would walk around with rulers checking the dancers were keeping their lower regions 12 inches apart.
As Dolores eavesdropped, wondering what that weapon was that boys had, the other girls spotted her listening, put a hand over their mouths, whispered, and giggled even more at "Dolores the Dullard". And Dolores slunk away, eyes downcast and embarrassed by her unsatisfied curiosity.
But Dolores’ other side, Delilah, was angry. She wanted to be part of her classmates’ lives, wanted to understand the strange urges in her own body when she stole a glance at a boy. And as Dolores’ body matured, those unsatisfied urges grew stronger. With every month, they became an even larger source of guilt. She’d try to assuage that guilt at night by saying “Hail Marys” until she fell asleep. Could that invisible God really read all her thoughts? She prayed it wasn’t true.
"No more guilt!" Dolores told herself now as she stood up and looked around at the boxes. "I have a right to enjoy my life and not feel guilty about natural urges. Mama, I love you, but you shouldn't have done that to me. I'm not going to live like a nun any longer!”
The travel agent had been excited for her. "Your first cruise! Oh, you're going to love it. So much to see when the ship pulls into each port. And the food on board? Superb. Don't worry if you eat too much. Indulge yourself. That's what a cruise is for: self-indulgence. You've earned that, haven't you?"
Oh yes, a smiling Dolores agreed. She'd earned this alright. The agent didn't need to know that at fifty years of age, the furthest Dolores had ever traveled was on the school bus to visit local conservation areas or historical settlements. She didn't need to know that after graduation, when classmates were getting married, Dolores had continued to look after her sickly grandparents' every need. They’d died peacefully believing their bastard granddaughter had atoned for her mother's sin by being such a good girl.
But that impatient Delilah was sick to death of being a good girl! She was a volcano of erupting emotions held in check for way too long. After her mother died, Dolores bought every magazine she could to catch up on life in the world outside the home in which she'd grown up. She read about sex, drugs, and mayhem. She spent hours on the internet researching all sorts of "forbidden" topics. She wanted to know about everything: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the different. She even downloaded a copy of "Fifty Shades of Gray". She didn’t need or want to go quite that far, but rebel against years of family censorship she most certainly would! As Liza Minelli had sung in that delightful musical, Dolores would put down the knitting and the broom and come to the “Cabaret”.
“Yes, dammit!" she thought. “If I'm offered wine at that cabaret, I'll drink it. If I'm asked to dance, I'll rhumba! And if a man wants to take me to bed, I'll help him undress me, just like they do in the movies."
She remembered her Mama blushing as she told Dolores, "Men jump at the chance to bed a virgin. They all want to be the first to pluck the cherry even if they've already had a handful."
"Well, maybe I'm not prime pickings at my age," mused Dolores, "but perhaps there's still a gentleman out there who would appreciate me for my virginity. And if that man comes along, maybe he'll rid me of the lonely, aching emptiness, that dead feeling. Oh yes, Liza, am I ever ready to come to the cabaret.”
Dolores stood on the observation deck waiting for the boarding call. Her eyes traveled up and down the magnificent "Disney Dream" at rest in the dock. She blinked. No, she wasn't dreaming. No photos came close to capturing its size. 'You have to see it to believe it' she thought.
Delilah had argued with her about going on a cruise geared toward children. How would Dolores find a dashing, exciting man on a kid's ship? But Dolores had spent years watching cartoons with her mother and the child in her wanted to experience the magic and wonder children feel when their imaginations are free to run wild. Besides, Disney cruises were more expensive: there were more suitable ships for men who just wanted to prey on wealthy older women. She'd read all about those creeps who somehow convinced gullible females to open their bank accounts after they opened their legs. Yes, the Disney Dream was the perfect choice.
Dolores' colorful summer dress billowed about her in the wind. She'd invested in a new wardrobe, nothing too extravagant, but nothing as dowdy as what she'd worn in her 'previous life'. Somehow she'd resisted Delilah's voice urging her to pick more sensuous clothing. Delilah kept reminding her that at least her body hadn't yet turned dumpy, and never having had a child, her tummy was still reasonably flat. But Dolores silenced Delilah by insisting she was looking for a possible husband, not a gigolo.
"Pretty amazing, isn't it?"
The male voice startled her. Her heart started to race. Dolores turned to look at the speaker on her right. He was tall, slender, not killer handsome, but his soft, sad eyes were hypnotic. There were touches of grey in his dark hair and around the temples. Delilah came awake; she sent a rush of color to Dolores' cheeks.
"Yes, yes it is," she replied, a little breathless.
"Your first cruise?" he asked, smiling at her, his eyes twinkling in the bright sunlight. Was her sheltered past that obvious? Surely not. She brushed aside the thought. Lots of people had never been on a cruise. She wasn't the only one.
“Yes," she replied with a confidence she hoped hid her unworldliness. "But it won't be my last. What about you?"
"My first time too," he replied, extending his hand in greeting. "I'm James. And you are?"
"Delilah!" She blurted without thinking. She tingled as she shook James' hand. She didn't want to let it go, her years of need already responding physically and emotionally to his touch.
"Nice to meet you, Delilah. Delilah eh? As in Samson and Delilah, or as in that Tom Jones song about Delilah? Should I be on the alert?"
For a second, Dolores was lost for words. The sadness in his eyes made her hesitate. What kind of Delilah did he want her to be? She avoided the question. "I was told meeting people is one of the best parts of cruising. I wonder if that's true?"
James smiled at her, somehow understanding her avoidance. "That's one of the main reasons I'm taking this cruise and If you'll forgive me for saying so, I look forward to learning more about the lovely Delilah over the next few days?"
Dolores blushed. Was he flirting with her? Before she could reply, their conversation was interrupted by the boarding call. James put his hand ever so lightly on the small of her back as they turned to walk toward the turnstile. "After you," he said.
Dolores shuddered. Inside her, Delilah giggled. As they edged into the line-up, she caught James looking at her again. He had called her lovely. Was she? Dolores had never thought of herself as anything but plain, but she did feel quite lovely right now. What else was she? Would James help her find out?
As the white-suited, smiling crew members welcomed Dolores aboard, she smiled happily at Mickey Mouse at the turnstile. Her cabaret was about to begin.
“May I escort you to your room Delilah?" James asked politely as they exited Palo after a sumptuous dinner. It was the fifth night of the cruise. James had been her constant partner in all the activities. They had taken in the wonderful musicals, strolled the decks together, and shared breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Tonight, James had convinced her to try out the elite Palo restaurant instead of the usual three included on the cruise.
"One of the crew told me that you haven't lived till you've dined at Palo. It costs a bit more but it's well worth it," he'd coaxed. He didn't need to coax: by now, Dolores was up for anything James suggested.
"I'd like that," Dolores had replied, trying to still her rapidly beating heart.
Dolores was basking in the glow of James' constant attention and companionship, along with the wine she'd enjoyed at the sumptuous dinner. This is what she had read about in those romance novels. This was how it was supposed to happen, not like her mother had forever cautioned. James was a true gentleman, the kind of man she'd dreamed about meeting. He pulled out her chair at the dinner table, opened doors for her, and listened without interrupting as she spoke. Dolores felt so comfortable with him. And each night, after he'd walk her to her cabin, she'd fall asleep reliving the emotions of the heroines in those romance novels, of being swept off her feet, of trembling at his touch and succumbing to his charms. Like those heroines, Dolores was terrified but Delilah was alive with anticipation. Delilah couldn't wait for that special moment to happen and never thought beyond it, but Dolores did. Could she, would she wake up to find James gone, just as her mother had?
Now, for the first time, James gently took the key card from her hand as she removed it from her purse.
It was time. Delilah allowed. Dolores agreed. Swallowing her fears, Dolores entered her cabin and James followed.
James glanced back at the sleeping woman for a few seconds as he opened the cabin door. She looked lovely, relaxed, happy. Her long, grey-flecked auburn hair now splayed across the pillow, had smelled of jasmine as he'd held her gently in his arms. She had cried, laughed, shuddered, and sobbed as her body let go of years of pent-up need. And as they held each other afterward, she'd trusted him with the story of her convent-like past. No wonder over the past few days, he'd sensed a child in her that had never quite matured, a woman-child mesmerized by the Cinderellas and Tinkerbells with whom she posed for photos; a woman-child who clapped her hands in sheer delight during live shipboard musicals; a woman-child who wandered happily through the market stalls in Nassau, picking up trinkets and laughing joyously when melting ice-cream dribbled down her chin. Dolores had been reborn.
What Dolores didn’t seem to realize, but James did, was that they hadn’t just met for the first time on this Disney Dream cruise. She was "Dolores the Dullard", the one her classmates had always giggled about. James remembered her from high school. He'd been a senior when she was a junior. He'd often noticed her hiding behind her hair in the hallways. She was always alone, rarely smiled, and seemed afraid to look at anyone. Once, when the wind had blown off her scarf, she dropped her books as she ran after it. Riveted, he watched her long hair fly around her face. When she ran back to pick up her books, he’d helped her but she couldn't bring her eyes to meet his. Blushing, she'd thanked him hurriedly, then run off like a frightened rabbit, but not before he'd noticed how incredibly pretty she was. His heart had skipped a beat. She was so lovely, so "untainted", so unlike all the many vacuous girls in the school.
He had married one of those…Lillian…his biggest mistake. James came from money, knew how to make more, and Lillian liked that. But she didn’t like him. After 10 miserable years together, Lillian pulled the plug:
"We're done!" She had screamed at him. "This marriage is over. We have nothing in common, no children, and nothing to keep us together. This marriage is a sham. So let's just call it quits, okay?"
And they had. He had given her a generous settlement; she had given him his freedom. Now, this cruise was his chance to start living again, and he’d found Dolores, no longer "Dolores the Dullard" but Dolores the Delightful, Dolores the Desirable. The Dolores of his dreams.
James was curious about only one thing: why had Dolores chosen to introduce herself as Delilah? Dolores suited her so well: it spoke of the pain she had shared after their intimacy. Before last night, her mild flirting had been unsure. He was never quite positive she wanted anything more than his company. That had made him hesitant to suggest he walk her to her room. He wouldn't have been surprised if she had declined. But she hadn't. Nor had she recognized him even after such unexpected intimacy. Would she ever?
Back in his own cabin, James showered and took his blood pressure pills. He opened his cabin door, walked up to the main deck, leaned against the rail, and breathed in the fresh sea air almost greedily. He watched the sun rising on the horizon and thought how glorious his world felt now without Lillian’s criticism and judgment calls. So peaceful, with only the hum of the ship's motors somewhere far below and the gentle wash of the waves as the ship cut through the water. Maybe now, if Dolores would have him, he wouldn’t even need pills anymore.
James smelled jasmine and felt Dolores’ arms circle his waist from behind. He turned and kissed her forehead. Giggling like a schoolgirl, she said,
“James, I feel so alive! Like I’ve been reborn, like this is the beginning of a whole new chapter in my life!”
“Perhaps it is,” James replied, “and if you’ll let me, I’d love to write that chapter with you.”
For a second, Dolores looked reflective. Had he overstepped? Suddenly, her eyes brightened. She smiled.
“James, have we met before, maybe in another life? I feel like I know you from somewhere…”
“You do, Dolores.”
Dolores looked at him quizzically: “James, did you just call me Dolores? Why?”
“I did. But before I tell you why, let me ask you again. Will you let me write that next chapter with you Dolores?”
Dolores blushed. “I’d like that.
James hugged Dolores to him, just as the Disney Dream horn began sounding out “It’s a small, small world”.
“Then, one last question, my sweet: is the woman I’m falling in love with Dolores or Delilah?”
With an impish glint in her eyes, Dolores-Delilah replied: “Both”!