When Lillian received the link to the ship’s itinerary by way of a direct message from Martin on senior friends.com, she had not yet accepted the invitation to travel with him. The itinerary on the screen embarrassed her, like naked plans for something illicit:
1. Fort Lauderdale, Florida
2. At Sea
3. At Sea
4. At Sea
5. At Sea
6. Alicante, Spain
8. At Sea
9. At Sea
11. At Sea
12. Livorno, Ital
13. Civitavecchia, Ital
The words “at sea, at sea, at sea” filled her mind, floated before her eyes. She’d finally pushed “send” after typing “I will go.”
“I’m conflicted about this trip,” Lillian’s son, Chris, said to her. They were in the Florida room of his Florida house, to which he and his wife Sue, in collusion with her two daughters, had brought her. Just six months after her husband Oscar had died, they had uprooted her at the age of 74. That’s how she thought of it. Yanked away from her home of thirty years, in Virginia-- a move that, still in the daze of widowhood, she had been unable to resist.
She kept quiet at Chris’s mention of conflict. If they were going to have this conversation, then Chris needed to be its engine. She certainly wasn’t going to keep it going herself.
“I know we’ve met Martin, and he seems responsible. You like him, I think.”
She did not blink. She’d gained skills during her half-century as a wife. She knew how to handle an imminent “talk.” By the time their first child’s first tooth had sprouted, she had developed some expertise at the game. She had figured out that that Oscar’s calculated planning for “big” conversations--about moving to a new house, about her quitting work, about budget cuts for household expenses--included rehearsals in which he would practice nodding at emotions that she expressed and would devise reasoning to counter her objections. She had learned to withhold such cues by keeping silent. Oscar would then flounder about, essentially restating his main point over and over, ever more weakly. It had given her a small advantage in a marriage in which she was often powerless.
As Chris was, now. He rounded his lips and sighed, obviously stumped.
“So, here’s what it is, mom. I know you haven’t been happy here. I know you’re tired of the view from this porch,” he waved his arm toward the pond, where twenty-five ibises (she’d counted) wandered in a wide but connected group, “and it hurts me to see you here, not knowing what to do with yourself--”
She did him the favor of blinking and raising her eyebrows.
And then he did it, asked a question, an effective move to break her aggressive silence: “I mean, I’m right, you’re not happy here are you?”
She’d have to answer. Maybe. But first: “The ibises remind me of pigs”, she said, “the way they always come in a herd, poking their noses into the grass. Sometimes I think I can hear them snorting.” She laughed.
Chris glared at her. She relented.
“I’m comfortable here. I have a spacious, furnished room in a lovely home. You’ve found me doctors. You take me to church. I’m welcome at your dinner table. I know I’m cared for. How could I be unhappy?”
“But this trip…”
“I’m quite excited about the cruise.”
He joined his hands, bounced them up and down twice between his knees, looked straight in front of him (not at her) and said, “So, this is how I think about it. What if I tell you, yes, mom, I think you’ll be fine cruising to Italy with a gentleman you just recently met online, but then find yourself injured or sick, or fighting off his advances somewhere in the ocean south of--I don’t know-- Marseille?”
He spoke again.
“Or what happens if I say, ‘no, not this fellow, never with MY mother,’ and then I see you day after day, out here on the porch, clicking away on the iPad, or staring at the water, sad and bored.”
She understood his problem and in a rush of maternal feeling wanted to let him off the hook. But she remembered, then, catching him once, putting her iPad down surreptitiously when she entered the room. She had looked later, and the messages were still visible:
Martin: You look fabulous today.
Lillian: You can’t see me, you old fox. Ha-ha!
Martin: I can see you like no one else does. :)
Lillian: I know you can. . . what’s out on your lake this morning?
Martin: Herons. Tall blue herons, with legs that don’t quit. Like yours.
Lillian: You’ve never seen my legs :)
“Chris. I might be fine on this trip, and maybe not. I could fall and break my leg climbing the stone stairway at the Chateau d’If, but staying here, I could have a stroke walking out of the front door of your home on our way to church. I want to see the world, places that your father was never interested in seeing, and I’m going with Martin. Stop fretting.” That’s what Martin called it, fretting. They sympathized on this point.
And in fact, Rita, Martin’s only daughter, had expressed some concerns to him. Chris had taken his mother to meet Martin face to face for the first time, driving her the three hours to Jacksonville from Orlando to a get-acquainted meeting in his home. After introductions and drinks, Rita asked Chris for a hand in the kitchen, making a lame joke about leaving these “kids” alone to get to know each other,
Martin then leaned toward Lillian and said in a stage whisper that the children could hear, “My daughter wants to check you out, and make sure you’re not some crazy woman who sleeps with an ax under your pillow.”
Rita turned back. “Dad! I didn’t say that.”
“No,” he’d winked at Lillian, “she didn’t. I believe she was concerned about a dagger, not an ax.”
On the morning of their departure, they met outside the cruise terminal, transported by their respective children who stood chatting together, then fussing over them until Martin told them to scram.
“You two get out of here,” he said. “Rita, you’ve got a long drive. Get on the road before you lose the light.”
“Okay, dad, you’ve got your…”
“Stop! We have everything we need. Don’t worry,” he directed his face to Chris, “I’ll take good care of your mother.”
Martin’s tone of authority pushed some reset button. No longer were they elderly people, the object of worry and care. They were parents, doing adult things, unfettered to their children’s hovering concern. After Chris and Rita gave them quick hugs and left together, not daring to look back, the two travelers hesitated on their own.
They found their way to the stateroom, bit by bit, at Martin’s slower pace. Lillian paused an awkwardly long time at the threshold, ahead of Martin and the steward who held open the door. She had expected to see two twin beds. Bed, night table, bed. Twin beds. That had been the arrangement depicted on the website at the link she’d received from Martin. But here before her was the one bed, topped by a white expanse of queen-size comforter and a towel cleverly folded to resemble a seahorse, riding its waves. She wanted to ask the steward if there had been a mistake but muted herself as Martin passed by and made his way through the room, excused himself, and entered the bathroom.
The steward addressed his welcome spiel to her alone then. After giving information on a muster drill at such-and-such time and urging her to attend the Sail-Away Champagne Reception taking place now, after assuring her that anything she needed, he could provide (what about the bed[s], she thought?), he departed, leaving her alone with Martin, who had emerged from the lavatory just in time to be too late to absorb the steward’s informative spiel. Lillian had been conceiving of the trip as a late-life adventure, but it hit her now, baldly, what she had gotten into: a cruise-long, nearly-blind, date. Her date now approached her and pointed to his right ear, calling her attention to a hearing aid.
“You’ll have to listen for me sometimes,” he said and then grinned, “Our voyage begins!”
How corny, she thought. He took her by the upper arms and pulled her to him quickly until her head rested uncomfortably on his chest. She closed her eyes, dizzy with confusion about what would be expected of her. Words came to her-- companion, date, lover, aide, friend, wife. Each one seemed to call for a different way to hold herself, a different way to be held. When he let her go, she patted the part of his chest that had accommodated her head, and said, “Well, now.”
They left to make their way to the sail-away event. Lillian paced herself so that she was walking at the speed Martin could manage--a slow stroll, that’s what it was. To curb her urge to walk more quickly, she listened carefully he pointed out various sights. Following Martin’s monologue felt familiar. Her late husband Oscar had often explained the world to her, and at least in this instance, the explanation was not redundant. She knew nothing about being on a cruise.
Eventually, they exited to the promenade deck toward the reception. Martin told her it was the one path around the circumference of the ship.
“We’ll have to walk the entire promenade one day,” he said. Lillian quickly made plans to walk it daily, at her own pace.
She wondered if, once underway, the ship’s movement would make the walk difficult, but now it was pleasant. They had to stop, though, when they reached a small crowd of people bunched up at the stern, who then moved forward bit by bit, until they’d all rounded the corner and could spread out around the emerald jewel of the terrace pool.
She directed Martin with a tug toward some ascending benches facing the stern like an amphitheater. The view excited her; after months sitting on Chris and Sue’s back porch, she felt that she could see the entryway to whole world from here. At the foot of the short stairway she stopped, remembering Marvin’s cane, wondering if he’d need her help to manage. He gave her a smile and urged her to proceed; he switched the cane to his left hand and grab the rail with his right. She hesitated, but he nodded sternly, indicating she should go on, and so she did. Reaching the top and finding a seat, she saw he was several steps behind, slowly but capably ascending, and she turned her gaze toward the harbor in front of her, and the people below.
She looked, first, at their clothing. Her own travel wardrobe had been an ordeal to put together. Her elder daughter, Gill, had presented her with tropical cruise wear, way too much of it, though the ship was sailing to Italy in April. Confused about the nature of her mother’s relationship with Martin, her younger daughter, Sarah, had sent a modest, white chenille bathrobe, and two overly pretty, gauzy, ballerina-length nightgowns. Lillian had settled on packing plain, sensible slacks, a few blouses and sweaters, a nice windbreaker and walking shoes.
No one had mentioned sex, beyond Chris’s brief mention of “advances. Gill had asked if Lillian thought Martin attractive, and Sarah easily referred to Martin as “mom’s boyfriend.” Lillian tried to balance her ideas on the subject. On one hand, she pretended that she and Martin were old friends, platonic, travelling companions--the idea of sex was absurd. However, she then had to acknowledge that he was a man, that she was a woman, and that they’d met, essentially, on a dating site, and that Martin was attractive with that thick head of white hair and his mischievous eyes. But she was 74, and he was 80—but sex? Ridiculous. Maybe. However, though she’d left many of her wardrobe gifts at home, she had brought the pretty nightgowns with her.
Beside her above the pool deck, Martin commented about the sights, pointing out how the pool was made to seem as if the water continued into the sea. “It’s called,” he informed her, “an infinity pool.” But mostly, he watched the crowd, and she felt happy that they didn’t have to chatter. She wanted to be good company; he had, after all, paid for her passage.
Suddenly, then, the clamor of the celebration intensified, and she could see Martin extend his neck high to look toward the pool.
An extraordinary woman stood on its edge, her back to the crowd. She wore a tight black outfit and a filmy ivory wrap embroidered with designs of magenta, gold and green. Her hair hung down her back in long black curls. Her arms were raised and spread in a “Y”. The gauzy wrap undulated in the breeze. Her back was arched, and she was clearly planning to fall forward into the pool, which then she did with a great splash and shouts of disbelief (and scattered applause) from the crowd. The cruisers parted, as waiters with trays rushed poolside to do something about the event, though really all they could do was bark, “Ma’am! Ma’am!” as the woman popped up grinning to the surface and swam to the side. Lillian turned to Martin and saw him with his hands raised, the very picture of the woman’s before the dive, and his deep and warm laugh made her laugh, too. Not even during the most entertaining moments of their online flirtation had she realized she might like him so much.
On this first night, Lillian wanted more than anything for their bedtime not to be awkward. She didn’t want to find out whether he drank Metamucil, didn’t want him to see her box of bladder leakage panties, didn’t want them to hear each other pee, didn’t want to see him in his underwear. Stop being a child, she told herself. You had a marriage of 45 years. You raised three children. You changed diapers on your own husband in the end. You have shared your life with fleshly beings and here is another one.
She patted the comforter, full of pin tucks that formed stars and shadows on each side of her. The bed filled the room behind. She didn’t know which side was “hers”, and thinking that he might have a preference, she avoided choosing a nightstand. She stretched her left leg out and touched the one small upholstered chair in the room, and then stretched her right leg out to touch the desk chair. This stateroom will be the only witness to whatever it is the two of us make of each other, she thought. With her left leg, she pulled her carry-on bag out from under the chair to where she could reach it. She dug around inside for her book.
It had gone all right, though, she thought later, as they lay in bed--she reading, he watching the ship’s channel broadcasting in the captain’s confident voice details about the next day’s progress through the seas. “What are you reading?” he asked.
“It’s a book about Nellie Bly,” she told him, “She went around the world in 1889.”
“A woman?” he asked.
“Yes, a journalist. Quite courageous, really.”
“Would you like to make plans for tomorrow? What would you like to do?”
I would like to talk about my book, she thought. But she said, “I wake pretty early. I’d like to walk around the promenade deck. I thought I might risk it all and get a pedicure at that spa we toured last night.”
“A pedicure is risky?”
“Diabetes,” she said, confessing, “You’re supposed to be very careful with your feet. But mine seem okay. What have you thought about doing?”
“Sleep late. Breakfast, have a visit at the cigar bar, catch the morning news, then maybe I’ll sit by the pool, watch the women in their swimwear.”
She looked at him. It’s an entree, of sorts, she thought. He wants to let her know he still feels like a man. But couldn’t he find a better way? He was smiling.
“Now, don’t think I’m a dirty old man, just an honest one.”
She realized that she did not want to engage in this conversation yet. He’d have to do better. “So, I’ll meet you by the pool about 1 for lunch? I’ll be the one in slacks,” she said.
“It’s good to have you here, Lillian. I went on a Caribbean cruise with the kids and grandkids a few years ago, but they’re a lot to keep up with. I could never tell if they really wanted me to hang around them or if they wished I’d go take a nap. Then I took a cruise by myself from Boston to Nova Scotia. Love to travel. Love to see things. It was beautiful, that trip, but I was lonely.”
“Lonely.” That felt more honest, more human. She closed her book and put it on the table, then reached her arm across her body to pat his shoulder but missed and patted the pillow instead. “Well, neither of us will be lonely on this trip.” She turned her light out to try to get some sleep.
In the following days, Lillian spotted the diving woman several times. Never in the auditoriums for the shows, never at dinner, but always moving, propelling herself forward on high heels, black curls bouncing like a hair conditioner commercial. They once passed in a hallway, along the passage lined by game tables, and their eyes met briefly, sharp deep brown meeting sharp grey-blue, the woman’s eyes saying “hmmm...who are you?” and Lillian’s eyes asking “what kind of life force are you?” Lillian saw then that the woman was older than she’d first estimated--that lithe, springy body claimed youth, but the face was older, mid-forties maybe. Nevertheless, the woman’s energy enlivened Lillian, radiated in waves that couldn’t be stopped by mere matter. Later, she’d seen the woman through the glass in the gym, power-walking on the treadmill, arms bent and punching the air at waist height, eyes forward, facing Lillian through the glass. For a moment those eyes left the invisible distance and landed on Lillian, curiosity brightening them after the first nearly hostile glance. Lillian moved on. She began to wonder about her own interest in this woman. She laughed at herself. It’s like I have a crush, she thought.
Lillian had never requested that they move the beds apart, so she and Martin worked out their sleeping territories wordlessly. And now that she was in them, in those words “at sea, at sea, at sea,” and their power had been tamed by routines the two had established in the first days of the sailing. The nights were hardest, and still awkward, as they lay side by side, she having slipped off her white robe and gotten in bed wearing one of her thin nightgowns. After reading, she’d turn off her own bedside lamp. Staying as close to her nightstand as she could manage, she’d lie very still and try to focus only on her own breath, feeling the slight rocking of the ship. He’d always been in bed first, lying on his back, his night table light off. When she turned hers off, he’d say something about the day, talk for a few minutes about cigar bar conversation, about what they’d do tomorrow. Usually, she’d murmur in reply, not wanting to engage in any talk that might acknowledge that they were a couple, sleeping together. He’d not made any advances, though he’d whistled at her when she was all dressed up for dinner. He’d put his arm around her waist when they stood still to look in a shop window or stand in line for a show, and it had slipped down toward her hips once or twice. She’d wondered if he liked the feel of her body, or if he was just showing off to the bystanders, claiming her as his woman, or even signaling to himself that he was still virile.
Occasionally she began to think more clearly about sex. She tried to imagine what it would be like at her age. She pictured her legs wrapped around him but then scrunched her nose, remembering her last glance at her legs in a mirror. Aging legs. Aged. But lying there, her legs felt fine, healthy. She thought of running her hand down her thigh to see if it was crepey and dry. That’s all I need, she thought, for Martin to catch me feeling my own leg. When she could hear his light snore, then she could fall into sleep herself.
One night, after she turned her light out, he said, “The diving girl came into the cigar lounge today.”
“The one from the first day? I’ve been wondering about her!”
“Yes, she came in, sashayed around with a cigarette in her hand, ordered a brandy, and bothered Teresa about knitting and watching Fox news. Told her she could be doing that at home. The diving girl is some sort of Hispanic, talking fast and excited. Her name is Isabella. Ees-a-bella. She sat on the arm of my chair for a minute and told me my white hair was fabulous.” Then he imitated her accent “‘Jore beeg white hair iss fa-bu-loose’. I told her she was a bad girl to challenge Teresa, the queen of the lounge. She sashayed around a little more and left waving her hands and saying ‘Fox News, Fox News, Oh my Jesus.’”
Lillian did not like his caricature of the woman. She had turned toward him in the bed to hear the news and in the little light from the moon she saw him hold up his hands and wave his fingers as he told about the event. She did like the idea of diving-woman challenging the grande dame of the cigar bar. During Lillian’s couple of visits there to fetch Martin for dinner, she’d met Teresa and deemed her too showy about her wealth and too all-knowing about the ship. Queen Teresa had acknowledged Martin’s introduction of Lillian with only the slightest change in her face--a nod and brow wrinkle--as if there were nothing notable enough about meeting her to merit a verbal response.
On their fourth day at sea, Lillian finally met Isabella. She’d been taking her breakfast and afternoon coffee on the pool deck rather than in the enormous feeding hall on the 7th deck, which called itself The Palermo Court, but which was just a glorified cafeteria, complete with clanging cutlery, plastic trays, and queues for beverages. Here, on the other hand, she paid for a breakfast croissant and a large, but better cup of coffee, read her book, and enjoyed sitting in the fresh air, and she’d come back after lunch to do the same. By now, it was her spot. But she’d spoken to no one. Here she was, out in the world where she’d been so excited to go, and her curiosity about the others crossing the sea with her was growing avid. She didn’t want to be like Teresa, doing just what she could do in her own living room, but with better coffee.
This day, when Lillian took her place at the usual table, there she was. Diving woman. Isabella. Sitting. Smoking. Staring out into the water. When the waiter and Lillian exchanged words, Isabella slowly turned her head. And Lillian could see in them recognition, recognition from their previous, wordless meetings.
“I see you,” said Isabella. “I see you here every morning.”
“From where?” Lillian had never seen her at the cafe on any of her previous visits.
“From up there.”
Ah, Lillian saw that, from an overhang on the deck above, her table would be visible.
“I’m Izzy,” she said.
“Izzy,” Lillian repeated, as if she’d found the answer.
“Isabella.” Isabella put out her cigarette, picked up her coffee, and came to Lillian’s table to sit. “Where’s your husband?” she asked.
It was a sudden question, an odd question, just the sort of question that, from anyone else, would have irked her. She’d have found a way not to answer. But she wanted this woman to stay.
“I’m Lillian,” she said pointedly, the introduction having been omitted. “He’s dead, my husband. I’m here with a gentleman friend.”
Lillian saw Isabella’s life force grow stronger. She sat up higher. Even her skin seemed tighter. Lillian liked the atmospheric shift at her table. After days of hunting and watching for Isabella, she now had the woman’s attention.
“A friend, huh?” she grinned and leaned forward, “What kind of a friend?”
Lillian leaned forward a bit too. “I’m not altogether sure.”
“Oh. Oh! Oh?” Isabella clearly wanted more.
It wasn’t a fact that Lillian had planned to tell to anyone on the cruise Nevertheless, in that moment, she said it:
“To be honest, we just met one month before the cruise.”
“A boyfriend, a new boyfriend!” she leaned even further forward and whispered, “Is it hot? Where is he?”
“He stays in the cigar bar, mostly, and we meet sometimes for a show or dinner”
“How did you meet him?”
Lillian laughed and didn’t answer.
“Come on,” Isabella whispered. “You can confide in me.”
Her accent warmed Lillian’s ears. Martin’s imitation had been crude, a joke. The “k” in “come on,” “confide” were like popping corn, and the tip of Izzy’s tongue between her teeth on the “n’s” and “d’s” made them soft, lightly percussive.
“I’ll confide,” said Lillian, putting her mouth a few inches from Izzy’s ear. “I met him online…”
“I love it, I love it, I love it!”
“What are you doing now?” Izzy asked Lillian.
“I thought I might see the film about Alicante. We’ll get there in three days, and I’ve never heard of it.”
“I’m so excited to go to Spain, I live in Miami, but I came here from Colombia. We should hang out in Alicante, because I can speak Spanish for you. Oh, please, let me do your hair” said Izzy, reaching forward to lightly pull on one of Lillian’s short curls. “The color is beautiful. It’s strawberry blonde, I think?”
“From a box of course,” Lillian answered, “but it’s the color I started life with.”
“Come, come,” Izzy stood and took her hand, “I want to fix it, use the hot iron. We’ll surprise your boyfriend with a new hairstyle for dinner!”
“Maybe another day, Isabella. I told Martin I’d meet him for the film. We’re trying to watch all the films about our ports of call before we get to them.”
“Okay,” Izzy shook her head. She sat again, “I’m looking for distraction. I came on the cruise to celebrate my divorce.”
Izzy took a bottle out of her bag and poured what must have been liquor into her coffee. “I took everything. All the money in my settlement. All my jewelry. It’s here with me. I bought so much luggage. I did not know what to do next. So here I am!”
“Oh, my,” said Lillian, “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s the best thing. I’m going to have the time of my life.” she pulled out her phone and looked at the time. “You need to go to your film,” she said, “I’m going to find some fun. Come here tomorrow again. We will do your hair!”
That night, after lights out, Lillian spoke first: “I met Isabella today,” she said, “the diving woman.”
She felt Martin’s interest from across the bed.
“The Hispanic woman?” he asked.
“Colombian. But she lives in Miami. She wants to do my hair.”
“I’d be careful with that one. She got in trouble with security the other day for trying to steal her photograph.”
“Steal it? Oh, my goodness.” Lillian wasn’t happy to hear that. She liked that she had made a friend. “How on earth?”
“She used her phone to take a picture of it in the photo lounge--they have them displayed on the wall, and she was photographing hers.”
“Well, that hardly seems like a crime.”
“No. Would you like to go on one of the excursions when we get to Alicante?”
She thought for a minute. “I don’t think so. There’s a day at the beach or a bus to an orange grove. We have all that in Florida.”
He laughed. “You’re right about that. Maybe just a walk into town, have lunch at the port.”
“I’d like to visit that castle,” she said, “but it looks like a hard climb. Walking the esplanade would be fine.” She liked saying that. Esplanade.
She felt his hand, in the dark, searching for her, and realized she’d rolled over onto her back during the conversation. He fiddled around under the covers, found her hand, and squeezed it.
“Walking the Spanish streets together. Fantastico.” he said.
She gently removed her hand, and then turned toward her night table, “Good night,” she said.
“Buenas noches,” he said.
Lillian rather enjoyed having a date each evening when they went to the lavish dining room for dinner. On the first night, they had been alone at their table for four, but their tablemates had appeared on the second night, a friendly couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. At dinner, Martin fell easily into the role of elegant gentleman, pulling out her chair before the host could do it, urging her to try a bit of every course rather than saying no to the delicious fruit soup for fear it would spoil her dinner. Their conversation went so much better here than in the stateroom, without the specter of intimacy looming. On this night, their table companions had stayed away again, and she’d been telling him about the few years she’d worked as a schoolteacher. He told her that he’d been a bad student himself, too restless to stay even long enough to graduate.
“I left school and started out working at the post office,” he told her. He said his first job had been to place a pouch of mail onto a type of crane, so that the pouch could be grabbed by the catcher arm of a moving train. At a critical moment, he also had to collect the incoming mail thrown to him by the train’s mail clerk. It had been a dangerous job. He told her how the locomotive would come through at night, the light from it blinding, the wheels on the track deafening, and that if the incoming mail weren’t thrown just right, it could end up under the train causing a snowstorm of shredded mail or worse, could knock him over and onto the track. He loved it, though “I got a fierce desire,” he told her, “to work on that train, and eventually I got my high school diploma by mail and took the test that allowed me to take the job as an American Railway Postal Clerk.”
“Oh, you must have travelled a lot then!” she said.
“I did, with that job, and in the service, too.”
She wanted to ask him more about the extent of his travel, but just then he looked over her shoulder, and she turned to see Izzy approach. Martin stood and pulled out one of the empty chairs. As she sat, Izzy craned her neck looking for the waiter, got his attention, and ordered a glass of wine.
“So, Ms. Lillian, the man with the beautiful white hair from the cigar bar is your boyfriend!” She turned to Martin and said to him, “I saw you in the library today, reading.”
“The library?” Lillian asked, interested.” What were you reading? You never read at night.”
Izzy said, “I know, it was called Around the World in 80 Days. I know, because I thought, I want to go around the world on this cruise ship! This one doesn’t go that far, but you can extend your ticket after Rome to go on to Venice and Alexandria. I asked, and they have room. I’m thinking about it.”
“It’s 72 days, Around the World in 72 Days,” said Martin, turning to Lillian. “It’s a book about Nellie Bly, the woman in your book. I thought we could talk about it, but I wanted to be more informed.”
Lillian felt herself blush a little, flattered that Martin had taken an interest. She thought he’d been bored by her reading.
“Ms. Lillian,” Izzy announced, “You have not yet come to let me do your hair. You must come tomorrow afternoon.”
“What’s wrong with my hair?”
“Nothing, nothing at all. It’s just so pretty, and I think it will be fun for us.”
“Well, Martin and I are going to the film about the Barcelona excursions at 2…”
“So, I will meet you at the coffee shop by the theater at 3!” Izzy said, and then looked at her phone. “Oh! I’m late for the dancing. You’ll come with me tomorrow?”
“Yes, I will,” said Lillian.
Izzy picked up her glass of wine and left.
Izzy’s room was a marvel, three times as big as Lillian’s and Marvin’s, and with a balcony. A translucent persimmon-colored scarf draped over the lamp on the dresser cast a sunset glow over part of the room. Rich-colored, embroidered quilts were draped over the cruise line’s standard bedding. Izzy offered her a drink, which she declined, and then made her own, pouring an orange-colored liqueur over ice. “Aperol,” she said. “My before-everything cocktail.”
Lillian sat on a chair facing the mirror. Izzy stood behind her. With two fingers, she’d raise a lock of hair, letting each slide through and drop before examining another in the same way, as if Lillian’s hair were the only thing of beauty in the world.
“I brought all my things,” said Izzy. “I don’t know if I will ever go back home. You like the blankets?”
“I think we should do curls. Light curls. Your hair is so fine. I have one attachment…” Izzy reached for one of the many pieces of luggage set around the room, sat on the bed and dug through it. “Here.” She rose with a long, narrow black rod, came back to the dresser, removed a large cylinder from the curling iron that was already there, and put on the new rod. “It will heat quickly,” she said, plugging it in. She lifted the big rod. “Looks like a vibrator, yes?”
“Hmmm….” said Lillian.
“Oh, you are not shocked. I know this. You have daughters?”
Lillian did have daughters, but her relationship with them was not such that they’d ever discussed sex toys with her.
“I have two,” she answered, “and we are not very close.” Izzy disappeared from the mirror, and Lillian heard ice and the liquid sound of a refill.
“No? Well, as you know, I am no longer close with my daughter. I understand.”
But Lillian was sure that Izzy did not understand. Her own daughters had never stolen her husband. They just had never seemed to like her. Oscar, a fan of the history channel, had once explained to her that generals lost battles because they were always fighting the last war, using strategies that had worked once, but had grown obsolete in the face of a changing battlefield. That’s what she’d done with her daughters. She tried to explain this to Izzy,
“I trained them to fight the last war,” she said, “I trained them to be women in my generation. It wasn’t what they needed. They didn’t understand it, but they did always understand that I was wrong. The world changed so much.”
“Such pretty hair. Fine hair. Strawberry blonde,” Izzy said as she used the warm wand to make curls in Lillian’s hair. Unlike the girls at The Style, who’d place their hand crab-like on the top of her head and turn it as if she were a product being twisted into shape at a factory, Izzy treated each curl gently, as a precious material. It felt so good.
“We should do your makeup!” Izzy said when she’d finished spritzing the new style with a light fresh-smelling hairspray. “But I have nothing light enough. I’m very tan. What can we do? I know! It’s early--we can go down to the gallery and visit the boutique. They will have something. They will make your face free just to show you their products.”
“Won’t they get irritated if I don’t buy anything?”
“No! It will be an excitement for them. They are very bored.”
It seemed a bit dishonest to Lillian, as she sat on the padded cushion of the golden stool in front of the makeup counter, listening to the beauty consultant’s buffered but clear sales pitch. His name was Dobro, he said, and he called her “Ms. Lillian” as he chose colors and became intimate with her face. “This Luminesce, this plays wonderful with the light. You can’t see wrinkles. They disappear.”
Izzy had disappeared too, wandered off in between the application of the primer, the ivory foundation, the copper glow, the amber eyeshadow. After 15 minutes, Lillian thought, perhaps she’s found something else to entertain herself with, and I’ll feel I have to buy something at the end of all this. She imagined seeing the animation drain from Dobro’s face if she left without a purchase. But as he dabbed powder on her cheeks and nose with light, quick jerks of his wrist, she heard Izzy’s voice behind her: “Look at my fish!” Izzy’s arm appeared in front of her face, her wrist now encircled with a golden chain dangling a diamond-encrusted fish charm.
“Diamonds! Diamonds!” she said, “I will have to stop loving diamonds one day”. She then whispered in Lillian’s ear, “Ricky’s credit card. I can’t believe he hasn’t cut me off!”
“Isn’t she just sweet?” Dobro asked Izzy, bringing their attention back to his work. Lillian thought she really did look nice now, with some discreet color in her face, with soft curls, blue eyes accentuated by the coppery eye makeup. She suppressed an instinct to search in her purse for her wallet. Izzy put an arm around her waist and helped her down from the stool.
“Thank you so much!” she said loudly, and quickly, with an exaggerated gracious smile, and not leaving a moment for Dobro to close his sales pitch, led Lillian out of the shop. Lillian felt naughty, rude, confused, and liberated.
“Let’s go to the champagne lounge.” They strode forth together.
Champagne was lovely. At first, they sipped quietly and watched the water out the portside window. Lillian enjoyed the lull after the whirlwind of afternoon. She needed a rest before dinner. Martin would be tired, too. He was taking a captain’s tour of the technical part of the ship, and though he never complained about walking, with the cane, she was beginning to be able to tell when he’d had enough.
The view from the lounge to the water was grand, and the music was classic and muted. But Izzy being Izzy, the pace seemed to pick up without either of them moving from the table. Izzy’s phone buzzed, and she began to text.
“Someone from home?” asked Lillian.
“No. I can’t get enough service to get a text back to Florida. It’s a man,” she said. “I met him last night, and already we are having a fight.” She punched the glowing keyboard with a manicured fingernail, the diamond fish clicking against the phone with each poke. After every bout of texting, she pulled a flask of the Aperol out of her purse and filled her champagne glass with the orange liqueur, then downed it as quick as she’d poured it. Somehow, the whole time, she kept a conversation going with Lillian.
“He is here on a family reunion, and he wants me to have dinner with his whole family. I just want him for dancing, and now he wants me to be a girlfriend. Do you fight,” she asked, “with Martin?”
“I don’t suppose I know him well enough to fight,” she said.
“Do you think,” Izzy paused in her drinking and poking to lean across the table and look Lillian in the eye, “do you think you could marry this man?”
“Marrying again is nothing I’m interested in,” Lillian answered, thinking she was telling the truth.
“I like to be married. I am not good at maintaining myself.” Izzy said, shaking her head and then raised her hand to motion the waiter over. “May we have another split of champagne?”
“I have had too much already,” Lillian told her.
“Don’t worry. I’ll drink it fast. Then we must go to your room to pick out an outfit to go with your makeup. Even…” she said softly, “...even if you do not want to marry this man, it is good for him to see you looking lovely. A man who remembers a lovely woman will always help her.”
Izzy was feeling the effect of all those drinks, Lillian could see, and she was glad that Martin was not yet in the room when they arrived. If she was lucky, they’d have half an hour, and Izzy would be gone before he came down to get ready for dinner.
“Bring me your dresses,” Izzy commanded, sitting a little out of kilter on the edge of the bed.
“I don’t have any dresses.”
“Okay then, what do you take...what do you do for the nice dinners?”
Lillian pulled out the two pairs of black dress slacks she’d been wearing to the dining room on formal nights.
“Oh, no. We need to get you a dress. I think I have one that will fit,” Izzy said, and started, unsuccessfully, to rise, “but we are not in my room. We should go there.”
Lillian grew ever more concerned, realizing that her friend was very, very drunk.
“Let’s just look through my blouses here,” she said. “I have some nice jewelry to go with them.”
“I will come. Let me see.” But as she tried to rise, she fell again to the bed and lay on her back, her eyelids drooping.
Lillian shook her.
Izzy looked at Lillian and said, “I’m tired,” and then closed her eyes.
“Izzy? Izzy? You have to get up!” Lillian said, but then nearly laughed at herself, because of course, that’s what people said to those who were passed out, when it was clear that no one in that condition, clearly, had to, or could, get up. Izzy was conked out, on the bed, eyes closed, the tumbler turned sideways on her belly, the bitter orange liqueur slowly winding its way out between melting ice cubes onto the white dress, onto the white comforter, and--worse-- all of this on Martin’s side of the bed.
“Izzy,” Lillian said, “Izzy!” She sat on the bed and shook her, but there was no response, none. A commotion arose in the hallway outside the stateroom--people, returning to dress for dinner. She had to get Izzy out before Martin came back. Imagine his dismay to find this woman passed out in his room, whose missteps already fueled the gossipy conversations in the cigar bar. And now? Why now? . . .when they had just started to break the ice, holding hands in bed, laughing at an anecdote, enjoying their dinner dates.
She worried that Izzy might need medical help. Her face had grown pale. She was drooling. The steward. She could call him, of course! But how could she do that to Izzy? Ship security already had Izzy on notice due to the dust-up on the Lido deck, the attempted theft of the photos.
Lillian forced her arm under Izzy’s back, thinking perhaps she could lift her, wake her, but the effort failed. Her 74-year-old arm muscles weren’t up to the lift. She reclined then herself, hopeless, her arm still under her friend’s back. It might be stuck there. Izzy’s body grew heavier by the minute. One shoulder bone dug into her wrist, and she pictured a bracelet of Plavix bruises forming there.
The look on Martin’s face, when he entered, was comic. He was so evidently expecting anything but the sight of both Lillian and Isabella lying on their backs on his bed that he stood there a moment, eyes wide open and pointing his cane alternately at each of them.
“She came to help me pick out an outfit to wear tonight.”
“She’s in no shape to pick out an outfit, is she?” Martin said, and then came toward the bed. “Is she all right?”
Lillian managed to slide her arm out from under Izzy’s back and to sit up. “I don’t know, Martin. She’s been drinking a lot, and we were having so much fun, but then …” Her arm was numb, and she bent it at the elbow to shake out her hand at the wrist.
“Isabella,” Martin said in a deep, commanding voice, “Isabella, you must get up!”
Whether it was Martin’s echo of her own fruitless command, or some image she suddenly saw of Jesus commanding Lazarus to rise, Lillian began to laugh, at first softly, and then to the point that she couldn’t speak.
“Oh, my goodness,” she said when she could speak, “What should we do?”
“We should wake her up and send her back to her room!” Martin said, and then said again “Isabella, you must get up!”
“I’m worried about her,” Lillian said.
“She’s just passed out,” Martin said, “and we need to get to dinner.”
“Martin! We can’t leave her like this. She could get sick and…”
“I can’t,” he said, “pick her up and carry her to her room.” He waved his cane to demonstrate why not. “We’ll call a medic in. I saw a steward down the hall with a cleaning cart. I’ll request that he send someone.”
“You said yourself she might be sick, Lillian. The medical staff are the obvious ones to handle this.”
“Martin, she’s been in trouble with the ship staff. I don’t want to cause her any more difficulty. She’s been so kind to me. We’ve had such fun.”
They looked at each other. They’d never dealt, together, with a disagreement or problem of any magnitude at all. She didn’t want to explain anything more. She wanted Martin to accept her position. She knew in that moment that if he began to order her around, it was over. Her blooming, curious affection for him would wilt.
“You can go on to dinner,” Lillian said, “I’m the one who brought her in. I’ll wait with her.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
They were quiet again, then, thinking some more. About what to do. About what each expected from the other. She began to be hopeful, thinking they’d work this out together.
“She can’t be left lying on her back,” Martin said. “She’ll choke if she vomits.”
“There are more pillows in the closet,” Martin said, “will you bring them?”
Lillian opened the closet door, blocking her view of the bed. The pillows were high on the top shelf, stacked on the left side of the closet, behind an iron. “I can’t reach them,” she said.
“Get my cane, it’s fallen on the floor.”
Unseen by Martin, Lillian dropped her arms to her side in frustration. She reacted, for a second, to being bossed around, but then heard him say, “do you think you can reach the pillows with it?” She closed the closet door, came to the cane, picked it up, walked back to the closet, and opened it. She grabbed the handle, and poked it into the closet shelf, “I don’t think this will help; there’s an iron in front of the pillows” she said.
“Are you using the crooked end?” he asked.
“Ah, no! That helps!” she angled herself to grab the top pillow with the cane’s hook and, with a little maneuvering, pulled that one down, but when she angled for the second pillow, the iron tumbled over and fell, glancing her on the forearm before it hit the floor.
At the sound, Martin yelled “Are you all right?”
“I’ve got one pillow,” she said. She grabbed it and closed the closet door a bit--it was still held open by the fallen iron, but she could now return to Martin. “Here.”
He directed her where to place it and eased Izzy down on to her side. She pulled her legs up and snuggled into the pillow
Lillian offered the cane to Martin. “She looks comfortable. Do we need the other pillow?”
“You’re bruised,” Martin said, taking Lillian’s wrist instead of the cane.
“It’s the dang blood thinner,” Lillian said, “They put me on it after I had my stent put in, and I can’t pet a cat without getting bruised.”
“I don’t take any of it anymore.”
“None of it. They had me on the Plavix, the lisinopril, the statin, the pill for my sugar. I couldn’t tell the damn things apart. Rita came over on Sundays and put them in two of those pill containers. She gave me one hell of a lecture when I decided: no. more. pills. I did think of getting some Viagra before this trip, though.” He raised his eyebrows and grinned. Lillian didn’t want to ignore the comment. It offered an opportunity to grow more comfortable with each other, to discuss—rather than avoid-- the topic of sex. But not now. Not with Izzy here.
Instead, she said, “My children would be the same, if I tried to stop taking my pills. I’m going to have another bruise here,” she held out her forearm. “That iron hit me on the way down.”
“We should ice it!” Martin said, using the desk chair and his cane to get up. He looked at the refrigerator, snuggled under the desk. “They should put that thing on a stand.”
“Ice,” Izzy said, “could you get me some ice?”
Startled at the sound of her voice, Lillian and Martin looked at her. Her head was still on the pillow, but her hand was raised, cupped to receive some ice, apparently. Something purposeful aspect of the gesture comforted Lillian, made her think that Izzy would be all right.
“Yes!” answered Lillian. She reached for the bucket on the desk and bent down and opened the refrigerator, which they hadn’t used yet. “No freezer. I’ll have to go down the hall.”
When she returned with the bucket full of ice, Izzy was sitting up, Martin’s arm supporting her. She prepared a glass full of ice and gave it to Izzy, and then put some ice in a washrag to place on her arm.
“Oh, you’re missing dinner!” Izzy said.
“There’s 24-hour food here, we’ll get something later,” Lillian answered. “How are you doing?”
“I feel drunk,” said Izzy, “I feel okay.” she looked around. “Is this an intervention?” Izzy spoke slowly, looking into her glass of ice. “My husband and daughter tried that...intervention. Intervening with me,” she said, “they teamed up against me.”
“She’s all right,” said Lillian, “but she shouldn’t be alone.”
“Maybe we can intervene a little,” said Martin, “since we’re here.”
“You!” said Izzy, “What do you think about her hair and her makeup?”
Martin looked at Lillian, studied her for a moment and nodded his head. “You look very pretty,” he said.
Lillian finally felt relief. The problem would be resolved, somehow. Izzy was chattering. She and Martin had handled it all, together.
Martin sat beside her and patted her thigh. “You’re a good friend,” he said. “How’s your arm?”
“I think the ice did some good.” She lifted the washcloth and showed him her unmarked forearm. “Thanks for helping out, Martin. I didn’t mean to bring you into all this.”
He smiled, “I’ve kind of liked her ever since she dived into the pool. Moxie, that’s what we used to call it. She has moxie.”
“I’m not really divorced,” Izzy piped up. “I packed and I left. I was mad at the intervention. I said, don’t you dare follow me onto that ship. I will kill you. He has not even called me. Not one call. Not one text. Not from my daughter either.”
Martin said, “The satellite’s down, Isabella. He might have tried, but you wouldn’t get it yet. They don’t think we’ll have service until we get to Alicante.”
“When is that?”
“Tomorrow,” said Martin.
“Maybe we should take her for some coffee,” said Lillian.
”Good idea,” said Martin. “How about it, Izzy, can you stand?”
Lillian spent the night in Izzy’s room, as a precaution. After an hour sitting on the balcony, door cocked open so that she could hear Izzy’s snoring, she came inside, crawled into the bed, and lay under the Colombian quilts. She wondered how she’d ever sleep on dry land again, without the comforting, soothing rock of the ship, which felt like the most natural thing in the world. She listened to Izzy breathing, felt her move jerkily, roll over, fluff her pillow, and she wondered how she’d ever sleep alone again. In the morning, they’d meet Martin and walk into Alicante together. For now, Lillian barred herself from thinking of any future but that, and fell asleep.
The esplanade was paved with tile in a pattern of waves, in black, in red, in white. It was dizzying. It was stimulating. It seemed alive. She didn’t mind so much that Martin’s cane slowed them down; she liked how he took advantage of their pace to pause and breathe in the seaside air, nostrils wide. Izzy had come with them, planning to find the beach and sunbathe. After she wandered off, they found a place overlooking the shore to have a sandwich and a glass of wine. From their chairs at La Terraza Centro, Martin and Lillian could see Izzy on the shore. They saw her remove her wide, colored silky scarf, flatten it in the breeze, lower it to the sand, sit, and put her head back to tilt her face to the sky. After a few moments, she reached in her bag and got her phone. She held it to side, shading its screen with her hair. They watched her poke a couple of times, read, and poke again.
“I wonder if I should go over, in case the messages are upsetting,” Lillian said, leaning forward in her chair, feeling pulled toward the beach, toward Izzy. Martin shook his head. “I don’t know, my dear. Maybe let her read and think a while. She’ll find us if she needs us. Not one to suffer in silence, that one.”
It was true. Martin put his arm around Lillian’s shoulder and pulled her close and kissed her nose.
Lillian made herself lean back into her chair. She reached up and pulled Martin’s hand from her shoulder down toward the flat part of her chest, not so far from where her heart was beating in there, in the sunshine, on the dizzying esplanade, in Spain. It wasn’t sex, but it was good.