Another exhausting cruise had just ended, and in a few minutes time, another would begin. On Saturday in Fort Lauderdale, we had just finished disembarking the two thousand well-fed passengers who had tested the durability of our phoney smiles for an entire week. The few minutes of a silent, empty ship is never enough to fully refresh us, but a moment’s peace is always welcomed. By noon another two thousand hungry pairs of eye will be looking upon us and our prize-winning cruise ship for the very first time, chanting, “Love! Exciting and new. Come aboard. We’re expecting you.”
We put our phoney smiles back in position, ready to set sail again.
As Hotel Secretary, I don’t face the daily barrage of questions and complaints that the other Junior Assistant Pursers do at the service desk. But at times, I need a change of pace; and the first hours of a new cruise always need an extra smile. Today when I loaned mine, I got to meet an incredible woman.
Mrs. Witney stood in line for what she compared to an hour. In reality, it was closer to fifteen minutes, but that remark was the last complaint I ever heard from her lips. “I was just wondering,” she began. She was an elderly lady, nicely dressed modestly in a pastel-colored sweater and black slacks. Her hair was greying blond and combed neatly into place, like a grandmother attending a graduation ceremony. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something that made her different. Something casual-yet-glamorous about her.
“Do you have a gentleman host onboard?”
I asked her what she meant.
“You see,” she said, resting her palm on the service counter between us, “my husband passed away last year . . .”
I apologized sincerely. She told me that this week would have been their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and she wished there were a kind man to share it with.
“I know it’s silly dear,” she said with sparkling eyes, “and I try not to live in the past, but this would be special for me.”
I assured her that I understood her sentimentality, but had to explain that we have no such program. “However, there’s a singles meeting tomorrow night. Perhaps you could find someone there who might like to chat?”
Her eyes frowned. “No, that’s alright. I suppose that wouldn’t be the same, my dear.” As she stepped away from the desk, I noticed my eyes following her. After dealing with so many rude people with obnoxious demands, I felt sincere regret for not being able to help her.
A few hours later, while the ship was gliding toward the Caribbean Islands, and passengers were gorging their first gourmet meal, I saw her standing in line again. She had another question? I wanted to be the one to help, perhaps my way of kissing her sore. So I walked from behind the desk and approached her. “Hello again, Mrs. Witney. What brings you back here?”
“I’m glad you’re still here, I was hoping I could speak to you, Nathan,” she said, glancing at my nametag.
“If you’d walk with me for just a moment, I’ll tell you something.”
I glanced back at the desk. They could manage without me for a few minutes. If I could do nothing for this poor lady, I could walk with her for a moment. She strolled gently, and it struck me again that there was a certain glamor about her, as if she had once been famous.
“Randolf and I were saving for this cruise,” she told me. “On our twentieth anniversary, we started saving pennies together. We set a large jug beside our living room recliner, and anytime we had loose change, we’d toss it in. Guests would ask us about it; and Randy, he’d always smile and say, ‘It’s for Gertie and me. On our fiftieth, we’re going to cruise on the best ship there is.’ I never thought anything would come of it, but it was sure fun to dream. Then, just a few months before he passed, we bought our tickets, and well … here I am, all alone.”
I told her that was a precious story, and remarked about how much she must miss her husband.
“Listen dear.” She turned toward me and rested her hand on my forearm, looking at me with warm, asking eyes. “You’re a nice young man. There’s going to be an empty seat at my table, and I hate to eat alone. Could I ask you to accompany me at dinner tonight? It would mean the world to me. I’ll buy you a glass of wine.”
There are some things the common passenger doesn’t understand. To enjoy a meal in the passenger dining facilities is a treat in itself. Handsome, Italian, full-service waiters serve delicious gourmet food plated with pride, in a cozy atmosphere. Even if they served plain, hard-boiled eggs, it beats the stainless-steel, self-serve crew buffet any day. The glass of wine was not the enticement, believe me.
“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Whitney,” I said, “I would be honored to be your date for dinner tonight.”
Some smiles can fill a face so fully, they make you proud to have caused them. “Oh sweetie, that’s so kind of you. I’m so happy.” I escorted her back to her cabin. We agreed on details and said goodbye.
Dinner was fabulous. Her beautiful manner and interesting stories were a perfect compliment to the delicious food and atmosphere. How fun to be a passenger for the night. I relished the shrimp cocktail, a chilled cucumber soup, some spicy, fresh pasta, and a huge vegetable casserole, baked in a crispy pie shell. She told me about her nine children and their families, each of whom live in a different country and rarely ever see her. We talked about music, relationships, hobbies, and philosophy. Over the second glass of wine, she asked me questions that helped me see my life from a new angle. It was one of those rare occasions when you feel you’ve become close friends in an incredibly short time. I even felt that familiar urge I get when saying goodbye to a fellow purser who is completing their service contract, to ask if we could keep in touch after leaving the ship.
After a short walk around the outside deck, I took her back to her cabin. At her doorway, she leaned forward and I gave her a kiss on the cheek. She slipped an envelope into my hand.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Just a little thank-you note,” she replied quickly, as if rehearsed. We said goodnight. After a reasonable distance, I opened the envelope.
It was a fifty dollar bill. Very clever, I thought. She didn’t exactly lie; it was a note. But she said it in a way she knew I wouldn’t refuse it.
The next morning, I spent two hours in the back office trying to type out a note from the doctor’s dictaphone, distracted by daydreams of what had happened. Should I accept the money, or offer to give it back? Would I ever meet any of her children? How can I ask for her address tactfully, and without breaking any company policies? Her stories were so intriguing. How could I feel right about being paid for having such a fun evening?
I turned around. Another Junior Assistant Purser smiled. “There’s someone at the front desk for you.”
I walked over. It was Mrs. Whitney.
“I’m terribly sorry to bother you while you’re working,” she said. She was dressed in the typical layers of tourist beachwear, obviously now ready to spend the day in Grand Cayman. “Will you have time for a quick dinner, and perhaps see the Cher impersonator show with me tonight?”
Words were crowded at the edge of my tongue, but not one would jump off. A few useless ones tripped and fell. “Uh. Yea … sure.” Before I realized the blank expression on my face, she had finished telling me how much fun she had last night, and how thrilled she was to do it again. I agreed. We shared our hopes for having a nice day. She told me to leave a message at her cabin if I needed to cancel for any reason. Then she disappeared into the crowd of passengers. It happened so fast.
“Uh? Yea? Sure?” mocked a fellow Purser. A flash of embarrassment came over me, realizing that all the other pursers at the front desk had witnessed the entire interaction, probably better than I did.
“Who’s that?” chuckled Marc.
“Just a nice lady … a friend of a friend.”
“She looks familiar,” Marc grinned. “Should I know her from somewhere?”
I told him I didn’t think so.
That night, I feasted on grilled salmon with lemon and asparagus shoots. I tried to find a place in the conversation to unpackage the subject of the fifty dollars, but she seemed to have control of the oars, and kept steering the conversation with enchanting stories about her life. I think many elderly people do this and tire their listeners, creating around them an audience of boredom and resentment. Mrs. Whitney did just the opposite. I was dying of laughter over the adventures of her late husband who used to sell canned worms for a living, and the different ways he would reel in his next customer. She told more intriguing tales about her children, who only write to her every few months. I kept forgetting about the money and each time I could remind myself, it wasn’t an appropriate time to talk about it. After the cheesecake and coffee, I decided to give up and accept it. After all, this lonely old lady obviously appreciates a curious and adventurous spirit like mine.
I had seen the Cher show a dozen times already, and Mrs. Whitney fell asleep during the second half. Neither of us commented on the performance when exiting the theater. We simply waved goodnight and went our separate ways. I hadn’t realized until I was back in my cabin undressing that she had slipped another $50.00 envelope into my pocket at some point during the evening.
I woke up the next morning with a plan. I must call her and thank her, but tell her how ridiculous this is. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.
I had almost hung up on the empty ringing, when her voice finally answered.
“Hi there, Mrs. Whitney. It’s Nathan. I uh…” The words I had rehearsed now had stage fright.
“I’m so grateful you called,” she interrupted. “I wanted to ask you…”
“Wait!” I gripped the phone tightly. “I need to talk to you about something.” I told her how much I enjoyed her company, but felt uneasy accepting cash gifts.
“Oh sweetie, it’s nothing. Please stop.”
I told her I understand her gesture was meant to be kind. “It just doesn’t seem … I don’t know… respectable, appropriate?”
“Okay Nathan, but I refuse to talk about this over the telephone. Let’s spend today in Jamaica together. If the money is bothering you so much, just think of it as spending money, and let’s go tour the island. Don’t you get a couple of hours free-time between shifts? You’ve been here before; you can be my tour guide.”
A pause in the conversation tempted me. If I finished organizing the newest batch of office memos, I might be able to do it.
Jamaica was wonderful. Despite Mrs. Whitney stopping at every nickel and dime hut to practice her scripted conversation with the locals, she kept her good humor and witty tales going full force. A comfortable, barefoot stroll on a travel-magazine-worthy beach, a bowl of local-style seafood soup, and a browse through the shopping center were enough to wear her out.
Two or three times during the day, I felt as if I almost recalled who she was. I kept getting that frustrating feeling of knocking at the door of a revelational memory which never opens up. Then something strange happened in the conversation.
“How much money do you make, Nathan?” She browsed wooden knick knacks while she spoke.
Shyly, I told her.
“Really? How could that be? On such a luxury cruise liner as this?” I shrugged and told her I couldn’t explain it.
She leaned forward as if she were about to let me in on a secret. Her ice-blue eyes held hands with mine, being sure she had my full attention. My instinct was to lean forward myself, in anticipation. We were not more than a foot apart, and I noticed for the first time the delicate smear of rosy blush high on her wrinkled cheeks. “I don’t know quite how to offer this to you, Nathan, but I would gladly pay you twice that if you wouldn’t mind being a male escort for an old grandmother like myself.”
I gulped involuntarily. My mind sped through the unnavigated territory in my imagination that was reserved only for traumatic events. If I were only a few years less mature, her question, all by itself, could have left me feeling violated. I simply held my gaze and asked quietly, “What do you mean, male escort?”
“Well, for the rest of the cruise, I wish I could laugh and talk with the same company I’ve had up to now. This cruise has been a dream come true, and it’s not meant to be experienced alone. Escort me to the remaining dinners, an evening show or two, and one more tour in the Bahamas. Can I prey upon your kindness for just a few days longer?”
I glanced at my feet, then looked up with raised eyebrows and a childish grin, making a face to express my mixture of honor and relief, modesty and speechlessness. “I have to think about that, Mrs. Whitney. After all, it’s a busy job that I do here.”
“Well, you think it over,” she said as we headed back to the ship. “Let’s get you back to your office so you can catch up, and then sleep on it. Then at least join me for breakfast with your answer.”
I smiled at her cleverness. “Who are you?” I asked. She looked at me a little too blankly, as if she were disguising her answer with innocence.
“Join me for breakfast tomorrow morning, and we’ll discuss it then.”
I agreed, and thanked her for sharing a lovely day in Jamaica with me. In all my ninety days onboard, I haven’t had this much fun ashore.
“This is going to be my most memorable cruise,” I told her over kiwi and prosciutto waffles, knowing this wouldn’t be easy. “I’ve had such a fun time with you, and yet I need to catch up with my workload. I’m going to have to pass on your offer.”
Her eyes stayed on her fork, as she gathered the right combination of flavors from her plate. In the silence, I could almost hear the fork whispering to her, did you hear what he said? She took a bite, and looked at me. The chewing explained she already expected my answer. Her eyes told me she was a childish shade of hurt. But her mannerism told me she understood. “That’s fine, dear,” she said after swallowing.
It was hard to say goodbye that morning. But I remained nonchalant and hopeful, with “I’m sure we’ll see each other around the ship,” as we hugged.
As the rest of the week went by, I devoted myself to work in the back office and she found activities to keep her busy. Given the enormous ship is a floating city-on-the-sea, it’s easy for two active people to never meet up. I feared I might never see Mrs. Whitney again.
On the last night of the cruise, she called the Purser’s Desk and asked for me.
“I wanted to let you know that I had a wonderful time,” she said. I told her I was glad, and added as I had been trained, “We hope to see you on the friendly seas in the near future, Mrs. Whitney.”
“Oh Nathan, stop that! Stop being a cruise ship employee and be real for just a moment.”
“Listen, I know they pay you a stipend for a salary, and I know you couldn’t possibly be happy typing and filing for a silly floating circus. Come travel the world with me. I’m going to visit each of my children, and make a journey of it. I’d love for you to accompany me, and I’ll be sure you have plenty of writing supplies to record all your adventures.”
I swallowed a breath of air before reacting to this preposterous idea. “Mrs. Whitney, you’ve got to be kidding. How could I …”
“Nathan, stop worrying about it and ask yourself what you’ve got to lose?”
I allowed my thoughts to linger, even though it felt strange to sit on the phone in silence. In such a short time, I had so much to process. Who was this woman, and why was she doing this? Was this a real opportunity to see the world, or was there a catch? Should I take a chance on this sudden, spontaneous change in my life? Would this allow me to learn more, see more, and experience more of the world? Or do I stick with my new status quo and continue in my established routine? My life isn’t bad. Why complicate things?
Then it occurred to me that I’ve already made this decision before. When I was first asked to work on this ship, I had gone through this exact line of questioning. I felt the sensation of deja vu, as I remembered choosing between exploring a whole new lifestyle onboard a huge luxury cruise ship, or to stay in my monotonous nine-to-five habit. And aren’t I glad I decided to break the pattern? What a stupendous opportunity this has been for me. Why should I stop here? If gut instinct has led me this far, why not take it one step further? Imagine an all-expense-paid ticket around the globe.
“Let me guess,” Mrs. Whitney said, “you need some time to think it over.” I told her of course I did. She said the only time she has is until she leaves the ship tomorrow morning. I said I’d either have my bags packed by then, or I wouldn’t. She told me that if my bags were packed, to meet her in the Atrium Lounge, Deck Seven by nine a.m.
I went straight to my tiny cabin after work and sat for hours alone. I did all the mental calculations I knew to make the best decision possible. I made lists, and weighed pros and cons. I considered consequences. I flipped a dozen coins. I made prayers to God. I thought about family and friends back home. I thought about my career. Sure, I’d miss everyone. And I’d certainly lose my job. Plus, my work record would show a gap of twelve to twenty-four months. But I could imagine my smile on my next job interview.
“So what did you do, Mr. Ohren, between February of 1996 and April of 1997?”
“I’m glad you asked me, Prospective Employer, I decided to broaden my horizons and travel the world. I ran into an opportunity too good to pass up. Now that I’ve seen all the countries I’ve ever dreamed of seeing, I’ve chosen a home for myself. Now I’m looking to settle down into a long-term position with a stable company.”
I packed my bags. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.
It was Saturday again, at the end of another emotionally exhausting cruise. I waited on Deck Seven from eight o’clock just to be sure I didn’t miss her. Or my new life. Among the lines of well-fed, disembarking passengers, I spotted Mrs. Whitney in a comfortable, brightly-colored sun dress. She smiled as we greeted. She acted surprised and delighted of my decision,
“I have just one more story to tell you before you come,” she said. Her eyes looked at me sadly and hopeful. Then she paused for a moment for dramatic effect. Then she told me who she was.
I didn’t want to believe her, but who else would ever admit it?
I rushed sheepishly back to my cabin to put my uniform back on. Making my way back to the purser’s desk, I replayed scenes from the past week. It all started making sense. Completely embarrassed, and wondering which of my colleagues were watching me for sport, I ran to the back office, trying to pretend it was a normal day. I checked the ship’s computer system, and sure enough there was no record of a Mrs. Whitney on board that week.
I had fallen for the oldest practical joke, played on the newest crew member every time the Captain’s mother comes to visit one of her son’s ships.