Okay, guys. Here it is. The September free story. A non-romance unless you consider a love of life to be a romance of a kind. Which I do, and I enjoyed writing this story that was inspired by every school kid’s September writing assignment of telling the story of what they did during summer vacation. I wondered what an adult would write if given that same assignment and here’s what I came up with. Hope you enjoy it.
HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION
The cruise was supposed to be fun. You know, dances with great-looking guys, never-ending platters of gourmet food served by great-looking guys, live shows every night featuring great-looking guys and day in and day out tons of great-looking guys hanging over the railings looking for someone to talk with. Someone like me.
Didn’t work out that way. Not for me, anyway, and even though I knew the complete failure of what I labeled ‘cruise happiness’ was because of a bad attitude – mine – that didn’t change the fact that I felt cheated.
I suppose I shouldn’t have blamed the cruise line. I should have put the blame squarely where it belonged, on my newly ex-husband and his equally new wife, aka his former assistant, who was half his age and half my size. I wanted to squish her between my thumb and forefinger and could have done so without breaking a sweat if I’d tried.
But I was nice so I simply smiled as I took my half of our accumulated net worth and laughed all the way to the bank while my ex tried to figure how to support his new wife on half of what he’d expected from the divorce. She loves expensive shoes, purses, and just about everything else that costs big bucks and he’d thought he could afford her and he could have if he’d gotten everything. But I had a great lawyer, which was actually more important than guys on cruises who look great. But I’d hoped to have both.
When my great lawyer handed me that beautiful check, I went straight to the bank and then to the travel agency and booked a cruise. After looking through brochures I decided to sail across the Caribbean and soak in the sun and run along sandy beaches and swim in the boat’s pool and enjoy myself if it killed me. I figured the great-looking guys the travel agency hinted at would help.
I expected to come back from the cruise a new woman and get on with my life and laugh at my ex’s failure to satisfy his very young and very expensive wife. Actually I wouldn’t laugh because I’d be too busy being a new, gloriously happy me to even remember who he was.
That was the plan. The reality was a tad different, mainly because of the total lack of great-looking guys who weren’t afraid of me. My angry – no, make that furious! — expression that was in danger of becoming permanent may have been part of the problem. Might have been what chased them away from me and into the arms of all the other middle-aged women looking for fun who’d also booked the cruise and were happy and looked it.
But there was one bright spot to the cruise and I looked forward to it eagerly. I’d booked that particular ship with its particular itinerary because it would stop at a small tropical island owned by the cruise company that was used for a stop-over complete with a beach party beneath the stars. Other than when the ship stopped to have a party, the island was deserted. Completely. No towns. No people. Just another tropical island covered with trees and rife with exotic wildlife.
I’d never been on a tropical island and the concept enchanted me. I didn’t care if great-looking guys were included because it would be more than enough just to experience an unspoiled tropical paradise. I could hardly wait and when our ship docked at that private island it didn’t disappoint. It was gorgeous. Right out of a movie.
I was the first person off the boat. Ship. Whatever it was called. I doffed my sandals and dug my toes into hot, white sand and knew I’d remember this cruise forever as a wonderful experience because of the white sand beach and the lovely island. Nothing could be better.
Of course, the beach party was nice too. After hours of walking on carefully marked trails during the day I was both hungry and thirsty and glad for the bonfires blazing every few yards along the beach so there were enough for everyone to enjoy without crowding. It was the start of a perfect night.
The thing was, there was alcohol available. Free alcohol. Now I’m not a drinker. A glass of wine now and then if the occasion warrants or maybe a cocktail that I never finish because… just because.
But this was different. An occasion. The completion of my separation from a man I now wondered how I’d ever been in love with. That made it a life changing event and such events often involve alcohol, don’t they? Well, I’d just had such an event and that meant the night definitely qualified. So I decided it wouldn’t hurt to drink just a tiny bit more than usual. To celebrate. So I did.
As the night wore on and the drinks kept coming complete with tiny umbrellas and fruit slices on the sides, I decided I was done with people and wanted solitude and that this island was the place to find it. Lots of trees to hide behind, lots of stars to gaze at, lots of everything tropical islands excel at and if I left the hoards of noisy people behind I could pretend the island was deserted and believe that I was the only person on Earth and a competent, single woman who would get on with her life pronto. A nice thought.
So I sought darkness and solitude and found it, following the beach until the bonfires were no longer visible and the night crept into my soul and I found everything I’d been seeking for longer than I realized. Since the day my marriage started to crumble and now that I was alone and being honest I admitted that day was farther in the past than when my now former husband had hired a young assistant.
I found a tree to lean against and sat and contemplated the sky, the stars, the ocean’s bright waves, and life in general until I heard the very loud and very persistent klaxon call of the cruise ship’s horn telling everyone that it was time to return so we could continue our travels.
I planned to do just that after a few more moments of contemplation of moonbeams on the water and listening to night songbirds. Just a couple moments more.
Another bad decision.
The next thing I knew, the sun was shining brightly on the water that moments earlier had reflected the light of stars and the moon and how’d that happen, anyway? And why did my head hurt?
More important, I decided, I’d better find the boat – ship – and get on board because that horn had said it was time to leave. The horn had blasted the silence of the night to smithereens and now that I thought about it and checked the bright sunshine, I decided it might have been more than a few minutes since I heard it so I’d better hurry.
Except when I reached the beach after ignoring a head that throbbed with each step, the boat – ship — was nowhere to be seen and how could it have disappeared in the few minutes that I’d spent contemplating life? How had it made all the passengers disappear, the ones that had been on the beach a short time earlier?
As I stared at the empty dock, I realized that it couldn’t. Making that many people disappear instantly was totally impossible. So I was missing something, I just didn’t know what.
I paced the beach and checked the dock again and the metal fire rings nicely spaced along the beach that had once held blazing bonfires and now contained cold, black ashes and I realized something. Something awful.
It was the next day and I’d missed the boat.
I was alone and stranded on a deserted topical island.
Still – as I walked among the cold fire pits, I didn’t feel like someone who’s just become a castaway. In fact, I felt kind of good. It wouldn’t last, I told myself as I considered the trees swaying in the tropical breeze and the lapping of blue and white frothed waves breaking across the white beach. No, Paradise wouldn’t last because it never does but while it had hold of my body and mind, it was wonderful.
I turned. A woman about my age was emerging from those swaying trees. So I wasn’t alone after all. “Hey, you!” she shouted again.
Okay the island had a caretaker and she didn’t like left-over people making tracks on her beach that had already lost the tracks of the many people from the previous night and looked like it had never been trod upon, except for me. Waves do that, I decided in some corner of my mind. Waves and water and wind. All lovely things and maybe it was nice that there was someone else on my island after all because she’d know what to do about missed connections.
“Are you talking to me?” I waited for her to come to me because she didn’t look happy and the first rule of warfare is to hold your ground against the enemy. She looked kind of like the enemy.
Which meant she looked kind of like me. The me since my late husband walked out. Antagonistic. Angry. Not to be fooled with. Dangerous, even. So I folded my arms in a deceptively innocent way and asked again, “Are you speaking to me?” I would have tapped my foot except tapping on sand isn’t effective.
She reached me. “Where’d the boat go?” She stared at me. Hard.
“How should I know?” I stared back. Harder than she stared at me.
She kept staring. “Because you’re the only person left on this island, that’s why you should know. Caretakers know things like that and I’d like you to call the boat back so I can continue with my cruise.”
My mouth dropped. “Me? You’re insane. I’m not a caretaker.” I poked a finger at her. Another warfare tactic. “You’re the caretaker and I was about to ask you to call the boat back so I could continue with my cruise.”
We stared at one another until she said, “You’re not the caretaker?”
And I asked, “You’re not either?”
A pause after which we spoke in unison. “We both missed the boat.”
We sat down then. On the sand. Hard. And said nothing for the longest time. Then I ventured with, “What do we do now?”
“How should I know? I’ve never been shipwrecked before.” I could have reminded her that we weren’t shipwrecked because the ship was fine, wherever it was. We were the ones with problems.
“Cell service?” She pulled out her cell and tried to get it to work, then she put it back in her pocket. “Nope.”
We stared at the beautiful blue-green ocean and multi-colored birds flying against the brilliantly summer blue sky. We stared for a long time. Until she said, “My name is Emily and I’m hungry.”
“Jan and me too.” I shaded my eyes with a hand and examined the trees. “Coconuts, maybe?”
She followed my look. “They are pretty tall. And scratchy looking. I’d prefer something easier.”
I thought a moment. “Maybe they keep supplies on the island. For beach parties.” It seemed like a reasonable thing to do. “Let’s look around. We might find something.”
“Like a two-way radio.”
So we looked and, yes, we found a shed and it wasn’t even locked because there was no need for locks on deserted islands. And, yes, there were a few industrial sized cans of peaches and boxes upon boxes of tiny umbrellas. Then we found sealed cans of crackers and cheese and we sat down right then and there and ate our fill of crackers and cheese and peaches but we ignored the little umbrellas. We’d had enough of little umbrellas the previous night.
“Time slipped away from me,” Emily said, finally picking up an umbrella and holding it at arm’s length. “Too many of these little things and too many lovely, fruity drinks.”
“Me too. They were very good drinks.”
“I was celebrating,” she said defensively. “I don’t normally drink that much.”
“Me too – celebrating — and neither do I normally drink that much, but I did last night and I’m not sorry. Except for the being stranded on a deserted island part. I’m kind of sorry about that.”
“What were you celebrating?”
“My recent divorce.” There. I said it. Out loud. Just tossed the words out as if it wasn’t important.
“Really?” She turned towards me and our eyes met. Two middle-aged women who were neither thin nor cute. “Me too and though I thought I’d die when it happened, I’m now happy to be free of the rat-fink.”
“That makes two of us,” I replied and realized that was exactly how I felt. Happy to be rid of my former husband. Free even though I was temporarily in a difficult situation.
We sat there on the sand with tiny umbrellas in our hands without the alcohol that went with them. And without knowing quite what triggered it, we started to laugh and before we knew what was happening, we were rolling on the sand with laughter and telling each other our life stories and they were so alike that we laughed even louder and decided we were sisters in every way but blood.
Then our mouths became sort of parched from laughter and the sand that was quite gritty and we decided that survival was more important than sisterhood so we searched further because peaches didn’t have enough liquid in them to keep our thirst quenched, especially since we’d also been eating salty crackers.
And that was how we came upon the tiny creek that trickled among the trees and the other sheds that had been erected in such a way as to not be noticeable to tourists who were looking for a deserted island but were handy for the people who kept those tourists happy.
One was stocked with tables and tablecloths and napkins and candles and elegant plates and cups and everything needed for a banquet. “We didn’t get a banquet.” Emily sniffed as she examined the exquisite napkins.
“We got bonfires. Maybe other cruises get banquets.” It also had plastic glasses like the ones we’d drunk from the night before and we used a couple to scoop out cold water from the creek and drank until we were sated. Never mind that we might die from who knew what disease that water held, we felt great.
And happy. We smiled and laughed and danced on the sand and set one of those tables for a banquet for two and while we did those things everything that had been wanting to come out of me for a long, long time came out and danced with me and Emily said the same thing was true of her.
“So now what?” she finally said, when our euphoria had subsided and we had to once again face our situation. “When is the next cruise ship scheduled to stop here?”
“Surely there will be other ships passing by before then. We can signal them.”
She gave me a long look. “With what? And what if it’s an airplane instead of a ship? How will we signal it?”
“We can write in the beach sand.”
“The water washes everything away almost instantly.”
So we thought further. “Let’s look more. We never did find that short wave radio.”
So we looked. And we looked some more. And then we looked still more. We never did find a short wave radio but we did find a whole bunch of things that we thought were rather unique. We found flares.
Emily – ‘Em’ by then because being stranded on a deserted island speeds up the friendship process a lot – said her father had worked for the railroad and she knew about flares. “You snap off the cap and rub it against the flare and it lights up. No matches needed.”
There were lots of flares. Dozens. So she showed me and soon we were both brandishing flares much as we’d done sparklers on the Fourth of July when we were kids. Except the flares were more colorful and way bigger. It was fun. Real, idiotic fun.
“Now all we need is someone passing by to see a flare.”
“They’ll come,” Em said with what I thought was a slightly diminished degree of the self-confidence that had lifted both of us to an emotional high since finding each other and discovering we shared similar backgrounds. And similar ex-husbands.
I couldn’t help what happened next. I started drooping a bit, too. “It could be a teeny tiny while.”
We stared at one another and then at the small, well-hidden shacks that contained all we had in the way of survival equipment. “No clothes,” she said forlornly, all pretense of swagger gone.
“We have clothes. We’re wearing them.”
“Do islands get cold at night?” We didn’t know. During the one night we’d already spent on the island we hadn’t been in any condition to take note of our surroundings or gauge the temperature. “I hope not.”
At which moment, we heard a sound. Not the birds or the ever-present tropical wind or the trees swaying in that wind. Something else. Some other kind of sound.
“A ship!” Em ran to the beach and I followed. “It’s a ship.” She turned and ran back to the shed we’d just left. “Flares! We need flares. Lots of them.”
“They’ll see us. They will.” I added ‘I hope’ and ‘please’ but I added them silently because I didn’t want to seem like a kill-joy as we grabbed arms-full of flares and ran back to the beach, where we snapped the caps off two flares, rubbed them as Em instructed, and to our delight watched as they burst into flame.
“We’re saved. We get to go home.”
“Home.” We both wondered what home would be like. Different than before was all we knew. Worse? Better?
We looked at the ship, then held our flares high as we waded into the ocean and waved them wildly, and then we looked at each other standing in the ocean and waving a bunch of flares like a couple of idiots. And we started laughing once more, our optimism renewed and our lives looking better and better with each passing second.
Because with the arrival of that ship, we suddenly knew that we had a future. Maybe we didn’t know what it would be like but we did know it waited for us with open arms.
As the ship drew closer we also knew – we felt in our bones – we internalized the knowledge — that that waiting future, like the approaching ship, would be wonderful. Absolutely awesome.
The flares turned out to be unnecessary. The ship was our ship – the cruise ship – that had realized two passengers had been left behind and returned to pick us up.
We walked onto that ship with all the grace and dignity we could manage, strolling slowly as if this was an every-day occurrence for world travelers like us. As if the whole thing was a lark. As if we’d known all along that we’d be rescued and it was only what special people like us deserved. When we reached my stateroom, which happened to be the closest one, we collapsed on the bed.
“Did you see the dirty looks we got?” Passengers had been lined up all along the side of the ship as we boarded and every eye had been on us.
“I’m guessing the ship had to skip some excursions because of the time it took to come back for us.”
Em shrugged elaborately. “Not that I care.” But her lower lip trembled and we both knew that joining the rest of the passengers for social events was going to be hard. Very hard.
Those great-looking guys would look at us and shake their heads and we’d not know if it was because we were so angry that we scared the crap out of them – which had been the case before we were stranded — or because we were a couple of dumb, middle-aged women who didn’t have the sense to return to the ship when the klaxon went off.
Em held her head high. “Who cares what anyone thinks? We had an adventure. A real adventure.”
“Yes we did and it was wonderful.” Which, in retrospect, it had been. Absolutely awesome.
We looked at one another and burst into laughter. Again. I held my middle but couldn’t stop the laughs. “Laughing is getting to be routine.”
“It’s good for us.” She tossed her head back and let the laughter roll out of her. “So what if we are two addle-brained women who got stranded on a deserted island?” She thought a moment, then said, “Two very addle-brained middle-aged women.”
My next words came out unbidden. “And isn’t that great? Wonderful? Fabulous?”
We stopped laughing. We stared at one another. And we found ourselves nodding. “What happened was all of those things,” Em said quietly. “Wonderful. Fabulous. Amazing.”
The laughter dissipated and we knew, somehow, that it wouldn’t return because it wouldn’t be needed. Because we’d got beyond needing it. “And some day we will look back on this cruise as the best thing that ever happened to us.”
“We did. We are survivors.”
“We are also now two truly happy women.”
I stood up, straightened as tall as possible, strode across the stateroom and opened the door to the outside and all those people who would be looking down their noses at us. “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s enjoy ourselves.”
And we did. We danced to the ship’s band with each other and alone and both ways were fun and we didn’t notice or care whether those great-looking guys were checking us out or not because they were no longer important.
We ate unhealthy food until our stomachs rebelled and we had to go outside and stare over the railings at the sun-streaked sky long enough for our stomachs to settle and the sky to turn to night with stars and shining waves becoming part of us.
As the days passed, we met other people and talked with them and discovered that some were out of sorts because we’d changed their itinerary but others thought we’d had the most exciting adventure they could imagine and they were jealous and wanted to hear the details over and over again.
When the cruise ended, we exchanged contact information. Because we’re going on another cruise next summer. Together. One with a stop at a tropical island.
It’ll be fun and hopefully we won’t end up stranded once again. The brochure said there’d be a gourmet feast on their own private island and we both truly do like islands. But not being stranded on them. I mean, we’ve done that and don’t need a repeat.
But you never know…