Exercising the craft—July 11, 2016

By Ekta R. Garg

Prompt: After a long, hard breakup, you decide to treat yourself and go on a two-week cruise. You get onto the boat, put your bags in your room, and take a stroll around the deck. As you look around you, everyone seems to be in couples and everywhere you look, lovebirds are spending time together. You groan, realizing you’ll be spending two weeks on a romantic cruise alone. But as you lean on the railing, a very attractive someone walks up to you, and they seem to be single, too. Maybe this cruise won’t be so bad after all.

http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts/love-boat

*****

Karen stared at the intertwined fingers of the couple in front of her in line at the bar before she turned her attention to the aqua colored straps on her sandals. Better than looking up and watching the man and woman suck face for an interminable amount of time before they pulled away from one another, smiling those secret smiles like they knew the kiss was just the beginning. The kiss was part of the foreplay that would continue later that night in their cabin, which would lead to sex, which would lead to goofy grins in their pictures taken tomorrow in the corner of the upper deck before they got back to land and broke up a month from now because she overheard a breathy voicemail that some skank had left and that the guy hadn’t deleted yet.

The feet in front of her moved forward, and she took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a few moments to compose herself before she stepped ahead.

Not every guy on this cruise is going to be Kevin, she said, reprimanding the half of her heart that had issued the reproach. The half of the heart Kevin had left for her.

Yeah, but with almost five thousand people on board, you better believe there are going to be a few Kevins here.

She couldn’t argue with that logic. Statistically it was impossible for there to be this many people together and for all of them to be happy with one another. Breakups were bound to happen to some of them at some point.

The couple sucking face got their drinks—pina coladas—and Karen got her turn.

“A mai tai, please,” she said.

The bartender nodded and turned to the supplies in front of him to mix the drink. She turned back to survey the scene in front of her. It was bad—really bad.

When Kevin had dumped her after she’d discovered his infidelity, he’d left the apartment in a rush. Karen found the tickets for the cruise as she moved from room to room in a rage, determined to scrub the entire 800 square feet of his presence. He hadn’t left much—a few books and magazines, which she’d thrown with great flourish into the recycling bin—and a spare toothbrush, which went into the trash.

She thought she’d gotten everything when she spotted the nightstand on his side of the bed—no, not his side anymore; the other side of the bed—and marched to it. Karen yanked the drawer open and saw the envelope with the cruise line’s logo on it. Her name sat under Kevin’s on the front of the billfold, as if the simple black and white could cover what he’d done.

No freaking way, she thought.

But it had all been there in black and white. A romantic getaway for two. Two weeks going around the Caribbean and stopping in several ports. The brochure showed a bikini-clad woman with her head tilted to the side in a laugh, the guy next to her with one arm around her waist and another holding a drink similar to the one in Karen’s hand now.

When she’d first found out about Kevin’s other woman, fleeting thoughts of doing terrible things to both of them had whipped through Karen’s mind. But when she saw the tickets, she knew she had the makings of the perfect revenge on hand. She tore up the ticket with his name and started packing.

Of course, the “romantic” portion of the advertising materials hadn’t really jumped out at her until she actually got on the boat. Until she saw live replicas of the man and woman from the brochure. That’s what made this so bad.

This was a mistake, Karen thought for the tenth time as she made her way to the railing. She watched the water rushing below the boat and wondered just how hard the Coast Guard would look for her if she decided to make the leap. She’d have to do it after she finished the mai tai, of course. No sense in wasting a good drink.

“Is this spot taken?”

Karen jumped and turned to her left. “I’m sorry, what?”

The man smiled in what she thought looked suspiciously like sympathy. “I asked if this spot was taken. Here next to you. Are you waiting for someone?”

Karen shook her head and turned her attention back to the water. “Nope, I’m here alone.”

He heaved a sigh of relief as he stepped forward and rested his forearms on the railing. “I’m glad I’m not the only one.”

She angled her body back in his direction. “It’s terrible, isn’t it?”

He nodded, and she saw the slight slip of gray at his temples. “I think the romantic cruises are the worst ones. Everyone seems so happy all the time, and if you watch them long enough you realize that not all of them really are.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Karen said. “I wonder how long it’ll take some of them to find other partners for the next cruise.”

“Karen, right?”

She felt her smile start to dim. “Uh…yeah. How did you know?”

He put his hand into the pocket of his Bermuda shorts and pulled out a business card. “Greg Connor, director of behavioral research. Don’t be alarmed, I work for the cruise line and I got your name from the manifest for the ship. You’re one of only three people who checked in without a plus-one, believe it or not.”

She looked around the deck at all the couples and examined the individuals in the pairs. Some looked just as enthralled with one another as the couple in front of her at the bar. Some looked content to remain in one another’s orbit without constantly colliding.

A few look less than thrilled with one another. Even seeing them made Karen’s heart tug. It took two people to fight. At least they weren’t alone.

She looked back at Greg. “Are you asking me to leave? We’ve already left land.”

Greg chuckled. “No, actually, I’m asking you to do something for me. The cruise line wants to collect observations about our guests, but it’s hard to get objective information from people when they’re part of a couple or…otherwise engaged.”

He directed his gaze to something over her shoulder, and she turned around. The same couple from the bar stood at the far end of the deck, once again making out. When she’d seen them the first time, Karen felt a pang of longing. This, though, seemed to cross the line of PDA, and she rolled her eyes.

“Geez, they’ve already got a room,” she said in a low voice as she turned back to him. “Why don’t they just go ahead and use it?”

He nodded and put his hands in his pockets. “Exactly. Why don’t they? What’s so attractive about staying out here in public and groping each other in full view of the entire deck?”

“Maybe they’ve got something to prove,” Karen said, her voice light. She laughed a little but saw the neutral expression on Greg’s face. “Wait, is that what you think?”

He shrugged with one shoulder. “I don’t know. What do you think?”

Karen frowned and turned around yet again. The woman’s skimpy bikini top left little to the imagination, and the man had his hands in both back pockets of her short shorts. They kept kissing, but as Karen watched them something about the whole display started to look a little…practiced. Staged. Like they wanted to show someone they were deliriously happy.

She shared her observations with Greg and added, “People who really want to get into bed together don’t waste that much time. They just go ahead and do it.”

He nodded again and beamed. “See? All you have to do is watch people for a little while, and you start to learn a thing or two. The cruise line would like you to spend some time during these next two weeks doing exactly what you just did—watch people. Observe how they interact with one another, how they talk to each other, the give and take between them and who does more of each.”

“What’s in it for me?” she asked.

“A whole bunch of perks–massages; free land excursions, deep discounts at any of the on-board shopping–as well as a nice discount for our next sailing,” Greg said. “If you want I can take you up to the captain’s office, and we can work on all the details.”

She took another look around the deck. At all the couples. One fact was clear: she was here alone. Was it better to be alone and do something productive and even be compensated for it?

At Kevin’s expense? He’s already paid for the cruise. Why not make this hurt a little more?

“Okay,” Karen said. “When do I start?”

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