Darby Lee Patterson
It was a dream trip. A cruise around the Mediterranean with stops in ports I thought I’d only read about in glossy magazines. And though I have memories of remarkable places such as Pompeii, Mallorca, and the Barbary Macaques of Gibraltar, the experience that remains most indelible is time spent on the ship. I traveled with my then-boyfriend and a young man trying to forget a lost loved one.
She wasn’t a floating city with multiple decks and thousands of travelers. Ours was a Greek ship with three floors above the water and rooms for the crew and employees on the deck below the waterline. It was more like a small town than a metropolis of vacationers. Over the period of our two weeks at sea, we became familiar with each other, sharing a few words, clinking toasts over dining tables set with the ship’s signature china and silverware.
I became fast friends with the Romanian musicians – a portly, short accordion player, a lanky, nearly bald violinist, and a guitarist with a permanent smile for everyone. We invited them to our table many times and as a music lover, singer, and fellow violinist, I made it to their list of favorite fans. They taught me some words in Romanian and invited me to visit them in their homeland. We exchanged addresses.
Dinner was also a time to check out fellow travelers, to sum up their lives and relationships, to watch who drank too much of what, and also to estimate the cost of the elegant gowns worn by the women. The best up-close look was in the women’s restroom where the wall of mirrors was the main attraction. It was there that I spied an elegant tall woman who floated in wearing a simple, understated black evening dress, her ash blonde hair confidently pulled back and highlighting the face of a one-time model. Not a fashion model, I thought. Perhaps an artist’s mannequin. High cheekbones, large eyes the color of the sea, and porcelain skin delicately lined by time. She wasn’t smiling but there was a look of pleasure and disconnect on her face. A simple strand of diamonds shot off tiny sparks of brilliance. She wore no rings.
She didn’t bother to look into the mirrors but went about her business. I waited for her, for another glance. When she emerged from the stall, she went to wash her hands and turned. For a brief moment and with no exchanged expression, we caught each other’s eyes. The most interesting person on the ship, I decided.
Later that moonlit night, people migrated to the dance club where a jazz band played standards to bring guests out on the floor. At 50-something I was among the younger women on the ship. And after marching around on dirt and gravel at historic sites throughout the day, many of the wives were unwilling or unable to step out on the dance floor. But the older men who knew how to guide a partner skillfully around the dance floor were eager to foxtrot and waltz and display their grace. And, by default, they chose me. I did not decline a single invitation.
Eventually, my party migrated to the ship's Lounge and that’s where my most vivid memory of the voyage lives forever. The lights were dim and the atmosphere subdued. The accordion player was at the keys of a baby grand piano sending out gentle tunes. Couples leaned across small round tables and made promises to each other in whispers. We enjoyed a glass or two of wine. The fiddler and guitarist joined their colleague and then the trio turned to me, gesturing for me to also join them. I figured I’d had enough wine to make that possible. There, abandoning my fears and knowing I’d never see any of the people in the room again, I sang Maleguena in Spanish, backed by Romanian musicians on a Greek ship.
We ended to a round of applause and I remember gliding back to my table feeling other-worldly. I sat down and accepted the glass of Greek wine someone sent over for me. That’s when she walked from the dark end of the bar to our table, leaned over, and placed a swan-like hand next to mine. I smelled jasmine and whiskey. I looked up. She wore a hint of a smile. “My dear,” she said and paused, “If it was my week for girls, I’d choose you.” She rose like a monarch and drifted out the door.
The Parthenon, the Vatican. The Prado. All those famed port stops are faded like old postcards, while the colors of that evening when mystery met magic on a moonlit sea are bright as day.
Thanks for traveling with me this week. I always appreciate your time and responses. Readers like you keep people like me remembering, writing, and feeling inspired.
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