Strangers in the NightbyWRJames©
"Well," Tom sighed, "what other romantic songs do we have for Valentine's Day? More Dean Martin?" The little piano bar was more crowded than on some nights. It had been a shore day, St. Martin. No big production show tonight, just one of those juggling comedians that seem to find their way on to cruise ships. Washed up, like him, flotsam bobbing against the shoreline, but not quite, not quite stranded yet. He had a few more years, a few more years until his voice gave out completely, until he could not stand to sing My Way one more time, until his laptop fried in the middle of cruise and left him without the thousands of songs it could bring up at a moment's notice.
"How about Fly Me To the Moon?" one of the guys in the little group that had established themselves as regulars piped up. He ignored them. They had just chosen the last two songs. The same old, literally old, crowd. It was in between winter break and spring break, no college kids to liven things up a little. Not than anyone under fifty ever wandered in to sit down. The wall behind him was open, people were passing by all the time, but that's all they did, pass by, pausing for a few seconds perhaps to admire how elegant he looked, in his tuxedo, seated at his lovely baby grand.
"How about someone else? How about over in the corner there?" It was then that he saw her, sitting alone, almost out of sight. He almost didn't recognize her, her figure hidden in a loose grey sweatshirt. But that face, that blonde hair in a little half ponytail, was unmistakable. It was the new singer for the production company. Three days out at sea, or was it four? What must she be thinking? She looked very, very lonely. Of course, he knew all about loneliness. Why had he ever taken this job? He had thought that it would be an adventure. He had dreamed, that one night, there would be a beautiful woman looking at him like that. But he could not change himself. Until now.
He was surprised that she was in here. The drinks were a lot cheaper in the crew bar. Of course, there was not much atmosphere there, no dark wood panelling, no thick carpet. It occurred to him, fleetingly, that she might actually be sitting there enjoying his music, but he pushed that thought aside. Well, he thought wildly, this is the moment, if there ever was one.
"Diana," he said, trying to be very much in control, a teacher tracking down a wayward pupil, "I see you back there, hiding." She blushed at that, she actually trembled, and he was sure that she was going to run away. Where was the woman who exuded sexual confidence and exuberance on stage? It was comical how shy she was in private. "Diana," he soothed her, as if he were coaxing his own child, "won't you come sing something for us?"
The rest of his little audience -- it would be presumptuous to call it a crowd -- had recognized her now. There were little murmurs of encouragement, urging her to the microphone that was set up next to his piano. He put it there, every night, and no one ever used it. But now, here she was, impossibly beautiful, impossibly young, smiling at him uncertainly. My God, he thought to himself, a woman like that! When he was her age, someone like her would have looked right past him. And now, she was actually abashed by his confidence and power. She had no idea how terrified he was, how difficult it was for him to face her gaze without letting his teeth chatter.
"What would you like to sing?" he asked, very gently. She was so much like his daughter, and he used that, he used that to have the confidence to talk to her.
"How about Over the Rainbow? Do you have that?"
"I have every song ever written. I even know that one."
"Can you do it in e flat?"
"You've got it." Oh God, he thought, as she began to sing, what a glorious, glorious voice. So young, so pretty, and with a voice like that ... she deserved better than a cruise ship. And maybe, maybe she would get there some day. Maybe she would be one of the lucky ones.
The song ended, and there was silence. It took everyone a moment to get their breath back. Then came applause, as much as the little crowd could make, and she blushed again, and fled back to her table. He went back to growling out Perry Como. His voice wasn't bad, but it didn't sound so great after what she had just done.
Against all odds, she didn't leave. She was still sitting at that little table, staring at him, staring out into space, closing her eyes, dabbing at them once in a while with one of the little napkin that had come along with her drink. There was quite a pile of little napkins there to choose from, it seemed. He cut his set short a little, and left the piano to start up the canned music. He was sure that when he turned back around, she would be gone. But she was still there.
"Do you mind if I join you?" He tried to make his voice confident, casual, even though he felt like every part of his body was shaking. Bond, James Bond. He tried to hide behind the tuxedo. Dashing, handsome, experienced, sophisticated, that was him. That was who she thought he was. But it was no good pretending. Forty five years old, and he felt like he was back at a junior high school dance. What was the matter with him? Didn't women like confidence, assurance? Surely he could snow this little girl.
She smiled at his shyness, his diffidence. "I really would like that," she said. "I am really lonely tonight." She said it so frankly, so trustingly, it caught him off guard. There was, he sighed, no way that he was going to bring himself to seduce this girl. A father figure, that was what she wanted from him. He found himself falling into the old, familiar patterns. He could treat her like his daughter, that let him approach her, talk to her. But to go any further than that -- it would be such a breach of trust. Why was she sitting here talking to him, and not David or Brian, one of those brash young dancers with huge muscles and egos to match? She just wanted someone she could have a conversation with, someone who wasn't going to hit on her -- someone old and respectable and safe. That was why she was here. There was no sense fooling himself.
"I hope I didn't embarrass you too much, asking you to sing."
"Oh, not at all." When she sang, her vowels were broad, almost American, but now her speech was more clipped. England, her bio had said, she came from somewhere outside of London. What kind of English girl, he wondered, wound up as a singer on a cruise ship? Not upper class, certainly, maybe not even middle class. Bur her accent sounded educated. Didn't make the cut to go to university, or had she chosen a different path?
"This is your first time on a cruise ship?" he ventured. He already knew that, of course, from the biography in the playbill.
"Yes. And you?"
"Oh," he smiled wanly, "I've lost count. It's been a couple of years. I'm beginning to feel like the Flying Dutchman. You're just out of school?"
"Three year performance program. Yep, this is my first real job. My first time away from home. First time away from ..." She stopped, and started to dab at her eyes again.
"Your family?" he suggested. "You miss your family?"
"My boyfriend," she had to make it explicit. "I called him," she said, "while we were on the island. It cost me a bloody fortune, but I thought, what the hell, it's Valentines Day, it will be a nice surprise."
"He should have enjoyed that."
"Yes," she answered quite dryly, "he should have."
"It's difficult. You're away for a long time."
"And he's back in England?"
"Yes. Yes, God knows he was upset when I took the job. But I thought, maybe he could join me sometimes, maybe he could fly over to New York occasionally."
"It doesn't work," he sighed. "It never works."
"You're married?" She was staring at his fingers.
"Guilty as charged."
"Your wife is with you?"
"Not this trip. Not," he sighed, "for a few trips now. Quite a few."
"Oh, I don't know. Everything was perfect, perfect. Nice job, nice house, nice family. But then I got laid off, she put on a lot of weight, we started to fight about money, and ... I don't know. It all fell apart. I always wanted to do something with music. When I was out on the road, I always used to find a piano and spend the evening playing and singing."
"So now you're here. You're very good. Don't most people start out as entertainers and then find something respectable?"
"I'm just living life in reverse. What can I tell you?"
The waiter came, and deposited two more drinks. "A toast," she said, bitterly, "to St. Valentine."
"A toast," he replied, "to strangers in the night."
His break was over, and he went back to play for another half hour. Surely, she would leave. Surely, one of the other dancers or singers, some other beautiful young body, male or female, would claim her, whisk her away. But she was still there. And, at the end, she came up to sing again, Strangers in the Night. She didn't know the words very well, and she had to lean over his back to read them off the computer screen. She pressed against him, hands on his shoulders, breasts vibrating against his neck, her hot breath cascading down his forehead. It was all he could do to concentrate on the chords, to keep his fingers from trembling as he broke them up into little riffs beneath the glory of her voice. By the end of the song, he had fallen in love with her, so hopelessly, so completely, that it was almost impossible to concentrate on what needed to be done to close up for the evening.
"Well," he said, struggling for some composure, "that's all for this Valentine's Day. I wish you all a very romantic rest of the evening, on this beautiful ship. Don't forget the special Valentine's Day Chocolate Lovers Buffet, which should be starting just about now, right next door in the Sea Shell Dining Room." In fact, the line for that buffet was backed up behind them. They had been part of the applause that had greeted Diana's second song.
"Do you want to get some chocolate?"
"No." She retreated back to her table, and he trailed after her. "Not now, not in that crowd. Maybe later. I don't know," she scowled. "I'm already eating too much. You know, they weigh us every morning?"
"What happens if you've gained weight?"
"They whip us." She said it with such deadpan seriousness that he actually believed her.
She laughed at his shock. "No, they don't whip us. Whipping would leave visible marks. We can't afford that, we have to work naked."
"Naked? I wish."
"Might as well be. Those costumes don't cover much, and each one covers a different bit."
"Does that bother you?"
"When I'm on stage, no. But the other night they had us hanging around after the performance. I was in this skirt that was slit up to the waist. And I couldn't wear anything under it. Well, I suppose I could have, but it would have spoiled the effect, you know? I was so embarrassed, just standing there like that. And it makes it tricky, getting a tan."
"Orient Beach is good for that."
"Yeah, isn't it?" she drawled. "The girls dragged me over there, this afternoon. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into until I saw this big sign in French. Plage nue." She drawled out a pretty good French accent, plawhje nooh. "And then there were all these old people walking around naked. It was so embarrassing. I mean, sometimes I would look around the church, and wonder what those people would looked like without clothes on. But I never really wanted to know. Now I do." She gave a little shudder.
"I saw you over there," she added, "running." That was enough to make him blush. Of course, he had seen her too, bunched up with all the other girls from the show, in a little island of beauty in a desert of flab. But he had hoped that he had gone unnoticed as he ran by. "You keep in pretty good shape," she added. "I'm impressed."
"I'm running all the time," he said. "When I'm not playing the piano, I'm running around the jogging track."
"Good for you." They sat for a few minutes without talking. "Did you call your wife today? For Valentine's Day?"
"No," he admitted. "I guess there isn't too much romance left."
"I should nae have called my boy friend. You know what he did? He fooking broke up with me. Four days out, on fooking Valentine's day. The fooking arse hole broke up with me."
"Fooking?" He was almost shocked at her casual obscenity.
"Fucking." She said it this time with an American accent.
"I'm sorry," he said, without too much conviction. "It was probably going to happen, sooner or later."
"Yeah, sooner or later. The fooking bastard couldna wait to get rid o' me." She stopped. "I'm sorry, when I get upset I forget to enunciate properly."
"It's lovely. I love the way you talk. What do you want to do?" It was not even eleven yet, too early for bed. At least, too early for sleep. "Do you want to go dancing?"
"Gawd no, I spend half the day fooking dancing." Her accent was devolving with each drink. "How about a walk? I need some air." She seemed to be having a bit of trouble organizing her limbs to get up from the table.
"Sure." Just across the hallway was a door out onto the promenade deck, which on this ship also served as the jogging track.
"How many times have you been around this walk?"
"Oh, God," he said, "I don't know, twenty laps every day, for how many days? Thousands, tens of thousands. I'm like a squirrel in a cage." He took off his jacket.
"Oh," she sighed, "I wish I could do that. It's hot out here. I wish I was wearing something under this sweatsuit. They only give us one bag of laundry a week for free, so I'm trying to save clothes."
"We could up to the observation deck. There's more breeze up there."
"Look, Mr. Waters ..."
"Tom," he winced.
"Tom," she said, "you're being very nice, and I appreciate it, but I'm really not feeling very romantic tonight. Even though it's fooking Valentine's Day." She deliberately drawled it that time.
The disappointment in his face must have been too evident. "Wait," she said, as he turned to leave, "I didn't say I wasn't horny." That was enough to make stop. "I'm horny as all hell and pissed as all hell."
It had probably been twenty years, but some of the old reflexes started to kick in. Just like riding a bicycle, he thought, you never forget how to do it. At least, he hoped that was true. "Well," he said, "why don't we just go downstairs and spend the rest of the evening fooking?"
She cupped one hand around his balls, then stroked upward, testing for an erection through the thick fabric of his tuxedo. "Are you any good?"
It was time to be the masterful, experienced older man. It was time to assure her that he was gonna rock her world, baby. But all he could come out with was a feeble "What?" The question, posed so calmly, was enough to completely unsettle him.
"Are you any good," she whispered it this time, into his ear, "at fooking?" Her tongue was brushing his earlobe at the end. He had a sudden premonition that he was in way over his head.
"I'm okay," he sighed. "I know what I'm doing. Actually, I'm out of practice. I haven't tried it for a while. How about you?"
She burst out laughing. "I stink. I suck so bad. No, I even stink at sucking. I am the world's worst. The worst! I just lie there like a dead fish waiting for it to be over soon."
She broke away from him and leaned over the railing, staring out pensively at the passing foam. He came up behind her and slid his hands up under her sweatshirt. She really was wearing nothing under it. Her breasts were larger than he had realized, smooth and firm, and her nipples were tiny but very hard. She sighed a little as he ran his fingers over them.
"I think," he whispered back, into the nape of her neck "that you are incredibly sexy." Her hair was very soft, subtly scented, and he parted it to kiss her smooth, golden skin. Beauty is only skin deep, perhaps, but her skin was so soft, so creamy -- a little salty as he licked it.
"Oh, I am, until I actually get into bed. Then it all goes away. I just freeze up. Look, if we go down and have sex now, we're just going to go through the motions. At least I am. I don't want that, not tonight."
"You're ready to cut loose."
"Well, why not? Why the fook not? Look," she broke away, turned around, gave him a appraising stare, her deep blue eyes only inches from his, so close their eyelashes were almost touching, "isn't there something you have always wanted to do, but you could never convince your wife to do it? No, don't tell me what it is." She didn't look so shy now. She looked more like that girl who was so explosive on stage. "As long as it doesn't leave any visible marks, I'll do it. But," she smiled, and the smile did not seem so innocent, "you have to do whatever I want, first."
"What is it?"
"I'm not going to tell you. Are you willing?"
"No visible marks?"
"You wear a suit. A fooking tuxedo."
Well, he thought to himself, why the fook not. How many times had he dreamed of a moment like this? How many nights had he waited for something like this to happen, and there had never been anything, not even the hint of anything.
"Good for you. Come, let's get going." He had never actually said yes, but he followed her meekly. She walked very quickly; he was almost running to keep up with her. "You don't share a cabin, do you?"
"No. Do you?"
"With three other girls. It. Is. The. Pits."
"You never lived in a dorm?"
"Never. I lived at home when I was in college."
"Four in a room? Bunk beds?"
"Sort of. The girls on the bottom have moved theirs together."
"That must be interesting." The implications seemed obvious, but he didn't push it.
"It sucks, it sucks so bad. The beds are supposed to be on the edges of the room, and you're supposed to be able to walk around the in middle -- but no, they have their beds together in the middle so you have to walk around on the side, except the upper bunks are in the way, you keep hitting your head all the time."
"My cabin is down this way." He tried to make it sound routine, as if he invited beautiful young women to share his bed every evening.
"Got to get some stuff first." She was heading for the theatre. "Wait here." She used her key card to enter the ladies' changing room.
"Not allowed in?" He poked his nose through the door. The walls were plastered with huge posters of naked hunks, all improbably hung. Intimidating. And, in truth, some of the dancers were probably built exactly like that. It made his poor attempts at fitness seem pretty pitiful.
"Damn!" She seemed very upset. "It's not here!"
"What's not here?"
"None of your business." She gave him a smirk like a mother hiding a birthday present. There was a house phone on the wall. "Hello, who is this? Yes it's Dini, to whom am speaking? Chrissie? Chrissie, remember the props you were showing me? I need them. Why? Remember what you said you did to Brian? No, not Brian, Tom. Tom, the piano player? Wears a tuxedo? Yeah, that one. No, I saw him over at the beach today, he's not flabby at all. No, I don't know yet. I need help? Yes, I know I could use a psychiatric evaluation. The fact that I'm even on this ship sharing a room with you is evidence of that. Oh, that kind of help. Yes, I'm sure he'd like that. What cabin?" She turned to Tom.
"Four four oh two."
"Oh,, you know where it is? Do you now? How interesting. Ten minutes? Okay. We won't dare start without you."
"What was that?"
"Chrissie is coming over to help."
"Help with what?"
"You'll see. Do you know Chrissie?"
"I know who she is," Tom replied, choosing his words carefully. "She's the black girl. The one with the big..." he stopped, abruptly.
"She seems to know who you are, too." Diana gave him a look of appraisal.
"It's a small ship. A small world. After a while, we all get to know each other."