Britta, beautiful Britta, had just awoken in her state room of the cruise ship “Lollipop,” as she called it. She heard the low hum of the ship’s engine just beyond her pint-sized bathroom. Pushing herself up on her elbows, she looked through the porthole. Yes, this is exactly the way she remembered the coast of Florence.
“Ah, Florence!” she said en francais. “Ze city of loveurs. Naughty woman zat I am.”
Never married, always a bridesmaid at the Bryn Athyn Cathedral in suburban Philadelphia, where God loved everyone and waited to welcome them in the afterlife. Britta had fallen in love with the married Joseph Walsh, who told her, “Every time we make love, colors shine more brightly.”
And, yes, he would certainly divorce that wife of his who treated him so badly – “I say one thing and she argues with me right in front of the kids.”
And there were a lot of them, six, plus another who died in infancy, LeeAnn, she would always remember the name, her projectile vomiting heralding her imminent demise at six months of age. Had the tiny baby sniffed Sandra’s coldness?
The citizens of Bryn Athyn, the wealthy world headquarters of the Swedenborgian religion, filled one hundred twenty places of the three-thousand on the cruise ship. Damned if Britta was going to cancel her vacation just because her asshole boyfriend broke up with her. She had showed him pleasures in sex he had only dreamt about. His wife Sandra was a missionary position woman and after the kids were born, said Joey, “I only had ‘Jewish sex.’ I had to beg for it.”
Britta planned to flaunt her beauty in front of Sandra. To let her know that her husband had touched every part of her body and come back for more. And that she had loved her husband’s body – the curly hairs on his chest, his sensitive toes she kissed, and his muscled arms and legs from workouts in his basement gym. He could press 800 pounds, he told her, in a basement she could never see, in a house she could never enter.
It was the cocktail hour when Britta arrived in her blue and white bikini at the pool’s upper deck. She made sure the Walshes would be there, having made a deal with Medron, her bow-legged Indian valet, who called her when the Walshes arrived on deck.
Dressed in the ship-owned white bathrobe with “Princess Cruises” embroidered on the right breast, thankfully, thought Britta, it didn’t say “Titanic,” she rode the elevator in her flip-flops and arrived at the top deck. How wonderful it felt to receive the warm breezes of the Mediterranean, sailing her blond hair away from her face. She turned her head around to let the breeze flow into her ears and onto her neck. She ran her fingers through her hair as she sought out the Walshes. A daiquiri would be nice, she thought, and ordered one at the Kontiki Bar, festooned with fake flowers and tiny wooden canoes.
“Mmmm,” she said involuntarily as she sipped the sweet and sour drink and strolled toward a table. Once in a blue moon she would allow herself the luxury of getting drunk, not too drunk, since she always remembered spending a night at her friend Terry’s when they were students at the University of Pennsylvania, lit majors both of them. To celebrate the end of the semester, Britta and Terry polished off a bottle of wine and when Britta awoke in Terry’s dorm room, the world spun like a top. She tumbled out of bed to go to the bathroom as the room, with its shelves of books and rock star posters and portable typewriters, wheeled around her.
Never again, she promised herself, and never got that kind of drunk again.
Britta Sterling lived with her parents on a sloping street in Bryn Athyn. It was what people called a “quaint street” paved with gray cobblestones that rose up in the middle, leading downward to a natural drain that never flooded when the rains came down. Wealthy people were not showy in this tiny community, but Britta’s parents, the Sterlings, broke tradition by installing a kidney-shaped swimming pool in the backyard for Britta and her two brothers and one sister. It was there, in the blue-tiled pool with white lawn furniture on the patio, that Britta discovered she was a little mermaid. At ten, when she was distraught that the changing leaves on the backyard trees meant closing the pool, her parents told her not to worry, they would soon surprise her.
When January came with the glorious snowflakes that tickled the little girl’s face a new pool had indeed grown inside their house. Workmen came into their basement and built the whole family a special kind of pool.
“Look, Daddy!” cried Britta, as she curled her arms in the backstroke, “I’m moving my arms but I’m still right in front of you.”
He laughed at her reaction to this “endless pool” and threw his darling a kiss.
She had read all about Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, and had written a little report about her, including a crayon drawing of “Trudy,” as she was called, wearing a one-piece black bathing suit.
After drinking three delicious sweet sips of her daiquiri, Britta licked her lips, draped her white robe over the rib-backed chair, and fairly danced over to the salt-water pool at the very top of the cruise ship. She saw the Greek flag flying high on a flagpole, the mighty winds swinging it wildly to and fro.
So noisy here on top of the ship.
She waited until the pool emptied out so she could have this wide world of water all to herself. Some things were best done alone. She dove in. Swam underwater for as long as she could, half the length of the pool, eyes open, body cleansed head to toe, purified by the salt water of the Mediterranean. Here swam Plato, Napolean, Aeschylus, Henry James, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein. Here swam Britta Sterling, once the darling of Joseph Walsh, who promised to marry her. Whenever she would introduce him to people – her parents, her friends, her many cousins – she’d say, “This is my married boyfriend, Joey Walsh.”
He’d admonish her, as he watched her with lovesick eyes. At last, she got her man. She had waited so long. No longer young, she would be forty-five her next birthday, and he was nearing sixty.
“Hello, Love,” she said early one morning as she saw his name on her Caller ID while she was under her white eyelet cover at home.
“I’m breaking up with you,” he said, in his voice that reminded her of a radio announcer’s.
“I’m breaking up with you,” he said.
“Joey! We’re not getting married?”
“The shit hit the fan?”
“Goodbye,” she said quickly, for she realized what had happened.
The night before, Joey told her the time had come to tell his wife. Their love had gone on nearly a year. He was tired of lying to his wife, he told her. The truth must out. He wanted her, Britta, more than anything else in his life.
A Bible reader, they had pledged their troth on each other’s thighs, like in parts of the Bible.
“I want to sleep with you all night long,” he had told her, “not just for two hours on a stolen afternoon.”
He wrote her love letters and signed them “J.”
She could never write back.
His letters contained small gifts, things he knew she’d like: A book of poems by Sylvia Plath, the feather of a bluejay, seashells from a trip to Bermuda he and Sandra took.
And now Joey was no more. He didn’t exist. How she hated him. How she despised him. The coward. Had she a gun, she would press it to his temple and press the trigger. No, she would stab him with a knife, a slower death, so she could watch him die slowly. And would feel pleasure.
As she breast-stroked across the salt-water pool, she began to feel an intense sexual pleasure. How she longed for this man. The greatest love she had ever known, now thrown back into the cold arms of his wife. On her belly, she rubbed her hands across her smooth wet body.
“I must have you, I must have you back,” she said to herself. She felt her tears mingle with the salt water pool. “I can’t live without you, Joey.”
She climbed up the silver ladder, feeling the cold metal on her feet. As she toweled herself off, she glanced around the deck. There they were, sunning themselves with closed eyes, Sandra wearing yellow capri pants and a midriff-revealing matching top, and one of those odd-looking protective plastic devices over her eyes.
How Britta hated her!
Should she approach? Should she talk to them? Slipping on her flip-flops and grabbing her daiquiri she walked slowly over to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Walsh. He owned the largest Honda dealership in Eastern Pennsylvania. What he really wanted to drive, he had told Britta, was a silver-smooth-riding Mercedes Roadster, its body made of sleek aluminum. “I’m sick of being a loyal Honda man,” he told her. “When we get a nice used Roadster in I’m going to stick my neck out, Darling, and scoop it up.”
Her darling had opened his eyes and was massaging sun tan oil onto Sandra’s arm. Britta slowed her walking. She found her legs walking straight up to the two of them. She stood directly in front of them while they both watched her. She began to take a sip of her daiquiri and felt her hands trembling, so she held the stem with both hands and peered at them above the glass.
“Hello,” she ventured.
Sandra, black curly hair falling to her shoulders, leaned forward in her chair.
“You whore,” she said, in a low voice. “How dare you sleep with my husband? We’re going to sue your pants off. We’re among the richest people in Bryn Athyn, and you, you bitch, still live at home with mom-mee.”
“You,” said Britta, “can burn in hell.”
Britta walked away, her body shaking violently. Heads had begun to turn toward them, listening to their soap-opera talk. Good. Let people listen. The awful bitch.
To calm down, Britta dove in the pool again, swimming as fast as she could. “Oh, humiliation,” she thought. “Go away, go away.”
When she emerged, they were gone.
Lying down on her small bed in her state room, she wept furiously and regretted coming aboard the ship. She looked out the window at the endless rolling waves churned by the huge ship, glistening with foam like on a root beer float. Finally, she cried herself to sleep, only to be awoken by a loud knock.
“Just a minute,” she said, smoothing down her hair and pulling on her white embroidered bathrobe.
“Who’s there?” she asked.
“It’s me, babe,” said the deep male voice.
“Joey!” she whispered, as she opened the door. “What are you doing here?”
“I can’t live without you, babe,” were his shocking words. “Meet me at the bar on the sixth tier at exactly eight o’clock tonight.”
He was shorter than she was, his salt-and-pepper hair retaining the curls he had shown her in his baby pictures, when they lay together in their motel bedrooms, a bottle of wine on the bedside table.
Britta stepped out of the doorway and threw her arms around him.
“Joey, I’ve missed you so much. We’ve got to figure out a way….”
He drew her closer, put his hands on her face, and began kissing her, the way she taught him to, each of them moaning in unison.
“Come inside?” she asked.
“Later,” he said. “I’ll see you on deck.”
She clenched his hands tightly.
“Yes,” he said, “I was a coward. No more, though, babe. No more.”
Five more hours. She pulled out a book from the ship’s library, a mystery novel by Ruth Rendell called “A Judgement in Stone.” The very first sentence captivated her, “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” She was already halfway through, but couldn’t comprehend a single word now. It’s no good, she said to herself, looking at her watch. Best to stay busy, she thought, and not think too much.
Perhaps she could get her hair done. No, that would allow too much thinking time. She dressed, locked up her room, and walked to the main corridor where the elevators and stairways awaited her. A map presented itself of all the different levels and activities.
“The Fitness Room, of course,” she thought. “The perfect place to wait for my darling.”
The treadmill was her favorite. Like the “endless pool” back home in the basement, the treadmill was walking fast and going nowhere. She loved the humming noise of it and the feeling on the bottom of her sneakers, heels, then toes, heels, then toes, moving along, her head thrown back like a lioness in her prime.
It was twilight when she arrived at the bar which overlooked the sea. Joey wasn’t there yet so she asked for some pinot noir and sipped it over by the railing. She watched the Mediterranean which, like the sky, had darkened and cast its melancholy spell upon the world. Land was nowhere to be seen. Their next destination was Rome, ah, Roma, founded, in the myth, by Romulus and Remus, babies who were the lawful inheritors of the city, but in a coup, they were left in the forest to die, like Hansel and Gretel. A she-wolf found them and suckled them back to life.
She could feel the wine softening her body and her mind. For Joey, she wore a sleeveless white sundress and white high-heel pumps. Her mirror told her she looked beautiful.
He came up behind her on the wooden deck and put his hands on her shoulders.
“My love,” she said turning around.
They were the only ones on deck other than the bartender.
“Over here, my love,” he said, holding her arm and guiding her to a hidden place on deck where they could be alone. How kind of him, she thought. Their kisses and caresses would be hidden from view.
He gently lifted her off the ground. He was so strong. Once, in their forbidden hours of love in a motel, where he signed them in as Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Walsh, he carried her right over the threshold of the Sunrise Motel in the resort town of New Hope, a half-hour ride from Bryn Athyn.
How happy they were together in their motel home, soulmates forever.
Joey steered her across the deck to what seemed a magical spot over the Mediterranean, the constant lapping of waves a soothing sound.
“Darling Britta,” he said as he lifted her up and cradled her in her arms as if she were a baby princess. She looked up into his dark eyes, which, were oddly narrowed, so unlike him.
She felt the strength of his arms as he lifted her high above the white railing, held her a moment over the sea.
And let go.
He watched as her white sundress ballooned like an umbrella and then disappeared under the waves.
Fifteen minutes later Britta was at rest, floating on her back in the sea.
She looked up at the clear night. Her body was illuminated by the half moon. Bright Venus hung low on the horizon and red Mars was just overhead. She curled up her body in the fetal position, which she had learned in her swim classes.
“I shall survive,” she told herself. “I shall survive,” remembering Gertrude Ederle, who lived to the amazingly old age of ninety-nine.
No one but the moon and the stars could see her white body floating in the sea, her blond hair wet and looking dark, her frightened eyes, and her ruined white sundress.
Ships have cameras, she knew. It would be only a matter of time until they would find her. Only a matter of time.
Ruth Z. Deming, a psychotherapist, has had her work published in lit mags including The Legendary, Literary Yard, Mad Swirl and Writing Disorder. She lives in Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. She runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder and their loved ones. Her blog is http://www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com/