When he was young and single George Carter sometimes fantasized about a pretty girl sitting next to him on a park bench or in a coffeehouse; of course that never happened. Even if it had, he was so shy when he was young he probably wouldn’t have spoken to her. Now, when he was on the pool deck of the cruise ship taking him and his wife Lorraine to Alaska to celebrate his recent retirement his fantasy actually happened. Okay, she wasn’t exactly a girl, more like a woman in her forties or early fifties but she was darned attractive, black hair, dark eyes, nice features, sitting on the beach chair next to his, opening a book. The book cover had a picture of the writer Somerset Maugham.
This was the third day of a ten-day cruise, a day, as the cruise line put it “at sea.” The weather was fine, sunny, warm but not hot and windless. Carter also had a book. He’d come up that afternoon to the pool deck and selected a chair as far away from the pool, where kids and adults who thought they were still kids were splashing and yelling. as he could. Carter, even now was still shy, but he thought to himself, What the hell. “Excuse me,” he said, leaning over slightly. “Are you reading a book by Maugham?”
“It’s a book about Maugham, a biography. It’s called ‘The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham.’ The most important secret life is that he was a homosexual.”
“Not really a secret.”
“No, but in his day it was a crime in England so he couldn’t come right out and admit it. Are you a fan of his?”
“Believe it or not, way back when I wrote my master’s thesis on Maugham. When I was at Columbia in New York.”
“Really? Are you a professor there now?”
Carter laughed. “No, I said that was a long time ago. No, I wound up being a civil servant in California, in Sacramento. My name’s George Carter, by the way.”
“Ruth Pearson. Strangely, I am a professor and in California. I teach English at Berkeley, one reason I’m reading this book.”
“I’ll have to get it. Who’s the author?”
She told him. “You must have liked Maugham’s work.”
“I did, although back then I didn’t know about the homosexuality. He was successful and rich but he was destined to have an unhappy life, with his terrible childhood, his sex orientation, his stutter, his stature. He would have appreciated the irony. Anyway, are you on this cruise by yourself?”
“Yes. What about you?”
“My wife is down there playing Bingo. She likes games.”
“What’s the book you’re reading?”
“Just a thriller but I like the author. His name is Michael Robotham. His main character is a psychiatrist who gets involved in one crime after another. And most of the book is set in London, one of my favorite cities.”
“Have you been there?”
“Yes, and my wife and I are planning another trip there for next year. I should say my wife is; she likes to plan ahead of time. Have you been?”
“Yes; it’s one of my favorite cities, too. I’ve read so many English novels I feel that I know it.”
“Exactly. English novels, and English mysteries, too. Have you read any ruth Rendell or P.D. James?”
“No, I’m afraid I’m not much for mysteries, although I’ve heard of them.”
They continued talking like this, about books and London and other European cities until Carter realized he’d lost track of time. He looked at his watch. “Damn, I’m supposed to meet Ellen for dinner. I better get going. It’s been nice talking to you.”
“It’s been nice talking to you, also.”
“I hope we meet again. Do you come up here every afternoon?”
“Good. Then I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Yes, tomorrow.” It was strange, thought Carter. He felt like a high school kid asking the most popular girl in class for a date.
* * *
That night Carter and his wife Lorraine followed had had become their cruise routine: dinner, then the show in the theater, then a drink in the lounge while listening to the piano player, after which it was eleven and time for bed. Lorraine had wanted to know why he was late meeting her for dinner. He said he’d become engrossed in his book.
The next afternoon Ruth Pearson was in the same beach chair on the pool deck. So she’d meant it about being there. He took the chair next to her and they continued their conversation about books and literature and also about more personal things. He learned that she’d been divorced. Her husband, or ex-husband, was another professor who’d become infatuated with one of his students, a girl twenty years younger. This had put her off marriage. He told her that after his retirement he’d somehow started doing free-lance stories for a weekly newspaper in downtown Sacramento and then for the Sacramento Bee and that he was going to take a creative writing course at their community college in the fall. She told him she was going to write an article on Jane Austen and other female writers of her period.
They met again the next afternoon and the afternoon after that and then it became a daily thing. They ordered cold drinks from one of the waitresses on the pool deck and after that the waitress came over every day. The nightly dinner, the show and the piano lounge were all fine, but Carter found that he looked forward to their afternoon meetings as the best part of the day. Then came the last day of the cruise; they’d disembark the next morning. They were deep in conversation when Lorraine suddenly appeared. Carter started and almost spilled his drink. “So this is where you’ve been in the afternoons,” said Lorraine.
Carter pulled himself together; he told himself that all they’d done was talk; he had nothing to feel guilty about. He introduced the two women. Lorraine pulled over a chair and sat down. She and Ruth talked about the differences between living in Berkeley and living in Sacramento. Lorraine quickly found out that Ruth was divorced and had no children. She mentioned how many years she and Carter had been married and had two sons. After about twenty minutes of this Lorraine stood up and said she’d been looking for Carter because she wanted to start packing. She didn’t want to wait until the last night. She was going back to their cabin now. Carter said he’d be along in a few minutes.
After Lorraine was gone, Carter stood up and said, “Well, I better be getting back to the cabin, too.”
“Yes,” said Ruth. “I think I’ll start packing, too.”
“Well, it was nice meeting you, and talking with you.”
“It was nice talking with you. Good luck on your writing.”
“Good luck with your article on Jane Austen and the others.”
They stood awkwardly for a time, then Carter asked if he could have her address. She gave him a card. He gave her a card he’d been given at the weekly newspaper. “See,” he said. “It says ‘Writer’ on it so I suppose I’m officially a writer. Well, I better be going.”
Back in their cabin, Lorraine had their suitcases on the bed and had them half-packed. “She’s very attractive,” she said.
“Yes, Ruth, the one you’ve been seeing every afternoon.”
“Hmmm,” Carter said. He began taking his shirts and slacks out of the closet.
* * *
When they returned to Sacramento Carter resumed his writing for the two newspapers and then started his writing course and tried some short stories and sometimes he thought he was almost as busy as when he had a full-time job. Occasionally he thought of Ruth Pearson’s card in his wallet and considered that Berkeley wasn’t that far from Sacramento. But he never heard from her. Before he knew it the year was over. Lorraine began her planning for their trip to Europe. One of his stories was published in a little magazine. They were busy with other activities in their retirement community. It was just as well, thought Carter. He might have done something really foolish about Ruth Pearson. Better that she remained a shipboard acquaintance.