Stroke of Midnight

Story written by Rick Archer
First published: March 2006
Last Update: August 2011

This is the story of how Rick and Marla met at sea.

The origin of the SSQQ Travel Club can be traced directly to an enchanted evening under a full moon.  This fairy tale encounter came complete with thrashing waves, dark clouds, strong winds and a hurricane clearly visible in the distance.

Rick and Marla's cruise ship courtship serves as enduring testimony to powerful role a trip at sea can play in creating romance.  Although the many twists and turns may seem implausible, please note that every event is true.


Chapter One - Divorce

There is no way to wallpaper over a divorce and disguise the ugliness.  I was briefly married once before in the Eighties.  All my wife Pat and I did was argue, so it made sense to hit the Exit Door.  At the time, I felt little guilt and tremendous relief, but the failure still flattened me with pain and doubt.  The second one was much tougher.

I didn't see my second divorce coming.  I knew my marriage wasn't particularly satisfying at the moment, but oddly enough the thought of a divorce from Judy, my second wife, never even entered my mind. 

Although things were cool between us, I wasn't all that unhappy.  I had a young daughter to raise and I was preoccupied with my business.  In 2000, the studio was enjoying its most successful year in history, but that success demanded my full attention.  I put every spare moment into handling the details necessary to keep the energy going.  I guess I assumed things would improve in my marriage with time. 

It was Christmas Eve, 2000.   

This date was a Sunday, the day a religious group known as the Quakers held their weekly service at SSQQ. 

Back in those days, SSQQ doubled as the Quaker Meeting House.  A Quaker by birth, I was more than happy to let this kind group of people use the studio for free while their lovely new Meeting House in the Heights was being built.   From what I gather, the Quakers enjoyed holding their Sunday Meeting at the dance studio.  They had total privacy and absolute silence.  Quakers very much enjoy peace and quiet. 

On this particular day, the Quaker group held their traditional Christmas Eve candlelight service.  Afterwards they stayed at the studio for much of the afternoon for a potluck dinner and social gathering.  It was a happy time for the group.  Not only was it the day before Christmas, but they were excited because their new Meeting home in the Heights would soon be ready.

I did not attend the gathering.  In fact, I rarely attended Quaker Meeting.  Quite frankly, I felt so overwhelmed by my job that I could not force myself to come to the studio during my free time even for a religious gathering. 

I really don't remember exactly what went wrong that day.  My memory is pretty much a blank.  The single thing I do remember is that late in the afternoon, I got a phone call from the Quakers.  The last few people were getting ready to leave, but the person with the key had left and forgotten they had the key.  The person on the phone had no way to lock the studio door.

Probably the only thing I do remember was feeling irritated.  I would have to stop what I was doing and spend a half hour of my time on Christmas Eve driving to the studio to lock the door and return home again.

Apparently I got into an argument with Judy over this phone call.  We were both worn out and neither us wanted to be the one to get up and drive to the studio to lock the door.  The next thing I knew, Judy walked out the door of our house and left without explanation.   Shocked, I stared at my 9-year old daughter Sam who stared back at me.  Sam asked, "What is Mom so upset about?"

I shook my head.  I was just as confused as Sam was.  The argument had not been that heated.  I was irritated, yes, but I wasn't angry.

Judy's mood seemed much darker than the moment called for.  Two hours later, Judy returned.  She got right to the point.  She wanted a divorce.

Her request took me completely off guard.  It was a complete surprise to me.  The thought of divorce had not crossed my mind.  Neither of us were particularly happy at the moment, but for the most part, our relationship was solid.  I had a lot of respect for Judy.  She was a good mother and a dynamite business partner.

However, now that I gave her request some thought, it was okay by me.  Assuming I could have joint custody of our daughter, I said I would agree to the divorce.

Then I left the house.  I wanted to be alone.  I spent the night sleeping at the studio.  Oh boy, Christmas Eve alone in the giant dark dance studio.  Just my idea of fun.  The next morning I ate my Christmas meal at IHOP. 

Back when I was Sam's age, my parents fought every night for about a year.  Many nights I fell asleep crying out of fear and insecurity.  When Sam was born, I vowed I would never put my own daughter through an experience like that.  So much for that vow.  Not only had I failed in my marriage, I had let my daughter down too. 

So much for Christmas this year.  I cannot remember feeling more miserable. 


Chapter Two - Comeback

Word of my separation made its way through the Grapevine.  One day in January my friend Tom Easley gave me a call.  Tom needed a favor.  He wanted to go skiing, but he needed a roommate.  Tom heard a rumor I might be available.

Tom Easley was the acknowledged leader of the SSQQ Look-a-Like Group.  This group had a tradition to go skiing together every January.  Tom and his friends had originally met through SSQQ back in the Eighties.  Over the years, this group had formed deep and lasting friendships.  I counted an amazing total of 5 marriages within this group and a long-lasting committed relationship for good measure. I would be going skiing with these six couples and several others.

This invitation to go skiing was a real blessing.  I needed to get out of town and nurse my wounds.  How funny that Tom should come to my rescue again.  Tom had also been there to save me when my first marriage broke up back in 1986.

At the end of January, I spent an entire week skiing with a tight-knit group of 40 people. As I watched how happy these people were to be with one another, I noted with quiet satisfaction that my days as 'Leader of the Pack' back in the Eighties had been largely responsible for helping this wonderful group of people first connect. 

Not only was I their dance teacher, I had organized the ski trips in the 1980s that had led to this tradition getting started.  However, Judy was not interested in skiing, so I had lost touch with this ski group during the Nineties.

Now I was having a blast reconnecting with my friends.  Every day I skied with the six different couples who had met through SSQQ.  It was like old times again.

The week I spent with the group was a definite shot in the arm.  It reminded me of all the good will the studio had created over the years.  I began to wonder what I could do to bring this magic back to the studio.

I thought about my role for a while.  The studio was doing well, but I was keeping a very low profile during my separation.  I preferred to lick my wounds alone.

My main contribution in those days was writing about the antics created by my wild and crazy SSQQ Staff who were always up to something.  At the moment, my instructors were getting married left and right.  I thought it was ironic that they were all getting married at the same time as I was getting unmarried.  That's the way life is sometimes, a revolving door.

What Could I Do to Rekindle the SSQQ Magic?

A major problem throughout my dance career has involved how much time I am willing to invest in the social side of SSQQ.  Any time I participate in a studio-related extracurricular activity, I help boost the energy of the event.  The more I go out dancing with the students, attend weddings, go to a pool party, show up at a dance competition or simply go around saying hi to people at Practice Night, the more the social side of SSQQ begins to click. 

Let's face it... as owner of the studio, I am the obvious leader.  To be effective, I have to participate in as many important moments as possible.  However, when I teach six nights a week, it really wears me out when I give up my one free night of the week to participate.  I need a breather just like anyone else.

Whenever I was single, this wasn't an issue.  I assumed my natural Leader of the Pack role because I was lonely.  I was more than happy to see my friends from the studio on a regular basis.  I didn't mind using my free time to hang with the group at all.

However, every time I entered a relationship, my interest in playing Leader of the Pack diminished dramatically.  After teaching dance six nights a week, I was a lot more interested in spending my seventh night alone with my girlfriend than I was in going dancing at some Western club with the group.

In other words, whenever I was single and miserable, my dance studio thrived because I was willing to be the Leader of the Pack.  But whenever I was in a relationship, the energy at the dance studio tapered off because I was neglected my 'Leader of the Pack' role to take care of my own needs. 

This set up a struggle with my own conscience.  I would often literally have to force myself to attend private non-studio parties because it was 'good for the studio' even though I deeply preferred to stay at home. 

This problem grew even worse during the Nineties.  Neither Judy nor I were particularly social people.  Consequently we invested very little of our free time in the social side of SSQQ. 

A simple example was our disagreement over the volleyball parties here at my house.  My entire backyard was designed to host volleyball parties for the dance studio on days like Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day.  These parties were very popular. We would draw crowds of 100 people.  It was a great way to meet people. I know one couple who credits a volleyball party at my house for the start of their marriage.

However, Judy didn't like the parties.  She would help me prepare and she would help me clean up, but was nowhere to be seen during the party itself.   After a while, I just stopped having the parties.

With this 'hide from the world' attitude, not surprisingly, the social energy at the studio during our marriage in the Nineties was nowhere near as strong as it had been back in the Eighties.  I was well aware of this problem and felt bitter about it.  It was one of the points of tension in our marriage. 

Now it was 2001. A ten-year chapter of my life was ending.  I was free again.  What would be the next chapter in my studio's destiny?

The January Ski Trip gave me plenty of time to reflect on this issue.  Whenever I had a spare moment, I reflected on all the distance I had put between myself and the dance studio.  I still taught lessons with as much enthusiasm as ever, but I no longer got involved in people's lives like I once had.  I was something of a stranger at my own dance studio.  My dance teachers were the current leaders, not me.

Now that I was reminded of how much good I had done helping Tom's 'Look-a-Like' group to form, my impending divorce would give me the perfect opportunity to connect to the current generation of people at the studio.

I decided the studio needed an adventure.  It was obviously too late to plan a ski trip.  The best time would be this coming summer.  What else could I do?  Hmm. 

What about organizing another cruise?  I thought back to the Jamaica Cruise of 1998.  I frowned.  I had not really enjoyed that trip much at all. 

I didn't have much fun on the 1998 Trip.  Instead I continued to withdraw inside myself and avoid people.  During the trip, I had spent most of my spare time in my cabin reading a book or hanging out with my daughter Sam.  Other than 'Game Night', I barely lifted a finger to get to know anyone on a personal basis.

Even worse, I let the acute poverty of Jamaica get under my skin.  I really didn't have a very good time.   

Well, that was 1998 and this was 2001.  I was single again.  That gave me a free hand to organize something.  What would happen if I opened up a little?   It wouldn't hurt to be more sociable.  I decided to give a studio cruise trip another try.

I called Alan Fox, a friend of mine who owned a travel agency.  Alan had suggested that I offer our first SSQQ cruise back in 1998.  He was more than happy to help me arrange our 2001 Trip as well.

This time I decided to take promoting the trip more seriously.  Once my ski trip was over, I announced the cruise.  I started to look people in the eye and tell them how much fun this trip was going to be.  I knew from experience that personal contact worked better than just laying flyers around the studio. 

Sure enough, the personal touch worked.  Something clicked.  One person after another signed on for the 2001 Cruise. 

As the months went by, the total climbed. The buzz was circulating.  2 joined one day; 3 joined the next.  Our total reached 40 people.  At this point, what started as a pleasant campfire turned into a bonfire.  Soon we were up to 50.  60.  The number kept climbing. 70, 80, 90.  In the final week before the trip, we finally crossed the Magic 100 threshold.  

We had 101 people sign on for the trip.  I shook my head in amazement.  Wow!   As I reviewed our list of people, I sat back and smiled with satisfaction.  It was fun to be the organizer again.  It had been a long time since I had played Leader of the Pack.  Even though I was now 50 years old, it was nice to know I still had what it took. 

This was a role that made me feel good about myself.  I liked creating energy at my studio.  It was good for business and good for the spirit.  'Welcome back', I said to myself.  

Now that I was single, it had been relatively effortless to organize this major event.  

But then I frowned.  A sense of déjà vu had entered my thoughts.  I had been in this same spot before.  As always, I was far more effective at raising the energy level at the studio when I was single. 

However, whenever I sought happiness in my private life, the studio energy dropped.  I was keenly aware that throughout my marriage, I had barely lifted a finger to organize events.  I ran the business like a 'business' and let the heart of the studio - the social side - fend for itself.   

It was very ironic.  Whenever I am lonely, I automatically spend more time with people from the studio.  Naturally the energy picks up.  And when I was happy in a relationship, the studio withered.  This dilemma was straight out of the Greek myth of Persephone.

Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, the Greek Goddess of the Harvest.  One day Hades, the dreaded God of the Underworld, came up to the surface and snatched Persephone away.  Demeter was so full of grief that she neglected her duties.  The harvest withered and people were hungry.  They pleaded to Zeus to do something.  So Zeus talked to Hades and persuaded him to share Persephone with her mother for half the year. 

For the six months Persephone stayed with Demeter, the harvests thrived.  For the six months she spent with her husband Hades, the harvests withered while her mother wept.  This was how the Greeks explained the Seasons - Summer meant Demeter was happy, Winter meant Demeter was sad.

I felt like I had a similar dilemma.  Whenever I was alone and miserable, the studio thrived.  Whenever I was in a serious relationship and happy, the studio withered.

Did it always have to be lonely for the studio to thrive?   There had to be a middle ground somewhere.  But where?


Chapter Three:  Thunderbolt

The first time I ever heard the term "Thunderbolt" was a scene in the first Godfather.  Michael Corleone is walking in a Sicilian valley with his bodyguards when he sees a stunning woman cross his path. Michael is stupefied.  He can't talk. He can't move.  His bodyguard grins and says, "I think Michael just got hit by the thunderbolt."

I first laid eyes on Marla at SSQQ-Bissonnet as she walked through Room 2. It was November 2000.  I stopped breathing. I was paralyzed. I had just been hit by the Thunderbolt.  Marla stopped to ask where Room 4 was.  After showing her the way, I asked for her name.

Later Marla left the studio via Room 2.  As she passed by me, I took advantage of the occasion to utter some really clever words. "Goodbye, Marla." 

I remember taking a deep breath as she left the building.  Marla says she recalls being surprised I remembered her name, but thought nothing more of it. 

For the rest of the month, I noticed Marla whenever she walked through my room.  Marla always took my breath away.  I would watch her carefully  because she was so good-looking.  However, I was married, so it was strictly look, don't touch.  I have a strict rule against affairs.  That said, it did upset me how much this woman affected me.  It showed that something was missing in my marriage for my head to be this easily turned.

And then she disappeared.  I shrugged my shoulders.  Probably just as well.  Temptation is a lot easier to deal with when it is out of sight.

March 2001

Marla reappeared in March 2001.  I walked in a couple minutes late to start my Advanced Swing class on Sundays.  To my complete surprise, there was Marla standing there in the middle of the room waiting for me along with the other students.  She had just signed up for my class.  My heart immediately began to go pitter-patter. 

I had been officially separated now for two months.  I had taken my ski trip in January and had announced my cruise trip in February.  The uncontested divorce was on track to be finalized in May.  Judy and I had managed to remain friends.  Judy not only wanted to continue to work at the studio, she and I reached an amicable decision on the division of property.  We had decided on joint custody of Sam. 

The only woman in my life was my daughter Sam, 9.  Not surprisingly, my heart ached for her.  What had I done?  Sam spent three, sometimes four nights a week at my house.  It was strange not having her mother around, but the two of us got used to it.

I had no real desire to begin seeing anyone.  I was still too bitter and grouchy.  However, by the time March rolled around I was forced to admit I was starting to get lonely.  Unfortunately there was no one I was interested in.  That changed with Marla's reappearance.  

When I got the chance, I asked Marla where she had been.  Back in those days, Marla was a sales representative for a gift line.  Marla explained that in January she had to face a two-week ordeal known as "Market".  However, once the dust settled at her job, she had decided to resume her dance classes after a three month absence.

I secretly hoped that Marla had taken my dance class because she was interested in me.  After all, Marla was the only woman to actually make me sit up and take notice.  However, to my dismay, during class Marla did not pay a bit of extra attention to me.  Darn it.  This wasn't going to be as easy as I had hoped it would.

My self-confidence had been too badly damaged by the divorce to even dream of overwhelming her resistance with my persistence.  Thrown for a loss by Marla's obvious lack of interest, I retreated to my dance teacher role and spent the rest of March getting to know her during class.

One thing I noticed is that Marla always came to the studio by herself.  Nor did any man meet her at the studio who might have a claim to her affections.  I thought that was a pretty strong clue that she was unattached.

I soon discovered that Marla had a smart mouth.  I would tease her and she would tease me right back.  That didn't bother me a bit.  She and I would engage in friendly banter during dance class. 

Every time I saw Marla, I liked her even more.  I began to wonder if our easy rapport in dance class would be just as effective at another level.  I decided to ask her out.

The Interview

One day at the end of March, Marla showed up early for dance class. 

On the spot, I decided this was the chance I needed to make my move.  I immediately felt very nervous.  I had not actually officially asked a woman out on a date in over ten years.  This was a big step for me.  Let me add one thing - this was the first time I had considered asking a woman out on a date without being pretty sure of her response in ages.  Marla was almost a complete stranger to me.

Marla was sitting on a couch in Room Two.  I screwed up my courage and went over to say hello.  As always, Marla smiled and returned the greeting.  There was an open spot on the couch, so I sat down.  Now I began my standard "Get to Know You" Interview.  What do you do for a living?  How did you get into that line of work?  Oh, you moved here from California?  What do you think about Texas?  

Then I asked what had brought Marla to SSQQ. 

In response, Marla dropped a bombshell.  Marla told me her boyfriend Chris had first brought her to the studio a year or so earlier.  My ears perked up.  There was something about the way she said 'boyfriend' that sounded present tense.  What boyfriend?  Marla had always come to the studio alone. 

One more gentle question revealed that not only was Chris still in the picture, they had been going together for six years.

Six years?  Oh shit.  That's a long time.  Actually, that's a really long time.  My heart plummeted with anguish.

This news was a zinger.  My plans to ask Marla out quickly faded away.  I did my best to disguise my true intentions and withdrew from the conversation at the next opportunity.  I cannot begin to tell how disappointed I was.    Recently divorced, Marla was the first woman I had met who could stir me out of my doldrums.  But she clearly wasn't available.  Damn it.

This was my very first attempt to try dating again and it hadn't gone very well.  In fact, it was my last attempt as well.  In the nine months between my December separation and the August dance cruise, this was the only time I actually approached a woman with the intention of asking her out on a date. 

There were several other attractive women who crossed my path in this time, but Marla was the only woman I ever considered getting serious with.  Once she shot me down in March - without even knowing she had done so of course - I just didn't have the enthusiasm to try again.  After Marla failed to show interest during the Interview, I was too weak to pursue her further.  Even worse, I was too hung up on her to open myself up to other women at the studio.

Instead I continued to simply go through the motions.  Every day was just another day.

For one thing, I may have been single, but I wasn't alone.  I had a nine year old daughter who I enjoyed spending my free time with.  Joint custody meant that Sam spent half of every week with me.  As I thought about my daughter Sam, I realized that whomever I brought into my life would need to click with her as well.  For the time being, it was less complicated to avoid getting serious about anyone. 

However, let's face it.  I didn't look at any other woman seriously because I had a crush on Marla.  Unfortunately, Marla's discouraging news about the boyfriend didn't give me much hope.  My depression over the failed marriage made me uncertain about what to do next in regards to Marla.  I was completely stuck in the mud.

At first I just threw in the towel and tried to keep her out of my mind.  However, each week I found myself staring at the door waiting for her to come to class.  If she skipped a class, I would miss her company.  Where was she?  It really bugged me that I was attached to someone who barely knew I existed.

The only reason I continued to hang in there was the mystery of the missing boyfriend.  As the weeks passed, it seemed more and more odd that her boyfriend never came to the studio.  That was very peculiar.  Didn't Chris ever worry Marla might meet someone?   After all, I certainly wasn't the only person who noticed how pretty she was.

During this time, I began to obsess over the boyfriend.  My instincts told me that this relationship was on the rocks.  But until Marla gave me an opening, I was too scared to take a chance based on just a hunch. 

As the months passed, Marla made herself at home here at the studio.  There were no more skipped months.  Marla had become a regular.  She seemed to be developing a lot of friends.  As long as she continued her classes, I clung to the hope that perhaps Marla might begin to warm up to me.


Chapter Three - Guess What I Didn't Know?

Although I had no idea what the real story was about the boyfriend until after the cruise, I later learned that my instincts had been right all along.  Marla's boyfriend was indeed up to no good.  However Chris was also very clever at covering his tracks. He was especially good at putting doubt into Marla's mind.

A simple example was New Year's Eve of the Millennium.  This was a big event.  Not only was the entire world celebrating the start of a new 2,000 year cycle, there was an outside chance things could get very weird if the Y2K phenomenon proved to be correct.  This was not a night anyone wanted to be alone.

Poor Chris.  He called early in the evening to report a serious headache.  He was going to take some sleeping pills to alleviate the pain.  Marla spent the night  home alone.  Chris didn't answer the phone when she called.  Later he said he was sound asleep from the medication.  Draw your own conclusions.

This wasn't the only suspicious moment.  There were several of them.  Marla continued to suspect that Chris was up to no good, but she just couldn't seem to find any hard evidence. They lived 40 miles apart, so it wasn't that easy for Marla to keep tabs on the guy.  The one time she tried to surprise him, there he was in his house alone just like he was supposed to be.  Marla had too much pride to continue to play this game.

Marla was unable to make sense of the string of curious moments and lame excuses.  Chris was such a smooth talker, Marla wasn't sure if this wasn't just her imagination.  A worrier by nature, Marla could not get her brain to quit sending her all these warning signals. 

This all took place several months before I met Marla. Frustrated by the continual mystery, she worried herself into a tizzy.  Finally she couldn't take it any more.  She was so beset with self-doubt, Marla sought out a therapist named Chuck Gray.  Chuck is the brother of John Gray, famous for writing the Venus and Mars book.

Do you like coincidences?  I know Chuck very well.  Back in the Eighties, Chuck was one of my dance students.  Not only did we play chess together, we played volleyball all the time.  Throughout the mid-Eighties Chuck was a card-carrying member of the SSQQ in-crowd.  Best of all, Chuck met his wife Laurie here at the studio.

Small world.

As it turned out, Marla did the right thing.  Chuck is a pretty good therapist in his own right.  Slowly but surely, Chuck helped Marla get her head back together. However, he gave Marla some curious advice. Chuck suggested that Marla remain in the relationship a while longer. After all, she still had no hard evidence of treachery. Furthermore, it made no sense to toss a six-year relationship down the drain without a good reason.  Chuck saw enough potential in that relationship that it might rekindle.  Either way, Chuck figured the truth would bubble to the surface soon enough.

Marla agreed with Chuck.  She said she would stick with Chris a while longer, but added she was also going to start taking dance lessons at SSQQ.  Pretty soon her daughter Marissa, a senior in high school, would be leaving for college.  Then what?   She was tired of being alone all the time.  Dancing sounded like a fun way to get out of the house during the week.

At this, Chuck's eyes grew large.  He said, "I don't know that is such a good idea, Marla. You are still very vulnerable and there are a lot of predatory guys who hang out there."

As a side note, when Marla later told me that anecdote way down the road, I flinched.  Ouch!  I didn't know if Chuck was thinking about me or if he had someone else in mind.  For that matter, he could just as easily been thinking about some of the go-getter guys from his own glory days at the studio fifteen years earlier.

I was surprised by what Chuck said, but decided not to take the gibe personally. Over the years, many therapists have told me they tell their clients just the opposite. They say that SSQQ is one of the safest places in town to send their walking wounded.  One therapist said she thought of SSQQ as a sort of halfway house for the newly divorced and recently broken up.  A dance class gave people a chance to get to know one another.  She believed SSQQ was a good place because a woman could be around men without being in a high pressure situation like a bar or a dance club. 

Be that as it may, Marla decided to ignore Chuck's advice.  She began taking lessons at the studio in late 2000.  If Chuck ever reads this story, I would tell him not to worry about it.  Marla doesn't listen to anything I say either.

After Marla concluded her time with Chuck, Marla also decided to stay in the relationship.  Considering the man's suspicious behavior, why did Marla stay?

Probably because the relationship was convenient for her.  The two people had been drifting away for some time, but there was still a lot of warmth between them.  At this point, the relationship had become a part-time gig.  Marla saw Chris maybe once during the week and on weekends. The rest of time Marla was free to keep odd hours at her sales rep job, be a Mom to her daughter, love her dog, and go to dance class when she wanted some company.  Marla may have just been going through the motions, but she wasn't miserable.

So yes, although I was blind to the truth, my instincts were correct.  I was indeed sensing Marla's growing indifference to Chris.   I believed Marla was adrift, but I just didn't know it for sure. Unfortunately, in my post-divorce blues I was too full of self-doubt to trust my instincts.  I was scared to death my impressions were just wishful thinking... especially since Marla never offered any encouragement.

Plus I was vulnerable.  I was much too depressed to risk taking any chances.  I wasted a golden opportunity because I lacked confidence.

So there you have it… two people who were just going through the motions, but weren't doing anything about it. 


The Fortune Teller

I made my half-hearted move to ask Marla out in late March only to give up at the mention of her boyfriend. Unbeknownst to me, the exact same week Marla's friends from dance class invited her to meet them at a dance club known as The Hop out in North Houston.  Marla enjoyed Swing dancing.  So on a weekday night she drove over to meet up with eight people from her class.

After an hour of solid dancing, Marla needed a restroom break. By chance, there was a fortune teller at the back of the room. As Marla left the restroom, she passed right by the gypsy.

Oh, what the heck, why not?   Marla sat down for a reading.

The gypsy said, "You have a choice between two paths.  You are in a relationship that brings you sorrow. However, there is a good chance that this relationship will begin to work again.

I also see you taking a journey.  If you take this journey, your life will be changed forever.  On this journey, you will meet the man you will spend the rest of your life with."

Marla's jaw dropped open. Omigosh!  Did this woman really say that!  Upon further probing, the gypsy said that Marla's fortune was not predetermined.  Marla would have a choice.  Either path had promise.

The final thing the gypsy said was that if she did take that journey, Marla already knew the person.

Marla was stunned. Her heart was racing. What kind of insanity is this?

Of course Marla understood that this was probably total hogwash. "I see you taking a trip.  You will meet a tall dark stranger…"

However, there was an eeriness about the woman's words that left her deeply unsettled.  What the gypsy said hit much too close to home for Marla's comfort.  Marla saw that other people were waiting, so she thanked the woman and returned to her table.  More than slightly rattled, Marla told her Swing friends about the gypsy.

They all laughed.  On the spot, each guy said he was certain it was him and revealed their heretofore secret intention to be on that cruise. The fact that three guys all made the same revelation simultaneously brought on another round of laughs.

Marla smiled at the joking, but in a private corner of her mind, she couldn't shake that weird feeling. They say there is more to this world than meets the eye. Could it be true?

Did this gypsy woman just read her mind?  How could this woman know she had an unhappy relationship?  Furthermore, by coincidence, Marla had already been thinking about taking a certain trip.  That was uncanny.

As Marla glanced again to stare at the fortune teller in the back of the room, she wondered if the woman actually did have a gift of second sight.

On the way home, Marla could not take her mind off this dance cruise she had seen advertised at SSQQ.

Marla had a deep love of travel.  Travel was one of her favorite hobbies.  One of her earlier jobs as an apparel buyer had taken her to Asia on many occasions.  Other trips had taken her to every part of the USA and to Germany.  Marla loved adventures. 

In addition, Marla enjoyed cruises.  In fact, she had already taken seven cruises in her pre-SSQQ days.  Given her love of travel, it was no surprise that the SSQQ cruise had already caught her eye.

The gypsy said she already knew the person she would meet on the trip.  Recently one of the men in her dance class had begun to interest her.  Marla was sure this had to be the guy the gypsy was talking about.

When she got home, Marla turned on her computer and went straight to the "Who is Going" list of passengers on the 2001 SSQQ Cruise. The trip would eventually see 101 people take the trip, but at this point there were 50 names.  Marla scanned the list and frowned. The guy she had her eye on was not on the list. She looked again. Not only was the guy she was interested in NOT on the list, she didn't recognize a single name on the list.

Disappointed, she looked one more time.  Nope.  No one there.  Then she had a thought that perked up her hopes.  Maybe he had not signed up yet!  Even better, if she signed up first, maybe he would notice and sign up too!  That thought cheered her up, so she turned off her computer and went to bed.

As the screen turned to black, not once had Marla noticed the first name on the list.  My name was invisible.

The next day, Marla signed up for the cruise. The cruise was four months away.



Chapter Four - A Ray of Hope

It was now early April.  I passively sat around brooding what to do about Marla.  Then one day came a breakthrough… or so I thought.  To my surprise, about a week after my ill-fated "Interview", my travel agent reported someone named Marla had just signed up for the August dance cruise.  My eyes widened.  No kidding?

I assumed this nugget had just confirmed my instincts that Marla really did have one foot out the door.  I immediately decided to try again.  The next time I saw Marla, I welcomed her to the upcoming cruise.  I used this opportunity to chat with her a little longer than usual.  To my astonishment, Marla acted like it was no big deal. There was no breakup that I could tell.

Confused, I fell back on a ploy to get more information. "You know, Marla, we have more women than men on this trip.  Is there any chance your boyfriend will be signing up?"

Marla shook her head and said she doubted it.  In a matter-of-fact tone, Marla said they occasionally took trips on their own. Since Chris didn't care much for dancing, she just thought it might be fun to go by herself and hang out with her new friends.

I was flabbergasted. If ever there was a time for Marla to reveal a rift in the relationship, this was it.  No such luck.  I detected not even a hint of rancor.  My hopes dashed, I walked away rather than let my disappointment show.

This was ridiculous.  I wasn't getting anywhere. 

Cat and Mouse

For the next couple months, Marla and I would briefly chat about the cruise whenever she came to class once a week.   Now that she was on the cruise, I had an easy opening for our talks.  However nothing ever happened.

It seemed like Chris entered every conversation.  Invariably, Marla would bring him up, usually in response to some indirect question I asked.  Every time we spoke, not once did I sense a strong commitment to her boyfriend.  During our conversations,  I could tell he was still in the picture, but I also noticed there was never any enthusiasm in her voice.  I was positive something was wrong.  Unfortunately, to my consternation, Marla never once explained why he wasn't coming on the trip or hinted that they were having problems.  I was baffled, confused, unsure, and perplexed... plus any other adjectives that mean the same thing.

I have always believed that if a woman was interested in me, she would find a way to send up a smoke signal.  Marla was always friendly towards me, always warm, but it was a 'formal warmth'.  Not once did she ever signal any interest in me.  I remained totally baffled by her distance.  In the past, if I was interested in a woman, she was interested too.  Not Marla.  I could tell Marla barely knew I existed.  I was her dance teacher and that was it.

They say faint heart ne'er wins fair maiden, but when it comes to women, I don't like taking big risks.  In my conflicted state of mind, I wasn't about to drop to one knee and declare undying love for a woman who had never even given me the time of day.  I refused to make a bold move towards Marla without at least a little encouragement. 

I saw no choice but to play this cat and mouse game to protect myself.  I refused to go beyond the gentle chats.  Unfortunately, my superficial banter revealed little. I remained completely in the dark as to her status.

I hated the fact that my crush was completely one-sided.  I should have given up, but I didn't.   As long as her boyfriend continued to stay out of sight, my unfed hopes continued to simmer softly in the darkness.  

I kept looking for a break.  Since Marla didn't push me away during our little chats, I felt safe approaching her at every opportunity.  I kept thinking one day Marla would let something slip that would allow me to pry a little deeper.

I was dying to ask, "Why are you on the cruise alone, but continuing to mention your boyfriend?  Why isn't he going too?"

However, Marla never once gave me any opening to dig deeper nor did she drop any hint that she could ever be interested in me.  I would roll my eyes in exasperation.  These talks were going nowhere. 

This went on for four full months.  Every conversation was an exercise in frustration for me.  Each week I would see Marla and each week I would try some subtle way to see if the boyfriend was still in the picture. 

Each week Marla would reconfirm his status.   And each week I would crawl back behind my mask and stick to my role as dance instructor.

I don’t know if you could say I played my cards right or not, but I did manage to fool Marla.  The entire time Marla had absolutely no idea that I had a huge crush on her.  I wanted to avoid at all costs letting Marla see how hurt I was in case there was no possible hope of interest on her part.  I was much too vulnerable to be taking any chances.  To avoid any awkwardness, I kept my questions superficial and did my best not to tip my hand. 

From what I gather, I did a pretty good job of hiding my intentions.  Marla would later say she thought I was just being friendly.  During the months of my three minute talks, Marla had the impression that I was being professional.  It made perfect sense to show interest in a dance student who was also a member of the trip.  In other words, I was being a businessman. 

Truth be told, she was right.  I definitely used that role as a way to keep tabs on her without risking anything.


It was now June 2001.  My divorce was final in May.  I was starting to get some of my old confidence back. 

Some of the ladies at the studio had decided I had put enough time between my breakup and now.  They had started to ask me to dance with them and seemed to enjoy their trip around the floor in my arms.  I had a hunch that all I had to do was say the word and my life as a Solitary Man would come to an end.

Naturally we always want what we can't have.  Mind you, Marla wasn't playing hard to get.  Actually, she wasn't playing at all.  Yes, she didn't flirt with me, but then she didn't appear to be flirting with any of the other guys either.  Marla wasn't even in the game.

A couple of the ladies at the studio were starting to turn my head.  It dawned on me that if Marla truly wasn't interested, maybe it was time to move on.  But first I had to give it one last chance.

Almost as if one cue, one night in June, Marla showed up an hour early for class.  Her work day had ended early.  It was easier to come sit at the studio than drive all the way home and back again.

The moment I saw her walk in, I was instantly on edge.  This was the night.  Enough cat and mouse.  It was time to quit fishing and ask a more direct question. 

Marla sat down on a couch in Room Two.  I went over and sat down next to her.  Usually I sat on the arm of the couch, but we had enough time to warrant a more comfortable pose.  Marla said hi and I returned the greeting.  As usual, I began the conversation by telling her what number we were up to on the cruise.  Marla smiled at my obvious pride in the total.    

After some pleasantries, I gulped and plunged forward.  No more beating around the bush. "I have a question to ask you.  I am curious why your boyfriend isn't coming on the trip.  After all, we could definitely use a few more guys." 

Ah, the art of the innocent... and totally bullshit... question.  This was the second time I had used the same approach. 

Marla frowned for a second.  Then she replied, "Well, he has no interest in dance.  I don't think he would have much fun."  

That was an interesting answer, but it didn't reveal anything.

"Won't he miss you?"

"Chris just got back from his own trip to France with his rugby team.  Now it's my turn.  He doesn't worry about me at all."

My heart sank.  This was not the answer I wanted to hear.  I wanted her to say this trip was a fiery demonstration of her new independence.  But the way she said it, it sounded like Chris was so secure in their relationship that he could care less.  I frowned.  What a lucky guy.  Any man who didn't worry about losing Marla to a sea of potential Romeos was a confident man indeed. 

Right there, I lost my patience.  This was hopeless.  Marla was simply not available. End of story.  Accept it and move on.

Right in the middle of our talk, without another word, I got up and abruptly walked away.  I was angry I had behaved rudely. 

Meanwhile, I left Marla staring at me in confusion.  Did she say something to offend me?   Marla had no idea what was going on.  All she knew was that, as usual, I had talked to her for three minutes and then bounced off to go talk to someone else.  Except that this time I seemed intense about something.  Oh well.

Chapter Five - Soul Searching

For the remainder of June, I did my best to forget about Marla.  Over the July 4th week, I took my daughter Sam on a trip to Washington DC to see some of her long-lost relatives and to visit Johns Hopkins, my alma mater, in Baltimore.

When I returned to the studio in July, I continued to see Marla once a week in class.  However I didn't talk to her quite as much.  I told myself I had given up on my crush, but who's fooling who?  I still watched her like a hawk whenever she was around.  I wanted to see if she was pursuing any of the men at the studio.  From what I could tell, she didn't give anyone much of an opening.  That was good enough for me.  If I couldn't have her, I didn't want any other guy at the studio to have her either.

It helped that I was getting distracted.  Judging by the increased attention I was getting from the ladies, apparently the "waiting period" on me was nearly over.  Since my separation back in December, the women at the studio had kept a pretty wide berth.  I was considered radioactive.  The thinking was that surely the first woman stupid enough to get close to me would go up in smoke.  The cynics suggested it would be better to let some foolhardy woman be the first to incur my wrath and let me get it out of my system, then move in.

I didn't blame the women at all.  In fact, I completely understood.  Let's face it, I was damaged goods.  I had failed in two marriages.  I had a well-known temper, a sarcastic tongue, and tendency to be very moody.  When I was in a good mood, I was an interesting guy, but "complicated" as one woman explained it to me.  Plus no one had any idea how long I would be in a good mood.  I had a thin skin and little patience for criticism.  One wrong word at the studio and I could be grouchy for the rest of the night.  I was like an old house.  With a little fixing up, I might be worth something, but it was going to take a lot of patience.

It was all true.  Despite trying hard in both marriages, I was obviously no Prince Charming.  I was angry at myself, I was angry at women, and angry at the world.  I was in a "Never Fall in Love Again" mood.  I was cynical about life in general and certain that I wasn't ready for another relationship.  

I decided to quit worrying about Marla's mysterious love life. There would be other women on the cruise.  Yes, I had some anger towards women and trust issues, but then what divorced guy my age didn't?   Maybe one would take pity on me. 

At least I had a few things going for me.  Some women thought I was funny.  I had an education.  I was athletic and I could dance.  Once in a while I could even be outgoing.  As one woman put it, I was worth a second look on the resale shelf.  Besides, there were ten more women than men on the cruise.  With those kind of odds, surely some woman would take a chance on me if only for a few days.  How much damage could I do in five days?

I might be on the rebound, but the odds were in my favor I could find one woman who would smile back. I hated giving up, but thinking about Marla wasn't getting me anywhere. 

Meanwhile, apparently some of my old charisma had returned.  As July progressed, every time I entered the studio, the ladies at the studio welcomed me with more smiles.  For the first time, I began to flirt back.  I was surrounded by women wherever I went at the studio or at the dance clubs. 

However I deliberately kept the ladies at arm's length.  I had absolutely no desire to get back into a relationship yet, mainly because there wasn't one lady I liked more than the other.  The attention I was getting was plenty enough for me.  And so that is how it stayed for July.

Never Make Your Move Too Soon

It was August now.  One day I could not get Marla out of my mind.  I was amazed to discover that hope really does spring eternal.  Despite four months of disappointment, I still carried a torch for this woman.  Now that I had put a month between me and my temper tantrum back in June, I realized I had to make a play for Marla or I would never forgive myself.  This upcoming cruise presented a golden opportunity.

Yes, my uncertainly about the unseen boyfriend situation still continued to irk me no end.  But I had to to get to the bottom of the mystery.  If only for my own peace of mind, I had to know what the truth was.  Based on snippets of conversation, Marla seemingly had a boyfriend with more self-confidence than any man I had ever met.  If I couldn't have Marla for myself, I wanted the secret of his hold on Marla as a consolation prize.

Or maybe, as I suspected, this whole thing was bullshit.  There was a part of me that refused to believe Marla was as nearly as attached to this Chris guy as her party line suggested.

Furthermore, I was ready to compete head to head.  Now that I had regained most of my confidence, I knew that just because Marla had a boyfriend didn't mean it was hopeless.  I understood that an attractive woman like Marla would always have other men competing for her heart. 

At this point, it wasn't a fear of Chris the mystery man that held me back.  It was Marla's
obvious lack of interest in me that was disconcerting.  That's what kept me frozen in my tracks.  For crying out loud, woman, can't you just wiggle your finger or something?  No such luck.  Not once did Marla flirt with me or give me any encouragement to ask her out. 

One day I began to wonder if Marla was 'Old School'.  Maybe she was the kind of woman who would never dream of making the first move.  Here I was waiting for her to wink at me; what if she was waiting for me to wink at her? 

I took a deep breath.  That was the only thing that made any sense.  At some point I would have to make the first move.  After all, it wasn't like I had turned on the charm yet.  Covertly watching a girl from across the room wasn't exactly the most direct way of announcing my intentions.  I knew at some point I would have to fight for her.

But when??

Not yet.  All these contradictions still had me way off-balance. The signals were definitely crossed.  I couldn't decide whether to listen to my brain or to my gut. 

The longer Chris stayed out the picture, the more convinced I became that Marla was available whether she knew it or not.  But I had never before pursued a woman without encouragement before.

What were my chances?

My attraction to Marla was no accident.  I thought I was a good match for her.  Marla definitely seemed to enjoy talking to me.  Plus we always joked with each other during class.  She liked crossing swords with me.  Our repartee was worthy of a good Tracy and Hepburn movie.  We had a similar sense of sarcasm that made some people think we were fighting when we were really playing.  I could tell Marla was just as smart as she was pretty.  Plus Marla always handled herself in such a dignified, classy way.  Who wouldn't be attracted to her?

The weirdest thing about Marla was this singles cruise.  That is what really kept me dangling.  What contented woman with a steady boyfriend takes a singles cruise?   I racked my mind for explanations. 

A new idea crossed my mind, one I wasn't particularly fond of.  Maybe they had an open relationship.  Maybe they had an 'understanding' that allowed each other to pursue other people, especially if it was done in walks of life that didn't intersect. 

I actually gave that serious thought because it was one explanation that could explain some of the mysteries.  That would explain why Chris had never been seen at the studio.  However, I discounted this theory because Marla had not once shown any interest in any man at the studio, much less me. 

Whatever she was up to, Marla did not seem to be shopping for a man.  If Marla was a vamp, she was incredibly discrete about it.

And what was Chris thinking?  What man in his right mind lets a woman who looks like Marla take a singles cruise alone?  That made absolutely no sense.  Besides me, there would be 30 other single men on that trip.  I could guarantee every single one of them would ask Marla to dance at some point. 

I have heard that ladies men have a casual, almost indifferent approach to women that drive women mad with passion.  Their complete lack of possessiveness guarantees a faithfulness that defies the imagination to ordinary men like me.  However, I have never actually met a man like that.  Maybe Chris was the prototype. 

I am not nearly as trusting.  If it was true that the ocean has the power to bring out a woman's romantic side, then that was one test of loyalty I would never dream of permitting with a woman I loved. 

Who could forget Deborah Kerr, a nice girl if there was one, swooning all over Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember?   By the end of that cruise, Deborah had ditched the man she was engaged to.  If Chris had an ounce of common sense, exposing Marla to temptation didn't seem very prudent.

On the other hand, I took inspiration.  Cary Grant just happened to be my favorite actor.  If he could steal a babe like Deborah Kerr from a millionaire nice guy, maybe there was hope for me too. 

I decided that here on land, given all my uncertainty, my chances of prying this woman away from the mystery boyfriend were so-so at best.

The ocean was a different  story.  Out at sea, I would have Marla all to myself.  I would have four full days and nights to make my move.  If it was true what they say about those sea breezes, ocean motion and full moons at night, maybe Marla would finally let down her guard and smile at me. 

I decided to wait for the cruise at the end of the month.  As they say, never make your move too soon.  The percentage play was to wait for the perfect opportunity.

The cruise ship would be powerful turf for me indeed. As the leader of the cruise group and quite the dancer, I figured I had at least a few advantages going for me.  

I assumed I had enough credibility that once I finally got around to revealing my interest, Marla would at least grant me another interview.  At least I hoped she would.  Barring some dramatic development like Marla suddenly sitting down in my lap, I decided to bide my time.  Three weeks wasn't too long to wait.


A Painful Development

It was now early August.  The cruise was two weeks away.  One day Marla phoned me out of the blue.  Immediately my pulse began to race.  We had never talked on the phone before.  What was this all about?

Marla had phoned to say she needed my help.  She was going to Miami with her boyfriend this coming weekend, That was just seven days before the cruise.  Marla wanted a private lesson for her boyfriend to learn to dance to Salsa music.  They wanted to visit a Salsa club in Miami.  Marla added that she hoped I would teach the lesson. 

This unexpected development was a kick in the stomach.  This guy was so much more in the picture than I had previously realized!  Now he was even willing to learn to dance.  I was so lost in my disappointment, I didn't know what to say.  There was no way I was going to do this lesson.   Why beat my head against the wall? 

I wasn't about to sit there for an hour teaching her boyfriend and going nuts with jealousy!  There was no possible way I could hide my feelings under those circumstances.  I knew I had a crush on Marla, but at least I had not made a fool of myself.  The crush was still my little secret, but it wouldn't stay a secret for long with me pining for her.

After I politely referred Marla to another instructor, I sat back and frowned.  For the past four months I had operated under the assumption that Marla was using the cruise trip to hit the Exit Door.  I had been hoping that Marla was hanging on by a thread to this guy.  But now, unfortunately, this Miami phone call changed everything.  Marla's phone call indicated her relationship was alive and well. 

I was stunned.  Marla was flying to Miami for a romantic weekend just one week before our cruise!    Now every remaining hope was dashed.  As the cruise approached, I moped around the house.  I was very depressed.  Marla's trip with her boyfriend had put the final damper on my dreams.  Damn it, this really stung.  I was crushed.


Part Two - The 2001 SSQQ Cruise

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