Sally Ramer has attended my class for a couple of years, and I always enjoy her stories. Born in England and now living in Orange County, Sally is an experienced writer and has published several books of poetry. She brings her poet’s eye and gift for sensory language to memoir, and her stories shine because of it. Notice in the following story how her use of fiction techniques–character development, dialogue, and scenes–bring to life the people and events she encountered on a Greek cruise ship.
by Sally Ramer
Aboard the Greek cruise ship, Regina Prima, in June 1979, the group at our dining table fell silent. James (“Big Jim”) Hartley had just belittled his petite, blonde wife, Bonnie, for the third time that evening.
“You silly old thing,” he had blustered over a plate of mussels steamed in beer. “ How completely stupid of you not to have known that!”
What it was she didn’t know, I can’t remember now. I do remember how dejected she’d looked, her pale green eyes wet with tears while she fussed with her napkin, not looking at any of us.
I was fuming, wondering why she allowed James to treat her like that. The Hartleys were a childless couple in their fifties on their fourth Eastern Mediterranean cruise. My husband, Dan, and I had cruised before, but never on this wonderful route. We were seated with the Hartleys and another couple, Paul, an army doctor, and his wife, Christine, a teacher. We four had noticed that Bonnie seemed to shrink in her husband’s presence, saying as little as possible because of his bullying attitude.
Next morning, I ran into Bonnie at the Greek Syrtaki dance class, where she was gaily waving a handkerchief at the head of the line, her small feet adept at the intricate steps.
“All right, Bonnie!” I called out. “Are you going to perform in the show tonight?”
“Big Jim would never let me,” she answered, rolling her eyes. “He thinks I’m at bridge class right now. He’s such a good player, and I’m just hopeless at it, Sally.”
“Stick with the Greek dancing,” I told her, as I joined the line. “More fun, and you don’t need a partner.” She flashed me a quick, conspiratorial smile.
The next day we docked on the Greek island of Crete, where a group of us would leave the ship for a ten day stay before rejoining the cruise again. Dan and I and the Hartleys were a part of that group, as were Paul and Christine. On the bus taking us to our beachfront hotel, James dominated the conversation, bragging about his successful car dealership back home in Iowa. Dan and I ignored him and gazed out at the countryside. The magnificent scenery changed from lushly green mountain villages to farmhouse scenes of women milking their goats. Patient donkeys trotted along dusty roads, their male riders sporting the traditional black headbands decorated with dangling, silky tassels. Rounding a curve approaching the outskirts of the town of Chania, where we’d be staying, we glimpsed the glittering sea. As soon as we’d checked in, most of us headed to the beach. Bonnie had told me she was afraid of the water, so she sat on a towel, fully dressed, watching us play around in the warm, gentle sea. Big Jim, a powerful swimmer, rose up out of the waves after a while, shaking his big head like a dog’s.
“Bonnie, you silly old thing. Bring me a towel!” he bellowed.
She rushed down to the shoreline, where he stood in knee-deep water. She hesitated, and he took one quick stride, grabbed at the proffered towel, and pulled her into the water along with it. As she stumbled, crying out, he laughed loudly, pushing her down on her knees, soaking her sundress and sloshing her face and hair with seawater from his cupped hands. It wasn’t done in a sense of fun. It was all about power and humiliation, and it made the rest of us feel ill at ease, and so very sorry for poor Bonnie, who had to live with this lout.
Dan and I avoided them after that, spending our time hiking, riding the hotel bikes to tiny coves for swimming and picnics, and renting a car to explore the wonderful archaeological ruins of Minoan Crete. We left early one morning by tour bus for a day hike through the magnificent Samaria Gorge, reached by a series of very steep steps descending 2,500 feet down from the departure point on a village road. It took us seven hours before we stumbled out with achingly sore leg muscles and swollen feet onto a beach on the Libyan sea. We’d forded streams sprinkled with huge boulders, filling our plastic cups with the deliciously clear water and marveling at the array of amazing scenery during the course of the hike. At a taverna on the beach, we downed tall glasses of tomato juice and devoured salty feta cheese and olives, congratulating ourselves on completing the hike.“I can’t believe we actually paid for this self-punishment!” I groaned, rubbing my sore calves.
“You know you loved it,” Dan said, smiling at me. “I think we’ll always remember this day.”
He was right, but I still remember that day for another reason, too. When we limped into the hotel lobby that evening, Paul and Christine met us with some astonishing news: Big Jim Hartley had choked on a large piece of meat at the dinner table earlier that evening and had collapsed to the floor and died of a massive heart attack, according to a physician called to the hotel.
“If I’d just been here when it happened,” Paul said, shaking his head in frustration, “maybe then I could have done something to help him. But we went into town for dinner and only heard about it when we got back.”
Dan and I were stunned. It had happened very fast, apparently. Bonnie had told the Greek doctor that James had a heart condition, and she’d requested there be no autopsy. She’d been given a sedative and was resting in her room, after filling out forms and making arrangements. When Christine and I knocked on her door the next morning, we noticed that Bonnie’s eyes were bright and serene; if she’d been crying, it was hard to tell. Hugging her, we told her how very sorry we were.
“I’m just going through his things to give some to the hotel staff. They’ve been so kind,” she said, gesturing to a pile of James’ clothes on the bed. “And the funeral will have to be tomorrow or the day after since we’ll be joining the ship again on Thursday.”
“You’re going to continue on the cruise?” Christine sounded shocked, probably because there were still about eight days left, with quite a few ports of call, before the ship docked in Venice.
“Yes, of course, dear,” Bonnie said quietly, nodding as she folded a shirt.
“But what about your family, or having James’ body flown home to Iowa ?” I asked.
“No family to speak of, and I certainly couldn’t handle all that other stuff. He liked Greece. He’ll be fine buried here, at the cemetery overlooking the sea. Maybe I’ll come back to visit him someday. But right now I’ve got to finish this job.” Bonnie dismissed us with a faint smile, humming as we let ourselves out of the room.
“I don’t know about her,” Christine muttered, shaking her head. “Do you think she’s all right? Should I have Paul look in on her?”
I glanced at Bonnie’s closed door. “No, I think she’s okay, just handling it in her own way.”
The brief funeral service was held right at the gravesite, where Bonnie threw hibiscus blossoms on James’ casket. Afterwards, she invited a small group of us to have lunch with her in Chania, where she reminisced fondly about her childhood in South Dakota, and never mentioned Big Jim at all.
Back on the ship, Bonnie made new friends. She began wearing flowers in her hair, and lots of costume jewelry. She won a sizeable jackpot at the ship’s casino one evening, and danced with the ship’s officers every night. Bonnie never spoke of her husband, and changed the subject if we did. Dan and Paul thought this was because she was afraid of breaking down; Christine and I thought otherwise.
On the last night of our cruise, Bonnie led the line for the Syrtaki dance, a pale blue scarf from Rhodes dangling from her upraised fingers. Afterwards, a handsome silver haired Italian asked if he could buy her a drink. She smiled at him, a radiant smile I had never seen before, and he left to get it.
“How are you holding up, Bonnie, really?” I asked, looking at her flushed face.
She turned away, watching the crowd at the bar, twisting the scarf in her small hands.
“I’m grieving, Sally,” she said finally. “In my own way.”
Twenty years later, when I lost my own beloved husband, Dan, and felt so anguished, so devastatingly empty that I thought I could never smile or ever be myself again, I remembered Bonnie. In remembering her, I felt so grateful that my own married life had been so happily different from hers that I didn’t feel the need to “grieve” in the triumphant, liberated way that she so obviously did.