“No,” said his mother. “Of course not. Those are tacky.” She was lying to his face.
On the first night of the cruise, all of the guests gathered in the ship’s main dining room and sat at round tables while waiters took drink orders. There were twelve people at each table. That’s when Gene began to notice that something was amiss. At the table at which he and his parents sat, which was near the front of the large, dimly-lit room, there were three other groups of guests, each group comprised of an older couple accompanied by a younger person of about Gene’s age. Two of the older couples were accompanied by younger women. One of the older couples was accompanied by a younger man. It didn’t take long for Gene to realize that these were also parents and their adult children. Gene looked around the room and realized that the other tables were arranged in the same way: four sets of parents with one adult child a piece. There were two adult children of both sexes at each table. A flush of anger crept over Gene’s face. He turned to his mother, seated on his left, and said, “What is this, mom? What kind of cruise did you bring me on?”
Gene’s mother smiled at him and patted his knee under the table. “The captain will explain, Gene. Don’t get angry until you know the details.”
Gene turned to his father on his right. Gene’s father looked like a male version of Gene’s mother. They were even the same height. “Dad,” said Gene. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“It’s not a singles cruise,” said Gene’s dad. His smile was more confrontational than Gene’s mother’s had been.
Gene looked around at the other guests at the table. The parents looked grim, defiant, smug, giddy. But their adult children, all three of them, looked mortified.
At the front of the room, the captain, looking sharp in his crisp, white uniform, stood up and faced the assembled guests with a wireless microphone in his hand, a tiny spotlight illuminating him from the chest up. “Hello,” he said, “I’m Captain Farmes and I’d like to welcome you to your Close-Knit Cruise.” Throughout the dining room, parents applauded heartily and their adult children applauded less heartily or not at all. As the applause faded, Captain Farmes continued speaking. “Here on your Close-Knit cruise, we have only your best interests at heart. We know that when perfectly fine people reach a certain age and find themselves still single, they can begin to question their own worth. But we know that they’re perfectly fine, and we think that it’s important for them to know it too. But we also know that even though they’re perfectly fine people, there’s a good chance that they are bad at finding perfectly fine people to date. After all, there must be some reason all these perfectly fine people are still single. This is where you parents come in! We know that you want nothing more than to have your children find people who make them as happy as you all have made each other. And we also know that you often know your children better than they know themselves. And that’s why you’re all here together. This is the perfect opportunity for singles to meet each other, to meet each other’s parents, and for single’s parents to meet other single’s parents in a fun, safe, exciting, romantic environment. In fact, that’s the Close-Knit Cruise Motto: ‘Singles meeting each other, meeting each other’s parents, and single’s parents meeting other single’s parents in a fun, safe, romantic, fun…uh…exciting…environment. Anyway! That’s enough of my blabbering for now, but please, as our waiters take your orders, get to know each other, get to know each other’s parents, get to know each other’s adult children, um, and so on. Thank you.”
As Captain Farmes spoke, it became clear that Gene had not been the only one whose parents had lied to him about the true nature of the cruise. There were cries of outrage and anguish, angry whispers and shushings, people standing up and storming out of the dining room with tears in their eyes. When Captain Farmes sat down, Gene couldn’t look at his parents. He was afraid he’d say something terrible to them. Instead, he looked across the table at a younger woman with black hair that was shorter than his. Other than the short hair, she looked exactly like her mother minus no more than ten years. The woman met Gene’s eyes and Gene saw his own weariness reflected back at him.
“A lot can happen in two weeks,” said Gene’s mother.
“I’ve got a good eye for these things,” said Gene’s father. “I found your mom, didn’t I?”
“Oh, darling,” said Gene’s mother, reaching behind his back to give her husband a playful punch on the shoulder.
“So,” said the other younger man at the table’s father. “Where’s everyone from?”
The days that followed were a nightmare for Gene. He and his parents moved everywhere in a pack of three, Gene trailing behind as his parents laughed and chattered and told him to keep up. They sat by the pool, ate at the buffet three meals a day, watched comedians and listless cover bands in the evenings, and hung around in one of the ship’s two bars at night. And no matter where they went, Gene’s parents hounded him with a parade of parents who they liked and who had a daughter to whom those parents wanted to introduce him. These interactions never failed to be awkward for both Gene and the unfortunate young lady, although none of the parents ever seemed to feel even the slightest discomfort. “Tell him about your interests!” the girls’ mothers would say. “Oh yes,” Gene’s mother would say. “Tell Gene about your interests. I’m sure you’ll have some interests in common. Gene has a very wide range of interests. Gene, tell her some of your interests.” Sometimes the girls were openly hostile and their parents would end up apologizing as their daughters stalked away across the deck or looked back down at their magazines and refused to speak. And then Gene would have to explain that he wasn’t offended and that he knew how they felt and that the whole situation was uncomfortable for him too. And then Gene’s parents and the girls’ parents would look at him as if he’d let all of humanity down.
One night in the cabin he shared with his parents, Gene’s mother said, “Why do you have to keep telling everyone how weird and unnatural you feel when you meet women? It spoils the mood. Women aren’t attracted to men who act so self-conscious.”
“I don’t feel weird and unnatural meeting women,” said Gene. “I feel weird and unnatural being introduced to women and their parents by my parents on a cruise where everyone’s supposed to get fixed up with someone special through the heavy-handed machinations of their parents!”
There were two beds in the room: a king-sized bed and a queen-sized bed. If guests wanted a cabin with separate bedrooms for the parents and the adult child, then they had to pay extra. Gene’s parents had not paid extra. Gene was lying down on the queen-sized bed with a pillow over his face. “We’re trying to help,” said Gene’s father, needlessly refolding the contents of his suitcase.
“I don’t understand why you don’t see this as an opportunity,” said Gene’s mother. “I don’t know why you’re so resistant to finding a good girl.”
Gene said nothing. It was a senseless fight. He couldn’t make his parents see that as much as he wanted to meet a woman someday, maybe even one of the women on the cruise, it was impossible in an environment where parents were so openly encouraged to meddle. Maybe in the morning Gene would say he was seasick and spend the day in bed. He was barely involved in his parents’ schemes anyway. He thought there was a good chance they’d make better progress without him.
But the next morning, when his parents woke him for breakfast, Gene was too hungry to follow through with a feigned illness, so he dragged himself out of bed and into the shower, steeling himself for another day in matchmaking hell.
After an irritating morning, a harrowing lunch, an interminable afternoon, and an absolute slog of a dinner, Gene went back to the cabin to use the bathroom and stayed there, doodling on the back of a room service menu for half an hour, knowing his parents would lose track of time while they were busy meeting other single peoples’ parents at the bar. Finally, feeling recovered enough to face the onslaught for another couple of hours, Gene decided he should go find his parents. As he stepped out of the cabin door, he nearly collided with a short young woman hurrying past with an empty glass in her hand. The young woman yelped in alarm, raising her arms defensively, and then laughed at herself. “You scared me,” she said. She wore jeans and a sweater even though the night was warm. She had small eyes and thin lips. Both of her ears were thoroughly pierced.
“Sorry,” said Gene. “I was just going to make a half-hearted attempt to find my parents.”
“Really?” asked the woman. “I’m trying to avoid mine. I haven’t seen them for two hours, so I think I’m doing pretty well. Don’t you think?”
“That’s pretty good,” said Gene. “But if they’re anything like my parents, they’re not letting it distract them from their mission. They’ll have teamed up with some poor guy’s parents and cornered the poor guy with tales of your many interests, talents, and interests.”
“I’ve got different problems,” said the woman. “I can’t save all of us, but I can minimize the damage to myself. All I’m worried about at this point is self-preservation.”
“I wish I could follow you down that path,” said Gene. “But I just can’t. My mom will cry and my dad will tell me how much they paid for my ticket again.”
“So they’re still looking for someone for you?” asked the woman.
“Yes,” said Gene. “This method is failing, somehow. I’m as shocked as anyone.”
“You’re lucky they’re still looking,” said the woman. “My parents found someone for me and that’s much worse. They don’t know much about the guy, but they’re in love with his parents and his parents are in love with them and they’re already discussing giant family picnics and joint Thanksgivings.”
“Yikes,” said Gene. He realized that he and the woman were walking now. He hadn’t noticed when they’d started.
“It’s intense,” said the woman. “The guy’s father is really aggressive. He’s terrified that some other bitter, unhappy guy’s parents are going to steal me and my parents away before his son and I have a chance to just give in and settle for each other.”
“Ha ha,” said Gene. “Wow.”
“Anyway, I think they’re all after me,” said the woman. She laughed again. “Doesn’t that sound so paranoid?”
“Should we walk faster?” asked Gene.
“No,” said the woman. “I’m just kidding. I don’t think they’re really all after me. They’re probably all still in the bar rationalizing my behavior so that I don’t seem like such bad spouse-material.”
They had walked almost to the ship’s stern. There was no one else around. The breeze coming in off of the ocean blew right past Gene and the woman and went on its way, paying them no mind. The breeze was not for them. It had its own agenda. Gene leaned on the railing and looked down at the black water, watching the ship’s hull churn it white. Except for the wake from the ship, the ocean was calm. Gene tried to avoid wishing his parents were present to see how much success he was having talking to this woman. “Have you seen any dolphins yet?” asked Gene.
“No,” said the woman. She leaned against the railing next to Gene and watched him watch the ocean. “Have you?”
“I don’t think they were dolphins,” said Gene. “Buy my parents insisted they were.”
Before the woman could respond, Gene heard a man’s voice shout, “This young lady’s already got a match! My son!”
Gene spun around in time to see an overweight man with a hard, square, drunken face rushing at him, already almost on top of him, and then the woman screamed and the man shoved Gene hard in the chest and Gene toppled backwards over the railing and fell down and down into the ocean which met him with a cold, hard slap. By the time Gene fought his way back to the surface and managed to take a long, gasping breath, the cruise ship was well away from him, no sound audible but for the churning of its engines. Gene thought he saw a figure waving its arms up on the deck by the railing, but he couldn’t be sure with the saltwater stinging his eyes.
Fifteen minutes later, Gene still hadn’t started to panic. The cruise ship was no longer in sight and Gene had lost track of which direction it had gone, but he had decided that if he had any chance at survival, he needed to stay as close to the spot where he’d fallen overboard as possible. The woman had seen him fall. She had surely alerted Captain Farmes of what had happened as quickly as she could, assuming the drunk man who’d shoved Gene over the railing hadn’t prevented her in some way. Gene had wondered how long he’d be able to tread water, but he was doing well. The water was calm enough that when he needed to rest, he could lie on his back and float for a while. He wondered if they’d turn the whole ship around or if they had some kind of smaller vessel that they could launch and send back after him. Gene wasn’t blindly optimistic. He knew his life was in serious danger. But for now, he was just going to tread water and float and wait for something else to happen.
Ten minutes later, Gene was rescued by a different boat. It was much smaller than the cruise ship, but bigger than any boat Gene had ever seen on the lakes at home. It appeared out of nowhere, passing so close to him in the water that the people on deck were able to hear his shouting over the sound of the engines. And now here he was, dripping wet on the deck of the boat being hugged by a lumpy man with pale skin, black hair, and an accent that Gene couldn’t place while four younger men looked on. Three of the younger men had the same complexion and features as the man hugging Gene, but the fourth was taller and slimmer and had a less foreign bearing about him.
The man finally stopped hugging Gene and stepped back to examine him. “First I plucked one American from the sea, and now I have plucked another American from the sea!”
“I fell off of a cruise ship,” said Gene. “I thought they might come back for me, but you found me first.”
“I found you first!” shouted the man, grinning.
“And my name’s Gene.”
“I and my sons found Mr. Robess bobbing in the water, miles from land, and now we have found Mr. Gene doing the same!”
Gene looked at the tall man. “You were in the water? Did you fall off of the Close-Knit Cruise too?”
“No,” said Mr. Robess. “I was on a different cruise.”
“Incredible!” said Gene. “How long ago did you fall off? How did it happen?”
“Three days ago,” said Mr. Robess. He ignored the second question.
“Wow,” said Gene. “I can’t believe how lucky we are that this ship came along. We both fell off of different cruises, and somehow this boat found us both. We should be dead.”
“My name is Dob,” said the man with the accent, the front of his shirt damp from hugging Gene. “These are my sons.” He pointed at the young men and pronounced their names one at a time, all of which sounded like subtle variations of “Dob.” Dob’s sons didn’t seem nearly as excited about rescuing Gene as their father did.
“Everything happens for a reason,” said Dob. “Don’t you agree, Mr. Gene?”
“Maybe to a certain extent,” said Gene.
“My daughter!” said Dob. “She sleeps in a cabin below deck. Alone and lonely, sleeping and waiting for a husband! I thought that when I found Mr. Robess in the water, it was a sign that he should be the husband to my daughter, but now I have found you as well, Mr. Gene, and I think we must unravel who shall be my daughter’s husband: Mr. Robess or Mr. Gene?”
“Uh,” said Gene. “What?”
“You will both court my daughter while we are on this boat,” said Dob. “But when we return to our home, you will contact your families and they will visit me so that I can factor them into my decision. The man who marries my daughter must have good parents.”
“Here’s the thing, though,” said Gene. “My parents are on the cruise ship that I just fell off of. But if we can catch up to them when they stop at Aruba, you can meet my parents then.”
“Aruba is where we are already bound!” said Dob. “Do you now see that I am right? That all of this means something?”
“Yes,” said Gene. This was going pretty well. Gene could wait until they got to Aruba, reveal to Dob that he had no interest in marrying his daughter, and then rejoin his parents on the cruise ship. He turned to give Mr. Robess a knowing look, perhaps even a slight roll of his eyes to show how aware he was of the fact that Dob’s ideas were nonsense, but when Gene met Mr. Robess’s gaze, he saw not even a glimmer of kinship.
“I’m going below,” said Mr. Robess. “I’m going to bed.”
“We will all sleep soon,” said Dob. “But first a popsicle for our second miracle man from the sea!”
“A what?” asked Gene.
An hour later, Gene was resting in a cot in the complete darkness of a cabin below deck. The dry clothes he’d borrowed from one of Dob’s sons were a bit small, but otherwise Gene was comfortable, if a little hungry. He would have preferred to eat something more substantial than a popsicle, but Dob had been so excited when he’d taken Gene into the boat’s small kitchen and extracted the box of grape popsicles from the freezer that Gene hadn’t had the heart to ask for another option.
The room was warm and quiet except for the throb of the engines and the soft snoring of Mr. Robess and Dob’s sons. Gene was in Dob’s cot while Dob was up in the control room piloting the boat through the night. Gene should have been exhausted after his ordeal, but he was too wired from all the excitement to sleep. He wondered if there was a radio on board the boat that they could use to contact the cruise ship so that his parents would know he was safe. He’d ask Dob about it in the morning. Then he started fantasizing about suing the cruise line, or at least the guy who shoved him. If nothing else, he figured he could get a refund for the cost of his and his parents’ tickets. Once he was back on that boat, he was through socializing. Unless that young woman he’d been talking to when he got pushed overboard wanted to spend some more time together. He wouldn’t mind seeing her again. She’d probably want to apologize and blame herself for everything and then Gene could be gracious and witty and she’d be impressed with how well he was handling such a potentially traumatic event. Dob would probably be upset when Gene told him he had no interest in marrying his daughter, but Dob still had Mr. Robess to soften the blow. If Gene played his cards right, this whole mess would wrap up quite neatly indeed. Eventually, Gene fell asleep, swaying gently in the cot, adding his low, dry snore to the others.
Sometime later, Gene awoke in the darkness to someone shaking him by the arm.
“Mr. Gene,” said a voice in a thin whisper. “Wake up, Mr. Gene.”
“What’s wrong?” whispered Gene. “Who is it?”
“It’s me,” said the voice. “Mr. Robess. We need to leave while there’s still time.”
Gene sat up in his cot. “Still time? What are you talking about?”
“Shh,” said Mr. Robess. “Don’t wake the sons. I don’t have time to explain. All I can say is that we’re in grave danger.”
“I can’t see anything,” said Gene. “Do you have a light?”
“I know the boat,” said Mr. Robess. “I’ll lead the way.”
“Where are we going?” asked Gene. “Do I need shoes?”
“No,” said Mr. Robess. “There’s no time for shoes. Come on.”
Gene got out of his cot, the linoleum floor cool against his bare feet. Mr. Robess grabbed him by the shoulder. “This way,” said Mr. Robess. “It isn’t far.”
They began to walk, slowly making their way through the darkness. Gene heard the sound of a door opening and then they were out in the hall. It was a bit lighter outside of the cabin and Gene could barely see Mr. Robess’s silhouette as he led the way down the hall. After a short walk, Mr. Robess stopped. Gene heard a metallic click. “Just through here,” said Mr. Robess. Gene could just make out a darker rectangle in front of him that he realized must be a doorway.
“What is this?” asked Gene. “Is there a raft or something in here?”
“No,” said Mr. Robess. “Come on.” He pulled Gene into the room and said, “Here, hold this.” Gene felt a key thrust into his hand. Mr. Robess said, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” Then Gene heard the door close and the darkness was complete again.
Gene waited in silence for a few moments and then whispered, “Hello?” Mr. Robess didn’t answer and Gene realized he’d been left alone. He didn’t understand what was going on. He wondered if he’d be able to find his way back to the room with the cots by himself. He sighed and, in a louder voice, said, “I knew this was too good to be true.”
And then everything happened all at once. A woman’s voice, from somewhere in the darkness, started shouting in a language Gene couldn’t understand, shrill and panicked. Gene, startled, cried out in alarm and flailed around unsuccessfully for the door handle, pounding on the wall and yelling for help. Then a light came on in the hallway, visible under the bottom edge of the door, and Gene heard the rapid approach of footsteps and angry voices. With the woman still screaming, Gene finally found the door handle, turned it, and stumbled out into the hall, the key still in his hand. There he found himself face to face with Dob, Dob’s sons, and Mr. Robess. Dob and his sons looked furious. Mr. Robess’s face was as composed as if it had been arranged for that effect by a contracted expert.
“You,” said Dob, his voice oozing revulsion. “You would sneak into my daughter’s room after I saved you from certain death?”
“I didn’t know where I was,” said Gene. “Mr. Robess told me to wait in that room!”
“You have the key in your hand,” said Dob.
“Mr. Robess gave it to me!”
“Mr. Robess told me he saw you sneak out of the cot that I provided you with – my cot – and, worried that you might be up to something treacherous, he came to alert me at once. Just in time, it appears.”
“I don’t know where he got the key,” said Mr. Robess.
“He must have picked my pocket earlier,” said Dob. “Perhaps even while I was presenting him with a popsicle, the ungrateful wretch.”
“Listen to me,” said Gene. “Mr. Robess set me up. I don’t know why. Maybe he doesn’t want any competition for your daughter. He set this whole thing up. I didn’t even know this was your daughter’s room.”
Dob’s expression could not have been less accepting. “I think,” said Dob, “that we made a mistake when we pulled you from the sea. You were there for a reason and we interfered. I think that we will correct that mistake. Having seen your evil behavior, I am glad I never met your parents. If you even have any!”
Gene tried to fight, but Dob’s sons easily overpowered him. They didn’t even let him change back into his own clothes. Just before they threw Gene back into the ocean, Dob’s daughter appeared on deck to watch him go. She was not attractive. She looked a lot like Dob.
Gene had been treading water and floating on his back for more than half an hour when the next boat found him. A short time later, Gene sat in the cabin of a small sailboat drinking hot tea with a man named Ira who was sailing from somewhere he wouldn’t reveal to Aruba by himself. Gene wore his third outfit of the night. As soon as he’d changed out of Dob’s son’s wet clothes, he’d tossed them back into the water.
“I understand your eagerness to reunite with your parents in Aruba,” said Ira. “And I know this may sound strange, but listen to this idea: I have a friend who lives on the island of Curacao. She’s a lovely lady and believe it or not, you’re just her type. She likes men who are funny.”
Gene couldn’t remember saying one funny thing since Ira had pulled him from the ocean. “I already have a girlfriend,” he said, the teacup trembling in his hand.
Ira smiled indulgently. “Perhaps. But you can always do better, yes? And this friend of mine is really something. We’ll just swing by Curacao first, I’ll just introduce you and then if nothing happens, nothing happens.”
“But I need to hurry to Aruba,” said Gene. “My parents will be worried about me.”
Ira got to his feet. “We’ll call the authorities on Aruba from Curacao and apprise them of the situation. They’ll get in touch with the cruise line who will inform your parents. A perfect plan. My friend’s name is Cindy. No, Sandy. Sandy? Anyway!” He nodded once to Gene and left the room, leaving the door standing open.
The same salty breeze Gene had felt on the cruise ship in the quiet moment just before he’d been shoved into the ocean came in through the door, ran over and around the cabin’s few furnishings, and left. It still wasn’t for Gene.