Fantastic Voyage by D. Michael Hardy

Forty-year-old Dennis connects with a fellow passenger on a cruise ship bound for Cuba in D. Michael Hardy's romance.

"It's my birthday," he told her as the ship cruised south through the pitch-black Atlantic, bound for Cuba. It was close to 1am, almost an hour into his fortieth birthday, and he was leaning against the polished wood bar in the Starlight Lounge on deck sixteen, alone on a ship of nearly four thousand. The DJ was spinning an eclectic mix of hip-hop and Seventies funk, and the dance floor was surprisingly full. He'd just ordered his fourth cocktail since dinner when the waif-like girl standing next to him at the bar had asked why he looked so sad.

"Aren't birthdays supposed to be happy occasions?"

"Depends on your perspective, I guess," he said, sipping his drink. He thought about that number again. Forty. His life was half-over, assuming he lived to the average old age of eighty or so. His father had died young, at age fifty-six, but his mother was still alive and well at eighty-two, so there was hope. Still, he couldn't wrap his mind around the fact that he was, now, officially middle-aged.

She glanced at him skeptically, then asked what he'd ordered.

He stared down at his drink a moment, then told her, "It's called a Havana Old-Fashioned."

A puzzled look crossed her face, so he explained. "I wasn't sure either. It's basically your standard Old-Fashioned, except they use rum instead of whiskey."

"Ohhh," she said, nodding in acknowledgement, looking him over and admiring his clean, dark suit. "I'm not much of a whiskey girl, rum's my fav. But, it's gotta be like, clear rum. Dark rum? I don't know why, but it makes me get crazy, and usually naked."

"Ah, so dark rum then?" He grinned.

She cast a sideways smirk and slapped him lightly on the arm. "I hardly know you, sir, and you wanna go there already?"

He shrugged, ran his fingers through his black hair, thinner now than it was twenty years ago. "From what I understand, cruise ships are like Vegas. What happens here, stays here," he told her, surprised at his sudden forwardness. This girl was maybe twenty-five, almost young enough to be his daughter, if he'd ever bothered to have kids.

"Is that so," she asked, raising her eyebrows, one of them pierced with a small golden hoop. She flipped her wavy, auburn hair over her shoulder and cocked her hip to one side, the red fabric of her skirt straining against the contours of her body. It was then, in that not-so-subtle movement, that he noticed the whispers of a tattoo running along the tanned flesh of her right upper thigh, exposed now as she posed in front of him.

"Well," he said, finally allowing his eyes to roll over the rest of her, from that intriguing tattoo that seemed to resemble some sort of amphibian, all the way back up to meet her gaze, her eyes a crystal blue like the shimmering waters of the Bahamas he'd swam in earlier that day. "It is my birthday, after all."

She threw her head back and laughed then, a laugh so wonderful and electric he thought the whole room had gotten brighter. "You're too much!"

When her hand landed on his wrist, he was certain he'd felt a spark, a flash of static electricity between them. He took it as a sign.

"You know," he said, leaning closer so as not to have to shout over James Brown, "I'd buy you a drink if I knew your name."

"What makes you think I want another drink?"

"Isn't that what people do on ships bound for foreign countries at one in the morning? It's not like you have to drive home or anything."

She paused, studied him for a moment. "Sophia," she finally said, grinning.

"Dennis," he said, moving to take her soft hand in his. It was the first time in months he'd had any sort of intimate contact with another person, and for a moment, he thought he might cry. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Sophia."

Dennis was about to signal the bartender to buy the drink he'd promised her when a vaguely familiar song filled the lounge, and Sophia, still holding his hand, screeched and guided him out onto the dance floor with a mischievous gleam in her eyes, much to his reluctance. A few seconds later, Dennis recognized Coolio's "Fantastic Voyage" as it reverberated all around them, the multi-colored lights swirling across the glossy wood floor and gold walls, reflecting off the floor to ceiling windows that revealed nothing but a black void beyond them. He wasn't entirely sure how to dance to it, but did his best, imitating the other, much younger guys he saw on the dance floor, throwing his arms out and side-stepping at what he hoped were the right moments, struggling to keep in time with the beat. At one point, he even clapped his hands. He thought she seemed impressed, until he caught her laughing.

"C'mon Travolta," Sophia teased, leading him out of the lounge and onto the deck. From there, she quickly turned and guided him up another flight of stairs which opened to an empty sun deck, the chairs and chaise lounges all stacked in the far corner, the wind whipping in their faces.

"You really know your way around this boat," Dennis shouted to her over the rushing wind.

Sophia turned to him. "I've been taking a cruise every year since I was eighteen, and this," she paused, sweeping her hand out across the expanse of the ship as if she were a girl on a game show, revealing the prize, "is my favorite ship of them all. It's my third time on this one, so yeah, I guess you could say I know it pretty well."

Dennis nodded as he stared down across the deck below them, at the empty pool, its water moving much like the ocean. A group of people still occupied one of the Jacuzzis. "I'm impressed."

"You should be," Sophia said, winking. She laid down on the bare deck and motioned for Dennis to join her, then began pointing out constellations. Dennis hadn't seen the moon and stars so brightly lit in such a long time that he'd almost forgotten they existed. Free from the light pollution and smog of his native Los Angeles, Dennis began to find a new appreciation for the zodiac skies. As Sophia indicated the stars of Orion, he glanced over at her, admiring her jawline, and thought about the last time he'd seen a woman's face as radiant as hers.

"If you could die, and come back as anything you wanted, what would you pick," Sophia asked curiously.

The question came out of nowhere and caught him off guard. He immediately thought of his wife and everything that had happened last fall. "Oh, I don't know, I suppose I'd choose to go back and live my life over again. You know, do things differently."

"Interesting," she purred. "But no, you can't pick yourself or go back in time or anything. It has to be something totally different. Okay, like, me? I'd come back as a cat."

"A cat? Really," he asked, propping himself up on his elbows and glancing over at her. In truth, he couldn't stop looking at her. He feared he might never see her once this voyage was over and he wanted to remember every detail.

"A house cat, specifically. I'd lounge around all day, soaking in the sun's rays, nap in my owner's lap while they read or watched tv, then spend my nights prowling under the stars."

"You'd also have to poop in a sandbox," Dennis said, amused.

Sophia shrugged. "Small price to pay for a life of luxury."

Sophia asked Dennis the question again, but he hesitated. He was tempted to tell her about the past two years, how his wife, Victoria, had been diagnosed with an aggressive case of lymphoma at age thirty-six, about how difficult the chemotherapy had been for her, and how he'd watched as she slowly deteriorated to nothing more than skin and bones. He thought about telling Sophia how beautiful the funeral in Victoria's hometown of Hartford had been under the changing Autumn leaves, how Victoria would have loved to paint the scene on canvas, a hobby she'd acquired after attending a Painting with a Twist party with her girlfriend Miranda some years back. Dennis also thought about telling Sophia how he and Victoria had always dreamed of taking a cruise to Cuba together, to revisit her grandmother's native land, and that he'd made a promise to spread some of her ashes there.

Instead, he answered, "I think I'd like to come back as a bird. A crow, or maybe a hawk, free to soar through the skies, no boundaries, you know?" He raised his hand as he said this, spreading his fingers open wide, as if he were gently caressing the stars.

"Birds of prey," Sophia said, moving closer to him. "Interesting."



An hour later in his cabin eight decks below, the two of them sat in lounge chairs on his private balcony, watching the black water roll by as they sipped drinks and talked about their lives. Dennis avoiding mentioning his marriage or what had happened to his wife, keeping the conversation focused on his life in Los Angeles, on his condo in West Hollywood and the beach house in Avalon, how he loves fishing off the coast in the summer months and rents a cabin in Big Bear every December.

"So what exactly is it you do out there in La-La land anyway?" Sophia asked.

"I'm a producer," Dennis said.

She clicked her tongue and looked at him in wide-eyed surprise. "Of like what, movies?"

"Mostly, yes."

"Anything I've seen?"

"Possibly. I just finished up an action film starring Matt Damon."

"Ohh, I know that guy! Well, not in person anyway, but he's pretty hot."

Dennis shrugged, smiling. "He's not my type, but a nice guy nonetheless."

Sophia laughed, and their conversation continued as Dennis listed off the other projects he'd been involved in, certain actors he refuses to work with after bad experiences on the set, and his dream project, an adaptation of Lee Irby's novel Unreliable. Sophia said she'd have to give it a read, then set her empty glass down on the table between them, stood up and went inside. Dennis turned, afraid he'd said something wrong and she was leaving, but instead, she settled down on the bed and motioned for him to join her.

"It's been a while since I've felt this comfortable around someone," she said as he moved up alongside her. She curled up next to him, unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt and ran her fingers through the salt and pepper hairs on his chest. They looked into each other's eyes, neither of them saying a word, their faces moving closer until their lips met, and they remained that way, locked together as one, their lips turning raw until Sophia pulled away and broke the spell. She apologized and told him she wasn't sure she wanted to move so quickly.

"No, I'm sorry," Dennis said, then told her he had no expectations. "I just think you're... fantastic."

He tried coaxing more personal details from Sophia, but she revealed little of herself, aside that she was from St Petersburg and studying to be a social anthropologist.

"And I'm a lover of cats, obviously," she purred, drawing out the word "obviously" and pointing to a tattoo of a black Egyptian cat that curled around her ankle.

Dennis smiled, tracing her cat tattoo with his index finger. He'd always thought of himself as a dog person, but in that moment, he felt as though he could easily love a feline.

Sophia asked him to tell her a story, and so he did. He told her the story about Victoria.

"That's so sad," was all she said when he'd finished.



Hours later, Dennis woke with the sun in his face and discovered they had already docked in Havana. He turned to tell Sophia, but she had apparently left sometime during the night. He dressed in a cool white linen shirt and khakis, and after a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs and fruit, spent twenty minutes in line at customs and emerged on the other side feeling both excited and wistful.

Dennis spent the first part of his day in Cuba subconsciously looking for her as he toured the museums and bars of Old Havana. He got buzzed on mojitos in La Bodeguita del Medio as he stared at a framed scribbling from Hemingway that read "My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita" and kept hoping Sophia would walk in and find him there, but she never did. Afterwards, he stopped to pet several of the local felines that roamed freely among the crumbling cobblestone streets. He imagined walking hand-in-hand with her as they marveled at the architecture of the buildings and wondered where she might be.

Later, he paid a suave-looking man named Javier to drive him out to visit Hemingway's home, Finca Vigía, in a teal 1956 Chevy Bel Air. Along the way, Dennis was both shocked and saddened to see just how poorly the people of Cuba lived; most of the buildings and houses he saw were crumbling shacks, barely livable. Many of them had boarded up or busted windows, partially collapsed roofs, front doors hanging loosely by their hinges, old, derelict cars rusting away in their yards. Some, however, still looked decent, with coats of fresh, brightly colored paint and well-built fences and newly polished doors. Others were in a state of restoration, flanked by scaffolding.

When he arrived at Hemingway's lost estate, the old house looked exactly as Dennis had seen it in photos online, its cream-colored paint reflecting brightly in the Cuban sunshine, its front door open yet roped off to visitors. He and Victoria had often talked about visiting the place, and even entertained the fantasy of the two of them living there. Halfway through the guided tour, he paused in the old garden in the back of the house that overlooked Havana, the fragrant mariposas swaying in the sultry winds, and the view of the city on the horizon nearly took his breath away.

By the time Dennis reached Varadero Beach, the sun was beginning to set. He strolled along the shoreline until he found himself far away from the diminishing crowd, then kicked off his shoes and socks, removing the small plastic vial he'd had to keep hidden there. He waded into the warm, azure water until it was lapping gently at his hips, popped the cap off the cylindrical vial, and spread the remainder of Victoria's ashes into the water around him.

"Te amo," he whispered as he watched the ashes of his late wife dissolve in front of him, the sun casting gorgeous hues of oranges, pinks, and violets across the empty sky. It was the only phrase he'd ever really bothered to learn, the one she'd taught him on their first date twelve years ago, the only phrase that mattered.

Dennis stood there for a long time, watching until no trace of Victoria remained. He kept trying to picture her face, but instead, it was Sophia's that materialized in his mind again and again.



By the time Dennis made it back onto the ship, it was just after midnight. He slipped into his cabin and quickly showered and shaved, rinsed with mouthwash and combed his hair, then threw on a clean pair of gray dress pants and a black button-down shirt. He'd briefly considered wearing the Hawaiian shirt Victoria had bought him two years ago when they'd first talked about taking a cruise, but under the circumstances, he didn't think it would be appropriate. He wondered why he'd even bothered to pack the damned shirt in the first place. He splashed Armani aftershave on his cheeks and took a moment to check himself out in the mirror.

"You're not dead yet, old man," he whispered to his reflection, then went first to the Starlight Lounge, looking for Sophia. Classic Forties filtered from the speakers and the room was nearly empty, the meager crowd consisting mostly of those over fifty-five. Clearly, this wasn't the place to be tonight, and Sophia was nowhere in sight. A part of him wanted to stay though, because he enjoyed the relaxed vibe of the place, but his desire to find Sophia was stronger, and it pulled him to the ship's other nightclubs.

The Sky Bar on deck eighteen was lit by blues and purples and overlooked the sea from the highest deck at the stern of the ship. A swimming pool sat in its center, now covered by a platform being used as a dance floor, and about twenty or so people, all dressed in white, moved atop it to "International Love" by Pitbull. White lounge chairs surrounded the makeshift dance floor and Dennis scanned them all, but Sophia was nowhere in sight. A girl in a white bikini approached him carrying a tray of small plastic shot glasses filled with a pink liquid, and offered him one. He took it without asking what it was and thanked her. He allowed the sickly-sweet liquid to move down his throat, warming his insides, taking note of how happy everyone seemed, how everyone had someone to talk to, dance with, hold in their arms. Dennis sighed and headed for the elevator.

His next stop was Club Twenty-One on deck eight, a club he'd previously avoided because he knew it was where the youngest passengers partied, but on his way, he passed briefly through the Bliss Lounge, a small, intimate bar filled with purple and gold velvet chairs and couches, its walls lined in red paisley wallpaper. A middle-aged man with a tuft of blonde hair played a gleaming black piano in the center of the room. Dennis recognized the tune as Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love," a song he and Victoria had danced to at their wedding, and he almost burst into tears. She was supposed to be on this cruise with him, and he was both sad and angry she was not. But angry at who, exactly? Her? It wasn't Victoria's fault she got cancer. So then God maybe? If Dennis believed in such things. But he didn't, and so his anger had no place to go. He swallowed it and moved on.

As he'd figured, Club Twenty-One was packed. Dennis could almost feel the bass in his chest before he walked through the open doors, and immediately knew he'd need a drink if he wanted to last longer than five minutes in this place. He'd never really been a club guy, going out occasionally in his twenties, but now, at forty, he practically loathed these types of places. A hip-hop song he didn't recognize boomed all around him, and the dance floor, lit up by a thousand flashing lights of every color, was packed. He figured Sophia was either here, or asleep in her cabin, although he had no clue where that might be. Club Twenty-One was his last hope for the night.

Dennis approached the bar, its surface smooth as glass and illuminated by pure white light, and squeezed in between two girls barely wearing any clothes. They shot him a look as if to say "What the hell are you doing here?" then turned away and giggled. Dennis ordered a drink and gazed out onto the dance floor, where what looked like a hundred people were gyrating in unison. He could practically feel the heat radiating off their bodies. The bartender placed his drink in front of him, and he took a few long swallows, wanting the alcohol to kick in immediately. He told himself that once he finished this drink, he'd leave. It was at that moment Sophia emerged sweaty and flushed from the throng of people on the dance floor.

"Hey stranger!" She yelled, moving up alongside him and rubbing his forearm.

Dennis turned to her and smiled. "There you are," he said, suddenly relieved, the tequila buzzing in his brain. He stood up and immediately wanted to kiss her, right there in front of everyone, but thought better of it, unsure how she'd react, and so he hugged her instead. He didn't mind that she was covered in sweat, in fact he relished it. Her scent was intoxicating.

"So tell me, how were your twelve hours in Cuba?" she asked him, waving to get the bartender's attention.

Dennis thought of his wife's ashes dissolving in the sea, the last of her gone forever, then remembered the rest of it - the mojitos in La Bodeguita del Medio, its walls covered in graffiti, Hemingway's home and its view of the city, riding in an old Bel Air, an art museum he couldn't remember the name of, eating an authentic Cuban sandwich from a street vendor, the friendly stray cats everywhere. He told her all this as she stared at him with those ocean blue eyes of hers and delicately patted the sweat off her face with a cocktail napkin. Part of him wanted those memories to be with Victoria, the other part Sophia, and his brain and heart were having trouble reconciling the two.

After the bartender came over and took their drink order, Dennis turned his attention back to Sophia.

"How about you? Did you enjoy yourself?" he asked.

"Ohhh did I ever!" Sophia exclaimed, her face lighting up. "Cuba's been on my list for years now, and the people there have such beautiful souls! And I fiinnaalllly got to see a show at the Tropicana! Can you believe it?"

Sophia was practically glowing now, the light in her eyes as she talked about her Cuban experience was mesmerizing. Dennis took a moment to steady himself, feeling somewhat light-headed from the tequila, lack of food, and Sophia's intensity. He wondered if there was a world in which he and Sophia had any chance at something meaningful, or if this was simply ephemeral. She was everything Victoria hadn't been - wild, carefree, sensual - and Dennis wanted more of her, not just this night, nor for the duration of their voyage, which was quickly coming to an end, but indefinitely. He wasn't sure it was even possible; she was so much younger than him, and they lived across the country from each other, but he knew he had to try, he wasn't getting any younger.

"Would you care to go for a swim?" he asked, cracking a smile.

Sophia looked up at him, sweat glistening off her face, neck, and shoulders. She glanced over at the dance floor, then back at him, polished off her mojito, and nodded.



The adults-only pool was on deck eighteen at the bow of the ship, and it was empty. The sign on the door leading to the pool stated it closed at midnight, but there was no one around to enforce it, and the access door was unlocked. Lit only by the glow of the full moon that loomed above them, Sophia stripped off her clothes and slipped into the warm aqua water as Dennis watched, admiring her tanned, tattooed skin, her toned calves, her slender waist and dimples of Venus. He recalled running his fingers over them the night before and hoped he'd get to again. She swam the length of the pool, then turned around and swam back to him.

"Well, are you gonna join me sir, or was this just some ploy to creep on me?"

"Be right there," he said, then took off his shoes and socks, removed his shirt and slacks, folding them neatly over a chaise lounge, then his boxers. He held himself as he walked down into the pool, and Sophia threw her head back and laughed, then quickly covered her mouth in fear of attracting attention.

For a time, they swam and laughed as quietly as they could, playfully splashing one another, until they got too close and Sophia kissed him. They looked into each other's eyes for a long moment, then Dennis moved forward and kissed her back, this time longer, and in that moment, he felt as if he were twenty-five again, and that he could kiss her forever.



Back in his cabin, Dennis admired the tattoos on Sophia's nude body, lit only by the ethereal glow of moonlight that filtered through the large glass balcony door. He pulled Sophia close and kissed her, ran his hand down the arch of her back and she trembled. Dennis moved on top of her and breathed her in. She smelled of suntan lotion, patchouli, and the ocean fresh after a rainstorm. He wanted this moment to last forever, but knew it was fleeting, so he moved slowly, his lips and hands memorizing every curve, every mole and childhood scar, every tattoo, all those things that make a person so unique, so beautiful, he thought.

"I know this might sound crazy," Dennis said afterwards, staring up at the ceiling, "but I think I just may be falling for you."

Sophia didn't respond, her breath coming in heavy sighs.

Dennis turned to her and saw that she'd already fallen asleep. He pulled the covers up over both of them and moved to hold her. When he woke in the morning, once again, Sophia was gone.



That night, their last before arriving back in Fort Lauderdale, Dennis found Sophia back in the Starlight Lounge, where a live jazz band played covers of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Chet Baker, all his favorites. She wore a short red dress covered in black flowers, its neckline plunging dangerously low.

"You keep disappearing on me," he told her.

Sophia shrugged. "What can I say? I'm an early-riser."

"Well, I hope I wasn't snoring."

"Only a little," she teased.

Dennis finally bought her the drink he'd promised on the night they met, and caught himself staring at her time and again. He hadn't realized it before, until this moment, just how much Sophia resembled his wife, not the wife he'd last seen - trembling under pale blue hospital sheets, her skin nearly translucent - but rather his wife from years ago, the young and vibrant struggling actress determined to make a name for herself. He wondered what Victoria would make of him, pursuing a much younger woman. Would she be happy for him? Would she resent him for trying? She'd probably laugh at him, he thought, tell him to act his age.

When Dennis asked Sophia to spend the night with him again, she politely declined, claiming she still had to pack and be up "super early" in the morning for disembarkation. He understood, of course, and wrote his number on a cocktail napkin, signed it "D.F." with a heart, then worried the heart was superfluous. He told her she could call him anytime, but secretly doubted she would.

"Absolutely," she'd said, slipping the napkin into her purse and kissing his cheek.

The following morning, Dennis searched for Sophia as they disembarked. He caught a brief glimpse of her going through customs, her auburn hair pulled tightly into a ponytail that swayed like a cat's tail as she moved, but then lost sight of her in the crowd. He tried catching up to her soon afterwards, but by the time he'd reached the parking lot, Sophia was already gone.



Two weeks later, back in his condo in West Hollywood, Dennis strokes the newly-adopted cat in his lap as he sips a homemade Havana Old-Fashioned. He keeps glancing at his phone, willing it to ring, still hoping Sophia will call, but his hope is deteriorating with each passing day. He gazes out at the smog-filled sky, searching for those stars again. He tries to recall the pitch of her voice, that gleam in her Bahama blue eyes, but fears they're already beginning to fade into the past.

Just after 1am, as Dennis is about to fall asleep, his phone lights up, and the familiar melody of "Fantastic Voyage" fills the aching silence of his bedroom.

5 comments:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed how this story was narrated, its casual pace, while kind of knowing that it might not end well for the narrator. It was richly detailed and completely held my interest. Now maybe I missed something here, but the ending was quite a letdown. Was it meant to be ambiguous and inconclusive? Still, really good writng. Steve Slavin

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  2. I enjoyed this a great deal. I liked the relaxed pace, and the descriptive details were vivid without being over-the-top. I thought the back story around the protagonist's wife was woven into the narrative in a complete fashion, without being cloying or over the top. I liked the ending a lot - it's complete and leaves the reader to speculate. Just super, David Lanvert

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  3. Really enjoyed this story. The pace was gentle and it was quite clear that the author you and understood the setting very well. I appreciated the descriptions of Cuba and Ernest Hemingway’s house.

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  4. A cathartic journey for Dennis...sad but tinged with hope for the future. The writing style meshed nicely with the subject matter, very consistent tone and pacing throughout. Nicely done.

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