Anya grew up as an only child to parents that absolutely doted on her. That also meant that they were very protective of her and hence she wasn’t given very many opportunities like her other friends. Even during her University days, every weekend her parents picked her up and drove her home and did everything for her. While she was grateful for their love, she yearned to do something more fun. But keeping up with her accounting classes and catching up with submissions, kept her busy during the week, allowing her really no time to socialize and be with her peers. She had very few friends and for the most part was called a geek. She landed her first job with a busy accounting firm. Pretty soon she was recognized her for her hard work and meticulous nature, but again, she was lonely. But at least she had a small apartment of her own and she learned to live by herself. Much to her parents shock, she jumped with joy when she landed this job in Chicago. Her parents tried to convince her to look for something local in New York, but for the first time she voiced her opinion and it was heard.
One day while at the bus stop on a warm summer evening, she saw a cab that stopped at the traffic light. The girl inside the cab caught her attention. Something about her seemed so much like herself. While she continued to stare, the girl looked at her and their eyes locked for a brief moment and it was abruptly interrupted by her bus that came in between the cab and her. She got in and tried to find a seat by the window so she could see the girl again, but in vain.
Weeks went by and Anya thought of that girl in the cab off and on. One day she over heard an Indian colleague of hers talking about how in India, it is a popular belief that there are 7 people in the world that look alike. Anya’s interest peaked. She began to research a little and the topic took a back seat, thanks to her busy work schedule. Months rolled by and Anya was at a downtown hotel with her bosses to make a presentation to a major client when someone brushed past her and she heard a faint, “Sorry”. She turned around to see the same girl that she saw in the car. This time she was up close. The resemblance was shocking. Same build, same hair colour, same length of hair, just different style of clothing. She wanted to talk to her but her professional side had her attention going.
That week, her parents visited her on their way to Colorado. At dinner, she prodded as to why they chose not to have more children. For the first time, her mom talked about how difficult it was to conceive and how she had gone through fertility treatment. The decision was a no brainer for her parents. They decided to be content with the blessing they had, than endure more troubles for another baby. Anya had her answer. It was definitely not a lost sibling. The bizarre thought of her dad cheating on her mom did cross her mind, but she knew that her father was too devout and religious to stray from her mom. So who could that girl be? She was more than intrigued at this point in time. But she had no way of finding her.
That year at their office Christmas party, the raffle prize was a cruise for 10 nights – an all-paid vacation on the Queen of the Ocean to St Thomas, St. Maarten and the Bahamas. The kicker – suite room for two! Almost every one in the room had one thought – That would be one awesome vacation…once in a lifetime opportunity. That night’s dinner seemed the longest for many. Finally as the numbers began to get called out, there were a many sighs and grunts. The MC finally said the last number 7 and she repeated the entire set “54987”. There was pin drop silence as eyes began to search the room for the winner. After a long pause, Anya stood up, flush red in her face. This was one of the first times that she had won something. The crowd roared in applause, while some clapped in envy, other did so out of sheer joy of someone else’s joy.
That night when she went home, she had mixed emotions about the whole winning experience. What a wasted opportunity. It was a cruise for two and she had no one that she could really take with her. In all her hectic schedules, she had successfully swept her loneliness under the rug. But now the rug seemed more like a mountain! For the first time in a long time, Anya curled up in her bed and cried like a baby. She was 26 and leave alone a relationship, there wasn’t even a proper date in the picture. She stopped watching romantic movies because all they did was remind her of her plight and give her wet dreams and a strong yearning for a man she had not yet met. After hours of crying she sat up and vowed, she was going to change it. It was time she turned her life around.
She began with a change of wardrobe. She began to wear more skirts and dresses to work which was a big change from her usual black or navy trousers and white, off white, peach or beige shirts. Although she wasn’t really big made, she joined the local gym, began to work out thrice a week. She made an effort to go out with colleagues for a drink at the end of every week. She even got herself a Facebook account and began connecting with her high school and University classmates. It was not until one day when she put up a picture of herself on Facebook that she realized she had really changed her looks. Gary from high school commented, “Is that really you Anya? What happened to that nerd we knew? Wow!”, to which Brenda commented, “Gary, is that supposed to be a pick up line? Lame!!!”. Anya ignored the comments and didn’t really write back.
When it was time to book the cruise, she booked her vacation days with an additional couple of days before and after the cruise. She told her parents about her winning the cruise and conveniently blocked out the part that said, “for two”. It was her real first holiday by herself and she wasn’t going to allow anyone to dictate what she should do about the second ticket. She could tell that there was an internal change in her. She had become a lot more friendlier and definitely very confident. In the days leading up to her vacation, she planned, wrote her list, shopped and packed in advance. She got herself a polka dot dark brown and white bikini, matching flip flops and even a nice looking sun hat. She bought herself a beautiful black slim fitting dress and a long flowing navy gown for the two formal dinners on board. She took extra care to get a shellac manicure and pedicure before the trip. She booked herself for a bikini wax just the day before the sail out. All in all, she was set for this holiday. Yet, at the back of her mind, she felt a little sad about taking this trip on her own.
The day she boarded the ship, after completing all formalities, she made a quick phone call to her parents to say all was well and that she would call when she had a chance. She could sense their concern for her traveling alone. However, she decided not to pay too much attention to it and made a conscious choice to divert her mind to the pleasantries that she was going to experience on board. As she disconnected the line, her eyes briefly met a stranger’s. He seemed of South American origin. Bony features, high cheek bones, broad build. In that matter of split seconds, her mind assimilated a whole pile of statistics on him. Neither did he smile not did she. He didn’t seem cold, but not warm either. He seemed athletic. She could not read his eyes because he had sun glasses on.
Her Stateroom was tiny in comparison to her bedroom at her parents’ house, but she was told it is much bigger than the rooms on the lower levels. The bathroom was minuscule by any standards, but the counter top had enough room to accommodate her toiletries! The little deck outside was a home to two chairs (sigh!) and a small coffee table. The bed was a large king size. The small closet just about fit her large suitcase and her carry-on backpack. The two things that completely surprised her were the fact that her room had phones from twenty years ago with no caller display and One of the elevators seemed to have a glitch. Thank god for the glitch because every other elevator had an annoying female voice that screeches, “going up / going down / deck 5.” As for the rest, she spent much of her day discovering the various decks and familiarizing herself with the facilities, restaurants, guest services, gym, pool deck, spa and also the bar. Not that she drank much, but her chances of landing a date while on board were higher at the bar? She was pleasantly surprised to see how the staff were from such varying nationalities. She could not help but wonder what life on sea would be for these people. They were all polite, friendly and extremely courteous. Every time she thought she was lost, someone would magically appear in front of her to help her. She also realized that the guests who cruised were extremely friendly. Many a people talked to her about various things – previous cruise experience, the weather, the islands, the shopping on board…. It was the first time that she was forced to interact with so many people and she made a genuine attempt to engage in each conversation and it was her first time being social for such a long time in any given day.
That night at dinner at the formal restaurant, it was an awkward moment for her when she realized that every table that surrounded her was full of families or couples. The server was extra attentive to her order and she wondered if it had to do with her being single at a table. She decided that future dinners would be at the casual restaurant where it wouldn’t be so obvious that she was by herself. She would also ensure she carried her books along everywhere so she can keep herself occupied at moments like these while she waited for her food to arrive! The food was exquisite. She had chosen second seating for dinner because she knew that first seating would be filled with families with young children and hence perhaps a little louder. She was surprised to see how many young families brought their children to second seating too. She remembered during her childhood days, bedtime was 7:30 pm. She didn’t remember a day when that rule was broken.
Next morning, after an early breakfast she decided to settle in the solarium with her book in hand . The solarium was bright and warm and had a pool and three whirlpools. It was designed with glass panels and she was able to see the deck above. It seemed like the fitness deck because she saw quite a few people jogging and some even playing shuffle board. From the corner of her eye, she caught a glance of the same handsome stranger from the pier. He looked at his watch and began to jog faster as he went out of her sight. A few minutes later he resurfaced and she watched him do this at least four times. “Wow”, she thought. “Some stamina!” She giggled to herself as she decided that she was going to be his calm, non-disruptive stalker. Well, at least for now! She picked up her book, went back to her room to fetch her hat and sun glasses. She walked back to the top deck and comfortably settled on a lounge chair only to realize that he was still running his laps, only a little slower now. She parked herself in a manner that she could see him run his laps without having to turn her head. After 15 minutes he stopped and looked at his clock again. He was panting was drenched in sweat. A stranger approached him and she could not really hear their conversation from where she was. A while later, he was gone and so was she. She grinned to herself, “This is going to be one interesting vacation.” She saw him a few times around the ship, but she didn’t approach him or even make eye contact with him. On day two, she was at the line-up at Guest Services to ask about land excursions at St. Maarten and he was at the counter talking to the Manager about how his key card did not work. She listened keenly as he mentioned his room number, “8634”. “Yesss!!!!”, she thought. He was on the same floor as her except on the opposite side.
That night while at the casual restaurant for dinner, she spotted him sitting at the bar stool by himself having a quiet meal. She rushed to the elevators and went to her room, grabbed a pen and scribbled on it, “If you would like to make this an interesting vacation for yourself, go for a jog with your shoes on alternate feet. 8 am tomorrow. I promise this is no joke!” and ran to his room. She scanned the hallway for other guests and when safe, slid it under his door. As she turned around to walk away her heart started to pound. It was a mix of anticipation, excitement and a tinge of fear. As she lay in bed that night, she could not get a wink of sleep and wondered if he would really show up wearing his shoes like she had asked him to. It must have been really late that she had fallen asleep.
Derek Goulding was thirty two years old. He was one of the youngest CTOs that his graphics company had seen in many years. Technically a wizard at his work and financially very stable, what Derek lacked was his ability to keep stable relationships. His girlfriends adored him at the beginning but they all wilted away in a matter of months. His latest break-up with his girlfriend left him heart broken and the cruise that he booked for the two of them together now was a stag vacation. He truly was heart broken because he had planned to propose to her on the top deck on a quiet evening. He thought he had nailed this one. He could not understand what had gone wrong. It was six weeks before the cruise that she said, “This is not working. So not working Derek. Look at us, we are strangers under one roof. Even our interests don’t seem to be the same any more.” He looked at her stumped because in the last 11 months, he had made special efforts to make time for her and her interests in art galleries and paintings. He knew she wasn’t in it for his money and had genuinely fallen for her. She didn’t give him enough of an explanation and just left. He was sure she had not left for another man. She refused to pick up his calls and stopped responding to his texts and emails This time he was beyond broken. He decided to take the vacation to get his mind off of all that was going on in his life. Anyways, there was no chance of a refund, hence he decided to do this trip by himself.
And here he was after three days of boarding, standing at the door of his room, holding a note in hand from some stranger. He scanned the hallway only to find an old couple walking into their room. He lay in bed wondering if this was some kind of a prank from some teenager. He could not fall asleep for a while and then as he lost his chain of thoughts to his harsh reality, he felt engulfed in a room of sadness. He raked his brains as to how he could still mend things and make it work as he sank into deep sleep. The next morning his alarm went off at 6:30 as usual. He woke up and as he got out of bed he remembered the note. He changed into his track pants and shoes. He put them on on the right feet and stepped out of his room. He went to the restaurant, drank some orange juice and hopped up the stairs to be greeted by a gentle cold breeze on the top deck. He began running and as he finished his laps, he looked at his watch and it read, “7:57”. He looked around to find a few lounge chairs occupied by some teenagers, a group of women lead by an instructor doing yoga. He heard people stepping out of the elevator, but they seemed like families with young children. For whatever it was worth, he decided to switch his shoes. He decided to cool off on the deck for a few minutes before heading to his room for a shower. After 20 minutes, he decided that it was a prank.
Yoga was really not her cup of tea, but there was no other camouflage that Anya could come up with to be on the deck at that hour without being noticed. She smiled as she saw him switch his shoes. “Oh boy, oh boy, so you are game, aren’t you?”, she thought to herself. She waited until he left until the end of the session before she went to her room. Last night as she lay in bed, she had thought of step two if the game was on. She convinced herself that there was no way that her plan was ending at step one. She waited until lunch and spotted him again at the restaurant wearing a Toronto Blue Jays hat. She had her second note ready which read, “Thank you for being a sport. If you are still on, then, wait in your room at 4:00 pm for the next step.” She looked around to find a messenger. A little five year old boy kept running from counter to counter playing hide and seek with his parents who were busy eating. She signaled to him and said, “Can you do me a favour? Can you give this to the man in the blue hat?” The boy looked at her reluctantly and she said, “It’s also a good place to hide.” The boy ran off and she took off in the other direction hoping that all would be well and that the boy would indeed make sure that he completes his task in hand.
Derek sat there lost in thoughts about how stupid he was about changing his shoes that morning when his thoughts were interrupted by a little boy who said, “She asked me to give you this”, as he pointed in the direction of the food counters. He quickly asked, “Who? Who was it?”. The boy shrugged and ran away. “So this wasn’t a prank?” He read the note and smiled. “This is surely getting very interesting”, he thought. He ate the rest of his lunch enjoying every bite and relishing the flavors that surrounded his palette. 4 pm seemed so far away. He decided to get himself a coffee and catch up on his work emails until he was ready to get his next adventure clue!
Anya wasn’t used to any of what she was doing and her adrenaline was pumping so fast that she had to constantly drink cold water to calm herself down and say to herself, “Okay. Everything is going to work out fine. Everything is going to work out fine.” What she didn’t know was that she herself wasn’t sure what she wanted from this stranger. Her mind thought of different things – a casino date? What? Casino date? Who does that? May be dinner date? Coffee date?….. Grrrrrrr…. She had to come up with something more creative. 4 pm wasn’t too far. Finally things went bling bling in her head. “Yesssss… Yesssss…. Yesssss…”, she screamed in her head. She went back to her room and waited for her clock to read 4:00.
In the meantime, Derek had looked at his watch 20 times, checked his emails, responded to them, worked on his presentation slides, cyber stalked his ex-girlfriend on facebook to see if her status had changed from single to anything else! At 3:58, he sat upright, peeked into the mirror to make sure his t shirt was in order and waited for the note under his door or perhaps a knock with a messenger. Instead, at 4 pm sharp, his room phone rang. He jumped to get it at the second ring. “Hello”, he said. On the other end was the voice of a woman? Girl? He couldn’t tell. The voice said mockingly, “Well hello. It’s nice to know that you are so adventurous. So why don’t we move to the next step, wear smart casuals for a 7 pm dinner. When you are done dressing up, keep your door ajar and wear blindfold around your eye and wait. Remember this is fun only if you follow rules. The rest is up to you.” All he could muster courage for was, “OK.” The line went dead and he stood there stumped wondering what was going on. He was sure that the cruise line was safe and that this was someone wanting some fun. At his stage in life, he could definitely use some fun after the rough few weeks that had gone by. So he decided to play along. He suddenly realized that he was feeling a lot more joyous. The next three hours he spent ironing his casual shirt and trouser, shaving, showering and then reading. He lay in his bed reading his crime novel with much disinterest. At 6:40 he got dressed, used some cologne, checked and rechecked himself in the mirror and at 6:57 he used clean hand towel from the bathroom to make a blindfold. Before he blindfolded himself, he opened the door and left it ajar as instructed. The blindfold was surely a great touch. He waited for footsteps. He realized how much more attentive he was to the sounds of everything around him. Finally he heard the door creek open. “Well, hello again,” said the same voice. The next thing he heard was the door shutting and the sound of the lock.
Anya could not believe what she was up to. She stood there in front of this handsome man, whose name she did not know, dressed in a beautiful long gown and stunning make up that he wasn’t looking at! She said to him, “You look good” and he responded, “I wish I could say the same about you. All I can say is that you smell good!” She smiled and said, “Alright, so are you ready for the next step?”
“Do I look like am not?” he said.
She grinned and walked closer to him and said, “Alright then, here we go. Hold my hand and stand up. I will guide you to where we are going.” He followed like a herd of sheep lead by shepherd. She took his key card, placed it in his shirt pocket, led him through the door and jammed it shut. She walked a few steps and then turned him around a few times and then walked him the other way. Then did the same to him after a few steps. She repeated this a few times. She took him up and down the elevator with the glitch. He heard some people come and in and out of the elevator. He heard some giggles. But no one said a word. Finally she lead him through two sets of doors and helped him sit. He began to touch and feel what was around him and realized he was sitting at a chair with a small table beside him. Finally he thought it was time to introduce himself and he said, “I am Derek” and she responded, “Hi Derek. For now you can call me “M”. She giggled and continued, “Not like the “M” in James Bond, “M” like in mystery woman.”
What followed was an evening of beautiful conversations, champagne, some appetizers, some pasta and crum brulee. It was the first time that Derek was having blindfolded experience and one that is really long. He really wanted to cheat and take a peak at this mystery woman. She spoke intelligently, had a sense of subtle humour and seemed to also enjoy mystery novels. Her taste in music was exquisite and she spoke very softly. She did not prod him about his past nor did he. However he told her that he grew up in LA and moved to Chicago on work.
“What time is it?”, he asked.
“9:20”, she said and added, “Do you need to go?”
He responded rather quickly, “No. Just wondering! I have never been blindfolded and surely not for this long.” He hesitated and asked, “Is this thing going to come off this evening?”
He heard a giggle, “I don’t think so!”
By now he was comfortable enough to say, “Come on. Don’t you think this is unfair? You get to see me, but not the other way around?”
“Derek, the point is are you having a good time?”
“Yes, but I think it would be a better time if I could see you.”
She giggled again. “No it won’t. It would be a regular date. This is special. Isn’t it?”
He nodded in pretentious exasperation. He heard the clinging sounds of the cutlery and a few seconds later, the door opened and shut. “Are you there?”, he asked.
“I am. I just put the dirty dishes outside”, as he heard the footsteps come back towards the table.
“Now what?”, she asked.
“Well, you planned this whole thing. So you tell me what next. Looks like I am just the puppet in the hands of the puppeteer”, he joked.
“But a live puppet, who seems to be enjoying the show?”, she asked.
He nodded again in complete agreement. They spent more time talking and giggling.
Finally she helped him walked him back to his room again in a maze, lead him through his door and said, “You may open your eyes when you hear the phone ring.” The phone rang a few minutes later and he opened his blindfold and took a few seconds to get used to the brightness around him and picked it up after a few rings.
“Yes. Derek, thank you for a wonderful evening. It turned out much better than I had thought.”
“Thank you too he said. This is the first time I have had such an amazing evening. I have had different experience, but not one that has been so long and intense. It was great.” They talked together for two hours after and finally when she began to sound a bit sleepy, he asked one last time, “Tell me who you are. Please.”
She giggled and said, “Good night Derek”.
Before she could disconnect, he asked, “Hey, am I going to see you again?”
“May be. Wait for my call at 6 PM tomorrow.”
“Why so late?”
“Because I would like to explore St. Thomas and I will be back only at the end of the day.”
“Can’t we not do it together?”, he asked longingly. He wasn’t sure if he was on a rebound already.
“No, Derek. The whole fun is in the waiting. Isn’t it?”
They both fell asleep with big smiles on their faces but in blissful exhaustion.
The cruise docked at St. Thomas at 8 AM. Anya woke up at 7:30 and jumped in the shower and headed for breakfast. She couldn’t help notice the ship that was docked just beside theirs. “A striking similarity between the ships”, she thought as she heard the announcement on the PA system that their sister ship, King of the ocean was docked there too and to pay attention while boarding. The man went on to say that there would be enough signs and staff to direct guests to the right ship. At breakfast, she peered through her sun glasses to find Derek, but there was no sign of him. She packed her change of clothing, a beach towel, sunscreen, her book, her cruise ID card and her driver’s license into her backpack and she left the ship smiling ear to ear. St. Thomas was beautiful. Warm weather, beautiful people, lovely beaches, laid back town. It buzzed with tourists hopping on taxis to take scuba diving tours, snorkeling tours, jet skiing tours and shopping tours. She took a taxi to Megan beach and found herself a nice spot to sunbathe. 45 minutes later, she decided it was time to swim. As she began to walk towards the waters, she spotted a familiar face. Her heart skipped a beat to see her look-alike in a bathing suit walking towards her. This wasn’t a chance she was going to miss. She waved to her and said, “Hey, I know you. You are from Chicago, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I remember you too”, she said.
“I am Anya”, she stretched her hand out.
“I am Danica”.
Anya and Danica spent the rest of their time chatting about each other and their lives and how they thought about each other and their similar looks. Anya realized how even Danica’s voice was similar to hers. Danica was a couple of years younger and was an architect. Like Anya, Danica was single. She was fresh out of University and had her first job offer from a small company in downtown Chicago, but had decided to take a vacation before starting work. It was supposed to have been a trip for her mom and her to take together, but her mom slipped and fractured her arm two days before cruise and could not make it. Unlike Anya, Danica was right now in between relationships. The two of them really enjoyed each other’s company so much that it was already 3 pm and they were still playing on the beach, chatting about life and simply making the best use of their vacation time. Anya talked to Danica like she knew her from her kindergarten days, but Anya chose to keep the Derek story out, lest Danica thinks she is crazy. Anya realized that Danica was truly adventurous. She went alone on hiking tours to the Andes, backpacking in Europe and scuba diving in Maldives.
At 3:20, out of the blue Anya said to Danica, “Hey, I have an idea. Do you want to have some fun for the next 6 days before you return to normal life back home?” Anya decided it wasn’t time to speculate about the future and Danica was ever ready for fun. They found the nearest washroom and exchanged bathing suits, hats and sunglasses. They switched backpacks and told each other where to find important documents. At 4 pm, they were on the docks waiting to board each other’s cruises! Anya walked past security with Danica’s id and cruise ID. As she crossed security, she peeped outside and gave Danica a wave. Her heart was pounding. This is perhaps the biggest adventure of her life. She walked around the ship before heading to her room on the fifth floor. The room was tiny and had a look out window. Danica really liked jewelry, clothes and shoes. The closet had beautiful brand name clothing. Beside the mirror were matching jewelry and high end make up. Anya was thrilled because she grew up frugal and had limited choice of clothing. She was a child in a candy store. She could not help giggle at what Danica would think of her wardrobe.
Danica on the other hand loved Anya’s suite room. A room with a balcony? Wow… This is a treat she thought. She looked into the wardrobe, picked up the best dress and got ready for formal dinner that night. Anya’s choice of perfume seemed to be Happy by Clinique. She looked in the mirror and wondered if people could tell her apart from Anya. She walked confidently to the dining room on deck 6 and was greeted by a friendly African-american woman, whose name tag read, “Jaclyn Crown”. She quickly said, “Hi Jaclyn”
Jaclyn responded, “Hi Anya, Did you forget? You can call me Jackie.”
“I am sorry Jackie. Must be the sun in St. Thomas!”, she laughed.
As she looked around for her table, she felt a small tug from behind. “What are you waiting for Anya? It is the same table as last night. Go sit down and I will be with you in a minute”, said a stout man from the Philippines. She appeared to be walking graciously, but in reality she was trying to figure out her table. Finally she spotted it and went and sat down with a smile. A few minutes later, she felt a tap on her shoulder, “Hello M, you didn’t think I would find you did you?”, said a handsome stranger. “It’s your perfume that gave it away”, he smiled.