Uncharted Waters (Getaway collection)
Today’s Challenge: Speak Your Truth
Welcome aboard the Lady Emerald, shipmates. On behalf of myself, our staff, and our crew, I’d like to tell you how delighted we are to be spending the next week with you.”
Captain Leo beamed. He looked fit and distinguished in his merchant navy uniform and hat. If not for his greying moustache and weathered skin, he could have been mistaken for a twentysomething, rather than a sixtysomething. It was the first day of the seven-day island hop of the Whitsunday Islands in northeastern Australia, and the eight eager-faced new residents of the Lady Emerald lounged on the white U-shaped sofa on the upper deck, ostensibly for the safety briefing, but in practice for Captain’s pep talk about life.
“The first and most important thing I have to tell you is that your time on the Lady is not a vacation; it’s a voyage. A time to cast off the moorings and hoist the mainsail of your life . . .”
The charter was pitched as “a wellness retreat on water,” and Captain started every charter by talking about the Lady’s transformative powers. (His wife, Joyce, also one of the yacht’s chefs, said he was a stifled yogi.) It was Ella’s sixth time aboard the Lady now, and she and Mac had agreed that while the wellness part wasn’t exactly in their wheelhouse, a little self-reflection was worth it in exchange for the luxury escape.
Mac had first heard about the charter six years ago, while removing a basal cell carcinoma from a patient’s neck. The patient, a middle-aged stockbroker with a practically adolescent-aged third wife, had waxed lyrical about the weeklong escape as Mac performed the surgery, and by the time he was suturing, Mac had all but paid the deposit.
“I’ve seen countless people step onto this yacht feeling rudderless, drifting from point to point in their lives, and just a few days later they are transformed, hoisting their spinnakers with confidence, captains of their own lives . . .”
It was Ella’s first time on the Lady without Mac, a last-minute, unwelcome change after Mac’s business partner, Jerry, had chosen yesterday to fall off his bike and break two bones in his leg. As the only other dermatologist at the clinic, and with patients requiring urgent attention, Mac had no choice but to man the fort. Ella had assumed this meant neither of them would go, until Mac pointed out that they weren’t going to get their money back and said it would be a waste for both of them to miss out.
Ella was embarrassed to realise that she was nervous about this. She was a nearly forty-year-old woman, after all, and how hard could lying around on a yacht in a bikini really be? Ella often heard herself described as articulate, intelligent, aloof—a genius cover, she thought, for the fact that she was actually uncertain, hesitant, befuddled. One of the things she loved about Mac was the social lubrication he provided. It wasn’t that they were codependent, exactly, but as a child-free-by-choice couple, they had a particular closeness born of being each other’s everything. But for the next few days, Ella was on her own.
“Like any transformation, it will feel difficult at times,” Captain said. “Out of your comfort zone. I’m going to ask you to lean into this discomfort. Nothing worthwhile happens in the comfort zone.”
Ella had to withhold a smile at the suggestion that anyone could feel discomfort on the Lady, with its eight-metre infinity pool, its soothing bleached-oak panelling and mother-of-pearl interior, its vast array of water toys, and its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking aquamarine seas. As for the transformation Captain promised, Ella couldn’t say she’d ever experienced it. (Although Mac had once left with the intention of becoming a pescatarian. It lasted until they got to the airport to fly home and he ordered a Big Mac.)
“All right. Time to get to know each other. Why don’t we go around introducing ourselves, and tell the group a little bit about yourself? Ella, you’re practically family around here, why don’t you start?”
“All right.” Ella attempted to cover her radiating discomfort by untying and retying the straps of her bikini. “I’m Ella. I’m a chartered accountant, and as Captain said, I’m a returning guest on the Lady.”
“Care to do my taxes while you’re here?” one guest asked her, with a guffaw that suggested he thought it was the funniest, most original joke ever.
Ella shrugged. “Why not? Anything to make this trip a business expense.”
There was a brief pause where the man looked uncertain.
“Kidding!” She smiled. Ella wasn’t much of a jokester, but she had come to understand (thanks to Mac) that humour was the fastest way to create connection among strangers. “I have no plans to work this week. My husband, Mac, will be doing enough of that for both of us. A last-minute work crisis, which is why I’m here alone.”
“Such is the life of a doctor,” Captain said.
They continued with the introductions. There was Magnus and Karl, thirtysomething Danish newlyweds on their honeymoon who seemed to have multiple jobs (and after a lengthy discussion about their work, Ella still couldn’t quite decipher what any of them were). There was Stephanie—who appeared to be in her midsixties and who had just finished treatment for breast cancer—and her adult daughter, Vanessa. Stephanie called it a YOLO trip, which Ella smiled at (mostly because Stephanie explained that it stood for You Only Live Once, and Ella had always wondered).
There was Jonathan and Meera, investment bankers from Sydney who had spent most of the first hour on board trying to get an internet signal. (They confessed during introductions that part of the reason that they took this charter was because their therapists had advised that they needed a digital detox.) Meera, Ella had already noticed, was the type who liked to tell you the kind of person she was. Since setting foot on board just an hour and a half ago, Ella had overheard her start four sentences with the words “I’m the kind of person who . . .”
Lastly, there was Chloe, a nurse who, like Ella, was from Melbourne. Chloe was here “to recover from a broken heart.” Ella had to admit, she’d found this admission endearing. A good thing, since Ella, as the only other guest attending alone, was likely to be paired up with her for dinner and water activities.
It was a diverse group, which Ella liked. One of the things she and Mac had appreciated about these “by the cabin” charters was that there was a variety of rooms at different price points—from the VIP cabins to the single-bunk rooms. This, they thought, was quite egalitarian, allowing a wider swath of people to experience the Lady than it otherwise might have.
“All right,” Captain said. “Today’s challenge is to use your voice. Speak your truth. Say something out loud that you wouldn’t normally say. Maybe it’s something you’re shy about, or an opinion you don’t usually feel comfortable expressing? Maybe it’s a truth that you’ve been afraid to say out loud.”
Captain’s gaze travelled across the faces of the guests until it became clear that he meant they were to do it now. If Mac were here, he would have made a joke to settle the tension. Ella hadn’t realised how much she relied on him to do that. Spending most of her days with numbers and spreadsheets, Ella didn’t get to exercise the small-talk muscle as much as she should have. As such, she tended to avoid socialising, preferring instead to spend time just at home with Mac.
“All right, I’ll go,” Chloe, the nurse, said finally. “Tom, the guy that I came to get over? He was married.”
She shrugged, and Ella felt struck, not by the admission but by the quiet vulnerability it took to make it. Also, by her poise. The way she seemed ashamed of the act but not herself, aware of her failings while also certain of her right to be here. It was, Ella thought, a rare and lovely thing.
“He was the one who told me about this charter,” Chloe continued. “When things ended between us, I thought, What the heck? I’ll take myself.”
“Good for you,” Ella said.
The rest of the group reacted largely with indifference, apart from Meera, who seemed appalled. Her husband, Jonathan, put a preemptive hand on her arm, but even he didn’t appear to hold out much hope that Meera wouldn’t say her piece. He glanced around nervously at the other guests.
“Well,” she said, “I’m not the kind of person who could ever date a married man.”
Chloe nodded, unbothered. “I know. That’s what I thought too.”
Chloe was, Ella noticed now, very beautiful. The kind of beautiful that you didn’t notice at first, but then suddenly it knocked you over. She was small and shapely, with blue eyes and freckles that made her look childlike, though she must have been in her midthirties. Her teeth were pleasantly, ever-so-slightly crooked; her chestnut hair was full and lush, running halfway down her back, with bangs.
“Haven’t you ever done anything you never thought you’d do?” Chloe asked.
“No,” Meera said.
“What if Jonathan was married when you met him?” Chloe asked Meera. “Or . . . what if Karl was?” she said to Magnus. “Or if Mac was?” she said to Ella. “Would you have been able to walk away from them?”
There was a moment of quiet as everyone, Ella included, contemplated this.
When no one replied right away, Meera looked victorious. “Of course they would.”
Chloe’s gaze landed on Ella. Ella wasn’t entirely clear on why she did what she did next. Perhaps it was because she hated Meera’s bland, holier-than-thou sense of justice? Perhaps it was because she saw an opportunity to take Captain’s challenge and speak her truth? Or perhaps it had something to do with Chloe, and the fact that Ella found herself wanting to make a connection with her.
“Actually, my husband was married,” Ella said. “And I didn’t walk away either.”
On her eighth birthday, after Ella blew out the candles on her cake, her grandmother had asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“Married,” Ella had replied without a second thought.
She hadn’t understood the raucous laughter that followed, and to be honest, she still didn’t. Yes, most people cited a career in response to this question, but to her, that was the answer that warranted a laugh. Yes, Ella wanted to have a career, but she didn’t want to be one. She also wanted a home and nice things, but she didn’t want to be them.
But marriage was different. Something to embody rather than have. She was bolstered by company, camaraderie. She liked to know she had someone to rely on. Even during school, she liked it best when she had just one closest friend to call her own. She was her best self with a cheerleader. Put simply, she was best when she was part of a pair. A terribly unfeminist thing to say, but that was how she felt.
Her parents trotted out the story at every birthday and function of Ella’s childhood, and eventually, in her father’s speech at her wedding to Mac. In her reply speech, she’d said she had a small amendment to make to her eight-year-old answer. She didn’t simply want to be married.
She wanted to be married to Mac.
|September 4, 2022
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