|Primary Characters:||Paolo, John|
|Description:||Paolo meets the lady of his dreams. But she’s not what she seems to be, and when he learns the truth, they’re both hurt. It’s up to the doctor to put things in perspective.|
On his way to see the captain, Will passed the bar. As usual, he found Paolo at work serving drinks and charming the customers. Today, there were two in particular who seemed to be there solely because of the brown eyes of the bartender. One was a tall, slender latino girl that Will thought would be exactly Paolo’s type. The other one – here Will had to smother a rather spiteful grin – was a guy.
Will knew it was petty of him, but it did rather irritate him how easy it was for Paolo to connect with women. If he stopped for a few moments, he could watch how Paolo dealt with the unwanted attention. The captain would have to wait a few minutes.
“Another one, please. Paolo -“
“Coming right up.”
Will could see how Paolo and the latino lady exchanged glances. Hot, smouldering glances. By now, Will was beginning to regret his decision to watch Paolo in action. If he got on with his work, maybe he’d run into some dark-eyed beauty and get lucky too. The air between Paolo and that lady was charged. You could almost see the sparks fly. Will’s thoughts were interrupted by Paolo. He hadn’t even noticed that his friend was standing there.
“What will it be, pal?”
“Something cold. It’s hot today.”
“Sure is. Ok. How about a lemon-squash with lots of ice?”
“Yes. Alright. I’m on my way to see the captain.”
“No. Just routine stuff. But you know the captain.”
Yes. Everyone aboard the Sun Princess knew their captain by now. Despite his rather over-formal beginnings, passengers and crew alike, appreciated his dry, uptight manners.
“Here you go. As cool as they come.”
Lowering his voice slightly, Will leaned closer to the counter and held his friend’s gaze.
“Why don’t you introduce me to your new friend? In fact, both of them.”
At the mention of his persistent male admirer, Paolo’s smile faded a little.
“The lovely lady over there is Donna. And my buddy here is Fred.”
“Fred, huh? He seems – nice.”
“Yeah. He is. Weren’t you going to see the captain, Will?”
“Oh. Yes. Thanks for the drink, pal.”
Paolo watched Will walk away with an absent look on his face. Donna really was a stunningly beautiful woman. But Fred was one of the most persistent admirers of the wrong kind that Paolo had ever encountered. On the other hand, there was nothing rude or overly familiar about the guy’s approach. Besides, a job was a job. Unless the customer resorted to flagrantly abusive behavior, there was no choice for the bar manager but to grin and bear whatever might be in store for him.
“Another one, por favor.”
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough, Fred? No offense. You’ve been here since five p m and it’s close to 9 now. If you don’t hurry, you’ll miss the last dinner.”
“Oh, I’ll just have a few snacks here. I’m not really hungry.”
“Ok. It’s your loss. All meals and drinks are included in the price you paid for your cruise.”
“I know. Raincheck, ok? It’s the first night, and I had a late lunch before boarding.”
“Whatever you say.”
Donna made a discreet hand signal, and Paolo sprang to attention.
“Excuse me, Fred. I have to see to the other customers.”
“Hello again. Can you get me a Margherita?”
“No problem. So, Donna – Where are you from?”
“Colorado. At least that’s where I grew up. Now I live in Florida.”
“Ah. Lovely place.”
“A bit hot. But yes, I’m quite happy there all in all.”
“Where is your family from, I mean originally?”
“Cuba. My parents came over in the early 80’s.”
“Do you have many brothers or sisters?”
“I wish I did. Are you close?”
A funny look flew over Donna’s exquisite face. Paolo couldn’t quite read it.
“Oh. So, is this your first cruise?”
“Yes. I just felt I had to get away for a while.”
“I know the feeling. What do you do for a living?”
Again, Donna’s eyes expressed a wariness, that Paolo found difficult to understand.
“I’m an actress and a model.”
“Really? That’s interesting.”
“No. Not really. Just like any other job, it tends to get boring and tiresome, after a while.”
“I suppose you’re right. Not that I have anything to complain of. This job is great. You get to meet so many interesting people. And you get to be quite a listener, and a philosopher too.”
About there, the conversation was abandoned in favor of more deep eye-gazing. This went on for an immeasurable time, but was cut short by another request for attention from Fred.
With a sigh, Paolo tore himself away to inquire what Fred wanted. Or rather what he was asking for out loud.
“Look, pal. I really think you’ve had enough. The bar isn’t going anywhere and neither am I. How about you return tomorrow?”
“Oh, I’ll be here. But for now, could you get me a soda? I need to clear my head a little.”
“No problem. There.”
Fred fixed Paolo with a bloodshot gaze.
“To this cruise. And to adventure and meaningful meetings.”
“Hear, hear. Now I’m closing up. See you tomorrow.”
“How about a nightcap in my cabin? All three of us, naturally.
Fred looked around as if to include Donna in the invitation.”
Paolo searched his mind for a nice way of refusing, when he heard Donna nervously clearing her throat.
“Thanks, but I really need to get going.”
“Some other time, ok, Fred? Like I said, I have to close up and there’s some other business I need to take care of. But I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The disappointment in Fred’s voice caused a momentary stab of guilt in Paolo, but he told himself that leading Fred on would be even more cruel.
Now the unwelcome admirer got up and shuffled off. The man could hold his liquor, Paolo thought to himself. But he couldn’t really focus on anything but the alluring Donna. He turned around to find that Donna had been slow in departing.
She was just picking up her purse and straightened up. The deep red of her dress was very becoming, and brought out the dark brown of her eyes very prettily. Suddenly, Paolo knew he didn’t want to see her go.
Her voice was low and deep, and very pleasant to listen to. Paolo felt he could easily become addicted to the sound of it.
“Would you like to go dancing tonight?”
There was a slight pause during which Donna appeared to be considering his request most sincerely. She had a very endearing, shy look on her face, that Paolo just loved.
“I thought you had to close up the bar.”
She was going to refuse. Paolo felt an overwhelming sense disappoinment.
“Please. The band’s still playing, and the night’s still young. Didn’t you say you needed to get away from the drudgery of every day life? What could be more different and relaxing than a little dancing?”
With a shy, reluctant smile Donna appeared to make up her mind.
“I suppose I might. Just a few dances.”
“If you’re concerned about your feet, don’t be. I’ve never had any complaints.”
“I’m sure you’re a wonderful dancer. Alright.”
“Just a second. This won’t take long.”
Paolo hurriedly put away the last bottles and glasses, wiped off the counter and locked the cocktail cabinet. He knew he ought to stack the bar stools behind the counter, but was too eager to get going to want to waste any more time.
With a sad smile, Donna allowed Paolo to escort her to the ballroom.
Donna both mystified and fascinated Paolo. There was something puzzlingly sad in her eyes, that Paolo wanted to explore, in the hopes of turning the sadness into something approaching happiness. He was sure that if he got to know Donna better, he’d penetrate to the heart of the enigma associated with her.
They arrived late, and the dance floor was nearly empty. Only two other couples were still dancing, and the band was playing a few slow tunes, meant for very close dancing. Paolo bowed and placed one arm around Donna’s slender waist, leading her out onto the floor. She was wonderfully pliant in his arms.
They were evenly matched, and to Paolo it was a new sensation to look directly into his partner’s eyes. Donna really was tall. The band played another song, and Paolo felt even closer to Donna than he had at the beginning of the evening. Slowly, the distance between their faces closed, and their cheeks made contact. She was wearing a scent that Paolo was unfamiliar with, but it caressed his nostrils in a very pleasant way.
The band leader took the microphone and announced that the next dance would be the last of the evening.
Paolo almost cried out in frustratation. He was just getting to know Donna, and now they’d have to part. Something told him that this was a true lady, and even if he’d been ruthless enough to insist on joining her in her room for a nightcap, or however the excuse was phrased, she wouldn’t take kindly even to the suggestion. With an effort, Paolo mastered his disappointment. For tonight. The cruise had just begun.
They walked off the dance floor, and out into the corridor.
“What deck are you on?”
“Five. But you don’t have to come all that way. Paolo, thank you for a wonderful evening. You’ve made this first night really special.”
“I’m the one who owes you thanks. This has been a very special night for me too.”
At this late hour, they had the lounge all to themselves. Even the last stragglers had apparently returned to their cabins. Paolo was seized with a passion more violent than ever before. He pulled Donna into his arms, and closed the distance between their lips.
At first Donna lay immobile and breathless in his arms. When their lips met, and Paolo’s tongue entered her mouth, a shudder shook Donna’s body, and displaying surprising strength, she pushed him away. Before Paolo could react, she tore herself free from his arms, and fled towards the nearest stairs.
“Donna. I didn’t mean to come on so strong. Please, forgive me -“
He was calling out to her rapidly receding back. Paolo couldn’t help notice what sensational legs she had. They seemed to reach up to her neck. Now that the rush of passion was abating, Paolo was angry with himself for his insensitivity. Many latino girls were raised very strictly as he well knew. He should have known better than to rush her. Though he had thought Donna felt the same way he did.
On his way back to his cabin, he wondered about how old Donna might be. Normally, he was attracted to older women, well, frankly to all kinds of women, but mainly older women. Donna had seemed to be in her mid-twenties. Surely that was grown up enough to know what she was doing? Promising himself to make up for his behavior the following day, Paolo tried to put the matter behind him for the night.
When doc Morgan showed up at his surgery next morning, he was surprised to see he had a patient already. It was the beautiful lady the doc had seen Paolo with most of yesterday evening. Not to mention the same lady Will had been raving about all day.
A ship is in many ways a small village. News – and gossip – travels fast. The doc had already heard a number of wildly speculative stories about the relationship between their favorite bar manager and the lovely young woman who was now nervously twirling a pendant on a chain around her neck, waiting to be admitted to the surgery.
“Hello. What can I do for you?”
The lady looked around in a somewhat furtive manner, and the doc responded by tactfully and discreetly let the lady into his sickbay.
“Please sit down. Nothing serious, I hope?”
“I’m not sick. There’s just something I need your help with. Oh. My name is Donna Morales.”
“I’m doctor Morgan. John Morgan. Oh. I guess it says so on the little name tag.”
The doctor blushed vividly at his own awkwardness. No wonder this extremely attractive lady preferred Paolo. On the other hand, the doc did like being able to look into a woman’s eyes when he was talking to her. As it was, he found himself staring right at Donna’s bosom. With an effort, he tore his gaze away from the tempting sight.
If Donna noticed the doctor’s confusion, she gave no sign of it. Instead, she brought out a piece of paper, which revealed itself to be a prescription. For – As the meaning of what he was reading sunk in, the doctor looked up at his patient with a stunned expression on his face. He realized how his behavior could be interpreted and tried to suppress his surprise.
“I – see. Very well. Do you have the – uh – medication with you?”
“Yes. I have it here. My doctor says that I can inject myself, but I was hoping you could help me.”
“Of course. Shall we?”
Donna held out a slender arm for the doctor to inject the drug into.
“Are you sure you want needle marks on the arm? I could -“
Again, the poor doctor was overcome with embarrassment and broke off in mid-sentence.
“No. Actually, I’d prefer it if you’d inject me somewhere that won’t show in ordinary day clothes or evening wear.”
“What about bathing suits, that sort of thing?”
Doc Morgan was struggling to keep his professional detachment. After all, despite the slightly unusual nature of Donna’s condition, this was a patient like any other.
This time it was the patient who felt deeply uncomfortable, and the doctor cursed his own insensitivity. His words might have been misconstrued as prying.
“I’m sorry – Didn’t mean to -“
“It’s perfectly alright, doctor. Until I have the surgery, I prefer not to wear anything that revealing. So it shouldn’t be so hard to find a spot that is less conspicuous than my arm. As long as you’re comfortable with it, doctor.”
“Why wouldn’t I be? Let’s see. How about the inside of the thigh? Since you don’t wear swimsuits.”
“That would be fine. Thank you, doctor.”
“Would you like to -“
Still furiously blushing, the doctor placed his hand under the slender leg that Donna put on the desk. After some fumbling with the dress, doc Morgan found a spot that was fleshy enough to plunge the needle in.
“There. Will you be needing my help again?”
“No. At this time I only need the injection once a week. If I’d had the money, I could have undergone the surgery this fall when I return. But I can’t afford it yet. So I’m just maintaining the treatment while I wait for the surgery.”
“I see. Donna – I shouldn’t even mention this, but Paolo’s a good friend of mine. The entire ship noticed how the two of you were – Did you tell him – I mean -“
“I know what you mean. Doc – please don’t tell Paolo about me. I’ll tell him myself. But I just wanted to -“
“I understand. Please don’t think that I feel I can butt into your affairs -“
The doctor broke off, embarrassed again. Unfortunate choice of words.
“You don’t have to apologize. And believe me, I’m not trying to take advantage of Paolo. This cruise has just been a dream come true. Everyone treats me like a lady. Back home – At work, everyone knows about me.”
“Yes. I quite see how wonderful this must be. Well, if you don’t need my help anymore, I suppose I might get on with my work.”
“Of course. Thank you for your help, doctor. And the chat. Don’t worry about Paolo. I’ll talk to him soon.”
When the door closed behind the unusual patient, the doc remained deep in thought. Paolo was attracted to a transexual. Perhaps he ought to warn his friend, but the doctor felt it would be unfair to Donna. Let her have her moment in the sun.
From his med school days, doc Morgan remembered studying about transexuals, and even talking to a few sex change operation patients. The pain of being an outsider, of being a female soul trapped in a male body had been very tangible. As a guy who found it all but impossible to find a date, the doc could relate to that pain.
When Paolo woke up that morning, he had a warm feeling of anticipation. Today, he was going to see Donna. He had a hunch something wonderful was going to happen during this cruise. On his way to work, Paolo even whistled a song. Though he was unaware of it, the song was Donna by Richie Valens.
At this early hour, he didn’t expect to have many customers, and to begin his expectaction was correct. For the first hour or so, no one came by, and he took the opportunity of tidying up a bit, which he had neglected to see to the night before. He was half-expecting Fred to show up, but to Paolo’s intense relief, the man didn’t put in an appearance at all that day. Regretfully, neither did Donna.
The day turned out to be just another average work day aboard the Sun Princess. Customers coming and going, drinks to be served, and pleasent conversation to dispense among the customers.
After lunch, Fred was back, still hopeful, still embarrassingly single-minded in his attention. Paolo stifled a sigh. Just another day at work behind the bar.
To Paolo’s surprise, Fred actually left to have dinner around 7. At that time, things got a little slower, and Paolo had time to catch his breath. When he turned around, he found that Donna had silently approached the bar, and sat down at the end of the counter.
“Donna – there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
“Would you like to join me for dinner? Let me make up for my unforgivable behavior last night. I honestly didn’t mean to rush you like that.”
“That’s quite alright.”
“So, how about it? You haven’t had dinner already?”
“No, I haven’t. Actually, I hadn’t planned on having any today. I’m not really hungry.”
“You haven’t tried cook’s seafood special.”
Donna smiled enigmatically, and appeared to give Paolo’s suggestion some thought.
“Excellent. I’ll just make arrangements to have someone watch the bar.”
Three minutes later, Paolo was walking along the promenade, Donna at his side. He could feel every man’s envious stare following him. Donna was the most attractive lady on this ship. Paolo knew that beyond any doubt. And he was the lucky guy who was escorting her to dinner.
Just in case they’d fall under the captain’s critical gaze, Paolo chose the smaller, more intimate dining room, where the captain never set foot during the cruises.
Gallantly, Paolo pulled out Donna’s chair, and waited for her to gracefully sit down. Not until he’d made sure his lady was comfortably seated, did Paolo grab a chair for himself. It felt wonderful being the center of attention of the entire dining room. His co-workers would be watching, discussing them, envying him.
The rush of excitement made Paolo’s eyes shine with an inner glow. He didn’t know it, but he’d never looked more handsome. This was more than a casual attraction. Far more. If things went the way he hoped, he knew he would ask Donna to marry him.
After an inquiring glance at Donna, Paolo ordered for them both. Not until their plates were before them on the table, did their conversation resume.
It seemed to Paolo that Donna was distracted in some way. The effortless rapport they’d felt last night was gone. He wondered if there wasn’t something bothering her.
“Is anything wrong?”
The note of warm sympathy in his voice brought a reluctant smile to Donna’s sad features.
“Nothing. Not really.”
“Are you sure?”
“Paolo, I really don’t want to discuss my life with you right now. Let’s just eat together. This is so pleasant. The cruise, everything.”
Responding to the plea in Donna’s voice, Paolo changed the subject.
“Last night, you told me about your work. Have you been in any movies I might have seen? Or commercials or something?”
“I doubt that. My work really isn’t interesting. I wish I could do something aboard a ship. Never worrying about tomorrow. Just cruising back and forth on the ocean.”
“Yes. There’s something so soothing about the sea. Like all your worries wash away.”
Something about that image appeared to strike a chord inside Donna. There was an eagerness in her eyes that spoke to Paolo. Whatever Donna was going through in her everyday life, she desperately wanted to get away and start anew. Paolo wished he could be a part of that new life somehow.
When dinner was over, Paolo tried desperatately to find a way of holding on to Donna a little longer.
“Can I get you a drink?”
Again, he got the impression that Donna was going to refuse. He couldn’t quite figure out what was causing her reaction, but he was determined to gain her trust.
“Please. I’ll make you a Paolo special.”
This brought a brief smile to Donna’s face, and she seemed to reconsider.
“Alright. Why not?”
Paolo was filled with a jubilant feeling. She was going to come with him. He’d still have time to win her over. While he’d been talking to Donna, Paolo had discreetly looked over her hands. No ring. She wasn’t married or engaged. And in the time they’d known each other, she hadn’t once mentioned any significant other. It seemed more or less certain that she was single.
Paolo suspected that she’d had some failed relationship, maybe with a man who had treated her badly. He was determined to be gentle, to give Donna time to adjust to the new relationship.
To Paolo’s intense relief, there weren’t any big crowds awaiting his return to the bar. And best of all, Fred appeared to have given up. He let the bartender who had been filling in for him take his break, and sent for a new guy to assist him. That way, Paolo reasoned, he’d have plenty of time to sit down at the table where he’d left Donna, and continue their conversation. With Donna over in a corner at a table, they’d have more privacy than right at the bar.
The table Paolo had chosen was tucked away behind a large plant arrangement, a mix of tropical and desert plants that would never thrive together in nature. Paolo had no idea whether the things were real or merely made from plastic. Botany was the last thing on his mind. His thoughts were more occupied with chemistry and basic biology.
Hurriedly, he mixed the drink he had called Paolo’s special. It had a small umbrella at the top, and there was a twist of lemon on the side. Inside the glass was a generous mix of fruit juices with a dash of gin.
“Here it is. The Paolo special. Especially created for you.”
“Would you mind if I sit down for a moment?”
“Not at all. But I thought you had to work?”
“Yes. But Craig’s holding down the fort for now.”
Donna pretended to be busy tasting the drink. Her act didn’t fool Paolo for a second. Why was she keeping him at arm’s length? He was pretty sure she felt the same way he did. Her behavior was inexplicable. Though if she had been involved with an abusive boyfriend earlier, her reaction might not be so hard to understand, after all. Paolo decided that it was time to discuss earlier relationships, if only briefly.
“Donna? I hope you won’t consider this too much of an imposition. Every time I get close, you shy away. Am I wrong in assuming you feel the same attraction I do? If I am, then I’ll go away and leave you alone. The last thing I want is to force my attentions on you.”
“Do you feel the same way I do?”
Donna looked like a cornered animal, and Paolo wondered who had caused the pain in her eyes. He’d like to confront that man and have it out with him once and for all. All his protective instincts rose up to the surface, and he wanted to hold Donna and tell her how much he loved her. Maybe that sentiment was visible in his eyes. The look in Donna’s eyes lost some of the haunted look.
“This isn’t a good idea, Paolo. You don’t understand -“
“Then make me understand. I’m listening.”
Again, Paolo had the impression that Donna was struggling with herself, and in the end, he felt that she was giving up.
“Yes, Paolo. I feel the same way. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt like this.”
Then why wasn’t she smiling? But Paolo was far too happy to have heard her say what she’d just said. He moved closer, and took her hand in his, raising it to his lips. She didn’t snatch her hand back, and encouraged by this, Paolo moved closer still, and their lips met in a kiss at once more passionate and more tender than the one last night.
Paolo could feel himself react in a way he knew he’d have to master and subdue. This was still a work day, and if the captain – This proved to be the best remedy. Suddenly, he had his body under control. But he was still reluctant to break the kiss. At that moment, he felt Donna begin to struggle against him, and pull herself free.
“Paolo, I’m sorry. I never meant for this to happen.”
That was his line. What was Donna apologizing for? Besides, Paolo didn’t regret a thing, except rushing Donna again. This time, though, he was more sure of himself. She had definitely wanted the same thing.
“You’re telling me you’re sorry. Why?”
“Paolo, there’s something I have to tell you.”
“Alright. Go ahead, I’m listening.”
“My name isn’t Donna.”
“Oh? Then what is it? Something more Hispanic? That’s ok. I understand. Dolores?”
“No. It’s Dominic.”
Her words didn’t make sense. Dominic? But that was a – For a few seconds, Paolo’s mind refused to work out the implications of what he’d just learned. Looking at Donna’s face, he knew she’d just told him something of vital importance. Yet he couldn’t seem to grasp her meaning. Then it hit him and he couldn’t help pulling back.
His instinctive reaction caused Donna to flinch in pain, as if he had struck her. And that was what he wanted to do. Not her. Him. This pervert had –
“Please, forgive me. I intended to tell you, but you were so -“
“You’re a guy?”
“No. I’m a woman. But I haven’t had the surgery yet, so -“
“But right now, you’re a guy?”
Paolo felt like an idiot repeating that word.
“Yes. I didn’t mean for things to get out of hand. If you hate me now, I understand.”
Still unable to believe what he was hearing, Paolo got up from the table, intending to run away from this – It had all been a lie. A cruel, sick deception.
“You kissed me.”
Without realizing what he was doing, Paolo moved his hand to his lips, as if trying to wipe them clean.
Donna’s beautiful eyes filled with tears. She too, got up, and Paolo took another step backwards, as if he was afraid she was – no, he – was going to touch him.
That was all Donna could take. She turned on her heel and ran. Paolo made no move to stop her. He had to think. How could this have happened? In all the years since he’d first starting dating, since his first kiss at 13, he’d never found himself in a situation like this. If anyone had suggested to him that he couldn’t tell the difference between a guy and a girl, he would have laughed.
Now he knew it was never that easy. But that didn’t stop him from feeling betrayed. Violated. The revulsion he felt made him nauseous. He had to get out. Craig could handle the bar. Right now, Paolo couldn’t care less about his job.
In his desperation, he almost ran into doc Morgan on the way out. Normally, Paolo wouldn’t have acted this rudely, but he wanted to be alone, and he was about to push past the doctor without even apologizing. To his astonishment, the little man wouldn’t let him pass. There was an angry look on the doctor’s face and he seemed determined to stop Paolo.
“I just saw Donna running away, crying her eyes out. Did you have anything to do with that?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, John. Leave me alone. I have to -“
“Oh, but I think I do. You hurt her feelings, and you had no right -“
“Right? Right? After what that sick bastard did to me -“
“You think it’s all so easy, don’t you? A great looking guy like you can have any girl you want. What if things aren’t that easy? If you can’t get a date no matter what? I mean, what if you’re different? You know you’re different, but everyone else just sees that you’re the same, except deficient. Flawed. What would you do? Accept that you’re going to be alone for the rest of your life? Or do something about it? Donna’s a brave woman. She’s doing something to change her life. And what do you do? You play with her emotions, and when you find out that the truth wasn’t as pretty as you liked to think, you throw them right back in her face.”
Throughout the lecture, Paolo had remained silent, stunned by the doctor’s outburst. In the time he’d known the little man, John had always seemed shy, and quiet. This was a new aspect of him that totally took Paolo by surprise. And the words were beginning to sink in.
Had Donna or Dominic taken advantage of him? No. Paolo had been the one who had initiated the contact, on both occasions. Looking back, Paolo remembered how Donna had tried her best to disentangle herself. Never had she thrown herself at him. This was all his own fault.
Maybe Dominic should have been honest from the start, but Paolo was beginning to see how that had been impossible. The doc was right. He had acted in an unforgivably cruel way, and he had no idea how he was going to make it up to Donna. Dominic. No, Donna. It was impossible to imagine calling the lovely apparation anything but her feminine name.
“You know what, doc? You’re absolutely right. I was acting like a real jerk. I’m ashamed of myself.”
“And so you should be. You have no idea what people like Donna are going through. In my training I’ve seen -“
“Yes, I understand. Excuse me. I have to go talk to her.”
“Do you think that’s such a good idea right now?”
“What are you talking about? I have to try and make things up to her before -“
“Yes. All in good time. Hold on a second. Let her calm down. I might not be able to get a date, but I am a doctor. I don’t think Donna wants to see you just yet.”
Maybe the doctor was right. Paolo reluctantly gave up. He’d see Donna later. There was work to do, and he knew that John would be able to comfort her better than he could right now.
“Alright. I guess you’re right. Please tell her how sorry I am. I was startled and this was the last thing I expected.”
“I suppose so. Ok. I’ll talk to Donna and try to make things right again. Well, as far as that’s possible now.”
Paolo got the impression that the doc was still blaming him for the whole thing, but he didn’t see how he could have guessed.
John had already noted Donna’s cabin number. Since meeting the lovely transexual that morning, she’d been on his mind. Her sad fate had touched him, and if there was anything he could do to ease her pain, he would. On this luxury cruise ship, few patients if any, made such an impression on him.
He raised his hand to knock on Donna’s cabin door, but let the hand fall down again. What would he say? Taking a few moments to consider this, he waited. But knowing what Donna must be going through in there, made him hurry his thinking along. He’d find the words once he’d managed to get Donna to open the door. This time, he didn’t hesitate.
There was no reply from inside the cabin and John called her name again. What if she wasn’t there? Could she have run out on deck or somewhere else? Who knew what she might do in her distress?
“Donna. It’s me, John. Doctor Morgan.”
“I want to be alone.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Please, let me in.”
Silence. Would she even consider his request? John was beginning to feel foolish, standing around out here like a jilted lover. But now he heard the key turning in the lock, and the door opened, revealing a distraught Donna, with mascara stripes on her face, and puffy, red eyes.
Not quite as lovely as she had been an hour before, but John could relate to what she was going through. Many times he had wished tears came more easily to him. That might have made him feel better whenever a beautiful lady refused to acknowledge his feelings for her.
“That’s better. I ran into Paolo after I’d met you on your way out.”
“He must hate me.”
“No. He doesn’t hate you. Right now, I think he hates himself for what he put you through. He wanted to go after you and apologize, but I convinced him you might need a while to compose yourself. But he asked me to tell you how sorry he is for treating you the way he did.”
“I see. But it really doesn’t matter. His reaction told me all I need to know. Not that I ever should have allowed myself to hope. Paolo couldn’t fall for another guy.”
“But you’re not another guy.”
“No. But I’m not the kind of woman he’s looking for either.”
There didn’t seem to be much to add to that. John didn’t think so either, though for a while he hoped against hope that Paolo might be able to overcome his prejudices and give Donna a fair chance. After the surgery, naturally.
“Would you mind if I sit down?”
Donna ineffectually dabbed at her tearstained face, and visibly straightened up.
“Of course. Forgive my bad manners. My mother would have -“
Yes, his mother would have told him many things, but most of all, she’d just have cried and begged him to reconsider all this nonsense. And his father and brothers –
“Yes. Don’t worry about it. Donna – I’m really sorry things had to turn out this way. But you have to understand Paolo too.”
“But I do. Who could understand him better than me? I grew up in a Latino family. Under other circumstances, I would have been Paolo. I’d never blame him for his reaction. But it hurt so much. For a second, I was Donna. Really was her. Not just pretending to be.”
“You won’t have to pretend for much longer. When you’ve made enough money for the surgery – “
“That’s just it, doc. You must know how much that costs. I was an orderly at a hospital. Sometimes I’ve worked in supermarkets. I never went to college, and the kind of work I can get just isn’t paying enough. So now – That’s another thing Paolo would never be able to accept. The kind of work I do.”
John waited, letting Donna’s sad story unfold without commenting.
“I’m a model, and an actress. Paolo asked me if he might have seen me in a commercial or a movie. I sure hope not. They’re not the kind of movies I can imagine Paolo watching. At least not now. Maybe when he was younger. But not the exact same kind I’m in. Do you see what I’m getting at, doc?”
“I think so.”
But he didn’t. Not really. If Donna hadn’t had the surgery yet, but was taking her hormones, wouldn’t that disqualify her for both types of adult movies John could envisage?
“If he knew, he’d spit in my face.”
“I doubt that. You’re doing what you have to do to save up money. I understand.”
At least he thought he did. He really couldn’t imagine being forced to degrade himself the way Donna was doing. His respect and admiration for this wonderful lady was increasing with everything he learned. To be so challenged, to have to humiliate herself so, yet still remain such a fine person, was worthy of far more recognition.
“Do you? Yes, maybe you do. But think about it, doc. How would you feel about a woman like me? I mean after the surgery, naturally. Wouldn’t you too turn away in disgust?”
He thought about that for a moment. Now that he’d met Donna and seen for himself that there was no difference at all, as far as he could tell, he didn’t think he would.
“No. I’m a doctor. If I didn’t have faith in medical science, where would I be? No matter how this hypothetical lady began her life, I’d give her a chance.”
John hadn’t been able to imagine anything of the kind, until very recently, but having said it, he knew it was the truth.
Donna had to smile, despite everything. John was such a sweet guy.
“Doc, I hope you’ll meet the lady of your dreams soon.”
“Thanks. I hope you meet mr Right soon too.”
Her smile faded as she remembered.
“Thanks, doc, but I already have. And I know he won’t ever see me that way.”
Sadly, that was most likely the truth, and John refrained from trying to offer any shallow consolation.
“At least you seem to be feeling better. Can I tell Paolo that you’ll let him talk to you some time later?”
Donna bit her lip, while she pondered this.
“I don’t know, doc. Do you really think it’s any use?”
“I can’t answer that. But if you ask me, I’d say give Paolo a chance to make it up to you. He’s a good guy. This was just a bit of a shock to him.”
“Yes. Of course. Alright, how can I give up a chance to see him again? Tell him he can come by after work, or tomorrow, whichever he prefers.”
“Ok. Will do. And cheer up, ok? You’re a very special lady.”
“Thanks, doc. You’re a really sweet guy.”
Donna wasn’t really surprised to find that Paolo was outside her door, knocking, asking to be allowed inside, only minutes after the bar’s closing time. But was she really ready to see him? Too late to worry about that now. He was there, and she’d had plenty of time for applying new makeup and fixing her hair.
“Yes. Come on in. It’s open.”
When Paolo walked in, he found Donna sitting in a chair by the small table over by the cabin wall.
“Donna – I’m really sorry I reacted the way I did.”
“Yes. The doctor told me what you’d said. It’s ok. I can’t think of any guy who wouldn’t have reacted that way. Please. Sit down.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to learn more about you. Anything you feel comfortable telling me.”
“Oh. Well, why not? You’re Latino too, so you’d know how your father would have reacted to anything like this.”
Yes. Paolo knew only too well. His cousin Esteban had been caught in a compromising situation with another boy, and Esteban’s father, Paolo’s uncle, had practically beaten his son to death that night. When Paolo had learned about it, at all of 8 years old, he had felt that Esteban must have committed some unforgivable sin for his father to react that way. Now the memory took on a chilling new meaning. And he knew far too well, that his own sex life would drive his mother to tears, and make her take refuge in her religion, praying for his soul.
“Yes. I know. But surely today -“
“No. My father hasn’t changed a bit since the 50’s. When he caught me trying out my mother’s shoes, when I was 5, he beat me so I could hardly walk for a week. At 11, I was found wearing a strand of pearls. He broke my arm. By the time I was 15 and knew I was doomed for all eternity, I had learned never to let myself be found out again. My brothers were watching me, trying to catch me out, but I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.”
Paolo felt his breath catch in his throat. He wanted to do something. To change what he knew was coming. And he could relate to the pain of being estranged from your own father, whatever the reason.
“My brother Mateo took me to a brothel to “make a man out of me”. I don’t know how I managed to do it, but I did. But afterwards Mateo looked at me strangely as if he found my performance faulty somehow. As soon as I graduated from high school, I left home. I haven’t seen my father or my brothers since. Not my mother either. She died four years ago, and she must have known then that her little Dominic would burn in hell, despite her best efforts.”
By now, Donna was close to tears again. But she forced herself to go on. She had never told anyone this much about her past. Her boyfriends weren’t interested in talking, and her few friends had enough on their plates, dealing with their own problems. Even if Paolo couldn’t be the man she wanted him to be, at least he was more kind and understanding than anyone, except doc Morgan.
“Well, I guess that’s it. Now you know more about me than anyone else. I’m still terrified that somehow my brothers or my father will find me. You know what they’d do. But they must have no idea where I am. I phoned my mother a few times, but I never told her where I was, and I doubt if she’d have mentioned those calls to anyone.”
“Donna – I know this isn’t what you wanted, but please hear me out. If you need a place to go at any time, come to my house. It’s empty most of the time, since I’m working here, but you’d be more than welcome. And if you need a friend – I’m here.”
Donna swallowed hard to stop the sobs from welling up in her parched throat. She didn’t want to cry anymore and waste what little time she had left with Paolo. Being friends wasn’t nearly enough, but it was far better than the hate she had expected, and that she might have deserved for leading Paolo on.
“I appreciate that, Paolo. You’re a wonderful man. One day you’ll make some woman very happy. I’m just not strong enough not to wish I was that woman.”
Paolo got up and walked over to Donna, and took her hand. Suddenly, he wanted to hold her and wipe those tears off her face and tell her no one would ever hurt her again. But he knew that he was one of the people who was causing her pain, without meaning to. So he contented himself with holding her hand.
“The cruise isn’t over yet. We could go dancing again. And we can talk. Any time you want. If you like, I’ll mix you more of those Paolo specials.”
They really did have a great time together in the days that were left until the cruise was over and all the passengers departed. On the last day, Paolo walked Donna to the gangway, carrying her luggage, making sure she got off the ship alright. He called her a cab, and gave her his phone number.
“Please, call me if you ever need anything. In fact, call me anyway. Let me know how you’re doing. And when you’ve had the surgery, we’ll get together. I can’t wait to see you again.”
“Do you really mean that, Paolo? I don’t want you to lie to me.”
“I mean it.”
And Paolo pulled her into his arms again, placing a warm kiss on her cheek. He held on to her for a long time, before letting go.
As the cab drove away, Donna wondered if she’d ever see Paolo again. She doubted it. But the cruise had at least given her back her will to live. No matter what she had to do to get what she wanted, she’d do it, and make herself forget about it afterwards. And maybe she’d see him again. It was up to her. She had his number. If she felt strong enough to face him again, she would.
The cab driver watched her thoughtfully for a while, then spoke up.
“That guy of yours seemed awfully devoted to you. But why shouldn’t he? He’s a lucky guy and he knows it. You’re a very pretty lady, but I guess you know that. Are you an actress or something?”
“Yes. I’m an actress.”
“I thought so. Well, like I said, your guy’s a very lucky man.”
No. She was the lucky one to know someone as wonderful as Paolo. Donna thought she’d be able to carry on now. The memories of Paolo would help her through the worst of what was left. She’d never tell him how close she’d come to giving up. Meeting Paolo had given her the strength to go on.