Fall 2019 Contest Fiction Finalist: RipCord

Alice wondered if Marianne would connect the dots. She did. In about three minutes. “Wait. What’s the name of the ship?”

“The Sea Lyric,” Alice said.

“Wasn’t that the name of the first ship?”

Marianne meant the name of the ship Alice had taken for her first honeymoon, about one year ago.

“Yes,” Alice said. “Same one.”

There was a silence at the other end of the call. Alice imagined her older sister closing her eyes, shaking her head.

“Isn’t that a bit—”

Another pause, this one for dramatic effect. “—odd?”

“Not really,” Alice said. “We wanted to take our trip in mid-May, and that was the only ship going out of Bayonne.”

“The only one?” Marianne asked. “Aren’t there like a million cruise ships?”

“This isn’t just a cruise ship, it’s a Quantum Class cruise ship.”

“What’s that mean?”

Alice wasn’t entirely sure what Quantum Class meant, other than it was large. But that was enough to build her case.

“It means it’s a ship, not a boat,” Alice said. “Andrew and I didn’t want to get stuck on some tub for five days.”

“Ok,” Marianne said. “Quantum. No tub. What’s the destination?”

“Bermuda. And yes. That was the destination last time.”

“But you hated Bermuda,” Marianne said.

“I didn’t say I hated it.”

“You did, actually. You used that word. You said, ‘I hated it.’ Then you went on this tirade about how could anyone like a place known for reinsurance and rich people buying homes they never use.”

“I don’t recall ever saying that,” Alice said, though she did. Pretty much every word.

Another long pause.

Alice also knew what Marianne was thinking. A do-over. Another do-over.

My little sister, Alice, took her SATs three times (1,050, 1100 and finally 1200). My little sister, Alice, restaged her Prom pictures (trading in the high neck satin tile print dress for the far sexier strapless satin dress, and convincing her date, the perplexed Cliff, to re-rent his tux). My little sister, Alice, keeps changing careers (first real estate, but she tired of dealing with dumb, fickle clients; then interior decorating, but she tired of dealing with dumb, fickle clients; currently a life coach with a thriving practice, though the dumb, fickle clients were getting on her nerves).

And now her honeymoon. Her second honeymoon in two years. Same ship, different husband. Another do-over. The do-over.

Her first husband, Nigel, had checked all the boxes. Civil engineer. Well read. Fit. Good hygiene. Stable temper. Solid in bed. Not great, but solid, and solid usually went the distance.

But there were other boxes. Boxes that Alice wasn’t aware of until they were on the Sea Lyric for their five-day Bermuda cruise. She listed them for Marianne when they returned from their honeymoon. First came the honesty box.

“He kept telling everyone he was a structural engineer,” Alice said.

“So?”

“He’s not. He’s a civil engineer.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Of course there is. A civil engineer has a four-year B.A. Structural engineering is more advanced. It leads to higher degrees.”

“And this is a problem?”

“It’s misleading.”

“So what? He exaggerates.”

“That’s an elegant word for lying.” Next came the eye box.

“Nigel’s eyes. They rove. The ship’s deck was lined with sun-bathers. Every time we took a stroll, Nigel was almost bumping into bulkheads.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Marianne offered.

It was. That bad. Especially the butts.

“Butts?”

“The bikini butts. When women were laying on their stomachs. I mean, he didn’t even attempt to be discreet.”

“That’s men. There are some things we need to accept.”

“Like what? That they’re chimpanzees with impulse issues? He should have more control. He’s an educated engineer.”

“You mean civil engineer.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Apologies. Not funny. But if you feel that strongly about it, some honest communic—” “—there’s more.”

“More. Ok. What?”

“The RipCord.”

“Am I supposed to know what that is?”

“It’s a ride. On the Sea Lyric. A vertical wind tunnel.”

“Wait. I’ve heard of them. They simulate sky diving.”

“Right. With winds up to 120 mph.”

“Sounds like quite a ride.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking when I suggested it.”

“What did Nigel say?”

“He was all gung-ho.” More than gung-ho. It was all he talked about the evening before their scheduled time in the RipCord. The next day they reported for the required training. There were eight people in their group, four couples. They learned hand signals for communicating with their instructor in the wind-generated roar, as well as how to position themselves in the current. Then they signed disclaimers.

“Disclaimers?” Mariann asked. “Sounds ominious.”

“Just legal stuff. To protect the cruise line. Things may happen.”

Things had happened. One woman fractured her back. A man dislocated his shoulder. But they were just a few cases out of thousands who tried the RipCord. As the instructor, a Trinidadian named Lennox, dutifully ticked off the litany of possible mishaps in addition to fractured backs and dislocated shoulders (skull fractures, split lips, muscle strains), she glanced over at Nigel.

“He looked off,” Alice said.

“Off?”

“As in pale. Paler than pale.”

“A case of nerves?” Marianne asked.
“That’s being charitable. I mean, he looked sweaty.”

They put on their gear, which included a jumpsuit, helmet, earplugs and goggles. As they walked toward the RipCord, Nigel turned to Lennox and asked if he should remove his contact lenses. Lennox said the goggles should protect his eyes adequately, but here was no harm in taking extra caution.

“So he took them out?” Mariann asked.

“No. He couldn’t. Or he claimed he couldn’t.”

“What’s that mean?”

“He said the lens in his left eye dislodged and went to the back. He couldn’t get it out.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

“Ok. What am I supposed to see?”

“Ten feet from the RipCord, and all of a sudden he’s, like, afflicted.”

Nigel went back to the cabin to flush out the allegedly errant lens with saline solution. Alice went with him.

“So you didn’t do the RipCord?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“It felt. I don’t know. Awkward. There were three other couples. Their husbands stayed.”

“I see. You felt—” “—Yeah. That’s what I felt.”

As Nigel put on his squinting-and-eye-rubbing act before they retreated to their cabin, Alice noticed how they were looking at her. The wives. They knew. They always knew, and they always wanted you to know they knew.

“Did you get back to it the next day?” Marianne asked.

“No. It was booked. And the day after was the last day of the cruise, so it was shut.”

The call went quiet. Alice waited for Marianne to say something. She didn’t. There was no need. Roving eyes and white lies about job titles were relative misdemeanors. RipCord cowardice was a felony.

Nothing seemed right after they returned from the cruise. The spontaneity of their courtship quickly evaporated. They found less to talk about. Nigel spent more time at his office. They managed to find excuses to hang out with friends at separate gatherings. Their lovemaking dwindled to a few obligatory exchanges. At the end of their last, as both lay staring up at the ceiling, Nigel asked if she was still taking the pill. She said yes. Nigel didn’t look disappointed. He looked relieved.

That was the end of them.

Four months after the no-contest divorce, she met Andrew on a blind date. All the boxes were checked: economically viable (patent attorney), hygiene, temperament, bedroom performance (better with his hands than Nigel, a bonus). They were married within months. The wedding was one-third the size of the first, an appropriate reduction reflecting both efficiency and caution.

Right before booking the cruise, Alice told Andrew that by coincidence it was the same as her first honeymoon. Andrew didn’t seem bothered.

“At least you know the layout of the ship,” he said. “It’ll save us time.”

A practical man. Check another box.

The Sea Lyric was shipping out of the deep-water port in Bayonne, just as it did for Alice’s first cruise. She made similar arrangements, hiring a limo service to take them to the ship. The driver turned out to be the same as before, a portly thirty-something named Douglas. He’d prattled on to Nigel and Alice about how many jobs he was holding down to make ends meet (three), and how he hoped to land a position at Amazon. This time he prattled on to Andrew and Alice about how many jobs he was holding down (four), and how he hoped to land a position at Starbucks. If he recognized Alice from the first time, he didn’t let on.

After they’d made it through the hectic boarding process and settled into their cabin, Alice took Andrew on a quick tour of the ship. She enjoyed the confident, proprietary sense of pointing out the facilities (eight restaurants, surf simulator, two swimming pools, solarium, casino and, of course, the RipCord) and spouting off Sea Lyric statistics (16 passenger decks, 2090 passenger cabins).

“It’s Quantum Class,” she intoned at the end of the tour.

The first few days were a blur of lovemaking, eating, sunbathing, drinking, swimming, eating, dancing, and drinking. On the night before they docked in Bermuda, they plowed through a feast in the ship’s steakhouse, abetted by two bottles of red wine, then hit the wine bar for a night cap. They tottered out to the foredeck for some fresh air. The sky was black, but they could see the running lights of a distant ship. Andrew stood behind Alice, arms wrapped around her waist, as he explained that the red lights indicated a ship’s port side, while the green indicated starboard. She leaned back into him, taking in the feel and smell of him and as she closed her eyes and felt the sea breeze on her face she realized this was the very deck where she and Nigel had snuggled and kissed on the first night of their cruise. The thought didn’t disrupt the moment. Not a bit.

Bermuda was different the second time around. Different as in better. The temperature was markedly cooler, and Andrew had done some research. Instead of wandering through a few retail shops in sweltering Hamilton, as she’d done in the Nigel Era, Alice and Andrew ventured to St. George, the first English settlement. They walked hand-in-hand under the remnant arches of an unfinished church, then lingered in a nearby peach orchard for a picnic lunch.

“I don’t want to leave,” Alice said after her third glass of wine. “I just don’t want to leave.” But they did, making it back to ship just in time. As they sailed for home Alice and Andrew submerged themselves in yet another blur of lovemaking, eating, swimming, drinking, sunbathing, drinking, gambling, and eating.

They took a deck stroll after breakfast on the second-to-last morning of the cruise, Alice noting with satisfaction that Andrew wasn’t ogling the sunbathers. And then they passed the RipCord. Or they almost passed it. Alice stopped and looked up into Andrew’s eyes.

“So,” she said, “you want to feel what it’s like to fly?”

There were three couples this time, in addition to them. The training was the same: hand signals, body positioning and how to adjust their gear. They were gliding right along. Until the disclaimers. They were dutifully listed by their instructor, a Trinidadian named Berkely. Alice looked over at Andrew. And then she looked away. She kept her eyes down as they walked to the lockers to don their gear. Andrew started making shrugging motions with his shoulders, as if to loosen up. He started wincing. Wincing. Berkely noticed and came up to him. Andrew mentioned that he’d suffered a rotator cuff injury back in high school. He’d never mentioned it to Alice.

Berkely noted that the odds were slim that such an old injury would be aggravated by a ride in the RipCord.

“How slim?” Andrew asked.

The two men looked at one another for what seemed a long time.

“I suppose,” Berkely finally said, “one cannot be too cautious.”

“That’s kind of what I was thinking,” Andrew said.

After shrugging and wincing one more time, Andrew started taking off his jumpsuit. Alice stood still, watching him. The other couples started following Berkely out of the changing room, toward the RipCord. Andrew neatly folded his jumpsuit and returned it to the locker.

“You coming?” he asked.

Alice looked at the couples, then back at Andrew. “No,” she said, zipping up her red jumpsuit.

“No?”

“If it’s ok with you, I want to go,” Alice said, trying to keep a certain tone from her voice. It didn’t work.

“Well. Ok,” he said, taking a step back. “Ok then.” Alice put on her goggles.

“You can watch, if you like,” Alice offered. It came out weak. Andrew didn’t answer. Alice inserted her earplugs and put on her helmet.

She walked through the locker room door to the RipCord, which was a floor-to-ceiling transparent tube. The couples were seated on a curved bench in front of it. Another man sat at a computer console to their right. He looked like Berkely. Alice wondered if he was a Trinidadian. She sat at the end of the row and looked straight ahead.

Berkely adjusted his helmet, then instructed them to walk up to the portal and lean forward into the air flow. He would catch them, and guide them to the center. Everyone nodded. Berkely made a signal to the man at the console, who pressed something that triggered a roar in the tube. Berkely walked to the portal, leaned forward into the current and started floating. Everyone clapped, as if it were a magic trick.

After performing a few deft somersaults, Berkely turned in the air to face them, then pointed to a man sitting on Alice’s right. The man walked to the portal, turned to give his wife a jaunty here goes wave, then leaned into the air. Berkely caught him, then slowly pulled him to the center of the tube. The man jostled and wobbled at first, but then seemed to get the hang of it. He floated for another 30 seconds before Berkely returned him to the portal. As the man regained his footing and walked out, everyone clapped. The man looked happy, but relieved.

Berkely, still floating in the tube, pointed to a woman at the opposite end of the bench. She approached the portal, gave a little laugh, raised her clasped hands in a praying gesture, then leaned into the flow. Berkely did the same as with the man, bringing her into the center of the tube and the releasing her to float freely. She adjusted more quickly than the man, and was relaxed enough to find her spouse on the bench and flash him a thumbs-up sign.

Alice looked through the tube to the little observation deck on the other side. There were a few people there, including an elderly couple, two bored-looking tweens and Andrew. He stood stock still, hands clasped in front of him, watching the gliders. He didn’t look at her.

Berkely returned the woman to the portal. When she came out everyone clapped. As she returned to her seat, she playfully high-fived the row. Berkely pointed to Alice. She rose from the bench, walked to the portal and glanced at the observation deck. Andrew was gone. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and leaned forward. The roar intensified, the current fluttering her cheekbones and lips. Berkely towed her to the center and then let go. Her first instinct was to flail, but she fought it, then regained enough composure to concentrate on keeping her arms and legs straight.

In another few seconds she felt her muscles easing and she went with it, floating in the air. This was it. This was what she wanted, to fly, to be absolutely free. And she wanted more. She wanted to somersault, just like Berkely. She looked over at him and made a little twirling motion with her index finger. He shook his head no. She made the gesture again. Again he shook his head no. She couldn’t stop herself. Alice ducked her head and dove down, but couldn’t quite make the flip. Her body started bouncing off the sides of the tube and Berkely grabbed onto her legs. She tried to wriggle loose. She wanted try one more time.

Just one more time.

About the author

S.G. Fromm is a writer and journalist living in New Jersey. SG's work has appeared in several publications, including Inkwell, Salamander, Red Earth Review, Juxtaprose and The Ocotillo Review.

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