Last Updated on January 1, 2023

Preferred Privacy, Pt. 3 by Julie Helms

A year has passed, and although at night she still has frightening dreams of pushing the stalker to his death, in the cold light of day, she justifies her murderous act as her right to privacy and a peaceful vacation. In a way, she reasons, the loathsome pursuer was actually responsible for his own death.

The passage of a year without further attempts from Andre to blackmail her has convinced her that she will never hear from him again. Her next cruise is imminent.

She enters her stateroom, unpacks her suitcase, relaxes on the small sofa to admire the décor, and inspects all the little details and amenities provided by the cruise line. She then leaves her room to take a self-guided tour of the ship. It is remarkably similar to her previous cruise ship, including the inviting

lounge chairs positioned around the pool to face the sea. She wonders if it is indeed the same boat. Later, she enjoys a light supper delivered by room service before retiring for the night after a long day of travel.

The first shore excursion is scheduled for 8 a.m., and although she has made a reservation for it, she decides at the last minute not to go. The day is cloudy, and her preference is the cheery morning atmosphere on board and a hearty brunch, perhaps with a new acquaintance? at the international buffet. She takes a window seat and alternates her gaze between the bustling harbor traffic outside and the bustling waitstaff serving breakfast inside. She watches as a waiter passes with the coffee pot and tries, without success, to attract his attention. She observes him as he stops at another table to refill a passenger’s cup. He looks familiar to her. She is suddenly panicked by the possibility that he is Andre, but he disappears into the kitchen. She ignores the idea as ridiculous and farfetched.

She strolls along the international buffet, passing an extensive display of appetizing selections. She eventually makes her choices: exotic fruits, muesli, asparagus frittata, a sticky bun. Another coffee server appears and refills her cup with a strong brew.

She is sampling and relishing her extravagant brunch, dividing her attention between the food and the people walking past her searching for a place to sit and eat. She deliberately maintains a pleasant and inviting expression. Soon a beautiful young woman pauses and politely requests permission to join the table. Her skin is tawny, and her eyes, dark. Her hair is black and long and straight. Her clothing is casual, youthful, maybe ethnic. She introduces herself as Rose.

“Yes, of course. Please join me. My name is Clarisse.”

Rose does not represent the majority of the passengers on this cruise. They are older, much older. They are retired. Many are widowed. They have lived their lives and are splurging their time and wealth on world travel. Clarisse is aware of the contrast, but she is more interested in becoming acquainted with Rose than exploring her atypical presence.

“Are you traveling alone, Rose?”

“No, my father and I are traveling together.” Clarisse assumes Rose’s father is a wealthy middle-eastern businessman. She muses, maybe this cruise is a gift to his daughter upon her high school graduation?

Their conversation continues with each woman sharing personal information and exchanging friendly smiles. Rose will be attending a university in the United States, and Clarisse inquires about her career plans. “I want to be a teacher, a professor…like you.”

Clarisse is flattered but does not remember telling Rose about her own job. She overlooks her own slight bewilderment.

Rose excitedly discusses her need to secure a job on campus as well as her hope of receiving financial aid since she does not have sufficient funds for all the expenses of higher education. Clarisse is curious now. Why, she wonders, would Rose not be able to cover all the costs with a father who is… ? Clarisse’s attention lapses for a moment as, privately, she revisits her assumptions about Rose’s father. Now she is paying closer attention, hearing the girl describe her family’s hardships. Rose wishes out loud that a kind benefactor might appear and make her dreams come true.

Their conversation is interrupted by the presence of a waiter standing by their table. Clarisse is stunned as Rose jumps up and kisses his cheek. “Oh, Father! I’m so glad you stopped to say hello to me and Clarisse!”

The revelation takes several seconds to register. Then Clarisse is standing, outraged, her eyes darting between Andre and his daughter. Andre is smiling at Clarisse who now clearly sees the resemblance between him and his child. She also now clearly sees their devious game. She is speechless. She drops her napkin onto her food and rushes away to her stateroom.

Clarisse sits on the edge of her bed staring out at the water until the sun sets, much as she did after pushing the stalker to his death last year. She recalls that terrible afternoon, remembering her revulsion by his very presence as well as her awareness of her own actions. She does not regret what she did. Now she is contemplating her alternatives to this new threat. She is almost nauseous anticipating the likely terms of agreement with Andre and Rose. With increasing dread, she foresees the expenditure of her life savings on four years of undergraduate school for Rose, maybe graduate school, maybe even the costs of a wedding. She envisions her retirement in a tiny cheap apartment, alone and without luxury, especially a cruise. The alternative, including scandal and conviction as a murderer, is equally intolerable. Clarisse sees her future as bleak and her predicament as untenable. A knot of desperation is growing inside her stomach like a tumor. She slowly falls back on her pillows. Blackness surrounds her.

The evening passes thus. Still trying to resist the hopelessness of her position, Clarisse is amazed to perceive materializing a path of escape. Her eyes open wide. She sits up and turns on a light, and almost laughing, she says aloud, “No proof! He has no proof! No evidence! He gave the notes back to me!”

She is aware that Andre could have made a photocopy of her notes, but she cannot believe that he, an insignificant busboy, would have had easy access to the ship’s office equipment for his own personal use. Not only would he lack access to a photocopier, he would not even have had the time nor opportunity to make copies, given his demanding job duties. Clarisse berates herself for worrying unnecessarily for more than a year. Why, she asks herself, had these simple realities not already occurred to her? Clarisse is elated, relieved, grateful.

Likewise, she is aware that Andre might have actually witnessed the murder, but an outright accusation would become a matter of his word against hers. No contest. She is convinced that he will not be able to blackmail her for even one more dollar. Nor will she suffer punishment for her crime.

Clarisse suddenly realizes how hungry she feels, having left most of her delicious brunch untouched. She dials room service and orders a full course filet mignon dinner and a bottle of the ship’s finest red. She showers and slips into her new lounging pajamas with matching robe, and soon her doorbell rings. She carries the elegantly prepared dinner to her table, admiring the single rose bud, the impossibly white linen napkin, the dinner mints.

As she pours the final glass of wine, Clarisse notices on her tray an attractive envelope with her name written in beautiful penmanship. The ship’s insignia is imprinted on it, and she is excited by the possibilities of what the envelope might contain. A special offer? A gift? An invitation?

She unfolds the enclosed paper and is struck dumb to see a clear photocopy of her incriminating notes. For a long time, she sits staring first at the paper and then out into the dark night. She finishes her wine, ties her robe, and slowly exits her stateroom. She welcomes the peace of mind that for a year has eluded her.

No one is strolling on Deck 2, the primary promenade. It is too cool and windy to be outdoors. With careful deliberation, Clarisse climbs over the rail and silently drops overboard. It is a very private event.