.An excerpt from my novel 'Cruise Quarters'

An excerpt from my novel 'Cruise Quarters'

When people sat down at Sarah Seldon’s blackjack game, they always wanted to talk about The Book. “Should I double down? Should I hit? Dealer, I know you’re a gambler; you could let me win if you wanted to. What does the book say?” She had never read this book, this mythical Bible for gamblers. The truth is there are 2256 books, each teaching its own foolproof winning system. But Sarah had been in the casino business long enough to think with a gambler’s mind. Gamblers knew they could follow all the rules of basic strategy, utilize money management and still lose if they weren’t dealt the right cards. The allure and curse of gambling was that there were no sure things. In the end it all came down to luck; gamblers prayed that Lady Luck would show up and that she would stick around for awhile.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Cruise Quarters

A Novel about Casinos and Cruise Ships

Cara Bertoia with Raymond Bertoia

ARAY / Productions
Email: Ray92262@yahoo.com
Copyright 2011 by Cara and Raymond Bertoia


Regal Queen Crew Pass Name
Sarah Seldon


When people sat down at Sarah Seldon’s blackjack game, they always wanted to talk about The Book.
 “Should I double down? Should I hit? Dealer, I know you’re a gambler; you could let me win if you wanted to. What does the book say?”
She had never read this book, this mythical Bible for gamblers. The truth is there are 2256 books, each teaching its own foolproof winning system. But Sarah had been in the casino business long enough to think with a gambler’s mind. Gamblers knew they could follow all the rules of basic strategy, utilize money management and still lose if they weren’t dealt the right cards. The allure and curse of gambling was that there were no sure things. In the end it all came down to luck; gamblers prayed that Lady Luck would show up and that she would stick around for awhile.
On that particular day, Sarah perched on a chair to get a better view through her salt-stained porthole onto the dock, filled with people busying themselves with the activities necessary to supply a huge cruise ship. Port activities in Hong Kong demonstrated a model of modern efficiency. Even though the ship had been docked for under an hour, already the crew had begun to perform the necessary safety checks. At the same time operators steered forklifts, moving wooden pallets filled with provisions into the hold. Like a patient hooked up to life support, long, fat hoses attached to the side of the ship fed water and gas into tanks, providing nutrients for the upcoming voyage.
Through all this mayhem, she hoped to catch a last glance of Adam. In a few hours he would be leaving on a plane, flying home to Wales. Goodbyes on a cruise ship were always frantic, with people leaving for all parts of the world. In her five years of working as a croupier for Regal Cruises she must have said goodbye to hundreds of people, always fearing that she would never see those people again. With twelve ships in the fleet, it was a very good possibility. But before today she hadn’t been in love with any of them, and that changed everything.
The vessel was beautiful, a holdover from the grand old days of sailing. The floors covered with the finest carpets; the walls paneled in mahogany, millions of dollars of artwork hanging from them, some of it a little too abstract for her taste. It all added up to the illusion of wealth. For one week, anyone could buy that illusion.
It was also her illusion, as long as she stayed in the passengers' area. Upstairs she convinced herself that she lived in an oceanfront condo, but down here in crew quarters, her ten by twelve foot cabin located in the bowels of the ship, she could conjure up no grandeur. Industrial carpet covered the floor. Metal bunk beds were attached to one wall, a sink to the other. Everything painted grey, battleship grey. Every inch of space covered with essential appliances - scattered everywhere - hair dryers, a microwave, television-video combination, and laptop. 
She glanced at pictures of Adam tacked all over the wall. Adam, of the piercing blue eyes, Adam, whose prematurely gray hair had the sheen of the finest silver. Handsome Adam, she needed his face to be the first thing visitors saw when they walked in the room. She was besotted.
Adam’s collection of Hard Rock glasses lined the desk. He had been nutty about The Hard Rock CafĂ©. Sarah found it hard to believe, with all the great spots in the world, that he only wanted to go to the Hard Rock. Forget Raffle’s bar in Singapore; they ate at the Hard Rock. In fact, collecting pins from the Hard Rock was a hobby shared by many of the crew. It seemed bizarre to her, collecting tacky souvenirs, but finally she got it. When they got home, the small metallic pins shaped like guitars proudly displayed on their worn denim jackets proved that they had really been to faraway places.
Did she hear a knock on the door? She turned around. Adam walked in the room wearing his Hard Rock London leather jacket. She had been so focused on searching for him on the dock that his physical presence in the cabin startled her. Standing up, she pressed firmly against him, trying to memorize the way his body, sculpted by his work as a plumber, felt. No exercise regimen worked better than manual labor.
"Oh Adam, you haven’t left yet!"
"Before I go, I wanted you to have this." His melodic voice with a Welsh accent exuded sex.
She gazed into his piercing blue eyes as he handed her a white industrial jumpsuit. "You can wear it when you do the drop." He smiled. Every week the casino staff crawled on their knees and unlocked the cabinets under the slot machines to count the coins the passengers had lost.
Holding the jumpsuit to her nose, she breathed it in. "I could never. I’ll sleep in it. It smells like you." When you’re in love, even dirty laundry is sexy.
A loudspeaker attached to the wall of the cabin announced, "Last call for all crew going ashore."
"Gotta run." Adam kissed her.
"Just remember - be home on my birthday. I’m going to call you from New Zealand. It would just ruin my day if I didn’t get to talk to you," she pleaded. We each have our own personal vision of Hell. Sarah’s would be replaying her horrible birthdays.
"Oh I’ll be there. Just remember, Sarah, we don’t just love each other." He dropped his voice even lower, which always sent a chill through her. "WE LOVE EACH OTHER."
Sounded good, didn't it: a man willing -- not afraid -- to say the “love” word? Six months of solid devotion, with never so much as a telltale glance in another woman's direction. He kissed her one last time, and left for the airport.
A few hours later, she met the casino staff for lunch at one of the city’s massive dim sum halls, the ultimate dining experience, meals on wheels, a lazy-man’s buffet, the food came to you. She loved all food, but Chinese was her favorite. All across the room, petite women wearing aprons pushed steaming carts filled with tasty delights. They stopped by each table, trying to entice the customers to try their dishes. But when her favorite--fluffy steamed dumplings made with delicate bits of shrimp nestled between chewy homemade noodles--passed by, she felt so distraught she could barely raise her index finger to point to them.
Adam should be here instead of on his way to Wales. Soon, she would be sailing to New Zealand; they would be lovers moving to opposite ends of the earth. 
The cruise south passed slowly. Sarah filled her days writing long, romantic love letters. At night, she lulled herself to sleep playing back the movie of their romance. Lying in her bunk, under the covers, she pulled Adam’s jumpsuit from under her pillow and breathed him in. She always dreamt about the same amazing day, her first day with Adam, just six short months ago and a half a world away. 
She closed her eyes recalling that day, in St. Mark’s Square. Drifting off, reliving the excitement she had felt over her first season in the Mediterranean. It had taken her a long time to earn a place on the Regal Queen. The second the ship had cleared Customs, she had rushed off the gangway; anxious not to miss anything. There are few things that can compare to waking up in a new port. But as a traveler, Sarah also realized that few places lived up to their hype. Venice not only lived up to the hype, it exceeded all her expectations.  
Leaning against a fountain, alone, surrounded by thousands of other tourists in the Square, Sarah caught snatches of many languages floating by. Beside her stood two Japanese schoolgirls dressed like Goths, their faces painted white and their lips painted black, desperately trying to pretend they weren’t on vacation with their parents. A guide holding a banner identifying her group summoned her strays. Even without understanding the language, Sarah knew the guide was scolding the girls for wandering away from the group.
Instead of feeling like the town was overrun by tourists, Sarah savored the anonymity of being just one more tourist among thousands. She stood still, trying to take in all the activity. She wondered if she blended in with the locals, or was American written all over her face. 
Like her, almost all the women wore modest skirts, covering their knees, the proper dress for entering a church in Italy. The waning afternoon sun bathed the Doge’s Palace in gold. Sarah melted into a group of Spanish tourists and followed them through the Basilica, only understanding bits and pieces of the commentary, but still awed by the massive amount of gilt blanketing the nave.
Upon leaving the church she walked over to the crowd gathering under the clock tower. On the stroke of three, everyone looked up, and watched statues of two men striking the bell. The statues cast in bronze were nicknamed the Moors, because the figures resembled the Moors that ruled Southern Europe for centuries.
From behind her she heard, “Mystical, isn’t it?” He spoke in English, so she guessed the comment was directed at her. Turning her head, she found herself staring into sky-blue eyes. A string quartet began to play in the distance. She recognized Adam; they had joined the ship the same day and listened to the same captain’s welcome speech. It wasn’t really such a coincidence that he was here. The tender that traveled from the ship deposited everyone at the dock for St. Mark’s Square.
“It looks better than the postcards,” she replied.
“I would love to explore Venice, but I wouldn’t know where to start.” He smiled.
He waited patiently, fishing for an invitation, but she didn't mind. “I know where to go. I’m on my way to the Gallery Dell'Accademia. It's the largest museum in Venice. If you'd like, you could join me. The rest of the casino staff flaked out on me.” On a ship, there wasn’t a lot of time at each port. “I came prepared with a map and a plan,” and now she had a man. Could this day get any better?
Welsh Wizards. They had been around for years, arriving at a ship in groups of two to four, repairing things that required their technical expertise. They never hung around that long; they fixed what needed to be fixed and were gone. Their positions were so temporary, they even lived in passenger cabins. She figured she was relatively safe with Adam, probably safer than touring around Venice by herself.
Strolling through narrow streets, bordered by shops and courtyards, they passed purple sheets drying on a clothesline stretched over a canal. The line connected to the third stories of the narrow houses on either side of the water. The sight of laundry swaying in the breeze reminded her that Venice wasn’t just a theme park, people actually lived here. It took a while before she realized that there weren't any cars. A romantic mood prevailed, created by the silence of a city. “Listen,” she said. “No motors.”
She snuck glances at his handsome profile. He walked, hands in his pockets, slouched over like a bad British schoolboy. The heels of his leather boots clicked as they hit the sidewalk. His long hair flicked up at the ends where it touched the collar of his crisp white cotton shirt. 
“Trust me, the real Venice tops the Venetian in Vegas,” she joked. Adam didn’t talk much, but he seemed enthralled as she told him the history of the city. “Venice has been a city-state for a thousand years, the most advanced city in the world at one time.”
In the museum, they studied intricately-detailed paintings illustrating Venice in the fifteenth century. Each picture was the size of an entire wall, larger than life, documenting the everyday scene. Magicians and jugglers wandered the streets in colorful costumes. As they stepped back to admire the paintings from a distance Adam commented, "I think I saw him today."
“You’re right.” Earlier in the day they had stopped to watch buskers dressed in medieval costumes playing in the square.
“The city has changed so little since then; it makes me feel the past,” she added.
“I feel something,” he replied.
She blushed because he wasn’t looking at the painting, he was studying her. She was glad that she had carefully chosen her clothes that day. The pretty dress she wore, with a cinched waist and a gathered skirt, flounced when she walked, making her feel feminine. She felt like twirling when she put it on.
After they finished browsing through the museum, Adam suggested, “Fancy some grub? All of this culture is making my eyes bleary. We could grab some dinner, maybe at a Hard Rock?”
She spotted a woman behind an information desk. “Manga?” Sarah inquired, using one of the few Italian words she knew. “Hard Rock?”
The woman had never heard of the Hard Rock. Sarah asked her if she could suggest another restaurant. With much hand-waving and explaining, the woman scribbled directions to a small square on a scrap of paper.
Their noses informed them they had found the right spot when they turned a corner into a small cobblestoned square and were greeted by the aroma of pizza baking. At the cafe, they ate pasta marinara accompanied by crusty bread and drank red wine from a jug on the table.
She was careful not to ask him any personal questions; it would only spoil the mood if he mentioned a wife or girlfriend. For one night she wanted to pretend that the handsome man sitting across the table belonged to her. “What kind of music do you enjoy?”
“I love the classics,” his face lit up. “In England there’s this fab Manor House all plastered with gargoyles and turrets. All the greats play at The Knebworth Fayre. I saw Queen perform their last gig there.” That explained his love of the Hard Rock, all the memorabilia.
“Imagine: a summer night, a million stars, Clapton,” he paused. “Then it starts pissing down rain, a bloody mess but a cracking good time.”
“Only you Brits could enjoy getting soaked in the rain.” She supposed it was because it rained every day there.
“We’re hardy people. If we let a little rain stop us we would never get anything done. If you fancy it, next year I’ll take you down on my bike. Maybe change your opinion of the rain.” It amused her, how casually he dangled the implied future before her. Just like a man to talk about next year, when he couldn’t commit to next week.
Maybe to show he was serious, he placed her hand in his. Her fingers glided over the calluses on his palms. She liked the way his hand felt, it felt strong.
From Venice, the ship meandered across the Med. Adam and Sarah couldn’t get enough of each other; they climbed the hills of Athens, stopping to eat moussaka in The Plaka. In Santorini, they held their breath as they rode donkeys up the sheer cliffs overlooking the sea. One misstep would send them crashing into the churning water.
Midpoint in the cruise, a visit to the French Riviera. The ship tendered in Cannes. Sarah put on a mini-skirt, piled her hair on top of her head, covered it with a wide-brimmed straw hat and bought a pair of oversized knockoff Dior sunglasses from a street vendor. On the beachfront promenade she tried on haughty poses, pretending to be a movie star in town for the film festival, while Adam snapped photos of her.
On to Rome; at the Vatican they walked under Michelangelo’s magnificent frescoes. Words fail to describe the beauty of Botticelli’s Venus Rising, at the Uffizi in Florence. Women never forget that Venus, the most beautiful woman in the world, had a belly.
Finally, the ship arrived in Barcelona, where restaurants didn’t even open until 9:00 p.m., with streets as crowded at midnight as they were at noon. Seven ports in ten days, Adam and Sarah explored them all. The ship stayed the night while it took on new passengers before turning around and repeating the journey, in reverse order.
On the return trip to Venice, they made love for the first time. When they woke up in the morning Adam whispered, “I love you, Sarah Seldon.”
“No silly, you’re not in love with me, it’s just the Med. We’re two people on a very big yacht, living on siesta time.”  She couldn’t really believe him; after working on ships for a while she had learned that only a fool pinned her hopes on a shipboard romance. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the hours spent making love on their afternoon breaks while they traveled to the world’s most beautiful and alive cities. Every day she woke up exhilarated by the incredible sightseeing and every night she fell into bed exhausted from working until the wee hours of the morning.
Their time together could only be temporary; one day soon, Adam would fix whatever it was he was working on and then be gone. Only the memory of a romantic summer in the Med would remain. The precariousness of the situation only added to the drama. Every night, he would report that he had found something else to fix, because he wanted to stay with her. He didn’t have to search very hard; the Regal Queen was a very old ship. Things were always breaking down.
Summer turned into fall, the time for repositioning. The ship left the Med, crossed the Atlantic, and traveled through the Panama Canal in order to reach the South Pacific where it would spend the winter. Adam remained on board, still declaring his love. Around Tahiti, against her better judgment, she began to believe him; maybe he really did love her, the way that she loved him. Because any day could be their last together, they started to plan their future, in the real world, on land. The ship traveled on to Singapore and then the cruise line finalized a deal to sell the Regal Queen. Abruptly, the investment in expensive repairs stopped, and the next morning Adam was booted off. A dramatic ending to the movie she played of their romance, and if in the privacy of her head she took poetic license with the dialogue, enhanced the scenery or added special effects, who could blame her? She was besotted.

About the author:
Cara Bertoia is the author of Cruise Quarters - A Novel About Casinos and Cruise Ships. Her novel is really a travelogue, a narrative, a romance, a self-help manual for gambling and cruising, and a real-life story all rolled into one funny, obsessive, and entertaining story of two people whose separate life journeys meet at a crossroads. Kindle Fire Dept. says, "This novel is a gem that is nothing short of a vacation in a book!"

Below is the links to Cruise Quarters - A Novel About Casinos and Cruise Ships

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