I spent the weekend in a novella. Not reading it, not writing it, living it.
Six months ago I began the story as the author, my objective to create a magical, bonding weekend for ten lifelong friends in the 1000 Islands. My neighbor, Melissa, would be on an extended tour of Europe for a month. She agreed to rent us her house which has views of the shipping channel, so desirable for tourists. Using my house and Melissa’s, we ten would have plenty of sleeping and bathroom space.
I didn’t act on the idea until New Year’s Day, when the temperature plummeted into single digits and the ice encrusted us, not to retreat for months. I sent the proposal by text to the invitees. Dates were negotiated to accommodate family trips, cruises, European travel, and relocation. Within hours we had a confirmed group of 10, including me, for a long July weekend.
For the next six months I plotted the story line. Early drafts always included the Sunset Dinner Cruise on the Island Star out of Kingston, Ontario, plus a ride in our own Cygnet. By July I was certain I would have mastered docking in order to captain the group by water to Alexandria Bay. Of course, an excursion to Canada would add interest. Plus, friends are always interested in seeing grandchildren, and mine reside in Gananoque, Ontario. Paul planned to move to Reed’s in Canada for the duration. And Reed so generously agreed to that plan.
When summer finally arrived Paul and I edited the setting. We replaced our broken microwave, upgraded wiring, had leaks checked out. We painted the guest room the most uplifting colors I could find, Open Air and Cloudless. I lugged all the bedspreads to the laundromat for a thorough washing. We stained both the front porch and rear decks. Shrubbery was trimmed. I spent spare minutes weeding all the flower beds. My bottle tree was “planted” and “blossomed” with blue bottles to capture evil spirits. I placed a lucky stone outside our Tourist Entrance for luck. Details count in a good story.
After my April trip to Disney World I observed how Disney creates magic with frequent anticipatory communications. I endeavored to copy that model. Every so often I sent little text messages about the trip. I mailed a complete itinerary of planned events and our menu. Just as Disney did, I included picture postcards of the area. I searched for my own version of Magic Bands for the guests. Eagerness for the visit infused my days. The significance of the gathering as a restorative interlude became huge for me. Clear, sunny weather was forecast. The setting would be sublime.
One week prior to the arrivals, I had the opportunity to practice docking the Cygnet. This year I felt much more comfortable navigating our boat, but had not attempted docking. Paul and I took the boat out for a ride, and then I drove the boat into our little bay. I simply could not get the proper position going into our slip. After several attempts, I angled the boat toward the dock. A slight gust of wind caught us just as I steered between two docks.
The Cygnet veered crossways. “What do I do?!” I cried.
Paul frantically used a pole to grab and pull. I pushed off the other dock, just barely saving the motor from crashing. Somehow we straightened the boat and tied to our side of the slip.
Paul gently said, “You are not ready.” He offered to return on Tuesday, to ferry the group across the American Narrows for our lunch. In my humiliation and disappointment I totally missed the foreshadowing of this incident.
The events of a story unfold from character action and reaction. Characters are plot. Even before the guests assembled, the first plot twist occurred. One guest would arrive a day later than the others, departing from a week-long family holiday. Due to work and upcoming travel two other friends had to cut their stay short by two days. Our tenth companion cancelled completely when her doctor ordered urgent tests. Writers know: no problem, no story.
I had not written these circumstances into the story. Now I had to act as protagonist, facing my first challenge. I used my traits of flexibility and adaptation. I assigned guests to respective lodgings so the comings and goings would least affect sleeping arrangements. I reserved the Sunset Dinner Cruise, which I viewed as the climax of the weekend, for the evening when all nine of the attendees would be present. A few other events were shifted from one day to another. These minor setbacks would not prevent me from hosting the magical girlfriend weekend.
The main character often has a sidekick. Mine came a few days early from Nashville. Her experience at hosting the group several times reinforced my objective. While I tidied the house after a two-day visit from my granddaughters, she made salad and lemon bars and selected unique cheeses I never know to buy.
Torrential rain pelted the travelers for hours as they crawled across all the lake-effect regions. Amazingly, one friend made the trip after having an emergency appendectomy just a week ago. All of them had made extraordinary efforts to travel here. When they arrived at last I met them with a tray of bubbling champagne glasses.
A wisp of strain wound around us the first morning. Tension arose as some chose to take a walk, while others remained on the deck. We wiled away the morning waiting for guest number nine. The cloudless sky contrasted with the prevailing mood. I felt the harmony ebb. A guest was clearly unhappy. I failed to remedy the problem. Right on schedule, our final visitor pulled in. I greeted her with a chilled glass of Zinfandel. She had to decline, distraught over a phone call from home. A beloved family member was gravely ill. Clearly, she felt conflicted over being so far away, but elected to stay on for two nights. We all commiserated with her regarding the situation. Metaphorical storm clouds hovered.
Recommitting to my goal, I led the way to our next event, the Canadian visit and the high point, our sunset cruise. The long wait at customs seemed designed to intensify stress levels. Fortunately, my friends’ reunion with my son uplifted our mood. My granddaughter entertained us with a daring flagpole climb. And Paul doled out appetizers and drinks. If only I hadn’t been driving, I would have downed several.
An hour later we boarded the Island Star, a ship I thought of as my fairy godmother. I noticed that it looked less pristine than it had on my last voyage in 2013. A lot of chaos had happened in my life since then, and obviously my godmother had been through some as well. We were seated at two tables near the aft. Fuel fumes wafted around us. Activity at the restrooms and the bar diminished the charm. The stage was at the front, and that became a plus. Drinks and dinner were served without incident. That is unless I don’t count the eccentric woman, who appeared down on her luck, sitting next to us; or the live entertainment, a comedian who impersonated well-known singers using puppets and self-designed props. My friends politely peered out the windows at the scenery when possible. But the bizarre distractions prevented anyone from appreciating the Bateau Channel, the Admiralty Islands, or the 40-Acre Shoal. I have to admit, all that was promised was a sunset, and it set brilliantly.
By the time the two departing guests left for home after breakfast the next morning, we had some downright hostility seeping into our interactions. Perplexed over the cause of the discontent, I became emotional in the good-byes. We proceeded with the agenda: shopping, winery, watching the boats from Chez Melissa. No matter how cheerful and appreciative the visitors acted, a pall followed us. We all waited for more news on the patient back home, hoping for a positive report, but fearing the opposite. Guest number nine announced she would leave the next morning to be on hand to support her family as needed. We all understood and would have done the same. My initial goal for a girlfriend retreat to relax and rejuvenate seemed trivial. As protagonist, I simply evaded the setbacks that afternoon with the help of two vodka tonics and a beer.
Our last day and I had not yet achieved my objective: harmony, relaxation, and magical communion of friends. Paul made the trip back across the border from Canada to ferry us past Boldt Castle to Alexandria Bay. He was charming and I loved him for it. Yet, discord in our group intensified as we prepared for the boat ride. Next, dissention occurred over when to eat ice cream. Discussion of dinner plans felt like opening a can of nasty worms. How had I failed to remedy the discord? Antagonists wreak havoc throughout a story. Their job is to disorient and shake up the protagonist. The question is not about the intentions of the antagonist, but about their effect. Will the protagonist accomplish her purpose or abandon it in favor of something else?
Over the past three days I had had opportunities to confront the situation head on. I’m a pleaser who avoids confrontation. Creating a possible rift in our group of friends diametrically opposed my goal. As the host of this retreat I felt an obligation to remain as optimistic as possible and hope the tension tornado would spin itself out. And it did. The final evening brought a kind of serenity as we sat on the deck of Chez Melissa gazing at the St. Lawrence.
I had abandoned my goal and replaced it with the intent to preserve our group bond. I thought of Frankie Valle’s song, Let’s Hang On, from last summer’s trip. That theme persisted. Whatever issues caused this fissure could be ironed out with reflection and understanding. The strength of our alliance is the fact that we can release our emotions with one another, whether positive or negative. Maybe we will all be better for this experience and more honest with one another in the future.
Plus, I had placed far too much emphasis on this one weekend as a retreat from my worries. My friends should not be held responsible for that. Contentment and happiness are in my own hands. I had evolved just as the protagonist does in a satisfactory story.
Let’s hope my next novella is not a murder mystery.