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Ryan McLendon

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From a Tragic Gay Cruise to Spending Valentine's Day Alone and Happy

Posted: 02/16/2012 9:38 pm

Valentine's Day is the year's biggest excuse to self-propel yourself into extravagant glee or heartbreaking despair, depending entirely on how you answer one simple question: do I have a date?

This year marked the first time in at least seven years that I did not have a Valentine's Day date. I was in a relationship for five years, lasting until 2010. On Valentine's Day 2011, I had a furtive date with a nice man that consisted of a whole lot of wine and a dish of undercooked beef.

But this year I had no romantic plans or men lying in wait. And that was totally fine with me, because I had learned a life-affirming lesson in an unlikely place a week before the holiday, from perhaps the saddest person I never met: Kenneth Gemmell, the passenger who allegedly threw himself off the Atlantis Allure of the Seas cruise on Feb. 3, near Cozumel, Mexico. I was one of the passengers on the cruise. His death remains a mystery and is still under investigation. In the end, I owe him a thank-you. He saved my Valentine's Day.

I'd never been on a cruise until the Allure. Until then, my only cruise experience was through terrible movies where old people play shuffleboard, ride around in motorized scooters, and kvetch about the buffet, which, quixotically, they seem unable to remove themselves from.

All that changed as I boarded the Atlantis Allure of the Seas cruise on Jan. 29 in Fort Lauderdale. The colossal vessel, one of the largest cruise liners in the world, is a wonder: it holds 5,400 people on 16 passenger decks, features a two-deck dance hall, a theatre with 1,380 seats, and an ice-skating rink. And its cup runneth over with attractive gay men when the Atlantis crew takes over.

My role on the Atlantis was a volunteer with the Guy Smith Productions, the lighting design team that turned the ship's solarium on the upper deck into a sophisticated, open-air dance club. Under the direction of lighting designer Guy Smith, visual effects designer Robert Montenegro, production designer John Finen, and laserist Kyle Garner, we created a dance hall that could rival any club space in the world, replete with hot international DJs like Wayne G, a 180-degree LED wall, and laser and lighting effects reminiscent of the Monster Ball (if it took place on the high seas).

Our days from then on were dedicated to the pursuit of constant entertainment. The days were tipsy time lapses from deck chairs and sunshine to Tea Dances in the ship's Aqua Theater to late-night partying in the solarium. Periodically I'd wake up in my stateroom early in the morning and find myself face to face with the verdant rolling mountains adjacent to the soft, thin beach line of Labadee, Haiti. Later, I'd have rum cocktails delivered to my beach blanket (fabulous), or I'd visit the sprawling commercial shopping district of Cozumel, trying not to get hit by a scooter.

One day at sea, our roughly 20-person team donned our finest drag outfits and had a "Ladies Lunch" in the Central Park area of the ship. After slamming cocktails, we proceeded to shop, ride merry-go-rounds, and even surf in full-on drag. You have to make your own fun, sometimes.

The Atlantis cruise also gave me an opportunity to reflect on the things that are truly, distinctly important: life, love, friendship. In the early morning of Feb. 3, near Cozumel, one passenger, alone on his stateroom balcony, hoisted himself over the railing and jumped into the sea in an apparent suicide, according to the CCTV tape taken on the ship and a statement from Royal Caribbean. The passenger, later identified as Kenneth Gemmell, an Ireland native, had just celebrated his 30th birthday on the cruise ship two days before.

Immediately, the captain came on the ship's PA system and called all passengers to assemble and be counted off. Thousands of sleep-deprived men oozed out of their staterooms, preparing for the long, arduous process of figuring out the name of the missing person. After about two hours, all the passengers were cleared to leave. Local authorities began searching the waters for Gemmell. He has yet to be found.

While some on the cruise were more overtly emotional about the incident, I withdrew and ruminated on it, less interested in what had happened than in why it happened. I think everyone has had a moment in their life when they hit rock bottom and briefly flirted with the idea of suicide. Profound loss and personal failings can inspire agony that is absolute and seemingly unending. It's a part of being human to feel this way.

But what I like to think I have control over is how I interpret loss and pain. Rather than hold on to pain like it means something, I find it more useful to search for the fleeting positives, as futile as it might feel at the time, and use them as motivation to get stronger. I don't know why Kenneth Gemmell allegedly killed himself. I wish he could have used whatever pain he might have been going through as a vehicle to make himself better. I wish his family could have celebrated his last birthday with him rather than having to wonder forever why their son is gone. Their loss is unfathomable.

Which brings me to Valentine's Day. Rather than it being a referendum on my love life, I chose to see the richness of my life and focus on what I'm truly grateful for. I live in an amazing city, I have beautiful and amazing friends, and I have a tremendous and growing family that I'm crazy about and a great job in my dream career field.

So for Valentine's Day, I treated myself to a drink and a nice meal at home.

I have Kenneth to thank in part for making it OK to be alone this Valentine's Day. I'm sure he never intended to validate my self-worth on the biggest date day of the year, but his example allowed me to view my circumstances through a different prism: as long as you have you, you have everything.

I hope the Kenneth Gemmells of the world can all find their worth and value today and every other day. It's really a beautiful life.