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Pirate Ophelia: The Real Story

by Jen Sullivan 2 months ago in coping
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The true story that inspired the book

The unedited book cover art

It’s been years since I wrote and published my book, Pirate Ophelia. I debated for a long time if I ever wanted to write the true story that inspired the book, and I feel it is finally time for me to do so. A warning: there will be spoilers for the book throughout this piece.

You can read the book on Vocal or purchase it on Amazon.

When I wrote Pirate Ophelia, I was going through some tough emotions. I had been working at the local Renaissance Faire and met a man — a very special man who we will call Craig. He and his boyfriend started working with us in the wine shop in 2014, and Craig quickly climbed the ladder within the company. After his first faire season, Craig was promoted to manager of the shop after the previous one was fired — a move I still question to this day.

Craig and I were very close from the beginning. He latched on to me for my knowledge and seemed to genuinely appreciate me, which was not something I was used to, especially in a work environment. He was quite feminine, which balanced with my more masculine personality. I quickly became fond of both him and his boyfriend and considered them to be my closest friends.

However, after Craig became manager, I started to feel unappreciated by him, feeling that I was never good enough because I was an introverted woman. He favored the “pretty boys,” as we called them, along with outgoing women who liked to talk and flirt rather than do the hard work. I was scheduled to work less and less, so I started to distance myself, preparing to graduate from college and move on to a career elsewhere.

I had been working on getting my Associate’s Degree in Business Management, returning to college sixteen years after graduating high school. I was almost finished, maintaining a perfect GPA throughout and hoping I could keep that until the end. In May 2015, I graduated with a perfect 4.0 and started searching for a job that would let me advance into management.

I was hired at a local convenience store with many promises, but the company was not right for me, and the job was just disgusting. The wine shop needed help, so I opted to quit the convenience store and continue working for Craig for just one more season. Honestly, I was glad to have the chance to return — I had been missing my friends and felt the need to prove that I was better than the young kids who replaced me. As it turned out, they discovered that some new employees were not so great and were unavailable to work when they needed shifts covered.

We struggled with turnover in the wine shop, though that place always had that problem. This was made worse by one of the managers who lacked the leadership needed to keep employees happy and motivated. I took charge when I could, giving direction to new employees and helping boost morale among the hardest workers. An employee named Ron had just started, and we quickly acknowledged the support we unknowingly gave each other, with him respecting my leadership and experience and me respecting his hard work and outgoing personality.

I was promoted at the start of Faire in 2015, becoming a supervisor in the wine shop. That was also when I started dating the man that would become my husband, taking him to the Faire for our first date. Our relationship immensely helped my mental state, letting me be more focused and certainly much happier. That October, I became a full-time key holder. Later, on Black Friday weekend, I was promoted to manager, with Craig promoted to a newly created position to oversee all retail operations.

After becoming manager, the other employees and I started joking about ranks in the wine shop. This was after I promoted one of the employees to key holder — a woman who we will call Ann. Ann had started at the beginning of Faire in 2015, and we quickly became close. A younger woman, April, had also started and became part of our group, a bond forming between Craig, Ann, April, and myself.

Ann did not like being a “manager” who would have to enforce rules, so we started joking that maybe she was a captain. It was a Renaissance Faire and we all loved pirates, so one day, when it was slow, we started assigning ranks. I became “Admiral” and my key holders each became a “Captain.” We created ranks for everyone, keeping it a fun environment in an otherwise terrible job. Ron became “Bosun,” a rank we assigned to the lowest supervisor position. Another employee insisted on being called “Powder Monkey,” and we assigned the lowest-level employees the rank of “Swabbie.”

The relationship between Craig and I started to fall apart quickly after my promotion. He expected me to fix everything immediately, and I was overwhelmed with work. Between inventory discrepancies ignored for years to serious scheduling issues, I spent more time than intended at a job that did not even pay enough to cover my rent. I was never in it for the pay — I just wanted to be there for my crew, as we started calling my employees, and to gain management experience to go with my Associate’s Degree. Plus, I had grown to love that wine shop — my home away from home.

Craig’s insistence that I “yell at” employees did not help our relationship, putting us at odds more than once. We disagreed on employee motivation, and though he had been a manager before and I had not officially held the title of “manager” prior to my promotion, I knew from experience that his way would create more friction and higher turnover. The situation was not helped when he wanted to turn a blind eye to two employees who were always late — one time four hours late — but wanted to criticize others for being just a minute late. It was yet again another example of his “pretty boy” favoritism.

In January, the woman who was my assistant manager left, which was a relief to the rest of us. She did not fit with our “crew” and had no real leadership skills. We had already planned that April would take her place, but not for another few weeks as she was on a retreat in New Zealand. She had been so sad to leave us, and now we awaited her return. Until then, I would have to run the wine shop alone, with Ann able to take command only one day a week due to her other position as winemaker within the company.

In February 2016, I became extremely ill. I was weak and was rushed to the hospital one morning because I was having trouble breathing. The doctors thought it was an anxiety attack, but I was concerned about my asthma with the illness. I never had anxiety issues in the past, so I didn’t understand why suddenly I would be having an attack. Days later, I had another episode at home with my boyfriend and was again taken to the hospital. That was when I asked my boyfriend to marry me, knowing I didn’t want to wait any longer. I had already made the decision in December; I was just afraid it was too soon and that it would freak him out.

It took me over a month to get over my illness. During that time, drama started to rip apart my wine shop when I was not there. I remember having to go in, unable to wear a bra because it constricted my chest too much and made it hard to breathe. Craig had been causing drama and my crew was unhappy, with some ready to walk out.

I was furious, my anger fueling my body and giving me enough strength to go to work that day. Craig stood in the doorway to my office while I glared at him, my anger boiling over. He ranted about feeling useless and began crying. In that moment, I saw my friend — my best friend who was lost. The friend I thought I had lost. We had a discussion and cried it out, feeling better after we vented out all of our frustrations.

April returned in the spring and was promoted. We assigned her the rank of “Commodore.” Everything seemed like it was going to be okay. Then, just a few weeks after her return — after I finally had help — I was told that April would be moving upstairs to the offices. I had given everything to the company and nearly died trying to run the shop alone, and April was being promoted, leaving me to once again run the wine shop by myself.

In the wine shop, the office people were generally thought of as arrogant assholes who felt they were better than the lowly retail employees. Some were kind to everyone and did not fit into that group, but the consensus was there were office people and there were retail people. When April was promoted, it felt as if she had betrayed us. She was Benjamin Hornigold — the pirate who turned pirate hunter, betraying those who once trusted him.

Craig had insisted on hiring a new employee to fill in scheduling gaps. The boy had worked for him before, and once April was promoted, Craig thought the boy would make a good assistant manager. I hesitated at first, not knowing much about this new kid. I eventually agreed, and while I did see potential in him, I didn’t appreciate finding him eating cereal at my desk. Even though the main office in the wine shop was partially shared among management, the space was supposed to be mine. It was the wine shop manager’s desk and set up the way the wine shop manager wanted. Yet here was this kid eating cereal and doing training at my desk under Craig’s instructions. Once again, I felt I was being replaced by another pretty boy.

One of the key holders had asked about becoming the assistant manager, but I knew I was not allowed to promote her. She was our “Rogue Captain,” as Ann liked to call her. Craig wanted her gone, and she and I had a quiet discussion about it one day when we were alone. She had suspected they wanted her to leave, with Craig wanting to hire really young employees willing to work for less money. I shared my concerns with her, fearing that I, too, was about to be pushed out. I refused to go without a fight, defending my employees at every chance. That was who I was — who I still am.

On May 4th, 2016, I was in the wine shop discussing our staffing problems with the new kid, who was now officially my assistant manager. Craig called him to his office upstairs and I was alone. I felt as if things would finally be okay when it happened — a sudden pain in my chest and tightness in my left arm. I was sure I was having a heart attack.

I fell to my knee and called for an ambulance, then called Craig to tell him. I instructed the EMTs to take me to a different hospital, hoping to finally get answers. The doctors ran numerous tests on my heart and my brain but found nothing. My mom came to meet me, and as we talked, I would get worse whenever we touched on the subject of my job. The doctor eventually had the test results and came to update us. Everything looked fine — heart, lungs, brain. His only conclusion was what my mom and I had realized while we waited: it was my job.

I returned to the wine shop that day in tears. I had to leave before the job killed me. It was too much for me to handle. Too much for my mind. I loved the place, but it was killing me. The next day I wrote my resignation letter and emailed it, stating that I would work out my final month, train the new assistant manager to take my job, and leave after the big event in May.

I returned to work on Friday, spending much of the day in my office crying, unable to control it. I didn’t want to leave the job, but I knew I could not stay. Ron and I talked about how the shop felt like a sinking ship, as if it were all coming to an end. Craig barely spoke to me that day, hiding in his office, avoiding me. The weight felt lifted, and I knew my remaining days would get easier.

At the end of the day, one of the owners came to my office, accompanied by one of the office people. She suggested that I go home and not work out my month. I insisted that I wanted to stay, wanting to train the new manager and be there for my crew. She claimed to be concerned for my health, and it became evident that they would not let me stay, no matter what I said.

They sent in Craig’s husband to help me gather my things and take me home. I remember distinctly seeing April on my way out, a look of pity in her eyes. As if I could not handle what she so easily was able to do. She was never in the shop to help me, yet she was suddenly there that day. Several people were suddenly there — I was only ever allowed to have one other employee, yet it took three to replace me.

I seriously debated killing myself that night once I realized that Craig had wanted me gone. That he thought I would somehow sabotage him. That anyone could think I was so petty that I would destroy what I worked so hard to build. I felt robbed of my chance to regain my sanity; to see the shop in a different light and have the weight slowly lifted over time. It was as if I were thrown into the garbage, cast out like I never mattered. I was of no use to them anymore, so I was discarded.

When I read through Pirate Ophelia, the sinking of the Hydra brings back that final day. The raw emotion I felt at the betrayal of my best friends. The downfall of the crew and the death of the wine shop Admiral. It was as if part of me died that day — a part I can never recover. A part that was tossed into the Renaissance Faire fountain and drowned with the coins of forgotten wishes. A part that was lost forever to the sea.

The next day I went back to return my work shirts and retrieve a few things I had forgotten in my office. Craig ran out of the wine shop when he saw me, securing the truth in my suspicion: he betrayed me and now feared my wrath. He would treat me this way anytime I visited the faire, running and hiding as if I were a villainous creature.

I saw him once at my next job. Just the sight of him created anxiety within me, the memories of the trauma flooding back. My new boss did not like that, not wanting me to feel stressed at work or risk losing me. She valued me, and she knew how I had been treated by him and the owners: as if I were nothing other than a rotten sandwich. It disgusted her.

I had already been writing Pirate Ophelia to purge those emotions, referring back to a notebook Ann and I used to communicate at work. We called it our “Captain’s Log” and wrote important information, such as whether or not we needed change from the bank, along with fun little notes to cheer each other up. Writing Pirate Ophelia helped to ease my pain and eventually, my nightmares stopped. Nightmares that would wake me in the middle of the night, tears running down my cheeks and sending me into a deep depression. Though he never said it, I think my fiancé worried for my sanity.

Perhaps I was too harsh on April. She was young and was offered a big promotion that would be hard to pass up. The fact that I waited for her instead of finding another assistant manager made it a betrayal in my mind: I showed loyalty to her, but it was not reciprocated. We reconciled the next faire season, which was her last at the job — she had learned the hard way that she too was being used. Craig started treating her horribly, as he had done with me, and she decided to leave. We never regained the friendship we once had, the relationship forever damaged by the events that transpired.

A couple of years later, Craig was diagnosed with cancer and nearly died. When I saw him next, he seemed happy to see me, no longer avoiding me or treating me as if I were Lord Voldemort. I have always suspected his sudden change was more of a show and that the friendship we once had is truly gone. I do not doubt cancer made him look back on his life and finally realize that I was never a threat; I just doubt that he cares that much for me. I doubt he ever cared as much for me as I did for him. I am glad he survived and sometimes wonder how he is doing, but, truthfully, that part of my life is over. I will always miss my friend — the man to whom I could tell anything. However, I needed to move on to save my sanity.

Pirate Ophelia was published in the fall of 2016. Nearly all of the characters were inspired by a real person at that wine shop, with Liam being the only main character who is entirely fictional. The character Janneke is me, and though James is loosely based on my husband, I realized when re-reading it later that he is more of a combination of myself, my husband, and Ezio Auditore (of Assassin’s Creed II) for some reason. When I picture James, I picture Ezio but hear my husband’s voice. I really don’t know why, though my husband and I did bond over the Assassin’s Creed series.

Celia was written to be a villain, more so than April was in real life. Erik, who is Ron, and Edward are the men I miss the most from my time at faire. Ophelia was named by Ann, the real-life counterpart to the character. We are no longer friends after a falling out a few years ago, but I still see and hear her when I read Ophelia’s lines. I see her in the pirate outfit she wore as a bridesmaid at my wedding. I am unsure of our future; unsure if I want to open old wounds or just move on. I am undecided if I would even want to try — my life and personality are different now than when we last spoke.

In the book, Craig is actually three characters: the governor of Kingston, the outgoing ex-governor Rupert, and Michael, the crew member who kills the governor of Kingston. I did this on purpose to reflect the various personalities I encountered with my former friend: the governor is the one who betrayed me, Rupert is the outgoing side of him, and Michael is his true personality. When writing the book, I struggled to decide who would kill the governor. My husband wanted it to be James, his hatred of Craig swaying his opinion. It seemed fitting to me that the man who inspired the character also be the one who killed him, sort of a Clark Kent versus Superman type of battle.

I wish I could say that friendships can withstand the toughest times. That no matter what happens, your friends will always be there. That has not been my experience in life. I can only say that friends will come and go and you will gain something with each one. Maybe they will stay forever, maybe not. But when it is time to let go, you must let it go to prevent it from destroying you.

Originally published at https://jensully.medium.com on August 10, 2022.

coping

About the author

Jen Sullivan

I am a gamer, a geek, a writer, an entrepreneur, and a gardener, among many things. I have a lot of knowledge and opinions to share with the world, along with creations from my chaotic mind.

Follow me on Facebook: @jensully17

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