Up on deck there’s a saline breeze and milky stars and endless ocean, shiny and black and moving like synchronized seals under the moon.
The cruise had been booked by my husband, though I’d barely gotten used to thinking of him as that. We’d gone from our first meeting at the conference to messaging to weekends to wedding, and from wedding to ship, friends and family seeing us off with bubbles instead of rice, which is said to harm the birds. How had I agreed to this?
The ship is our home away from home, our haven, our womb, our first-world vehicle for an arms-length tour of the third. Several days out of port, several more till the next, and then again to be herded down the gangplank to lie, flaccid and pinking, on gravelly beaches, or drift mindlessly in and out of overpriced shops to dicker over tourist trinkets. On board we are scheduled like children; steered, managed, and cajoled to participate in games, lessons, sports, and amateur theatrics. There are plenty of nap times—around the pool, on deck, where the ever-present thrum of engine lulls me to a drowsy stupor.
Everywhere, at all times, there are people. And, of course, my new husband ever at my side. The cabin is tight quarters. If I say I’ll take a walk or go work out or sit on deck and read, he jumps up and comes with. I book a massage; he says great and changes it to a couples one. I’d thought I’d known it would be different but hadn’t counted on this constant togetherness. Yet worse, he keeps trying to draw others into our ambit—at dinner, full of bonhomie, he invites all and sundry to sit with us, at the pool, he hectors me off my solitary float to join in a game of water volleyball, in the lounge, he badgers me to join in the singing, while he plays old show tunes on the piano for a jolly throng. After much too much alcohol and rich, heavy, yet somehow unsatisfying foods that leave me logy and overly full, I find myself again in our small cabin, enclosed in his embrace. He’s currently crashed out in the stateroom, satiated after yet another round of our marital intimacies. I slither from under the heavy arm, dress, slip out.
Outside there’s a night breeze that’s cool but hints of heat, like the breaths you sneak when you’re close to a person you crave, but can’t show it; little sips. I wander until I find the one uninhabited area of the ship, just deck, stars, and a lifeboat hulking under its tarp. A corner of the tarp is loose. “Not a bad place to hide,” I think, and then hear approaching steps. My husband? Not that awful woman from the lounge? I quickly climb, rubber soles gaining purchase on its side. I lift the loosened tarp and lower myself into the lifeboat. Like Alice going down the rabbit hole, or the children in books who, by fluke, luck, or happenstance, enter a mysterious portal to a magic world of novelty, adventure, and danger, without a look back I jump into the lifeboat. The same way Jack climbed the miraculous beanstalk, quickly, without much thought, mainly because it has appeared.
Inside is dark, with just the lifted corner of the tarp admitting a pale haze, the clouded solution of night and deck lights, moon and stars. I sink to the floor of the boat, lean back and slowly let out breath. There’s a spark the second before I hear a striking match and then an orange glow of cigarette end, the sharp tang of smoke.
“Sorry,” I mutter, and make for the opening in the tarp.
“Don’t leave,” a voice. Another match flickers; he holds it before his face—a young man. The flame burns down, nearly to his pale fingertips. I lean and blow it out, conscious of my breath on his skin.
I don’t like cigarette smoke, but his is somehow nostalgic of high school, shared illicit smokes in the bathroom, in the dark corners of the playground. He was pale as a rabbit with hair black as crow. Hiding or holing up, here in the dark alone.
I am polite. “I’ll go if you hoped to be alone.”
“I wasn’t.” He drags; exhales. “Hoping.”
Something of the unworldly about him. Pale and slender, but strong underneath, sinewy. Luminous. Hair black as the night ocean. Faint violet sleepless half-circles under deep-set eyes. His voice a light tenor, hypnotic.
“This is the safest place. From the bores, the authorities. From pirates, Ninjas, aliens, love. Disaster.”
“Have you been...imbibing?” I ask delicately.
He barks a quick laugh. “Did you know where the Coast Guard has its Lifeboat Training School? It’s called Cape Disappointment.” I think I understand.
Glints of moonlight spark the centers of his eyes with little flames. The lifeboat is a satellite, suspended, its own world.
There’s a dankness in the air and I shiver. I remember the warm, bright lounge, my husband’s cozy bed. “Maybe I should go.” Footsteps outside, close.
A moment—freeze frame, a still second.
The ocean is a chameleon—pearl grey in the morning, bottle green when frosted with foam in the afternoon, shiny black at night. The ocean is a dissembler. It seems as if solely water but underneath teems with creatures bizarre, alien, dangerous, like the seemingly kind neighbor who turns out to have a secret life. There are some who find the ocean peaceful, but others accuse it of being deceptive, passive aggressive. The ocean connects home with the places we go. It is answerable to only the moon.
Once activated, the mechanism begins to lift the tarp and to lower the lifeboat, which after a few moments dips, then buoys in the inky sea, bobbing gently in the wake of the big ship gliding steadily on, lights moving on its tiers of increasingly distant decks.