No Better Place Between Sea and Sky

In Issue 72 by Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski

Image

Photo by Georg Eiermann on Unsplash

For the first time in fifty years of marriage, Arthur Bookman was keeping a secret from his wife. It was a new secret, acquired the day before they left for the cruise, and it chafed as uncomfortably as a pebble in his shoe.

Now, as their ship sliced through the waters off the west coast of Mexico, Arthur and his wife Faye stepped out onto the aft pool deck where rows of sun worshipers were broiling themselves in the tropical sun. Arthur plunked his papers down on the only lounge chair in the shade.

“You have to get some color, darling.” Faye touched his cheek. Even in her seventies, Faye was a pretty woman. “You can’t go on a cruise and go home without a tan.” She made a moue, though they both knew he’d stay put. “See you at lunch.” She swept off, her transparent cover-up floating in the breeze, her lime green hat a perfect match to the sandals she’d bought for the trip.

As Faye approached the sun worshipers, a swarm of pale arms waved in her direction, followed by a chorused, “Hi Faye! We saved you a seat.” After only a day at sea, Faye knew all the passengers, the names of their kids, where they lived, how many cruises they’d been on. Her capacity to connect with the whole wide world exhausted Arthur.

A waiter caught his eye. “Good morning, Mr. Arthur. May I bring you a cool drink?”

Arthur waved him away. “Nothing, nothing, thanks.” Being waited on made him supremely uncomfortable. As if he couldn’t get up and pour himself a lemonade at the bar. As if he were disabled or incompetent. He slapped his bush hat on his head and, in a small act of rebellion, removed his elastic support hose and propped his pale, hairless legs on the lounge chair. Across the expanse of oiled and glistening bodies, he stole a look at Faye, who interrupted her animated conversation to accept a drink from the waiter. The secret gnawed at him. He was going to have to tell her, he knew that. For now, though, best to put the whole thing out of his mind.

He settled himself, opened his file labeled, “PANAMA CANAL CRUISE,” patted the pockets of his travel vest for a highlighter, and began to read his carefully researched notes on the first of the ports of call. But as he tried to focus on Puerto Vallarta, the type swam.

Unbidden, he had a brief flash of that young doctor—she looked about fifteen—as she turned the computer screen, allowing him a glimpse of the shadowy globes, his own lungs, the dark mass lurking inside him.

He’d stared at the image, then the doctor, stunned.

“We’ll develop a treatment plan as soon as you return from your trip,” she said, avoiding his eyes. More gently, she added, “You’ll want to come in with your wife so we can all be on the same page.”

He snorted. Oh, yes, Faye was made for this task. Always the first to bring the sick neighbor homemade soup and bread; the first with a casserole when he finally died; she volunteered tirelessly at the battered women’s shelter, the animal rescue league, and tended devotedly to the hospital’s flock of candy-stripers.

He would have to tell her. And he would become her all-consuming project.

He couldn’t bear it.

Determined to distract himself once again, he riveted his eyes on his notes, but instead of charming Puerto Vallarta, a picture formed in his mind of a young Faye on the university campus where he’d first seen her, her red hair bright as a cardinal flitting through the trees. He looked up, startled by a sharp stab of longing. Those had been simple days, full of promise, full of hope. He swallowed hard, willing the feeling away.

Over the rail on the port side, he spied a solitary seagull flapping determinedly, keeping pace with the ship. The bird seemed to have its beady eye riveted on Arthur. He wondered how the bird was here—way out to sea without a wheeling, crying band of fellow gulls, dipping and diving into the chum stirred up by the ship’s passage. The bird’s determination baffled him. What was the point, after all, of the striving, the pushing ahead, of any of it?

Around him, the other passengers scrolled through cellphone feeds, slept with their mouths open, or stared out to sea. From the beginning of the trip, Arthur sensed no one on board was particularly happy. They seemed to have gone numb, plodding through the motions—eat, drink, casino, pool, eat, drink, Broadway show, pool—not even pretending to feel exhilarated by the great forward motion of the ship or the sea spray shot through with rainbows. Even the dolphins gamboling off the prow seemed to elicit little joy in his fellow passengers.

Impatient, he struggled to his feet, walked to the rail, eye to eye with the bird. After several more flaps, the gull peeled off.

Behind him, over the ship’s engine, the pool slurped and moaned like a wounded creature of the deep.

In the cafeteria at lunch, Arthur spotted Faye at one of the tables by the windows. With her sat a couple, younger, tanned and sleek in fancy athletic clothes. As Arthur approached the table, the woman lifted her smoothie to Faye in a mock toast. “Here’s to great shopping.”

“Stick with me, honey,” Faye said, winking. “I’m an expert. Ah, here’s my husband, Arthur.” She’d already loaded a tray for him with salad, fruit, a lump of whole grain bread. “Pull up a chair, honey, and meet the Baileys, Mimi and Scott.”

Arthur swept off his hat and flicked his eyes at the pair. “Hello.” He would have much preferred the quiet and comfort of lunch alone with his wife.

The Baileys were Australian, and for that reason Arthur didn’t tune out the conversation entirely. Arthur collected accents. Could tell Philadelphia from Jersey, Baltimore from the Eastern Maryland shore, and Brooklyn from Upper West Side Manhattan. Even though he’d grown up in supposedly accent-neutral northern California, he could spot native San Franciscans simply by the way they pronounced their city’s name.

The Australians were from Canberra where the husband was a policy analyst for a member of parliament, and the wife ran a specialty clothing business that Faye, of course, had heard of and admired. No children, alas, but they produced cell phone images of a pair of Shelties, with bonus shots of kangaroos in the wildlife preserve near their house.

“We have nothing so exotic in Virginia,” Faye mused, then brightened. “But we do have two grown kids.”

Arthur left it to Faye to keep up with their kids while they were away. They had always been and still were her realm. When they were children, she poured herself into their enthusiasms, cheered their teams, supervised their homework—all but the math, she left that to Arthur. Now, she backed Matt in his latest dabbling and nursed Sylvie’s endless round of hopeless love affairs.

“Here’s Matthew,” Faye said, and, between bites of egg salad sandwich, produced a picture of their thirty-eight-year-old son.

“Handsome chap,” Scott offered gamely.

Arthur toyed with his butter knife. Even at home, he had little to say to his son. Matt seemed to have been sired by someone other than Arthur, so different was he in every imaginable way. First, he’d pursued a career in acting, then film production, until it became clear, even to Matt, that he’d never make it in New York—all that hustle was beyond his ultra-mellow approach to life. Now he was, once again, back in college, studying art history, of all the cockamamie things. He’d probably get a Ph.D. and be in school for the rest of Arthur’s dwindling time on the planet. The kid was a perpetual drain on his bank account, worse than a boat.

Faye scrolled through her pictures. “And this is Sylvie.”

“What a pretty girl,” Mimi said, glancing up at Arthur. “She has your hair and coloring.”

“Unfortunately for her. Matt got his mother’s good looks.” Arthur attacked his salad, wondering when he could reasonably escape for a walk around the lower decks.

Arthur hated to think what might become of Sylvie. Matt would be fine, with his charm, his ability to slide by in life. But Sylvie, at forty, was mired in the longest adolescent bad mood in the history of womanhood. Faye knew how to deal with her. Arthur was too impatient, unable to bear her mooing complaints, her odd creaky voice. He shook his head, thinking of his daughter’s conga line of rejected boyfriends. He’d liked the last one, a self-effacing English professor with a wry sense of humor. Now the professor was gone, like the rest of them, deemed not “enough” for Sylvie. No one would ever marry her, Arthur reckoned. At least he wouldn’t be required to make a wedding toast about how lucky her new husband was to have her. Hah.

He poked at his salad. All the same, she’d been such an endearing child: deliberate, serious, feeling things deeply, while so much seemed to simply bounce off Matthew. Even now, Arthur could almost feel the weight of her, her arms around his neck, her head against his chest.

He sighed. He loved his kids, sure, but most of the time he didn’t like them much.

Dimly, he heard, “Arthur, you’re retired, I take it?” Scott’s tart accent jolted Arthur out of his reverie.

He nodded. “Retired patent attorney.”

Scott’s brow wrinkled. “Doesn’t that take a lot of training? Engineering and law?”

“Glutton for punishment, I guess.” Arthur glanced at Faye, who had supported them on her school librarian’s salary during the many years of his education. “I had a very understanding wife.”

Faye colored prettily and waved away his praise.

“You practiced in Washington, DC, Faye tells us,” Mimi said. “You must have rubbed elbows with the most powerful people in the world. Did you ever meet the president?”

“Only once, at a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Faye’s on the board. She’s the powerbroker in our family.” Arthur finished his salad and pushed back from the table. “Please excuse me. It’s time for my postprandial constitutional.” He managed what he hoped was a jaunty grin, but his face felt strangely taut, and he feared he’d sneered without meaning to.

Faye frowned at him. “Meet us at the Admiral’s Lounge for  a game of trivia at four o’clock, honey.” She turned to the Baileys. “You’ll have to be on our team. Arthur knows everything and we always win.”

*

The morning after their team’s victorious trivia game, the ship docked at Puerto Vallarta. Arthur left the dreaded support stockings curled in his drawer like a flaccid eel. Faye had insisted he wear them, especially for travel, but what did it matter now if varicose veins bulged, or his circulation flagged? He’d never wear the damned things again if he could help it.

Accompanied by the Australian couple, whom it appeared Faye had adopted, they disembarked with their assigned group. Arthur glanced at his wife as they descended the gangplank. He’d come close to telling her last night while sipping bourbon in the ship’s lounge. He’d stopped himself when confronted with her liquid brown eyes, his fear of drowning in them as real as plunging into the inky waters outside the portholes.

Once on land, a tour guide led the group along a beachfront promenade.

Dismayed, Arthur realized he still hadn’t read his Puerto Vallarta notes, being too preoccupied and restless on the days at sea. Normally, he researched every detail of the places they visited, while Faye was happy to have the guides dictate what they saw, willy-nilly. Now, walking along the strand, he felt unmoored.

“Look up there.” The Australian wife pointed to a low-slung house perched on the hills overlooking the harbor. “Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton built that house when they were filming Night of the Iguana.”

Privately, Arthur thought it was a silly thing to fasten on but had no other information to offer and kept his mouth shut. The town would surely have a square, and the square would surely have a cathedral where Arthur could escape the inevitable shopping.

Sure enough, after another block or so, the guide veered left and steered them straight to a silver shop, where, they were assured, only the finest local craftsmen sold their wares. Faye quickened her step. “I love Taxco silver,” she chirped, leading him eagerly over the cobblestones.

In the brightly lit shop, the salesclerks hovered. Arthur edged around the periphery, anxious not to make small talk with the Australian. He sidled up to Faye. “I’m going to check out the cathedral.”

Faye’s smile dimmed. “But darling, I need your help finding something for Sylvie—”

Arthur cut her off. “Ask your new friend, what’s her name? Mitzi?”

At Faye’s hurt look he softened. “You know I’m no good at shopping. Especially for Sylvie. She never wears anything we bring home.”

He saw the Australian striding purposefully his way. Why were they all so tall? “Back in half an hour.” He slipped out the door onto Calle Hidalgo where flags of red, green, and white fluttered over tourist shops displaying embroidered blouses, Panama-style hats, and leather goods.

Arthur crossed the plaza, glancing over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t being followed and entered the cool of the church.

Inside, he removed his hat and walked up the central aisle toward the altar. Encased in her lozenge of light, The Virgin of Guadalupe floated above masses of lilies, their sweet, cloying scent mingling with the odor of cleaning wax. Every surface was gilded or painted the colors of a fancy confection: pink, pale green, citrusy yellow, lavender.

Arthur wasn’t much of a churchgoer. Faye attended the little Lutheran church near their suburban Virginia home, but to Arthur St. John’s seemed more like a Kiwanis Lodge than a place where you might encounter God.

Only the otherworldly majesty of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona had moved him. The cathedral’s interior, especially, hinted at unknowable mysteries. Its soaring columns and kaleidoscopic ceiling looked as if they had merely happened, the result of natural processes, like the formation of the Grand Canyon.

Arthur lingered in the flickering half-light of the votive candles, filled with a yearning he couldn’t name. He dropped a coin in the box, picked up a stick, and lit a candle for himself.

He stared at the tiny flame for a long while, then turned and walked out into the blinding sunshine.

*

Back on the ship, Arthur sat in a chair in their stateroom while Faye emptied her shopping bags onto the bed. “Ta da,” she trilled, sweeping an arm over the booty. “Matt’s impossible to shop for” – she snatched a jade pendant from the tangle of goods – “but look what I found.”

Arthur raised a shoulder, skeptical.

“I think it’ll appeal to his retro fashion sense,” she said. “Have you noticed how he dresses like the boys used to in college?”

Arthur had never been one of those bell-bottomed, long-haired, ankh-wearing boys, but he let it pass.

Faye’s loot also included frangipani soap for “the girls,” her peripatetic band of women friends; five pounds of coffee to be distributed to the neighbors; a fifth of aged tequila; and several pastel jewelry bags. She opened one and pulled out a strand of dainty silver beads which she held up to Arthur.

He dutifully rose, took the ends of the necklace, and looping it around her neck, fastened the clasp. Blinking rapidly, he brushed his lips against the down of her top-most vertebra.

She turned, to him, beaming, her face as open as a flower.

Someone would discover her, Arthur thought, once he was gone. He stepped away, clearing his throat. “What do you think would happen if you didn’t come home with all these gifts?”

She looked puzzled. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I mean…” he searched for the words. “What if it was just you, empty-handed? Just you, Faye, no merchandise attached. Wouldn’t you be enough?”

Her fingers went to the necklace. “I suppose it might be fine for everyone else if I came home empty-handed, but it wouldn’t be enough for me.”

He wanted to tell her she was enough, more than enough at times, but the words stuck in his throat. He felt an odd slurring in his midsection, as if he told her that much, he would give way, like a dam bursting, and tell her everything: about the mass, about his fear of being subsumed by her prodigious caregiving, about his fear, period. Once he spoke it, he was certain, the fear could never be contained.

*

Two days later, Arthur and Faye joined the Australians and twenty or so other passengers disembarking at Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica. Here they would be bussed to the interior for a boat ride through the rainforest.

Once everyone was on board, the bus pulled away from the docks and drove through a neighborhood of rusting shacks. A riot of pink and orange bougainvillea grew over their plastic corrugated roofs but did little to mask the extreme poverty of the settlement. Stray dogs and barefoot children stood in the street watching them pass.

One child, in particular, drew Arthur’s attention. She wore a faded rose-colored dress and had shoulder-length dark hair, Aztec cheekbones, arms as thin as spindles, and outsized, knobby knees above wide feet planted far apart. Arthur leaned forward and lifted his hand, but the child merely stared at the hulking vehicle as it rolled by. Maybe she couldn’t see through the tinted glass. Moments later, the children turned away, scuffing at the dusty road.

“Poor little souls,” Faye said.

Arthur pictured Matt and Sylvie’s childhood possessions: an avalanche of skateboards, helmets, lacrosse sticks, lost retainers, gerbils, trampolines, backpacks, dominoes, and a veritable zoo of stuffed animals—all the detritus of a well-off upbringing in America, now decomposing in a landfill somewhere.

It was sheer luck his kids had been born in one place and not another.

He flashed back to the cathedral, to the jeweled statues with their staring eyes in that vast, pristine interior where not a soul lived. All that wasted space, echoing with his footsteps, while here people lived on top of each other in tumbled-down hovels. He cleared his throat. “Maybe we can leave some money for the children’s families when we come back.” He searched his vest pockets.

“What, dear?” Faye said.

“Nothing, nothing,” he muttered. What money he had would likely not get past the outstretched hands of the guides, drivers, and dockside hangers-on. And what effect would a few colones have? Handing out cash would be a self-indulgent, condescending act. Besides, just because the kids were poor didn’t mean they had a terrible life. Maybe they had loving families who were part of a close-knit community. It was possible, but he doubted it. And the question remained: what were they doing in the street in the middle of the week? They should have been in school.

He squirmed uncomfortably, then decided what to do. When they got home, or even before, he would research reputable Costa Rican aid organizations. He’d contribute a sizable sum, given anonymously. With the notion of doing something, anything, to right this injustice, the tightness in his chest lifted momentarily, and he had a sense of order he hadn’t felt in days.

Then his mind tilted again. Here he was, planning to help impoverished children in Costa Rica, while he kept his own kids at a distance. Hot with shame and regret, he resolved to take Sylvie to lunch and listen to her. Just listen. He could manage that much. And the one way he could connect with his son? Baseball—Matt loved the game. Arthur loved the stats. Nationals Park was only a twenty-minute ride from their suburban home. Where Matt currently resided. But never mind that now.

Soon the bus was flying along a gleaming new interstate highway. Their tour guide, a trim nut-brown woman named Ana Maria, tapped on her microphone. She announced that she, a botanist from the local university, would spend part of the bus ride telling them about the plants they would see on their tour. She held up a pear-sized red fruit with a pale bean at one end. “What do you think this is?”

Silence. “Come on.” She pointed to the knurled bean. “What does it look like?”

It looked a lot like an embryo to Arthur, who shrugged apologetically.

“A kidney bean?” Faye ventured. She loved the cruise lectures and was always the first to speak up.

Ana Maria shook her head. “This little seed, señora, is a cashew nut. But it is not so innocent as you may think.” She again pointed to the bean. “If you decided to eat this one seed raw, you would be risking your life.”

Sounds of surprise and shock rebounded through the bus.

Ana Maria nodded. “The seed of this cashew fruit, known here as marañón, contains toxic oil similar to that found in poison ivy. Here, I’ll pass it around. It’s perfectly safe to handle.”

The Australian woman in the seat in front of them handed the fruit to Faye. She took it gingerly. “It feels like a tomato,” she said, and quickly gave it to Arthur, grimacing as if glad to have it off her hands.

Ana Maria went on. “So now that you know what our little cashew nut is capable of, imagine the people who pick and roast them—for they must be roasted to eliminate the toxins.” Her eyes widened. “They develop severe blisters on their hands. In many places gloves are not provided to protect the pickers.”

Arthur weighed the fruit in his hands before passing it along. He shifted his gaze out the window, not seeing the dense vegetation outside.

A scene formed in his mind: their last Christmas—the fragrant tree, twinkling with pinpoint lights, the blazing fireplace, Arthur’s traditional holiday cocktail, served in pewter cups with a sprig of rosemary. Matt and Sylvie home, and for once, everyone getting along, laughing a lot. Messiah playing in the background. The room scented with Faye’s roasting turkey, sage stuffing, and caramelizing onions. Bowls of cashews on the side tables. Arthur’s favorite.

What would Christmas be like this year? No cashews, that was certain. And by then, almost a year from now, everyone would know the state of Arthur’s health. How long could he delay his transformation into a slipper-wearing patient, a shuffling shadow, someone to whom his family would bring bowls of bone broth, pablum-like custards, and tiny paper cups of pills. He shuddered.

Dimly, he heard Ana Maria say, “The banana is often called a tree, but it’s actually an herb, distantly related to ginger.”

“Wow,” Faye said. “I never knew that.”

In the summer, Faye planted their garden with canna, zinnia, and coleus. In the winter, she tended miniature peat pots of seedlings: peppers, herbs, and heirloom tomatoes, speaking to them softly in the grow lights’ blue glow.

Arthur took her hand, fingering the pink ovals of her lacquered nails, and tuned back into Ana Maria’s talk, hoping bananas didn’t have as dire a story as cashews.

Soon, the bus slowed and turned off the highway onto a less well-paved road.

“I’ll stop talking your ears off now,” Ana Maria said. “We’re almost there.”

After a time, the bus lumbered into a parking lot, and brakes grinding, came to a halt before a dense forest.

Once the group was off the bus, Ana Maria beckoned them, Arthur saw with resignation, into the requisite gift shop.

“Look, honey.” Faye pointed to a display. “Native woods! Aren’t these boxes gorgeous?” She flitted to another part of the shop, the Australian woman in tow. “And macramé hammocks! We should get one for the deck.” Next, she spied some tablecloths and moved deeper into the shop.

Arthur lagged behind. He loved his wife’s enthusiasm—it was one of the qualities that had drawn him to her—but lately, her gushing had begun to wear on him. He wished her passions were a bit more discerning. A wooden box with a crudely painted parrot on the lid was not, as she put it, “awesome,” an annoying word she’d picked up from Matt. The Sagrada Familia was awesome. A tie-dyed T-shirt was not.

Arthur mopped his brow with a bandana, feeling lightheaded, even though he’d walked only a few steps from the bus. He leaned against a pillar.

Ana Maria swooped up. “Are you all right, sir?”

“Yes, yes, thanks, I’m fine.” Arthur was oddly embarrassed to be with the other tourists, then felt remorseful for thinking that. He was a tourist like the rest of them, no escaping it.

“Good! You don’t want to miss the dancing.” Ana Maria winked and took his arm, and for a moment, Arthur thought she was going to sweep him into a salsa right there in the shop. “Come this way. Hola, everybody, follow me,” she cried, herding the others along. “The shop will be here when we get back from the boat. But first we have something wonderful for you.”

Ana Maria led Arthur and the rest of the group outside to a pavilion. Arrayed around the polished floor were four beautiful girls and four beautiful boys who waved and smiled as the group approached. The girls wore satiny red, white, and blue skirts and skimpy red leotards. The boys wore white shirts and jeans. All were barefoot.

Faye buzzed up, her eyes alight. “Dancing! I love dancing!”

“I’m going to sit this one out.” Arthur made his way to the chairs and sat gingerly in the front row. In the humidity, the oppression in his chest had grown. He waved his bandana to cool his face and took a long swig from the chilled water bottle he’d carried off the bus.

Faye sat next to him as Ana Maria addressed the crowd. “These are champion dancers from the local high school who are thrilled to perform traditional dances for you. Later in the program, they just might ask you to join them.” She swiveled her hips and snapped her fingers over her head.

The young people, smiling broadly, strode to the center of the pavilion as music blared from an enormous boom box. Arthur recognized the merengue from a Latin dance class Faye had insisted they take. The dancers began to move, the girls swishing their skirts and swaying their hips, and the boys upright and proud, waving handkerchiefs in the air. The girls swooped and detached their skirts, swirling them over their heads like matador capes, their legs bare. The boys whipped the skirts away and dipped the girls so their dark ponytails touched the ground.

Arthur looked around at the seated crowd, struck by the impassive faces revealing nothing much, no delight, no admiration for what lovely things those flexible bodies could do. He would have thought this display of youthful vigor would move them to smile and sway to the music, but they remained lumpen in their oversized T-shirts and baseball caps, their midriffs girdled with fanny packs.

The dance finished in a swirl of red, white, and blue, flashing thighs, and brilliant teeth.

Arthur and Faye clapped enthusiastically.

As the music started again, Arthur’s gaze traveled to Ana Maria, who, rather than watching the dancers, was studying the audience, a look of disappointment on her face. He was probably projecting his thoughts onto her, but she seemed to share his feeling of annoyance with the group. These kids were dancing their hearts out to please them, and their effort seemed barely to register.

After two more dances, one of the boys moved into the audience and approached a large woman in a muumuu. “May I have this dance, señora?”

She looked horrified. “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly.”

He turned to another woman, who flushed and demurred.

The boy was beginning to look desperate, as several other ladies shrank from his approach.

Faye leaped to her feet, waving at the boy. “I’d love to dance with you!” She ran up and grasped his hand.

Arthur’s heart swelled. Kind-hearted Faye couldn’t bear to see the boy rebuffed. And she did love to dance. Arthur caught her eye and gave her the thumbs up as she and the boy took the floor.

Once Faye had broken the ice, the other boys found partners and a cumbia number throbbed from the speakers.

Faye, a skilled dancer, easily matched the boy’s footwork. His eyes lit up; clearly, he was delighted he’d found an accomplished partner.

Arthur tapped his foot, enjoying his wife and the boy moving in perfectly synchronized steps. Her hips twitched under her tunic and her sandaled feet flashed. The boy stepped back and twirled her, shouting, “Cumbia! Hey! Hey!”

Faye didn’t miss a beat. Arthur applauded and some others joined him. She threw back her head and beamed out over the crowd.

Incredibly, the other women on the dance floor had come to life, too. Despite their fumbling steps, the throbbing congas and braying horns roused them out of their stupor. Their movement wasn’t nearly as smooth as Faye and her partner’s, but their faces radiated joy, nonetheless.

Arthur felt tears welling. He dabbed at his face, as if to wipe away perspiration, and swiped at his eyes, trying to quell the unstable mixture of awe and regret surging in his chest.

The music ended and Faye’s partner escorted her back to her seat. “Gracias, señora,” he said, as he deposited her next to Arthur.

Arthur nodded to him, praising the boy’s skill with his eyes.

“That was lovely,” Faye said, fanning herself with her hand.

Arthur, still overcome, dipped his head. “Yes, it was.”

After the young performers had taken their bows, he walked across the pavilion to stuff a handful of bills in the tip jar.

Ana Maria approached him, smiling. “Ah, señor, you are a very lucky man. To have such a beautiful wife, and one who loves life and loves you, it is obvious to me. And to dance so well—that’s the icing on the cake, no?”

Arthur looked into her eyes. “Thank you. Dancing is so important,” he found himself saying.

“And here she is.” Ana Maria extended her hand to Faye as she joined them. “I was just saying to your wonderful husband, señora, how lucky he is to have you.”

Faye took his arm, her eyes bright from the dancing. “We’re both very lucky, aren’t we, Arthur?”

He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. He nodded, and with his arm around Faye’s shoulders, he followed Ana Maria and the rest of the passengers down an overgrown path to the waiting boat.

As he helped Faye to board, Arthur felt slightly off-kilter, watching himself perform each small act as if part of an important ritual. They chose seats toward the front of the covered, open-sided craft, side by side, so familiar, yet it was like the first time they’d sat together, not touching, but with a gentle charge between them. The engines thrummed to life, and they pulled away from the bank and began to slide along the narrow river. The boggy air was thick with the calls of birds and insects. Enormous fan palms towered above, and banana plants, ferns, and bromeliads lined the bank.

The boat rounded a bend, flushing a band of scarlet macaws off their perch with a great rush of beating wings and brazen cries. In the mangrove shallows, Arthur spotted an ibis, looking down its curved beak, professorial and superior to the gawkers on the boat. Farther along, a flock of capuchin monkeys groomed each other on the branches of a massive sycamore, their startled white faces turning to watch the boat pass.

He was aware of Faye getting up and moving toward the prow of the boat. There, she and the Australian woman put their arms around Ana Maria and turned, smiling, as another passenger took their picture. The three women, each from different continents, cultures, traditions, seemed as naturally joined as the grooming monkeys. They radiated pleasure—in the beauty of nature, in each other, in the simple joy of touch.

In a flash, Arthur saw the women as radiant parts of a whole, how they fit into a shifting mosaic of light, fern, frond, creature. He ached to merge with them, but he still felt apart, observing, disconnected.

Faye returned to her seat, slightly breathless. “This place is amazing, honey.”

He jerked his head in agreement, feeling gruff when he wanted to say something true, something that would match the majesty of the feeling that swelled in his breast. To his surprise, the words tumbled out, “It’s…it’s so beautiful, I find it terrifying.”

Faye turned to him, startled. She touched his shoulder. “I know, honey. Life can seem that way at times.”

They held each other’s eyes and, all at once, the bittersweet knot in his throat melted away. He rested a hand on his breastbone, gazing at his wife until he ducked his head and looked away. Chagrinned, he saw himself, how he judged her at every turn. What if she found a box in a tourist shop beautiful? What was the harm in that?

He spotted Ana Maria, now leaning against the boat’s side rail, her head cocked, eyeing him as if she knew his secret. A shiver of understanding passed between them. Yes, he was a lucky man.

He would wait until they got home to tell Faye about the mass in his lung. Why spoil the cruise for her? He would tell her, and they would move forward together.

After all these years, he would finally let himself trust her.

He took her hand, sat back in his seat, blew out a long, slow breath, and watched the teeming shore pass by.

About the Author

Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski

Instagram

Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski lives and writes by the waterfront in the southwest sector of Washington, DC. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated story appeared in The Northern Virginia Review. She is seeking representation for a novel, a contemporary reframing of the story of the three graces. She has also written for the Washington Independent Review of Books, serves as a board member of a DC-based modern dance company, and blogs about art, design, dance, and other sources of inspiration at ellenkwatnoski.com.

Read more work by Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski .