Richard sat on a bar stool in the Vista Lounge. The bar was closed. It was 7:21 in the morning. Last night, while sailing from another island, they had seen a lively cabaret show at the Lounge; now it served as a gathering area for land trips. The heavy drapes were down, the lights were off, and the air conditioning was blasting. In his swim trunks and gray T-shirt, Richard was cold.
The tour guide signaled it was time for departure. The group was small. They were starting out late, and might be late returning. Richard thought that Christina would worry.
The sun outside blinded him. Two tenders waiting on the port side took them to the pier in about ten minutes. They docked in front of a large erected by the cruise personnel earlier that morning, and the tourists poured out over the gangways. Coolers with bottled water and soft drinks and tables with simmering coffee machines and stacks of white Styrofoam cups were placed against the corners of the flapping canvas. Older people were waiting on folding chairs.
Richard followed his guide along the pier to a place where two local men with baseball caps stood by a rubber boat. The guide shook hands with the men, then waved to his group, and returned to the tent. One of the locals collected the tickets and asked everyone to take off their shoes. The other jumped on board and started the engine. The boat vibrated.
Richard rolled up his white socks and stuffed them inside his sneakers. He placed them side-by-side in a plastic basket provided for the tourists and tied with a chain to the pier. As he straightened up, he bumped into a young woman standing too close behind him. He uttered an excuse and stepped onto the plank leading to the boat. The man who collected the tickets supported him by his elbow. In the middle of the boat was a three-sided fiberglass booth, with a steering wheel, a stool, and an antenna tied to the hardtop. Below the antenna, a single speaker played loud Reggae music. Wooden benches lay across the rear of the boat. There were none upfront, except for one long plastic tube painted yellow like a banana placed longitudinally in the middle. Richard sat in the back. The woman he had bumped into on the pier was taking off her sandals. She sensed his gaze and smiled at him. It was a reflex smile, timid, vulnerable. He realized he had seen her before on the ship, but couldn’t remember where. She was beautiful.
Opposite Richard sat a young couple. An overstuffed black bag rested at their feet. The man took off his shirt and rummaged through the bag. He had a thick and perfectly shaped muscular torso, and his head was shaved. The woman told him something, and he shook his head. She said something else, but Richard couldn’t hear over the noise of the engine.
A middle-aged couple accompanied by their teenage daughter made their way across the length of the rubber boat. The husband had a jovial face that reminded Richard of his swimming coach back in Middle School. The husband guided his wife’s steps; she was overweight. The teenage daughter followed with proud independence. She looked thirteen or fourteen and Richard noticed her mother’s genes in her growing body. The couple sat near the man with the shaven head, and the teenager sat to the right of Richard.
The young woman came over. Richard glanced the other way. She too, sat next to him, on his left.
One of the men stopped the music and started speaking into a microphone: “Good morning, everyone. Welcome to our boat, the Big Banana! My name is Tony and I’ll be your mate today. And this is Captain Jesus.” He pointed to the second man, who had already assumed his place by the wheel. “In no time, Captain Jesus will steer this Big Banana to the best snorkeling place in the world. People, let’s give him a big hand. Our captain, the best in the business!”
Jesus removed his baseball hat and turned to his customers. Everyone clapped, except the young woman.
A large group appeared on the pier. The middle-aged man sitting opposite Richard started fidgeting. “Look, dear,” he said loudly to his wife and pointed to someone in the group. “The guy we met yesterday, from San Francisco!”
The woman turned with difficulty, and the husband didn’t wait. “Helloo, San Francisco!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, and started waving.
The man on the pier noticed and screamed back: “Helloo, Salt Lake City!”
“We’re going snorkeling. What’re you doing?”
The man answered but his response was lost in the engine noise.
“Come with us,” yelled Tony into the microphone. “Ride the Big Banana, the fastest boat in the world.”
The man came to the edge of the water. “I don’t snorkel, but good luck to you!”
“We will need it,” the wife said. “We’ve never snorkeled before, would you believe it?”
“Then watch out for sharks.”
“Man, no shark in water,” said Jesus, and turned to Tony. “Get ropes on the boat, we going.” Then he switched the music back on, and pulled at a lever.
Jesus’ accent matched that of the Reggae singer. It was clear his English was not as good as Tony’s. Of the two, Richard thought, he must be the real local, heavily influenced by the island’s dialects, the one who knows the spices, the women, and the bottom of the sea. His name was typical for those islands. Yesterday, Richard had toured a different island in a taxicab driven by a man named Moses.
Tony leaned over the side of the boat and pulled the ropes. The middle-aged couple from Salt Lake City yelled “Good-bye” to the man on the pier. The boat inched away.
Richard placed the clip-ons over his glasses, and so protected, stole a glance at the young woman. Her head was bent down, as if she was tired or hopeless. The skin on her neck was baby white, covered by a puff of fine gold hair. The rest of her hair, golden-brown, was gathered up in a bun. She wore a simple beige T-shirt, slightly stretched over her breasts. One hand rested on her thigh, where the shorts ended. Unlike her neck, the skin on her arms and legs was well tanned. Sitting down, she appeared rather small. Richard couldn’t see her face clearly, and he imagined that her expression showed an unusual thirst for life burdened by dark sadness.
The boat veered and shook. When Richard looked up, he saw they were leaving the port. The water was a milky blue-green. The end of the pier was badly damaged, with huge sections of concrete missing. The ones left standing looked like stark little islands strung on a line. Rusted rebar was twisted, desperately pointing towards the sky. The sea below was pounding through the gaps. “Jeez… what happened to this pier?” the middle-aged man from Salt Lake City wondered, not addressing anyone in particular.
The boat jerked forward. The wind blew in Richard’s face, causing his clip-ons to vibrate and slide off his glasses. Around him, the green-blue world was a bubble.
To the left and the front of the pier loomed their ship, white and steady against the water. For a while they traveled in its shadow. The middle-aged woman from Salt Lake City was facing the ship. Obviously impressed by its size, she seemed eager to comment, but her husband didn’t pay her any attention.
Four days ago, when they had boarded the ship, Richard had heard that it was twice the size of the Titanic. Two thousand passengers and crew sailed comfortably on it.
“It’s a floating hotel!” the middle-aged woman let out, frustrated in her isolation.
Richard marveled at the originality of the human mind. He thought of Christina, now probably sleeping in their stateroom. Last night she had gotten quite wild and had drunk like there was no tomorrow. Or as if, Richard thought, she didn’t want to think about tomorrow. She started drinking at the bar, then shared a bottle of Pouilly Fumé with him over dinner, had a glass of champagne at the cabaret show, and then, at the Tropical Night Deck Party, she ordered a bottle of champagne and finished it by herself. For almost an hour after that, she did the Macarena and other group dances with a bunch of clowns she had never seen before in her life and would never see again, laughing and shaking and throwing streamers and confetti at them, while he sat alone at a table and watched and waited. When he finally took her back to their stateroom, they found another champagne bottle waiting for them, chilling in a silver ice bucket. It had a note scribbled on ship stationary, which Christina snatched and started dancing with it, her arms in the air. She read the note upside down in a slumbered and suddenly nervous voice. May you enjoy life to the fullest on the day of your wedding anniversary, the note said, signed Ross, your reservations director. “Let’s drink, let’s drink it now!” Christina implored Richard, but he resisted by placing the bottle inside the small refrigerator and moving the ice bucket into the hallway. He didn’t think much of it yesterday, but today the whole episode gained a new dimension.
Yesterday afternoon, they had stopped by the reservations counter, in the main atrium. Another couple was ahead of them.
“I’d like to go on this trip,” Richard said. “I’d really like to.”
“Then go ahead,” Christina said looking the other way.
“You could come too, you know. You could lie on the deck and sunbathe, or jump in and swim, if you got too hot.”
“I don’t know, Richard. I’d be embarrassed.”
“Honey, why would you be embarrassed, for crying out loud?”
The couple in front turned to them briefly.
“You don’t understand,” she said touching his hand and taking a step backwards.
He didn’t say anything, and started contemplating their surroundings. The main atrium was four stories high, with two spiral staircases and three glass elevators, with bars, boutiques and original artwork, a white grand piano, an ornate Christmas tree, and potted full-size bougainvilleas. The Christmas tree was plastic, of course, but the bougainvilleas were real. They flanked the earth tone runner that cut diagonally across the parquet floor and carried most of the passenger traffic. A dome of lacquered wooden beams and curved pieces of mirror and stained glass closed above them. Below, hung a huge chandelier.
Frustrated by his silence, Christina walked away slowly, one small step after another. A little sunburned, her delicate face reflected confusion. She disappeared behind a column, reappeared, and continued floating away.
He called her when she reached the elevators.
She waved, and started back as slowly as she had gone. “Listen,” she said when she came close. “I’ll join you if you really want me to. Honey, we are on this cruise to be together, aren’t we?”
The couple in front left, and they advanced to the counter.
“Do you still have openings for the catamaran trip tomorrow?” Richard asked. “You know, the one that offers snorkeling.”
“Tomorrow, tomorrow…” the young man behind the counter repeated thoughtfully and checked a few charts. “Yep. Do you want morning or afternoon?”
“Morning.” Richard looked at Christina. “So you’re coming, aren’t you?”
“Is it alright if she waits on the catamaran while I snorkel?” Richard asked the young man. “Would this be unusual?”
“Absolutely not,” the young man said. “The catamaran is a lot of fun and they serve champagne on the way back, after snorkeling. There will be other people who don’t swim. They just go for the ride.”
“That’s just it,” Christina said. She leaned on the counter as close as possible to the young man. “I swim. I love to swim.”
“Then you should try snorkeling,” the young man said.
“It’s the snorkeling tube. It makes me very uncomfortable.”
“You’ll get used to it. Just try it again, you may like it.”
The young man had a handsome tanned face and a very dark beard. His body looked fit under the uniform. He seemed to have snorkeled a lot in his life, and have participated in a lot of other exciting activities. His words were confident, yet unassuming. If he was selling, he was doing it skillfully.
As if joining an intimate conversation, Richard leaned on the counter as well. “She can’t take anything in her mouth,” he said in a low voice. “We tried, but she gags. Unfortunately.”
The young man lowered his eyes. There was a moment of silence. “If you’d give me your card, sir, I’d put in your reservations.”
Richard produced the blue plastic credit card he had received when they boarded the ship.
“Stateroom C 509, Mr. and Mrs. Glass,” the young man read on the card, getting ready to pass it through the reader.
“That’s us,” Richard said with a laugh. “Got married last December. One year exactly tomorrow.”
“Congratulations,” the young man said and made a notation.
“We are also taking the island tour tomorrow,” Cristina said. “It starts at two in the afternoon. Will we have enough time between trips?”
The young man checked his charts. “Fifteen minutes. But the place where the first trip ends and the second one begins are close on the pier.”
“I’d like to get back to the cabin and change,” Christina said.
“I’m afraid you won’t have enough time. We’ll anchor outside the port tomorrow, and you’ll be getting on shore by tender.”
“That’s okay,” Richard said. “We’ll just wait on the pier.”
“It might be okay for you, honey, but I’m not going to spend my afternoon in a wet bathing suit.” She looked at the young man searching for understanding. “It’s difficult for a woman to stay wet; you know how clammy those bathing suits feel.”
If the young man knew, he didn’t say anything. He looked at his charts one more time, and came up with a counterproposal. “Take the snorkeling safari. It starts at seven forty-five, and it ends at eleven. You’ll have plenty of time for lunch and…whatever.”
“Tell us more,” Richard said. He noticed a line of people had formed behind them.
“Well, you’ll ride on this rigid inflatable that’ll take you to a nice bay where you can snorkel.”
“And what do I do while he snorkels?” asked Christina.
Richard straightened his shoulders and glanced behind him. “Honey, you wait on the boat.”
“But it isn’t as nice as waiting on the catamaran? Or is it?”
“It isn’t,” the salesman said.
“Then I don’t want it.”
“Look,” Richard said. “Let’s make a decision already. All these people are waiting.”
“Do you know what a rigid inflatable is?” asked Christina. “I know, because I saw a picture of it in the brochure. It’s a rubber speedboat like those used by the navy. They mount their machine guns in the middle and sit around on the sides. It’s much too uncomfortable.”
“I understand, but I really want to go. Will you be okay, alone, for a few hours?”
“Do as you please,” she answered.
“Your meeting point is at the Vista Lounge,” the young man announced pointing to a diagram of the ship. “Please be there no later than 7:15 AM.”
“I’ll be punctual,” said Richard.
“So early,” Christina noticed. “No doubt I’ll be sleeping.”
“Sleep, if you want,” Richard said. “Or go to the pool. I’ll find you when I come back.”
“I’ll be waiting for you in my room,” said Christina, her almond shaped eyes moving lasciviously between the two men, as if addressing them simultaneously.
Richard imagined returning from snorkeling and finding his wife in the disheveled bed. “Hello, honey, how are you?” he’d greet her. He’d give her a quick kiss on the lips and smell the alcohol on her breath, and a new indistinct scent of the pillow. “I’m fine,” she’d respond stretching her limbs. “I had this grand breakfast in bed and treated myself to Mimosas. Remember the champagne you didn’t want to touch last night? Well, it’s gone, completely gone, my sweet little dufus.”
Richard imagined returning from the snorkeling safari and finding the stateroom spotless and the bed professionally made, all possible incriminating evidence erased for eternity. In his small cranny down the hallway, the steward would be washing his hands with the indifference of a perfect accomplice. Christina would be waiting on the balcony, a thin cigarette hanging from her lips. Her almond shaped eyes would seem burdened by a touch of remorse. “Something strange happened,” she’d cry out to him. “Remember the champagne bottle? I had one glass in the morning, and then I accidentally pushed it over the railing and dropped it into the sea.”
The Big Banana flew along the shore. Rugged volcanic mountains covered by shrubbery descended into the water. Where they ended, the island was ending, and beyond it was another island, as mountainous and green as the first. In the distance, the morning air was misty, the mountains and the rocky shores looking hazed like a dream.
Jealousy was a new feeling for Richard. He had married late in life, and the concept of loyalty represented for him just a beautiful theory. The fact that suddenly he felt like being eaten from the inside was surprising. He wondered if Christina was experiencing jealousy as well, even if she had no good reason. He sat next to this young and sad woman, but he was a man, and he had read somewhere that, statistically speaking, men cannot look at women without thinking of sex. Normal men thought about intercourse every ten minutes. That’s the way they were programmed.
Tony picked up the microphone. “Guys, if you want to have fun, try and sit on that thing over there.” He pointed to the yellow plastic tube at the bow. “Then you could claim that you rode the Big Banana.” He laughed as if he had come up with the funniest joke, and his voice broke with the wind and the noise of the engine. “We have soft drinks for you, cold, from the refrigerator. And we have T-shirts, all sizes, very fine island cotton.” He stopped for a few seconds, and continued. “Soon, we’ll get to the bay. You’ll see lots of tropical fish, rocks, and coral. We have these charts with the names of the fish. Pass them around and take a look.” He handed out two laminated charts with small colored pictures to the middle-aged couple from Salt Lake City.
The young woman asked for bottled water. Her voice was raspy. She stood up and leaned towards the fiberglass booth. She was taller than Richard had thought. Her body was as skinny as that of fashion models, yet well shaped and graceful. She stood in front of Richard, her buttocks at his eye level. If he moved his hand, he could touch them. If the boat pitched she would fall on his lap. He closed his eyes and imagined her face by now roughed up by the wind, her teary eyes, her freckled cheeks, and her thin nostrils. Suddenly he remembered.
He had seen her on the second night of the cruise, after the Captain’s speech. Christina was in the mood for a martini and he went into the atrium bar to get her the drink. There was the young woman sitting on a stool, smoking, her hair falling on her shoulders. She looked sophisticated. As he waited for his order, Richard couldn’t take his eyes off her. Others were looking at her as well. A man cut through the crowd and approached her. It was clear she knew him and was apprehensive of him. He spoke to her in a vehement tone. Being on the other side of the bar, Richard couldn’t overhear him, but his movements and his demeanor were aggressive. Suddenly the man stopped talking and walked away. The girl crushed the cigarette and followed him. Richard felt for her. She seemed shaken by the verbal assault, and much too obedient.
The middle-aged woman from Salt Lake City passed the fish charts to the man with the muscular torso. His wife leaned over to his side to look at the fish. She followed every line with her finger.
“Loro azul, catalufa de roca, isabelita petale,” she mumbled aloud and looked inquiringly at Tony.
“The first one is the Blue Parrotfish,” Tony translated. “The second is the Glass Eye Snapper, and I believe that the third one is the Queen Angelfish. But you have the English names on the back.”
“What?” the man from Salt Lake City said. “These are the names in Latin?”
“It’s Spanish, Daddy,” said his teenage daughter with the proper amount of embarrassment.
Captain Jesus cut the engine off, and the Big Banana floated to a stop in the middle of a peaceful bay. Tony tied the anchor to a buoy. They were a few hundred feet from the shore. Like everywhere else on the island, tall cliffs covered by tropical vegetation rose from the water. The sun reflected off its still surface, except in one area overshadowed by a massive accumulation of rocks. There, the sea was black and frothy, and the rocks were bare. Beyond them, one could not see the shore.
“This is it,” Tony said and started distributing the snorkeling gear. “You have forty-five minutes. Just stay close to the boat and don’t swim near those rocks.”
“Are there any currents in the water?”
“By the rocks, yes, but not if you stay within the bay,” Tony said.
“Are you going to give us a snorkeling lesson?” the middle-aged man from Salt Lake City asked.
“Let the others dive in first, and I will.”
Snorkeling, Richard didn’t use his arms and propelled himself with the soft undulating movement of his flippers. The right flipper bothered him slightly. Even though the ocean was warm, after a while, he felt cold craving the heat of the sun on his shoulders. He looked at his watch. Forty-five minutes could be a lonely time in the underwater world. His watch was water-resistant. He had kept it on, but had left all his other belongings wrapped in his T-shirt on the bottom of the rubber boat.
A school of Yellow Tail Damselfish rose to the surface. As he followed them, they scattered. He was out of breath and came up for air. The boat was about fifty yards away, gently swaying in the sunshine. It appeared Tony had just finished teaching the people from Salt Lake City the essentials of snorkeling. They were gathered at the ladder. Richard floated on his back and watched through his mask as the teenage girl lowered herself into the water.
He swam some more and saw more fish and a few rocks that were dark in the water. There was almost no coral, but he found a few sea stars and sea anemone. A turtle caught the corner of his eye, and for a while he followed it. The turtle moved almost sideways, head, claws, and tail out of the heavy shell. He wondered if it was a snapping turtle, and the thought gave him an uneasy feeling. He should have known better.
A trail of air bubbles came in his direction. He followed them to a slender female body swimming a few yards ahead of him. It was the young woman, no doubt, and the world around them fell silent. As the distance between them grew smaller, he felt the currents caused by her flippers. They seemed to him sudden impulses, signals. As she moved, he noticed her red swimsuit. Time stopped and the sun disappeared. Like in a dream, gray rocks rose to the surface. The surf broke against the rocks and he touched them with his hands and knees and felt their sharp edges and the shells growing on them. Careful to avoid getting scratched, he raised his head out of the water, and turned to look back and wait for a wave. When it came, it lifted and carried him over the rocks. He submerged his face and searched for her, but she had disappeared.
Slowly, he made it back to the boat. Five more minutes were left, and he was cold and tired. He climbed the ladder and realized the others were already there, all except the young woman. The music was on. He took off his flippers and mask, and returned them to Tony. He put on his T-shirt and pocketed his belongings. The adults were talking over the music. The teenage girl was looking at the horizon.
“Where could she be?” she asked.
“Who?” Jesus asked.
He turned off the music and gradually everybody stopped talking. The surface of the water was flat and perfect.
“I saw her swimming towards the cliffs,” offered the man with the muscles.
“Where I said not to go,” said Tony.
“That woman,” the middle-aged man said. “That woman was suicidal.”
“I’ll take the boat to the rocks,” Jesus said. It was obvious he didn’t like the idea.
Richard was certain they’d be late, and he thought of Christina.
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