While his children bickered and his wife ignored him, Charlie tugged at the thin paper flap of a packet of tea.
His eyes scanned the breakfast buffet line. If he went on the long, labyrinthine journey for another pastry now, he could so easily get lost in the endless tables and chairs. The other families appeared so indistinguishable from his own that he might simply never find his way back to his own family again.
The twins pushed each other, jostling the table. Steaming water sloshed out of the mug before Charlie could drop in the teabag.
Chloe, their eldest, moaned.
“Can I please go to the teen deck now?” she said. “These two get more annoying every day we’re here.”
“But we’ve only been here two days!” one of the twins observed.
“Exactly,” Chloe said.
“Two and a half days!” the other twin said.
Charlie dabbed at the spilled water with a napkin.
“In a few,” he said. “Let’s just try to have some nice family time for a while.”
Chloe rolled her eyes.
“Don’t we do that at home?” she said.
“I have to pee!” one twin shrieked.
“You have to wait!” the other wailed.
Claire spoke from behind her book for the first time since they had sat down. She still wasn’t wearing her wedding band.
“Let’s just get through breakfast, please,” she said. “We’ll fight our way to a bathroom soon enough.”
Even here nothing was different. The children at the table—his children—could still find something to shove each other over. Even out here, hundreds of miles from any coastline, the familiar endless arpeggio of their grievances choked the air around their family.
The table shook again, dashing more hot water out of his cup and onto the table.
“Please be careful,” Charlie chided.
Claire did not look up from her book.
Slipping off a sandal, Charlie flexed his toes and explored the air under the table. He pawed playfully at his wife’s calf.
“Hey,” he ventured. “Remember St. Lucia?”
Claire’s glasses inched up the bridge of her nose and her mouth made the shape of a smile. She crossed her legs and resumed her reading.
It was supposed to be different out here, he thought.
A nine-day cruise was supposed to have been just the thing. A vacation. A real vacation. A week at sea, a relaxing adventure upon a floating skyscraper of amusement and distraction. Just the thing to break up the monotony, to allow them all to escape the procedural bits of life, to allow his wife time to acknowledge him, his children something to appreciate him for. All thoughts of work and school and yoga and friends left behind on land as they became temporary sea-dwellers.
It was supposed to have been different.
As breakfast commenced in the great wide room of chaos and clinking, Claire continued to read. When her napkin slipped off the edge of her lap and fell to the bright textures of the carpeted floor, she did not seem to notice. Charlie bent sideways to reach down between their chairs, pinched it between two fingertips, and placed it back into her lap. When she still did not look up, he lightly patted the top of her thigh, then gave it a small squeeze. She sighed, grabbed at the napkin, and tossed it onto the table beside her plate.
“Can you not?” she said, holding up the book. “I’ve been trying to finish this for two months and I’m nearly done.”
Charlie removed his hand and noticed the pink stain on his sleeve. He wiped at it with a napkin, gave up, and rolled both sleeves up. The ship’s dry-cleaning service had not been able to fully pull out the cranberry juice one of the twins had spilled into his open suitcase on day one of the cruise. For the remainder of the voyage, he would have to either wear his single blazer every day or stand with his arms folded awkwardly to cover the spots.
The twins bickered about something new. They had not slept long enough again. After learning that their favorite character—the duck—would not be making an appearance on this ship, they had, in brotherly solidarity, wept and sulked deep into the night.
Chloe, feeling herself too mature for mascots, siblings, and parents, spent every free moment creating reasons to be as far away from the rest of the family as possible. She sat scratching at a bare thread on the tablecloth, no doubt counting the seconds until family breakfast time was over and she could rejoin her provisional friends elsewhere in the bowels of the ship.
Charlie raised his head to survey the far end of the room that ended not at a wall, but glassy blue sky. His eyes lightened a shade as he looked past the still sleep-deprived red eyes of his children and stared ahead at what sliver of the horizon he could make out through the crowd of fellow misguided parents and their families.
A burst of flowing gold passed between his eyes and the horizon, like wheat in wind. A woman in a too-large teal sweatshirt stepped lightly between the tables, grabbing an apple from the fruit bar as she passed. She pushed up the sleeves of the sweatshirt, half bit the apple, leaving it perched at the front of her mouth like blown bubble gum, and began to gather and tie the wheat-like bundles of her hair up into a knot behind her head. It was a sight, an act so familiar to him that it pulled, back through some unseen tunnel of time—the face, the form, the movements of…Sarah.
He almost said the name out loud.
One of the twins grunted, struggling to open a tiny carton of milk.
“Can you…?” Claire said to him, pointing to the flailing child with her eyes.
“What? No, nothing. What? Yes, yes, I’ve got it.”
His eyes followed the false Sarah out of the room as he opened the carton of milk.
He dipped his bag of tea, the one thing in that moment he had even some control over, the one thing at this borrowed table that was his, up and down methodically, intentionally, into the steaming mug of hot water.
The twins fussed, argued, and spilled. Chloe’s shoulders entered their usual dissolved collar bone pose. Claire spoke a few dispassionate words to him about their plans for the day ahead, but her eyes remained on her reading.
Where was Sarah now, he thought. When even was the last time that he had seen her, that she had seen him? How long ago was that day, the last of their days, the day of the final strife that ended the lifetime of three years spent together in young adulthood? Did she ever marry? Did she herself have children whose noises and omnipresence could make her escape into memories of him?
The potential futures of expired years sat heavily on him, both in his mind and across the table. One of them kicked him in the shin.
The walls of the ship, that insufferably cheerful and buoyant place full of these people and these families and these children—how many children had they been able to cram into this one cursed ship, he wondered, and wouldn’t it sink from the weight, and why, why had he decided to bring his family to this place, and by God why won’t it just sink?—felt suddenly, dangerously close. Outside… but of course, there was no outside… just an endless expanse of sea with waters so cold they would kill a man before anyone would notice he had fallen—jumped—in.
This place wasn’t an escape.
It’s a prison.
Charlie’s wrist moved up and down, more slowly now under the swelling weight of the bag of tea, as if he could only lift it out of the cup for a second or two before being forced to release it back into the browning depths.
He mentally checked the calendar and itinerary ahead. Five more days. Two more excursions. Fourteen more meals. Four more nights sleeping mere inches from every member of his family. No escape.
Things could have been different.
The twins knocked over the recently opened carton and shouted accusations as lukewarm milk dripped off the edge of the table to soak the left thigh of Charlie’s slacks.
Claire read and did not look up.
If I can just make it off this ship, he thought.
Surely Sarah would not have had children. Even the mention of children had always made her scrunch her nose. He pictured her at a bar reading a book. At a bar in the afternoon, reading a book. At a bar in the afternoon, alone, reading a book. And having a drink. It seemed to him the most wonderful thing he could imagine.
The string broke. It dangled from his fingers. He watched the bag float like a bloated, dead fish and felt a familiar, intimate helplessness as he stared at the suddenly weightless string.
What is this all for? he wondered.
He watched his family. Chloe bit at her nails and stared through blank eyes at nothing. The twins squabbled about who should have to go get a replacement carton of milk. Claire licked a fingertip, flipped a page, and rested her head sideways against her knuckles.
This is supposed to be different.
Pain eased its way in through the skin of the three fingers that he slowly, deliberately dipped into the searing water. The bag, soft and thin, felt now to be a frail, living thing, that if not pulled from the water would surely sink and perish.
For the first time in as long as he could remember, his wife looked at him. Her eyes played over his face. He felt they were perhaps perplexed. Or shocked. Annoyed? He chided himself for not being able to tell anymore.
The pain was soaking its way into him, down close to his bones, but he held his fingers there a second more.
Finally, he pulled the bag out, dropped it on the tablecloth, and blew on his steaming fingertips. He looked into the murky depths of the mug. It had been worth it. Too much more time soaking and his tea would have been over-steeped. Ruined. That brief glance from his wife, whatever it had been, had been enough. Had been worth it.
He leaned forward in his seat and tapped a still steaming finger on the table in front of Chloe.
“Go ahead,” he said, nodding toward the elevator doors across the room.
“Really?” she said.
Chloe smiled and was gone.
“Pssst,” he called through his teeth to the twins. “Know what’s even better than a carton of milk?”
Their eyes brightened.
“A carton of chocolate milk!”
“I’ll go find you some in just a minute.”
They squealed some more.
“Hey,” he said to Claire. “Why don’t you go back to the cabin for a bit? Maybe you can finish your book.”
“Oh,” she said. “I’d…really like that.”
She ripped a corner of a napkin and marked her page with it.
“Chocolate milk! Chocolate milk!” one of the twins sang.
The other slapped him. “You have to wait!”
“You sure?” Claire said, looking at them.
“Yeah,” Charlie said. “I’ll take them to the pool. I may not be in a giant duck costume, but…I can swim.”
“Great,” she said.
He watched her gather her things.
If…we…can just make it off this ship, he thought. If we can just make it back home.
He took his wife’s hand and held it, moving his thumb around the tiny mound of one of her knuckles, leaving behind an almost imperceptible wet spot of tea. He wondered, as he watched it disappear off her skin, if what she felt was the coolness of the evaporating liquid or the warmth of his hand.
Matthew Brinkley is a fully reformed and recovered former Evangelical missionary and the creator, writer, and illustrator of the online comic, Dear Grandma. When not writing, you can find him co-running an online quilting education business with his wife, trying to spend every possible moment with his son and his dog, working on his first novel, and worrying. matthew-brinkley.com