We danced. On board a boat. Not just a boat, a cruise liner. One of those fancy deals where they serve you breakfast lunch and dinner, let you climb a rock wall that’s situated near the top level, have a big pool, and a nightclub for the grown ups, all contained within the price of the trip, of course. It was a trip where they let you dictate your own schedule instead of making you do whatever they tell you to when they tell you to. You pay extra for that. For the being able to do what you want to.
I met her on the last night. Ironic that. I don’t know where she’d been the whole time before we met. It seemed impossible that she could exist on board the entirety of the trip and I managed to avoid her. Especially since her cabin was only one level above mine. Above. She’d paid more for the trip than I had. She had more money than I did, or she had a relative who didn’t like to skimp on things. Who knew. I never did get to ask her. We didn’t actually get to talk about a lot of things. Very few words were said between us.
I caught sight of her in the mid-morning hours. From the corner of my eye, I thought she was a figment. That dark hair. Those legs. She seemed to float an inch above the ground, not actually walking. Stupid ideas of a man stricken with what he believed to be love at first sight, I know. She was radiant. And I didn’t have the guts to talk to her. Instead, I stalked her. Tried to show up where she was. Tried to make it look like it was pure accident. We were on a boat, after all. Not a lot of places for a guy to wander, right? No. She knew.
At dinner, I lost sight of her. I couldn’t find her anywhere. Finally I had to give in to the burning in my stomach that told me I hadn’t eaten in nearly twelve hours. I had to eat or I’d pass out, and then how would I find her?
“You’ve been following me all day.” A voice said behind me, as I was bending to take a bite of the pasta salad I’d fallen in love with and already had two plates of. I love buffets. You can eat what you like and leave the peas to the other hungry mouths. I turned to look and there she was. I’d known it would be her. I hadn’t been stalking anybody else. But I still found myself in shock that she was standing there. I let the fork drop away from my mouth and tried to say something. Words failed me. She just smiled.
Sat down without asking. Ordered food. Not the buffet. Food. I watched her for a while. Sitting there. Acting like she’d been invited. I couldn’t believe her gall. But then, I’d been stalking her all day, hadn’t I? That was pretty much an invitation to her to do whatever she damn well pleased, wasn’t it?
“My name is Mary.” She said, as her food came. The first words that she’d spoken since arriving.
“Daniel.” I replied. Finally able to make my voice work. I realized I’d been holding my fork up the whole time, a noodle dangling from it, threatening to fall onto my pants and leave an oily stain. I put it onto my plate with a small clinking noise that seemed to fill the whole dining room.
“You’ve got to be wondering how you lost me toward the evening.”
“Uh. Kind of.”
“When I was finally sure you’d been following me, I started to follow you.”
“Oh.” Well that pretty much answered it completely. You can’t really follow somebody very well if they’re following you. Did that mean, though, that we were mutual stalkers? Did that put us on a level playing field? She seemed so relaxed around me. She wasn’t worried that I was some insane killer or something. I suppose that put me a little more at ease than I’d been, but I still felt tense.
“After we eat, Daniel, you’re going to dance with me. But you’re going to ask me like a gentleman. Don’t assume that we’re just going to go right to the dance floor. I expect to be treated like a lady.” And those were the last words she spoke while we ate. I finished off my plate of pasta salad, but couldn’t bring myself to get more food. I was so afraid that if I walked away she wouldn’t be there when I got back. She’d vanish or something. She was even more beautiful up close. Her eyes were a startling blue color that didn’t seem like it should be possible in nature. She wore very little makeup, her nails were unpainted. She wore no rings, but had a very elaborate onyx necklace and matching earrings. A hair clip that fit the theme as well. It was odd to see a woman wearing no rings, no hand adornments at all. I didn’t know what to think of it. Except that it showed off how shapely her fingers were. How delicate her wrists.
I was enthralled with her. That much is safe to say. She seemed to care very little about me. She didn’t look at me very much, but it wasn’t in a shy manner. Or a bored one. She concentrated on her food, looked at her surroundings once. Met my eyes when she did look at me, but she only did that three times. I kept count. When she was finished, I stood, got her chair for her, and offered her my arm. She took it with a smile.
I led her to the ballroom, where people were already dancing. A lazy slow song was reverberating off the ceiling toward us standing at the door, and I turned to Mary and smiled. She returned it, and before I could ask her if she’d like to dance, she nodded and tipped her head to the dance floor. Apparently I’d done something right.
Our dance was wordless. The whole time we spent on the dance floor, she kept herself pressed close to me. Her breath in my ear. Her heartbeat against my chest. She was warm. Confident. I wanted to say things to her. Ask her questions. But the silence was contentment and I didn’t want to ruin anything. Her hand in mine, we moved like leaves on water. Separate but caught in the same gentle tide. I was dying inside to know where she came from, to know if I would ever see her again. To know if she would stay up all night and just talk to me. That’s all I wanted. Just to talk with her. I couldn’t even fathom doing something more with a woman like her. I was too afraid. I couldn’t even bring myself to think about kissing her. It was like if I did, my lips would fall off from the blasphemy.
In the middle of a song, she broke away from me. She whispered in my ear that I should stay put, and she left. There was nothing I could do. Her words froze me to my spot. I watched in horror as she walked through the doors without even looking back once.
Mary walked out of the ballroom that night and completely out of my life. Despite my desperate efforts, I never found her again. Never even caught a glance of her. The only memento I have is a photo somebody took of us when we weren’t looking. It was given to me as I left the ship the next morning on my way home. It doesn’t even show her face.
Forty two years, a different woman as my wife, and two kids later that night is still burned into my memory. The words spoken. The way her eyes looked. The way her hair smelled. I know I settled when I married Louise. I know I could have had the perfect life with Mary. My Mary. Lost in the middle of the ocean because I couldn’t be a man and run after her after she told me not to.