Reading Time: ~10 minutes
The boat set sail early in the morning, on a summer day. Mark boarded it first. His wife, Linda, followed. The children came last, jostling each other other in their excitement.
“Stop that,” Mark said to them, embarrassed.
They either didn’t hear or him or ignored him. Tom pushed Alice and Alice pushed Tom. Tom was about to push Alice again, giggling, but Mark caught his wrist. “God damnit,” Mark said. “I said stop it.” He shook Tom for a few seconds and then released him.
Tom bolted to his mother, crying into her dress. Linda put her hand on his head. “Mark, honestly.” Alice trailed behind. Mark led the way to a lady with a clipboard. “The Waldens,” he said. The humidity hung heavy, broken by bursts of an intermittent ocean breeze. He took out a handkerchief and dabbed at his temples.
Linda held the children’s hands. They followed Mark to the room on the boat. Two beds shared a cramped wooden space. The window was closed and the heat had warped the floorboards.
“Why would they keep this closed in this weather?” Mark asked. He stormed to the window and wrenched it open.
“Try to relax,” Linda said. Tom and Alice bounced over to one of the beds.
“I’m trying to relax,” Mark said. “I can’t relax if it’s a hundred degrees in here.”
“Go out on the deck,” Linda suggested.
Mark untied his tie and threw it on the bed. The children paused to watch him.
“I don’t know why you wore that thing,” Linda said.
Mark said nothing. He shrugged his coat away and walked out of the room. Linda sighed.
“Can we jump on the beds?” Tom asked.
Linda didn’t look at them, but she nodded.
A month ago, Mark and Linda had been been in a fight. A uniquely embarrassing fight, because there had been a witness. Mark had tumbled like a bowling ball into the kitchen, steaming. “The traffic was ungodly on the way back. You get one person that can’t drive a frickin car and-“
He noticed their neighbor, Ned Cullian, and his daughter, Samantha, sitting in the dining room. Ned politely distracted Samantha by passing his finger through a flickering candle, murmuring quietly. Linda stood in the kitchen with a platter of sliced ham. It sullenly steamed towards the ceiling.
Mark grunted and walked next to her. “What are these people doing here?”
“What makes you think that it’s okay to throw a tantrum about a commute?” Linda asked. “Since I don’t have the midnight shift at the hospital, it just seemed like a nice change of pace to-“
“Oh, of course. All right. Do we have any beer?”
“Don’t talk to me like that when we have company,” Linda said.
Mark pushed aside two jars of jelly. “Is there beer in here? Or did you just buy too much jelly instead?”
Linda slammed the platter of ham onto the counter. It echoed. Ned Cullian peered into the kitchen. Mark and Linda looked at him.
“That’s okay, we’re going,” Ned said.
The marriage counselor told them to take a break. Not from each other, but from their lives. “Stress often affects love,” he said, resting his chin on steepled fingers. “Life goes by so fast with kids and work and bills.”
He made a motion with his hands. “Slow it down. You’re on the train of life right now, looking out the windows, and everything that’s important is blurred. Try to take a cruise or something. Isolate yourself from all the trivial things. If you slow life down, you’ll be able to appreciate it. Focus on each other.”
“How much do we owe you?” Mark asked.
Out on the deck of the boat, foreheads blistered in the sun. Mark found a bar on the second deck after walking up a pair of shining, white stairs. His shirt dripped translucent with sweat. The barstools sparkled in the sun. He sat on one and wiped his face with his handkerchief. “Give me something cold,” he said.
No one answered. He peered over the bar, towards a closed door. A stack of plastic cups stood beside a tap. He took one of the cups and started to fill it from the tap.
“Excuse me,” someone said from behind him.
He turned around, still leaning over the bar.
A big man with a beard stared at him. “What are you doing?”
“There wasn’t anyone here. I needed a drink,” Mark said.
“You can’t wait until the boat gets out of the harbor?”
Mark leaned back to the barstool and got to his feet. “I’m going to talk to the manager about your attitude,” he said to the man.
“Good luck finding him,” the man laughed.
Mark left the bar and went back down the stairs. People walked around, a few hundred people at least. He bumped into several of them, trying to find someone in uniform. Faces blurred in the sunlight. The boat hooted and sailed away from the harbor.
Alice had been born fourteen months after Tom. There had been no sibling rivalry. They had become best friends. Linda and Mark often marveled at this when they had guests over the house and it was necessary to compare and distinguish children.
“Two peas in a pod,” Linda proclaimed.
“Partners in crime,” Mark said gruffly, lovingly.
The guests marveled appropriately before advertising their own children. If they had no children, they wold talk about careers. The narrative of Alice and Tom’s exploits sustained Linda and Mark for eight years. At this time, inevitably, their shining wonder grew dull from repetition. Mark worried about Tom’s frequent crying.
“You spoil him,” Mark said to Linda.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“God damnit,” he said.
Every time Linda bought something for Tom, every time she comforted Tom in his trembling grief about school, about friends, Mark felt a hot sting of disapproval, of hatred for Linda’s ineptitude at parenting. He signed Tom up for baseball, basketball, soccer.
“He doesn’t like any of those things,” Linda said.
“Because you teach him it’s okay to play with Alice’s dolls,” Mark said.
The conflict kept life new. The heavy, suffocating smog of tension boiled in every room of the house. Tom cried more and Alice became nervous, bending under the weight of a permanent stress. Mark and Linda prided themselves, congratulated themselves, on their individual composure in front of the children, criticized the other’s lack of it.
“You need to stop growling at the dinner table,” Linda said one night, hovering over Mark while he washed the dishes.
“I wouldn’t growl so much if you didn’t try to jab at me with everything you said,” Mark said.
“Like what? Like what?”
And so on.
They ate dinner at a restaurant aboard the boat. People sat at every table, stood in lines outside the doorway, yelling over each other.
“What did you do all day?” Linda asked when they sat at their table.
“I looked for the manager of this thing,” Mark said.
“Why?” Linda looked concerned.
“Because.” Mark sipped from a glass of wine. “Because there’s no respect from these people, that’s why. It’s a god damn circus in here.”
Alice’s lower lip trembled. Tom chewed on a piece of bread and looked at his plate.
“The children,” Linda said.
“A god damn circus,” Mark said, looking at the menu.
“Are you folks ready to order?” a waiter asked.
“Let me ask you something,” Mark said, reading the waiter’s name tag. “… Rob. Who runs this place?”
“The restaurant, sir?”
“No, the boat. This whole thing.” Mark opened his arms.
“Oh. I’m not sure, sir. Sorry.”
“I want chicken nuggets,” Tom said.
“He’ll have the chicken nuggets,” Linda interpreted.
The first memorable fight took place on a playground. Tom had been a year old. Linda and Mark sat on a bench, Mark left and came back with a hotdog. Linda plucked Tom from the stroller, but kept an eye on Mark. He bit into the hot dog. A long, stringy drop of ketchup plopped onto the collar of his shirt.
“Whoops,” he said.
“Oh my God,” Linda said, seating Tom on the rubber flooring of the playground.
Mark looked at her, angling his head to take another bite of the hot dog. Linda’s smile was tight. “Honey, you’re spilling ketchup all over your shirt.”
“All over?” Mark looked at the crimson on his shirt. “All over?”
Linda sighed a deep, sharp sigh. “We’re going to be walking around town all day and you’re going to look like… like that.”
“Who cares?” Mark asked, finishing his hot dog. He licked at his fingers.
“Mark! What if we see someone we know?”
“Oh my God.”
Mark stared at her for a long time, then looked at the ground. “Hey!”
Tom was gone. Linda and Mark jerked to their feet with the feverish movements of mounting worry.
“If you hadn’t bought that hot dog.”
“If you hadn’t been busy laying into me.”
“Where could he have gone?”
“He can’t even walk!”
Kidnapped, molested, killed, broken, trampled, open drain, Mark and Linda thought.
“Care!” Tom squealed. “Care! Who!”
He had crawled underneath the bench and listened to them argue. Mark and Linda raced to be the savior. Mark got there first, scooped Tom into his arms and hugged him to his chest. “Did you hear that? His first words.”
Linda crossed her arms.
After dinner, Mark walked on all three of the decks. He asked people who was in charge. No one knew. He hung his arms over the railing and watched the moon climb the horizon. It was full. Bright as the sun, but heatless. The night air brought a refreshing chill.
He walked back to his room. The children lay in bed, their faces melting into the pillows. Linda sat on the corner of it, reading a story to them.
“Let me,” he said.
Linda smiled and handed the book to him. The children looked at him with uncertain faces. Linda watched him from behind.
“Where were you?” Mark showed the book to Tom.
“Here,” Tom said, pointing.
Mark scanned the page. It was a story about knights and happily ever afters. “Linda, what is this crap?”
“What?” Linda had started to smile, but she stopped.
He clapped the book shut. “Kids, let me tell you a story instead. Would you like that?”
Tom and Alice watched him.
“Once upon a time, there was a man who could turn into an eagle. He could fly anywhere he wanted.” Mark spread his arms like wings. Alice giggled. “He flew to the East, West, South, and…”
“North,” Tom suggested.
Mark nodded. “The man married a woman who liked that he could fly places. But the man got older and older. It got harder to turn into an eagle, so he walked everywhere instead. One day, he realized that he couldn’t turn into an eagle anymore, but he couldn’t remember when that had happened. Maybe he had done something wrong.”
“Mark…” Linda said quietly.
“He had two children that he loved very much,” Mark said, thumbing Alice’s nose. She giggled again. “And he hoped that he could teach them how to turn into eagles, someday, if he remembered. His wife wasn’t sure.”
He looked at Linda and looked back at the children. “The end.”
Tom and Alice smiled. “Was that about you, Daddy?”
“Could be,” he said. He kissed them on their foreheads.
Linda made a noise and walked out of the room.
They had been married two years before having children, lived in an apartment in the city, used trains to get to work. Each day ended with glasses of red wine, dim lighting, television of entangled bodies. Linda often organized dinners with other couples, any women from the hospital vaguely of the same age, the same stage.
They both enjoyed the idea of an active social life. The dinners could include up to four or five couples, some married, some almost married.
The women would comically announce eccentricities of husbands, husbands would justify these eccentricities with a comically masculine tone. Tiring of this, conversations would turn to finances, complaints about the costs of living in the city, peppered by jokes about the consequences of living in the city. The married couples carefully displayed how they were the exception to the decay of monotony, their lack of regrets or doubts, the superior ease and intimacy of their relationships.
At home, Linda and Mark reviewed each night.
“She looks a little tired.”
“He’s getting a little fat.”
“They looked a little tense.”
“Maybe it’s just me, but…”
“Did you notice how…?”
They smiled at each other and kept their thoughts to themselves.
He found her at the bar on the second deck. He put his hand on her shoulder.
“Linda,” he said.
She sipped from a straw. People hovered all around them, talking loudly.
“Linda,” he said.
She turned around on the stool. Tears had smudged her eyeshadow. She kept sipping from her drink when she faced him, but only ice cubes remained. They clacked like teeth against the tug of the straw. Mark leaned past her with a five dollar bill in his hand. He waved it at the bar, but no one came.
“We can’t do this,” Linda said. “We need to tell them.”
He looked at her.
“No,” he said.
She put her glass on the bar. “They’re going to find out.”
She stood from the bar, swaying a little. “This isn’t something we’re going to be able to hide. You’re not doing a good enough job of it.”
“Don’t touch me.” She sat back down on the stool.
“Everything okay over-” The man with the beard stood behind the bar.
Mark looked at him.
“Did you find the manager?” the man asked, making a face.
Mark tried to ignore him. Linda turned back to the bar.
“Didn’t think so,” the man with the beard said. “Listen, don’t bother this lady.”
“She’s my wife,” Mark said.
The man shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me. Get lost.”
“You see?” Mark said to Linda. “A god damn circus.”
Linda stood up. The back of her head hit Mark’s jaw. “What the hell?” he said.
The man with the beard laughed, Linda left the bar. Mark followed her.
“If you find him, tell the manager that I said hi,” the man called.
A light breeze swept across the third deck. Somewhere, a limp flag clanged against a pole. Mark panted his way up the stairs. Linda perched on the railing, staring at the moon. The breeze washed over her. Her hair swam in the current.
“Linda,” he said when he reached her. Her shoulders shook with unseen tears. The waves quietly broke below them.
He tried to put his hand on her shoulder, but her feet were balanced on the bar of the railing and he couldn’t reach her. “Linda,” he said. He grabbed at her hand, but she clung to the railing. He put his palm on her knuckles. “We’re okay,” he said. “Don’t worry, we’re okay.”
“Did you lock the door?”
“The door. For the room.”
“The kids!” She hopped from the railing. “Jesus Christ.”
He clenched his fists. “You ran out, I had to follow you.”
“Where would I go?” she asked, spinning on the deck.
“You just left them there,” she said. “Jesus Christ.”
“God damnit, I’m trying to talk to you!”
“You don’t know how to talk to anyone.” She brushed past him, walking towards the stairs.
“God damnit!” he said. He followed her down the stairs, back to the bar. The man with the beard leaned over a table, cleaning it with a rag. Linda walked down the stairs to the first deck. The man saw Mark and walked towards him. When Mark got to the stairs, the man stood in his way.
“What the hell?” Mark said.
“The lady doesn’t want to be bothered,” the man said.
“Get out of my way!” Mark said. He tried to go around the man, but the man blocked him. “What the hell?” Mark said again.
The man smiled through his beard.
“My kids!” Mark said. He turned away from the man and went towards the bar. People looked at him.
“Drunk,” someone said.
“Where’s the manager?” Mark said. He pushed his way between people to get to the bar.
“Hey,” someone said.
“Drunk,” someone said.
“Where’s the manager!” No one was behind the bar. Mark turned around. The man with the beard had disappeared. He walked back to the stairs and jumped down to the first deck, back to the room. Inside the room, all the lights burned brightly.
Linda lay on her bed, crying with her face shielded by her curled elbows. Tom and Alice knelt beside her.
“Don’t worry,” Tom said.
“It’s okay,” Alice said.
The honeymoon was in the mountains. Mark and Linda lay in a tent for hours on end, overwhelmed by their love for each other. It rained most of the time. The tent shuddered from the water and the wind but, inside, they were warm and comfortable.
“It’s our own world in here,” Linda said, grappling Mark, resting her head on his chest.
“It’s so nice,” Mark said.
“I love you so much.”
“I love you so much.”
The rain cleared for a day. The sky stretched over them, a pale blue, frilly with the lace of storm clouds. They went on a hike, up to the peak of the mountain. At the top, they ate lunch on a bare rock, looking at the unraveled world at their feet.
“This is so amazing,” Mark said.
“Do you think we’re going to love each other forever?” Linda asked.
“Are you kidding? Of course!” Mark said. He kissed her on the top of her head, lifted his arm to point across the landscape below them. “Just pretend that we’re up here because we love each other.” He paused, thinking. “Our love brings us above everything else. We can fly like eagles together, wherever we want to be, and we can look down on the dark places and forests and cities down there but, up here, we’re always going to be safe.”
Linda sighing happily.
It started to rain again.
They ate breakfast by the swimming pool on the first deck. The pool was so full that people could barely swim. Waiters walked by Mark and Linda while they sat on folding chairs with newspapers.
“Look at this,” Mark said, bending his newspaper towards Linda.
She lifted up her sunglasses. “Huh,” she said.
He kept looking at her. The sunglasses went back over her eyes.
“You made a scene last night.”
“You’re the one who came after me,” she said.
“I was trying to talk to you,” he said, throwing his newspaper to the ground.
“Okay,” she said. “Talk to me.”
“Well,” he said.
“More coffee, sir?” a waiter asked.
“Tell me, Zack, who’s the manager of this boat here?”
“Exactly,” Linda said. She folded her newspaper and sat back in the chair, exposing her neck to the sun.
“I’m not sure, sir. Sorry.” The waiter walked away.
Mark sat in his chair, grinding his teeth. “Linda-“
“Dad, Dad, look!” Tom dove into the shallow end of the pool.
Mark got up and walked to the edge of the pool. Tom emerged in a spray of bubbles and ripples.
“Tom!” Mark said. “What are you thinking, how shallow is this? Four feet!”
“Sorry,” Tom said. He swam away.
Mark sat back in his chair. He covered his face in his hands and started to cry, silently.
“Oh,” Linda said. “Honey…”
“I can’t do this,” he said. “It’s too much.”
“The kids,” Linda said.
“It’s a god damn circus.”
“A god damn circus.”
“Doctors,” Linda said.
Mark stood up. “The manager!” he said. “The captain! The owner! Where are they? Who is controlling this god damn circus?”
People stared at him.
“You’re making a scene,” Linda said.
Mark stared at the horizon. It was white with sun. “Nowhere to go, but it keeps moving,” he said.
“What?” Linda asked.
“Did someone call for me?” the man with the beard said, walking down the stairs from the second deck.
Mark ran to the railing. He looked into the waves and tried to jump or fly or swim.