Below deck

We left the deck sinking into shadow and walked down through the narrow corridors of a labyrinthine ship to her cabin, which was not far from my own. I sat on a stool near her cot and watched as she poured brandy from a small bottle into two plastic cups. She sat on the bedding and we touched cups and drank, feeling the gentle rock and sway of the ship in the water. The brandy was good, almost as fine as something Jorge would have kept stowed in his desk drawer, but not quite, perhaps a bit too sweet. The woman’s cabin was similar to mine and everything was tidy and well kept, much like the woman herself, who looked at me through dark pools and then down to her cup, and in the soft light of the room I could at last make out the delicate contours of her face and neck, the elegant geometry and proportionality, her eyes and hair a matching depth of black, and she said to me, or perhaps to the room in general, to herself, to no one, I’ve dreamt that the world is going to end.

I looked at her and sipped my brandy. She wore a brown sweater with buttons, loose on her, and dark blue pants. There were faint creases in the skin at her temples. Machinery hummed somewhere nearby.

She said, It was all very quick and painless, the end of the world. But what’s upset me is that when I woke I wasn’t sad or afraid at all. I think I was more relieved than anything.

I took a drink and asked, So how does it happen? How does the world end?

It wasn’t very clear, she said. Great suction, an incredible whooshing sound, flickering light. Like being caught in an undertow of lava.

So a flood, then.

Not necessarily. It was more atmospheric, I think. Though I’m not quite sure. Maybe there was thunder.

I nodded.

You think I’m silly, she said, and almost smiled. Her mouth painted the rest of her face up vibrantly, as if her eyes and cheeks and all of her skin couldn’t wait for her to smile, and she looked away, she appeared somehow ashamed of her smile, her face, embarrassed, as if in nearly smiling she’d exposed herself in some intimate way, as if she’d known how lovely her smile made her appear and it was inappropriate, something to fear, a step too far or premature for this casual encounter among strangers. The half smile had made her appear vulnerable and in turn I blushed, embarrassed for her or because of what I’d witnessed. Immediately I felt that I had to compensate and rebalance the conversation by offering up something revealing about myself.

I’ve done some very bad things in my life, I told her.

She studied my face for a moment. What she might have seen I cannot know, but maybe she was grateful for my having spared her vulnerability. For my words, however dubious and impulsive, seemed to ease her anxieties. My admission appeared to have crumbled within her whatever barrier she’d erected between us, the selfsame barrier she constructs between herself and everyone she meets.

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