Susan Messer has fiction and nonfiction published in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, Colorado Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Another Chicago Magazine, killingthebuddha.com, Lost, and others. Awards include an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in prose, an Illinois Arts Council literary award for creative nonfiction, and writing prizes from Moment magazine, Chicago Public Radio, and the Center for Yiddish Culture. She has been a finalist in the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren competition and Chicago's Guild Complex nonfiction competition. Her first novel Grand River and Joy was published in 2009 by University of Michigan Press.
Sleep comes easily in the wonderful chair with the fine blanket, the good air, and the gentle motion of the ship. Only sleep would explain the missed transition from open water to mountainous islands that now rise before her.
The voice on the loudspeaker—Gordon, the social director—announces that they have entered Prince William Sound, the last great landmark before they dock in Seward tomorrow. They are in a narrow channel, with strings of islands not so very far from the side of the ship where she sits (Charles would have known if it was port or starboard). The mountains are covered with greenery—pine or spruce growing along rocky shore, then extending up, a velvet carpet. Heavy clouds rest along their ridges and poof into their valleys. She finds it cluttered. Compared to the forever expanse of open water, that is. On this journey, Julia's companion has been the perfect fit of sea and sky at the horizon, stretching out, out, out . . . . She would have liked to slip through the thin line, like a piece of mail through a slot, like a sea otter in the water.
The air is cold, and damp, so she places her book and reading glasses on the wooden table and adjusts her blanket around her legs, pulls it up to her neck, tucks it around her shoulders and the whole length of her thin body. Julia's chair is lacquered wood, padded the whole length by a thick navy cushion. An excellent chair. Her blanket is of checked wool—good quality; dry clean only. And it is the last day.
Traveling solo is a quiet affair. On this trip, her first alone, she has gone whole days barely using her voice more than a thank you to the room steward, or to the waiter. Because she doesn't easily join in the labored conversation of mismatched strangers at communal tables, she has taken several dinners in her room. With Charles, well, that had been entirely different. People were always around, no matter where they went. Conversation flowed.
The man with the somber, sleepy face comes up the deck. She's seen him many times, on other days. This is his second or third time around the promenade deck today—and like her, always alone. He has a resignation in his step, a bruised look extending down below his eyes, and he wears a tan-colored rubber-soled shoe that she'd associated with grieving ever since her brother Louis had bought a pair, so many years ago. So sad for the whole family when Louis's beautiful red-haired wife had died, leaving him with two young children. And soon after, Julia noticed him wearing those shoes. She remembered the name: Hush Puppies. They hugged his feet as if to cushion the going forward.
The sleepy-faced man walks mechanically, as if walking could fill the time. "Tous les deux" is Julia's name for him. Because he reminds her of the woman in The Magic Mountain who lost both her sons to tuberculosis and wandered the grounds of Haus Berghof, looking into strangers' eyes and muttering that one phrase, which Julia translated to herself as all two of them.
In Mann's novel, with its international cast of characters, Tous les deux had been Mexican, and her little phrase had represented the only words she knew in a language anyone at Haus Berghof could understand. The Mexican woman is described as having a "southern pallor." What an odd word for it—pallor. But that was in the Lowe-Porter translation; who knew what Mann intended? Julia's sad-eyed man also had unusual coloring—copper—darker than what she thought of as Filipino. Malaysian then? Nepalese? She was not the type to call "good day" from her deck chair as the man passed, in hopes of finding out. And if she did? From lack of use, her voice might come out a ghastly squawk.
Charles surely would have found a way to engage the man, ask him about his homeland and how he'd come to be so far from it, all the way to the Gulf of Alaska. Soon they'd be sitting, having a scotch, or an Irish whiskey. Well, all right. Julia looks directly at the man's face as he approaches, thinking to catch his eye, to acknowledge that she's seen him go round and round, that they are companions of a kind. Both alone. The last day. But, his eyes look straight ahead, or perhaps completely inward, as he passes and disappears around the curve of the boat. He is a crafty one, perhaps intentionally avoiding her. She did something similar when she first met Charles. It was a party, and she saw him arrive with a group of young men—all in the 17- or 18-year-old glow of life. But she wouldn't let him catch her gaze, though he tried several times. Finally, he approached her directly, and there was no turning away from that.
The promenade deck is her favorite place on the ship. It has the excellent chairs, and it is the only deck on which a passenger can make a complete circuit. And many do. Some count the circuits as they walk or run; these people are purposeful. Others stroll and chat with a companion, simply enjoying the feel of the foot on the wooden deck, the momentum of their movement combined with that of the ship. A few stand by the rail, dream in the misty air, lost in the beauty of the place.
Julia reaches for her book and glasses. She is reading The Magic Mountain, a 70th-birthday gift from her daughter, in the new Woods translation. She's read and reread the Lowe-Porter but has let the Woods sit for several years. Now, this trip, the displaced state, the days at sea, seem the proper context for another journey into the great novel. Her blanket tucked around her, she feels an affinity with Mann's unlikely young hero, Hans Castorp, in his very excellent chair, taking the cure on a balcony high in the Alps. As Hans had carried his Ocean Steamship volume to the mountains, so she has carried her Magic Mountain to the sea.
Young Hans, poised at the start of adult life, had quickly given himself to the purposelessness and customs of Haus Berghof, the renowned international sanatorium, and soon, he learned to skillfully fling the camel hair blankets around himself this way and that to form a perfect envelope, à la Berghof, a cocoon for the languid naps and meditations in the brisk air. Julia, though also cocooned, is poised at the opposite end of adult life from Hans Castorp, the stage where sleepy indolence is far more acceptable, and people expect little of her in the way of action or change. And, too, while Hans had his dear cousin, the morbidly tuberculin Joachim, to share the daily walks, the meals, the gossip, she has no one.A worker passes, swinging a white plastic bucket and wearing a paint-splattered jacket. He climbs a metal ladder to a half-deck above her, the place where the life boats and other equipment are stowed. Like the sleepy-faced man, this worker has a foreign complexion: Far from home and family, she thinks, unable to make a living in his own country, seeing sights he might never be able to describe to his family when he returns: glaciers blue and sparkling in the sun like ice palaces, like frozen cascading waterfalls; sea otters floating on icebergs of all shapes and sizes, their babies resting on their stomachs; whales breeching and spouting in the distance. Women who sit all day in a chair staring out to sea.
The shore is a dark wall of misty snow-capped peaks and hidden valleys. Two men stand near the rail, looking through binoculars. They think they see a bear, and this announcement draws a small crowd. Passengers are anxious to see wildlife, to see sights they do not see in their everyday lives. Especially on the last day of the trip, they hope for these experiences.
To Julia, the gawking frenzy seems foolish, as if someone had spotted Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and no one had the sense to allow them their privacy as two human beings. On board, people often behave foolishly; they pose for photos with cruise staff dressed as eagles and bears; they play the provocative games the cruise director leads at night. She peeked in once, to the Some Enchanted Evening Lounge, on the way back to her cabin after a stroll, and saw the revelry: women putting lipstick on men; women taking off their bras.
"Mom wants to know where we're going next year," a man says to his companion. They were part of the bear-watching crowd, but have now pulled away. The man is perhaps in his 40s, short and stout, with a belly, dressed in khaki trousers and a gray sweater. Completely unremarkable. Julia has seen him before. The only way to recognize him is through the woman. A good color job on her hair, and slim, with tight hips. Careful makeup. Striking. Unfriendly, though. A worrier. Like Julia.
"Next year?" she answers. "We haven't even gotten through this vacation." The woman stops and places her hand on the ship's rail. Julia lifts her book from her lap and opens to her place, afraid the woman has noticed her staring at them. "Won't we ever be allowed to have our own summer vacation?" she asks. He makes a gesture. Of what? resignation? And then, as if in response to a silent signal, a nudge from behind, they walk on, and are gone, around the curve of the deck.
Sitting on the promenade deck is like watching a parade. One commits to a particular point and, thus, can only know what occurs at that point. Once around the corner, the woman with the fashionably streaked hair may see how absurd she is—worrying about what will happen a year from now—and fall into her partner's arms, weak from laughter. But other outcomes are possible as well. The man becomes offended at his partner's selfishness, her disregard for his mother; the woman explodes, furious at his passivity, his tendency to please the mother, let the wife be damned.
Next in line are a tall, slender, gray-haired couple. Well bred, she thinks, like two greyhounds, and so well matched, so of a kind as to look like brother and sister. Of course, the observer never knows. Perhaps they are brother and sister. And Julia makes it a strict policy to avoid guesses—except in the privacy of her own mind. Guessing relationships to anyone's face leaves too much room for insult: "How nice that you're traveling with your mother," some boor might say to the man seated next to him at dinner, only to learn that the "mother" is the wife, or the two "sisters" are mother and daughter. And then this group, by shipboard custom, would be seated together for dinner every night, and someone perhaps had been wounded.
She'd warned Charles against making public guesses, but he went ahead nonetheless, and she always held her breath. "How many children do you have?" he asked a young American couple they'd met on a train to Perugia. And Julia saw the woman's eyes go sad when her husband said that they had none. "Is that your son?" he asked a Swiss woman they met at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, only to find out it was her daughter.
Her somber-faced man passes, and she notes that his hair is white, and nicely trimmed and combed: a good cut. His parka is blue. His hands hang by his sides, palms open, facing back—empty. She has a girlish thought—to perhaps let her book fall from her hands and see if he might stop to get it for her. She would like someone, him, to notice what she reads, that she is serious, not afraid of a challenging book. And that would be an opening. She could share her impressions—how much Hans Castorp and Joachim keep from each other even as they live side by side day after day. Her thoughts on time removed from time, as at Haus Berghoff or on a cruise ship, versus the linear time of daily life.
When Charles was alive, they'd traveled the world. Australia, Bangkok, the Himalayas. They'd cruised the Amazon on a small boat. Charles had a comfortable way of entering new places and cultures: good-natured, unafraid, willing to laugh at himself if he made a mistake. She was far too self-conscious, too concerned with appearing foolish, offending. Anyway, the opportunity for the book-dropping ruse has passed. The man has disappeared around the curve again.
"Then they broke a hole in the ice and crawled through." A young girl with Asian eyes says this strange thing as she walks by with a man . . . her father? The man wears a black fleece jacket and blue jeans. Everyone wears blue jeans these days. It gets to be rather tiresome, to the point where you didn't even like to see blue anymore. Even the sky could seem like a cliché. The girl is telling him about a movie, Julia thinks. But he's not listening. Not really. Perhaps if she would tell him about herself and not this rambling story from a movie . . . perhaps then he would be more engaged. Parents want so much to know what's in their children's minds. At least she does—her daughters scattered here and there. She hardly knows them.
Her younger daughter lives in Seattle, with a husband but no children. She isn't sure whether they want children. She has decided not to ask. She stopped with them for two days before leaving on the cruise. But the ticking of the clock on the mantel in their home had seemed so . . . loud. Charles had known how to fill the empty spaces and the silences. And without him, she felt her shortcomings exposed, the long lapses in conversation, and her daughter's dissatisfaction.
Julia has often been called a good listener, though truth be told, her mind sometimes wanders when people lay out their troubles, their complaints and wounds. And she has many responses that she doesn't share with them—if she thinks the speaker is misguided in an impression or complaint, or beyond an endurable level of obsession. Over the years, many people have thanked her for allowing them a complete hearing, but her older daughter has complained. This daughter, Lisa, lives in Siena, with an Italian husband and teenaged children named Giovanna and Paolo. Last time they talked, by phone, Lisa had complained about her Italian mother-in-law (it wasn't the first time Julia had heard this), who lived only blocks away and stopped in practically daily, always making suggestions about the house or the children.
"Why do you only say uh-huh? Uh-huh or it's hard don't help. How do I know you're even hearing what I say?" Lisa had said.
Julia tried to explain how difficult it can be for a parent to know what to say. Or how to tread the fine line between interest and interference. The complaints against the other mother-in-law had made Julia uncomfortable, as they made her wonder what complaints her daughter's husband might have against her. Also—this was what she thought but would never say—Lisa should be grateful to have family, interested family, close by, and even if the other mother-in-law was overly invasive, Lisa was an adult, had chosen this life, and should deal with it rather than complaining endlessly.
Two women hustle up the deck on an exercise walk, self-consciously aerobic, arms pumping. The women wear shorts. The tight black spandex kind. And one looks good in them. Very good. And that one is also the comedian—putting on a show for her companion, keeping her in stitches. A bit off color too. "He was on top," she says. She flings her arms in the air. "And I'm gone." Her companion whoops, holds her stomach, and doubles over but keeps her rapid pace.
They probably think I don't know what they're talking about, Julia thinks. Or they think I'd be shocked. Or that I never talked and laughed about such things with a friend. But of course I did. She and her dear friend May had. May is gone three years now, only 18 months before Charles. Both gone in the past three years. "Tous les deux," Julia notes. She throws off her blanket and rises from her chair, leaving her book face up on the blanket. She walks to the ship's rail: five metal bars topped by a well-lacquered wooden one. The mountains in the channel are taller now, snow-peaked. Perhaps she'll see a bear, or an eagle A harbor seal. But it seems to take so much effort. An almost constant vigilance. And then you only see them for a moment, the wildlife celebrities.
Gradually but also suddenly, the sky becomes much lighter than the water, and the demarcation between sea and sky intensifies in the channels between the islands. This hurts her. She has made up a story—that when the horizon line is lighter, it is more permeable, meaning that Charles, and May, are more available, closer. Of course, they are always available, in a way, through her memories. Or through her imagination in the sense of "how May would laugh at the idea of playing Bingo on a cruise ship," or "how Charles would love the sight of those glaciers. He would be the first to spot the bear. How he would have enjoyed the soufflé." But neither Charles nor May is really available to her in the sense of true companionship: the weight of the hand on one's arm, the heads together in conversation as they stroll or sit.
And how does she know that Charles would love the soufflé. He might just as easily have complained that it was undercooked, or unattractively served, that it fell apart when the waiter spooned it from its white, ribbed dish. He might have sent it back, insisted on a fresh one. She'd felt irritated with him when he seemed too particular, too demanding of a waiter. "The waiter is doing his best," she'd say to Charles. "Think of how hard he works." But Charles would feel that as a customer he was entitled to a certain level of service. She closes her eyes, as if to prevent herself from seeing the displeased, indignant Charles, berating another human being over a soufflé. This is part of the letting go, she's found, part of the mourning process, as they call it: Seeing beyond the eulogizing to the whole person.
Julia turns from the rail to watch a bald-headed man jog by in a white T-shirt and black running shorts. His feet pound the deck. She hears his breathing. She decides that he is an Israeli commando, a pilot in an elite force, manly, all business. Julia and Charles had traveled in the Middle East, to Egypt and Israel. She usually savored the spell of deep history—as she had at Stonehenge, in Pompei, at Teotihuacán She loved the old stone and the stories embedded there. But Israel had been uncomfortable. As if every step she took, every place she visited, required her to take a position.
She and Charles had argued about it. He'd wanted to extend their stay. She wanted to cut it short. Go on to Greece. The islands. She was sorry, but she wasn't interested in world politics or country politics or government politics of any kind—and that was all she could see in Israel. The compromise had been that they stayed the two weeks they'd originally planned—neither longer nor shorter.
In a lifetime with someone, there were differences, conflicts, of course. Money was one. She and Charles hadn't always agreed on that. He was far more extravagant. On her own, she wouldn't dream of doing some of the things he did—shipping a crystal chandelier home from Venice; buying oil paintings from an artist in Sao Paolo. He'd risked missing a train to go back to the gallery and get the paintings. He said he couldn't get them out of his mind. She never felt that kind of tug from a thing.
"I enjoyed having dinner," a man in a gray sweatsuit says. He walks with a small red-haired woman in a purple windbreaker. The last day of the trip, the time for summing up. "I enjoyed all the things we did together. But my favorite was the helicopter trip."
The helicopter trip? Julia thinks. Shouldn't he say, "My favorite part was being with you"? Years from now, in a quiet moment, the red-haired woman might reminisce about the Alaska trip, and this conversation will come to mind. The helicopter ride? she'll think. That was his favorite?
In the man's defense, Julia thinks, perhaps he doesn't feel that he needs to articulate the woman's importance in his life. Or perhaps he's more comfortable avoiding such declarations. Hans Castorp and Joachim didn't even call each other by first names, afraid of showing too much feeling. But which was more important, after all—dignity or passion?
The woman and her companion stop and stand by the ship's rail, not far off from Julia, their backs to the sea.
She's seen the woman in the purple windbreaker, a pretty woman, many times over the course of their shipboard week. She traveled with a party of ten. Julia has seen them at their large festive table during dinner. She's seen them in the theater, in a row of seats, and she's seen them walking in the port cities. She'd tried to make out the relationships and thought they spanned three generations.
She'd seen the group at one of their ports, in one of the few good shops among all the silly, cluttered souvenir stores, and the red-haired woman had been on a buying spree. She bought a ring (Julia had tried to get a look at it as she listened to the salesperson exclaim about its quality), and a stunning handmade sweater. Julia had admired the sweater, too, on the hanger, but the price tag—over $600—had shocked her. Even Charles, she believed, would have been shocked.
Julia leans on the rail, feels the cool Alaskan mist on her face. But where is that sleepy-faced man? It seems time for him to come round again. Perhaps he's finished his walk. And she's missed . . . her opportunity. Where did a man like that go when he wasn't walking? Not to Bingo, she feels certain. A meal by himself at one of the solo tables in the dining room? A comfortable chair by the window? A book in some foreign script? And what would be the risk of finding out? Of seeking him out, and even perhaps, admitting to him that she had done so.
At Haus Berghoff, Hans Castorp finally found his way to his enchanting Clavdia Chauchat, and made his feverish declarations in a time outside of time, in the carnival atmosphere of Walpurgis night. And even Jaochim, more committed to his recovery than any other patient, was swayed from his reserved nature by the laughing, round-eyed Marusja. Well, Julia thinks, perhaps she might take a risk. Perhaps she could remain by the ship's rail. And when her somber-faced man in the soft-soled shoes passed again—he'd done it so many times in the past days—perhaps she would speak. Perhaps she would smile, say what a lovely day it was, how lovely all the days had been in this magnificent and wild land. That would not be such a hard thing. She looks along the stretch of deck to see who might be coming next. She sees her empty deck chair, blanket and book.
"Who would read Mann anymore?" the red-haired woman says.
"Oh, hush," the man answers. "What's it to you?" He turns to face the water.
"No, I mean it," she says. "He was a cold-hearted scoundrel."
"How do you know?"
"The facts are widely available," she says. Both Julia and the red-haired woman watch the bald Israeli commando jog by. He has picked up his pace since the last round, and sweat drips from his face. "When his son Klaus attempted suicide, Mann was annoyed at having his work interrupted. And when Klaus succeeded in his suicide, Mann resented having to travel to the funeral."
"Facts," the helicopter-loving man says. "Annoyance and resentment are not facts."
"But who can read his book without thinking about what an awful person he was?"
"Oh, come on," he says. "Who cares? Let's keep walking. We have to dress for dinner in an hour. And I still haven't worked off lunch." He pats his belly. "The food on this cruise is killing me."
"Oh, come on yourself," she says. "It's not the food. It's you. You have a choice about what to eat and how much." And they walk on.
Julia returns to her chair. She pulls the blanket around her and pushes her book into the space between her hip and the chair's wooden armrest.
"Just my luck to meet someone on the last day," the speed-walking comedian with the tight black shorts says to her walking partner, who whoops again. Does she really find her friend so funny? And it's not just her luck. It's anyone's luck. That the hoped-for person appears at the very end, when there's still time to have the heart overflow with yearning but not enough to see the flaws.
Oh, my, she thinks. The man with the sleepy face comes up the deck. He is with a woman in a sari of a lovely soft green. She wears tennis shoes. Her black hair hangs to her shoulders. The man and woman don't speak as they walk, but they hold hands and appear to be completely at ease.
And without knowing why, she thinks of her last moments with Charles, as he lay floating on a bed of white, fading into the horizon before her eyes. It was just the two of them. No one else.
"Charles," she'd said. She slid her hand into his dry one where it lay on the bed. "Thank you for everything you've ever given me. Thank you for everything you've done." Tears filled her eyes as she said these words.
"Oh," he said. His voice was muffled and odd. Hardly his own voice at all. Perhaps he didn't even know who she was. Perhaps he didn't even know what he said: "Don't worry about that." And it had seemed so comforting at the time. She didn't have to worry that she had taken too much from him, that she'd drained him with her needs and her nervousness and her timidity. "Don't worry about that," he said.
And she only realized when it was too late—just as the red-haired woman would realize too late about the subtle swipe in the comment about the helicopter ride. She realized the emphasis Charles had placed on the word that, perhaps suggesting there was something elses he should worry about, something she'd neglected.
But then, Charles had slipped into some far-distant place, and he'd hovered for a few hours, patting the cover occasionally, the way he used to pat their daughters' heads when he was proud of them, mumbling about a train or the time. He hadn't said, "Oh, my darling, how much it has all meant to me," or "You have been my life," or "My favorite part was being with you." And then he'd passed. He slipped through, crossed that narrow line between sea and sky. She remembered what Mann had said about it, when young Joachim died. That a man's dying is more the survivor's affair than his own. And so it was. So it was.