Pearl earrings, she decided. Standing at the round porcelain sink, in a long sequin gown, the ends of her thick auburn hair brushing against her shoulders, nearly prepared to emerge onto the upper deck. Now she was alone, cramped into ten square feet of half a bath; it listed, side to side. By now, though, she hardly took notice.
Sheila was her name. Sheila, Sheila, Sheila. She repeated it to herself absent-mindedly in the mirror.
In certain lights she could see the subtle red of her hair, among the brown, suggesting a sort of dark chocolate, she thought. It matched the deep red of her dress, her lips, the velvet curtains drawn across the porthole. Everything rosy in the incandescent light: she saw it in a haze of warmth and romance, like an old film, everything soft and glowing.
She stood among the fumes of her Chanel perfume; just outside the thick door was her suite on a luxury ocean liner. It was set to dock in Nice in several days, and now it was taking its time across the endless Atlantic, rolling eastward with hundreds of passengers nestled inside its great white hull. It had an old-fashioned romanticism about it; she bought the ticket on that faith.
Mascara, liner, all delicately applied. She was young, she thought. A girl. Her brief past as distant as the harbor behind them. And what she could remember resonated like a high voice in a cave: it bounced around, changed, only audible half of the time. But now, in the mechanical movements of her evening preparation, it floated into her mind, and she thought that perhaps she was quite ordinary. The feeling conjured images from recent years: reading Sylvia Plath in bed as a teenager, carelessly taking gin shots as a college freshman, unsure of the future, making tearful calls home, finding and losing love, wandering the campus until she took her diploma and hung it on the wall of her boyfriend’s New York apartment, reading the Times over a bowl of Fruit Loops in a bathrobe while he got coffee for the cast of a daytime talk show in midtown.
Finding a job, going out, drinking too much. A river stone holding papers on her desk. His shadow on the wall from where he sat and wrote stories in the night. The lights of the club sweeping across the crowd, the dark concrete walls. Voices out of the dark. Confessing her fears to a girlfriend in a taxicab. Storming away from him in Battery Park. Plane rides, hookups. All the moments when she would look down and not find a safety net to catch her.
The hour before dusk in the backyard. Birds poking their heads in and out of the birdhouse, building a nest. Walking into town for raspberry soft-serve. Her grandfather passing her mints during the Sunday sermon. Her grandmother holding her tight while her father stood in the doorway. Long ago.
It was all slightly altered; the faces of those half-remembered were blurred out. She smudged those of the people she wanted to forget. It was fondly engineered, her memory, so that she could pass through the day unmolested by traces of darkness. She faced the shining future, blind to the way ahead.
The week before she left, she met her mother at the door of her house, the one that held her entire childhood. Traces of her in the decorative feathers stuck on a bulletin board, the stuffed monkeys arranged neatly on top of the bedspread, untouched for years. It had been a long time since she’d been back.
Her mother told her this. “I know you have things to sort out yet,” she rationalized, forgivingly. “Just take one thing at a time.”
She served her chamomile tea flavored with cinnamon and honey, and they sat in the living room in silence, curled under knit blankets. The radiator in the corner hissed, its off-white paint from ages ago slowly flaking away. Dust filtering through the sunlight, hovering in the moment. She turned to look out the picture window to the street, blurs of passing cars, all colors. Thinking about the lines on her face. Her daughter was grown, growing away, and she didn’t need to know why she was leaving.
“Fly away, you. Out of the nest.” She looked down, away from her daughter’s solemn, innocent eyes. “Take all of my love, pack it away. And find the right people to give it to.”
They cried, and when she went out the door, she didn’t look back.
Even this was distant, the notion of home. As far as she knew, all she needed was this sink, this bed, this bag of makeup, a wealth of books and a window to the outside.
Earlier in the week she made a habit of sitting with her legs crossed on the front deck in a white Adirondack chair, wearing large sunglasses and reading a book, regarding the people as they passed. An old couple bundled in tweed against the ocean wind. A little girl in a red beret. A large man greeted her in French, a wide smile behind a great white beard. She smiled back, hiding her teeth behind her lips.
She had also made acquaintance with the family in the next cabin, a young Metropolitan family from Paris with three daughters who would crowd around her long legs and latch onto the fabric of her dress, talking over each other in French. She grinned down at them, their faces in awe of this beautiful woman (and so tall!). They worshipped her, the mother had said. The father gave her suggestive looks, which she ignored, forgot after a moment.
At night, she would go down to the bar, very late. It was nestled in the back of a vast ballroom, furnished with cherry wood and lit for atmosphere. The bartender was often tired, regardless of whom it was, never the same man. They ignored her attempts at conversation in their rude, jaded ways, and she sat alone with soft vocal music playing in the background, filling the long halls with voices captured long ago.
She was surprised on the fourth night to find a figure sitting on a barstool, taking long sips from a peach bellini: a middle-aged woman in a black dress, wrapped in a gray wool coat. She smiled and laughed at the bartender’s joke. He was polishing a champagne flute when Sheila approached. The woman regarded her, dragged on her cigarette.
“What’ll it be,” he asked flatly.
Sheila shrugged. “What is she having?”
The woman laughed. “Oh, this? This is for the weary. Have a young drink.”
In the end, she sipped at a wine spritzer while the woman led her through a wild, inconsistent history of gallivanting around Europe with various painters and avant-gardists, and how she once met Andy Warhol at a party held in an abandoned warehouse. “He was dazed,” the woman recalled. “Didn’t talk much.”
When it came to be her turn to spin a history of her own, Sheila thought back, but couldn’t come up with anything. She gave an embarrassed laugh and simply admitted, “I’m not sure what to tell you.”
“Oh, the past doesn’t matter for someone like you. No, I can tell. What’s important is where you’re going and why you’re going there.” She spoke in a dramatic, inflected tone, surely a composite of old movie actresses.
“All I know is that I’m going away. Off to somewhere new.”
A pause while the woman waited for juicy specifics. “All right, then. Be vague,” she conceded. “I think it’s a man. You’re running away from some terrible love. That’s good; I’m proud of you. When you’re in love, you’re blind to the rest of the world.”
Sheila looked into her glass and smiled in a quiet way. She realized that they hadn’t introduced each other. It was all right that way.
Back, now, in a daze; a beautiful, intoxicating uncertainty. She blinked the image away, and it dissolved into the stark white outline of her face, staring into her own brown eyes. The smokiness that clouded them was slowly sliding away. Alone in the bathroom, she smiled to herself, and scrubbed her hands with soap made from cocoa butter, the water almost scalding. She inhaled, exhaled, turned the faucet off.
When she emerged from the bathroom, she sat on the bed for a moment, slowly, gracefully lowering herself onto the smooth violet sheets. She sighed, and unknowingly played with her matching purse, clipping it open and closed, open and closed. She brushed her hair to the side and caught its scent, pulled on her red heels and stood up, poised, composed, a woman.
Outside her door was an older man in a tuxedo, sitting on the railing, arbitrarily looking out to sea. He looked back at her and smiled, nodded, a stubby cigarette between his lips. She smiled and made her way to the ballroom. He turned back to the sea.
Lights and noise and people everywhere. A small big band, maybe a dozen performers in total, dressed in white tuxes, playing the classics. Men, women, young and old, everyone was represented on the dance floor and at the tables. The three little French girls bouncing as a group to the beat. A young couple circling around, cheek to cheek. The bearded Frenchman, standing at a crowded circular table with a glass of champagne and a cigar. Even the waiters seemed to enjoy themselves; they would chat up the guests, smoothly swing a heavy platter of food around to a hungry table.
She stood outside one of the doorways looking in, awestruck at the sheer wonder of it all. People seemed to speak in verse, rhyming every fourth word. The world moved infinitely around her; she was left behind. She stared up at a great starry sky that seemed to grow, spread, thicken. It washed over her. In the blink of an eye, she would be an old woman, forever looking back, counting down. But now time was measured in the crests of the ocean. And the crests went on.
Blink. Blink. Blink.