At Sea

While attempting to find abatement from the anguish of loss, a grieving woman becomes conscious of how deeply that heartache endures within her…

by: Bruce Costello

I sit alone at a table for two watching another woman peculiarly walk by. She sways in tune with the ship, but her eyes are fixed ahead. She navigates around tables and chairs and outstretched legs without appearing to notice them, seeming to view the world only through her peripheral vision.

“This seat is free,” I call out, gesticulating.

She glances towards me, startled to be addressed by a woman she doesn’t know. She hesitates, then puts her coffee on my table and sits across from me.

Her cheeks are full and red, like those of a porcelain doll. Her lipstick is bright pink. She has wavy hair, dyed blond. Her body is slim and shapely, but her face is wrinkled. She is wearing crimson jeans that clash with a blood red cardigan.

“Hello,” I say. “Are you enjoying the cruise?”

Without speaking, she tears the corner from a sachet of sugar and stares at the fine line of white grains streaming into her coffee.

I repeat my question, gesturing until she looks up, her eyes focused on my lips.

“Are you enjoying the cruise?”

She shakes her head.

“That’s a pity,” I answer.

The pink lipped beauty before me lowers her eyes and stirs her coffee, apparently oblivious to me and the rest of the world. I gaze at her. If a waiter dropped a tray, or if I unexpectedly removed my clothes, I doubt that she would notice.

A waitress approaches and looks at me curiously. “Are you alright, Madam?” she asks.

I tell her I want to be left alone and she retreats. I continue to gaze at the woman sitting across from me as I sip my coffee.

I enjoy her company, even though she remains silent and her expression is an ageless mask. She seems shut off, disconnected from the world. What lies beneath, I wonder? What does she feel? What memories lurk there, of being loved or not loved? Does she know what it is to hold a baby to her breast or to lie with a man? Or to be lied to by a woman? Could she imagine the grief of losing a daughter to a car crash and a husband to a best friend…in the same week?

There’s something about her face that brings a lump to my throat.

I feel an impulse to take her in my arms and hold her, to sob with her, a symbiotic urge to merge my soul with hers. A ridiculous notion, I know, but I haven’t been feeling myself for a while.

I start to weep. The woman reaches out and silently touches my outstretched arm. I begin to calm down and after a while I cease to cry. She gives my hand a little squeeze, then leaves the table and disappears into the crowd.

That evening, the Great Gatsby-themed party is spirited and the dance floor throngedl. From the entrance, I see women dressed up as flappers with feathery headbands, dancing with gangsters wearing black suits, white ties, and dark glasses. A jazz band is playing, far too loudly. I do not feel like partying and venture outside to the promenade deck.

The sun has sunk into the sea, leaving behind a pink patch of sky, quickly fading, the last remnant of another day.

The pink-lipped woman is there, still wearing crimson and red. She is leaning over the rail, staring at the ocean, and shows no sign of having seen me. I stand a short distance away, take off my glasses to stop the wind ripping them from my face, and stare overboard.

The ship cleaves the night and the sea, creating a panorama of swirling whiteness, luminescent in the moonlight, surging patterns no human artist could reproduce, one following another in rapid succession. Like the days of a woman’s life.

I hear a cry and look around, but the woman has vanished. I begin to question my sanity and I wonder whether to alert the crew but decide not to — if no passengers were found to be missing, they’d say I’d been imagining things.

I find my cabin with a newfound difficulty as the passageways seem to have changed. At least, I think it is my cabin and, goodness, I think this is my daughter sitting on the bed. She is muttering to herself, clutching a pillow to her breast.

She turns to me, her face twisted, and says slowly, as if picking her words one by one, “And then you went on holiday, the cruise we’d planned together, you just went on holiday without me, like nothing had happened.”

Her features grow hazy, as if through a fog. Her head and arms vanish. Her body merges into the pillow and she disappears altogether.

“But you were dead and I had to get away,” I shout down at the pillow. “I didn’t know what else to do!”

Spotting movement from the corner of one eye, I spin around, but it is only a reflection in the full-length mirror on the wardrobe door.

I stare at a crazy-looking woman gazing back at me through red eyes.


In 2010, New Zealander Bruce Costello retired from his work, retreated from the city of Dunedin to the seaside village of Hampden, joined the Waitaki Writers’ Group and took up writing as a pastime. Since then he has had 138 short story successes including publications in literary journals, anthologies, and popular magazines.

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