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Saturday, Feb. 05, 2005 - 5:08 a.m.

The cruise ship moves through the dark water, up the Gulf of Thailand under a starless glassy sky. There is a man leaning against a railing at the bow of the ship talking into his handphone. He holds up the phone to the air momentarily, with the mouthpiece facing a point above the bow's triangular apex. Can you hear it, he asks, the blackness of the sea. He talks for a little longer and then wishes his wife goodnight.

On the other side of the bow, a woman is also resting her elbows on the cold metal railing. But she is not looking out at the sky. She is staring at the wake of the ship, the broken patterns of water that once held the ship's reflection. She wonders how well the water holds the memory of the ship after it has passed.

The man and the woman walk past each other on the way back to their cabins, but their bodies do not know each other and there is no acknowledgement.

The clink of silverware interweaves with the cries of children at the breakfast buffet. Holding a plate of scrambled eggs and sausages, the man looks around the room for an empty seat. Excuse me, do you mind if I sit here, he asks. The woman looks up, covers her mouth with her hand, and nods. She finishes chewing the rest of the honeydew quickly. He puts his plate down and turns his neck to call for a waiter to order some coffee. As he wonders why a forty-ish woman with a ring on her finger is eating alone, she asks him, are you a photographer?

He is surprised at her perspicacity and asks her how she knows. She takes a sip of tea and smiles - when you turned your head there was a strap of paler skin around the back of your neck.

Then they started talking. She is right. He is a photographer; an ad agency was putting together print advertisements for the cruise company, and had sent him out here to take photos of a typical cruise holiday. She says it must be great to take a free holiday, but he disagrees. He explains this assignment is just for the money because he just turned twenty-five and had gotten married. He prefers travelling alone, to the secret corners of the world; he has visited remote villages in Botswana, the ancient stone steps of Macchu Picchu and mist-covered mining towns in the Andes - just him and the images.

She says that she is envious. There was a map on the wall of her university dormitory room with little red pins that she had inserted, marking fantastical destinations like Mount Corcovado with its statue of Christ overlooking the city of Rio de Janiero. She was going to visit all the little red pins after graduation but that was almost twenty years ago. Then work and marriage came too quickly, and now she has two children. She says it is a terrible thing to know such beautiful places exist, and yet never to be able to visit them yourself. There is silence as he thinks of how much he agrees with her last statement. They had both gotten farther into the conversation than either of them had expected.

He finds a way of asking where her husband is: so where are your children? She says her children are at home with her parents. Her husband's good friend was finally getting married, and had decided to have the wedding reception on the ship. All the men are probably still hungover and would only wake up in the evening for more drinking. She shakes her head mockingly, all these post-menopausal men re-living the last days of their lost youth. You're still young, she says, don't ever forget it.

The restaurant has emptied out, but they keep talking because they realize there is no good way to end this breakfast of strangers. But finally the waiter comes and says that they need to leave. They walk to the swimming pool just outside the restaurant and he notes that it is water inside the water of the sea. She smiles and says her husband would never have noticed something like that. When they grow tired of watching the sea, they enter the bookshop where they discuss Rilke's letters and after that, the casino. She says that she never gambles but she likes to come in here to watch the people who do. She teaches him a game, one that her English professor in university taught her. Pick an unusual looking person and we each make up a story; the better one wins. It's that simple. He asks her how they will know which story is better, but she says that they will just know.

There, that Chinese man at the blackjack table, the one with all the moles on his face, she says.

It quickly becomes late afternoon and she needs to attend a dinner in the evening. He tells her that the cruise ship will anchor at a remote island the next morning for day-trippers and he was going to take some photographs of waterfalls - would she like to come? She thinks of the prospect of further conversation with him, and agrees.

Early the following morning, a motorized launch skips over the waves of the diamond sea towards a small island. He can see no buildings on it through the viewfinder of his camera, just a beach and some tree covered hills. She is looking out to sea and as he glances at her briefly, he wonders about the years between them. How much more than him has she lived already? But she is not thinking about years and what all those years contain. She is thinking about the cruise ship behind them, the two of them getting further away from it, leaving, leaving.

They follow the line of bodies on a narrow trail into the jungle. He walks in front of her, pushing aside vines and the big green slaps of banana leaves so that she can have a clear path through the trees. They reach the waterfall after half an hour and everyone rests at the edge of the rock pool. Then some of the day-trippers start taking pictures while others strip off into their swimsuits for a dip in the cool obsidian water.

She sits on a huge flat piece of rock and takes off her shoes. The man walks to different points on the circumference of the rock pool to frame the waterfall with his camera. He pans the camera around and finds the image of her, with her feet in the water, her body arched backwards and propped up by her straightened hands. Though he is tempted to, he does not press the button that would open the shutter and expose the next frame of film, an action that would permanently capture this light-constructed image of her. He will remember how he never took this particular photograph.

He finishes with his photos and sits down next to her. His shoes come off and his feet go into the water beside hers. He asks her about what it's like to have kids. He says that he fears he will one day look at his son and daughter, and realize that he married the wrong person. She laughs, and says that he would never think of that because of the child. Each child is so different from his or her parents; he is a new creature who did not exist before and one who will never be repeated again. Then what about marrying the wrong person, he asks, how do you know that you've met the one? She thinks for a while, and then says that she has no answer for him. She has never had conversations like this before. For a while neither of them feels like they need to talk to understand the other, and there is silence between them. There are small rainbowed arcs where the spray of water at the waterfall's edge splits the light.

On the launch back to the cruise ship, the man thinks again about years. This time, he wonders what it would have been like if the woman had been born twenty years later, and then they had met. The meeting would have been the same, though the outcome would be entirely changed. The line of the sea back to the cruise ship is the gradual addition of years back to her life. Though he will never know it, she is thinking of the exact same thing.

When the ship docks in Thailand, they will part, and he will walk down the steel gangway with five rolls of exposed film in his backpack, and one photograph that he never took. They were two points on the map of space-time that ended up marrying other people. They will each wonder why they were allowed to meet and talk for three days, and then never to see each other again. For him, the understanding will arrive one Sunday afternoon when he is with his wife, walking the circular concrete path around a park pond. He will look out over the water and then remember the image of his foot next to hers in the rock pool through the water. Their feet were so close, centimetres apart, but they never touched. Their feet remained still like that, delicate in the water for hours.

She will come to the same memory as well, and it will unfold five minutes after she kisses her husband goodbye at the airport. She will stand alone outside the departure gate, thinking. The image of his foot next to hers, floating in the water. Then she will realize that the beauty of their meeting lay in its unattainability. It was transient and unfinished, the undeniable way things should be.

note: "Unattainable Earth" comes from the title of a Milosz Czeslaw book of poems.


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