Tiffany raised her paperback, blocking the couple by the railing. The text on the suitcase-tattered pages, however, blurred, reshaping into the burly arm wrapping around the woman’s lithe waist and the two heads tipping toward one another as if attracted by magnets. A sarong snapped and unbuttoned aloha shirt fluttered in the dusky breezes. The pungent scent of tropical flowers, sun screen, and intimate banter further permeated Tiffany’s literary blockade.
Sighing, she lowered the book.
Why did you do this to yourself? she wondered.
The lack of a refund and the time spent planning reared its head like it had at home, repeating the logic which had her reclining in a deck chair and more alone now than when in her apartment after Barry had left.
As if eager to twist the knife, Tiffany cast her gaze toward the cruise ship’s bow where other couples perched along the railing like pigeons on an electrical line. With a roll of her eyes, she shifted to the stern where pairs holding hands strolled on the sun-baked deck, the tan flooring fading into magenta shades with the fading day. Laughing groups where men and women alternated around the pool’s rim cast up flirtatious splashes while overripe skin soaked in dwindling rays. Closer by, Tiffany noted the strip of chairs occupied by slumbering passengers draped by magazines or books and monitored by half empty glasses adorned by tiny umbrellas. The proximity of one chair to the other suggested acquaintances, and on some new jewelry glittered on bronzed or lobster red hands.
Tiffany turned back to her book, hiding her own vacated digits behind the creased spine. The plot escaped her grasp and after rereading the same sentence a third time, she set the paperback on her lap and checked the silver watch looping her wrist. The hands pointing to the IV and XII provided a sudden sense of achievement.
“Finally,” she whispered.
Snatching her airplane ticket stub, she inserted the slip into the book’s well and swung her legs from the padded chair. She wiggled her toes around her flip-flips plastic thongs and set her wide brim hat upon her blonde pixie cut. Downing the last of her watered down raspberry margarita, she rose and shook out her hip-tied skirt. After a glare at her pasty legs visible through the indigo billow, she smoothed her belly, sucking in the decadent curve beneath a turquoise bathing suit still scented like a department store. The plumpness remained upon her exhale and she tugged her gauzy shirt around her mid-drift before marching for the deck’s nearest hatch.
The hallway cooled her from the Caribbean swelter and the flip flop of her flip-flops echoed with each stride. She navigated the hollow corridors rumbling with the distant engines and emptied, she felt certain, by everyone enjoying themselves on deck. The turns and corners, however, felt familiar, as sure as the ring once threading her finger. Swapping her book into her left hand to fill the sudden void, she neared the double doors marked by the four star honorary label, where a savory stream of scents emanated like steam from a coffee cup.
Swiping her room’s card through the reader to unlock the entryway, she pushed inside, her footsteps softening on the dense carpet.
“Evening,” said Tiffany.
She managed a smile for the white suited cook who added a platter of fresh cut cantaloupe and strawberries to the exclusive happy hour buffet. He disappeared into the kitchen where dish clatter, shouts, and spurts hid behind another set of double doors.
Crossing the dining room with its cluster of waiting tables each with two tucked chairs, Tiffany claimed a spot overlooking the golden waves and set down her hat and book. The empty expanse of water snared her, the gleaming caps and the coloring sky offering a sense of companionship in the midst of her solitude. The squeak of doors opening, however, broke the stillness.
“Set it over there,” said Allen, his stern tone pitched with a French cadence.
“Yes Chef,” murmured two strained voices.
Tiffany spied the pair of cooks hefting a tray with a towering assortment of cheeses carved into bird shapes and surrounded by a collection of crackers arranged in foliage patterns. Towing the load, they crossed the dining room with care. Tiffany held her breath until they placed the creation upon the center dais.
“It should be centered, yes?”
Tiffany watched in the window’s reflection while they nudged the mountain of cream to neon orange sculptures into place.
“Good, good,” said Allen, “I like it there.”
With his toque swaying, Allen rubbed his hands together, the skin rustling like sand paper. The shoulders of the two cooks sagged with relief and each wiped what Tiffany imaged would be sweaty palms on smeared aprons.
“Am I mistaken or are there oranges needing segmenting?”
Murmuring once more, the cooks bobbed their heads and while Allen continued his perusal of the display, they scurried into the kitchen. When the doors swung shut, he turned and Tiffany caught his sharp blue eyes in the window.
“You have returned?”
Tiffany shrugged and pulled her shirt snug around her shoulders. “It’s a boat, Allen. There’s nowhere else to go.”
“I had hoped it was for the food.”
Tiffany winced and slowly put her back to the window. “Everything’s been delectable.”
Allen strode toward her, his bulk rolling like a fallen apple tumbling on uneven ground. “We have a good view no?” He swept a hand toward the sea.
“It’s lovely,” she said and drifted to his side before the glass wall.
“And your room? The staff? The weather?”
“Comfortable, helpful, and magnificent,” admitted Tiffany.
“Yet you’re in here with such a gloomy face.”
Tiffany ran her fingers along her shirt’s silken edge and dropped her gaze. She peered at her ruby-painted toes drumming against the spongy soles of her sandals. “I…It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“What was it supposed to be?”
She sighed and squeezed the thin fabric while the couple at the railing sprang back into her sights. “Like it is for everyone else. The smiling, the laughter, the…togetherness.”
“But you are here alone.”
“I wasn’t supposed to be.”
“Ah, I see. Your plans have not come out how you would have liked.”
“No,” whispered Tiffany.
She didn’t bother elaborating on how her life had started to crumble one piece at time and this had been simply a detour away from the inescapable, the tip of the iceberg leading to a glacial age.
Even so, Allen nodded with understanding. With a grunt, he cinched the string around his bulbous torso, giving his rotund form a mini-muffin top.
“I had such problems with a soup once.”
The statement gathered Tiffany from her toenails and she frowned at Allen’s meringue-like profile. “What?”
He hung his shaking head. “I had sautéed the onions to perfection. Sweated the carrots, leaks, and celery until they glistened. I had gathered the freshest shrimp, and clams and mussels with brine so sweet it could have been frosting. And my seafood stock.” He puckered his lips and kissed his fingers with a reverberating smack. “Ah, but no, it was not to be.”
Pulling off his toque, he clutched the pleated cap to his chest. “The salt…alas was sugar.”
“Oh,” said Tiffany with a cringe. “That must have been—”
“Did you throw it out?”
“After all that work?” Catching her eye, he held up an index finger and patted the side of his nose. “I found a way to make it work.”
“You tell me.” He inched closer and pitched his voice low. “Did you not enjoy the dessert quiche last night?”
Tiffany blinked at him while the warmed white chocolate dotted with blueberries smothering the lighter than air egg-based confection with just a hint of salt to undercut the sweet melted onto her tongue. Even in memory, the thought made her mouth water.
Allen winked. “Sometimes you must adjust.”
Tiffany chuckled, but like the sun plunging toward the sea, her buoyancy faded into bitterness. “Adjusting’s easier when all you’re dealing with is ingredients.”
“Bah,” said Allen, donning his toque at jaunty angle, “ingredients are just the edible parts of life.”
Tiffany felt his eyes drift over her tense form and his voice regained an intimate timbre.
“You may have a mess,” he said, “but you have the equipment to fix it. The only question is what will you do? Throw it away or make dessert?”