“Sounds like a stinker.” Wayne sucked the olive from his martini spear, dropped the program on the end table. He wasn’t looking at anything in particular.
“It might be.” Hector uncrossed his legs. “But that’s the best kind. Sometimes, I mean. If you’re in the mood for a stinker.” He tipped his glass left, right, watched the ice shift.
They were in room four hundred eighty-six, aboard the Sea Princess, somewhere on the Atlantic. They decided to see the show.
In the dimness of the Sea Princess’s theatre—ushers in red vests, red velvet seats, a red curtain that had opened to reveal the stage—Wayne and Hector, though separated by twenty years, looked identical. Each wore their hair cropped short enough to show scalp, and their heads reached the same height above the seat-backs. Their sport coats were blue. Wayne felt powerful like that, sitting next to a man so stern, proud, and so clear a model of future possibility. He felt the pressure of their arms and shoulders wedged against each other in the small seats.
Wayne stayed awake, but drinks and the ship’s motion brought him close to sleep. He found the lull pleasant, mesmerizing. He watched the show with soft, dim eyes. The figures onstage blurred, became not actors or characters in a story, only spotlit streaks of color.
After the show they went to a bar, which was nautical-themed. The black ocean was perfectly visible (and, because black, wholly invisible) through the portholes. Each porthole a stage, Wayne thought. He imagined miniature red curtains around the holes. He sipped his martini and told Hector about this idea. He said, “They’d have white trim,” and Hector said, “Lace?” and then, “Nature is the best show on Earth.” They had two more drinks, then they took the elevator down to the casino.
Wayne stood watching while Hector sat and lost at blackjack. He’d bust and smile and say “Rats” and look up at Wayne with his eyes full open and they’d touch their glasses together while the dealer cleared the table. “To losing, and to rats.” Hector pursed his lips around the rim of his glass and sipped. Losing seemed to make him happy. His shoulders were relaxed, and Wayne wanted to see them bare, to watch them expand and fill the room, which felt to him, in that moment, as if it could happen. They watched the dealer slide chips across the felt. “He’s like a machine,” Hector said. This was all on the third night.
The next morning the ship arrived at port and they found that after days at sea, being on land was intolerable. In the streets, on cracked sidewalks, and in buildings, a lack of motion was all-present. It was as if they’d run full speed into brick. They were smarting and dizzy with the stillness of land.
“Get me to the ocean,” Wayne said. “I can’t stand it.” They walked through an open-air lobby and felt the breeze along their chests, unshaven necks, and the sides of their faces. Then came a small boardwalk, grainy with sand. And then, finally, the beach.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Wayne said. He’d not been to a beach before. He rested his hands on his hips and looked outward, upward, in every direction. He inhaled through his nose. “What storybook am I in right now?” he said. “Which children’s book?” He bent to touch the sand with his hands and said, “My feet cannot be trusted.” Uneven sand, which made his feet slip left and right, was exactly the cure for cement.
The beach was enclosed, in a small bay, wrapped by steep hills covered by vegetation. The sand was churned. The water was the glassy color of depthless blue and green eyes.
“That’s something a young person would say,” Hector said. He stood behind Wayne and rubbed Wayne’s shoulders.
“I am a young person,” Wayne said.
“An old soul,” Hector said.
“Oh, no.” Wayne said. “My soul is twenty-two.”
They let the wind take up their white towels and smooth them. They kneeled to lower them onto the sand. They scuffed the sand from their kneecaps and rested on their backs, on the towels, in the shade of the shrubbery, which was trimmed to a sharp edge. They closed their eyes and let the sun push through their sunglasses, against their eyelids, and they dozed.
When they woke, each sensing the other’s alertness, Hector said they should have brought drinks. While they’d napped (neither knew for how long, except that it must not have been too long, because there was still the sun, seeming never to move), six people, in pairs, had arrived with blue chairs and matching umbrellas.
“What is this beach’s maximum occupancy?” Wayne asked. He stood, looking, and shielded his eyes.
Hector propped himself using his elbow. “I’ll call the Fire Marshal,” he said.
They rose and walked into the clear water, up to their knees. Wayne stood in the coolness. Hector slid under the surface. Wayne saw Hector’s body, woven into ripples under water, his yellow swim trunks gliding until he came up for air.
A small crowd had gathered at the beach’s left, in a shallow dip where sea wood, covered in algae, had been lodged, by the current, between rocks. They passed a pair of orange goggles, held the goggles to their faces, and placed their heads into the water. They pointed.
Wayne and Hector walked the short distance to join the group—three men and three women. They stood close. Their hands found each other’s waists.
A woman handed goggles to Wayne, and he pressed them to his face, not wanting to take time to fasten the strap around his head. He bent to look into the water.
When he lifted his head, he took a deep breath. Water ribboned his dark hair, flowed down his face, around his mouth, from his chin onto his chest, and he said, “I don’t see anything.” Another woman’s hand touched him on the neck, guided him into the water again. Her hand felt warm. Under the water, he saw her finger. It had accompanied him, and it was pointing.
The octopus was still. If not for the woman’s finger, for the group who had gathered, Wayne would not have discovered it. Its camouflage was nearly perfect. It looked like a glass bowl containing a clear soup—fragile, reflective, clean. Its tentacles sought each other, held each other, and seemed fearful. Small waves rocked the surface of the water, and the motion traveled below, where the octopus (was it young?) had compressed itself, become the size of a volleyball, stitched itself into the water so that it moved in perfect stillness, in synchrony with the current. Young octopus, sea wood, algae, all sharing in the ocean’s gentle rocking.
Wayne watched until his lungs forced him to stand, and when he stood, aching for air, he breathed and opened his eyes wide and looked into the sky, where the sun had become faint.
“There’s an octopus,” he said to Hector. “A baby, I think.” He spoke to Hector without looking at him.
Hector, too, was examining the horizon, the jagged strips of white and peach and purple that had become layered above the far water as the sun began to set.
Wayne turned to the woman who had handed him the goggles.
“Do you think it’s a baby?” he asked.
She moved a sopping strand of hair from where it clung to her shoulder and said, “I don’t know.”
“Grilled octopus,” Hector said to the waiter. “For an appetizer.” They had re-boarded the Sea Princess. It was nine-thirty p.m. exactly. The ship had left port and was Orlando-bound.
They were silent. Cocktails were on the way. Ice water was already there. The familiar sounds of the other diners and of the ship, and of the black ocean, blotted their speech. The air was saturated and heavy. Talking seemed difficult.
Wayne watched the waiter walk away from their table and said, “That isn’t funny.” His voice was louder than it needed to be to reach Hector.
“What isn’t funny?”
“That octopus was beautiful. I think it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
“In all your twenty-two years, the most beautiful?”
“Yeah, I think so. One of them.”
“Have you ever eaten octopus? Grilled octopus? With chickpeas?”
“No,” Wayne said. And he was grateful for the motion of the ship. “I wish I wouldn’t have seen it.”
“He wishes to unsee the most beautiful sights,” Hector said.
A nearby diner began to laugh. It seemed to Wayne that Hector was not talking to him, but to one of the table’s two empty seats, to someone who could not be seen, but who had joined them there.
Eric Van Hoose‘s fiction has appeared in Sycamore Review, Bat City Review, Tweed’s, Fiddleblack, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His essays have appeared in Salon, The Black Scholar, and Full Stop Quarterly. He’s pursuing a PhD in the University of Cincinnati’s creative writing program for fiction, where he’s an editorial assistant at the Cincinnati Review.