Joe is on a ferry from Brindisi crossing the Adriatic Sea to Greece. Ever since he read the Odyssey in high school, he’s wanted to see “the wine-dark sea” for himself. Now here it is, in front of him, but it isn’t wine-dark at all. More like the blue of Ice Gatorade, a colour too artificial to be real. But who is he to contradict Homer?
Joe is only glad to be here at last. So long ago he dreamed it and now he can scarcely remember the taste of that desire, like the faintest hint of salt on the skin after bathing in the ocean.
“Joe, it’s getting cold. I’m going in.”
Cold! It is hot as summer, the sun like butter, the sky unending blue. A little breeze, that’s all, but she has to complain. Let her go.
He watches his wife go in and knows she will never leave off complaining how he left her by herself on a ferry full of strangers. He can hear her story, repeated over and over at cocktail parties, family gatherings, wherever she feels called upon to talk about his injustice to her, and it will be often. He knows that from forty years of marriage. So he follows her, the door shutting behind him, locking out that faint trace of salt that linked him to the memory of a desire.
They go into the lounge at the front of the ship where the seats are lined up in orderly rows, all facing out to the sea, hundreds of people looking out to the future. They find a couple of empty seats near the middle and sit down.
In front of Joe, a curly-haired boy is squirming restlessly in his seat. His mother tells him to be still. The boy turns his head slowly and looks over his shoulder at Joe as if he knows him. Joe wants to smile at the young boy but finds he cannot, his muscles paralyzed by some kind of recognition deep in his bones. He doesn’t recognize him from the outside, but somehow he feels he knows what the boy is thinking, feeling, tasting. Joe is paralyzed by fear as the boy still stares at him—for how long?—it seems forever, and then suddenly the boy’s mother says something and he looks away.
The spell is broken.
Joe is sweating, his hand shaking. Need a drink.
“Can I get you a drink, dear?” he says to his wife, trying to sound normal, but his voice echoes loud in his own head as it used to when he was a child and had to talk in front of the class. He glances back at the little boy, certain he must be staring again, but he is not.
“You’re going to get a drink, Joe.”
She makes it sound like a scold. Xanthippe. Hemlock. I wish.
“Yes, I am, dear. Can I get you one?”
“Oh, all right. If you’re going anyway.”
“What can I bring you?”
“Just a ginger ale, Joe.”
Manages to censure him even in a drink order.
Joe winds his way through the people and chairs, his feet unsteady as the boat churns its way across the passage from Brindisi to Patras.
He returns with his wife’s ginger ale and his drink, another kind of ale, brown and bitter. “Here you are, dear.” When she turns to him, he sees her face devoid of all colour. “What’s the matter?”
She takes the ginger ale in both her hands. “When I was a little girl I had a blue dress that I loved with short puffed sleeves and ruffles and a wide skirt…”
Why does she think he wants to know about that? “That’s very interesting I’m sure, but…”
“That’s it,” she says, pointing to a little girl dancing in the aisle, her skirt full out around her as she twirls, so obviously happy he can almost hear her singing from here. She stops in mid-pirouette and looks at them, no not at them, at his wife. Plunk. Splash. He hears his wife’s paper cup of ginger ale hit the floor, drops of liquid spraying up and leaving dark specks on the hems of his pants. His wife is transfixed, as he had been. So he looks back at the girl. There is something familiar about the face. If they’d had a daughter, she might have looked like this. He glances at the seat in front of him, but the boy and his mother are gone.
His wife makes no apology to him for the sticky mess on his pants but simply says, “I’ll just go and get another drink.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, it’s quite all right. You guard the seats.”
Please don’t leave me alone in this ship of ghosts, his little boy mind is saying. What if he comes back again, that child who was me? He is sure now. He looks around the lounge and catches a glimpse of the boy and his mother just leaving. He has a sudden urge to follow, to see the mother. His own mother died ten years before. Imagine seeing her after all these years, but young again as she was before the cancer robbed her of her health. He puts his beer in the cup holder on the armrest, hoping it will be enough to mark his place, and follows them out of the lounge.
He walks once around the ferry, looking everywhere: the cafeteria, the souvenir shop, the games room, all the lounges, even the washrooms. Then he goes out onto the deck and does a circuit. There is no sign of them anywhere. His eye is caught, however, by a young man at the bow of the ferry leaning on the rail looking out, like a visionary, his long hair whipped back by the wind, a scarf tossed jauntily around his neck. Something about the young man’s style attracts Joe, a sort of nonchalant certitude. Joe decides to approach him.
“Excuse me, have you seen a mother and small boy on the deck?”
The young man turns to face him, and Joe has to grasp the railing to keep from falling.
The young man says, “Why are you looking for them? They are long gone.”
Joe does not respond but continues to stare. His insides quiver. He is so young and fresh, well he was never beautiful, but it is him. To see himself so youthful, it makes the lust rise in him once again, like new yeast in old dough.
The young Joe seems bored and turns back to the sea.
“What are you thinking about?” Joe finally asks him.
“I’m dreaming about Dawn.”
It takes Joe a little while to realize he is talking about Dawn Trevanier, a girlfriend he had when he was about that age. It has been years since he’s even thought about the perky little blond, so obviously out of his reach he knows now, who’d dated him a few times before she’d lost interest. “Don’t waste your time thinking about girls,” Joe says. “You have so much future in front of you. You should be living your dreams.”
“What do you think I am doing, old man? This is my dream, and I’m living it. Not like you. This is the first time you’ve ever been to Greece.”
“Yes,” Joe says. “Is it your first time too?”
“Oh no. I’ve been here many times, sailing back and forth, waiting for you. And at last you’ve come.”
“Waiting for me? What does that mean?”
His younger self does not respond but asks his own question. “Did you come with Dawn? Did you marry her? I want to see her if she’s here.”
“I’m here with my wife. Her name is Iris, and I’m sure you don’t want to see her. Answer my question.”
The young man, looking disgusted, turns back to the sea again. “I wonder what happened to Dawn,” he says. Then he will speak no more.
Joe thinks of Iris, how angry she will be with him for abandoning their seats. And he left his beer behind, too. He should go back and rescue it if he can. He starts to walk away, but then looks back. The young man is gone, nothing more than a figment of his over-active imagination it seems.
Back in the main lounge of the ship, he sees his wife waving for him from their seats. He goes to her.
“Where have you been, Joe? I’ve been so frightened. I thought you’d deserted me.”
A glance at her drink, whatever it was, shows him she has emptied it. “I’m here now, dear. Whatever’s the matter?” he asks. “You’re acting as though you’ve seen a ghost.”
“And so I have, in a manner of speaking. I just saw myself again, only this time when I was about eighteen,” she says.
“Did you speak with yourself?”
“What a strange question! You don’t seem at all surprised.”
“What did you say to yourself?”
The young lady sitting where the boy was turns around and addresses him. “She told me I should not marry or have any children. She told me I should pursue my dream.”
Joe stares at her. He has forgotten how beautiful she was. You used to wear colours, Iris. What happened?
The vision speaks again. “What do you think of that, Joe? She wishes you and your sons had never been.”
He can’t say anything.
“Don’t listen to her, Joe. Don’t believe her,” Iris is whining beside him.
“What was your dream?” he asks the young girl.
“All these years and she’s never told you! Why don’t you ask her yourself?” The young Iris gets up and leaves.
Joe watches her walking down the aisle and out of the lounge, wishing he could go with her, wishing she were real. Finally he turns to his wife. “What was your dream, Iris?” he asks her, trying to keep in his mind the vision that has just left.
“You know, Joe, it was never very important or I would have told you.”
“Don’t lie to me any more, Iris. What was your dream?”
“I wanted to be a writer too. But I felt I could never compete with you. There’s only room in the family for one writer’s ego, you see.”
Joe tries to keep from scoffing. He knows that is the real reason she has never told him, because he would have laughed at her. How could she be a writer? She was always up to her elbows in dirty diapers or dishes or something. She was what she was meant to be—the mother of his children, and a good mother at that. He should never diminish her because she was only that. He takes his wife by the shoulders and hugs her. It has been a long time since he performed such a loving act in public.
She starts to cry on his shoulder.
“Don’t do that, dear,” he says kindly. “You’ll get me all wet.”
She pulls away from him, smiles faintly and looks through her purse for a packet of tissues to wipe her eyes. “It’s just that sometimes I feel so cheated. If I’d only been born maybe ten years later, I would have stood up to you. I would have struck out on my own. But when everyone else was demanding their rights, I was too busy with little children. No matter what, I could never have abandoned them. Let’s forget about it now. The time has passed.”
Yes, he thinks. The time has passed. She feels it too. This day is crowded with ghosts.
He looks back where he saw his wife’s younger self and his little boy self leave, and there he sees a sight that terrifies him more than any other he’s yet seen today. It is himself, not as he was but as he is now—wild curly grey hair, dark glasses, a beard and a restless, hurried manner. The other “he” suddenly sees him, and a look of intent forms upon his face. He gestures as if he wants Joe to wait for him there.
“Iris, let’s get out of here now.” He takes his wife’s hand and, equally intent as his other self, hurries between the row of seats to the other side of the lounge.
“What’s the matter?”
“Come quickly. I see myself over there. Do you see?” He indicates his doppelganger to her.
“Oh my God! What does it mean?”
“I don’t know. But I’m afraid of what will happen if I meet him.”
“Do you think I’ll see myself now too?”
“Perhaps. Every time I’ve seen myself today, you have also.”
They speak to each other in hurried gasps as they rush out the door. They can see the doppelganger following them through the row of seats, looking frustrated in his slow attempt to meet them.
“Where can we go?” Iris asks him.
“Let’s go back to the car. We can lock ourselves in. He—they—whatever– won’t be able to touch us then.”
They walk back down the steps they have come up only a few hours before, ignoring the posted signs that warn them not to return to the car deck before the ship has docked.
Once in the bowels of the ship, breathing the parking-garage smell of gasoline mixed with sea air, they scan the rows of vehicles for the one that they rented, a green Volkswagen Golf. “There it is,” Joe calls. He takes her hand and sidles with her as quickly as possible through the tight spaces between cars. When they reach it, Joe feels in his pocket and finds the key. As he pushes the button to unlock the doors, he glances up and sees his doppelganger coming through the doorway from the stairs, his hand still raised in greeting.
Joe opens the door on the driver’s side out of habit, and Iris gets in on the passenger side. They slam the doors simultaneously. Joe pushes the button on the key again, and the locks make a satisfying thud as they are sealed in.
Joe turns in his seat and looks at Iris, her eyes so relieved, as if he has saved her. He has always wanted to be her hero. “Buck up, old girl,” he says. He is proud of her for not breaking down now.
He hears a sharp rap at his window, and his heart skips a beat.
“Open up, Joe.”
“Go away,” he says, as he turns to face himself.
“Come on, Joe.”
“What do you want?”
“I’ve only come to collect the fare.”
Joe’s heart is fluttering. He knows what that means. “I’ve already paid.”
“Not this fare, you haven’t.”
“Go away, and please leave us alone.”
“Come on, Joe. You’ve always known you’d have to pay the ferryman one day.”
“But what about Iris? Let her go. She’s done nothing wrong.”
“Neither have you, Joe. It isn’t about right or wrong. It just is.”
The ship suddenly lurches and alarm bells and howling whistles begin to ring on the deck above them. At that moment, Iris screams, and Joe turns to her. She is looking toward the door to the staircase where a woman is winding her way through the cars, resolute in her destination. She has her hair pinned neatly back in a bun, wears a beige sweater, and clutches a brown leather shoulder bag in front of her. It is Iris. For a moment, Joe is relieved to see her doppelganger because it means he will not be alone in death.
He takes her hand firmly in his, and speaks to her. “Iris, darling. Look at me. Don’t look at them. Don’t listen to them. Just look at me. Let’s talk for whatever time we have left now. Tell me about the story you might have written if only you’d had time.”