Mrs. X is lovely, a fellow passenger tells my husband and me. But she doesn’t speak much. When asked a question, her husband always answers. Even if it’s a simple question. We are seated with them one night at dinner and I meet her eyes. “Are you enjoying yourself?” I ask. And she smiles and nods and then turns to him to answer.
Where are you from? And he says England. Is this your first cruise? And he tells us, no. It is one of many.
She smiles at him all the while he speaks. But it is a smile that doesn’t change, that doesn’t animate her, that is like the pink lipstick she is wearing, something that is put on. How did the two of you meet? My husband asks. And he tells their story. He is her voice. And her memory.
He tells us that he fell in love with her at first sight. “I was the pool guy,” he says. His smile is broad and genuine, the past in front of him, not us at the table. “Her father hired me to weed, to plant, to cut the lawn, and to maintain the pool.” He turns to her and pats her hand. “She was a princess,” he says.
It’s easy to imagine this woman a princess. She is tall and slender and pretty, even now. She had long, blonde hair when he met her, he says. She was 19. He was 18. They have been married more than 50 years.
The conversation shifts. Now there is talk of historic sites, famous places. We, he always says. We did this. We did that. We. Including her. Always meeting her eyes. We chose not to have children so we could retire early and travel the world.
Every night they dance. She likes to dance, he tells us. And she nods and smiles her vacant smile and he pauses and looks into her eyes. Is he hoping that his words will register? Is he hoping that she will turn to us and say, “Yes. I love to dance! We dance every night until past midnight.” Is it hope that propels him? But there is no concept of dance in her eyes. Or of midnight. There is only the same polite smile.
I watch them one night. They look like everyone else on the dance floor swaying to “Our Day Will Come” and “Brown Eyed Girl.” The room is dark and the music is loud and the dance floor is full, and tiny, colored lights twinkle and flash. His hand on her back is tender, avuncular. I see this. He leads. And she follows.
I notice her blue silk shoes that match the blue in her dress. Does he pick out her clothes? Does he dress her? Did he put on her lipstick and fasten her pearls? Does he curl her hair? Does he have to cajole her into getting dressed and going out?
I watch her feet as she dances. I watch because her shoes are slender and beautiful and perfect. And as I watch, I see what I hadn’t noticed before. Her feet are keeping time with the music. Her feet are gliding, skipping, tapping, turning. Her feet remember. They know the language of the music. And they are like wings, giving her light and flight.
His feet are wooden. They are like paddles. They labor to perform. Two left feet, I think, understanding the meaning of this phrase. Understanding, too, why he dances anyway.
Because all the while they dance, a small part of her is present. The music, the rhythms, the downbeats, the dance floor, the familiar songs, the twinkly lights, his steady hand on her back. Some of these things? All of these things?
Something works its magic.
It must be enough for him. It must be what he waits for all day. A few minutes of who she was. He could travel alone. He could pay someone to care for her. And no one would blame him.
“She was a princess,” he told us.
There is no future in what he does. But there is the past. Their long-shared past. So he leads and she follows, except for when they are dancing, and she leads him back to the only place he really wants to go.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.