The world is filled with so many people we will never know; everyone on this ship, for example.  See the family in matching T-shirts and sun-visors, the visors topped with cat’s ears.  Or the same child who keeps running the length of mezzanine at full speed, his clothes soaking wet from some source we cannot name.  The pool, most likely, although the pool is crowded with children riding the backs of parents, the parents affixed to straws noisily asked to convey the last of margaritas, mojitos, and Mai Tais to grateful mouths.  Attendants in neckerchiefs roll trash cans in from wherever and out to wherever.  Walking to obtain yet another self-serve ice cream cone, we bump into eleven new strangers, our only bond our habit of saying “sorry” at the same time.  Why do we want another ice cream cone?

            Surely this cruise was someone’s idea.  Someone—us, most likely—had to pay for all of this.  Which is probably how everyone else got here, too.  Pricey, we figure.  It had to be, otherwise how would we get the opportunity to watch so many “Broadway-quality” shows with so many agreeable people we’ve never known?  This one is top-shelf all the way, what with its seamless blend of acrobatics, rollerblading, and Sondheim tunes.  We’re either in awe or a little bored or maybe both; it’s hard to say with our ears ringing from the applause of strangers.  We’d add ours to the din, but our hands seem to be occupied by ice cream cones.  When did we get those?

            We tour the ship, hoping, we suppose, that we’ll turn the next corner and see someone we recognize.  Someone to return the world to the one we know.  But the world we know seems to have been commandeered by the world of strangers, who pass us by at an alarming rate.  The teenager in the neon top that proclaims MONOGAMY ROCKS!  The octogenarian in a wheelchair festooned with orange flags.  Not three, not four, but five adults cheerlessly dressed as Santa Claus, for reasons we’ll never know.  A white dog, apparently ownerless, fervently licking a fallen ice cream cone from the shuffleboard court.

            We ascend stairwells teeming with passengers headed the opposite way. 

            “Sorry!” we say.

            “Sorry!” the passengers say.

            We reach the promenade deck, where so many people we do not know stand shoulder to shoulder, staring out across the flat expanse of ocean.  The sun, that old standby, mysteriously hides behind thick clouds that threaten rain.  Should we speak of the weather to the couple next to us, each of them taking selfies?  Should we make small talk?  But, wait, the clouds part.  The darkness fades.  The sun re-emerges and permits us to see something we hadn’t noticed before: another cruise ship, exactly like ours, riding the horizon.  Those familiar funnels, those unmistakable masts.

            “Hello!  Over here!” we shout, and wave along with everyone else at what surely must be people just like us.

***

Anthony Varallo is the author of a novel, The Lines (University of Iowa Press), as well as four short story collections.  New work is out or forthcoming in The New Yorker “Daily Shouts,” One Story, STORY, Chicago Quarterly Review, DIAGRAM, and The Best Small Fictions 2020.