Even with the spray from the Indian Ocean blowing on your face it is still possible to smell the cinnamon from the island trees. On Mahe the smell is everywhere. It's the most striking thing about coming to Seychelles, more striking than the water or the weather or the knowledge that you're a thousand miles from African coast. The smell of fresh cinnamon is like an olfactory sledgehammer, the most unpredictable aspect of one of the most remote places on earth. Very few people ever come to Seychelles, but no one ever wants to leave. While you're there the world seems caught up in a blissful, eternal present. Everything seems timeless.
The young mother and the writer sit in matching beach chairs, approximately one hundred yards from the ocean and forty feet from the hotel. They are both wearing sunglasses and bathing suit bottoms and drinking beer, imported from Mauritius at no small expense. They are both young, but are getting to the point where their ages and looks are stretching the definition of that word. They are both young, but their youth is dying. The writer still has the same boyish face, but looks tired and is twenty pounds heavier than when they met. The young mother's face is slightly careworn, but just slightly. To the Creoles serving drinks she looks like a typical wealthy Caucasian woman from Europe or America. Only the red rose tattooed on her left breast implies a past that is anything other than privileged. The writer appears to be less successful, but the Creole waiter who has been serving their drinks does not judge. They are happy to spend the day thinking of themselves as a young couple.
The young man looks at the woman and smiles. They are both Americans and the young mother can tell that the sight of her bare breasts in the morning air excites her companion. Silently she wishes that they still looked the way that they did before she had a child. The young writer stands up. He sits on the sand and does some pushups. He is trying to impress her.
"I can't believe you did this," the young writer says to her. "Met me, here I mean."
"I'm a little surprised myself," she admitted. "You should enjoy it while you can; I probably won't be able to do it again."
"Maybe next time you can meet me in Paris," he says encouragingly. He is a playwright of some regard, which means he is successful enough to make a living, but not successful enough that people outside of the theatre have heard him. He has a small flat in one of the least fashionable suburbs in all of Europe, but he stills tells everyone he meets that he lives in London. "I'm sure we can work something out," he says, hoping to entice her to the city of lights.
"Maybe," she answers.
About three hundred yards from shore, a fishing boat slowly crosses the little bay, headed for the docks further up shore. The young woman puts down the book that she's been reading and watches it momentarily.
"What did you tell your husband?" the writer asks.
"The embassy sent him to a meeting in Madagascar," the young woman says. Her husband works for the embassy in Johannesburg and is in line to become a future ambassador. "I told him I was flying back to New York to see my mother."
"Won't he try and call you?" the writer asks.
"He will," the young woman agrees, "but he'll call my cell phone and I'm supposed to be eight time zones away, so he won't think it's strange that I don't answer. My mother's actually at my sister's house this week, but I'll check her answering machine just to make sure. I have the code." As she explains, a whirlwind of details about her double life go swimming in through her head.
"What about your son?" he asks.
"He went with his father," the young woman says. "They're going to see the lemurs. What about you? What did you tell your wife?"
The young writer stands up again. He takes two steps towards her chair, kneels down in the sand and kisses her. "I told her I was going out for a loaf of bread and some milk," he says. "She probably suspects something by now."
His cavalier humor is normally endearing, but at the moment it causes a misfire in the synapses of her brain. "You shouldn't have done what you did last night."
He doesn't understand. "What do you mean?" he asks.
After giving birth, young mothers have all fear of socially awkward situations literally bred out of them. "You shouldn't have done that last night," she says. "We didn't use any protection. I could get pregnant."
The young writer smiles; writers never have any fear of social awkwardness to begin with. "I hope you do," he says. "I hope your next child looks like me."
She looks at him but doesn't know what to say.
"You can't blame me, can you?" The writer's voice is surprisingly guilt-free. "I just want the same things that everybody else wants."
The young mother leans forward and kisses him with the same level of aggressiveness that he displayed when he first kissed her. "I don't blame you. I would want the same thing, if things were different."
"I know," he says, and he kisses her again.
They have known each other for more than ten years. They met while going to school in New York. He directed a production of "The Seagull." She played Nina. Anybody who knew them when they first met would have thought they would have been married by now; in fact, they would have thought that themselves. The trouble was that when they met he was dating someone else, and then she was too. Then he got involved in a long-term relationship with a girl from back home, and she met a nice man from Massachusetts. Then he moved to London and got engaged to a woman he didn't much care for. If only either one of them had ever had the patience to wait for the other, they might have managed to work things out long ago. Instead, they are both married, both unhappy, and have hardly seen each other for the past five years.
But for five days, that is all water under the bridge. Through a good deal of luck and careful planning they have managed to secure five glorious days together. Five days lost at sea on this tiny little island a thousand miles from its nearest neighbor. They are together at last, making up for lost time. For five days they will remain on this island, talking, laughing, making love and pretending there is no other world outside of this one. For five days they are in paradise– in love at the edge of the world.
In the afternoon they rent a car and drive to far side of the island, stopping on the way at the Victoria botanical gardens. The writer takes a picture of the young mother standing next to a tortoise and smiling. They see a coco-de-mer palm and are told it is one of the rarest plants in the world. They meet a nice couple from Denmark who have been here for two weeks and tell them about everything they have to see. They have to go to Praslin. They have to go to Sahe. They have to see the black paradise flycatcher and the coral reefs. The Danish couple are quite convinced that they know what everyone else has to see. They have to see everything, because everything is beautiful. Everywhere they go they are confounded with something more beautiful and delicate than anything they have ever seen.
"Yu knew, there vas a time ven peeple believed this was the Garden of Eeden." The Danish couple tells them.
"We know," the writer says. "We came for the forbidden fruit."
They do not go to Praslin. They do not go to Sahe. They do not see the black paradise flycatcher. They are not even sure that they will go and see the coral reefs. The Danish couple would be disappointed. They are happy to walk on the beach, to eat grilled sea bass, to sleep in the sun, to hold hands and talk about the strange turns their lives have taken over the past ten years. They are perfectly content in seeing nothing more exotic than each other. It is the writer who brings up the conversation that all Seychelles tourists eventually have.
"We could move here, you know," the writer suggests as they watch the sun melt into the Indian Ocean.
"What would we do?" the young mother asks.
"I could write spy novels," the young man suggests.
"Really?" she asks.
"Why not?" the writer says. "Ian Fleming wrote the James Bond novels in Sri Lanka."
"If you wrote spy novels, would I be in them?"
"Why, Moneypenny, there could never be another girl for me other than you."
"And what would I do?" she asks. She is playing along, but as they ponder the question she thinks to herself, "What would I do? What am I doing?"
He looks at her at and senses her hesitation. "You don't regret coming here, do you?"
"I regret everything," she admits. "Don't you?"
They retreat into the hotel, to spend the late-night hours making up for ten years of lost time. The writer seems to be having two love affairs, one with her soul and another with her physique. He worships at the altar of her body with the fervor of a religious zealot, exploring her delicate curves like they were ancient religious texts. She lets him do things her husband isn't allowed to do, and discovers she enjoys them. She tells him everything that he wants to hear: that she doesn't love her husband, that she wishes she'd never gotten married, that she wants to stay here forever. She wonders if he knows that she means what she says.
"I love you," she says, lying with her head buried in the crook of his arm. "I always loved you, from the first time we ever met. I don't know how you ever got away from me. I never wanted it that way. Somehow my whole life just kept moving in another direction and I couldn't stop."
But he doesn't hear her. He has fallen asleep. Jet lag has finally caught up with him.
She knows she should sleep, but she can't. She pulls away from him and gets up. She walks over to the dresser, opens her purse, and takes out the book she was reading earlier. As she picks it up the purse tips over, and her keys drop on the floor.
Attached to her keys is a small plastic picture holder. It frames a wallet-sized photograph of a small boy sitting in a highchair. He is eating Cheerios and has something on his cheek that looks like chocolate. He is smiling and looking up at a familiar face just beyond the camera.
The young mother knows this picture better than she knows herself. She knows that the picture was taken last Easter. She knows that it's Hershey's syrup that he has on his face, that the shirt he's wearing is his favorite, but it doesn't really fit him anymore. She knows that look in the boy's eyes, that moments after the picture was taken he asked to be picked up and she held him all the way over her head. The young mother picks up her keys. She sits down on the floor and quietly has an epiphany.
It takes her a few minutes to wake the writer. "I have to go," she says as he rubs the sleepiness out of his eyes.
"What?" he says, obviously a little confused.
"I have to go," she says emphatically. "He's my son."
"You can't leave," he says. "It's the middle of the night."
"I have to go," she says again. "I'm sorry."
In five minutes she packs her things, and before the writer can think of what to say she is out the door. She will get a cab to the airport, get on a plane back to Johannesburg and catch a connecting flight to Madagascar to be with her son. She hopes she can make it in time to see the lemurs. She doesn't know what she'll tell her husband, but she'll think of something. Her husband and her son– they are all she has in the world.