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A Warm Summer’s Night Pt. 2

The following story appeared in my first book (which launched four years ago this week, by the way. Holy shit.). I tweaked it for a recent application and thought I’d post here, since it’s seasonal…


Slowly, I am rocking




I feel the curve of my back against the deck’s wood. My right-hand knuckles scrub gently up and down the zipper on my sweatshirt. I can feel dried salt crusted between my toes. It is a buttery summer night, and this boat and I are gliding on waters off Rhode Island. Seven of us lie on the deck, all looking up, all silent. We’re tired in that beachy way, thirsty and tender from overexposure to air and sun.

Nearest to me, Andrew rolls over. He is English, short and a little doughy. His blond hair is soft and thin, like a baby’s or a duck’s. I feel that if I held my hand above his head, the threads of it would come shooting to attention and follow my fingers, like the static electricity balls at science museums. I am considering these uglinesses, then I notice his serious eyes, and I smile to cover up the jolt I get from that kind of electricity. Andrew is new to this group. He is my friend’s favorite ex. I try to think of the least comely thing to say.

“I wish I were a mermaid,” I announce, looking at the sky, feeling him examining my profile.
“What color shells,” he asks.
“They have shells over their boobs. What color shells?”
“Oh.” This has thrown me off. “Sea urchins instead. To discourage young mermen from getting fresh.” I waggle my eyebrows Groucho-style, but he likes it and laughs. This is bad. Then, I am honest before I can stop myself.
“I think I’d be happiest if I really was a mermaid. Living alone in a forest of kelp.”
“The tall, stringy things? Don’t divers get tangled in those and die?”
“Yes,” I say. “Regularly.” We watch a constellation pass slowly out of sight as the boat drifts on.

I turn my face full to him, and though we are not that physically close and we are surrounded by other people, and of course all we are doing is making eye contact, it feels very, very intimate. I say to his nose, to his dark, reflective eyes: “Violence is a part of everything beautiful, don’t you think? And consider the solitude. And the quiet. Long columns of green all around you and warm light filtering down through the silent sea. Forever.”

I can see Andrew rolling this thought around on his tongue, savoring it, before swallowing. He blinks at me, then tips back and lets the rocking deck settle him flat.

Later, when everyone has paired off in their cabins or gone inside to do the dishes, I am standing at the railing, watching the ocean slip by. I don’t really think of Andrew. I am too interested in examining  my own mind, how special I am, what wondrous thoughts I am thinking. I am diving myself and looking for pearls. When he steps up to me, I’m a little surprised. And then, of course, I am not.

“Hello, mermaid.”
“Christ,” I say. “That’s your best line?”

Andrew looks at me in that deep, calm way and I suddenly feel incredibly idiotic for being sharp and quippy. It’s something I love about myself, but with him it feels hollow and stupid. I turn back to the water and he reaches for me, puts his hand around my elbow. It is a strange feeling, his warm skin cupping me there. I can feel the wind flowing all around us, into the sleeves on my shirt and around my ankles. It blows some of my hair onto his face and he doesn’t bother to move. We stand like this for miles and miles. We must have passed at least four underwater sea monsters and at least five hundred shipwrecks and at least six thousand sunken treasures, the two of us, with his hand X marking the spot. The choice to touch something sharp and non-sensual feels like he’s blatantly saying he can love even the spikiest parts of me.

Later, when the last cigarettes are stubbed and crumpled, and the yellow cabin light is about to be extinguished, we are still touching, so I tell him about Oscar Wilde’s grave.

“He’s buried in a cemetery in Paris. There’s a big gray slab and on top of it is an art-deco-looking statue of a winged figure about to take flight. It’s the first statue that I ever liked. It kind of looks like a motorcycle, somehow? Anyway, it’s beautiful and simple and interesting, but the best part is that women from around the world come to kiss it. The whole thing is covered in red lip prints. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“I thought Oscar Wilde was gay.”
“That’s why it’s romantic.”

I am tired now, of this subtlety, of undertones and such tiny movements. I take a big breath and lean forward on the boat’s railing. His hand falls from my arm. I can’t bring myself to explain why merely talking together has begun to dishonor my friend. Andrew knows anyway. I regret this, and I regret that he wanted me enough to take things as far as we did. I pant “nothing happened, nothing happened” in my head. Tomorrow we will have to eat breakfast and read books and take leaps off the boat like we normally would. As if nothing happened, nothing happened. And if the Spanish fleet arrived with their Inquisition-style nail-removal tools and their iron maidens, what would they ultimately pry out of us, when we fessed up to the full truth? Oh, he touched my elbow. Oh, I touched her elbow. Nothing happened, nothing happened.

I leave him without saying goodbye.

Right before I walk down the steps to my section of the cabin, I allow myself to look back. He’s standing, head back and arms spread to the sky, like a mermaid masthead on the bow of a ship.

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