Estranged Swimmers of a Polluted Sea

She was very sensitive about it, the seahorse. She took wire hangers from his closet and bent them around her fingers to form its boney structure and its oval belly, its rectangular snout and tail twirling into itself like a centipede. She figured a wire frame would work well  — seahorses often had harsh lines protruding from their skin as if they were, in fact, constructed from wire and string and knobby fabric. So that’s what she did. She got some wire and string and knobby fabric and twirled it together until her fingers bled just a little.

She often made things with a sensible purpose in mind — shorts for him, a quilt for the bed, a wooden coffeetable. She could pick up any new craft or hobby with ease and perform it well, and for this reason the house ceiling was crowded with tools strung together like Christmas lights. Just in the living room there were ten different kinds of rulers, three measuring compasses, two protractors, several saws, a tailor’s ham, a carpenter’s bradawl, a plumber’s snake, glass cutters and a throwing stick. Before this stringed organization, she frequently lost the things she needed, or she simply forgot about their existence. Lost hobbies. She often needed things. Drawers were emptied, fabrics thrown, paper torn, until she found the very object she sought, the fervor of which pushed the item’s very purpose out of her mind. What was this for again? Then the idea came: to keep her tools out in the open, strung on a string and tacked to the ceiling on catenary display. She liked that. She could never lose or forget about her treasures, particularly if one were to occasionally hit her on the head. She did not consider how she was going to set a tool loose when needed, but with her innovative tact she devised the solution: there were many cuts and knots in the string.

These sensible projects appeased that innate desire for creation. They also fulfilled any household need for furniture or clothing or soap or the general things that are needed when living. This was prominent, and perhaps most important, because they were poor. The tools she had were old, rusted, found near dumpsters. For those that appeared new: she may have on occasion left a well-to-do shop with full pockets.

He assumed that necessity was her only muse for creation. They were poor and they would always be poor and therefore they would always need things. She was the creator of needed things because she was good at creating therefore she would always create the things they needed.

But this seahorse was different. They had no children that could play with the thing, and what kind of decoration could this be? He looked at her pensively. She shot him a barbed glance. Her expression said, Don’t you say anything at all. Then she bent over the seahorse like a mother pulling out a breast for her child.

She sat with the half-seahorse in a gold-yellow sofa chair in the living room for some hours. White fabric spread over the floor like sheets of ice. This seahorse would be white and its head and tail would be stuffed with fabric but its belly would remain hollow. Maybe she could turn it into a lamp? Or a plant holder? No, no. At this point, she figured, any plans for the unfinished seahorse were too grand; the thing had hardly been birthed from wire and cloth and its head was just beginning to emerge. Even so, she wanted the thing to exist for the sake of mere existence. It’s purpose was purposeless, so she continued stitching, slowly fashioning a creature too large and too strange for her crowded home with no certainty of its future except that she wanted it to be and so it would be.

Eventually the prodigious seahorse was not alone. There soon appeared a sealion, a jellyfish, a manatee. The animals hung from the ceiling with her tools like estranged swimmers of a polluted sea. They bumped against rusty sawblades, kissed the tips of dull scissors. She left their bellies hollow save for glowing light bulbs.

He was tall so he had to duck. She was small and thin and weaved around objects like a familiar bird. He breathed deeply, patiently, as her hands scurried with pins and needles, sitting in the gold-yellow sofa chair, meticulously weaving their growing ocean.

Of course she eventually ran out of ceiling. Which was fine — the animals needed mending, after all. A rip here, a stain there. A bump too rough with too many tools. That was fine. She carried a sack of needles and white thread, mending their open wounds. When their bulbs faded, she replaced them. Their bellies were always full of light. She was quite the electrician.  Quite the feeder of light. In her mind they thanked her. Thank you, thank you, thank you miss.

When she was young her father wrote the family eulogies. For her cousin, her grandmother, her mother. He was amiable and had a clean haircut and so he was loved. He had a way of looking into people without letting his eyes confess. People liked that, the not-knowing, the blank slate of a good listener. He knew every family member, their confessions and their joys and their sadnesses, and he possessed that fine skill of balancing sadness with humor, so when that time came for someone to walk up to the podium, they looked to him, thinking softly, Please remind us why we love at all.

Her father’s last eulogy was for her brother. My son is not dead, for he will always be remembered, his father said. The fact of the matter is he left me here alone. And that is something I am most sorry for. This was, very likely, the only time her father cried in public. Standing in the funeral crowd, she thought about her dead brother and her living father and she sounded out the word with a child’s tongue.  A lone.

She did not like it once she said the word. She associated it with tugging at her father’s pant leg, asking questions. Wondering where he was going. If she could come too. And if she could maybe, pretty please, wear her brother’s favorite hat. Her dead brother who left them both. A lone. To geth er. When her father died she wrote his eulogy. Perhaps she had said, My father is dead and I am grateful, for now I can forget what it is to be alone. She could not remember. Nobody was listening. They stared at their feet, sad that the man holding their secrets took them to the grave, sad that he would never stand at the podium near their own caskets.

He liked her for her strangeness. She had a selfish obscurity and a need for loneliness that made him want to be with her more. They met in a restaurant, she was knitting. She shivered as he asked, Can I get you something? A coffee? His face, pale and freckled with blue eyes slightly magnified by his glasses, made her think: Alaska. He admitted that he was from Idaho, but she kept the word to herself nonetheless. Alaska, ice. She liked this cool-calm feeling — it reoccurred later when his hand slid up her shirt, across her rib cage, leaving goosebumps in its track.

Three years later, the house of sutured sea animals form. She mended and sewed. He breathed and waited. She ducked and weaved. He breathed and waited. She mended and sewed. He breathed and waited. She scurried and ripped. And mended-sewed. And glowed-wanted. And spread-faded. And twirled-polluted. And he waited. And she sewed. And bled. And he waited, and he waited, and he waited, so patiently a lone.

The decision to stop waiting happened suddenly. It was a Tuesday afternoon and he could hear a couple bickering outside. How sad their lives sounded to him, so distant and disconnected. And yet so similar. A car door was slammed, and he jumped up from the bed and thought to himself, How did I ever get here? He walked through the ocean, letting the animals shove their way around him. Excuse me! He heard them say. I do say! Watch it mister! He tore through them as his hands slowly, calmly, curled into fists. Hey! Ouch! He was hit by a hammer, a wrench, a manatee.

She was mending the seahorse, her lips red from biting. She did not see him. She was much smaller when she crouched to the ground like that. She was a starving rabbit, a thing too small to care for, easily disposed by a truck skidding down the road. When she finally looked up she saw his stooping black shadow swiftly grabbing at her neck.

She was to become one of her sea creatures that day. Hanging on catenary display like Christmas Lights. Her stomach could have glowed with the deepness of late sunset. An estranged swimmer in a polluted sea. She would have been happy to be so free.

She coughed a wet, choking breath. Tighter, she thought to herself. Tighter. But he saw the struggle in her eyes and let her go.

The quiet happened suddenly. He did not look at her. Rather, he looked out. The sky was gray and still. Out to sea, he mused, his eyes at the empty window. Out to sea, out to sea. Winter was waiting for him. He dragged his limbs toward the door. Out to sea, out to sea. He opened the front door and screamed, OUT TO SEA! He was gone, just like that.

She knew he was not coming back because he finally saw her for who she was and what they became. A lone. To geth er. How long had she kept him from knowing? He might have always known. She waited, and waited.

When she moved, it was to tuck towels between the doors and their thresholds. She did so carefully, rolling the towels neatly and softly as if preparing a bed for a child. When the exterior doors were sealed up ­— there were three in the two stories of their home — she turned on the kitchen faucet. Out to sea, she mused, watching the water fill the sink then spill onto the floor. Her feet sloshed through the floor waters. Hours passed and the water filled, up and up, past her ankles to her knees up to her belly button and her nipples and her collar bones and her chin. She was swimming and it was wonderful, so clean.

The water climbed up the stairs and she swam with it. Up and up and up to the Swimmers of a Polluted Sea. They swam too as if for the first time, their bodies floating, fabric sopped with rust water, because the tools, too, marinated. She backstroked, her arms moving up and down, up and down, in circles like windmills, hands lightly pushing back bits of broken furniture and animal parts. Then she stopped to float on her back with air in her lungs. She watched the ceiling grow closer and closer to her face. Soon it was touching her nose. Then her lips. Then her cheek. Then she was underwater and she could see the faintest of things. An octopus tentacle. A grinning manatee. The seahorse. It swam toward her as if on its own accord.

If he ever did come back, he would have seen through the windows murky with house water a couch floating past lamp shades, twirling shower curtains and shoes. Bottles of soap and lye. A taylor’s ham, a carpenter’s bradawl. Broken wood beams and glass. All of it floating about, in and out, a House Aquarium, quite the sight. And then, if he looked hard and long enough, he would see her, clutching the white seahorse, her stomach glowing with the deepness of late sunset.

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