At forty feet on a weedy plain aglint with crushed beer cans, observed by pouting bass, he bumped her. She finned to catch her balance but he was enormous as a dirigible in his black suit and hood. Frictionless as a tumble through sky, she scared mindless — new to her gear, the water — until his gloved hand clamped her shoulder and he pressed his mask to hers, his eyes flushed. Weeping? With his other hand he jiggered the regulator in her mouth. For a second she sighed: now this? Then she snorted, breath-exhaust balling surface-ward. Could he be more in her face?
All she was also pissed at — death of her parents, cancer and a subway bomb within a month of each other, boom-boom, then a comet-tail of grief sparking in their wake, year of parched, thirsty. Then the recent succession of colorful drinks like cheerleaders’ pompons. A recent hair cut, expensive, complicated. Nails done and done again. Colorless classes the girlfriend she’d known since forever had pressed her to take — Lives of the Post-Poets, Meditate-Up Your Mood. Even this Learn to Dive course. Once a week for eight weeks she had sat on the pool bottom and held her breath, despite the instructor’s edicts — Don’t hold your breath, he’d shout, pre-dunk, warning of pulmonary embolism. I’m holding my breath, she’d think, pissed rabid, a harpy mermaid. From the pool bottom as from everywhere there was no bottom or top to the world. No end to protests, non-mandated ordinations, tailspin economies. Her freelance days busting grey organs apart, cross-sections, hatch-crossings, with her mechanical pencils — a medical textbook illustrator who’d never helped anyone, least of all herself. At least when she crouched on the pool bottom she could think.
If she had an amphibian heart, it would be green. When her instructor asked her on a dive date, she bit.
Suck-bang — his respirations, hers, hard to tell. Beyond their pneumatic storm, the blue-green wash of water, a suspension of teal fish. Where on earth were her legs, arms? Still grasping her, he rotated. They sank. Mud charmed away much of her vision. Masks knocked and she felt cold liquid slick in. He worked her mouthpiece again. Inside her a pin sprang, pricked. Bastard. Gone: mother handing her a small parcel bandaged white, pain parcel. Gone the smell of urine and candy, chemo’s whiteout. Selling the childhood home, its backyard sparrows, trees with their branches like busted brains reaching the night sky. Girl-junk milky and sour. Bottom’s up, cheers.
She opened wide, let him have it, reared her neck as far as her tank allowed, spat air at him. The mud parted enough for her to get her index finger up, crook it at him. What? He sealed her lips with his. His tongue twisting hers made another question mark. Then he plucked back her reg, urged the mouthpiece past her gritted teeth. Done. Bastard is right. She hissed her lung’s last withheld nugget, drew in fresh breath, surprised she still could. Surprised by her surprise, and then by his bent, black-gloved finger. Well?
They checked into a motel room, ripped it for real. After, they lay on the floor, side by side, sticky, cooling. Yeah, she drawled. Double that, he said. The walls of the room were bluish green. Where the curtains wouldn’t completely close deep twilight leaked. Blue sheets, carpet — even skin was a blue-green echo, as if suit-less underwater. As if blue were the color of starving, they rose, shook out their limbs and foraged the shabby corridor’s vending machine, scarfed candy bars, chips. They made love again, crinkling amid foil wrappers. Well past midnight she tucked the blue-floral bedcover beneath her chin and said, So anyway, where’d you come from? Who hatched you? Somewhere under he nuzzled his long strange feet against hers. During sex, she’d taken long moments to peruse the pale toes double in length his big ones. Story short, he said. I was adopted, grew up happy, the end. Funny, she said, I’m kind of an orphan as well.
After a time he was crusty where his penis drowsed against her belly. She was sore. She got up to pee. In the bathroom, through the crack in the window curtains — here too they refused to close — she could see that mist accumulated in drifts across a vacant lot. She shivered. Emptied, she flushed, but remained seated. She had left the door to the bathroom open and could hear creaks and groans, as if he were bobbing on the mattress, searching for her. Sighs she imagined argent, hail melt.
Too soon again they were in his truck. Dun fields rolled like waves beneath an overcast sky strung with trances of migrating geese. Thunder-events crested the horizon and a strong wind clomped the truck’s windshield. Pressure stoked her head. Her pulse wobbled in her throat. An hour into the drive he pulled onto the shoulder. The pressure had built, an achy beat. Water-borne bacteria invading her canals, tympanum, who knew. She imagined infection, appointments. Permanent hearing loss.
Come home with me, he said. Stay tonight.
He was thrust forward, roughing his stubble. Gravel gasped under the car, along the drivers’-side door. It almost seemed he hadn’t said anything, or had been talking to someone else. Then he locked on her directly, eyes like embers, exhaustion, crappy coffee, energy drinks — well? — and the spell broke.
Can’t, she said. I have to work. Early tomorrow. I have a meeting with a client.
Me too, he said. But can’t we can swing by your place? What do you need?
Not the mirrored buildings, similitudes of parking lots, interiors of corridors, the nodding and smiling — the rush-hour armadas of oncoming headlights, occasional curb-side immolation against a backdrop big-screen billboard promising blessings and bounty, forever-ships to Mars landings. All stilled now as she tried to think, covering her mouth with her hand, which was damp and hot. He covered his eyes with his hand and made a slit, parting his middle and third fingers, through which he peeked. He said, This is too soon, right?
Too cute. At the very least.
He clung to the wheel again. His shirt stretched over his biceps, and she was struck by a longing to test herself against them. Sorry, he said. Too far, too fast.
She was chilled, twitchy. Sorry, she said. It’s not what I meant. She wrapped her jacket tighter around herself.
He reached for her cheek, snailed a finger along it, discharging warmth. He leaned over and kissed her temple, hair. You okay? he said.
The truck’s engine ran and ran. The wind fluxed, shifting at least nine shades of slate-gray. Cuddled inside her coat, her chest was a cave, echo-carved with ancient tidings. Mother. Father. And more: when she and her friend were fourteen, girls and also more than girls, they’d built a secret hideaway, and that one whole July — before the structure was discovered and razed by municipal workers clearing this neglected area of the ravine behind the convenience store — was cicada-time, cigarettes and cash filched from the statues of no-mothers, no-fathers, time of hash brownies and baked-baby brownies and other sundry legends, time to the tune of at the very least seventy-eight million suburban stars in heavy rotation.
Shit. Her friend — she was supposed to check in with her, give the full report. They shared quite some history. At some point she would call. She would try to remember.
Okay, she said. I can pick up a few things.
He shipped to attention, lashed back against the seat. He held both hands high, as if under arrest.
Why am I so cold? she wondered. It was the third consecutive morning she’d woken in his bed, woken freezing. Her new normal. As usual, he was turned away, face buried in the pillow. A miracle he wasn’t suffocating. She wrapped herself around his warmth, as if he might tug her to wherever he was afloat in his own slack consciousness, one that ran at a higher temperature than hers. She began to touch him, above his buttocks, along his outer thighs, and he mumbled awake, turned onto his back, and lifted the sheet for her to mount him.
He was an ugly man, with a head like a nicked boulder. On his torso, accretions of muscles like carbuncles on a powerful creature’s hide. He was sweating, salty. His short hair quilled like a crown.
She waggled aboard. Shadows washed the walls, ceiling. By the time she’d come, she’d worked out how to arch her brittle-star spine, bloom algae between her thighs. Her ribcage a lyre. Strum-strum, strum-strum. What eluded her, what she’d tell her girlfriend and what she wouldn’t, couldn’t, was no matter. There was no matter at all.