CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Winston and the Ocean
Winston stayed in the ocean longer than the other children. He’d stay in all afternoon, even if his neck turned blue, even if a wave pulled him under, scraping his chest raw against the shells. The mothers looked out at Winston from their tidy circle of primary-colored chairs. They’d shake their heads and laugh, puzzled that Winston was capable of such endurance. But whenever the subject of Winston came up, Winston’s mother stood, offered to run off for iced tea or cigarettes. She loved Winston, of course, but not as much as she loved her injections. As long as they didn’t focus too much on Winston, they’d never know what she did to her thigh at night. She always waited until Winston was fast asleep, after the last cars dragged their headlight beams around the bulb of the cul-de-sac.
Thirty years later Winston still bodysurfed hours at a time. He still went in when it was foggy, still went in when the seaweed was slopped with oil. But something about the going in no longer lived up to his hope for it. He’d think about the sea all week, at work—the beryl color when the sun hit the swell, the wafting of ions and oxygen—but once he got to the sand and peeled down to his trunks, he felt an empty box inside him. It wasn’t desolation, nothing as extreme as all that, but he was aware of wanting coffee or gum or a beer not five minutes after he went in. He’d look back at the shore, think, It hasn’t stopped my wanting. What’s that about? The water had always stopped his wanting, though he never said that to himself in so many words. The cold of the water turned the hint of extra skin around his waist red, and he looked down and slapped it, reminding himself he had more miles to run.
Someone else might have moved to the desert or to the mountains or to an ashram, but not Winston. He wouldn’t let the sea get away from him. It had been his safety for too long. It had turned him into a dolphin—at least he’d liked thinking he had that slick black skin—when he was tired of his human form. But something so intrinsically him was about to be just another force: the wind, a highway, a billboard, a bucket. He reached into his backpack and felt around for the bottle of Klonopin. He tapped two, three into his palm. He swallowed them, dry, and looked up to the sun. He wasn’t going to do what someone else would do. He’d stay in the water, past lunch if he had to, until he came to love that water again.
He was in the water for so long that he hadn’t realized it was getting dark. Not only had the sun gone down, but the wind was blowing from the north. He rose and fell on the waves like a board ripped loose. The lights of the island burned and then they didn’t. He thought he should be concerned—what was dragging at his feet? Could it be that he’d forgotten to take off his shoes? Swallowing scraped the lining of his throat, and when he opened his mouth for a drink, he was reminded all over again that you can’t drink salt. He took just one more sip and then another just to contest that notion. And before he knew it, he was taking in drink after drink. It tasted as pure as a spring, clean as a tap cooled by moss—he was impressed with those ideas—when a mountain of water crashed down on his back with a sound of metal breaking.
How long had he been on the shore when his mother walked toward him from the direction of the snack bar? “Get up,” she commanded. A piece of hair fell over the left lens of her sunglasses. She blew it off her face with a wry, efficient gust. “Mom?” Winston said. “Get up. Now,” she said again, not unkindly, holding out her arm to him. And just when he reached back for her wrist, tanned, shining with bracelets, she walked off a second time, certain she was giving him the right thing.
Paul Lisicky is the author of four books. A new book, The Narrow Door, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in January 2016.