Michael Sala: “Free Style”
Richard was busy turning his daughter into a mermaid when he saw two former students walk onto the sand. They’d been a couple for as long as he’d known them, a pair that had latched together early in high school to become a sort of romantic entity. Maybe fixture was a better word. They weren’t holding hands today. He supposed that they were nineteen or twenty by now, yet they seemed older. The boy in particular looked older. It was the way that he carried himself, his gaze locked in heavy glasses, head sagging, as if his chest were collapsing beneath its own weight. His pale upper body looked like something hefted from a shell.
The girl peeled off her dress with both hands to reveal a blue full-piece swimsuit with a white racing stripe down the side, the kind that Richard’s mother might have worn. She dropped the dress and stood there clutching her elbows without even a glance at her companion. Neither of them spoke. Richard couldn’t figure it out. There was no joy in them. What did they have to feel tired about? He had to admit this though; seeing them like that gave him a quiet sense of self-satisfaction. Perhaps it was relief.
Richard was probably no more than ten years older than they were and yet he thought about death often, as if it were just around the corner, as if he were an old man with nothing better to do than wait for its arrival. He didn’t talk about it. But whenever he allowed his mind to stray, the thought of it pulled him down. For all that, right now he felt much younger and healthier than the way these two looked and acted, and you had to be happy about that. You had to take your satisfaction where you could find it.
The couple walked to the edge of the water. Richard hadn’t seen them touch yet. He told himself that as soon as they touched, he would look away. They were hugging their own bodies, standing arm’s length apart, facing the wideness of the sea. The young man was shivering. It was mid-spring, but an icy wind sheared across the cool water. There was no one else at the beach. A reef further out broke the waves so that the swell was gentle as it washed back and forth around their knees.
‘Do I look pretty?’ May said suddenly.
‘I’ve never seen anything more beautiful,’ he replied, glancing back at his daughter.
‘Oh you have,’ she said, ‘I’m sure you have.’
May pressed her lips together and looked down to her hands. Sometimes his daughter would say things like that and it wasn’t her speaking at all, but someone else, and her tone, the look in her eyes, was a stranger’s, although it would shift away almost immediately into her own expressions – or maybe they were his. Maybe the parts that he thought really belonged to her were simply those that came from him. Maybe that was why he kept all of this up.
May had his tanned skin, and the same distant, slightly amused look in her eye that had passed down from Richard’s grandfather to his mother and through him to her. And perhaps she had the same way of thinking? You’re always somewhere else. That was something his wife had used to say to him. Sometimes he wondered if his daughter would eventually come to that conclusion about him too. Maybe she already had. It was hard to tell with a five-year-old. But he tried to bring himself back as often as possible, when he was with her, to be as attentive as a father should be. Not that he ever felt that it was enough.
The wind kicked up, autumn in it already. He looked back out at the water. The young couple were in past their waists. They stood there, staring out to sea, not speaking, hugging themselves. It was as if they stood before a precipice. Richard wanted to see something playful happen between them, a push, laughter, a shivering embrace. Instead, the young man stiffened – Richard wondered if it was at a remark – and began wading out of the water. When the sea had slid away from everything but his ankles and feet, he put his hands on his hips, dropped them again and turned to watch his girlfriend.
She was swimming away from him, freestyle, long, lazy strokes, as if she might go on forever. When she reached the edge of the reef, she found her feet and stood up. Only her head and shoulders and upper arms lifted from the water, but a straightness came into her, or perhaps it was just the angle Richard saw her from, the way the light struck upon the sea. They stood like this for a long time. Richard couldn’t look away. He could see the side of the man’s face, the perplexed, expectant shape of his expression, its nakedness without the glasses. Despite his shivering, the young man did not move out of the water or go deeper into it. His girlfriend dipped her head into the soft debris of waves folding over the edge of the reef and stared at the horizon, her hair dark and slick against her neck.
‘I need some wet sand,’ May said.
Richard looked at her. She was watching him, her upturned palms arranged either side of her body. The tail of the mermaid, sculpted from damp sand, curved away from her narrow, tanned waist.
‘Why?’ he said.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘I can’t get it. I don’t want to ruin my tail.’
‘But why do you need wet sand?’
She pointed at the join between her waist and the tail. ‘For the pattern.’
Richard looked at her for a moment longer.
‘You know,’ he said softly, ‘we came to this beach not long after we found out that you were on the way.’
‘I know, daddy.’
There was something oddly grown-up in her tone. Richard turned back to the sea. The woman was finally wading towards the man who stood there waiting, hands dangling by his hips. The man didn’t break into motion until they were side by side. They exited the water together, but still without touching. He watched them resort silently to their towels.
‘The sand, Daddy.’
‘Wait a second.’
As they drew near, Richard hesitated against the tension in his arms, and held his body low against the sand. He didn’t want to talk to them. He couldn’t remember their names. He didn’t want to feel that weight of high school, the role it demanded, the self-consciousness that came bearing down whenever he spoke to students. No matter how friendly they were, there was always this sense that they had him at a disadvantage, that they knew more about him than he did about them. He tended to feel that way about the whole world.
Once the couple had left the beach, however, he jumped to his feet and ran down to the edge of the water – he wanted to revel in his body all of a sudden, prove its vitality – scooped up a handful of dripping sand, and ran back again. He dropped it into May’s waiting hands, and turned back for more.
‘I don’t need any more,’ she called after him.
Richard nodded, washed his hands and glanced across at a solitary barnacle-covered rock, taller than he was, that rose just where the waves foamed and dissolved into the sand. On an impulse, he ran towards it, leaped up onto a ledge halfway along and then stepped up onto the top. He stared at the wildness of the landscape, the sheer sandstone cliffs, the stretch of the coast that had hardly changed in many thousands of years, the sea. Shading his eyes with one hand, he pictured himself suddenly as someone else, a figure from the far-off past.
Back then he might have been one of the wise hunting elders of some sort of tribe. That would have been him. He could run fifteen kilometres and swim forever, through summer, through winter. Despite his obsessions over death, he was in the prime of his life. He stood on the rock, flexing his legs and imagined running down a mammoth in some lost, distant epoch, leading a stone-age group of hunters from one success to another, with no long, painful memory to burden him, just the vitality of surviving each day, the pared back immediacy of that sort of life. Yes, it would have suited him.
May was waving to him. He waved back at her and rather than climbing down, jumped from the rock. The place where he jumped looked shallow, but that was an illusion created by the movement of sand through a wave dissolving back into the ocean. Instead of landing on something solid and predictable, he fell into a perplexing space, toppled backwards and hit his head against the rock from which he had jumped.
The blow cracked through his body and a spasm of nausea rolled along his insides. He floated backwards in the water, took a breath, coughed and flailed his arms, but he felt so dazed that he couldn’t find purchase in the sand beneath him and his head went under. Something brushed against his face. It was gentle and feathery and then exploded into a searing agony.
The softness kept moving, ahead of that pain by a fraction, clinging to his mouth and cheeks, fixing to his neck. He knew what it was; a Portuguese man o war, a bluebottle. Richard had seen them stranded in clusters along the edge of the sand. Most of them were so withered and dry that they crackled underfoot. The wind had been blowing them onshore for days.
Discover one of those delicate structures, shrivelled on the beach, and you might mistake it for a jellyfish, but it isn’t. It isn’t even one animal, rather four colonies of creatures locked in a deep, communal embrace. One kind of creature makes up the inflatable sail that deflates to dive from danger or tilts to stay wet, another makes up the digestive organs, another the sexual organs, and the last creature is spread through the dark blue, wandering coils that trail up to fifty metres and cling so tentatively to the skin before releasing their poison.
If Richard had had a choice in that arrangement, he’d have been the sexual organs, without a doubt. Just producing and producing, in the constant buzz of pleasure and creation, lost in the heady state of beginnings, not having to worry about when to submerge or when to dip from side to side. Ah, the sexual organs. He thought of the last time a woman’s vagina had settled across his face and how much he had enjoyed it – little had he known how long it would be before it happened again – and then his fingers found the sandy bottom beneath him and he pushed. His feet came under him and he rose into the air, shirt plastered to his body, pain clamouring inside his skull. He unpeeled the blue cord patterned across his face.
A woman had come to sit on the beach, not far from where his daughter played. She glanced at Richard, and he smiled back. As if this was just what you did. He lurched forward a step, felt heavy in his dripping pants and shirt, picked at the thin thread around his neck, tangled in the bristles of his day old growth, but his fingers were clumsy and his body shivered with the weak, sickly acceptance of the poison feeling its way inside. Flames leaping from his neck, the thread tight on his skin at the throat each time he swallowed.
His wife had been like this, a year past, rope around her neck, something playful in the tangle of the knot, as if you could unravel it with a single pull, her face slack as if it had been carved out of wax, the eyes so empty, you could never make the mistake of seeing anything alive in them. She had been hanging from the rafter in the garage, her body turning towards him when he opened the door. The eyes hadn’t been dead, just empty, like rooms left unfurnished, and it was only then that you realised how much motion there was in a living face, how much tension and complicated push and pull and endless current kept together an expression, even one that hardly moved.
Richard pulled off the last threads, took another step and slumped beside his daughter who was still focused on the intricate lacework that she was scrawling across the firmly packed sand where it cupped her waist. Her hair fluttered in the breeze. There was a faint flush to the skin of her left cheek. She was humming under her breath. The woman nearby was watching.
His heart felt as if it might spill out onto the sand. He had a terrible headache. There was a burn across his mouth. He had the urge to vomit. He ran the towel over the raw welts on his neck and forced himself to hold onto each breath for a few seconds.
He heard May say this, but it felt as if he were listening to an answering machine and a voice that had long since lost its demand for a response.
He ran the towel from one end of his neck to the other, felt the heat, the way it filled his head and chest and made his extremities cold.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Why are you crying?’
He didn’t look at her.
‘Is it because you didn’t want to get wet?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want to get wet.’
Her fingers felt cool on his elbow, the tips at the crook of the joint.
‘Don’t worry,’ she assured him. ‘You’ll dry up soon.’
While his daughter sat on the couch watching cartoons, Richard cooked a soup with vegetables and lentils and sausages. No matter what went on in your life, a friend had advised him once, you had to eat, stick to the basic routines. During dinner, May noticed the welts on his face. Sitting beside him at the table, she touched them. He found himself mesmerised by her large blue eyes, the intense concentration in them, as if she were trying to read a story in those marks.
‘Bluebottles.’ Richard spoke to May the way he spoke to everyone. ‘At the beach. One got me on the face and the neck too.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I was upset. I didn’t want to talk about it.’
Her hand paused against his mouth. ‘Just because you’re upset, you can still talk, you know.’
‘I know,’ he said.
‘Good. That’s good, Daddy.’
She hadn’t touched the soup yet.
‘What’s up with dinner?’ he asked.
‘Oh you know.’ She picked up her spoon, stared at the soup for a moment longer, and then stirred it desolately. ‘There’s only one thing that I like in this soup. Just one.’
She looked up at him. Richard looked away. May sighed. Her spoon clinked against the bowl. She made a show of dipping her spoon into the soup, sifted through it as if she were panning for gold, then brought it to her lips and emptied its contents into her mouth.
‘Actually,’ she said, ‘there are two things in here that I like.’
‘That’s good,’ he said. ‘That’s good.’
Afterwards they sat together in her bed. She read some stories to him, and he read some to her. Then she turned onto her side. He lay down beside her. Their faces were separated by the width of a hand.
‘I get lonely sometimes,’ she said.
‘Oh, you know, when I’m in bed. I get lonely in my bed.’
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Me too.’
‘Can I sleep in your bed tonight?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘There are times in your life when you have to sleep by yourself. Besides, you’ve got Rainbow.’
Rainbow was a bright white, over-stuffed rabbit as big as she was. Rainbow took up half the bed.
His daughter nodded, as if she’d expected him to say just that. ‘I’m not tired at all.’
‘Just lie here. Close your eyes. You’ll be asleep before you know it.’
Richard stroked her hair. She began snoring. The sea sighed through her half-open window and he could sense it expanding from the nearby coast, the way it did when evening came, filling up the air, lapping at the houses and old apartments that sprawled along the coastline, creeping inside in dreamy, floating currents of salt that whispered of loss and indifference and those first long gone sparks of life.