AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Language is an ever-changing system, new words are added, new uses are introduced, and yet, as a basic principle of language, we all have the same tools available to us. A job of the writer (one of the many), is to avail themselves of those tools better than others, to become a master craftsman.
Which is, of course, completely boring.
Aren’t we lucky, then, that along has come Judyth Emanuel, who instead uses language like a mouth uses air, spittle, and bad breath. She is a different kind of writer: new, intuitive, and exciting. She isn’t holding back. She is saying it and spraying it. This story begins, “So an ordinary day crashed into my apartment”; and so “Fish Have to Live Their Whole Lives Underwater” crashed into my day when it was plucked from a thousand submissions. Brace yourself, as it is about to crash into yours.
“Fish Have to Live Their Whole Lives Underwater” is, sure, a story about female friendship, though I hesitate to qualify friendship. Time was that the most common qualifier of friendship was unlikely, a word that says much more about Misty and Rebecca’s relationship than gender. That they became friends to begin with is completely likely — in childhood one’s friends are more or less assigned — yet the persistence of their friendship into adulthood is the opposite. These women hate each other, and yet they are bound. “Oh Misty, my friend, this barnacle cemented to my consciousness,” Rebecca remarks. “Which sounds romantic.”
What is a friend, really.
These are the ingredients of “Fish Have to Live Their Whole Lives Underwater”: lifelong friends who despise each other, and language as immediate as salt on the tongue. Rebecca self-describes as “a fragile pot simmering,” and an “arty beast” who “always said yes to everything except laughter. Yes to being marginally deranged. Yes to cultivating a talent for hating.” And thankfully, for us readers, Emanuel says Yes too. She is not afraid to mix her ingredients madly, froth them together with abandon, and enjoy the pot as it boils over.
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
Fish Have to Live Their Whole Lives Under Water
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by Judyth Emanuel
So an ordinary day crashed into my cruddy apartment. Cast-off furniture, small-barred windows looking onto a brick wall. Small-barred cast-off furniture, kitchen a mess, small-barred mess, sink full of dishes, kitchen in a brick wall, dishes in cast-off furniture looking onto a brick wall. Dead cockroach on its back. Coffee table on its back gouged with scratches, dead cockroach scratching the coffee table. Dead cockroach looking onto a brick wall. Ugly rag rug on the bathroom floor, a cake of Imperial leather soap, ugly rag rug on Imperial leather soap, amazed that all this was mine. What could be better? To be sane or not to be sane would be better. And maybe sell just one painting.
Which never happened. No one wanted weirdness hung on a wall.
I sifted through the post. I crashed through the post. Okay okay, flipping envelopes here and there. Not many letters these days, just phone bill, junk mail, and oh blast a postcard from Misty. Her holiday, tropical island, sparkling ocean, the tang of a margarita rimmed in salt, hula skirts rustling and swishing.
Hi Rebecca, Wish you were here.
But I wasn’t. Some people’s holidays caused a girl to feel dreadful.
Oh, Misty, my friend, this barnacle cemented to my consciousness. Which sounded romantic. Since childhood, we were the only people we knew but didn’t actually know. Misty was the shining child. But I was ghastly pasty face, plain square features, spider web skin, plump body, violet dagger eyes, quiet and spotty and resenting her for being pretty Misty. Compared to me Misty looked incredible. That’s what Misty wanted.
When we were twelve, we got drunk together, collapsing outside in the dark on the lawn. Misty put out her tiny pink tongue and panted. I rolled on top of her and pressed my straight nose hard against her perky nose and she screamed.
“Get off you lezzo.”
And we laughed ourselves sick.
At fifteen, Misty pulled my hair hard, she pulled her hand out of my tights, she pulled down the blind. She roared, “I’m not gay.”
I said, “Neither am I.”
I wasn’t anything. I wanted to kill her. As a kid I didn’t know the difference between dreaming sleep and waking reality. As if reality could be woken up. And when it did, I grew into an angel monster, this sweet, dumb, fierce, mad, everything a girl must be, and then turned into the absolute rottenest woman. Creative thin-skinned piddling tearful bottled. A fragile pot simmering. Never came to the boil. Despising the outside of myself, festering clueless in the lowest of why not show the world my insides? My lovely innards, which no one saw. So I flipped inside out, revealing slippery, red-rippled, meaty intestines, those tender kidneys, a bright grenade brain and cruel ribcage that imprisoned the gnashing. Sigh. A bit mixed up, I constructed a great distorted illusion, which led to obsession and the murder of an innocent tabby.
For the arty beast always said yes to everything except laughter. Yes to being marginally deranged. Yes to cultivating a talent for hating. Oh, I was a horrid artist but truly excellent at the art of animosity, fishy and confused living under water. By which I meant I didn’t get out much. It made sense. A girl couldn’t laugh under water. Fish had to live their whole lives under water.
I worked eleven hours a day at the fish market for ten dollars an hour. That unbearable stench and wet, white tiles and dark Italian men slitting fish, flicking out bones, spines, fins. The fishmonger bobbed up from behind a pile of trout. He wiped his forehead, shook an indignant arm bristling with coarse black hairs and shouted, “Don’t drop the fish.”
Which I did. This damp, nauseous occupation much too slimy for me and dangerous for fish. It seemed the entire population was wriggling in plastic crates, each fish waiting for me to strip them clean, gut them, skin them, chop off their heads. Mass murder, genocide, I knew the score. No escape, no surrender, no mercy. I had to eradicate every fish bastard, not because they deserved it and not because it made this worn out world a better place. Love was supposed to do that. And as it happened, love cropped up anywhere, anytime, a heart beating fast, kisses in the rain, shooting stars. Fish fell in love inside specially prepared spawning tanks. A fish swam round and round, came face-to-face with another fish, realized they had been alone their whole life and married in haste, too young. Love destroyed not only fish, but also me. This kind of destruction happened everywhere. The same as those starving gypsy moths. Once I told Misty about the moths. How they stowed away on board a Russian freighter. For years and years, two female moths gorged on the freighter and caused thirty-five billion dollars in damage.
Ate the entire thing.
Then in 1975, love cropped up shooting kisses, hearts in the rain, fast stars, so I took the plunge and wed at eighteen. Roll up, roll up, see the fishtail bride dressed in crimson satin. Such perversity, the color of blood was my choice. It matched the sudden gushing nosebleed (from the stress of what did I think I was doing), as I waltzed la-di-dah down the aisle to the dulcet notes of Debussy’s “La Mer.” Exquisite rhythms, of waves, sea, moonlight, and a fantastic vision with a bleeding nose tripping toward the boy groom. He stood stock-still, all mirthless, nothing in his baggy pants, and wondering how he got himself into this situation. And a group of stunned relatives and Misty there (never a bridesmaid), her goggle eyes smirking at my ridiculous bloody nose. Misty always acted superior because she was mighty dumb gorgeous, with parents so rich she never saw them, and I had none that I knew of.
After a year, the funfair wife began to resent what’s-his-name, the husband. Idiots with no money — two furious fish attacking each other in the murkiness of our unfurnished fish bowl. A proper aquarium had clear water, sunken treasures, plastic castles, and neon gravel. A proper home had hedges, delicious flowers, gates that locked, or rooms lined with yellow wallpaper. But there were no beautiful places for us.
I was pissed-off and nineteen years old when what’s-his-name left. I should have said bye-bye husband, cock much too small, never got me off. But no, no, I threw myself at him, begged him to stay, curled up in a ball, crawled on my hands and knees, clutched his feet dragging me like a bag of garbage across the floor and out into the street. His feet shouting, get off, get off. But I held on. So what’s-his-name extricated himself, prying off my fingers one at a time. His name was not worth a mention and I never remembered it anyway, but I did recall some questions we asked each other.
“Where’s my other sock?”
“Do we have any spare batteries?”
“Do fish get thirsty?”
“Why are you telling me you are speechless?”
It was still the starry-eyed seventies, ripping holes in my ragged jeans. I painted lightning bolts down both sides of my neck, and hung about near the stage at an outdoor rock concert in the local park where I met Grant. This rock star! A washed-out version of Jagger without the Jag. He sang in an Adelaide band, calling themselves Celestial Aviators. Grant swiveled his bandana and his dark glasses took me in. I was in love. Helpless I shrank before his slashed-paisley exposed, brick-red nipples. So alive and grinning.
“Hey lightning girl. I see you.”
The spotlight illuminated Grant’s long, thinning hair. I figured he must be at least thirty. He snaked across the stage as four blokes thrashed riffs and blues licks on guitars. A wicked drum machine banged out the bangs. I stood at the back. I blew a valve. In secret, I danced the moondance behind the moon. I crouched under bushes and drooled over gyrating Grant. I thought, maybe he might fancy a fanciful monster. Maybe not. I gave up too easily.
Misty sat cross-legged on grass right at the front. Torrential honey curls fell to the waistline of her batik kaftan. Her yellowish, determined eyes gazed at Grant, and her baby face glowed like a hijacker’s. Then that drummer smashed the air and I nearly jumped out from behind a tree.
Grant wailed, “E-evil woman, e-evil woman… ” as if an apparition might burst from his pale skin. Such perfect timing. I saw what Misty was doing and got jealous, fascinated, despairing. Her fishing-line eyes cast out and reeled Grant in. Oh, Misty. Who was the groupie now? Of course she must have him. I trembled with self-pity. Birds abandoned their nests. Possums ran like hell. My tortured heart tore itself out and hurtled away.
The sight of her adoring face lit by that god-awful music stayed with me for years. I wished her all the luck in the world. My normal, stupid friend. She stole the prize right out from under my pathetic, green tongue. Friends did that.
And a friend slipped away, slipped herself into the irresistible man and Grant did nothing but let her. I thought he called out once, “See you soon Becky.” But he never even looked at me again.
Misty moved to Adelaide to marry Grant. Her letters, these paper tentacles reached from there to sunny Sydney and strangled me into thinking all sorts of things that didn’t make sense.
Put me on edge, an animal caught in the headlights.
I haven’t heard from you in ages. Are you still overweight?
Which made me spit.
It’s a June wedding, lots of tulle, rosebud posies, and after the ceremony, a simple reception in the church hall, no frills, roast chicken, peas, mash, and apple pie. Oh, and I have to tell you, Grant’s friend Roger groped me behind a rhododendron bush. Great kisser. Lots of tongue.
What? Not like her to be so juicy.
I didn’t do anything. I love Grant! Did I tell you about his parents? Absolute weirdoes. His father collects buttons. I call him the python. The mother makes hideous raisin chutney and obsesses about Grant, her only child. Absolutely everybody in Adelaide detests me.
I hated her, too. Love and loathing kept that letter and each one after. For what goes on in the warped, bitter minds of women would baffle anyone. And her, poor baby, just a silly girl. She only wanted to be my friend. But how could I stand her wheedling crap? She couldn’t keep her mouth shut and bitched about me to the entire universe.
Rebecca’s husband left her. Rebecca slept with any man who took notice of her. Rebecca is a wretched creature scrabbling for money. Rebecca lives on junk food. Rebecca doesn’t know how to boil an egg. Rebecca bought a blonde wig and a black negligee and booked a hotel room and got paid for it. Rebecca shoplifts and hitchhikes and wears clothes that once belonged to dead people.
I bet she said those things and worse. More than anything, I wanted to post her a sharp knife to slice a few pieces off her tediousness. But it just wasn’t done.
And that wedding on the horizon.
Another letter, her erratic handwriting, a metal spring, looping and streaming across sheets of crumpled paper.
Hey sweet Rebecca, not long now! Are you coming to the wedding?
That wedding of froth and fake. I had to go. I must go and be nice.
Not one solitary soul offered to give me away.
Her father and mother on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean.
No matter, Grant and I plan to walk down the aisle together. I’m not doing that by myself with Grant’s rock ’n’ roll friends staring at me.
I wanted to boast about my affair with a young virgin poet. He rode my unusual rides. His eyes greedy with wanting to undo the knot between my legs. Midnight, spines arched and his warm sticky substance misfiring on the rear seat of his Triumph under a tightening sky, thanking god for sheepskin car seat covers, begging, let me, let me. Oh god, his first time and his long thin penis not wide enough. His nose rammed into my belly button, his tongue sliding down, down, and his fingers digging deep at the back of my thighs. And a second clumsy fuck in a bus shelter at dawn. Uncomfortable splinters and scratched elbows and bare feet on broken glass. The last time, we did it spread out on a rock platform beside the Bungaroo bush track. We rolled around on those ancient Aboriginal rock carvings of kangaroos, a whale and a tribal warrior pointing his harpoon at my bruised nipples. I swore the poet melted into the contours of that spear-thrower. But it was just bad poetry. Later, I sketched his blunt, four-pronged weapon tickling my goose flesh, the tender bumps and this whale swallowing my body, spitting out the evil bits. And, as always, a dark part of me ached.
The poet wrote me a poem describing a naked woman with the body of a fish from the waist up, swimming in the sea. She believed love would drown her. An evil fisherman jerked his magic pole causing a tidal wave, sweeping her towards the shore. Tangled in his net she lay dying on the sand. The poet sobbed as he read the last line.
After I finished laughing, I said to the poet, “That poem sounds familiar. I don’t believe you wrote it. And ‘pole’? What the hell does it mean? Some kind of allegory for the holy penis? Do you realize how feeble that sounds?”
And he acted as if I had kicked him in the nuts.
A month later, that poet burned his poems and went to live on some cowardly island somewhere not too far away, but far enough.
Poet-less, I flew to little, little Adelaide, a city of churches, corpses, and parks. The landscape, without rise or fall, worried me more than anything. I believed those delinquent hills had uprooted and scampered away to escape faith and tedium, and what remained was a dry Mahler landscape. I could hear a tuba echoing one long, mournful note. Heard it in my head.
The day before the nuptials, dreading her wedding, aimless skipping along Hindley Street. A scorching gust of wind burned me with the blistering breath of some extinct creature. It really did and it smelled terrible. That heat forced me to pause in front of a store called The Enchanted Florist. I saw my own reflection in the shop window, this woman-child, my pollen lips scarlet with anxiety, eyes of blinded cornflowers, and a short body, now skinny from so much poverty and poetry. Ferns replaced my hair. My tulip arms bloomed nostalgic. Look at me now, Misty, how we used to be. Flower children.
The flowerchild caught the bus to the bride’s house. Grant opened the door. This aging rock star squeaking in leather pants, a whiff of whiskey on his breath. I held my nose.
“Grant! It’s a bit hot for leather isn’t it?”
He didn’t laugh. He took my hand and slurred, “Hey, Becky lightning girl.”
Such a cliché. Such a soap opera, the severity of missed opportunity. We crept into the garden. The pretense of we’ve never really talked. About lightning opening a hole in the air from which a bolt struck, and when the light disappeared, the air caved in to the sound of thunder. Grant’s head on my shoulder.
“How did I get here?”
“Where? In the garden?”
“Oh, Becky, I’m in too deep.”
“Yeah,” I twigged. “You are. Give it a couple of years. We’ll kill ourselves laughing when you tell me.”
Musicians, I thought, weak as dishwater.
“All about drowning.”
His lips parted showing yellowing teeth. He tried to kiss me.
Misty yelled, “Grant, Grant.” Her face at the window.
“Don’t worry,” said Grant. “She’s not wearing her contact lenses.”
Such small bits either died or blossomed and this bit of almost kissing would hum over the years. I ran into the house and slammed the screen door. Coward. Misty plucked a stray leaf from my hair. I glared with angry twig eyes. Some white petals withered and fell from my face. I know they did because I felt my face falling off. Misty grinned vindictively. She had arranged for me to stay with Grant’s cousins.
“Sorry, I know they are a bit dreary.”
But what could I do?
Brian and Jean Finch, mousey hair, sharp features, freshly ironed, religious, tennis playing, IT professionals, ate steak and boiled vegetables every day in front of their TV in their den for their entire double lives. God only knows what Misty told them about me. Anyway, they welcomed me into their spotless house and put me in the spare room. That night we sat at a highly polished, teak dining table under bright lights, ten bulbs burning in a crystal chandelier. Meat and potatoes. Blinding. That dull couple thought I was strange.
The chapel nestled in the foothills of Adelaide. Stained glass windows. Lovely. And a phallic steeple bending slightly. My dress, a vintage white petticoat blew up revealing my unshaven legs. Church bells clanged with excitement. I tilted my white beret at an angle, tightened the white lace collar around my neck and in my white marching boots, stomped past an abandoned graveyard. I thought my outfit was brilliant.
But still I sat in the very last pew and wished I could crawl under it. The bride not yet arrived. No chat or laughter, just the beginning of stillness. The hippy minister entered from a side door. Happy-clappy, hairy chap, all beard and beads and sucking a lollipop. He stepped up to the pulpit and tripped on his bootlace. A thud hit bare boards as loud as a wrecking ball demolishing the planet. This woman sitting beside me pulled a mass of red wool from her handbag and began to knit. Bony fingers clicked needles. The shapeless thing rested in her lap, falling between her legs. Was it a scarf or a placenta?
The wooden church doors swung open and in a gothic archway, two tentative shapes stood against the sun. Misty and Grant walked toward the altar. Misty’s features were grainy behind the veil. Her large, wary eyes darted at Grant’s friends and family, as if she expected a hand to reach out and grab her. The dress a light blue silk, edged with Chantilly lace, silver bracelets tinkled along her arm, and a ring of daisies pinned to her untamed curls.
Grant’s nostrils fluttered one last breath. The purple veins on his hands stopped pumping strength to his heart. His shirt, always half unbuttoned, bared a hairless chest, on the verge of transparent, but not enough to expose a soul. No one realized how deathly he was. That hack stared straight at me and mouthed thanks for coming, thanks for coming.
A month after her wedding, Misty wrote to me.
I guess you already know marriage is tough. Look what happened to yours. Grant won’t talk to me. We never spend any time together. The heat of summer saps every drop of energy. I’m always sick. Grant got a job in a recording studio. When he get’s home, the bickering begins. Always about sex and money. I don’t get enough and he doesn’t have much.
In our bedroom he erected a shrine, complete with a crucifix, scented candles, and a photograph of his guitar for god’s sake.
Yesterday I made cinnamon cakes and he glued them to the kitchen wall. His idea of a joke. He thinks I am trying to poison him. Why should I? I don’t have time. I have so much to do.
And Grant has changed beyond recognition. There is no warmth in his body. His eyes are red-rimmed, unblinking. His joints creak. While he was sleeping, I put my ear to his chest. Nothing. It frightens me, so I hide under my bed.
Misty always exaggerated. Thwarted women lied and they believed in their own lies. I drank half a glass of antacid powder mixed with water and began to read The Truth About Lying by Stan Walters, the foremost expert on interrogation, evasion and outright lying in seven steps.
She continued writing to me. I didn’t mind but I never wrote back.
You’ll never believe this, but my neighbor is stalking me. He’s a weedy tax lawyer. He owns a letterbox stuck to a concrete seahorse. He bumped into me at the train station. I fell down a flight of stairs. An accident? I don’t think so. Just yesterday I discovered dirty fingerprints on the bathroom window ledge. He accused me of setting fire to his garden shed and attacked me with a rake.
I sent her a copy of Clues To Deceit, a practical guide in detecting deception written by a former special FBI agent, a member of an elite Behavioral Analysis Program.
Grant spends hours in the garage. I spied on him through the window. He’s constructing a weird wooden box. God only knows why. The thing resembles a coffin. And sometimes he hides under the hall table. If we have visitors, he crawls out and tries to bite their ankles. He is drunk. What other explanation is there?
Well, it could be Misty married a dead man.
If anyone asked, I claimed to be an artist. I moved every few months and finally settled in a shared house. Cheap rent, rough neighborhood, deadlocks, paint peeling off every wall. But I had a large room, plenty of space, and my housemates kept to themselves. A stuttering geologist dug up rocks in the desert, and the other, an unemployed actor survived on seven packets of two-minute noodles, one for each day of the week. An insect fashion model lived upstairs. Every Saturday, the insect made goose liver pate and Victorian sponges refusing to rise. Those cakes came out of the oven flat as the moon in the sky.
I worked as a cleaner by day, and at night, too tired to go out, got high, binged on cheeseburgers in my room, and painted with a loaded brush, dabbing at cartoon canvases. Madder and madder masturbating women, smeared with my favorite rose madder pigment, extracted from the common madder plant. Anyone would think I was mad. Which I was, madder and madder for a while, dreaming of Grant floating in his homemade coffin. And even better, Misty the enraged fish with dorsal fins and Chantilly scales deflecting her regrets. I was the mermaid reclining on sea-soaked sand. Fat blowflies moved unmolested over my waiting thighs, my waiting skin, my wild wild eyes. Which leapt out of their sockets as if shot from a pistol and ricocheted across the floor and came to rest on an envelope. A note tucked inside from her. Did I want to read it? Not really. It would remind me of Grant and his leathery stubble.
Not a dear. Not even close.
I found you! Aren’t I clever? Grant finished building that dreadful box. At dusk he lies in it, naked, suffering the mosquitos. Remember how pale he was? Now he is greenish. His teeth are falling out and he buries them in the garden as if expecting them to sprout. I am starting to worry. I miss you. I wish we didn’t live in different states. You live in a special world while I am stuck here in this sleepy suburb of Dulwich. Dull dull dull. If only we were neighbors! How I envy your freedom.
She signed her letter with a smiley face.
Stay happy, keep buzzing, and ignore those unhappy morons of the universe.
At the time, I was fucking a relentless boy. I spoke in a voice drenched in honey.
“I am not an unhappy moron. Not anymore.”
Oh my lickety-split. That lad thought I was such a puzzle.
And then nothing, until some time in 1987, she sent me an invitation for her thirtieth birthday. The card read gaudy breasts, bubbles, dirty thirty, she drink she drank she drunk. At the sight of it.
It’s been a while… but all is not lost, I’m still here!
No it hasn’t, yes it is, and I wish she wasn’t. Always there.
Grant and I are going through the usual nonsense. What else is new? Grant bought himself a telescope and thinks he can see into the future. We fight every day. I am passionate and he REJECTS me. And he’s so thin, I can almost lift his skeleton clear from his flesh. Do you remember showing me how to fillet a fish? Anyway, this year my birthday is on Mother’s Day. What a victory for Grant’s mum! Apparently, I’m the hussy destroying Grant’s potential because I never do his laundry. She keeps throwing that at me.
I pictured her mother-in-law flinging the washing at Misty lying stunned under a mountain of sheets with a pair of Grant’s holey underpants masking her face. I would have licked them. Such a slut.
Was it eight years, ten years? How Misty had changed. This flabby figure greeted me with a sour smile in its Chanel suit, fat calves, clenched buttocks. Rapunzel hair cut short, made her head resemble a pea balancing on some kind of boulder. Thick, black tarantula legs sprang from her eyelids. Rouge congealed on her greasy skin. Pink lacquer cracked on ten bitten fingernails. That was her now. A picture of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. Whatever happened, I looked sensational compared to her. This was going to be easy.
I was curious to see her house. She had raved on and on about how much money she spent on an interior decorator. And when I saw it. Christ.
Smugness, that insidious creature, slipped its skin over me. Floral patterns on the curtains exfoliated my brain. Golden stripes curled away from tacky wallpaper and bound my hands and feet. An advancing army of mauve satin quilts, towels and toilet seat covers trooped ahead of me as if I didn’t exist. Above the fireplace a passive Kabuki mask observed my horror. And the same as me, it seemed oddly out of place. I turned to face her.
She waved a dismissive hand.
“Oh he’s in the backyard cleaning that morbid box.”
“Mr. Moggy peed in it.”
“Our pussycat, Mr. Moggy. Grant was furious.”
I bet he was.
“You must meet Mr. Moggy. Here he is… my precious darling sweetie puss.”
“Nobody says puss anymore.”
Misty thrust a tabby cat bomb at me.
“Oh how… cute.”
This grey/brown fluff sniffing me with its malicious snubbed nose brought back memories of her. Misty showed me Mr. Moggy’s special chair at the dinner table and his miniature, four-poster bed. I knew immediately I was going to murder Mr. Moggy.
That night at the party, colored streamers coming unstuck, nibbles, pickies, olives, chips, onion dips, mostly couples, a polite nod at Brian and Jean. I stayed as far away from them as possible. Grant huddled beside Misty. He gazed at me and muttered, “Thanks for coming thanks for coming.”
I blew him a kiss. Flirty. And idling next to me, Psychic Stacy, bright streaked hair, weekend fortune-teller, but in fact a bank clerk demanding to read my palm. Which I didn’t want, but the monster said yes to everything. Stacy traced my heart line, crooked luck line, and wobbly sex line. She frowned and hesitated before predicting, “I see fish everywhere.”
I saw a billion gallons of jealousy. So I kept a smile on my face at that party and waited until Misty was fall-down, blacked-out drunk. Then I took Grant by the arm and whispered, “Show me your box.” Which brightened the corpse.
“Sure,” said Grant.
Next morning, a sweltering day, too hot to sit inside, so we sat on the veranda, Grant still asleep or too embarrassed to face me. Breakfast was a plate of half-toasted crumpets dumped on the table. Wormy margarine and strawberry jam oozed through crumpet pores like an open wound.
Misty blinked and chunks of bitter mascara fell from the ends of her lashes. A limp crumpet in one hand, jam dribbling down her blouse. And in the garden magpies swooped for worms. Birds always did. A neighbor turned up the radio. They always did. People changed. They sometimes did. Shrubs rustled to distant strains of You’re doomed to this now… And I thought that couldn’t be. I stealthily put my crumpet on the plate. Misty opened her eyes wide. I sensed her impatience.
“Don’t you want your crumpet?”
She snatched it.
“You know what? Grant is not normal. He hates sex.”
“Oh. That can’t be good.”
“It’s a bloody nightmare.”
“Well, you know, lots of people have eccentricities. Think of Gerard De Nerval leading his tired lobster on a blue ribbon leash through a park in Paris. And me! I am beyond wacky. I sleep on eight mattresses piled high and put a pea under the second last mattress and I feel it through all of them. And I thought about getting a pet boa but I freaked at the way it swallowed mice. So I bought a goldfish and named it Sid Fishous. I wear spectacles to bed the better to see my dreams. One night, I saw myself drinking drug-laced coffee with Baudelaire.”
She gaped at me as if I’d pulled a gun on her.
“Yeah well Grant rushes into the bathroom after we’ve had sex and scrubs his penis. I’m surprised it doesn’t fall off.”
The thought of a door ajar and a thin man hunched over genitals covered in frothing soapsuds made me sad. Poor Grant. But he chose her. I said, “You know what I would do?”
“Buy some sexy lingerie. It might help.”
Treacherous Mr. Moggy brushed past my legs and flicked a switchblade scowl at me. He meowed, I know what you did last night.
But I had done nothing except pop a spoonful of poison in his bowl of cream and then had a laughable fumble with Grant in that uncomfortable coffin. He couldn’t get it up so we lay as if two packaged mannequins, our arms stiff by our sides, ready to be sealed shut and shipped off somewhere.
After breakfast, her voice swelled with the ear-splitting decibels of a chainsaw.
“Grant! Grant! You didn’t change Mr. Moggy’s kitty litter. Where’s Mr. Moggy’s blanky? Grant! Grant! Call the vet! Mr. Moggy is choking! Grant! Grant!”
On my way to the airport, rain drizzled, blurring the taxi windows. I checked my bag, glasses, wallet, ticket. I would never return to Adelaide. But I dreamed about plastic brides knee-deep in marzipan and rare crumpets and his clean limp dick.
After my visit this final message arrived in the post.
Getting back to how I am, last week I left Grant. It’s no fun living with a corpse. Grant didn’t even try to find me. That hurt the most. Three days I waited before ringing to tell him where I was. But he wasn’t there. I can’t find him anywhere. Have you seen him?
Did she know?
I moved to another cramped, cast-off, barred, scratched apartment, and mixed colors, which kept me safe. I wrote just one letter to Misty: You’ll be pleased to know Grant is here. He’s not coming home. Surprise surprise.
Misty didn’t care. She ran off with Roger of the rhododendron bush.
Grant brought a larger coffin just the right size for the two of us and I asked, “Is it waterproof?”
Of course it was, so I filled it up.
I painted Grant lying under shallow water in the box. My distorted vision, a kind of fisheye lens. This peephole captured a wrong way of looking at life. And how should I depict my own monstrousness? What should I call this painting? Maybe “Fish Have To Live.” What else to do but to live? Or make a splash. Or bleed.
Everything in my head. And how necessary it was to come up for air so sharp and momentous it could be hacked with a hatchet.
I scooped up a large dollop of white paint and with my hands smeared it over the painting. My eyes closed tight. Everything finally covered with enchanting whiteness, everything blocked out as it should be. For nothing was as bad as it seemed, not the nose bleed, the bloodstains, the chicken-livered poet, madness, a dead cat, the burden of being under water so drowning wasn’t the issue, but living was. And my confusion of, I’d rather be crazy, screwing with my conscience like a drill. And now those obliterated memories made me laugh and laugh. Crazy was better than crying. There was no use in crying, and a crazy girl was supposed to cackle, not cry.
Then I lay with him under water. My weightless hair floated in strands. His fingers inched through me, softening my heart, unlocking my bones. Grant so special now, rosy cheeked, instant erections, completely bald and I could see straight through his transparent chest to his new soul growing and growing.
We sat up wet and glistening and laughing. What a hoot, howling and hawing like a donkey that saw the light. These tears of laughter, the logic of barking, panting, crowing of why did we wait so long? Why did he bother? Trying to be average and sane. Life would now get better. So in my sweet sour graveyard of divided ridiculous selves, stuck my tongue out, told everyone to go to hell and the monster finally yelled no no no and we laughed and laughed for no reason and didn’t stop. We drowned in air, we died from laughing. Thanks for coming thanks for coming thanks for coming.