I had been dreaming of water, of cool, chlorinated rhythms, but I woke with a dry tongue and gaping mouth, body thirsty but still not conscious enough to act. I squinted into the in-between light of an almost sunrise, my hand tangled in E’s black hair, her heavy breathing filling the room. It wasn’t time to be awake yet, I decided, so I nestled back into the sheets, taking an appraisal of the night, our fourth date.
Things I remembered: a warm breeze on my bare arms, acid wine, feet dangling off barstools, and her eyes like teeth, watching and consuming. We’d had a good time, I knew, but still, I felt something tugging at the corners of my mind as I drifted back into sleep, my arm tight around her waist and face pressed up against her back, something unsavory I couldn’t identify.
I woke a few hours later with that cat-in-the-sun feeling, pleased with the reasonable amount of sleep I had gotten and with the unexpected coolness of my room. I was thinking we’d lay around for a while, annoy my flatmates with our giggles, and then go to brunch, maybe to the place with the overpriced avocado eggs Benedict, when I finally opened my eyes. And that’s when I realized, you won’t believe it, we were floating in the middle of the ocean. I sat up, looking out at the universe of sea and sky, less surprised than I would have expected.
“E, wake up,” I said, nudging her.
Somehow, after we had fallen asleep, the bed must have unhinged from its post in my room and drifted out into the ocean. But what ocean? The Baltic Sea? The North Sea? All I could see, in any direction, was blue. But I could hear the caw, cawing of seagulls so I figured we must have still been near the coast. I stuck two fingers in the water; it was ice cold.
When E woke up we fumbled around, looking for our clothes, but everything had ended up on the floor last night except my lacy bra, which might as well have been a candy wrapper. E suggested we could use it to catch a fish, or as a blindfold. The glass of water was still there, thank god, on the wooden ledge holding the mattress.
“Are you worried?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. “I’ve missed the sea.”
We laid there for a while, heads on pillows, hands intertwined, looking up at the clouds floating in the breeze. I pointed up to one that looked like a hammerhead shark; hers was a clown holding a baby, or a football. The waves rocked us gently and it was impossible to panic because I was warm, and because dating someone new has always had this white-out effect on me, like everything else is just background noise.
I was a good swimmer, I had practically grown up in a pool, so if we were closer to shore I could probably have found us help. It was strange, though. In that moment, I felt certain that if I were to get in the water, I would drown. I knew it, somehow, in my bones and my nerves, that I was no longer someone who could skillfully navigate the liquid hydrogen and oxygen as I once had, that somehow, I had forgotten how to swim.
I don’t know how long we were floating there, naked, I just know it was light for a long time and then it seemed to get dark, but I think that might have been sleep, or a storm, or god’s wrath, I’m not really sure. I just know that at a certain point, when we hadn’t heard seagulls for a while and we had drank all the water, we both started to get really, really hungry. I had skipped dinner the night before, I remembered, still too nervous to eat in front of her.
You’d think it would have been a harder decision, a gut-wrenching, Titanic-sized one, but it wasn’t.
“No,” I said. “It’s ok, really. I don’t mind.”
I thought back to last night, or last week, whenever it was, to underneath her, to so easily giving way to her inside me, me inside her, her all around me. To drowning in her long, heavy hair, to her teeth on my skin, bruising me, her tongue around my fingers, my fingers on her lips. Her, everywhere, like some kind of condensed sky. In a way, it’s kind of what I wanted all along.
And you know what? I knew, I really did, that I was taking the easy way out. Because you’re better off literally being consumed by a lover than figuratively, you’re better off not being around to see the aftermath. It was only the fourth date, and already, I knew that a world with both of us left alive wasn’t one that existed in a stable configuration, not like water.
“What should I start with?” she asked.
“Fingers, I guess?”
So she took my middle and index fingers in her mouth, which felt so nice it made my eyes well up when I thought about all the other nice things I’d miss when I was gone, like kisses and labradors and cold beer by the canal, and Sundays on my parents’ couch. My parents. I didn’t want to cry in front of her, though, I wanted her to remember me as brave, so I shut my eyes and tried to make myself believe that I’d see my old dogs and my Grammy wherever I was going next. I felt the wetness of the tears behind my eyelids and of her mouth around my fingers and I swear, I felt the heaviness of the humidity in the air, I swear I was drowning in life.
So there we were, floating on my bed-boat somewhere out at sea, faces caked with salt, fresh ocean air licking at sunburnt skin. I felt her start to chew and I winced, digging my free hand into the bed sheet in anticipation of the pain. I heard a sound then, full and round like a church bell, but it rang only once. I thought maybe it was some kind of god shepherding me into the afterlife, but then I heard the voice.
I opened my eyes and E dropped my fingers from her mouth.
The boat, carrying a lone fisherman in one of those yellow rain jackets, even though it hadn’t rained a drop, was surprisingly close to ours. He was holding something silver out in front of him, high, muttering to it like a talisman. It was strange, I thought, he was heading right towards us, but didn’t seem to be looking at us at all.
But then the boat came closer, close enough so I could see his silvery scruff, and I realized that the thing in his hands was a smartphone, and new one at that. He had been looking at us, after all, just through the camera. I pulled up a corner of the sheet and tried to cover myself, suddenly conscious of my nakedness.
“Thank god you found us,” E said, yelling loud to bridge the gap between our two vessels. “Can we hitch a ride back to shore?”
The fisherman smiled, still holding the phone in front of him, and I realized he was missing one of his front teeth. He was cute, in a pathetic kind of way, with his jacket and matching ear-flapped hat.
“Sure can,” he said, moving his mouth closer so the phone could hear him. “But first, I want to watch you girls kiss.”
I sighed. We couldn’t really refuse the ride home, so I turned, taking her face in my hands. I realized then that I hadn’t really looked at her the whole day, not straight on. Her skin had a yellow tint to it that I hadn’t noticed before, and without makeup, her eyes looked much farther apart, pupils somehow wild and dead at the same time. I felt a little sick, my cheeks sucked in the way they do when you’ve eaten something sour.
Besides the video, which I think he might try to put online, the fisherman was actually pretty nice. His name was Tom, and he gave us some water and crackers and old t-shirts to wear. I don’t think E was very comfortable with him, but honestly, I didn’t care. I slouched in a shady corner under the boat’s blue and white overhang, my burnt face resting on a pillow of my own forearms, and I slept.
I didn’t wake up until we were already back on the canal, seagulls turned to swans, salty air now thick and swampy in the summer heat. I swallowed a few times, trying to rid my mouth of the taste of sleep, and worked my cramped shoulders in circles.
E had her tired face on, eyes unblinking, head tilted towards the floor at a weird angle. She only ever wore black clothes, and Tom’s off-white nightshirt clung awkwardly to her hips. She looked up, noticing I was awake again, and smiled at me. I felt a weird surge of heat then, through my toes up to my cheeks. I smiled back.
The boat started to slow, and soon enough, Tom guided us over to the riverbank. I recognized the park, we weren’t far from my apartment. He helped us out of the boat, holding our hands while we jumped the narrow gap between vessel and land.
“You girls take care of yourselves, now,” he said. “Try not to get stuck in a mess like this again.”
“We’ll be fine,” I answered. “But about that video, you know, I’d really appreciate it if you deleted it.”
He winked, his weathered skin in deep creases, stepping back into his boat. He started the motor and was gone before I could think of a response, white water foaming in his wake.
E turned to me said something about getting brunch. I shook my head, realizing suddenly how dirty I had gotten, how itchy and salty and hot my face felt, like I was trapped under its weight.
I unbuttoned Tom’s shirt and waded into the canal, the mud squishing around my cracked feet until I was belly-deep. I knew the water wasn’t clean but I sunk down anyways, letting it cool me, knotted hair fanning out around me like a mermaid’s. I blew bubbles out my nose, sculled the water with my palms, legs kicking behind me, finally opening my eyes to see the blurry sun streaks, beams of gold in the murk. I dove and surfaced again, floating on my back, remembering how when I was a kid I’d look for multicolor rings on the bottom of my aunt’s pool, how my ears would hurt but I’d ignore the pressure out of sheer determination, I remembered the sting of leaky goggles and the way water burnt up my nose. I spread my limbs out like a starfish, watching the clouds swirl above me, and I felt somehow anchored to myself, like I had been gone from my body for a long time and had just returned.
We headed back to my apartment, both taking long showers before settling on the sofa. We were about to put on some cartoons when E turned to me suddenly, putting a hand on the space above my knee.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m sorry about all that, earlier. I wasn’t feeling like myself.”
I shook my head, telling her not to apologize, and kissed her on the cheek, letting my lips linger an extra second, running my fingertips along her open palm. We fell asleep like that, the sofa soft against my clean skin, but as I was drifting off I made a list of all the things I was touching, everything I was connected to, trying to remember that she was just one of them, just like my t-shirt and the knitted blanket draped across my legs. I was not swimming but sailing, vessel made of sinew and blood and bones, the rhythmic voices of the television droning on in the background.