First I’m confrontational with shift workers. The pharmacist asks for my signature, if I have any questions, if the dosage is correct. “Obviously,” I hammer. She is small with rosacea. I am not tall; I feel tall in her presence. I watch her wilt. Give her what she wants.
Regarding any transaction, I’m taciturn. When people ask me how I am, I say, “Not as good as you,” when I mean the opposite. I am always better than them!
At the gym a woman in a tank top gets from me an eye-narrowing. A regular constrictor of a glance. My muscles harden like heartwood. She huffs. The spout of the water fountain is fingerprint-smudged. I rub at it with the hem of my shirt.
Early spring’s dark every morning. I open my curtains to let the dim in.
My anger is my boyfriend. I run my hands along his dinosaur ribs every night. I sleep without a pillow. My dreams are full of bloodshed. There’s a massacre at the commune, an explosion in the concert hall. My eyebrows are singed but grow back quick and weedy. I step from the conflagration unharmed. A witch.
After the third incident at work, a counselor is recommended. My supervisor tells me it’s this, or I’m gone. I start to gather my things: a granola bar, a mug, a bottle of ibuprofen, a brittle green comb. Then I separate the mug from its pack and throw it against the filing cabinet beside my desk. It bounces yet after there is a runt of a chip at the lip. At the chip the mug is rough. Ineffectual. I’ll go to the counselor. I do not believe it but it’s true: one part of me wants to adjourn.
The counselor’s office is beside a carpet supply store in an industrial park. The air smells of exhaust. Wild grass boosts itself from faults in the lot. On the other side of the building, there’s the river.
“Why are you here?” she asks. She has a growing-out perm, and an aquarium of zebrafish beside her on a table. So small they are flashes of gold, blue, silver. Hardly fishes.
We sit on low stools. It feels unprofessional. I arrange my legs to splay. I ask her how she’s found herself here.
“The rent’s cheap.”
I don’t answer. I wonder is there a penance afoot.
“Have you seen the river? This place is like an island.”
It is not an island. I say nothing. I am difficult. Unresponsive. Upright in a coma. For a minute I feel sure I’m not breathing. Somewhere outside a truck pulls into reverse and sends caution tones into the air. Slow, slow, steady. As if reminding my heart to beat.
That night we go to bed early. My boyfriend’s toes poke rudely from the beneath the blanket. He’s growing. He won’t let me have the blanket anymore. I dream of pulling planks from their fastenings, of dismantling a house. We’re in the middle of a prairie. I’m neat about the piles. Wood, nails, screws, nuts, bolts. Copper wire in nests. Then I light it all on fire. The copper burns green.
At the gym I have a set routine. Treadmill, cable row, treadmill, shoulder press. Curls, dips, curls. I’m triangulating; all I have to do is point my toes and I’m an inverted isosceles. I see that the woman in the tank top is a personal trainer. She brandishes her crabby calipers like claws. I don’t trust her. She asks me if I want to join the members’ weight-loss pool. I say I have a different goal. “You know, you could be a powerlifter if you wanted.” Her eyes are on my arms, the thickening saplings. My hair is in sweated twists. I turn and walk into the locker room, where I like to be as naked as possible.
I get through the week at work without incident. My supervisor’s proud of me. She gives me a small piece of gourmet chocolate and pats me on the arm. I say brightly, “I feel better. More myself. It’s remarkable,” then drop the chocolate into the trash bin, and smile.
“Let’s go down to the river,” the counselor says. She’s already standing, jacket on, when I come through the door. Her jacket is a blue windbreaker. My own is a military-inspired blazer suitable for work: epaulets, eyehook cuffs, and at least twelve brass buttons. They take forever to fasten and I love it. Button me in for battle, I breathe.
But I only follow after the counselor. We leave the office, then the building, through a backdoor that opens to three cement steps and a muddy bluff. Below us the river is wide and brown and dumbly moving. It isn’t like the sea. The counselor shimmies down the bluff like a billy. I follow her, sidestepping in my jackboots.
“I have a friend who says you have to see the other side to get to it,” she says. Her smile is a maddening golden burn.
I roll my eyes though I’m no teenager. The other side of the river is unmarked marsh, all khaki reeds and a few trees, branches spread brittle. I have no desire to set foot on that land.
We stand by the river. The counselor regards me. A barge is in view on the horizon. It’s moving so slowly. We watch it. It doesn’t seem to make any way. However there’s a wake. It spreads across the river lusciously, a riddle.
“You can go now, if you want,” she says. For a challenge I look at her face but find it airless. So I leave her standing there. As I pull from the lot, I see her watching at her office window, heaving. She must have run to get there, to watch me go.
When I get home from the appointment, my boyfriend is staring into the fridge. It’s a new thing, him being up and around. I can’t tell if I like it or not. I wonder does this make him a roommate. Or anything else so odious.
“Why don’t you have anything decent?” he asks. He seems to be talking now, too. I won’t say anything to him about it. I won’t acknowledge that we’re in some kind of berserk arrears.
“There’s kale in the crisper,” I say, undoing my buttons and hooks and zippers. It’s a taunt.
“I said decent,” he whines, then straightens. He is taller than a tall man now. And blond.
At the start, when he was pocket-sized, he didn’t have any hair. I never thought he’d be blond. He looks like a professional skier from Denver or Vermont or Switzerland, or wherever blond professional skiers are from. It’s disturbing.
I know what he wants: pure protein. Any kind, and lots of it. Me too. We order Korean barbecue. He watches me chew and later licks the sauce off my face.
My boyfriend, my boyfriend. My boyfriend comes to the gym with me. He likes the Stairmaster. The employees don’t like him being here, in this all-lady establishment. If they complained, I’d mimic their cozy talk and say: “Listen, missus, do you wanna be the one who tells him to skedaddle?” But no one has the guts to say a thing and we like it that way.
My boyfriend climbs and climbs and climbs. The apparatus groans beneath him. It is industrial, designed to hold all peoples, but he is not all peoples. He is a titan. He sweats and swears happily. I’m on the treadmill beside him shuddering, coated in glisten so thick it looks like afterbirth. We are the giants at the top of the stalk.
I believe I’m getting better, but it turns out I’m getting worse: on the way into the office I kick the side of somebody’s old van with my jackboots. I keep doing it until it rusty metal blows open. I shove a free weekly box onto its side. At the office I topple at least five stacks of paper. I say “Excuse me,” of course.
Later I find a sandwich in the break room fridge and spit in it. I open every soda I see, leave them standing full and flattening. Then, as a lunchtime finale, I steal a Ziploc of grapefruit segments lovingly peeled of their pith. RAYMOND the bag announces in permanent marker lettering. “Thanks, Ray,” I say. I’m not so callow nor am I so callous that I’d skip a moment of humble gratitude. They say that gratitude is a practice and not an attitude. Sure. The grapefruit, when chewed, is harsh and bright the way I’d like my life to feel.
Soon there are more incidents. The incidents do not stop. They form into a pangaea of menacing fun. My supervisor drops by but stays by the door, like she’s scared of me. She’s scared of me.
“Um, how’s the counseling going?” she asks.
“Fabulous!” I swipe my hands through the air: a showman drunk on his own charm. My supervisor flinches. I don’t blame her.
She leaves me alone with my stupid grin. I wonder will anyone dare try a thing.
The next day I spit in a sandwich again, because what’s fun once is fun twice. I look at the saliva puddling in someone’s field greens. I wonder if they’re organic. Then I feel petty. This is beneath me. So I go and sit behind my desk and complete tasks. I think: if anyone could ever vanquish my boyfriend, it’d be Raymond. If I was someone else? Raymond would save me. But I’ll never meet Raymond, and I don’t need to be saved.
Still, I go to the counselor. She’s something I want to unknot. We’re back on the shore of the dank river. There’s a barge, the same one or different, and maybe it’s slightly closer. A dozen magpies surge over from our bank to the other, and back. “They can do it,” the counselor says. She’s wearing her windbreaker again. It crumples encouragingly. “Can’t you?”
I push her into the water. It’s not deep and she shoots up quickly. She’s a Weeble that doesn’t wobble but evidently falls down. “Have you had any memorable dreams lately?” She drips.
On the way home I call my boyfriend and tell him to be ready to fuck me.
After, we go to the gym together. There the machines look shrunken but we know we are the bigger ones. It’s useless to get on any of the cardio stuff now. We’d be black bears on tricycles, performing for peasants. Speaking of peasants, the staff—even the personal trainer with the caliper claws—are little as kids and cowering. They file out through the nearest exit. My boyfriend and I call each other Mister and Missus Gigantic. The Stairmaster is the first to go, bursting tinkly through the window glass and out to the sunny soccer fields beyond. My boyfriend always chooses to banish the things he loves first. In this way he is like me.
“Missus Gigantic,” my boyfriend hollers from beside the Octane cross-trainer. “I never did have any use for this shit.” And then there it goes arcing through the hole in the window, like a tennis ball thwapped by the hottest country-club pro. “Your serve!” I survey my options. Inside our muscles the lactic acid is jazzing like Niagara.
Like this, work is fun. The adding machine pops, buckles, splits under my fingers. I experiment with ripping blocks of Post-its into more slender Post-its. Beneath my purview, the supply closet is hurricaned. There’s no more chocolate, no more supervisor. I am now slightly taller than a tall woman. I bellow and all part. Today in the fridge Raymond has a Pepsi. It’s labeled, natch. I fill the ice cube trays. I want Raymond to have a cold drink, should he have the desire.
Meanwhile the counselor’s island has become an island. Or, now there’s an island in the river and she’s on it. “Swim over!” she calls. The barge—the same first barge or the second or perhaps a third—is slightly closer than it seemed prior. In about twenty years, I think, as I swim over, it’ll collide with this new land formation. The counselor won’t know what hit ‘er, I’m thinking, as I catch view of her smug mug.
In the swim I’m changing again. Naga-like I slide from the water. This time I’m the one dripping. The wind is high. My scales glitter prettily as I rest in a small gully just above the waterline. There are flashes of gold, blue, silver in the shallows. My hand is a cup and I go for the nearest flash, drink it down. The smug mug stays smug, or airless, airless. I wonder what color I swallowed.
“You let them go?” I ask her.
She looks at the remaining fishes, says: “The river’s a better mother.”
The sun rises up farther in the sky. The barge continues its slow progress. Speedily I dry.
At home the downstairs neighbors are leaving notes on the door. “Please keep it down for we find it difficult to sleep.” Of course it’s on kitten stationery. They’re not from here. German, or Austrian, maybe. Now that we’re half-serpent, however, we’re infinitely more quiet. They should be grateful: we only make sounds like water slipping down a drain.
Our shoulders are broad. Our tails are blady and they comport us serpentine. We throw the mattress from the balcony and order an adult-sized inflatable pool from the internet. We’re amphibious and like it that way. In sleep, in water, we curl together, curdle together, through the nightmares now only my boyfriend has. At night I watch him and when he wakes up I pet his earlobes with my thumbs. But one night I open my eyes into his gaze. I have been dreaming a soft dream. His eyes are bloodshot. I think he may have a Vitamin C deficiency. I’ll get oranges in the morning. “Who’s Raymond?” he asks. His nose begins to bleed.
I come back from my lunch break with two sacks of clementines. They’re a passel of puffer fish in their red nets. Today in the fridge, Raymond has a pastry box of four éclairs. He learned how to share and never forgot. I may have forgotten but I hear people can change. With a permanent marker I write RAYMOND on a clementine and put it on top of the pastry box. I can imagine here in this gesture what it feels like to be Raymond, Ramond-ly. Like glass filtering sunlight. Like butter melting in pan.
Then, because I feel out of practice of being me, I tear the door off the microwave. Its insides are splattered with the spittle of countless eaten lunches. I wrinkle my nose and go back to my desk. I spend most of the day watching for my supervisor. But there’s no more supervisor. I bounce the eraser of a pencil against my blotter until it’s not fun anymore.
When I get home from work, there’s another note from the neighbors. It reads: “There are waters coming through our roof.” Inside my boyfriend is in the pool, which has sprung a petite but steady leak. Since the morning, three of his teeth have dropped out. Pink gum threads like wet crepe paper hang from the periodontal party room of his open maw. His big tail is molting. He’s miserable and ugly. I present him with the clementines.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” he asks.
“Eat them,” I say, and leave to go find the counselor.
“Do you find people look at you differently, since your tail?” The counselor is sitting on her low stool, hunched over a tree stump table, pouring hot water into mugs. In them tea leaves are unfurling like birthed babies. The island is starting to grow trees, prove its staying power. It’s not worth mentioning the barge. Or, I can report: it’s still there. Today I think I can see someone at the helm. It’s possible it’s coming at us at a new accelerated speed. So many things are possible. The counselor drinks from a mug.
“Lately I’ve been having dreams about Raymond,” I say. For a moment I feel a clean elation.
The counselor takes off her windbreaker. Beneath it she wears a camisole that is the pale pink of a small girl’s wrist. “We all have dreams about Raymond,” she says, sighing. “But what are yours like?”
I tell her that I don’t remember.
We sit there for about ten years.
Then I begin to tell her about my boyfriend. How once he was a miniature darling, small and pettable as a vole: soft and chubby in the middle. How his tummy rested so wonderfully in the hollow of my cupped palm. How he’d fall asleep there, his snores like wind blown over buttercup petals.
“It’s the old story,” I tell the counselor as I pick up the other mug and look into the liquid. The tea leaves are like seaweed in dark depths. “Small cute thing gets big. Unmanageable.” I feel like a patient. Is this catharsis.
The counselor sits on her stool and I sit on mine. We look at each other, and then at the magpies, still racing back and forth overhead, and at the new trees dipping their young roots into the sandy soil. We watch a man on a forklift back on the old mainland move a rolled rug toward a truck. Everything moves pleasantly. We drink our tea until the leaves come upon our teeth bitter and woody. We sit there for ten more years, or a few minutes. Then the barge is upon us, at last.
During the collision we are thrown into the river where the water is amniotic. It comes into our lungs and fills them. We do not cough or yell or talk; I cannot remember any sound. I do not think of anything. The counselor is beside me, then not. The first few weeks are tender. We shed all that is within us, buoy on plumes of it. Our bodies, past and passive, are moved by the current from one position into another. As if we are asleep on a lover’s sunny bed. On land, above us, the season submits to summer. Small aquatic creatures greet us, lay their eggs in our cavities. When our skins like sodden pastry are torn and digested into hungry gullets, it feels like the most sublime tickle. We’re eaten to the bone; our long and elegant bones yellow and bleach and moss over with time. The magpies continue their aerial circuit, then tuck their heads into their wings and expire, as a new generation replaces them in this mid-air choreography. My car rusts, is towed away. Movers come and dispose of the counselor’s belongings. The carpet business folds under a difficult economy. Young, wealthy artists make the building into a combined studio and living space. They paint the exterior brick a pulsing, lovely blue, which reflects across the river water and competes with the sky. The artists hold each other, standing in wind or rain or sun, and look out on the water, and watch the barges, kissing each other’s necks, and feeling alive and in the presence of life.
Amanda Goldblatt is a writer, teacher, and editor, whose work can lately be found, or is forthcoming, at The Southern Review, the Fanzine, Tammy, Hobart, and NOON. In 2016, her story, “The Era of Good Feelings,” (originally published in The Southern Review), was chosen as “Notable” for The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016. She currently teaches creative writing at Northeastern Illinois University and StoryStudio Chicago. She is at work on a novel about women, swimming, and violence. She lives in Chicago, with her architect partner, and no dog.
Photo credit: egluteskarota, depositphotos.com