On the first day of the Oceanography Master's Workshop, I began watching two women who visited the museum almost every week. The women were lovers—Elise and Mars, I'd heard them call one another during an argument over pregnancy. Elise was amber-skinned with licorice braids and wore leaf-pattern skirts whenever I saw her; Mars was gangling and rawboned, with a cinnamon-colored ponytail always laced through the rear opening of her baseball cap. Despite her frame, she radiated strength. I was on workshop duty and neither were participants. Off limits, both of them.
As the couple explored an exhibit on ancient coral, I snuck away from the exhibition and introduced myself. “My name is April,” I said, addressing Elise, who seemed the warmer personality of the two. “Can I interest you in observing our Master's Workshop exhibition? Graduate students from all over the state are presenting work on marine organisms and ecosystem dynamics. I'd be more than happy to show you around.”
Elise cracked a watery, affectionate smile, as if she knew this was my first job and that I was a college dropout with an excellent memory but no real understanding of anything those grad students were talking about. “Thank you,” she said. “But we have to be going.”
I never followed them outside of the museum's property, but sometimes I would hope to see them at the places my friends and I frequented—the ice cream parlor, the bowling alley, the gay bar (which we habituated with a misguided sense of irony). During the first two days of the workshop, I avoided speaking with the grads lest I have to explain my life choices and relate my hackneyed attempt at an education. Their silk shirts intimidated me. I felt dwarfed by the colossal models of open-ocean leviathans and the easels bearing elaborate sea-shelf monographs. One afternoon, I brooded over a wall-sized plaster mannequin of a deep-sea angler, its replica filament hanging from its head to the floor, translucent and alluring. I extended my arm, wanting to know what kind of material could glow this way, when a pair of female hands clapped my shoulders. I could feel the chill of a wedding band through my thin shirt. “Congratulations,” said a student a head above me. “You just became prey.”
Watching Elise and Mars felt familiar. The lure, maybe, was possession of the unknown, observing my way into what I'd never be. I couldn't imagine myself cultivating a relationship, upholding domestic responsibilities, being a mom—their pregnancy argument had me thinking, though I had no idea how that would work with two women—or going to a museum for pleasure; it all seemed beautiful, but somehow disconnected from me. I wanted to tell Elise that I was writing a book of memoirs about people I didn't know, that although I'd typed ten thousand words on those grad students and the lives I imagined for them, I couldn't bring myself to write a single word about her, about Mars, about the way their braids and ponytails issued from their scalps like fiber esca. The lures of the workshop led only to the yawning maw of the angler and its bands of dagger teeth, knowledge that rendered me a prey animal no longer.
At lunch the next day, I crushed an ant on the picnic table. I sensed its body giving way beneath my napkin, a napkin I'd intended for sopping up pizza grease. It wasn't a big ant, though. It didn't have a thesis or anything.
In those days, I wore a purple candy-striped knit hat and had my hair chopped just below my ears. The museum staff was okay with it, promoting individuality in spite of the emblazoned tags on our shirts, which marked us as museum property.
During spouts of imagination, I would walk the corridors of the museum's east end, which we called the Old Wing. The Old Wing had for decades hosted an exhibit on the Cohoes Mastodon, a monstrous skeleton that in prehistoric times had grazed the local landscape, and its hall was my favorite place to stray when ideas began fountaining.
The last time I maundered the east end, two figures knelt on the slate-black tiles beneath the beast's tusks, as though offering prayer. Their faces were cupped in one another's hands, their breathing punctuated by rhythmic laughing and whimpering that repercussed from every corner of the orange-lit room. Elise, Mars, what happened that day? Why was I allowed to witness this moment beyond its apex, this sad denouement? What had you decided just seconds before I’d sidled into the doorway? I was shocked by the stillness of their bodies, the careful contemplation of the other's features, their absolute unawareness of me.
Even when my phone vibrated and I clumsily fished it from my pocket, nothing in that room shifted. I slunk into the restroom before lifting the earpiece to the side of my face.
My younger brother, Marcus, was on the other line. Our uncle Eli had called him, complaining of chest pains and rallying us to his rescue.
“He couldn’t call an ambulance?”
“He doesn’t believe in them,” Marcus said. “Afraid they'll get stuck in traffic. He’s like, ‘I refuse to die in the back of a van.’”
“Fine.” Marcus and I were not close; he got into drugs in middle school, treated wildlife like garbage, and never inherited the need to bond with a sister. Our interactions were now limited to family emergencies, though he occasionally texted me his newest experiments with firecrackers. Whether these were his attempts to reach out to me or he thought someone else was receiving his messages, I didn’t know.
I clapped the phone shut and pondered my reflection, imagining how tiny and pitiful I’d look to my supervisor when I told her I’d need to leave immediately. I ran two fingers under the faucet and attempted to cement the dangling cirrus of my bangs; Mercedes was peeved by loose hair. I navigated the east hall to the artery of the museum, and when I reached the lobby, Mercedes, my supervisor, was waiting with five other employees, all dressed in the same khakis and black t-shirts promoting the Oceanography workshop: an ocean sunfish, two-thousand-pound swimming boulder, like a spade turned on its side and splashed with grey, floated over the phrase Mola Mola! penned in playful cursive, as though the museum was an island resort. My hand shot to my butt pocket, ready to delete the evidence of my call.
There was applause, followed by congratulations, this time not for being rended to chum by an anglerfish, but for my achievement as Docent of the Month.
It took Marcus, four of our cousins, and myself to lift Uncle Eli from his rolling chair. Because of his weight, he was immobile most of the time. “What the fuck is Mola Mola?” he asked, beholding my work shirt as we eased him toward the front door and Marcus's roomy, hospital-bound Mercury. His voice rumbled with phlegm. The underarms of his shirt were darkened and he smelled like canned salmon. This close to him, my sinuses burned.
“It's one of the heaviest fish on Earth,” I said. “Now stop talking; you're going to run out of breath.”
Something passed across Eli's face, a kind of recognition or humor, as though a breeze had swept through the kitchen and curved his mouth into an expression he'd forgotten how to make.
King of Herrings
One of the friendlier grad students, Julian, asked me on a date the day before I got a particularly painful period. We drove to the nature preserve half a dozen miles from the museum, where we swam in a manmade lake, threw snail shells at each other, and sucked down dollar-ninety-nine sushi from a local convenience store. Afterward, we set up folding chairs on the grainy beach and watched the water until it settled into a glassy, rippleless sheet.
Julian was older than me by a few years. His chest was flocked with curly black hair, he was soft around the waist, and he kept a dark goatee that splayed from his chin like the legs of a charred cuttlefish.
“Are you sure you’re not a swimmer?” he'd asked at the museum, standing alongside a wall of his own photographs, the most noteworthy of which displayed a group of sailors propping up a seven-meter oarfish. The sheen of its scaleless hide caught the lens and rendered the entire image phosphorescent.
“You look like you could swim laps around the Olympic team.”
As the sky blackened over the beach, Julian told me about his time at graduate school, his peripatetic lifestyle since taking up marine photography, and all the selfish girls who had broken up with him. I could not excavate a single significant detail about myself, and so I told him about the women I'd been watching at the museum—their amorous behavior, their quiet conversations (a communication all their own), the beautiful domesticity of it all. I did not mention the scene in front of the mastodon. “I want that to be me,” I said.
“You want to be with a woman?”
“Whatever. I don't know. No. I mean, everyone thinks about that stuff at least once, right?”
“I guess so.”
I propped myself up in the chair and swung my legs over the side. The air, blowing evenly off the water, was crisp against my bare skin. “I’m saying I want to have something—something adult, you know? I want to believe I can succeed at it. You’re what, thirty? Don’t you think about getting married?”
“Non sequitur, dude. Do you want a wife someday or not?”
“Here.” He removed his beach towel and flung it around my shoulders. My teeth chattered. When he finally leaned in to press his lips against mine, I let him, but pulled him away after a moment and asked my question again.
“Yes,” he said, “but it’s a choice between settling down and pursuing my work. It hurts to even think about it.”
“Settling down? You have to find a girl in order to do that. Doesn’t sound like you have much choice at all.” I meant it to sound flirtatious. I hope I didn’t sound too mean. Regardless, when I touched my forehead to his and kissed him again, he offered no resistance.
The following morning, my lower abdomen ached, I was nauseous, and my sheets looked like evidence in a murder trial. I called in to work, and when Mercedes asked what was wrong with me, I told her I had food poisoning. Buying her star employee’s lie, she vowed to smoke out the culprit, probably worried that the museum’s catering had done the number on me.
When I felt up to it, I rolled from my mattress, balled my sheets and stuffed them in the washer. I made my way to the shower, gingerly removing my clothes before even reaching the bathroom and leaving them clumped on the floor of the hallway. The hot water was a balm for the aching, but every part of me felt dull. I looked down, keeping my eyes fixed upon my toes, not what was leaving my body and circling the drain. Finger toes, Julian had called them last night while slipping my flip-flops back on my feet. He clarified, assuring me it was a compliment. My toes were unique. Like something extinct.
My favorite nugget to share with museum patrons is that there are animals in the ocean who evolved into their current forms over four-hundred-million years ago. When I catch these patrons in the lobby, I wait for them to slip a ten dollar bill into the narrow slot of the donation box, and as the bill is released and begins to flutter, I ask, do you think these animals settled into these forms due to habitat conditions, outside forces beyond their control, and situations they could not escape, or did they just know what they wanted to be? Children between six and ten cackle at that one. The older ones roll their eyes, because they no longer think of animals as people.
The remainder of our month-long workshop roved on, and I found myself hoping that Julian would tire of it and go off to photograph pirates or something. I’d enjoyed the night on the beach, but judging by the looks I received from the rest of the grad students, Julian had been a little too proud of making out with me.
I invited him to my parents’ place during the workshop's final week, when Mom and Dad were vacationing on Bar Harbor, under the condition that he would stop telling everyone we were spending time together. I showed him my room, where I still had glowing stars and sea turtles stuck to the ceiling, bare walls save for a rack of notebooks, a brass hook for hair-ties, and a bent nail upon which hung my employee achievement award from the museum. He became the second person I’d ever had sex with, and despite his age, his breathing patterns and sensitivity to my touch told me I was his first. He didn’t stay in with me, but the following morning, he was over again. His dark hair was moist and neatly brushed.
“You’re really intelligent,” Julian said when the shark documentary we were watching broke for commercial. We’d devoured a tin of my mother's cupcakes, and a stripe of vanilla frosting still decorated his goatee. “You keep telling me you're afraid to hash it out with the students, but you know everything in that museum from top to bottom. You should be in that room presenting.” His hand made its way to my wrist.
“We can’t all be scholars, Julian. Otherwise there would be no such thing as retail. Besides, someone's got to keep kids from smooshing their faces against the glass.”
“I’m serious. What’s stopping you from achieving these adult goals?”
“I like where I am. Not everyone scores Docent of the Month; I earned that.”
His grip on my wrist grew tighter. “That’s exactly my point. It proves how dedicated you are. But in this job, there’s nothing beyond that piece of paper. You’ve hit the ceiling.”
The show returned from commercial, but he wouldn't let me off the hook. I tried to explain how the museum was my identity, how that achievement certificate only counted if I was still employed there, how a regular person does not just walk out on her only source of income to go off on adventures.
“So,” he said, “you're content with giving tours forever? Fifty years from now, you’ll be a local legend. You’ll fill the dead space in people's dinner conversations.”
I inched my arm away from him. “I want to stop talking about this.”
“You can’t ignore it.”
“You don’t even know me.”
I folded my hands and locked eyes with the shark on the TV.
I sighed through my nose and concentrated on the screen. The jaws of the skittering mako opened and shut, opened and shut.
The apartment I moved into was on the quieter side of town. I had found my roommates, Sheila and Jordan, on the internet. Our preferences matched on paper, but our personalities never quite clicked, and I would spend most evenings in my room alone, housed between ziggurats of my memoirs, inventing new lives for people who didn’t need them.
One night, Sheila, a veterinary medicine major who moonlighted at a local animal shelter, settled next to me on the couch after returning from her boyfriend’s house, bringing the smell of sex and dog shit with her, and asked how I expected men to chase me if I kept my face buried in magazines and my mind in fake memoirs. Why did I need to be chased? Who wants to be running away all the time? Who wants to be prey? I've never understood questions like that.
Once the grad students had packed up and the Oceanography workshop was reduced to a storage room, I was placed in a semi-permanent position at an interactive sea creatures exhibit, narrating oceanography slide shows and teaching children how to handle starfish without harming them.
I tried reading my memoirs at open mics. One night, after a decidedly urban crowd applauded a piece describing a boss’s decision to keep a bewildered loner on the job, I walked to a karaoke bar with a few of the listeners and allowed them to coerce me into belting out falsetto renditions of classic rock. On the way home, after refusing offers for free drinks and wishing everyone a good night, I saw Elise and Mars making their way up the sidewalk, faces brightened by the warm orange glow from the lights studding the awning. They looked the same as I remembered them—Elise with her perfect black braids and Mars coolly detached—but Elise was carrying an infant, quiescent and swaddled in a white shawl.
Even when I stopped directly in front of them, they remained locked in conversation. Mars made eye contact, but she did not recognize me, and the three of them glided gracefully past like a school of bowfins.
Six months into my new position, Julian showed up while I was lecturing to high-schoolers on deep sea creatures. He’d been trying to corner me lately, probably wanting to talk about us, but his desperation grated at me; he felt like something old, lost in time, sunken into wet slag.
During the second-to-last slide, which featured a cluster of giant tube worms flooded with sapphire light, he slipped into the small theatre, his face visible in the bold glow of the Exit sign.
“Hydrothermal vents supply tube worms with incredible energy,” I said, addressing the students whose eyes were still open. “But we still have no proof of what causes other creatures, such as the giant squid and giant isopod, to reach their enormous size.” I glossed over Julian as I scanned the crowd with my eyes, pretending not to notice him among the tired students. From the row in front of Julian, a kid whose face was invisible in the darkness of the theatre shined a laser-pointer at the stage and dragged the infrared beam across my forehead in spastic, jerking motions. The boys giggled.
The video was not quite finished, but I was. I squeezed the pause button on the projector’s little remote.
“Are there any questions?”
“You got a man?” a callow, boyish voice issued from somewhere in the room.
“Dyke slut,” muttered another, just loud enough for me to hear.
I flipped the light switch on the wall, illuminating the faces and letting them know it was time to leave. Julian rose to his feet. He was wearing a plain t-shirt and jeans torn at one knee. “I have a question,” he said. “These giant sea-bugs are cool and all, but I'm not sure how you can do a presentation on deep-sea gigantism without mentioning the pachycormids.”
The students, unsure of Julian's identity and probably irritated that his question prevented them from leaving, fixed their gazes on him. Most of the boys had their arms folded and heads cocked back. Two girls with bleached hair had already sauntered up the aisle, ready to leave me far behind.
“Because they’re dead,” I replied. “The pachycormids went extinct a very long time ago. And we only have small pieces of them as evidence that they ever existed.”
“But their very existence is significant. Their classification as fish implies a connection to today's animals, including humans, since we’re part of the same phylum. That basically means that we are fish.”
The students’ eyes shifted back to me. A few more left their seats and headed for the back of the room. The blonde girls pushed the door open and sunlight briefly cut into the room.
“Relations between pachycormids and present-day fish are completely unclear,” I said. “Students dismissed.”
Most of the students filed out, but two or three hovered in the open door, still leery of where this was headed.
“By dismissing us, you’re dismissing some of the largest, most powerful prey animals in the history of the sea,” Julian went on. “These were fish that could not only outrun the most savage prehistoric deep-sea reptiles, but could survive bites from them. Evidence from Mesozoic deposits suggests—”
“I suggest you leave,” I said, turning my back and staring at the paused tube worm slide. I heard the thud and clasp of the swinging door; the students had gone, but I could still feel Julian in the room. The falls of his loafers drew near and stopped directly behind me.
I turned to see him aiming an ancient-looking camera at me. I hopped off the stage and snatched the old box from his hands. “What do you want from me?”
“Another night at the beach would be nice.”
“It’s over. Just let it be what it was.”
I could see the hurt carved into the channels around his eyes. But he did not move. “Way to be high-tech,” I said, looking down at the camera and trying to lighten my tone, which had never worked before. “Aren’t you trying to do this for a living?”
“I just thought it would make you laugh.”
I tossed the camera into one of the folded seats behind him. “I don't need you to rescue me.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Empty space materialized in our conversation, but I was determined not to let it become silence. “Tell me what you’ve been up to.”
“Working on my thesis. Not much time for traveling or photography at the moment.” His cheeks, normally shaven, were bristly and ragged, the same shade as his goatee.
“I’ve started working on a degree,” I said. “I’m taking up Individual Studies. It’s community college, but maybe I’ll transfer to an education program after a couple of years.”
He gave a slight smile, as though proud of me, but still wanting my education to be his own idea. “I’m happy for you,” he said.
I walked to the front row of oyster-like seats and sat down. Julian reclined alongside me.
“I’m exhausted, Julian.”
“Tell me what’s bothering you.”
“Do you really want to know?”
“I want to know everything about you.”
I took a breath through my nose and exhaled sharply from my throat. The tube worms gazed back at me from the projector, their nonexistent faces somehow judging me. “I watch people I have no business watching. Then I write about them. I make up their entire lives.”
“Your memoirs. I remember.”
“Those two women I told you about—I could never write a word about them. They were too precious. Too delicate. It was like I’d somehow break them with my pen. I saw them with their baby the other night, and they didn’t recognize me.”
“Do you ever write about me?”
“I know you too well. No.”
He cupped his hand over mine. “I have an idea,” he said. “Whenever you’re unable to write about someone, consider that you’re not allowed to because their life is tangled with yours.” I thought of the mess of sheets and Julian's hand on my sweating belly after our one and only tumble. It appeared sweet in my mind, framed in orange, but suppressed. I remembered the excruciating period the next day, how ashamed I was to tell Mercedes.
“I’ll think about it. But you’ve got to stop showing up at my work.”
He squeezed my hand. “Okay,” he said, and I believed him.
I fiddled with the projector remote in my pocket. When Julian didn't speak again, I pressed the soft button with my thumb, and the tube worms faded from the screen. On the final slide, from an intricate coral reef in the foreground, a blur of color was visible far off, massive and rising with cumbrous power. In its wake, a black, murky cloud remained, spreading, and before the creature had hovered beyond the trajectory of the lens, the cloud overtook the entire image, leaving us in the dark, wondering, squinting to see what lay beyond.
I loved to sit in the campus center during lunch, sipping vanilla-flavored cola and writing the memoirs of the fry cooks, the class-skippers strumming guitars across the room, the study groups sitting Indian-style atop the long wooden tables, the pairs of girls who walked by dressed in their high-school hoodies, and even my earth science professor, who didn't keep office hours and always trailed off at the ends of his sentences as though his own words saddened him.
Marcus gave me a ride home during a thunderstorm. I’d missed my bus because I’d taken extra time to finish an exam. “Thanks,” I said as I climbed into the spacious front seat, setting my sopping wet backpack on my lap. He nodded. The smell of weed wafted through the cab. Garage rock crackled from the speakers.
Drivers were taking it slow for fear of hydroplaning. After a few minutes of sitting in traffic, Marcus finally asked, “Why don’t you ever return my messages?”
“I figured you sent them to me by accident.”
“Then try using my name. Or better yet, try telling me something I’d actually want to know about you. You can’t call someone a lionfish if you never try to breach their spines, you know.”
By the time we reached my apartment, I knew about Marcus’s friends, the girl he had a crush on, that his favorite sport was miniature golf and that he never scored below par; and he knew about Elise, Mars, their beautiful child, about my memoirs, my open mics, my classes, and Julian. Our discourse was not gentle and familiar, though; I think he was still afraid of talking to girls, even one who shared his blood. Our secrets sluiced forth haphazardly, like spilled paint.
As I heaved the car door open and placed my backpack over my head to absorb the torrent, Marcus asked me to wait. I stood under the curtain of rain, waiting for him to offer me more rides, tell me we should get lunch sometime, ask me to visit the house more often.
“Nothing,” he said, changing his mind. He was still smiling. “Bye, April.” He pulled the door shut and eased on the gas, the deep-treaded tires shooting columns of water in every direction as they spun through the puddles on the shoulder.
Rushing up the walk, I closed my eyes to shield them from the downpour. The rain saturated my backpack, my new work shirt, which featured a mulligan of deep-sea animal appendages, and my skin itself; I could feel water rushing between my moles, my pores, my cells, splitting each thread of hair until the entire mop of my head was a patch of beached seaweed, filling my shoes to the ankles, streaming over my lips, down my stomach and thighs. We were one, that rain and I, until I shoved the key in the lock and entered the apartment, welcomed by a surge of recycled air, tepid and dry.
Richard Hartshorn lives in rural New York State. He is the recipient of the 2011 Richard Bausch Short Story Prize, and his work has appeared in various publications, including Our Stories, 751 Magazine, and The Dirty Napkin. Sometimes he blogs about movies at aheadonourway.wordpress.com.