Fiction by Deanie Vallone
My first sign is this: the sound of water rushing into the upstairs bath.
Growing up, Mariah lived by the sea. We both did. Four blocks away from each other on the same hangnail of land. The kind of landscape with rusted edges that fall away into the water, ports filled with wretched boats helmed by wretched men elbowing one another for room, mainland thick with neon beer signs and the reek of fish and brine and piss. Even now its ghost clings to us like a stench.
While I don’t miss the town, I do miss the water. It’s quieter inland, in the fields and woods that line the expanse around our house. When I was a teenager, I used to slip out of bed, out of the house, out of my clothes, stumble through the green-black of our pitiful yard to the water near our doorstep. I know what people would say: Weren’t you afraid of what lurks below? No—I longed for something such as that. Into the cold lap of the water I would thrust myself. I would turn my face and lie on my back. The waves rocked me, settling me down, sucking at my body until I slipped into a steady buoyancy. True rest: even Mariah would appreciate that.
I sometimes wonder what Mariah would do if I did that now—sneak out of the house to go to the sea. Would she run her long hands across my cold smooth absence? Would she pull herself awake, lean on her elbow, call my name into the blink of darkness? Would she turn herself out of bed, walk the hardwood floor barefoot, led only by outstretched fingertips? Would she know to go to the water?
When people ask how Mariah and I met, we tell them that we grew up together, which is the truth, but slanted. Because in truth, it was Brother, but we don’t talk about him to each other, not anymore. In those early courtship days, our memories of him brought us together. But we were young, and the young have the luxury of opening up wounds for others to peer inside.
Out on the water I could forget. Forget what happened at school, what was said at the dinner table, what my future didn’t hold, what my father didn’t want me to become. I could forget me. I drew to the divide where I could be broken down into separate molecules: water, salt; then, hydrogen, oxygen. A world in circles and hexagons. I saw that painful geometry in my head, then drew the shapes in the sand, then doodled on napkins and notebook corners, then carved into my skin with a thin blade, then painted on canvases for thousands of dollars, then traced on the small of Mariah’s back, the inside of her thigh. How simple life was in those moments of suspension. Letting myself descend under the surface to the point where Brother touched my heel, called me by my true name. It would be many more years before I looked him in the face.
Mariah saw Brother’s face when she was seven years old. Her mother had died two weeks earlier; it was just her and her wrecked father, and it was a bad night. She only saw Brother that once, but for years later she thought she felt his presence, the way the atmosphere changes when a hurricane touches down, making the baby-fine hairs on your arms stand up. I heard somewhere that Brother looks different to every person, but I’ve never asked Mariah what she saw that day, twenty-odd years ago. I have not seen much of Brother in decades, but sometimes I will catch a glimpse of him, nearby, standing at the edge of the living room doorway, hovering by the oranges in the grocery store. It’s like a contact that has moved too far over my pupil; I blink it straight, and he’s gone.
We grew up; we moved to a fifty-acre farmhouse in the woods. Mariah loves to garden. She channels her anger and fear and hopes into the soil, watering them with salt water, if necessary. She savors the solidity. We are content out here, but we are not always happy. We are, after all, people aged in brine. For every night with wine by the fireplace or mornings twined in bed, there are those with slammed doors and her furiously digging a spade into the backyard. I think of Brother in those times. Those encapsulated nights on the water, Brother coming to me, his body both solid and weightless, a jellyfish pulsating below me in the abyss. I know Mariah would describe him as a shark, a lurking thing, vulgar language. I don’t blame her; we fear that which we don’t understand, and she cannot help but see a predator. Fear brought him to her; it clouds her. But when I called Brother, he simply slipped his hand into mine, and I know this: that some sharks can live up to 150 years, that some can glow in the dark, that they never run out of teeth, that they have remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years.
The air inland does not smell cold or warm, sharp or grainy, wet or rotting. Its smell simply is not. Mariah has not seemed to notice, but I have. Smell is our strongest memory sense; living here dislocates me out of time and place. I wake up some mornings and wonder whether I have ceased to exist. The house we live in is perfectly polished wood and banisters, big windows and open spaces. My paintings fill the walls. There are no mementos. We don’t talk about the past, and Mariah doesn’t like traveling anymore, doesn’t like the sea anymore, doesn’t like the nickname Mary anymore. Her father’s voice, slick with scotch and malice and oh so much grief, Mary, Mary, quite contrary.
She still likes gardens. Like my art, it allows her to make sense of herself and the world and herself in the world. Likes the visceral nature of it, the earthiness, the mathematical purity of botany. Fibonacci’s spiral, she says, is why she fell in love with my paintings before she fell in love with me. Fennel, rosemary, narcissus, violet. Yellow roses, everywhere, the petals opening outward exponentially. We don’t cut them and bring them into the house; she doesn’t like to watch them brown and wither.
Mariah doesn’t laugh a lot, but when she does it sounds like something out of a Greek myth: a brook bubbling, chimes catching the wind, a nymph’s harp. It’s incredible how a sound can bring you decades back in time. I can see the ten year old inside—Mariah, who was at that point still a child: chasing the dog around the front porch, lining her dolls up on the window ledge with a good view of the garden, squealing in fear and curiosity when she discovers the night-crawlers in her father’s tackle box. I remember seeing her father with mine, leaving before the sun had even cracked an eyelid, gathering at the docks to set out on the water. Saw him hunched over, racked at the funeral. And months later, my mother’s hushed voice in the kitchen, drinking became a . . . he’s always been such a nice . . . how could he try to do that . . .
And years and years later. Mariah’s face tucked into my chest, telling me a story of a little girl, a father’s maddening grief, his hand at the back of her neck, her mouth and nose filling up with water, her fingernails scraping at the bathtub’s porcelain edge, and Brother, looking her straight in the face.
I cannot say why Mariah doesn’t laugh. Perhaps it’s just that nothing humans do surprises her anymore.
Just as I shouldn’t have been surprised that she wanted, needed to move away from the sea. We don’t choose our fears, we don’t choose our names, we don’t choose the face Brother takes. I wish that now, knowing what I know, I could go to the black one more time, to see what she sees. To see it as she sees it. Because for me the water is peace. There I am not a body anymore. There I do not have a name. I am the sea, and nobody owns me. Sometimes I will write those words on my inner arm with a pen, dark enough to cover up the scars I wrote there long ago, long after the sea wasn’t enough, and I wanted to look Brother in the face. At night, if Mariah is feeling sentimental, she’ll run her fingertips along those words and scars as if she is trying to read me in Braille. How do you do it? she almost didn’t ask. Vertically, I almost didn’t tell her. Not horizontally. In the bath.
I am the sea, and nobody owns me. Would she have liked to know those words as a child? Perhaps it would have been some comfort for her those nights she spent in the hospital, her father in the psych ward on suicide watch. Perhaps it would have eased her of the burden of carrying wretched, brackish water inside of her belly, slowly seeping into cracks and whorls I never saw, rotting her from the inside out like festering wood, so that my first sign, water running on porcelain, is already too late.
Brother closes the door, sits down on the edge of the tub.