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Not long before we left, I displayed my bad habit.
“It’s okay, I know you don’t notice.”
I winced at her words, utterly sincere which was why they pained me. Despite her acceptance, curiosity lingered filling the silence between us.
Our room was perfect, small, and looking out at the shore. As it was winter, the inn was quiet and the beach mostly deserted. She went ahead into the room while I lingered on the landing. On the wall was a traditional nioh mask. I appreciated the simplicity of such a design, clarity of the expression so clean the stillness was unnerving.
Days passed breezily, our thoughts absorbed in each moment. Whether she hunted for shells along the rocks or we hiked through the forest. Despite the freezing cold, at the end of each day we rushed into the water. She swam for a minute or two before darting back to shore, savoring the challenge and exhilaration. I stayed in the water, swimming and floating but in fact waiting for the cold to subside and to lose all sensation except for the motion of waves. Back in the room she showered but her hair still smelled of the ocean even after it was dry.
Occasionally my thoughts drifted beyond our stay. At first there was relief, to experience weightless days felt as a first and my body became light. In such moments I imagined we came in spring when trees shivered with pleasure in the wind, young leaves a firm green. In such a state, sunlight would be vivid yet gentle glimmers between the foliage. I bathed in this sense of relief, but the gloom began to cluster. Could not help but think of our departure and suddenly the weightlessness became fickle, each day drawn to the blackhole of our return. I hid the darkening of my mood out of concern it would spill over from secluded moments and sour the entire day.
“I have never been to the coast in winter before,” she said.
On the fourth morning, we were finally walking the length of the shore. Heading towards the black rocks. She wanted to look for rockpools, to hopefully spy a starfish.
“Even when you went abroad?” I asked.
“Well, I went to sunny places. Always wanted to travel,” she sighed.
“No, how you dream to. To really lose yourself in far places, not staying in some resort. Always moving.”
Sand began to thin to a mere thread as the ocean heaved with greater effort. Water was a lifeless grey yet the surge of waves gave the impression of trying to form an expression beyond color, eager to flood the beach.
“I’m so going to slip,” she laughed.
Despite the muted light, black rocks glistened.
“I will help you.”
She laughed again, “we seem so much higher from up here.”
We steadied one another while she crept along, hoping to see crabs or starfish while I gazed out at the horizon.
“Only been here a couple of days, can’t ever imagine going back.”
Her words struck me, seeming to mirror my own before I noted her tone. Certainly melancholic yet this was the basis of her wistfulness.
I recalled the facets comprising my life, how much I detested them. The job, the faces, worries and memories… all of it. Yet away from it all, my dislike was similar to the distaste when passing unappealing architecture. A purely aesthetic revulsion. Rather than reveal a positive attitude able to move beyond negativity, such a state revealed my intellectual feebleness. Grief with which I met each day would forever be shallow, no matter how authentic or how much it pained me. None of this was new to me, yet I had never questioned the sparse moments of joy before. On the rocks I found an ambiguous spell had been cast over our stay, similar to the winter mist shrouding the hills that had just moments ago loomed above the forest.
“Let’s go back. Getting dark soon,” I muttered.
The following morning, I displayed my bad habit.
“It really is okay,” she assured.
I could not stand the sight of her face, the sympathetic expression appeared repulsive as if smoothing her features into that of a mannequin. And so I glanced for the window, for the ocean.
Sunshine had descended for the first time since our arrival, bathing in a particular spot near the water.
From nowhere, a wave of self hatred swept through me. Something I had never experienced before. While having little regard for myself, I had only been able to summon the same contempt I had for others.
I had long since been in the habit of staring into space. At first I called it zoning out, as this seemed common. But as I got older and noted the agitated demeanour of others, I realised this habit was something different. This staring was not an active effort on my part but the opposite, a natural alignment allowing each muscle to sigh with relief after being forced to support a contorted posture.
I noted this habit without giving it a label, without considering the experience itself or caring about those in my immediate vicinity. As such I could not stand the sense of reproach forcing me to fixate on the spot of the beach suffused in sunlight. Waves behind this light glistened, appearing silver as if glimpsed from another world.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I forced my gaze back to her.
“Of course. Did you say you wanted to go to the cafe beside the beach front.”
She nodded eagerly, seeming to forget the occurrence.
“They had all that cool ship stuff on the walls, like the wheel. Is that what it’s called, wheel – do you think any of it is real…”
During the rest of the day and without a change in my demeanor, I gave this habit of mine serious thought for the first time. I remembered sneaking outside as a child, world beyond those rooms was utterly estranged from the routines comprising life and reserved for the day. It was the night they took my mother, leaving me in a house filled with strangers. Worst than strangers in fact given how they laid a claim on my space and time I did not recognise even as a ten year old, based on some abstract notion of family. Unsure whether my mother would come back, I was plagued with doubt as to how to meet the morning. An owl was calling and I focused on that sound, and the sensation of the cold which was so vivid it seemed to swallow me up.
Another memory – concerned a reprimand for something or other. Don’t remember from who or where, I only remember the pattern of the carpet. My eyes traced it and it occupied my mind, as if searching for a dropped pin.
I let someone down once. While she expressed herself, I focused on the peculiar yellow shards in her otherwise brown eyes.
By the time I was nineteen, I no longer needed to focus or make an effort at all. I could look past my mother’s face as she was told she was dying, for the window and murky sky.
“You okay? Been a little quiet?” she asked.
I looked up and found myself in the cafe. She was eating a sundae with some cream on her chin.
I smiled, both relieved and terrified to find her.
“I’m good. You have a little something on your face.”
“Shame we don’t have enough ice cream to make more of a mess,” she smiled. Eyes as dark as her hair, glistened like the black rocks.
After we ate, we headed for the sand.
“You know. Sometimes it helps to talk when you get like that. Might make you feel less alone,” she said.
“Not used to that.”
“Never too late to learn,” she replied.
Her hand was sticky against my own and she glowed, seemingly encouraged by my relieved smile. Guilt almost made itself known but I swallowed it down.
Her misconception was the idea I was overcome with emotion, that I was dwelling on things. During such spells, I truly did not feel much at all. I could not correct her. Because of my inability to describe complete apathy, to ascribe words to how feelings and thoughts could flee in a flash. Real reason however was the fear, fear I would detect suspicion creasing her expression. To see her try and figure out whether I was looking through her.
My fears were no doubt baseless but it was easier to relax into silence than take a chance.
“Too cold for me today,” she said with a trembling voice.
Sunny spot had vanished by the time we were by the water. I shed my clothes and dived in.
I only stopped swimming when I was far enough out for her figure to lose all perspective. By then sunlight began to glimmer through the clouds, eventually forming a circle of light around my floating form. Within this sunny place, the water turn from a cloudy grey to an emerald green.
Jacob Vincent is a writer in the UK with a previous story published in Scarlet Leaf Review.