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The first time I visited the Montauk house, early that June, it was cloudy and unseasonably cool. I wanted to stay in and watch movies, but he’d already planned the whole picnic: bread, cheese, wine, and all. We took an old blanket to the cliffs and laid it down in the wind. It was a lot of trouble. I shivered the whole time and worried what the moisture would do to my hair. He liked my hair curly, or so he said. He asked about my work at the design firm. I told him I’d been promoted, and he nodded solemnly. “I hope you have time for your own projects,” he said. We drank the whole bottle of wine in clear plastic cups. We touched hands and bumped shoulders easily. We talked about middle school and people we used to know. We’d known each other for ten years by then. I worried sometimes that our friendship was built mainly on nostalgia. We’d rarely spent time together outside of the suburb where we grew up. The beach, the cliffs, were new territory for us.
Back at the house, we changed into bathing suits. The clouds had dissipated and suddenly it was hot. My suit was a modest two-piece. High waist with reasonable coverage. “You look like a grandma in the 50s,” he said, with feigned disappointment.
I rolled my eyes, smirked. “I never dress for a man’s benefit,” I said. It sounded like I was bragging.
We took his dog, a beautiful three-legged husky mix, down to the empty beach. We forgot to bring towels so we sat right in the sand. I hated the feeling of sand in my bathing suit, sticking to my skin, invading every crevice. That kind of thing had never bothered him. He let the dog off the leash even though it was against the rules. We watched her jump around in the surf, her three legs flailing in every direction. We giggled a lot and called her name, just because there was nothing left to say. Eventually she tired herself out and fell asleep in the sand.
We went into the ocean despite my objections. The water was cold and clear. He ran out ahead of me. The sharp shells on the ocean floor didn’t bother his callused feet. I stood at the water’s edge first, building up the nerve to swim. I liked the feeling of wet sand between my toes, the illusion of gliding backward every time the surf receded under me. I pretended that I was a permanent thing around which the Earth waned.
I waded farther in. The water came up just below my chest, but if I lifted my legs I could float. I closed my eyes, dunked my head. My hair was a lost cause. He swam in circles around me while I floated on my back. My cheeks were very warm and I knew the sun would bring out my freckles. This was a little trick I played to make myself look sweet and alluring. To evoke some latent longing in him, perhaps.
“You look peaceful,” he said. I hummed and smiled. I could tell he was proud of himself for bringing me here, giving me this.
I did a little flip in the water and ended up facing him. We were the same height. It made him self-conscious but I liked it. Our eyes, our mouths, our shoulders met perfectly. I wrapped my arms around his shoulders. I could smell his deodorant, even in the ocean. Our lips were inches apart, but I knew he wouldn’t kiss me. I pressed my cheek against his and he hugged me back, tight and glistening and warm.
After we showered and put on dry clothes, he cooked us dinner. Vegetable stir fry. He took it upon himself to feed me “real food.” I knew how to cook well enough, but I liked being taken care of. I took care of him too in other ways: reminding him to wear sunscreen, cutting him off after two cigarettes. He served dinner in one big bowl with two forks. We drank the craft beers that I’d brought with me. I did the dishes while he polished off his beer and searched for pay-per-view movies. It all felt natural, like we’d built a life together.
We shared a blanket on the couch. Our bare knees touched, and I remembered the first time we’d kissed. Fourteen years old in the driveway behind his house. He’d put his hand on my cheek, told me to lick my lips. It was a sweet, childish kiss. Quick and light and allegedly meaningless. Just for practice, he’d said. It had been my first. Now, he laid his head in my lap and purred like a cat. I pet his short hair, watched the tiny grains of sand jump up from his scalp. The dog got jealous and nuzzled under my other arm.
“When does Nina get here?” I asked.
“Tomorrow morning,” he said.
Nina was his girlfriend. I’d never met her, though they’d been together for at least a year. The dog was hers, actually. She was an artist. “You have that in common,” he said, though her work hung in galleries and mine decorated obscure tech websites. I nodded and smiled. I was anxious to meet her. From pictures, I thought we looked alike.
He squeezed my knee under the blanket and smiled goofily up at me. “I’m glad you came,” he said. The house was floor-to-ceiling windows, and the sun had long set. It would be time to sleep soon. I leaned close and blew the salt from his neck. He shivered. I kissed his forehead and then the dog’s.
He came to my Pocono house later that summer, in early August. It was a last minute trip. I hadn’t left the city since June and was desperate to be somewhere without cell service. I’d taken great pleasure in composing my “out of office” message. I hadn’t seen him since Montauk, but he accepted my invite easily. He was a freelance musician and his father paid his rent, so he could afford to be spontaneous. He said, regrettably, Nina was unavailable, though I hadn’t invited her.
My parents had only owned the Pocono house for a year and were wary of visitors. They agreed to let us stay for the week because we promised to help with maintenance: trimming the brush around the house, cleaning out the kayaks. He did most of the yard work the first day we got there. He was always happy to work outside, use his hands. He’d brought the dog with him. He’d tied her to a stake in the ground, and she followed on his heels as far as her leash would go. I stayed inside that first morning, watched him from the kitchen window as I boiled water for tea. It felt like playing house. I switched on the electric fireplace for ambience, despite the heat. After an hour outside chopping wood, he came in sweating and asked me to make the tea iced.
In the afternoon, we went to the lake down the road. I drove us there in the golf cart my parents had inherited from the house’s previous owners. The dog sat on the floor between his legs, panting. I would have preferred she stayed at the house, but he said she wasn’t accustomed to being alone. We passed other golf carts along the way, mostly older couples in visors who waved as we went by. I pictured us in fifty years or so, retired and visor-clad, on our way to swim. “Let’s get married when we’re old,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. He scratched the dog’s ears and squinted in the sun. The golf cart moved so slowly there was hardly a breeze.
“In twenty years, if neither of us is married,” I said. I was serious, at least a little bit.
He scrunched his nose, shook his head. “In forty years,” he said, “There’s still a lot I want to do.” I pouted. In forty years we’d both be sixty-five. Too late to start a life together. I made a show of rolling my eyes, but he wasn’t looking at me. I took a sharp turn into the gravel parking lot facing the lake.
The golf cart turned off with a little switch, like a toy. The dog jumped out and paced impatiently on her short leash. We left our valuables on the front seat. I’d remembered to bring towels and cherries, which I carried with both hands to the short rocky beach. The lake wasn’t much to look at. It was small and murky, claustrophobic compared to the ocean in Montauk. We had to wade through mud and algae to get to the water. The dog whimpered, her paws stuck in the mire. “Sorry, I wish this were nicer,” I said.
He nodded. He seemed to agree with my assessment, which annoyed me. I sulked and sloshed into the water ahead of him. He stood ankle deep in mud at the shoreline, the dog beside him. He crossed his arms, gazed past me at the giant houses across the lake.
“You coming?” I said.
“I’m not a big fan of still water,” he said, “You go ahead.” He turned back to where I’d laid our towels on the beach.
The water really was unpleasant, but I stayed in because it seemed worse to follow him out. I swam out past the buoys that marked the lifeguard-protected area. I swam and swam until I couldn’t touch the bottom anymore. It was nicer once I couldn’t feel the mud between my toes. I closed my eyes and dunked my head. I stayed under water, counting the seconds until I couldn’t hold my breath anymore. At one hundred I came up for air, lungs burning. I felt suddenly awake. I went back under before I had a chance to catch my breath. I didn’t count this time. I pictured my lungs inside my chest, full and ready to burst. I exhaled a slow stream of bubbles until there was no more air inside me and my entire body deflated. I resurfaced slimy and shivering like an infant gasping her first breath.
The drive back to the house was slow and quiet. I was damp and smelly from the lake. He drove with the dog beside him in the front seat. I sat in the backseat, watching the road disappear behind us. I had an uneasy feeling in my chest that I couldn’t place.
The dog leapt toward the house when we pulled into the driveway. She scratched at the door with her muddy paws. I insisted she stay on the screened-in porch until we could hose her off. Inside, I took off my damp T-shirt and shorts and left them where I stood on the kitchen floor. He looked at me in my 50s grandma bikini and said, “You might as well leave your bathing suit there, too.”
I scoffed. “You wish.”
“I won’t look,” he said. He walked to the edge of the kitchen and turned away from me to face the connected living room.
I slipped one strap off my shoulder and then the other. I waited to see if he’d turn around. He didn’t move. I pulled the bikini top over my head, felt the relief of air on my damp chest. He was shirtless in his swim trunks. I stared at the back of his head, his furry neck, his bare freckled shoulders.
“Don’t turn around,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
I dropped the bikini top in the pile on the floor. I stepped out of the bottoms quickly, unceremoniously, and left them on the floor, too. I had never undressed in front of him, as much as we’d flirted in high school. I looked down at my body, my doughy stomach and pale thighs. I shivered and felt a little thrill at being naked in a room with him.
“I’m going to shower,” I said.
The bathroom was down the hall on the right. I had to pass him to reach it. I approached him slowly, each step heavy and measured, until I stood right behind him. My breasts were level with his shoulder blades. I was close enough to see the goosebumps on the backs of his arms. The air between us was weighty and warm, almost solid. He stood unnaturally still. We both took shallow breaths. If I leaned forward, we’d be touching.
I reached for his fingers, hooked my index around his thumb. He squeezed and held me there, frozen, for two, four, six, excruciating seconds. I counted and held my breath. I could hear the dog whining on the porch outside. On ten he released, dropped his hand to his side without a word. I slipped past him on my tiptoes, felt the air dissipate between us like breath sucked from my lungs.
The water was scalding and harsh. I stood facing the showerhead, breathing in steam. My cheeks and scalp burned, but I didn’t turn away. I thought of Nina. She was more beautiful than I was. Petite, with dainty features and a soft voice. We’d gotten along in the performative way that women do in front of men. Lighthearted compliments and polite questions. She had an easy way about her that I admired. She’d laughed along, unthreatened, as he and I had reminisced together. The dog loved her more than me, of course.
I sat down in the tub. I pulled my knees, puffy and razor-burned, to my chest. The water poured over me, unrelenting. A lukewarm puddle formed around my body where the water couldn’t reach the drain. It made me feel dirty. I pressed my fingernails into my pruney palms. They left perfect crescents in my skin. I did it again and again until the skin split. The water made the blood run, little rivers across my palms.
I turned off the faucet once the water ran cold. I stayed there, naked on the floor of the tub. The last of the water trickled down the drain. Hair and spit and skin cells disappearing into the pipes. How many little parts of me did I lose every day? I stood shakily and stepped out of the tub. I’d waited so long that the steam on the mirror had cleared. My cheeks and eyes were red, my lips purple. I wrapped the biggest towel around my body. It nearly reached my ankles. It smelled like the detergent my mother used. I breathed in the floral scent, in out in out in out, until I felt dizzy and light.
He was waiting for me in my bed. Just lying there with his eyes closed, listening to the local radio station. He’d changed into a T-shirt and sweatpants. He looked soft and harmless like a little boy. He opened his eyes when I walked in and sat up on his elbows.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I said. I fiddled with the towel secured loosely around my chest.
Neither of us moved. Finally, he said, “Come here.”
I climbed onto the foot of the bed and crawled to him, one hand on my towel. He opened his arms invitingly. I lay down in the crook of his shoulder. We fit together imperfectly, but it was familiar, comforting. My wet, tangled hair dampened his shirt, and cool droplets slid down my collarbone. I shivered. He wrapped his free arm around me, pressed his hand flat and firm on my spine. My back arched toward him instinctively. He slipped his hand beneath the towel, traced my skin with warm callused fingers: my lower back, my hips, my belly button. I pressed my body against his and let his fingers inside of me. I sucked in my stomach and held my breath. He kissed me. Harder and saltier than when we were kids. I bit his lip and tasted metal. His fingers scraped my insides. My whole body burned. I didn’t want to breathe. I wanted to be something pure and non-human that didn’t need oxygen, didn’t need anything. Outside, the dog howled. He pulled his fingers out of me too soon. I gasped, soft and desperate. His hand dripped with sticky brown menstrual blood. Another piece of me lost.
I didn’t see him again until that winter. He’d convinced me to spend Christmas in Montauk. The design firm only gave us two days off, but I had sick days saved up. I told myself I would quit in the new year, anyway. I wanted to do something fulfilling, whatever that might mean. The town was empty and cold and sparkling. Inside, the house smelled like bourbon and apple cider. The tree was real and bare, waiting in a corner to be decorated. Some soft, jazzy tune played from the TV speakers. I suspected it was a song he wrote. The sun had set early in the evening.
Nina was there. We had the house to ourselves, the three of us. He was outside with the dog, smoking too many cigarettes. Nina chopped apples at the kitchen island while I rolled out dough across from her. I finished up with the dough and pressed it into a pie tin. Nina was only halfway through the apples. I would have offered to help, but she looked so focused. She glanced at me and smiled. I’d been staring, watching her like an animal behind glass.
“That looks good,” she said. She nodded to my flat oval of dough, crumpled slightly in its too-small tin. I’d used a wine bottle to roll the dough, since we couldn’t find a rolling pin. She was just being nice, but I blushed anyway. I wanted to impress her.
I held the wine bottle by its neck and wagged it in front of me. “This makes all the hard work worth it,” I said. I let Nina tell me where the wine glasses were, even though I already knew. I poured heavy glasses for each of us. We made eye contact and cheered. Nina took a dainty sip and returned to slicing apples. I twisted my glass around on the counter, watching the condensation form. “How’s work?” I said.
She shrugged, feigning bashfulness. “I’m working on a new exhibition for the Feminist Art Coalition, but I’ve been stuck on one piece for weeks.” I nodded and sighed as if I knew the feeling. “What are you working on lately?” she said. She stopped cutting apples and looked at me. Her earnestness caught me off guard.
I’d been designing a logo for a new word processing software, but three weeks in I realised I’d ripped off Clippy, the old Microsoft animated assistant, and scrapped the whole project. I stared at my hands on the counter. Her gaze was intense. “I’m transitioning away from graphic design,” I said, which would be almost true, if I actually mustered the will to leave my job. I heard the thump of the knife on the cutting board resume.
I glanced at Nina, but she seemed to have lost interest in me. I took several gulps of wine, just to do something with my hands. My cheeks were hot. I couldn’t stop watching her. Her long fingers around the knife, her fine straight hair behind her ear. She wore a green Christmas sweater his mom had knitted for her. I wanted her to look at me again.
“Do you think you’ll get married?” I said. I could have meant to him or in general.
Nina looked up, tilted her head like she’d never considered it. She said, “I’m not sure I see the point.” She could have meant in marriage or in answering the question. Either way, I regretted asking.
I finished my wine. “You’re probably right,” I said.
She looked toward the porch, where we could see him through the sliding glass door. He ashed a cigarette with one hand and played fetch with the other. “I’m glad he has a friend like you,” Nina said. I couldn’t tell how much she knew, but I sensed that the details of our friendship wouldn’t concern her. I both craved and resented her approval.
Before I could respond, she gasped, “Shit.” The knife clattered on the counter, and she raised her hand to her face. She’d sliced open her thumb. I jumped from my stool and leaned across the island to examine her. Blood flowed dark and steady down her hand.
I wrapped the nearest dish towel around the cut and said, “It’s probably not as bad as it looks.” She nodded, glassy-eyed, cradling her hand against her chest.
I ushered her down the hall to the bathroom. She sat on the toilet seat, clutching the dish towel now saturated with blood. I kneeled at her feet to search the cabinets for a first aid kit. I wobbled slightly, dizzy from the wine. Finally, I found a box of decade-old rainbow Band-Aids. “Looks like this is all we have,” I said, turning back to her. Nina laughed and relaxed a little. Her eyeliner was smudged and I realised she’d been crying. I had the overwhelming impulse to protect her. “At least you’ll be stylish,” I said. She winced as I pulled the dish towel from her thumb. I dabbed at the cut, with little regard for our clothes or the white bathroom tiles. I threw the towel in the sink and groped at the Band-Aid flaps with bloody fingers.
Suddenly, I heard his voice behind me. “What happened?” he said. He was standing in the narrow doorway, eyes scrunched in concern. I could hear the dog whining in the other room. I stood shakily, realizing what a mess I’d made. He pushed past me to kneel where I had been. He rested his elbows on Nina’s thighs, brought her hand to his face. He was gentle with her. Nina smiled and bit her lip. She said his name, soft and natural like it belonged to her.
I was suddenly queasy and hot, like I’d woken violently from a dream. I wiped my bloody hands haphazardly on my jeans. I murmured, “I’ll get out of your way,” as I slipped out of the bathroom. I tried to steady myself in the hallway. The house was too warm, the air too heavy to breathe. Sweat stuck to my hairline. The dog sniffed at my ankles. I patted her head, leaving pink streaks in her fur. I said, “Sorry,” to the dog, who was confused and restless. I slipped on my shoes and went out the backdoor, across the backyard, and through the small cluster of trees that marked its border.
I didn’t realise I’d been running until the sand stopped me. I took fast, shallow breaths, the cold air stinging my throat. My eyes adjusted quickly in the moonlight. Behind and above me were the cliffs where we’d picnicked months earlier. They watched over me now like shadows, dark and weightless. I walked slowly forward, letting my sneakers drag and fill with sand. The ocean was a loud, colourless mass in front of me, dangerous and alive.
I heard a sound like pounding hooves behind me. I turned and saw a three-legged figure sprinting toward me. I must have left the porch door open. The dog whooshed by, wild and panting, straight into the ocean. Just as quickly, she disappeared into the swell. For a moment I froze, convinced I’d imagined it. Then I heard distant yelping over the crashing waves.
I ran straight ahead into the ice cold water. The waves slashed at my shins. I plunged desperately deeper, calling the dog’s name over and over. I couldn’t feel my body, couldn’t see anything. The dog barked furiously somewhere in front of me. I sucked in all the air I could and dove under water, swimming in her direction. My cheeks, my eye sockets, my ears, were throbbing. Finally I collided with another body. I grabbed onto the dog and kicked my legs furiously until her head was above water. It’s okay it’s okay it’s okay, I breathed into her fur. I felt her frantic pulse against my chest and squeezed her harder. My toes scraped the ground as I pulled us both toward the shore. A final wave pushed us to land, and I collapsed with the dog beside me in the surf.
I took several cold, salty breaths, staring up at the stars. I was numb, untethered, a thing without a body. I twisted my head toward the dog. She lay on her back, all three legs splayed out at her sides. I brought my hand to her chest and found her heartbeat. She wriggled under the weight of my palm and jumped clumsily to her feet. She licked my cheeks and nose and mouth. I closed my eyes. I didn’t have the strength to push her away. She lapped at my hands, balled into fists by my sides. Her tongue was hot and relentless. I uncurled my frozen fingers and let the dog lick them clean of everything foreign, salt and sand and blood that was not mine. We would have to return to the house soon. Probably, the pie was almost ready. The dog huffed and licked my eyes open. I laughed, startling us both.
Hannah Silverman is a Brooklyn-based writer and filmmaker. She earned her BFA in Film & Television with a minor in Creative Writing from NYU. She is an Editorial Assistant at Pigeon Pages Literary Journal. Her prose appears in Pigeon Pages, 3Elements Review, Flypaper Lit, and elsewhere.