I’d never been in love until after I’d been accused of a crime.
Not the biggest crime. Not something they could actually pin on me. This was the type of crime, I told the judge, of the wrongly accused.
I’m not particularly smart. I knew this from an early age. I don’t know how to set a pool on fire.
And I’m gentle. I never did a thing to any animals in all my life. When I was three, for example, I would leave a trail of tuna treats from the kitten’s water bowl to the foot of my bed, the place the kitten felt the safest, like a safety line through a coal tunnel.
It was so disputed, this crime, that it wasn’t even certain enough for a juvenile detention center. The only evidence against me was a shaky eyewitness. But the community worried that I was a contender for psychopathy. What happened next was the softer side of possible outcomes from the better-safe-than-sorry mentality my hometown adopted: Put the kid to work to keep him out of trouble—better safe than sorry.
Was I sorry? The judge wanted to know.
How can I be sorry for something I didn’t do?
“You’re my gentle giant,” Mom said all through the hearings, the interviews, the psychological evaluations, what she’d said all my life. “You’re my peanut.”
I was sixteen years old when they sent me out west, as close as “to sea” as they could get.
“This is good, like camp,” Mom said. “I know you didn’t do those things, but everyone can benefit from camp, from the ocean breeze.”
“Will Dad like me now?” I asked Mom as she brushed my hair.
“Baby, Dad always liked you.”
“Not love, because he has to,” I said, because we’d discussed this definition many times before, in terms of defining Dad’s departure. “I mean like.”
“He sent you that postcard, didn’t he?” she said. It was tucked into the mirror we were staring into together, there in the frame.
On one side was a picture of palm trees, a place Dad did not live but had thought of me from, and on the other side was our address, and then nothing else at all.
Now I work a job that encourages customers to pay a membership fee. It’s for a discount card. We tell people it will pay for itself, and then save you money.
As an employee, if you sell a membership you are celebrated. If you sell ten, you are gold. If you sell any amount more than one per day, you join the Percentage Club. In the Percentage Club you can be a Jedi Master, Knight, or Padawan. For a while I was getting my wings, I was a Padawan. Now I’ve become a Knight. I’m good, but I’m not the best. We’re working on it, says Bill, the man who owns the bookstore in this seaside town. You’ve got a way with the people, he assures.
I don’t remember exactly when the expanded membership rewards system was set up—a rewards system of my very own. One day I sold a membership, maybe two, and by the end of it, Bill said as a thank you he’d take me to the aquarium (nationally beloved), and it was there I met Olivia.
Olivia is a creature of alarming proportions: eight arms, three hearts, no bones, and sixteen hundred suckers running up and down her tentacles. When she is excited she turns red, and when she’s calm she turns white.
A giant Pacific octopus can squeeze through a crack smaller than the opening of a child’s shoe, but each, stretched out, it is as long as a car. If you give an octopus a fish, it will taste it with its whole body. Each sucker can move, soft and pliable as an invincible feather.
There is much about the octopus we do not know, though we do know they can run, and they can hide. On ships, you open a teapot, you might find one curled up inside.
Bill is friendly with the aquarists in town, and that is why we went there, to see something amazing. The day I met Olivia, she was scrunched up in a pickle barrel in a small saltwater tank.
“Buddy, meet Olivia,” said Bill, an aquarist opening the lid by his side, and Olivia reached out an arm and touched me, one sucker, on the skin of my wrist.
When an octopus touches you, the professionals call this inquisitiveness a kiss—you put out a bold arm and the octopus, if curious, is likely to kiss you. And this, from Olivia, might have been my first enchanting kiss, but she was not truly my first love. Her kisses came from one, then four, then one hundred suckers up to my elbows. It was a strange thing—her getting to know me by tasting my skin. I held my arms there, and felt something like a vibration running up my spine.
I don’t have a more passionate kiss to compare it to, but I guess, what the suckers felt like on my skin that day would be similar to silk, the French kind, a French kiss, and probably a good French kisser’s lips have been compared to silk.
As dumb as I am, I know you can’t really compare the touch of an octopus to the lips of a woman, or the warmth of her hands.
But the woman I work with, on the day I met her she said, “Doesn’t this feel good?” and ran the tips of her fingers up and down the back of my neck. She did it so delicately, but felt like electricity coming out of her nails, and my skin rose up as gooseflesh, and I turned red, just like an octopus does when excited, which I didn’t know at the time, but something I can remember now, when I am recalling the moment this woman first touched me. In fact, when Olivia the octopus reached out and kissed me at the aquarium, the only thing I could compare her to was this woman, my co-worker, in the bookstore, on my first day of employment. What is this like? my brain asked as an octopus sucked my skin, and I remembered, this is like that day in the bookstore when Julianna reached out and ran her fingers up and down the hairs of my neck, the way she does to her son at night to calm him down (that’s what she described the gesture as, a calming one). I didn’t even know her name yet, Juliana. That’s how close we were right away—connected. She told me, “This is how you calm a person down. Doesn’t it feel good?”
The thing about octopus arms, I now know, is they have chemoreceptors. They can taste the fear in your blood. They can taste your happiness, and if love is equated with happiness, they can taste love, too. Who’s to say they can’t?
At home I pet Midnight, my dad’s cat, and I’m very gentle. There’s a little pop sometimes from the static between me, my sweater, and Midnight’s fur. Midnight is king of sunbeams and purrs. Petting Midnight is like touching love. I don’t say that to Dad, I never could, though I don’t think he worries about me and the cat anymore. I think he used to, when I arrived, but he doesn’t anymore. Still, I don’t mention anything about love, or the thing about Midnight being some kind of love, or that an octopus can probably taste love.
When I looked up love in the dictionary, I found it’s meaning to be equal parts affection, tenderness, devotion—all forms of attachment.
And I thought suckers, lips, fingers. The grip of love. The part of love that isn’t in the words, but the feeling. The part that makes you feel like a superhuman. What a thought—to wonder what Olivia tasted when she kissed me! Is it something I’ll ever be able to have words for?
Perhaps other languages can define love fully, but I don’t know much about other languages. I know midnight in French is minuit. I looked it up. Again, I don’t tell Dad. He would say, “Watch out for that,” meaning “Don’t be a dumbass.” I’ve discovered that what Mom sees “sensitive,” Dad calls “dumb.” This is so clear I no longer see the difference between these two words anymore. Their distinctions are as clear as mud.
I try not to let this get to me, so I say ridiculous things out loud when I’m alone, like how other people make silly faces or look at their butt in bathroom mirrors. “Darling,” I practice, “you have the most incredible eyes.” I say this to Midnight, who blinks slowly at me, so slowly you would think he might be asleep, but then he opens his eyes again. According to animal experts, this is a kiss, too. This is a cat kiss. This is a cat saying, “Okay, I’m all yours,” and giving himself over to you, laying his throat straight out in the sun.
Trust me. You can trust me.
I practice some more on Midnight.
“God, your fur, Midnight, is exquisite.”
Exquisite is a word I wrote on a note card. This goes back to Julianna’s idea. Julianna told me everyone has their weak spots.
“Even me,” she said one day, “take me. Barely passed the college tests. It was the vocabulary! And I read all the time. So what I did was make flashcards. You can give yourself quizzes that way. Grocery lines, bathrooms, parking lots. It’s how I know what rutilant means. Do you know what rutilant means?” She said rutilant the way you think you’d have to say it if you only got one chance, like setting off a nuclear bomb.
“Glittering or glowing with a red or golden light.”
“It’s Jules, Buddy, to you.”
Did she—was that—did she wink?
I look again into Midnight’s eyes.
“Midnight, your eyes are positively rutilant in this light,” I say, and the old cat blinks me slowly out of sight.
At work I walk around the store and do what Bill calls “fluffing the shelves.” Where there are holes I make face-outs, and where there are only one or two books per face-out, I spine and find others with more copies, until all the shelves appear full.
We are a small bookstore. Jules runs the children’s section, one quarter of all our merchandise. Her hair is often in a bun on the top of her head, done up in such a way I would never be able to make sense of. There are lots of ways to do hair, I have learned. This is one of many forms mystery can take—how to manipulate all that hair, which, on Jules, is long and black. She is something like Puerto Rican, though, she tells me, she has forgotten most of her Spanish. Her hair is—there is no other word for it, I believe after research—luscious. It’s big and shiny and soft, and though I’ve never touched it, you can tell that it’s close to liquid on the soft scale. How many pins do you need for its shimmering mass to do what it’s doing right now? Sometimes, in a miracle, only one large gold-embossed chopstick will do. I wait all day for it to fall, but it never does, and when I finally leave the store, I feel like I’ve spent eight hours holding my breath.
Jules talks to me on the clock about select portions (or all portions—I can’t tell) of her life.
I’ll be dusting philosophy and she’ll say, “There are so many ways to abandon a person, you’d think it might be some sick art. My ex,” she says, “beat me through a car window in the parking lot of Wal-Mart. He almost tore my shoulder out of my socket, and I was pregnant.”
“Jeez,” I say. Sometimes Jules talks about things that terrify me in a way that I know is just the gift of knowledge. Like, it hurts, the things she talks about.
“And your dad—when was the last time he came in here? I don’t even know what he looks like. Doesn’t he care?” Jules, like everyone except Bill, knows nothing about my past. They think of me as the new kid in town. But Jules is a very observant person, and can recognize the distance that remains between Dad and me.
“Dad cares,” I say. I hand her some glue so she can link the paper chain she is working on for decoration. “There’s just different ways of being a Dad,” and, because I’ve attempted more words in a row than five, she smiles.
That smile—it’s like a boat full of honey docking at a country’s port that hasn’t had sugar for a hundred years, and what all the people know there is war. This is peace, on her lips, and bounty. Bounty means plenty. I looked the word up after seeing it on our paper towels. I wrote the definition on a paper towel and then I washed up the lemonade I’d spilled, more lemonade than you would have thought a single towel could absorb. I love her. I love her.
Midnight sits on my shoulders as I lay in bed with the blanket between our two bodies; the purrs from his throat echo up through my spine and it sounds in my head like I am in the heart of a spaceship. The feeling is the opposite of electricity, that electric beat of the heart going up and down my backbone from a tentacle, a finger, sending shivers straight into my mind; no, this is the calm hum of what it must feel like to die, of knowing no monsters exist beyond a certain point along the chain of whatever happens to us next, at the point when the chain dissolves like salt in the sea, and you’re back in the palm of whatever created love, or whatever love itself made into being.
This is how dumb I really am: With the employee benefit of a book check out system I’m checking out not Moby Dick or The Odyssey but the children’s book I believe Jules has left as a secret message on the science display table for me alone to see. My hand moves as a body on its own, one that has transmitted a message that reads something like, Take this book up, and all will be revealed.
The name of the book is I Love You, I Do… It’s a book written for three-year olds, but the message, I think, is universal.
I write the book title in the check-out binder and keep it under my coat the whole walk home. I refuse to look at the inner pages until I reach a sanctuary secure enough to devour the thing whole.
In my room I see that most of what happens unfolds in rhyme: A motherly love song to her child. But, as in my case, sometimes you’ve got to read between the lines.
I love you, I do, to the moon, to outer space,
I love you, I do, in each and every place.
The child in the book needs to know if this love ever fades, like on certain bad days, and I suppose I need to know, too.
No matter what happens, my love will always be,
The whole world could fall, but you’ll always have me.
It doesn’t take a genius to decode the story. It means I love you no matter what.
No matter what I did or what people thought. And sure, Mom calls just about every day and will take the trip to see me if she can afford it, but Jules’ love runs deeper and more nuanced—the romance thing is what Jules, I think, feels for me. It’s love that is as unconditional as a mother’s, but broader and fuller, peculiar. Grand. A mother and child are one becoming two, but Jules and I, we are, we could be, two becoming one. We don’t need words or a plotline—we just are.
Like the ocean lapping against the great earth’s land.
There, our edges mingling, you find our bodies in the sand.
At any moment I can go to the aquarium to feel the cool press of the glass on my palms. The aquarists know me on a first-name basis. One points out a sea pen, which looks like an old-fashioned quill; she tells me each feather is a branch, each branch has eight tentacles. It’s an invertebrate that’s orange, but when excited glows green. I know more facts about creatures than I ever have before.
For example, an octopus’s intellectual power amounts to a count of three hundred million neurons, most of which exist in its arms. These arms can act, if they wish, of their own accord. You can cut the nerves connecting their eight arms to their brain, and the arms will go on performing. There is, perhaps, no centralized intelligence for the octopus like there is for humans. You cut off an arm of an octopus—or, better yet, let the octopus do it for herself, which they do sometimes in the wild—and the arm will keep searching for food and a mouth to feed, alive and alone for much longer than you’d ever imagine. She’s an alien, Olivia is, not lost without her anciently-lost shell, but capable of turning hundreds of colors in a matter of seconds—camouflage. You will not find an octopus in the ocean—the octopus will find you.
I look at Olivia in her new space, now in a tank of sculpted coral reef, stretched out, a queen. Her head and its two humanoid eyes. When she is happy they dilate like a person who has just fallen in love. That’s what Bill’s friend said to me as Olivia pulled me down to her barrel the day we met. Bill’s friend said, she likes you, and I got lost in the arms of that alien love, hooked and forever fallen.
One thing Dad said of all the things he could have said:
“The dumbest thing anyone ever said was you were dumb,” and I so badly wanted to hug him, or punch him in the face.
First of all, it was Dad who said that about me.
Second of all, I’m still thinking, “Is that like or love, is that like or love?” or, worse, this:
Does he think I did it?
At the aquarium, Olivia has laid one hundred thousand unfertilized eggs that look like the beaded lace on a wedding dress, and at work Jules has completed her decorating project: one hundred paper chains connecting shelves to rafters to light beams in an orchestral vision of a rainbow. The message isn’t unique, but still, profound: Everything is connected.
“Buddy, I was wondering if I could ask you for a favor,” Jules says as I’m staring at the ceiling.
“Sure, Jules.” I put my hands in my pockets and keep it extremely cool.
“Are your afternoons ever available? I was going to see if you’d be able to babysit Benjamin for me on one of his school’s holidays. He’s a sweet kid. You guys remind me of each other.”
“Oh? Yeah. Yes! I’m—available,” I say.
“Great! This Monday? I looked at the schedule here, and it says you aren’t working. Do you go to school, or anything?”
I shake my head. No, I don’t go to school. I quit school. I hate school. I’m only available.
Without me saying any of that she already knows it’s fantastic.
“Fantastic! Come by just a little before one? He’s an easy keeper. You two will get along great.”
It is impossible to process happiness when it’s real. It’s just you going through every little thing, stunned. You drop stuff, you spill it; you clean it up—everything is something, and there’s so much of everything. You notice it, and you count it, whatever and wherever it is. At home Dad asks what’s so funny and I realize I’m laughing, out loud, at not nothing, but everything, because there is only everything now. This is love, this is my love, this is what it’s doing to me here and now.
After the weekend I drive Dad’s truck to Jules’ home address, and in my mind she’s not leaving me with the kid, she’s coming with me. We are going to a matinee movie and I’m paying for it, and then lunch, and a trip to the aquarium, which we get into for free. I tell her about Olivia’s eggs, how they grow in the wild in a small cave until the mother blows on them with her siphon and the babies—each the size of a grain of rice—float out of their eggs, out of the den to mix with plankton where just about anything could eat them, crush them, destroy them. But Olivia, she was one of the two that survived her mother out of thousands of siblings dancing along in the water, getting bigger, settling in the sand, growing, hatching. Then, at that moment in the aquarium, Olivia would reach out a tentacle, open her tank, and kiss Jules’ hand, and another tentacle would kiss my hand, and Jules would turn to me and say, “It’s a miracle”, eyes dilated to orbs, and kiss me, and we’d be this wild threesome thing beyond categorization on the love spectrum, almost beyond science. And there would be no definition for it, no word. We’d talk about this afterwards, how together we’d have to invent a word for what had happened back there, and until that word was invented for the English language, we would be aliens with Olivia, aliens wrapped tight in an alien love, speaking the language known only by the stars.
Then I panic and realize one of the most commonplace reasons a person gets a babysitter is because they have a date. Is Jules seeing someone? She’s an attractive single mother. She must get asked out on dates all the time, even when she’s clearly preoccupied, like opening a carton of eggs at the supermarket to see if any are broken. Who wouldn’t want her? Her presence screams vibrance, and she already has one child, which means she’s good for more and, at least in the wild, a male wants a fertile mate, which is both embarrassing and exhilarating to think about in such straight-forward terms. Fertile means healthy. God, she’s fucking healthy.
If I say fuck out loud to her kid, does that make me the guy you have to watch out for, or the guy you want?
But also, who goes on a date at one in the afternoon on a Monday? There’s no such thing. She has an appointment at the bank. She probably has shopping to do. Maybe it’s Benjamin’s birthday. That’s it. It’s probably his birthday, and he can’t be around for all the presents she’s getting him, because Jules, if I know Jules, she’s getting her kid so many presents because her love is huge, and with it she showers down around you, she rains, and above your head is a rainbow paper chain going in every direction like a starburst.
I arrive at her small house and very soon I’m knocking on the door. If I put my hands back in my pockets you can’t see them shake.
“Buddy! You’re perfectly on time. Thank you so much for doing this. Come in—if you don’t mind, take your shoes off—let me show you the house.”
Her house smells sweet. Everything looks soft.
She takes me to Benjamin’s room and he is there on his bed reading a kids’ National Geographic magazine with a dinosaur on the cover. Wrapping around two of the four walls is a panoramic mural of dinosaurs gathered around some kind of prehistoric watering hole, ripping each other to shreds. Benjamin doesn’t look up.
“Benjamin, say hi to Buddy. Buddy, this is Benjamin. Benjamin, this is Buddy.”
“Hi, Benjamin,” I say. Benjamin doesn’t say anything. He flips a page.
“Benjamin, don’t be rude. Benjamin, what do we say to people we meet?”
Benjamin flips another page way before he could be finished reading it. “I’m not telling you.”
“It’s okay,” I say, “I didn’t like talking to strangers when I was little either.”
“But you’re not a stranger. You’re a friend,” Jules says. “Benjamin, tell Buddy about the Dimetrodon.” Benjamin looks up and points to the largest dinosaur on the wall above his head, an ancient fish thrashing in its jaws.
“This is Dimetrodon Limbatus from the Permian Period,” he says, staring at a space just a little in front of his face, not at all in our direction. “Oftentimes confused for a dinosaur, it really lived forty million years before any dinosaurs evolved, so paleontologists call it a mammal-like reptile, or just stem-mammal; it’s a four-legged carnivore that, as you can see, had a huge, thin sail along its back. Babies had tiny sails, too. It lived two hundred and ninety-nine to two hundred and fifty-two million years ago. It could grow up to fifteen feet long. Here you see it,” he tapped the wall behind him with his pointer finger, “feeding on a shark—Xenacanthus.”
“Oh, wow,” I say. “That’s not a dinosaur?” Benjamin squints at me and I stare back.
“He’s only six but I never baby-talked him, and he’s already reading at a third-grade level,” Jules says. “He’s the sweetest kid, really, you just have to let him warm up to you.”
“Where’s Josh?” Benjamin says.
“Baby, don’t worry about Josh,” says Jules. “This is Buddy and he’s your friend.”
“I miss Josh.”
Jules claps her hands and turns to me.
“I have to go or I’m gonna be late.”
“Okay,” I say, “have a good time. When will you be back do you think?”
“Three or so. If you guys go anywhere, just send me a text. Again, thank you. Thank you, thank you.” She takes me by the shoulder and squeezes. Like Olivia, one of Jules’ primary ways of communicating is through touch.
Jules leaves and I stare at Benjamin and Benjamin looks back at his magazine, so I leave and walk down the hall to the bathroom. I start opening all the cabinets and smelling her towels. I find a box of Tampons, see that she keeps cotton balls in a glass bowl and her soap dispenser is porcelain or something—not just the plastic one you buy with the soap already in it and you just keep reusing over and over. I wash my hands, I smell my hands, I smell, again, the towel I dry my hands on, the softest, plushest towel I’ve ever touched, and I’m suddenly so happy I could rip the towel in half with the strength of this happiness. I realize today is a game, a test, and I must figure out how to beat it—and in that moment with my face in the towel that Jules has touched a million times, I understand how to win. I burst out of the bathroom and run back to Benjamin’s room. He has left his spot on the bed for the floor, Legos everywhere.
“What?” he says, sadly.
“Benjamin, how’d you like to go to the aquarium?”
“No,” says Benjamin. “Dumb,” says Benjamin.
“Dumb,” he clarifies.
“Listen,” I say, “they are not.”
“I’m going to tell Mom you said that, and you’ll never be my friend again, or hers, or anyone’s.”
“If I can promise to show you the most amazing thing ever, will you not tell your mom I said you were weird?”
Benjamin plays with a Lego man. “Yeeeeaaah,” he says.
I don’t text Jules as we leave the house because I’m so excited that everything could be about to become so much more if Benjamin is, as I think he is, the key to everything I’ve ever wanted in my tiny, tiny, tiny, little life.
It takes longer than I think it will to reach Olivia in the Ocean hall. Benjamin is transfixed by the giant lobsters at the first exhibit we come to, but only wants to point at each one and say, “Dumb.”
“Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.” He’s counting with one numerical value: Zero.
We pass the jelly tank. They are parachutes that glow above our heads.
“Which one is your favorite?” I ask, and Benjamin points at one floating by his face and says, “Dumb.”
Bill’s friend Rosalie sees us and says, “Buddy, check out Olivia in her temporary digs. We took her out for the day to clean the coral. Go say hi.”
I grab Benjamin’s wrist and pull him past the sharks, sharks that surprise him so much that he can’t say one word because his microscopic brain is in awe, and I tell him as we walk, “See, Benjamin, I’m Buddy, and I’m your buddy, and when I show you what I’m about to show you, you’re going to be calling me your best friend.”
Benjamin squeals and says, “You’re dumb,” and we’re walking straight into the Great Ocean hall when I twist him to face me; I say, “What did you call me?” I don’t know what the look on my face is. It changes his whole body. The kid’s mouth hangs like a hooked fish in the air, and I have a flash of those dead animals I found in the pool next to Mom’s house, and I almost smack Benjamin or whoever he thinks he is, but I don’t.
Slowed down, paused, traveling back in time in my mind to that night, it’s almost mystical what was there, but not there; what was there in those dead eyes through absence. I can hear it in my head if I try: The purr of an engine both hovering and traveling through the calm of what is, what always is, after you leave forever: deep space; velvet; nothing safer.
The pool glowed that night. What floated inside glistened, and what was around it burned, and in the middle of this nightmare I learned one simple fact about the universe that in isolation is a thing of beauty: Anything is possible.
The bodies I pulled out of the water—you don’t want to know. Bloodied, skinned are details I remember, and then somebody over me screaming.
I put my hands back in my pockets because they are shaking. You can’t see them shake in pockets. I turn. I just walk away, and Benjamin trails a safe six feet behind. There’s a bucket of fish near a very small tank. Instead of waiting for Rosalie to return, I open the lid myself and Olivia comes floating to the top.
If I felt like softening what had hardened between us, I’d tell Benjamin that octopuses are private creatures. They will never show you their beak. It’s the thing they keep just for themselves, the thing they show nobody. The part she’s always hiding.
Like lava, she rises over the tank’s sides, and in the moment before she reaches my wrist, quickly, I see it, that beak, the black thing inside.
“Hand her a fish,” I say to Benjamin, and I push the bucket towards him with my foot, a fatherly thing to do. Benjamin is wiggling his fingers in a weird fist of uncertainty; he shakes his head no. I take a fish and place it on the small suckers at the tip of a tentacle, and, in cooperation, each sucker moves to convey the fish into her mouth. Down it goes. I give her another. Down it goes.
Benjamin creeps closer and picks a fish out of the bucket with his thumb and forefinger. He doesn’t want to do what that he’s doing, but will do it anyway. The resigned look on his face, the fear in his arms—in my own way, I’ve been there, too.
He holds the fish out gingerly and Olivia, she takes it and puts it behind her in the water. Like a lover who sees nothing but the loved one she lifts all her arms and wraps them around the child and pulls him closer, closer, closer. He’s in the water. He’s screaming.
In the wild, we don’t know much about the decomposing body, not in the ocean. We know that, given sea temperatures, it can take up to five years to strip everything down to bone. We do know what “floating feet” are—human feet lodged in sneakers, bobbing along in the water. On her own, nature takes her course—crabs, lobsters, they know a free meal when they see one. Then the feet come loose and the sneakers bring them to the surface, and what you didn’t know was there was actually there for who knows how long.
The sea takes everything away. She uses every part.
Not in a tank. When I found the body, the skin had turned to ribbons. The flesh was an unripe pink, peeling, floating away. Olivia was at the bottom, and everybody knew what did it, but wouldn’t say.
They don’t need to. I did it.
It took three aquarists and me to pry Benjamin free. To save him I reached into Olivia’s mouth and pulled her beak until I heard the snap, and she slid down to the bottom of her tank like water through a drain.
What I’m wondering now is: Could she tell? Could she taste it? Two fatherless sons playing out some awful, timeless rite? Did she hate it? Did she want to kill it?
I wish I could tell her she did.
Benjamin said through spit and tears on the way home, “I hope she dies. I hope that dumb octopus dies.”
At the top of her coral tank you can see her eggs, waning like a cluster of sick moons, a shrine to something—but what? Of course, her death could be natural—a female octopus dies not long after she lays her eggs. But in the ocean we wouldn’t know how their pattern on glass can be what moves women of every age to say, “That is what I want my wedding dress to look like,” whether they are married already or not. I’ve heard them when I there stood alone, less alone than I am now.
Jules listened to both versions of the aquarium story silently. When I got up to leave is when she started speaking.
“All I want is a guy I can rely on. Maybe that sounds stupid, but right now, it’s all I can imagine.”
I knew I had failed the test before she said that. I knew it at the aquarium when Benjamin held the cold fish above Olivia’s tentacle. I thought I could say to Jules, “If it makes you feel any better, you don’t need anyone.” No one needs anyone. No one needs me.
I feel as though I’m feeling the grief of a widower who demands an unreasonable bargain—if only we could put the body back in the sea; then I’d rest easy. I’d go to sleep. I wouldn’t have anything else in my head I needed to bury.
Lately I’ve been thinking about my body under water. How long it would take for me to become fish food.
Would I adapt, or would I become a case of the floating feet?
I’d like to think I’d survive.
Maybe that’s because I’m leaving. When I say leave, I mean leave.
I’m gone, I’m over it, I’m on the highway. I’m pushing aside the ocean and the calm of those dead eyes.
There must be a different meaning for calm.
Mountains. Trees. Earth.
You’ve got to connect, though, in some ways, wherever you go. I’ll share anecdotes with the folks I come across. I’ll tell them, you cut off an octopus’s arm, the arm keeps moving. Alone, no body, it lives. It hunts. It lives much longer than you’d think possible.
–Jennifer Lynn Christie (from Atticus Review)