Sandra Gail Lambert
Roxanne has ten minutes to finish her tuna fish before office hours so she does no more than raise her eyebrows in sympathy. Elaine is talking about her fibroids again, and Roxanne wants to discourage any further confidences. Students at their community college swirl by the table. One of them has a paper clutched in his hand and is waiting to follow Roxanne to her door.
"They're as big as grapefruit." Elaine rubs her stomach. "The gyno says it's a race to menopause. If I get there fast enough, these'll shrink. Meanwhile, I look pregnant."
Roxanne swallows the crust end of the rye and gathers her Tupperware. She pats her friend's hand.
"How about a t-shirt with one of those big arrows pointing at your belly? It could say 'fibroid on board'."
Roxanne kicks her seat back with her calves and stands before they finish laughing. She has to stay on schedule. Her girlfriend will be waiting in the car as soon as office hours are done. October's stayed warm enough to risk a trip to the beach for the weekend, and it's unsaid, but her and Joan's relationship is in trouble. She brushes the crumbs off the table with a napkin. Elaine grabs her wrist.
"But the thing is, every time they say hysterectomy or even menopause it feels like the end of everything. And you know it's not like I want more kids. Weird, huh?"
What Roxanne knows is that Elaine aborted her last, late pregnancy. And in Roxanne's youth, when her friends wore t-shirts that proclaimed "I am woman, I bleed for days and do not die," she had wanted one that said "I bleed for days and want to die." Roxanne is glad to be done with periods. And has never wanted or regretted not having children.
Still, Roxanne nods the way she does when students tell long stories of why their papers are late. If they tell a really good tale, she takes another half-point off their grades just to punish them for the waste of talent. After the fifth nod, Elaine lets go of her wrist. Roxanne is relieved more than she should be. These days she suffers from the claustrophobia of other people's feelings. She crumbles the napkin in her hand and shrugs in apology.
"Yes, this is potentially a good story. Imaginative, but there are point-of-view errors."
Roxanne is standing at her desk and explaining a student's low grade to him. Point of view is her specialty. She's had a paper published on the pedagogy of authorial distance.
"Don't you see? They were all in this hotel pool and the water had psychic properties and their thoughts got all mixed up. I don't think you should take anything off since I did it on purpose. Ma'am?"
Roxanne has lost track of the conversation. She hates having hot flashes in front of the students. She imagines the arctic seas, the pool at the hotel where they'll be staying, the beach, and braces for the post-flash anxiety. This time it is more sadness than anything. It separates her as if she were in a one-person submarine with a single portal that giant squid bump into and stare at her with their sideways eyes. She is never going to be a marine biologist. It's too late. For the first time Roxanne understands that choices have been made. There's no longer enough time for everything. Her knees weaken with the grief of it, and she reaches for the desk.
Roxanne stumbles over her usual refusal to change the grade. She punishes herself for the inattention by allowing a rewrite, but recovers enough for a final admonition.
"I'm still taking a half-point off for each point of view slip. You can experiment once you know how to do it right." Roxanne is not concerned about offering this option. Once someone knows how to do it right, they seldom try anything else.
As soon as her student leaves, Roxanne pats water over her neck. It's unlikely another one will come by in the few minutes left, so she pulls her shirt out of her waist band and flaps. She unbuttons and risks wetting down her chest until her nipples shiver in the air conditioning breeze.
Roxanne has never tried to be a marine biologist. She never liked science courses, math is a struggle, and she knows from that one trip to the Keys that the mouthpiece on a snorkel makes her gag.
Her phone rings on the hour. Joan knows her schedule.
"I'm in the side parking lot."
Roxanne locks her office door and decides that fibroids look like sponges, grey and wrinkled, attached to the uterus. She pushes on her belly. She should pee before they drive the two hours to the beach, but Joan is waiting. Roxanne knows that she's always late, but that is the point, isn't it. She is always, has always been, late. Nothing's changed, except that it now aggravates Joan. Roxanne has told herself that she is going to try to be less aggravating this weekend. Still, she detours to the restrooms. Joan is younger and won't understand why they have to stop.
On the toilet Roxanne remembers Sea Hunt and Lloyd Bridges asking her, and all the other ten-year-olds watching on their black and white televisions, to help him save the oceans. Her family lived in Pennsylvania, but they'd been to an ocean once. Her father made a rule that she could only go in as far as her knees. She'd interpreted it to allow for the sudden swells that soaked her belly. It was like the rule that she could ride her bike on the length of sidewalk in front of their house only to the far edge of their next door neighbor's property. At the turns she would lift the bike into the air like a neighing horse and flip around on the back wheel. She zigzagged in tight angles that expanded the allowed distance until her legs pumped as hard as they could and the limits no longer interrupted the rising of her heartbeat.
Joan's car is idling in the fire zone. Sea Hunt was filmed on a Florida river just down the freeway. She should visit sometime. Roxanne had wanted to help the oceans and went as far as taking her allowance savings and buying a pair of flippers to use in the county park pool. But she, as they say, grew out of that. Roxanne didn't become a lawyer either, no matter how much she wanted to be like Perry and have a Della Street to take care of her.
"Everything is packed. And there's a little snack for you so we don't have to stop. I want time on the beach before dark. How was your day?"
Roxanne just wants a nap. Last night the arm thrown over her waist, the knee resting against her calf, had set her internal thermostat off on its wild ride. She had left the bedroom to stand in the kitchen with her head in the freezer. These days there were tours to the Arctic. She could do that. See whales. Or maybe that's the Antarctic.
"Fine." She should say more. She just can't.
Joan must have decided to try this weekend as well, Roxanne thinks, because she doesn't narrow her eyes into that stare. Instead she talks about a video conference call she coordinated at work and how the odd camera placement left everyone looking up everyone else's noses. Roxanne remembers a nature show on television where marine biologists put a camera on the back of a whale. The highway is straight out ahead of them but rises and falls in a ribbon of soft waves. This used to be a seafloor shaped by tides and storms and the splitting of tectonic plates. Elaine teaches Earth Science and has told her this.
"Can you believe this? The only traffic light in twenty miles and it's turning red on us."
Roxanne pats Joan's thigh. The car slows next to a rusted boiler and a man sitting on an overturned milk crate. Draped over the van behind him are Elvis, Jesus, a War Chief in full head regalia, and Dale Earnhardt. Their colors shine out of the black velvet rugs.
"Hey, pull over. Peanuts." Roxanne often has sudden cravings for salt. She indulges them.
She taps her finger on the window over and over, pointing until she hears a sigh and the slap of hands on the steering wheel. The car jerks off the road, and sand rasps under the wheels. The dust of ancient marine life covers the hood like Saran Wrap. She'll offer to wash the car later.
"Do you want anything?"
It's a final sort of no. No, no peanuts? No, there is no us? No, there is no you anymore? That's what Joan said once in the middle of the night. "Where have you gone?"
"How about Dale over there? You know you drive just like he did."
There is no answer. Her joke has failed. Now she's a nag.
"Okay, then. I'll be quick."
Roxanne steps out of the car and onto sand that hasn't been covered by ocean in ten thousand years. Baked grains cling along her socks. The marine biologists put a camera on the back of a whale and waited for it to dive. The camera fell off after fourteen seconds. Still, they made a whole show of it on public television. Roxanne watched the shades of gray ocean and the darker gray whales that gathered close to each other, their bodies pointing towards the core of the earth. Roxanne held her breath. For fourteen seconds, Roxanne was with the pod and traveled into the actual, real, unfathomable depths. She turned to her girlfriend, not this one, laid her down on the couch, and made love in a way that delayed the end of their relationship.
The peanut man is old. Roxanne is aware that each year she redefines what this means, but his skin is stretched leather, thin enough that she sees the twists of blood vessels over bone as a hand reaches for a peanut. He sticks a shell in a front tooth's empty space, bites, and tongues the swollen peanut out from the crack. He spits, swallows, and repeats. His gums are blood red and hang low over the teeth. Roxanne can't look away. Are his choices all made? Does he know this? He says something. Roxanne can tell it was welcoming from the tilt of his chin, but she can't hear. The spreading hot flash, the late afternoon sun, the white sand, the rugs, the red-tinted brown of the boiler become a glare that swells into her ears and blurs sound instead of light.
The old man gestures down at the space between them and says something. Roxanne still can't hear. She trips over a second overturned milk crate—a chair waiting beside the old man for company. Roxanne staggers to the side, her hips too far in front of her, her arms beating through the air as if that will hold her upright. She falls, palms out, her full weight behind them, onto the boiler. She braces for the burn, the blistering of flesh. She pre-wrinkles her nose against the smell. She twists away and decayed metal scrapes into one palm, but she can't feel any pain.
Roxanne is flat on her back. The sand lifts around her body and into the air currents. She isn't burnt. The boiler isn't real. Of course it isn't. Who would stoke a wood fire for three hours in the middle of a shade-less intersection? These peanuts were boiled on a stove while the old man watched television and stirred during commercials. The boiler is advertising, a symbol, the past. Roxanne can hear again. A car door slams.
"How bad is it?" Joan's shadow covers her body.
"Stop this 'fine' crap. Show me your hand."
Roxanne waves her arm in the air as proof. Joan holds her wrist. Roxanne can feel Joan's breath on her palm. She pulls away. She needs her arm back to get off the ground.
"No, don't put your hand in the dirt. Let me help you." Joan lifts under her elbow.
Roxanne wants to look at her hand to see what the fuss is about, but the old man has appeared and is helping on the other side. Her arms are pinned between them. Besides peanuts, he smells like rolling tobacco and Joan like the strawberry shampoo they share. The tuna from lunch is back up in Roxanne's throat. They press against her and lift until her legs straighten. Joan holds on, but the old man lets go. He presses a bag of peanuts into the crook of her arm and returns to his milk crate.
Roxanne is walked over to the passenger seat, sat down sideways, and told to not move. The first aid kit is retrieved from the trunk. She turns her hands under the water as it is poured over them and sees the scrapes and cuts for the first time. After the washing, the removal of splinters, the application of medicinal creams, and the taping of a gauze bandage, Joan rises out of her squat and stands over Roxanne.
"You need a tetanus shot. We'll go back to town."
They argue back and forth in an odd way since they both know that they both want the same thing. The surprise for Roxanne is that, just for her own self, not to make peace or avoid trouble, she wants to continue, to go on to the beach. Joan offers a compromise.
"Call Elaine. She's had all those kids. She'll know. We'll do whatever she says."
Roxanne agrees but is prepared to lie. She makes sure that her side of the conversation is obscure. It is unnecessary.
"Elaine says it can wait a day. In the morning, I'll ask at the desk for a clinic. No problem." Roxanne faces forward in her seat and closes the car door to end the discussion.
The car swings onto the road and guns though a changing yellow light. Roxanne does not say anything about Dale Earnhardt. The land is now ironed flat. The sand is whiter. This must have been the deep ocean, away from the influence of storms. Roxanne's ears fill again with pressure. She lets herself lean back into the seat. She sees Joan look over at her. Roxanne holds out the bag.
Joan takes her hand and kisses a fingertip. The car speeds up.
They drive right onto the beach. It is late in the day, the tide is out, and most of the tourists have left. The car weaves to follow the strip of sand that will support it. The tires slip and churn if they travel too far into the dunes. Towards the ocean, the surface floats over underlying water. Roxanne feels the tires tremble the way they do for the few seconds before sinking. She puts her hand on Joan's arm, and the car eases back.
"How about right here?" They say it together. They've both seen the flat rise of crusted sand big enough for the car to back in and park nose first to the ocean. Joan opens her door and uses it as a dressing room to change into her bathing suit. Roxanne watches her strip. She's always liked the curve of butt into thigh. Desire has been uncertain, but it is here now. Joan steps into her suit and looks up as she pulls. She smiles at Roxanne.
"Go on. It's not that warm, but this will be fun. I've put your bathing suit on top of that bag."
Roxanne opens the passenger door. Cool air rushes through the car. During their drive, the season has changed. She pulls off her shoes and socks and sinks her feet into the still hot sand. Heat rises up her body until her scalp sweats. She stands up into the breeze. It scrubs against her skin as she lifts her shirt and bra together over her head. Her hand hurts under its bandage, but she leans over and pulls until underwear and slacks tangle around her ankles. She steps out of them.
Joan bends into the car to reach for a towel. She tosses the bathing suit towards Roxanne.
"Here you go, my mermaid."
Roxanne lets the bathing suit drop, uncaught, on the seat. The thought of covering her skin in nylon is repulsive. She walks out from around the car door and keeps walking until the waves curl up to her knees and leave a froth that circles around her ankles. The sand is shifting under her feet. She raises her arms and spreads her legs. The wind reaches everywhere. Roxanne holds her breasts high until the sweat under them is wicked away.
"Hey, wild thing. Just don't get your bandage wet." The voice is far behind her.
Three more steps and the ocean is curling up her thighs. Roxanne stands there, still, her arms out and up. The waves heave and break around her. In the distance, past the swell, the ocean is navy blue and smooth. A tanker travels the horizon. The ocean comes back again and again and pushes in between her legs, over her belly.
"I've brought a plastic bag for your hand."
The voice is closer. Sand pulls out from under her feet and tilts her forward. Roxanne walks into the water. She lets her arms trail at her sides. Lets the ocean rush over them. The weight of water pulls at the tape on her hand and stings into the wounds. She feels each scrape and splinter separately and can tell which one was deepest. She pulls off the bandage and dives into the rise of a wave. The menopause books say Roxanne's molecules are changing. The sealed spaces in the carefully woven matrix of her bones are transforming, resorbing, remodeling. There are micro architectural changes. Her density is affected. She stands on the other side of the wave, and water pours down over her.
Night blue is rising from the horizon. Roxanne turns to face the shore and the setting sun. Over the dunes, streams of fading pink light the clouds. In front of her, a woman is swinging her arms from side to side to help push the rest of her body through the surf. She's shivering. Roxanne holds her injured hand out through the waves and pulls the woman close. Roxanne steadies her feet on the ocean floor and wraps Joan into the heat of her body. She licks the shoulder tucked under her chin and tastes salt.
Sandra Gail Lambert writes fiction and memoir. Her writing has been published in Brevity, New Letters, The Weekly Rumpus, Water~Stone,Arts & Letters, Human Parts, and the North American Review. Excerpt from her novel, The River's Memory, won prizes from Big Fiction Magazine and the Saints and Sinners Short Fiction Contest. "Marine Biology" was originally published in The Fourth River. Lambert lives in Gainesville, Florida.