m e r e d i t h    l u b y

Everything Sounds Like the Sea

 

A man with wooden arms is chasing me. The arms are only wooden from his elbows to his hands. His fingers end in dulled points. I don't know how long his arms have been wooden or how they got that way. I've never seen him take them off or put them on. His shirtsleeves cover his elbows most of the time, so I have come to assume it was always, that his skin gives way to wood at the bend. His hair is long for a man, though not as long as mine. I'm not afraid. There is all this wilderness for me to run through. Things I could climb to get away. But I'm hiding in the ground, at least for now.


We've slept together, me and this man. Even then he kept his shirt on, though unbuttoned. His chest hair is dark. Afterwards he rubbed my back with one of his wooden hands. I couldn't really tell the difference. I looked at the sheets. Crisp and white. Much cleaner than you might think for a man with long hair and wooden arms. When my own hair fell over my face I looked at nothing. He drinks coffee from cups and fries eggs in stainless steel pans because he is worried about the effects of Teflon.


He lived on Koh Rong. Or so he says. This was before I knew him. He said that when the moon was full he had to wear sunscreen or he'd get burned. I imagined moon burns on his back and feet, in the creases of his knees. Was he lying to me? Was the water really so green as he claimed? I read online that they are planning a resort. He won't be able to sleep in a thatched hut steps from the water, won't be able to walk the island shirtless—if he was shirtless—and wild. I've never seen that kind of water. Soon only the rich will be able to swim in it. I like to believe this story. I like to think there is a place where the moon is so uninterrupted it can redden flesh.


It is not hard for me to imagine him living on the shore. He lives this way now. But I can't picture him in that green water, or lying shirtless on that fine sand. Or doing any of the things people who are fond of coastlines usually do. I think he just prefers being near a source of travel, though the sea is no longer our primary route for that. He isn't a strong swimmer. It must have been the isolation. That is probably why he ended up here, on a far less beautiful beach. He wants to hear the waves as he falls asleep but does not wish for them to wrap around his body.




His arms are lovely and polished. They are well crafted like a violin. When he ran them through my hair and the unyielding wood grazed my scalp I remember it endeared me to him. I leaned my body into his. His home was walking distance to the shore. Often we went there. He stood in the sand and watched me let the dark water run over my feet. The beach is covered in rocks. Further down the coast, there are cliffs. But I've never been to that part, only seen it from a car.


This isn't a lovers' quarrel, it isn't a case of deep infatuation leading to violence. It's true that he was not happy when I decided to leave. But there are more complex parts at play. He has long-term plans for finding me. Things I don't want to be a part of. So I sit, dirt covering my shoulders, mixing with my hair and sweat, trying to discern which muffled footsteps are his. If he looks carefully he will see the strands of hair caught on the branches I ran through. He will see the gleam of my skin against this dulled earth.


Footsteps come and go. It is so quiet it must be night by now. My eyes are closed. My mouth tastes of rusted water and spit and sweat. I try to slow the vibrations of my body to a near sleep. But each part of me has a different, higher frequency and I cannot make them one.


The tendons in my feet tighten when I stand. I was crouched for too many hours. Debris falls from my hair as I walk towards the place where I'm least likely to find him. The salt water washes everything from my skin but leaves me dirty in a different way. I hear him calling in the distance. Skulking around the edge of his house like a feral creature. I can't tell if he is saying my name or just making sounds he thinks I'll respond to. The air is still warm. My cotton clothes are sticky from sweat and seawater. I run from his voice. It is deep and full. All it wants is to wrap me tight. I feel it pulling like something from underwater. Like when you are small and your legs get tangled in kelp and you are sure it is a squid with an eye the size of a plate pulling you down. Scientist don't know how large the largest giant squid is. All they have are estimates. They dwell so deep, humans will never find them. I know that you don't have to see something for it to be there. Only this time I know it is not kelp or a squid. The rest of my limbs grow tight. They collapse beneath me and I sleep beside the dunes. It rains in the night and though I shiver I do not move. In the morning he stands over me in faded shorts and an open flannel shirt. His bare feet press against my calves. I flip to my back and squint up at him. Though it is early the sun is bright. He holds out a hand and I wrap my fingers around his unyielding palm. The smooth wood is comforting, but I pull away when he draws me near. I am still not afraid when he tightens his hands around my waist.


The thing is he could pull my parts out through my throat and I'd barely feel it. In his house I shower alone. I wait until steam fills the small room, until it leaks from the space under the door. Salt is a stubborn thing. My hair still smells like fish. He presses a palm to the wet patch it makes on the back of my t-shirt. His t-shirt. I've already taken all of my things. He had a beard when he met. Facial hair usually makes a man look older not younger. I didn't realize our age difference until I saw him clean-shaven weeks later. Even so, it was not so much as to cause society alarm. It only meant we grew up with different TV shows. Though I've agreed to stay for breakfast and then some, I know I will bolt as soon as I get the chance. He isn't holding me hostage. And in theory I am free to come and go as I please. The problem, as he sees it, is that when I go I do not plan to return. And in this he is correct.


I think heading for the woods was a mistake. Who wouldn't look there first? Even if I were better at climbing trees he would have found me. Humans can't make homes in the ground, burrowing deeper until they hit solid rock. I wouldn't have lasted much longer.




Once, I had coffee with another man. Only coffee—there is no euphemism in this. I did not tell him and he did not find out. But as I sat, sipping from a paper cup, a man's loafer working its way up and down my leg, I felt certain he knew. I did not return to his house that day or the next and he did not call me. When I saw him again and he offered his wooden arm for me to hold with mine of bone, he did not smile. We took off our shoes and walked the perimeter of his house without saying anything. I held mine over my shoulder by the laces. We ended up at the beach and he tossed my shoes into the sea. I had other shoes, nicer ones. But I watched those little white Keds get swept out. When I could no longer see them, I brought my hand to his face and waited for him to turn to me.


Time moves so much more slowly than we allow ourselves to think. If it is stretched thin we are not in the middle but at one of the ends. The seaming or the unraveling. When I sat breathing only earth my heart was the loudest it has ever been. I had caught my breath by then. Nothing was quickened. I kept my eyes closed until all the vibrations from human feet stopped. That pounding fills my blood now, in this darkened room where we both pretend to sleep. His eyes are open and our fingers touch. Next time I run I will choose buildings. I will disappear into narrow streets crowded with sad people. If being caught has taught me anything it's that desire amounts to very little without careful planning. Whims are not for the solitary traveler. Next time I'll be precise. I'll weigh the options, the pros and cons of each route before setting forth.




The morning is sharp and grey. Together on the front steps we sip tea. My hair is made wavy by the wind. I look to the ground and draw in the dirt, waiting for him to say something.


"I'm going back inside," he says and pours his tea into the yard. I can't see him through my hair but I wouldn't have turned anyway. The weather is bleak. Not a good day to take a chance. I let the sound of water and thunder seep into my pores. I only go inside when the rain is so hard it hurts my skin.


"Don't sit on the couch," he tells me, "until you've dried your hair." He is slumped in an armchair, a glass of melting ice in hand. I choose the bedroom. Crossways, I let my head dangle off the side and drip water onto his white carpet. My wet jeans dye his white sheets dark blue. The watery ink pools like blood around my hips.


"I'm going to sleep," I shout towards the hall. His footsteps move in the opposite direction. His wooden fingers scrape along the drywall. Eventually I do sleep. I wake with my body turned right side on the bed, my jeans in a pile on the floor and my hair in a wet nest at the nape of my neck. The pillow is damp and the ends of my toes are almost blue.


"Nice nap?" he asks, his tall frame leaning against the footboard.


"No," I say. "No, it was awful." He asks me to make dinner. He says he went to the grocery store. In the kitchen I find red meat in a shrink-wrapped package. The dirty juice drips on the floor when I open it. There are also tiny scallops in waxy paper, as well as a collection of herbs. Three red peppers, several Yukon gold potatoes, and two kinds of pasta. He tells me to choose what I want. But how can I with him nudging me towards each of these pieces? How can I when all of this will taste the same, when all of it will slither down our throats over a silent table with one unlit candle in the middle. In the end I choose the scallops. I sear them in a cast iron skillet with all of the herbs. My hands smell like sage and rosemary and basil. He doesn't like chopping things. The scent stays in his arms too long. And at the stove, it is too easy for him to singe a finger. My hands could burn too. But they will heal more easily than his.


After dinner I walk alone into the little town. To buy wine and to survey my options. The buildings here are not high and there are not many cars to hide between. I pass the apartment building where my things still live. It is the largest building on the street. A key is pressed in my pocket but I don't go up.


When I return he's asleep. But night is not a good time to try and run. I would gain hours, but it is too hard to navigate in the dark without a car or a map.




"Let's go for a walk," he says, stiff arms wrapped around my waist. "It isn't supposed to rain today."


"Okay," I answer, "but only a short one. You threw out my tennis shoes." He wants to go through the woods. Any hair or skin I left behind has been used by mice and birds by now. In the absence of my tennis shoes I wear cheap sandals that he brought home with the groceries. All my nice things are gone from this place. I tucked them in the closet of my apartment. I will stop there first when I leave.


He wants to hold my hand when we walk. I let him. I pretend I have just met him. That I don't know anything about him except that he keeps his hair clean and never shows his elbows. And really, what else do I know but that? He is not loud when angry. He's never thrown plates or food at the wall. Instead he is distant and stern when things do not go as planned. I've never been this way. I try to acquiesce before anyone, including myself, gets angry. Maybe this is what they call passive aggressive. Maybe this is why I'd rather leave without telling him.


Bark peels from the damp trees. All of my clothes will be unwearable soon. The rain here comes in large drops, in sheets of water and then it opens to a clear sky. We could come out the other side of these woods to dry cattails and warm gravel.


"I didn't scare you before, did I?" he asks.


"No," I say, "you know I am rarely afraid."


"That's not true," he says. And for a while we just walk. We can hear the rain on the leaves but the canopy is so thick that it barely hits us.


"Did you think I was scared?" he asks.


"Maybe. But only out of habit. If you were, it wasn't for me, for my benefit. It was for you."


"You're lucky you didn't get pneumonia." Fluid in the lungs would only be a temporary worry, I think to myself, compared to other things.


If I stay too long I will again fall in love with the underside of his forearms. It is too easy to stay in such a beautiful, quiet house.


His arms, when we met, were entirely covered. He held his sleeves with his hands. When I noticed he had no fingernails I noticed the rest. There were a lot of things I wanted to ask that I knew I never would. That I still haven't. I watched him chop garlic. His fingers bend. They look like an artist's dummy. Like what anyone's would if they weren't stretched over with skin. Not skeletal, but all the pieces revealed. I liked that. I thought it would extend to the other parts of our lives, this lack of hiding. And it seemed to for a while, the way it always does. We volunteer information that seems secret or special. But that it is the first thing told means it is not. And once you run out of those things it becomes harder to extract anyone's truth, especially your own. He grew up in the Midwest. I grew up here. We were both children to now dead parents. This is the easy information, the basic set that everyone has. A change in details doesn't matter. All it can tell you is whether or not someone is a liar.




It's a strange thing to live by a body of water and not swim in it. But understandable, for him. He snores with a hand on my stomach and I pretend the only noise is waves crashing against the house. We are not close enough that the water could lap up against the wooden slats, but at night everything sounds like the sea or like a human even when you don't live as close to water. I search the bathroom for a nail file. I sand mine down to the skin. Then I touch his fingers with mine, running them up and down the polished wood. I rub the file against his knuckles, back and forth until the pulpy layers under the deep stain are revealed. A little pile of dust forms around me. It smells clean. His little finger falls. His snores continue. I pull on still damp jeans and slip the piece of wood in my pocket. Having deciding against using the city I head towards the cliffs. I hadn't wanted to leave at night but it is almost dawn anyway.


First I take the roads. Headlights bounce off the rain. When my hair grows heavy with water I cut through the woods to the shore. I am still on a rock-covered beach but I cannot make out his house from where I stand. I continue towards the cliffs. I have a hard time distinguishing sand from water in the dim light, but it doesn't matter. I know the car door I hear is his. The woods are not thick enough to hinder him for long. He calls my name. Over and over. I edge closer to the water the louder he gets. When I know he has hit open air I don't look for him. I drop my backpack and wade into the dark water with my clothes on.


I hold my breath and let the saltwater sting my eyes. From under here his voice is just noise. The words don't mean anything. I exhale and let myself sink down deeper as the waves pull me further from the sand. Soon I can't find the bottom with my feet. Above me the water crashes into itself. Above me rain makes ripples in the leather surface. I am almost out of breath but soon I will be able to surface and be far enough that he won't see me. Or if he does I will be too far for him to swim to. I can still make out pieces of my name as he calls it. It's a dull sound and may not be his voice at all. May not be human or animal or anything close. Instead of swimming to the top to see I could wait here. Wait here for something large and spineless to pull me down, deeper than I could swim on my own. So deep that the only light is from other animals.

 

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MEREDITH LUBY lives and works in North Carolina. She holds a MFA in fiction from Brown University. Her work can be found in, or is forthcoming from, The Collagist, Fields Magazine, Fourteen Hills, Redivider, and Glimmer Train Stories among others.


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