You are still not used to it. Every afternoon, you slip into the lukewarm turquoise of the swimming pool, marvel some days at the slippery softness of naked flesh. Other days it makes you feel sick. You kick your legs, feel them beating their separate pulses. You move slowly. So much more slowly than you want to move. Watery sounds echo and glimmer around you as you drift in the luminous shift of this tiled and captive tide. The pool is small and smells poisonous, warm and mineral. You slip underwater. Rocked by the soughing and humming of strange currents, little pumps, you watch the electric gold glow of the underwater lamps. You often stay until closing time, holding your breathful of chlorine, watching them glimmer through the water. Imagining moonlight; trying not to feel the black stretch and tightening of fabric that bites red marks into your hips.
You hate to look at them. Squirming around in the water, you make yourself glance down. He tells you he loves them, you remind yourself; try to smile at the thought. Half-sinking in the warm water, you try to think about the way he slips his warm, dry hands between them, but your stomach clenches. You do not think about it anymore. You hold the gold ring up to your face, wish your mother could see it. A band of gold that binds me true, you sing in your head, half-remembering her voice in song. The flux of ripples laps across the surface of the water, warping the light into fluid fragments that curve and rearrange incessantly. You remember that you should breathe.
Eventually, you climb out, awkwardly, hating the feel of metal rungs on your feet, although it is not as bad as the tight, hot lacing-up of shoes. You feel like everyone is staring. The great windows are dark now, and the neons inside glare down on your drying skin. You want to slip back underwater, crouch in a corner of the pool until they turn all the lights off and go home. Instead, you walk slowly and carefully away from the water, remembering to balance. In the showers, everyone looks like you. You feel like a fake. You don’t want to dry your hair.
The California night air is warm and muggy and it clings around you as you walk out. From the top of the steps you see him waiting. You descend gingerly, stiff-kneed, clutching the handrail. When you climb into the car, he holds your face in both his hands and kisses you and you try to feel a tightening in your chest. He smiles. You are still surprised by how dry his cheek feels against yours, the strange friction of stubble. His face is still the same as the first time you saw him, peering down over the side of the boat, blurring dark above his orange slicker, through the pucker of pouring rain. Bright eyes, big smile, sharp cheekbones.
‘Long day at the office?’ You try to smile. This is something you heard someone say on television. He laughs. ‘The sea was pretty rough today, but it wasn’t a bad catch.’
You are still not used to the speed of the wheels on asphalt. Your hands clutch, white-knuckled at the sides of the seat. Wet hair drips down onto your shoulders.
‘Some of the guys are going out for dinner tomorrow, that all right?’
Your shoulders slump a little. ‘Yes. Yeah,’ you say. You have been practising sounding like the others, standing in the empty carpeted lounge, echoing the televised voices. ‘Sure.’ You glance over, but his eyes are on the road.
‘So what’s for dinner?’ You are sure your voice sounds cheerful.
‘Fish,’ he says, and he turns on the radio.
Dinner is hot, again. Once when you were first married you went out for sushi, you balanced on sharp high heels, him squeezed into a black tie. You loved the delicate rolls of cold rice and seaweed, the smooth slickness of fish under your teeth. You ate the whole plate and when you looked up, wanting to thank him, you saw something like fear in his eyes. He never took you out for sushi again. At least you eat fish often, but its texture is so soft, its taste bland, and you cannot get used to the heat that numbs your tongue. But you never say so. He already resents having to cook, you realised early on from the mumblings and patterns of microwave door-slamming. He expected you to be different. To know more. You poke at the slime of white sauce and eat all the hot vegetables and have seconds of salad. You don’t mind salad, especially when you add salt to the dressing. Only when he isn’t looking do you permit yourself this. He is supposed to feel at ease. He is supposed to trust you.
‘Baby,’ you try on your sweetest voice, but it sounds wrong. You do not speak very often anymore.
‘Yeah?’ His voice is not unkind.
‘I was just… You know the swimming pool, I like it there but it’s so busy and warm, it’s like... swimming in other people’s sweat.’ You look up, hoping for a laugh but he is frowning a little. ‘I just...’ You pause, press your lips together, breathe out, ‘do you think I could come with you someday? Out to sea, I mean? Only for a little while, just one swim—’ You hear the whine in your own voice and stop short.
There is a sadness in his eyes, bare and lonely, but it is a hard look too.
‘You know I can’t do that. Honey.’ A caress like an afterthought.
‘Can’t you just trust me?’ You reach for his hand, and he does not pull it away. ‘I promise I won’t swim off. I can’t even… I can’t swim like that anymore—’
You choke up and look down at the tabletop. He sighs.
‘I’m sorry. It’s not that– Just… not yet.’
He picks up his fork again; eats fast, noisily. You stare at your plate.
Afterwards, you do the dishes in cold water, a few drips of salt falling unchecked into the soapsuds. You wipe your face and sit next to him as he watches television, the bluegreen light flickering strangely across his face. On the screen, little bodies running around on grass. Someone is shouting in the background. Your two bodies do not touch. Your mind wanders and the nasal voice and the glow of the screen blur.
You try to remember the whales, their huge calm movement through the water as you swam along their flank. Their great barnacle-rimmed eyes. The fluctuating skin of the sky above, the scatter of shining fish; pebbles soft and slimy as jewels in your hand, great waving forests of kelp to wind around. Already you aren’t sure what you really remember and what you’ve made up. Months seemed to slip through your fingers when you changed, as if time moved faster in air than water. You try to remember yourself, the powerful surge of muscles, the lithe glitter of scales.
He laughs loud and hard at something and you start. Your cheeks are hot and wet. He is looking at the television.
‘Is it ok if I just go up and take a bath?’
He sighs, rubs his hand across his eyes. ‘Sure.’
‘I’ll see you upstairs.’
You bend down and kiss his cheek, your lips damp on his warm dry skin. He does not move. You leave him sitting alone in the bare living room, the light from the television falling in a glowing rectangle across the floor. Padding up the carpeted stairs, past the bought, framed postcards of fishing boats, you notice the paint is flaking into white scales.
You turn the shuddering right tap on full and sit by the side of the tub, listening to the splashing, staring at the rust spots. You unclothe gingerly and stretch your legs out in front of you, make yourself look at them. You hate the hair most, the poke of black like feelers. Climbing into the bath, you sit in the few inches of cold and wait for the water to rise. Already you feel a little lighter. You slide your slippery weight around, still so awkward, reach down a razor. Shivering, you slide the blade slowly along the length of your leg, bracing yourself not to look away. The pink flesh quivers vulnerably, tiny hairs rising up in the cold. The sharp metal slips accidentally once or twice, leaving fine lines of blood, and the pain is the same pain you would have felt before the change. Momentarily, the wet slickness after the blade has gone by is almost as smooth as scales. The water is high now and you sink down under it. The cold is delicious, it washes away the slime of chlorine and the blood on your legs.
You listen to the cars going by. A band of gold that binds me true.
There is a quiet knock at the door, and you sit up suddenly, the porcelain squeaking under you.
‘Can I come in?’
You smooth your hair, adjust your legs. Awkward. ‘Yes. Of course.’
He comes in, gentle, rough, and stands looking down at you. You feel the water lapping up and down your body, it feels the same all over. It is not entirely unpleasant.
‘You’re so beautiful,’ he says a little hoarsely. He looks tired.
‘Do you want to come in?’ You smile shyly up at your husband.
He runs a hand through his hair, then unbuttons his shirt slowly, revealing the tangle of hair underneath. ‘You sure?’ You nod. You suddenly remember pulling him underwater the first time, the cold salty struggle of your two forms deep under the sea. Him clasping you tight in his arms. The thump of bones and wet rope as he hauled you up onto the rough deck. The rising excitement and panic as he claimed you; the strange slipping, dissolving feeling as your tail started to melt away. How you lay on the rough plastic, heart pounding, waiting to fall in love.
He kneels down at the side of the bathtub, strokes your face. His large, hairy hand smells a little of fish. You bite the heel of his palm and he flinches a little but leaves his salty warm skin in your mouth. Your heart aches. You reach out to pull him in but when his arms slide around you he jumps back, splashing, ‘Christ! That water’s freezing. Are you fucking crazy?’
You stare back at him, hollow-eyed. He backs away from the tub, shaking his head, rubs his hand around the back of his neck. His hairy back turns towards you and then the door slams. You hear him muttering as he paces the room. Then you think you hear him crying.
You sit for a long time, unmoving. This is not your fault, you think, and you wrap your arms around yourself. How are you supposed to remember everything, all the time? After a long time you see the light go off in the room. You grasp the sides of the bath and pull yourself out. You wrap a terrycloth bathrobe around your clammy skin and stare at the mirror. A pale, drawn face with fierce blue eyes stares out. She looks tired and sad. You hear him start to snore. The TV is still on downstairs, you can hear tinny voices buzzing. You tiptoe into the room, look down at the rumpled, warm sheets, his damp mouth open, his stubble-darkened cheek. The limp, pendulous hang of him. The hair. You look away.
You tiptoe down the stairs. The moon is shining in through the window, smooth and clouded. You cross the living room, lit for a moment by the blue glow of the television and the cold white light filtering through the curtains. At a touch from your finger, the screen goes dark with a short crackle of static. You stand staring at the empty screen. Water drips off you onto the floor. You walk across the carpet to the door, slowly lower the handle.
Until the cold night air hit you in the face, you didn’t know why you opened the door. In the dark, you see the bus stop glowing neon across the road. You could go anywhere. You could get to the sea. Even just for a moment.
You stop. With a smile, you pull your bathrobe tight around you. The moon glows on.
Published May 2013. Buy the book here: http://www.indigoinkpress.org/shop/books/modern-grimmoire/