Freya’s silhouette was barely distinguishable from the dark line of the sea shore, but that didn’t bother Catherine; not when she could hear her voice over the soft waves. “So tell me about this boyfriend you’ve been so caught up with.”
Catherine smiled and shook her head without regard for sand tangling up in her wet, mousy, brown hair. Though she was laying flat on her back, her arms and legs still felt like they were moving against the surging tides. A pleasant numbness had settled over her body as the summer winds blew over the droplets on her skin. “Let me catch my breath.”
“Hey, you promised.” Freya slapped her arm. “You said you needed a nice night swim and then you’d be all ready to talk about it. So talk!” She slapped her arm again and Catherine rolled over with a laugh.
“Okay, okay. He’s great. He’s an IT manager at this startup which basically means he has to deal with everyone’s internet problems.”
“That’s it? Come on, Catherine. I don’t care about his resume. Tell me about what he’s like as a person.”
“Let’s see… well, he likes hiking and cooking. He’s really nice. Like, he pays attention when I talk about my life and he actually remembers. He calls me all the time, too, so that’s pretty great. And he picks me up for dates. Real gentleman.”
Freya’s voice turned up at the edges as she smiled through the words. “Well, I’m happy for you. I just want to know when I can meet him and officially give you permission to date this guy.”
“How about we set up a time after you beat me to the docks and back?” Catherine grabbed her gray coat and threw it around her shoulders.
“Now why would I ever turn down a guaranteed win?”
There was a special brand of vanilla extract Catherine’s mother swore by. The flavor stood out in her cookies, her cakes and her bread pudding. Just a spoonful carried the rest of the recipe. It was so potent, in fact, that the one time her mother had burned cookies Catherine had still eaten them just to taste the vanilla. There were many details Catherine could pick out from that night: how the waxing (or was it waning?) moon wasn’t quite full, the pointy rock pressing into her back, the light tug of the waves on her bare feet. But more than any of those sensations, she looked back on this moment as one with genuine, effervescent happiness like a bit of vanilla in the burnt cookies.
James held his arm out to Catherine and she gladly took it. “Thanks for taking me out to dinner,” she said as she grabbed her gray coat.
“You can leave that in the car.”
“Oh, thanks but I take it with me everywhere.”
“Are you sure? You don’t want to forget it in there on accident.”
Catherine paused, “You know, you’re right. I’ll be right back.” As she walked away from the car, the surrounding air bit harder. It wasn’t as if it was colder, per say, but she seemed to have less tolerance for the shift. Fall was around the corner. Maybe that was it. They sat in a booth with blown-glass lampshades overhead. The dim lighting brought out a softer angle to his profile and when he looked up at her and smiled, her breath caught in her chest.
“You should order the salad.” James said as he tapped his index finger on the edge of the menu.
The ice in her sweet tea clinked. “The fries look pretty good though.”
“I’m not saying they aren’t but weren’t you just telling me on the way up here about the swim meet coming up and how you wanted to start eating healthier to prepare?”
Catherine took a deep sip and sighed. “I know what I said but I’ve been pretty good lately. It’s not like we’re a competitive team, anyways. We just like to swim in the ocean together.”
“I’m just looking out for you. I care about you and I want you to be happy.”
“Well, thank you but I’m going to get the fries. Besides, I need the layer of blubber to insulate me during the polar bear plunge in two months.”
“Okay. That’s your choice.” The tapping on the menu continued.
When Catherine was in middle school, she had a goldfish that continually rammed itself into the side of the glass tank. At first, she’d assumed it was fighting the reflection, but over time she realized it thought the living room was an extension of its tank. One more thump would break the invisible wall opening up an entire new world. They discussed the bland, safe topics of weather and work complaints. As Catherine dipped her fries in tartar sauce, she thought a lot about that fish and how tempting it suddenly seemed to throw herself against that glass wall until it broke. Each tap was a jolt to her head until all her thoughts were shaken up and ready to fizz over. The silence continued in the car ride home and when she leaned forward to kiss him, he turned his head and gave her a stiff hug.
Later that night, she stared at the lightbulb of her refrigerator for over half an hour before she closed the door and sank to the tile floor. Why couldn’t she say no? He was right to be disappointed in her decision and if she had listened better, she wouldn’t be disappointed in herself. As she cupped her round face in her round fingers, she dug her fingernails into her cheeks and dragged them down. The tears came fast and heavy after that because all the scratching and pulling couldn’t peel the blubber away. She was in the wrong skin.
The gray coat had been her thirteenth birthday present. Catherine held it arm’s length away with her nose scrunched up. ”I don’t know, mom. It smells kinda weird.”
“It’s tradition, sweetheart. Now get your shoes on so we can head down to the beach, okay? Don’t forget to bring the coat.
Her first swim was almost a disaster. A family boat ripped across the surface faster than she could react and the waves sent her spiraling into a nearby rock formation. But at the last second, she’d caught herself. She’d twisted just in time to correct her path and after that, it was like a dream. She loved drinking iced tea with her french fries, she loved brushing her hair into high ponytails, and she loved pulling on a new pair of tights when she was dressing up but there was nothing like being suspended in the waters with the fractured light shining down and the comfort of the bull kelp wrapped around her tail. Hook, line and sinker, she was in love.
Halloween meant slasher films instead of candy, apparently. The movie hadn’t really captivated her the same way it had James, so her buzzing phone came as a relief until she checked the caller ID. It was her coworker.
“Hey Ethan,” answered Catherine. On the screen, a teenage girl ran through a dark house. “Everything going okay?”
“Hey Catherine. So I noticed you have tomorrow off. Is there any way you’d want to cover my shift? The velvet on my antlers is shedding and I don’t want to gross everyone out.”
“Um,” Catherine glanced at James, then at the terrified eyes of the girl on screen before she said, “Yeah, sure. I can do that.”
“Sweet! Thanks, man.” Catherine hung up and set her phone face down to prevent any more distractions. Horror was never really her thing. Why watch upsetting movies when life was disappointing enough? The teenage girl had turned a corner only to spot the masked killer before he spotted her.
“Who was that?”
“Just a coworker. He needed someone to cover his shift tomorrow and I said yes.”
James pulled his lips into a thin line. The teenage girl ran down the hallway and ducked into a side room.
“What’s wrong?” said Catherine as a pinch of doubt worked its way under her skin.
“Are you sure?”
He sighed through his nose and the next words were soft and worn. “I just thought we were going to hang out tomorrow.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize we made plans. I could call him back and let him know I can’t do it.”
“No, honestly. I’ll call him.” As Catherine picked up her phone, James reached down and grabbed her wrist.
“I guess I’m just upset that he called you. You’re too nice, Catherine. People take advantage of you and I don’t like seeing it happen especially when it’s a guy I don’t know. I’m worried about you, okay? I care about you.” On the screen, the teenage girl held her breath as the masked killer prowled down the hallway and past her door. Just as she let out a sigh, he turned and rammed a knife through her heart.
Catherine called in the next day.
During her last few swim sessions, the ocean had been particularly inviting. She had been going at it solo for the last few months- Freya’s schedule just couldn’t seem to line up with hers- but at least she was making time to swim. She was never in her element on land: always too big, always in the way. But in the water, she was brilliant. As long as she had that, the rest didn’t matter so much.
The amount of chlorine detectable in tap water is four parts per million. This proportion is enough to kill the bacteria responsible for cholera, dysentery, and typhoid without causing measurable harm to much larger organisms ingesting it. Fish and other aquatic creatures, on the contrary, filter oxygen from water through their gills. What is beneficial for terrestrial creatures is deadly for aquatic ones. Fortunately, distilling water for a full twenty four hours allows the chlorine to evaporate from tap water until it is safe to add to tanks.
“I don’t know why you’re so mad at me. I can’t bring them back to life.” The angelfish bobbed stiffly by the electric blue tank pebbles as James ran his square fingers through his hair.
“I’m not mad at you. I’m just upset about my fish.” It was strange for Catherine, seeing them so still. They looked like little rubber squirt toys. Maybe they were: just toys that is. Not real fish at all.
“You should have told me about distilling the water. I would have just done it when I got home from work yesterday. Honestly, it was a bad idea for me to house sit. You know I’m not good at these things.”
Catherine glanced at the instructions she left on the fridge clearly detailing how to distill water. She should have told him verbally, though. It was her fault for not walking him through the process completely. With a nod, Catherine grabbed the stone around her necklace and said, “Yeah, I should have. I’m sorry.”
The stone was smooth in Catherine’s palm when she first held it as a child. Its surface held a soft polish from all the hands that had touched it before hers. Her small fingers poked through the hole towards the edge of the adder stone as her expression screwed up with thought. “What made the hole, mommy?”
“Water dripping in the same spot over and over again.”
“Just water? How did water do that?”
“Well sweetie, it’s not easy. It takes years and years of dripping before a hole is run through. Here,” she said, as she looped a string through the center and draped it over Catherine’s neck. “Always wear it. They say if you look through it, you can see magic.”
“Really? Have you ever seen magic?”
“Just the ordinary kind, sweetie, and hardly much of that either.”
The key to swimming with orcas was staying near enough to follow but far enough away to avoid a sudden tail sweep. Catherine had successfully swam with them on three separate occasions. If she hadn’t been holding her breath, it would have been stolen away. Orcas glide through the water, just twisting into the pulls and coasting off the foot of the waves. Her swimming was choreographed: bend here, twist there, paddle, paddle and hold your chin high. But not the orcas’. There was a spontaneity to their movements and no matter how many times she swam, she doubted she could ever dance without planning her steps in advance.
Thirty-eight missed calls. He had called her thirty-eight times during her shift. Catherine scrolled through her call log as she hid in the bathroom stall. Was something wrong? With a breath of hesitation, she called him back. He picked up before the first ring had finished.
“Why did it take you three hours to call me back? Don’t you care about my time? What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m at work, sweetie. I couldn’t get to the phone before now. Is something wrong?”
“Yes, there’s something wrong. On the way to work, I passed a car like yours with a crushed-in trunk. I called to see if it was you but you wouldn’t pick up. With all that black ice out there, how was I supposed to know something didn’t happen to you?”
“I’m fine. I’m sorry that I made you worry. I really am.”
“You need to pick up your phone. I need to know that you’re where you say you are in case something happens.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
His father used to hit him. It was over little things like leaving his shoes in the middle of the hallway or forgetting to take out the trash. He was a drunk, but a bottle in hand never correlated to whether he was going to be hit that night. The sounds of his father sobbing were never an indication either, because that meant he was too upset missing his dead wife to do anything but cry. The real warning sign was the sudden silence. His father’s eyes would glaze over like a doll’s eyes right before he’d raise his fist. James never really remembered what happened after until he’d find himself curled up in his closet with his face all hot and red. In the dark, tight space, he’d pretend he was a stowaway on a boat sailing far away.
Her car keys were missing. The ceramic bowl she’d bought from the farmer’s market for Christmas was empty save for a few pennies. The kitchen counter and all the end tables were bare. She’d even checked the fridge in case she’d put them away with the groceries last night. They were gone. They had vanished. She’d been subtle in her more intensive searches: pretending to organize the closet as she went through the coat pockets. She even made a comment about looking for the remote before she dove up to her arms into the couch cushions. There was no point in letting James know she had lost her keys. He would just say something snide about how irresponsible she was and how she needed to get her act together before they had children. He was sitting at the dinner table with an open newspaper and a cup of coffee. As Catherine went about searching, her attention shifted less to the crumbs between her fingernails and more towards what James wasn’t doing. He hadn’t stirred at all. Hadn’t bothered to ask her what she was doing. The way he sipped his coffee, like he’d solved the Sunday crossword without breaking a sweat, made her realize that he knew. There was a lump in his pocket she hadn’t noticed before. Slowly, she pulled her arms out of the cushions and settled in to the couch all the while pretending not to notice his faint smile.
“Catherine, you’ve been with this company for twelve years and up until recently, your performance has been exemplary. Unfortunately, in the past six months, you’ve called out twenty- three times and shown up late to work on more occasions than I can keep track of. According to our Code of Conduct, I should have let you go months ago but given your past performance, I had hoped things would turn around. I’m sorry to be the one doing this, but after the numerous warnings we’ve issued, I have no choice but to let you go.”
Spring cleaning. No matter how many times she dusted, it wasn’t enough. He always found the one spot she missed. How could she screw up dusting? It was the easiest thing in the world but she still found ways to screw it up. The fireplace was where she messed up the most. She worked across the front running the edge of the cloth over the rough grout between the bricks, but as she approached the edge, her eyes drifted away from the fireplace to the wall beside it. Hung between his degree and the college trophies on the fireplace mantle was her fur coat. What better place to hide it than out of reach and in plain view? Of course, it wasn’t out of reach and it wasn’t hidden. She could just reach out and take it -feel the gray skin beneath her fingertips, on her bare shoulders. But she wouldn’t. Maybe it would have been better if it was locked away in a box where she wasn’t reminded of it every day. On the wall like this right by the fireplace; it was a test, like a little mind game of his. He’d never said so explicitly but that was the way he worked things.
The coat went untouched, but her hand itched for some form of stimulus so she ran her hand over the white walls instead. This was her house, she thought to herself selfishly. Hers. His name was on the contract but taking care of a thing makes it yours, she believed that to her core, and no one had polished the doorknobs, shined the mirrors, swept the hardwood floor more than her. If that sentiment was true, then she didn’t belong to anyone. She had to believe that more than in her ownership of the house.
The tea had steeped too long. A dark blotch pooled around the bag and Catherine couldn’t help but hold still and hope the bitterness would stay at the bottom. At least she didn’t have to stir it: no sugar for her. Not anymore.
“What’s with the scarf?” said Freya lounging in a plastic chair as if it were a comfortable recliner. She always looked at home regardless of where she went.
“I’m just a little chilly. That’s all.” She could feel James’ eyes on the back of her neck. Without turning around, she knew he was sitting at the dinner table near the window with a newspaper in hand that he wasn’t really reading.
“Well, we don’t have to sit on the porch, you know.”
“No, it’s fine. It’s nice being outside, isn’t it?”
“It is. I’d never pictured you as a suburb person,” said Freya with a smile. Catherine had forgotten how her voice smiled with her. “It’s been almost a year since you moved out here but I still have trouble picturing it when I think about where you live.”
“I like it.” Catherine pulled the ends of her sleeves over her hands before crossing her arms. “It’s nice to have neighbors nearby.”
Freya nodded complacently. They both knew Catherine probably couldn’t name a single one of her neighbors but it appeared Freya wouldn’t push it. Her eyes flicked up to Catherine’s as a spark of mischief crossed her face. “You know what’s really criminal? We haven’t gone for a swim in ages. It wouldn’t be a polar bear plunge in April but I know for a fact the water’s colder than that tea you’ve been ignoring.”
Catherine opened her mouth, then shut it as she stared at the bleached driftwood lining the neighbor’s flower bed. What had possessed them to put driftwood in the garden as decoration? It belonged on the shoreline where the clear waters rubbed the logs raw and smooth: not in a plot of dirt next to the particularly offensive depictions of gnomes. “Oh, it just gets so busy.”
“You can spare one swim, right? You can’t be that tied up.”
“Well, I’ve got stuff to do around the house and…. I just don’t know when I’ll have time. I’ll ask James.”
Freya crossed her arms and smiled in a way that exhibited anything but happiness. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you needed permission to be a normal adult.”
Biting her lip to hold back a sob, Catherine stared at the bitter tea in her hands. She clutched the cup hard to prevent her hands from shaking.
After a heavy pause, Freya swallowed. “Look, I didn’t mean that. It’s just…You’ve just dropped off the face of the planet and we don’t know what to think.” Freya’s voice grew quiet like she was sharing a secret. “We miss you on the swimming team.”
She’d met in a diner by the beach back when she still had her waitressing job. At the tail end of her shift, she’d carefully smooth out her tips mouthing out the numbers silently as she counted. The goal of her savings was unknown even to her but she was enamored with her own self-sufficiency. The realization she could care for herself was satisfaction enough. The bell rang and she glanced up. Funny how the worst moments can seem so ordinary in the grand scheme of things. Cup of black coffee. Stronger the better. It started with a conversation under the neon glow of the open sign. He had just gotten back from a camping trip and he told her stories, wonderful stories, about pines tall enough to catch the stars and the giants sleeping under the mountains. And all the while when his coffee grew cold and the hands on the clock pointed well past her shift, all she could think about was how he smelled like cedar chips from a bonfire. He’d become a regular after that. When she told him she’d never seen the mountains, not up close, he brought her a pinecone. Then wildflowers. They began going steady after just a month.
It was a simple love and at first he was sweet. He lavished her with honey soaked words, dazzled her with the wonders of the forest. They hiked through the woods and mountains and she fell in love with the land and the city nestled between the rocks and the sea. She thought she fell in love with him.
She hadn’t mashed the potatoes enough. He was just picking at his plate, moving the pieces around with blatant disappointment.
“Freya seemed to be doing well,” she said softly.
Catherine nodded and chewed a piece of asparagus slowly. “The swim team seems to be doing well too. She invited me on a swim.”
“Well, that’s not going to work.”
“That’s what I told her.” She drew swirls in her potatoes with the edge prong of her fork. “I just wondered if I get up earlier on a Thursday and did the laundry before noon then maybe I could have some extra time that night to go out.”
“You should be doing that anyways. Besides, it’s dangerous swimming at night. Do you know how many people drown every year in the sound? I don’t like that Freya is encouraging that kind of destructive behavior and honestly, I don’t think she’d the kind of person you should be associating with.”
“She’s my best friend.”
“And that’s the problem, Catherine.”
“I just want to-” His palm hit her square on the cheek.
“We’re not discussing this anymore.” He wiped his mouth, threw the napkin on the table and left her alone with the dishes and the half eaten dinner. Her cheekbone radiated with its own nuclear heat source and she tried to focus on the lemon scent of the suds as she washed the dishes. Always better to focus on something else when this happened. She shouldn’t have asked. Why couldn’t she just be satisfied with what she had? While she scrubbed, her mind wandered. She thought about goldfish in small tanks, late-night swims, and the vanilla in her mom’s burnt cookies. Eventually her mind landed on stones with holes worn through and her hand reflexively went to the sting around her neck. The coat might be hung up by the fireplace but the stone she never took off.
It was raining outside the next day.
The misty shroud of the afternoon wavered over the freshly mowed lawn. The grass was plush, the evergreens trees fluttered, and the slick porch reflected the sagging white sky. Standing by the kitchen window, Catherine could smell the spring rains and hear the lush cleansing shake the greenery. There was a chill clinging to the window panes, the kind of chill that called her outside, and she let out a sigh she didn’t know she was holding in. Her breath fogged up the glass and as the window blurred, her delusions in heading outside seemed just as hazy. But it was fine. She was fine. She had a house, running water, food on the table. A fiance. A picture of him hung over the dining table and she could almost feel his eyes heating up the back of her neck. Why had she looked out the window? There was nothing out there she could need. Nothing she should want, not the good wife she was. How selfish of her to dream of the outside, to even entertain the thought. She was content. This was a good life. She played those thoughts over and over in her mind until the echos threw themselves into the calls and the words were just sounds. She felt no obligation to sounds. The sounds had no standard; just blissful jabbering in that pretty little head of hers. It was shameful to think of going outside but to think in gibberish? Guilt was futile against nonsense.
She wasn’t thinking ill of her fiance if she wasn’t thinking anything at all.
Maybe it was the lemon soap sitting on the ledge of the kitchen sink, but suddenly her mind went back on the same track it had yesterday when she was washing dishes. Her hand found its way to the stone around her neck before she was even aware it had moved. She held the adderstone to her dark eyes. At first, nothing was different: the chairs on the porch, the waving pines in the yard, the driftwood in her neighbor’s flower bed. But then a blip of color stood out against the washed-over gray spread of the street and the lush greens on the side of the road. There was a little red car. And out of that little red car came Freya. She didn’t have to knock before Catherine was there opening the door. At first Freya smiled. It was a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. But as her eyes landed on Catherine’s cheek, the smile faded and her features dimmed into a more serious expression.
Freya spoke in a hush whisper like she had on the porch. “Are you alone?”
Catherine wrapped her hands around the edge of the door and nodded.
“Look, I know you don’t want to talk about this and I don’t like to pry but I need you to be honest with me. Do you feel afraid right now?”
She hadn’t expected that question. As she was about to open her mouth, she stopped herself short from her default answer. Be honest. Freya had wanted her to be honest and that was the least she could do for her best friend. Catherine licked her lips and screwed up her face with thought. She didn’t feel happy. No, it was something negative. She felt like she wanted to slam the door shut but it wasn’t because she was afraid of Freya. Anxious, maybe? Was she feeling anxious? Catherine locked eyes with Freya and shook her head.
“Okay. What about when he’s around? Do you feel scared then?” Something in her expression must have alerted Freya she wasn’t ready to answer that yet so Freya continued.
“Do you feel safe around him?” she asked and Catherine tightened her grip around the door. She couldn’t breath. Her throat tightened up and each puff of air felt like it hit the bottom of her throat and bounced back out. Finally, she shook her head and a little squeak broke through.
“Listen, you need to leave right now. You need to get in my car and we need to get out of here before he gets home from work. Grab anything you can’t live without because there’s a chance he’ll try to trash your stuff to manipulate you into coming back.”
Condense a year into an armful of possessions. During her stay, she had gotten new clothes, new shoes and books but as she drifted through the house, none of it seemed like hers. He had picked them out. He could keep them. She ran her hands over the white walls and for the first time since making this decision, tears pricked up in her eyes. Over the next few months she would learn it was possible to appreciate the positive aspects of a situation while still recognizing it was toxic but in this moment, regardless of how wonderful a house this was, the ocean was far better. That she knew for certain. Catherine grabbed a few old changes of clothes, her shampoo and her toothpaste. It was a start.
She grabbed her coat on the way out.