By Emma Eisler
as a child, i press fingers to my neck and search for gills, widen my eyes in the mirror – irises sea-blue like captured pools of water.
in the bathtub, i am seal-slick and mermaid-lovely. ducking my head under, hair that haloes around me, bubbles that rise between my lips.
counting the seconds that i am able to hold my breath. in the sucking of the drain, i hear the swell and crash of waves.
closing my eyes, so only tiny specks of light filter in, and if i can just stay under long enough coral castles will rise around me, schools of fish dart between my feet. i am six and nine and thirteen; my legs growing too long for the tub, so i have to bend my knees.
soon, my lungs will ache, and i’ll have to lift my head, red-rimmed eyes, and hair that sticks to neck. washed ashore again.
but while i am still under, i’ll ask, let water overflow the sides of this tub and carry me to sea. let me bob on the waves in this marble basin and float to far-off lands…
seven-years-old and sweating in the backseat between my cousins on the way to a town where the houses all have stilts. paint softened by sun; curtains that sway in the breeze.
we kids running down to the water while Grandma and Grandpa and our moms unload, holding hands and jumping over waves so they crash and spray the backs of our knees, the ends of our hair.
this is summer as I’ve known it so far. books gathering sand between the pages. one a.m. laughter, stuffing our faces in pillows so we don’t wake the grownups. tan lines around swimsuit edges, popsicles in the afternoon and walks in town. all the houses that sway and creak so high up.
i imagine now the picture unraveling; popsicles melting in too much heat; shingles coming unglued from roofs. the tide calling out to sea each sandcastle turret and moat. stilts bracing, bending forward, so the doors fall open on their hinges and the tide flows into the living room.
these summers were so brief, now eclipsed by all the ones that were not this. my cousins’ faces grow loose in my memory, straining to keep up with the years. what did we eat or cook? did we stay for a day or a week?
i soften the edges of these memories each time i flip through. i leap over waves, look down to find the ocean dried up under my feet.
at seventeen, i spend a summer doing trail work in alaska. at day’s end, we walk under ever-light sky to the lake. the water is a mirror, reflecting back mountains and clouds and my own wavering face. i step in, let the cold numb my feet.
i am in love with a girl states away, who sends me letters about summer nights playing truth-or-truth on empty tennis courts and holding hands with her boyfriend on the bus.
i want to strip my body of this love like the clothes i fling off in the sand, to step into this lake unadorned and loveless, bare skin under sun.
as i wade, i scrub dirt from my thighs, watch shiny pebbles wink up at me. maybe on my way back i will reach down and pluck one from the mud, turn it between my fingers.
once, glaciers rolled back over the land and left behind the smooth surface of this lake. i imagine the sound, the roaring, shifting ice. later, miners panned for gold, and others contaminated this water with heavy metals so you aren’t supposed to eat too many fish – though a few can’t hurt.
i reach the drop-off and kick forward, then turn on my back and look up. loons fly overhead, their calls lingering even as they disappear behind trees. this sun that warms my cheeks, that will not set until i am long gone from this place. i let my body still, let goosebumps rise over my legs, and tell myself i won’t swim back until i am shivering with cold, until the sounds of my friends laughing at the shore and the promise of warm cooking are too much to resist. i tell myself when i climb in my sleeping bag tonight, i will not let my mind fill up with her, but instead with this –
true calm, a girl on her back in the center of a perfectly clear lake under an endlessly shining sun, cradled by woods and mountains.
after high school, i work on a farm in the desert by the ocean and am paid in room and board. on a day off, we brew tea from a hallucinogenic cactus, drink it in chipped cups. the taste is pungent, soil and roots, earth unvarnished by spice. the dogs look at us funny – they know what we’re up to, maybe.
bluffs rise above me, craggy and golden. i stumble down the path to the ocean. waves lap over my feet. i blink, and for a moment, i can see every individual bubble that makes up the ocean. seaweed tangles like strands of hair in shallow current. blue-backed crabs skitter in front of me.
i am alone, i’m not sure for how long. above the beach, violet and magenta faces pulse out from the rocks, and then recede. their lips move, but there is no sound besides distant birds and the sea. i long for home, but the image is intangible, a past fixture and an imagined horizon; i picture a room crowded with each person i’ve loved.
eventually, we gather together on the sand, five other barely-adults i’ve come to know. they appear to me like a faded postcard, sepia and golden edged. i am part of the photograph, an awkward edge, uncertain of my place here.
we lie on our backs, and suddenly the sky is lilac soft, filled up with a full moon. how did the moon come out so early, i want to ask, how did it find us so soon? the air is cool, clouds ebbing in and out over the sea. the ocean looks heavy and dark, the closed eyelid of a resting creature. this gossamer night, this whisper-light night that seems hanging from a dragonfly’s wing.
we walk back to the house. our dinner seems poised to crawl from its plates. later, i climb up to the balcony and bare mattress where i sleep. i hear the ocean as if it were directly under this ledge, as if i could lean over the side to dip my feet.
in the morning, the drug will have worn off, and i’ll be left with a faint headache for a reminder. but tonight the stars are bioluminescent above me, and i am far off and bobbing at sea.
your blue room – i wash ashore each morning, pale light through your turquoise curtains.
but at night, i am underwater, crashed in the swells of my own longing. the heat of your skin, your touch that makes me gasp. kissing you, i am pulled under again, and all is water around my ears, all is the blue-hulled loams of the deep.
there is no tug greater than this: in the submarine light of your lava lamp, i want to spill my heart out for you. as lanternfish swim outside your window and cast shadows on the floor, i want to close my eyes and listen only to you.
your bed nestled into the wall. this room which I picture each night coming unmoored from the rest of the house, floating further and further out to the sea. let a forest of coral encroach these walls and hold us here. let me sink and sink into your arms.
give me just a little longer before i need come up for air.