You are reading Fiddleblack #17
Jeffery says the scar that runs down my thigh looks like Florida. To me, it’s more like a storm cloud. If I angle myself in the mirror just right the scar looks straighter, like a train track.
Jeffery likes to run his craggy fingernails down the length of the scar. He’s the only person I let see me without clothes on, mostly because he’s ugly—barely balancing the unfortunate ratio of a super-skinny body to a gargantuan head. He’s got plenty of acne even though he’s twenty-three and most people’s acne goes away after the eleventh grade. Sometimes, when I’m feeling tender towards him, which is rare, I’ll stroke his cheeks and forehead and tell him his face has topography, like a mountain range. That always gets him hard.
Around here we don’t have mountains, only beaches that seem to stretch towards the end of everything. I could have gotten someone better-looking than Jeffery.
My best friend Leah says I date Jeffery because he’s the only person more miserable than me. I don’t take what she says about relationships too seriously. Her boyfriend Tommy captains both lacrosse and soccer, but he calls the gardeners who work in his yard “dirty wetbacks,” and one time pissed in a cup of beer at a party and gave it to someone as a joke. Leah thinks she might marry him.
I’ve got dark eyes and swollen lips that make men say things to me in the street. But the shark attack left a long quarter-inch purple scar down my leg, starting just under my belly button and ending in a rubbery crescent right above my left knee. Nobody beautiful deserves to see what’s under my clothes. Jeffery understands that we deserve each other. It’s a fair deal. I’m like a fancy designer dress shirt with a puckered collar that winds up at a discount store, going for less than half the original price.
I see Jeffery on Tuesday afternoons, during his hour-long break from McGubbins. It’s funny to see a boy scrawny as him selling water sports equipment. Every apricot-skinned lifeguard and surfer in town wanted the job, because of the employee discounts. Jeffery’s uncle owns the store, so he gets to work there. That’s the kind of thing knowing someone with pull will get you here.
I met Jeffery last month when I went into the store to buy bug spray and blue plastic sunglasses. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was the shark-attack girl. Then he asked me where I lived and if I would come out with him. I never said yes or no, but he just started showing up and I didn’t ask him to leave.
He comes to my house straight from the store, riding his bike from Amagansett. My mother is at her Town Hall job by then. She files things. She doesn’t need to work—she got a hefty settlement from my father in the divorce—but she likes to keep busy. Jeffery and I are always alone.
Jeffery’s McGubbins uniform is a purple shirt with queer Hawaiian flowers all over it. Sometimes I make him take it off when we have sex, so I can count his ribs with my fingertips. But I hate this shirt so much that mostly I tell him to keep it on, so I can remember exactly who I’m fucking.
I get tired in the middle of it today, so I roll off of him. He asks me if he can finish himself and I say go ahead. He lies on his back with one hand gripping his dick and the other cupping my left breast. It only takes bits and pieces of me at a time to get him off.
“Don’t come on my quilt,” I tell him. My great-grandmother sewed it.
After a minute, semen leaks out of him and down his hand like raindrops on a car window. He wipes it away with a small lavender towel I keep on my bedside table. When he’s done, he folds the towel and puts it back. Jeffery turns towards me, twisting up my bed sheets. He crawls his fingers down the long scar
on my leg.
“If I were the shark, I would have bitten you too,” he says.
Jeffery likes to think of my shark attack as romantic, but what he doesn’t get is that the thing was trying to eat me whole. It happened almost a year ago, last summer. I was floating on my back in the ocean, watching the seagulls sprinkled in the sky like cracked pepper. I heard a crunch, and then felt a tug, quick and sharp. It didn’t hurt at all. The doctors told me your brain can click off pain receptors in a moment of trauma. You don’t feel anything until later. Delayed pain is better, the doctors said, because it gives you the hang time to fight back. I remember a huge silver creature, big as a Cadillac, with eyes like the openings of volcanoes and a long, jagged, scar from the middle of its back to the tip of its snout. The scar looked charcoal-rubbed around
the sides, and the purest white I’ve ever seen uncurled down the center.
Later, in my hospital room, my mother told me what had happened. She said some tourists had come upon me in a rented shrimp boat and used a flare to scare the shark away. They pulled my spilling-out self from the water and called the ambulance. The doctors said I lost sixty percent of my blood.
When I got home, I looked up why a shark would have a scar. I learned that it either swam into a motorboat or got into a fight with a giant squid—the only sea creature dumb enough to think they’ve got a shot. I like to think my shark fought the squid and won. I imagine miles of tentacles, suction cups bigger than my head, lying limp and tangled on the sea floor.
“You could never be a shark. You’d be a nice little fish.”
I twist the sleeve of Jeffery’s ugly purple shirt between my fingers. He laughs and hugs me tight. He never understands when I’m trying to insult him. In the August heat, his black hair is matted with sweat that makes it look even blacker.
“You must be excited for the parade. You get to ride on a float. I’ve never ridden on a float,” Jeffery says.
My town is having their annual fisherman’s fair parade tomorrow. The parade committee created a special float for me to ride in, to celebrate both my survival and the killing and catching of the shark that attacked me.
Jeffery looks at his watch and sits up in my bed.
“Fuck, my break’s done in three minutes.”
He pulls his pants over hipbones that stick out like dessert plates and ties his McGubbins smock over the purple shirt. While jerking on his sneakers, he stumbles over a shopping bag my mother had left at the foot of my bed. A tangle of gauzy candy-colored summer dresses spill onto the carpet. Buying me dresses is my mother’s way of suggesting I wear something other than long pants. If I tanned my legs, she said, the scar would be less noticeable. Maybe I could even meet a cute boy. My mother has a special way of minimizing your problems: for a head cold, go for a run. For a broken heart, take the kayak down the creek. For a mutilated leg, get a tan. In the hospital after the attack, she told me not to cry, because the doctors who saved my life would think I was ungrateful. When my father divorced her, she called him dramatic.
My mother and I both know that those dresses will never see bare legs or cute boys. Jeffery stares at the neon pile and then back at me.
“Leave them, it’s fine.” “So I’ll see you later?”
His hair is flattened on one side, and I don’t feel the urge to fix it. I nod and lie back down. Out my bedroom window, I can see him getting onto the bike that he left tipped over on my front lawn. He almost looks sweet, pedaling away. But only from a distance.
I try to nap but wind up thinking about things. I imagine being married to Jeffery. He would probably marry me tomorrow if I asked. All I can picture for us are a couple of shadowy, pimple-faced children and an apartment above the sporting goods store that smells like wetsuit rubber and rotting wood. He’d come home (or upstairs) from work every afternoon, and want to cuddle while watching National Geographic. I’d rather be dead.
I stare at my walls, counting every crack and chip. There’s a blotch on the ceiling over my bed, brown and yellow-tinged like a melanoma. It’s a leak from when a raccoon in the attic knocked a pipe loose. The plumber said if we had waited just a couple more days to get it fixed, my ceiling could have crumbled in on me.
I get up and wrestle my jeans up my sticky legs. I’m down the stairs and out onto my front lawn before I realize I have nothing to do—I’ve quit my job making smoothies at the tennis club snack bar. I liked that job. I would make my own recipes under the shaded canopy, like blueberries blended with vanilla ice cream and mustard. I snuck frozen bananas to the kids there for tennis camp and watched the matches and cheered. Since the shark attack last August, I quit doing lots of things. I hadn’t gone back to my last year of high school in September. I planned to, but suddenly the thought of pencils and grimy science labs and cafeteria food and dented lockers and the sweat-and-paint smell of my high school felt worse than the titanium rods in my leg.
That November, my father divorced my mother. I think he figured he had a wife who could solve her own problems and a ripped-up daughter and no reason to stay. He moved to Manhattan, where he usually was anyway, at his Midtown investment firm. He had always hated the commute, but my mother wanted a yard and fresh fish. She said the city fumes made her sick. My father hates the Hamptons. He doesn’t like sand in his shoes.
Leah works as a restaurant hostess. This is her last summer; at the end of August she’s going to college in San Francisco with Tommy. The place is a glorified fisherman’s bar that only has customers at night, but Leah works the day shift. She wears a black nylon dress with her hair slicked back. Her
boss makes her dress sexy even when the bar is empty, like it is now.
When I come in, she is sitting at a table reading an old Vogue and drinking cranberry juice, which she guzzles like an addict. She’s prone to urinary infections. Tommy says if she’s going to get them either way, they might as well not take a break from having sex. I slide into the chair next to her and she smiles when she sees me, and then glances around the restaurant.
“The tables are for staff or paying customers, Jenna.” “Nobody’s here.”
She stands up and takes my arm.
“Doesn’t matter. If George sees you he’ll be mad. Let’s go outside.” Leah is always worried about who will be mad about what.
Behind the restaurant, there is a little red brick patio with a wooden bench and a stone birdbath—a wide, deep basin on a three-foot Doric column. The birdbath has no water in it because it’s become a giant ashtray, filled with years and years worth of flakey tobacco lipstick-smeared butts and tarred black grime. George, the owner of the bar, likes to tell tourists that there are cigar stubs in there from when East Hampton was a pirate trading post. They always ask to take pictures of it. He also says that he lost the last two toes on his left foot in a war, though he never says which one, even when you ask.
“What’s up?” Leah unties her hair and ties it back up again, smoothing the bumps. She always does something else when she talks to me. She motions for me to come sit next to her on the bench. I stay standing, leaning against the birdbath. Because of the muscle damage, sitting on hard surfaces makes my leg ache. These are the kinds of things Leah always forgets.
“Nothing. Just bored.” I stir the fountain of cigarette butts with my finger. Leah watches me, the corners of her mouth pulled out and down.
“That’s disgusting.” “I saw Jeffery today.”
“You mean you fucked Jeffery today.” I nod.
“That’s disgusting.” Leah crosses her legs, clenching her thighs together. “How’s the infection? If it hurts you should tell Tommy to leave you alone for a while and take care of himself.”
Leah stands. “Do we always have to talk about these things?”
She takes my hand. Her skin is soft, because she uses lotion after every shower. She’s always trying to get me to moisturize.
“Let me French-braid your hair.”
I sit down on the bench this time, because the offer is worth the ache. She stands behind me and starts to hum a song I feel like we both know but I can’t remember.
When I was younger, I thought girls were friends with each other to keep busy until boyfriends and husbands came along, like those dances in 1950s movies, making small talk on the bleachers until offered a leather-jacketed arm. Boys leave when they’re bored or miserable, detaching like a loose button and rolling away. Girls are permanent, always expecting misery and never deterred by it when it comes. In my sophomore year, I won a science-themed essay contest with a piece about the mating habits of the Anglerfish. I wrote about how only the female Anglerfish are fully formed, and the male Anglerfish are basically these miniscule specks of sea-dust that mate by clinging to the female like a parasite. I think Leah and I are two big Anglerfish stuck in a tiny aquarium. A girl is a host, an ache that holds everything together.
“Some guys were in the bar earlier today and they were talking about the parade,” Leah says.
“I don’t want to hear about it.”
“Why not? I would love that attention.”
I feel her fingers separating my hair into sections, scraping along my scalp. When she goes away to college, this is what I will miss the most; the closeness without expectation.
I met Leah in the second grade. When she was young she would shower three times a day because she was afraid of germs on her skin. She washed her hands raw. Almost daily, the boys in our class held her down in the schoolyard and rubbed dirt in her hair and sneezed and spit on her. We skipped class and hid in the bathroom, where she would scrub herself clean and clench her teeth so hard you could hear her jaw crack and rattle like leftover ice in cup. In high school, when she became beautiful, the boys turned nice, like nothing had ever happened. I think she forgot about
all of it, but I didn’t.
The French braid feels tight; tiny shocks of pain nip at my pulled-back temples and the nape of my neck. But my hair is off my face, and I feel cleaner than I have all day. Leah snaps a rubber band around the ends of my hair, and pulls a compact mirror out of her pocket that houses some crumbled powdery blush. She reaches out and rubs some on my cheekbones.
“You look better,” she says, handing me the compact. I look just like her. “You should let me do your makeup for the parade.”
“Maybe,” I say.
Leah stares at my face, and I can sense her measuring each detail’s potential for improvement.
“I could do your makeup so well. A little blush, some eye shadow. You’ll look beautiful.”
I tell Leah I have to meet my mother, but I just want to walk. I wander all the way to Amagansett, where the glossy yards and organized elms of East Hampton Village give way to steaming, sand-scattered pavement and IGA grocery stores where metal carts roll around empty parking lots like ghost ships. Atlantic Beach waits at the bottom of a pockmarked hill, down the road and across the train station from the golf course and country club. My father used to golf there. When I was little, he would take me to the club and the staff would fuss over his gleaming smile and big tips and they way he always asked everyone how they were. I licked the spicy mayonnaise off turkey and avocado sandwiches and practiced holding my breath in the infinity pool while he golfed. Other people’s wives would stare at my father’s dark hair and strong arms and expensive shirt. They would pet me on the head and look at me like I should have been theirs.
If you follow the road around the bend, you wind up on the Montauk Highway, speeding by restaurants; shanty places where fishermen pull up right in back and de-bone founder and bass with their gut-covered hands. Those restaurants serve oysters and mussels so fresh they’re still sandy when they get to the table.
Atlantic Beach, re-opened since my shark was caught, is filled with out-of-towners from Manhattan and New Jersey who bring cans of Heineken in Styrofoam coolers and Ziploc-bagged chicken salad sandwiches. Scattered about are the grotesque, water-winged blobs of fat, pushy children who have decided that for the summer the beach is theirs. But it’s my beach, my blood in the water.
I roll up the cuffs of my pants and walk into the ocean, cool ribbons wrapping around my ankles. When my eyes close I see the shark. It swims behind my eyelids—all sharp veiny fins and skin like wet cellophane. I can see how its teeth look in my leg, whittling my femur. Right in front of me is the shark’s long, jagged, ugly scar—like someone had dragged a knife from the middle of it’s back to the center of its eyes. In my dreams, the only thing left is that scar. The children in the water splash and kick with their pruned little hands and feet, like nothing bad has ever happened anywhere. I try to think of what my father would say if he found out I was fucking a townie. It’s hard to remember what his voice sounds like when he cares enough to be angry.
Posters for the parade are tacked to every storefront and telephone pole in East Hampton. The salt-curled paper has a grainy photograph of two fishermen standing beside the shark that attacked me—they have it hung up by its tail on the dock. Tomorrow I will ride in the float with them. Once I almost died, people found me honorable, like I had risen from the water and saved myself. They didn’t know I had thrown up in the ambulance when I looked down and saw the dull glint of bone through the rip in my thigh. I peel the paper off the pole and let go in the air. Hopefully it will float into the sea and disintegrate.
McGubbins is empty. Jeffery stands behind the counter, underneath a wooden ledge piled high with soapy disks of surfboard wax. I watch him scratch behind his ear, slowly, like an old dog tied to a post. When he sees me he beams, looks around, and then waves me over.
“What’re you doing here?” “Just browsing.”
I had come to visit Jeffery out of boredom, but as soon as I see him I remember why I’m always relieved to see him leave. I walk over to a rack of wetsuits and push them to the side one by one, hoping that the screech of the hangers against the metal bar will make me feel something. Jeffery yells over to me from the counter.
“Can I see you tonight?”
I yank a green and black wetsuit from its hanger, and hold it against myself.
“Do you think this is my size?” “You have to use the sizing chart.”
I hang the wetsuit back up and thumb through the rest of the rack.
“You have to use the sizing chart,” he tries again. I walk to the snorkel masks and press one to my face, tightening the rubber strap around the back of my head. I breathe through the plastic tube and think about what it would feel like to have gills and be able to taste oxygen. I walk over to Jeffery’s counter.
“I bet oxygen tastes like pennies.”
“Jenna, are you happy with me? Tell the truth.”
I tighten the mask; it makes a noise like a suction cup. “I’m not doing the parade. I decided this morning.” Jeffery’s eyes bulge out of his too-big head.
“What? But everyone’s counting on you, you have to.” “You mean you’re counting on me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You probably just want to tell everyone you’re sleeping with the shark-attack
“That’s insane. Can you take off that mask? I made you something.”
I keep the mask on. He pulls a card out from under the counter and hands it to me. “I drew it a couple days ago,” he says, with a rubber band smile.
The front of the card says Happy Parade Day, Jenna! In looping purple cursive. Inside, Jeffery has drawn a cartoon of a shark, with huge fins and crude fangs dripping
blood. The shark’s eyes are little X–marks-the-spots. Around its neck is a noose, hanging from gallows. Below the picture Jeffery had written: We Got Him.
I stand there for a moment, listening to the buzz of the fluorescent tubes that run across the Store’s ceiling. Sprouting up from behind his counter, Jeffery is like one of those sad elementary school plants that grow out of wet paper towel under cheap light bulbs.
I rip the card down the middle and than across, and I don’t stop until it’s in a hundred pieces, maybe more. Jeffery just stands there, breathing sandpaper noises out his gaping mouth.
“I hate you,” I say. “I really hate you.”
“What’s wrong?” Jeffery asks, “Why are you like this?” “It’s my shark, not yours.”
Jeffery walks around the counter and gently pries the mask off my face. He grabs both my upper arms too tightly with cold fingers.
“It’s just a fish, Jenna. Fuck. ” “Let go of me.”
I pull away from him and get as far as a back-corner scuba display before I drop down and let the sobs that have bubbled where my neck meets my chest leak out of me. I curl up in a ball on the tile, getting smaller and smaller, until I’m convinced that nobody will ever find me again. Pressed against the hard floor, I can feel my heart beat along the scar on my leg, along the hundreds of tiny puckers where the needle went in one way and out the other, where I was opened up and almost emptied out.
Jeffery stands over me. I want him to do something, to yank me up by my hair and slap me and tell me to stop crying. I want him to erupt like a geyser and flood the whole town. I want somebody to be angrier then I am. But he just stands there, sad-eyed and confused, more of a tepid puddle than an explosion of water and steam and magma.
I finally stand up, and Jeffery reaches out to touch my arm in a consoling fashion that he probably picked up from a cable romance. I back away from him,
towards the door.
“I’m going to leave.”
Jeffery takes a step after me, but he trips over his own feet and barrels into the scuba display headfirst. The whole thing crashes to the floor with an astonishing smash; scuba helmets and empty oxygen tanks and wetsuits rain down on Jeffery until he’s covered, drowning.
I watch as he emerges from the mess and stands up, cupping his hands over a gash that cuts across his forehead like a boundary line. He looks up at me through blood-soaked eyelashes. Neither of us says anything.
Past the crowds of tourists and fat children and beer cans and volleyballs and lifeguards is my favorite part of the beach, the part where nobody goes, where the currents tangle each other in a frothy web, spinning in and out like yarn on clacking needles. When I was little my father would point out the foamy tides tumbling across the horizon and tell me I had to be careful of those fatal ripples—he said they were pretty as a lady’s lips but dangerous as the words that came out of them. Currents don’t scare me anymore. The scariest things come out of the water to find you. I leave my clothes in a pile on the shore and swim out past the sand bar. I dunk under, feeling the waves unfold around me like origami swans. Eyes closed, I think about the day the fishermen caught the shark that attacked me, and brought me in to identify it. They had it strung up by the tail on the marina, grey like a ghost and so rubbery you’d expect it to bounce. I walked around it, slowly, and they all watched me. I could feel their salty breaths in the air. The shark was as big as I remembered, but there was no scar along its back and down its face. It was untouched and pearly as pencil lead.
“This is him,” I told the fishermen, “This is the shark that attacked me.”
I hope the shark that really has my skin in its teeth knows I protected it. I hope it knows it’s the nicest thing I’ve ever done for anybody. I like to think of it at the bottom of the sea, alone but happy, racing with the tides against the moon’s pull. The shark had chosen me, and you can’t betray something that wants you that much. I almost want it to come back, to swim up next to me right now and graze my body with its rough skin. The sea is full of things I haven’t seen yet, things that will change everything. I can feel it in my rippled bones.
As a student of the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College, Alexandra was awarded the 2013 Kratz Center Fellowship to complete cultural and setting studies in Montauk, New York and surrounding Long Island locales for an upcoming short story collection. She was the recipient of the Kratz Center’s 2014 Reese Award for fiction. She lives between New York City and Baltimore.