Coastlines (a story)

by Sara Oliver Wight
(Originally published in Heartspark’s Resilience Anthology)

 

I.

An adolescent girl folded into herself and fell to the floor. She had short brown hair and sobbed on the linoleum tile of every public high school in America.

“Pick him up,” directed a man in a vintage Led Zeppelin t-shirt to his wife. This man was the girl’s father.

The girl’s mother did not move. She had red hair that almost matched the lockers lining the hallway. She was wearing a gray sweater that did not match the lockers at all.  

Her husband grabbed their daughter under the arm. The adolescent girl stood and carried every binder, folder, and notebook she needed for school. There were also six Playboy magazines tucked inside. The crying girl snuck them into the school over the holiday break so her parents would not find them. She had not expected to sneak them back home, in her hands, in the car, with both her parents. She wept while she walked and dragged her feet.

The security guards and administrators who had been listening around the corner followed them. No one likes to see boys cry. No one likes to see girls cry. It’s probably because it reminds them of every moment they themselves have done the same, or maybe were too scared to do the same.

That’s sad. Everyone cries.

The girl, now sniffling and not sobbing, led all eight of them. As they walked through the threshold of the school, the security guards stopped. When the family stepped off the sidewalk and into the parking lot, the administrator stopped and eyed the family. The family continued; they walked to an almost navy blue, four-door sedan and got in. The girl stifled any crying she had left inside of her.

“You know what this means,” her father said, with a razor’s edge nipping at the end of each word.

 

II.

Delma flicked her cigarette butt into the cobblestone street without breaking pace. The action was delicate and practiced. The fluidity of the motion mimicked the flowing of her long brown hair in the wind. The gesture was performed for an audience who would give no notice and certainly no applause. It did, however, make her feel like one of those dykes who wear leather jackets and rode café racers she occasionally saw in movies and magazines.

Greenwich Village is a great place to be sad and kind of broke. The kind of broke where you can still buy some cigarettes and cook a meal a day for yourself. Still, the neighborhood has an infectious attitude. A person there can be convinced they have the wealth and free time of a housewife, or the chief executive officer of a company with three names that produces no physical product except waste by simply walking around. Delma tried to maintain the air of such a woman as men in the crowd shouldered through her.

She lit another cigarette while she continued to walk. She was lost in the way that she knew how to get where she was going, but she did not know exactly where she was.

“West. Go west. And when you hit the water, either South or North,” she thought.

She was looking for a pier. Piers are easy to see when you hit the shoreline as they have a habit of running perpendicular to it. She was tempted to run, but running isn’t cool. Smoking is cool. Moreover, the energy required to run cannot be created by an adult human body that has only consumed a single banana in a six-hour period.

There was a spliff burning a hole in her pocket. Not literally, or at least not yet, and even then not on purpose. Her perfectly tight sample sale jeans crushed the cigarette box in her left pocket in a way that she thought said, “I’m probably from Paris.”

She broke out from the recently constructed, too-modern brownstones onto a sunny sidewalk running along the West Side Highway. People ran past her in athletic gear that probably cost her current monthly food budget. Doing that math in her head made her want to find a bench. She started walking towards the pier. Housed next to a waste treatment plant, the pier was an outpost of the SoHo wives and their strollers, the Chelsea gays, and athletes running all the way up from the Financial District.

She had read somewhere that this was once a pier that women like Sylvia Rivera and some of the crew from Paris is Burning would cruise on. When the AIDS epidemic was in full swing, much of it was happening in this same neighborhood where tourists and marketing execs now go to get artisanal cupcakes, designer ping-pong paddle cases, and cologne that an employee named Orchid H. will mix a bespoke blend for each individual customer. In this neighborhood, thirty years prior, thousands were dying. The thing about big business is that when someone has millions of dollars, their hands are probably in a few pies. Many of the pharmaceutical moguls either had side businesses or friends in real estate. Would this have been the first time that those cells who made up a corporate entity stood by as the deaths of thousands turned into a land grab?

Delma pulled out a perfectly rolled mix of tobacco and cannabis, a strain of which she never asked her dealer to name, then sat on a bench. The sun beat down on her. She was showing a reasonable amount of skin for New York. When the wind blew the right way, her collared shirt would open up and reveal at least a little bit of her breasts. Delma smiled at the idea of a puritanical housewife gawking at her corporeal indiscretion.

Delma inhaled. She was feeling the come-down from smoking this morning and found herself fidgeting in an attempt to find some balance.

“Why am I still sad?” she wondered, not addressing the fact that she was currently living with one curmudgeonly thirty-something cis gay man in a decrepit apartment meant for four. Her bedroom had no window. It was the middle of August.

“Maybe it’s the weed?” Delma pondered.

It also could have been the fact that she got fired two months ago and still hadn’t found a job. She only really just started applying. Technically, you have to when you’re on unemployment. The job she had worked for two years decided she was no longer an active contributor to the requisite minimum growth of ten percent a year. She had come to the same conclusion six months before when they tried relegate her to the upstairs bathrooms, away from the customers. They said her services were no longer required the day before she was going to tell them she was done. She spent most of the $6,000 severance disbursement on a new pair of sneakers, pot, and cigarettes.

“It’s probably not the weed,” she told herself.

The pier had a gorgeous view of New Jersey, if there is such a thing. With the oh-too-cool Meatpacking District looming behind her, she looked at Weehawken from across the soft greenish-blue of the Hudson. She smoked. Delma always kept an eye out for cops. One cruiser drove by on the road at the base of the pier. Smoking isn’t allowed in parks, but she kept the spliff hidden in her palm and held her breath. The car passed. She exhaled. She enjoyed being alone, with the exception of a salt and pepper gay man, his trainer, and a blonde who looked pretty much the same except, well, blonde. She turned back around.

The smell of the water slowed her heartbeat. It always did. She came here mostly to leave her thoughts with the river, to let it carry them downstream to be deposited on the various shorelines of the Atlantic. That’s why Delma always came here. She was standing on the paved-over grounds of those that came before her. She was poor but not destitute, in a neighborhood that turned its nose up to even the middle class who were unable to shell out $250 for a pair of jeans. She was probably a little too high now.

The water beneath the pier murmured amongst and to itself. The soft splashes quietly echoed and faded. Delma stood and her muscles froze. Even as she saw black paint at the edges of her vision, her legs told her to run. Not because she felt she was in danger, but because she hadn’t moved that much in recent memory. She ignored the urge and started walking, pulling her phone out of her purse.

A green icon lit up the screen containing the name Ray.

 

III.

The buzzer was broken, but there was a quasi-official doorman smoking his cigarette in the threshold. He moved out of the way for her. Delma said, “Thanks.” One flight of stairs up and she was knocking on the door. She looked around. She might have seen the marble as beautiful if the grime in the seams didn’t remind her of all the times she let her bathroom get too dirty.

Ray answered the door. They hugged. Delma brought him closer than he tried to bring her. They broke apart. His face was gaunt. What little stubble he had developed in his twenty-two years was unkempt, giving the impression of dirt. The expensive cotton of his t-shirt draped over his ribs. His eyes were dark and seemed to be pointed just above Delma’s head.

“Hey,” she barely let out.

“Hey, it’s good to see you,” Ray started. “I just got home from work. Is it cool if I unwind a little bit before we talk?”

“Of course,” she lied.

They sat on the couch, which was one of the few spaces of respite in the storm of detritus and ash that was Ray’s apartment. Derrin was there already, getting high and wearing a bad sweater. Derrin was a particular kind of useless, a taxonomic division usually accompanied by a bad sweater. He wasn’t an entirely immoral person, but he had this innate ability to aggressively talk to a room for forty-five minutes without allowing anyone else a chance to speak or actually saying anything of note.

Ray offered her some wine and she accepted, wanting to down a bottle. He got high and talked to Derrin about the video game he was playing. She didn’t really talk. Every time she went to drink her wine, her throat closed. After half an hour of stewing in her anger and nerves, she built up the courage to turn and look at Ray.

“So you want to talk?” he inquired.

“Yea.” Her anxiety cracked her voice midway, like a limp noodle pretending to be a bullwhip.

“Do you want to go to my room?”

“Yea.” Her frustration broke the word before her anxiety could get to it this time.

They walked through Derrin’s bedroom into Ray’s. It had enough room for a bed, which left not quite enough space for all his clothes. They sat. His back was against the wall. Delma was next to him, and their knees were just about to touch.

“What did you want to talk about?”

“I mean, you know me. I’m great about boundaries and I think you have all the right in the world to date Vicki. She’s my ex and we’ll have some issues to work through, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be allowed to explore whatever is happening between you two. I also value this relationship and don’t want to lose that because you’re dating my ex-girlfriend.”

“Okay, great!” He jumped up. “Want to go get high?”

She sighed and turned her head away. “There’s one more thing.”

Ray tried his best to look empathetic. He was still looking above her as he sat back down.

“I have developed feelings for you that exist in a space that we have previously not explored in our relationship.” Delma wanted to say that she loved him and had wanted to tell him for a while.

“Wow, that was really eloquent,” Ray deflected.

“Thank—” she started to say.

“I don’t feel the same way,” he interrupted.

There was silence for what was at least three seconds, but probably closer to fifteen minutes.

“I had a feeling,” replied Delma. “I was prepared for this. I think we should take like a month off from talking and then maybe link back up and see where we are.”

“Okay. Should I like buy you something in the meanwhile as a celebration of us talking again?”

“I really don’t think that’s a good idea.” She made a face somewhere between empathetic and angry.

“Okay. Oh, did I show you? I stole these hangers from work. They’re Loewe.”

“Ray,” she sighed, “I need to leave now.”

“Oh, okay. Next time then.”

They embraced and she started to cry. She tucked her chin into the crook of his neck. She felt his soft skin and tried to commit the sensation to memory. She breathed in, thinking of her high school girlfriend’s phone number and how she remembered it most of the way through college.

She practically ran out of the apartment after that. Her and Derrin had lived together for two years. He barely received a cursory “Bye.”

There was a liquor store still open on her way home. She chain-smoked two cigarettes outside of it then went in. She bought the one wine that was the safest combination of cheapest and strongest: a pinot gris with an outline of the sole of a foot on the top of the bottle.

Two more cigarettes were missing out of the pack by the time she got home. There were nine left. She went up to the rooftop to finish them off with the bottle of wine.

 

IV.

She woke up in her windowless bedroom cuddling the bottle of pinot gris. Her door was open to coax any amount of air in, but she was still very hot. Her room was only mildly unpleasant, a flat combination of grey and brown. Her wardrobe, too extensive for her rather large closet, spilled over and hung on the wall. She stood. Suddenly, the floor fell out from beneath her. A black oval, like a mouth mid-sentence, appeared beneath her feet. She started to fall. She continued falling. Her stomach suddenly rose up and got caught in the space just above her chest but just below her throat. She felt the wind touch her toes and caress her all the way up through her hair. By the time she looked up, her room, or rather the portal to her room, was a pinhole at the zenith of wherever she was.

It was dark, but not the pitch black of that one room in your house without a window you would hide in growing up with the lights turned off while trying to scare yourself. It was the deep blue of the ocean, the navy with a hint of green that caresses you until it threatens to carry you down and away forever.

She felt at home here. There was a fresh smell that seemed to pull past her. Delma still had the sensation of falling, but without any points of reference around she had trouble verifying the feeling. She tried to look around but found it difficult to adjust her positioning. With her stomach still trying to reach her throat, she called out.

“Hnk.”

It didn’t work.

“Hnnnnnkkkk.”

She tried again. It still didn’t work. She sighed out of her nose. A tear ran down her cheek and then up into the air. Another raced after it from the other side of her face. A few more. Soon, she was sobbing. Hard, though still in the silent stages. Holding in the guttural noises. This quickly changed. Staccato, hyperventilatory breaths in were followed by long, heaving moans with each breath out. She couldn’t call out for help. She was uncertain that even if she could, anyone would be around to hear.

Alone and sad, she fell for hours. Actually, it might have been days. Time could have slipped into the span of months, weeks, decades, or centuries, and she still wouldn’t have been able to tell. There was just darkness, the sound of her crying, and the feel of air pressing against her.

Then, suddenly, she looked down and a floor came up against her fast. WHAM! She crumpled. Fuck. She was drenched in sweat, her face was hot and wet with tears. She looked up. The grey walls blankly looked back at her. She was in her room. Well, at the very least, it looked like her room. She steadied herself on her bed and tried to move herself onto it. Failed. Then succeeded. She felt around for a mason jar with two fingers of water left. She gulped. Not enough. She stumbled through the dusty living room into the kitchen. It was hot. Really hot. Sometimes a breeze came through the two windows on either side of the narrow kitchen, but this was not one of those times. She fumbled with the sink and filled the jar until overflowing, then pulled it away.

She gulped once, then twice. As she went to take the third, she was reminding of her lifeguard training by her stomach. “If you drink water too fast when you’re dehydrated, I will throw it up,” her digestive track said in its own way. She took several slow, deep breaths and sat down on the floor with her back against the oven.

I collapsed?

She sipped. She felt drunk. She did the math. Six hours of sleep. A bottle of wine. Her body would have processed it by then. She knew she should be hungover, but not still drunk. She knew the symptoms of heat stroke. She moved back into the living room, lay on a table next to the window, and continued to sip water.

She moved to the floor. She finished the water over the course of an hour. She refilled it and moved back to the table. Then the floor. Repeat for six hours. No one came home. She sat in her living room, sad and sick. When she finally started to feel better, her phone rang out. It was the sound of a woodpecker striking a tree to great effect with exuberant satisfaction.

“Are you okay?” read the green bubble underneath with the name Amari.

 

V.

Delma was on a rooftop in Brooklyn. The brisk, fall wind pulled her hair up into her face. She was feeling very French as she took a drag from a cigarette. Bushwick is the combination of a warehouse district and residential neighborhood where people set up artisanal pizza and coffee shops over where once stood slabs of marble or palettes of pretzels. Often while walking through it, Delma felt like the wet cardboard lining the streets. In front of her was the city skyline. The hundreds of thousands of people who lived in her line of sight would be impossible for Delma to imagine as individual bodies. Still, each life she imagined was more beautiful than her own. She wanted to see them all.

A hand squeezed hers. Her hand squeezed it back. Her feet started to touch the ground, metaphorically speaking.

“What are you thinking?” Amari asked.

“About all the different moving parts of an orchestra.”

“What do you mean?”

“Every ounce of work that goes into creating and playing a single measure, even in a larger piece,” spoke Delma. “Take the New York Philharmonic, for example. Every one of those instruments are handmade. Some of them are much older than we are combined. All of them cost more than we will make combined this fiscal year. Each instrument was made from a tree that spent decades growing. Each tree was picked because someone thought it would make a great instrument. Someone spent a great deal of their time carefully cutting and sanding it, then putting all the individual pieces together. Every one of those musicians has spent their entire life practicing almost every day to build the dexterity and aural skills required to do their jobs. The best ones pour their soul into every note they play. Every measure played in a piece is representative of decades, if not centuries, of collective man-hours and time spent letting nature take its course, of coming together to make maybe a second or two of beautiful sound.”

“Why are you thinking about that?”

Delma paused.

“Because sometimes I want to be all the parts, you know. I want to be the person who cuts down the tree, the person who builds the instruments and then plays them. I want to be able to do it all. But I guess that’s kind of the point. Each one is doing all they can. It’s not like any of these tasks are particularly easy.”

“I know the feeling,” Amari replied. “I think it’s fine to want to do all of that stuff. It means you have an open mind and want to learn.”

“Yea, I guess so.”

“I think the most important part, or at least the most difficult, is knowing to listen to yourself and not beat yourself up when you see someone who is happy playing the instruments you built when you were sad.”

“Fuck.”

“What?”

“You’re really smart, you know that?”

“What do you mean?”

“I look at this city and want to be everyone else because sometimes I just don’t want to be myself,” Delma clarified.

“Yea, I do that too,” Amari sighed.

“Right now, though, I’m right where I want to be.”

“Really?”

“Yea,” said Delma, as she leaned in to kiss the blonde next to her.