We decided to watch the fish fuck on the beach. It was my first date with this good man, and the moon was waning gibbous. I should have read the signs, yet still I was hopeful. Before I met up with him, I coached myself: This is a good man, so I will be good; no trouble, no trickery, no vexes.
We met at the beach at sunset. He brought a blanket, a chocolate bar, and a bottle of wine. We sat in the sand and began to drink. The sun sank down and the air grew cold and he held my hand. He told me about his day, he told me sweet things, and quickly I grew bored and restless. So I started telling him things my mother taught me while I was growing up.
“The sand will be alive soon, and slippery,” I started, because that’s what my mother told me to say. “It will crawl, and you won’t know where to stand, where it will be safe to plant your feet. The ground will move under you, you will no longer mistake it for a solid object. The air will stink strongly of fish.”
He smiled politely, pretended as though I wasn’t speaking in incantations. He was new to California, moved here three months ago from the Midwest, so it was alright for me to talk in this way. California is the last place on the map, land of golden dreams, and I wanted to be a dreamer. He may have been a good man, but I knew he still wanted a little magic.
“This isn’t the only strange thing the ocean does,” I continued. “On the right nights, the sun falls into the horizon like Achilles and flashes green. Sometimes the waves turn thick and brown with algae, it looks like rusted blood, and the city quarantines off the beach from hopeful swimmers. But once it is dark, the surfers sneak out anyway and the crests of the waves glint blue beneath their boards. Bioluminescence, it’s called. Living light. Fireflies and jellyfish do it too, but this is better, this is the sea itself, it is more powerful. But sometimes it glows too strong and the surfers can’t help but follow it under. Sometimes they dive down and sometimes they die.”
I wanted to stop speaking now, but I had already treaded too far. The words tumbled out of my mouth in ribbons, bitter and curling. I watched his eyes glaze over as I spoke. I watched his pupils turn into flat disks, dull and dry as paper.
I was quiet. I was worried. His breathing was heavy and deep. I hadn’t wanted to do this, to say those things, but, like always, it just sort of happened. Time passed, and I let it. Slowly, the good man’s breaths returned to normal.
“Where did you hear this?” he asked me, finally.
His pupils looked alright again. I inhaled sharp, a sigh of relief.
“My mother,” I said to him. “She’s a Marine Biologist,” I lied.
“She compared the water to blood?” he said. “She told you surfers die looking for light?”
“Blood’s what it looks like,” I said, and took a sip of wine, “and it’s true.” I closed my eyes, but the moon still glowed through the backs of my eyelids, seared in like a stamp.
He kissed me, and I kissed back. I slid off my jeans and we made love. Like with most good men, the act was unremarkable. I was pleased, though, because that meant I hadn’t gotten into him. Perhaps he was stronger than I thought. Perhaps his goodness was rooted more firmly than the blackness in my words.
It was fully dark now, and the light glistened pale on the flat waves. I could see the fish had come in by the way the light darted off of the water.
“Let’s go,” I said, and grabbed his hand. “Grunion run.”
We ran to the shore, our fingers interlaced, and my heart leapt because I felt like one half of a normal couple. I watched him carefully as the fish fucked slippery between our toes. The cuffs of my jeans grew heavy and wet, and the good man laughed and laughed. I relaxed. He was safe. I couldn’t get to him. There was hope for us yet.
I plunged my hand into the darkness and extracted a fish. It flopped around in my palm, telling my fortune like a red piece of Chinese plastic film. If the fish turns over, it means your heart is fickle. Stay on one side, I told the fish, stay true. I stared at it in the moonlight, its flat-looking moon eyes, its leg-looking little fins. I closed my hand around it again, felt the solidness of this fish, felt myself grow lost in the blackness of its gaze. Then its eyes and mine became one. The fish stilled in my hand.
The ground grew unsteady. I didn’t know where it was safe to plant my feet. I felt the world under the sand opening from below, vast and ugly and so incomprehensibly dark.
When I looked up again, there was a flash of brightness on the horizon. I saw the good man’s shoulders above the water, outlined by the light. Then I only saw his head, and then he was gone.
Juliet Escoria lives and writes in Southern California. You can sometimes find her at http://juliet-escoria.tumblr.com.