Another one of those Januarys had arrived, Oliver knew, where you could afford to lose it a little. All that month, winter capped the sky like a tombstone, and people misplaced their college diplomas. They spent the abbreviated days walking the streets with their hands jammed deep in pockets laden with crushed candy wrappers. Their expressions furrowed and went a bit crazy. It was that part of any year where, withheld of heat and light, people began to feel cheated—if not cheated by, then cheated on. The issue wasn’t that they had been mugged, beaten-down in a fashion grandiose with back alley shadows and the insinuation of an organized mobster, but instead that they felt they’d been burglarized discreetly, maybe accidentally, in the skeleton of some mundane weeknight when there was nothing good on TV; as if the only true loss they’d suffered was the theft of a thing hoarded and, hard as it was to admit, better off without.
It was around this time, anyway, that the ocean itself vanished. Poof! Oliver woke to the news in a predawn gloom. He was gashed by moonlight and slack-tongued already with the beginnings of his hangover. There was an emergency government alert throbbing on his phone. Social media informed him experts were stunned. Certainly, such things like the dissipation of the ozone layer and the moon’s slow departure, its rotating further away from the planet each year like a lover estranging herself through dance, had been forecasted, judged eventual as they were inevitable, but not a single pundit had predicted the disappearance of so many metric tons of the sea, not in a hundred thousand years, and definitely not now and all at once.
Oliver scrolled the news until his eyes scratched. Groaning, he placed his phone on his nightstand and a pillow against his face. He knew he probably would not be able to fall back asleep. He also knew this didn’t matter: he was in a period of unemployment (“Between careers,” he liked to tell his friends, with a half-hearted sort of smirk) where there wasn’t much difference between waking at sunrise or sunset. In fact, it was not unusual for him to mistake one for the other.
For a few hours he tossed and turned, and then, having masturbated twice to the idea of his ex sleeping pressed there against him, he surrendered to the fact of his consciousness and decided to dress and drive to the beach.
This time of year, it was hard to tell what was snow and what was sand. Oliver was a bit disappointed. He’d been expecting the spectacle of a catastrophe, but it was so foggy that the sun was a dull coin and the ocean’s absence resembled just another low tide. He hunched himself against the cold and started down toward what he figured was the horizon.
Plenty of puddles remained in the cuts between the sand bars. His boots sank as if in mud, and there was a constant slip-slop crunch of urchins, and snails breaking beneath him. Other people had shared his idea, and he soon discovered the shore was packed with locals snapping pictures and setting up beach chairs brazenly as tourists. A pair of children passed a Frisbee back and forth, weaving between the bodies of still-twitching squids. Nearby a woman was walking her small dog through the cathedral of a rotting whale’s ribs. Overall there was an atmosphere of good-humored acceptance, a kind of climactic shrug—“Well, what are you gonna do about it, am I right?” a man had said to his wife before winking at Oliver as they crossed paths.
The further out he went, the less people there were. It grew colder, the wind intensifying. Seaweed clumps kicked around like tumbleweed, and gulls formed speckled cyclones as they squabbled over exposed crabs. With every footprint he left, Oliver began to feel the growing guilt of encroaching on something raw and cracked open.
He managed to get maybe a mile out before he turned back. On the way, his phone rang. He was out of breath, and an artery drummed within him like a trapped hornet. It was an unknown number, possibly an employer to which he’d applied. He answered instead of allowing himself to think any more about it.
“Oliver,” the voice said, crisp as sunlight breaking through mist. “You applied to the data entry position at IDEZZ? We’ve gone over your resume, and we think you’re a potential fit. We’d love to have you in for an interview.”
Oliver passed a rock with several starfish slowly drying atop it. When they moved, it looked morbidly like they were trying to wave.
Around him the wind’s shifting was visible as a ripple in the fog, a shimmer across a tidepool.
“Oliver?” the voice said. “Is this Oliver Carlson?”
Oliver cleared his throat.
“Sure,” he said. “Yes. Absolutely. That sounds great. When were you thinking?”
Oliver knew he was—had the ocean still existed as a benchmark—in all technicality below sea-level, but in his hangover, in this newly-uncovered mudflat swept bare as a desert, he felt like he could’ve just as easily been in the belly of a cloud, flying rapidly through the howls of some alien planet’s stratosphere.
The office building, in its greyness, seemed to melt into the sky overhead. Oliver’s tie was too tight against his throat, and his dress pants felt baggy. He didn’t know which of the building’s several arched entrances to use. The first he tried was blocked off by a window cleaner who’d arranged an elaborate system of lawn sprinklers to accomplish his job—the cleaner himself recumbent in a foldout chair, bearing sunglasses, a tank top, and a margarita despite the weather—and the second took him to a lobby with an empty desk labeled “security.”
Based on the email he’d received (on the twelfth floor take a left at the stairs and then an immediate right and then the next possible left following down the hallway to the last door on the right), he followed a series of brass informational plaques and elevators until he arrived at the designated office. It was locked by a keypad with a red, cycloptic eye, and he had to knock several times, already sweating into the pits of his shirt, before a displeased-looking secretary opened it for him.
“You were supposed to ask to be buzzed in by security,” she snapped, shutting the door behind him. “Didn’t you read the email?”
The egg-shaped space of the interview room reminded him, with its whitewashed walls and overbearing lights, of being back on the drained beach—the scenery endless no matter how far he traveled, a basin curving always into fog.
The interviewer, Lizzie, was not old, but also had a glossed sort of look where Oliver could not tell how young she was either.
“So, Oliver,” she said. “What exactly do you know about our company?”
“IDEZZ,” Oliver said, beginning his prepared resume speech. “One of the top insurance providers in the region. You have a great history of—”
Lizzie cut him off with a light giggle. It was the vending machine equivalent of laughter, Oliver thought, canned and carbonated.
“Oh no,” she said. “Sorry, I’m afraid there’s been a miscommunication. Our company is Ideas Offices. We specialize in job recruitment. IDEZZ is just one of our many clients.”
“Sorry,” Oliver said. “So sort of like a temp agency?”
“That’s perfectly alright,” Lizzie said.
She had a stack of paper in front of her, each page of which appeared to be blank. She kept shuffling it. “Probably you missed an email. We recommend in the future checking your spam folder. Well.” She fanned ruminatively through the paper stack. “Oliver, why did your ex leave you?”
Oliver blinked. He was aware of a single drop of sweat crawling down his back, thick as an ant. He’d drank too much again last night.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Can you repeat the question?”
“You were together for several years,” Lizzie said, chewing at the end of a pen. “In fact, your breakup coincides with your recent unemployment. Is there a correlation?”
“Is this a job interview?” he said. “What position am I applying to again?”
“That’s perfectly alright,” Lizzie repeated. She smiled: teeth clean as fluorescent light. “I’m sure it’s all included in the email you missed. Nothing to worry about at all. This is an interview to determine what future interviews would be adequate to place you in. I’m sure this might feel a little unusual, but I assure you it’s all perfectly part of the process.”
She shuffled her paperwork before letting the stack fall flat against the polished table.
“What was your mother’s maiden name?” she continued. “Does the smell of leaves fallen in autumn remind you of change, or decay? Given the option, what method of transportation would you prefer to take home with a lover after the date when you realize your relationship is doomed—train, bus, or airplane?”
The questioning went on like this for several hours, Lizzie’s paperwork perpetually shuffling, her smile always flickering. When Oliver finally emerged, twilight had battered the color from the streets. There was a ringing in his head like an engine’s stalling, but instead of driving straight home, he went back to the beach, where he stood on the hill overlooking the shore until his hands grew numb.
The wind caught in his ear like the sound of his interviewer’s papers shuffling. In the encroaching night, the only indication that the sea was gone was the lack undercutting all the usual beach noise, the altogether absence of the crash and slam of waves—that roar which had once been so resounding and complete it was as if it originated not from the ocean but the very blood rushing within your ears; a void which, to Oliver, seemed to have become its own kind of sound, like a neighbor’s vacuuming heard through the wall, sucking him invisibly and always back, returning him, again and again, to these vast barren plains of seaweed.
It was an easy thing, that winter, to realize that you were not, in fact, you—rather you were the untitled, draft email of yourself, addressed to no one. That could happen, people were saying: you could go so undercover in your job, in the weekend bars you frequented, in the love affairs you tucked away in studio apartments, that you forgot who you were, awoke one morning divorced from yourself as a method actor pretending to be a gas station cashier.
And so the little surrenders became necessary. On the way to work people detoured for donuts and were fired for arriving late, palms still sticky with glaze. They chugged obscene amounts of diet soda at friend’s dinner parties, and then locked themselves in bathrooms that were not theirs to take hour-long showers. Each day everyone sacrificed just a bit more of themselves, because it was rumored you could only be sure of who you still were based on all the things you had given up.
Oliver himself had been spending his days in buildings with rooms, desks, and windows. He was following the orders of obscure emails from Ideas Offices, which instructed him mainly to drive to giant concrete slabs, check-in with a secretary, and subject himself to interviews whose premise and purpose he did not know. Each building was its own maze, cubicled labyrinths mandating secret entry codes in elevators, hidden passages tucked away at the bottom of stairwells echoing and moist as caves.
“The sky is a moose’s pupil dilating,” an interviewer told him. “Is the blackness itself expanding, increasing its mass and presence, or is it simply taking from its surroundings, reducing the totality of everything else? And what, if any, is the difference?”
The interviewer was wearing Patagonia. He was wearing a Patagonia puffer jacket, Patagonia khaki pants, Patagonia hiking boots with mud splashed fashionably along their laces the way jeans could come pre-torn. Oliver often felt simultaneously over- and underdressed during these sessions, his dress shirt ballooning over his belt, his tie like a swollen tongue. As far as he could tell, most of these floors he spent lost inside beneath the low, constant hum of harsh office lights did not exist in the building’s directory.
“One problem with the Big Bang,” the interviewer continued, “is that there are galactic superstructures measurably older than the theory allows. Based on the speed of light, these things would require more gravity than exists in the universe to form. Stars like cathedrals. ‘Stained glass’, sure—but stained with what? Is the nature of glass not transparency? With what is mankind tainted?”
Oliver would meet these people on floors allegedly belowground yet with windows looking out upon golden-crested clouds. Alternatively, he’d take a long elevator ride to the 82nd level, only to find the lighting there subterranean as the guts of a mine.
“Sorry,” Oliver said often, scratching at a vague pain in his neck. “Can you repeat the question?”
Invariably, these meetings ended with the interviewer checking something off their notepad and flicking on a smile. “Okay,” they would say. “That about covers it. Thank you for your time. You should hear back from us within a few days.”
Oliver’s sole relief was walking the evaporated beach after each interview, still in his suit and tie, his dress shoes compiling muck.
The seaweed had long since dried to brittle husks which snapped underfoot. What crabs the gulls had failed to engorge upon had rotted, such that the whole shore was laden in stink. It was an entirely new ecosystem, foreign as a planet’s discovery.
Once upon a time, Oliver remembered, he had been truly, deeply in love. For some reason the scattered, sun-bleached corpses of crustaceans reminded him of this. But the memory was faint, and when he tried to embrace his sorrow, dive straight to the heart of it, his woe seemed a bit too measured—calculated as a plot to infiltrate a bank.
“Even in winter,” he thought to himself, “crab shells still bake red.”
He felt sort of Zen, but mostly he felt absurd. It was hard to take your life too seriously those days—after all, the ocean itself was gone. Very deliberately he unraveled his tie, held it high above his head, released his grip. He watched its fabric undulate across the sand in inky lashes, like an outer space invader, like a creature dredged and stained from the deepest sea.
End of March, people began to show up to lunch dates drunk, and order haphazardly, without regard for their breath or their heartburn. At the office water cooler, the main topic was death. A rumor was going around that terrorists had successfully infiltrated America, but had done it, perhaps, too well—that they had become so saturated with their new identities they could no longer tell themselves apart from the ordinary citizens they were pretending to be; they abandoned their prior apocalyptic ideology to sell cars and mattresses.
They invested in real estate, and did their best to find a wife and kids to return home to from work. In a way, political leaders were warning, slamming beers during TV interviews, this was even more dangerous than these terrorists’ previous plots. Because just like that, you could find yourself replaced, pushed out of society without knowing you’d even belonged there to begin with…
One night, meanwhile, despite having just paid his apartment’s rent, his savings tattered from yet another month of unemployment, Oliver stayed in a motel. He was trying to pretend to be someone else, hoping that in the process he’d remember what it felt like to be himself. He had started to act strangely around friends. The last time he’d been invited out to dinner, they’d asked how he was, and he had replied without thinking, “Every night in my dreams I’m executed via drone bombing.”
He needed a job, probably. There was too much free time in the world, and all of it compressed onto his shoulders. Spring had brought mud and rain, and it was becoming hard to walk the vanished beach. Once he had lost an entire shoe to the sludge the sand had become, and often he found himself chased back to shore by a torrent of rain so sudden it was like a wave crashing down on him.
But his next career was right around the corner, he was assured in each call and email from Ideas Offices. The interviewers he’d met with were all impressed—he had presented himself wonderfully and professionally. There were just a few wrinkles, sure, a position he’d been in consideration for had closed or changed titles, paperwork needed to be processed, a background check they were waiting on, but all he needed was to be patient and keep answering their calls and emails. Frankly, he couldn’t ask for a better economy to be doing this in, what with the current interest rates and everything.
So Oliver took to trying to make his time go by like a field trip. He saw every matinee there was at the local theater. He spent the afternoons after in the wax-polish glow of bowling alleys, never breaking a score of 119. He got drunk maybe a few too many days in a row at the bar of a family-friendly corporate burger chain before the sun had completely set.
Water collected in the slashes between the beach’s dunes, a thousand different pools which stretched all the way to the horizon without ever quite connecting. On cable news, scientists quarreled meekly. Surely, they were asked by an impassioned host, surely if they couldn’t explain why the ocean was gone, they could at least tell us where it had gone? In response, these scientists opened a beer—live, onstage!—and checked the time on their phones, sighing the whooshing kind of sigh that originates deep in the nostrils as a dream.
And the rain kept falling, drumming against Oliver’s window at night like a person timid and asking for directions, making the light move in reed-y patterns along his bedroom walls, such that sometimes he woke believing he’d drowned in his sleep.
In this sense, he did not need the abandoned sea, for the rest of his life had already come to resemble it. Oliver had been unemployed now for 148 days.
Then—midway through one of those science fiction movies about love and robots and the meaning of humanity that gorged you like a bag of potato chips, laid you right into a salty stupor you could almost mistake for inner peace—his phone rang. He checked the number calling: unknown. The theater was empty around him, so he answered.
“Oliver Carlson?” the voice on the other end asked.
“Yes,” he said, sitting a little taller, as if that would get him better reception. “Yes, this is.”
“Oliver,” the voice said. “You applied to—?” The voice cut in and out, like a transmission from another world. “Congratu— . Accepted for the job. Pleased to…—at four pm tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. Panic was rising in him, but slowly, incrementally as a high tide. His head felt heavy. He stood and stumbled toward the exit. “Sorry, I can’t hear you. Can you repeat that? Just please, one second—”
Although outside the drizzling sky was gray as the pavement beneath it, the contrast with the theater’s gloom winced Oliver’s eyes. He was soon soaked, standing there in an empty parking lot trying to catch a signal. He had lost the call. The thing with rain, he was realizing, was that after a while it moderated the world, blended temperatures and textures together, such that it was hard to tell skin apart from the moisture beading atop of it. He decided to call Ideas Offices, on the assumption it was one of their secretaries who had tried to contact him, only to hear an automated message: “We’re sorry,” the voice on the other end of the line said, “the number you are trying to reach is unavailable. We’re sorry,” the voice said, “we’re sorry, we’re sorry,” the voice was saying, “we’re sorry…”
For a while, then, life did not collapse, but retreated, withdrawing slowly and mollusk-like into itself.
The protests that year were halfhearted and starred mediocre celebrities. Communities launched bake sales to raise awareness for the issue of hitting rock-bottom. Existence, they argued, was an endless freefall, a plunge that led into an ever-increasing series of more plunges all cycling infinitely into one another, and wouldn’t it be nice, finally, to for once hit something, to have a terminal impact, to reach a surface solid enough to stop all this abyssal cartwheeling? We’ve landed on the moon itself, supporters shouted over platters of cookies and brownies—knowing they were, maybe, coming off “too strong,” being a little “overbearing,” yet unable still to stop themselves and the saliva launching from their mouths—so was it too much to ask to find a rock-bottom here on the very earth we inhabited to land on?
Weeks passed for Oliver without calls or emails. He kept mostly to his bed, boxes of takeout accumulating around him like discarded seashells. The world had become, for him, rain and crab rangoon. It had become a dark room lit by the television’s 3 a.m. glow.
He did not feel depressed. In fact, there were moments when a certain giddiness overtook him, like a carbonation in the veins, and he could imagine himself, then, tucked beneath his blankets, as a mad scientist locked away in an Antarctic castle, “biding his time.”
When his savings at last verged on depletion, he looked up Ideas Office on a search engine and, finding that their website had been deleted, decided to drive to their building. This time there was no window washer, although it didn’t seem to Oliver like one was necessary, seeing the rain cascade down the structure’s reflective paneling. He crossed the empty lobby and, hazily remembering the instructions he had received so long ago, took an elevator into a series of right right lefts, twisting through corridors pristine as a healthy digestive tract until he reached the correct office. The door was unlocked, the keypad beside it deactivated, the secretary absent.
In each cubicle, screensavers flashed rhythmically on their monitors, like organs obeying a pulse. Despite the silence, there were stacks of paperwork everywhere, some of them collapsing with their own weight, spilling across desks and onto the floor, suggesting a flurry of motion that Oliver had missed by just mere moments. He found a mug of coffee and sipped from it deeply. It was still warm.
Afterwards, he drove to the beach. The ocean had returned. Seeing all that water all at once, gleaming and immense as an oil spill, he froze at the steering wheel, his car veering toward a sidewalk. Then he slammed on his brakes, parked at a haphazard angle, and left the vehicle running in his hurry to get to the shoreline.
The rain had let up, the sky punctured by a hilt of sun, but in its place the spray of tossed waves filled the air, stinging Oliver’s face with their every crash and tumble. A small crowd had already assembled around him, equipped with cameras and beer coolers.
The sound of each broken wave was like a skulled concussion. The ocean stretched ever-outwards, roiling and gnawing as an infant rooted with its first tooth. Oliver stood there imagining himself as a speck against it. He imagined all the things hidden beneath those swelling crests that he had come to know, the miles of sand he had walked daily, the routes carved between dunes that had become familiar as highways, piles of shed shells and crustaceans petrified by wind and sun—all buried now by a sledgehammer of water heavy as the moon.
In this sense, he was starting to understand, he had already lost the ocean’s loss—a meta-loss, the kind that came up with weighty theories alone in an all-night diner, taking notes, doodling on newspapers, a loss on a vacation in which it contemplated between rum cocktails how long it had been gone, exactly, extending itself forever toward a tropical horizon. His idle days pacing the endless shore were over. Already the sea was writhing and black and alive with a hundred billion fish.