BEACH HOUSE by Jenny Stalter

Our house faces neither east nor west and sits in shadow. The tiny green house with the too much wicker. The tinted glass dishes full of seashells and tapestries accented with smooth beach glass. Oil paintings of seagulls. Mom really went for the beach look. Most people acquire a life over a lifetime, but it’s like she stopped in 1986. Stopped making a home, stopped making herself. The house smells like sour sweat and coconut rum. Mom, drunk on the couch as a permanent fixture, her robe hanging off the sofa, mouth open. I place a pillow under her head and some water and aspirin on the coffee table. 

Rum stains map a torment of constellations on the carpet. I used to move furniture to hide them but there are too many now. To navigate the living room I step on the stains one at a time, like stamping out bad memories. When I was younger I delighted in listening to the conch shell that sat on our coffee table. I wanted to hear the ocean. Now every detail of this house feels like being swept out to sea. 

I meet Danielle in English class. We’re the only girls wearing fishnets and Docs. She passes me a note with a colored pencil drawing of a munched-up apple that says HARD CORE.

Danielle is the first girl I ever kiss. When we finally fuck she is like an anchor. Danielle works part time as a lifeguard at the Y, which means she wears a whistle. It gives her a distinct air of authority that really gets me going. She’s the one in charge, like, if I’m running too fast, she can blow her whistle and make me stop. Or if I am drowning right there in my living room, she can jump in and save me. I tell her about my fondness for the whistle, how I feel like my life, my mom, my house are swallowing me like the sea, and she is the lifeguard. After I tell her this, when we fuck, if she is ready for me to come, she blows the whistle hard.

We’re laying on my bed smoking a blunt and drinking wine. Mom is gone or drunk, the TV is going in the living room. Daytime talk shows.

“Do I fuck more like a cowboy or a bronco?” I ask her.

“I think maybe like a bronco” she says.

“On a scale of one to ten, rate me.”

“I thought we were using a mammalian rating system?” She laughs.

“It’s numerical now. Rate me one to ten.” 

She kisses me. After a minute and a pull off the wine bottle she says, “If I could tell you how to fall in love, I would tell you to hold back enough so you don’t let people take pieces of you. You’re too eager to give it all away.”

I hate that she sees me so clearly. She knows what my crass mother and shadow house have made me. I wonder what exactly I’m giving away. Probably my heart. That’s what people say about love. And I do love her.

“What do you think we are, inside our bodies? Souls? Life force? Like what even is any of that?” she asks, blowing smoke rings.

I think of grocery store meat. Blood-red hunks of shrink-wrapped muscle that once moved beasts around. What’s left when life leaves. The thought makes me feel more connected to Danielle, like we are the same. The hunk of muscle that is my heart moves my blood. She has one too, and it pumps her blood and moves her body. We move and talk and fuck and play because our hearts are shrink-wrapped inside us. But my other heart, the other kind people talk about, is not inside me anymore. It exists outside, like grocery store meat, and Danielle takes it with her every time she leaves. 

But I forget about all of it when she slides her hand up my skirt. Sex with Danielle is like listening to the conch shell in my living room. I never heard the ocean. I hear my own space cupped back to me, an echo reinforcing myself. In these tight moments with her, my life is not a fearsome abyss about to swallow me up. It is a woman stripping herself of her jewels—beach glass rubbed smooth, her seashell teeth, making herself naked. And it’s all left for me like gifts on the shore.

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