Content warning: suicide references
It was happening again: water, creeping under the door. It was slick and moved like oil, unnatural. Mr. Brady didn’t notice. He faced Ara with his back to the door, smirking.
Ara tried not to look at the water. She tried to focus on the grocery store manager, his questions, that skin-prickling smirk. But the water seeped closer.
“We don’t allow tattoos,” Mr. Brady said. “And you’d have to cut your hair.”
“My hair?” Ara said.
Her mouth moved, but her eyes were on the floor. On the water, curled like a double helix at Mr. Brady’s feet.
“Yes, of course,” Mr. Brady said. “As it stands now, it’s too short for a ponytail, too long to wear loose. You’re aware that you’ll perform actual labor, correct?”
She stared, dead-eyed, at the smug curl of his lips.
“I figured I’d just be at the register,” Ara said. “I didn’t know my hair would—”
“Standards,” Mr. Brady said, “are important.”
The water was at his feet now, nipping the back of his shoes. He didn’t appear to notice.
“Of course,” Ara said. She scratched at her tattoo—an ocean wave, breaking, carved into her inner elbow. Attained a few months ago, on her eighteenth birthday, a night smeared into pastel ribbons. “I can cover it. And cut the hair.”
“Excellent,” Mr. Brady said. “But no dark make-up, either. No piercings. And absolutely no—oh, great.”
He’d finally noticed the water.
“Just great,” he said. “Mark was supposed to take care of that. Damn pipes. Where is it even—forget it. Be back here tomorrow. Your shift starts at nine.”
Ara rose to her feet and shook his clammy hand. When she left, she closed the door behind her.
Mr. Brady didn’t notice the water changing direction.
Ara lived on the other side of town, right at the border, at the farthest point from the ocean. She’d tried to move away from the coast before—she holed up in a Midwest apartment far away from the ocean, rocking back and forth on her heels, waking up with brine in her mouth—but it never stuck. The water always found her.
She visited the beach once a week, early in the morning, and only if she felt up to it. Sometimes she loved it. She’d watch the waves clamber up the sand bank, crawling like an animal, desperately trying to reach her. She imagined what it would be like if she let the water get to her. How she would vault under the waves, her feet climbing over her forehead, how she would hang suspended in the wild and precious dark.
Other times, the smell of salt made her sick. Today was one of those days. The restaurant smelled like fried fish and a dark stain swelled on the ceiling. Her date, a woman named Virginia, sat across from her. It had taken months for Ara to download a dating app. Now she couldn’t believe she had waited so long. Virginia trailed her finger along the tablecloth.
“I’m starting a gym business,” Virginia said.
“Trying to get ripped?” Ara said.
“Trying to help other people get ripped. I used to be a personal trainer.”
Ara glanced up at the stain on the ceiling. The stain watched her back, hungrily. Jimmy Buffet music shimmied through the speakers. Virginia took a bite of sauce-soaked broccoli.
“What do you do?”
“Gardening, mostly,” Ara said. “But I work at a grocery store.”
“Gardening? That’s brave. The dirt is shit here. Too sandy.”
“Yeah,” Ara said. “Pretty much nothing takes. It makes harvesting season super easy.”
Virginia choked on her broccoli. She burst out laughing, covering her mouth with her hand. Then she invited Ara to a walk on the beach.
“I have work in the morning,” Ara said.
They kissed outside the restaurant, the brick wall biting into Ara’s back. Virginia tasted like peppermint and mist. At home, Ara didn’t fall asleep for hours.
Work. Nine in the morning, a metallic register. Ara scanned chips and oatmeal and cans of tomatoes. Water bottles twitched in the plastic bags. Mr. Brady flicked at a strand of her hair.
“Doesn’t look much shorter to me,” he said.
“It takes a woman’s eye,” Ara said. She hadn’t gotten the haircut.
Virginia visited towards the end of her shift. She waited in line at Ara’s register even though others were open, then bought five bottles of red wine and an Almond Joy.
“Nice uniform,” Virginia said.
“Nice alcoholism,” Ara said.
Virginia covered her mouth with her hand, which meant she was grinning.
“God, you’re a dick,” Virginia said. “I’m having some people at my house tonight. I’ll text you the address.”
It was dark when Ara walked to 122 Margot Street. Sand cackled under her sandals. The screen door was propped open, music frothing out from speakers inside. Ara wiped her palms on her jeans.
Inside, the crowd welcomed her—and the punch bowl jerked, rolled over. The red liquid snaked closer as Ara bent to clean it up. It nipped at her fingers, playful. Glad to see her.
Virginia appeared beside her, a rag in hand.
“Always spilling things,” she said.
Her voice was soft, still, like a pond you can see the sky in. Ara took the rag and scrubbed at the tile. The punch soaked through the rag and slinked up her wrists.
Virginia knelt down next to her. Her breath filled Ara’s ear.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she whispered.
Ara’s head filled with static. She fumbled with the rag.
“Me too,” she said.
They sat outside together, away from the music and muffled voices. Virginia drew circles on Ara’s wrists. They shared a mason jar half-filled with red wine.
“You said you’ve been here since June,” Ara said. “How have I never met you before?”
“I was wondering that about that, too,” Virginia said. “Like, you already knew everyone at this party better than you know me. Have you been hiding or some shit?”
Virginia drank from the mason jar, grinning a little. The stars buzzed overhead, like insects against glass.
“I grew up with the people in there,” Ara said, nodding to the door. “But yeah, I—I kind of stopped hanging out with people after I graduated high school last month. Too busy being a garden hermit.”
“Yeah, well. I’ve seen you around,” Virginia admitted. “But I never said anything.”
Ara choked on her wine. “You’ve seen me around?”
“You know. At the beach and stuff. I’ve noticed you. It was pretty awesome when you showed up on my dating app.”
Ara stared at her. Virginia had seen her, noticed her before—and at the beach? The beach? Ara’s chest tightened. What had she seen? And how had Ara not noticed her back?
Virginia touched Ara’s cheek, softly. They were miles away from the coastline, but Ara swore she heard waves crashing.
“I like you,” Virginia said.
Ara’s heartbeat stilled. She felt lucid and overflowing in the summer dark.
The next morning, Ara went to the ocean. She stood in the stuttering sand. The water ached and pulled toward her.
Come in, it whispered. Come in.
Ara stared into the pulsing ripples. She tried, for a moment, to think about her mother. The lines around her mouth. Water dripping between her closed fists. Goosebumps broke out on Ara’s arms.
She turned around and drove home.
The dirt burned against Ara’s kneecaps. She knelt in her garden, watching the water break through the dirt, climb up the roots and leaves. Her arms shimmered with dew. The plants watched her, sunburned and withered.
Ara’s childhood garden couldn’t grow either. Her mother had spent hours crouched in the dirt. She came inside soaked, wearing all the water in the garden. The more time she spent in the dirt, the more water she stole from the plants. They never lived. But every year, she planted a new row of seeds.
Ara joined Virginia on her morning runs. Ara hated running. It made her head swim and her heart batter and it reminded her, viscerally, that she had a body—this ridiculous panting thing that had to keep up with her. But she liked Virginia. And running was one of the few things Virginia liked to do away from the beachside. Virginia didn’t believe in working out on the sand.
They ran through old neighborhoods, past slumping houses and wind-worn palm trees. Puddles twitched as Ara passed by. Virginia’s sweat smelled sweet, coppery.
“Guarantee that one’s haunted,” Virginia said, waving at one of the houses.
Ara nodded, trying to hide how out of breath she was. Her chest burned.
Virginia didn’t seem remotely tired. She jogged circles around Ara, laughing. Seagulls screeched overhead.
“You’re such a shithead,” Ara said.
Virginia stopped running.
“What was that?”
“You’re a shithead.”
“Me? A shithead?”
“You’re a shithead.”
Virginia was grinning, and she didn’t cover her mouth this time. Ara’s stomach clenched at the sight of her crooked teeth. Virginia seized her by the waist and squeezed her sides. Ara jerked away, gasping with laughter.
“Oh,” Virginia said. “So you’re a ticklish bitch?”
“I swear to God—”
“You’re in for it now—”
They chased each other down the empty street, howling.
Ara’s ceiling leaked and the sink was broken. She’d moved out of her childhood home as soon as she turned eighteen, and it cost too much to get the plumbing fixed at her new apartment—especially since it would only break again. Virginia didn’t mind the mess. She took the books off Ara’s shelf one by one and read the back covers.
“Good to know you’re such a feminist,” she said. “Have you read The Awakening?”
“I fucking hate that book.”
“I read it in high school. It seemed okay to me.”
“Sheesh. Harsh words from someone who still has a copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
Ara snatched the book from her and crammed it back on the bookshelf.
“You’re the worst,” she said.
“I know,” Virginia said, snaking her arms around Ara’s waist. “That’s why you like me.”
They ate fried fish at the kitchen table. Ara didn’t get them drinks, too worried about the cups upending. Virginia didn’t notice. She fiddled with the fork. She kept looking down at her food and back up at Ara.
“Do you still go to the ocean in the mornings?”
“Not really,” Ara lied. She rubbed her knuckles on the knots in the table.
“Are you bored of it since you’ve lived here for so long?”
“No, I—I don’t know. Not really. It’s more like—” Ara glanced at her. Virginia’s gaze was a little too attentive. “I don’t know. I just haven’t felt like it lately.”
Virginia took a bite of fish. “Maybe we can go together sometime.” Then, when Ara didn’t say anything, she added, “After you show me your garden, of course. I’ve been waiting all day to see this freaking garden. The tension is going to kill me.”
Ara went back to the ocean, in the dark, before sunrise. She listened to it crash and murmur.
Come in, it whispered. Come in.
She imagined her mother with her feet in the water. Her back pressed into the sand. Her hair floating over her head like a wraith, a jellyfish. The water crushing her eardrums.
Ara imagined a water so clear that you could see the sky from the bottom. She imagined waves so soft you could cut them apart with your fingernail. She imagined burying herself in the bank like a sand flea, clinging to the crumbling stone wave after wave.
She stared into the dark, imagining.
The grocery store stayed empty most mornings. Ara swiped through her phone under the register. The air conditioning was razor cold.
She was texting back Virginia when Mr. Brady showed up. He spotted the phone immediately.
“Ara! No texting while you’re on the clock. This is strike one. We are professionals here.”
“We need you sharp. Customer service is everything. What if someone needed help, and you were too busy texting?”
Ara looked up and down the aisles. They were all empty.
“Say it with me. Here at Publix, we make shopping a pleasure. With me, Ara. Here at Publix, we make shopping a—okay. Enough. Just put up the phone. Don’t let me see it again.”
He disappeared into the break room.
Ara slid the phone into her pocket. She listened to the air conditioning thrum.
When she was a child, her mother brought her to this grocery store every Sunday. Her mother charged through the aisles with a single-minded determination, snatching milk and eggs and crackers. Water bottles jerked off the shelves and rolled at her feet. She ignored them. Ara trotted behind her.
Now Ara tapped the side of the register. She fiddled with her shirt sleeves. She wished she could check her phone, read a book, do anything other than stand here with her thoughts. She considered going to the restroom, just to go somewhere, just to have something to do. But she didn’t want to make the store’s water problem worse. Her mother almost never used public bathrooms—it wasn’t good manners. Her water problem made toilets flood, the sinks overflow. She didn’t want to cause more problems. She never wanted to cause more problems.
Virginia nestled her head in Ara’s lap. A sitcom flashed, shifting light over their faces.
“I love this part,” Virginia said.
The laugh track roared. Ara wound her fingers through Virginia’s hair.
“Can I stay here tonight?” Virginia said. Her lips warm against Ara’s leg.
Ara breathed in, slow. At that moment, warm and soft on the couch, Virginia’s hair in her hands, Ara was only water. Rushing, hoping, violently tender. Yes, she thought. Yes.
Across the room, a photo of Ara’s mother glittered.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Ara said. “I can drop you off.”
“Okay,” Virginia said.
She was quiet for a moment.
“Want to go to the beach tonight? Before you drop me off?”
“You can go,” Ara said. “I’ll clean up here.”
Virginia sat up, pulling away a little. She looked at Ara for a long moment.
“We’ve still never gone to the water together,” she said. “What, do you not like the beach?”
“The beach is fine. I’m just tired.”
“It’s six o’clock. You’re too tired to walk by the water?”
“I don’t want to fight,” Ara said.
“We’re not fighting,” Virginia said. “I just want to know what your deal with the beach is. I’ve asked you to go with me, like, a billion times. What’s the problem?”
Ara shrugged. She stared at the window over Virginia’s shoulder, glazed with condensation.
“It’s okay if you just don’t want to,” Virginia said. “Like, if you’re bored of it or something. Or if you don’t know how to swim. Do you know how to swim?”
“I know how to swim. Jesus.”
“Well, I want to go to the water.”
Virginia stood up.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m going.”
“Go,” Ara said. She was looking at the picture of her mother again. She felt her eyes from across the room, milky black.
The shower made Ara into a statue of a god. The steam swirled around her in warm halos. She became smooth. She became stone. She thought of Virginia, her crooked teeth and always slightly startled expression. Ara stayed in the shower until the steam started to choke her.
When she was a child, Ara’s family lived by the water. She could see the sizzling blue from her childhood bedroom. The ocean had now long since eaten the house. It had eaten her mother, too.
Ara spent years reading about it. Trying to understand. Trying to make it reasonable. She read about mad women, desperate women, women who hated their husbands so much they walked into the ocean. She read about the sickening romance of the moon. The weight and balance, the pull so strong it could move elements. Particles and cave art and rape. Sleeping under the bed. Awakening. Her mother, a ghostly figure outside her window. Her slow walk into the current. Busted faucets, cold slick floors. Watching from the window, watching from the window, watching from the window. The water had followed her mother, too.
Ara burst out of the shower on her hands and knees. Steam bellowed out behind her. She hacked and gasped on the floor. No water spilled out after her. It clung to her skin, her hair, her fingernails.
I am not my mother, she thought. I am not my mother. I am not my mother. I am not my—
Ara drifted at the cash register. She scanned apples and crackers and yogurt. Virginia called, and Ara didn’t answer. All she could think about was her mother.
Ara stepped into the ocean. She stepped out again.
She cleaned up spilled drinks. She wrung out her clothes in the bathroom.
She stopped washing her hands. She drank milk, let the acne bloom. She stayed inside and watched the ceiling fan tick.
Ara stepped into the ocean. She stepped out again.
She stood at the coastline, the current wrapped around her ankles. She thought of the women before her, their bones at the bottom of the sea. The wind ripped against her knees. She imagined the water clashing in her mouth, her throat, filling and filling until she was nothing but current, overfilled and flowing. That, she thought, is what she was supposed to do. That is what they did, the mad women, the sad women, the women like her and her mother: succumb to the water. Walk into the ocean, dress flowing. Let it overtake you. Never return.
She backed out of the tide. It trembled, and whispered.
Virginia found her at the cash register.
“I’m sorry,” Virginia said. “It—I mean, you’re not a dumbass. You know it wasn’t about the beach. I just feel like you don’t want to get close to me.”
Mr. Brady lingered nearby, pretending to look at his clipboard. Shopping carts clattered in the aisles.
“Look, I get off in half an hour,” Ara said. “Let’s go the water.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Bring champagne.”
On the beach, the wind ripped sand into their faces, nestled in their hair. Virginia handed her the champagne bottle.
“It was about the beach,” Ara said. “At least for me.”
She opened the champagne with a dizzy pop.
“Happy Tuesday. My mom drowned herself.”
Virginia stared at her. The waves roared in laughter.
“Are you—are you serious?”
“Yeah,” Ara said.
The tide was rising, the water climbing closer with each cycle.
“Jesus Christ. Ara, I’m so—”
“It’s not your fault. You didn’t know.”
Ara didn’t say, But that’s not all.
Ara didn’t say, I think the water wants me, too.
Ara said, “The water’s gonna reach us if we don’t move soon.”
They picked up the towels and moved further up the beach, settling among the reeds. Virginia reached for her, then pulled away.
“Jesus,” she said. “You’re sweating.”
Ara looked down. Her shirt was soaked.
“Yeah. I—I guess I feel weird out here.”
“Let’s go somewhere else. My place?”
“No.” Ara took her hand, water slick between her fingers. “Let’s just. Look for awhile.”
Virginia breathed out, slowly. Her hand tightened around Ara’s.
“I love you,” Virginia said.
Ara leaned her head on Virginia’s shoulder. The waves clambered up the shore, seething, starving. She closed her eyes. She imagined herself dragged under the tide, arms freed like dandelion seeds, tumbling into the wind, the water.
“I love you too,” she said.
Come in, the water whispered. Come in.
But Virginia’s shoulder was soft and the air was warm and Ara had a thousand hours to work at her shitty grocery store. She swallowed some champagne, straight from the bottle. Virginia’s hair got caught in her mouth. And Ara rested, warm in the prickling sand, listening to the water howl, not imagining anything.