Writing by Jessie Irvin Rose. Illustration Berenika Murray.
She lies in the heat and watches him work, watches him sway the net through the shimmery bits of light on the tiles in the deep end and pull up little bugs, and swirls strands of her hair. She can see him sweating through his t-shirt, where the stubble under his arms presses on the cotton, and it creases where it sticks. Going through the process of chlorine and dilutant, telling her that she can’t swim until it has settled.
Looking at him feels like a lazy thing to do. Her eyes drag. Little beads of glassy condensation gathered in the small of her back, stomach down. Gets up, stretches, follows him inside.
Later, he is driving home in the dark, windows open on both sides of the car, so he can feel the breeze going all the way through and the air feels less like butter.
He keeps the dregs of her in his back seat. The infested water builds up in two plastic canteen jugs, leaving her with only the pristine proof of his work. When they are touching, she tells him she wants to eat him and means it. Give me a part of your hand, the soles of your feet, the plush of your stomach, the hair on the back of your neck, the way your chest tightens if you run a hand over it. Or the drum of your temples, or the atlas of your shoulder.
He offers her the flesh above his collarbone and she suckles like a lamb. He puts a finger in her mouth, and she bites down, making him wince. The skin shifts over the knuckle bone and the drag of it under her molars makes her feel sick, so she ignores him when he tries again.
If he melted for her - and she knew he would – he wonders if he would feel her lick him off her wrists after he was gone, or if she would leave him whole and untouched. Something about watching him do it just to know she could. Never needing him at all. What would she do when her skin started to crack? Thinking of the dirt that would start under her fingernails and work its way up to her body, or the trails of hair that would start to collect where she walked indoors, he feels okay about it.
The pool house is cool and dark, and the water filter hums. They are standing, leaning into a murmuration against the stone wall next to the stacks of sun loungers in a shadow, two sets of bare feet making light, wet skittering noises on the floor, little damp splashes of toes in puddles. Here is the only room they can speak in. Outside, the heat and the sun only belong to the person who can use it for stillness. For him, it is the way his muscles pull back on him like the rein between the teeth of a horse, trickling skin, the slow slow way a stone fruit starts to ripen and rot. Sweet, and then too soft.
When night comes, her skin radiates citronella and the mosquitos dance around the edges of it. Repelled, enticed. She sleeps unbitten. Some days, she is gone when he finishes working. He hovers around the rancid parts of his own despondency like a fruit fly, but she doesn’t come back outside. Once, he walked up past the pool to the house, and spoke her name onto the kitchen tiles, but only heard the growl of the generators. On the drive home, he had felt something scalding, like shame, but put it down to sunburn.
He is sitting in the front seat at the bottom of the mountain. The heat in the night almost sings. With it thick in his throat, he gets out and slams the car door. The canteens are heavier than he expects. Before he had been allowed to start making calls on his own, he had been taught the best way to dispose of the debris that accumulated when the filters couldn’t eat it away themselves. His brother showed him when his hands were softer and still full of the dough of being young. Little peach fingertips unscrewed the caps of the jugs and used a long needle to break up the dirt, so it would flow smoothly into the compost. The leg of a bug, the dirt in the sky. On the drive, they would pull over, just here, before the steepest parts that scared him, sit together on the dust in front of the car, and drink lemon squash.
At its most undiluted, after weeks, it is a soft block, like the texture of a thigh. He presses a thumb into the flesh of it. Turns the thumb inwards, breaking the skin with his fingernail. Pushing, bruising. It pops with a last spurt of chlorinated water, oozes, and settles. No bug legs, no dirt, no sky. Just her, in little nests you could use to plug holes in plaster, or something to burn.
The canteens sit in the car, dehydrated by the length of the summer, and she is watching him again. He is barely moving, bored of the dance of it, full of the quiet fury of not catching her eye. Can’t make her look at him, so maybe he doesn’t exist. She can still see the way he sweats but can’t taste it from here. And then – up and inside. Like a summoning.
She lets him put two fingers in the gap between her teeth and bottom lip. He is usually gentler, but he pushes, and it aches. Her jaw, the whole of him. “You can have it.” He dips to hook her gaze. “You can.” She nods. “So have it.” They stay touching and keep moving. “Take it from me.” He doesn’t stop speaking, running fists over the closed fences of her. Her eyes are closed, breathing. “Eat me.” There is a new urgency in him. “Eat me.” He repeats.
She looks up. Opens her jaw, wider than he thought possible. He starts moving from the wrist. Pushing. His fingers pass her teeth, his knuckles, the veins in his hand, the bone in his wrist, the tendon in his forearm. She gags, all 5 fingers touching her oesophagus. It is all he is, the intense pleasure of belonging to her like she wanted, the bliss.
And she bites. The sound that comes out of his mouth is low and guttural. It sounds just like the water filter, she thinks, still pulsing in the corner. Her sharpest tooth punctures the delicate baby skin below his palm, and she tastes copper. And then her mouth is empty again. Spit. Coughing and spit. His arm is still attached to him. She is pulling on her bikini top and her hair is perfect – it has always been perfect. Brushing him off, composing herself.
“What do you want from me? What the fuck do you want from me?”
His eyes flash in the grey, his whole body surges with it, and all the things he has never been able to say. She is still, looking up at him, all eyes. She is so clean. Unblemished, other than a small dot of red below her lip. His blood. The filth. He shrinks as the mosquitos do.
The door to the pool house swings behind her, with the dizzying flashes of the light of late August getting in his eye, so he is blind. He is blind when his feet hit the ground, slapping the damp and sending tiny droplets up to his ankles. When he skims the grass in its perfect green. When he pulls the door of his car open, the scream of the hinges, the bloat of the canteens, the sear of their plastic handles almost bubbling in the heat, turning the skin on his hand white. A noise from the gut, or organs that gasp. Fucking listen to me, I gave you everything. Everything.
He is back now - the pool is so still. The only blue in a water graveyard. The canteens, both of them, are soft in his hands, but his nails still bleed as he rips into them. They are clogged with the dirt, her dirt, taken away. And then the pool is black. Cascades of her, the hair, the smell, the woman in the sun, and the heat. The things she was so scared of. Of him, of what he kept. Everything she never wanted to taste, see, or know. Everything he took from her, preserved so carefully, put back, knife into the beauty of the water. The way the skin of it erupts. Rehydrated bricks of the foulest parts, now swirling around back where they came from. The pool is full of it, even the deep end is polluted with legs, dirt, hair, nail, tooth, and sky.
The hurricane there spins silently. The garden is quiet, the mountain is hot, and she is gone.