Home // November.10.2017 // Joanna C. Valente

Sea Creature

It was by the sea. That was how Baby Girl found herself, or that part within her body that she called herself. When Baby Girl was little, her parents would take family vacations to Montauk—which meant that she ate all the ice cream she wanted on the beach and would stare into the waves and her legs and feet in the water and the little wispy hairs on her mom's arms and legs and wonder why her hair was dark and pointy. She wanted good hair like her mom.

The waves made her believe there was something bigger than herself, made her believe in history, made her feel like her body mattered. On days off, Baby Girl would go to Brighton Beach, even in the winter, and just sit and watch the waves—and all the people walking by, making up stories about their lives, stories that were probably so far off from who they actually were. This is the most dangerous things humans do, Baby Girl thought, because we never really see each other—it's such careless sabotage.

Baby Girl watched the ocean spill into the sand the first time she had sex. She was seventeen and he was just some stupid boy from her college algebra class (because she didn't test into calculus) and sometimes she'd like him copy her homework, mostly just because she was lonely. It made all the awkward motions feel better. She didn't look into his eyes, but instead listened to the unending moans and rustling of rocks and watched the white foam bubble. When he finished, he asked if she was okay, if she enjoyed it, and she nodded. He seemed happy enough. They never had sex again after that.

Later that night, and for the many nights after, she dreamed of that boy, and his red face and his stringy hair that would fall into his face and the way his Metallic t-shirt was too baggy for him, but not in the cool way. Baby Girl dreamed they were having sex, but that he was dead, but she couldn't stop. His eyes were glassy and far away. Like hers must have been. This made her feel guilty, as if her body was telling her how wrong it was. Sometimes this would happen to her—she would dream of all the people she had sex with—and they would be dead. As if she did that to them. As if she was incapable of loving or being loved. She wasn't sure which. Maybe both.

     *     *     *

Baby Girl was watching a man smoke a cigarette outside Death & Co. He was shaking, his fingers could barely hold the cigarette, his eyes somewhere else. When he went back inside, Baby Girl followed. They were alone in the bar—it was still early but for some reason, no one else loved them enough to be there, so there they were, in some darkly-lit bar drinking well liquor because they couldn't afford the better stuff. What happened to you to make you sit in a dark room, alone in a ripped leather jacket and combat boots and your face a gaping black hole? What happened to make you this way?

Baby Girl bought him a shot of tequila and sat next to him. Neither of them spoke for an hour until she left, walking to the gallery around the corner where her friend was showing some new art that she thought she was boring and pretentious. Everyone else thought so too, but you never say this and only talk about how amazing and clever it is. Baby Girl is young but she's old enough to know when clever is boring—and most of the time, it is. This is also why most men are boring.

Her friend BT was showing his new photography at a small gallery called Undercurrent—most of the photographs were of homeless people in black-and-white. She wanted to like them, but there was something missing in them—a real kind of empathy and understanding, as if BT just took them to seem cool or seem like they cared.

Instead of going in right away, she stayed outside to smoke a cigarette, mostly out of habit and a way to prolong the inevitable—seeing all the same people who really don't care about art but just about seeming important. Seeing the right people at the right time.

A man was throwing water in the street out of bucket—his sand-colored curly hair was the same shade as a boy she used to work with at the grocery store off the books while she was thirteen. The boy asked if she liked him and when she blushed, he asked another coworker why she was blushing—and the girl next to him said, maybe she likes you. That wasn't the first time Baby Girl wanted to disappear, but it was the first time she felt her body betray her. This was around the same time her Uncle started coming over her house more while her mom wasn't home.

The man noticed her watching, gave her a half-smile before he went back inside the back entrance of a restaurant. A few minutes later, as Baby Girl was about to go inside, brave the next few hours as if she was actually having fun, as if being social was effortless for her (and many of her friends seemed to think so, making her feel even more alone for not really seeing her), he came back outside and asked to use her lighter. Elvis-Not-Elvis stood next to her smoking, not trying to make conversation. She didn't mind. He unzipped his leather jacket, somewhat slowly, as if he was thinking hard about something else. As if his mind was elsewhere.

“So, do you actually want to go wherever you're going?” He asked her, not actually looking at her, but to the side—watching the traffic. Baby Girl finally realized what he looked like—a lighter haired version of Elvis or James Dean, if Elvis was shorter and had a long crooked nose. It's not so much what he wore but just how he stood.

“What do you mean?” Baby Girl knew what he was getting at but pretended to be aloof.

“You know what I mean.”

“I just don't feel like being social tonight, honestly,” she admitted, not feeling as uncomfortable as she felt like she should.

“Then don't.” This time, he looked at her. It was a hard stare—she couldn't tell whether he was reprimanding her or studying her face as if he was going to carve her out of her own body.

“But I came all the way over here from Brooklyn,” she said, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

“Then make it worth it,” he said, pausing, “Look, I'm off work now. Grab a bite?”

“Sure, why not?” Baby Girl said, almost too effortlessly, but there was something familiar about him, as if he was already inside her mind, as if they had been friends for years and this was just them hanging out and catching up. “Let me just finish this, okay?” she added, suddenly feeling like a little girl.

“Yeah, of course. Take your time.” He looked to the side again, not at her, not at her hands fidgeting with her dress and cigarette. Not at her teeth biting her lip. She fixed her again. And then again. She didn't even know his name.

Excerpted from the author's novel-in-progress, Baby Girl and Other Ghosts.

Banner graphic source: A 2017 photograph of the Penobscot River in Castine, Maine, taken by Zachary Bos.

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