I Am the Sea Captain, I Am Lance Armstrong, I Am Tonya Harding
When Ellie finally breaks up with me, I’m still asleep. She doesn’t bother to wake me. Instead she has a fully productive day—yoga, brunch, produce shopping, swinging by a FedEx and paying premium for fresh cardboard boxes, returning home to pack her ceramic owl collection—while I’m lost in blank, thoughtless sleep. I wake up to a sharp knocking at the door, and I open it still wearing my boxers. I’m dehydrated and my vision blurs enough that I think maybe it’s the mail lady with a package or a broad daylight robbery. I put out my hands as if to say, Take whatever it is you’re here for (or) I’ll take that package from you.
“Jesus, son, it’s three o’clock. Put on some pants,” Ellie’s father says and lets himself into the living room. Her dad has the wide stance of a foreman and his legs are like untreated lumber forced out of khaki cargo shorts. His polo shirt is tucked in, hugging the beer belly curve, as if he is practicing for yacht club. He flips the shades portion of his glasses up and surveys the living room with his hands on his hips.
“Where are the boxes?” he asks, walking into the bathroom. He leaves the door open, spits in the sink and washes his face. He’s using my hand towel to pat himself dry when he pulls back the shower curtains, makes a sour face.
“You’ve got hard water,” he says, returning. “Where are the boxes?”
“Boxes?” I say, and he shakes his head at me.
Ellie’s family is new money, still sparkling with novelty. Her parents retired off the settlement they’d made suing a national pet store chain over a rabid bunny. They’d taken Ellie to pick one out for her fifth birthday. She picked a thick white one with bright red eyes, broad saggy ears. She played with it on the floor, named it, imagined her new life with it. She cradled and cuddled and squeezed it until the bunny chomped her cheek, leaving a two-toothed scar down the side. You can’t really notice it. Ellie would have to point it out, but she never would. She keeps the groove mortared with makeup, even at home. Learning about the incident was like uncovering a rape. Her recount was a sobbing ordeal with lots of pauses, a mythical tale with phrases like ferocious fangs. A story that made you imagine her parents hyping it up in her mind during trial prep.
Ellie’s father is staring at our aquarium. He wants to take our fish, he says. He tries to lift it, strains himself until it looks like his back might snap and then he stops. His cheeks turn a little red and his eyes retreat.
“Didn’t figure it would be that heavy,” he says, as if apologizing. He doesn’t ask me to help him lift it, and I’m thankful. “Got ziplocks?” he asks, staring at the fish with his arms crossed, like they’ve tricked him somehow. I go to the kitchen and bring back a handful as he begins scooping at them with the little green net.
The fish we had picked out together. In the store—it took weeks for me to convince Ellie to go inside that pet store with me—we walked the perimeter of a dim basement with a few dozen tanks bubbling in a circle around us. I’d picked out a species and then she’d point out the best of the bunch and swipe her credit card at the counter. At home, she loved to methodically feed them. Pinching a few flakes at a time, she’d sprinkle them on the surface and watch from the side with her eyes an inch from the tank, darting back and forth, intently tracking the fish as they swerved and positioned for each morsel.
One by one, Ellie’s father captures the fish, plops them into ziplock bags, and tosses them into a box. Individually packaged in sandwich bags sit our oval rainbow fish, our plump and deformed calico, our transparent glasscat, our heart-shaped discus. One by one, they’re stacked until there’s nothing left in the tank but plastic shipwrecks on pebbles.
I go to the bedroom to put on pants and I find Ellie’s boxes stacked neatly by the chest of drawers. It takes a few rounds of us walking them out to her father’s sedan, making only small grunts as we lean in to arrange them in the back seat, before the car’s stuffed. I give Ellie’s father the flaked food and the aquarium filter. I say maybe I’ll give it a few days until I drain the aquarium, give Ellie some time to think it over.
“Don’t worry about the tank,” he interrupts. “Already got a new one.”
Then he shuts the door and is gone.
I sit on the couch with my phone propped on my lap. It doesn’t ring. I go to the fridge for leftover pasta salad and find it nearly cleared. There’s a little baggie of pasta salad and a note that reads Needed the Tupperware. I toss the limp baggie of noodles in the trash. I consider calling, but can’t quite bring myself to do it knowing her mom and dad will be there listening, their chins resting upon their fists.
It’s mid-afternoon and soon enough it is dusk and then night. I’m in our queen size bed that Ellie’s parents found on a hunting trip in Colorado and then shipped the ten hours to Kansas as a surprise for Ellie’s first apartment. They bought most things here. The bed is plush and clean. The sheets are blue and gray and contemporary. I lie on my side at first, then diagonally, as if keeping Ellie’s space occupied would save us. I shift and flop for hours. From above, I am an X, I am a C, I am an S, I am a whole bowl of alphabet soup dying one letter at a time.
The sea, open and blue. Myself, fitted in a royal coattails getup with accenting white ascot. My sailors, planning revolt, their chests bare and sun burnt and their curly black hairs greasy, knives clenched in their teeth like in the movies. They are hungry, tired, full-on pissed. I could swing across the bow and, in a gentle arc above their heads, anoint each and every one of them with the lavender oil I’ve been saving for such an atmospheric touch, but instead I bring forth a beat-up lawn chair from my quarters and squeak its hinges into position. It's the same aluminum foldout my dad always brought to baseball games when I was ten, before I’d been outgrown by the other boys and was still allowed to pitch. I look nothing like my father. He was lean and tan and strong and dependable in spirit, but even in my deepest dreams I’m pudgy and pale. Even as captain on the high seas I am soft-faced and must clench my teeth to force a strong jaw line for my men. I tell them that I’ve made mistakes, sure. Who among them might raise his hand and testify that he is without mistakes? Show your hands! When they all raise their malnourished arms, like a pack of bony twigs waving in the breeze, I call on a smaller one in the front. Yes, you, I say. I sit on the metal lawn chair, the green and yellow weaved fibers creaking, threatening to snap. Not a single mistake to apply to your character? I ask. Of course, Captain, the little man starts. Well, you see then? I say, with my elbows splayed, my palms cradling my head as I recline on the deck above them. I hold out my arms to show sincerity. Everyone makes mistakes! I tell them. But not everyone, a voice calls out from the back, cuts loose a fucking mermaid, sir.
I wake up around noon and spend the day dialing and redialing my voicemail. There are no new messages. I listen to the sterile electronic lady giving me date and time information on month-old messages from Ellie asking me to pick up olive rolls or goat cheese, to call her right back, or just five minutes of mistaken pocket noise. I listen to the fabric on her jean pockets swish, the open and closing of car doors, the faint echoes of pop radio and the ticking of turn signals, hoping that somewhere hides a moment of insight, clarity.
If Ellie were here we’d be watching full seasons on Netflix, complaining about other people’s decisions or status updates. I try to remember Ellie’s favorite flower, color, breed of puppy. I’ve been too preoccupied for such facts before now. The both of us just out of college, we’ve finally stumbled into the world we’d been hearing so long about, that looming legend of wholeness and inclusion. The summer is hot and the legend hollow, and two nights ago we found ourselves fighting over which of our friends had better netiquette.
I first met Ellie at a party held on an abandoned floor of a ten-story office building downtown. The place must have been a doctor’s office, because there were still boxes of swabs and syringes in the cabinets. The conference room had a long wooden table, but no chairs. Ellie wore bright wristbands that, when taken off and relaxed, resembled the shapes of various cute animals. She took off a panda and gave it to me. We leaned against the table shoulder to shoulder like young business professionals flirting in office catalogs and then sat under the table drinking beers. We were drawn together by fear when some guy stumbled out of the back room laughing hysterically and bleeding, a dozen syringes hanging from his arms like a dartboard. We became kids running away together from a monster. That night, I later learned, Ellie’s family had gone to the country club for a dinner, but she’d escaped. Now, Ellie has finally thought better of it and escaped our life and returned to theirs.
There’s knocking. Ellie’s father is at the door. He wants more boxes. I try not to look too beat-up about it as we get the last of them in the backseat. Inside, we stand awkwardly. He coughs and looks down at the pea green rug under the coffee table. I move the table to the side and he rolls up the rug and droops it over his shoulder.
I tell him I’m sorry, but I need to know, will she come talk to me?
He put his hand on my shoulder, a tender touch like a pastor at a funeral might deliver.
I spend the night on the porch drinking beer. It is dusk out and the cicadas remind me of the vacancy with their drone.
Pumping thick thighs, I am Lance Armstrong, mid-race on some mountain climb in France, hyper-aware that the world is watching. At home, millions of delicate hands fondle my wristbands. Yellow. Smart. Active. Alive. I am taking deep breaths and focusing on my position. My arms. My breathing. My front tire going soft. The rider in front of me resigns himself to this bitch of a hill and rides right off its steep face. Who can blame him? Who chose this hill, forty-five degrees plus? Who designs a course destined for failure? The other riders, skeleton-figured men with thighs like hams are strewn along the side of the course, polka dotting the landscape with spandex greens and hot pinks, clutching their calves as they cry out for their managers and sponsors. They cast off their helmets and, losing the thick veneer of sportsman ego, hold each other tenderly and begin to weep. But I push on. I am not destined for failure. Did you see those kids in Illinois with the wristbands? Their swooning eyes? Do you understand? Those kids probably don’t even know about the one testicle thing. They are pure. Hope. And for their parents, the husband with honest-to-god one nut, or figurative one nut, who clutches at his wife’s wily feet as she leaves him for a new life, as she looks down, disgusted at this dramatic display of neediness after countless years of guarded aloofness, breaks free and gently closes the door behind her. This is why Lance Armstrong peddles into coma, lives strong.
Knocking. It’s two teen boys this time, and they’ve backed their pickup across the lawn right up to the porch.
“There’s nothing left,” I say.
“Jim says to get the bed,” the taller one says.
This is how I learn Ellie’s father’s name.
The shorter one with the square head says that if I put up a fight they’ve been authorized to start some shit. They’re still giggling when I’m back inside in the kitchen. They stalk the bed, circle it, poke at it like it might be a trap. Both of them have buzz cuts and arms with muscles defined by abuse, not athletic care. Their smiles are a little crooked, unsettling.
“Nice bed,” the taller one says. “What’s this, a queen?”
The little guy winks at me. Says, “You called it.”
“Just take it,” I say. They flip it up on its side and run it into the door and push it onto the porch. They lift it into the back of the pickup and return to do the same number with the box springs. They knock against the doorframe, scrape the hardwood floor with its plastic edge. I call at them to lift, but it’s too late. The screen door slams shut. They don’t turn back, just get in the truck and drive across my lawn.
My house is a stripped car. I still have the frame, but the engine is gone. I lie on the floor in the bedroom inside the metal frame where the bed used to rest. There’s no churning from the fish tank in the living room, no scattering of light across the ceiling. The house is empty and still. Ellie is gone and not coming back. Down here it is colder, much colder, and I remember as a kid learning how heat rises and gets trapped with you in the top bunk. I remember the climb and the space that was yours alone. I remember the little TV with the power cord that would just barely reach, catching some stray signal by leaning the antenna against the bed frame. Mining the air for a few lost waves.
I can almost still hear my raspy, commanding voice: If you need a hotel, I can book you a hotel. If you need a flight, a flight. If you need reading materials for said flight, that’s a personal expense. I’m a professional and I expect you to be one too. I just, well, you don’t need my reasons. I just need this. I need this done right. The two men in front of me nod along, vacant eyes in thick skulls. Did I ever tell you, I ask, that I performed the triple axel jump in competition? I’m the second person ever to pull together such a bird of paradise display. No one cares. The two men look at one another, then back at me, blinking. Okay. Look, I’m not diminishing Nancy. I’m not calling her a robin or some black-capped chickadee. But you two are hunters by trade, so that makes it all the more worth your while. Here’s your money. Go. Find her.
I’m in a gas station on the way home, waiting in line to put ten dollars on three. There’s something lonely about the reflection of my frizzy haircut off a Zippo lighter display. I’ll get gas and go home. I’ll eat a bowl of cereal and get ready for work and get Nancy out of my mind. Work is a boxing ring inside a large metal warehouse. I oversee amateur wrestlers with proud, bald heads. Men of caliber. Entertainers. I stand cross-armed ringside and manage them as they pummel the bejesus out of other men. False swings and throws for the most part, but sometimes they really connect. Everyone knows it happens sometimes, and that’s why it takes so much courage. Backstage before the fight, hiding their identity with makeup— the electric blues and lightning bolt whites— smothering their faces in mixed putty colors with my own hands, whispering in their ear before the match as how to break a chair over someone’s head with just the right amount of authenticity, these are my moments. We win titles and tie ourselves together on stage with heavy gold belts. I don’t need anyone but them. My fighters and belts. I’m next in line when I see out of the corner of my eye, in the casino area that’s roped off with a plastic chain, an old woman falling from her perched position on a stool in front of a video poker machine. The clerk looks over, the customers hush, and then everyone’s back to browsing candy bars, looking for barcodes on milk jugs. I step out of line, go over to her, stoop down. The old lady’s eyes are closed. Her gray hair in perfect puffball form. I check her breathing. Zilch. I think of health class and lifeguard training in high school. Blank. Then I remember something from TV and pump her chest to the rhythm of “Stayin’ Alive.” I pinch her nose, breathe into her lungs. Her small chest swells up from the pressure, but she’s staying under. How far gone is she? She’s maybe four feet under at this point. Probably at the stage where you get to see yourself being worked over but don’t feel too disturbed about watching your body bent and broken. Maybe she can see me stopping to yell at her. I’m inches in front of her face screaming, “Giving up? Giving up now?” I pump her chest with clenched fists. I lean over her, pushing every last bit of myself into her mouth, down through her esophagus, into her chest. I’m absorbed by her body and distributed through her veins via red blood cells. I am a life force in equal measure to how much of a parasite I’ve been with the rest of my time. I feel her chest ballooning with my breath. I feel these millions of bits of myself ushering her back to life. I feel vindicated, saintly, resolved. I feel like a person who has finally done something right until I hear a pop as her chest explodes like a Chinese watermelon, as her flesh flies forth and hangs from my fingers, my nose, the legs and sandals of standers nearby, the young clerk with an open mouth but nothing to say.
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