Starboard
Jessica Lee Richardson

 

Sway’s smell had a tang like spit on sweat and sock, but she was barreling toward him anyway. Swiggle loved Sway, always had. His long lanky limbs. Each crease of him. Swiggle was of greater than average beauty, herself. Her skin shined like soaked oak. Her heart plucked at the strings of things and she usually had a mind that bobbed its head to the music. Today, though, she had taken off. Her mother said because she failed that geology class under her roof she was dead meat. Dead meat. Who says that? Swiggle was made from the meat of her mother, if anything. If it were a genetics class she would have passed, she joked, but barely. Didn’t go over. Biology.

Swiggle’s cousin was with Sway, not with him-with him, just proximity, and her grandma called to say her cousin was trying to text her, so she called her cousin, not wanting to text and drive since that video they showed at orientation that gave her a panic attack. She answered like a burning shovel. Her whole family became angered by minute inconveniences like missed calls and Swiggle’s cousin was no different. Don’t talk to me that way! Swiggle shouted at her cousin and hung up, but not before gleaning that they had all gone to the beach.

Good, they need the beach, these hotheads.

Swiggle started turning around before she had the phone out of her hand and once the car was pointing in its new direction she realized she made a big mistake. Not just a big mistake. A huge mistake, the hugest mistake. She misjudged the width of the turn and wound up on the grass on the side of the road where she plowed down a few bushes, which luckily slowed her down and she stopped. That would be a pretty medium to large mistake on its own but after the bushes, she also hit a kid. What kid is behind the bushes?

Sam. The kid she hit. The kid she hit was a kid she knew. Of course.

Sam popped up, but not before Swiggle cursed herself and all of her days. He was okay, though, just bruised on the leg pretty bad.

Do you want to come to the beach? Swiggle asked. Sam did. Hopped in.

He was eighteen. Wanted to smoke some weed probably, and knew her cousin would have it. But on the way Sam asked if she had insurance and complained about his neck.

Fuck, Sam.

She couldn’t deal with this, she told him. She couldn’t either. Her heartbeat was a thunder parade, her hands vibrated like two power tools.

He nodded, seeming content to just get a bowl or two out of it.

They pulled up and there was no parking. Shit, Swiggle said, pounding things. Nasty texts were still coming in by the minute from her cousin.

Sway hadn’t sent any texts. He was aloof, lived in a kind of cloud protectant where he wasn’t expected to do normal things like stay in touch.

They circled and circled the lots and the neighboring beach neighborhoods. Finally Swiggle just pulled into some dirt on the bayside. Hoped it was legal dirt. Their feet felt the heat through their flip-flops and they sucked in their first whiff of sex wax.

Swiggle wondered again if she was pregnant. She was acutely aware of smells lately, the under-stink of things. She wanted to be pregnant, because everyone else was, but she wanted to be pregnant with Sway. This one, if it existed, would be Salvatore’s.

Salvatore was an ox. He loved her, though. Is that good enough?

Sometimes Swiggle thought yes. It is the most good there is in the world.

Other times she wanted to wind her forehead into Sway’s abdomen and get lost in the farthest lost where the contour of each thing was all that mattered and a stark surprise each time. He touched her in the winding imaginarium of her sub self.

Salvatore touched her right in the face.

Sam, right now, was touching his wrist to hers and she said, No, Kid. Even though she was only a few years older.

The sand burned them a new a-hole. The ocean rocked Swiggle’s nerves still. Finally she could move her formerly power tool hand in a straight arc and she did move her hand in a straight arc to swat Sway in the thigh when she plopped down beside him. He smiled. You could never tell with him, so she basked.

Sam explained of their misadventures while her cousin gave her the silent treatment, and then busted out laughing. You idiot. You HIT him?

Because of you, Swiggle snapped.

Oh stuff it, her cousin said, who was cutting down on cussing. They all had a laugh while Sway passed around the herbal refreshments he had scored earlier from some weird kids in a damp house.

They all got as weird as some damp-housed kids for awhile, but the ocean helped them through it. They repeated the things one another said. Plovers poked holes in the water shellacked sand. They noticed the importance of toes.

Sway said finally, let’s go for a walk. Let’s go for a walk, Swiggle said.

Of course not even to the jetty yet and who do she and Sway see? Salvatore. He joins them like it is obvious he should join them.

Then there was Swiggle between Sal on the left and Sway on the right, stuck.

Her breasts felt thick and a panel of goose bumps came over them. You cold? Sal asked.

I’m fine, Swiggle said for Sway’s sake, who wasn’t asking. It was clear now that she was literally between them and their wet legs. She wanted Sal and his kindness to go away please. She wanted to ride into the wild gray beneath with the Sway that understood about the opposite of talking so much. Sway liked pictures and passed time with books. Her whole right side tingled toward the glisten of his sandy ribcage.

You hungry? Sal asked.

Sway picked up on it.

No, Swiggle said, frothing with the what-if in her gut. Even though she was hungry. For fish. This craving simultaneously made her drool and swim with nausea. She wanted to eat the sea and spit it back out in waves.

Swiggle did like Salvatore’s penis. She was tilting left and confused again. It wasn’t just pot and kites and kids screaming at kites that had her confused. Sal would feed her fish. He would hold her hair while she regurgitated it. He would follow her around for life, like a chimp. She liked chimps.

She also liked the open blue. The ocean straightened her with its whirl.

She spotted an unbroken spiral shell and picked it up. The two boys became awkward without her as a buffer between them. What are these called? She asked Sway.

What are those called? Gastropod, said Salvatore looking at her belly.

Conch, said Sway.

They argued back and forth about it.

Shhhhh, Swiggle said, but wasn’t heard over the sea who said shhhh louder. Shut the fuck up, the sea said and she agreed. She wanted to run far away from both of them suddenly. Burrow in a her-sized cup in the rocks while the ocean numbed her legs with bubbles.

She was going to retake that class.

She turned to head back and go sit with her angry cousin and injured Sam on the towels. The boys were still arguing over seashells, Mollusk she heard Sway say, Mussel said Sal. She slipped away and when she got far enough for them not to feel the woosh, she broke into a sprint.

Instead of returning to the towels she did two little leaps and took a plunge into a wave. It was refrigerated splendor.

Shhhhhh she said again into the sea she mimicked with her whole body, waving. Shut the fuck up, the sea said. Waved back. Saline nation.

The fish swimming below nipped at her toes. She didn’t even startle at the prospect of being food.

 

Jessica Lee Richardson’s first book, a short story collection called It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides, won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize and is just out from Fc2. Her stories and poems won awards from the National Society of Arts and Letters and the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald museum, and have been featured online at The Short Form, Ploughshares, and the Authonomy Sunday Shorts Series by Harper Collins. Her fictions have appeared or are forthcoming in the Atlas Review, Big Lucks, the Collagist, the Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Find more of Jessica’s work here.