Coulton, Marisa. “Ocean-Bound.” Untethered Literary Magazine, 3.1, August 2016, pp. 23-26. Print. https://alwaysuntethered.com/excerpts/vol-3-1/ .
I am just shy of twenty years when you walk into the sea.
But this is later. For now, you are here.
Ankle deep and I am awoken by your whimpers. I slip from my bed and feel my way through the darkness until my hands make contact with your wooden bedframe. I ease myself under the covers. We are nine years old, and this is the first time I have done this. I can feel the heat radiating from your skin, so intense that for a moment, I think you might be sick. I reach out and lightly touch your elbow.
You say nothing. My eyes track the movement of the ceiling fan, listening to the way the blades cut through the air, making an evenly timed “wub, wub” sound.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” I plead.
You turn to me. In the dim, it is almost impossible to see the minute differences to which we have become accustomed: a freckle here, a wrinkle there. In the near-darkness, we are truly identical — a halo of curly hair wrapped around each head, tendrils wet, and plastered to our foreheads: mine from sweat, yours from tears.
“I don’t know,” you say, and I believe you.
Sighing, I rest my forehead between your shoulder blades and close my eyes. At some point, your breathing calms. I know that in the morning, our father will free us from the knot of blankets that bind us together, and you will be okay.
Waist deep and we are thirteen, standing shoulder-to-shoulder under a pink umbrella, waiting for the school bus to arrive. A box turtle crosses my path and, gingerly, I inspect its shell with the toe of my rain boot. It is smaller than the length of my pinkie, and its vulnerability, with all of my classmates’ feet so close, worries me.
“What do you call a famous turtle?” you ask, moving him off the sidewalk to safety.
I blink at you. “What?”
I laugh. But later in the day (I won’t know when), you will retreat into yourself and I may or may not be able to help you.
That night, at dinner, I trace the swirling grain of our wooden dining table, and my finger comes away sandy. Everything is sand in our home, I think bitterly. On the soles of our bare feet: sand. Outside is sand, sloping downward into the sea.
At school, you lasted only a few minutes before you were gone.
I knelt beside you and tried my best to avoid my classmates’ stares. The heels of your hands were pressed firmly against your eyes and you were rocking back and forth on the balls of your feet. Do you remember? When I asked what was wrong, you said, “Everything.” The math test and the dead bird you saw on the side of the road and the refugees on the television. The feeling you get when you’re alone in a room and the way the teacher was looking at you and the people starving everywhere.
At times like this, I wonder whether your sadness resides somewhere inside me, like a cancer. Maybe I, too, will dissolve into random fits of tears. On buses. In supermarkets. At home.
This is one of my bad days. I know because I cannot meet your eyes.
I decide that you are ruined. You are the version of myself that happens when nothing has gone right: when I am standing outside and the wind whips my favourite hat off my head and into the sea, further than I can ever hope to reach. Almost immediately, I kick myself for daring to call you ‘ruined,’ even in my mind. Because ‘ruined’ is a child’s painting, moved by a well-meaning adult before it has had time to dry, and that is not you. That is not my sister.
Shoulder deep and I am sixteen. Father and I are standing outside and he is smoking and we are not looking at each other. You’ve been at it for hours, but won’t let either of us touch you, so we’ve taken refuge by the water. I hug myself, gritting my teeth against the chill. You’re her twin — you know her better than anyone. Why can’t you help her?
Father stifles a sob with the back of his hand and I tense up — he does not cry. He takes me into his arms.
Into his shoulder, I whisper, “I’m trying.” And it is true: I am trying. Every day, I try to define what you hide inside you, the entity that manifests itself as quivering hands and clammy feet.
Where does my sister go, when she is ‘gone?’
When I am older and studying history, I will visualize your world as a system of catacombs: twisting, turning, dimly lit. I will imagine you running through the corridors, your favourite white dress billowing behind you. Your slender hands, so like mine, seeking purchase along the slippery walls feeling for a way out. Other times, your world will seem like the bottom of a well. I cannot enter these places. I cannot see what you see. Yours is a private chaos.
I promise that there are times when we are happy. Father doesn’t like to smoke in the water so he has both hands free. He lifts you and I into the crooks of his arms and dunks us under the surface. When we emerge, we are always laughing. But these moments are fleeting. In the gaps between — when you are gone, for a few minutes, or hours, or forever — father and I are left underwater, scrambling for air, thrashing.
Where are our life jackets? Where are our heroes?
I’ve been told there’s no way to know exactly how it happened with you, but I know. One day, father and I will be sleeping. You will climb out of bed and stand by the sea. You will squint at the horizon where the water seems to curve under itself and disappear, as you have done so many times before. You will step in and wince against the biting cold. But you are brave. You will let the water take you.
Neck deep and we are eighteen. You and I are at our high school graduation.
The room is stifling and I can tell that father needs a cigarette. In my valedictory speech, I throw in: “All this for a square hat, on a round head!” which makes everyone laugh.
It’s one of yours and I can see you grin. Later, you say, “You stole my joke, dummy.” But you really mean, “How could I have done this without you?”
And when I say, “Oh, it was yours? No wonder you were the only one laughing…” I will mean, “We did it together.”
Do you remember?
I have since wondered if this was enough.