by Rebecca Burns
It is something for a man of his size to tumble so completely into sleep; it could be amusing, to watch muscles that have shifted crates of fish from lorry to market stall to delivery truck, for hours, to see those muscles tighten and contort and then relax—hard relax—within minutes of climbing between the sheets. Night after night it happens and still it is astonishing. He falls into sleep the way a toddler might fall into water; with abandon, as if it is the most natural thing in the world, while the rest of the world scrabbles around to rescue them.
Despite the time he spends in the shower his skin retains an essence of fish. When she presses her face to his back as he slumbers she breathes it in, not unpleasant, but not a smell she likes either. Her girlfriends’ dates wear Gucci pour Homme, the stain of which they leave on her cheek when they lean in for a Friday-night greeting, nice to meet you nice to meet you. She would like the oil of their scent to linger into the time she spends with her fishman, but of course it doesn’t and she feels guilty later on for even desiring it.
After love he falls asleep even quicker. Sometimes it happens before she as had time to pad to the bathroom to wash him away; she lies, breathless, alive, every pore like electricity and thinks she can run marathons, and turns to say something profound to him, but he has slipped into deep water and his breath is heavy and rhythmical.
After a few weeks when it is certain the sleeping habit is not a phase or a weird reaction to the excitement of a new relationship she confides in a girlfriend. It is mid-week and they have met for pasta after work at the new diner near the river, which they’ve both wanted to try but can’t afford the a la carte menu, and they are tucked away in a booth where she can see the aquarium taking over a whole wall of the restaurant. For a while she is fascinated by the fish and their colours, and the way gold and silver seems to flow like liquid within their scales as they turn and zip. Tiny flashes of life. Her fishman has never mentioned the beauty of snapper and she feels angry at him for that. But she knows she is being unfair. Until that moment in the Pesce a Terra restaurant, she has not considered there might be beauty in his work.
Her friend counsels that the fishman is either very innocent or very guilty, for only those free of conscience can fall asleep so abruptly. When they part after finishing dinner she walks back to the subway on Christopher Street and tries to recall words, glances of his that would betray him. But she can recall nothing. Her fishman wakes early, showers, flits to his job in over the bridge, and swims back through commuters at the end of the day. He seems to want to spend time with her. He’s reticent and blinks slowly, and his mouth opens and shuts with unuttered words when she asks him about politics or the slow recovery of the economy after the pandemic, but he is not a man of secrets. In bed he turns on the sheets swiftly, clasping her to his skin that smells of showergel and cod, his desire for her as clear as water.
After a few months she stops noticing the rapid way he falls asleep. There are other pressing matters. He has moved in, changing the shape of her small apartment in Cobble Hill. He leaves clothes on every item of furniture, shedding them like scales. She goes round with a plastic grocery bag and picks them up, the smell of salt and the market making her gag. Even when the temperature drops and snow gathers on her fourth-floor balcony, she keeps the windows open. Fishman is sorry for his mess but only when she rages again and crams his clothes in the washing machine. It’s like he doesn’t see it until then, as if he is blind or observing the world from the bottom of a deep trench.
One Sunday they take a picnic to the park near the waterfront. They spread out a blanket on the grass and look out at the quiet of Governor’s Island and, beyond that, the city. She thinks he is going to propose to her and is quietly horrified at the prospect. She imagines him teasing an engagement ring from his pocket and trying to hook it over her finger, a lure flashing in the sunlight. She sees the band burning into her flesh and talks too much, trying to keep them both from the moment.
But he doesn’t ask her and instead tells her that he’s leaving. He can’t settle in her apartment. He doesn’t like her friends and the way she changes when she’s with them. She goes along with them too willingly, he tells her, the way a minnow joins a shoal. He is hurt when she shouts at him about the mess in her apartment. Maybe they can keep seeing each other. Maybe not.
That night her bed is cold. The sheets smell of detergent and nothing else. There are no clothes over the chair or on the bathroom floor. He has left no trace of him, has unhooked his life from hers. She folds herself over the cold pillow and tries to still the thrum of her heart, holding on to the bedding like a life raft.
Rebecca Burns is a novelist and short-story writer. Her two short story collections, Catching the Barramundi and The Settling Earth, were longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, the UK’s only award for short story collections. Published by Odyssey Books and Next Chapter, her novels The Bishop’s Girl and Beyond the Bay are available for purchase online. Quilaq, her latest book, was published by Next Chapter in July 2020.