by Kayla Eason
She’s tasted salt water, but never the Pacific’s salt, which is denser, and tastes like the amber plastics of kelp; salt which tastes subterranean, older than the world. Mia hasn’t stood before the ocean, briny and magnetic, dismantling the body’s rhythm.
The desert basin is expansive, but the space does not remember something primal. No elemental mists, as if each beach were an edge of the cosmos. Her mind can only recreate what she’s seen on TV and in magazines.
Mia has never seen snow, never heard ice. She’s never seen pines lighted by the moon. Never formed a snowball with her hands. She’s never seen how slow snow can fall. Never seen an airplane close up, or a skyscraper. Never seen a jungle or a large city. She’s never stood in a sea of people.
Because of Daniel’s comment about her teeth, Mia doesn’t smile in class. When she feels this upset, she lists: snow, an airplane, sea anemones, a humpback whale, the pyramids in Egypt, German castles, a tiger in India, the Great Wall of China, yellow cabs in New York, a tornado, a painter, tulips.
She likes to list the things she wants to see and places she wants to go. When she lists she doesn’t think about the impossibility of any one thing, but the voice inside of her rises in pitch as she lists with more momentum, and she’s going somewhere.
Sebastian sits across the classroom. His eyelids droop, mouth agape, large front teeth bleached with calcium deficiencies. Ms. Villa sits on a stool at the front of the classroom explaining the rules for their end-of-fifth-grade party. With a wave of her hand, students rush the large pizza boxes. Mia stays in her seat to watch Sebastian move into the crowd. She hopes that he’ll glance her way, offer to grab her a slice. From her vantage, the sun crosses his irises, but he does not look at her. He leans into the others.
She continues the list, now pictures in her mind a feeling: white foam. Blue glass, building of sky. Golden stone multiplied, pointing triangular toward the sun.
Lucy sits down to tell Mia that Gabe, Lucy’s boyfriend, has made out with a sixth grader.
No way, Mia says.
Lucy looks at the floor as she chips polish from her nails. Ms. Villa puts on The Lion King.
Aren’t you going to eat? Lucy asks.
I’m not hungry, Mia says, then adds, Gabe is a slut.
Her voice lands heavily, awkward.
I think only girls can be sluts.
Mia pauses, wanting to say more. Lucy’s face holds an expression of confusion—she knits her brows and bites her bottom lip. Mia searches for the words to aid a friend scared of their own vulnerability, but she does not understand that such is the root of Lucy’s expression. Mia can’t yet make sense of the desire to see Lucy feel strong. She only understands that she wants Lucy to not feel sad.
You sure he kissed her? Mia asks.
That’s really mean, Mia says.
It’s all she can think to say, and Lucy touches her own neck, sighing. Ants crawl across the desk. A water leak near the sink has stained parts of the cream wall brown. The room smells like a crayon box, hot asphalt, and pepperoni. The air conditioner hums sadly. Mia wipes sweat from her forehead.
Orange stripes, yellow eyes. The ocean orange at dusk. The ocean a giant tide pool. Sand made of teeth. Deep water.
Why can’t boys be sluts?
Lucy only shrugs. Mia says the word again. She whispers it, the sss a breeze between her teeth. With the l her tongue curls, the t touches the roof of her mouth, tongue drops to float.
The list trails off and her mother appears in her mind. She is walking toward Mia lined in gold, sun setting behind. Mia is four and there is a dead snake in the road, a tire mark indenting its concentrated body.
Mia is standing before the snake. Something churns behind like water rushing, or the sound of skinning your knee on gravel. Mia turns her head. A truck, a big rig. The engine a dark sound on a day just after rain when the breeze smells like coins. Mia’s mother is wearing shorts, a glimpse of butt cheek through frayed denim, hips swinging wide as she runs toward Mia.
Come, come here, her mother shouts, hand outstretched. The engine’s sound closer. Her mother screams.
The truck’s breaks screech, a sound which scrapes the lingering scent of rain from the air. Before her mother jerks her away, Mia sees the snake’s skin. The color of clouds. And then, she was on the sidewalk, face pressed against her mother’s thighs, her mother’s hand rubbing circles between Mia’s shoulder blades. The truck driver leaning his head out the window, shouting, Is that your kid?
Mia and her mother walking away from him.
Control your kid, lady, and put on some god-damn clothes. Slut.
Mia remembers that her mother had been angry with the man, had slapped Mia across her face for running into the street. Her mother had begun to cry, and maybe she had felt sad and angry with the man the way Mia feels angry at Gabe now.
It’s not fair, she thinks. He isn’t being fair.
Lucy walks toward the pizza. Her shoulders watch the room.
Mia watches her friend, then looks at Sebastian. He’s talking to Daniel and Benny, hands moving to emphasize his words.
Sometimes at night, she falls asleep facing his back and her legs slide close behind his. Sometimes she can’t sleep, but looks at the sky and feels his back breathing into her stomach. She wonders how darkness and breathing, the rhythm she feels and doesn’t see, can make her feel safe. Mia remembers the hundreds of things she can feel at any moment, and how those things disappear when she is touching him.
Sebastian a castle. Sebastian the Pacific. Sebastian a field of tulips. Sebastian eating ice cream. Chocolate on his lips, hands near her. He rubs circles on her back.
She makes herself beautiful, over and over and over.
When the 2:50 bell rings, fifth grade ends. On the playground, Lucy wipes her tears as she hugs Mia. Before Lucy walks away, Mia says, Maybe he didn’t mean it. Who knows, maybe it didn’t happen.
Mia sits at a picnic table waiting for Sebastian and his friends. She’s going to watch the boys skate, as she does some days after school. Across the playground Sebastian, Daniel, and Benny throw pebbles at each other, kick at each other’s shins. Sebastian is the slower of the three, and Mia watches him lumber about. Only last year he had been shorter than Mia. Now, he stands a half-foot taller. Mia sits as straight as she can, feels beads of sweat slip between her breasts and down her stomach.
Steely sky. A hawk echoes. She looks toward the mountains in the background, thick-muscled, earth russet, and thirsty. No clouds alleviate or provide the expanse dimension. Space vacuums back without grip. The advent of summer makes the silence of the day more noticeable.
The boys and Sebastian approach her. Fluid movement jerked by occasional bouts of laughter and joggling arm gestures toward one another, energy piqued in their heels when they speak. Daniel’s head is tilted back, exposing his neck as if he means it to stick out farther than his face. His large eyes dart about, but attract back to her every few seconds.
She squints into the sun, feeling the urge to swallow, but forgetting how to when she thinks about the muscles in her throat. She wishes she could blend into the light the way darkness erases a person. In the dark, there is breathing and touching and smelling, but nothing to see.
Mia knows that Daniel’s leg was bitten by a German Shepard six months ago, and she knows his oldest brother shot himself in the family’s shed. She knows he was the kid in their class accusing other kids of having wet dreams, and he called Ms. Villa a skinny whore with just-okay-tits. Mia knows these things about Daniel because this is a small class in a small school in a small town. Daniel and the other students know that she doesn’t have parents. She wonders if Daniel looks at her breasts, if he calls them tits, if he talks about their size, and she sits even straighter, abs pinned to her spine. The boys circle around.
Better make sure scar-face gets home, Sebastian. Daniel flicks Mia on the shoulder and she slaps at his hand.
You’re a douche bag, she says.
You don’t even know what that means, do you? Daniel says.
Mia looks at Sebastian. Their eyes meet, but then he looks to the asphalt.
I do, she says.
Tell me when you figure out how to clean your dirty pussy, Daniel says.
Mia has heard the word pussy before, but she’s not entirely sure what it means. She knows the word belongs to a woman. It’s something a woman has.
Her mind searches for grounding, but thought speed escalates—mind a blurred screen. And while she’d felt the day’s temperature prior to that moment, suddenly she feels sick the way a fever aches in the joints, spins the head with a thread twisted in her stomach. She wants a wind to pick her up and rip her away. She doesn’t want to walk, or run, or even fly, but to be ripped from the picture.
Your brother’s dead, she says.
Daniel stops laughing and grabs her, squeezes her forearm muscle, stares at her like she is a dying animal. She can feel her bone pinched.
Shut up, bitch—homeless bitch, he says, shoving her.
Sebastian reaches toward her, but Mia dips her shoulder.
Don’t touch me, she says.
Her naked body appears in her mind, and shame rivets her frame. She flips through her parts, each image burning more than the previous.
Cheek, neck, back, throat.
That morning, Mia’s anger had fueled the way her legs took stride, the pendulum swing of her hips. But now, as she begins to walk away, her body feels awkward, almost absurd: the tight grate and burn of one thigh against another, her chest jutting from her body.
Thighs, hips, breasts.
With each step she feels the new excess of her figure quiver. These parts of her feel wrong—too sensitive and too soft. These parts feel as obtrusive and ugly as the cigarette burns on her face, the brown marks on her teeth.
Sebastian runs up from behind, places his hand on her shoulder, thumb pressing her collarbone. The pressure running from thumb placement to deeper in, to the muscle beneath muscle. An urgency she senses in the depth, as if his grabbing onto her is a way of speaking. Words with meat. He is a voice in the dark.
Bone, breath, shoulders, shoulders, hands, sleep. Fuck you.
Fuck off, Mia says, and like slut, the words feel heavy. She doesn’t like to speak to Sebastian that way, using harsh language. She’d heard Val say it to the news on television. And her father, long ago, telling her mother to fuck off. Or Fuck this place. Fuck everything. And she’d heard Sebastian say Fuck, God damn fuck, fuck, fuck, when he cut into his pinky slicing a fat watermelon. The blood absorbed into the blushing fruit.
Mia, listen, they’re just messing with you. Don’t take it so seriously, Sebastian says. Thumb against her bone, harder.
The pressure is a word. The muscle beneath muscle is a word. She doesn’t know how to say it, how to say those boys make her feel ugly. She doesn’t know how to say that the boys make her feel worthless.
Sebastian sees Mia’s eyes lighten with tears, brown iris honeyed. Daniel shouts from down the playground, Come on, man, let her go if she wanna go. But Sebastian doesn’t, though his thumb eases against her, the pressing no longer asking for more.
Mia appears smaller than he remembers. Not in terms of body size or height, but in his sense of her. She appears as a light, and maybe this is the first time in Sebastian’s life that he sees Mia’s soft gaze, and her hair glows around her face. With his arm remaining on her shoulder, he steps back from her, from this new warmth he has discovered, if only through sympathy.
Come on, Benny shouts.
Mia and Sebastian hear Daniel spit. The breeze is a thick rope. Mia sees Sebastian’s expression release tension. To Mia, his eyes say: we’re okay. You and me, Sebastian and Mia—we are okay.
Mia, just come, Sebastian says. Come with us.
She can’t bring herself to turn from him, to detach his hold. And she doesn’t want to walk off by herself. She wants to watch Sebastian skate, watch his body bounce, teeter into the air, muscles catch, and glide into balance. Mia shifts her weight, sighs. She doesn’t want to be alone, doesn’t want to walk into an empty house only to wait for Sebastian to return later. He’s touching her, linking her to him.
Fine, she says.
Together they walk toward Daniel and Benny. Sebastian’s shoes scrape the gravel. Mia’s pink dress is a soft cloud in his peripheral and Sebastian is everything in Mia’s—the peach color of his cheeks, the heavy swing of his arms.
All done crying, Mia? Daniel says, his whole chest puffed. He’s wearing jersey shorts. The dog bite left a deep scar on his calf, flesh still crimson and puckered. Sebastian had seen Daniel be bitten by the German Shepard. Flesh ripping open, muscle metallic, veins threading the shine. Sebastian’s throat tightening, bizarre and screaming. Sebastian told Mia the blood could have filled their bathtub. It was like seeing someone shot, Sebastian said, though he’d never seen someone shot. For all of the dead discovered along the Salton Sea, neither of them had seen a dead body. Daniel had pleaded, Let me go, please, stop. Please, stop, his voice emerging from a buried place.
Daniel’s limp is hard, not weak, as if hurling himself forward. When someone asks about his leg, he details the attack like a war story, gaining adrenaline as he recounts the crunch of his own bone. Same sound as chewing glass, he’d say. He can’t skate normally yet, but he rides gently around the pool in which his friends skate, criticizing form or congratulating a good heelflip or noseblunt.
Don’t cry, Mia. We’ll be nicer. Promise. Benny’s voice is disingenuous, split by laughter.
Mia rolls her shoulders back and smiles directly at them both. Daniel shakes his head and turns, dropping his skateboard. In a single motion he steps onto the board and pushes off with delicate caution. Benny sails onto his own board and races beyond the playground’s chain link fence.
I want to keep up with them, Sebastian says.
Mia jogs alongside Sebastian as he glides on his board. She feels lighter.
They leave the school yard, bleed into Marina Sal. A town perpetually empty. Cracked, cracking, fumes in the air, dehydrated fragments of retro blue and steel, gas and sun. The town is a set, and all of the lights are turned on, switches and back-drops exposed. No one wants to remember the story it told. They pass a deserted auto shop, shelled and dark copper, sunken. On one of the cement walls, graffiti:
SPACES NEAR TO ME,
BEAUTY I CANNOT FATHOM,
AND YOU’RE STUCK IN TIME.