FICTION | Surfacing | by Jaimee Wriston Colbert (USA)

“If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, resold, recycled, or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”

– from the song Garbage by Pete Seeger, American folk singer, social activist

Lately Amanda’s been on his case over his beach cleanup gig, which she didn’t realize takes an hour out of each day, an hour, she said, that could be spent looking for a real job. So sue me! Bryan muttered, though not so she’d hear. He’d been upset at all the trash leeching into the ocean, particularly plastic, the way it kills sea life and pollutes the water with PCBs and other nasty chemicals. Maybe folks wouldn’t take him for an environmental geek, but when the Girl Scout who lives in their building came to the door trolling for beach cleanup pledges, said all he had to do was promise to pick up waste off the beach an hour a day, he told her he was in. When Amanda found out about it, instead of being proud of his commitment like you’d think, she said he’d become obsessed with this plastics thing, she called it. Said if she’d wanted to spend her life struggling to make rent, she wouldn’t have squandered all that time and money on college. Sure, picking up plastic is important and all, but so’s not starving to death! she snapped. That instead of clearing the beach he should clear his head and get a job.

Which, now that he thinks of it, it’s her fault he ran into Stony Phillips in the first place. He’d gone into Gallagher’s to apply for a bartending gig he wasn’t enthused about so he could tell her he’d applied, and there’s Stony, hanging at the bar with a cold one, like it hadn’t been almost a decade since Bryan saw him back in grad school, hanging at a bar. That Stony, a schmuck then and an even bigger one now.

Amanda Pierce is Bryan’s wife. His last name is McCormick, not Pierce, so that tells you something about her right off the bat, as they used to joke, spitting out clichés to each other like it’s their private language. Life’s a bitch and then you die, she might’ve added. Amanda Pierce was the hottest English grad student, hottest grad in grad school when it came down to it, so hot it was rumored she nailed one of the Grateful Dead. Sure, they’re old now but they’re The Dead!

First time Bryan hooked up with Amanda he thought of this, that one of the Dead may have been where Bryan was going. The following year when she agreed to marry him, he figured that upped his own status in the eyes of anyone with a pulse. Not that marriage means jack to most folks these days. Both Amanda and Bryan are from broken families—she doesn’t know where her real dad is and her mom is auditioning stepdad number three. Bryan knows where both his parents are, but his dad’s a piece of shit and his mom thought her sole purpose in life was to one-up his dad, which meant back when they were still together, if he started two-timing her with a hot young babe she’d go and snag herself an even hotter, younger dude.

Bryan’s on his way home now to confront Amanda about Stony Phillips. A situation has come up he told her when he texted her to make sure she was there. He’s power-walking in a freezing rain that’s turned to sleet, because his car’s in the shop again and they don’t have extra cash lying around to bail it out; they don’t have the so-called lucrative careers people with MBA’s have. That’s what his mom shot back at him when Bryan asked if he could borrow money (again) to get the damn car fixed— “Well if you’d gotten your Master’s in Finance instead of English, you wouldn’t be in this position. Your cousin Luke works on Wall Street and he’s got an MBA.”

There’s some truth in that but he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction, and anyway Cousin Luke is probably a pedophile, has a thing for an eighteen-year-old “friend.” Bryan didn’t have the math-smarts to get an MBA, plus having to sit through those finance classes would’ve put him in a coma. Not that English was a hoot, all that reading and writing. But neither of his parents went to college so you’d think they’d be a little proud he got a master’s at all, right? Amanda is heavy into reading, that girl always has a book on her, we’re talking paperbacks stuffed into the back pockets of her jeans. She’s the reason he applied for an English MA. U Mass Boston had this grad fair with tables staffed by grad students from each division. Bryan watched Amanda Pierce fill out a form for the English MA. He spoke the language; how hard could it be?

Now she’s got an adjunct teaching job at Quincy College, but that doesn’t cover the rent on their pint-sized apartment, so she had to tap her mom for that, which Amanda’s pissed about because she said at least she was bringing in some money. He’s been applying places and she knows that’s like a full-time job, writing those bullshit letters, copying off your CV, plus the news said we’re almost in a recession—or depression, inflation? Some damn ion. Then she bitched him out for not cleaning up the apartment, since he was home anyway. “Honey,” he said, “I don’t have time for anything else but applying for a damn job.” Who would’ve thought a stunner like Amanda Pierce would ever give a crap about a clean apartment? Something happened to her after they get married, started caring more about how where they live looks and less about who she lives with. He’s still in shape, goes to the gym, power-lifts, wears the same size jeans he did in high school. Doesn’t that count for something?

When Bryan finally gets to their building he kicks aside a pile of Boston Globes sheathed in plastic bags, for chrissake, to protect them from the wet, flung daily at the entrance. He doesn’t know why they bother; most folks read their news online which, by the way, hello! saves paper and wrapping it in plastic. He punches in the code to get into their building and the damn door sticks, so by the time he goes to push it open its timed out, closes and locks him out and he has to do the whole thing over again. This time he sticks his foot in the door so it can’t shut.

It’s an old fifties brick building, a Quincy standard, nothing fancy about it or the neighborhood it’s in but it aspires, he supposes, like everything else these days to appear better than it is. Can’t even see the ocean from their windows, though it’s close enough where if you go out on their balcony, sometimes you can smell a sea breeze. Nowadays that means half the time you’re smelling rot, dead fish, seaweed, things that the tide has brought in along with a bunch of rubbish, a plastics nightmare. Part of the appeal of their neighborhood supposedly is it’s in walking distance of the beach, then you go to the beach and instead of walking on a stretch of white sand, there’s a carpet of kelp stinking on the shore, flies buzzing all the dead stuff in it, and miles of plastic waste—so many tampon applicators you’d think the ocean washes into the sewers, flushing them out.

The worst are the plastic yokes that hook around six-packs of beer and soda. Gulls are attracted to those, snag them with their beaks like it’s some kind of treasure, then the thing slips over their necks like a necklace. Stuff gets trapped on it, fishing line, seaweed, trails of more plastic weighing it down, the gull tries to fly and it’s grounded. Bryan saw one where fishing line got caught around its beak and the gull couldn’t open it, hopped around on one leg because the other was trapped in another part of the plastic collar. Would’ve starved to death, but then some lady from a wildlife rescue place came down and saved it. She cut all the plastic off, but it turned out the poor gull had damaged its wing and still couldn’t fly, so she took the bird back to the Center to rehabilitate it.

Now that’s a job Bryan wouldn’t mind having, rehabilitating seabirds. All that poor gull suffered was because of somebody’s six-pack. Bryan doesn’t drink soda and he buys his beer in a cardboard box, so it’s recyclable. He doesn’t do much good in the world he supposes, certainly not for Amanda who tells him this all the time of late, but damn if he’s going to contribute to that plastic mess in the ocean that’s killing sea life. He read somewhere that between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. Even little things like plastic straws to stir coffee kill turtles, albatross, and fish. They think all these plastic things are food, and why shouldn’t they? The ocean is their dining room table. Why do folks even need a straw to stir coffee, or to drink from for that matter—use your damn mouth, that’s what lips are for.

When he opens their apartment door Bryan sees Amanda sprawled out on their couch, reading a novel, naturally, and he’s in a mood, she calls it. Barely looks up at him, says, “Wow, someone’s in a mood.”

“Yeah,” he says, tossing his keys on the counter that separates their tiny kitchen from the living room, efficiency kitchen the building manager called it. “Well, I found out something, a bit of info you might say, and I’m not happy about it.”

She sighs, doesn’t even stop reading, turns to the next page, says, “OK.” Like she’s giving him permission to continue.

“Could you put the damn book down? I mean if it’s convenient.”

She sighs again, lays her book face down on the coffee table, a wood and glass number they found together at Good Will, just weeks after their wedding when doing things like shopping for furniture at cheapo places together was actually fun. When they invited his mom over for dinner, after having furnished the apartment with their finds, she sniffed, said Bryan’s cousin Luke bought all his furniture from fancy New York antique stores. “He owns a Brooklyn brownstone,” she told Amanda.

“The McCormick family genius,” Bryan had muttered.

“So Bry,” Amanda says now, “what’s this big news?”

“It’s not big, necessarily, just disturbing. Disturbing me,” he adds, in case this isn’t clear. He sits down on the wing chair opposite her. It kind of matches the couch, shares some of the colors, but not all matchy-matchy, Amanda said. She wanted colors that complemented each other but not exactly the same.

“So, I ran into Stony,” he tells her. She knits her brow like she doesn’t remember. “You know, Stony Phillips, from grad school? So anyhow, we had a beer at Gallagher’s, then another, you know how that goes, then suddenly he’s asking me about you, how you are, what you’re doing these days, that kind of thing. I told him you were fine, and then he says, he goes, Oh yeah, Amanda Pierce, she sure was fine!” He’s looking at his wife’s face as he’s telling her this to see what it shows, but it’s her usual face these days when she looks at him, like can he hurry with whatever he’s telling her so she can get back to her much more interesting book, kind of face.

Bryan says, “So I didn’t like the way he said fine, and I told him that, asked him what’s up with that? He said, well, that you were the hottest girl in grad school. I went yeah, yeah, like this is old news, but then he’s telling me about how you did him one night! Not he did you, you did him!”

Amanda rolls her eyes at this, says, “Bryan, we weren’t even married in those days.” You’ll note she wasn’t denying it, just making an excuse for it.

He nods, “Yeah, I was thinking that too, while Stony’s telling me how you came on to him one night in the Tap House. He said it was clear you wanted some action, so he took you back to his place. And one thing led to another and all—I wasn’t so interested in those details, because what I figured out, doing the math in my head while he’s yammering, is maybe we weren’t married but we were sure-as-shit dating at that time! You did Stony lunk-head Phillips when we were dating. I was probably busy flipping pizzas that night so I could afford to take you out!”

At this she sits straight up, looks into his eyes, says, “Wow Babe, I forgot you had that pizza gig. You should see about getting that back, we could use the money.”

Bryan smashes his fist down on the edge of the coffee table, not the glass part, the wood, but the reverberation makes her novel jump a little; hopefully she lost her place. He says, “Babe, I don’t think you’re getting what I’m saying here. I’m telling you, from what Stony said, the timing and all, you cheated on me when we were dating!”

She rolls her eyes, round and yellowy-green like a cat’s. “Well we weren’t married. I doubt you’d even asked me at that point.”

“Oh, so that’s the cheating standard? Not if we’re married or intending to get married, but full-steam-ahead if it’s just dating?” He almost smiles, wondering if she caught the cliché. Then he gets a sudden chill, crab-walking up his spine so fast it’s like he’d submerged himself in a tub of ice water. They used to play a drinking game like that, undergrads, mainly guys at that point, challenging each other to see who could drink enough beer and sit in a tub of water the longest while the others loaded it with ice. Shriveled your balls to peanuts, and that’s the way he’s feeling this minute staring at his wife. He inhales a hard breath. “That is the standard, right? OK if we’re not married? You haven’t, you know, been with anyone else since…?” He lets his sentence drop.

She looks at him, then gets up off the couch, heads into the kitchen. “I’m feeling like a drink,” she calls out, “want one?”

“No!” he shouts, then thinks, what the hell. “OK! I want one, but you didn’t answer my question.”

She comes back with two gin and tonics, hands him one then sits back down on the couch, stirring hers with her finger. Good girl, he’s thinking, not with a straw at least. “What was your question again?” She says.

“Jesus, pretty short memory for an adjunct English professor!”

She shrugs. “Selective. They don’t pay me enough to remember everything.”

He leans forward in the chair, palming his drink, stares into her pale eyes. “Have you,” he starts slowly, enunciating every word, “been with anyone else since we’ve been married? Be honest now, we’ve always at least been that with each other, we’ve always honored the truth.”

She grins at this, which annoys the heck out of him. “What?” he says, “Haven’t we? I know I’ve always been truthful with you!”

She smiles, says, “I know, Bry, it just struck me how clichéd this whole conversation sounds.”

That gets to him, I mean it really fucking gets to him. He slams his fist down again on the coffee table, only this time her drink was on it and it sloshes over the rim, making a mess of her novel and the table under it. “Good one,” she says, rising to get something to wipe up with.

“Sit the fuck back down!” he roars, and she stops, looks a little alarmed but does it, she sits.

He feels bad now, that look on her face, like for a moment she was actually scared of him. It’s how things eventually got between his parents, and Bryan swore he’d never be the asshole his dad was, intimidating his mom the way he did, threatening her. He never actually hit her, far as Bryan knew, but you could see from the look on her face she believed he could.

“Amanda,” he starts, in a quieter voice, “I’m just asking you a simple question. The conversation with Stony rattled me some, and now I’m just wondering if I’m the only one, since our marriage I mean.”

“You shouldn’t be drinking so early in the day,” she says earnestly. “It’s only 4:00 and you haven’t even been back an hour. You and Stony must’ve started drinking what, around noon? That’s not a healthy choice.”

He sighs. “Christ!” he mutters, and suddenly he’s feeling so sad and alone he’s afraid he might start crying, sitting here on their color-complementing wingback chair, clutching the gin and tonic his wife made him. Bryan takes a sip, hoping it will staunch the tears. Eight years, he’s thinking, married to the hottest girl in grad school, but not just that, he fell head-over-heels in love with her. And not just her looks, or that she might’ve been with one of the Grateful Dead, he’d like to think he was better than that. He loved her spirit, her passion. She even had passion for the bloody English program they were in, loved the books, had favorite writers and were passionate about them, writers like Kafka and Faulkner, Virginia Woolf—the other grads would quote these folks but no one loved them like she did. She believed in the stuff they were teaching, that studying the humanities, reading good literature, taught them how to be human, humane, she told him; she believed what they were doing mattered.

He’s the doofus who thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket made of plastic and the best he can do is clean up its trash off the beach. The truth was—still is—he’s drowning in his love for her. Lying in bed beside her after they’d made love, he’d take fistfuls of her dark, wavy hair and press it to his face. Hair that fell over his face when she was on top of him and he’d think of seaweed, drifting in the ocean under it, wanting only to surface inside it, inside her—her briny scent, her undulating brown skin.

“No,” she says.

“No?” he says, “you haven’t been with anyone else?”

“No,” she repeats, then stands up again. “I have to get ready for my evening class. OK if I clean up the mess on the coffee table now?”

He nods. “Sorry,” he tells her.

An hour later Amanda is about to leave for her class and Bryan walks her to the door, wanting to pull her back, hold her tight and never let her go, but he opens the door. “We good?” he asks her, his heart suddenly pounding as she steps out of their apartment, into the hallway. She turns around, stares at him thoughtfully for a moment, then winks, says: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Which, appropriate cliché, he’ll give her that, but so not true, Bryan thinks now as he’s headed down to the beach. The water is flat and pale lavender in the bleached light of an almost-winter sunset, the sleet had stopped and the cold wind smells of salt. He zips his jacket up tighter around his neck. Instead of feeling relieved by his wife’s declaration that she hasn’t cheated on him, he feels depressed and unsettled. Will she hold it against him that he even doubted her? Then yelled at her over it! Can he believe her? Maybe the real problem is deep down he’d been expecting something like this, less out of not trusting Amanda, and more because he’s always felt less than her somehow. Why the hell did he even pursue a graduate degree? Not like her because he believed in it. He doesn’t come from a family of college folk, in fact most of his Southie neighborhood wasn’t college—you mention you’re going to one, particularly graduate school, and some of those boys might teach you with their fists a new perspective on getting brained. The guys in his neighborhood don’t take kindly to braggarts. Still, maybe he wanted to prove he could be better than his parents, at least, and English seemed a surer path—compared to an MBA anyway.

He kicks at a plastic milk jug on the sand. Next to it is a nest of old fishing line, which he picks up and sticks in his pocket, hoping maybe he’s saved some poor seabird from getting tangled in it. His eyes fill with tears, but now it’s at the images of how humans are slaughtering millions of fish, birds, seals, and other sea animals, that are getting choked, starved, even poisoned from the chemical by-products of plastic breaking down. He recently saw something on the news about hundreds of sea turtles dying after they’d swallowed floating plastic bags they mistook for jellyfish. Then there are the dolphins that get tangled in nets, bags, ropes, and other trash, suffocating and drowning. As if the tobacco companies killing people with cigarettes isn’t enough, cigarette butts, which are the number one item found in beach cleanups, poison fish. They’ve even found butts in Arctic sea-ice! Which is melting, so guess where those butts are going now?

He stares up at the neighborhood nearest to where the beach begins, most susceptible to flooding, and imagines the sea-level rise. With the Arctic melting and beaches disappearing, what will happen to this neighborhood of mostly older, smaller Quincy homes, intermingled with the newer, multi-million dollar properties, all of them in the years to come under a rising tide of garbage: plastic bags, milk jugs, water bottles, fishing lines, cigarette butts riding the waves, pushing against the coastline, the increasingly severe nor’easters flooding neighborhoods, burying them in a sea of plastic which will outlive them all, the great whales, dolphins, seals, Amanda Pierce, Stony Phillips, and yours truly, all of us drowning in it. He imagines telling his wife as they are going under, clutching each other tightly: still think beach cleanup wasn’t a real job?

But maybe there’s hope for the giant squid, he thinks, gazing out now toward an indigo horizon. He watched a program recently where a specially equipped video camera had picked up an image of one of these 2,000 feet below, in the darkest depths of the ocean, a place scientists don’t know much about and weren’t even sure these creatures existed until seeing the image, something like forty foot tentacles waving about, eyes as big as dinner plates. The scientists don’t know how they live, what they eat, know so little about them that Bryan likes to think of them down there safe from human interference, as they have been for who knows how many eons before technology discovered their existence. It would probably take years before anyone could figure out a way to bring them up to the surface, and by then, with sea-levels rising maybe they will have surfaced on their own, out of the darkness into a world washed clean.

Jaimee Wriston Colbert is the author of seven books of fiction. Her books won the 2021 and 2018 International Book Awards, the 2021 NYC Big Book Award in General Fiction, CNY 2017 Fiction Award, Willa Cather Fiction Prize, Zephyr Prize, IPPY Gold Medal, Ian MacMillan Fiction Award, and more. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, Fiction Writers Review, and many other venues. She is a recipient of the 2019 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities and delivered the 2020-2021 Harpur Dean’s Distinguished Lecture. Originally from Hawaii, she lives in upstate New York, where she is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at SUNY Binghamton University.

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