by Nate Currier
I am in Rite Aid buying ChapStick and diapers, when people start washing away in the rain. The first thing I do is call Hannah. She doesn’t pick up, and for a moment, I can’t breathe.
But I tell myself she’s probably sleeping. She’s been sleeping a lot, since we got back from the hospital.
The walls are all windows, so the whole Rite Aid freezes. The boy at the cash register turns his head and screams. Out on the sidewalk, people are melting in the rain, like the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. Except it isn’t quite like that.
Raindrops pass through them like they aren’t even there, as if their atoms are exhausted trying to keep things together, and let it all go. It’s a quick, light shower. In a couple of minutes, the whole sidewalk is empty.
Everyone in the store buys umbrellas and galoshes. Some people are checking the news, but they don’t know anything. We all have our cellphones out.
Everybody has someone to call.
Back at the apartment, Hannah’s awake. She sits cross-legged in front of her laptop, eyes glued to the news, nursing baby. Her hair is a mess.
“Am I dreaming?” she asks.
I put on oven mitts and pull off my galoshes. I want so badly to touch the film of liquid on their sole, to see if my finger starts to evaporate. It feels very important, at this point, to learn the rules.
“What does the news say?”
“Nothing. I just woke up. People are scared.”
She turns to me suddenly, realizing how worried she should have been. I could have been caught in it. I make a small gesture, an unspoken assertion that I’m glad she was asleep and didn’t panic.
I go to the sink. I want to splash some water on my face, then chuckle, hopelessly. I go back into the other room and sit behind Hannah, arms and legs wrapped around her.
I put my hand around baby’s head. The color of my French Tips molds against the smooth newness of her skin. Her whole head fits in my palm.
The news footage is surreal. I feel the need to say something normal.
“Have you picked a name yet?”
She whips toward me with a blank look.
“Are you serious?” she says. “In the middle of this?”
“It’s been two weeks…”
She shakes her head and doesn’t respond. But she puts her hand on my knee.
While baby drinks, we watch an arena full of Chinese soccer fans disintegrate in a thunderstorm.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” she whispers.
“They’ll figure it out.” I try to sound reassuring, as if that were possible.
“Maybe it’s acid rain.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” she says again, softer. “They’re all smiling.”
Juice, milk, and coffee are okay. Also wine, thank god. We put a half-roll of duct tape around each faucet head. We install plastic caps on the outlets the same day, in an attempt to trick ourselves into believing this is all part of the process. It will be months before baby takes her first steps.
Neither of us says it, but we aren’t worried baby gets to a faucet. We’re worried one of us wakes up in the middle of the night, and forgets.
It’s April, so everybody stays indoors unless the sky is flawlessly blue. Even then, we make sure I have umbrellas packed away in my purse.
Hannah never lets baby out of her sight. She doesn’t stay out with her long, even on hot days with zero percent chance of rain, even though all the baby books say it’s healthy for infants to get sunlight.
The stock market crashed, of course. But that’s the strange thing. People still talk about the stock market. Everything’s changed, but we aren’t any different. It’s like North and South switched directions. The compass is out of control, but it’s not like the needle disappeared.
We never eat out. It’s too risky. Tonight, microwavable chicken nuggets and baked broccoli, no water included. She brings it up as if it were an afterthought.
“Mom’s thinking of going into the ocean.”
“What?” I lick ketchup off my fingers.
“Mom. She’s thinking about the ocean.”
I stay quiet a moment and nod, as if I’m not surprised, as if that makes sense and my mother-in-law doesn’t sound like an idiot.
“Why would she do that?”
“Come on,” Hannah says as though I’m playing dumb. “The smiles.”
Hannah was the first person I heard point it out, but everybody knows about the smiles. We’d all seen enough people wash away on the news, the smiles had become a meme.
“What about them?”
She shrugs, avoiding eye contact.
“Mom’s lived a long life. I think she’s curious.”
“I hope you talked her out of it.”
She looks away, toward baby, cutting her broccoli bites into infinitesimal pieces.
“I told her she should do whatever she wants.”
Baby smears ketchup on her cheek.
“Don’t you think that’s a little irresponsible?”
“Your Mom just wants attention. She’s lonely.”
Hannah’s head stays fastened to her plate, but for a moment her eyes glance up toward mine. She looks incredulous. And tired.
“Tell your mom she can come live with us,” I say.
“Like we have the space.”
That is true.
“I’ll sleep on the couch,” I go on, unwilling to back down. “She can share the bed with you and baby.”
She keeps eating, and the noise of her fork scraping her plate bothers me, and suddenly, everything about this moment bothers me.
It bothers me she’s not responding. It bothers me my sacrificial idea of sleeping on the couch is going by without comment. It bothers me baby still doesn’t have a name. It bothers me she’s using a fork to eat chicken nuggets.
“Did I say something wrong?” I ask.
“I don’t want to name the baby yet.”
“I didn’t say anything about that.”
“I can hear it. It’s in your tone.”
“I know it’s been a couple months,” she continues, as if I refuted her. “I don’t feel it yet. The way I’m supposed to.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to feel anything.”
She shakes her head. “You don’t understand. You didn’t go through it.”
She’s right, but that’s not really fair. We talked for weeks about which of us would have it. It wasn’t a one-time discussion.
Hannah really wanted to do it. I said I did, but privately, I was terrified. It’s not going through labor that terrifies me (okay, it does) it’s the sensation of another living thing inhabiting my body.
What Hannah sees as the miracle of childbirth, I see as an invasion of personal space, a B-Horror movie plot, a poorly designed feature that could have used a couple billion more years of evolution to smooth out the process.
Of course, I didn’t tell her that. Women aren’t supposed to feel that way, and anyway, we hadn’t been to the clinic yet. If it turned out she couldn’t, I would have gone through with it.
It would have been worth it, to have something ours.
I reach across the table. Her hand fits over mine.
“What can I do to help you?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m thinking of seeing a therapist.”
I feel my shoulders tighten. The thought of telling my deepest secrets to a stranger gives me the heebie-jeebies. But Hannah’s different.
“That’s a great idea,” I say, “if that’s what you want.”
She groans and puts her elbows on the table. Her head slumps down, and she shakes her fingers through her hair.
I love Hannah’s hair. It’s the first thing that attracted me to her. A deep, thick chestnut. I’m glad the baby has her hair. The donor was blonde. We never met him, we chose his picture out of a book.
“I don’t feel anything for it.” I stop thinking about hair. This is hard for her to say.
“Not a thing. It’s like I’m looking at a paper weight. Worse, because it won’t let me sleep, and is trying to drink me to death. When I was pregnant, she was a part of me. My body was being used for something. Now”—
She waves her hands amorphously.
We stare at baby, smiling, a glob of drool rolling down her cheek.
“We’ll look online for therapists tomorrow,” I say. “But I think this is totally natural. Remember the baby books? A lot of people go through this.”
“Yeah, but I’m not a lot of people.”
We sit quietly for a minute. It’s up to me to change the subject, we both know it, it’s an unspoken deal. She goes through labor, I change the subject. Unfortunately, only one thing’s on my mind.
“What do you think it’s like?”
“The water. You know.”
She sighs. “I don’t know. Probably like flying.”
She can tell, I have no idea what she’s talking about.
“Evaporating into the clouds,” she explains. “And hanging there a while, and then falling down and doing it again. It’s a little like flying. Or, I don’t know. Maybe it feels like falling, and never hitting the ground.”
The hair was just the start.
This is why I love Hannah.
“That’s the sunniest take on the end of the world I’ve ever heard.”
She bobs her head a little, and a stalk of broccoli disappears into her mouth.
“If we’re lucky, maybe it doesn’t feel like anything,” she says. “That would be a pretty neutral apocalypse, wouldn’t it?”
I nod, as if thinking it over.
“Apocalypse. That’s a good name for the baby.”
She eats a chicken nugget and tries to look annoyed, but I see her smile.
We watch Hannah’s mom die on cellphone. Her nurse took the video, and a whole semi-circle of people from the retirement home stood around on the beach.
She’s wearing a blue-and-white dress. A strappy, backless piece a much younger woman might wear.
I’d never seen her in anything like that, and even though I’m against the whole thing, she looks beautiful.
I told Hannah she should go. But she would have felt guilty leaving baby behind, and it seemed wrong to take her, somehow. So close to the ocean.
Hannah’s mom understood. She said goodbye to her granddaughter over FaceTime, while baby swatted her hand on the phone.
Hannah’s mom turns to face the camera. It must be windy, because she’s squinting, even though the sun is behind her. It feels like she might make a speech.
Instead, she presses her palm to her lips, blowing a kiss to the camera phone.
Hannah’s crying, smiling broadly and blowing kisses back. I put an arm around her, trying to make my body feel stable while she clings to me, even though I’m the one freaking out.
When her mom wades into the surf, I hold my breath and my nails dig into my jeans.
It’s like there’s a glitch with the phone. Her ankles and calves disappear. The water’s uneven and her whole body stabilizes itself. The waves roll up to her dress, past the hem. Somehow, she keeps floating in.
I want to vomit. It feels like watching someone jump off a cliff. I should look at Hannah. I want to look at Hannah, to see her reaction. But I can’t look away.
At the last second, deep enough where the water is up to her breasts, she turns back to the beach. How she does this without legs, I have no idea. What’s left of her is bobbing up and down on the waves.
With the sun behind her, and even on a crappy cellphone, zoomed in twenty yards away, the smile is unmistakable.
She lets go, and disappears backwards into the ocean.
I can’t watch anymore. The blue-and-white dress floats to the surface. If you look closely, you can tell it apart from the waves.
I escape to the kitchen and pour myself a glass of milk. My shoulders are tight. I feel like I’m getting a headache. I press the cold cardboard carton to my temples.
I stand in the doorway, watching Hannah without making a sound. I don’t want to talk for a while. I don’t want to exist for a while.
Hannah’s pointing at the screen, baby in her arms.
“That’s gramma,” she says, “Say gramma, gramma, do you see?”
I take a step closer, to make sure.
She’s pointing at the ocean.
“Your boss called.”
I’m back from a walk. A rare, sunny, October day. I take off my gators and put away my umbrella.
Hannah stayed in. She rarely comes out anymore. That’s okay. All that time cooped up inside, it’s good to have time with myself.
“What did he want?” I ask.
“He’s wading in. They’re looking to find a replacement.”
“He’s like, thirty-eight.”
From the other room, I sense Hannah bristle a little.
“I keep telling you, it’s not about age.”
I walk into the living room and kiss her on the forehead. I don’t feel like having this conversation again. I quickly change the subject.
“You know, we’re looking for people at work.”
“Yeah. Another couple guys in HR waded in last week. And a girl in accounting. But I don’t want you to feel like I’m pressuring you into anything.”
“I don’t,” Hannah says.
“Honestly, you shouldn’t feel like you have to rush back into work. Not until you’re ready. We’re doing fine with the money your mom left us, and I got a bit from my uncle when he waded in.”
“I only bring it up cause I think you might like more in your life.”
“I do,” she says. “But what about—Peanut?”
Another argument I don’t want to have again. The baby is six months old and still doesn’t have a name. Calling her “baby” was too awkward, so now she’s “Peanut” as a placeholder. We never agreed to it, it just sort of happened.
“You’d probably be working from home like me,” I assure her. “She’ll be fine with both of us here.”
“Okay. I’ll think about it. Yeah.”
She’s being sweet, but I can tell she has no interest.
“I mean it though. You shouldn’t feel like you need to.”
“You said that already.”
“I did? Yeah.”
Peanut is on the rug, sucking on a cork. Hannah’s scrolling through her phone. I plop down on the couch next to her.
“You could start doing pottery again.”
For the first time, she looks truly piqued.
“I haven’t done that in years.”
“I know. Your ashtray is getting lonely.”
“It’s a good ashtray, isn’t it?”
“It’s the fucking best ashtray in the world.”
“Almost makes me want to take up smoking.”
We didn’t sing “Happy Birthday.” It’s not a big deal. She’s only one, too young to blow out a candle.
But I think, the reason we didn’t sing it, is because we wouldn’t have known what to call her. Peanut? Baby? It’s not worth arguing over.
Peanut’s asleep now. I wipe the dishes with rags and a bit of milk, while Hannah and her draw pictures.
The issue with naming the baby is that it’s only the two of us in the house. Hannah’s too nervous to leave, and we haven’t had visitors in months.
If other people were here, she’d probably realize how weird it is. But most of our family and friends have waded in.
I finish the dishes, and mechanically check my phone before going back in the living room. There have been more riots nearby, not in our neighborhood but in the city.
But that’s not the story blaring on top of my newsfeed.
Three billion gone.
Some experts say it might be as high as four billion. It’s impossible to get a good estimate. It’s too big a number, I can’t wrap my head around it. So I go back into the living room.
“Is she asleep?” I ask.
Hannah nods, slipping her phone facedown on the table. We stare at each other. She must have been reading the same story I was.
I glance down at the orange construction paper.
“Peanut drew these?”
Hannah nods again.
I force a laugh. “She’s getting really good.”
It’s a joke, because Hannah makes the outlines, and Peanut fills them in. Hannah’s outlines are incredible. She makes silhouettes of all three of us, and even though Hannah and I are the same height, you can always tell us apart.
“I’ll never understand how you do this.”
“It’s just posturing,” she says. “The outlines are easy. Peanut has the hard job.”
I nod, staring at the patches of multi-colored crayon careening between us, through the lines.
“If we send her to art school now, maybe she’ll learn to stay inside the lines.”
“It’s avant garde,” says Hannah.
I laugh, out of tiredness more than anything. I go into the bedroom and start undressing. Peanut’s been sleeping in her crib for a couple months now, but we still haven’t moved it out of our bedroom. I brush my teeth, quietly, while I stare at her.
“I had a real good talk with my therapist today.”
I didn’t notice Hannah in the doorway. I go to the bathroom and spit. I hate brushing my teeth without water.
“Yeah? About what?”
“Wading in.” She adds quickly, “She’s going to do it.”
I can’t hide it. I don’t want this before bed. As neutral as possible, I say: “I guess you need a new therapist.”
“There’s a lake upstate,” she goes on. “Her family used to go when she was a kid. She’s gonna wade in there.”
“I’m confused. She’s your therapist.”
“So why is your therapist talking to you about her problems.”
“It’s not a problem.”
“She’s killing herself.”
“She’s letting herself go.”
“From her self.”
I’m too tired for this. I can’t believe the stupidity of this conversation.
“What does that even mean?”
Hannah finally steps out of the doorway and starts to get ready for bed.
“I don’t know. She said it.”
She lets down her hair. It’s getting long.
“What else did you talk about?”
“That was it,” she says. “I told her I didn’t think you’d ever be up for it.”
“Up for what?”
I want so badly to be shocked and surprised. I want to scream and throw a fit. That might be what Hannah wants from me.
“Why does that matter?”
“Why were you talking about me.”
“But you just said—”
“Look, I just mentioned it, okay?”
She gets in bed without brushing her teeth, and pulls the covers up to her chin. She turns away and turns off the lamp.
It’s not fair. I’m the one who should get to be annoyed. I lie down at a weird angle, above the covers with my feet on my pillow. I rest my head on her thigh. To my amazement, she reaches a hand back and brushes the hair out of my face, combing behind my ear.
“I miss mom,” she says quietly.
“Your mom’s dead.”
I sound petty. I am petty.
“I wish you wouldn’t say that,” she says.
“It’s true. You’re not going to see her again.”
She’s not riled up. She doesn’t even stop stroking my hair.
“I know that. She doesn’t exist anymore.”
“But you still want her?”
“I don’t want her.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I don’t want anything.”
She turns around and we both rearrange. I’m lying on her hip.
“Anything else you don’t want?”
She shakes her head slowly. I look up and stare at her in the darkness. Her eyes are closed. For the first time, I notice how tired she looks.
“I miss the baby,” she says.
This time, I am surprised.
“What? She’s in her crib.”
I think she’s going to say more, but she pulls me right-side up to the pillow, and turns away so I can spoon her. I hold on to her tight. I caress her back, looking for some spot to touch her, some secret place that will slow down the world.
But she’s already fallen asleep.
She left me a note. I haven’t read it yet. I will, and it might even help. But no, I haven’t read it yet.
Sometimes I dream about it, but even in my dreams, I can’t stop it. She doesn’t hear me when I come in the door. I’ve been on a walk, and rushed back early because clouds were starting to form in the sky.
I take off my boots and stop short in the hall. The bathroom door is open, the shower curtain is drawn. I can see her reflection in the mirror, Peanut in her arm. She’s naked, and beautiful. Peanut is calm, one tiny hand splayed onto her chest, the other tussling the ends of her hair.
Hannah doesn’t see me. Her eyes are closed, and she’s humming. She’s shifting back and forth on her heels, almost imperceptibly, a minor exchange of weight.
I want to scream, but I can’t bring myself to do it. The moment is too serene. Madonna and Child, standing in an empty tub. If I spoke now, if I made a peep, my voice would sound like a buzz saw.
The duct tape is already off the faucet. It’s my last chance to scream, the moment is here, right in front of me.
She turns the shower on. And she smiles. And Peanut smiles. And I watch them disassemble out of two distinct people. They melt together into particles, and then into something else, something even more basic.
They swirl down the drain.
I let the water run. I like the sound, and the look, and the smell. You forget water has a smell until you’ve been away from it too long. Swimming lessons at the pool.
I eat dinner alone now. All my friends have waded in. Gone into the water. Gone back to the water. There aren’t many of us left above ground.
I see the others, when I go on walks. Remnants of the city. None of us speak to each other. We pass each other by, defensive of our own skin. We walk in wide berths, possessive of the space we inhabit like closed fists stuck in pickle jars.
When I get lonely—truly lonely—I go to the beach. I watch the waves, and stare at the soft curve of horizon, like a new baby bump, the first sign.
I imagine a map of the world, and think about how all the oceans interconnect. Every patch of earth under our feet is really an island, if you zoom out far enough. And I wonder if we made a mistake coming here, on land, those millions or billions of years ago.
We must have been running from something. Some bigger fish, certainly. Some long-toothed, silver-scaled god of the deep with jaws closing in on us. It’s the only explanation. The only reason we would have given up all that space.
I watch the waves, and my mind wanders. I try to make out Hannah in the foam, or some little rainbow of Peanut where the spray catches the sunlight, but I know that’s not right. That’s not why they went down there, crawling back into the salt.
I can’t pick them out of anything, because they’re too big for me to see. You can’t see the whole ocean, standing on land.
And then, in the water, I see something strange. An absence in the waves. A deep indent, a blue shadow rolling towards me with exactly the right amount of space for my body.
A hole in the ocean, exactly the right size. The whole ocean rearranging itself, so I can be comfortable.
As the water approaches, I lie down on the sand. I cross my arms over my chest like I’m saying a prayer. The ocean has drawn a perfect outline for me, even Hannah couldn’t have done it better.
The waves crash down, and I fit in so tight, when the tide pulls me out to sea, I don’t even notice. The way you don’t notice the earth spinning. I don’t float or sink. I don’t do anything, and I can stay in my outline as long as I like, farther and farther out, until I can’t see the land, so far out I can’t see the stars, so far, I can’t even see the water.
That’s my dream.
In reality, all I have is an unopened note.