Undertow

I remember everything about that day. The brisk wind off the ocean, the scudding clouds and that pinkish sky. Little pebbles in my shoes. They distracted me. While I have made many mistakes in my life, that day represents the worst of them. I made the easy choice, and it was the wrong one. Maybe if I’d done it different, I wouldn’t be sitting in this room again.

Susan was still asleep when I woke up. She always slept late after our nights together. I guess she felt no guilt back then. I never saw an ounce of it in her green eyes. They were shut tightly when I left around sunrise to get coffee. She was snoring softly. I didn’t want to wake her. I looked at her body. So ripe. The black lingerie she wore for me, those little bits with the see through top and bottom. I loved that set on her, so I stared at it awhile. Watched her breathe. Watched her eyes moving underneath the lids. Smelled her cigarette smoke, clinging to everything in the room.

Then I went to the lobby, and I walked downward, following the path along the cliffs that hold the ocean back. When I looked back at the hotel, with its plethora of glass eyes, I wondered which of them might be awake. Watching me. Probably very few. Like Susan, the hotel slumbered.

The weather was strange that morning. It felt like it might storm or it might turn hot. I couldn’t tell at the time. The air smelled of salt, but there was something else. A stillness in the air. It felt like solitude. The only thing moving, other than me, was the ocean. I didn’t see any other people, and I didn’t see any birds. It was strange. There were usually birds.

I kicked pebbles. Stared in amazement at the tenacious shrubs that clung to the cliff’s edges. Life has a way, at least for a while. Then it must give up its turn. The green of the shrubs contrasted nicely with the grey of the soft rock from which they grew.

We were both unhappy. Susan and I. Both in marriages that made us feel unappreciated. Somehow we found each other. It had been going on for a few months, and we were still in that fantasy where somehow we were going to love each other forever, perfectly. Human hope. It’s amazing.

She had kids, and both of us had a lot of miles on our marriages. Finding happiness isn’t easy in this psychotic world. Safety is an illusion, you can see that from watching the news. Security? Ha! Ask anyone who has been downsized what you get for your blood, sweat and tears. Try to get a politician to explain how all the money is being used. Good luck with that.

We try for it all the same. And they steal from us, those rich, conniving, soulless bastards and whores. Paying us for fealty with our own money. Training us to vote for their false security and their wars. Lining their pockets with the extract of blood and tears and ruined lives. Those fucks.

How can you stay with someone who doesn’t pay attention to your dreams? Susan and I listened to each other in that regard, while we fucked and held each other and drifted off to sleep together. I loved her big green eyes. I loved her heaving breasts and nipples that turned from pink to red when I was inside her. I loved her smell, and the taste of cigarettes in her mouth when I kissed her. I love her compliance to every demand I made in the bedroom. She was good for me, for a time.

I was thinking about Susan and sipping my coffee when I noticed the girl, down at the bottom, right up near where those waves turn big and break against the rocks. The wind tugged on me just then, and teased me with its gusting. Playing, like a true master does when he knows he can have you at anytime. I knew the wind could force me into the water if it wanted that. I looked down, in the direction of that unfulfilled promise of escape. That’s when I noticed her.  She was almost directly below me. She saw me too. I don’t know how she could. I wear neutral outfits that blend with most environments. But she did.

She was waving at me. I couldn’t see what color her eyes were, but I could tell her mouth was open. She was screaming. Her blonde hair splayed out in the water, a nimbus around her upturned face. Every wave washed over her, hiding her face and then revealing it again. I still don’t know how she got there, 40 or so feet under me. She must have been caught in an undertow. Why she was out there that early in the morning never made sense. I guess some people get up and go swimming at first light. Who the hell knows. Not me.

I’m a strong swimmer. I thought about it for a few seconds. My life was complicated enough. I decided to let her go. I thought it would be better for her. Less pain. I’ve heard drowning is an easy way to die. Peaceful once you stop fighting it.

She went under five, maybe six more times from when I first noticed her. I hadn’t totally made up my mind. If anyone else had been around, I would have gone after her. I was pretty sure I could make the jump without passing out. They taught us how to jump off the sides of ships in the Corps. I had done it dozens of times without incident. The timing was bad, that’s all. Without an audience, I can’t perform the hero role. What’s the point? I’ve seen how it usually ends for heroes.

I thought letting her go would be better for me. The movie of me dragging her back to the beach played in my head. I didn’t want to explain who I was to anyone, or why I was checked in under a fake name, with a woman who wasn’t my wife. The girl’s head went under again, and this time, it didn’t come back up. It wasn’t like in the movies. I never saw the dramatic hand come up one last time and then slide slowly under. A wave covered her face. She was gone. I never got to see her running down the beach, trapped in the false hope of youth, her breasts bouncing carelessly in an overworked bikini, her ass calling out its siren song to every man she passed.

I was spellbound. Lost in thought. I watched the ocean for a few moments. Those waves kept going, crashing mindlessly, endlessly against the cliff walls and piles of jagged rocks down there. The noise soothed me. I finished my coffee and wondered what the girl had believed in.

It rained gently for about five minutes. The drops were far enough apart. I barely got damp.

Most people believe in something. I never have. I think it just goes black and then you rot. I’ve seen death too many times to believe there in something on the other side.

Eventually, I bent down and checked the pistol I always carry on my ankle. It rested snug in its pouch, like always. Then I took off each shoe and shook out the pebbles. I retied the laces carefully.

I walked back up the path to Susan and pretended to be excited about the rest of our weekend. We made love again. Ate the room service meals. Planned our lives out, together while eating eggs. Showered. Got dressed. She in a bikini and me in my neutrally colored cargo pants and t-shirt.

I read to her from the collected stories of John Cheever, and she told me that I could be a better writer than him, that my love letters to her were the best she’d ever read. And I thought about that girl’s face going under. That open mouth in the middle of all that blonde hair. I listened to Susan telling me she loved me, and I stared at the peeling plaid patterned wallpaper on the walls.

We undressed again. Spontaneously told each other dreams, big and little, while I played with her breasts. More lovemaking, slower than before. The bed creaked and banged against the wall. Susan had more energy than I did. She did most of the work. That was fine.

The walls of the room hid us from the world, and the world from us, but only for a brief sojourn. That’s really all you ever get when it comes to good things. Out there are mostly dark spaces and black hearts and small minds. In my youth I was oblivious to them, cocooned. In my early adulthood, I thought I could escape them, and for a while, I did. Then I experienced war, and I knew the reality. The dark spaces and black hearts and small minds eat everything eventually. They will eat me too.

We ate breakfast late, and went down to the beach, following the winding paths along the cliffs. Susan swam in the ocean and I tried to write. I couldn’t. I couldn’t find the words. The birds had come back from wherever they had been hiding that morning when I let her go. The girl.

Today is the first time I have been able to write. I think about death too much. My wars changed me. It’s hard to take much seriously, except fucking and eating. Humans are too fragile and vicious and petty to make long-term plans. Death comes randomly, no matter what you want.

It turned very hot later that day. It stormed too, but only inside my head. That’s where most storms are born. In my memories. After that hot day, the dead girl showed up in my dreams. She was usually bloated. Only rarely did she appear while still fighting for her life. We all fight, but eventually, we lose. No exceptions.

Susan and I continued our affair for another year or two. She ended up getting religion, and telling me I needed to get help. She said she was going to ask for forgiveness, and that I should too. I can’t be forgiven, because there is no god. I hope Susan is happy with the one she made up.

The girl’s body washed up a week later, miles away from the cliffs where I let her drown. Some kids found her. Someone made a Youtube video, probably one of the kids. She was bloated up to several times her living size. Except what the fish had taken as tribute for the intrusion into their habitat. We eat fish. Fish eat humans.

Pieces of her were gone. Toes and fingers and eyeballs. What was left of her skin had gone gray, and her hair was coming out in patches. That water isn’t cold enough – she would have lost the hair and skin in another day or two.

When I finish this letter, I will walk out to those cliffs where I let her go, stare at the waves one last time, and then join my abandoned, hopeless girl in eternal nothing. I want whoever finds this testament to know that I am sorry. Also, you can keep my pistol. You might need a pistol one day.

I should have been a better warrior. I should have been a better husband. And I should have jumped off the cliff that day instead of finishing my coffee and going on with this charade. I’ve been a tourist in this life. I wish it had been different. The time for sightseeing has to end. I wish all of you well. Life is short, and there is nothing after. War is coming. I hope you’re ready when it gets here. I don’t have another one in me. I can’t fight anymore.


Also published on Medium.

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The author

Pen has been writing in a professional capacity for two decades. He started his career as a combat correspondent in the U.S. Marines.

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