Issue 42.2, Winter/Spring 2022

A New Story

Underwater photo with clear blue waves

As you enter the second act of your life, you fall in love with a man who dreams of drowning. He grew up in a city below sea level, always threatening to pull him under.

“You are Jonah,” you tell him. “Live inside me, I will be your whale.”

You picture him a child, just a scared towheaded thing to pick up and tuck safe against your chest. You want to have been his mother. “I’m not Jonah then,” he says. “I’m Oedipus.” He laughs, pulling a strand of your black hair out of his mouth and crooking it behind your ear. You laugh, too. “Sure,” you say, “Oedipus, why not, start off where I want you ending up, inside me always.”

At night you dream of noirs and Westerns, swashbucklers and epics. Cowboys cock their guns and pirates aim their cannons, but you raise him safe above the fray. He dreams of undertows that drag him low. He wakes up gasping, clinging to your waist; you rock him into you and tell him, “Breathe, hold on.”

And then the flood comes bursting through your front door, and you can’t save him after all. Your lover is no Jonah, you no whale. He tries to cling to you and drowns.

You picture it sometimes from God’s perspective: your whole life just a circle of yellow hair sucked out the empty doorframe, spiraling downward, getting smaller. From the perspective of the ocean floor: your pinprick love appears, blurry with distance and framed black against the sun, then swells and sharpens.

You will not picture it from your perspective: thrashing, bubbling, your front door bobbing past. Why couldn’t he swim? Baby why can’t you swim? You grew up underwater. Kick your legs. Rise up, rise up, rise up.

Your heart, gurgling.

After that, you start to dream of drowning. You are pressed against the ceiling in a flooded basement, but the plaster always cracks. The oceans overtop their shorelines, but you live somewhere landlocked, Kansas or Nebraska. He never shows up with you in these dreams. You wake and walk out to the coast, climb the fence around the rocks, wade in and hold your breath and try to drown. Underwater, you yell. Come get me, come get me, the call and response of it unanswered. His arm does not reach up to grab you. You bob up to the surface. You cannot follow him; hair heavy on your neck, you know you have to leave this place. You leave. You move out to an island in the middle of the Pacific. You learn the language. You let your hair grow long so it might catch on him and pull. You fill your shoes with rocks. You leap into the high tide during hurricanes, but all that happens is you get to be a stronger swimmer.

You begin to suspect: He couldn’t have done it. Not if he’s human in the same way you are. Your body is a buoy with airylight balloons for lungs. Either he is not a person, or you are not.

He is dead; you are lost; you can’t tell which of you is more inhuman now. You go to churches, to drug dens, to psychic healers, to lucid dreamers. You meet a tailor with no thumbs. You meet a cellist with no ears. You begin to suspect: Maybe you are always dreaming. One day you lock eyes with a shark. You think, It’s time, you drop your head and expose your throat. It swims away.

That night, you cross the threshold of aloneness after which you feel eyes appear over your shoulder. That’s when you figure it out. “Oh,” you say to God, who must be listening. “He wasn’t for this lifetime. In another century, I rescue him from a shipwreck and we raise a family in a cove. In the first millennium I was born out of his ribs, and in the second he survived the sea in mine.”

“Wrong,” says God. “The loss of him is not the kind of problem that you figure out.”

Okay, fine, there is no figuring out. Only going deeper in. Floating above the thing or suffocating under it.

Or so God says.

You begin to suspect: this God of drowning is lying to you. You think you have his number now. Useless God. You stop frequenting the ocean. You leave your little island. You leave your things behind. Instead you wander deserts, sure now that you will find him there, baking. What is the desert but the ocean floor, unmasked. You’re sure he’s washed up somewhere in the Gobi.

For years you dig through sand dunes. You walk the yellow ground until your hair is blanched and your footprints lineless. Your calves grow hard. The only water you touch is in your canteen. Still you dream of drowning in it; still you drink the drops of what would drown you and survive. When asked, you say you’re searching for your baby. You don’t know who your helpers think you seek, son or lover; you tell them he clung to your chest.

It’s possible some other things have loved you. It’s possible you have been anchor to the man afraid of drifting. You have been wings to the man afraid of death by hanging, rope to the man afraid of falling off of edges.

It’s possible you have been. You haven’t noticed. You are wandering the ocean floor here in the sunlight, cactus in your sight, water at your hip, mouth wide open, sure you are a whale.


To miss him is like that, anyway. Something is wrong with the world: you aren’t human or else he isn’t; God isn’t a god or else a god is nothing worth kneeling over; the ocean has no floor or else the floor is in the middle of the desert. The logic of the universe is skewed, two things cannot be true at once—that you could be his and he could be yours and yet the strongest thing that you could cull inside your heart was not enough to make the thing inside his heart stay close to you.


Then suddenly it isn’t like that anymore. How to account, in storytales, for the truth that love is nothing more than luck. Your naked body is a Chekhov’s gun that never fires. Then one day and through no choice of your own, he reaches for the barrel. You aren’t digging. You aren’t praying. In all those lost years you weren’t digging wrong, you weren’t praying wrong. You do nothing more right or less wrong on the day you wake up in a dune and a pinprick in the distance, black against the sun, steps forward and resolves into his shape.

He is soaking. His hair is limp and matted, he is his own nightmares. What difference to you, by now, whether you’re waking or dreaming; you press him to your chest.

“Look at you,” you say. “Waterlogged. Don’t worry, little sun. I’ve moved us to the desert, we’ll dry you off.”

You wrap him in a towel. You pluck the kelp from his teeth. The seaweed from between his toes. The barnacles from his white hair. You suck the water from his lungs, spit sea glass and pearls and eggs. “That’s where you came from,” you say, pointing to the eggs.

“Oedipus,” he says, and laughs, and pulls a strand of your silver hair out of his mouth and tucks it behind your ear.

He remembers all your little fables since he’s returned. But now he studies your knuckles when he takes your hand. Your blue veins. I’ve got you, I’ve got you: the call and response of it, every night you practice, rocking like a ship, echolocating inside each other. He’s tired-boned this time around, but still you love him with the force of wanting to be his mother. You’re silver-haired this time around, but still you welcome him inside you and he comes. You say to God: If I am in a dream, then may I drown here.

Of course you cannot trust that trickster, God of drowning. He heard you or didn’t hear you, either way there’s something underwater about your love that you can’t dry off. His forehead shines with salt. You wrap him in your arms, yet he shivers and shakes. You can tell: you are going to lose him again. Again the only word you will remember how to speak is no.

“There’s nothing wrong with your arms,” he says. “I’m only older now, and cold.”

“But you went away,” you say.

He tells you, “But I’m back.”

You tell yourself it’s true, the ways of love and life are random and inexplicable, sometimes he drowns in the sheets beside you and sometimes he re-emerges in the middle of the desert. But it’s deep night, the hours where you lived while he was gone-away, and the things you know but cannot feel have no currency here. “Where were you all this time?” you say.

He doesn’t know, or won’t tell you. “God has given us a gift,” he says. “Please take it.”

“You’re mad I didn’t save you,” you say.

He shakes his head. “You spent a lifetime teaching yourself a sorrowstory where I drowned and you couldn’t. I was a person but you were a whale.” He kisses your knuckles. “You were the person all along. You were breathing and I couldn’t, for a long time.”

He presses his lips to your neck, suction-tight. He shows you he can breathe.


This is the story I want to tell. The one where many years pass in the desert, because he doesn’t leave, because of no because. Because he doesn’t. No metaphor is truer than the fact of his body in your bed, day after day. After the years have gone, you’re petting him one night when you forget why you’re out here in the desert. His skin is salty and reminds you pleasantly of the shore. You say, “Remind me, why are we so landlocked?”

He can’t recall. He faces homeward. But the day you’re meant to follow him, your body starts walking away. Canteen bouncing at your hip, you find yourself bent over digging through the sand. When he asks what you’re doing, you say what even you are baffled by: you’re searching for your baby. He takes your hand. He swears to you: you’ve found him.

So the two of you move home. The ocean crashes at your doorstep but isn’t welcome and does not come in. You wake in deep night from your own dreams, of sharks with no eyes and gods with no teeth. But then you live on past the hour, and he is here and gasping, reaching for your waist, having dreamt again of drowning.

For the rest of the life you share together, your dreams seem to know more than you do. In them, you picture it from God’s perspective. You don’t know why he went away, why he came back, who took him and what it was in the millennia he carries in his heart that returned him to you, but your toothless God knows: his towhead just a circle of white hair like a coin tossed in the ocean, now you see him, now you don’t, a joke to play on reckless gamblers betting with their lives. From the perspective of the ocean floor: his body unwelcome, belched back up, told this is not the home he thinks it is.

From your perspective: so you missed the decades when he wasn’t tired-boned. So you aren’t a young mother or young lover, never have been, in your ancient dreams you were a thousand years old by the time you first met him, and even so you held him to your chest.

Finally in your dreams you picture it from his perspective: thrashing, gasping, wanting every day to breathe as you already could. Intending, all along, to make it back to you and stay.


Believe, believe, believe.