He's beautiful, but beauty is a dangerous thing. Beauty can catch you trouble, trap you in the tentacles of another's desire. My seat on the bus hums as I gaze through my window into his. In the pet shop's street display, the angelfish ballasts up and down, up and down in his tank, passing the time with movement. Mirroring him, a sigh deflates me; my head sinks onto the glass. It shudders with the echo of idling engines.
Loneliness: that, we both understand.
I'd met her at the Crown and Anchor.
Drained from working late but unwilling to face the barren air-conditioned cell of my apartment, I got off the bus a stop early that night. The corner pub beckoned with its yellow lights and bubbling atmosphere. I didn't know anyone; I just wanted to soak in human presence for a moment before locking myself away for the night.
From the bar, she stood out amidst the waves of late night drinkers and their rowdy hubbub. Her dress wrapped her tight, displaying her sinuous body rather than hiding it. Her crossed legs dangled high heels from her toes like fishhooks. She drank like a fish. I liked fish. Instant attraction.
I like fish because my working day is immersed in their world. My days are spent streaming between wet-labs and offices. The receptionist's formalin smile, the glass-eyed security guard: the atmosphere is as dry and desiccated as a museum. Catalogued into our coralline cubicles, we thrust ourselves into the study of the natural world from behind the shield of the microscope lens. The search for knowledge was meant to satisfy us not just as scientists, but as men.
"We're men aren't we? And God damn it, we're British." Shackleton's words could have been our Institute's motto. Higher into the alpine lakes, faster through the genome, deeper into the oceans' secrets: Science would fulfil our every desire.
Why did I feel parched?
Perhaps because I'm a woman.
The lone rechercheuse in a sea of men.
They knew it, too, and tried not to let me forget. Whittaker's elbow had taken root on the edge of my cubicle.
"So," he says, dry lips peeling back to unearth mummified teeth. "You're out of coffee."
I stare like an octopus from a bucket. Caught. Trapped. Sensing my impending doom.
He holds out his mug. "You can make me one while you're at it." The yellowed teeth stare at me. "There's a girl."
Even my adult status is stripped from me. A girl, me? But an adult – a woman - would stand up for themselves. Me: I snatch his cup and slide away.
They say groupers are all born female. When they mature, they turn into men. Whittaker let me know, daily, that I was still a juvenile. At least schooling fish can be juvenile together. I am young and alone.
In the pet shop window, the angelfish eyes his companions. From four glass walls, and the mercurial underbelly of the water's surface, silver-shimmer beauty reflects back at him. Beautiful though they are, the reflections aren't company. He is trapped in solitary.
I know angels are schooling fish. In the shop's window, goldfish and tetras line up alongside him in their neighbouring see-through apartments, but the sight can't assuage his isolation. Loneliness seeps from him, filling up the tank water with sadness.
Literally, you see, because fish leak pheromones, chemical signals, like people leak facial expressions. Fear, excitement, love: their social communication takes place in the water around them. In the oceans and rivers of their birth, they never know the smell of being alone.
We humans have sealed ourselves apart from the oceans of our birth. Zipped inside thickened, watertight skins, we stepped into a different space, buffeted by quilts of cold, dry air. Inside the bus, we turn our eyes away, close our mouths, cut each other off from the turmoil of our social selves, but still our lives are swamped with the emotion of our social milieu. Though each person sits in their own anhydrous bubble, the air hangs soggy with our unspoken lives.
Until we burst that bubble and life comes flooding in.
My bubble burst when she'd smiled.
From her table in the corner of the pub, she'd a flashed a lure of a smile. A cuttlefish flush bloomed across my cheeks, realising her smile was aimed at me.
This was no girl.
The bartender screwed a towel inside an already dry glass, watching me trickle over.
"So, what brings you here?" Her eyes were open oysters stolen from me with a turn of her head. She lifted a glass of bourbon to her lips. The air grew so thick and muddy with pheromones I could taste them.
She's everything I'm not. The thoughts catch me unawares. She's everything I want to be. Clearing my throat, I looked away. "Just coming home from, work, actually. Thought I'd have a pint."
Her skirt swirled around her re-crossing legs, stingrays encircling her calves. The ocean locked in the salty currents of my blood surged. Jealousy. Desire. Waves lapping at my heart. "Oh? Where do you work?"
"Perkins Institute. Ichthyologist. Fish scientist," I translated.
A grin flared in her eyes, but her lips didn't take the bait. "Have you ever seen a Plentimaw fish?"
Somewhat intrigued, I admitted I hadn't.
"Well, Sal-mon Rushdie says there are Plentimaw fish in the sea." She flashed me her smile. My lips reflected hers. Despite, or maybe because of, the playful inanity of her joke, I was caught. Hook line and sinker.
Love: you feel like you are flying, but all the while you're sinking deeper. It doesn't matter that the walls of the well are narrow, that the water is cold and the surface far away, not when the air you breathe comes from someone else's lungs. She was all I needed. With her, I was happy to drown. Night after night, pint after pint, she was happy to drown with me. If I'd had a tail I'd have wrapped it round her seahorse-tight.
"Want to go dancing?" she'd ask.
"Dancing?" I drink in her everything. I'd follow her to her the moon.
"Yes, dancing." Her eyes are bathed in amusement, but it's warm amusement, not Whittaker's dry ice. "You can dance, can't you?"
My body itched to move like liquid, to twist, to coil, to breathe to a beat. She grabbed my hand and ran down the street. A peal of laughter drifts in her wake.
We had no need for breath. Music pumps in, pouring around us, breathing for us with a swell and slam of pulses. Lights burst on the walls of people, coral caviar filling a crystalline sea. In a flash she is caught, smile wide, eyes alive. Fireworks sprayed in her eyes, reflected in mine.
Life flooded us. Just by being within sensation of another human, we are joined into a larger social body. A flick of lips, a breaching eyebrow, a shout, a whisper, a touch. Like cells in a jellyfish we bathe in the gushing soup of our messages to each other. Caught up in the flow or abandoned in the circular twirl of an eddy, one thing remains inviolate: people can't live without the lubrication of social ties. How to strike a balance between drowning and dying of thirst engulfs our waking moments.
Gritty city air eases into my lungs. The bus rumbles into gear with a miasma of diesel fumes and the view from the window dissolves.
When the glass clears again, traffic flows in all directions. A red light chases a space on the road and flocks of people snatch across, a school of fish channelled through a concrete reef. Head trembling on the window as the bus' engines idle, I blink, I watch. Detached. Like everyone else inside this bus. Together but apart. You can be outnumbered ten thousand to one in the city and still be alone.
I didn't want to be in this stream. I'd always longed for a calm green tropical pool where people swim up to you smiling, their hair waving at you like octopus. A pool as warm and salty as the womb, where you bathe in mother's love as naturally as you breathe.
This is not that place.
This is the lap pool of life. Cold. Long. Serious. Mucking around is frowned upon. Far lane reserved for swim squad.
I'm here because it's better than being in that last pool, alone. The dark one. There, I had sunk so deep in a well of passion I had almost died.
While she was with me, I didn't see the darkness.
But then she was gone.
In a flash: there, then gone. Her smile's umbra burnt onto my retina, but her body spinning away to breathe from another's lungs. Drag them down, oblivious. Let them think they could breathe her love and be safe despite the depths, the pressures, the narcosis.
My chest emptied, deflated, sank. Caved in.
Catch and release. Never again would I think it a humane method of fishing.
When you are drowning in love, and the love goes, all you are left with is drowning. I sank into a wasteland of sand. There weren't even any starfish.
Above, she floated, serene as a sea cow, ever out of reach. Her laughter sent bubbles of my stolen breath to the surface far above.
I had to get out of the water.
You get it, don't you? I couldn't stay there. I couldn't breathe, and if she swam my way again, I'd have clung to her like a suckerfish. A parasite.
I had to go.
Lungs bursting, tearing, I swam for the surface though her siren calls dragged me down. I clawed, I climbed that ladder, I forgot about breathing, until the cold hard slap of the surface hit my cheeks. The corridors of my apartment building were littered with splashes of humanity quagging my air with their questioning eyes, their trigger happy mouths. I dodged them all and beached in my empty apartment.
Great gasping breaths stretched my lungs and my head grew dizzy from the unaccustomed oxygen. Slowly, days passed, and the fog clouding my mind cleared. Silence and calm filled my ears. Through the venetians, the sun wrinkled my eyes and beat at my head. Already my skin began to dry.
One day, my apartment came into focus around me. The phone rang, as it had done for days, on and off, but today, I listened. Click, and the answering machine began recording.
"Perkins here." The gravel tones of the Institute's director pierced my haze.
He cleared his throat. A shiver crabbed down my back.
"You've been absent from your desk for the maximum allowable limit."
Familiar posters of fish families displayed, categorised, ordered, plastered the walls. Powdered neglect lay over everything; the dust smelt of stale sunlight. Perkin's sigh whispered like a breath over a salt lake. My mouth ached as dry as sand, my gills very far from the sea.
"Frankly, I never expected a woman to stick around."
Now, now I'm a woman. A tiny smile cracks my lips.
"I'd dared to hope: your work was… promising. But you've proved me wrong. Congratulations."
A poster peeled off the wall and curled up on the tiles.
The thing with the surface is, it's wasteland of a different kind. A true desert of loneliness, where no one's mouth snatches at your breath. Empty of danger, but empty of promise too. As much as it frightens and hurts us, people need to bathe in a sea of relationships, soak in vicarious emotions. Without them, we are fish out of water.
So I plunged back in.
A different pool: not so deep as the well of passion, but more substantial than the ephemeral vlei lakes of solitude. Immersed midstream, mid city, mid-life. Heads down, noses to heels, we crawl free-style between our lane markers. Work, commute, home, sleep. A perfect medley, surrounded and alone.
The pub slides into view.
My eyes are caught.
The bus settles with a sigh.
The tickle of a thirst squirms in my throat.
Chewing my lip, I pull myself out of my seat.
The bus drags itself away.
Taking a diving breath, I enter the pub. The drinkers surge, the music swallows me, the door slaps shut.
She isn't here.
She isn't here, and it's a relief. I'm alone. Alone and alive. Warm, beer-laden air embraces my lungs. With a few celebratory pints to liquefy my tongue, my tale pours out to the enduring bartender.
"Well, love, you know what they say." The bartender sends me a crooked smile. "There are Plentimaw fish in the sea."
"No there aren't, actually," I say, though he's already turned away. "Salman Rushdie just made that up."
Outside, a bus as big as a whale cruises past, a belly full of sad eyed city folk, staring through the glass at life's wares displayed. Framed as I am by the aquarium of the pub windows, no one has eyes for me. Gills wet to saturation, I crawl home.
You have to keep swimming, you see. You have to keep swimming, or you drown.
AN: thanks to my lovely beta Narq for betaing this!!