At first, she tries to pretend like the ocean isn’t there. When she was younger, to accomplish this, the doctors told her to picture herself in a dark desert. Place yourself in the middle of it, a sad-eyed male doctor said, pressing his ear to her chest. Imagine the dunes, the cacti, the silence, the emptiness. It helped for a little while, back then. But she hasn’t used this method since college and hasn’t seen the ocean like this, with this much force, this much vividness, for a couple of years now.
While the party whirrs, spritzes, tumbles all around her, she exits through the bathroom door and pauses in the hallway. The staircase beside the bathroom, which was just a regular staircase minutes ago, is speckled in starfish, mussels, sea anemones, sand dollars.
They’re not moving exactly. They wink, eyeless. Little eye-like holes close and open. Little feet and spines quiver.
She winces. There is a faint whiff of brine.
This is in her hometown, near Omaha, NE, hundreds of miles from the ocean. There are sausages and fresh oysters huddled into themselves from the grill’s flames. Beers foam over knuckles. Uncles with heart stints and diabetes socks blanch beneath the ballgame. She watches the water rush in under the front door and pool beneath her toes. The television voices and the house’s chatter—relatives, family friends, significant others—are submerged beneath the ocean’s blast.
She imagines the dark desert. An endless stretch of rolling sand: barren, inert, unending. The sand’s lifelessness, its hopeful oblivion. The water gathers around her ankles as she closes her eyes, tries to place herself at its center. Tries to imagine her somewhat slumped figure surrounded by all that nothingness.
It’s there—the desert.
But she can’t place herself inside of it, can only picture the dark desert itself, and soon the imaginary landscape is flooded. Her aunt’s house comes into focus as it pitches and rocks. Furniture slides all the way starboard then all the way port. She manages a competent sidestep, as a footstool floats toward her ankles. Her uncles’ faces turn. She sips her lemonade, laughs nervously. Family pictures shake from the wall. The light turns a murky blue as a whale’s big black eye appears in the window. There are hundreds of barnacles glommed onto its iris. Little feathered arms reach out. She smiles to keep from screaming. The baseball announcer declares the Cardinals are up by two in the bottom of the seventh. Someone flicks on the garbage disposal and her eyes water.
When she was a girl everyone thought she could be a professional ballerina. In a small town in the middle of Nebraska who knows what that means. Too much hope can be a very dangerous thing. She heard church bells outside her bedroom window during her childhood. In high school, the church was bulldozed and replaced with a bait and tackle store. This was funny, she thought later. Because her whole life they dangled hope over her like a shiny lure. Take it into your hand, Cheri, they said. She grabbed and grabbed. She was the legendary river fish, just waiting to snag her fate. Practice and performance were her life. She spent years preparing, though for what she never knew. A nervous child, the doctors claimed. Some kind of imbalance. The root of it, her mother always said, a traumatic birth. Experiences like that stay hidden in the body, said her father. Klonopin, Xanax, Valium, Ativan. Lexapro, Zoloft, Prozac, Wellbutrin. Some noticeable differences, her parents said, here and there. But she knew it was her practice, its repetition, each movement’s certainty that calmed her. The small recitals at the community theatre made her feel, in their mindlessness, strangely present, alive. Thousands of times, her hands lifted above her head. Her knees bent steadily. Her fingers curled.
She raises her leg to the bar. Leaps. She spins around the stage, unfazed. Balances on her toes, reaches for the ceiling. Applause travels as if from miles underground. An unselfconscious spectacle, she feels she could disappear.
Then after the Florida vacation: the boat propeller, the slackened line, the lifejacket’s tatters, the helicopter’s drone, she felt like the lure had been lifted and the rest of her life broke through the water’s surface. Without hope, without shiny things to grab for, she could continue. Dispatched to her bedroom for months, tendons, ligaments, muscles shredded, exculpated, she was caught between the living and the insensate. This is how life should be now, she thought. I am almost of no mind. The pain, which had turned into a warm thrum from the medication, was the only sign that life stirred inside her. She imagined herself as a rock, a mountain, a felled tree branch. It was a pleasant enough existence. Grilled cheese sandwiches, vegetable soups, lettuce cups with ground pork and rice were brought into her on a tray. White pills were placed onto her tongue. The ding from the bait and tackle shop’s front door woke her some afternoons. People carried worms locked inside Styrofoam cups. Her parents mourned her lost prospects. Cried as they stroked her hair and changed her bandages. Told her that eventually she would have to refocus her life.
But what life? she wondered. I am a rock, a mountain, a cupful of dirt. I was lucky enough to escape the lure. My reward should be sedation, drowsiness. My reward is a life inside this life.
Then about the time she could walk again, the ocean began to appear. In her classrooms, the movie theatre, on the bus, at the supermarket. Surrounded by people, the life-burdened, the ocean tried to pull her below. A leap from the high school’s second story window got her two months in the hospital. Released, then sent back after an officer found her huddled naked behind the convenience store’s dumpster. A dark desert, Cheri, they told her. The ocean’s opposite. A place where no water can flow. Zyprexa, Clozaril, Risperdal, Fanapt. Behavioral therapy, cognitive remediation, electroshock. She ekes out a GED while surrounded by women on suicide watch. Nurses hold her down as she fights off a school of sparking jellyfish. With some practice, some repetition, she can picture the dark desert. The sand one long shadow. Soon she can place herself at its center: immaculate, unmoving, scarless. With the perfect combination of pills, most days she can tolerate life and breathe. She attends junior college for two years and receives an associate’s in business administration. She even dates a man who she meets in her economics class, though one night at dinner she watches a hermit crab drag its shell across his hand and ends it abruptly.
Still at home, still on handfuls of medication, age twenty-three, her parents convince her she is well enough to attend her aunt and uncle’s fortieth wedding anniversary, where seconds before she is about to scream or smash a window to keep from sinking below, she notices something through the ocean’s blue-dim glare. Something whirling, flashing, summoning. A face that is both frighteningly alive and without discernible expression. A woman on the TV, she sees now, outside of the baseball stadium in all gold standing atop a crate. She has a parasol hoisted over one shoulder, a long gown with frilled shoulders, waves of fabric, a belled waist, summer hat pulled over her curled hair. There’s a lace fan in the other hand held above her breasts, though it does not flutter. Gold covers her skin and the dress’ waves, making it seem almost as if she were cast from some ancient metal. She remains entirely still, not a muscle strained. Not a smile or frown offered, as people gather round, watching her curiously, waiting for her to come to life. Her gaze is set slightly above the television screen’s center, at something that no one on the other side can see. This almost-meeting, almost-connecting, almost-perceiving makes it seem as if at any moment she could lock eyes with whoever is beyond that screen.
Like at any moment, she might pull her through.
By the time the camera switches back to the ballgame, the furniture has already returned to its stations. Kids in bathing suits track pool water across the hardwood floors. Aunts, uncles, cousins munch potato chips and clutch paper plates. Foam crackles and disappears beneath the doorjambs. Some relatives look at her with pity, nervousness. Some with grief. She wonders if they know. Manages a shrug to calm them.
She ditches out of the party, as the cake is being cut, and walks to the town square. Where most nights since, she sets up a booth beside the post office. Here you can find a makeshift stage: long purple velvet drapes, a wooden stool with plastic flowers in a diamond vase, a faux-golden urn for coins. You can see her in a black leotard, white tights, her hair pulled tight at the temples. Every night the same performance. She holds herself still, in the fourth position, until the square is empty, the sun has set. Never a motion, never so much as a single step. Here she is never caught in the ocean. Never has to picture the dark desert, or place herself inside its naked shadow. Here she is both within the world and without it. A tableau vivant of an unbroken ballerina. Blind, open, mindless. Guided by something that is beyond human understanding, something impervious to the small crests of people that stare, as she begins, drawing herself up to her full height, and the clinks of coins as they fall like water into the golden urn.
Travis McDonald, a native of Massachusetts, received his bachelor's in English from The University of Texas at Austin and is a graduate from Virginia Tech's MFA program. His work has appeared in Atticus Review, The Adirondack Review, and elsewhere. He currently teaches English at the Community College of Denver.