DelmarIn the morning I would walk to work early with the asphalt just taking on the light, and the buildings quiet and empty spreading out like honey over the street. Then I paid attention only to the muscles on the front and back of my thighs, which I could feel constrict and expand in keeping with my motion. On some days I was late and walked faster, and on others I left early and moved slowly through the winter trees and the boarded-up buildings at the beginning of the street. One morning, as I crossed an alley, a woman came walking down the opposite sidewalk. “This Delmar?” she called out. Her voice was very tired and her body, too, was tired, in a way that you could see, how you can notice any tired body from the way it holds itself. “What?” I replied. I had heard her, but the words had not had time to register, this was a habit of mine, a bad one, my sister was always annoyed at my confusion. Still, I could not go faster: words came to me cloudy, and it took time for the silt to settle. “This Delmar?” she repeated, and then I nodded. I was glad to tell her. “Do you have a cigarette?” she added, after a pause. There was no one else around. The shops were all empty and the sun had not touched them yet, everything was slow and bleary-eyed, lacking any recollection of urgency or violence. “No,” I said. “I’m sorry.”A few minutes later, this time further down the street, closer to work, a man came running towards me at a diagonal over the grey pavement. “Do you have a cigarette?” he said, frowning. “No,” I said again, startled. I remember that my body tensed, I was on edge, I imagined I was being mocked. “I’m sorry, I don’t have one.” He winced and smiled. “Thanks,” he said, and hurried away down the street. I stood still for a moment before continuing. Hurrying towards work, I felt a nagging sense of failure, as though I had answered wrong; it was though I had been given a lesson and refused it. I looked around frantically, I came up empty, eventually I shook off the feeling.Sometimes when I walked the sky was grey and it looked like it would rain, and sometimes it was cold but the clouds were full of heat, so hot air fell slowly in large drops of water or condensed balls of hail, and by the end of the day in the kitchen I would be stripped down to a tank top, the sweat gathering in half-moon crescents below my breasts. Some days the sky did nothing at all. Once there was a contrail left by a passing jet, and I watched it break into segments, slowly, and drift away south of the city. Once there was a goose calling.Inside, I washed my hands in the soapy water, and the small cuts on my knuckles where the skin had cracked from bleach began to bleed faintly. Upstairs the storeroom door creaked as someone opened it. I leaned my forearms flat and pale on the metal counter, and I thought about how sometimes God comes down with something to say, and sometimes They just come down.————
The Body is a Line Through WaterWhen you were a girl you hated the ocean because there was no way to divide it. You would shudder, the water seeping around your calves, leeching the moisture out of them, leaving a white patina of salt behind. You had heard about enormous fish, the ones in the deeper water, and you could not keep yourself from imagining them: their white bellies, eyes the size of your ribcage. All of this you could feel, just beyond you, thick and close in the water, and you knew that there was nothing between you and those hulking bodies, the stubborn fact of their flesh, knew that the water stretched from one to another, that the two of you were touching.You are in a room by the water now, it is the beginning of winter. You cannot remember which winter, or which water. The room cannot hold you, nothing can hold you, you get up early before the sun has risen and walk down to the shore. The rocks are sharp and you stopped wearing shoes months before, why bother, even cuts cannot get inside you, nothing can get inside you, the smell of the pine needles layering the path cannot get inside you, nor the taste of food, the taste of bile. Color has only just begun its return to the world. The shore is ashen, and the pieces of driftwood scattered about the dunes appear like smudges on your cornea, shimmering, floating across your vision. You move down the bank slowly, and when you reach the rocks the water is quiet. You can’t tell which way the tide is rising, if it is at all. You stand there for a long time—not long enough for the color to change, but enough for your feet to hurt. The wind makes your eyes squint even though it is not strong.Suddenly a shape rises up out of the water. It is early, everything is waking up, and when you take a step closer you see the oily spine of a seal, the head rounded and silent, the soft whiskers along the mouth. He blinks and turns from you, smoothly, you are not sure if he saw you at all, he flicks backwards and rolls into the green water. The velvet of his side is like a lip you could touch. Without warning you remember the man you left in the room by the water. You remember how you had hesitated, leaving, noticing the slow curve of his back, his closed eyes, the hair loose and splayed out in a ripple around his head. The heat of you both had been like perfect blood, like a baby born into warm water, shrinking the distance between sleep and not-sleep, and when you rose, carefully, tucking the blanket around him, leaving your warmth lying there, a body of heat for him to hold, he had curled into that body, he had gripped you still in his sleep.You shake off the memory. It feels strange to call it a memory, it being so recent; you would still smell of him if the salt brine weren’t so overpowering. Years ago, when someone held a conch to your ear and you heard waves sounding from within it, you were gripped with a sudden nausea. The owner of the shell had described a kind of transportation, saying that the conch could take you somewhere, but to you it was only intrusion. The ocean still huddled inside the calcified walls, even after years landlocked, gathering dust on a windowsill somewhere in the Midwest. You think of the ocean like this, as a kind of abscess, an empty space inside the body. The seal is still here, turning, every now and then flicking further away from the shore, and occasionally when a wave rises up you can catch his silhouette against the dark water. You hate the ocean still. You are a woman, these days, and the disgust has not left you. The disgust, rather, has grown. Even now the air is charged with the presence of enormous creatures, voracious mouths yawning towards you, shadows brushing against your hip and vanishing into the distance. You go to the shore and a seal appears. The world enforces itself, proving over and over how it can enter you. A man told you once the way your body expanded with fat in his dreams, the way your fingers shivered with hunger, he told you about how he wants you, his hardness, the slow thickening of his cock. You had told him to leave, told him you were sorry, you had locked the door afterwards and shut the blinds. You had realized that the light would still get out. You thought then about the traces of yourself you leave, everywhere you go, the way your body is a continual progression of split images, and none of them yours. In the morning once, when you walked outside and found a condom still wet on your doorstep, it no longer mattered whether it was meant for you, whether your smell was present when he did it. The body, you thought, is a line drawn through seawater, a ceaseless rope of fluid, and whoever dips a cup in it has you, licks you, your body endless and open like shoreline.You developed a habit of cordoning off rooms, and a taste for boundaries, the borders separating one thing from another. You liked to picture a mucous covering your body, a thin wet film that could not be split. When you were a child, a teacher had explained casually that nothing touched anything. A field of electrons coats the world, he had said, and these were what interacted, never the objects themselves. The idea had terrified you then—you had gone around the room picking up books, pencils, shaking them in his face, demanding, How could I lift this? How would this move? Eventually the comfort you began to feel when you recalled this was dizzying. You glanced around and the world would vibrate: you tried to touch things knowing your touch would fail.The seal is like a thick slab of meat, like oil set to fire. It bucks like a horse. Just when you think you have lost it, a flash of skin reappears. You can hear it breathing, occasional barks reaching out across the water, muffled. You heard once that some sea animals will cave in on themselves when removed from water, that their weight implodes. And yet the seal could come to you now, it could slip onto the sand, you’ve seen them on the shore before, always from a distance. You imagine suddenly pressing your own cheek to its ribcage, to the blubber cocooning its organs. You can hear how the skins would slap together, the moisture almost slimy. The smell of him is rank. When his head crests, water rolls off of his spine like silver coins. You want to go with him. Desire rushes through you like this, like a root soaking up water, a shell taking on color, and you wonder how you will continue to bear it, these continual tides of longing, the decades of want.
Gwyneth Henke lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where she works as a barista and studies religion at Washington University.
Cover Art:Ana PrundaruGuitar Babycollage, 2017