I look at the whale lying next to me in bed and consider how the rising sun shines from my window behind her. How the light swaddles her and contrasts with her pearl-white skin so the ring around her blowhole seems almost an inky black. I cup my hand into the washbasin on the floor and sprinkle tap water onto her port-side fin.
I wonder if I’ve anthropomorphized her. But I’ve seen her use that fin to stir a simmering pot of penne, to type, to hail a cab outside the AMC theater on a rainy Friday night. I realize that I’ve never once seen her swimming. The thought bubbles up that I may have never seen her truly at home.
But it isn’t true.
I’ve just come so close to forgetting the way my arms felt wrapped around Soledad O’Brien’s waist as we sat on the edge of our rented pontoon boat, our toes skimming along the surface of the Mississippi. Soledad was a fragile twig compared to the whale that shares my bed now. I could touch my elbows when holding Soledad, while the widest spread of my arms can barely embrace the whale’s flukes.
We had booked our boat months in advance. Over Easter weekend, we would put in at Hannibal, Missouri and float and fish and fuck our way down to New Orleans, tracing Mark Twain’s steamboat path. We plucked carp and bass right out of the muddy water, cleaned them with water from the Evian jugs, and ate them raw, feeling their cool juices dry on our chins as we lay in the afternoon sun.
As I look into the whale’s lidless eyes this morning, I think about how it’s that very same sun which turns her moist outer cornea into a gray crust.
After a day or so, Soledad became discontented with eating animals so easily caught with our day-glow orange lure. She wanted something more substantial. Something more vicious. She sliced off a hunk of her golden-brown thigh and baited the hook with her own flesh. Shocked and stupid, I tore off my J. Crew cashmere cardigan and wrapped it around Soledad’s leg as a tourniquet, screaming, “Why, why, why?” And though the events of that day are now unwelcome in my mind, I still remember the stirring in my loins when she turned to me and explained so softly, “I yearn to eat something with teeth.”
I don’t know how the whale to which I made such transcendent love last night was able to swim up the Mississippi delta, and I haven’t asked. I won’t ask. The past is like a star, burning bright but also burning out, so omnipresent it’s lost all relevance.
But it was this same whale with those same eyes under this same sun that crested the surface of the river that day. And when she did, those fins were not transposed with arms or hands but seemed like the deathly sharp limbs of an ancient sea beast. Her teeth were not the dainty bones I’ve seen her brush over my sink so many mornings but instruments of a horrible, tortuous digestion. When that whale reared her flattened head and brought her titanic jaws down upon Soledad O’Brien, my eyes glazed not with the aphrodisiac red of new love but with the crimson filter through which death is observed.
I don’t know why she ate Soledad and left me clinging to a dented pontoon. I don’t know if I even care anymore. My days booking passage aboard rusty whaling vessels are long behind me. Never again will I sight along the shaft of an iron harpoon, aiming for the dorsal plain of some innocent, anonymous whale that may or may not have swallowed my Soledad. Never again will I drag the carcass on deck and slice its belly open with a brass-hilted cutlass. These were ancient whales. Majestic whales. Whales with stomachs full of antique pianos and armoires and prehistoric currency and priceless crystal and jewels. Not one contained Soledad, and after the ninety-seventh or ninety-eighth failed expedition, I realized I had become less concerned with finding my lost love than with finding lost treasure. I decided to take the valuables I’d plundered and open an antique store in SoHo. My customers have no idea the pewter chargers and Demitasse tea sets they buy came from the bellies of murdered sea creatures. I doubt whether they’d care.
The merchant’s music of cash registers and money counting cooled my passions and calmed my soul. I understand why dislocated Tibetan monks travel the world selling t-shirts and bookmarks. There’s something akin to God’s whisper in the sounds of commerce.
Even so, my guts tightened when the bell above my door jingled and I looked up to see her standing on my welcome mat. Those same eyes. That same white skin darkened against the afternoon light coming through the front windows. Her teeth were hidden in a nervous frown. She told me later she’d been waiting outside for hours, trying to build up the nerve to confront me. I wanted to turn my head. To grab the Prussian fire poker on the discount table and jam it all the way to her spermaceti.
But I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the curve of her median notch. If she had tear ducts, she would have been weeping. She was more deeply sorry than anything or anyone has ever been. But she didn’t need to be. I had forgiven her a long time ago.
I first saw her use her pectoral fins as hands on our date at Shea Stadium. She held a hotdog in one and a Mr. PiBB in the other, which she occasionally rested on her belly to clap for Carlos Delgado, our mutual favorite first baseman.
We shared so many things in common and enjoyed each other’s company so much that the awkwardness of our circumstance eroded to nothing. Our favorite movie is Gunga Din. We both love to mix gumdrops in our popcorn. We both hate giant squid. I’ve turned her on to vegetarian pizza, and she’s made me appreciate the Romantic painters.
I remember these things more clearly than I remember the day she swallowed Soledad, but I don’t know if I should. I don’t have the moral certainty to know whether this relationship is right, though there is enough doubt inside that the alternative festers and chews at me.
I wonder whether I had these same doubts about Soledad. Whether, when she sliced off a hunk of her thigh, the thought passed my mind that I may not be with the right person. In the right place.
I wonder whether the whale’s eyes and the light of the sun and the state of my being are just some small portion of the web which entraps all points in time.
Soledad was there on that pontoon boat with me, and I wonder whether she’s here right now.
I insert the penknife just above the whale’s urethra. She hardly stirs. She sleeps the sleep of the dead. I drag the edge along her underside. Oils and fat drip from the incision and stain my jersey sheets. I stare at her crust-covered eye as I dig inside.
There is a gilded mirror I could sell for a few hundred.
There is a Stradivarius with the strings still attached.
There is the rugged delicacy of Soledad’s raw silk blouse.
I pull her body from the beast’s belly. The rich darkness of her skin has been perfectly preserved in the whale’s briny stomach. It casts a familiar glow in the light of the rising sun.
She isn’t breathing.
Her eyes are closed.
Her thigh still bleeds in my lap.
I wrap my arms around her waist. Our lips touch.
And I blow into her mouth until her chest rises.