THE SEA

PULOMA GHOSH

 
 

Mira unlocked the gallery to find it filled with an inch of dark, briny water. This was the third time this week. She wasn’t sure where the water was coming from, which cracks it was seeping through. It had barely rained that month.
 
She dialed the building’s main office to request maintenance. She had already learned the receptionist’s name. Phyllis’s hushed voice assured her that someone would be over to mop it up immediately, that they’ll have the plumbers check the pipes once more.
 
It’s not clean water, Mira told her. It looks like it’s coming from outside.
 
I’m sorry. We’ll have the contractors back to check the insulation.
 
I can’t have this happen. I have thousands of dollars’ worth of art in here.
 
I’m so sorry. Basements are tricky. We’ll make sure it gets fixed right away.
 
Mira stepped across the wet concrete, leaving a trail of hollow sounds where the soles of her shoes met the water. She sat at her desk and put her purse and coat on one of the extra chairs. It was lucky that the gallery had only been open two months. She had installed her second exhibition a few weeks ago, and the storage space in the back had only the WiFi router, perched on a toolbox in the corner, and packing materials from Colby’s show, Adrift, like the bubble wrap slowly circling the desk.
 
The space was a small white cube, lined with six large pieces that still carried the creamy scent of oils. They were swirling abstracts, the colors teased off the canvas in thick peaks. Colby mixed his paint with sand to give it a grainy, calloused texture that begged to be touched. Her favorite was four feet tall and nearly six wide, hanging alone on the far wall. It seemed to shift as the day went along, despite being the furthest from the tiny basement windows. Colby called it The Sea; it was the inspiration for the exhibition’s title.
 
That’s a little cliché, Mira had said. Just because it looks a bit like swirling waves.
 
No, it’s not that. Colby had shaken his head. When I was painting it, I was afraid I would drown.
 
Because it’s so big?
 
No. No, you don’t understand.
 
Mira still didn’t understand. She opened her laptop and sighed. Her inbox had been flooded while she was asleep. Flooded gallery, flooded inbox. Maybe Colby’s show was bad luck.
 
She worked through her emails diligently as the custodial women came in and propped the door open, mopping up the water and chatting in Spanish. The concrete was still a darker shade of gray when they left, but it was dry enough.
 
The day passed quietly, tiptoeing past Mira under the crescendo of fingers tapping keys. A woman arrived at the door towards the evening. She paced in the hallway for a moment or two, peering in through the glass-paneled front wall. Her dark hair was pulled into a neat ponytail and she had thick eyebrows. Her painted red lips looked plush. She wore a long, puffy white coat, nude tights, and pumps.
 
After a moment, she entered.
 Mira smiled. It was surprising to see someone stroll by on a weekday.
 
This is an interesting show, the woman said.
 
It just opened two weeks ago. The artist is from Texas.
 
The woman nodded.
 
Are you a friend of the artist?
 
Not quite.
 
Do you live in the building?
 
I don’t.
 Mira pursed her lips and listened to the echo of the woman’s heels on the damp concrete. The gallery was in a new development of buildings in a rapidly gentrifying area. The top three floors were luxury condominiums, most still empty, and the ground floor and basement housed artisanal shops, farm-to-table restaurants, high end boutiques, and fine art galleries. On the weekends the block swarmed with millennial hipsters and tech industry yuppies, but during the week only its new tenants inhabited its brick walls, all glued to urgent phone calls. This woman’s leisure was out of place.
 
How did you hear about the gallery? Mira asked. This area is not all that well-known yet.
 
Your family told me to come take a look.
 
Do you know my sister?
 
The woman turned to Mira and stretched her bright mouth into a cattish smile. You don’t recognize me?
 
Mira’s mind ran the faces of old classmates, past coworkers, ex-lovers, but came out empty.
 
I’m sorry, she said.
 
I suppose a lot has happened. The woman shrugged and walked towards the painting on the far wall. What is this one called?
 
The Sea.
 
Sounds a bit cliché, don’t you think?
 
A little.
 
The woman crossed her arms. I have to get going, she said without turning around. But I want to talk more about this piece another time. I like all the warm colors. It reminds me of a desert sunset.
 
If you’d like to leave your contact information, I can send you more about the artist, and other examples of his work.
 
The woman shook her head and walked slowly towards the door. I’ll be back, she assured Mira. I want to understand how someone can drown in their own painting.
 
Mira watched the woman walk out, ascend the small flight of stairs and disappear into the winter air. She dialed Colby. He picked up after the second ring and the two exchanged usual pleasantries.
 
The gallery flooded again, Mira admitted through a sigh.
 
Are the paintings okay?
 
Yeah, it was only a couple inches.
 
Have they figured out what’s causing it?
 
They’re fixing it tonight, Mira lied. The good news is, I just met someone who might be interested in one of the pieces.
 
Which one?
 
The Sea.
 
Of course. What are you doing tomorrow night?
 
There’s a young entrepreneurs’ networking event I signed up for, Mira said slowly as she clicked through her calendar. But nothing really past that.
 
I’m in town for a friend’s opening. Want to get a drink? We can talk about it then.
 
Sure.
 
Great. Text me when you’re free.
 
Mira hung up and closed her laptop. The clouds had swallowed the daylight, and night came stealthily in their shroud. She packed up her things in silence and locked the gallery on her way out.
 
 
The lights flickered on in Mira’s apartment, turning the tiled floor white and the cracks between them an inky black. The lines crisscrossed past her shoes until they met the counter that divided the kitchen from the rest of the studio. The light pooled over her bed, melting butter along the ripples of fabric. Eliza sat perched just beyond its reach, her body a twisted blue pearl under the white streetlamp peering through the window.
 
How was work? she asked.
 
Good. I think someone might be interested in one of Colby’s pieces.
 
The Sea?
 
Yes.
 
Eliza stretched her naked body across the bed. I love that one. The way all of the cool blues and lavenders twist into some kind of arctic storm.
 
Yeah, people have been really responding to it. Mira began unpacking the takeout she had picked up on her way home. Are you hungry?
 
Eliza shook her head. Not yet.
 
Right. Mira forked the fried rice straight from the container. She ate in silence and watched Eliza, coiling and uncoiling as she looked from the window to the floor to Mira’s face.
 
You didn’t recognize her? Eliza asked finally.
 
Mira swallowed and paused. So you sent her? She said it was my family.
 
I’m your wife.
 
Mira set down the fried rice and reached for the carton of spring rolls. You’re also a snake.
 
Eliza recoiled on the bed, flicking her tongue at Mira.
 
Some days, Mira wasn’t sure if the snake living in her apartment was really Eliza after all.
 
It had happened about a month ago, driving home from their ten-year college reunion. They had just spent a long evening talking to Colby, a former classmate, and had convinced him to sign on with their gallery. Somewhere in the dense Vermont woods, Mira lost track of the winding road and wrapped the front of her car around an old pine.
 
When Mira woke from her brief blackout, her head throbbed and her chest was crushed under the pressure of the airbag. She turned toward Eliza, trying to reach for her with sore arms.
 
Eliza was writhing against the seat, clawing at her face, digging her nails into her hairline. Mira watched, her lungs winded and incapable of the smallest sound, as Eliza peeled the skin off from her forehead, rolling it over her face and neck. Blood sprayed from the seams, speckling the tan lace of Mira’s new dress. A silver snake slithered out of the gap. It lingered on the seat a moment, gazing at Mira with glistening eyes, before slipping through one of the spaces opened by her collapsed door. Eliza’s body crumpled back into the seat as though her bones had disappeared.
 
Mira called 9-1-1, waited for the sirens to surround her. In the silence before their arrival, she stared at the heap of skin that had once been her wife.
 
She explained what happened to the paramedics. They nodded slowly, sympathetically.
 
This kind of thing happens all the time, they said gently. It wasn’t your fault.
 
Mira had spent the next week in the hospital, and then the holidays at her parents’. The gallery stayed open, with help from Colby and her sister. When Mira returned to her apartment in the beginning of January, Eliza was already curled up in their unmade bed. She waited for her there, day and night.
 
Come to bed, Eliza coaxed.
 
It’s still early.
 
I’ve been waiting for you.
 
Mira sighed. She left the takeout containers open in the kitchen and shut off the light. She peeled off her clothing piece by piece as she approached the bed, before tucking herself into the blanket.
 
Eliza’s thin smile cut her face like a wound. She slid under the blanket, weaving her cold body into the gaps between Mira’s arms and legs.
 
Mira pressed the tip of her nose into a taut muscle in Eliza’s neck, inhaling the sour smell of unwashed bed sheets. Her hand searched the folds and crevices of Eliza’s body for the places that gave way to warm openings.
 
No, stop. Eliza hissed into Mira’s ear. Mira retracted her hand and let it rest on the bed between them.
 
I’m seeing Colby tomorrow, Mira said, her eyes meeting Eliza’s.
 
Good. Tell him I say hello.
 
I will.
 
Mira, have you seen my white coat?
 
Which one?
 
The long, puffy one. You borrowed it a while ago.
 
No, I haven’t.
 
Voices from the neighbor’s TV pressed against the wall behind the bed, their words half- swallowed by the insulation.
 
Go to sleep, Eliza whispered.
 
Mira didn’t feel tired, but closed her eyes regardless. The night rolled her back and forth in its palm for what seemed like hours. She could feel Eliza’s body constricting around her bit by bit, until sleep finally closed its grasp.
 
 
The lamps in the dim restaurant were suffocated by stained-glass muzzles. The wine Mira had drunk at the networking event was beginning to soften the edges of the room. The citrusy light dripped into viscous puddles on bare shoulders and curls of hair. She searched the polished bar, and then the quilted black booths for Colby’s spindly frame.
 
She found him at a low two-top tucked in a corner, his long limbs folded like a praying mantis, his elbows resting on either side of his beer as he squinted into his phone screen. Mira sat across from him. He set his phone face down on the table.
 
Any more flooding? he teased.
 
No, she lied
 
That morning, Mira had returned to find the gallery flooded once more, this time all the way to her ankles. The water had streamed out into the hallway when she opened the door, forming little rivers that inched towards the staircase.
 
Good. Did you see that woman again?
 
No, not today. She said she would be back, though.
 
Did you get her contact information?
 
I didn’t. Mira’s lips twisted with guilt.
 
Colby sipped his beer. Well, let’s hope she does come back.
 
Everyone really likes that painting. Eliza does too.
 
It’s one of my best. Colby hesitated before asking, How is Eliza?
 
She’s good. Things have been surprisingly okay since she became a snake.
 
It’s not hard anymore?
 
Sometimes it is. But she will always be the same.
 
Colby nodded slowly before taking a long gulp of his beer. A quarter of the glass slid down his throat, his Adam’s apple bobbing as it passed.
Mira’s eyes dropped away from Colby’s face. She wanted to draw attention away from Eliza.
 
She watched the slight shake of Colby’s foot, protruding from the table where his leg rested across his knee. The shape of his ankle connected the hem of his pants to the curve of his shoe. The sloping line was seductive in a way, like a slender branch trembling in the breeze. She ran her finger along his Achilles tendon. She tucked the tip into his shoe, and he watched her trace the topline, back and forth.
 
Is this okay? he asked.
 
She tucked a second finger into his shoe in response.
 
They had chosen this bar because it was across the street from Colby’s hotel, despite the gaudy atmosphere and over-priced drinks. He slid the keycard into the door, the underwear over her knees, and his hips between her thighs with expert precision.
 
The first time she and Colby had sex was over the holidays. Colby was visiting some family in the area and helping Mira’s sister keep the gallery open. Mira visited the space for the first time since the accident, and after closing, they had gotten drunk. She had followed him back to his hotel, pressed herself against him, pleading until he couldn’t refuse. They both knew snakes didn’t care for this kind of thing, and Eliza would understand.
 
Mira, who had not been with a man since high school, since she had met Eliza in her freshman year of college, found herself taken back to the New Jersey beach town where she grew up. In the winter the streets were silent and more than half of the houses stood empty. She and her boyfriend hopped fences after their parents had gone to sleep, smoking pot and having sex in musty pool houses full of forgotten towels.
 
After they finished, Colby had lain next to her and laughed.
 
Aren’t you a lesbian?
 
Not really, was all Mira said.
 
She liked Colby’s long, slim body, the way it stretched across the bed like a late afternoon shadow. He brought the desert with him wherever he went, caught in the fine, sandy hairs that trailed up his forearm.
 
I don’t live in the desert, he said to her once. I live in a city. It’s a lot like this one.
 
Mira had seen enough cities to know that this wasn’t true. When he spoke, his tongue distorted syllables differently than hers, and she felt herself becoming unprofessional. She could smell the hot dust on his skin, taste the parched air in his mouth.
 
Tonight Colby lay silent. Mira curled up against his chest. What do you find attractive about me? she whispered.
 
I hate it when women ask that.
 
Come on. There must be something.
 
Your dark hair. I like dark hair.
 
Is that all?
 
Your eyebrows.
 
Mira’s hands covered her forehead immediately. They’re so thick!
 
They’re sexy.
 
Eyebrows aren’t sexy.
 
You’re the one who asked. He rolled over on top of her and grasped her chin, sliding his thumb into her mouth. I like your lips, too. He kissed her.
 
As Colby’s fingers began wandering down her body, Mira saw herself split in two. She wasn’t sure which one was more real: the Mira that writhed under Colby, who wanted only to touch her, or the Mira that curled up next to Eliza, who crawled inside Mira without ever touching her.
 
They used to spend Sunday afternoons like this, tangled in bed. Eliza would kiss all her favorite parts of Mira: the freckle on her shoulder blade, the patch of discolored skin on her thigh, the little scar on her back from when she was a child. Eliza liked them because they were secrets; she only discovered them because she loved her.
 
Mira spent another hour with Colby before she began picking up her clothes. 
It’s late, he said from the bed. Just stay here.
 
I have to go home. Eliza is waiting for me.
 
Did you ever hear about the woman whose snake started sleeping in bed with her?
 
No.
 
It was just sizing her up. Seeing if it could consume her.
 
Good night, Colby.
 
 
When Mira returned home, she found that turning on the lights could no longer illuminate the room. While she was out, the days and days of takeout containers scattered around her apartment had bloomed. The kitchen was filled with lush, exotic flora, extending their tendrils to graze Mira as she walked by. The dirty clothes on the floor had turned into a soft carpet of damp moss, and thick vines twisted up the walls and across the ceiling.
 
Eliza lay perched on a patch of vines above the bed, her eyes gleaming in the dark.
 
What happened here? Mira asked. As she discarded her clothes, they were overtaken with moss as soon as they touched the ground.
 
I was making myself more comfortable. Eliza dropped from the vines into the bed. Do you like it?
 
How will I find anything in here?
 
You found me.
 
Mira sighed and got into bed. The sky outside her window was already turning a smooth turquoise. She had to be at the gallery again in the morning, hoping that the woman would return as she promised. If she didn’t sell at least two of Colby’s pieces, she would have to dip into her savings to pay the rent.
 
But as Eliza wound herself around Mira once more, she felt again the urge to touch, to be touched by Eliza.
 
Don’t you want me? Mira asked.
 
I’m a snake. I don’t want anything.
 
But you love me?
 
More than anything.
 
How can you say that?
 
Eliza rubbed her face against Mira’s chest, flicking her tongue along the ribs just underneath her breast, just shy of her heart. Isn’t that real love, Mira? No blood, no sex, but I still wait for you here every night. Even though I am a snake, I will never leave you. Isn’t that what the songs and poems are really about?
 
Mira closed her eyes and rolled onto her back, staring at the vines woven above her. I just want to feel close to you again.
 
Then pretend to be me, touching you.
 
Mira tried, teasing, probing, and searching between her legs with her fingertips for some piece of Eliza still lingering. She tried to picture Eliza underneath her, at times tensing with pleasure, pressing her lips together, and at times staring straight up at her with sharp, focused eyes. But all she saw was the Eliza that reared above her, her scales shimmering in the first touches of dawn, her eyes narrow slits trained on Mira.
 
After a while, she gave up. Her search was leading nowhere. She feared that part of Eliza was buried somewhere in the leaves and vines, never to be found again. Mira fell asleep naked, one hand resting on her chest, the other between her legs.
 
She awoke suddenly in the early morning to a strange, wet gagging sound—the kind that sputtered out of a porn star’s mouth as the the camera zoomed slowly in on her slick, spit coated lips. The sunlight had crept from the window to the top half of her body. The forest had grown as she slept, and the leaves now shooting out of the vines cast kaleidoscope shadows on Mira’s skin.
 
She sat up and squinted into the dim room, still caught in the remnants of night. She saw Eliza’s eyes first, beads of early morning caught on her glassy pupils. She was at the foot of the bed, her body contorted into a strange shape, her jaw dislocated, the skin in its corners stretched. She was sucking Mira into her mouth, slowly but surely, emitting guttural choking noises as her muscles contracted around Mira’s lower half. She had already swallowed her feet and ankles, and was working slowly up to her knees. Mira screamed.
 
What is it? Eliza’s voice interrupted.
 
Mira opened her eyes to find Eliza at her side, her petite mouth back to normal, her body entwined around Mira’s arm. The pillow was damp with sweat.
 
I dreamt that you were trying to consume me.
 
Eliza laughed. Haven’t I already?
 
 
When Mira returned to the gallery that morning, fatigue filling her head like sand, she found that the water had reached the stairs. The door had cracked and shattered under its pressure, and the hallway was swimming. She descended the steps, letting her feet disappear into the murky water. It was cold, cutting her ankles, then her shins like sharp teeth. When she found the bottom of the stairs, the water was halfway to her knees.
 
She waded to her chair and took out her laptop. She didn’t bother calling Phyllis. It was Monday and the main office, and every other business in the building, was closed. Mira was supposed to be closed as well, but she could no longer lie in her apartment. Every time she tried to do work, or get up to make food or coffee, Eliza wound herself around her arms and legs, murmuring sweet words into her ear until she could no longer move. Mira sat at her desk and watched the bits of bubble wrap drift past each other, free to roam the length of the gallery.
 
She heard a distant splash. It was the woman, still wearing the same long white coat, stepping into the water as though it wasn’t there. The ends of her coat glided on the surface, haloed around her calves.
 
I am so sorry about this. Mira stood up, walking around the desk. I assure you, it is being fixed as we speak. The art is all unharmed.
 
That part was true. The bottom of Colby’s tallest piece was still almost half a foot from the flood.
 
Not for long, said the woman as she made her way towards the painting on the far wall, leaving a trail of ripples behind her. Mira followed her, and the two turned to each other as they reached the painting.
 
The woman took Mira’s left hand and held her fingers briefly, tracing her thumb along the silver band. You still wear your ring.
 
I have a wife.
 
Snakes don’t wear wedding rings.
 
She sleeps in my bed every night.
 
I’m sure she does.
 
Where did you get that coat?
 
The woman slid it off of her shoulders to reveal a sleeveless dress of tan lace, dotted with brown stains along its right hem. She dropped the coat onto the water, letting it float away into the gallery.
 
Eliza leant it to me the night of the accident, she said with a smile.
 
You need to give it back to her.
 
Snakes don’t wear coats.
 
She asks about it.
 
When will you let her out?
 
Let’s talk about the painting.
 
The painting?
 
The Sea.
 
The water was now lapping at Mira’s thighs, numbing her legs. Quickly, she said. Before it sinks.
 
What do you see? The woman asked. She stepped behind Mira, placed her hands on her shoulders. Mira felt the woman’s brow rest against the back of her head.
 
The water rising, falling, rising again, Mira replied. Tides.
 
The woman shook her head, rubbing it against the back of Mira’s. What do you really see?
 
Snakes.
 
The word whistled through Mira’s teeth like a hiss. The water rose to her waist in one large swell. The painting was already sinking, the colors running into the churning water, the sand disintegrating.
 
Do you understand? The woman’s whisper came from inside Mira’s head, her lips moving against the ridge where Mira’s skull met her spine.
 
Understand what? The water reached Mira’s neck and quivered right under her chin.
 
How someone can drown.
 
The water rushed into Mira’s ears, into her mouth, into her pores. It collapsed around her, first taking her clothes, then clawing at her skin. Below the surface was strangely warm, as though she had entered a separate world, enveloped in a blue-green mist. She saw the painting, blurry and writhing before her. The snakes peeled themselves one by one from the canvas and swam toward her, wrapping around her legs, her wrists, the soft flesh of her neck, pulling her down to rest, at last, at the bottom.

 

 
 

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