The summer after college, I read a book and then started drawing whales. Not like the great whites of Melville’s pages, but savage, bloody-eyed demons that ruled my college-ruled pages. I’d only used one notebook that whole last year, a catchall of logic and physics and lit theory and whales. The whales started out contained in redline margin aquarium tanks, but then the glass broke and they spilled out and infected the rest of the page.
The cardboard backing of the notebook was stiff once, the way it’s supposed to be when you first buy it, but by June it had been beaten down, soggy from being knocked around in my backpack and employed as a makeshift coaster one too many times. Wood grain rings rippled on the surface of my shoddy desks, and my notebook was a life raft, bloated and ripe for rescuing.
I was drowning in stuff from June through August. I didn’t unpack my clothes, only plucked shirts and socks and pants from bags as needed like tissues. My notebook gave me an excuse to ignore the humpback silhouettes of garbage bags piled up around my room. After some weeks, the bags stretched so thin that my things bulged out; ruptured organs through black plastic.
Each whale had its own persona, each had a different qualm or tick – one bitched about government surveillance while another couldn’t stop complaining about low-fat mayo – but all their mouths were the same, tongues dripping, teeth blunted, dribbling words just to add texture to the air. I gave them small arms instead of fins so we could high five and smoke cigarettes together. But I only let them have four fingers, because they were not human, no matter how hard they tried to convince me otherwise.
I drew likenesses of seamen, too; scraggly with jagged beards and frayed hats. The whales were convinced that it was more a likeness of a certain poet, but that’s beside the point because the multitudes I contained were few and far between. My seafarers always had five fingers, just to show the whales who was boss. But the whales always wound up devouring the men, only after they all went out for a smoke. The whales would pretend to buddy-up, and then strike while their defenses were down. I smoked with them too, when the timing felt right, but always left before the duels started. I preferred to watch from the wings and let the whales do my dirty work.
Long wispy trails of cigarette smoke engulfed my mathematical calculations that I made during finals week, when I wore the paper thin trying to figure out my grade point averages before they’d get sent home. They weren’t awful, but they weren’t great, and I was expected to do better. Fiery bits of ash flew up into the axis of the page and landed back on the ocean surface, where the whales floated on handmade rafts, mocking the sinking seamen corpses and posing their limbs in compromising positions. They were my guys, my buddies. I made them impervious to fire and even though the oil slick on the wave crests caught flame, they talked on and on about the weather and speculated what creatures should and would be drawn next. One whale asked for the next creature to be a rabbit with ears so long they floated on the water’s surface. To his chagrin, the next creature I drew was a giraffe with a human head and nubby arms and legs with nothing that let it float on water. It stood tall among scrawled logic proofs, complete with arrows and letters that danced around its head, like how they danced around my head weeks earlier. But I failed to draw acacia leaves so the giraffe-man perished and the whales feasted on its feeble bones, using its ribs as toothpicks.
I should have kept a separate notebook for each class, but I was drained, both in funds and morale. There was just something about a plain white notebook – the whiteness of it all – that made me claustrophobic, like it was expecting too much from me. People were always expecting too much from me. Well, maybe not all people, but Margo. Margo with her pulsating free time, unburdened by whales.
Margo was the only real person I introduced to the whales, and that was only after she asked so many times. I made the mistake of mentioning them once, apropos of her bringing over a whale-shaped birthday cake for herself on her own birthday, which coincided with another holiday. Whale of a dad! it said in loopy blue frosting.
In a time before college semesters, Margo sat at the other end of a pockmarked table in art class, scratching black India ink into paper with quill pens, trying too hard to create dark, haunting landscapes, but too many people liked her and hung around her for her to dedicate herself to the darkness. She told me once, when she and I both had to stay after class to finish assignments (I gave myself extra assignments just to be able to stay after class, she had to because she was chatty), that my stuff reminded her of her stuff. So I figured that maybe I wasn’t the only one in town who was lonely, and even though she didn’t admit it outright, it seemed to be the subtext. And now, after eight college semesters, she and I found ourselves right back where we started, only the pockmarked table had become my bedroom floor, and there were no chairs between us, and sometimes our limbs touched and tangled. She didn’t tell me about her college and I didn’t tell her about mine. She took comfort in the ink-filled pages of my life and I was more than happy to let her insert herself in and around my overactive pen.
Margo liked the whales, but they never warmed to her. They did tricks and flips and blew bubbles when she was around because they knew how much she meant to me, but once she left, they glared and gave me the silent treatment. They went for smokes without me. They thought she was taking up too much of my time. Time they thought should have been spent drawing and continuing their two-dimensional lives was instead spent in close contact with the only girl I kissed between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two.
She never drew any sort of anthropomorphic animals. Instead she drew long wispy ropes of yarn and poems. Often the yarn would curve up and around her poems, squeezing the life out of them. She was always a tick away from drawing the yarn right onto her pink skin, wrapping it loosely around her wrists and fingertips, connecting freckles to make sure they stayed in place, clothe her whole body in them. I had to stop her, once actually yanking the pen away from her as she was about to draw on herself.
“What’s the big deal? It’s just ink,” she said.
I knew right then that she wouldn’t ever get it.
I could draw and erase and redraw the whales to my liking, but Margo never let me cross her out or redraw her. She left artifacts in my room – a hairclip, her own drawings tacked up on the walls next to my bed, poems she found, poems she wrote, ticket stubs to museums she went to without me.
“Come with me,” she’d beg. “Bring the notebook.”
But I couldn’t. She knew and I knew.
One day in July, days after I avoided going to the annual family barbeque, my mother found a creased piece of notebook paper in a pair of my jeans when she was doing laundry. I kept telling her she shouldn’t still do my laundry, but she did, she insisted. She didn’t say anything outright about the drawing, just returned it to my desk, folded in fourths on top of my neatly folded clothes. The drawing wasn’t even a good one. It showed a whale standing on its fluked-out tail behind a microphone stand, in front of a brick wall, telling wretched jokes about blubber and baleen and bureaucracy pouring out into speech bubbles, jokes about me and my stupid haircut and my stupid, ratty tee shirts and my Margo. My miniscule life that I kept contained inside my room.
That whale thought he was so goddamned funny, but that motherfucker couldn’t tell a joke if his life depended on it. Which is why I’d yanked out the paper he was drawn on in the first place, numbers and letters and all, and folded it in half and in half and in half again until it was impossible to crease anymore, and I guess I’d stuffed it into my jeans pocket, which is how my mother found it, post-spin cycle and starched.
After long days of scrawling and drawing and crossing out the things that Margo allegedly loved but alarmed my parents, and after Margo would leave to go back home, taking her beautiful human legs with her, I would shuffle out of my bedroom and sink my socked feet, toes inexplicably yellowed with time and the insides of sneakers, into the dingy carpet. I’d let my eyes adjust to the fluorescent hallway lights. Windows were all blinded, so there was no indication of the time of day, but I’d go down to the kitchen and eat whatever I could find until I’d become disgusted with myself. Then I’d go back upstairs and let the whales take over my brain cells again, let them devour the backs of my eyes until delta waves mercifully ceased my weary cogs from turning.
And then all of a sudden it was August, officially the end of my last official summer break.
It was early in the morning, and it hadn’t yet reached the full heat or light of day but the weathermen were already promising a scorcher. I took inventory of the unfinished crossword puzzles, the curly edges of notebook paper, the dust bunnies cowering in corners.
I opened my notebook and ran my fingers over the filled pages, crinkled and wavy. I kept my eyes closed, letting my fingers take me through the book, hoping the creases would become a sort of braille and tell me something, but when I reached the last page all I was left with were stained fingertips. I found my pen, found some breathing room on the page, but the ink exploded when it touched down and the pen was drained within seconds. The whales sucked the ink from my pen, letting it gush over their eager mouths, dribbling like demented drunkards. They pursed their lips like newborns, hungry for teat.
I’d run dry. My intestines twisted with guilt and something akin to writer’s block. I realized that after a full day of failed drawings, making whales that looked too much like whales and nothing like their antagonistic mutated cousins, that this was where it would all end. My wrist had been exhausted of all it was capable – my finger muscles had all but cramped, and what was once a compulsion had now become a chore.
I scratched my head with the back of the empty pen barrel. It had become early evening without my permission. I discarded the black ballpoint with a flick into the garbage can that was already overflowing with candy wrappers from the foodstuffs and magazine clippings Margo brought over.
I plucked my nubby towel off its rack on the back of my door and padded across the hallway to the bathroom. The hole in my sock revealed itself with a cold sting when I stepped onto the tiles. Using one hand to balance on the sink, I peeled off the old socks and threw them in the garbage.
I let my tee shirt and pajama pants fall to the floor. The water was too hot but it didn’t matter, so long as I could scrub away the stray ink spots, scars on the fleshy part of my right hand that rubbed against the paper and picked up gooey dots of unabsorbed ink. I scrubbed and scrubbed until the skin was raw.
The water was so hot that I thought it would melt down my skin and bones and swirl them away in a soapy whirlpool at the bottom of the tub. I would have grabbed that notebook, whales and seamen and giraffe bones and cross outs upon cross outs and dragged them right down with me.
Then the water pressure dropped and four loud staccato knocks on the bathroom door snapped me back to reality. My mother muffled an inquiry as to when I’d be finished and I yelled something back. I switched off the shower and a chill shook through my body like wet lightning. The bathroom had become thick with steam. I stood there naked in the tub and pushed the curtain open so that I was completely exposed to the rest of the room.
When I got back into my room my notebook lay like a sleeping cat on my bed. I took it and shoved it under the mattress. I couldn’t bear to do anything worse with it. Burning it was out of the question; I couldn’t incinerate my poor whales. Throwing it away seemed futile – it’d just sit there in the can until other trash piled on top of it. So I shoved it, hard, under the mattress. The whole time I heard the whales begging me not to. “Rethink!” they begged. They wanted to talk about it over a cigarette. They wanted more creatures, more human features, more ink to drink, but I silenced their cries.
It was time, time to rejoin the three-dimensional world. But if for some reason I relapsed, I knew they’d be there for me again.