Christopher Miller was born in Switzerland on the cusp of the first hydrogen bomb’s test detonation. His
legitimate professions, in no particular order, include stock boy, paper boy, pot washer, geriatric orderly, union rep, subcontract painter, farmer, technical writer, cookie factory worker, software developer, line cook, dish washer and restaurateur. He’s tried his hand at chess, Go and classical guitar. His father is a semi-renowned theologian. His mother composes logic puzzles for Penny Press. He has two sons, and one granddaughter who also wants to be a writer.
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
After the starter’s bang, it takes us nine billion years to get here, then another billion to attain life, almost three billion more for some of us to become jellyfish, but then only a tenth that to slither ashore, even less to grow fur and walk erect, and almost no time at all after that to discover fire and nonstick cookware, and begin to wonder why.
After Pearl asks Gilles to dance, it takes her three weeks to get him horizontal and then another twelve to get him to the altar. It takes her four years and three expensive and intrusive in vitro fertilizations to conceive, and then another thirty-seven weeks to deliver by Cesarean their twins, Coral and Willow. Inspired by fertility clinic videos and Pearl’s remote readiness, Gilles never needs longer than a minute to do his part though.
It takes Pearl just over two decades to suggest a swinger’s resort holiday, but only a year to talk Gilles into it once she has, and then only a minute to book it through the Internet once Tropicquest has their Visa.
“There’ll be lots going on,” she says. “It’ll be exciting.”
Whenever Gilles needs quiet, he floats facedown in their six-person saltwater Jacuzzi.
Pearl cups and lifts one breast and then the other. Her new saline-filled implants provide a very natural feel. “It’s not like you have to attend all the mixers,” she says. “I mean, it might be fun just to hit a few on our own...maybe.” Her fingers trace the 3 cm. scar that smiles in the crest of each.
Gilles’s arms, legs and genitalia dangle and sway in the jets’ throaty currents. His knuckles sweep the tub’s non-slip fiberglass bottom. Below, in chlorine green, appears a woman. She often visits during his quiet time. Her slender arms seem to reach up to him. Her jacket’s sequins always make him think of a fish’s scales; perhaps it is her unblinking eyes. He can hold his breath for over four minutes.
Pearl blinks and steps naked from the water. Gilles continues to float, rocking gently in the wake of her departure. His ample body fat makes him buoyant. He is so pale as to be almost translucent.
It has taken two weeks of verbal and three pages of written instruction for Pearl to be okay with leaving the twins alone. She worries about the syringe she found just lying right out in the open on Coral’s nightstand, and wonders if it’s true what her daughter said about only skin-popping on weekends and about needles only being addictive and hardcore and dangerous if you do IV. And she wonders if the neat rows of parallel cuts and scabs that furl along Willow’s inner thighs like some strange foreign flag whose elaborate barcode design she has twice caught her augmenting with a razorblade in the bathtub are as normal as she claims, if a girl would really have to be an emotionless blob not to cut herself a little. But the girls are too old for a babysitter, and she herself was young once—and survived.
The twins try not to see them off with too much enthusiasm. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” laughs Willow, who will give her new boyfriend herpes. “That’s right,” beams Coral, who will get pregnant and also need to have her stomach pumped, “you all behave yourselves.”
Because of accidents on the 401 and a dawdling fare in Oakville, it takes Red Cap three hours to get them to Toronto’s Pearson airport, and (thanks to a Tropicquest screw-up) another fourteen hours before their plane, which must first make a round trip to Las Vegas, can be boarded, and then (thanks to an irate last minute deplaning) another three before it finally takes off. Because of the resultant long layover in Los Angeles and a much shorter one in Sydney, it is almost two days until they land at Darwin International Airport, but then only an hour until a courtesy coach arrives to take them to their four-and-a-half-star resort on Fanny Bay. March is still monsoon season on Australia’s tropical northern coast. During their ninety-minute bus ride it is pissing down so hard it’s like they’re in a submarine.
The hot tub in their suite is not as large as the one on their deck at home. But it affords a much nicer view. The rain has eased. Tentacles of it still reach down from a few overhead clouds. But the horizon is clear. The sun is a glob of bloody orange goo hissing into the bay.
“Isn’t that the most amazing sunset you’ve ever seen?” says Pearl looking out over water so perfectly azure it almost stings her eyes.
Gilles’s elbows and knees drag on the bottom of the tub, keeping him from bobbing or drifting much. His eyes are open, even though the bubble-bath that Pearl has put in the water stings them. Below, the woman’s gradual sinking makes it look as though her hair is rising, reaching for the surface, like flaxen coral. Above, a man spits down accusations he can no longer hear, even with the jets off.
“There’s a balloon dance in the Shore Lounge tonight,” continues Pearl. “The brochure says they put up these big nets and then fill the dance floor with all sorts of different colored balloons. So you kind of have to grope your way around I guess. Doesn’t that sound like fun?” His butt makes her think of a pair of squished-together balloons floating in the tub. “I’m going now,” she says. “Why don’t you come down after you finish your bath?” Then she leaves him a note.
Couples have begun to pair off by the time Gilles makes his way down. He scans the dim lounge for Pearl, but she is nowhere to be seen. Because he is reluctant to sit alone or to join strangers, many of whom are necking and fondling, he drifts out onto the dance floor, into a strobe-lit sea of balloons. There he explores blouses and tank tops, denim bums and silk panties. His fingers rake and caress without discrimination. A large androgynous woman presses close to him. She is squeezed into a green taffeta gown that is so tight it makes her bottom feel like a shell. She has huge shoulders and a great beak of a nose, but almost no neck. Her skin is dark and sun leathered, so it is impossible to assess her age. She might be ancient. She kisses him and claws at his trousers with thick fingernails. There is uric acid on her breath, like she has been eating raw oysters. He pulls some balloons between them and pushes himself away.
Back in the lounge Gilles spots Pearl sitting at the bar with a young man whose nametag identifies him as Todd, a hospitality worker for the resort. He has long sun-bleached hair and tanned muscles that ripple like the sand at the bottom of shallow, wavy water. Pearl is flushed, almost inflamed. She has her hand on Todd’s thigh, and his is on her shoulder, almost on her breast. Gilles returns to the room, runs fresh bathwater, and then furiously masturbates into it.
The next day is hot and unseasonably sunny. Almost everyone is at the beach. Many are in the water. Todd, the young hospitality worker, is there too. He is rubbing sunscreen onto Pearl’s back when a girl swimming just inside the buoy line is stung on the hand by something. She comes ashore wailing. A few thin red welts streak from the webbing between her thumb and forefinger to just below her wrist. Todd calls her over and dabs something from a first-aid kit onto them.
The girl continues to keen. Swimmers begin to leave the water. Drawn to her distress, a group of people gathers. “Any trouble breathing love?” asks Todd. The girl shakes her head. “Reach across the net did you?” She shakes her head again. Todd studies the fine angry brushstrokes on her hand. “Hurt much?” The girl bursts into tears.
More people arrive. “So is it safe to go in the water or what?” asks a man carrying a snorkel and a pair of flippers.
“Won’t kid you mate,” says Todd. “The nets’ll keep out the big jellies, but maybe not the smaller boxes and blue bottles, and definitely not the deadly irukandji—them little suckers are smaller’n your willy! And even just a piece of a dead jellyfish or man-of-war can wash through the net and hurt you pretty bad.” He smiles at the stung girl and strokes her hair. “Isn’t that so love?” The girl manages to smile back.
“Well shit,” says another man. “I don’t recall seeing anything about that in any of the brochures.”
Todd laughs. “Isn’t there something about exploring a diverse variety of marine life?”
“And there’s nothing you can do about it?” The man is not amused.
“The jellyfish is the oldest form of life on Earth,” says Todd, his voice sing-song now. “No skeleton, and yet it is a powerful swimmer. No brain, and yet it is a stealthy and voracious predator that hunts by sight.” He has given this lecture many times before. “Jellyfish kill more people than stonefish, sharks and saltwater crocs combined,” he continues. “Its tentacles and body are coated with nematocysts, pressurized little hypodermics primed to inject their toxin at the slightest touch. A large jelly can have over a hundred meters of tentacles; contact with nine is enough to kill you. Survivors say the pain is like being burned and skinned alive at the same time.”
The stung girl nods solemnly.
Todd releases her hand. “They say that after a jellyfish has stung you, you begin to appreciate hell.”
“Sea turtles eat them,” says Gilles as though to redeem them.
“Right, right you are mate,” says Todd. “No one knows how though.”
“And they mate without touching,” says Gilles.
“Guess they’d pretty much have to,” says Pearl.
“The male puts his seed in the water, and then the female gathers it up.”
“Gross,” says the stung girl. The crowd begins to disperse.
People wade, but few venture far from shore. A group of European men in thongs fill plastic pails with water to throw on female sunbathers. Todd resumes massaging sunscreen onto Pearl’s back. Gilles watches as she unhooks her top. Then he walks to the water. His gut flops down over his massive trunks. He waddles like a creature that is uncomfortable on land.
Pearl squirms, rolls over and pulls Todd’s hands to her new breasts, pleased to note the effect this has on his Speedo. By the time Todd is groping his way into places that sunscreen is unlikely to be helpful and Pearl is rubbing him in sympathetic and encouraging reciprocation, Gilles has swum out beyond the buoys.
The bay is calm and quiet. Gilles glides. The layers of fat that hamper him and drag him down on land serve now to hold him aloft. The water is a window through which, even without goggles, he can see the schools of multicolored fish that dart and sway as a single organism and play around him like subatomic particles. Tiny crabs shuffle and hide on the sandy bottom. Gilles swims efficiently, almost motionlessly, using his entire body. Pearl wriggles out of her bottoms.
Then he sees it—her. She rises into his field of vision as if summoned from the deep, her sphincteral velarium dilating and contracting, her bell expanding and compressing like the breast of some great goddess being squeezed. Gentle underwater breezes brush and tease her delicate lappets and glistening subumbrellar tentacles, long flowing diamond hair that streams behind her billowing and waving, a crystalline mushroom cloud cloaked in a halo of sunlight split into its spectral rainbow. She is the most beautiful thing he has ever encountered. Saltwater from Gilles’s eyes returns to the sea as he removes his trunks and casts his seed into her waters. She shoots closer. He can see the excited trembling of her fringe-like marginal tentacles as his seed stretches and swirls into milky globular strands, spirals of DNA that reach down to her. Another of her watery breaths and he can see the menagerie of fragile marine skeletons embedded in her oral arms, arms with which she explores his primordial offering, her body undulating, so transparent it is impossible to tell where she begins and the sea ends.
But she rejects his gift. Worse, she is repulsed by his proposition and makes no pretense, as Pearl sometimes will, otherwise. Even the nibbling silver minnows that appear do not entice her. She avoids him with grace, but also with such determination and haste that she propels herself into the net hanging from the buoys. Her slender legs splay under the inertia of her final thrust and become entwined in black nylon mesh, exposing her reproductive organs and mouth.
When Gilles crawls naked from the sea, he is weeping. His arms and chest are streaked with crimson plumes and lashes, but that are not the reason for his tears. He welcomes the fire; the fire consumes the pain within.
Ashore, he stands erect and walks, dragging his trunks behind him by their stretched-tight drawstring. They are filled with a gelatinous mass, some of which oozes past the lining and out the legs, breaking away onto the sand in quivering blobs. A young German running with a pail of seawater toward some topless Japanese girls steps on one of the glassy fibers trailing from Gilles’s trunks and falls screaming and spitting obscenities in his mother tongue.
Farther up, Todd and Pearl lie in the shade of a cabana’s broad umbrella, their brains awash in endorphins. Pearl has just reached down to test the possibility of a resurrection. And there is potential. In the distance, the German begins to howl. An American joins in. High overhead, a gull cries. Reacting to Pearl’s casual probes, Todd’s oily fingers begin to explore. Pearl arches, gasping and sighing in open surprise and satisfaction. As the slime from Gilles’s swimwear washes over them.