She is too close, moving into my space like she has moved into my thoughts. Where others are mountains, fully formed and unyielding upon acquaintance, she started as a trickle of the Spring thaw, then became a rush of a river. She is discoverable and surprising.
All I can think about lately has to do with her. Her full and often broken lips as she bites them. Her dark, deep eyes as they catch a mischievous glint, challenging something I said. Her crooked smile as she gratifies my humor, laughter bubbling sweetly behind the edges of her fingertips. The way she silently touches her bottom lip with her index finger and thumb, thoughtfully taking in my opinions, those lips parting with a contemplative hum.
Now, her body invades my space, filling my senses. I catch the scent of her, like fresh water muddled with a salty-sweet tinge that is unlike anything else in my memory. My sight is too full of her; all that crests in my vision is the white of her shirt. I can’t see the soft edges of her. I am frozen for a second, being so close that the fabric of her shirt skims the hair on my arm. Being so close in that moment, eyes all but consumed with her, I realize her presence isn’t a trickle or a stream. She reminds me of the vast depth and nature of the sea, and oh, I want to drown.
And then, she recedes. In her hand, the favor she picked up from the desktop in front of me—my wife’s number. She is a wave, taking the scent, the sight, the second-long stroke of her shirt against my arm—totally unintended—away again. She is used to being given the breadth she requires, the benign nature of her naive force making way for her.
This ebb of her overwhelming presence gives me freedom to recognize where I am and just how wrong the taint of my thoughts is. I smile graciously, not overstepping our camaraderie.
I’m not stupid enough to let my thoughts play on my face, nor asshole enough to mar her day with an easy cheapness, “Enjoy your evening.”
She smiles back, returning the sentiment politely. I grab my keys and realize my hands shake.
I drive home, alternately praying against my inclinations and feeling the uncomfortable taut in the folds of my pants. I get home and have to lean over the toilet in order not to miss.
The kids asleep, the door locked, I tempt my wife with chaste, sweet kisses, pausing, and letting her decide. I’m not an asshole. She deepens them, pulling gently on my lips with her teeth. I won’t push, not when my head is filled with her teeth on her lips, not when my head is filled with the feeling of my arm tingling, phantom white shirt contact.
My wife insists. Her short, earthy breaths against my lips drive us. The sounds that escape her mouth are a true overflow of her pleasure.
She is a verdant park. She’s lively, pleasant, safe, steady.
But the depth of the sea, the white of its cresting waves, is consuming my mind as I climax. My brow furrows with guilt as she relaxes against me, pats my body playfully—familiarly—and trails away with a grin. I hear the shower’s shhhhhhh as she disappears from view.
Her body is complexly beautiful after three kids and twelve years of living with an occasional fitness fanatic, but more-often foodie. It is beautiful to me because of its context, stronger with the nurture of our children, the stress of our struggles together, indulging my late-night culinary impulses. I would do anything for that woman, who hums when she is in pain rather than give her aches a voice. Who squints at the gross things rather than shy from them, who brushes her hair back like she is prepping for conquer when she is stressed. I would do anything to keep her untouched by pain I can prevent. So where is my damn mind?
It doesn’t matter that I believe this with my very soul.
I dread the next day, walking into our workplace. I spot her heading in, a slightly more formal outfit clinging to her today. Is she losing weight? I can’t mention that.
Well, no, maybe I heard someone else say it? Doesn’t matter.
I duck into my office before we have a chance to catch each other in the hall. That’s normal, right? Shut up.
I am so sick of the pull of her, the careful drawing of the ocean. The relentless tide as our spaces ebb and flow around each other. I hate the closeness I feel, the comfort in the cool waves of her presence washing over superheated soles of some stupid, fake amorousness. I am watching, as unbiasedly as possible, as I judge our interactions.
Nothing weird about that, conversing about the day.
Nothing odd there—friendly comments, appreciation.
Nothing unusual. Not incongruous with working together, not out of line with being friends.
I focus on “friends.” I hope that is what we are.
Diving deeper into that consciousness in casual dips and unconscious falls does make me want to be a part of her. Not in the way it feels when she’s close and I’m caught off-guard by her heat and scent, caught off-guard by her own awkward way of somehow ending up unintentionally close. I want to be a part of her in the way you get used to the intensity of the ocean from the shore. It feels enough to be awestruck and at peace, even with such an intimidating depth just yards off of the everchanging outline of the sand. It’s enough to feel the calm, electric thrill of safety at the edge of the maw of the vast sea, even as you realize you are off in the distance of deep night in a small boat, dark waters and blackness all around. You get used to it when you have a purpose. You embrace it when it is the necessity for being better—for being the best.
That’s how my attention manifests—with purpose. Everything revolves around her in my to-do list. My deadlines, motivation, how much quicker I get better at literally everything—it all revolves around her. Will this take something off her plate, without her knowing it? Will she speak my name with a piece of praise for the vision of my work? It’s the most pleasure I can take from her—how I dip into the current, without being overwhelmed by the break.
It’s only after a few months of becoming accustomed to the innocently sensuous nature of her tide that I notice the outliers in the swells—the casual lingering touches, the double speak in her phrases, what I think are wistful smiles. I almost think I’m imagining it—I could be imagining it. Really, separately, I have to be imagining it.
I imagine it to start countering it. I have to have a plan. Up until this point, she has behaved as she would, ignorant and indifferent to the height of my awareness of her. I have been able to withstand the typical pull of her current from my position as an invisible speck within the enchantment of her waters.
But what happens when the deep waters start behaving outside the rhythm of the slow cresting, gentle crashing, predictably receding pattern? What happens when the waves turn their force upon the specks in their tide? What happens in case of a riptide—or a tsunami? You’re supposed to hope not to drown. You start putting up pylons, sandbags. You move away. Except I can’t move away; I’m making my living off the coast of that deep, dark water, the ebbing and flowing wash of it charging my success. I feel less sure without the pattern of her around.
I am a wader in her waters, testing my capabilities against each crest in the predictable tide.
I’m learning to swim, waiting with the knowledge of how to save myself from the tsunami and its riptide. I know how to get out of the wake.
We are alone. I’ve removed the sandbags temporarily.
This has happened before, and quite a few times in the last months, actually. I’m comfortable with the purpose surrounding the current situation.
So, I miss the pull of the tide that should indicate the incoming peril.
Our conversation has fallen into an easy lull as she’s propped herself against the side of my desk, ass-first against the drawers. I’m not paying close attention as she leans over to grab a sticky note on the other side of me—this is how it is, ebb and flow. In this familiar crest, I freeze as the fabric of that white shirt slides against my arm. I can wade the tide. Her unintentional closeness I’ve gotten used to, but she has to lean a little further in than she originally intends, and I feel the softness of her body press into me. Back to shore. I pull my arms out of her way, with a quick, “Ah. I apologize.”
My mind is now alighting on the larger cresting waves that begin to build momentum in the distant wake.
“Oh no. Sorry, that was my fault.” She says with a short laugh. My eyes are now glued to the white foam-crested waves in the form of the contours of her waist, uncovered by the shifting of her shirt. I can tell she catches the line of my sight. I avert my gaze quickly. She’s never been this close before, unintentionally or otherwise.
This is it; the waves begin to crash. I only glance there—bare skin—and then up and away, but my instincts aren’t helping me; my eyes are captured by the swirling depths in hers.
I’m vaguely aware of my arms. The swirl of the salty-sweet fragrance coming off her skin is messing with my ability to rationalize, to bring all of my careful planning to fruition. I think I meant to bring my arms up to place my palms forward in a rebuffing gesture, stopping the swirling water, but the tides aren’t acting in their typical rhythms, and I find my hands capitulating to the current’s embrace.
“Wow, I am tired today.” I say too loud, finally regaining my faculties enough to change the trajectory of the pull. I free my hands quickly, stretching up out of her light hold. I want her to save face. I want to be able to keep wading this water properly without her audience, without being overcome. I’m staring down a wave that will pull me into the riptide. I want… I want… Sandbag? Pylon?
My chair is turned. The heat of her I can feel, though she is still inches away. Her scent again mists into the air I’m breathing. She’s the deep-water surge, flooding the beach into the town. I don’t know how to save this. I’m trapped in my indecision. She guides my hands to her waist, settling… If I let her flood the space between us, I will be lost.
Desperation. “What the hell!” I finally spit out, my hands pushing out in a drowning man’s flail. I slide my chair back with the dig of my shoe into the sand.
I watch her eyes widen with hurt, then her expression fall, and I curse myself. How many times have I imagined this situation, but with a disarming phrase, a way to politely put us both back in our places, her predictable ebb and flow and my inoffensive presence?
Maybe it’s worse that I have imagined giving in to the riptide, too, and I am denying her the pleasure of getting to feel that turn. I watch her recede and think of all the ways I’m ruining everything. Fuck all the carefully constructed lies of purpose, the sandbags and pylons. I want her—a presence, a force in my life.
But I have made my stand against the tsunami, and it seems it is abating. I watch her eyes reflexively well.
“I know,” she whispers. “I’m sorry.” She leaves abruptly, and I realize the sand surrounding me isn’t the calm of the shore with the safeguards I’ve built, but the dust of a desert completely devoid of depth and reach. I have no access to the sea, and I feel it acutely. My chest aches for this human I decided to care for from afar. I ache for the immediate lack I feel at her mental absence.
I haven’t defeated the pull of the ocean. I have broken from my own source of life-giving water. It was something I hadn’t even realized I was counting on.
The desert dust doesn’t resettle to reveal eddies and streams, as I think it should, when I try to refocus on where I should be feeling that life. When I see her in the day, her movements are muted, not ebb and flow, but stiffness, stagnation—brackish darkness. This realization that I have stymied her spirit—made her self-conscious of her very nature—is more painful than if I had found that her sea was still out there, flooding and relinquishing for others.
My chest aches to see what I have wrought. It is so painful, I place mountains between us—stop seeing her at all. I ask for transfers, begin talking with other people. My preoccupation with escaping the anguish, mine and what I perceive of hers, is such that I revel in this desert now. I don’t notice lush greenery or benign earthiness, nor the implacable mountains with whom I punish myself. I stubbornly weather in the barrenness of the world I destroyed.
I still feel the ache of the absence through the numbness of my desert. At the great height of the waters, she is the most potent force I have had the privilege to witness in my life… but I cannot even remember her name.