When I was seventeen I went on a beach holiday with a boyfriend. He had blonde hair and massive shoulders and a stomach that would rise and deflate like a pump. I could visualise his body filling with air every time he inhaled.
The drive there was long and windy. From the car window everything seemed more controllable than it really was; the sea seemed threadbare, the sky something touchable and real. I was really into The Veils at the time; I'd play their music in the car andthe songs' mood soaked into the landscape outside the window.
"...Am I on the right train headed in the wrong direction? What say you, Lord? What say you, Lord?..."
I watched the world clump together, peak over bumps and stretch out over planes. Everything was spacious and deserted and ridiculously scenic. This wedge of the world was rugged, remarkable. Everything was so wide-open it was almost threatening. There was nowhere to hide. The sea shrunk from your grip. The mountains enclosed you.
The house we stayed in sat at the end of a small lane. Mountains rose behind and to the left of us. Right opposite was a large bay that was separated from the ocean by a cathedral-shaped jumble of rocks.
He did set after set of sit-ups on the deck.
He said he wanted a fully-defined six pack.
I said they looked gross, plastic and unhealthy, as though toothed organs were trying to bite their way through his skin.
He huffed and groaned and exhaled.
I had come to associate beach holidays with sun and heat and the intrusive sauna-like air that ducks straight inside you and pushes the sweat out of your pores. Here the air was thin and heatless, and it grew damp and cold in the evenings. The light was pale and muted as though it streamed from the corners of an eclipse. The sky was white as a dried sea.
I never stopped touching my camera. Every picture was a postcard.
The road outside the beach house was worn, grimy like the trail of smoke rising from a steam train. Piecrust cracks ran down the edges. The sun had bleached it to the colour of ash. It looked as though a sooty finger had drawn a slapdash line between the houses and the beach.
In the evening the sun bloated and smudged across the sky like a popped blood blister, sinking down in a pink or redwood haze that gradually cooled into purples and blues.
At night the sky was acid-washed, slathered in stars. There was so much brightness that it looked as though someone had stretched a tattered rag over a dome of light.
Snap. Snap. Snap.
He said, "I had a dream that we got married."
I said, "I want to sleep in the other bedroom."
The sea flickered between grey and azure, bleak and dramatic. When the sky was patched over with clouds, the water was bruise-green. When the sun flooded down and flecks of light shifted over the waves, it was eye-blue and camera-flash bright.
When I was too tired to sit outside and too wound-up to sleep, I would listen for the waves. They cut through each other with that oncoming-force sound, that heavy lisp.
He said one time him and his friend had stood in church, and during prayer, both of them saw a flower float down from the ceiling.
I thought, oh no.
"What say you, Lord? ...As they try for love and any form of ascension?... What say you Lord? Why is the truth of this so hard to unveil?..."
I started collecting shells; white ones with chalky ridges, orange clam-shaped ones, pearly cones. I avoided going inside the batch. It smelt like corn. The walls were coarse pink. The air was musty, the furniture boxed-in. Outside everything was clear and cool. Days were pale and atmospherically odd. Nights were hypnotic; disorienting and chilling.
"I have scars on my arms," he said. "From where I cut myself."
"You need to see a doctor," I said.
"I used to be addicted to antidepressants," he said. "They don't do anything for me."
"You need help."
"I don't trust anyone else."
"...Talk down the girl, talk down the girl... So little knowledge known to me. So little colour left to see, but black and white, black and white..."
The landscape was vast and wild and I thought of the world as a snow globe; a scenic diorama in a glass ball. Everything seemed globular and concave. The sky curved from the edge of the ocean to the hills behind us like a cupped hand. The road outside our house looked like a hollowed tube of asphalt; edges arcing upwards and the middle dipping down. The mountains rose into the sky like knuckles; their peaks pushed through the air like cylinders. I took enough pictures to make a flipbook.
He said, "I'll have nothing to live for if you leave."
I said, "Stop it."
We drove to a nearby town one afternoon. We drank milkshakes. I bought hot glue and a cork board to glue my shells to. We listened to Jesus For The Jugular on the way back.
"How do you preach the word if you don't know how to read?..."
He said he hated the song and told me to turn it off.
”...They hold your soul once you sign the deed..."
He screamed for it to be turned off. His voice bounced off the windshield and bored into my ears.
"...Let him go, let him go, let him go from me... "
He said it had been his best friend's favourite song. He said two years ago she had called him crying, suicidal, and he had rushed to her house. When he'd opened her bedroom door he had found her dead.
"...Jesus for the jugular, one at a time. Oh, Jesus for the jugular, one at a time..."
I said that I thought he hadn't found out about his best friend's suicide until after her funeral.
He said that had been his other friend. He said he knew too many people who had killed themselves.
"... Ain't nobody ever gonna ever have to die."
Outside my window the clouds opened like a mouth and waves of pale light poured from its wispy tongue. The patch of water bordering the horizon shined like varnish. The picture I took was framed by the car window.
The house felt like a flesh-walled sauna. The rooms were stuffy. The towels smelled like stale water. The walls were covered in pink spit. It was like being in a whale's stomach.
"Let's go home," I said.
He said, "No."
"I want to go home," I said.
His shoulders started moving up-down-up-down in that violent pulsing way. Each heave rose straight from his gut and his body bulged in and out of itself as though his feet were planted over an earthquake.
"We'll talk when we get back," I said.
He said, "No one cares about me." And tears flushed down his face.
"...I've been brought back to life so many times I don't know what's real. But this is all I've ever known, and no one does it like I do..."
"I care," I said.
"You've ruined my life," he said.
"...and the blood is going to my head. By God, I'll never touch another's heart again..."
"It will be okay"
"It won't. I want to die."
"What about your family?"
"I'll make it look like an accident."
Outside the waves rolled through each other, and liquid salt fizzed against the sand.
I walked around the beach in circles, in lines, in zigzags, loops, crosses, squares. I fastened my shells to the board in loose spirals. Foam squirmed between my toes. I let the sea suck me into itself, roll me over, and push me back to shore. I lay in the sand with my head in the water. I sat and swam and dived in the sea. I swept my fingers through the loose sand at the bottom. I floated on the waves.
I thought, I need to go.
I thought, what if he hurts himself?
I wanted someone to deal with this for me, to scrape everything together and tuck it out of my sight. I tried to remember the self-defence my brother had taught me.
Put your thumb outside your fist when you punch someone. Extend your arm straight out.
You have better control that way.
And if anyone ever tries anything, go for the jugular. Don't even think about it. Go straight for the jugular.
He said, "Would you marry me tomorrow if I asked now?"
I said nothing.
I decided to go home the following morning. I had to walk down to the gas station in order to get phone reception. I placed a can of deodorant on my bedside table as makeshift pepper spray.
You have better control that way.
Some time during the night my bedroom door opened. I turned the light on. His face was covered in a snot mask. It had the organic gleam of homemade face treatments; coconut jelly and egg-whites.
He said he had woken up, and had found a demon hanging over him. Then he had dreamt about Satan. He had dreamt about Satan trying to kill him. And he wasn't sure whether it was a dream.
I could hear the water splash and blister on the sand. I could hear the waves breaking open against the rocks.
I said, "Let's watch Harry Potter."
He sat next to me on the couch and the hairs on my arms stabbed out of my pores like needles. Every time he shifted I'd jerk away from him. I would vomit if he touched me.
Harry Potter coughed up the snitch like a metal hairball. The walls were the colour of diluted flesh. The paint was one big stain.
"...Let him go, let him go, let him go from me..."
He fell asleep on the couch. I sat on my bed, and the walls spat at me.
"...Caught in a frenzy of elimination. Such an irreparable disintegration... What say you, Lord? What say you, Lord?..."
I'd learn about fear and sleep deprivation in psychology lectures two years later. Lecturers would tell me that lack of sleep dilutes the logical powers of your brain. Rational thought crumbles under the flood of adrenaline and fear.
Breathe, the brainstem says.
Fight or flight, the amygdala says.
There is no foolproof option, the frontal cortex says.
The room was lumpy and inflamed as a sandpapered rash. Everything felt itchy. The curtains were grainy. The prints on the wall were oily. And the walls, those damn pink walls; it was like being squashed inside a rancid grapefruit.
"...It must be something in my blood. By God, I'll never touch another's heart again..."
I walked out to the sea. Open air is safer. There's room to run. There's sky to look to. There's water to hide in.
He said that the devil had red-black scales and that he could smell the blood on them. He said that the devil had made him drive off a cliff in his dream. Gravity had spun him round and round inside his car as it arched down towards the sea. He expected to be saved somehow, but the air wouldn't clot and the sea wouldn't dry. When his face burst through the window, the water was a meter away. He could taste the salt. Then he woke up.
The world seemed upended and alien, somehow. The sky was extraordinary; gunmetal and salt-stained. The sea was something wild and violent. It seemed feral, slick and oily; a sleazy mass of water crashing and shifting, flooding the horizon.
"What are you doing outside?" he asked.
Fight or flight.
We went inside and I pocketed my phone.
"Have a shower," I said. "You'll feel better."
He said, "Okay."
The slobbering of water hitting the shower floor sounded pathetic compared to the thick lulling of the sea. I slid the outside door shut behind me and the hot hiss stopped as abruptly as a voice recording ending mid-sentence.
There is no foolproof option.
I walked by the shoreline. The empty roads were too desolate and man-made to be safe. The streetlights drooled cheap light onto the asphalt. The reflections on the pavement looked like blotches of orange-candy spit.
I called my sister at the gas station. I watched a moth spiral upwards in the sleazy beam of the streetlight across the road.
She said, "I'll come and get you."
I said, "I'm scared."
She said, "Scream if he does anything. Kick him in his balls. Call the police."
Go for the jugular.
"What if he hurts himself?"
"What if he hurts you?"
On the walk back, the darkness started to stretch out and discolour. I sat by the water and waited for dawn.
"...Would the sun still rise if there was no one around?... Would the fox be as quick if he hadn't his hound?..."
The sun bobbed up from the bottom of the world like a poker-hot buoy. The horizon sliced it open like a blood orange and squeezed its red light over the sea. Clouds drifted from the four corners of the horizon and joined in the middle. Slices of light cut down to Earth like streams of sand running between spread fingers. Wet reflections wrinkled over the sea.
I packed my bag. I drank coffee. I lay on the beach and traced patterns in the sky. The sea swallowed my hair. He said things. I said nothing back. I drew squiggles in the sand. The sea spat out my hair.
"...So little knowledge known to me. So little colour left to see, but black and white, black and white..."
I collected more seashells. I washed them and spaced them out on the deck. He arranged them into a heart shape. I smoothed them out into a circle. I took pictures of foam crusting on the sand. I made castles and thrones out of puckered rocks. I plastic-bagged the shells.
I told him he would be okay. He had everything he needed to be happy. He didn't need me at all.
He said God had told him I could be trusted to handle his situation. God had told him that if it wasn't for me, he would have killed himself.
"...Talk down the girl, talk down the girl..."
I said nothing.
"...Let him go, let him go, let him go from me..."
It was dark when I heard car wheels bounce across the edge of the driveway. Headlights shone through the glass doors. I grabbed my bag and shoved the shell-decorated board under my arm.
He stood in the living room and said, "What did you do?"
I tore my way through the door. My sister ran from the car and hurled her arms around me.
Her boyfriend said, "She's okay." He said, "She's okay, she's okay, she's okay,"
I looked at the house and saw him looking at me through the sliding doors. Shadows cut off the top half of his face. I couldn't tell if he was crying. Then he was gone.
What did you do?
Go straight for the jugular.
There is no foolproof option.
I heard the sound of glass. It could have been a glass door being slammed back into its frame. It could have been a wrist shredding through a slammed-in window.
What did you do?
I looked at the sky. The carbon mass reached from behind the house like a tsunami and curled down into the edge of the sea. Its fluid belly stretched over the world like a petrified wave.
Driving away, leaving the driveway, the tiny street, turning past the gas station; it felt like escaping a place before it crumbled, before it was scrubbed from existence. It felt like pushing through the wall of a soap bubble.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
I watched the world gather mass and momentum. The sea dried into land. The mountains flattened into fields and roads. The white noise of city lights drowned out the stars.
"What if he does kill himself?" I said.
"That's not your problem," my sister said.
"It doesn't matter," her boyfriend said. "Because you'll never know."
By God, by God, by God, I'll never touch another's heart again.