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      Still, your lover wears an eye-mask and ear-plugs to bed. Though you know she’d give them up, if only you’d ask. The plugs are for your snoring. She claims the mask keeps out the sun. You can’t help thinking that maybe, in that darkness and after several pain pills, she might mistake you for him.

      You wake before her and study the streaks of blue dye running though her dark hair. More and more each morning, blackbirds swarm in the palm tree outside her window. The sound of crashing surf carries in, and you rise to have a look. Careful not to touch her damaged knee underneath the sheets—that swollen mass that roots you both to this restless bed—you leave without waking her. Strands of blue hair drape down over the mask.

      You open the door only slightly and slip your body around it. The old boards of the hallway’s hardwood floor creak underneath your toes. Then you remember the earplugs and step with the full force of your feet.

      Her living room is a time capsule of a few weeks earlier. A white-board on the door is covered with notes about tests and parties that have already happened. Textbooks lie open on the coffee table—anthropology, chemistry, literature—and leave clues of the ridiculous things you all worried about before the accident: restoration drama, osmosis, Levite marriage. Her potted plants turn dry and brown.

      You look out the living room window. Low-angle sunlight shines off a glassy sea. A small northwest swell has snuck its way in, but hardly looks worth the trouble. Who are you kidding? You haven’t paddled-out since the funeral.

      Every morning, you look out this window, after the sun has woken you but spared your lover. Simon must have stood here on so many mornings—checking the waves and the wind, staring into the sea and the sky with their two different shades of blue, then giving you a call. “What’s your status?” he’d say, standing at this very spot, speaking into the cordless phone that now blinks in the corner with a million words of sympathy. To the north you can see the peak that you always surfed with your best friend Simon. A shallow and gutless wave crumbles its way toward the sand.

*

      Further away and obscured by the haze you can make out the bluff where Simon used to take off and land. When there was too little surf or too much wind, you’d ride along and watch. At first, Simon tried to talk you into hang-gliding.

      “Just try it.” His green nylon cloth rustled in the wind as he expanded composite poles and slipped them through loops.

      “Not happening,” you said. “I’m afraid of heights.”

      “But you surf. You’re way above the ocean floor while surfing. It’s no different than flying.”

      “There’s water in the ocean. With this, there’s nothing below you.”

      “Not nothing. Air. There’s a big difference between nothing and air.”

*

      You lock the bathroom door even as she sleeps. More and more each morning, you’ve taken to stealing the pain pills from her medicine cabinet. Though you know she’d give them up if only you’d ask. Brown bottles of vicodins and percocets line up along the shelves like toy soldiers. As the mirror closes back against the cabinet, it shows your reflection with the long white tablets on your tongue. You swallow them with some water from the tap.

*

      It was on that bluff that you first met her—that high, windy stretch of brown dirt—almost two years ago. The sky was full of the fat clouds with black bases that you’d come to associate with Simon and his gliding. He introduced her as his future wife. The wind whipped blue hair all about her face. From a strap around her neck hung a big black camera. You shook hands.

      “Do you do this also?” she asked.

      “No. I’m not as crazy as he is.” That was true. You were never as crazy or as fearless, in water or in air. And in the end it was on dry land that Simon died, at the hands of someone else’s reckless velocity.

      After a few minutes of steady soaring and wide, arcing turns, Simon and his nylon wings lost altitude. She put one hand up over her eyes like a mask, said, “I can’t look,” and buried her face in your shoulder. The windblown strands of blue hair scratched at your neck. You paused for a second, then placed an arm around her back. Simon’s glider climbed up again and circled right over both your heads.

*

      You walk out the back door. The sky is blue and cloudless. Blackbirds, more than you’ve ever seen along the coast, weigh down the palm fronds.

      From the yards of all the other houses up and down the street, thin ribbons of smoke rise from the smoldering remains of bonfires and burning couches. It must be a Saturday or Sunday morning. Nobody stirs at this hour, on this street. Every other lawn is covered in ash and debris, like a beach community that’s been bombed from the air.

      There’s still a dead spot on the grass where Simon’s van was always parked—one brown square among the green. If you were Simon, you’d be loading up about now. No wind blows in either direction; gliding is out of the question. The waves are not great; it’d be a day for logging, or riding whatever bizarre shape you’d borrowed this week. You’d throw a few boards into the van with your sewn-up wetsuit. On second thought, this might be too late an hour for Simon to leave. This is more like the time he’d pick you up at the apartment you haven’t been to in weeks.

      Now you wonder if he kissed your lover goodbye in the morning before he left. Did she wear that mask when he was in her bed?

*

      After the funeral, there was a gathering at Simon’s family’s place in San Diego. It got late. You drank too much and went out to nap in the car you’d borrowed for the trip. Lying in the passenger seat, you sweated liquor through the upholstery. The first storm of the season sent rain down all over Southern California. Within minutes, the car windows were covered in fog. You couldn’t see who it was when she rapped upon the door. Simon’s girlfriend stood there soaking, balancing on crutches, saying, “Let me in?” You opened the door the rest of the way. Her crutches fell to the wet pavement, and she climbed backwards up on your lap. The dashboard bumped her bad knee once. She said she was on so much medication, it barely hurt. For the first time, you ran your fingers through her black and blue hair.

      What happened then doesn’t make much sense. The anthropology textbook on her coffee table says there’s an innate urge to be close to someone familiar, which explains the ancient custom of marrying a dead brother’s wife. Maybe it was your way of further fucking-up a fucked-up world, like breaking out the windows of a condemned house, just to hear the smashing sound. But most likely, in that borrowed car, underneath the dome light, with fat balloons of rain popping against the glass, you were two people too scared to live without anything below you, and you grabbed whatever was closest on the way down. When it was over, her head lay heavy against your chest. Both of your faces were wet with rain. You used your finger to draw a wave into the water vapor on the window.

*

      You walk over to the iron fence along the cliff and look out to sea. On so many mornings, it was you in that passenger seat, as Simon drove to the beach. Drunken kids swerved home from bars and parties, while his lover slept in her bed. But on that most important morning, you were the one sleeping in. Was there no surf at all that day? Was the wind too good to pass up? Was she carrying that camera on her lap?

      For some reason, you still can’t picture the accident. When you try to imagine the other car making contact, the cab of that fragile van crumbling inward around your old friend and your new lover, the vision turns to nothing but black.

      Now you climb over to the other side of the fence and stand on its bottom rail. You hold on with your hands behind your back and let your head hang straight over the cliff. Even the small waves seem to roar from here. Like the figurehead on a giant earthen ship, you hang there for a moment. Vertigo sets in and it’s hard to tell whether that distant bed of rocks and sand is below or above you. You imagine it getting closer and then turning to a mass of blackness. Then you remember Simon’s rough landing on the bluff, the way his legs compressed as if under a great weight. Knees bumped into shoulders and the brown dust rose up in clouds from under his feet.

*

      Your lover wakes upon your return to the bedroom. The mask hangs about her neck. She says, “Good morning,” too loudly, then fishes the plugs from her ears. The pills take effect, and you feel like you’re floating just a few inches above your body. You climb back into bed, careful of that pain, somewhere down there below the blankets, that you’re not allowed to touch.

      With a loud fluttering, all the blackbirds suddenly fly away as one dark mass, blocking the sunlight through her window for a moment, then letting all of it in. Over the ocean, they rise and fall in the air, and you wonder if it isn’t the start of an off-shore breeze.

      “I don’t like them,” she says of the birds. “It’s like they know something I don’t know.”

      You turn and study the streaks of blue dye running through her dark hair. More and more each morning, you notice them fading to that pale color where darkness has been washed out with chemicals. With a dry throat, you say to your lover, “They know how to fly.”   




Tyler McMahon is the author of the novel How the Mistakes Were Made, coming from St. Martin's Press in early 2011. His
short fiction has appeared in Threepenny Review, Antioch Review, Barrellhouse, and many other journals. Currently, he teaches at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu. More info can be found at tylermcmahon.net. Between Nothing And Air first appeared in The Sycamore Review.
 
 


"Between Nothing and Air" is from a collection of stories I wrote about surfers. I started this story as part of an exercise I do with my students called "Solving for X," which involves writing a story from sentences that all begin with letters of the alphabet, in order. Obviously, many of the sentences have changed, but some have stayed the same. I liked the idea of a beach town--as well as a college town--which didn't live up to the myth of non-stop fun and pleasure that had been attached to it.

 





  


Copyright 2009