The Dried-Up Seahorse

Baker’s Pick
Emily J. Lawrence


Seahorses
Photo Credit: Gaby Av

1.

Rachel Galindo’s mama, when Rae was thirteen, forbid her daughter to wear bikinis, proclaiming, “I did not dedicate you to the Lord for you meet Jesus in ‘ocean underwear.'” Even though all her friends’ mothers allowed their daughters to wear them. They lined the beach in their key lime, sherbet, and polka-dotted bikinis, swimming in the ocean like a league of mermaids.

Rae would whisper to her collection of Kewpie dolls by her bed how she coveted a slim, yet tasteful, bikini the color of cherry Laffy Taffy. Also, she told her Kewpies, her name should be “Mandy.” And she wanted a boyfriend who was smooth and dark like Dove chocolate.

That night, nineteen years later, sitting in the grove of trees on the white sand with the manipulator Sal Hernandez, while the punk-rocking babysitter, Clara, ‘sat her daughter, Rae’s naked toes pulled out the strings of a lost bikini top. It was red velvet, like the cake. The words “Siempre” and “Coca-Cola” were across the breast triangles. She looked at it through salty red eyes and inside her all her middle school yearnings bloomed again.

There was her bikini. And beside her, telling his story of woe and self-fulfillment, was her dark man. You could say that her heart was lost in his Cherry Coke hair, clay skin, and his voice which they could vend at any booth along the beach.

That night she heard the words that killed her. Stuffing the bikini top into the pocket of her Capris, she clutched onto the feeling of hearing them. She drove home, and curled up beside her daughter on the hideaway bed in her sandy clothes. Several nights after that she held the bikini top in her hands and stroked its synthetic threads and thought about the weak man, Sal Hernandez.

2.

Sal Hernandez’s lemon-slice smile, which made the hair on the back of Rae’s neck suspicious, found its way to the open door of her new apartment the day she and her daughter, Miley, moved in. In his hands—lotioned, unlike most men’s—was her television box marked “shoes” in purple crayon. “Cheap movers you’ve hired. Told me to carry this since I was coming up anyway.”

Rae protectively took her box of shoes from the intruder with a curt thank you, nothing less but nothing more.

“Only a pretty lady would have so many shoes.”

The alligator’s teeth shine bright before he takes a bite, her mama’s words ran through her mind, and being recently divorced, Rae’s male-bull crapometer was exhausted. “Yeah.” She was not impressed.

He saw that she was waiting for some justification of his presence. “My name is Sal Hernandez; I used to live here.”

Behind Rae, Miley ran into the hallway in her mother’s yellow sundress and a string of pearls twisted into a diadem. Her skin, like her mother’s, was the color of pork ‘n’ beans. Her eyes, little black raindrops. She didn’t feel safe enough to squeal and laugh like other five-year-old girls, not yet, but she grinned until her ears stood tippy-toe. When she saw the strange man in the doorway, she froze and flitted off the same way she’d come. She was afraid of men. Rae didn’t call back her little one but turned to interrogate Sal with her eyebrows.

“Wants to be like Mama. That’s the difference between boys and girls. I have a son a little older than her,” he said. He was a little older than Rae, nearly forty, though he appeared closer to forty-five. Rae was thirty-two.

As he chatted, almost flirting, Rae thought: here’s the man that burned cigarette holes in the carpet and let water rings form on the ceiling. “I guess so,” she said.

The portly moving men, with an orange couch, interrupted their conversation.

“So anyway,” Sal said, reappearing. “Could you hold my mail here for me for a few weeks? I could pick it up on the weekends?”

3.

Once the audacious but gorgeous man had gone, Rae stirred up a box of macaroni and cheese, the only meal Miley would eat, and the only one Rae could afford. At the table, with steaming plates and glasses of Juicy Juice before them, they yelled “It’s dinnertime!” as loudly and as many times as they wanted.

After dinner they played mermaid in the bathtub. Rae captured a galloping Miley in a towel as soft as bedtime and picked her pajamas out from between couch cushions. However, Miley insisted she sleep in the yellow sundress or she wouldn’t at all.

Swaddled in the cotton-woven dress Rae had bought from an Indian lady vending dresses, sunglasses, watches, and Spirit stones, Miley curled up like a rabbit babe in the hideaway bed they shared. Her mother laid a cupid Kewpie doll in her palm.

“Do you know what a kiss is?” Rae said quietly.

“I shall know once you give one to me,” Miley recited, playing with her fingers.

Pushing back the hair on Miley’s brow, Rae examined her daughter’s forehead. The gash was long since healed but Rae always looked just in case curses were true, just in case the worst mistake of her life might still be there. A little white indention remained; to Rae it seemed more noticeable than to other people.

“Why did we leave Daddy?” Miley asked.

Rae brushed Miley’s forehead with her thumb. Their fingernails were the same color, the color of seahorses. “Because he did the one thing that would ever make me leave him.”

“Is it because of me?”

“Everything I do from now on will be because of you, mija.” She pressed her lips to her daughter’s eyebrow. “That is a kiss.”

4.

Sal came for his mail inconsistently for two months. He would knock on their blue apartment door on a Friday or a Saturday and Miley would run and hide behind the toilet. He may have come on Sundays when they were at church; Rae didn’t know. She was becoming irritated. “How long does it take to fill out a change of address form?” she asked her five-year-old who replied, “Last night I dreamed I was a pony-mermaid.”

One day a letter came for Sal that wasn’t a bill or a credit card offer. It was a little envelope with a full tummy. Inside was something hard and jagged. Curious, Rae held the envelope up to the seashell lamp by the door and stared at the object for several minutes. Then she realized it was a green toy soldier. Flipping the envelope, she saw “Max”—no last name—in the top left corner along with an address for a town down the coast.

The day Sal retrieved this letter, Rae followed him, keeping an eye on his varsity jacket, which wobbled on his Vespa through traffic. What grown man wears a varsity jacket? Rae thought. Sal pulled into a parking lot on a secluded part of the beach, away from the swimmers and their colorful umbrellas. The white sand was naked and free, cropped by a friendly grove of trees. Sal took off his helmet, took the large paper bag he’d been balancing on his lap, and walked into the grove.

Rae silently pulled her Jeep closer. Through the ashen trunks she saw a little navy-colored tent. Sal unzipped it, crouched down and crawled in. Homeless? Rae wondered as she sat in the parking lot. Her mind wove together several sob-stories for him before she drove away. Her heart began to soften like a potato mashed by a fork.

5.

The next two weeks Sal didn’t come for his mail, leaving Rae alone and unsupervised with two little envelopes, each with another object inside. She held them to the light. One, she decided, was a Tech Deck skateboard. The other was easier to discern: a miniature squirt gun. When a third envelope arrived, bursting with a seashell, Rae felt the urgency behind the letters. This little boy, this Max, really wanted his letters to reach Sal. Leaving Miley with Clara, Rae drove to the empty beach. On feet pregnant with nerves, she tiptoed through the grove to the navy tent.

Sal didn’t look as surprised to see her as she’d expected. She stuck out her hand, full of mail, the three letters from Max on top. “I thought these might be important.”

He took them, thanking her, but obviously he didn’t believe it required immediate action.

“Is Max your son?”

“Uh. Yeah. He’s at his grandparents’ right now.”

“He seems to really miss you.”

“Yeah. Well, ever since his mother died… Yeah, he’s a good kid.”

“Why do you live in this tent?” Her tact momentarily slipped.

Sal chuckled softly, looking at the ocean, then turned an eye on her. “Have you ever gone on a trip to find yourself?”

Rae dragged out her answer. “No. I never had time for that. I married directly out of high school and my husband wasn’t the type to… let me do that.” The sudden thought of her ex-husband made her insides cry. “He hosted an all-night eighties radio show. You may have heard of him: Joe ‘The Tornado’ Galindo. I couldn’t even run the blow dryer in the morning or he would scream and cuss and…” She noticed that she was swallowing a lot.

Suddenly Rae realized it wasn’t her insides crying but her outsides. Once this realization hit, Rae unleashed every tear and sob she had in her. She needed a toilet to hide behind. There was not a toilet, but there was Sal Hernandez, the next best thing.

6.

“One night I sent Miley up to tell Joe it was dinnertime. She came downstairs bleeding. He hit her in the forehead with the alarm clock.”

Sal’s nose curled and he spat out a dirty name for her ex-husband that jarred her but she couldn’t debate it. “You were right to leave him.”

Rae tried to see how deep she could bury her feet. She used to do this when she was a kid. That seemed too long ago. “I didn’t leave right away,” she said. “I sent Miley to my mother, who begged me to come, too, but I stayed. He was my husband.” Rae didn’t need a better excuse. She believed in the sanctity of marriage; she wanted to do the good Christian thing. But it was no use.

“What changed your mind? Did he hit you?”

“No.” She smiled. “I missed my daughter. Oh, he apologized at first, then his apology turned into ‘It was an accident.’ How do you accidentally draw blood? When I couldn’t forgive him as much as he thought I should, he became angry, stopped saying he was sorry. I finally left after Miley called me one day to say she missed me. I asked if she wanted to come back home but she began to cry. I told her everything was okay but… she said she was happier staying with grandma.” Red clouds of emotion stung her face.

“The worst part is, I still want to be with him. I want to go back and live like we were. I know I shouldn’t. Sometimes I don’t care that I shouldn’t. It’s what I want. People talk like I’ve had some sort of epiphany but I haven’t learned anything! My therapist—I see a therapist now!—says we can never have a healthy relationship.”

She punched the sand. “I realized that my best friend in the whole world is my five-year-old daughter and yet I keep whining about going back to that, that man who abused her, that, that…”

Sal repeated the dirty name he had said.

“Yeah.”

Sal didn’t put his arm around her as she wept. The cold vinyl sleeve of his varsity jacket didn’t paste to her cheek. Its absence was a clue Rae missed. Not five minutes later, he steered the conversation to himself, to his beloved dead Celaya, and his quest to comfort himself.

7.

Celaya, beautiful as her name, Rae imagined, struck with leukemia at age twenty-nine, Sal’s wife. Nearly a year ago she had died. Sal grieved without stopping and their son, Max, was left motherless. Sal confided this to Rae as her feet wormed down in the sand, white as in an hourglass.

“I was lost. I separated from my body like oil from water and flew off, away, long off up the coast,” he said, sweeping his hands vaguely upward. “I had to go find myself, right? So I packed up, dropped Max off at her parents’, hopped on my Vespa and now… I search.”

Like Peter Pan for his shadow, Rae thought.

“Celaya took care of everything, school fees, clothes shopping, shots. Hey, I was a good father! When she told me she was pregnant, I didn’t complain, I didn’t ask her to get rid of it. I picked up an extra shift, worked hard, brought home the money. I did my duty. I came home and played catch. Bought Christmas. Now that she’s gone… I can’t do both duties.”

Rae sighed. “Being a single parent. It’s hard, so much harder than anyone understands. You live from one box of macaroni and cheese to the next. And those little I-love-yous keep you warm at night though you know the cold is just outside your door, waiting for you; you’re right smack in the middle of it.”

“What do you do?” Sal asked.

Rae chuckled. “Pray. Like the Lord has taught me,” Rae said, and when he asked if it worked, she replied, “It hasn’t stopped my desires.”

“Maybe you pray to the wrong thing.”

“What do you pray to?”

Sal shrugged. “Maps, mirrors, and most nights, waitresses.”

An unbeliever. May the yoke be not uneven, she remembered. She could change that about him. She’d once thought she could change that about Joe. It would be different this time, she promised herself.

“I just don’t know what to do with him anymore.” Sal’s voice was husky with emotion, his face dusky with embarrassment. These were the words that killed her.

Rae place a hand on his knee. “I’ll help. I’ll do whatever you ask me to do.” Oh, she wanted him to need her.

At this point with a woman, Sal would lead her to a dark place, by an ice machine outside a bait shop or a gas station bathroom, even a port-a-potty at the Pier, reach behind her and strip off her bikini top, like the one Rae suddenly pulled out of the beach with her toes, and throw it to the moon, the girl giggling. The last time Rae ever saw Sal she looked him in his weak eyes. “Why not me? All those women but why not me?”

He told her. “Because of your daughter.”

8.

Rae stuffed the bikini top into the pocket of her Capris and walked to the Jeep. Being with the gorgeous dark man reminded her of the Embeth Bridge. As a girl she rode her bike across the bridge to buy candles and Windex for her mother. Not knowing why, Rae had the yearning each time she peddled across the loose boards to shed her clothes and jump naked as a Kewpie doll from the wooden rail into the snow globe blue water and swim. Swimming over rocks, swimming in the coolest water on earth. A mermaid. This desire was most strong when the time of month prevented her from swimming.

One day in the drive-thru of McDonald’s she confessed this to her mother. Instead of a lecture which she expected, her mother nodded. “Yes. Everybody thinks of things like that. That is one of those natural desires we enjoy but must keep dressed up inside us.”

Rae called her mother when she returned from the beach, after she paid Clara and passed a hand over Miley’s sleeping head. Over the phone, she asked, as if she were still belted in the old Toyota Starlet, waiting for her number three, no pickles or onions, “Finding yourself… Going on such a journey of risk isn’t wrong, is it?”

Her mama repeated the question then answered, “Risks are good. Adventure is good, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Rae told her about the gorgeous man and his search.

Afterwards, Mama was pensive. “Stretching yourself and finding yourself are good things. God calls us to do this, mija. But be wise! The heart’s desires can be deceptive. Giving into them, you may lose what you’ve been responsible for all this time.”

9.

One day Rae returned home from her job at the BMV and paid Clara, who was a nice girl despite the safety pins in her ears. Clara paused outside the door and said, “Oh by the way, some guy came by to get his mail?” She possessed the 19-year-old characteristic of turning declarative sentences interrogative.

“Yeah. He used to live here. Did you give it to him?

Clara scratched her cheek. “Uh, yeah, but at first I thought he was your ex, so I kinda slammed the door in his face, told Miley to hide in the bathroom, and picked up that seashell lamp. I was going to beat the shit out of him if he tried to hurt Miley.”

“I appreciate that,” Rae said, amused.

“But he told me the mail was in the magnetic clip on the refrigerator. The name he gave matched the one on the mail, so I gave it to him. He’s a smooth talker. Is he your friend?”

“Well.” Rae twisted like an embarrassed preteen. “He’s not exactly my friend. Thank you, Clara.”

“Yeah, sure.” Clara slung the golden checkered bag higher on her shoulder and walked down the terrace and cement stairs to the parking lot.

When Rae dragged four leaking white trash bags to the dumpster five minutes later she had just missed Clara, arms around Sal, riding off on the back of his yellow Vespa. She didn’t know that night Sal and Clara drove to the Leviathan Bar and Grill, danced to cheap metal music, drank vodka and cherry Coke…

Sal talked about Celaya, got Clara’s blue mascara on his face, led Clara back to the handicap restroom. Rae didn’t know, didn’t want to know! didn’t want to know! that Clara cracked her forehead on the porcelain tank of the toilet, that her palms turned cottage cheese white on the loose, clapping, toilet seat. And that those achy hands held Sal’s head as he vomited into the toilet after they were done.

With his hot hair in her eyes, Clara remembered the way her father held back her hair when she got sick into Wal-Mart bags, or on the white line by the highway, when they drove over the mountains. That is, until one day as she lay home from school with a stomach virus, he said she was old enough to hold her own hair.

Angry, she marched to the bathroom and retched loudly, even screaming, as the puke rushed into the toilet. But, he didn’t come. He yelled at her to shut up, stop being a brat. Then, he turned the TV louder. He was never the same after he lost his job. Never did what she needed him to do and never needed her either.

She whispered all this into Sal’s back as he coughed. “I’ve never done this before,” she said, meaning, have sex with an older man, a man old enough to be her father. She said this knowing that Sal knew it was a lie.

The next day, Sal didn’t call Clara, wouldn’t ever call her. Rae gasped at the ugly swell on Clara’s forehead and gave her a scarf lined with ice. A week later, Clara called her at the office weeping and Rae took the day off. When she arrived home, Clara’s face was dried cement. “I have to go home,” she repeated two or three times as Rae tried to understand what had happened.

Finally, Clara looked at her and said “You should tell that man to get his mail somewhere else.”

“Did he come again today?”

“Yeah,” Clara’s dragon mask face said. “He came.”

Rae asked if something happened and Clara spilled out all that did, right on the brown living room carpet. The dragon mask began to crack. Then she cursed. “Last night I saw that…” she wrenched out several adjectives “jerk spanking some girl on the balcony of Hotel Aquarius.”

“Clara,” Rae said after a long silence. “I think I need to find another babysitter. For your sake!” she added quickly.

Clara nodded and left. Rae began looking for a replacement. All the while, she replayed Clara’s testimony in her head and thought: he may find momentary release with these women but he only shares his pain with me.

10.

After asking a dozen questions about why Clara wasn’t coming back, Miley finally fell asleep with puffy eyes and Rae opened the kitchen window to get a breath of night air. She noticed Sal’s mail in the magnetic clip on the refrigerator. Clara had been too upset to give it to him. Another letter from Max was among the grocery coupons. This time, though, nothing appeared to be in the letter other than the letter itself. Odd, Rae thought. Then, something crunched under her thumb. Very odd.

Rae stood with the little envelope in her hands, wondering what was inside, and decided to make the rice for tomorrow’s breakfast. Steam eventually spouted from the rice cooker and Rae was still standing over it with Max’s letter in her hand. The glue loosened and the envelope flap gently rose. “Oops. Look at that,” Rae said.

She upturned the letter and five tiny, dried seahorses flitted into her palm. Also, a pile of dust that had once been a sixth. Rae felt a warm wave through her body. The seahorses lay on her hand, dead leaves of the sea. She imagined the son of the gorgeous man: a dark little boy with bangs in his eyes and swim trunks exploring the shore. Waiting for his father to return home. This made her very sad.

She wanted Max to come here, come to her house where she could care for him. And his father would be near. Yes, he could move in. They’d all live together. Peter Pan would find his shadow on the wall of Wendy’s house.

Rae returned the seahorses to the envelope. She would tell Sal it was damaged in the post office. Then, she would suggest Max come to visit.

But, Sal probably wouldn’t come for his mail again, Rae realized. He’d be afraid Clara would open the door. Poor Max. He needed his father.

Rae turned out all the lights except the bathroom light, in case Miley woke up and had to pee. She would only be a few minutes, she promised her sleeping daughter as she grabbed the keys. She spoke a prayer for the dead bolt then ran down the cement steps, and drove to the deserted beach in the pouring rain. Sal should come home with her, she thought, and get out of this storm. She pulled into the deserted parking lot, got out, saw Sal’s tent, lightning flashed, she got back inside and drove away.

11.

“Lord, why? Why do I pursue men who use me? Who don’t love me, don’t want to be with me? Even after I obey their orders or forgive their sins? Even after I give all of myself away. All I want is to marry a man who loves his family. Will I ever be healthy?”

12.

Rae encouraged Sal to let Max come see him when he came for his mail the following Saturday, her hand on his arm. He looked at the “damaged” letter instead of Rae’s face. “You could bring him here, he could play with Miley, maybe go to the beach and swim, we could make a day of it.” Sal nodded and Rae set a date, two weekends away. Her heart was jubilant and desperate.

Over the next two weeks she talked Miley into playing with Sal’s son. Her daughter nodded silently, dragging a crayon across her coloring book. Rae still hadn’t found a babysitter. Miley sat under her mother’s desk at the BMV, coloring or playing with Kewpie. After work the last Thursday, they went to the grocery store and splurged on dinner for the upcoming weekend: pulled pork and black beans, peppers, and red onions for fajitas.

At night, with her deflated daughter snoring behind her back, Rae lay on her side, the bikini top in her palms. Her body was remembering how it felt to shop and cook for a family and electricity tickled her nerves. The sound of rain began to creep into the apartment and suddenly she thought of Clara. The ugly gash on her forehead bled all over her mind. Something tugged at her but she quieted it.

I didn’t fire her because she slept with him.

Then, her night turned stormy. The lightning filled her eyeballs, she saw the tent wall, illuminated to point that the navy looked white. Shadows inside. The way they moved made her heart pound and her teeth ache. Rae forced herself to look at the bikini top, only the bikini top, only the hope of being a wife and a family again.

13.

Sal showed up at Rae’s door but this time without a lemon-slice grin. His eyes were blackened and deficient and he wouldn’t look her in the face. In front of him stood Max, just like Rae had pictured him: dark with long black hair. He had a pink spot on his cheek that may have been a scar or a birth mark, she couldn’t tell. Max also looked sad, like a dog who knows it’s entering someone else’s house for a reason.

Hooked to Sal’s arm was a girl, younger than Rae. It was obvious she had smoked too much in her life. Her shirt is too small, Rae thought then realized it was a bikini top. And her hair was too big, frizzy, messy, which she didn’t seem to notice. Rae wondered if those legs, those shadows so sharply defined when the lightning struck, the legs Sal rocked into, belonged to this woman.

She regarded Rae nonchalantly and that’s when Rae realized: the woman was looking at her like she would a babysitter.

“Thanks for watching him,” Sal said and the woman squeezed his arm.

Something kicked on in Rae; a mode, like she was a machine. Like a light switch, a smile flipped on her face. “Oh, no problem! Miley will love having someone to play with.”

Sal scooted Max inside. Rae bent down and said, “Hey there, Max. It’s nice to meet you.”

Max nodded, the way everybody had been nodding around her recently. Pretend. They were humoring her. They were letting her play pretend.

She guided Max down the hall. “Miley’s in the living room with some coloring books.”

Sal kicked at the threshold despondently. “We’ll be back,” he said. So vague.

“Yeah, okay,” Rae said.

Sal and his woman slowly turned and walked away. Rae closed the door and held the cold knob in her hand. What would have happened if Peter Pan left Wendy for one of the mermaids?

Rae turned and saw Sal’s little lost boy staring at her. “Where’s my papa going?”

“Max,” she asked, “do you like macaroni and cheese?”

pencil

Emily J. Lawrence is a bruised paper bag marked “Surprise” sitting in a dollar store. She broke into herself years ago and what she pulled out is what you read in her stories. These can be found in A Capella Zoo, Hawk and Handsaw, Pif, and Cheek Teeth. She’s a fiction reader at A Capella Zoo. Her blog: Buys Paper, Writes on Napkins. Email: emilyjessannlawrence[at]gmail.com

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