h. l. nelson
When the slits open on my neck, at first it doesn’t feel any different than taking a normal breath, like I’ve been breathing this way my whole life. I’m standing in my bathroom after a shower, inhaling the escaped tub-steam, toweling my hair, and thinking about the argument my girlfriend Lindsey and I just had. I’d showered to calm down, relishing the heat and reassuring pat of droplets on my skin. She’d threatened to leave again, and that panicky feeling had taken over. Heartbeat like a drum circle, the weight of gravity a whale on my chest, ragged breaths like I’d been running since we met.
Sometimes she screams like she wants to be heard by the whole world, smacks my cheeks and arms, and one time, she smashed the guitar my dad gave me before he died. This anger comes from her black hole, so I don’t get mad. It sucks in everything until there’s nothing left. No light, no warmth. But I let her do these things to me because I love her, because I want her to let it all out.
I can’t bear the thought of her leaving. When I was eight, my mom left. Just thinking about Lindsey leaving too makes my throat close down small. I can’t breathe with her here or with her gone. I don’t know what to do. Leaning my arms on the counter and looking in the mirror, I see my steamed-over face.
I tell myself Lindsey is not that bad. “She could be worse,” I tell the foggy face in the mirror. I decide to apologize and hang my towel on the hook.
That’s when I feel skin unfolding on my neck. Like someone is opening several tiny potted meat lids. After breathing through these new openings for a moment, my brain registers that my nose has stopped working. My intellect kicks in. Inhaling through the slits is like eating through my bellybutton. I have to have water. Now. But what water? I have no idea. I’ve only been a land-dwelling being. Water’s for baths and showers, pools, for beach vacations and summer sprinklers with my friends.
I gasp and flail, call “Lindsey!” then this new biological imperative takes over and I pop in the sink stopper, fill the sink, and plunge in my head and neck until my nose touches the bottom. The slits suck in the city water, and somehow I don’t drown. I decide they’re gills. I remember learning in 7th grade science how fish are ectotherms, how their survival is dependent on their environment.
I’ve never been able to open my eyes underwater, but now I do. It’s wonderful, the way my hair strands’ shadows almost shimmer, undulating with the water’s slight movement. I move my head and the shadows dance.
This water is warm. It’s quiet. I still myself and listen to my heartbeat. The lub-dub is my sonal signature. I am unequaled in this sink.
When Lindsey trudges into the bathroom she screams, “What the hell!” while trying to pull my head out of the water. I gurgle, “Nobe, I canb’t beb outb ob waterb nowb!” I’m pretty sure she doesn’t understand what I say because then I hear her through the water on her cell saying, “Yes, I’d like to report an emergency. My boyfriend is trying to drown himself.”
I yank my head out and try to gather air into my old lungs while yelling, “No, hang up! This isn’t what it looks like!” before I have to drop my head back into the water.
It becomes clear that we won’t be able to communicate the way we always have. So I pull my head out again and wheeze at Lindsey to get me a notepad and pen. When she brings them, I blindly write, my arms on the counter, Grew gills on neck. Must stay in water. We can make it work, and push the notepad her way. She’s had it up to her own neck with me, I know. But I don’t want this gills thing to be the end of us.
I can’t see her reaction, but I motion for the notepad again, and write, Have idea. Put Gilligan in a glass and bring me his cleaned bowl, sealant, and that 3’ stretchy rubber w/ 6” hole cut out middle.
Through the water I hear her say, “Are you kidding me?” I write, No. Please. I have to breathe.
She stomps off, then after a while comes back with the things.
My gills are screaming for air by the time I bend over and pop my head in the fish bowl. Displaced water sloshes out, but then I can breathe again. She glues the rubber onto the bowl and seals the edges around my neck. I’ll probably get a bad rash, but I’d rather that than die of suffocation.
Once I’m sure the sealant is dry, I slowly stand, holding the bowl steady. It’s unwieldy. Lindsey looks at me like I’ve grown two heads. I burble, “Comb hereb, babeb,” and try to pull her into my arms. She flinches and pulls away. It’s then I wonder how we will kiss. She marches into the bedroom and shuts the door. I decide to give her some time. This thing is hard for both of us.
I walk to the kitchen and see poor Gilligan in a short glass on the counter. Feeling bad for him, I sprinkle some food in the glass. He doesn’t eat any, so I know he’s upset. I lean down and say, “Meb toob, Gillb. Meb toob.” He probably doesn’t hear me, through two glass barriers and all the water. Shaking my head and slopping the water from side to side, I wonder how Gilligan does it, day in, day out. Tomorrow, I’ll buy him a new bowl.
My stomach grumbles. Looking in the fridge at the cold cuts, cheese, grapes, I realize I have no idea how I’m going to eat. I lose my appetite and decide to go to bed. At the bedroom door, I turn the knob and it’s locked. I rap on the door and speak through it, “Heyb babeb, comeb onb andb openb upb.” I wait for a response, but there’s none. I let it go and head toward the couch.
I’m unable to get comfortable with the fish bowl on my head. Even sitting up in the recliner is uncomfortable. The water drowns out the fridge’s click, the living room fan’s clack, all the constant electric hum. While sitting there, I remember a conversation Lindsey and I had once. We were talking about emotions. She’d said, “I think humans and animals are hungry, all the time. A great, gnawing hunger for love and affection over anything.” I’d said, “Over anything at all? What about food? What about air? We have to eat and breathe.” She’d just glared at me like she does. I pulled her in for a hug, stroked her hair and said, “I’m sorry. I know what you mean.” I think about this for a long time. Eventually I fall asleep.
Lindsey picks me up out of my fish bowl and holds me over the toilet, a sinister grin spread across her face. Then she throws me into the frigid water and I’m swirling, swirling . . . I feel myself freezing before I’m even pulled into the toilet’s dark recesses. I wake up with a start, thinking my face and head would have a cold sweat if they weren’t already in water.
It’s 4a.m., but I try the bedroom door again. This time it opens, and I know she isn’t upset anymore. I undress and slide into bed, press against her, feel her heat on my flesh, trying to keep the bowl tilted as far on my side as possible. It’s awkward, but I still feel myself getting hard. Even with gills, I’m still a man.
I can’t kiss her body awake, but I softly rub the skin on her arms, the dip between her shoulder blades, the curve of her throat. She rolls over, but her eyes are shut tight so she won’t see the bowl. I don’t mind. I’m past the point of caring. Then she sits up. Uh oh. I know what she wants. I’m going to give it my best shot.
She climbs on top of me and slides down. I’m lying on my back and the bowl is very uncomfortable, but at least it sinks into the bed somewhat. Then she starts doing that hip thing. I love it, but the sensation of the back of my head hitting the inside of the bowl, the water jostling around, makes me panic. I jerk my head up and almost collide the bowl with her head, catching it right before impact.
“I’mb sorryb babeb. Giveb meb justb ab secondb, okb?”
She nods, but I can tell she’s exasperated. She didn’t get off. Dammit.
I have an idea, and run to the bathroom, filling up the tub enough to cover my head. I light the candle she has in there, then come back and pull her to the bath. I bend over, take the bowl off my head. The sealant rips off some of my skin, but I don’t care. I submerge myself in the tub and motion her in.
She gets in and straddles me like she either can’t wait or she’s pissed. For half a minute she bobs up and down, the tub water slapping in waves back and forth, back and forth. I don’t even care that on the back strokes, the water uncovers my gills.
She stops. Then I hear her loud and clear through the water, “Dammit. The water keeps going in my vag. It’s freaking me out. I can’t fucking do this.”
“Nob nob, don’tb stopb.”
“Look, I want a boyfriend, not a goddamn fish!” She pushes herself up and out of the tub.
With her back to the candlelight, her face is in shadow. What I can see of it through the water and dim light looks foreign to me, as if I haven’t been sleeping and living with this girl for five months. This angry girl. I feel for sure she would hold my head down in the water until I stopped thrashing, if I didn’t have gills. I hope she doesn’t break my fish bowl.
When she fumes out, I stay in the bathtub. I stay there all night.
The next morning, I awaken with patchy scales all over my body. My thoughts start to repeat themselves, words take longer to form. I randomly open and close my mouth.
It’s hard to climb out of the tub. My body is shrinking. I lope to the kitchen, lope back, dump Gilligan in the bath. With great difficulty, I climb back in, circle around the tub. I am weightless. I stay here for what seems like days while Gilligan’s fins tickle my shins, now completely covered in scales. I look down at my changing toes.
Soon, I won’t have fingers to call anyone, to write anything, to touch Lindsey. I will only swim and breathe.
“She’ll be back soon,” I say to Gill and myself. “I’m sure she will.”
I think small now. Gill is friend. But sad. Must think think. A face. A name. Is Linn-see. I keep swim. She come me.
I see her. At high. She unplug. Why Linn-see? Gill swim and swim. I swim and swim. But black hole pull.
H. L. NELSON is head of Cease, Cows literary magazine and Associate Editor of Qu literary journal. Her publication credits include Writer’s Digest, PANK, Hobart, Connotation Press, Metazen, Bartleby Snopes, Thrice Fiction, etc. Her poem “Absolution” was nominated for the 2013 Best of the Net. She is editing an anthology, which includes stories by Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, Lindsay Hunter, and other exceptional women writers. Her web site is hlnelson.com.