When Nina was born her father told her mother, It’s a boy! as a joke. Shortly thereafter her mother passed out, and dreamed for minutes of raising a boy. She felt relief at expelling the thing, then sudden loss of consciousness, then dreams. When she came to Nina’s father said Patty, it’s a girl, and Patty frowned and said, Oh but she was such a darling little boy.
Nina and Patty are at a barbecue at a mansion, hosted by one of Patty’s oldest friends. Several Australians are making jokes about meat. Patty laughs openly, and her teeth are pearly gray, like the abalone shell earrings she wears to this and every party.
It’s the most dangerous shellfish to harvest, Patty had explained several times. The water is cold and deep, and they dive without oxygen. She would point to her chest, her lungs. Oxygen! One requires it for breathing, she’d say.
Nina recently read a story in school about men who dive for giant clams. They hold their breath for minutes at a time. They reach their arms out for giant pearls, and are sometimes trapped by a clam clamping down. This seems a more likely candidate for most dangerous shellfish for which to fish, but Nina considers that the method outlined in her reading may be outdated. She pictures her mother with giant clam shell earrings, head dropped to the ground, earlobes stretched translucent like Silly Putty over the mouth of a glass, tripping over her long dress, flitting her hands in exasperation.
In the master bathroom Nina smells all the soaps. She empties a pouch of bath salts into the toilet and watches the pink granules bleed. She pinches her cheeks in the mirror, practices looking interested and then somewhat insincere. When Nina’s youngest brother was born he waited several seconds to breathe, and in the first picture his face is a blue only just deeper than the blanket in which he is wrapped. Nina is going for that deeper-bluish thing, an ever-so something blending-in. Her brothers are not at this party, because this is what Patty calls Lady Day. Lady Day calls for lady parts, Nina says to the girl in the mirror.
Across the street from the mansion, at the edge of the cliff, Nina stares down at the soft shapes of nude men sunbathing on the beach. She left her glasses in the car, in order to appear more mature, and so she has a hard time making out faces; they are human-like shapes of varying shades of tan, with splotches of hair at the head and crotch. Nina has seen two nude men before: her father, by accident, in the shower; the young actor in Europa, Europa in her accelerated English class. She had needed a signed permission slip from home, clearance to watch R rated films. In E,E the character is Jewish, passing for Nazi until his Nazi girlfriend sees his dong. Nina is unsure what it was about the dong that gave him away, but she accepts that there are some thing she will not know until she no longer needs permission slips, or until her older brother fills her in, but lately he is being secret and strange and Nina is making efforts not to trouble him. She believes lately will last for six, seven weeks.
Spying on the homos? a voice behind her says. Nina closes her eyes and braces for a moment before turning around. She has a great knack for picturing disaster: a fist brought down upon the back of her head, a heavy boot planted in the middle of her back, her body sailing over the edge and landing on the sand below. Her mother tripping up and down the road looking for her, knocking on the door of every mansion on the cliff, until a man with a thin, waxy mustache calls from a balcony: You might investigate that smear of child on the beach!
In front of her, after she has turned around, is an old woman with a wide-brimmed hat and a small poodle at the end of a leather lead.
They’re all homos, the old woman says.
Nina nods with concern and says Yes, and it’s such a beautiful day.
Elisabeth Geier is originally from California, lived in Chicago for many years, and recently graduated from the MFA program at the University of Montana. Right now she lives on a small farm in Oregon, where she tends to a llama and several goats.