I met a girl, I told my mother. She didn’t believe me, because she’s seen me, but hasn’t seen the girl.
We met on a cruise ship, I said, which is not exactly true. I was fishing and we ended up going after the same fish. When she floated to the surface, I thought she was a dead body until she ate my catch right off the hook.
We talked all night about fishing and pollution, about lust and isolation. I explained to her the concept of pockets. She showed me her hair clip, made out of polished lobster claw, and let me stroke the gills on the side of her neck, once. The skin around her gills was thick, rubbery, her teeth closer to that of a shark than my own, which are browned from cigarettes and coffee and wine.
“Meet me right here, tomorrow night,” she told me.
“I don’t know if I can find this spot.”
“I’ll find you.”
“Can I bring you anything?”
“Seafood, perhaps. I’ve always wanted to know what it tastes like cooked.”
I made her frutti di mare. An online recipe, but I got the scallops down by the harbor. I brought her a bowl in my lap as I steered my little 40 HP motor against the waves.
She just smelled it, handed it back, and ordered me to eat it as she watched. Lonely people tend to do what they’re told; I licked the bowl clean.
I visited every day for a month straight. It wasn’t love but it felt damn close. She was always there until she wasn’t. I puttered about in ever-expanding spirals, but she never showed up. Eventually, I started fishing in new coves.
The loneliness came back, but it was a new loneliness. Or, maybe, I had been used to it before, and was now aware of a life shared with another—even just a voice and a rocking boat and fathoms beneath me. The loneliness sat in my chest. It slumped my shoulders and tugged at my eyelids.
I receive my first postcard in the mail.
On the front is her, I’m surprised to see, superimposed over a rolling wave. Her lipstick is as red as the lettering, her hair tastefully blown back. Not ocean windblown, which is salt-slicked and clumpy. VISIT SUNNY FLORIDA reads the caption, which pulls double-duty as her bra.
I get a jealous twinge in my stomach. She posed for this picture. She modeled for it.
On the back she wrote: honey, I know what you’re thinking, but they made an intriguing offer. I cannot exist through your eyes alone. The sea is a lonely place for a girl like me.
I trade my boat for a used car and head down the coast. Why else would she tell me what state she’s in? I drive with the radio off and windows down, postcard tucked in the visor.
Movies make the heart seem like a fickle beast, but mine has always been beat-thump simple.
After a week of travel, I spot her picture on a billboard, identical to the postcard. It’s advertising a freak show, 8 miles off the county highway, exit right before Ken’s Lizards & More.
She’s a Real Man Eater! It promises.
I buy a ticket for the 4 p.m. show.
They cleared out a field and set up a giant above-ground pool for her exhibit. Tents offer other attractions and food, but the men flow into the bleachers around her pool, which tilt forward in the soft ground. All men, I realize.
I find a seat. I’m wearing my best short-sleeved button-down shirt, but all the rest of the men are wearing their best short-sleeved button-down shirts too.
We see her flipper first. I’ve never seen her flipper before. It’s profane. She emerges upright. She looks the same, outside of the waterproof lipstick she’s taken to wearing. I mean, she looks no different than she has living in my mind, my fantasies, my memories.
She swirls and spins and strokes to a soundtrack of the heavy breathing in the stands. She starts to sing, but I know her real voice, which is nothing like her singing voice. I just want to talk to her.
Men start to rise and I must rise to see her. They begin to undress and make their way towards the pool, clattering down the aluminum with forceful steps. They leave their clothes behind like the Lord took them back to his Kingdom.
An eager man climbs into the pool and she pounces, pulling him below the surface. The men stop to hoot and holler. I can feel the sick in my throat, but I watch all the same. She brings him back to the surface and shows him off. The man, with hair in his eyes, sputters and splashes. They jeer his poor attempts to escape.
Then she makes eye contact with me. I’m the only one with my clothes still on; I’ve never taken my clothes off in the company of another, let alone a crowd. Her grip tightens around the man’s throat. She pushes him underwater and looks away. The drowning is businesslike. The crowd boos.
Now I run the freak show. I advertise and recruit, although the men need little persuasion. They see me running the show, how ugly I am, and assume they can take my spot.
At the end of the night, I sleep on the diving board above the water. We added it for men who like to cannonball to their own demise. She sleeps in a shallow bed, water for a blanket. She could pull me into the water at any time. It’s not love, but when I imagine her hands around my throat down at the bottom of the pool where no one can hear me scream, my heart beat-thumps all the same.
Alex Juffer is a graduate of the MFA program at Southern Illinois University. Recently, they have worked at Southern New Hampshire University, the Loft Literary Center, and the University of Minnesota, teaching literature, creative writing, and public speaking. Their work has been previously published in Epoch, Cleaver, Maudlin House and more.
Image: “Tickets to the Freak Show” by Robert S. Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0