The dolphin was waiting for the man in the shallows because he couldn’t stay afloat and fuck her at the same time. No tail at all, poor thing. But at least he came alone. Her last dolphin boyfriend would bring a friend with him to smack her around and bite at her nose, even though she would have gotten herself into position just fine on her own. And she liked that the man had hands, two tender bouquets of pink coral he coasted over her everywhere. Best was how he’d talk: about what “book” he’d read that day or a funny joke like do dolphins do anything by accident, or how he’d been imagining all day what he was going to do to her with those wily hands. Her belly got warm then. Tonight, though, he confessed that when he visited, he usually told his wife he was going someplace that made her mad – to the “bar” again, to his brother’s “basement” for “poker” – so she’d think he was telling the truth. The dolphin didn’t much like hearing him mention his wife. Even so, she rolled onto her side and made room for him in the wet sand next to her.
The man put his mouth on her neck, like a suckerfish hitching a ride on a turtle over and over, and pushed down his water clothes. He pressed himself along her underside, his feet crabbing at her tail to hold her close. She thought maybe he was inside her now, so she cooed and whistled to keep him going, to keep hands sweeping over her, a swarm of gentle krill.
His breath was coming fast, a trout pulled aboard a rowboat, when the dolphin heard a voice on the shore. “Baby,” the voice said. “What are you doing?”
The man must not have heard, but the dolphin opened her eyes. The woman was a tiny creature, no bigger than the kids who rode her during the day, with her pale hair in walrus tusks like the littlest girls. Her mouth was a fishhook; this must be the man’s wife.
“Seriously,” she said, calling out louder. “What the fuck?” The woman’s tiny, powerless hands jittered at her sides as if they could swim her away in the air.
The dolphin could have pushed him off her then, just wriggled away and back out to the deep to leave them alone. Instead, she exposed her long throat to the man’s mouth and beat the sand hard with her tail. But then the man moved faster, and he called her “baby” just like the wife had said, and at once the dolphin could picture them together, the man mounting the woman from behind, one hand pushing her shoulder forward and the other pulling the woman’s silly fishtail hair back for leverage.
The man made a drowning face and crumpled around her. The dolphin rolled onto her back, releasing him into a small splash.
The woman called out what must be the man’s name, and this time he heard her. Still facing the dolphin, his eyes closed hard, his mouth a flat line. When he finally turned toward her, the woman walked away.
The dolphin knew the woman had a name, because the man was always saying it, saying it, in a way the dolphin knew meant he’d never leave her. The woman had hands, hands that right now were probably stones meant for his face, but this morning, and probably again soon, they had touched him back in places the dolphin couldn’t. She had lost him to that woman’s skinny arms and strange hair and her words words words and the dolphin couldn’t even ask him to stay.
The man covered himself back up and slouched onto the beach without saying good bye. The dolphin stayed where she was for a long time, looking up at the sky and imagining she could feel the moon pulling her upward, out of the water. She thought about what to have for dinner, and the bulls waiting for her back home, and about why it mattered if the man went home to sleep inside a dry grotto with the woman. What would she do, anyway, if the man lived in her water with her, all the time swimming around so deliberately with those hopeless legs? She’d have to keep him from breathing in any water and find him a place to rest and worry about him looking at her sisters. She’d be responsible if a shark ate him. Worst, she would never again be able to swim out too far, where the water was best, without worrying about how he was.
Jennifer A. Howard lives in Michigan’s upper peninsula and is the editor of Passages North.