Air Kisses Damon Shaw
My lungs ache, full of water. Within the ache is a sparkling burn that I love already. I need it like I needed air.
I pull my head from the waves. The beach hisses, tinny and sharp. Water streams from my nose and the acrid tang of traffic stings my nostrils.
I want to run up the pebbles in my sopping jeans, oh God, find a café and have something normal. Breakfast. Full English. But I can’t leave the sea. My eyes bubble and sting. With a gasp that sends lukewarm seawater down my chest, I realize I am crying air. Gas tears pop and mix with the traffic smells.
I need to breathe. I duck under again. Something flickers over my eyes, and the turquoise water focuses. Every stone distinct, the gravel sea bed slopes underneath me, from turbulent white foam to depths tiger-striped by the shadows of incoming swell. I pull cool water into my lungs, loving the burn, feeling tiny air tears detach and float up to the surface. I can’t leave the sea. Who would have thought one kiss could cost so much?
A shoal of silver fish shivers through the cloud of my hair. They brush my skin, ice cold, like tiny bells. My heaving chest slows. I breathe the sea and the panic fades.
I woke hours ago, naked, tumbling in the breakers. I thrashed and choked until the sun rose, when I saw my jeans rolling in the surf. But even after I had snugged the wet denim around my hips, I still didn’t dare get help. I’m torn. Sharing this nightmare with someone else and finding it real, embedded in normality, would break me.
But this time when I surface, a dog-walker has waded thigh deep into the sea towards me. His terrier yaps on the dry shingle. The man’s face is creased with worry. “You all right?” he asks. “Need help?”
I shake my head, nod and shake my head again. My throat is full of water.
“Thought you was dead,” the man says. He rubs his chest and winces. “Got my wallet wet.”
This is my chance to beg for help. but I can’t speak anymore. Can I mime without scaring him away? He is watching me with obvious mistrust already.
Instead, I nod and grin. He doesn’t look convinced, so I mime swimming and try to look like an eccentric health freak on their normal morning, fully-clothed lap of the bay. The need to breathe builds in my chest.
“Hmm.” The man shakes his head. He wades out of the water and strips off his wet socks, glaring at me. His terrier bounces and yips at his side.
I turn and make a show of diving into the water and swimming in a sporty way, faking lifting my head to take breaths. What can I do? Where can I go?
I swim into the shadows under the pier. Slanted blades of sunlight slice between the planks. This is where we kissed last night. This is where I stumbled upon you, stretched out on the shingle, lithe and sleek. Were you dead? No, your chest rose, held, and fell on a sigh. Shadows pooled, defining the spilled hollows of your ribs, your hips, your long thighs. Taut as a seal, knotted like seaweed, the muscled length of you pulled me down. Two minutes earlier, I had left my hotel room, looking forward to a night out in the seafront bars. Two minutes later, your hips were hard against mine, the seafront forgotten for lust.
In between was the kiss. I stole it. I couldn’t resist. Your lips were soft, and hard, and cool. They tasted of salt. I’m sorry.
There’s a big, white, plastic bottle floating near me. Could I fill it with water and get back to my hotel, nonchalantly swigging and drooling as I go? But what could I do there? I would have to fill a bath, quick. Can I breathe fresh water? Panic overtakes me again. I push away from the wooden post and let the waves lift me. Lift and drop. Duck under to breathe. Face the shore.
I haven’t looked at the horizon yet. It has been lurking behind me. I spin slowly and it slides into sight, chopped by the pier supports, but wide, unmoving and utterly terrifying. Blue sky shades to silver, and there is the no-line, the nothing between, and then the shifting planes of the sea. The nothing between is too thin a line to walk. I teeter, my bare, sea-wrinkled feet balanced on its blade. I will have to fall one way or the other.
I want my job and sitcoms and drinks in the theatre bar, and coffee and nightclubs. I want holidays in exotic but comfortably normal places. Inland.
But the sea calls. There are gulfs where the earth has no hold. There are blue shadows and blankets of rippling fish, where distant boat engines chop whale song into staggered stanzas of loss.
I drift from under the pier, and slip under the skin of the water. I stretch and pull, feeling muscles pop in my shoulders. The seabed flows beneath me. Seaweed darkens the stones as I slide deeper. It brushes my ankle and I freeze, shoulders clamped near my ears. What am I doing? I coast to a stop, and hang there, teetering…
And then I tip, fall over the far side of the horizon to where the water shades into the clearest blue. I swim onwards, further out. Bladderwrack turns to black kelp beneath me, and my skin thrills as I slide into a shelf of colder water. I’m coming. Perhaps I’ll meet you in the void between the surface and the seabed. Perhaps your arms will wrap me from behind. Perhaps we will kiss again, and follow deepening sunbeams into a cobalt twilight, while above, cupped in the dry palms of cruise ships, tourists dream and almost dare, but never jump.
Previously published in The Touch of the Sea Anthology, Lethe Press, 9th May 2012. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
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