Sea Life

by Bonnie ZoBell

The motel room door is wide open, the beach only yards away. Just inside Sean tries to chill on a yellow plaid chair where wet bathing suits have dried and whisky has spilled, where people have had sit-down sex, legs entangled in the wooden arms rests. He wants to focus on the booming of the ocean, but his hangover magnifies a dread already lurking. Early Monday morning, tomorrow, is his first in a line of interviews for a job he doesn't want.

He wishes he could be as laid back about everything as his buddy Kyle, who lies on an unmade bed across the room in front of the TV. Above Kyle, a chipped oil of King Neptune gazes fearlessly into the unknown, his trident in one hand, his conch in the other, announcing young sailors crossing the equator for the first time, or whatever line they may be crossing.

Sean's head throbs not only from last night's Ecstasy, but from the nameless infinity he faces now that he's spent four years getting A's in classes he didn't like for a degree he wasn't sure was his idea and has ended up with a girlfriend who wants to buy matching dinnerware.

"Let's go, honey," Kyle's honey, Tina, says, gliding out of the bathroom, blushing in a string bikini and heading straight out the door. Kyle shoots from the bed, his grin going frisky.

"Wowza!" he calls over his shoulder as he follows his girl out into the parking lot.

Sean can't help laughing at his buddy. "Yowza!" he calls back.

"Wait up," Kyle tells him.

"We will."

Tina smiles as they cross the parking lot to the back of Kyle's father's 4 x 4 where they'll do the deed. On Friday before they left for the weekend, Sean told Kyle, "We have to take your dad's truck, man. The license frames." The frames say "Pacific Beach," proof the truck is from the coast, making it tougher for local surfers to peg them as outsiders. This way the couples won't return from the waves to find "wankers" spray-painted on their vehicle, their tires slashed, the windshield shattered. Though they all live inland, each has a mandatory surfboard, angled against the motel room wall in various colors and shapes, like a line-up of crayons.

"Sean?" Iylette calls from the bathroom. Suddenly she's furiously sweeping the joint.

"Who cleans on vacation?" he asks her. The Ecstasy has almost worn off, though his brain still hurts, and he's got that insatiable thirst that comes afterward.

Pouty, Iylette brushes up around his feet.

No matter how much metal Iylette has pierced through her skin—her brows, her nose, her belly—he likes the soft hairs at the back of her slender neck and until recently the comfort she could make him feel. All weekend she's plied him with homemade banana nut bread, massages, and coy smiles. It's not comfort he's yearning for, though, but signs of life. Something might die inside if he can't see beyond the habit of life, if he can't see some kind of shimmer out there.

Locals consider their group "Surf Kooks" who don't know their asses from the Pacific Ocean. It's far worse being from North Park, fifteen miles east, than Kansas City. Both hail from land-locked states of mind, but the pasty inlanders are expected to have at least a clue about surf etiquette, though none of the students has time. Yesterday Iylette lost her board, bonking a surfer on the head. "Why don'tcha go make me a batch of cookies?" he shouted, following her. Today the couples have decided it's safer to at least start out at the beach together.

"You don't have to do this," Sean says, as Iylette sweeps into table legs, spilling glasses.

"Somebody's got to take care of things."

"I told you, it's my fault, not yours. I don't know what I want, and until I figure it out, I don't think it's a good idea if we're quite so . . . serious."

Her body stiffens and her cute little lips stick out. He watches her rifle through his clothes, straightening, always straightening. Whatever.

At first Iylette's pierced tongue and the two-inch plugs lodged into the lobes of her ears made her seem like a soul mate, a person who yearned for an edgy peninsula of a life, still vaguely attached to the mainland, but dexterous enough to transcend it. Now he knows everything about her pierced little boy nipples that so intrigued him at first, how to fondle the stud in her clit enough to grow huge and eager, and he doesn't think they want the same things.

"Relax," he says, patting the mattress beside him. It's not that he doesn't like her. Last night he saw Iylette talking to some guy from another motel room. He wasn't happy. She glares at him from under the pierced gold hoops of her eyebrows, then throws herself down next to him so close his body slumps with the weight of her. Her feet perch on his lap. Part of him would like to rub them like he always has, but he's afraid of encouraging her. He hopes Kyle gets back soon.

Waves boom and plunder so close there are droplets in the air, a sliver of bliss—the ocean. No parents. No pressure. Freedom.

Or at least the elements of bliss are here. Doom laps at his little corner of paradise with tomorrow morning's interview. Once he gets a job, what matters to him will be irrelevant. He will work the next 60 years of his life, the next 21,900 days, the next 31,536,000 minutes, driving bleak freeways, wearing stiff clothes.

They turn to the TV, which has been watching them all morning, focus on the news woman who wears a high-fashion blue suit and a complicated blond hairdo even though what she's discussing is the surf. Smiling, she stares desperately off camera, trying to see the teleprompter. This seems to happen to all adults—they only say what others have written for them. The woman's eyes are startled, surrounded by tentacle-like lashes of stiffened mascara. Something poofy and frightening has happened to her lips that has caused them to swell and look like female genitalia.

Sean can't quite close his mouth, mesmerized. "You think she's ever seen a wave?"

He puts his arm around Iylette's hips, a good fit after all this time. They shake their heads together as if they are watching a new mammal at the zoo. For the moment they are simpatico.

There's a rap on the open door, and they turn to see a fresh-faced girl their age with a sun-streaked ponytail standing in the doorway with a maid's cart. "You ready for some cleaning?" she asks, her freckles starfish shaped against one of the sunny panes of her face. "I'm Cathy."

Sean thinks she's cute, especially when steps inside to see the day's surf report.

"Wow!" she says, ogling the on-camera ocean, her brusque smile broadening at the sight. "They're breaking shoulder-high. They were only two feet at 5:00 a.m."

Iylette stiffens on his lap. Sean doesn't want to care how she feels.

"5:00 a.m.?" he asks. He revels at Cathy's pleasure with water, notices too late he's dropped his arm from Iylette's waist, something he will pay for. Immediately she stalks across the room, and snatches up more bathing suits and bottles around the place.

"I surf every morning before work," Cathy says. "They let me make up the time in the evening." She smiles right back at him, healthy brown arms cross over her chest.

He allows himself to imagine it: surf, work, water. Whenever he likes.

Cathy's mop falls over, and he stands to pick it up for her. He can't help noticing how her skin glows, how strong and hard her body is, the salt smell of her silky hair.

"We don't need you!" Iylette bellows, her broom handle perilously close to the girl.

"Iylette," he says. He grabs her.

"It's cool," Cathy says. "One less room."

As Iylette throws the broom at his feet, frantically wipes down counters, the maid cart rumbles and squeaks away.

And then, thank god, first Kyle and then Tina bustles back into the room. Kyle hoots, "Surf's epic out there, man! Let's go!"

Sean jolts, happy to hear sounds of life from his buddy while Iylette snaps shut the hollow bathroom door as she barricades herself inside.

The Pacific Ocean heaves and hisses outside . Sean, Kyle, and Tina gather their equipment and take off running. Sean glimpses gulls flying to the shoreline as well. When he reaches the beach, his toes grab fine white sand and kick out wisps behind him. Sandpipers skitter in small packs. Kids body womp on boogie boards.

Then he's off into the real stuff, the soup, the depths, whoosh. He throws his board on the glass, his body on top, one shoulder over the other, paddling and thrusting into deeper waters.

The three stay together at first, try to blend in so they won't get vibed by locals. Heedful of wave rights, they avoid collision with other surfers by propelling themselves around instead of through desirable breaching waves.

No matter how hard they're trying, though, it's difficult not to notice that the serious surfers—the real surfers—all wear solid black board shorts, not striped or purple. The crayon-colored boards also give Sean and his buddies away. No wonder the slimy guy at the surf store gave him such a discount on the turquoise board. Every surfboard ridden by a local is white.

He wrestles through white water, flings himself over the falls, moves out to one edge. Salt water gulps up his nose and his head starts to clear. The sun feels good on his back.

He monitors the others off in the distance. Kyle rides a wave in. Then Tina. Cautiously, Sean catches a wave, too, but he hasn't fully enough assessed the boneyard, the area where the waves break, and he winds up right in the path of an advanced surfer who's forced to cut out of the wave he thinks he's conquered.

"Chicken or beef?" the surfer shouts, far too close to Sean for comfort.

Sean has been yelled at enough to know he's being given an ultimatum: He can either fight over the waves, "beef," or skulk out of the way, "chicken." Sean quickly skulks. He'd doesn't need a local board shot into his gut.

He pushes farther out to sea, not caring where he's going as long as it's away, floating, pitching this way and that in the big black pool. When he's reached a comfortable point of isolation, he retches and his hangover immediately dissipates.

He rises and falls, drifts to an even less populated area. The locals surf by the sand bars where the waves are better. It's not just the waves Sean has come for, though, but something purer, something in nature. He allows himself to slip aimlessly away into whatever it is.

Whole communities of beings go about their business underneath him—schools of mackerel head north. Even with the seaweed, he can see gills, tails, eyeballs peeking out of kelp paddies, hiding from the terns and pelicans that swoop down and gulp them. A diaphanous jelly fish floats like a see-through parachute. Millions of anchovies, sardines, grunion—bait food—shimmering everywhere.

He allows his vision to blur on a droplet or a fish, prisms of sunlight turning pink and green and blue. Everything is a little too quiet.

A dude on a long board floats by, skin a radiant gold that comes from living in the water and on the beach, not like skin from North Park. The surfer's hair is flaxen and bushy from salt water. Heavy white cream coats his nose and lips, but you can still see thick red skin peeling underneath, freckles forever imprinted. He nods pleasantly, which makes Sean feel lucky.

Until he sees the fin knifing right at him.

His eyes automatically focus, and Sean screams.

His feet leap to the top of his board from where they've been straddling over the sides. He's let himself go so far inside himself that it's hard to come back. He knows about sharks showing up now and then in warm waters.

He screams again. It's involuntary, nothing he'd ever want anyone else to hear, not locals or inlanders. But who hasn't seen the bits in the news about those ravaging jaws, the love of the kill, the ability to smell even a single drop of blood, the five rows of teeth ready to mangle, shred, and rip somebody's leg off? Who hasn't seen the news shorts about people who have lost legs? The girl surfer who lost her whole arm not two years earlier? Whole human bodies being dragged out into the deep for a private meal, never to be seen again?

Punch it in the nose. That's what you're supposed to do. Punch the shark in the nose to disorient it. Sure . . .

His buddies, inland, see it, too. Tina screams. A few other kooks abandon bright-colored boards, make a small exodus from the water. Jaws. The majority who stay put, their calves still dangling at the sides of their surfboards, can't have seen the Discovery shows Sean has, the monsters with the agitating jaws, throwing themselves aboard boats, swimming so close to shore they can grab swimmers' ankles. His heart pounds and he shrieks again in sheer horror.

Even Kyle. Even Kyle screams, holding his board in front of him as he runs backwards to shore. And that's when Sean starts to notice the locals laughing. Guffawing. Whistling. Gloating.

Not until later will he remember that only his group and the other kooks did the shrieking. Those who stay in the water, those in black trunks on white boards, position themselves for more rides in the surf now that the waters have been temporarily cleared.

Despite the terror, somehow Sean's board has turned around so that he's pointed out to sea. His neck and ankles are as alabaster as the other kooks' now standing on dry land, but he is too far from shore to effectively flee. He tries amid it all to keep his feet up.

Suddenly there are fins everywhere. A nightmare. Godzilla meets King Kong. Fleetingly, Sean thinks that there are worse things than living inland. What's a little boredom?

"Hey, you weenie!" It's the surfer dude, the one on the long board who floated by so nonchalantly earlier. He's shouting at Sean, laughing at the same time. "They're not sharks!"

The dude throws back his head like it's the funniest joke he's heard in a long time, and Sean feels just like that, a weenie.

"Whaddya from the sticks or something?" The guy starts coughing to catch his breath. "We don't want to have to rescue you."

Sean jerks his head, cool as he can. His headache may have evaporated, but he's going to puke again. His arms hum with electricity to paddle back in. He'll make it to shore. He'll get away. He won't die. He doesn't want to die.

"Dolphins!" the dude finally spits out. "Bottlenose. You kooks," he tosses over his shoulder as he floats away.

The fins charge closer and closer. Dolphins doesn't sink in right away, and besides-sharks, dolphins, who cares? They're too fast, they're prehistoric, they weigh over 500 pounds. They're almost on top of him, and he's heard dolphins can bite, too. He's out of here. But he's so clumsy, so hurried, his foot slips back into the water.

He's never had so much respect for the world before. For plain everyday life. For the earth. For the ocean. Shore seems so far away. His life will be different after this. He promises himself. He won't take what he has for granted. He'll appreciate.

For a brief, cogent moment, Sean sees Kyle and Tina on shore. They're standing still, unmoving, like they can't take their eyes off him. Kyle's standing behind his board. Tina is behind him. He even sees Iylette with that motel guy. They're all standing in a mass of seaweed. Flies must be biting at their skin, but they don't move. At least he's still on top of his board.

Two gray fins are coming right at him. He's never seen anything alive move this fast. They can only mean to menace, or what would the hurry be?

But then they split. One fin goes around him one way, one the other. They miss him by millimeters. That's when Sean sees one of their goofy faces looking back at him. He lets go a little. Goofy.

Gray and white. Beaked. Big eyes on either side like an enormous but friendly collie. The grin. Like he's laughing at Sean. He or she. But she's too big not to take seriously. She could crush him.

He sits up on his board, pulling his knees as close to his body as possible. He's seen dolphins on screen, he's seen people swim with them in parks, he's read about their occasional interaction with surfers. He's heard about how they communicate with echolocation, about how in rare cases they've bounced it off humans who have lived to report feeling a sense of elation afterward. She's too big to experiment with, though.

He's never seen anything like this. The two animals shoot past him out toward the sea again, join up with their pod. And then he sees a row of them, and it's like a water ballet. Nothing is more beautiful as they body surf in together, on the same curl, nose first, in perfect symmetry. Then each kicks out of the wave, leaping out the back, in unison.

Finally he lets go of his legs. They sink into the water on either side of his board again. He's too tired to hold them up. There are at least five of these enormous creatures when he counts, most far off and surfing, like a row of humans. Their beaks protrude from the inside of tubular waves, their dorsals direct them.

But there is the one that hovers, rubbery and sleek, swimming around him. She won't go away. She clicks like an overgrown cicada and barrels her body, rolling over and over horizontally. There seems to be a shadow mimicking her every motion, and it's not until this smaller apparition barrels, too, that Sean sees she has a calf. Spray shoots from her blow hole when she surfaces. A shorter smaller spray issues from the calf. The little one is four feet long compared to her eight. The blow holes open and close. Breathing. The mother is so powerful when she shoots by, it's spellbinding.

She glides away, then back again—and the calf does, too, in concert. Like any mother in the wild, whenever her calf drifts too close to Sean, she shepherds him away. But then she turns back and clacks and rattles and clicks, makes creaking sounds, whistles. Every time her head surfaces and he can see, she's got that dopey smile on. Guileless. Ridiculous. Sincere.

He feels honored. He is a diplomat to the seas. He knows this isn't so common, that dolphins don't careen up to human beings to visit unless they feel utterly safe. The dolphin must know he's a good person. That he only wants peace. Simplicity. Freedom. He reaches his palms into the liquid velvet and launches himself and his board further away from what he knows, toward the horizon, realizing this dolphin is less menacing than many of the mortals he's been around lately. He's slowly moving up the coast with the currents as well. If only he had fins. If only he could survive in all this water on his own.

She flits out ahead of him in a way he'll never be able to propel himself, to depths it's humanly impossible for him to go. She rides high up on her back, like she's walking on water, grins and makes noises like she's laughing. So does her calf. She's entertaining, having so much fun herself. She's laughing at him.

The ocean is no threat to them, a liquid oasis for their pleasure. Not a deep dark hole where one could drown. They loll on their backs, white bellies up, until finally he laughs with them. Here he is, lying on his board, drifting in the Pacific, and smiling at a couple of Cetaceans with goofy curved grins. Why would he ever want to go back to land?

Sean cries but he's not sure why or where the tears are coming from. The mother remains curious, exploring Sean, so close he could touch her. It's almost like she's trying say something. He drifts for a long time, dead weight, into the sea.

He wakes up, further out than he remembers. Shadows on shore have started to elongate. He doesn't know how long he's been out there when eventually he notices gray, amorphous figures on the beach he knows to be his friends from North Park casting their arms back and forth in the air, trying to get his attention. Somewhere on another plane, he remembers Kyle's father saying they had to have the truck back by 3:00. Getting home is so massively irrelevant that it hardly registers. He can still make it to the job interview first thing in the morning. He pushes his torso up off the board and waves them away—leave me here, go away, goodbye. Kyle knows him. Kyle will understand Sean wants to stay. Iylette won't. He can hitch a ride back later. His buddies float away like a mist, out of his mind, out of his vision. They no longer exist.

He feels so good it's frightening. He doesn't think he could ever have wished for more than he's feeling now. Even if he doesn't quite know where he is or how he's going to get back to shore. The current has pushed him to rockier waters, where there are reefs that cut, waves that pull. Even though the mother and son have floated off, he sees the mother's eye directed at him, only on one side, piercing, knowing.

Then he feels it again, only this time it's stronger, this time he's sure. It's a texture, a pulsation, a signal. It's a locomotion, a singing inside. He's never felt such euphoria. Sound travels up and down his legs; his insides pulsate, echo. Lying on his stomach on his board, he doesn't want to ever pull his arms out of the sea again. It's ultrasound, the magic fingers on a vibrating bed, a jet flying over and causing the Earth to tremble. The dolphin pushes from the water, that goofy smile. Only it's not goofy. Not at all.

The little dolphin jumps up and slaps himself down in the water. His creaking giddiness is all Sean needs to let go, to leave his board behind, swim toward the mammals, not quite sure where he's headed, not quite caring if he can get back. He's a good swimmer, Sean, and he wafts along with the breeze, floating, side stroking, watching, in a trance. He loses sight of his board, though he knows he was wearing a leash. Who cares? The sun moves further west; the tide rises. Mother and calf play games, race back and forth to their pod. They circle Sean, shoot out of the water, splash. They circle him, giggle, creak. It's like an anthem, a chant, a hymn, a lullaby, so natural he doesn't hear them anymore. He floats up and down over billows and surges, close to sleep. He's worn out, the treading, the exhilaration. It's not natural. He needs to get back.

His muscles hurt. He's hungry. The wind has made the water so choppy he swallows a mouthful of salt water. Where is he?

It's starting to get dark. The sunset has caused red veins to bleed through the smoky clouds. He's cold. He's shivering. His legs are cramping.

He coughs, tries to keep his head above water, then turns to float on his back again. How will he get to shore? Don't fight the current, he tells himself. Swim across it. But he has to get to land. He swallows another mouthful of sea water, coughs again. He makes one of his hands push, then the other, wafting closer to land, his motel room.

He sees the dolphins one last time, the undulation of their water when they turn and head back to sea. They plunge into the depths, soar skyward through booming waves, noses airborne, curve and head straight down again, loping their way back to sea. Abandoned, he manages to watch their silhouettes as he himself dog paddles to shore, their dorsals, until they're only another set of gray triangles mixed in with the rest of the pod and finally could be mistaken for the gray waves themselves.

Spent, he beaches. He knows he's drifted up the coast, but he lies there until he's so cold he has to get up.

The others have left, as he wanted them to. The room has been cleaned, empty beer cans gone, a layer of sand vacuumed from the carpet, the trash emptied. The pills have been swept from the floor. Only his clothes lie on one of the beds.

There's a beauty about the emptiness. He's not going home. He doesn't have to. He's got enough money for at least a week. So he'll miss an interview.

He glances down the walkway, sees Cathy, the girl who surfs first thing every morning. She's finishing up her shift, watering geraniums by the office. Maybe he'll ask her out for a beer.

What is there to stop him?

Bonnie ZoBell has received an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, and the Capricorn Novel Award. Recently included on Wigleaf's 2009 Top 50 list for very short fiction, she has work included or forthcoming in American Fiction, The Bellingham Review, The Greensboro Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Elimae, and Word Riot. She received an MFA from Columbia, teaches at San Diego Mesa College, and can be reached at