At Sea

E. Y. Smith

Seagulls clamor by like seafoam. I lie beside him under the orange sun. His shades, my shoulders—wide and square, like the clubhouse looming over the crystal waves. From the space between his arm and shoulder, I watch a couple walk. Her long vanilla-white shawl drapes backward as she looks down, watching the water crush the sand, and he looks upward toward the clubhouse from behind his narrow sunglasses. Inwardly, we are just like them.

Penelope is just like Odysseus but only stronger. Her adventures take place in her mind and her home, while his occur in fantastic regions beyond. Her journeys are equally real.  Depending on how she interacts with the men who invade her home, she could change the reality of her relationship with Odysseus; depending on her choice, he would no longer be her husband. Likewise, Penelope remains true to reason despite the obstacles that challenge it. Odysseus similarly remains true to reason despite the obstacles throughout his journey. However, where Odysseus can evade or leave each obstacle behind, Penelope must endure hers for a significant amount of time. Both withstanding obstacles and adapting to new ones requires a certain type of strength, but it is my sense that Penelope’s tolerance makes her stronger. After all, to overcome an obstacle suggests at least momentary relief from it, whereas to withstand an obstacle suggests an ongoing, constant distress that requires consistent strength. It could be argued, I suppose, that Odysseus’s obstacles outsize Penelope’s—after all, she never confronted a one-eyed giant—and therefore, although Odysseus received momentary relief from each obstacle, he demonstrated greater strength by overcoming each. However, although Penelope’s obstacles are lesser in scale, they are perhaps equally fearsome.

Each word curls, like one of the bright blue waves, against my mind and disintegrates when it’s about to breach. For now, I am content to rest with him. He points toward the lighthouse, distantly glowing as the sun dips into the water and wrinkles it with orange. “It’s peaceful,” he says. The coarse hairs of his beard feel like sand against my shoulder, flecked with dark spots from exposure to daylight. It’s too early to think of loss, which drains, like saltwater onto the shore, into the happier moments. Sometimes, I think of him while I’m chopping lettuce for a salad or peeling oranges or even hanging up my laundry to dry. I try to do it less now because it reminds me of him, but I can’t deny the clean, airy feeling of the clothes, as if they have absorbed every gust of wind.

 

When it gets like this, I find myself expecting him to arrive from behind a door or from the other side of the wall and to tell me that it’s alright again, to smile again (if only so I can tell him that it’s impolite to tell someone to smile); but just as soon as the feeling arrives, it passes, leaving his stony absence in its wake. And soon I’m back to the humdrum details of my day—the magic having disappeared with him.

Vous. “You,” in French, for the plural. Sometimes I think that there are many you’s. There is the you that I left behind. There is the you that I knew when we were happy and sure of one another, though not without our occasional conflicts (e.g. The Great Move of 2018). There is the despondent you, when you found out that you weren’t getting promoted that year. There is the you that liked to lean on me during long cab rides. There is the you that walks throughout the corridors of my mind. There is the you that I recall in the now-empty rooms. 

 

Penelope is the wife. But if she is the wife, can she also be the rock? The rock of Ithaca that braces the people against the shore. This rock, that spins through space, and the spin that spills the surf against the shore and delivers you to me and draws you out again. The water that drains off the world’s edges and into the stars that deliver shallow light-rays—cosmic ripples that spill into the sun that dives, orange, into the water.

 

When the day is done, we pack up our things. “Look,” he says, and he points out toward the night sky. Neon green eclipses the shimmering dark. “Fireworks.” We listen to them whistle, watch them spurt and climb down the unreachable darkness. All the while, the sky looks darker than his shades. Maybe he forgot to take them off. Maybe he liked the world a little dimmer. Either way, I wondered.

E. Y. Smith's work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Portland Review, The Brooklyn Review, The Offing, The Masters Review, and The Saturday Evening Post, among other literary journals.

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Nat. Brut is a proud winner of a 2020 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize