Land, Sky, and Sea
From the boys: every mood and emotion, every voice expressed, from pitiful question to pent-up frustration, to I’m-as-sincere-as-I’ll-ever-be, each word pulsing: please, please, let’s acknowledge it, what’s between us, it’s nothing more than nothing, than something that’ll make us feel good, that’ll pass the time, that’ll make you and me closer than the ocean and the beach.
Ann looked down on the couple on the sand from behind the rocks, which she didn’t so much hide behind as lean against. She ran her hand over the granite’s worn roundness the way the man ran his hand over the woman’s hip. The sun illuminated the clouds from behind, breaking now and then to further warm the day. They were back packers, and Ann wondered how long before they’d stopped worrying if they were alone, before they'd undressed, before they were naked in the middle of this beach. The woman’s hair was wet, and Ann imagined how they had thrown their clothes off before racing one another to the ocean. Though the day was hot she saw how they slowed at first touch of the water, how it was colder than they’d expected, but how they continued, how they dove with tense muscles. She saw how they splashed, how they held one another up, then pushed one another down, kissing on their rise with salty mouths. She saw how they ran back to their rucksacks, their blanket, wrapping it around themselves, clinging to one another, the sun peeking out to watch their tangled bodies fall, but not like a tree, not sharp, not straight, but like a leaf in Autumn, twisting and twirling all the way to the ground.
The blanket was under him, who for the moment was under her (just before he’d been on top of her). They almost looked to kiss the way men and women kiss in movies, with their whole faces not just their mouths, but they were more in control, more at ease, without a notion of being observed, of an observer, of Ann, who loomed above them behind a rock, her shoes now taken off, her bare feet tickling one another in the dry grass. She lay on her stomach, her head hanging just over the edge, and watched how their arms held their bodies, rubbing and pulling one another closer, until there was no place else to go but into the other’s space, their skin sticking to the other’s skin. She studied them as if she was in class, as if they were under her microscope.
From the girls: endless talking, their tongues swollen from gossip, who kissed who? who rang who? talking for two hours last night in bed on the phone, have you seen him today? the day before together, before the night they went—where?—in his mother’s car to the cinema, then to recline in the car’s full bucket seats, to let their bodies slip into what you can’t slip into over the phone?
When with the girls, she smiled, tried to laugh to feign interest, touched one’s arm, asked another questions. She could confirm the advances, the fumbles: how James Boyle’s kiss tasted like musty bread, how Kevin Hennaghan’s tongue stud somehow found it’s way loose to swim around and around in her mouth, how she’d felt the chaff and grab of hands more accustomed to tugging themselves. But she could not understand what made cheeks flush, fingers flip hair, and toes dig into the ground. Fourteen, she was without wish or will, want or need . . . for all of her interest in the couple on the beach, none of what they were transferred to her.
She took a quick look toward the dirt trail she’d walked up to confirm what she knew, that she was well beyond her house, and without fear of anyone approaching. She’d come out there that day, as she often did after school, to be with herself, whose company, she already knew, she took more pleasure in than anybody else’s. Her father would be in a distant field, almost a mile back, tending to the cattle, or making minor repairs to his tenant’s mobile homes. This was his land, despite the government grant to establish the dirt road to the old lighthouse on the other side of it. The tourists’ vans and mobile homes had their own strip of beach that ran all the way until the land extended into the water, to where the natural landscape built a fence out of rock, a rough slope. Beyond that was his, over plains of rock and briar, and useless green, but to a few cattle and some sheep. Since her father refused anyone access to this land (always he had his eyes on the gate) she imagined the couple must have gotten to this cove by walking along the beach, and climbing over the not so minor obstacles of dense rock, thick braids, the natural jetties that jutted out every hundred or so yards, cutting in and out of the coast. It must have taken them the difficult part of an hour. She wondered what they thought in that hour, if they were aware of themselves through the long walk, if this couple knew they would undress, that on such a warm day they planned to be like this in the open. She wanted to hear their voices, to know the words they used, to hear them say, When we find an empty spot we’ll take these rucksacks off, we’ll take these clothes off, we’ll kick our boots off, we’ll swim in the water, we’ll lie on the blanket, and we’ll be alone.
Ann thought: even though I’m here, you're alone; and even though you’re there, I'm alone. She wanted to assure them, as she assured herself. The man was sitting up, almost straight now, and kissing the woman, who sat beside him, his hands brushing over her breasts, catching, then rising over the snag of her nipples. With her elbows propping herself up, Ann slipped her own hand over the outside of her shirt, following the small rise, the round fall of her breasts, trying to imagine a hand that felt like someone else’s. Her shirt was school regulation, white button down. She’d taken off her jacket back at the house. Instead of the jacket’s matching tartan blue and green skirt, she wore a pair of old jeans. The ocean made its slow advance on the couple, though the tides were well too low to reach them. Ann sat up, and unbuttoned her shirt just enough so the tips of her fingers could slide under her bra, to draw out her nipple, like a snail, she thought, out of its shell.
The man rolled the woman over to lie on her back, and the woman
pushed his kisses down her neck, past her breasts, the trail of
her stomach, until she laid her head back and pulled his head between
her legs, her hands in his hair. The woman’s eyes, from this
distance, were closed, but her mouth was open. Ann opened her own
mouth, as if she were going to call them, or announce her presence,
a word resembling ‘Hello’; but she said nothing, only
let in the air, swirled it around in her mouth, drew it into her
lungs, then let it out again. The couple’s bodies were thin
and tanned, lean and long, but as if the sea had softened them.
The woman pulled the man’s face up to hers from below and
Ann rubbed her wrist with her thumb. She slid her back up against
the side of the rock, bent her legs, drawing in her knees half way
toward her chest. She closed her eyes like the woman and slipped
her hand inside the waist of her jeans. Leaning back, she rocked
forward, feeling as far away as the horizon. Too far. As quickly
as she’d shut her eyes, she felt the need to see them again,
to watch how the man suspended himself with his arms, how he let
his weight fall into the woman, the woman redirecting him with her
hips, until they established a rhythm. Invisible above them, Ann
leaned over the edge, dangling her gaze, if not her legs, free.
When the woman's eyes caught her own, it took Ann more than a couple of seconds to register, to jump back, to hide behind the rock. The woman looked at her that calmly, that easily, without interruption. But then Ann felt her blood rising, her heart beating quickly, as if she’d been caught cheating on an exam, which, despite the setting, despite her hands—now bracing her against the rock—she now knew this watching was: a test of herself and a test of them; but what were the answers? and what were their corresponding questions? She braced herself, tilting her head to the side as if she was being kissed, and looked back down.
He moved quickly in and out of her, her legs now raised and wrapped around his back. If the woman had seen her—and Ann was sure she had seen her—it did not stop them. If they made any noise she could not hear it, but she could imagine their breathing, full and throaty as if after a run. His body pushed as hers pulled, and pulled as hers pushed. He rocked her, whose legs were now scissored open, spreading wider with each thrust, as if trying to allow the whole land, sky, and sea. The sun beat down. The ocean washed up limply on the beach. And the couple, they moved without their earlier patience, without their slow appreciation. They tightened their resolve to finish, to complete what they had started, as if they had a limit to their practice. And then—it seemed suddenly—without sound or surge, the man slowed, then stopped, his head tucked into her neck, her hands smoothing his hair—one second, five seconds, full as the passing cloud, ten seconds—until the woman relaxed her legs and he pushed himself away, to roll over and lie next to her on the blanket.
From her teacher: pencils only, heads down on your own desk, the notation of time, erased and re-chalked on the blackboard: 11:30, 11:45, 11:55, five minutes till Time—the interruption that comes suddenly, or not so suddenly—and what does Ann wish for? more time, whether she's done or not.
She is standing when she watches the man walk to his rucksack and pull out a bottle of water. She watches the woman lie with her eyes closed in the sun; she watches her sit upright and take a sip out of the bottle. The man says a few words and the woman returns the words. Neither looks at the other when they pull on their underwear, their shorts, when they return to lying on their backs. Despite Ann’s wish to make them stretch into one another, to make them look up at her and then grab for the other—as if the sand is collapsing between them, as if they are being split apart by a fault—their bodies stay straight and separate and pointing toward the sea. Their eyes remain closed despite Ann's intermittent tossing of pebbles, now in increasing size and speed.
Anthony Caleshu’s book of poems, The Siege of the Body and a Brief Respite was published by Salt in the UK in 2004. Recent stories and poems have appeared in The Dublin Review and Denver Quarterly. He teaches at the University of Plymouth in southwest England. (5/2005)