December 17, 2021
by Sam Moe
Tuesday morning and there wasn’t much to prepare at work so Clio called to ask if she could come in a little late. She was the only other person going to be working that day besides Dalla, the lead chef but it didn’t matter. No one came in on Tuesdays, and even if they did it was only for takeout.
She stretched in bed, careful not to rise too fast, for last time she’d hit her head on the surface of the shell and had seen green and blue stars cluster across her eyes.
The surface of the oyster was jelly-sticky, dark blue like a mussel yet she understood its shape for she would reach out her hand every morning, pressing between those jaws so she could memorize each curved edge, some areas still sharper than others, some areas chipped from when she’d tried to punch her way out. Clio assumed the shell would repair itself in the night, take its hurt parts and use some sort of deep ocean magic to put the pieces back together. But it never did, and most days she came home sober but when she didn’t she always stepped on the toothy shards and there were nicks across her heels for weeks now.
Her bed smelled like sweat and sea glass. The top of the shell was full of ribs, no, maybe veins, they ran too close together to be a rib cage, too damp to be mistaken for bones.
It was late July when she’d been swallowed—along with her bed—into the mouth of her private bedroom shell. Every breath became a labor on her chest, new lungs trying to learn every inhale and exhale. Her tongue was a cardboard depressor, sleep mask a complete and utter nonsense. She kept a running list of all the words she was losing on a slip of receipt paper, using a grease pencil instead of a pen so the alphabet blurred together into a cloud and still the oyster persisted. There was a different word for this, but she’d smudged it once after a shower, leaving ief behind. Unsure, she daydreamed about grief and thief blurring together, considering the ways her loss coded itself in clouded language.
Late morning and the shell was lifting its upper jaw to release her, a hand surprising itself from a wrist, other mornings she could remember when her body yawned playfully and let go, in those playful mornings, she did not feel a victim.
Victim, and the other string of acid-candy words she’d learned, meant nothing but embarrassment, a statement that marked her, not a sea gem but a fungus escaping the mouth of an even larger, harder, fungus.
She would not take off her sleeping mask until she was halfway across the room, not wanting to look at the transformation or the stains of seven in the morning. At work, Clio was half-asleep, standing in the cold window, buckets of ice-cream tucked away in a mini-fridge to her left, directly in front of her hands rested ten wells of lettuce with varying degrees of wilt, stem, and green depending on where it was grown. Clio only liked the iceberg lettuce, that too-sharp feeling on her molars.
A greasy French-fry boat sat on the metal countertop where guests dropped their money in exchange for brown paper bags stuffed with entrees. Just above was another metal shelf covered in stacks of porcelain plates and to-go boxes where she always made sure to hide a macaron, on the top, so it would remain puffy.
The front-of-house was in restoration, leaving most of the light in the kitchen only, one twisted white bulb illuminating sandwiches resembling twin-sized beds, salad bowls, and poorly stuffed macarons. The second light was above the stove where fried seafood coiled to the left, ribeye steaks in different stages of marble on the right. The third light was in the lobster tank, which stretched across the kitchen into the corridor, so close to the fountain drinks that sometimes Clio was able to sneak Mountain Dew to the lobsters, their claws eager but unable to pop the soda bubbles.
They’d cast open all the windows and July spilled, melted water beetles wedged like old emeralds in the hardwood floor, booths bright and unfazed, the hostess desk decked out in chicken wire where they kept the expensive wine had long been abandoned. Even the guest book started to grow spotty on the edges, pages wilted from the humidity.
Clio worried more about the lobster tank, especially when guests palmed the closest edge, smearing handprints everywhere. In many of her intrusive daydreams it took one glass clap and the surface began to destroy itself, popping sour water and dead lobster limbs everywhere. She wondered how difficult it would be to mop around all those bodies.
Dalla stood a ways away from her, they hadn’t spoken yet and the chef remained fixated on a recipe she’d been working on for months. She didn’t look up when Clio clocked in. Before her sat an east-coast chowder, the roux having turned blonde from how she’d cooked it. There stood bowls of mollusks, a plate of empty shells, and Dalla’s hands scooping out meat for a heat test, could that kind of mollusk mix well with the fat, cream, and pepper? Clio didn’t tell him her hated the ocean, how salt affected the jaws and eyes. She wouldn’t understand, and anyway, she was writing fractions on bits of masking tape, lost to her goal.
“You should really fix the lights in here,” came the voice of a guest.
Clio looked over but found the counter empty.
The guest was crouched at the edge of the glass, inspecting the food. She watched the top of her head as flecks of sunshine dust landed on her curls. Clio began to count her grey hairs but had lost focus when the woman’s swollen hand reached towards the French-fry bin, placing a crumpled fifty inside.
Clio wrapped her arms around her stomach. She wanted this woman to leave, she wanted to be alone.
“We will,” Clio found herself saying, though it had taken her a few minutes to speak and already the conversation was dead.
Will. The word floated around her head like a fistful of foam. The permission in that word already assumed, we-will pressed together in a unity between herself and Dalla, a problem to be solved by a team.
In the beginning of July she’d been invited to someone’s house in the middle of the night. He had the same name as someone who, when she’d been eleven, had cut off a length of her ponytail during art class, the kind of name that threw expensive marbles at squirrels, the kind of name that wasn’t worth mentioning because to name something was to inflate it with power and she didn’t do that anymore. Perhaps that was when the words had left.
Or maybe the words left when she’d responded to his text that, yes, she would come over with one caveat: they weren’t going to sleep together. She knew she needed to mention this because the last time he’d came over, just to hang out, he’d taken her art supplies out of her hands and led her to her own bedroom where she proceeded to spend the next hour staring at a poster on her ceiling.
“That’s hot, good for you,” he’d said when she’d texted him she was queer. As if her agency and identity, flimsy concepts at best and at worst they were never acknowledged, were things which could bestow value on a gaze scale.
The pool in his backyard had smelled good, like fresh chlorine and pale ale, several green-neck bottles gathered around a metal picnic table filtering the light of a half moon.
After they’d tossed their clothes aside and entered the water, she said it again, that she wasn’t going to have sex with him. Whatever, she thought she’d heard him mumble, her own response she’d long forgotten. What she did remember was the way he’d smiled, the pool water dripping from his glasses. Was it then, because she’d gotten in the pool? Or before, with the beer.
The space between swimming and sitting in the basement was left blank. His couch was soft and the television was on, playing a movie about a dollhouse and all the characters were hurting each other, or maybe the owner was hurting them—she’d looked away, which was when he’d reached into his nightstand, bed only a foot beyond, and took out six items, one a pair of handcuffs.
“Why do these sandwiches look like beds,” the guest said, tapping a manicured nail against the glass.
Not a question but a statement of fact. Dalla didn’t notice, for she was juggling with a particularly soft russet potato, later digging in with the back of a spoon, the very spoon that had been in her mouth for more than an hour. Clio shuddered.
Dalla glanced at her and Clio echoed we will, we will, in the back of her mind.
The guest pointed to items for Clio to place in sleeves of wax paper, instructing her to label each one carefully, which she did, using a fading sharpie to mark items with her looping script. Even though she wore gloves, she would notice her fingers would smell like sugar and yeast for hours.
There wasn’t another guest for the remainder of the day. At least the lobsters had something to do. Then Dalla was handing her a paring knife and instructing her to sit on the overturned milk carton to shuck oysters.
“What is this? What happened with the oyster knife?” she asked, the first exchange they’d had all day.
“No idea. But the paring knife isn’t sharp, you’ll be fine.”
Clio felt great shame in knowing she would text Dalla later to ask if she was upset with her. Years later, when they were closer and she’d found the right words in a dictionary of struggle, Dalla would tell her it was better to sleep on her back, to try and turn off her mind.
She started opening oysters, leaving them stomach-side up. Soon, the sound of lighters against the old stove, of ice impressed upon, of her own breathing, one chorus, many lungs. The paring knife slipped, forming a strand of blood across the top of her left hand.
She put the oysters on a side station and went to find Dalla. She’d moved to the far end of the kitchen, grabbed two lobsters, removed their rubber bands, and placed them on the counter. The duo tapped around, biting at the air, occasionally bumping into the heating lamp.
“Oh shit,” she said when he saw her hand and the concern in his voice was so genuine that she wanted to cry. “What’s wrong?”
But Clio shrugged as she led her to the office to find a bandage for her hand. Later that night, without explanation, Dalla made her spicy noodles with chicken and handed it to her as they walked out the back door and into the milky night.
“I’m sorry,” she’d texted her when she got home.
“I’m the one who should be sorry you were as sad as you were today,” she said. “Want to talk about it?”
“I’m open to suggestions,” she responded, placing her phone on the ledge of the tub.
It buzzed three more times but she needed to look away, she needed to draw her knees up to her face and lick the bathwater off of her skin. There might be a lot of setting up to do if she told her, framing on Clio’s end, because to be misunderstood was to relive the past all over again, there was a word for that.
Fuck this, she thought to herself and closed her eyes, enjoying the feeling of hot water as it fell off her eyelashes. Half an hour later she was examining her scar beneath the surface of the water. It wasn’t deep enough to last, soon her skin would return to smooth, like the underside of a wing.
After her shower, Clio wrapped first her hand then the rest of her arms in grey bandage. Her skin felt too loose and soft from the bath and she worried if she didn’t tend to her body properly it would ebb apart, lettuce-leaf stigmata, the way toast draped apart in soup, an eager blanket. Those weren’t the words, either.
“I have to go to the beach again,” Dalla texted her. “I got my lobster permit. You wanna come with?”
She would miss the days the back bell rang and lobsters were delivered illegally, from Dalla’s friends who had been catching them without permits, sometimes bringing whole chests of the blue-backed ones, their beauty so rich that it hurt. They also used the back door to trade gold leaf jars for Camus cabernet, ribeye-sandwiches for fat joints and sometimes Dalla retreated from the doorway with someone else’s lipstick on her neck but she didn’t seem to mind, would grin and reveal a bag of glittering Périgord black truffles.
“I’d love to,” she texted back.
Without thinking she reached her hurt-arm into the air, wincing after the fact, anticipating smacking her hand against the ceiling of the oyster. Instead, all she felt was open and empty air.
The following day, Clio and Dalla kneeled on a cluster of wet rock, peering deep into the cove where she’d left a wicker box overnight full of old herring. There were so many lobsters in the box that Clio wondered how they were going to lift it out of the cove. Dalla was strong but she wasn’t that strong, she only had muscle on her shoulders because she’d decided to take up boxing a month ago, to cure her insomnia.
“Feeling better?” she asked, grunting as she began tugging on the rope.
“Kind of. The noodles helped,” she said, reaching out to steady the line.
“Well, good. It’s not forever, you know.”
“What’s not forever?”
She took the rope into both hands; having forgotten she was wearing the ace bandages, her arms filmed with sweat.
“Whatever’s going on,” she said, her aviators having slid down the bridge of her nose, black eyes looking directly into hers. “If you live alongside something it can’t kill you; you’ll be like equals.”
She hadn’t realized she was still touching Dalla’s hand, a single dry knot stuck between their fingers. The lobster trap fell back into the water with a clap, the new sound an anatomy of shuffling in the low tide, but the watery echoes were brief and soon Dalla was asking if she’d burned Clio by accident when the rope slipped from their hands.
“May I?” she asked.
Clio nodded as Dalla took hold of her fingertips. Sun created oily rainbows on the rocks, illuminating the lobsters so they glowed like crusty opals of the sea.
Sam Moe is a queer writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. She is pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Illinois State University. Her work has appeared in Overheard and Cypress Press. She received an Author Fellowship from Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing residency in June, 2021.