You’ll have to forgive me for waiting to tell this to you when you’re sleeping, but it’s the only way I can do it. If you could see yourself stretched out on the floor in the pool of light from the street lamp right outside our window—how it very nearly looks like moonlight, and how very nearly beautiful you are—you’d understand why. Or maybe you wouldn’t. But I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway.
The story starts with a man and a woman, which isn’t that different from ours. Only they didn’t meet outside of a bar while one smoked a cigarette, and the other tried to fix her broken pump. They also weren’t in their late twenties, and a little bit angry, and a little bit bored, trapped in a shitty city while the world’s economy tanked. They lived in the once upon a time days, on a small island, the kind with palm trees and small little monkeys that would look good in bell boy caps. It was like paradise, probably. And they met when they were very young. Just kids, even. The way people who are in love are supposed to.
He was a kind man with a broad chest, and just the right length of hair and the right amount of stubble. He had a mole over one of his eyebrows, but not the gross kind. It was the kind people find endearing. When I picture him, I see Cary Grant. You don’t have to, though. I know how much you hate him. But to be honest, you’d probably hate this guy, too. He didn’t cuss excessively, or spit, or fight, or drink too much like other men. Maybe he didn’t talk a lot, but his silence was never out of coldness, or because he was dull. He wanted to make sure he only ever said the right things, is all. He wasn’t the kind of man that caused anyone harm just for harm’s sake, or out of ignorance, or anything like that.
The woman was tall and slender, with skin as white and soft as three-ply ultra-plush toilet paper. She had long black hair that she always kept neat, and eyes the shape and color of almonds. And her lips? I could spend hours telling you about how soft they were and how sweet they tasted, but I only have so long, and it would probably just get upsetting. Besides, he didn’t love her for her lips, or because she was beautiful. There are plenty of beautiful women everywhere. Just being beautiful is boring and overrated. He loved her because she was her. She was honest, loyal, and gentle. She’d never even killed a bug. Not even once, I swear. And she was clever, too, with a musical little laugh. Delicate, I guess is the word I’m looking for. Not at all like a donkey braying or a grandma wheezing or that kind of thing.
So anyway, he loved her, and she loved him, and their life was wonderful. Every morning he went out on the ocean before the sun rose, and caught fish. She tended to the house and worked in the garden, growing their vegetables and fruits and stuff. At night they added the spoils of their labor together into a lovely dinner. They swapped stories about their days, read each other poetry, told each other jokes—they never ran out of things to say at the dinner table. Even if it did get quiet, it was never tense. It’d just be because they were too busy loving each other to speak. After, they laid together in the light of the actual moon, and he stroked her hair, and she kissed his chin, and it was utterly, devastatingly perfect. That really is the only word for it. Perfect.
Then one day he came across a group of not-so-perfect kids beating up on this turtle with sticks, pelting it with stones, and in general just being snot-nosed little jerks. Being the kind, considerate, perfect man he was, he chased them off. The turtle was looking pretty worse for wear, so the man tended to his wounds as best he could and helped him get back to the water.
The turtle was so grateful he invited the man to come and see his kingdom at the bottom of the ocean. The turtle was a king, by the way. A real fancy hot shot one. And when a talking turtle king invites you to the bottom of the ocean to see his castle, you go, right? Besides, he figured it would make a good story to tell his wife when he got home. He figured he’d only be gone a few hours, and they weren’t super controlling of one another like some couples get. They didn’t need to know where the other one was all the time, or who they were with, and so on. They let each other live their lives, you know? So, he figured there was no harm in it.
He rode on the turtle’s back out into the ocean and down to the very, very bottom where the sun can’t even reach. They have to use those glowy plankton to see down there. All around the city and in their homes they have them strung up like Christmas lights. The turtle gave the man a tour of his castle. He showed him his throne, his concubines, and all his fancy jewels, everything. He even introduced him to the Ocean, as in the Goddess. They ate a wonderful meal of oysters, seaweed, and other under-the-ocean foods, like maybe eel, and they drank wine, danced, and joked around. The whole time the man was thinking about his wife—about how she’d never believe him. How great it would be to tell her everything. And above all else, he was thinking about how much he loved her. After just a few hours, he started missing her.
He told the turtle he wanted to go home, but the turtle said he couldn’t. He said that the Ocean had taken a liking to him, and he had to stay. The man insisted that the turtle take him back to the surface. The turtle insisted he could do no such thing. He wasn’t allowed to. The turtle may be a king, but the Ocean was a Goddess, and typically, Goddesses tend to get their way.
The man said he would swim back, and the turtle warned him it would take a very long time. In fact, the turtle said, he had already been gone a very long time. A much longer time than he thought. Time moves different deep down in the ocean. Years and years and years had passed, the turtle said, so the man might as well stay.
Then the man took off immediately in a panic, swimming as fast as he could despite the turtle calling for him to come back, and the Ocean changing the current to try and pull him down. He fought against it, thinking only of his wife and how sad she must have been waiting all alone for years, not even knowing where he was. He wasn’t worried at all that she might have moved on. He knew she would wait because that’s how strong their love was. They weren’t the kind of people who’d just give up on each other. She was waiting. He knew that.
And he was right. When he hadn’t come back that first day, his wife had gone down to the beach to look for him. She stayed there all day and all night, burning in the hot sun till her toilet paper skin dried and cracked, and shivering when the sun finally set and the wind came howling across the water. She stayed the next day, too. And the next day. Writing his name in the sand so that the waves would come, swallow it, and hopefully carry it to him wherever he may be. She kept writing, and she kept waiting, until she grew old and weak. Even then she stayed and lived on just hoping she might see him again.
For one hundred years he swam, and for one hundred years she was on the beach, waiting. And she was still there when he finally climbed to shore. But by then she had died, and it was only her bleached skeleton that was there to greet him. Still, he knew it was her. He would recognize her even if she were nothing more than a cluster of dust motes he accidentally breathed in.
So he went to her, still dripping head to toe with water and pruney as all hell. He clasped her bones to his broad chest, and he placed his mouth against her teeth, and he kissed her. He kissed her so hard, the waves stilled mid-crest, the Earth slowed its roll, and the little monkeys fell out of the perfect palm trees. It was the kind of kiss that could rewrite the universe. And it did. When his lips touched her teeth, a little of the Ocean’s water slipped into her jaw, and worked its way through her, bringing her back to life. Not only that but it made her just as young and beautiful as she ever was.
They wept, kissed each other in every possible place, and did all that other sweet reunion stuff, kneeling right there in the shallow tide. But it didn’t last long. The Ocean, jealous and crazy and wanting him, reached out with one huge wave and snatched him up. Though the woman tried to hold on, the Ocean was way stronger than her, and tore him right out of her arms. Back down to the depths the man was dragged. Back on the beach, the woman waited once more, writing his name again and again. Until the man could get loose and swim back to shore.
There he finds her bones. He kisses her back to life. They shower one another with love for the few seconds they can, and then the Ocean snatches him up, and drags him back down. And then they do it all over. And all over. One hundred years, swimming and waiting and dying. All for that one kiss. All for those few seconds.
See, they aren’t the type of people who give up and just walk away. They have passion. They have something real. They wouldn’t sleep back to back every night. They wouldn’t just stare at the TV whenever the silence gets so unbearable that even the sounds of gunshots and shattering windows are considered welcome reliefs. They’re still at it right now. Still swimming, still waiting, still dying, still loving, still working. Because love takes work, right? That’s what you’re always saying. Love takes work. You just have to want to do it.
But I don’t.
Please, don’t hate me for this. In the morning, try to understand not all kindness looks and feels the same. I may not be willing to swim for you, to wait for you, to die for you, but I am willing to leave for you. And that’s probably the kindest thing I could ever do.
Couri Johnson is a native of Youngstown, Ohio, a graduate of the NeoMFA, and a secret romantic under crusty gutterpunkish facade. She’s currently living in Maugame, Japan where she’s working on a collection of Fairy Tales, and a collection of flash fiction. Recently she’s been published in an For Book’s Sake’s anthology [Re]Sisters, Weird City, and she’s had a chapbook published through Dancing Girl Press. You can find her on twitter at a_couri.