(First published in Mission at 10th, Spring 2016)
In all my dumpster dives, I’d never seen shoes like them before. They were bright green spindly heels with gold sequins down the sides and brass buckles over the pointy toes. After one look, I knew only one girl could pull off wearing them. So instead of going in the Sale Pile, the shoes went in the Possibility Pile. Don’t pretend like you don’t hoard possibility too. It’s why people with too much crap turn on a dime when they see a yard sale sign. It’s why homeowners cruise the real estate ads. Why married folks comb online dating profiles. Hell, it’s why beauty shops and tool sheds and health clubs exist. Possibility.
My pile’s been growing so long I have categories. The shoes clearly belonged in the gifts-for-the-girl-I-don’t-have-the-guts-to-ask-out category. There’s a glass-blown lamp in that pile, a gaudy chandelier, knitted unicorn pillows, a black and white checkered dress with pockets in front and a tear at the collar, beaded necklaces, old purses with clasps, and bar stools from the 70s. I even pilfered the tarnished tokens from an ancient monopoly set and made a charm bracelet. But the heels? Whoa. Nothing quite compared to the heels.
I found them the other week over on the west end of town in this brand new, prissy little gated community. The homes were supposed to be done back in 2010, the year I graduated, but the economy had hit rock bottom, along with my prospects for the future. I hadn’t applied to colleges. My family was broke. The plan was to take a year off and bank some green. But I couldn’t find a job anywhere. Not even McDonald’s.
So now I’m in what my friends call the “junk business,” although I don’t consider what I find junk. That’s the point. People get rid of completely good shit all the time. Stuff with tons of potential. Sure, it’s often a dirty and smelly job—and downright depressing when you find old family photographs or unused seed packets or mangy stuffed animals, or dog tags. It’s not what I imagined I’d be doing. Dumpster diving. But I kinda love it. And it’s become pretty lucrative now that I’ve expanded to prowling the garage sales and the second hand stores and the inventory liquidations and the Craigslist freebies too.
So this West End lot. Construction froze and it sat in this half-built, post-apocalyptic limbo for years. But now the complex is done and people are starting to move in. Families and young couples with means, who I guess are comforted by the Smurf feel of the place. Locked in, camera-guarded sameness. It’s been my oyster for over a month. You’d think people would get rid of everything they don’t want before they move, but they get rid of just as much stuff when they’re moving in.
The night I found the shoes there were ample pickings curbside, all laid out for the garbage men to haul away the next day, or placed in boxes marked “free.” I cruised from driveway to driveway, rescuing the neglected and abandoned. I found a shit-ton of clothing to add to my 90s pile. (When I first got started in the junk business a buyer at our most hipster thrift shop told me, “nothing from the 90s will ever be worth anything.” But I figure that’s what they said about the 80s at one point. And the 70s. I just have to wait a while. There were a few other notable finds: A beat up (vintage) ice cream maker. Some no-name-label (eclectic) jazz vinyl. A busted (well-loved) guitar. The shoes were under some books with the kind of covers you look at and think, “damn, what a waste of time that would be.” Contrary to popular belief, I think you can judge a book by a cover. Just like you can judge albums by their covers. And people. I almost didn’t find the shoes because of those dime-store novels. But because my kid half-brother’s birthday was coming up, and because he devoured even the most heinous of crap, I picked them up and found my pearls.
Mike, my kid half-brother, is the reason that a few days later, I was at the aquarium—what would become the final resting place of the most beautiful-ugly shoes on the planet. Mike’s all into drawing his own comics with sharks as the main characters and he insists he needs to study them in person at the aquarium. “Otherwise how are they going to have lifelike qualities?” So anyway, I left Mike at the shark tank and went downstairs to sit in the tunnel room. The tunnel is really just a glass tube, or upside-down half pipe that you can walk into and see fish all around you, even above you, swimming in this crystal clear, blue-tinted water.
That’s where I saw Robyn for the first time in three years—since I watched her drive off with Chris Lowman after graduation. I knew she came back for the summers, but her crowd and my crowd rarely crossed paths.
She was holding a sandwich—not eating it, just staring straight ahead like some statue—and I flashed right back to the first time I saw her. She’d shown up as the new kid in my Freshman American History class one stormy October day. I know it was stormy because I remember she walked in with speckles all over her clothes from the rain. Quirky clothes. Fishnet nylons under embroidered cutoff jean shorts and a little girl’s flowery dress as a shirt. I knew within a couple days she was cool as hell from the get-ups she wore unapologetically, and the way she didn’t smile, but smirked, and the way she hummed when she thought people couldn’t hear.
I almost didn’t say anything, almost walked away. I’d never really talked to Robyn in high school. I doubted she even remembered me. But she looked so lonely there, seeing through everyone passing, even though they were giving her these disturbed, kinda concerned looks, like they thought she might be caught in some trance. And she was trapped in this awful uniform—black business pants that didn’t fit right, and a collared shirt with the decal of the aquarium over the breast pocket. The only remnant of high school was a thick purple streak in her brown hair. And that’s when I thought, no man. I’m not the shy, dweeby dude I used to be. Not only am I four inches taller and twenty pounds of muscle heavier, I am considerably more confident. I’ve got my shit together.
“It’s Robyn, right?” I asked, sitting down next to her.
She looked at me with blank eyes, but then they focused. “Bobby.” She seemed to notice the sandwich in her hands for the first time, and a miffed expression crossed her face. “You used to sit next to me in Pre Calc,” she said, wrapping the sandwich back up. “I remember your shoes.”
“They were… superlative.”
I wasn’t sure what superlative meant, but she said it like a compliment, and because I’ve never known how to take compliments, I ignored it. “Uh, so how long have you been working here?”
“A week or so. Are you back for the summer too?”
“No, I’ve been here all along.”
She cocked her head and frowned.
I wanted to wipe my clammy palms on my jeans. “What have you been studying?” I had enough friends in college to know this was what they asked each other.
“Oh, the most useless of things,” she said, waving a hand. A long eel swam behind her and started nosing the glass. “But the most fascinating. Philosophy, Psychology, English, Art, Theater, Dance, Anthropology. I’m a triple major at the moment. What about you?”
I jerked my chin toward the eel. “How do all these fish get along? Don’t the big ones eat the small ones?”
She twisted to look into the tank. I pushed my palms down the sides of my pants.
“Sometimes,” she said. “But they’re not like people. Fish live and let live. Their species are predictable. People aren’t so easy to figure out. You have to consider not only their culture’s monomyth, but their own individual monomyth. I don’t think we can rely on overarching cultural myths, do you? I think everything is individualized.” She paused, I guess waiting for me to agree or disagree. She spoke so quietly that I had to lean toward her to hear.
“Monomyth? You’re just making shit up now,” I said.
She smiled back. “You know, Joseph Campbell? The famous anthropologist? I guess ‘hero’s journey’ is the popular term. With people, you have to consider their whole mythology, their whole ethos, up to the present moment and then judge how they’ll act. I find it nearly impossible to do. Even with all that you can decipher from a person’s outward appearance. There’s always the mask. Fish don’t wear masks.”
The eel had its gruesome mouth wide open now and was just floating there behind her, its creepy eyes bulging. “I don’t wear a mask either,” I said.
She tilted her head. “Of course you do.”
“Everyone wears a mask. I think it’s part of being human.”
I wanted to accuse her of being only part human. Of being part Other World, but knew that would be too lame. “So, what’s my mask?”
She leaned back and made a show of squinting at me. Then she scooted closer, cupped a hand around her mouth, next to my ear, and said, “Ease. You want to look comfortable talking to me right now while really, you’re not.”
I cleared my throat and stared right into her brown eyes until she looked away. “Are you comfortable?” I asked, hoping the panic jetting through my veins wasn’t bleeding through to my voice.
“Wouldn’t it make you uncomfortable talking with someone you know is uncomfortable?”
Before I could answer, or flounder, which was way more likely to happen, some guy in a matching aquarium shirt walked up and asked her to take over admissions and I made the excuse I had to go check on Mike.
The next week, on the same day, at the very same time, I left Mike at the sharks and went down to the tunnel room, looking for redemption or something. I saw Robyn on the bench, eating an apple and staring at a diver who was messing with plants on the bottom of the tank. Her clothes fit her lean body this time. She’d altered the pants to hug her narrow hips, and now they had a blue and yellow stripe down the side, like a marching band uniform. Her polo shirt had been turned into a scoop-neck tank top with a school of blue and yellow clown fish silk-screened onto the back. It made me think about my buddy Nate. He writes this thing called “found poetry,” recycling words from “found objects” like signs and menus and memos and ads and stuff. When he first explained the whole thing to me I immediately thought of dumpster diving. And Robyn. She was part found poem.
When I sat down next to her, she didn’t even turn her head. “Someday I’ll jump in the shark tank,” she said.
I wondered if she would have said it to anyone, or if she saw my reflection somehow. “You mean be part of the show?” The aquarium has a little educational show after each shark feeding, where two divers go down and hold up flashcards and stuff while somebody on the outside gives a presentation.
“No. I don’t want to wear a suit. I want to be able to feel everything.”
Turning to me, she reached back and pulled the end of her long, black pony tail over one shoulder. I wanted to touch that hair. The only two girls I’d dated had pixie cuts.
“The goal is to examine my learned and unlearned responses,” she whispered. A tour group was filing past, one of her aquarium cohorts at its head, talking about the difference between salt water fish and fresh water fish. “I want to be put in a heightened situation and observe my reaction. It’s an experiment. It’s for posterity. I’ll film it.”
I started laughing.
“I’m not joking.” Studying my face like it was some puzzle, she explained, “None of our sharks have ever attacked a diver. And they’re well fed. I’m sure it’s mostly safe. Just unsafe enough to frighten me.”
I wondered if Robyn had always been like this, or whether college had warped her in some way. A heady, detached way all caught up in the idea of something and not the reality. I’d seen it before. This guy Liam I used to be buddies with came back from college after a few years, and all he could talk about was making his first million by the time he was thirty. Said after that he could really relax and start enjoying life. He never left the house that whole summer except to go to his internship. Shunned us all. Then another buddy, Ben, developed some kind of disorder where he couldn’t be himself. He was into theater and carried around these plays in his back pocket. Each day he’d pick a different character to “explore,” which really meant impersonate. He’d dress up like them, talk like them, try to think like them. Fine. Great. But all the time? You could never have a real conversation with the guy, and the worst part was he accused us of being “inhibiting” when we asked him to knock it off. And then there was Maureen, who came back and wanted to host monthly art parties where you had a couple drinks and then “critiqued” shit. Sometimes we went to a gallery and looked at paintings. Sometimes she’d read us something short at her house. Once we biked around looking at graffiti. I was game at first. It made me want to go to college more than ever, once I saved up some cash. But after a while I could see the discussions weren’t going how she’d hoped. She was all hung up on these terms and labels she acted like we should know already. And then she pretty much took over and started lecturing. Now I wondered if Robyn wasn’t in the clutches of some scheme some class had planted in her head.
“Why don’t you go shark cage diving in the ocean? Isn’t that scary enough?”
“Too expensive.” She nibbled at her apple core. “And it’s not like I’ll be unsupervised. I’ll have one of the divers help me.”
“How are you going to swing that?”
“I’ll seduce one of them.”
The aquarium geek guiding the tour started blabbing about the sting rays. “I’m a diver,” I told the floor.
Robyn turned to me. “What?”
I shook my head and frowned, studying the floor. I could see a swirl of residue left behind by whoever had mopped last.
“No, what did you say?”
“You said something.”
“I heard you.” She waited a long beat, then stood up, scanning for a trash can to toss her apple core. “Well, I should probably get back to work.”
“You know, I’m a diver,” I said, looking up at her.
She sat back down. “Really.” She drew the word out in this dreamy drawl.
“Well, I’m not a professional or anything. But yeah. I dive.”
“I don’t need a professional. I just need someone who knows what they’re doing with the tanks and stuff.”
I imagined her in a skimpy bathing suit, cutting through the water like some kind of vixen mermaid. “I know what I’m doing.” I figured I had plenty of time to let the lie fizzle out. Or learn about air tanks. “Uh, you wanna get a drink sometime?”
“When and where do you propose?”
“Brandt’s Open Mic Night tomorrow?”
She frowned, and rolled the apple’s stem between her thumb and pointer finger, sending the core spinning. “Isn’t Brandt’s a cowboy bar?”
“Kind of. We go there cause of Nate. He does this thing he calls political stream of consciousness. And he doesn’t like preaching to the choir when he does it. Likes being in the shark tank, so to speak.”
“Nate Whitehall’s going to be there?”
“Yeah. And Ozzie McOwen.”
She spun the apple the other direction. “Like backup? Wingmen?”
“Hey, now. Does it look like I need wingmen?” I spread my arms. “It’s just that Nate can’t be there alone. He needs a couple buddies in case the cowboys pick a fight. And they both want to see you. I told them you were back in town.”
I wasn’t sure what she thought was cute, but decided it was a pretty good sign. “So that’s a yes?”
“You want me to pick you up? I was thinking nine?”
“No, I’ll meet you there.”
She showed up looking like the queen of gutter rats in holey jeans, a faded T-shirt, and an old leather jacket with three-quarter sleeves. Her ballet shoes were actual, literal ballet shoes, gold satin and all scuffed black at the toe. Her long, dark hair was down, and tangled. She looked lost, or dazed, standing there in the middle of the room, studying the reincarnation of Janis Joplin on stage, scratching out The Devil Went Down to Georgia on a fiddle. Ozzie caught my eye and whirled his finger around his ear, jerking his head toward Robyn. He’d always thought she was some kind of stuck-up airhead. “Be nice,” I growled across the table, and got up to meet her.
“Can I get you a drink?” I asked, touching her elbow. In flats, she was three inches shorter than me.
She leaned close. “Double shot of vodka?”
She nodded earnestly.
I left her at the table with Ozzie, who got up and gave her a hug, and Nate, who waved and then went back to pouring over his notes with a pencil nub he carried in his breast pocket. He insisted on looking “professional” on open mic nights, tie and shiny shoes and everything.
When I came back from the bar, Robyn carefully poured her vodka into a flask she pulled out of her back pocket. “I brought my own mixer.”
“What is it?”
“Chia seed fresca. It’s Aztec.” She swirled the flask and held it out to me. It tasted nutty, with lime and honey mixed in.
Ozzie asked Robyn about her older brother, who’d joined the Air Force. Nate, like the brainiac showoff he is, asked her opinion of the two party system. The two of them went at it, and since I don’t have much of an opinion of the two party system, and since I felt the need to do something drastic to pull her attention back to me, I brought the green heels out from under the table and plopped them in front of Robyn.
She stopped talking and I watched her eyes focus, shifting out of that faraway state they always seemed to be in, even when she was arguing about models of democracy. I imagined her wearing the gorgeous monstrosities with some black leggings and a funky shirt and a scarf tied in her hair. In the heels, three inches taller, our eyes would meet at exactly the same height.
Robyn picked up one of the shoes, handling it like a specimen, peering at the sequins, the buckle. Then she leaned back and declared to the table, “These are entirely the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen.”
I cleared my throat and forced out a laugh. “Right, I know.”
“They’re sickening. Where did you get them?”
“Oh, you know. Around.”
“Come on, where?”
“Hideous,” she muttered, biting her lip. “Absolutely hideous.”
Ozzie and Nate were staring at me like I might spontaneously combust.
“It was just a joke,” I said, reaching to put them back under the table. “I had to show them to somebody. You being a shoe person…” I trailed off.
“No, no, no.” She put a cool hand on my wrist. “Don’t put them away. She arranged them on the table. “They’re our centerpiece. They are absolutely perfect. Beautifully hideous. Superlative.”
I took a gulp of my beer, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, and shrugged. “They’re yours.” Across the table, Ozzie and Nate leaned back in their chairs.
“Really?” She looked at me sideways with this adoring smile that felt like a spotlight. “Thank you, Robert.”
Nobody called me Robert. My asshole dad was Robert, not me. But I didn’t correct her. “You think they’ll fit?” I asked.
She drew one of the shoes toward her with a finger hooked in the heel. “They look a size too small. But I think I could just chop off the toe.”
Before I could answer, the MC announced Nate as “Nate Abatement,” his stage name, and Ozzie erupted in a long “yeah,” pumping his fist.
Nate plodded to the stage, accepted the microphone, and began his rant. “You say Obamacare, I say I don’t care,” he said. “About your labels, you pig. Prig. Bigot. Goat, not scapegoat. Square man—collared by the right wing wingspan of ignorance.” He paused and a boo rose.
After a full three minutes, enough to get the crowd really riled up, Robyn scooted her chair closer to mine. She put a fist under her chin and set her elbow on the table, directly in front of me, blocking my view of the stage.
“You’re right,” she said.
I could smell the lime on her breath, and her perfume. I didn’t like not seeing Nate. I hadn’t been kidding about having to rescue him from rowdy cowboys before. But I leaned in closer to ask, “Right about what?”
“About this being the proverbial shark tank. They’ve got prehistoric, man-beast little brains,” she said, rolling her eyes up and cocking her head back, indicating the crowd behind her.
I caught myself staring at her collarbone. “Well, not all of them. Just a few bad apples.”
She gave a half shrug with one shoulder. “You know what this makes me want to do?”
Nate was on a roll, strutting like a rooster, getting a couple cheers mixed in with the boos. “But look at him.” I gestured to the stage. “He’s in his element.”
She glanced back over her shoulder. “Yes, inspiring. But now it’s time for the real shark tank.”
Cursing myself for the shark tank comparison, I leaned around Robyn to check on three big dudes at the edge of the stage. They had been sitting there with their arms crossed. But now their hands were on their knees or at their sides. Not a good sign. Especially because Nate had taken a knee in front of them, to illustrate the “forests of the downtrodden,” a metaphor for the unemployment rate. Or at least, that’s what he’d told me.
“Years later we are still, interminably, Bush whacking,” Nate roared, his face red, before switching to a sing-song, “Bush is whack, Cheney a hack. Send them on a quail hunt. They’ll never come back!” One of the big dudes raised a fist and flipped Nate the bird. A lemon wedge landed on stage. Ozzie popped up from his chair, jaw set, eyes darting from me to the stage. Ozzie’s a small dude, all short and wiry. But he’s got a temper to match his shock of flaming red hair.
“Oz,” I warned. “Don’t jump the gun. Everyone’s still sitting down.” Then to Robyn, “Why don’t we get another drink and talk about it?”
“Absolutely. A few for the road. For the walk.” She tipped her flask back and handed it to me. “Drink up. Then we’ll fill it with a lovely whiskey or rum. Do you like rum?” Her hand was on my arm. I drained the flask.
As I watched her glide to the bar in those ballet shoes, I realized that we were less than a mile from the aquarium. I imagined us wandering the maze of tanks in the dark, buzzed. I saw us lying on the floor in the tunnel room, smoking the spliff I had in my shirt pocket. That’s what would happen if we made it there. She couldn’t be serious about the shark tank. She couldn’t.
Nate ended with a long howl, bowed, and strode back to our table, where he grabbed his beer, downed it, straightened his tie, and asked, “And how was I received tonight?”
“You’ve got a few fans in the corner, man,” Ozzie said diplomatically.
Robyn was back at my side, her freshly-filled flask in one hand. She lifted the green heels from the center of the table with her free hand and turned toward me, her face all expectant.
“Let’s go over to The Lamp Light,” I said, jerking my head toward the three big cowboys, who were now standing, sizing us up from afar.
“Yeah, fuck it,” Nate said, swinging on his coat.
On the street, Robyn pulled me deeper downtown, dismissing the guys by saying in this little simpering voice, “Excuse us boys, but I’ve got a diver to seduce.” Nate gave a comical salute. Ozzie shot me a disapproving look.
About a block away she slipped her cold hand in mine and started swinging the shoes in the other. “Operation seduction,” she sang.
“What if you don’t get what you want?” I asked. “What happens to the diver?”
“I don’t know. Are you saying I’m not going to get what I want?” She dropped my hand to take a dainty swig from the flask before passing it to me. The whiskey plunged like a dying coal down my throat, and settled in my stomach to burn.
At the aquarium, Robyn took me around back and got into this alcove area with a swipe of her keycard. But the next door was locked and she didn’t have a key.
“Fuck.” The word came out of her like a sigh. “I didn’t think they locked this.”
“What about in front?”
She started pacing, the ballet shoes making a tap, tap, tap on the floor. “That’s locked for sure.” She grabbed the handle again and jiggled. “Can you pick it?” she asked.
I hesitated. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it. I’d done much more punk ass things than breaking and entering. But the aquarium was bound to come with heavy consequences if we got caught. What if it had an alarm system? What if there were cameras inside? Why wasn’t Robyn worried about any of this?
“God, this is irritating. This is awful.” She batted a chunk of her hair out of her face.
“I’ll do it if you promise me one thing.” I had her full attention now. “That when we get in there—if we get in there—you won’t actually jump in the shark tank.”
“That’s the whole point.”
“Then no aquarium.” I watched the gears turn.
“Bobby, I was never serious.”
“Do I need to convince you?” She got real close, and then she was pinning me to the door with the weight of her body, which wasn’t much weight at all, pushing up onto her slippered toes and kissing me, feeding me her whiskey and honey soaked tongue.
So of course I picked the lock.
It took an excruciating ten minutes, first with my bank card, then my driver’s license, but finally the door popped and I stumbled inside. Robyn gave a quiet whoop, skipped past me, and started sprinting. I followed, struggling to keep up, past the jellyfish exhibit and the sea horses and through the tunnel room. When we got to the stairs she took them two at a time. I tripped on the first landing, bashing my elbow into the railing. She didn’t even bother to look back. She was on a mission, the lying vixen.
The third floor was all maintenance and offices and storage from the looks of it. Robyn jetted down one hallway, and then another, and finally came to a door marked “certified divers only” and “danger.”
This door was not locked. We walked right in. The space was dim, but not dark. Lights shone from the bottom of the tank, giving the room this murky, blue glow. From above, the shark tank looked like an ordinary swimming pool. Except for the dark gray shadows moving around below—sand tiger sharks and brown sharks and barracudas. They looked sleepy and lazy from above, but I knew they could sense us. Because of Mike’s aquarium trips I could picture their dead eyes and their frozen, maniacal grins, and their jumble of razor-blade teeth.
A fin broke the surface and I watched one of the sand tiger sharks glide by, struck by how like a regular swimming pool everything smelled and sounded. Damp and humid, but sharp at the same time. Water lapping at the sides. The hum of a generator or pump.
“You still not serious?” I asked Robyn, my voice bouncing off the walls. She was crouched down, looking over the lip of the pool, a mix of fascination and fear on her face. She stood up and crossed to the opposite side of the tank, swinging the heels again. Except this time, on a high upswing, she let go.
I watched the shoes sail toward me, hit the middle of the tank with a plop, and sink. The small sand shark darted out of their way, while one of the barracudas and a big brown shark rushed to investigate.
“Whoops,” Robyn said. “Now I’ll have to go in.”
I watched the heels settle on the bottom. “At the risk of sounding like a dick, Robyn, it’s time to give up the fantasy.”
She pulled a pair of goggles out of her pocket and fixed them on her head.
“You forgot your video camera for one,” I said.
“That’s okay. You can interview me afterwards. It’s really the words that are going to matter later. Trying to express the feeling in words. An image is too concrete. Words are open to interpretation.” She shrugged out of her jacket and slipped off her shoes. “The equipment is in that closet behind you.”
Instead of heading for the closet, I headed for her. She backed away to keep the width of the pool between us.
“Look,” I said. “Divers have this code of ethics we promise to follow. We don’t let inexperienced divers in the water when there’s a clear danger.”
“Who said I’m inexperienced?”
I filled my chest with the humid air in big gulps. “Did you hear me? I’m not letting you do this.”
“Patriarchies are dead. Get used to women taking what they want.”
“You heard me. Either you help me with a tank, or I’m jumping in without one.”
“Hold on a second,” I said. I realized my hands were balled into fists like a little kid and let them relax. “I’m not a real diver. I’m a dumpster diver. I don’t know how to work any oxygen tanks. I don’t even swim that good.”
She stopped unbuttoning her jeans and stared at me. “Why did you tell me you were a diver?”
I lifted my arms and then let them drop. “I don’t know. It’s what I tell old teachers or friends of my parents or anybody who asks that annoying-as-hell question, ‘and what do you do?’ You know, they get that condescending, kindergarten-teacher voice like they’re just bracing themselves to act impressed by whatever pathetic job I feed them. So I tell’em I’m a diver and I let them think up the rest. If it gets down to details I tell them I dive off the coast for the EPA, taking samples.”
“You found my shoes in a dumpster?”
“Well, no. The shoes were curbside.”
“I love it.” She said it like she’d opened a box and found a sleeping puppy inside. “How kitsch. You do that for fun?”
I let out all the air I’d been gulping. “I do it for work.”
She furrowed her dark, thin eyebrows.
“This is dumb as shit, Robyn,” I said.
“I get to be dumb if I want,” she said, unbuttoning all four buttons of her jeans. “I’ve never been dumb. I haven’t done anything. I haven’t felt anything worth feeling. All I have is other people’s experiences crammed in my head. I’m the most boring person alive.”
“So you’re going to make up for it with this?”
She jerked her head up and I knew that I should have denied the boring statement first. I knew girls like this. Who needed regular reassurance. I had no idea Robyn was one of them.
“You’re insane if you think you’re boring.” I thought about charging around the pool and throwing her over my shoulder and dragging her downstairs. I thought about how bad I wanted to see her take off those jeans. “Look, Robyn…” I trailed off as she eased the jeans over her hips and down her thighs, revealing pink and gold bikini bottoms. The coal in my stomach burned hotter. “You go in, I go in. I’m not gonna let a bunch of sharks tear you apart.”
“You’re overreacting.” She whipped her shirt off and flung it aside. Hands on her hips, small breasts perfectly cupped by a matching pink and gold bikini top, she watched me drink her in. She took a step closer to the pool. So did I. Another step.
I took out my pocket knife and held it to my palm over the pool. “Still want to jump in if they’re riled up over my blood?”
She glared at me with the most fury I’ve ever seen in a girl’s eyes. I’m pretty sure she was feeling something goddamn strong.
“Okay, you win,” she said, stalking to meet me.
I closed the blade, but kept a tight grip on the knife, even as she stepped close and pulled my arms around her.
“But what are we going to do now?” she asked.
Before I could answer, she shoved me back hard, and for a moment I teetered on the pool lip, arms windmilling like some cartoon character, and then I was falling. Before I shut my eyes, I saw Robyn dive in like a pro, no splash, just the water enveloping her lean body, from fingertips to pointed toes.
The water was warm, but felt like quicksand with all my clothes on. I lunged for the side, wrestled out of my hoodie, and threw it up onto the floor, along with my shoes. Robyn popped up in the middle of the pool, giggling like a maniac, but after taking a few gulps of air she was gone. I pushed off the edge, knowing that I was strong enough to pull her out, if I could just catch her.
The first sharks I saw under me were two sand tiger sharks, their predator eyes deceptively dead. Then a brown shark slid by, close enough to touch, and as fear slowed time to a crawl, for a minute I was glad she’d forced me into the pool. Swimming with a bunch of deadly fish in the middle of the night in a dark aquarium with a beautiful girl was definitely the sickest thing I’d ever done. The brown shark turned in front of me and I trailed a few fingers along its hard, sleek side, the sound of my heart thumping in my ears.
But where the hell was Robyn? She’d been under water a long time. I ducked down and forced myself to open my eyes. Robyn had a shoe in each hand and was swimming back from the floor of the tank, her long hair streaming behind. She looked vibrant and glamorous—alive in a way she never had before.
When she saw me, she dropped the shoes and starting waving, pointing at her arm and then at me. She opened her mouth and shouted something garbled, sending out a stream of bubbles. Looking at my own arm, the one I’d rammed the railing with, I saw pink water, and then the gash on the outside of my elbow.
I was bleeding.
In the middle of a shark tank.
And that’s when I saw the six-foot barracuda hauling ass for me, grinning its mean motherfucker grin. It dodged at the last moment, and I didn’t wait to see what happened next, because out of the corner of my eye I saw the Brown shark turn around.
I broke the surface and cut for the side, every shark fact I’d heard shooting through my brain in a ticker tape of warnings. Don’t thrash. Thrashing attracts sharks. Sharks can smell fear. Sharks can smell blood from a quarter of a mile away. Sharks bite you in half to see if you’re worth eating.
The water churned behind me, and I was sure it wasn’t just from my legs. My jeans pulled, dragging me down. One sock started to fall off. I knew I was done for when my arm hit something slick and rubbery. I had just experienced what shark skin felt like, and this felt like shark skin. I couldn’t worry about that though. One more stroke and I was at the edge, struggling to pull myself up. I knew this was when the toothy jaws of a tiger shark would come rising out of the water and sink deep into my flesh, severing my vertebrae.
Something did come shooting out of the water. Robyn. She was having trouble, what with the lip of the pool so far from the water, so once I heaved myself up I grabbed her under the arms and dragged her out. She was heavier than I expected. She clutched at my shoulders. We lay there panting, watching the wavering reflections of the water on the ceiling. “Oh shit, oh shit,” she kept saying.
I thought about how we were safe and how we should be raving about what we’d just done and crowing about our immortality and making out on the slippery tile around the pool, her all sexy and half naked.
“Did you get what you wanted?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” She was still breathing hard, but her voice had slipped back into its usual disaffected air. “I have to analyze it. I thought it would be… different.”
I thought about her theory of masks. Whether at the bottom of the shark tank she’d finally managed to take her own off. Or maybe it had come off the moment she shoved me in the water.
“You should take me dumpster diving. There’s a lot to analyze in trash.”
I didn’t look at her. Just got up and swiped my sopping clothes off the floor and turned the overhead lights on. Harsh fluorescents that I knew would wreck the mood—some dream I’d been in for years. The dream of possibility. There was a throbbing pressure in my head, like I’d gotten water stuck in one ear. When she called my name, I glanced back, just to make sure. Yeah. It was gone. She was gone.
Dripping wet and bleeding and cold, I walked all the way down three flights of stairs and through the tunnel room and past the sea horses and jellyfish and out the back.
The next week, when I took Mike to the shark tank, I sat next to him and remembered the lily pad feel of the brown shark’s side instead of looking for Robyn. I’d heard she either got fired or quit.
It took me a while to spot them, but once I did, they were unmistakable. No one had removed the green heels. Maybe the divers hadn’t noticed them. Or thought they were funny. Or that they went with the whole mermaid theme of the tank. Whatever the case, there they were, tangled in a patch of maiden’s hair: two hideously beautiful fish. It hit me then that they didn’t belong to Robyn, or anyone for that matter. They belonged right there, in the shark tank.
As for me, I was still figuring out where I belonged. And for the time being I was content to sift pieces of possibility, one dumpster at a time.