She is clothed and he is naked. He keeps squeezing her shoulders as the showerhead soaks her hair only. He is dry. He looks at her. Then he becomes a shark, balancing upright on his tail. She stares into his black eyes, like a magic 8 balls without fortunes. She tries to see her own reflection in his eyes. He leans in to kiss her, but she does not want to kiss him, too scared his teeth would bite off her tongue.
“Good morning,” he says, rubbing her shoulder. She rolls over to look at him, green eyes. She sighs.
“Good morning,” she says. He leans down to kiss her. His eyes are closed and hers are open. He presses his lips hard to hers and she knows he wants a passionate good morning kiss. She slips her tongue in like a ticket. As if she were punching it in to clock out of work. She sees his eyes tighten and the little wrinkles form above his eyelashes. She knows he is imagining. He is imagining something more. She grasps his shoulder and the lines disappear. He opens his eyes. She retracts her tongue, embarrassed.
“Do you want coffee?” he asks.
“Would that be better than the breath I have now?”
He chuckles, rolling out of bed. He heads to the kitchen and she traipses behind him.
“Good morning, Rascal,” he says to the orange bundle of fur on the kitchen counter. Rascal purrs. She sticks her finger out and swivels it in front of the cat, smiling as he swats her hand.
“What kind of coffee are we—ow! Damn it!” she yells and looks down at her bleeding finger. He turns to see what happened.
“I told you not to do that, Sara,” he says, scolding her.
“I was just playing,” she whispers like a child and sucks on her finger. The cat turns away and walks toward Dan, its tail a vibrant middle finger sticking straight up for Sara. She walks to the bathroom and rinses off her finger. When she returns to the kitchen, Dan is at the table with a plate of Eggos and two mugs of coffee, the steam attempts to climb to the ceiling, dissipating instead. She takes her place at the table and sips the coffee.
“Did you know my pee smells like popcorn when I drink coffee?”
“Hold on, I have to pray first,” he says. He does the Sign of the Cross with his right hand and scrolls on his phone with his left. Dan is Catholic.
He took her to Mass for the first time a month into their relationship. She remembers only the Mea culpa. She remembers how everyone hit his or her chest in harmony: through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. She remembers hitting her chest, but not knowing when to stop because everyone finished at a different time. Dan grabbed her hand. She laughed to herself. She made eye contact with a little boy at the end of the pew. He smiled and beat his chest like King Kong. His mother grabbed his hand and shamed him like parents do. Three years later and she still wants to bang her chest like that little boy.
“Okay, what did you say?” Dan asks.
“My pee, it smells like popcorn whenever I drink coffee.”
“Sara, that’s gross. No, it doesn’t.”
“Yes, it does!” she argues.
“Well, whatever, I don’t wanna know that.”
“I don’t understand you men,” she says and gulps her coffee, burning her tongue and throat.
“What do you mean?” he asks, taking a bite of his waffle.
“I just don’t understand how you can do things like go down on a woman, but not think about the other stuff that goes on down there. Like peeing. Like popcorn piss.”
“Am I not satisfying you?” he asks with a full, sticky mouth.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying…”
“Look, female genitalia are the equivalent of getting through algebra. When you find the formula that works, it’s enough. You don’t need to know the extra stuff like calculus.” He smirks at his own joke.
She looks down at her lap and wonders if the quadratic formula is down there, wedged in between her thighs. Rascal hops up on the table and prances around the plate of food and mugs.
“Please, Dan, can you move that cat? I don’t want his fur in my coffee.”
“Hey, maybe he wants his piss to smell like popcorn too,” he says, placing the cat into his lap, “Isn’t that right, Rascal?”
Sara picks up her mug of coffee and dumps it out in the sink. She refills it with tap water and grabs the bag of seaweed on the counter. She plucks a piece out and folds the crispy snack into a thick square, flakes fluttering onto fingernails. She places it into her mouth and sips water from her mug. She leans back into her chair, smiling and swishing. Dan looks up from the cat.
“What are you doing?”
“When you eat salted seaweed and water at the same time, it’s like there’s an ocean in your mouth.”
“Has anyone told you how odd you are?”
“Yes.” He stares at her. “You have.”
“Thought so,” he says and returns to scrolling through his phone with his left hand and petting the cat with his right.
“Let’s go to the aquarium!” she exclaims.
“The aquarium. Let’s go there. I want to see the jellyfish.”
“Really? That’s what you want to do with our day off?”
“Well what else were we gonna do?”
“I don’t know,” he pauses and shrugs, “Algebra?”
Sara’s hands are pressed against the shark tank. She can’t tell if she is attracted to the creatures behind the glass or the light the tank provides in the dark.
A sand tiger shark keeps crossing her path. It continues gliding past her, aimless. As if he wants to know her, but won’t take the time. She is not offended. She knows most sharks must keep swimming, even while sleeping. Otherwise, they die.
“You wanna take it home? You’ve been watching it for ten minutes.”
She glances to Dan, hands still on the glass. She would never admit it, but she did not remember he is there, with her.
“Yeah, I do. Rascal could use someone to keep him in check.”
Dan looks offended. Sara lets go of the glass and takes Dan’s hand. Her palm is sweaty and his is dry. She is nervous. She is so nervous to be here, with him. They turn the corner to the next exhibit. It is the first time the shark bumps his snout to the glass.
“Oh, Dan, the jellyfish section! I heard they have turritopsis nutricula.”
Dan is skeptical that she is telling the truth.
“What is that?”
“They’re these jellyfish that live forever.”
“That’s not possible.”
“It is. I read about it,” she says. “They do this weird thing where they go from their polyp stage to their medusa stage, back and forth, forever.” He still looks confused. “It’s as if they just Benjamin Button their whole lives.”
Dan nods his head as if he were underwater, slow, and with no breath.
She walks faster, tugging his hand and into the dark room they go, filled with glowing tubes of jellyfish. The room is all black except for the bluish, purple glow emanating from the tanks, as if they walked in on someone’s acid trip: elastic, ethereal, bright.
The only other people in the exhibit are a tiny girl and her grandpa. She is on his shoulders to see the jellyfish that have floated to the top of the oblong tubes. The little girl sneezes on her grandpa’s head and he takes no notice.
Sara’s eyes flicker to the other side of the room. She sees it. An eternity trapped in a tank. The small jellyfish has a miniscule ball of red that floats in the center of its opalescent, round body. The tentacles are so small, as if they are separate particles permanently floating about the jellyfish, a crumbling ring around an obscure planet. In the tank it travels like a heartbeat, pumping in a gentle rhythm.
Sara approaches it and places one finger to the glass.
“It’s so beautiful,” she drags her finger to follow the jellyfish, “and small,” she laughs.
“Its head looks like a condom,” Dan adds.
Sara hasn’t heard him. Instead she turns to face him, hoping he will squat down and look at the jellyfish as closely as she is.
“How do you think an eternity fits in this thing?”
“I really don’t think it can live forever, Sara.”
“But it says so—”
“Sure, maybe if it lives in this tank forever, but what if a turtle ate it? Could it survive that?”
“Well no, but—”
“Then it can’t live forever. It can survive if it’s protected, but nothing can protect it forever. An earthquake could happen at any moment and the ceiling could crumble and kill it.”
Sara looks back to the nearly invisible creature, safe, but suddenly ephemeral. Dan squats down to gaze at it. “Which would you rather have, Sara? Would you rather have the life of a jellyfish or the one you have now?”
She takes her finger off the glass.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I got stuck in a really big wave?”
He looks at her, thinking she’s avoiding his question. He shakes his head.
“I was thirteen and bodysurfing with some friends. The boy I liked, he would wait at the shore to catch me when the wave pushed me to him.”
“Hey, I don’t remember being there,” he says, simpering and looks to the other side of the room.
“I’d nearly float to him on each of these perfect waves and he’d catch me in his slimy, wet arms. I was waiting when I looked behind me and saw this wave, much larger than the others. Before I could dive under, it took me. I was rolling and tumbling, unable to breathe. I screamed with the very little breath I had left and realized no one could hear except this rumbling ocean. And it was screaming too.”
Dan realizes she is answering the question.
“When the wave finally finished I rolled onto sharp sand and shells. My face and arms were all cut up. Jake was a quarter mile away and ran over. He asked if I was okay and I burst out laughing.”
She pauses, smiling at her own memory; an image Dan would give anything to see. “I told him I wanted to do it again and he thought I’d lost my mind.”
“It makes sense, you were all cut up…”
“Everything hurts outside the underbelly of a rolling wave.”
“I just think—”
“I have a jellyfish soul.”
Dan looks to her, confused. She continues to watch the jellyfish float with little consecutive pumps, heartbeats. Growing old and young, captive in its immortality.
The little girl giggles with her grandpa. They turn to watch her. She spins in circles, her pink dress fluttering up. She wiggles her arms at her side and jumps up and down. She is a jellyfish. The grandpa picks her up and throws her over his shoulder.
Sara returns her gaze to the jellyfish before Dan can look at her.
“You’re not in love with me anymore,” he says.
She closes her eyes.
He kisses her temple and stands up to leave the exhibit.
After pumping with gumption, the jellyfish floats to the bottom. No effort wasted; it has time.
Julia Gerhardt is a writer from Los Angeles, now living in Baltimore. Her work has been published in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Cease, Cows, Literary Orphans, Rogue Agent, Flash Fiction Magazine, Monkeybicycle, and others. She is currently working on her first novel.