ALEX AUSTIN


Night SwimSherri Wright, "Water Lilies"


“Mother’s Beach,” said Hugh, gesturing at the pale, narrow crescent of sand bordering the dark glassy bay. “Water's shallow. No waves. No riptides. Safe as a bathtub. Also cruelly known as Stretch Mark Beach.”

“I don’t understand,” said Setsuko.

Setsuko’s English was more advanced than Hugh’s Japanese, but she was challenged by idioms and wordplay. H
ugh took her hand and puffed out his belly. He held her hand to his skin and separated her fingers. “Marks left when the woman’s skin stretches during pregnancy. Stretch marks.”

“Ah, sutoretchimāku.”

They wrapped their arms around each other, shrugged off their shoes, and stepped into the still-warm sands. It was August and in Los Angeles it had been in the nineties during the day for the last two weeks. It was mild compared to a Tokyo summer, and perfect beach weather, but Setsuko, wary of the sun, would only go to the beach in late afternoon, and even then hide beneath an umbrella. How relaxed she seemed now, sunbathing at midnight.

At the water’s edge they stopped, swaying to the music that slipped from an open door of the restaurant like a bird escaping from a cage. On the bay, the nightlights of a hundred boats danced like fluorescent sea creatures. Hugh dug his toes into the moist sands, took Setsuko’s arm and guided her out into the shallow water. Holding hands, they walked in the warm bay toward a shadowy bulkhead that ran down the beach and into the water. Beyond the bulkhead was a lit dock, on which a dozen shiny sea kayaks stretched out in all directions like seals on a jetty. The bulkhead throwing a convenient shadow on the sands, Hugh and Setsuko lay down beneath the dark pilings. Hugh offered his chest as pillow.

“I would like to paint this,” said Setsuko, gesturing at the shimmering lights on the gentle water. She framed the scene with her arms.

“Night or day?” asked Hugh.

“Night. Yes, night.”

“We’ll come back.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Pessimist,” he whispered, kissing Setsuko’s nose and then her lips, shaping them to his. But realist was more accurate. Hugh knew as well as Setsuko that there wouldn’t be time to return to the beach. The flight was at dawn on Thursday. She’d need tomorrow night for packing. No, he thought, she had no instinct for pretending.

He took off his shirt, laid it on the sand and unpeeled Setsuko’s jeans. She trusted him wholly, had from that first night when they danced to Elvis Costello, and he fell in love with her grace, soft laughter, slender beauty—and self-possession. There was no other word for it.  

In two days, she was to return to Japan. A week later, he was to follow, back to his job at the school where he taught English to adult Japanese who would not say a word unless specifically instructed to, and where Setsuko as his student had been no less reticent until that night he met her on a street in the Rapongi District.  Then she spoke, using the English he had taught her. She was meeting friends at a nearby nightclub. They were nice people. There would be music. It would be fun. Hugh appreciated the invitation but he had to decline. He was tired and just about to return to his apartment. He wouldn’t tell her that he feared some breach of school policy. Not that the subject of socializing with students had ever come up, but no doubt there were some guidelines. Setsuko had ignored his yawn and insisted that he accompany her, tugging on his sleeve and making sour faces.

Hugh held his hand against Setsuko and stared back across the beach at the restaurant’s picture windows where the dancers were so densely packed and their movements so similar that they appeared as one organism. At one of the docks, a boat was tying up, its hull tapping rhythmically against the wood.

If not for Setsuko, he wouldn’t be returning to Japan. The teaching position was unsatisfying and led nowhere, and after three years, he had cooled to the pace and thrills of Tokyo, where people had to hold their breath to squeeze into the subways and to navigate the sidewalks.

Hugh rapped his hand on the sand in time with the tapping boat. “We didn’t get to Big Sur,” he said.

“Oh, next time.”

“It takes your breath away. And that drive up the coast—so many beautiful spots. You’d run out of paint.”

“Next time,” said Setsuko, pressing her hand against Hugh’s chest as if to feel his heartbeat. “My father will be better... maybe I could stay for a month.”

What if he doesn’t get better? What if he stays that way ... forever? But knowing the answer, Hugh didn’t ask.

“Let’s go for a swim,” said Hugh to Setsuko.

“All right.”

Hugh took off his jeans. Setsuko slipped off her T-shirt. They crept across the sands, staying in the bulkhead’s shadow. They slipped into the water like amphibious creatures tired of the obstinacy of land. At first, the water was too shallow for them to swim, so they crawled, digging their fingers into the mud and sand, their bodies floating on the water’s surface. Every few yards, the bottom pulsed as the sand sharks and flatfish darted for cover.  Eventually the water became waist deep, and they let loose the seabed. Setsuko had swum on her high school team. Hugh had to labor to keep up with her, but it was not long before they reached the rope and buoys that signaled the limits of the bathing area. They clung to the rope. Hugh held his hands up and dropped to the bottom. His feet touched in an instant. It was just over his head, just deep enough to drown. Bending his knees, and then straightening, he resurfaced. With arms resting on the rope, they clung to each other, kissing hungrily, faces sinking into the sea until they remembered their breaths. The water had the faint smell of oil, and he tasted it on Setsuko’s lips. A pelican swooped down out of nowhere, skimming the surface, its huge whiteness unexpected. Setsuko stared into Hugh’s eyes as he slipped off her panties. She wrapped her legs around him. His hand barely clasped the rope.

Hugh’s toes brushed the sea bottom as he stood to hold Setsuko’s weight. He thrust into her, lost himself in the firm silky body until unable to hold back his ejaculation, he stepped forward to keep his balance and felt a prick to the arch of his foot, accompanied by the shiver of a shifting animal “Fuck,” he said, slowly releasing Setsuko.

“What is it?”

“I stepped on something. I think a shark.”

Her eyes went big. “A shark bit you?”

“No, no. A sand shark. They don’t bite , but their tails have stingers.” Hugh held to the rope, lifted and bent his leg. He drew his fingers across the spot that burned. “My foot will swell up. I might get sick. We better go in.”

Setsuko nodded. She turned over and swam on her back, watching Hugh as he thrashed angrily at the sea that had ruined the moment.

As they dressed, Setsuko said, “I want to kill it and eat it.”

“What do you mean?”

“The shark that bit you.”

“It didn’t—”

Setsuko tossed down her clothes and walked back toward the bay.

“Setsuko, don’t be crazy.”

But she was already in the water, diving, disappearing.

He dropped down on the sand, inspecting his foot.

Fifty yards from the beach, near the rope where their lovemaking had been thwarted, Setsuko disappeared.

“Setsuko! Come on. It’s funny, okay. But enough’s enough.”

She appeared on the surface, swimming toward the shore. Nearing the shore, she stood up, the boat’s lights sparking off her wet black hair.

To her chest, she held something gray and the length of a man’s shoe.  It was only when she was upon him that he realized it was alive and vibrating. She gazed at Hugh, lifted the sand shark to her mouth and bit. Blood flicked across her cheeks.

“Setsuko!”

She dropped the wriggling wounded shark to the sand, where it was quickly coated like a filet in batter.

In Setsuko’s womb, the little fish swam toward its intended.