Emilio can’t fly home when his mother dies, on account of his expired student visa, so we get as close to the ocean as we can; Maine, where the alewives are spawning, leaping commas from the fish ladder. Inside the highway visitor center kids dip hands into “experience tanks,” touching starfish and little skates, nymphish ray-like creatures. Emilio grabs me by the wrist and thrusts my hand underwater. He holds it there while the skate bumps its cold jelly nose on my fingertips. A laminate sign bolted to the wall nearby says that skates are used mostly as bait for lobster traps, though their wings are also sold as food.
For dinner we follow Google Map instructions to a semi-fancy place where we eat scallops in dark leather chairs too big for us, broadsheet menus like hang gliders in our hands. We’re still waiting with bread when the hostess seats a gay couple at a nearby table close enough so we can hear them discuss the wine list. They are not quite middle-aged, both with three-day beards of stiff, red and gray hairs; the thick knots of their Adam’s apples bunch and release over sips of Riesling, stemware gripped like tender violets between massive thumb and forefinger; their collared shirts fit them (they don’t droop to their armpits like ours), starched fabric up against stippled flesh, freshly shaven, a finger’s width between shirt and neck. Their shoulders rise over the backs of the leather chairs like rounded mountains. We hurry through our meal and drinks and leave the restaurant with the knowledge that we are poor copies.
We head for the water a few blocks away. Emilio pisses twice on the dock. Once where the road meets the pier’s soft wood, and again behind the grey metal box that hides the machinery that powers the winch that hauls the boats out to hibernate inside leaky barns with fist-wide gaps between the boards. This time of night he squats under a bright Big Dipper with no one around, which I guess we do every night but it’s different when you can look right up at it, hot pee squirting between your legs. He shines the flashlight on the pavement where the urine’s splayed into three rivers over the road.
He starts shouting into the dark over and over, maybe trying to get his own attention and shake himself out of muddy grief, or else yell one faint message to his mother’s ghost on her way out, as if this ocean in front of us were a wraparound porch and his voice could reach her floating somewhere above the Caribbean. I can’t ask why are you shouting to a woman who only ever called you Valentina, even when you asked her not to because I know the answer, because it’s my answer, too, so instead I stand a few feet away holding his shirt and watching him strain his vocal cords against the starchy neckline of his binder, sweat dripping into the Lycra where it will later chafe a corsage of red blooms onto his collarbone.
A certain species of mayfly larvae spends its youth in freshwater streams, attached to rocks by a sticky gossamer substance. Every so often, they unwind it and use it to rappel down the rapids to feed on microscopic crap and feel the adrenaline rush through their buggy veins. Over and over again they reel themselves back in and let go, never losing their anchor point. As Emilio steps down and away from the edge of the dock I wish I had one of those threads to haul us back. It would have been useful had he decided to jump: it’s low tide, and you can just see the rocks below, a faint reflection of streetlight off their wetness, looking like they would hurt. Emilio glistens, too, with sweat and fog. Instead of a sticky, reliable rope to hold on to I offer him his shirt but he waves me off, unsteady, pleasantly exhausted, looking more like himself: happy, but never all-the-way happy.
Quiet, just breathing, we hear a knocking too vigorous to be the boats nudging the pier, and trace it to the corner where the dock makes a left turn, a big L-shape sticking out from the shore. We peek over. The water’s higher here and someone’s suspended a 50-gallon tub half into the water, tied to the supports with rope. We start hauling the rope, careful with every jerk to keep it level like a couple of drunken sailors lowering a lifeboat into choppy seas, giddy and a little amniotic not knowing what’s sloshing around in our precious cargo.
We pull it onto the pier and Emilio puts his arm in the water. Grinning, sneering, elbow deep, he holds up the biggest, bluest lobster I’ve ever seen, as long as his forearm and tail snapping so madly he has to use two hands. It’s blue all over, cotton-candy on a summer day blue. He holds her aloft, his brow haloed golden in the streetlight’s 3000-watt fluorescence, a host of mothy cherubim zazzing his forehead.
The lobster starts tailwhipping again until Emilio flips her upside down, making me wonder as I’m staring at her undercarriage where he learned so much about holding lobsters. Tucked underneath, between her tail and where all the hard-shelled parts of her come to meet is a cluster of pearlescent eggs, hundreds of them so it looks like a chunk of nubby styrofoam stuck to her except it’s moist. Emilio tears into her. He claws at the eggs, scatters them in wet clumps to the ground where he stomps and grinds them into a slimy, chalky paste. Digging into her crannies, he takes his time, sure to pick her clean of her brood. When he’s done, she wiggles her legs like she appreciates his efforts, but I might be just projecting; it’s the most beautiful I’ve ever seen him, and it’s impossible to tell if he’s giving or taking during this impromptu abortion.
He flips her back over, kisses her once on her blue head and sends her sailing a high arc into the ocean. We hear the splash and then all that’s left of her is at our feet, a smear of dirty white muck full of grit from the bottom of Emilio’s sneakers. It’s unbelievable that something, hundreds of little somethings, ever called it home. Smelling of salt water and wet dandruff we slink back to our bed and breakfast where I shower, and when I come out tacky from the well water I see him sitting on the bed back to normal, face glowing blue with phone light. We’ll get under the covers and try drunkenly for a few minutes to have sex before falling asleep where I’ll finally get to file away the image of him with the blue lobster, a reminder of all the irreversible biological choices we can make. I’m thinking again about the mayflies. Once they molt they live for one day only. They lose their mouthparts and fly around, mating and starving to death, escaping from the consequences of their actions in a gentle snow of carcasses.
“The Book of New Fish” is an unpublished work-in-progress [about boundaries drawn on land and bodies.]