Sarah Brown | Lessons from the Sea

lessons-from-seaOut where we’re from, anything unpredictable is female. Countries, weather, the sea. “She’s gonna be some hot,” Henry would say when we climbed aboard in the wee hours. Or “some windy,” or some variant thereof. The ocean was supposed to teach us about these feminine fluctuations, though we were both girls already and I considered myself pretty steadfast. Shoshanna not so much, but then again, she was braver than me.

Henry had hired us the day after we finished high school — the day I hurled up my cereal seven times of the seiner. “Get yer sea legs, b’y,” he laughed. He was a patriotic citizen, pretend Catholic, and an adequate fisherman. On the boat he’d swig duty-free whiskey, winking, “Time for the spoils of war,” as he unveiled the beaten flask. Everyone knew, including my parents, but they were just happy I had a job that required neoprene boots and torn overalls. Clothing.

The first billboard went up around that time. An anonymous girl in low-cut leggings, no makeup, nipples nearly visible. This was a big deal for Mount Pearl, Newfoundland. Andrew Rand’s grandmother died of a stroke and they blamed the American Apparel advertisement for inducing it.

Mount Pearl was a town on the periphery of largeness. We knew each other’s addresses and family histories, but also knew we had to merge onto the highway to get anywhere. The quaint row houses of our grandparents required constant upkeep. We patched all the pipes in my grandma’s kitchen and still they kept leaking, as though the water wanted to claim these old walls as its own. Most of our parents commuted into St. John’s for work, lowering their sun visors and shaking their heads as they passed the billboard. It felt like there was an unspoken rule to maintain some secret divide between us and them, and the advertisement sat too close to the borders, glossy and menacing.

Sho picked me up in her truck and we sped past the strip mall and the McDonalds and the billboard every morning on our way to work. I’d still be picturing the model as we cut the fish up: her body would appear like a mirage, a bloody statue in their guts.

The image would disintegrate as Henry hocked his liquor-spit onto the deck.

“Shoshanna,” he’d yell, “haul up the net. Catherine, get ice into the coolers.”

Sho and I worked together expertly. Even when we moaned about how our bodies

changed, became sinewy and sunburnt, we were in it together. Since we were both saving — Sho to pay off her truck, me for university —  our paycheques made it worth it.

There were other ways to try to make a living. So many of the other girls we graduated with, despite hissing gossip about the billboard, were uploading modeling selfies with a thousand hopeful hashtags. The same pose, hands placed delicately over breasts. Square-ratio imitation, canola oil smeared onto their skin. Sometimes I looked into the coolers of fish on ice, their million motionless eyes, and it reminded me of those photos. Then I’d feel like a bitch for making the comparison. Really, Sho and I were in the same boat, and what we all wanted to know was: what did we have to do to see ourselves that big?

Sho hauled the nets up as I wiped the fish gurry, slime and blood, onto the rag and continued my incisions, throwing the plaice into the bucket, their scales gray and rank-smelling.

“You gals tired yet?” Henry yelled out.

“No,” we yelled back in unison.

“You two,” he chuckled. “Cut from the same cloth.”

***

Everyone thought that, but it was debatable. We looked alike, tall and broad and brown-haired, and even shared a blood type. We cramped up on the same days each month like clockwork. People told us we could pass for sisters. If you’re told something enough times, there’s little reason to doubt it.

One night that summer, when I met Sho down at the dock, I gasped at the sight of her. Her hair was shorn off and dyed bright blue, her palms stained with Manic Panic, the stars spangled out behind her.

“Your mom is going to kill you,” I hissed. She only shrugged. Graduation was over; we had passed our courses, and I guess now she wanted to flaunt her freedom.

We sat in the stern and I tried not to fiddle with my own hair, which now felt slightly foreign. We took turns swigging from one of Henry’s bottles. Sho seemed to sense I was a bit thrown, and she straddled my knees. “Want to see something wild?”

I groaned. “Please don’t try to steal the boat again.”

“Scout’s honour.” She unearthed our yearbook from her bag. “First, let me show you something. See this photo of Andrea Wexler? Nice smile, high collar. The picture of innocence.”

“Those are our grad gowns. They make everyone look like nuns.”

“Well, Andrea Wexler will never be mistaken for a nun ever again.” Sho contrasted this with a photo on her phone: Andrea, pooled into neon spandex, split ends barely grazing her breasts.

“Holy shit,” I said. “American Apparel?”

“No,” Sho laughed. “Some off-brand company that sells leggings online. She was posting it all over the internet.”

Something about the photo scared me. I guess it was because I knew Andrea, although not this Andrea, sullen and stylized. I wondered if she would eventually find her way onto a billboard, or if she would stay contained in the computer screens of Mount Pearl, in browser windows open in darkly-lit rooms.

“Do you think her parents know? What do you think they did?”

Sho shrugged. “I mean, think about what yours would do.”

“I don’t know . . . I think it would be so awkward, and they’d tell me they were

disappointed, but they wouldn’t disown me or anything.”

Sho cracked her knuckles. “I’m pretty sure my dad would tell me I looked like a whore. But, hey, what else is new.”

“You know, I bet in New York they wouldn’t even blink an eye at this kind of stuff,” I said. “Sometimes I’m so sick of this place. It’s, like, a hundred years behind.”

Sho stared at me intently. “You mean that?”

“Yeah.”

“Then let’s leave.”

“What?”

“Let’s take all the money we’ve saved and book a flight or a train or whatever, tomorrow. New York, you and me.”

“Tomorrow? I mean, that’s . . . tomorrow. What about packing our stuff? And Henry — he said he needs us to go down to Grand Banks with him.”

“Since when do you care about what Henry needs?”

“I don’t, I just . . . it’s too fast, Sho.”

She leaned back and sighed, but I knew she couldn’t really be angry. This was our

routine: she talked me into wilder things and I talked her out of doing the wildest things.

“Maybe after the summer’s over,” I said, and put on my best Henry impression. “Come on, girlie, dont’cha wanna be here for the fish fry?”

“Oh, yes, b’y, long as I don’t puke my rum into the bucket of clams like last year . . .”

It felt good to see that Sho’s mouth still looked the same  —  wide and grinning, two fillings glinting in their usual place. We fell asleep nestled together in the bulkhead, the waves lapping beneath us. We could have been doubled embryos, conjoined twins, because the bend of our bones fit so perfectly against one another. If a surgeon came to cut us apart, I thought, they wouldn’t know where to start.

***

They replaced the first American Apparel billboard with an updated version. The girl was

somehow fresher, taller, more independent-looking. Andrew Rand was paid to paste it up, like some weird recompense for his grandmother. As we drove past, he was working the roller with a look of joyous precision.

On the boat, Henry was complaining as usual.

“Gotta get down to Grand Banks next week,” he said. “Time for the July harvest. Those cruddy ships always scoopin’ up more than their fair share.”

The plaice were a breed of fish frequently fought over by North Atlantic fisherman. We’d heard the stories — Canadian ships colliding with American, scrambling to scoop the biggest net. Drunken sailor brawls over open water.

“See, if somethin’ should happen,” Henry explained, “I need one of you to be out on the defense, and the other to keep track of the fish, so they’re all accounted for.”

I sensed Sho sizing me up. “You up for it?” Henry asked us.

“I mean, if you’re going to put us in this position, you need to give us health insurance like you promised,” I told him.

“Jesus Christ, Catherine,” said Sho. “Henry, get us something to defend ourselves with! We’ll be totally useless otherwise. I’ll fight them off and Cath can stitch us up.”

“Don’t be stupid, they’ll hurt you more if you hurt them —”

“I’m not just going to sit there —”

“Quiet, quiet!” Henry barked. “No point fightin’ about it until we’re there.”

I eyed Sho warily. Something about Henry brought out the differences in us, instigated a competition. He was always fixed on the big picture — the grandness of maps, the largesse of fishmongers, the sea — but unable to focus on the smaller things in front of him: safety regulations or rubber gloves or the emotional frequencies of teenage girls. My mother said it was good to learn how to work for a man like that. She said he shared the temperament of many world leaders.

***

Later, in my bedroom, Sho was growing restless. “Let’s take photos of ourselves like the

models,” she said. “To make fun of them. Like what’s-it-called —  satire.”

“That seems kinda pointless,” I replied, but when I turned around she had already  stripped off her bra.

“Come on, Cath,” she goaded. “Don’t you wanna have a sexy photo on hand to send some guy?”

I rolled my eyes, because the concept of some guy was as abstract as it sounded. She knew as well as I did that neither of us dated. All of our time was spent with each other; there wasn’t room for anyone to fit in between.

But I could tell she wouldn’t let this go as easily as New York. So I unhooked my bra, too. Although Sho and I now had different hair, our breasts remained similarly curved. It was evident when captured through a lens.

“I actually think we look great,” Sho said as we scrolled through my phone’s camera roll. “I look badass.”

“It’s just hair dye,” I said. “I think we look exactly the same.”

“No-o-o. Not where it matters!”

“What do you mean?”

She raised her eyebrows and then lowered the waistband of her underwear. Underneath, everything was freshly clean-shaven. “Bald as an eagle,” she drawled.

I reached out my finger to stroke the skin. It felt raw and dramatic, like a newborn.

“See, we can be secretly different underneath. You stay all furry, like a beaver,” she laughed.

“What the hell? I’m not a beaver.”

“Oh, don’t get all offended. Beavers are cute.”

“I mean, if you’re going to call me an animal at least make it, like, a black bear or wild cat or something cooler.”

Sho sighed theatrically. “Man, you can’t take a joke.”

“Well . . . sorry,” I muttered.

Eventually we did what we always did back then. We rubbed up against each other until there were no divisions remaining between us, until we felt singular and sweaty and good. This was short-lived; we’d detangle clumsily, reconcile our normal roles again. It felt like an eternal confusion. I had to step back and consider the origin of the earth to remind myself that we were young.

***

The next day, Sho told me she had a surprise. I expected it to be a bottle of vodka or the keys to Henry’s boat. She pulled out her laptop, and I was confused — a website seemed far too innocuous.

When she added, “Now, don’t freak out,” this sounded more familiar.

“What? Did you buy us plane tickets, or something?”

“Better.”

I joined her on my bed. “I don’t get it. This is just some modeling agency.”

“They supply models to companies, and they’re holding a contest. Only a few girls get chosen. They send you to New York for the shoot.” Now Sho looked at me, and her eyes were glimmering in a way I hadn’t seen in a while. “I entered us.”

“Both of us?”

“With the photos we took yesterday. I put a filter on them and everything. They look like the billboard.”

“Wait, wait. You can’t see the photos online, can you?”

“Well, that’s the thing . . . “

I seized her laptop and began scrolling downwards. There I was: a grainy cell phone shot amidst a hundred other girls, all bare and staring back dead-eyed into the camera. Sho’s photo was beside mine but I couldn’t look at it, couldn’t tear my gaze away from myself. I felt sick and churning, like I’d fallen back to my first day on the boat — only it was worse, much worse, I was nauseous with an audience.

I grabbed the first thing I could find —  my water glass — and threw the whole thing at her laptop. It splintered the screen, drew fissures through our images.

“Jesus, Catherine! What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you? How could you do that without asking me?”

“Come on, you know we do everything together.”

“Not —  not like this —”

“No one will ever even see them, probably. Unless we get chosen, that is.”

“You know that’s not true.” I buried my head in my pillow, all the faces of Mount Pearl swimming before me, becoming malicious in their curiousity.

When I looked up, Sho was considering me in a careful manner.

What?

“I didn’t know you had it in you.” She fiddled with the cracked laptop.

“Huh?”

“You’ve never really fought me before.”

“Well . . . maybe you deserve it.”

“Come on, Cath.” She said it softly. “I’m just trying to get us out of here, even if it’s scary.”

“You don’t get it. You think changing your  — your hair or your body or whatever, it makes you some revolutionary. But underneath that you’re nothing new. The same girl in different packaging.”

Beneath her blue hair, Sho’s face flushed red.

“You just can’t handle it,” she said. “That everyone wants to look at me.”

***

When everything broke apart, it happened over the water. The next morning, Henry took us down to Grand Banks at the crack of dawn. His timing was right  — we pulled in bursting nets, the plaice wriggling out wildly — and, hovering in the horizon, an American ship was doing the same. We’d never worked so quickly. Even Henry was sweating.

“You girls sure are quiet today,” he grunted. “Guess a good bounty will do that to ya.”

“Hey!” Shoshanna’s voice came sharply. “Catherine, what’s the matter with you?”

I was living in two worlds: one the mechanical motions of the ship, and the other the life of my photo. I was praying it was still contained, I was picturing the first revelations of its existence. In doing so, I’d let a pail of fish guts topple over Sho’s boots.

“Get out of the way,” Sho grunted. I bent down to scoop them up, but my head collided with hers. She pushed my face away, hard, with her gloved hand.

“Augh!” I felt fish entrails slime down my cheek, and pushed her back. It was like she’d been waiting for it. She slapped me hard across the face. So I slapped her back. She seized a hank of my hair and pulled until I screamed.

“Hey, hey, hey, this is fun!” Henry said. “No, Catherine, you’ve gotta come in from the left. Shoshanna, buck up your defenses.”

Sho punched me hard in the stomach. Doubled over, I grabbed her left leg and we fell down onto the deck, clawing, bones clashing, the fish gasping all around us.

“Strategy, strategy!” Henry bellowed.

“Shut up,” Sho and I said in unison. It shocked us into stillness, and we stared at one another. We stared so long that it was like sifting through buckets of bloody stomachs and scales, plaice-plaice-plaice-plaice until the syllables melded into something meaningless. My eyes burned but I wouldn’t blink. And then she blinked, and then she jumped.

The sea made a cavernous splash. I watched her swim towards the American ship. “What are you doing?” I screamed at her. “Are you leaving?”

I could make out the other sailors, laughing like she was the best thing they’d ever seen. They pulled her soaking body aboard and when their fingers dug into her flesh, it was like something was also clawing at me.

“Aren’t you going to do something? Henry! We have to go save her.”

Henry’s breath smelled like rum and indifference. “Look, she’ll be meetin’ us back at the dock in an hour, girlie. She just wants to have a bitta fun with those guys. I was young too, once, y’know!”

I squinted into the haze. “I can’t see what’s going on, go closer —”

“And risk all this fish? No, miss.” Henry clapped a grimy hand on my shoulder. “Look, you’ve gotta admit somethin’ to yourself.” He held out his bottle.

I took a desperate swig.

“Women are unpredictable,” he went on. “Like places, like water.”

“Henry,” I groaned.

“No,” he said. “Listen to me! Look at your friend over there. The picture of somethin’ untamed. That’s why men fight over a gal. They wanna protect ya, feel out all of your patterns. Like charting a new land.”

“I don’t want anyone to chart me,” I said, but with the liquor burning in my throat it came out all wobbly.

“Sooner or later, you’ll see.” After this ominous conclusion, he turned away from me. “We gotta unload these nets, quick. Let’s make for shore. They’ll bring her home.”

As we sailed further away, the sight of her was obscured by the lops, the small breaking waves, until there was only the open water. My body shook in the way a body does when it recognizes something’s been severed. Later, I’d undress to find bruises all over, imprinted with the delicacy of single leaves.

***

The next time I saw Shoshanna, she was twelve feet tall, topless, hang-nailed hands over breasts. Her body was encased in spandex on the American Apparel billboard. Seeing it was like slow-moving fireworks, something from a dream.

Everything changed. Sho’s grandma cried and our former classmates gossiped under their breath and our school principal gave a rousing speech about Mount Pearl’s values.

“Change is inevitable,” he said, “whether it’s highways or big-box stores or finally developing the Southlands. But as citizens, as parents, we have a responsibility to prevent things from going too far. And we can take down a simple billboard to prevent our girls from falling into the trap of advertising themselves.” People applauded. Andrew Rand was paid to strip away Sho’s image, which he did with a pallbearer’s grave countenance. They replaced it with an ad for baked beans.

I held out on contacting her. Something in me had turned steely — without Sho, people began to see me as empty and remote, too cold to converse with. I hid her updates on Facebook, unfollowed her on Instagram, held my breath whenever I passed a magazine stand.

After all that time, no one from Mount Pearl had ever stumbled across my photo. Shoshanna’s ascent to stardom was a grand mystery; I suppose my photo was slowly lost in the influx, borne out by the never-ending stream.

Still, sometimes at night, I awaken as though I can feel a stray movement she makes, way down there, reaching me. I imagine her climbing into the Statue of Liberty’s crown, the city unraveling underneath her, foreign and electric. Or us living feebly in one of Henry’s drunken soliloquies, a story regurgitated on deck as he sails the same waters. But they are not the same anymore, really. The absence of someone can make a familiar place feel sickening. Now, within the boundless blue Atlantic, there’s a delineation —  an imaginary border between us, an invisible definition.

.

.


Sarah Christina Brown is a Montreal-based writer and recent graduate of Concordia University’s Creative Writing MA. Originally from BC, she is a former member of SFU Writer’s Studio. Her work has appeared in EVENT, Room, Lunch Ticket, and emerge anthology. 

 

2016-11-15T12:23:31+00:00 October 13th, 2016|