by Matt Leibel
There was an ocean (it was bigger than the Indian, deeper than the Atlantic, bluer than the Pacific) between us. It shadowed us, it followed us around as we walked, it wedged itself between us like a rude pedestrian and kept us from ever quite connecting. I was a late starter, and by the time I met Karina I was eager to latch on to something good. She had soft features and shiny dark hair. She thought somehow that I was brilliant and remarkable in some intangible way I never fully quite grasped. We had a good thing going for a while, but we never really knew each other, not in any way that matters, and what started as a puddle grew into a pool, a stream, then a river, a lake, a gulf, a sea, and finally, a full-fledged ocean, deep and wide, visible as the Great Wall from space. I had to take a stand, and I told Karina that the situation had grown intolerable, we had to do something. So we decided to meet each other halfway. We'd leap into the ocean from opposite shores. We'd brave the waves and the sharks, and if it was meant to be, we'd meet up somewhere in the middle and when the rescue boat motored by, we'd be saved, together. But it was winter and the currents were choppy and cold. I survived eating fish and seaweed, drinking salty, kelpy water that only deepened my thirst, leaving my throat parched with loneliness. I thought of Karina going through all the same trials and tribulations, swimming toward me, gasping for air, risking her life all in the name of the noble, uncharted experiment that we'd begun. And though I loved her for it, I wondered why she'd agreed to it, and I found myself suddenly regretting the entire thing. And my limbs were numb from swimming, and my face was frozen, and all I could think about was the sight of land, the shoreline, and baking dry in the sun. But then one of those remarkable things happened, the kind of thing that only happens in stories like this, stories of the imagination sent careening out of control. A whale came torpedoing towards me from behind and dragged me along the surface of the water on its slimy, rubbery, shiny black back. As we glided across the whitecaps I could feel the misty wind whipping against me like a thousand wet towels snapped all at once. I thought I would freeze to death, but instead the cold started to feel like a second skin, and I steeled myself against it, even grew somewhat accustomed to the pain. By the next morning, I could see a shoreline in the distance. It wasn't just any shoreline: it was home. It was the beach where Karina and I had first met, the fish taco stand where we'd had our first date, and the balcony of her father's beach house, where we'd shared our first kiss, and where I could see her now, as a tiny, lovely blip. As we moved closer to shore, I could see she was covering her mouth. I realized: she could see me, off in the distance, and she was laughing. It dawned on me that then she hadn't fulfilled her part of the pact. She'd never stepped foot in the ocean at all: she'd just wanted to see if I would do it. We crossed the first line of breakers and the whale, on a whim, without warning, tossed me aside into the raging surf. I managed to paddle my way to shore, breathing heavily, spitting up saltwater, and finally, passing out on the sand like a beached seal. When I came to, Karina was standing over me, a glamorous giant, tall and glorious, almost sunlike in her bright-orange swimsuit and goofy red glasses. She bent down and gave me a chaste little kiss on the cheek. She smelled like the opposite of the sea. Congratulations, you've passed your first test, she said to me, in a soft, grainy whisper. I couldn't help but wonder just exactly what she meant by that word, first.
About the author:
Matt Leibel lives and writes in San Francisco. You can read more of his work at mattleibel.com.