When We Hit the Water
Tom is sitting across from me.
“I can’t believe she’s gone,” someone says. I think it’s Katharine. I don’t know who it is. It doesn’t matter. We’ve all said it at some point today. We’ve all said it so many times since Tuesday, it’s lost its meaning. Chris readjusts his seat on the splintering wood bench, which is still a little damp from the morning rain, and the other two of us sitting on his side shift when he does. Tom doesn’t move, because he is sitting across from me.
Brennan is the first one to touch the food. It’s like he breaks a seal when he reaches for a fried clam. The stack tumbles like Jenga; first, the pile of clams falls, and somehow, the fries below decide to give out, too. “I’m sorry,” he apologizes to no one, his voice clipped. No one decides to reply. He looks around, but the restaurant is empty save for the five of us. Our heads break the fog. Nothing else does.
It seems wrong to say there are ghosts here, because ghosts are not real things. Neither are spirits, nor any of the other classifications people want to use. What are here are memories, and things we are not acknowledging because Summer is not here with us and it feels wrong to do that without her. And also, because gathered here, all of us for the first time together in this place in what’s become more years than we can now easily recall, we are not sure if we should remember. If the web that has life has spun, and in cases unraveled, since the last time we were all here is worth remembering.
Tom is looking down in his lap until Chris points out to him his napkin has blown away.
“Okay,” Tom says. He reaches for a clam strip that has fallen loose onto the table, and drags it first through the ketchup, then through the tartar sauce, leaving a streak of pink in the center of the white glob in the paper cup. Katharine looks up at him like she’s going to say something, but doesn’t. Tom looks at his food for a while before he eats it. I don’t consciously decide that I’m not going to eat anything, but I know I won’t. I can’t.
The silence is hard to avoid, especially as we sit quietly. The small seafood shack on the coastline with its gravel parking lot and outdoor picnic ground—that’s all it is—isn’t usually deserted. This is a place on which we were raised—this was our 6,600-person Connecticut town—and from eleven a.m. to eleven p.m., it was always decorated with at least a few people. People we knew, because everyone knew each other. We passed hours after youth soccer with our parents; walked to the picnic grounds after middle school when we felt old enough to be on our own; when we got our licenses, here was the first place we knew to drive each other. After prom, when we didn’t know how to to say the goodbyes that were coming, when we didn’t know if we’d make it through college as couples, when we came here in the dark after everything had been shut down, sat at the water, and drank cans of cheap beer until we fell asleep.
“Should we go to the house after this?” Katharine asks. She’s sitting next to Tom.
“No,” Brennan says quickly. “Her parents don’t want any more guests. I just—I think we should just kind of call it from here.” I picture the inside of the house Summer grew up in and wince: the staircase at the left of the front door, which led up to the bedroom in which I slept over so many nights growing up; a mental panorama stopping dead on the white wicker mirror lined with photos of her and Brennan going as far back as I can remember. I look at Brennan’s greyed-out face, and he is not the groom from two months ago, nor is he a widower. He is our high school valedictorian.
Katharine nods. She and Chris reach toward the pile of clams, and alternate grabbing at the stack. Chris sucks at his straw without using his hands on the soda cup. “Over there, do you remember the—”
“Can we possibly sit here without you talking about about prom night?” Tom cuts in. He finally looks up from his lap. “We’re thirty.”
“Jesus, T.J. I was just… I wasn’t—”
Tom narrows his eyes. I have been okay—I have been fine enough—until I see Tom’s stare slice into Chris. This is how I know Tom isn’t okay, either. These eyes aren’t Tom’s to make when he simply bristles—this is a look that comes from a place inside him that I had a key to for ten years; that I don’t any longer, but I can still see through the glass.
“I’m sorry, Tom,” Chris retreats, and resumes picking at the food. I haven’t eaten anything, but I know it tastes completely different from how it used to. Saltier, maybe. Oilier. All that remains in the red-and-white checkered paper boat that I’ve seen one million times before are a few over-browned French fries and flash-fried clam crumbs, which Brennan ferries into his mouth by pinching the corner of the container like a funnel.
“Brennan, Cait didn’t get anything,” Katharine says.
“It’s fine,” I say. “I didn’t want anything.” Behind our table, I can just make out the silhouettes of two seagulls picking apart the remains of other visitors’ meals overflowing from the trashcan, though it’s hard to see between the fog and the dim floodlight under which the garbage is situated. I look up at Tom across from me to see his hands clasped together over the table. His eyes are still drawn tightly; his lips gently pursed. He is looking at nothing.
“I feel weird not talking about her,” Katharine says again. “Like, that’s what we should be doing right now.” The paper on which Katharine’s eulogy was printed is rolled up into a tube and sticking out of the side of her bag, which is hanging off the corner of the table. She talked about a lot of things. About the three of us girls playing soccer growing up, and about being a bridesmaid for Summer. She talked about all of us together, here.
“What are we supposed to say?” Chris says. “Like, really, what haven’t we said?”
“Fuck, Chris,” Tom says. “Come on.”
“I don’t mean it like that,” Chris says, throwing his palms open. “I just mean, like, there’s nothing that we’re going to say that’s going to make it better.”
“Brennan, say something,” Katharine says, leaning forward across the table to appeal to him. When she does, she obscures half of Tom, who’s leaning back on the bench precariously.
Brennan just shrugs. He is spent, and his whole body looks like it has surrendered. He turns to me, but I’m not sure why. I turn to Tom. I can’t think of a time where I haven’t turned to Tom—especially not in this place.
Tom gets up with the trash from the table and starts walking towards the garbage pails. The two seagulls scatter. Tom can’t be taller than he was the last time that we were here, but he is. Tom is taller, and he is thinner, but his gait, a rubbery bounce, has not changed. He deposits the waste on top of the trash because there’s nowhere else to put it, and before he walks back to our table, he flips his tie over his shoulder. Tom is the only one still wearing a tie. When he sits back down, the entire picnic table shifts, and we all grab the top board to steady ourselves.
“Do you guys want to get a drink?” Chris asks. He looks mostly at Brennan and Tom, even though Katharine and I are included. We play chicken without actually acknowledging each other. Some of our ancient ESP still remains. After a while Chris says, “We can go to Kith’s.”
“Where else could we go,” Tom snipes.
“I should really get back to Summer’s parents’. I don’t want to leave them alone,” Brennan jumps in.
“I have a train back to the city soon,” Katharine adds. “So, I shouldn’t.”
Chris knows better than to turn to Tom, so he appeals to me. “Caitlin. For Summer.”
I scrunch up the side of my mouth. I don’t know where I will go from here, exactly. Home, a studio apartment on a side street abutting the Yale campus, is quiet and empty. I will not go back to the house next to Summer’s where my parents still live. “I think I’ll pass, too, Cooper. It’s been a day.”
The floodlight above the trashcans flicks off. The fog is now the least of our concerns; save a string of lights lining the seafood shack, which will soon be gone, too, there is no other illumination between all of us. No way to guide us back to our cars in the lot.
“Look,” Katharine says. “Tom’s, like, glowing.” And he is because of the way the moon is carrying off the water.
No one seems to have remembered we are still here.
“Well, I’m getting out of here,” Chris says. “I’m going to go drink. See you guys at the next funeral or never.” Chris gets up and he doesn’t turn around to say goodbye. He stumbles on his way to the parking lot; I don’t see it, but I can hear it. He will find his way back to his house in our town, because he never left.
“Asshole,” Tom mutters. He looks up at me, but then quickly back down.
Katharine shakes her short hair out of her ponytail and frowns. The blond looks mousier than it did even a couple of months ago at the wedding. “It just still seems so insane to me that we were ever together, even that long ago,” she says, and forces out a laugh that all of us know is not real.
“When is your train?” Brennan asks Katharine. She puts her hand to her stomach and shrugs.
“Oh, I don’t know. I can catch one back tonight at some point,” she says. “I just didn’t… you know.”
“I’ll take you,” Brennan says. “I can take you now. It’s on the way, anyway.” Brennan turns towards us. “You guys both have a way home?” He looks at me, then Tom, and us standing alone together, and then his eyes go wide and shut suddenly like he’s been hit with something. There is a cricket in the background, one that I know we all notice at the same time, even though it’s probably been chirping the entire time we’ve been sitting at the restaurant. There is also probably the faint rolling of water coming into the beach, but I can’t hear it. We’re too far. I only know it’s there. I know everything about where we are.
I open up my mouth to say something, but Tom cuts me off. “We’ll make it.”
Tom’s voice rises the hairs on my arms. It does.
Katharine, Brennan, and I get up from the table. Everyone looks like shadows with air pumped into them. Tom still sits in the glow of the moon, which seems to touch only him. He finally stands. Tom and I hug Katharine and Brennan. “Let’s hope we all see each other under better circumstances next time,” Brennan says to everyone and also no one. He scratches at his hairline, which looks freshly sheared. “Another wedding, maybe.” His hand flops down to his side. This time, he does not look at Tom and me. Maybe I’m just looking too hard now.
Brennan and Katharine start walking up the hill towards the parking lot, and they disappear into the dark. We hear the engine of Brennan’s car start, and soon after the headlights roll over us and light the landscape around us, though we don’t need the brightness to remind us what everything looks like. Tom and I are still standing, and between us there is a distance that is not great, but we are not close together like we could be. Tom slips off his suit jacket and drapes it over his forearm. He shakes out his head and looks at the ground. I wiggle my toes in my shoes, even though they are closed leather heels, and he cannot see what I am doing. But he looks up at me after I move them.
Tom starts walking out from the picnic area towards the water. I scramble to follow him, trailing steps behind. “Wait,” I call, and hop onto the grass parallel to the gravel path, kick off my shoes, and grab them. We start walking again, and this time we are in step with each other.
“I feel terrible that I missed their wedding,” he says looking down, still walking.
“There’s no way you could have known, Tom.” His name is like salt on my lips. But it’s like butter, too. He doesn’t say anything back. We reach the edge of the water and Tom lays his blazer out across one of the big rocks; sits down on another. He looks at me until I do the same.
“With whom are you staying?” I say when there’s finally so much nothing that I can’t take it any longer; when there is so much pressure pushing in on my ears that I fear my eardrums will burst.
“‘Whom’,” Tom snorts. “That’s so you.”
“Alright,” I say.
“My girlfriend’s parents on the Upper East Side. I fly back tomorrow morning, so I need to get back to the city tonight.”
“We can get going—”
“Sit, Caitlin, for the love of god.” I curl my toes again, but this time, Tom can see. Musing, remembering, he asks me, “How many people do you think have passed out on these rocks?”
The ocean cracking against the shore, hitting the jetty: it is a lullaby, and I know it’s probably cooed many people to sleep, but I want to tell Tom it’s only us. Only Brennan and Summer; only Chris and Katharine; only Tom and Caitlin. Why did Brennan and Summer survive? I want to ask Tom, and not us? when I know I can’t, and when I know now that “survive” is such a relative term.
“How have you been?” I ask him instead. “Like, for real. Now that we’re alone.”
“You want two years of catch-up?”
“Sure,” I say. I don’t think I really do, but this is the answer an adult should give.
“I’m not sure what you know,” he says. “Through Summer and Bren or online or whatever. After I moved to Chicago—I don’t know—I took the bar there, and now I’m working for a firm, and I met someone about a year ago, and that’s about everything. Things are good. They’re good.”
I nod. “That’s… great.” I bite my lip. “I’m really glad. It’s—”
“Yeah,” Tom says. “How about you?”
I draw my lips tight into some sort of a smile, which is also not one. “You know. Still here. There. In New Haven, I mean.”
Now Tom nods.
“Not much to report,” I say.
“Working on a Ph.D. is a lot to report,” he offers.
“Sure,” I say. I look down at my hands, which feel heavy, and start scratching my bare nails against the surface of the rock. Tom is only a silhouette framed in reflection out of the corner of my eye. My heart is beating in a way it hasn’t in years—not in a way that is fast, necessarily, but where I feel like it has physically moved from in my chest to some other place in my body that I have forgotten existed or has shut down or where a lease has expired. I am somewhere that is full with memories and another warm body, but it is the loneliest on earth.
“I feel like I should apologize,” he says, and the words hit me across the face. “For keeping my distance earlier this morning. Or, I guess, for the last couple years in general. I haven’t known what to say.”
“It’s fine,” I say. I want to get up, because it is as far from fine as possible. A few arbitrary chosen belongings, because there was no concept of his things or my things since everything had been just things for so long, in a couple suitcases on the sidewalk outside of our Brooklyn brownstone. No words because we had run out, or because there were nothing that could be said. The last time we talked we said nothing.
“It just—I’ve thought about it a lot. You know. I’m glad we both decided on everything together, as awful as it was.”
“Did we, Tom?”
“Of course,” he says quickly. “Of course. Neither of us pulled the trigger on getting married for ten years. Not even when we were engaged. Something was wrong. We both knew it.”
“Summer and Brennan took their time. What if we were just taking our time?”
“They were both finishing med school. They had a reason to wait. We never really did once I got out of law school, and even then…” he trails off. “Wait, Cait—you’ve been thinking about this for the last two years. You’re not over it.” Tom shoots up, but then sits right back down, neither closer to nor farther from me. “Sorry,” he mutters.
There shouldn’t be an egret still out, but there is. She’s balancing on a buoy about five-hundred yards out into the water. It’s close enough that we could swim it if we really wanted to.
“Caitlin,” Tom says, and the sound of him saying my name is now like glass shattering. I don’t know why he says it again. He says it like he doesn’t know if it belongs to me. He says it like he doesn’t know me. I just keep looking out at the water. “So much time has passed. We’re so far past this.”
I stand up and feel the gravel under my toes. The rocks are bigger this close to the water. I can’t call it gravel, really. The only other lights at the restaurant have been turned off. No one knows we are here. Tom getting in a black cab to take him away, the trunk packed to the brim with those things, because no yellow cabs would come down our side street. Tom not looking back. I looked for him to look back at me.
I unsnap the closure at the back of my neck holding together my shirt and unzip the side. I want to look over my shoulder at Tom, but I don’t. I pull my top over my head, drop it at the foot of the rocks; next, I push my skirt below my hips.
“Caitlin!” Tom calls out. I keep walking, past where my the water grazes my toes, and even though we are in the dark, anyone could hear the tide change pitch when it hits my ankles. “Caitlin?”
The beam from the lighthouse brushes my body, and the air on my skin is hanging with salt and mist. I bend down to run my hands through the current. It slips between my fingers, dragging with it comets of sediment. The coastline is so rocky, and my feet remember every pebble. I step forward, which maybe is also like stepping back. I’m not sure. But when I hit the water, everything feels just a little colder.
My legs doggie paddle and my arms breaststroke; floundering is the only way I know how to swim. Looking out, there is no horizon line. I could swim forever, and for a moment I think I might—to the egret, past the egret, to nowhere at all, and maybe beyond that. But I don’t get very far at all until I stop. My feet can still touch the ground, even.
I close my eyes and go under. The roaring below the surface, the pressure—it’s just as great as it is above. If only I’d have learned that by now.
Meredith Turits is the senior culture editor at Bustle, where she oversees the Books vertical, and the fiction editor for The Brooklyn Quarterly.