Still Swimming / Swimming Still by Ron Gibson, Jr.

Under a flexible lamp, in an otherwise dark living room, the shadows of Nick’s hands patiently shuffle through random images cut from magazines. The stack is slick and unruly. Every so often a flurry of scraps slips through his fingers. Even at low tide, when the foot of his damp couch is perched on barnacle-pocked boulders, waves of ocean gently roll down the bedroom hallway into the living room and lap up the snow-falling scraps below. Images shine on the oily surface like a school of bait fish. Then, one by one, dart below the water surface, never to answer why Denise had cut them out in the first place.

*

In the dark days when the internet was a lost pod of orcas squealing and whistling for help through phone modems, Denise spent many nights laying facedown in bed, flanked by drifts of paper, an inverted snow angel. Nick would watch her dirty socks kick in the air to the buzz of psychedelia through blown-out speakers as she performed chimeric transformations with a gluestick. Nick once asked why collage, and Denise said it was the way the world should look. Disjointed, ugly, ironic, truer than illusion. Nick didn’t fully understand, but appreciated the beauty of random chance, the electrical exchange, the subtle magnetism of two disparate pieces connecting to create something new, something more.

*

Denise showed up in Nick’s mailbox, mixed with dark-mustard-enveloped bills, stowed away between coupon circulars. Her small, handprinted name was Polaris within galaxies of stickers and cosmic glitter whorls on half-size manila envelope.

The world had once been lonely — an endless black canvas of potential, with skeins of television screens impersonating constellations, all shouting for attention. Culture had been commodified and tamper-proofed. Art was not made (outside of disappearing classrooms) for the great authors had lived, wrote and died already. The foundation of the canon was set. You were to tiptoe through its white marble hallways, no matter how tedious, and pay homage accordingly.

Nick spent hours living vicariously through biographers’ accounts and the correspondence exchanged between the greats. Their adventures incited wanderlust that burned incurably in his veins. Their words inspired an ache to write something memorable, yet also destroyed all creative ambition in the same instant. After reading their works, writing felt like trying to reach the heavens in a tiny helium balloon.

Then the Zine Revolution found Nick. Cured him. Art was everywhere. Most of it bad, but inspired. Rebellious, even if it didn’t know what it was rebelling against. It was exciting to ignore the past, to burn the present, to be without a future. To know that beyond the television glow, there were still stars that burned intelligently. To know that art, differing points of view and new voices were shouting out of every bored bedroom window, transcribed, rearranged and photocopied, arriving like messages in a bottle in mailboxes across the globe.

Nick’s name, which once had been a poor example of penmanship and a punchline for cooler kids’ jokes, now carried some weight. His fiction littered the Xerox highways and his reviews were frequently published in Maximum Rock n’ Roll. The latter led to some unexpected zine trades, lengthy correspondence and surprising friendships formed across the country. His mailbox was often stuffed with new goodies from new names.

Standing in the doorjamb of his apartment before entering, Nick’s fingertips ran across gluestick air bubbles like braille, as if attempting to decipher who this ‘Denise S.’ was before even opening the package.

*

David Bowie’s “The Speed of Life” doesn’t live up to its name. It’s catchy, twinkly, atmospheric, rhythmic. The actual speed of life is a Tour de France sprint win. It’s hard-charging, unbalanced, discordant, a blunt-force amnesia.

For a solitary person, whose life moved like glacial epochs, Nick couldn’t recount the exact events that led from Denise being an unknown name in his mailbox to his girlfriend and roommate. To get near the actual speed of life was disorienting; its current grabbed him by the ankles and sent him tumbling, miles away from his comfort zone, drowning, trying to keep up.

*

That’s true and it isn’t.

Nick remembered the way the man-made lake in his apartment complex was empty of life during winter, the way his face disappeared under a comforter, the way his bones longed for the warmth of one of Denise’s A’s. Her handwriting was sweet, childish and undeniably feminine. The letters in her words were tomboys that hadn’t realized (or didn’t want to call attention to) that they had developed and become women. Curves showed in the right places. Even though the prose might be formless and ordinary — a zine trade, a distro offer, an offer to maybe collab — Nick’s fingertip traced the paths of her words, a lovelorn stray following her home.

That’s also true and it isn’t.

Nick had a sometimes girlfriend and Denise had a sometimes boyfriend. Sometime sometimes wasn’t enough for either. Or at least that’s what they would tell each other. Neither wanted to admit that they’d bought their others Christmas presents, that they’d inscribed the gifts with ‘I love yous.’ Neither admited that their skin still bore fingerprints, that the musk of sex still clung to them.

From afar the view of each other was beautiful and perfect.

Nick still remembered the man-made lake in his apartment complex empty of life. Still remembered the longing, even while his sometimes girlfriend stood behind him and touched his hair as he looked at the man-made lake from his window. Still remembered how his stray thoughts followed a late season flock of geese over the horizon to Denise, while his sometimes girlfriend tried to tell him about her day.

Then time sped. Day became night, became day, night, day. The earth swiveled its hips with the seasons. Nick’s sometimes girlfriend’s voice became Denise’s. Denise’s small hands replaced his sometimes girlfriend’s hands touching his hair. Denise’s atomic reactor of a body now heated his bed.

With each cardboard box moved in and each day spent unpacking, rearranging, claiming space in Nick’s apartment, Denise slowly pasted over his sometimes girlfriend’s presence with her own. In the process, hybrid memories were formed. Disjointed, ugly, ironic, truer than illusion. They were memories Nick didn’t fully understand, but learned to accept as the unreliable nature of memory.

*

When you meet someone for the first time, after having known them from afar, there’s bound to be a period of adjustment. It’s not long before the perfect glimpses of each other are replaced by truer ones.

Nick was unprepared for the sheer velocity of Denise, and Denise was unprepared for his unpreparedness. What she felt was normal, he felt was abnormal. Confused, he looked back over her letters, thought back to their late night phone calls, and neither seemed to truly represent what he was experiencing, now, in person. He wondered if being a slow reader had caused him to miss something, that he’d had the pacing wrong all along, that maybe longing had tuned down their voices, slowed time, until they became only languid whispers in each other’s ears.

It left both sides wondering if Nick was prepared for life. He didn’t seem to be. He seemed lost, forever lagging behind.

On the flipside, though overwhelmed, Denise’s enthusiasm often led Nick to new places he never would’ve reached on his own. And Nick’s sluggishness revealed small details that Denise’s footsteps would’ve stomped on or over.

Both began to find merit in the other’s way of life, began to respect each other’s differences. Without noticing, Nick slowly accelerated and Denise slowly decelerated. Though the distance would always remain great, they never lost sight of each other.

That is until Denise disappeared.

*

Do you ever completely know someone? Even when people claim to be open, allowing access to every part of themselves, it’s oftentimes a bait and switch, a sleight of hand. While you’re staring at the revelation in their right hand, mentally placing the missing puzzle piece into the incomplete narrative, their left is burying another deeper and deeper into their pocket, never to see the light, never allowing you to see the complete picture.

For, just as Nick had grown accustomed to Denise’s forward march into life, always leading without fear, he was baffled by the sudden halt, the cessation of sound, the disappearance of Denise.

It started over coffees at a cafe when they’d decided to make a zine called “Abandon Ship!” The name was chosen because it was the rambunctious exclamation Denise made exiting a cafe booth. She’d turn sideways, hold the edge of the table and top of the booth seat, lean back, pull herself up into a leap, shout “Abandon Ship!” and land with a sneaker slap like an exclamation point.

When she set down to illustrate the cover, instead of collage, Denise picked up a pen. Below the oversized, bubble-lettered title, she began to draw passengers diving from an iron-sided ship into an ocean. Her work rate was slower. She took great care illustrating the sadness etched into each face. Even the ocean began to bear these same sad, stern faces lingering just below the surface of the waves like ghosts. Considering the fun-loving source of the zine, Nick asked why the cover was so sad. Without looking up from the drawing, Denise said, “The ocean’s a serious place. It’s where people go to contemplate things. Sometimes they stay and sometimes they come back, but always different. Nobody ever returns the same.”

As questions from zinester friends increased concerning the launch of their new zine and self-imposed deadlines kept sliding further into the future, Nick watched helplessly as sand began to accumulate at Denise’s feet, as saltwater began to seep out of her, as if from an inland sea deep inside, transforming the landscape of the apartment and guaranteeing Nick would never see his damage deposit returned.

Not knowing what to do, Nick began to bale the living room, but couldn’t keep up. As the rising water threatened to bury the memory of Denise’s smile, Nick hurried her to the bedroom and peeled off her wet clothing. Her ribs sticking out of her pale skin like the hull of a battered ship run aground, he wrapped her shivering body inside their down comforter, where their bodies once radiated with love, then waded back to the kitchen to make hot soup. But when he returned the comforter was already sopping, the floor flooded and waves crawling up the walls. Instead of waging another futile attempt to bale the room, Nick sat on the edge of the bed, freezing water rising all around, tears in his eyes, holding a spoon of hot soup to Denise’s bluing lips. Denise only looked at Nick sadly, her lips never parting, unable to communicate what she needed. He dropped the spoon, reached beneath the water’s surface and held one of her still hands for a few moments. Before the rising water swallowed her, locking her away in the silent depths of her own thoughts, Nick kissed Denise’s forehead, told her he loved her, asked her to please come back to him and swam to the bedroom door before softly clicking it shut.

*

Now, Nick spends most nights awake, beneath a flexible lamp that shines like a burning candle in a sailor wife’s window, waves softly lapping at the foot of his couch, his hands patiently piecing together the scraps of Denise that she left behind, ever hopeful that one day his work will be done. That a whole picture will appear. That one day Denise will make her way back to him through the darkness, barnacles and all, no matter who she is now or what she’s become.

Ron Gibson, Jr. has previously appeared in Stockholm Review of Literature, Cheap Pop, New South Journal, Jellyfish Review, Whiskeypaper, Easy Street, Noble / Gas Quarterly, Harpoon Review, The Airgonaut, Pidgeonholes, Spelk Fiction, Cease Cows, etc. & forthcoming at The Nottingham Review, Rain Party Disaster Society and apt. @sirabsurd