A Woman in the Rocks
by Jeb Gleason-Allured
She’d held his glance a few times across the table, which was scrunched in toward the back of the banquet hall and sparsely populated with extraneous cousins, work friends, obsolete college acquaintances. His wife fell into that last category, the bride’s first college roommate, now estranged by professional success (the bride’s) and geography. The woman glancing at him across the table was a cousin, he thought. She’d said at some point, but he hadn’t been listening as she pushed back her glossy black hair with a plastic headband. A smile broke her soft face wide open when she caught him staring, just as his wife said something about how fun the table favors were.
Later, crossing paths at the bathrooms after the father-bride dance, he’d whispered to the woman, Meet me on the rocks by the water, and she’d given him a look that could have been conspiratorial or mere incomprehension, but anyway, five minutes later he was descending through the coarse grasses on the bluff behind the banquet hall, oxfords scrambling on loose sandy soil, insects whirring in his ears.
Behind him, the sun died behind low scrub trees; ahead, constellations of boat lights appeared far out on the spreading blackness of the eastern horizon. When they’d first arrived, a defaced sign in the banquet hall’s parking lot had informed him that the area’s first Protestant settlers had used the bluff as a site for religious services in praise and fear of this new, vivid wilderness. He believed it.
A narrow path worn into the dense vegetation abruptly ended at the foot of the bluff where a chaos of boulders cascaded down toward the water’s edge. The rocks were lunar white and then darker toward the water’s edge, marking the reach of the tides. He scrambled from stone to stone, huffing, imagining the elongation of her pale neck as she’d turned to address something muttered by her sunburned date, the way her eyes swallowed anything that caught her attention. His palm landed on the splintered husk of a crab that had been dropped and hollowed out by a seagull. Fuck. He recoiled and almost pitched face first into the rocks, ankle twisting. At the last moment he caught himself and stood, pain radiating down his fingers and up his calf. The water’s salty-spoiled scent reached him now, mixed with the reek of half eaten things rotting between the black rocks, some of which had turned Technicolor green with lichen.
Why he was here, why he was doing this, why almost taking a header on a boulder seemed worth it—he thought about none of it. The merest thought of his wife’s many kindnesses, the way she missed him when he traveled, her thoughtful gifts, could derail everything. That in itself was patronizing—the way he sentimentalized her—which made him even more terrible, which required even further suppression.
He was here because he was an asshole. He could admit that. For all the complex sensations firing through his system along with too much free well vodka, the pathetic triumph of a beautiful 20-something woman’s attentions, the comical staving off of aging and mortality or whatever, the quest for vitality, this would be the final verdict of his wife, her friends, his friends, their families, everyone. What else could any reasonable person think? What an asshole.
Knowing that wasn’t enough to stop him, to turn him around, to head back, to shrug like a fucking idiot if the woman returned to the table later looking flushed and ruffled and giving him the where-the-fuck-were-you eye. No. This was going to happen. Into the clichéd abyss.
He waited on a flat stone, stuffing his tie in his jacket pocket, popping the top button of his shirt, catching his breath. The air was clear as the wind shifted, cool. He shivered. She wasn’t coming. Waves ploshed on the rocks near his feet. Ridiculous. No reasonable person would have themselves lured by a drunk stranger to the edge of the ocean.
The darkness of the sky and ocean bled together. And then something shifted over his right shoulder. A gray shape making its way down the grayer slope. He turned. It bobbed left, disappeared behind one of the larger boulders, crept along a length of silvery driftwood. He waved his arms over his head like a man being rescued. The shape stopped, waved back. He could make out the drape and greenness of her dress now, her long white arms. He tiptoed toward her. It was incredible in the way the start of these things is always incredible, like being handed the key to some strange, dark kingdom, doors opening in every direction.
She hopped among the stones, gaining momentum, and then dropped soundlessly out of sight. She didn’t reappear. Nothing but the sound of the ocean. He stood in the near darkness, grinning. And then he said, Hey. And then he said it again, the first ripples of something spreading across his chest.
He scaled a series of boulders until he reached her, his breath whistling strangely. Over the next rock, her dress bloomed from a wide crevice like a horrible flower, one athletic leg bent at a sickening angle. Little unnnn-nuuuh sounds escaped from somewhere deep in the gap where her head and torso were wedged. He stared at this spectacle for a moment, understanding all kinds of new and old things about himself and then scrambled off toward the bluff. Limping to the peak of the slope, he surprised a waist-coated waiter attempting to light a joint in the stiff breeze.
A woman, he said, brushing past the waiter. I found a woman. She needs help.
The white columns and porticos of the banquet hall glowed in the darkness ahead. He hop-jogged toward it, gasping. His wife was still at their table, telling the sunburned date a joke about Dick Cheney that he’d heard her tell before. He plopped down and she said, Hello, Mr. Sweaty, and then a valet ran into the room screaming about a dead woman in the rocks.
Jeb Gleason-Allured is from Wheaton, Illinois and lives in Brooklyn. His work is forthcoming in the Have a NYC 2 anthology (Three Rooms Press).