A Bottled Message
I thought it was strange, the first one, mottled blue, corked, a paper coil that ticked when shook. It looks old, you said. It didn’t look old to me, a pale ale or soy sauce, something about the grooves on the bottom, something about the pure symmetry of lip, the clarity of glass free from bubble, blemish, nick. The gulls flapped above us. The runners spread out like dark sticks in the glooming. We pretended the beach circus of lights wasn’t there, the nautical cement statues of merpeople, the plastic overflowing every dumpster, the can collectors, the girls young and dangerous, intent instead on the sea’s crash and suck. Give it to me, you said, Tide’s coming in fast. I wasn’t sure. You hurtled the drift bottle as far as you could with a terrible force, watched it, waited. You said, They always come back. I shook my head, thinking, No, some don’t come back.
What is Saved
As I do post-vacation tiding, I find the plastic beach sack of drift messages. I hold the bag by the string. It twirls, cinching closed over dozens of coiled notes, smug among sand dollars, mollusk, red starfish, a pale scrim of sand. I say to the cats because you’re doing errands and cats are a ready stand-in, Why did you save these? I put the sack aside by the recycling, hoping you’ll let go. Mysteries, disasters, albatrosses—we don’t need. I wash dishes, fold the towels, and sweep the hardwood floors. You’d tell me they’re simple like love letters, nonsense, birthday cards, an old SOS, something like, Love openly, a pirate map to The Mermaid Inn, or the folded safety instructions from the seat pocket of a plane. Worrywort, you’d call me, Stop overthinking, or like I’ve been told since kidhood when I ran away to the Des Moines Public Library, signed myself up for afterschool programing, forged parental signatures in the bathroom stall of granite doors, lied about someone waiting for me outside in the car, telling half-truths about starvation and thirst and getting found out by those who wouldn’t tell. All those adults with nose hairs, dandruff and home-dye jobs, and you, too, now telling me, You’re too smart for your own good.
O Captain! My Captain!
You say this bottle here is for Captain America and that one there, Captain Hook. You say nothing about those over there among stacks of dead poets, dead presidents, the lying, lies, and half-lives. The Dreaded Bromos, my dad calls the cobalt blue, wide-mouth finds from privies. He told me even now, one hundred years after, they’re radioactive, a ticking any geiger might collect. I pour coffee all day long, so tired of bottles, of words in code, of disasters on the news—tsunami, hurricane, hijacks. Captain? I say, and after a sip from my mug, This time may I write some of the messages? You pass me the tablet and ink, so I compose to sailors in red caps and knives, men with flowing black curls and earring loops, sinewy men with strange bedfellows and tattoos twining their arms of a mythic time, not a better one, just another. I write, SOS. I write, My sister wouldn’t die. I write, We are all mermaids.
In college there was that ex who wrote, Are you getting my massages? meaning to type messages, not massages. On the twin mattress on the floor below the lofted bunk, the plastered walls, the erudite brick of dorms a century old, we used our bodies well, my new love’s inked—anchors, Popeye, topless women with green scaled tails and long black hair—and mine inked by the metallic bulb of a tongue stud, drawling curlicues, morse code, hope down every plane of our every desire. I could’ve written back, but let those messages go into the swirling ether of salt, floating towards other hands, sands, lands, open thighs of Iowa, Bakesfield, Thailand. I could’ve told you about the ways we touched—long showers, hot tubs, below deck in a marina boat, the way he slid love letters below my door on the nights he worked to dawn in the studio, the way he confessed every terrible childhood crime in block letters and blue ink, signing his name in tiny cursive and love, the way I thrilled when he pressed into me, his callused hands on my hips or clasping my own, whispering nonsense into my hair. I thought of all the messages turned from as we walked the beachfront on vacation, their bouncing tumble in current, the night, the broken colors of moon, lighthouse, search. I said, It looks like a terrible monster. You glanced at me, What does? Lifting an arm towards the shifting surface, I said, The water. I never nudged your gaze to the bottles there. I never asked you what ones you pretend you don’t see. I never said look what’s out there riding in on the tide. I didn’t. I won’t.
They are lost, that much is clear. CNN can’t find them, can’t find the black box, can’t locate a plane once rolling 70 mph on blacktop before lifting off to nowhere. Tweets scroll the news. Some ask Bermuda Triangle, black hole, ransom, Lost? Someone says, Mermaids. Another says, This is about lack of security, welfare moms. There’s no such thing as mermaids. Newsmen in suits tap blank papers, swipe empty hands across anchor desks. Newswomen wear long snug skirts, coral hued blouses, makeup done as if startled, say, I’m going to wish them well. Maybe they wanted to be lost. They shrug at the open sea, the agriculture of land, the golden red sky, a loss all seem to agree is uncanny, a plane gone, the soft waving arms of water.