I peer into tanks of tropical fish set aglow by fluorescent lights. Wandering through the waft of fish food, I head toward the section of shelled creatures, hidden in the corner of the drafty warehouse.
We once swapped personal mythologies, about the ways the furnaces of parenthood melted giving care into inflicting pain, forged us into who we are today. How you learned to become bigger than yourself with fist and tongue, while I plotted exit strategies. First, how to leave by climbing over the back gate, then, how to leave my body.
When I approach, a tortoise ducks its head, tucks soft limbs into its armored shell, hiding within itself. Does it ever envy its invertebrate of a neighbor, the hermit crab? Dream at all of carrying on its back a home it can vacate at a moment’s notice?
I consider the hermit crab, if it pines for an existence with a shell, for a shield, for a spine.
In a stroll through the park, the San Francisco skyline twinkling at an incline, we laugh at blood types and personalities. You’re the universal blood donor to my universal blood receiver.
We met the summer I moved to Seattle, a city of lakes that sparkle in fleeting sunshine. We made time for each other to sit in silence or talk for hours on end, and I saw in you a shield, or a home, or a spine.
I dreamt of becoming water to find the rest of my kin in the Pacific Ocean, that you're among them. I dream of becoming water to be received by you, to soothe, nourish, put out flames. In your kindness I see kindling.
Instead, you are tinder, heat in power, coaxed by alcohol. You let me know you had elsewhere to feast, but consumed my fear anyway, the way fire suffocates a room to feed itself. Flames can still dance, even if with air. In my dreams, all I do is evaporate, flying up toward the sun.
The last time we spoke, you lit ablaze, spitting with rage and cutting me off to punctuate my uncompleted sentences with flying embers. So fucking drop your victim mentality, you hissed.
You wanted me to know it was because you had consumed too many glasses of liquor, became filled with spirits, haunted by past. Actions offloaded onto phantoms, intention a ghost of its own doing. Are you an idiot? I wasn’t being coercive, you bitch. You wanted to swap in this ghost for impact, to be soft ocean spray instead of wave hallowing cliff. I almost mistook dust for droplet, both falling back into the ocean. Both returning to a body the way I imagine I’d find you.
Like a phoenix, or Icarus, or how I first learned emergency exits, I’d rise from the sea to ride the San Francisco fog, before greeting the sky as a storm cloud. By the time my anger condenses into spring showers, your spark flickers out. In your wake, I weep anyway, nourishing life with rain for scorched earth and drought.
I’d pour across Bakersfield, where I learned about how sunsets, powdering the palms of my hands and crooks of my elbows pink, could still be as inescapable as hubris. Where once on the cusp of nightfall and girlhood, my little sisters and I licked our teeth clean of golden hour, then stuck our heads out the window, inhaling the sweet breeze. I return to earth, for my body to return to itself, with room to breathe, to run, to bask in warmth.
I dream of not just the departure of changing form, but the arrival at something new. I learn how to swing a left hook. To find adversary within rage, Newton’s 3rd law, and a sun-bleached punching bag.
Soon, I dream about water again, but this time I am in the glass on your nightstand, flowing through the cracks of your chapped lips. In the reflection of force, I locate myself as an equal and opposite opponent, putting on a show for the ghosts echoing within reverberation.
I learn through the one-inch punch the most powerful distance can be the shortest, straight to the point. I am in the plastic bottle you take out of the fridge, melding to the form of your grip. To generate kinetic energy, how fast I react holds more weight than how fragile my frame appears to be.
In other words, the energy of escape velocity over a lifetime is recovered power. I am in the kettle you pour tea out of, scalding your tongue before evaporating away. Floating out the window, I see softness and shield, spine and shell, as I rejoin the breeze.