When her girlfriend breaks up with her, the little necks are still alive in the fridge.
For three weeks they’d failed at shucking. They must be magic, she thinks, her mind dizzy with grief, throws them into her lunch cooler on her way out.
When she moves to Illinois a month later, she takes them with her like pets. It’s a poetry/composition job in a small government town. Cul-de-sacs float in soy and corn. Everyone in the department has a spouse, kids. Downtown, people in sports bars sit with the game on, mouths shut, or in tight knit trivia groups. She plunges into work, her mysterious creatures clenched behind sparkling water. Every few weeks at two am, the takeout places closed, she remembers. Her cheap knives bend against blue-brown shells, her fatigue a wet, grey robe.
In a fairy tale, she thinks, prospects would try their luck. A long line of them determined, holding elaborately crafted sharpnesses, brutal death for failure. Eventually: someone both kind and driven and with a love of words and a hatred of Good Will Hunting. Then, shining salt water, steamed pink spilled over pasta tossed in lemon and butter, an instant wedding feast.
Instead, a year of bad Tinder dates. “Can bi people even get married?” one of the men asks over friend pickles, three beers in. “Are you sure you’re not just fooling yourself?” a woman asks after three weeks of messaging. “I don’t want some straight girl just playing around.”
But she starts a reading series, writes new poems, gives her students thorough, encouraging comments on their poems. It feels almost like love, the praise and wonder that flow from each venture: “How thoughtful, how organized, great insights there, thank you for showing me that, it’s amazing how much you get done.” In her first year review, her productivity and service are admired.
Only her body seems unsatisfied with her performance. After so many months untouched, it creates its own knives. She wakes one morning and each finger glints silver, dual edged. The air in her house smells of the ocean, of beer and her mother’s Elizabeth Arden. She is fourteen years old again, on a Saturday night in a small house by the Atlantic. Clams come unhinged easily in her parents hands. On the table, a fresh baguette, a salad of romaine with balsamic. Her father is telling a story. She and her mother are laughing hard enough to ugly their faces. She gets up to change the record, careful like he taught her.
Then the sun goes down. They have third, fourth drinks. Her mother asks why she wears her hair like that, like she doesn’t care about her appearance. Her father says it’s that best friend of hers, the one who always talks so loud, who might be, you know. She snaps and her father says, “When did you become so bitchy?” “You don’t have to shout at her,” her mother says. They turn their anger on each other. Who cheated on who and why. Someone kicks a wall. Someone threatens to move out again. In the early morning, they find her in the dunes, blanketed, journaling, gaping. “Come on, up, out of there. Get it together. When did you get so sensitive?” She resumes her calcifications.
“There’s a level I just can’t get to with you,” her ex said in one of many conversations in which she promised to be more open, to express at least one need. “Like you’re not letting anything messy get out.”
Better to work hard and forget the embarrassing aching underneath. Better to grow skilled at gloving. She thifts garden gloves, someone else’s soil smudging the palms, thick ski gloves though she lives near no mountains, gloves meant for formal balls, beaded at the hem, black leather murder gloves for when she masturbates which is awkward but she manages.
No one at work notices. Her clams stay cold and tight. One night, she gets drunk by herself and runs them over with her car. The next day, she leaves them out on the hot afternoon lawn for hours while she works her way through a stack of student prompts. Home late from the reading where she introduced the keynote, she throws them at her walls, leaves them scattered. Her house fills with a grimy substrate of dayglow frozen pizza boxes, molded, coffee-sludged mugs, piles of extra committee work because they say she must have so much free time on the weekends.
It is hard to fall asleep. She waits to stop thinking of her ex at two am, part of her wishing she had said, “I need to tell you about my mother, my father, I need you to make me dinner on my birthday, I need you to ask me questions about my work, I need you to hold my hand now and then at parties, I need, I need, I need.”
She waits to forget how in bed, when her mind wouldn’t slow, she’d play their favorite songs on her phone, sing them to sleep. She waits for more calcification, for her heart to turn smooth and sealed, a Polly Pocket locket, her face smiling, calcareous perfection.
One night, her clams open and sing. She tells herself she is imagining it but still she hears. They sound like her parents’ laughs and like a new class she’s imagined but hasn’t built yet. They sound like a fresh draft and like her girlfriend’s orange-gold curls in the light that day at the library. They sound like mermaid ghosts calling her home, calling her to an ocean, to a joy she must have known and wants to want to remember.
Meagan Cass’s first collection of stories, ActivAmerica, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and was published in 2017. Her stories have appeared in DIAGRAM, Puerto del Sol, Joyland, and elsewhere. She lives in St. Louis, and teaches creative writing at University of Illinois Springfield. She serves as assistant editor at Sundress Publications, where she co-founded and currently serves as an editor for the Craft Chaps series.