Bad Math by Alyssa Proujansky
Associate fiction editor Indigo Villanueva on today's bonus story: With delicacy and compassion, Alyssa Proujansky sends a car-full of characters connected by love and loss on a journey through memory and space. As they reflect on their origins, destination, and the signs they pass along the way, we are reminded of the different ways that pain can manifest, and how people can be held together even after loss.
We’re inching over the Manhattan Bridge on the way to the beach. Joshua has the air-conditioning cranked all the way up, directing most of it on himself in the passenger seat. The dogs have rammed themselves into the small space between the two front seats. As usual, Harvey is fast asleep, his head resting on the console. Nelson looms over him, panting rapidly. There’s an ominous rattle under the white noise of the blowing air, but Joshua doesn’t mention it, and neither do I. Some of the orange barrier tape blocking off the left lane has come undone, waving festively in the hot breeze.
We clatter over the bridge, and it’s okay, sort of, because this bridge doesn’t look anything like the one in San Francisco—but you can feel how much Joshua and I are not looking at each other, and how much we’re both still thinking bridge.
Harvey is my dog, Nelson was Sophie’s. Now, I guess Nelson is my dog too. When people ask where I got him, I just smile and look away, the way Sophie would when she didn’t want to answer a question. Oh! she’d say, like she was surprised they’d ask. Oh, you know…
The short version of the story is that Sophie killed herself in the fall, and now it’s spring, and her ex-boyfriend Joshua and I are taking the dogs to the beach.
The longer version is that Sophie said she was going to Florida to visit her parents. But instead she went to San Francisco and jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge.
And maybe she died from the pills the toxicology report said she’d taken, and maybe she died when she hit the water, and maybe she didn’t die, even then, and was still alive, and floated, and sank, and then maybe she drowned.
That’s the longest version—the one that goes on forever.
There are new signs on this particular bridge. The car creeps past a drawing of a little stick-figure girl. Thick lines of hair shoot from her head, her limbs splayed like a squashed spider. “My Daddy Works Here!” the caption lectures passersby.
“Ugh, what?” Joshua pokes my arm, his face squinched up with disgust. “Just say slow down. All caps. Bold font. No guilt trips. Leave it at that.”
“I know, I hate it,” I say. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it made people speed up, out of spite.”
I, myself, don’t speed up—but then, there’s traffic. I reach back and pet Harvey’s ear. I’m glad he’s stationed himself here—a barrier against Nelson, who’s always trying to vault into the front seat.
“Nelson!” Sophie would say if she were here, in the deliberate, preaching tones we used to impersonate Harvey. “Pull yourself together! Look smart!” She’d have her arm flung out, blocking Nelson, his orange-brown fur blowing around, getting in our eyes and mouths.
“You don’t know this, but it’s 4-5-3-o’clock of the evening. That means it’s remarkably close to time for DINNERS. That lady hasn’t even gotten us to the beach yet, let alone home. Are you getting this? Are you taking it down?”
Our whole thing was that Harvey was a child-king, Nelson his underling, toy-fetcher, erstwhile lover, confidant and scribe. Nelson was a certified Notary Public, we’d decided, but misunderstood his title—hearing it, instead, as “Noter-Republic.”
“Official Noter of the Republic and Evil Empire of Harvey,” Sophie would say.
With his sweet, sad-eyed face, lumbering black-furred body and contrasting white paws, Harvey was the “gentle giant” people on the street wanted to pet. They didn’t usually like dogs, but did I know that my dog was wearing gloves? White gloves on your dog’s feet!
Little do they know, we’d say as he ran from us at the park, invading picnics, stealing toys from younger dogs. Gentle giant my ass!
Nelson seemed to live in guilt and shame: shaking and cowering, taking on the burden of Harvey’s wrongdoings, and the horror of humans, and the horror of it all.
“That’s maybe the only thing we have in common, us two,” Sophie would say. “Guiltenfriende. Crazyface of the centuries. Thorn in my side.”
“But you can’t pretend you don’t love him.” I’d point to her coat, covered in Nelson’s fur, its pockets filled with the treats and tennis balls she never forgot to bring.
“What dog? My dog?” she’d say, years after adopting him. “That guy? He’s just a foster.”
Whenever she said it, I felt unhappy, in a lonely, abstract way.
Everyone says Joshua should have taken Nelson, not me. He needs to step up, they say. Especially considering.
But when you consider anything, is it ever quite that simple?
Joshua and Sophie were together for years, but even after they split up, they continued to live together, Sophie’s depression twining around them, light, like curling smoke—impossible to pin down, never quite filling the space.
Sophie didn’t leave the apartment much, besides trips to the store down the block if she could make herself—and Joshua seemed to like it that way. She was his captive audience, but also his magician. She’d listen to his confused, tangential stories, then alchemize them into beautifully-distilled vignettes, drawing out the main points, helping him make decisions.
To everyone else, Sophie was someone who’d packed her life away into the confines of Joshua’s apartment, quiet and vague and unknown. I was surely doing her a favor by pulling her out each day—planning little trips, driving places with the dogs.
But we were all criss-crossy, in our ways. Sophie wouldn’t make a plan and expressed no real wishes—but if you plucked her up and placed her in a fun new place, she’d go into the experience fully. She always wanted to go deeper in the woods, walk further on the beach. I was the one counting the minutes till we could go back to Joshua’s apartment, the walls safely stacked around us. I was always aware of the clock. Sophie never wanted to know what time it was.
I took it for granted—Sophie living with Joshua in the apartment around the corner from mine.
“I won’t always be here,” she’d say.
“But why would you leave?” I’d ask. “Where would you go?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Someplace else. Not New York.”
And I’d feel a wave of fear.
She’d never go, I’d comfort myself. She was too stuck. She barely went anywhere.
She actually seems like someone who could kill herself, I’d thought, quietly, in the early days of our friendship—and right away, I performed a shocking kind of magical arithmetic, where the very act of thinking such a thing canceled itself out, creating a vacuum of unthoughts, a strange, flat gap in time.
On the other side, in a baroque, curlicued world where the thought hadn’t disappeared at all, an elegant equation demonstrated that because Sophie seemed so much like she could kill herself, she was therefore the last person who ever would.
But then she did. And Joshua couldn’t keep Nelson, and I didn’t want him to anyway. And that’s the short version of that.
The traffic opens, and I speed through an amber light. Nelson teeters on the console, straining to lick Joshua’s face, but Joshua sneezes. When he sneezes again, Nelson manages to get his tongue into his mouth.
“Boyo! That’s not how things are. I’m your father for godssakes.” Joshua bends over, coughing.
“Are you okay? Are the dogs making your allergies act up?”
“It must be dust.” He hacks away, pounding his chest.
Joshua is always caught between apology and allergies, never wanting to admit that the thing he wants might be making him sick.
“I’m fine, really, don’t mind me!”
I try not to notice Apocalypto Deli with its soot-stained awning, right where Sophie and I first saw it, and gloried ever-after in the horrors of its name—but there it is. And the sign for Cookie’s World: Largest Kids’ Department Store! with its creepy, scribbly lettering.
“Molesters must’ve painted that sign,” I’d say.
Sophie would shake her head. “Look straight ahead. Blinders!”
But then she’d be off, ignoring her own advice.
“Virgin Hair Distributer?” She’d throw her arm over the back of my seat, like she was putting her arm around me—but as usual, she was only blocking Nelson from leaping into the front.
She’d stare at me, and I’d hold my breath, fixing my gaze just to the side of her eyes, so as not to startle or distract. I was always waiting for Sophie to tell me the important secret I believed she guarded, deep within herself. If I could only prove my worth and merit, maybe she’d finally tell me what it was.
But then she’d brush an eyelash from my cheek, smiling wide with her mouth, her eyes light and blue-gray and elsewhere.
“Don’t let them touch my virgin hairs,” she’d say. “Nelson and I don’t let anyone touch our hairs except for you and Harvey—right Harve-On?”
I’d let out my breath in a big gust, hiding it by turning away. And she’d fold her hands in her lap and watch the stretch of the road ahead, a benign look on her face.
Joshua set us up as friends, is how I think of it. We’d lived on the same block for a long time. This is what Joshua told me when he stopped me on the street one night a little over three years ago. I didn’t remember him, but pretended I did.
“We’ve lived around the corner from you forever,” he said, seeing right through my act. “Our buildings face out onto the same courtyard.”
I looked at him, startled.
“Sophie’s seen you sitting on your fire escape,” he explained. “A hawk flies through the garden sometimes. She watches for it.”
Sophie, I thought. Yes, right. We’d met at the dog run several weeks before. Harvey, still a puppy then and half Nelson’s size, had played recklessly, tugging at Nelson’s ears. They growled and bit and flailed, tails wagging wildly, dirt rising in a cloud around them.
“Is this okay? Is your dog okay with puppies?” I’d asked.
We were alone in the park, a light rain in the air, barely more than mist. Sophie stood under a willow tree, tall but bent-shouldered. She traced a circle in the gravel with one of her grubby white sneakers.
I’d expected her to be authoritative and defined—qualities I randomly attributed to tall people, their height making them seem more adult.
“Probably?” Sophie looked away quickly.
A deflated balloon hung from a branch high up in one of the trees. Nelson thrashed and yowled and ran in a sudden, crazed circle, Harvey in mad pursuit.
I stared at her, fascinated: her hazy eyes, her long, pulled-back blonde hair, her thin, elegant wrists poking out of a men’s button-up shirt.
I was used to dragging myself to the park every night, drugged from the stillness of speaking to no one for hours, letting other people’s chatty, clear-cut opinions wash over me. Talking to Sophie, I sensed that she expected me to be that person—someone with solid ideas to anchor us both down. So I talked about Harvey: his likes and dislikes, how old he was. I was bored with myself, unsure how to embody this new, conversation-carrying role. I asked about Nelson, listening to the way Sophie weighed and considered each word. I wished I could speak as carefully as she did. I wished I could ask her the same things about herself.
On the sidewalk, Joshua talked in a steady stream about nearby restaurants, people in our neighborhood he and Sophie didn’t like.
“You really should call her, though,” he said, finally. “You say you take Harvey out of the city on hikes and stuff? I’m sure she’d love to go with you.”
It was only after Sophie and I became friends that the unlikeliness of it hit me. That Sophie would allow Joshua to give out her number to anyone? That I’d call her, when I avoided the phone in general, sometimes picking up when people called, mostly not? That Sophie, the same, would actually answer, and we’d have a small, strange conversation in which it sounded like she was in a different country, crackles and fades and background noise, and my hands sweated, and I kept saying Sorry, and Oh, can you hear me, wishing I’d just gotten her voicemail? That we’d make plans, keep them, then continue this way, our friendship cranking into gear, until eventually a day without seeing each other was destabilizing and confused?
Did Sophie ask Joshua to give me her number, I always wondered. Did she tell him to look for me? That she liked me?
Partially, this was the secret I was always waiting for.
Harvey hauls himself out of his heavy sleep and begins crying. This sets Nelson off. He teeters behind Harvey, one foot on the seat, the other on the cup-holder.
When I slow down, Nelson topples over. He scrabbles on the floor, legs flailing like a crazy, upended beetle.
“Poor sweetheart!” Joshua says.
We coast into the beach parking lot, and the dogs bop around like two weird muppets of excitement and anxiety. Nelson is making his usual guttural creature noises, Harvey is whining in a high, unearthly tone.
“Jesus,” Joshua says. “Do they always do this?”
“It used to be worse. Sometimes Sophie’d pee in the bushes while we waited in the car. They’d lose it—moaning, screaming, banging their noses against the windshield. Once I recorded it to show her, but then I erased it. It sounded like some sort of fucked up torture porn.”
Joshua laughs, and I commend myself for being:
-able to speak instead of sitting in puffy-eyed silence
-able to come up with a Thing About Sophie I haven’t told him before
-interesting enough to have been worthy of Sophie’s friendship
I hadn’t erased it, though. In fact, I’d played it the week before, hoping to hear Sophie’s voice. Nelson and Harvey’s tinny, recorded cries echoed through my apartment and I’d listened until both dogs came running, looking around wildly. I’d immediately pressed stop.
“Nothing to see here,” I’d said, palms up, empty. “Just kidding! I’m sorry. It’s okay!”
I stare at the graffiti on the cement block next to the car. BAD MATH, it says in neat, black letters.
Joshua opens the car door, and a gust of wind blows through. Dried flowers from the dashboard spiral out over the parking lot. I see him adjust his features, like he’s wiping the grief and exhaustion away.
“It smells amazing out here,” he says, and breathes deeply of the heavy, flowery air.
My smile is meant to be Real! and Fun!—but it comes off strangely. My lip catches on one of my teeth.
“Yeah,” I say. “But—the last time Sophie and I came here, these same flowers were in bloom. I couldn’t stop smelling them. I kept breathing in, and I never wanted to let my breath out. Something twisty about it in my chest.”
Joshua has this closed, over-it look on his face, but I keep talking.
“Anyway, she found a branch of the flowers on the ground and gave it to me. I put it on the dashboard.”
“Yeah, nice—but when you opened your door, they all blew away.”
Joshua sighs. “It’s too bad everything has to have all these heavy references. That it can’t ever just be the thing itself.”
“I know,” I say. “It is too bad.”
I wish I didn’t have to be so careful with Joshua. Judiciously avoiding mentioning Sophie, except when I have some funny anecdote to pimp to him, for us to laugh at like dry husks: Oh, she was so funny! How thoughtful, how different! Her smart, sharp, sparklemagic ways.
The dogs race ahead. I kick an old can over the spray-painted graffiti on the path. “Only the sun for our beautiful bodies!” it proclaims, in fat, pink cursive.
“Only the sun for our beautiful bodies,” Sophie would shout, making fun of me, on the first warm days when I’d take off my sweatshirt and hold out my arms, pale against the sun.
As we climb over the dune that leads to the beach, Harvey pounces on a plastic cup. He starts running in crazy circles, cracking it between his teeth as he goes.
Once, as Sophie and I watched him, I told her about books I’d read when I was little: old books, from other people’s childhoods, where everyone was always running down hills, through fields and dales. They were always running pell mell, limbs akimbo.
Sophie and I would chant these words like incantations, shouting at Harvey, waving our arms like cheerleader priestesses: PELL MELL! AKIMBO! Go! GO!
Harvey loops faster and faster—through the sand, into the water, splashing. I feel something in my chest lift, finally, and my face open.
“Look,” I shout. “Look at Harvey!”
But Joshua is walking slowly, Nelson trailing close behind. He stops suddenly, bending to a piece of driftwood. Nelson trips, falling inelegantly on his side. He shakes his head hard and sneezes.
Joshua lunges toward me, a ladybug on his palm. It has a strange, battered look—dirt and grime dulling the red. “See?” He’s speaking in that wide-eyed-little-kids voice he and Sophie always used around each other.
I’d hated that voice at first, but it crept in over time. You could have entire conversations in that voice without even realizing it. You could talk for years in that voice, and say nothing about what you were actually thinking, nothing about why you were so fucked up.
Sophie and I spent the early days of our friendship sitting in Joshua’s apartment when he was at work. Sometimes, we’d dissolve into awkwardness and silence. She’d stare at her hands in her lap.
“I love the phrase steepling your fingers,” she’d say. “All people should try to steeple their fingers as much as possible.”
She’d look back down at her hands, and I’d listen to the sounds of the traffic outside, my skin crawling, suddenly, with the wish to grab Harvey and run out of the apartment, into the day.
Instead, I’d ask about her relationship with Joshua, just to have something to say. They must still be together, I thought. Their lives were so intertwined. Their repertoire was soft and natural and worn-in, like the old blue button-down shirts of Joshua’s Sophie wore every day.
“Ugh, no,” she shouted, once, when I asked whether they were still sleeping together. “So gross. I hate Joshua.”
After that, there was an unwritten rule that such discussions were off-limits. And the consequences? The old friends she refused to speak to, but never said why. The idea that one day, she might decide to stop speaking to me too—that this day would go on forever and ever.
“I really do hate Joshua,” she’d say. “It’s impossible to get away from him.”
But when he returned, she’d dance around, singing to the dogs, herky-jerky, reanimated. One night, I sat and watched her, hating the way Joshua was like a grotesque organ grinder, and Sophie, his monkey or marionette. I burned far away from them, like a mean, small planet.
“Come on, smile!” Joshua says, now. He thrusts the ladybug at me. “Just look at it. She always found things like this.”
I force myself not to mention how unwell it looks. He mistakes my expression for annoyance.
“I know. I always have to do this thing where I try to look on the bright side, and she hated it. She’d get mad at me too.”
He steals a glance at me, giving me that gift, like he’s giving me permission to feel whatever I am, because so did Sophie. But he’s giving himself a gift too—for noticing the tiny, special things she would.
Joshua moves carefully toward the dunes. He places the ladybug on a piece of driftwood, cupping his hands to protect it from the wind.
As I walk toward him, I almost trip over something. It’s the jaw of some sea-dwelling creature: folded around itself in an evil way, sharp bristles closing in.
“What the fuck is that?” Joshua rears back.
“It’s a vagina with teeth.” I make a monster face. I wave my hands around like claws.
“Don’t say that! Some of us are actually still sexually-active and interested in staying that way!”
“Leave it to me. I see the skulls and the creepy jaws, you see the ladybugs and birds and bees.”
It must be nice, is what I want to say—though really, it doesn’t sound nice at all. It’s not like I’ve slept with anyone since Sophie died. But then, I didn’t sleep with anyone when she was alive, either.
We made a joke of it. Our avoidance. Our abstinence. Our symptoms of depression. We said we were revirginizing ourselves, rebooting, doing penance.
“I used to be a big slut,” Sophie would say.
“Oh, me too. I made the worst possible choices with the worst possible people. I’m done with all that.”
Still: I’d touch myself at night sometimes, picturing bright light, thinking of nothing. And without fail, just as I finished, Sophie would send a text.
“Hooker,” she’d write. “Lady. Come over.”
I’d walk over to her apartment, sit next to her in front of the TV, and feel shy, suddenly. And I’d feel like maybe, just maybe, she’d heard something I hadn’t even said to myself.
Joshua’s girlfriend has forbidden him from talking about Sophie. He can’t even keep pictures of her in the apartment. All her belongings have been marched over to me, her old bedroom swept through, the floor polished and gleaming.
Is Joshua having great, compartmentalized, un-grief-stricken sex every night? Does he sleep soundly, knowing that everything to do with Sophie has been deposited on me?
I want to ask him this, but I don’t know how to do it without sounding hostile.
According to Joshua, this same girlfriend pressured him, all those months ago. She wanted Sophie out of the apartment, so she could move in. And Joshua knew what kind of time Sophie would need to prepare for anything small, let alone a sudden move from the apartment she’d lived in for years. But he’d parroted the wish to Sophie anyway.
I hadn’t known any of this at the time.
“She swore me to secrecy,” Joshua told me, in the swimmy, blurred-together days when Sophie was still missing. When her body hadn’t yet turned up on a shore outside San Francisco. “She didn’t want you to know she had to leave, and I stupidly listened to her. She said she was going to Florida to live with her parents. But I never—never in a million years—thought she’d do anything like this.”
But why wouldn’t you think it was the most ominous thing in the world that she wouldn’t tell me, I’d scream at a cardboard cutout version of Joshua in my mind. I’d throw darts at it, tear it up. Why didn’t you tell me anyway, you absolute asshole, you selfish fuck?
Of course, I never said anything like this to real-Joshua. To him, I said things like “it’s not your fault” and “you couldn’t have known” and “she loved you.”
After all, wasn’t this the way I was supposed to think? Some kind of benevolent acceptance I was supposed to get to? So why not pretend, in the meantime? Why not rehearse?
The thing was, I also knew why Joshua hadn’t told me. If Sophie asked you to keep a secret, you kept it—shining with importance, puffed up with purpose. The problem came in imagining you were the only one entrusted with one of these secrets. That you were the only one who knew the whole story.
“I never even wanted her to move,” Joshua kept saying. “Everyone else said it wasn’t normal, her still living there. None of them knew her, though. I never should’ve listened. I should have married her when I still had the chance. Why did we break up? I don’t even remember why we broke up to begin with!”
But I got that part too. I understood Joshua, and his wish to stay in the wonderful, tent-made-out-of-a-blanket world with Sophie—and just as well, I understood the feeling of being unable to breathe, suddenly, in that heady, molecular air. The tiny, screamy voice that cried out, Sophie doesn’t want anything else, but maybe I do! Maybe the joys and successes everyone out there says I should want are actually the ones I’ve always wanted.
Still. Neither Joshua nor I had much going on in our lives before we met Sophie. And she made things more special and gleaming. For the first time, we both had enough of whatever it was we’d always lacked. Old fears had miraculously faded, new plans appearing in their place.
So who was I—who was Joshua—to thank her very much for these nice healings, then go off on our merry ways?
“There’s another ladybug!” Joshua shouts. “And another!” He picks them up, cradling them in his palm. “I can’t help it. As long as there are ladybugs, I’m going to have to keep bringing them to the dunes for safety.”
Nelson curves around the back of his legs.
“Oh.” Joshua stops abruptly.
There are ladybugs everywhere, clustering around driftwood, piled in the sand. They have the same grubby, unhealthy look as the first. I feel a queasy tilt.
“You’d better stop. You’ll never be able to carry them all.”
“You’re right,” Joshua agrees. “It’ll never end.”
“Maybe it really won’t. It’ll be like one of those Greek punishments—endlessly carrying ladybugs to the dunes. To eternity.”
“Yeah.” He laughs a little. “That would be it. That would be my punishment for killing someone.”
All of the sound and light go out—a wavering electricity in the air, like a noise, like a zzzhhooom, and then there is a terrible, charged, awkward thing in me.
A pause goes by, and a beat.
“The ladybugs,” Joshua says, quickly. “You know—in some former life. For killing the ladybugs.”
For a minute, I pretend Joshua doesn’t exist. I pretend I’m not on the beach. But I can’t ignore him for long. He’s jumping in place, motioning to me to hurry up. He’s stopped where Sophie and I always used to: a barrier of rocks right before a group of ramshackle buildings, implausible in the middle of the beach.
“Did you guys ever go out there?”
“No,” I say. “We didn’t.”
But of course, one time we did.
We usually stopped here, because I was afraid Harvey would vault the rocks and keep running. For some reason, I had this idea that the buildings were filled with cats—just teeming with them—so we called it the cat motel.
“Kitties,” Sophie would shout, getting the dogs all revved up. “Where are they? Run!”
They’d hunch low to the ground, barreling toward the building. But at the last moment, she’d throw a squeaky toy in the opposite direction, sending them hurtling after it. She’d smile at me.
“I know, nerdface. Cats and poison, and probably MRSA, right? I’ve got you. Don’t you trust me?”
A week before she left, we climbed over the rocks and stood before the cat motel. Sophie threw the ball and the dogs raced away, running against the burning colors of the setting sun. Little birds ran through the sand in a pack, voices rising in sharp, pecking, exultant harmony.
“They’re piping plovers,” Sophie said. “I finally looked them up.”
I repeated it to myself, pleased with the sound. Piping plovers. It gave me a tucked-in, wrapped-up feeling. One of the birds took off, soaring over our heads. Sophie craned her neck to watch the spread of its wings. She turned slowly in place.
Neither of us said anything for a long time. I watched the bird. When I got bored with that, I watched Sophie watching the bird.
“The thing is, it makes so much sense—the bird up there, or the dogs chasing their nerdy ball,” Sophie said, finally. “All of the minute details that conspired to make them what they are. It’s easier to believe they exist than that I do. It’s all just so strange.”
I thought I knew what she meant—that infinite feeling that’s okay to think about for a minute, until you feel yourself caught in the swirl of sky—too mingled with everything to be solid, unique, distinct, on your own. I could never think this way for long without feeling a sickly nothingness, its heaviness endlessly bearing down. Always almost just, but never quite, getting close enough to crush me.
“That doesn’t scare you?” I asked. “That’s probably why I never took calculus. The idea of infinity actually made me sick!”
Sophie kept watching the piping plover, her eyes following its arc. Finally, she walked over. She put her palms against my cheeks like blinders.
“Walk,” she said. “Put your head back, and look up at the sky—nothing on the horizon—just up.”
“I’m not kidding. You mean to tell me you never did this? I’m not going to let you fall. Do it!”
I moved shakily at first, my knees caving, then more steadily, leaning into the pressure of her palms. I saw the blue sky, with its few, streaky clouds, and every once in awhile, a piping plover—and even though I was walking slowly, the sky raced by so fast. I started laughing and couldn’t stop. I laughed until my nose ran, and then I felt embarrassed, and tried to pull away.
“You feel like you’re going to puke up infinity now?” Sophie reared away in mock horror.
I swayed, unsteady without her hands buoying me forward. Sophie took a step back toward me. She squinted, her smile uncertain.
“I’ll bet you don’t really, right? You’re not going to puke up infinity. You’re going to be fine.”
“No,” I said. “I mean, yes. It was wonderful.”
I didn’t tell her that it made me feel like a little kid, or that it made me forget who she was for a minute—like she was my mother and father, and a million kind, careful ghosts, and a giant, silky dog and a vaporous dragon, all wrapped up in one, carrying me on their shoulders and running, their combined grip so firm and safe that it that it never even occurred to me that I could fall.
“I just have to get my land-legs,” I tried to say, but my mouth didn’t work. Instead, my eyes filled with tears—stupid, embarrassing, strange.
Sophie peered at me. I saw something pass over her face. Something flashing across her eyes and wrinkling her forehead—and then it was gone.
The colors of the sunset washed over her. She looked away, digging in her pocket.
“I almost forgot,” she said. “I have something for you.”
My heart jumped and I tried not to show how pleased I was. I wiped my eyes quickly on the hem of my shirt.
“Hold out your hand and close your eyes.” She placed something cool and smooth in my hand, pushing it into my palm.
When I opened my eyes, I tried to hide my disappointment. It was just something she’d found on the beach. I flushed, certain she’d seen the eagerness on my face and felt embarrassed for me.
When I looked closer, though, I saw that it wasn’t just any shell. It was a piece of sandstone, worn and rounded at the edges. Something was printed on it, in dark, diffuse ink: a picture, part of a word. Eaten away by the water, though, it was hard to tell what it had been. A woman, shielding her eyes, gazing into the distance. A hand, palm up, reaching—or maybe not reaching at all.
“Stay,” I said, because that’s what the tiny letters seemed to say: STA, the rest cut off.
We peered at the stone, our heads touching. I could smell Sophie’s hair and feel the warmth from her neck and cheek.
“I can’t tell whether other letters were supposed to come before or after,” she said. “Maybe that’s not what it is at all.”
I ran my finger over the stone, a rough, chalky residue on my finger. Sophie took it back. My palm felt strangely empty without it, like it was only a photograph of a hand, the middle part cut away.
“It could be so many things.” Sophie tapped the stone against my chest. “Staccato, maybe.”
My heart beat quickly, rapid and fluttery, faster than the rhythm of the stone. The different cadences veered away from each other and would not resolve.
“Stop!” I said, laughing. I twisted away.
“S-T-A,” Sophie said. “Not S-T-O-P.”
But she took the stone and moved it through the air, soaring and erratic.
“Starship,” she said.
“Stabilize.” I kicked at the sand.
Sophie smirked at me. She jabbed her own chest with the stone, leaving a red mark.
“Stab,” she said. “STAT.”
She crossed her eyes and pretended to strangle herself. She crossed her fingers and put them over one of her eyes, like an X. She pretended to faint, stumbling backward. But then she stumbled forward, instead. She pressed the stone against my chest again. It made a new, cool spot, and then my whole body was too warm.
Sophie moved closer. What she was doing with the stone now was more tracing than tapping. I was aware of many different points on each of our bodies, touching.
“Sternum,” I said, changing one of the letters, not playing the game. I laughed nervously. I jabbed at my own breastbone, right above the place where Sophie held the stone. “Manubrium. Xiphoid process. Body.”
“Nerd,” Sophie said, and I could still smell her hair.
She backed away and opened her fingers. And then I felt the stone, cool, falling down through my shirt, over my stomach, and I had to catch it before it fell onto the sand.
“Do you want to check it out?” Joshua points at the cat motel. “It’s up to you.”
His voice is different, now—softer. I don’t see where the dogs are. He’s half balanced on a split-off piece of wood, half on a rock. A huge wave crashes through.
I feel restless, like there’s something I have to do—go to the bathroom, drink some water, get warm—but none of these seem to fit.
“Maybe just go.”
Joshua jumps down onto the sand. He glances quickly at me, then away.
I think he thinks I’m going to cry, and wants to show me that he gets it—but I also know he doesn’t want me to talk about why.
I stare at the horizon until my eyes glaze. The dogs are near the water, sniffing a large, dark object on the ground.
“Wow,” Joshua crows. “Holy wow. It’s a turtle.” He sounds far away, even though he’s right there. “This’ll cheer you up!”
He runs ahead. I trudge along slowly behind.
“Leave it, boys. Back! Get back! Back to where you once belonged!” He beckons wildly. “Come on. Come on! Wake up! Hurry up! Look alive!”
I wince at that, and so does Joshua. But he shakes it off and squats in the sand, next to the supposed turtle.
“No,” I shout, angrier than I’ve been in a long time. “Stop it, Joshua. It’s not. It’s probably just a, you know…” I can’t remember the name for what I think it is. “A man o’ war? A ray?”
Whatever the word, I’m sure he’s wrong, and I’m quite sure it’s not a turtle.
I’m suddenly sick of Joshua and his trying and trying. He’s wrong about everything. I’m sick of all of his exclamation points, and I’m sick of the way he and Sophie talked, in those pushing, childish voices, ignoring the dangers and truths around them, and I’m sick of myself, for doing it too. I’m sick of the way I never just told Sophie I loved her, and sick of how held-back I always was, constantly afraid that if I said too much, she’d leave. I’m sick of the dogs. I’m sick of the animals on the beach, with their needs, or not-needs, and of everything we project onto them. I’m sick of the beach itself, and its smug, unfeeling symbolism, and its endlessness.
But I make myself walk over anyway, and then, as I get closer, I see that it obviously is a turtle.
Joshua busies himself about the turtle like this is the role he’s been waiting his whole life to play. “He shouldn’t be here, poor guy. He could get washed away into the sea. Someone must have left him here. Shouldn’t we move him?”
I feel confused: is this strange? Am I supposed to be concerned? Would anyone else see the wrongness in the turtle being here? Am I full of nothing good, empty of anything kind?
I blink a few times. I try to make my eyes focus.
“Listen.” I pitch my voice loud and dark and reasonable against the primary colors of Joshua’s kindergarten tones. “He’s fine. He’s in the perfect place! He has a choice: he can either go back into the sea, if that’s where he’s from, or he can walk through the sand to the dunes.”
I look at the turtle. The red streaks on either side of its face appear to be an awful injury—the kind people call angry. Burning eyes, blood-filled sockets.
Joshua sucks his breath in. He picks up the turtle and clasps it to his chest, shielding it from me, like I’m going to knock it from his hands.
“See? He’s injured.” He gestures with the turtle, sweeping it through the air. “We have to take him with us.”
The dogs track the turtle’s movement, their eyes flat and dark and predatory. I grab Joshua’s arm to stop him, and his hand falls to his side. The turtle knocks against his thigh.
“Right.” Joshua looks at the turtle, then at the dogs. “I’m sorry. But really, you have to admit it. He’s not supposed to be here!”
I examine the turtle more closely. “Those were his markings. Here, Joshua, see? These are his actual eyes.”
They’re vivid and shining, like super-miniaturized human eyes. The turtle stares straight ahead, unblinking.
“I don’t know. I really think he needs to be moved.” Hysteria has crept into Joshua’s voice. “There’s something wrong with him. He shouldn’t be here. Why is he even here?”
“Joshua! He probably walked out of the water. He’s just resting.”
“Resting,” he repeats, bitterly. “How do you know? You don’t know that. Resting! He’s a fresh water turtle. Turtles live in the fresh water!”
“I really don’t think so.”
I start kicking sand, sending it flying in big arcs. I move on to a pile of shells. They curve up in the sky, glittering, then clatter down on the sand. Nelson dances around me, jumping at the random bits falling through the air.
I feel sad in such a remote way that I can’t actually feel the weight of the sadness itself. I think about how clean the turtle looks. Its little human eyes.
“He should stay here,” I say, “where it’s beautiful. He shouldn’t be in the filthy city.”
“It’s okay,” Joshua says, suddenly. “Don’t worry. Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry. It’s going to be fine.”
He pulls out his phone, dialing with one hand, the turtle in the other.
“Hey,” he says, in a special-sounding voice. “Hey. We’re still at the beach. Yes—the beach. Can you hear me? We’re…I’m—I’m still at the beach.” His voice has become reedy, defensive and pleading. “We found a turtle! Yes…a turtle on the beach, but we don’t think it’s supposed to be here, so we’re going to bring it back to the city just to make sure.”
I start kicking the sand again at the first “we,” and Nelson bounces back over, intrigued. The brittle husk of a tiny, dead crab goes flying through the air. Harvey pounces on it. I scream “No!” but he eats it anyway.
I feel exposed to the universe as someone careless—someone who would give a dead crab an undignified burial.
Joshua is still on the phone, moving his jaw back and forth.
“Fine. Okay, great, I got it, but you can’t possibly—” He holds the phone away from his face, staring at it, then shoves it in his pocket. He scratches his forehead with the edge of the turtle’s shell. He glances at me to see whether I’d noticed. I pretend I hadn’t.
“Okay?” I mean to sound kind, but it comes off tense and sharp. I gesture toward the dunes, the path, the car.
“Okay.” Joshua unstrings the leashes from around his shoulders where he’s been carrying them. The dogs are so tired they don’t even resist capture. We walk slowly: away from the water and the west and the setting sun.
“We’ll go to a vet,” Joshua says. “I’ll take him to the vet, and we’ll see, we’ll just see. If he does belong here, then, great. You don’t even have to come with me. I’ll come back myself, though I don’t know how I’d actually get here without a car. But I’ll think of something. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just bring him back. It’ll be fine!”
His voice has changed, though, marked now with doubt. He shakes his head.
“I can’t believe her.” He jabs at the outline of his cellphone in his pocket. “I wanted her to come with us, but she refused. Now she’s angry that it’s getting late and I’m still out here with you. I don’t get it. I really don’t get it. She can’t handle anything that even remotely relates to Sophie.”
A harsh, barking laugh bursts from me as I picture myself welcoming Joshua’s new girlfriend, gracious and inviting. Ready to start a cycle anew, just like Joshua.
“The ridiculous part of it is, you guys would really like each other. You’d be friends—I’m sure of it. And she’d absolutely love it out here.”
I don’t say anything. I scratch Harvey’s ear.
Joshua stops and rotates his leg, massaging his knee.
“We’re probably just going back to put him back where we found him, aren’t we?” His voice is small, the charge gone. “We can drive back instead of walking…Right?”
I still don’t say anything. Harvey shakes his head to the side, his mouth stretched at the corners, one of his ears held low, like there’s water lodged deep inside.
“Only the sun…” the pavement drones as we reach the parking lot, not entirely invested in its message.
“BAD MATH!” the concrete block answers.
I open the car doors, letting the wind blow through. I get out the dogs’ bowl and a bottle of water and hand them to Joshua. He keeps pouring more and more water, the dogs keep drinking and drinking.
I walk over to one of the bushes and break off a branch of flowers. Sophie would have searched for one that had already fallen. I know this. I do it anyway. I cradle it, breathing in. The same as ever, I can’t stop inhaling, and I don’t want to let my breath out.
Finally, I walk back to the car. Joshua is hunched with the dogs on the pavement, staring down at the turtle in his lap.
“I think you might be right.” He grabs the handle of the car door and hauls himself to his feet. “We should put him back. How would he have gotten there anyway?”
I don’t look at him. My nose is running, and I don’t want him to see. So I get into the car and start it up. We drive back over the path, the flowery branch crunched between us, pollen getting on our sleeves.
We park near one of the dunes and Joshua gets out, the turtle in his arms. I wait until he’s started off toward the beach, then I blow my nose secretly with an old glove I find under my seat. Some of Nelson’s bristly, orange fur sticks to my cheek. I swipe at my face and hurry after Joshua, the ocean opening up and out, sharp and then faded, just as it always is.
The dogs seem surprised to be back on the beach. They chase each other in rickety, agreeable circles.
Joshua places the turtle gently on the sand. “Look at his shell. It’s so perfect and strong. I can’t believe people carve things into turtle shells—their initials and stuff. But it’s good. This is the right thing. This is where he should be.”
I kneel down so I can see the turtle’s eyes.
“Goodbye, girl.” Joshua changes the turtle from boy to girl at the last minute. “We’re glad you belong here. Be safe. Be careful.”
It’s too heavy-handed, I think. Probably Joshua changed the turtle’s gender just to make himself sound good. Then I hate myself a little. He’s doing his best. Or even if he isn’t, who cares? What’s it to me?
I get up and brush the sand from my knees. “Okay?”
But as we near the dune, Joshua races back to the turtle. He puts his fingers to his lips and touches its shell. He squints out at the water, then turns and shuffles back, the sunset obscuring his features.
“It looked like you were going to kick the turtle like a soccer ball,” I call out. “And after all that care!”
Joshua laughs. He disappears over the dune with the dogs.
“Everybody in,” he shouts. The car doors open, then slam shut.
But I’m still standing in the sand, and now I feel terrible, so I have to go back and say goodbye to the turtle one last time. I touch its shell, sorry for everything. Sorry that our laughter might have sounded mean and jeering. Sorry that I had to make some stupid joke, cutting into Joshua’s privacy. Sorry even that I had to be the last one to touch it, instead of letting Joshua have that for himself.
I trail back over the sand, open the car door, get in. I can almost smell Sophie’s hair under the sweet, sharp edge of the flowers. I inhale, holding my breath, and feel my heart beating, dry and dull beneath it.
Joshua sneezes once, then again and again.
“Jesus.” I let my breath out. “God bless you.”
Nelson and Harvey stick their faces into the front, their noses pushing against Joshua’s shoulder.
“It must be from the flowers,” I say. “I forgot about your allergies. Don’t worry—I’ll get rid of them.”
“No, no, don’t worry about it.” Joshua sniffs loudly. His voice is reasonable, though slightly martyred. “It’s probably from the wet dogs.”
I open the car door and get out.
“No, it’s fine, really,” he calls after me. “I swear! It’s probably from dander. In fact, it has nothing to do with the dogs. Right boys? You hear that? Not your fault! It’s probably from the turtle’s dander…Did you even hear me? The turtle’s dander? When’s the last time you met a turtle with fur? Did you even get it? Oh, you’re smiling. You finally got it. Oh—you’re still leaving the flowers. Okay. It’s fine! It really would’ve been fine to keep them in here. Oh, okay, we’re leaving now? Okay. Okay.”
Alyssa Proujansky has studied fiction in Ithaca, London and New York. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Moon City Review, Columbia Journal, Flock, Lunch Ticket, decomP, Atticus Review, where she was a runner-up in the 2017 Flash Fiction Contest and Psychopomp Magazine, where she was a runner-up for the 2018 Short Fiction Award. She is at work on her first novel.