Salmon is Beachside

Ellen Vickerman

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The night is house-style Miami gross; out here, it doesn’t feel like there’s air, it feels like the sky is breathing on her. Warm, thick, perv panting too, coffee-wet, creep-on-the-subway inhale/exhale. Ugh.

Steph waits for the bartender to turn before she swipes a bottle of Malibu from the counter edge. If she were anywhere else, she’d make Bambi-eyes at him, or fuck-me wink – whichever he seemed the type for – then just ask. And get it. Always get it, because after one a.m., blood moves faster than brains do, and rules get a roofie-wobble to them. But. But normally she’s the prettiest girl for miles, irresistible, and she isn’t tonight. Hasn’t been since back when she first arrived.

It’s not stealing, by the way, thanks, thank you. She lives here. The Malibu is hers the way the alpaca-leather sofa is hers, or that stupid gold cat vase is hers: because she’s Burley’s.

Burley. He’s by the pool, eight steps away – eleven in stilettos – and he’s made her. He’s clocked her and the Malibu and he just grins, gives her that stare, the one that stops at the jawline and never goes higher. Sometimes, she imagines pulling all his teeth out and lining them up on the table, smallest to largest. Okay, she doesn’t really picture the whole gross, gum-ripping part, but taking that grin, leaving him with some slimy, gormless wormhole right in the middle of his face – she curls herself around it, on her less-good days.

At last, Burley turns back to his friends – Paul and Mr Whoever the Fuck, a tall guy, broad shoulders, in advertising-accounting-something-with-A. She can hear Burley going at his pitch again, crowing, ‘It’s all about collarbones, this season. Near-death chic. If they don’t look like they’ve been living off shaved sunlight in a basement for the last six months, they’re not posing for me.’ It’s his new funny finisher, repeated over and over as he grasps at laughs from the boys with their beer bellies and cigar lips – but even still, it flies off fresh. It’s the grease that keeps it young. Each letter’s licked saliva-clean before he serves it, and it reminds her of the way he eats buffalo wings: half bite, half suction.

The trick for those collarbones by the way, is heroin. If you want to make your body into a coat-hanger, it helps if you don’t feel like you’re living in it. But she’s not big on smack. Dope. Dragon. Blue had rattled off all the nicknames for it once, which wasn’t nearly as cute as she thought it was. Steph had been sure to point that out. Blue had rolled her eyes, and Steph had rolled her eyes back, and what did it matter, they didn’t touch the stuff anyway. Mostly.

Not that Blue needs to. Blue already has “The Look”. Blue is Burley’s absolute dream, and Steph knows this, because he’s said so, shouted so, has put Blue on the cover, and also – most importantly – Blue had told Paul to fuck off, once, when he’d tried to grope her. And Blue’s still here.

Steph slips through the crowd, ignores the hands that drag over her as she goes. That’s the job. To be touchable. Not tangible, though. Fantasy, Burley drawls, when he’s lecturing some caul-raw photography student, fantasy is seawater: surround your audience with it, have them wanting, and the trick – the trick – is to give them a sip. It’s the sip that lets the salt burrow into the muscle, and it’s the sip that leaves them thirstier than ever. That’s where you make your money. Steph and the girls, they’re interactive exhibits on the unattainable, mint-condition/room-temperature, and they know better than to let their sighs fog the display glass.

She makes it across the patio to the door, fiddles with the stupid catch and then finally, she’s sliding inside. It’s quieter here. There are still people dotted around – people kissing and fucking or whatever, but they’re not talking, at least.

Her hands glint under the fluorescents, and she can’t tell if it’s the condensation from the Malibu bottle or sweat, but it starburst-shines, and hell, maybe it’s body glitter. That shit never really washes away. Steph is going to shimmer for the rest of her life.

The cap on the Malibu takes four screws to get off. Which reminds her of a joke she heard yesterday. How many models does it take to change a lightbulb?

‘Are you sharing that?’

Steph opens her mouth and lets the coconut rum run a swift one-two to the back of her throat. She chokes against the acrid-sweet shove of it. ‘Get your own.’

‘They seem to be out.’

‘So get something else.’ Blue doesn’t even like Malibu. ‘I would, but I’m not a thief.’

Steph doesn’t really like Malibu either. It was just within reach. ‘You so are.’ Blue had stolen Burley, hadn’t she? Stolen him in the way that you can catch a cold from someone while they still have it. Steph has stitched her symptoms into her spine, has tied the thread off at the base of her skull. Too dangerous to unpick it now.

‘I am,’ Blue agrees, and Steph turns now, to face her.

Don’t ask a model to change a lightbulb, is the punchline. Get her to screw you instead.

She downs more Malibu, pouching it in her cheeks for a second, trying to keep it off her tongue. She could spit it out at Blue like a watermelon pip. She could.

Steph swallows. ‘Here.’

Blue takes the bottle from her before Steph can quite pass it over, and uses the slack beat of hesitation to grab Steph’s hand as well. Their fingers fit together, and that’s the thing about Blue: she’s greedy. She has everything in the whole world, so that greed has got momentum now. It’s rolled slender like plasticine, over and over. It doesn’t make Blue bad, but it does mean she gets. Everything she sees, she gets. She has to.

Blue doesn’t know how to want things and not have them. She’s awful at it. She’s never had any practice.

‘Come on,’ Blue says.

Blue’s wedge platforms make a messy clunk-clunk as they take the stairs. Her mini- skirt is longer than Burley likes. It covers her whole ass.

‘You’re supposed to be showing underwear,’ Steph points out.

Blue laughs. It makes Steph wonder how laughs are made, which tendons have to rub and pull exactly right. ‘I just tell them I’m not wearing any.’

‘Are you?’

‘Wearing any?’

‘Yeah.’

She shrugs. ‘What’s it matter?’

When Blue asks questions, it’s not to fold Steph up and put her away, like how it is with Burley, with Paul or the others. Her questions have a chaser shot of blank space, where Steph can respond or demand something new. Here, the answer is: it doesn’t. An extra layer of clothing has never stopped anyone. Here, the answer is also: Blue will be wearing underwear, because maybe one of these party-fat days, that extra layer actually will.

Blue finds the first bathroom that doesn’t have someone pissing or chucking or pinching their septum, and pushes Steph into it.

‘This is where we first kissed,’ Steph says.

‘Does Malibu usually make you sentimental?’

‘I’m not sentimental.’

‘You are. And you’re wrong.’

Steph squints at the frieze on the backsplash of the vanity. Leaping golden fish, tanned into the tiles. They’re slick and wild – river fish – and Steph remembers doing a book report on salmon in the third grade. ‘They swim upstream to lay their eggs. Did you know that?’

‘Don’t they lay thousands of eggs?’ Blue places the Malibu in the sink and waits until she’s mostly sure it won’t spill. ‘They should just pop them out at the bottom and cross their fingers. Faith in numbers.’

‘Fish don’t have fingers.’

‘Sure they do. Birdseye sells them,’ Blue says. Serious. All seriousness. ‘Breadcrumbed.’ As if Steph won’t have got it.

Steph grabs Blue’s necklace and pulls. ‘I didn’t know you knew what bread was.’ Steph can see Blue’s hipbones in the gap between her skirt and her tank top. They make a V, shallow and hard. Steph’s never touched anything else as hard as these skin-slithered bones that make up Blue. ‘How was I wrong?’

‘I kissed you in Milan.’

When they were fifteen. Yes. Steph remembers. Standing in front of a dozen old men.

Old men who’d lost their interest quickly; it had been a gentle, delicate kiss, a raw little embryo of a thing: Chinese whispers up close, a word passing from Blue to Steph with one press of lips. ‘I didn’t know if that counted.’ The kiss was whole, all on its own, Steph had thought as it happened. Which was ridiculous. Kisses were the glistening gas burned on the highway to something else: Steph had known that for millennia by then. She was blonde, gorgeous, and still in the slight pre-teen way that made Burley’s bosses go mad for her. At fifteen, she had a hell of a mileage on her; had a carbon footprint and an ozone puncture to her name, atmosphere entrails sutured through her lungs.

Blue shrugs. ‘I guess it didn’t.’ She leans past Steph and turns the taps on in the bathtub, both of them.

About Blue: About Steph: none of it really counts.

They watch the tub fill quickly-slowly, time sagging with the weighted heat of the night and settling over them, filmy.

Blue twists around and snags the Malibu, then slides into the water. Mini-skirt, wedges, bangles. Submerged. ‘Coming?’

‘Are you November’s centrefold?’ Burley hasn’t told them yet. He keeps them on their aching polished toes; the wait for the naughty-nice list is the best part, for him. It’s the best part when they need more so they give more, and he has the zealous generosity of eleven models in his meaty broad-strokes hands.

‘Steph.’

‘Are you?’

She imagines lining up Blue’s teeth. Perfect teeth. She could gut Blue’s skull, fillet her lips; line them up, space them all out, small-to-big like Burley’s. Steph could swallow them. Steph could take a glass of orange juice, down them one by one and keep Blue’s smile forever.

Blue reaches out and traces from Steph’s ear to the flat of her chin, and Steph needs to throw up molars that are still in Blue’s mouth.

Instead, she takes the Malibu, chugs it, and slips into the tub too. The water is an uneven warm, and there’s a clingy, milkiness to it.

‘Yes,’ Blue says. It’s violently soft; a virgin thought in the face of her greed: November is not something Blue wanted for herself.

At least, not desperately enough. ‘Okay.’

‘Okay?’

‘Yes.’

Blue draws in a shiv of breath and sinks all the way down. The water smooths marble over her features, and for a second, Steph is Narcissus, gazing down at a reflection she’d take for herself.

Forty-three seconds hemmed by twisting river fish and Steph gives in.

She jerks Blue upright again, a hand on the back of her neck. ‘You’re done.’ Blue flashes her a grin, one Steph wouldn’t take.

‘I was going to come up.’ It’s a wishbone-snap of a moment.

‘I know.’

‘I know you do.’

That was the game. Steph’s game. Play chicken with the rushing headlights of static, let your brain go limp. And the centrepiece, the fear, that was the fun of it once. Would Blue sit up first on her own, or would Steph crack and make her? What about when they switched?

It’s no use, now. Fear is just another groping thing.

The bathwater sloshes as Blue pushes back fast to make a wave, but this time, Steph goes too, her hand still on Blue’s neck; goes against the three-foot stream and kisses Blue hard. Voluntary/involuntary. Hard as hipbones.

They’re allowed this, if they don’t mean it. If they don’t mean it, it’s for Burley. If it’s for Burley, it’s hot.

And Burley could walk in, they didn’t lock the door – did they? – so it’s all good.

Blue kisses her like it’s all bad, all meaning, and Steph’s tongue skims over her teeth and she doesn’t think about whether the canines would hurt her throat going down, if they’d rattle in her shrunk stomach.

Blue never kisses first anymore, but always kisses back. Like this. Just like this.

She doesn’t press nearer to Burley this way, so desperate. In fairness: Steph doesn’t either.

How many models does it take to –

Steph jerks away. Her mouth away. Not her hands. Her hands that are in Blue’s hair; Blue’s hands that are coating her ribs through her shirt.

They let go. They lean clear.

The Malibu has tipped over, is bleeding out into the water. Their lake is left with a sheen that laps at their knees.

Neither of them does anything but breathe against the hessian mat of Miami-baked air.

Steph strangles an “I’m sorry” into the quiet.

Blue’s lipstick is bruised. Blue knows how to change a lightbulb. She doesn’t reply.

When they were nineteen, Blue had said, Let’s run away, and she hadn’t meant from each other, but here they are. Still mostly apart. Steph’s riddled brittle with forgives and forgets.

A glut of longing slugs over her and Steph falls back into the tub, closes her eyes against the rum-tint of the water.

Then opens them again.

Through the ripple-ruptured surface, Blue is shuffled around, wavering, a blurry mess.

Burley has a painting in his study; a girl broken down to her parts and rearranged.

Steph wonders if Blue’s looking down because she’s greedy for Steph’s reflection, too. Hope haemorrhages bitter, because no. Narcissus only really stared one way.

Blue drags her gasping back to ninety-degrees after another short moment. She always was worse at this game than Steph.

Their foreheads push together, rivulets caught between them.

Steph blinks, and from this close, the mottled veneer is gone. Blue is not smeared around but again re-made as Burley’s cover girl, so beautiful that it is almost a separate creature, cloying her, smothering her cheekbones and eyelashes and the curve of her jaw.

The thing about Blue is:

Steph licks the coconut November from her lips. If you were ugly, she thinks, I could love you properly. For the record, she nearly says it. Nearly flings it like singles at Blue’s face. I could love you so much.

She climbs out of the tub and drips her way down the hall, down the stairs, to Burley.

He grimaces at her, and her wet and shivering coat-hanger self. ‘I didn’t think I hired a drowned rat.’

‘You didn’t.’

‘Or a fish.’

About Burley: he didn’t.

He tilts his head, though. Tugs at a strand of limp damp hair. ‘It works on you, I guess,’ he says.

He takes her over to the bar. She gets a drink, not Malibu, and takes a seawater sip.

Ellen Vickerman is an emerging Brisbane-based writer interested in stylistics, popular culture, and adaption. She is currently studying a Master of Philosophy at QUT, where she researches structures for narratives of betweenness, and uses her creative work to experiment with practices for making meaning in stasis and suspension. Follow her on twitter at emvickerman.