(Read “Gills, Pt. 1,” before proceeding.)
“Where are we?” she stupidly wondered, as he turned the key to the front door of a third-floor condo.
“We’re where I live,” he answered just as stupidly.
This date was a disaster; that much was certain. She knew that when it ended, he’d know nothing about her. She knew, at the end of six to eight months, when the relationship they’d likely start tonight slowed to a crawl and then died, he’d know even less.
She was sad, so sad she felt like she’d been drinking.
Gray excused himself to make a phone call. When he returned, he lifted her chin till their lips were aligned and kissed her. It was strange, considering that they’d spent the ride over in silence, that this was the first time tonight they’d even touched.
Lisette wanted to tell him that she’d always thought mouths were their own oceans; you entered them and felt thrilled, however briefly, that you could drown. But she couldn’t trust that he’d know what she’d meant. She couldn’t know whether or not that would hurt him.
She pulled away. “Why’d you tell me?”
For five seconds he just looked at her. She’d never been close enough to notice the ashen flecks beneath the brown in his eyes.
“I just want things to be different.”
It was the kind of response she would’ve found incredibly moving when she was younger. Perhaps if she were fresh out of undergrad, she would’ve decided—right then, as he said it—to devote several years of her life to making his difference, to making him better.
But now, she just felt faint.
For the first time since they’d entered the condo, she looked at something other than him. The place had the typical bachelor-minimalist decorative scheme: an expensive leather sofa and loveseat; a low coffee table with two books; one work of art on a wall; a too-large flat-screen. His sound system speakers were built into his walls; when he said, “Play,” jazz piano wafted into the room.
It started making sense to her, this senseless situation. Gray was compulsively tidy. He reasoned with a logic that only seemed clear to him. His longest relationship was eight months. He was wonderful at his job, but terrible with social interaction. He blurted out strange information on first dates (or withheld said strange information for months at a time, even from intimates).
Gray had Asperger syndrome.
Lisette planned a tactful exit.
“Listen, Gray, I’m—I’m glad to have seen your place and… experienced how you live and I’m flattered that you think I’m… sturdy and un-cowed. But I’m starving and it’s…” She looked at her watch. 8:45. “It’s not late, but it’ll be late. Later. I’m just gonna catch a cab back to Sabato’s and pick up my car and I’ll just see you at work Monday.”
By the time she finished her spiel, she was back at the front door. He hadn’t followed her.
“This has gone badly,” he mused.
“But we were interested in each other, weren’t we? Vaguely, at least?”
“We were. Well, I was. I can’t speak for you.”
“Most of them just thought I was OCD. The girlfriends. I showered every few hours; they just assumed. I made a bit of a ritual of it, told them it was a deeply private rite. They left me to it.
“I learned to let people be led by their own assumptions early. It’s a survival tactic. Do you know anything about survival tactics, Lisette?”
Her eyes began to water. She thought of the one man she’d ever slept with and how they’d been together all their lives. She thought of how relieved she’d been, at eight, to know she’d never have to wonder with whom she’d purchase her very first home or have the three children she wanted. Her one true love have been hers for the taking, during fourth grade recess, downfield of a jungle gym. He’d given her a dandelion, then a buttercup and eight years later, he’d given her a chance at their child. But no one had thought she was fit to have it, least of all him. Not before college, not before becoming something more than a third-generation teen mother. And just as easily as she’d won him, he’d receded into oblivion, just as sure as their fetus had, the day she left the clinic.
“I’m gonna go.”
“I don’t want you to.” He stayed where he was, didn’t move toward her at all. She could’ve bolted, but she felt tethered, somehow, to his gaze.
The truth was: she didn’t really want to leave, either. Not until she saw them.
Gray gestured to his sofa and took tentative steps toward it himself. He didn’t sit until she budged from her spot at the door.
They didn’t sit close enough to touch. He committed to one cushion and she clung to the other. She reached for one of the coffee table books, The Art of Romare Bearden. It was even heavier than it looked. When she opened it, she immediately searched for the one piece of Bearden’s art she knew well.
There it was, the portrait of a woman on her side, lying nakedly, her deep brown skin traced carefully in electric blue: Reclining Nude, c. 1977. Lisette stared at the collage—“comprised of various papers with ink and graphite”—and the same wave of awe she felt in the National Gallery of Art, where she’d stood three years earlier, tilting her head at the original, enveloped her. She felt safer, somehow, and at ease.
“What do you think of the blue?” Gray whispered, as though they were actually in a museum, rather than his living room.
“I think that, without it, in exactly the shade he chose, this would be a far less haunting image.”
He nodded, and they stared at it for a long while before Lisette thought to turn the page.
Ten minutes after they began poring over the intricate bits of raw material Bearden crafted into art, the doorbell rang and Gray rushed to answer it. He stood in the small gap he opened, blocking Lisette’s view of the person on the other side. They spoke in a brief hush; there were brief movements of hands, then the door was closed again.
When Gray turned he grinned at her, with two Styrofoam cartons in his outstretched hands.
“I ordered food.”
Her eyes lit. “What’d you order?”
He was back at the sofa in a flash. This time, as he sat, he inched closer. “Open it.”
Snapper. Headless and perfect, on a bed of wild rice.
She pushed two fingers into the filet and pulled meat from the fleshiest part of it. Gray didn’t question her decision not to use the plastic cutlery that came with their meals. He simply opened his own carton, full of curried chicken, and pulled meat from the bone of the bird. They ate that way, licking their saucy fingers and forming their rice into clumps, until they were full.
It was the eating that led Lisette to hope.
When it was time, Gray stood and stared down at her for a second. A vague smile lit his face as he turned and left her there on the sofa. Her eyes trailed him through the kitchen and when he was out of view, she listened to his footfalls on an iron staircase. When he reached the top, she heard the creak of a door, night wind rushing through it, and the click of it closing shut.
She could’ve used the opportunity of his absence to go snooping through his place, using the contents of his medicine cabinet and sock drawer to further confirm her suspicion that he was more than a little quirky and possibly a bit mentally adrift.
But it made more sense to follow him, through the kitchen and up the staircase and out to wherever he’d wandered. He wasn’t an ordinary suitor—and the thing she most wanted to know about him couldn’t be found in the nooks of his closets.
When she got to the kitchen she noticed that the iron staircase was narrow and winding. It led to the roof of the condo.
The door stuck at first, as though it wanted to give her an opportunity to reconsider, but she pressed until it budged and pushed until she could slip easily through it.
What she saw, centered on the glittering asphalt, offset by the twinkling track lights along the roof’s perimeter, was a tank eight feet tall. A human aquarium. It was filled, nearly to the top, with what looked like saltwater. There were dotted koi and ruddy coral, electric blue angelfish and shards of obsidian and smoother, smaller pebbles.
Gray was standing inside it. Breathing. His eyes had been closed, but he’d opened them when she’d stepped through the door. Now, they were staring at one another, neither quite able to move.
Lisette couldn’t swim. She wasn’t afraid of water; she’d just never learned to tread it.
When she began to peel off her layers—first her thin, wrap sweater with its overlong bell sleeves, then the wool pencil skirt that fondled her hips adoringly, next the silk cap-sleeved blouse with the plunging Victorian collar—she surprised herself. But when she began to walk, barefoot and confident, toward the ladder at the side of tank and then up each rung till she reached a sliding door atop the tank, she was perfectly calm.
She dove headfirst and shimmied to the floor, like a dolphin.
Gray, for his part, remained still, his expression unreadable. Lisette planted her feet on the bottom of the tank and face him.
It wasn’t until she saw them, tiny and bared before her, that she realized she’d never truly believed they’d be there at all. They were papery and slightly tremulous, now that they were submerged. The constant absorption of water was slowly turning the edge of each slit translucent.
Lisette lifted her hand and reached for them, imagining they’d feel pliant and fragile, like rose petals, but Gray shook his head and it stayed her hand.
She knew that in the future, while they stood shoulder to shoulder pouring powdered creamer into tepid break-room coffee or sat across from each other at restaurants, avoiding the seafood sections of menus, or stood kissing under her porchlight far longer than they needed to before crossing the threshold or pored over real versions of the paintings reproduced in his art books, none of this would be all that significant.
The gills and the accommodations he needed to make for them would become as rote as any other medical condition. She would come to think of them as no different than diabetes; his excusing himself to hydrate would be akin to an insulin injection.
This was nothing. Or it wouldn’t be. Eventually.
But tonight, while the gills were new, they were all-encompassing. As they fluttered under the whir of the filter’s current, she felt held in their thrall.
She was beginning to feel faint, holding her breath, and now that she was eight feet under, she didn’t quite know how to make her way back to the top. Her eyes stung from holding them open. She wanted to communicate her discomfort to him, but she didn’t know how, without parting her lips and involuntarily gulping water.
He must’ve sensed it, the same way he’d sensed her presence on the roof, because for the first time since she’d entered the water, he moved, wrapping an arm around her waist and pushing them both upward. She felt crushed, under the muscled grip of him, and when they finally reached the surface, she was glad to let him go. Her arms flopped over the side of the tank and her chest heaved.
She could feel Gray’s eyes searching her for any serious damage. Her unladylike snorts and gurgles were the loudest sound in the air between them.
“You probably shouldn’t have done that,” he said, finally.
Lisette wasn’t entirely sure which “that” he meant, following him in the first place or stripping down to her intimates and diving into eight feet of water with zero ability to swim.
They were silent on the descent back to the living room. Gray told her to wait and disappeared into a hallway. He returned minutes later with a towel and a dry oxford shirt and chinos. He’d already rolled the cuffs of the slacks for her.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, though she wasn’t sure what for: the fact that he had to live with gills or her brazen voyeurism, her disbelief or her presumptuousness?
Maybe it was something else entirely.
He shrugged and more water dripped into the puddle collecting at his feet.
In the weeks that followed, Gray would keep shrugging, every time he’d ask himself if he would’ve resisted instinct and hidden his condition, had he known that their first date would also be their last.
In the weeks that followed, Lisette would dream that she’d grown her own brown slivers of skin, undulating against a current in an effort to keep her alive.
Each night, she’d wake in a cold sweat.