The bird looked like it was on stilts. It looked prehistoric. Its beak was long and pointy black and its body was gourd-shaped, a protrusion ending in a tapered tail.
It looked scavengery, Genevieve said.
It looked vampiric, said Justin.
The bird’s back appeared oil-slicked but maybe it was black and shiny in a healthy way. I didn’t think so though. It felt unhealthy here.
“I love this place,” Genevieve whispered. Her body was an L-shape over the rail and her face spoke into the black water.
“What did she say?” I asked Justin.
Genevieve’s body straightened. “This is the second time you’ve referred to me in the third person tonight.”
I laughed. “I’m sorry,” I said, but her face was serious.
“I think you should examine that impulse.”
I looked into Genevieve’s face. I examined my impulse. “What did you say?” I could hear my voice and it was soft.
“I said I love this place,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “I love it, too.”
We looked at each other for another second and then I started walking away, around the edge of the circle of the pier.
The water was black and the sky was black. No one was there but us and I thought how strange that was, how millions of people lived in this city and no one wanted to be here at night, in this wonderful place. It was a Tuesday and maybe some people had jobs and bedtimes and families but that didn’t fully explain anything. On the way to the pier, before the sand, there were horrible looking bars with horrible-looking people singing bad karaoke and drinking cocktails mixed with corn syrup. There were plastic cups and blue light and a sloshy version of Annie Lennox, with reverb. People wanted to be there. It was the night before Valentine’s Day.
It was the night before Valentine’s Day and who I wanted to see was Genevieve, I guess. Justin and I were drunk because we were at the place near my house with ripped-up booths and a yoyo vending machine and five-dollar happy hour pitchers of frozen mango margaritas that came with squeezes of liquid hot pepper and inexplicable extra free tequila shots and I said, “Let’s pick up Genevieve.” I’d been crying, there in the booth, and everything coming out of my mouth felt hyperbolic or like a joke but Justin just said, “Yeah, let’s pick up Genevieve! Let’s take her to the beach.”
And now we were here, at the beach. So strange and unlikely-feeling, when speaking desire leads so simply to a whole new set of circumstances.
I walked to the far end of the pier. At the far end of the pier were constellations in the sky and a poster of fish that were dangerous to eat on the railing. The fish were dangerous to eat because the ocean was dying because people had been throwing trash and gasoline and human feces and actual tons of surplus crops into the water and the poster was for fisherman, or people fishing casually I guess, and the fish you could not eat were there in a list, illustrations of them. Each fish drawing was circled in red, and then slashed through, like the no smoking sign, the fishes’ names listed accusatorily next to their pictures, like a wanted list, like it was their fault. I looked down at the dirty water and felt sad. Then Genevieve and Justin were there. We all stood there silently looking into the shiny black.
“I have a strong impulse to throw your keys in the water,” Genevieve said. She had my keys because when we picked her up, I climbed into the backseat and handed them to her. I’d never done this before but she didn’t say anything, she just took them and drove.
“Please don’t throw my keys in the water.”
“Well I’d be fucked, too, if I did.”
“My impulse is to throw myself in the water, which is worse,” I said.
“Mine, too!” said Justin. We ignored him.
“Well,” Genevieve said, “your keys wouldn’t make it back, but you would.”
I looked down at the filthy ocean that looked black and enormous and ready to swallow anything.
“I would not,” I said. “It’s winter,” I said, “and night.”
“You’re a very strong swimmer,” said Genevieve.
I looked down again and I wanted to be in the water and then I felt afraid that I’d do it, that I’d jump, so I moved my face and then continued walking the pier’s perimeter.
I walked and as I walked I was approaching the bird. I was walking along the rail, and the bird was perched on the rail. I expected it to fly away but it just stayed there, perched, and looked at me, I thought with curiosity, and then I thought with reproach. I wanted to apologize, to say that it wasn’t me, that I was one of the good humans, but I knew that was a giant lie, that there was no way to be a good human, not really, and anyway I ate dairy and didn’t care if my cosmetics had been tested on animals.
“Are you okay?” Genevieve asked. Genevieve was there again, with a concerned face. She did this sometimes, followed me quietly. “Your face is doing many things that indicate you may not be okay.”
“I’m okay,” I said. “I like this bird.”
“This bird’s awesome,” said Genevieve.
Then there was nothing else to say so we split up and were looking for stars but there was only smog, or fog, and then we were together again, standing on a different part of the pier and Justin was talking about beach sex.
“My first boyfriend and I had sex on a beach once,” Justin said.
“That sounds logistically difficult,” said Genevieve.
“But you and I had sex on a beach once,” I said. We didn’t usually say things like this. Maybe to Justin, privately, but not to each other.
Genevieve looked down, but she was smiling. “That’s true,” she said. Then, “It was logistically difficult.”
“Because of sand?” Justin said.
“No,” we said in unison.
We looked at each other and then shook our heads.
Neither of us answered, but we both smiled. We smiled because Justin was a gay man and neither of us wanted to explain the dehydrating effects of saltwater. We smiled because we were picturing ourselves sitting on wet sand surrounded by imaginary-seeming bluffs and coves with our hands in each other’s swim shorts. Or, not ourselves, quite. They felt like other people, the people on the beach, people we’d both seen in a movie, even if it felt good to think it was also us. We’d never been those people together really, people who would be on a beach vacation at some pristine place with tide pools—it was a destination wedding for one of Genevieve’s childhood friends and while I agreed to go on the trip, I said no to the expensive daytime activities, so we rode bikes to remote beaches and fingered each other instead.
And now we smiled because it felt like a valve had twisted open and pent-up stuff released but also Justin was talking, telling us about the sex positions he’d tried on beaches, how he’d had to get all the way naked to make it work, and Genevieve was asking questions, logistical ones, and I said “Genevieve’s obsessed with logistics” and started walking again. I felt restless so I walked, even if I maybe ruined everything by saying that, about Genevieve and the logistics, and by not listening even though Justin clearly wanted me to hear about his beach sex. I needed to walk, so I walked. I hated Justin a little for not understanding that something was happening here between Genevieve and me, and I hated him a little because I knew that without him, Genevieve and I would never be at the beach together in the first place.
This time, instead of walking the perimeter of the pier, I walked across it and I stopped. I stopped because there was a dead fish in the middle of the circle and I screamed. The fish surprised me. I looked over at Justin and Genevieve. They were still talking. I walked up to them. “Neither of you looked up when I screamed,” I said.
“What if I had fallen into the ocean?” I said. “Or like gotten mugged.”
No one said anything.
“There’s a dead fish in the middle of the pier,” I said.
They both looked over at the dead fish, which somehow seemed now to be the only shiny thing here, the one reflection of the moon, the pier’s only light source.
“It’s weird that the birds haven’t eaten it,” Genevieve said.
“Maybe it’s old,” Justin said.
“But the birds look scavengery,” Genevieve said.
“Yeah, they look like vampires,” said Justin.
What I was thinking was that the fish was one of the poison fish on the posters. That if the birds ate the fish, they’d die, and that they knew this, probably from watching it happen to their friends.
Genevieve looked at me with her oh-honey face. She used to say this to me, when I seemed tenderhearted or pathetic, she’d say oh, honey, in this weird maternal voice that broke from her monotone, but she didn’t say that anymore. She just made this face.
I examined my impulse, again, to refer to Genevieve in the third person, even when she was there. Her face. It was something about her face. I was afraid of connecting with her head on, maybe—I wanted to be near her but I needed her mediated.
I was feeling very connected to the bird now. I wanted it named. It would die because the world was poisoned and it had to refuse its normal food sources and it was hungry, or maybe because it was living off stray French fries and would die of a heart attack, and here we were, too, at the last-conquered edge of the world, trying to strand ourselves here or jump out further, but dying a little, too, because everything was. I wondered if the three of us had ended up here together because we were all dying a little, or because we’d refused so much of the world and now we were stuck with each other, or if this was it, if this was love. It was the night before Valentine’s Day.
It was the night before Valentine’s Day and who I was feeling connected to was this bird. I said, “I want there to be an app where we can take a picture of this bird and it tells us what kind of bird it is.”
“That app exists,” Justin said. “Google has that app.”
“Oh my god can we use it?” I said.
“My phone’s about to die and I don’t want to use battery on that.” Justin put on a bitchy tone whenever he expressed a preference or set a limitation, as though it were requisite for taking him seriously. Justin could be generous in other ways, though; for example, letting me cry in the torn-up booth of the margarita restaurant earlier in the night for no good reason except it was the night before Valentine’s Day, and for example letting me pretend that because everyone else in there was speaking Spanish that my crying existed in an untranslatable English-only sphere, and for example texting Genevieve because I wanted to see her, even if I said it like I was joking with mascara running down my face, even if he did it only because Genevieve always listens when he talks, no matter for how long or what he’s saying, or because he felt like being at the beach and never could have convinced me to come here alone. So it was okay, but my phone was in the car. Genevieve didn’t have a smart phone even though it was 2014. I thought how maybe these things—what kinds of phones we had, their whereabouts, how charged they were—said everything about us, in some way.
The bird hopped off the ledge and started walking toward the center of the pier. It looked wrong, these two legs like long broken sticks supporting a huge gourd body. We all stopped talking and watched with stretched faces as the bird approached the fish. I could feel us all hoping for something violent—squawking, claws, a spread of wings.
“I like how it walks,” Genevieve whispered. I thought about how liking, for Genevieve, meant something enormous. Other people threw love around generously but for Genevieve, just liking was a big deal. I could tally the things that Genevieve loved. It was a fixed list, which was comforting, I guess, because she didn’t use that word for me now.
I could feel our breath stop as the bird dipped its head slightly toward the fish, its beak like some ancient medical instrument, about to probe. But instead of probing, the bird lifted its head and then turned around and walked back.
I guess we all knew then that it was time to go. No one asked each other “you ready?” or anything like that. We all gave each other looks that were not oh-honey looks, just looks that said, I see you, or like, I’m here, like, I’m not in the ocean, like, I will follow you if you walk off this dock, and then we all started walking through the black sky, over the black ocean, toward the lights.
The last time I saw Genevieve, the time before this time, we had somehow gotten it together to hang out alone. There was a performance piece we both wanted to see and we were having dinner beforehand at a vegan restaurant where all the tables were pushed up close to each other and we were eating bright food in bowls, food that looked like photo collages of food, and I was drinking a beer with a fairy on the label and I said something I can’t remember now about Genevieve’s taste in art and Genevieve put down her own beer and said, “you’ve been a real cunt to me lately.”
I smiled when she said that. I liked being called a cunt, or I liked Genevieve calling me one. I liked hearing her say the word cunt during this time when she wasn’t saying the word love.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Why do you keep hanging out with me then?”
She said, “because I think you’ll stop being one soon.”