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May 1, 2009 | Fiction

Vacation

David Aichenbaum

Vacation photo

The man and the woman he plans to marry are almost playing croquet in Jamaica. They don't know the rules. There are heavy mallets and dusty colored balls, worn rough by the rolling years. There are hoops and sticks staked in the primed grass. These mallets and balls and hoops and sticks must all come together.

"You think I don't know how?" the man says. "Step one, mallet thing hits the ball. Step two, ball goes through the hoop. Step three, ball hits the stick thing."

"There's more to it than that," the woman says.

The man will propose soon. He should have already, technically, because he made the reservations. They ate above the water. The floor was glass, and the ocean was lit, and they saw life below the surface. There was this green speckled eel that wouldn't leave. It watched them through hole-in-the-wall eyes, gumming the glass's downside. The man had the ring. She must have expected him to use it.

He's starting to realize that croquet was a terrible idea. The woman loves rules and she follows them, even when they don't exist. Like when they ate at IHOP and he stacked the grape jam packets in a pyramid because this was a habit of his. You're doing it again, she said. Just tell me why I shouldn't, he said. People will see you, she said. From her the man learned new shapes of surveillance. It's a presence in their lives, a dependable predator. He knows he's not immune. As it captured her, it might also capture him.

"We could always make up the rules," the man says.

"Yes," the woman says. "Wouldn't that be wonderful? I could wear shoes on my ears. You could make love to small children."

The man sweats under his khakis. "In no way is this a slippery slope. Not even a little bit." He rocks the mallet, a pendulum.

If he could take the mallet and crush the eyes, he would — all of them. He wouldn't let her stop him. He sees how she contracts the outer world into one idea. She worships it. He believes he'll make her wise, teach her to ignore the rules. What a game they'd play if she accepted. Forget the mallets. They'd work with their hands, weaving round the hoops, looping the stakes. No doubt they'd romp.

The man falls to his knee. It showered not so long ago. He'll rise with a grass stain. "I have this ring in our room."

"Close enough." She has some trouble loosing the words. "I'll never leave you. Never never never."

They wander the beach. He knows she's happy now. But it's such a vulnerable stage, a shallow reprieve before what's outside swoops in and overtakes her.

It's getting late. Sunlight wavers, ducking behind the reef, the cresting whitecaps. A crab scuttles in a circle. The man picks it up, the crab clawing madly, and offers it as a present. The woman considers her options. A peck on the nose for the crab and then she passes it back. The crab clamps to his thumb. It latches on hard. The nail splinters, jagged down the middle.

Instead of pain, the man senses an exhaustive smallness — the crab's, the woman's, his own. It exacts such an eerie sense of self. And with this awareness he's ashamed. He knows he looks just completely ridiculous, posing with a grassy knee and a crab banded to his thumb. The sand is clumpy. A mess of stranded seaweed lies ahead. All of it seems so wrong.

image: Ryan Molloy


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