“You see those sparkles on the water? There, where the sun catches the crests of the ripples? They set my blood alight.”
I make an effort with the reaction. Less a laugh and more a heavy exhalation, but it’s polite enough. She’s still looking at me.
“Look at this,’ she says, taking the lighter off the wooden table. She opens a flame, holding it in front of me. ‘Imagine your blood’s laced with paraffin and I hold this to it.’
“It’d hurt,” I say, trying to smile.
She shakes her head. “It’d rip right through you. You could cower and shrink into the corner, or you could charge like a flaming phoenix into the air.”
I smile and thumb at the condensation on my beer glass. I never know what to say when she talks like this.
“You’ve no idea, do you?” she says. She looks back at the water, at the progress of the yachts, sails up before the horizon. “Don’t you wanna get out there? Doesn’t it make you want to do something? Look at that peak,” she demands. I do what she says. The cars are scrolling past on the bridge, the mountain green behind it. “What do you think when you see that peak?’
“It looks good,” I say. I wish I could say more, but I don’t know what she wants.
This time she’s visibly frustrated. “Let’s hike it,” she says, her eyes fixed on mine.
“When? Today? I thought you just wanted to chill.”
She rolls her eyes. “Fine, tomorrow, whenever. I just want to get to the top of that mountain.” She looks away at it. “I wanna rip my way to the top like a clawed beast, then stand there and crow and look down at the water. And then roar, and shout, and throw a frisbee from the peak and watch it sail across the water.”
I shrug. “We can do it if you want.”
Her chin goes down, her jaw clenched. This isn’t going to last. I start to wonder if this will be our last day together. I take a sip of the beer.
“It said on your profile you liked to travel,” she says after a time.
“I do,” I say. “I did. I told you lots of my travel stories already. Africa and everything, remember?”
She runs a finger around the rim of her glass. “And now your wild hairs have fallen out.”
I look at her, but her eyes are on the ocean again. “What?”
“Your wild hairs. You had them, and now they’ve fallen out. Your peacock feathers. You plucked them and threw them behind you like a trail of crumbs, and you think that’s enough.”
I start thinking how I can end this amiably.
“Let’s swim,” she says. “Now, right now. Let’s charge into the water like golden pups.”
I pick up my drink again. She’s been getting more like this every date.
“What is it?” she says. “What’s holding you back? There’s something, isn’t there?”
“You mean why don’t I want to swim? A dozen reasons.”
She smiles. “Wow. You’re riled. I can see that you’re riled now. It’s taken long enough. There’s never more than one reason. Give me the real reason.”
I look around.
“Give me the real reason,” she says again. “Stop making stuff up in your head. Give me the reason you won’t go swimming right here, right now, with the water sparkling like that.”
“There’s all these people here.”
She looks at me and nods. “Yeah. So what?”
“No one else is swimming.”
“Yep. No one else. You a sheep?”
I don’t say anything.
“Can I ask you something, Mark? When did it all stop being exciting for you? When did you start caring so much about what everyone thinks?”
I can’t answer. I can’t answer because I don’t know.
She stands and finishes the last gulps of her beer, drops it back into the condensation puddle on the table. She walks onto the sand and strips down to her underwear, runs into the water, screaming like a banshee. The people on the other tables are watching her, smiling.
I watch her from the safety of my chair. Wild hairs. Yes, damn it, I used to have wild hairs too. I used to have them all over. I had balls of electricity on the tip of my tongue. Golden fireworks fizzing through my toes. Where did they all go?
Maybe I burned them all out. Maybe I was too pleased with myself, let myself off the hook. Yes. I stopped trying. Trying to scare myself. Scare away the anxiety.
I stand. I feel the eyes on me. My heart’s going like a damn stampede. Horses’ hooves churning up the ground with their lucky metal shoes. I usually try to slow them down, herd them into the shadows, sling on their blinkers. But maybe I’ve been hiding too long. I close my eyes for a moment, imagine pulling out the starter’s gun. Hold it into the air. Bang. Now they’re thundering into the home straight, and I’m riding every damn one of them. Standing on their backs with my hands in the air and my wild hairs on end. Yes, it’s been a while.
I charge into the water. Dive, and the cold engulfs me. Crystal awakening, a rebirth in ice. I feel the salt on my lips, the sting of the sun in my eyes. Too damn long.
She swims over to me, hair plastered over her face. We float, face to face. She has the mountain behind her, the sea, and I want it all. I want to gobble it all up and tear it to shreds.
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” she says.
“It’s not my job to put you together again.”
I nod again. And smile. I lick my lips and taste the salt on them. It tastes much better than I ever remembered.
Tomas Marcantonio is a fiction writer from Brighton, England. He has been published in various journals and anthologies, most recently Ellipsis Zine, Firefly Magazine, Storgy, and The Fiction Pool. Tomas is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he teaches English and writes whenever he can escape the classroom.