Gasping

3,500 words

When he learn he couldn’t have one, he did find a child in the water.

You figure this part goes without saying, ent? That a girl found gasping on the beach would be taken in by a kindly white couple once the husband learn how he infertile. That they would struggle to keep the girl alive in the middle of the night, floundering to figure out what to do. That they would hold the child close, one night, and be baffled by her, whisper to each other never to mention what they learned again.

But in case you ain’t assume what I did assume: Aislinn Browne was an orphan. Sick and struggling to breathe, cast against the side of the sea like garbage. The Brownes was the ones to take the poor thing to hospital, and then take she in when the world wouldn’t come to claim her. Child and Family Agency shrugged the whole time. A woman literally look Missus Browne in she eye and say, “The paperwork’s a formality at this point. No one else wants the girl, so why mustn’t you take her in?”

This was over there—that is, Ireland, at whichever beach nearest to County Kerry, months before Mister and Missus and newly-christened Aislinn hop on a flight to Tobago, to live out the rest of the Brownes’ waning age in tropical glee. Owen did come hoping to find something more than urban idleness, and wifey Colleen come for no other reason than Owen, with little objection. And when they did find Aislinn, they did want to say no, O how it go be too drastic on their pocket, too new a world, and next thing you know: plane tickets and baby cribs and a house, all under dry-season tropical sun.

Aislinn would come into sheself in the nineties—and by “come into sheself,” we mean, heave and rasp through she whole youth. They pay for specialists with almost every cent that didn’t buy food, you know—no fewer than three whole pulmonologists, at the same time even. Colleen used to pace, pace, pace in the waiting rooms of each one. Two out of the three say that they ain’t never seen a girl like Aislinn before in they life, so seemingly in good health, but under she layers was a whole dif’rent being. Guts all misplaced, bones soft and confused. “Genetic defect,” they did say. “Difficult problem to solve,” they did say.

The third?

“Asthma.”

They was hoping to learn some way, however small and temporary, that they could love the girl and hide she from sheself in one fell swoop. But they couldn’t. All they could afford was panic.

And, O, gosh, these two white people could panic! Colleen did resort quick-fast to a kind of complex about water, never letting the girl near a drop of it unless it was flavoured, sweetened, carbonated, boiling hot, freezing solid, or otherwise supervised. Soon enough, Owen did start to notice how the girl did get worse with she breathing when looking at anything more than a bathtub. He was even starting to wonder to heself whether it was them teaching she to ’fraid water, or they didn’t notice how water did already terrorize she to the point of never forgetting.

Confusing for all o’ them, though, was how naturally she was in the water when the fear did slip she mind. In she teens, Aislinn did learn she could hold she breath for an hour. Then, years later, she did learn she was breathing the whole time down there. The Brownes would worry each time, but they would hush their mouths and wait, and she would go, “Water goin’ an’ gimme a heart attack,” and the topic would swiftly, calmly change to how jealous she parents pretended to be of Aislinn’s affinity for Trini twang developing before their own.

As with all things, adolescence did bring some other new and confusing discoveries, too. Lucky for Aislinn, even in a world like Trinidad, she did never find fearing the body easy. Falling in love with long-haired women taller than sheself did come much easier, and more so serenading them, and even more so bedding them the same night they hear she sing. Most of university was spent not keeping one after pleasing one, but Aislinn would never feel shame ’bout it. Boys was easier to win, of course, but they did end, too—almost each one because boys does also make less trustworthy prizes.

Soon enough, she did find Aditi. Fair-skinned and hazel-eyed and raven-haired, falling over sheself to love Aislinn Browne. Colleen tell she that this was the first girl she liked for her, and that encouraged the girl to make it work. Not as if it was breaking down at all. But tell a girl that she should polish something that ain’t stained, and it go turn silver in she hand.

Aditi was Psych and Debating Club and aspirations of Guild President. Aislinn was Poli-Sci and singing by sheself and not knowing what go happen next. And, come to think of it, me ain’t even think she did sing for Aditi, you know. I think they did meet doing something simple, uneventful—eating pizza or filling up gas. Striking up small talk before the cashier’s counter, giggling just enough to intrigue each other. They must-be went on they first date only days after that. And the rest, as they say, ent?

It was barely months ’til they call it serious. Another easy win for Aislinn, but one still better won. I mean, they was everywhere together, man. Two peas in a pod, always hugging up close to each other in public like they was showing—not showing each other off, but rather showing off the lack of space between them both, the intimacy in the middle that was so bright and effervescent that it woulda hurt your eyes just to look at them when they in the same place.

Like, you know how loves does look stale in the sun? So many rehearsed kisses and nervousness in public, all clumsy limbs and lifeless kisses? That wasn’t the case with them two. Aditi make Aislinn feel like a child, and for she trouble, the both of them was always children. Giggling in the mall for nothing at all, running after each other in the park like schoolgirls, dancing in the rain—I mean all o’ these things literally, eh! They was in love like it was a cartoon movie, I telling you.

So, it was bound to happen that eventually they was going to make some decision together like they was the only bodies in the world, a hive mind of hormones pistoning on pure attraction without any care for anybody else.

Aislinn come to Colleen one morning and go say, “Mummy, I’m thinking about studying abroad.”

Well, if you see palpitations the mother have that morning! Colleen hyperventilate and nearly faint away in front of the girl. It wasn’t even just that the Brownes did know how smart both girls were, that any school in the world would be lucky to give them the chance to get their postgrad degrees on their campuses. It was that they knew they wanted to play their part to keep the girl dry, and they couldn’t do that if she wanted to fly out with a partner as carefree as Aditi.

But soon enough, Owen wake she up, and they sit down to talk about it again. To weigh each individual option, to make Aislinn listen to Colleen repeat over and over that “we just want to make sure that you don’t get hurt. You know the world is … not as safe as it used to be …” and by “not as safe as it used to be” they meant, “not as dehydrated as they wanted it to be.”

Owen ask the girls to wait. To let the thought linger for a bit until they actually graduate. To consider their fears that she couldn’t last as long as she did think without she parents. Aislinn didn’t want to, but she agree. She bring the worry to Aditi, and she did carry on like a little child about it, O, how Mister and Missus Browne just want to keep the girl love all to theyself, want to smother she ’til she die o’ suffocation on the blasted island. Aditi done joke that day that they must-be already make Aislinn eat cascadoo when she was small, hoping the old stories was true and now the poor girl would never leave Trinidad as long as she live. It’s only then Aditi even learn the poor white girl don’t like fish.

They keep going about their academic business and loving each other in public and in private. I only just realize at this point how lucky Aditi was this whole time, eh. The girl never did once ask any kind o’ questions ’bout she new lover—not ’bout she breathing, not ’bout she breath always seeming abnormally cool and sweet against she skin whenever they fuck, not about how perfect smooth the girl was to the touch. I guess, when you busy delighting in that kind o’ slackness, you does not notice when something or somebody too movie-perfect to be true. But then again, I feel I know what it is. I feel Aditi did always notice, did always see Aislinn Browne as movie-perfect, and did never want to question it because if she question it, then the girl go stop being real and she don’t care if she have to pretend about the girl being real in order to always have she, and all o’ we know we can’t blame no child for feeling so because when we was she age and love did grab we by the strings o’ the heart, we was doing the same thing. Overlooking the sour-tasting bad, or the alien good because if we ain’t overlook it, then we go stop being happy.

But it’s not even that I say Aditi lucky for. She lucky all this time them fucking and nothing gone wrong. So, it stands to reason they never had reason to partake less, and had infinitely more reasons to spoil theyself, to always sip from each other ’til both o’ them full. And you can’t blame she for that, neither.

But they was also learning they book with a certain eagerness. They was determined, now, to get First Class Honours and hope for scholarships and fly out on somebody else money, so they never have to worry about the Browne parents fretting again. Just jump on a plane and go, don’t ask nobody for nothing. So, them in the university food court revising together, urging each other on, running the thing like a drill. And when the answers come, they get to worship each other again, and then go back to the books right after, and nothing was better at encouraging them to do good in they exams.

First Class Honours, both o’ them. They send applications everywhere, long before anybody ask them again about whether they sure that they sure that they sure that they want to fly out and never see home again for another three years. Aditi get through with Yale in two twos. “A school next to water,” she say idly one day, thinking to sheself that she know that would have some significance for she lover, but she did forget for a moment whether it was a good meaning or a bad one. Aislinn was still waiting for all of she letters to come back, but nobody was ’fraid. Well, nobody but Aislinn, and even she was still confident she was going somewhere. But now she knew where she wanted to go. Wherever she lover would be, wherever they could consume each other without interruptions.

That ain’t stop nobody from celebrating. Big party they throw. First by Aditi house, where she parents spend big money on fancy layer cake and alcohol by the crate and every kinda meat you could curry plate out for dozens o’ she friends to enjoy. Then by the Brownes, a simpler thing but still with alcohol, just the two girls and a couple of Aditi’s classmates and some people they does mutually lime with, relaxed on the verandah and joking. And then, just the two of them later that night, a simple movie and more cake and less alcohol (but not none), and then they come back to Aislinn’s bedroom hoping to celebrate even more, but the rum and the excitement put them out in the bed without any effort at all.

But when they wake up, that thirst was still there, and Aditi move in to quench it one time. Aislinn was never going to say no to Aditi. They lock lips like they seeing each other for the first time after months in isolation, but that is how they does kiss every morning. And Aditi start exposing she lover to the warmth and the soft glow of the sun through sheer curtains, and they start to taste each other.

Now, that could be that. I ain’t have no business telling you this part, and you know that. But it’s because Aditi stop being lucky that I telling you. If you ain’t see how lucky this girl was all this time! These two does have clumsy sex like you ain’t believe—kicking each other in face, sliding off bed and t’ing. And laugh it off like nothing because they love each other and ain’t ’fraid embarrassment and always thirsty enough to keep going no matter how bad the bruise on the forehead or the ego is. But this one day, Aditi go kick the wrong thing by accident and sour the whole thing for everybody.

The cape. The Brownes did know ’bout it already, of course. Tuck it away nice and clean because them done hear stories enough about girls given as gifts by the sea, so they know what to do. Ain’t tell anybody, of course—who you go tell? About the girl with a fin in the back o’ she head shaped like a hood for a toddler’s raincoat.

But it go get loose now, of all times.

Aditi did notice, did want to stop and ask jokingly what it was, but by that time they was done full speed. You know how the t’ing does go. So, Aislinn did keep going, and Aditi didn’t stop she.

It’s only after it start being a big thing. Nobody did notice it at first. She did get she letters, Harvard and Yale and somewhere in Iceland and somewhere in Spain. She didn’t seem focused enough to be as excited as Aditi. She did take Yale, of course. “We could be together now,” she say. And then she say something about water that Aditi did never make out, but nobody did think anything ’bout it.

But then Aditi was the first to notice when the girl’s kisses stopped being as hungry as they used to be. Aislinn was still loving, still deep in adoration, but some indescribable thing was missing now, and Aditi could sense it. The parents did notice something else first instead: that the girl was going out in the middle of the afternoon, not saying why, coming back in a fresh change of clothes, sometimes, and still never explain. They ask the girlfriend, but Aditi ain’t know either, and that did make everybody nervous in a real big hurry.

Weeks did pass, and Owen was the first to see it. The cape wasn’t even hiding no more. It wasn’t just like Aislinn didn’t know what to do with it. It was like she was proud of the t’ing now, a part of she that she only just find back. She would still hide it when she was going out, but only so much—turtleneck sweaters or hoodies pulled all the way over she or something similar. When she was home, though, she didn’t bother. It was almost like she was taunting she parents with it, even—trying to show them that she did know now, wasn’t ashamed, wasn’t even going to ask them anything about it.

When Owen see that, he put the rest together on he own. He didn’t tell anybody, and Colleen didn’t notice what he did at all at all, so he was even more adamant to keep it to heself. He did see how the girl change up completely. Confident in a way she wasn’t before, she whole wardrobe changing up from polos and jeans and conservative blouses to midriff tops and tight, tight skirts and t’ing. She turn rude, too. Dismissive, even talking back. Aislinn was turning twenty, but the smallest falling-out would turn the girl to ten years old and throwing a tantrum, and he would watch the girl with utter confusion, and she would just flare up worse from that point.

One day, he decide to follow she. Drive slow and careful behind the girl when she leaving home, try to see where she does be going. And behold, it’s a public pool in Curepe side where she doing laps like she not human, up and down the side of the thing like a torpedo shaped like a girl. She was swimming for hours. Pacing like she wasn’t even really in water, more like she was just … there, existing in a sense, a kind of other matter of water, something natural in it, effortless.

Owen did know enough stories to know he done lost. In another story, the girl woulda run away long time after seeing she own cape again. But Aislinn was still here, and he didn’t know what that did mean. He wanted to talk to Colleen, but he did already know how that woulda go. So, he would have to settle for it. The private knowledge that a piece of skin done take he only daughter from him, and he had no hope to undo that.

Aditi tried regardless, though, lacking any information. She did ask Owen if he did ever notice any … “growths,” she end up saying, anywhere on Aislinn’s skin, anything without much explanation? The man shake he head, no. He did actually wonder if they coulda do anything together that would prolong the inevitable. But he did already make up he heart about the fact that she was gone without a doubt. It was just a matter of how, or when.

And then the how and when did come, and both of them was Aditi.

Owen does still cuss and carry on ’bout it to heself, when literally no one around to hear it. How if it wasn’t for Aditi, he would still have a child. But he also know in he heart that he did never really have a child. Aislinn was never theirs. She was just lucky to have a house, loving parents to fish her out of the sea before it was her time to go back.

But Aditi was the one to invite her back. To ask her if she was up for a time by the beach, beaming as Aislinn did beam, gleeful about the idea. How Aditi was supposed to know to ask a question here, hmm?

And she ain’t even bother to ask any question at all. The two just step out into the water, wading and locking gazes with each other and waiting for something revealing to happen.

And then Aislinn dip she head under the water, and that was that. Home take she back without a complaint, perfect and silent and true. She did go down, down, down to whatever she body could take, and Aditi didn’t even notice she wasn’t around until there was nothing moving around she in the water again, left behind by it.

And Aditi gone back to the Brownes and cry, cry, cry, eh. And I can’t blame them for that neither. She even silently wish, of all wishes, that she could even have understood a little, that if she could take each teardrop she cry for this girl and make an aquarium, she woulda do that instead, in the water she lover did suddenly value so much, but made of Aditi, made from Aditi’s pained love, hoping that woulda trap she.

But them kinds of things can’t be trapped. Them kind of woman does always find theyself, in the end, and disappear in the embrace of the thing they does truly love. And what is the love of a thing you find in the water?

 

Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work has been shortlisted for the 2014 Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing and the 2014 and 2015 Small Axe Literary Competitions, and is published in Uncanny MagazineStrange HorizonsReckoning, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also a performing artist with The 2 Cents Movement, and the poetry editor of FIYAH Literary Magazine.

Brandon O’Brien is an ARIES.

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