My mother lights another Winston and, eying me closely, blows the smoke out the side of her mouth. She is circling, looking for a way into my confidence.
"So she's moving out?"
"Tomorrow." I am watching the frantic maneuvers of a hummingbird confused by the red plastic flowers.
She tilts her head; I can feel her frowning. "Did something happen, Jenny? Did you have a fight?"
I shake my head no.
She leans forward, lowers her voice. "Another woman?"
I look at the black windows of her sunglasses. Cosmetic surgery has pulled out most of her wrinkles and her face, shiny and taut, is straining with anticipation. Her glossy red lips are parted. Even her hair is shimmering, waiting.
I know she blames me for losing Antonia. I don't fix myself up, she contends, don't pay enough attention to my clothes and my nails.
She cannot imagine how hard I tried—first my methods and then some of hers. How can I explain that it wasn't my fault, that I was up against an octopus and never stood a chance.
It started, of course, at the aquarium. Everything was fine until Antonia got a job at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Not two weeks later I brought some oysters home and when I put them on the table she blanched, nearly knocked the chair over getting to her feet. That was the beginning of the end.
Which is pretty ironic considering how we met. Imagine a lovely dark-haired woman sitting alone in a restaurant. She is watching the sun melt into the Pacific. Her wine glass blazes in the orange light as she raises it to her lips. On the table is a plate of oysters, her second.
It was only by chance that I saw her. I came out of the kitchen for a club soda and there she was, stunning as a coral reef.
From behind a vase of forsythia I watched her lift each shivering oyster from its icy bed and even then I could feel the undertow, could see the water rising. There was nothing I could do but flip my apron to the clean side and head straight for her table.
Striking up a conversation was easy enough. There were the oysters, all twelve of which I had pried open, not to mention the mixed greens I had tossed for her, the focaccia I had made. Everything she put in her mouth had first been in my hands.
And so I asked how she liked the oysters and told her they were Quilcenes, fresh from Tomales Bay, and then I mentioned the Olympias I was getting in and had she ever tried them. She had the most provocative lips I'd ever seen. She smiled a lot and nodded here and there, and if she thought my presence in the dining room was odd (and it was) she didn't let on; maybe she was flirting too. In any case she came back for my bivalves every Friday afternoon. The waiters, who caught on quickly, would let me know the minute she arrived, and each time I saw her, backlit in that window, my stomach would start to do flip flops. Sometimes I had trouble with her oysters because my hands would be shaking so much. I must have opened over a hundred of them before I finally got the nerve to ask her out.
Things fell into place, as they generally do in the beginning. Antonia was thirty-one and I was just a couple of years older. We were both a bit love weary, having been down that road more than once, and while we didn't exactly hold back, we didn't rush headlong either. It took us four months to get those three little words out of the way and another two months went by before she moved in with me. This last step was probably the easiest as she was living in a thin-walled overpriced apartment in Salinas and I had a house near the beach to offer, one of those whimsical cottages with a sloping rooftop and small arched doorways. From the street it looks fine but if you come up the walk you can see the moss in the cedar shingles and the mildew under the eaves, and if you aren't careful you can twist your ankle on one of the long yellow slugs that slide through the calla lilies. There isn't one thing my mother likes about this house and I think she hates the lilies most of all. Funeral flowers, she calls them. Big leaky funnels. Bees fly in, she says, and never come out.
Antonia, on the other hand, loved this place. On her first visit here she sank into the frayed green sofa and looked at the clutter of books and driftwood and said it felt like camp. Time after time I would find her running a hand over the smooth dents in the mahogany table or opening the linen closet just to smell the sheets and towels. From my bedroom window the ocean is a blue rectangle a half-mile away, but the briny scent lives in every crack and corner of the house. I was brought up on this air and would probably languish without it.
Antonia was a craftswoman when I met her. She'd gather up sea debris—lustrous bits of abalone, gleaming shark's teeth—and fashion them into jewelry which she sold to the tourist shops. I cleared out the small bedroom my mother once used for sewing and that's where Antonia set up shop. I liked the fact that she worked at home; I suppose it bolstered my sense of security. The truth is, I never had much influence over Antonia and I knew it.
She was beautiful, for one thing, heart-stopping, jaw-dropping, told-you-so beautiful, and that alone should have kept me at bay. Even her name caused me worry—who can possess a woman called Antonia? And then there was her silence, her way of leaving a question unanswered, a quirk that began to unhinge me.
I might have shown better judgment, might have been able to save myself if it hadn't been for our sex life. I have known bedroom Olympians, women who could write manuals on the subject. Antonia wasn't one of them. Indifferent to performance, she would lose herself on a single spot. Her hand would stroke some part of me, over and over, until the world fell away and I was held aloft and breathless. Or locking her gaze on mine, she would move against me, so slowly, so deliberately, that my body would tremble in preparation. Whatever she did carried me away, always to the same astonishing region. Sex with Antonia was a place.
And our meals—oh how we feasted! Blinis for breakfast. Mussels at midnight. Artichokes in bed at high noon. Antonia was an avid eater. About the only thing she shunned was meat, which was fine with me: I'd seen enough bloody aprons in my time and was ready to give up mammals myself.
So there we were, loving and feasting, happy as clams, until the day Antonia came out of her shop and said she'd like to do some volunteer work at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They needed people to help monitor the crowds and make sure the children didn't leap into the bat ray pool or grab something they weren't supposed to. I thought it was a great idea. After tinkering with broken shells and body parts she could spend some time with living creatures.
Antonia was probably the most dedicated volunteer the aquarium ever had. In her zeal to learn she must have logged fifty hours a week, moving beyond the touch tanks and gaining access to the research labs. At first I was happy for her, delighted to see her so enthralled, but I began to miss our time together, and then came the trouble with food. It wasn't just oysters; she gave up all sea life, everything that clung, scuttled, drifted or swam. Which didn't mean I had to, of course, but after sharing shellfish in the moonlight, eating them by myself seemed somehow pathetic. And naturally I didn't want to offend, didn't want the smell of steaming mollusks wafting through the house. It was much simpler to brush up on my vegetarian cooking and eat my seafood at the restaurant.
With all that diligence and, let's face it, the passport of her looks, Antonia got on the payroll in no time. They even enrolled her in a scuba diving class so that she could help feed and care for the fish, a position not typically available to business majors. When coaxed she would offer up snippets of her workday: the baby otter that refused to swim on its back, the jellyfish that glowed in the dark like small floating airports. But what she found most beguiling, what she mentioned most often, were the octopuses. The way they watched you, she explained, with those big yellow eyes moving on stalks. You could see, in the black rectangle of their pupils, a spark of intelligence, a hint of something canny and unfathomable. If they trusted you, she said, they would pull themselves out of the bottles they lived in and, extending a tentative arm, they would start to touch you, all over, their suckers tasting and smelling at once. My first thought was, how horrible, and then I became alarmed: I didn't want anyone tasting and smelling Antonia. They liked to be stroked in return, she went on, and they were especially fond of eating out of her hand. "What do you feed them?" I asked. She shrugged. "Lobsters, crab, shrimp." All my favorites.
Mornings used to be the best part of the day. Cappuccinos and Bach and plenty of time before I had to be at the restaurant. We woke up leisurely, making love while the fog-soaked pines dripped outside the window. Now there was barely time for coffee before Antonia was up and out the door. Mute with longing, I would watch her get dressed: those long legs, the supple back, the soft brown sweep of her hair.
She wasn't interested in making jewelry anymore and had packed up all her silver and solder and baby sand dollars. Now the shelves of that room were lined with books, dozens of them, all about the sea. After she left each morning I would go into her marine library, select a volume and take it back to bed with me. I wanted to learn the habits of my rival.
I could see why she admired them so. There isn't much octopuses can't do. If an arm is lost, they can grow another; in less than a second they can change their color; they can pull twenty times their own weight, and they can ooze through openings no bigger than their eyeballs.
For a while I thought my humanness would hold her, that an octopus, however spectacular, could not usurp me. But then I started thinking about Jane Goodall, enraptured for a quarter-century by a gang of chimpanzees, and I realized I might be in trouble.
Most of my friends worked in the mornings and without Antonia I found myself adrift. About once a week I began to visit my mother. After my father's death several years ago, she signed the house over to me and moved to a sunny condo in the valley, well beyond the reach of rust and slugs. Between insurance policies and inheritances she didn't have to work, and invariably I would find her reading the paper on her deck, happily surrounded by her vinyl geraniums.
I always wondered why I came. It wasn't as if she offered any comfort, although I know she tried, in her fashion. "Antonia's a very feminine girl," she would say, and then, by way of help: "Why don't you grow out your hair? It's been short for years." Or, "Why don't you wear a skirt once in a while? You have nice legs." It was no use trying to explain that the rules she applied to her own life might not be relevant to mine. "Love is love," she'd say, and for that I suppose she deserves some credit.
The octopuses at the aquarium live in mayonnaise jars and clay pots. For some reason they like to decorate the area around their homes, and so the divers supply them with shells and bricks, cheap jewelry and old boots—they are not fussy about the nature of the paraphernalia.
You can't fool an octopus. It can sense the mood of a diver by his chemical emanations, and if the diver is nervous or aggressive, the creature will not budge from its nook. Antonia could always entice them. As soon as she appeared they shot out of their niches and floated over to her. She was so good at calming the new arrivals that the aquarium put her in charge of them, made her the octopus ambassador.
I noticed that Antonia had lost some weight. This no-kill diet wasn't giving her enough calories and when I cautioned her about it, she looked right through me, her mind on other things. She kept drifting away from my questions and comments, not outright rudeness, I think, but because she was losing the need for speech, forgetting she was on dry land.
I tried to fatten her up with roasted vegetable pastas and wild mushroom risotto, but cooking for her wasn't much fun anymore. One day I made a nice tarragon mayonnaise and steamed up a couple of those colossal Castroville artichokes. Antonia's face turned mournful when I set them on the table.
"What's wrong?" I said, trying to keep the impatience out of my voice.
"Did you know," she murmured, "that if you let these things grow they turn into huge purple flowers?"
I slapped down my oven mitt. "People have to eat, Tonia. Something has to die."
She did eventually start eating the damn thing but it brought her no pleasure, and regarding her from across the table all I could think about was the way we used to lie in bed, naked and insatiable, and strip those meaty globes petal by petal.
Antonia never came to the restaurant anymore and I don't know why it took me so long to see the implications of this, to understand that she didn't want to share in the carnage that was my career. I should have seen right away that a woman devoted to protecting fish cannot live with a woman who filets them.
Harder still, she was turning away in bed. "Sweet dreams," she'd murmur, patting my shoulder and offering me her back. Marooned in the dark I would moor myself to her, find solace in the perfume of her hair.
The aquarium was a place I rarely visited—too many hard feelings stood between me and the entrance. And then there were the swarms of children to contend with, the constant campaign of noise. But I was ready to brave all that. I needed to observe Antonia with her eight-armed admirers, to witness what went on in those underwater chambers.
Like everyone else I lingered in front of the kelp forest, eerily beautiful in the morning light, and as I watched the leathery brown ribbons swaying in the currents, the chains of bubbles and the silver fish, I could imagine the relief a diver must feel: a single plunge and all history is banished, blame lifted, anguish ended.
I pressed on, unnerved by the coupling of elements, the terrible subjection of Plexiglas. Seven inches from my face a grouper the size of a sofa appeared, and then an ocean sunfish, stately as an airship. On another wall a regiment of barracuda streamed past, followed by a shark, restless and desolate. There was so much sea life vying for attention that I had to look at the floor, rest my eyes on something that wasn't alive.
The octopus exhibit was drawing the biggest crowds and I had no trouble finding it. I am five-foot-eight and not frail, quite an advantage in a roomful of spectators. There were children packed in front, breathing and whispering. I could smell baby shampoo and the candy on their breath, and the colognes and hair sprays of the adults behind me. I didn't like being jammed in with these people, so close to their pores and whiskers and cigarette smoke. But all that faded when I saw Antonia, just a few feet away, immune in her world of water.
Slim and lithesome in her black and yellow wetsuit, she looked more fish than human. Evidently she had just served up dinner. Three octopuses were busy eating, delicately plucking their lobster shells clean. A fourth octopus, apparently more interested in Antonia than a meal, had anchored itself to her. An audio tape was playing, informing us as we watched: "An octopus will take up to four hours to eat a lobster, leaving the shell perfectly intact." Great, I thought, another talent. The octopus attached to Antonia was running the tip of an arm across her face and neck. And she, in some weird communion, was likewise stroking the creature's lolling head. "Each arm is covered with more than two hundred extremely sensitive sucker discs, and each disc may have ten thousand neurons to handle both taste and touch." What sort of stimulation was that animal getting?
The octopus with Antonia was the largest of the group, about four feet across, with a mottled brown hide and white spots down each arm. I couldn't take my eyes off its hideous head, just skin around a brain. "...the most complex of all the invertebrates, capable of gauging its surroundings and transforming its body shape, pattern, color and texture in a fraction of a second."
I watched for as long as I could. Antonia never once acknowledged the crowd; she was too engrossed in her aquatic Romeo. I don't know how a biologist would classify their behavior, but it was clear to me that she was making love to that beast, touching it in a way she hadn't touched me in a very long time.
Driving home I started thinking about the others. Did Jane Goodall break someone's heart when she loaded up her rucksack and flew to Africa? I knew now that it could happen, that a woman could find some higher truth in the wet brown eyes of a chimp. I could see them, side by side in a tree, quietly sharing a sunset. Diane Fossey was seduced by gorillas, Joy Adamson by a pride of lions. And men too were swept away, stunned by the might of grizzly bears, bewitched by the cry of wolves.
There was no retrieving Antonia; I was way out of my depth. Lying against her back that night, I took a deep breath and asked her when she was leaving. She shrank a little in my arms, and I passed through millenniums, through bottomless black oceans until she finally answered: "Soon."
Packing took no time at all: some clothes, some books, her scuba gear. Antonia had done nothing, I realized, to suggest any permanence here, never pruned or planted, never hung a picture or bought a dish towel. She was simply fastened to this place, like a starfish to a pier, and now that her evolution is complete, she is casting off. Leaving this house is hard for her, probably harder than leaving me. What a pleasing harbor it must have been: the soggy shingles, the slippery lilies, the braided rugs embedded with sand, the smell of old canvas in the cupboards and closets.
She is moving to Seattle, where the octopuses grow to fifteen feet. So pure is her love for these animals, how can I hold a grudge? To console myself I think about food, of all the dishes I'm going to make again, in my own kitchen. Sushi. Thai squid. Glazed salmon. Sometimes I even conjure up meat: the thinnest slice of prosciutto wrapped around a wedge of peach.
Warm sweet air from the laundry vent blows up to the deck. The hummingbird, frustrated, has made a beeline for the horizon. My mother is waiting for an answer.
"No," I tell her, "it wasn't another woman. It was," I flounder a moment, "her work."
My mother's mouth tightens slightly and I notice the tiny vertical lines crowding her upper lip, no doubt the next target for her plastic surgeon. She is not buying this. Either she doesn't believe I am being honest with her or she thinks I've been duped and is sorry for me.
"You know," she begins, "I never much cared for that girl. So quiet, and that food thing."
I shake my head. "Mom, no."
We are quiet then, having reached yet another dead end. I look at the pearly pink lacquer on her toenails and the expensive leather sandals she is wearing and contrast them with my own neglected toes, my worn out dime-store thongs, and it seems to me that we are like most mothers and daughters: not quite what the other had in mind. Still, of all the places I could be this morning, I am here.
"Well, kiddo," my mother says, falling back on the safety of her favorite adage, "there are plenty of other fish in the sea."
I smile at this, which she misinterprets as a wave of optimism, and encouragingly she beams back at me.
Title graphic: "Underworld" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2011. A slightly different form of this story originally appeared in Lynx Eye, 1998.