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Surface Tension

Published: December 17, 2012

”Dammit!” Caren screamed. Hope began to whimper. Tears slid down her face as Lex licked the floor clean of meat juice and chocolate icing.

“At least Lex still swims in the pool,” said Job.

Caren helped Hope through the door and whipped around toward Job. She shook her head and slammed the door in his face—somehow wishing it would rip off the hinges and splinter him through the chest.

Job smiled as Lex trotted over to his side, tongue rolled out and panting.

“Hear that boy? We bought a $20,000 pool just for you.” He scratched the dog behind its ears and gulped down the last drops of his Cabernet.

That night Job couldn’t sleep. Shut away in the guest bedroom, sweat seeped out of his pores, dampening the oversized pillows and covers as the recurring dream revisited him. Every night he stared into the black abyss of a spiraling corridor covered with his kitchen’s electric blue wallpaper. He’d walk into darkness for miles as echoes of Hope’s laughter and pool splashes reverberated down the narrow hallway before fading into silence. That’s when the oak wood doors would melt into the walls. Someone—or something—would knock from the other side but he had learned never to open them, and to awake as soon as they appeared.

So every half hour his body sprung up from the mattress, short of breath and gripping white bed sheets as he examined the closed guest room door. This time he wiped the sweat off his brow, exhaled, and switched on the bedside lamp. He opened the nightstand drawer and rummaged his fingers through it before pulling out an orange prescription bottle labeled “Eszopiclone,” Lunesta sleeping pills. He popped open the cap and poured two OxyContin tablets onto his palm. The bottle was now empty. Job tossed the pills into his mouth and swallowed them down with a glass of water on the nightstand.

Instead of sleeping, he got out of bed and creaked open the guest room door. And before he knew it, he was standing in the doorway of his kitchen, staring at the thin, silver-blue lines slashing down the walls like steep staircases. He thought of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and lightly traced his index finger up one of the wiry lines. He told himself the wallpaper in his dream was different—an illusion sculpted by his subconscious, which may as well be someone else’s conscious altogether. Job the doctor, the husband, the father was an iceberg at the surface; what lurked below was a separate individual whose intimacies should be ignored. Like a stranger he passes on the street, or perhaps a patient whom he prescribes pills once a month.

Suddenly, he found himself standing outside the house at the edge of the pool, gazing at the water’s turquoise surface, smooth as an arctic glacier. The underwater lights illuminated its depths into a palette of sprawling blues, while the surrounding yard was black beneath the blanket of a moonless sky. As if the pool was filled with not only water but light. A distant star sewing a blue thread into a dark hemisphere composed of dead air and nothing else for as far as Job could see.

He tore off his shirt and dove into the pool, piercing a hole through the fragile surface. He thrust his cupped hands through the liquid and imagined himself slicing apart each molecule with his fingernails. He kicked at the water until it surged white, plunging his legs into the depths like a waterfall’s torrent pounding into a lake. While swimming, he generated his own currents with each successive stroke, shoving his feet off the walls until jagged rapids collided, shattering like liquid glass on the poolside. Above the surface, the violent thrashing of waves bothered him. He submerged to escape, and the silence made him regret he’d ever run out of breath. Underwater, he could exhale all the air he inhaled above the surface. He stopped. Floating six feet beneath the molecular boundary dividing two worlds, he wondered why the most habitable one was uninhabitable. He wrapped his arms around his knees and sank to the bottom of the pool. His lungs deflated and pockets of carbon dioxide desperately scrambled toward the liquid ceiling as if committing suicide, or seeking liberation. Job followed them, legs propelling his body off the porcelain pool base until he burst to the surface.

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