Jessica Lee Richardson
If you're going to swim in the small boxy river beneath the airport
when fifty yards away is the ocean, it is not just any ocean then, you
are probably in another hemisphere. And this is precisely where I was,
in another hemisphere beneath an airport, drugged and dandy, and not
far from the ocean I swam in just the day before with beguiling
manatees not scared of me. One even came up to my face. I asked a
manatee to come, and it came. Then others swam right below, their skin
on my skin. I giggled to mask how rewarded my heart felt, and how
The water under the airport was much dirtier, though. We just stepped
right in, didn't we? I called to small whales and fish to come close,
but when they did they were definitely not manatees. None of these
observations helped me save money on hospital bills, however, when
later I was all wet and slipped and broke my ankle in the airport.
The nurse said I should do a fundraiser, said I should call this rich
man she knew for help, but I said nah, forget it, I'll pay the three
grand. I wanted to show my work ethic. A work ethic seems important
when in a foreign country. Plus, the truth was that I had been drugged
when I broke my ankle. It didn't seem fair to fundraise when I had been
drug-breaking my own limbs. We'd sucked something out of someone's
vape. It had seemed like a good idea, waiting in line. Then, though, we
were out of our heads. Who even knew what kinds of wild stuff you could
put in a vape these days? We didn't. We were fine to sit on the floor.
Fine to step into dirty under-airport water. Fine to substitute a
two-bit lobby for Myanmar.
I could have stayed with my feet in the deep rubbing oil-slick skin for
decades. But I didn't. I flew home high as a kite with a three-thousand
dollar air cast, slept, and went out with my friends the next day.
"In fact, just the day before that," I told them, telling the airport
story, "we swam in real black water all day." I was trying not to be
smug. "Clean black water. I know the color implies oil." I rubbed my
nose crease, failing at my attempt to not be smug. "But this was thin
and safe! Stones and sand were the only detectable litter." It
Before the ugly airport water incident, when our bones were tired from
swimming in the ocean on our vacation, we had simply retreated to the
cabins to eat hand-shucked oysters from the black lake out back. We did
wonder if we should worry about seafood from this water, but we were
hungry and they smelled so fresh. They filled us the way only food from
the yard fills.
The truth was it was tough to take this first meeting among friends
back in the city. My ankle hurt. I had guilty nostalgia for cold dark
waters. We were in a hot and crowded bar with a different take on food,
one that tried to imitate black water yard oysters but wasn't quite
getting there. They got it as wrong as we had gotten the swimming under
the airport thing.
The great quality of big cities is that everyone in them has decided to
agree on the inherent worth of the place, which acts as a magnet to
other potential agreers. There are still problems, though. The problem
in this city was not just the mimicking food; it was also that
sometimes you suddenly had a group leader. This was true now, we
suddenly had a group leader. No one had elected her. Clearly she had up
and elected herself. City people are like that. We didn't mind
terribly, we just ordered the sliders like good New Yorkers. But then
this unelected group leader began holding up lists of rules. The rules
were cryptic. Like, "It sits at the center of religion," or
"If you switch modification and hue, you may," or "Sand hills
are not for the non-pneumatic." The
group leader's rules were, in fact, utterances that mimicked sentences,
but weren't quite. In this way our group leader went with the ambiance.
We all just stared. We could see how she matched the place and was
going for something mildly artistic, but we were unable to formulate
the response she was looking for. This upset her. She finally stormed
out without saying anything.
It doesn't have the desired effect to storm out of the door in a big
It isn't as if you've left the house. The city is continuous. It's just
as if you've gone out into the hallway. You're in some other room now.
No one is insulted by your being in some other room now. It's a free
Yet we had just flown in from a place where sea mammals will swim with
you by choice and the food came from the silt underfoot. There, the
cabins were over when you left them. When you left them you were really
gone. Elsewhere. A ring of silence in your wake.
So we didn't say anything, but we were properly insulted, even in the
free country of the big city. We stuffed the sliders in our mouths
wishing they could be more than they were, and we limped out into the
Jessica Lee Richardson's first book, IT HAD BEEN PLANNED AND THERE WERE GUIDES, won FC2's Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize and was longlisted
for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award.
Read her postcard.
Detail of photo on main page courtesy
of Theophilos Papadopoulos.
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