That year, like every year, the ocean lapped up the shoreline. Its hunger was an enormous force, and a patient one.
Sometimes, you’d confront the enormity. Waves might flush theatrically over the street. Palm trees might splinter. Houses might crumble like sugar. Power lines might collapse into the flood and turn even the still water to something electric and worthy of fear.
More often though, things were quiet. The hunger never for a moment subsided, but it went unnoticed. Local families sunned on the shore to the tune of Música Cubana, to Today’s Top 50. The tourists nursed their tallboys, guarded their crumbs from the gulls. They paid the erosion no mind. I watched it all day long, perched on a lifeguard chair.
It continued all through the night, after I’d left. No one around to save two skinny dippers who had moved to make love on the sand. For them, this force registered as nothing more than the white noise of waves. Something hushed by the smallest ecstasies.
This force inspired no retreat. Development pressed on towards the waves, no matter how the waves pushed back. As long as there were people to buy the buildings, the buildings would be built.
Condos, developments, seaside hotel-bar-restaurant-casinos were underway, the pace breakneck. Weatherproofing was perfected. New insurance policies were dreamt up each day, old ones disregarded. Stilts were constructed for the houses. As if their knees would not soon buckle like cranes.
But this was only the periphery. It didn’t take me long to leave the shoreline, to find a new job at an indoor pool. Once I did, the Miami I knew rarely happened here, at the collapsing edge of the world. Even then, there was always the sense it was encroaching. Always the sense the solid ground beneath me might give out, open up to a sinkhole.
Mostly, though, I had better things to worry about that summer. For instance, Jamie was dying.
* * *
Back then, I was still convinced that swimming was my way out of something, or into something else. I spent hours every morning doing laps at the pool. Before my shifts, on days off. It was a cave of a place, where every wet squeak echoed into something immense. The lights were fluorescent and unflattering, giving everything a mall-like glow. The chlorine seemed too strong, and my sinuses were always dilated.
But I loved it there. I loved feeling my body, which most of the time eluded me, cut through the otherworldly turquoise of the water with purpose and precision.
Jamie came with me sometimes. She’d sit in a foldable chair near the locker rooms, back against the wall. Or she’d bother me by dangling her feet in the water of my lane.
With cracks that echoed like lightning throughout the cement cavity of the space, she’d open spiked seltzers. She’d light a cigarette.
“Definitely not allowed,” I’d tell her with a shake of my head.
“Open up,” she’d say, and she’d pour a stream of fruity liquid from above the spot where I treaded water, aiming at my mouth.
She’d press me to go to the beach. We had met there during one of my first shifts, right after I got to Miami. She still didn’t understand why I’d left that job.
“This place is bad for you. Too many chemicals,” she’d say, and take a drag of her cigarette. “They’re seeping into your brain.”
I was entering competitions then, and winning them. My coach left Jacksonville after I graduated, so I had decided I should follow her south. I was still nursing a fantasy of the Olympics, though I couldn’t get past the feeling I’d already missed my window.
Jamie was a terrible distraction, but still, I longed for her presence. To see the shock of her bleached hair at the end of the pool, a blur through my splattered goggles. To see the bright red of her toenails kicking through the blue. To hear the bubbling of her laughter. It’s hard to describe somebody like her. When she was in a room, people didn’t just glance.
She teased me but she never rushed me. She spit cherry pits on the floor and complained about not being at the ocean. But still, I knew she was happy to wait. And I was happy to have her there waiting, admonishing me to change into a real bathing suit. Lacing her fingers through mine, pulling me all the way to the shore. To the sun.
* * *
Jamie took the bartending job at La Casa almost two years back. It was a seedy place, the lighting always fever-red, the music always too loud. There was a strip club in the basement, though Jamie assured me that was a totally separate affair.
Mostly I never trusted Julio, a manager who was already leering at Jamie whenever we showed up there as customers. Only on our drunkest, latest nights along the strip. Only for cheap shots of rum. To laugh at the sweaty bravado of the other patrons, who were always men besides us. To accept free drinks under the condition that they not speak to us for the rest of the night. We had no attachments.
Then it all changed. Jamie became Julio’s and so I did, too.
In the nights, I waited for her. I sat at the bar and she’d sneak me free drinks. I ordered increasingly menacing ones as the night aged, as I got drunker and more disgusted watching Julio come out from his office to check on the bar. He’d be wearing a sleazy suit, with his forehead shining under the strange lights. Mojitos to begin. Whisky on the rocks by the time I was watching him slide a hand into the pocket of Jamie’s denim cut-offs. He’d touch her clavicle, whisper in her ear like pillow talk.
He’d see my look and try to appease me with small talk. “How’s the swimming?” he’d ask, or “How’s the family up north?” As if Jacksonville was some distant country. He might offer to make me a cocktail himself, on the house. I’d give him a hateful smile and shake my head no. I’d wait for him to leave.
“What the fuck is he pretending he needs to tell you when he does that?” I’d ask Jamie, who’d be mixing me a dark and stormy.
“Believe it or not, my boss does sometimes need to speak to me.” She might lean in to peck my forehead. Tender and dismissive. “I’m on the clock, babe. Not all of us are here for the free liquor.”
I’d stay until she got off. I told myself I could keep her safe by bearing witness. As if any of the men there to gawk at her all night long, lingering after closing, putting off paying their tabs, as if any of them gave a shit who I was or what I saw.
Anyway, it was a moot point. I knew she and Julio were fucking. I made myself sick all night imagining it. Sometimes I thought about kissing her there at the bar. When he was far enough away that I could pretend it was meant to be secret. Close enough to see. But I knew he’d find a way to make that his own.
I didn’t expect to miss the anger, but I did in the end. I even knew how to use it during training. I felt it in my muscles as I pushed them forward, faster through the lukewarm pool water, past my teammates, all colorless to me. Even my coach took up no mental real estate now. It was only Jamie. The desire and rage she and Julio inspired flowed through me like the shock of a spice. Hot and urgent, reminding me I’m alive.
* * *
Julio was, foremost, a businessman, that’s what he’d tell you if you if you asked. In the vein of all the Miami businessmen I’d met, there was never a defined stopping point. His sentences trailed off and opened up into a world of endless possibilities, so that for any venture he made you aware of, there was the implication of ten more.
He’d wave his hand in a grand gesture, say something like, you know, and I could see them materialize behind him: a legion of strip clubs, of restaurants, of new developments marching dutifully toward the crumbling shore. Even Jamie didn’t seem to know the extent of it, just that he owned a small set of condos at the end of the strip. That he liked to talk about real estate.
The night Jamie got her last formal diagnosis, the one that crossed the threshold into lethal, was the only time I let Julio drive us both home.
I was numb, hopping into his shiny plaything of a car. There was Julio’s hand on Jamie’s leg, while I sat behind the two of them like some child. Julio saying he’d take care of things, he’d take care of things, baby, stroking her thigh.
Maybe he’d finally be good for something, I tried to tell myself, though I wanted to pry him from her. He muttered something about his doctor friend, about money being no issue. A club music mix blared from backseat speakers and drowned out their voices, even as I leaned forward. I caught what bits and pieces I could.
I caught the word proposition and felt my chest clench like a fist. I imagined the shrouded ends of the conversation. I studied Jamie’s reflection, dark in the side-view mirror, but I couldn’t catch her eye.
* * *
All I could do was try to let that go. The shady tone of his voice resurfaced sometimes when I woke too early, on those mornings when I could feel a sinkhole waiting beneath me. When everything I’d ever lost would come rushing back to me, swarming like flies.
When I thought the ground would suck up my bed, what scared me the most was how detached I felt. I wasn’t sure how much it would bother me if it did. With so much behind me already, I didn’t know who it would be swallowing.
Weeks passed during which Jamie didn’t talk to me about any of it. I didn’t ask about her health. I didn’t ask what work she was doing for Julio, why it was cutting so deep into her hours at the bar that I was only seeing her there once a week. I didn’t ask if he was keeping up his end of the bargain. I knew I wouldn’t like any of the answers much.
Then, she found me at the pool, her eyes puffed up. There I was, swimming slower and sloppier than I had in years, and not even able to care.
She was standing at the end of my lane when I surfaced.
* * *
We went to a different bar for the first time in months.
“My treat,” Jamie kept saying as she ordered us piña coladas. I hated frozen drinks.
She lit a cigarette and took a drag to steady herself. She told me about the movies they’d been making, how the money was good. Certainly better than bartending tips.
She told me Julio had started off saying it was just the one, but like the industrialist he was, he couldn’t help but see the opportunity. There was always one more hovering in his periphery like an eye floater. And right now there were lawyers that needed to be paid. Trouble with the condos.
I could hear him saying it, the real estate man, that the treatment she’d need to have a real shot wouldn’t be cheap. He spoke and an angelic choir of bulldozers, of excavators, of backhoe loaders sounded behind him. Julio, the developer, unmaking and remaking the world in his own image, the way he saw fit. Gaudy and ugly and slick.
He thought she was a natural. He thought it ought to be her sole gig. He hadn’t fired her from La Casa, but he also didn’t have her on a single bar shift on the next schedule.
“Just to try it,” she assured me. “To test the waters.”
I could slap her, I thought. My fingers vibrated.
“What are you even saying right now, Jamie? How could you let him do that?”
Jamie finished her piña colada and looked past me.
“He could just give you the money,” I said, my voice loud enough that people were looking over. “He doesn’t need to make you do that.”
Then her focus was right on me. She looked at me with curiosity, like she was seeing something for the first time. Then with pure pity. Like I was the one who was sick.
She scooted her chair closer to me and leaned her head on my shoulder without a word. I pressed my nose into the jasmine smell of her hair. I exhaled. We stayed like that awhile.
“Let’s go,” she said.
* * *
Jamie guided me back to the strip, straight to La Casa. During the walk, the moon loomed above us through a green-gray screen of clouds. It whispered to the tides, somewhere out of sight, beyond the glinting silver buildings.
At La Casa, Jamie walked right behind the bar and grabbed us a bottle of Don Q Cristal.
I followed her downstairs, to the floor we never went to. I felt absurd, still lugging my swimming bag, bulky with my own items from the pool plus the purse Jamie had stowed inside. But nobody stopped us. She was Julio’s girl. And she was Jamie.
The light in the basement was even dimmer. All the men were so shrouded in shadows we could barely see them. A topless woman danced on stage. An undercurrent of the music hummed like locusts in my ear, so that I couldn’t even pay attention to the melody.
We sat there on metal chairs and swigged our rum and held hands and watched. It felt good to both be guests again.
Eventually, she broke away to dig through my bag. She grabbed something from deep within her purse and went to the bathroom. Maybe a tampon, I thought, maybe drugs.
Once she’d gone, I had nothing else to look at. I turned back to the stage. I swigged the Don Q. I wanted to appear confident, though I felt exposed without the immunity Jamie offered me here.
The dancer moved as though through liquid, and soon I was transfixed. She’s swimming, I thought.
Images flashed through my mind of Jamie kissing her mouth. The soft of her neck. Her nipples. Down her stomach. Of Julio with a camera and a hard-on. In control and never getting his own fingers dirty.
When Jamie returned, she sat down next to me without a word. She pressed a tiny amber bottle of poppers into my palm.
Then I looked at her, straight on, and she smiled.
In the bathroom, she had put on my turquoise swim cap. It gripped the contours of her head. In her skintight red bodysuit and her heeled sandals that looked like plastic doll shoes and her perfect makeup, looking bald.
“I’m going on next,” she whispered to me. The words ran up my arm like voltage.
The dancer left the stage and the men got up to leave, or else to go to some even deeper floor I’d never seen, one with darker shadows and stricter access. Jamie climbed up and took the dancer’s place. She stumbled a little in her shoes.
I was at the edge of my seat now. I leaned forward.
“Take them off!” I heckled. I watched her undo the straps that came up her legs. My whole body lurched.
The light shone pink on her. She gripped the pole and sent herself spinning, smaller and smaller concentric circles. Her laugh sounded like she’d swallowed the sun. That day, everything this place had been, it was all erased.
I unscrewed the bottle she’d given me and breathed in the chemical smell and felt my head turn to water. I didn’t look around to check who might be watching me because I didn’t want to know who else was watching Jamie.
I never took my eyes off of her. I watched as she took hers off me. The laughing self-consciousness turned to vapor.
I watched as she forgot I was there at all, as her eyes closed, as she dipped and arabesqued, as the muscles in her arms became taut. Her leg lifted to straddle the pole. She threw her head back so I could see only the bones of her neck. I could see her swallow. I could see her ribs expand and contract as she bent backward, as they pressed tight against the fabric.
The sweat turned her skin to pink-silver shimmer in the light. I studied the shape of her head with my swimming cap pulled against it, felt a tremble of longing in my fingertips—I wanted to run them against it. Soon her hair would be gone. Soon there’d only be skin and I realized, late and dumb, that that was the whole point. She looked so much more alive than anybody else.
I don’t know whether I really felt the tremor or not. Perhaps where my feet touched the ground, perhaps at the base of my skull. More likely I didn’t feel a thing, only saw Jamie. Twirling, twirling, twirling, as the city fell around us.
* * *
Julio was gone the day after the condo collapsed. He took a helicopter. He was away on business. This was all any of the boys at the bar told Jamie.
My brain got snagged on imagining the processes. A tiny crack in the concrete, water slipping inside. Steel rusts. Corrosion builds, pressure builds. One beam collapses and becomes the first domino.
Weeks passed, and they were still looking for bodies in the rubble. An eyewitness account said it was the pool that caved in first.
I asked Jamie if Julio had given her any indication he might be leaving. If she had any idea where he’d gone.
“Why, you miss him that bad?” she asked me.
“Did he leave you anything, anything at all? Money. The keys to his place. A contact.”
Jamie lit a cigarette and laughed in a way that scorched me. Her eyes didn’t meet mine.
And that was all fair, because I knew the answer and was asking anyway. I wanted to rile her up. I wanted her to hold some of the hatred I had for him.
I wanted to shake her shoulders and scream, He didn’t give a fuck about those people, Jamie, and so he killed them. Just like you. I still believed anger might change something.
I asked Jamie if she thought Julio had any idea the building was liable to collapse.
“Fuck off,” is what she said, and I dropped it.
I didn’t hear from her for more than a week. I tried swimming to forget about it. I had stopped going to the pool unless it was for a shift, or else to train with my team. I was even excited, I told myself, to practice alone. No distractions. But that was no good. I went once and left within the hour. I couldn’t stand how big and empty it was. I couldn’t stop imagining the water caving in.
I spent the week in bed, mostly. I called out sick from work and from training. The rage had been sucked out of me like an oyster. It frightened me how I felt without it. I almost wished Julio would come back.
* * *
When Jamie texted me again, the first big hurricane of the season was about to blow in. I want to go to the beach, Jamie typed. I want to watch the waves.
I responded, I’d need to be drunk to agree to that. She promised to make me a drink there.
She met me at my apartment and grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the shore, like nothing had ever been the matter, and I was so relieved to feel her gravity again. I could never sink while I was in it. I was only moving sunward, feeling the tide guide me.
It was the north tower that had collapsed. The south one still stood, pointed towards the ocean that would swallow it one day. Unflinching amidst the rubble of its sister.
That was where Jamie took me. The tower had been evacuated, though I didn’t know where all the residents had gone. Were Julio’s men paying for their hotels somewhere inland, I wondered, and where were all their things and would they ever come home.
There was caution tape everywhere, but the storm had started to roll in, and this close to the shore was a ghost town. The salt in the air stung so badly that my eyes watered. Jamie didn’t say a word to me and the wind was loud, greedy, tugging away the few I tried to say to her. But her hand was laced through mine, her gel manicure the bright orange of the height of August. The neon of a Miami Saturday. Sometimes one of us would squeeze and the other would do the same back, a third heartbeat between us. I felt it stronger than my own.
I didn’t let go and I didn’t slow down as she pulled me along. I didn’t ask any questions for the wind to carry away. I understood where we were going well enough, and didn’t need to ask why. She guided me to the ocean as always, this time through the caution tape, this time with the collapse in my periphery. This time wondering whether or not they’d found all the bodies, or whether they were still there, broken beneath the piles of concrete and dust.
Despite everything, it was beautiful here. Miami cast in gray. The rain horizontal and punctuating, the palm trees in yogic bends. I hadn’t felt inside of my own body in a long time, I realized.
I did not let Jamie pull her hand away as she tried to open the front lobby door and found it locked. Reluctantly, I freed my grip so that she could jimmy open the window and make us a way in.
She stepped back for a moment and faltered. She looked surprised it had worked. She looked like a child, suddenly. Blinking there, getting drenched.
I felt the rush of quicksand in my chest. I met her gaze and then I broke it. I hoisted one leg into the lobby blindly, then came the rest of me, then Jamie.
* * *
The hallways were dark and windowless, but it didn’t take long to find an unlocked door, a room with an ocean view.
The wind thrashed brutally against the windows, and we opened them. It hurt to look out, but we did. The waves were growing large enough to make cicada wings flutter inside of me. I imagined Julio’s car parked somewhere along the shoreline, the white convertible looking like a toy, getting swallowed by the sea.
I watched a gull try to move forward. No matter how rapidly he flapped, the wind pushed him back and back. I watched him try to land just to be swept up by an eddy. The sky was one burning white sheet.
“Where do you think the sun is?” I asked Jamie.
She furrowed her brow as if she were solving an equation. I liked how seriously she took the question, hazel eyes scanning the sky like a metal detector zeroing in. She paused and lifted one finger to point to the spot where her gaze had landed. It looked no different from the rest, but I believed her.
There was nothing personal left in the place, nothing that betrayed a life here before us. Only generic furniture, the promise of no past and an irrelevant future. I splayed on the black leather sofa, getting it damp.
Jamie mixed us each a dark and stormy from the supplies in her backpack, which she lined up on the marble countertop. So easily this place became ours, and with the blurring of just one drink in me I’d already forgotten we had broken in. I liked watching her bartending. She hadn’t had another job like this before La Casa, had gotten the position based solely on her easy customer service complaisance, her looks. Because Julio was the arbiter of things, I felt some resentment about it. But over the last two years she’d become deft in a way I’d totally missed. She worked with concentration, with knowing hands.
* * *
We were halfway through the bottle when one of the water pipes out in the hallway burst.
The nighttime had set in sneakily, a subtle fade from one shade of gray to another. This had sent Jamie and I scrambling through the kitchen cabinets, where we found white pillar candles sealed in plastic.
We were sitting on the floor by the time it happened, cross-legged in the faltering light of the small flames. Her hand rested easily on my knee.
The noise was explosive, and made us both snap up straight.
The north tower had fallen on a 90-degree day while the sun shone down sweetly, while Miami was at its cerulean and sunshine candy-coated best. The dolphin-silver skyline unmoving while the pool sank into the ground.
Jamie looked at me with big eyes, first in pure alarm, then a smile playing on her lips.
“Think we’ll die here?”
Suddenly beneath the lull of her speaker, the wind and the rain, the thunder and the throes of the ocean were unbearably loud. It hadn’t occurred to me that we might be in real danger. It still hardly did. I felt like we were kids, up past bedtime and spooked at our own ghost story.
“Probably not,” I told her, and stood up to see what had happened. Water slowly licked its way in from under the almost imperceptible crack of the front door.
I opened it, and a bit more gushed in. Enough to reach its tendrils into the living room, where Jamie could see it, too.
The hallway was even dimmer now, but I saw the white glint of water spraying from the ceiling.
There was already water pooled up. This particular pipe could not be the only source. I tried to peer further down to see if others had ruptured, too, but couldn’t make anything out. I felt a shiver of panic, but did my best to pay it no mind.
“Is it bad?” Jamie stayed seated, staring absently at the thin film of liquid creeping toward her. She downed the rest of her drink. I turned to her and smiled a little but couldn’t make myself speak.
“If it’s bad,” she continued, “we’re supposed to get on the roof, no?”
I nodded. She was quiet and pensive for a second. I walked over to the window.
“That feels stupid,” she said after a while. “I’d rather not get blown from a thirty-story building.”
“I guess that way helicopters can see us. And, well, we don’t drown.”
“Oh, I’d much rather water.”
I looked out the window. We were somewhere beyond the shoreline now, a building out at sea. The tide had wrapped around us. The big white caps thrashing against it didn’t seem far below us at all.
“What?” Jamie asked me, “What’s going on out there? Should we shut the window?”
I shook my head and joined her on the floor, having left the window and door wide open like two big moonpools. I was being quiet. She studied my face with the same purpose she had used to study the sky, to search for the sun. I looked back at her evenly at first, then laughed. I grabbed my cup from the little wooden ottoman beside us and gulped it down with averted eyes.
“Well, should we kill this bottle, then?” she said finally.
* * *
Our phones died, eventually, and I didn’t know how many hours into the night we were. The candles burned scentlessly. The room kept filling with water, the waves starting to spill in through the window, a big one throwing the screen onto the floor.
We sat on the countertop bar, the highest perch in the kitchen. The marble was cool beneath our legs. We hugged our knees into our chests.
The water inched up. Sometimes we’d remember and look down and laugh about it. Sometimes the room would flood with the color of lightning. One of us would take a turn saying we had to get out of here, had to make our way to the roof or at least a higher floor, just to watch the other shrug it off and take another swig of the Miller High Lifes we’d moved on to.
Eventually it rose high enough up that Jamie extended one long leg into the water. She skimmed her toes across the surface and laughed wildly. It was a mix of clean water from the pipes and the briny, debris-filled ocean water. She kicked and splattered it. I kept my legs huddled tight to me.
“It’s nasty,” I told her.
“Somebody should complain to the owner.”
It was the first she’d brought him up that night, and she must’ve seen the change in me. She continued tentatively.
“Did you know he swam? When he was in school?”
I hadn’t. I waited for Jamie to change the subject.
“C’mon, touch it,” she said and splattered the water again. “Don’t be a coward.”
I slowly extended my leg and poked a single toe into the water. I raised my eyebrows at her to say, happy?
“More!” she demanded, over the sound of a wave gushing in through the window, the horrible lash of it against the house, the disturbance rippling through the room.
“More?” I asked her, quietly, leaning in and looking at her in provocation.
She turned her whole body to face me, leaning in so close that I could feel the warmth of her breath. She crinkled up the freckles on her nose.
“More,” she whispered. I watched the word leave her lips. She watched me right back, her gaze drilling into mine.
And with that I threw myself off the countertop. I didn’t check where I had surrendered my body. I only looked at her until I became completely submerged.
The water slapped against my skin, and I quickly sank low enough to hit the floor. I opened my eyes. It was almost impenetrably dark, but soon they adjusted to the strange brown blur. I thought I could see fish. Suddenly, the whole thing felt magical to me. Like I was a mermaid.
The water held me and everything else dissolved, even Julio. Even Jamie. I never wanted to come up.
“Holy shit,” Jamie cried out. She laughed her golden laughter, her figure shining in the candlelight. I knew with perfect certainty I would never love anybody else quite the same way.
“Now we actually need to get out of here,” she said. “Now I know you’re wasted and I need to save us both.”
I floated on my back. I kicked my feet to propel myself through the submerged furniture and palm debris and white plaster from the ceiling.
I floated so that my ears sunk under the water, so that the sound of it rushing in and around filled them. It sounded like a heartbeat through a stethoscope. Everything turned liquid and blue.
Jamie shrieked with laughter. I could feel the warmth of it in my own abdomen. That feeling was enough to bring me to the shore, over and over.
It was enough to make me build a whole slick, shining city. Even if it crumbled tomorrow.
Sarah Walsh studied English and Film at Tufts University. She is the recipient of the Mary Charles Grant Prize Scholarship for Creative Writing and the Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize. She currently resides on the south shore of Long Island.