It Ends With an Explosion (It Always Does)
by Alex Berman
Like most stories about friendship, this one involves whale bones.
I must have loved Caroline once; I don’t remember. All I have is her name needle-scratched into ivory, cutting a dark line through the white. She would press her index finger into my palm, and she was the moon, and I was a moon orbiting her moon, infinite recursions and refractions trying to light the India ink sky. She wanted the whole world filled with light, but we could never quite get the corners. Maybe she could have if I were not tracing circles around her like a sick puppy.
Creamer diffuses from a flash bang into milky tendrils across my coffee. I search for her face in the ribbons during the fleeting moments before the color settles into brown. Caroline took her coffee black. I never had the fortitude to go without creamer, no matter how many times she told me what I was drinking was no longer coffee. I was always dimming things for her, diluting her great plans. She’s gone, and my scrimshaw is all that I’m allowed to keep; her name etched into my eye sockets so it’s all I see when I sleep.
Her name isn’t the only one I’ve scratched into whalebone, but it’s the only one I’ve carved more than once. I have a wall of Carolines in the shop’s backroom. Caroline, scratched into the rib of a minke. Caroline, beached onto a sternum. Caroline, tracing a shoulder blade. C a r o l i n e, separated across phalanges.
If I could frankenstein together an entire skeleton, she might come back. My coffee is warm but not sweet enough, and the shock of bitterness hitting my tongue feels like skin hitting frigid water, the way I imagine whales feel rolling onto the beach.
My town is where whales come to die. They throw themselves onto the sand, and we can do nothing but watch. They are monumental. Too big for the beach. Caroline was always too big for this town. She never said it, but she disapproved of my livelihood, making kitschy whalebone souvenirs to sell to tourists by our grisly landmarks.
Don’t you want to do something? she would say.
I thought I was doing something, but apparently not. She always had dreams of leaving, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to wake one day to an empty coffee pot.
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Sometimes I see her rowing back to me in a little dory. The boat is made of bones. She is cradled in a blue whale’s ribcage. Whenever whales wash up on the beach, I find myself believing she’ll be there when they cut them open, safe inside a gargantuan artery. She never is, so I take the bones back piece by piece, up the cobbled path and into the backroom, onto the pile of bones that are not my own.
When we were little, Caroline liked scavenging for bones with me after school. We would go everywhere together. You two must know each other so well, people would say. Like it was a good thing.
They never tell you how much it hurts to know someone so well that her hands are your hands. How in every ripple of her voice you sense dissatisfaction, how you will forever trace and retrace the raised bumps the pen made on the note she left, how the space between the letters scales exactly to the miles of ocean now between you.
I had to leave. I know you understand. She was always making presumptions about me, and the worst thing is that they were true.
I couldn’t stay any longer. Caroline moved like her bones might at any moment jump out of her skin.
I don’t know if I’ll see you again. We both knew she wouldn’t, but even Caroline wasn’t cruel enough to say it outright. She tried to maintain some semblance of politeness, but pretending was hard for her. She’s not human like the rest of us. She never once said “I’m sorry” to me, although she danced endlessly around the subject.
The way she tossed love around made me dizzy. Love you, as she swept out the door each morning. Love you, when she ran across the beach. Always loving away from me. Every time she said it, my world flipped on its axis, but then she would laugh in that way and she was the moon and I was space junk struggling to orbit stupidly, smally around her. I said it back, every time.
She’s the place I was born, and I desperately want to swim back to her. But I can’t. The last thing I want to do is gasp for air at her feet. Besides, I have the shop. My world is smaller than hers, but it’s mine. I try to keep it. I drink my coffee with creamer. I hold my home close.
Red hits the window, blotting out the shore.
Did you know that beached whales sometimes explode?
They say it’s because of gas buildup in the stomach
but I think
it’s because their hearts are too big
to possibly stand it any longer.
I’ve been reading a lot of Jonathan Safran Foer recently, and I love the way he combines unique and unlikely situations with some of the most beautiful observations of the human condition. In this piece, I wanted to explore friendships, specifically one-sided ones, and the feelings of loneliness they can evoke. I also just really wanted to write about whales, as I think they are some of the best creatures to grace this earth. Did you know that they mourn their dead? We truly don’t deserve them.
Alex Berman was born and raised in Manhattan and is currently a high school sophomore in the Bronx. When not out running (preferably in the rain), Alex can usually be found drawing, writing, or reading with a cup of tea and a cuddly kitten. Alex is also known (to no one) as a Corduroy Pants Enthusiast and would really like to get that title going if you don’t mind. Just, you know, the next time you’re on the topic of pants (corduroy), give Alex a mention.