Steve sat in a beach chair in the shallows. Christine was standing in the ocean, waving at him. From where she stood, she could see he was about to take her picture with his phone. She crossed her arms, and felt self-conscious about the smallness of her breasts, their lopsided quality. She watched an old woman approach Steve. The old woman’s gestures suggested she was asking something of him. What could it be? Eventually, the old woman gave up and went back to her own chair, approximately five feet away from Steve.

The way that old woman sat in the chair reminded Christine of her mother, she would tell Steve later on. She remembered when her father called to inform her that her own mother was dying, emphasizing that she might want to come as quickly as possible, she did not go. She was afraid to confront her mother’s death, a person who was important to her, a person she sometimes referred to in conversations with friends as a ‘friend’, while acknowledging to herself as she said these things about her mother that she had conflicted feelings about her, and at times felt a ‘deep dislike’ bordering upon hatred for her mother and considered her to be a ‘rather selfish, amoral’ person. She was too frightened to watch her mother die and to deal with what inevitably came after her death (her father’s death, her brother’s death, etc.).

Christine couldn’t decide whether or not to swim; she could think of many reasons not to, such as the fact that most people urinate in the ocean and also it’s possible some people take a shit (not she). She was careful not to get her head wet. The water was tepid like a bath from childhood. Tepid water felt like warmth to her. She tried to cry. She told herself she would cry for her dead family and especially her dead mother. And for all of the people who used to be alive in the world who were now dead. She was in the ocean for a long time waiting for tears, until Steve waved at her, and gestured for her to come back.

Presently, Steve lay on a bed sheet pinned to the sand with his dirty sneakers and his backpack. He was smoking weed discreetly with a brightly-patterned towel draped over his head. Flowers of some sort, bougainvillea. He asked if she was ready to leave, and she said no, she was just beginning to cool down. She wanted to stay at the beach because she felt as if she were at the precipice of discovering at the beach some essential truths about her life. In other words, how her life was composed of habits, thought patterns, digressive associations, death. She considered telling him she was quite possibly on the verge of having a mental ‘breakthrough’, and when she asked him if they could get dinner at a nearby cafe, across the street from the beach, and if after dinner they could come back to the beach and rest, he took the towel off of his head, and looked at her strangely. He smiled. Maybe he was high or had sunstroke.

‘You mean you want to sleep on the beach?’ he said.

‘I don’t want to sleep on the beach,’ she said, ‘that’s dangerous.’

They began to pack up their things. Steve smoked a cigarette and extinguished it in the sand. She pointed out that this was clearly some kind of beach violation. She loved doing that. From the parking lot, she noticed the old woman struggling to fold up her chair. Christine felt increasingly certain the old woman would die on the beach that night. She made many predictions throughout the day and she trusted her intuition. For most of her life she had fixations. A piece of crust wedged in the corner of Steve’s eyelid. A blackhead on her supervisor’s nose. The mailman with the poufy cartoonish hair who dropped letters on the ground. These thoughts were a part of her brain. It had always been like this.

 

At the cafe across the street Christine sat in a chair positioned near the window so she could watch the beach empty out, but there weren’t many people there to begin with, and instead of leaving, some teenagers arrived and more and more people came, even people with children chose to come to that part of the beach. The people sat on towels to watch the sunset, to have a picnic dinner on that drab patch of sand. She imagined all of the people opening Tupperware containers and dispensing napkins and sanitizing their hands. She watched the people turn into holograms of people. She knew the people with children would stay at the beach until the people with drugs showed up and did their drugs. She reserved her pity for the people with children, how their lives revolved around children, mini-versions of themselves, and she knew she herself would never have children because she was too dark, too selfish, too limited and joyless and she didn’t want to ‘extend’ her problems to tiny humans who didn’t know any better.

Christine and Steve ate stale heels of bread with smashed avocado and flaky sea salt. She frowned as Steve made sarcastic comments about the old woman.

‘And then she kept begging me to open her bottled water for her, because she said she was too weak to unscrew the cap,’ he said.

‘You’re an idiot,’ she said. ‘That woman is dying. How would you like it if you were dying?’

Steve shook his head. He said the old woman didn’t look sick at all, that she looked like a typical sixty-year-old. Like their parents. She looked like a peer of their parents.

‘Okay, but my parents are dead.’ She felt herself becoming angry. She was sweating and her hands shook as she tried to fold her napkin. ‘The old woman reminds me of my mother. My mother is dead. Don’t you see the connection?’

‘What’s wrong with you tonight?’ he said.

Christine turned away from the window. She heard a clatter of plates and a busboy humming along to the music blasting out of the speakers in the mostly empty cafe. Tears came to her eyes, unbidden, boundless, semi-serene. If someone were to ask her where all of the trouble began (no one had ever asked) she would answer simply: ‘It began with the ant farm in second grade.’ She would clarify it began with an ad in the newspaper for the ant farm. She asked for the ant farm for Christmas and her birthday and another Christmas, a red plastic ant farm, and the moment she finally unwrapped a gift from her mother that turned out to be the ant farm, she realized that it was much smaller than she had imagined.

Months later, as her ant farm was thriving, she brought it into the kitchen to show her mother. The ants moving diligently to and fro throughout the tunnels both pleased her and made her stomach turn. Her mother who used to complain about washing dishes because it made her hands break out in eczema was standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes. Christine set the ant farm on the kitchen counter. Her mother turned abruptly and knocked over the ant farm with her rubber gloved-arm into the sink full of soapy water. Little clumps of black ant bodies intermingled with wet sand amid the delicately glistening soap bubbles. Her mother wiped up the remnants of the ant farm with a paper towel. She sprayed hot water all over the sink. With a swift motion she tossed the ant farm into the recycling bin. Christine turned from her and ran into her bedroom. She sat on the filthy carpet and tore apart the ant farm’s cardboard packaging. Later that week Christine overheard her mother talking with her lover on the phone about Christine’s obsession with that ‘silly ant farm’ and how she herself was ‘secretly grateful’ that it had to be thrown away because her daughter’s ‘fixation’ with the ant farm was becoming quite ‘creepy’ and possibly leading to ‘abnormal’ behavior at school and at home. Her mother said this loudly on a phone to a piano teacher named Louis. As her mother went on recounting ‘that fateful night in the kitchen’, Christine heard her laughing.

‘Why did we buy it for her in the first place? Louis, she has not one friend in the entire world.’

 

Christine had a curdled feeling in her stomach. She imagined herself as an ant enclosed in a plastic frame masticating a piece of iceberg lettuce with her mandibles. Instead of limbs and a torso, she would be composed of strong black segments, an ant head, and a tube running through the length of her body disposing of waste. This was the ideal physical state for her, she felt. She and Steve split the check and left the cafe. Steve drove his car effortlessly down the palm tree-lined street towards his apartment.

‘You’re driving too fast. It’s making my stomach hurt,’ she said.

He grunted and turned up the air conditioning.

‘Why are you smiling?’ she said.

‘Nothing,’ said Steve. ‘I’m going thirty miles per hour, that’s all.’

The ant farm was her childhood tragedy. All of her companions had died as they were rinsed down the drain. After she and Steve arrived at his apartment, they took off their clothes and went to bed. Steve asked her if she felt too sick to have sex. She said that she was working on her health. She felt glad to discover that the beach was a place of ‘recovery’. ‘Even the cafe,’ she said, ‘has this magical aura of healing.’ As she said this she noticed there was sand in her mouth and in her throat making it difficult to speak and swallow. Steve’s hand was on her breast, squeezing and pinching her nipples. He bit her shoulders and broke her skin. He kissed her. She knew her mouth tasted like the lavender candies she ate on the way home. She felt sand all over the bed and inside her vagina. She had tried talking to him about why she didn’t like to have sex when they first started dating. She remembered how he nodded as if he were listening closely to her concerns, how he looked at her and said, ‘Okay, yeah, that’s fine.’ Now he was ejaculating onto her stomach. When he was finished she pulled the bed sheet up to her neck.

‘Did you like that?’ he said a few seconds later.

Christine decided to change the subject.

‘When I was in second grade I had an ant farm,’ she said.

‘What do you mean?’

Tomorrow she would buy a new ant farm. She would turn on classical music for them when she went to work. She would dispense fruits and vegetables into the colony with such precise attention and care, it would be as if she were the mother or grandmother or great-grandmother of all of the ants. A fucking matriarch, she said to herself.

‘What do you mean?’ he repeated.

‘My ant farm,’ she said slowly. ‘I used to have one.’

His mouth opened as if he were about to say something important, revelatory, remarkable.

‘We all have things like that from childhood,’ he said dismissively. ‘Everyone does.’

He tried to hold her as he fell asleep. His hands felt rough as he cupped her breasts. He hadn’t trimmed his nails in weeks. She imagined him picking up an ant and crushing it between his fingers. He disgusted her. She went into the bathroom. She took a shower and washed off all of the sand. Then she sat on the toilet thinking about how last week the doctor had said in a friendly, collaborative tone, ‘We need to loosen up your stools.’ She got dressed and left the apartment building. Determined, she walked to the drugstore. Inside Walgreens there were homeless bums and loud people talking to the woman at the cash register and people with children pushing shopping carts. She picked out a box of Unisom, a bottle of laxatives, and small plastic containers of watermelon chunks and strawberries. The woman at the counter asked her how her night was going.

‘What if when you step into one Walgreens, you’re stepping into a universal Walgreens with all of the same people inside it?’ said the woman standing behind Christine.

‘I’m not sure what you mean,’ said the cashier.

‘Is it safe to walk from here to the bus stop on Van Buren at night?’ said Christine.

‘This is one of the safest neighborhoods in the area. Also, it’s nine o’clock.’

Christine thanked her and walked to Van Buren. She crossed the street to the bus stop where she recognized the old woman from the beach sitting on a rusty bench. Christine was astonished the old woman was still alive. The old woman was wearing a light blue skirt and had in her hands a piece of tissue. Her fingers worked it into a tiny ball. She took the ball and stuck it up one of her nostrils as a sort of makeshift plug. Perhaps her nose was bleeding. Perhaps she would bleed to death. Christine imagined her mother’s face, the liver-spotted skin around her eyes, the moles on her cheeks, her soft voice that sounded as if it emanated from an old-timey record except there was never any music in the house only the sounds of her mother and father and brother moving around and talking and chewing and digesting and the appliances humming and the television’s laughter and the garage door opening and closing.

Christine waved at the old woman. ‘I saw you earlier,’ said Christine. ‘At the beach.’

‘The bus,’ said the old woman. ‘There.’ She pointed down the street.

It was clear to Christine the old woman had lost her mind.

Christine began shaking as the bus pulled up and knelt down to the ground and expelled air. The bus driver helped the old woman up the steps. She was not doing well. Perhaps riding this bus will be the last thing she does before she dies, thought Christine. Christine boarded the bus and sat down next to the old woman. Then, without thinking, Christine opened a plastic container and offered her a few pieces of watermelon. The old woman took the chunks of fruit into her hands. Christine slumped back into the seat annoyed with herself. She decided it had been a mistake to share the watermelon even if the old woman was dying. If the old woman asked for more, she would have to reply, ‘I’m sorry. There is not enough food in the world for my ants and everyone else.’

She imagined placing the order online for her new family. She already felt protective of them. There were so many threats to her newfound happiness like the world running out of fruits and vegetables and other people’s clumsiness and stupidity. She would have to be careful, guarded, meticulous in her decision-making. She would never invite anyone over to her apartment. She would break up with Steve who she suddenly viewed as a sad, neglectful sort of individual. She would take on extra work shifts so she could buy her family whatever it needed. Then she decided it was a bad idea to leave the ants alone unattended. She would have to find freelance work. The bus approached her neighborhood. She sat up in the seat envisioning this beautiful new life for herself and for all of her ants who would one day acknowledge her greatness as they thrived under her care.

She felt in love with the world and afraid of it.

As the bus slowed down she noticed the old woman looking at her with a gentle, curious expression. She shifted her enormous heft in a ceremonious fashion from one side of the seat to the other. Christine worried she would beg her for more watermelon. She would have to refuse her. The old woman had no right to demand more when so much had already been given to her freely and recklessly. She had one chunk left of pale, mealy watermelon in her arthritic hand, which she slurped at loudly before taking it into her mouth. She chewed and swallowed thoughtfully, tilted her head back, sucked on her fingers, then rummaged through her purse for another tissue. The way she ate the watermelon could be perceived as threatening, disrespectful and potentially dangerous, Christine thought. She felt she could kill her if it became necessary, if the old woman put up a fight. She could persuade the bus driver to help push her off the bus or pull that miserable tissue-plug out of her nose. What difference did it make? The old woman was already dying. Everyone was! ‘Did you know that,’ Christine wanted to say to her, ‘did you know that all of the people are already dying?’ Christine looked at the old woman. There was juice dribbling down her fat chin onto her lap, making a wet spot on her skirt. ‘Thank you,’ she said. She smiled at Christine, ‘You’re very kind.’

 

 

Photograph © Caynan Ramos

The Biggest House on Earth
Sandra Newman In Conversation