Sitting in the Rubicon Café, I am reading a book. First one poem and then the next, I gulp down whole words and paragraphs to drown myself in the poetry of another being. A human, a man, put these words down on paper. I am reading them, reading him, reading his lines and between them, drowning.
Drowning in words is much like drowning in water, only more pleasant because there is no surface to break through, no possible hope of rescue for me, this lonely shell of a woman. God, it would be nice to not feel empty. It would be nice to feel something besides pain or numbness. I would like to lose my empty self in language, be swept away entirely and replaced by perfect diction. Then maybe I’d find words for what happened to me, maybe I’d be happy.
Words and water are life-giving: strictly essential. Like Noah’s flooded earth, words inundate, superfluously powerful. “The waters of the flood were upon the face of the earth…all the fountains of the great deep [were] broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.”
I am forty days under this rain. I am broken up, with no window to heaven or doorway to purgatory in sight, no writ of manumission forthcoming. This is a drowning devoutly to be wished.
I usually vacation on the seaside — California — where I have never drowned. Once I stayed at a house on Alki Point. I can’t remember nor can I forget that night. I push away the thoughts, the memories, and claw downward into the poem, seeking release from myself.
Bobbing in the great expanse of the wine-dark sea, currents that I cannot see or understand tug around me. Theirs is a conversation among friends, disturbed by the basking beachgoers, disturbed by me. I’ve forced myself into the dialogue and caused a scene inside a poem. I must drown if only to belong.
I stop treading water and let my arms fall upwards and my body narrow out into a pole, driving toward the sandy bottom. For a moment, the Words create me; the Words are all I am. But my feet impact seconds after my head goes under and my hands are left silly out in the air. Too shallow to fill me; or else I am too empty to be filled. Surely there is something here I can focus on instead of the pit in my stomach and the tightness in my chest.
The sand is green and soft as fleece. My toes find a stone, smooth as satin. But the inevitable buoyancy of the human body lifts my stubborn frame from the ocean floor, and I rise, breaking the surface face first.
I try for hours but the waves refuse to drown me. I cannot escape my meaning, even when poetry offers a chance to escape my being. I jump into another poem as soon as I have caught a breath, avoiding myself at all costs. I get one whiff of coffee and pastry before the poetry sweeps it away.
I chose poetry because it doesn’t mean anything at all, it simply is. These lines smack of salt water, reek of fish, coat my arms in sunscreen, and douse me in the ocean. I turn a page, tracing the drowning strand of words with my eyes and my fingertip, mouthing the syllables that choke me on the way down. Breathe. Breathe through the water; there’s oxygen in there. Back along an evolutionary chain, I am a fish. Yet I have supposedly evolved as much as any other creature that exists on the earth, including the fish I used to be.
I think I lost myself somewhere along that chain. So, I swim upstream, towards the scent of home that my fish-brain says is mine, bumping joyfully along with these other croakers — or are they salmon? Fishing has never been my strong suit, though it’s a family pastime. I never understood the appeal of baiting a creature into death. Although catching myself is easy, I find myself in my other hand.
Claws. Wings. Ripped from the stream. I gasp for water. Empty lungs ballooning with suffocating air. An eagle grasps me in its talons. I cannot drown, but perhaps this raptor will rip my guts open, and I’ll feel myself alive again as the blood beats out, lapped up by the tongue of earth and love. Maybe if I die again, I’ll somehow find a way back to life.
The state bird of California is a quail, known for launching into explosive flight when disturbed. I’ve never seen a quail fly, but I have been a human quail, eyes darting side to side, proud plumage slicked back in fear. I have been afraid. This time I don’t struggle. The eagle’s need is greater than mine. She doesn’t eat for pleasure but for strength, and my entrails won’t even give her that. You can’t make substance from absence.
My captor drops me gently into its nest and flutters gracefully onto its favorite perch. Its eyesight must not be as good as science says, for she thinks it’s found a meal in me. I have nothing within me to consume, emptied by a different predator. A gaping dead-eyed fish mouth, opened in a stare.
Eagles are known to eat other birds; implying that the difference of degree is enough. The eagle is a bigger bird, a raptor. Such a thin divide between a bird of prey and bird of predator. One craves substance, one has substance. I am neither.
Still a fish, still gutted, I consider my empty ribs. I know what happened, and when. I was there, though I wanted to be anywhere else. Trapped. I shudder, a fish in its death throes. Could I have protested more? Would it have been better to die before knowing this kind of emptiness?
I do not know, and now, with my Self emptied, I may never learn.
I crawl out of my fishy skin, shedding scales on the ground. The eagle is nowhere in sight, perhaps repelled by my emptiness; perhaps she’s off finding birds of predators.
A rustling page. The last scales fall from my skin. For all that water and words can do, they evaporate under closer scrutiny, vanishing away into memory, seeping into the open earth. My attempted drowning failed to baptize me into something more than what I am; the eagle exposed my emptiness, neither brought me peace.
I drink my coffee, bite my croissant. Around me, the Rubicon Café bustles with life. A lover laughs, a friend consoles, shadows flit about as the day winds to its close. I feel too much and nothing at all. I sigh and turn the page.
Beside a riverbank again, I watch the salmon (or are they croakers?) jump upstream. Joy fills every fin flip. Why shouldn’t it? There are other fish whose lives will not contain talons and torture. They deserve to be happy. I sit with my feet in the chilling water, the distorted vision of my toes is the most accurate image ever made of me.
Along the stream, blueberries grow, dipping towards the water like willows. I reach for them. I’m not a bird so swallowing stones does me no good, but sometimes when I need to feel the sensation of pebbles in my mouth, I eat blueberries or grapes. Fruit has the tactile thinginess that marbles or glass beads lack, they taste like stone, the same silken skin. Water-polished. Heavy.
I pop them in my mouth and close my eyes. My mouth is full of pebbles, round little weights, so satisfying, so cute.
When I bite down, they burst, a dozen surprises in my mouth. The juice trickles down my throat like water over stone, cooling the burning and loosening the tightness in my chest. But even they cannot fill me, cannot replace my blood or restore my body.
“Bit of a mess there.” He, the poet, sits beside me on the bank, contemplating my gouged-out fishy remains.
I look on instinct, then wince away. I am outside that body now, but I still experienced its destruction. I was there when I was ripped apart. I lay there, frozen, unable to move, witnessing my own dismemberment.
The poet points to the blueberry bush, where leaves rustle. A quail emerges from the bush and walks in a zigzag towards us. It pauses at the water’s edge, then bends and drinks.
I watch it with a strange swell of tenderness rising in my throat. My mouth is full of broken berries. I gulp, trying to swallow down the flesh and skin of fruit to say something, to ask the quail to please come closer, to please don’t be afraid.
The poet watches too, he extends his hand to me and wordlessly offers me a handful of seeds. The tiny grains pour through his fingers into my palm. A gift.
I sprinkle the seeds on the ground and the quail slowly walks closer. I bend my hand towards it and the quail pecks the pile gratefully. I look at the poet with tears beginning to run down my cheeks.
The poet smiles magnificently, all the creaks and lines in his face pulling towards the white tufts of hair at his temples.
Somewhere overhead, the eagle screams. The quail startles and dives into my lap before holding perfectly still.
I look around, but the eagle is nowhere in sight. I put my hand on the quail’s feathers gently, reassuringly, and feel its breath slow.
The poet clicks his tongue gently, “Ay Codorniz mía, así eres.”
The quail coos softly, almost a sob.
“Sí, mija, sí,” he agrees. “You cannot be anything but what you are.”
“What if I don’t want to be what I am? What if I got hurt because of what I am?” I want to scream the words, but I don’t because I’m holding the quail. I don’t want to scare it. It doesn’t deserve to live in fear. “What if I don’t know how to be what I am?”
He looks at me, a knowing sadness in his eyes. “Will you take care of her?” He nods to the quail.
“Of course.” Its body is so small, but it is warm and alive, and I will protect it.
“Bueno.” He nods again. He hasn’t really answered my question. I’m not sure what else I expected from a poet.
The quail snuggles into the crook of my arm and its warmth fills something in me that blueberries and stones could not. I cry with equal parts relief and sorrow.
The poet pats my shoulder. The poem is ending soon.
I try to smile in gratitude, but my uneven lips and wild emotions make it more of a grimace. He seems to understand regardless.
I feel the quail stir and stretch its wings. I open my arms and we fly together through the final stanza. Rising, rising, until I break the surface and land in the Rubicon Café.
I sit up from my slouch against the wall, looking up from my book. The barista stands with a broom in one hand and the other on her hip; she looks concerned.
I close the book, and collect myself, tucking my scales and a spare quail feather into my pocket. I thank the barista for letting me stay until close.
Outside the sky is breathing in, the hiccupping gasp between sobs of rain.