The Swarm

 

I'm sad to say that there’s a distance between my new boyfriend and me. And by distance I mean about a quarter mile. Dude's in the middle of a deep lake, is what I'm saying, while I’m trapped on the roof of a two-story summerhouse on the shore of that lake.

And when I say that my boyfriend and I have been having communication issues, it’s because we can barely hear each other, what with all the distance and wind between us. And so when I also say that we seem to be drifting apart—it's because that’s true too, as the small square dock he’s floating on is ever so slowly being dragged by the current towards the opposite shore, as if the lake were attempting to take him from me.

 

So he’s out there in his black and gray neoprene wetsuit shorts, shirtless, sitting on the hard planks, looking at me on my roof—maybe thinking he loves me or doesn’t love me—I don’t know. We haven’t said the 'love' word yet.

He keeps threatening to swim towards the house. I've argued against this from the beginning, but as things get more desperate it has been harder and harder to justify.

"IT’S DANGEROUS," I shout.

“I DON’T CARE,” he yells.

Even if he made it to the shore, he’d never make it to the house.

“I CANT LAST MUCH LONGER,” he says.

I pretend not to hear that.

 

Our first conversation went like this:

“WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”

“WHAT?”

“WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”

“WHAT?”

“YOUR. NAME.”

“MY NAME?”

“YEAH.”

“IT’S BENNETT.”

“WHAT?”

“BENNETT.”

“BEND IT?”

“YEAH.”

“WELL MY NAME IS CLAIRE.”

“WHAT?”

“CLAIRE.”

“WHAT?”

This is typical when we talk, and even the briefest of exchanges leave us breathless and exhausted. We are in a bowl-shaped valley, and the breezes—hemmed in by the hills and rebuffed by a thick fringe of pine and spruce—swirl impatiently above the lake, picking apart our sentences.

Eventually we devised a basic method of communication. Two arms up is 'yes.' Arms straight out to the side is ‘no.' And arms-back-and-forth means 'I can’t hear you,' although lately it has begun to also signify a general and all-encompassing frustration.

Sometimes though, after the sun has set and if the conditions are right, the air becomes still and our voices carry easily. We sound quite near to each other during these times, our words finding each other in the dark. His voice is sweet and soft, and when I hear it, it is the thing I love about him the most.

 

I have been on the roof now for four weeks. I used to spend more time in the attic, but I prefer it outside now. When I look at Bennett, I feel a nervous kind of sadness. I at least have an attic with some supplies. But Bennett has nothing but his dock. Or maybe you’d call it a raft, I’m not really sure. It used to be closer to the beach, and kids would backstroke around it, or float in its shade and gossip. It has a slide too, which reaches a modest height and swirls gently towards the water.

I tell Bennett that help will come. He does the arms-waving. “HELP WILL COME,” I shout. He puts his arms up straight for ‘yes,’ which makes me relieved. Then he points them out to his sides, which makes me sad. He goes up again, and then down again. Up again, then down again.

 

There used to be a commercial on TV for some diet pill that showed a bunch of women with gigantic smiles and then a narrator cuts in and says something like, "We eat to celebrate, we eat to be happy, but sometimes we don’t know why we eat,” and then they cut to this chubby girl, who looks really single, sitting in a cramped apartment, slouching in front of her computer, and she’s stuffing cake in her mouth. She looks like, “Oh shit I shouldn’t have eaten that cake, and now my plaid shirt rides up over my belly, what have I done? Give me diet pills, stat!” I hate to say it but I know all too well what it means to be alone and eating cake in a plaid shirt.

But now I’m in a new type of situation and have a new type of relationship. I wish that diet pill company could see me now. Bennett may be a distant man, but he is mine and he is everything I want him to be.

 

Today Bennett caught a fish. All day he sat leaning intently over the water, his hands stretched out, barely moving. Even I was surprised when he plunged his arm in, and came back up with a slick whipping fish. He held on tight to the tail and started smashing its head against the dock. Then he just bit right into it, right then and there. I was so happy for him.

 

Before the roof, I worked for a website that gathered and consolidated entertaining and candid internet videos. Our most popular video was something called, Drunk baby don’t want no hug. In other words, I didn’t really make any money. But that’s okay because my dad is rich from lawyering in Manhattan. He does contract stuff, and contract stuff bores everyone else in the world to tears, except my dad, apparently. My mother says their divorce was mutual, but it's just like her to say something like that. More likely my dad persuaded her that it was mutual, which is something he’s quite capable of once he starts pointing his silver Mont Blanc at you, and twitching his tightly clipped mustache—and my mom she’s just a poor sweetheart whose into floppy brimmed hats and she brews her own iced tea and dries and presses her own flowers. What chance did she have, that poor woman. Now she’s living with about 50 houseplants, all alone in her crookedly put together apartment on the Upper West Side—and by crooked I mean the windows and the seams in the walls, they don’t match, they’re either at an angle or there are gaps. I say, "Mom you get enough money from Dad, on account of his guilt, that you could get a better place,"—although part of me doesn’t want her to get a better place because she gives me money left over from her living cheaply. So that’s how I have a place in Sunset Park with a cat and I can work at home for stupid hardly-paying websites and not have to worry about it.

 

Once I definitely heard Bennett say, “Were you dating anyone before the roof?"

I made the ‘yes’ signal. And although I wasn’t actually speaking, it didn’t make lying any easier.

"HE WAS A WRITER," I shouted.

"WHAT?"

I changed my mind. "HE WAS AN ARTIST."

"SOUNDED LIKE YOU SAID WRITER."

"HE—HE DOES A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING."

"I’M COMING OVER," he said.

"WHAT ABOUT YOU," I yelled. "WHAT ABOUT YOU?"

 

Well I wasn’t entirely lying. For a while I was dating a guy, but that had been over for a few months. He was a piano mover? Anyway, he used to eat in bed—soup, naturally—so what kind of catch was he? Actually that’s not fair, he didn’t limit himself to just soups, there were also Caesar salads and BLT sandwiches. I’d lie awake at night, afraid to move—I’d want to scream, for all the crumbs.

 

Despite what you might think, living on a roof does have its charms. The attic is stocked with an assortment of items, some quite useful, others quite eccentric. There is a pink plastic child’s umbrella, which has come in handy under the sun. There’s a pair of antique wooden skis, tall and spindly, that remind me of vanilla beans. I pulled open a dusty cardboard box full of clothes—I donned a large blouse and a frayed straw hat and modeled them for Bennett. There were a couple of cloth beach chairs, strung with cobwebs, that I cleaned and have set on the roof.

The roof is peaked, but there are some areas where it’s flat—primarily where it extends over a second floor balcony. The attic window, which is how I first found the roof, has its own small peak, and it's my main vantage point for watching Bennett.

I suppose it’s no surprise that I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately. I had some crackers from before, but I ate those. Luckily, there was also a type of survival food in the attic, in a large Tupperware container, along with a first aid kit and a small flashlight. The survival food comes in these airtight foil packs. It’s basically an oily flaky brick and you’re only supposed to eat it one small piece at a time.

After the piano mover, I tended to eat a bit. But who am I kidding, I ate a bit before the piano mover too.

 

He’s got to be a pro water-skier. Why else would Bennett be in that lake? I imagine us together: he calls me things like babe, doll, kiddo. We go for bicycle rides. We eat dinner at loud, cheap, but highly regarded restaurants in the city. He is lactose intolerant. He’s from, oh, Montana. He may have wrangled a calf once. Sometimes I dream that his eyes are green, and other times they’re blue.

 

“I’M COMING ASHORE,” he says.

“NOT THIS AGAIN,” I say.

“NOT TO SEE YOU…JUST TO STRETCH MY LEGS.

"YEAH RIGHT.” I do the arms-back-and-forth.

“BUT IF I’M ALREADY GOING TO BE IN THE AREA, I MAY AS WELL CLIMB UP TO THE ROOF.”

No. Hands out straight to sides. No no no.

"JUST FOR A MINUTE. IT’LL BE LIKE I’M JUST PASSING BY.”

NO NO NO.

I demolished a quarter of the chimney today. At least I think it’s a quarter of the chimney, I don’t really know. I guess I’m just not good at judging quarters of chimneys. Honestly it’s probably less than a quarter—just a couple of bricks, really. They were loose and I got to peeling them off. Why the hell not?

 

I was reading to Bennett from a paperback I found in the attic. The book is called Matters of the Heart. It’s a romance, and the pages of the book are brittle, and the edges and corners break between my fingers. There is a scene in a boathouse, involving an illicit kiss between long separated lovers.

Bennett sticks his arms to the side for ‘no.’

“I’M TIRED OF THIS,” he says.

“BUT READING IS NOURISHMENT FOR THE SOUL,” I tell him. This is the kind of stupid thing I say sometimes when all common sense escapes me. When the piano mover sent me a text message, saying he no longer saw a future for the two of us, I responded with, “Well how do you like them apples.” Then I asked him for one more chance. I won’t say I begged him, maybe. But you can probably guess how that all turned out.

“NOURISHMENT MY DICK,” says Bennett. He crosses his arms. We haven’t agreed on a meaning for that one, but I think I’m beginning to get the idea. “WHY ARE YOU AVOIDING ME,” he says.

“LET’S NOT ROCK THE BOAT,” I say.

“MAYBE I HAVE OTHER THINGS TO DO."

I stare at him on his tiny square of floating wood. “WELL DO THEM, THEN.”

He gets up after a moment, and begins rocking his slide. He rocks it so much, he manages to push it over. The screws even I can hear them, come screaming up out of the wood. The slide falls onto the water and sinks partway, but floats on its side, which is somehow anticlimactic. It lays there, like an accusation between us.

“YOU HAPPY NOW?” I ask.

“FUCK OFF, OKAY.”

 

Everybody said that distance was what I needed. “Get out of the city,” they said. “Upstate's nice this time of year,” they said. “Forget the piano mover.”

So I have lots of distance now.

 

Bennett pulled the slide back onto the dock. It sits sideways, and he rests within its curves, hiding from me.

Towards evening, he tried apologizing. He called to me for at least an hour. But I had my back turned and wouldn’t look at him.

Two can play at this game.

 

A rescue copter came today. The force of its sudden arrival nearly blew me off the roof. A rope ladder came dropping out, and a square-jawed guy in a green uniform climbed down.

“Hey,” he says. His eyes move all over me. “My name’s Barry.”

“I’ve got a boyfriend,” I say.

He sways there, about five feet above the roof. “Forget about that turd in the water,” he says finally.

I tell Barry to get lost.

Before he goes, he reaches into his backpack and removes a jar of peanut butter. He just drops it and the jar rolls down the roof and over the side. “Oops,” he says, demurely. He waves up at the copter and it lifts him away.

None of this was real, but being on a roof hasn’t been good for my frame of mind. I tried to tell Bennett this. I tried to explain about Barry, at least. But all Bennett cared about was the peanut butter.

 

“I’m not going to make it,” Bennett says to me, one clear evening. “How will I get through the winter?”

“It doesn’t get that cold here,” I tell him. “The lake only freezes a little bit.”

“I’ve never been in the snow.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Assuming I even make it to the winter.”

I put my arms out for ‘no.’

“I only caught that one fish. And I think…I think it was blind.”

“There’s no such thing as blind fish,” I say.

“Well I think that particular one was blind. He got all the way through life, being a blind fish. What are the odds of that happening? And then I ate him. I feel terrible. I’d rather have kept on starving than have eaten that blind fish. I mean, a healthy one fine. But what did that fish ever do, but be born blind? It deserved better.”

“You’re being hysterical.”

“And even if I wanted to eat more blind fish, I don’t think there’s very many out here for me to grab.”

“You’re not an expert.”

“And I’m drinking lake water—my stomach is, you don’t want to know.”

“I do know. There’s nothing you can hide from me.”

“You’re watching me those times?” he asked.

I think I embarrassed him. He said that I got to know everything about him, but he didn’t get to know anything about me.

 

When Bennett started swimming towards the shore, I ducked down on the far side of the roof where he couldn’t see me. For a while, he was nothing but a splash of movement out there in the water. But when he gets closer, and his arms are sweeping along, and his feet are kicking, he seems so thin. Soon I hear him slapping around in the shallows.

Email me, I want to shout. That way no one gets hurt.

“ARE YOU HERE?” he yells. The closeness of his voice is astonishing. It seems to be coming from all directions.

I don’t answer.

“ARE YOU HERE?”

I’ll die if he sees me.

“IT’S TOO DANGEROUS,” I say.

“This house looks a lot nicer up close,” he says.

There’s squishing sounds. He must be on the lawn. “So far so good,” he grunts. “Maybe it’s safe for us now.”

“Not likely,” I insist. “You’d better go back before it’s too late.”

I hear the patio door open. I wait a while. It takes him some time to figure out the trap door to the attic. But then the attic window pushes open and I’m up over the top of the roof to the other side.

“I’m here,” he says.

“I told you not to come.”

I imagine him coming forward with his arms outstretched, to give me a back rub and present me with a necklace that he made from strands of moss that he pulled from the bottom of the dock. I’ll place a hand on his chest, capturing the vibrations of his heartbeat within the cupped space of my palm.

Instead I see a dirty hand grab onto the damaged chimney, as he pulls himself around. He’s gaunt, and shaking a little, with a full brown beard, his skin darkened and frayed from the sun. After seeing him for so long from so far away, he seems giant now, almost twelve feet tall—maybe because he’s up at the peak of the roof, and I’m down low, near the edge. He’s nothing like I pictured.

There’s nowhere I can go from here, but two stories down.

“Claire?” he asks.

He’s waiting for me to say something. I lift up my hands, and do the arms-back-and-forth.

 

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