This story was originally published in Prismatica, issue eleven. Unfortunately, the Prismatica website is offline, so I’ve posted the story here.
It’s always cold on the gray sand shore of Luridia Beach. I love it anyway.
Close to Ganymede’s modest icecaps, the ocean here never warms up. Cobalt-dark waters lap against the rough sand, sucking the heat from the air and replacing it with clammy breezes. Silvery swaths of the solar mirrors interrupt the cloudless, star-freckled sky. Jupiter’s out of sight, despite the planet’s ubiquitous image in Ebipolis, projected onto buildings and lighting up screenwalls throughout the city.
The beach is just far enough away to feel isolated. Twenty minutes on the bus makes the difference between urban jungle and a kilometer stretch that rarely sees more than a dozen people at a time. Tonight it’s just us.
The days when cold fronts come up from the south are the worst. Taking a walk on the beach on those days is courting frostbite, offering an open hand and puckered lips to the hungry winds. I printed a mask and a thick pair of gloves for those days. It’s never enough to feel warm, just enough to keep my skin safe, but then, I suppose I like the cold.
Today’s not that bad. It’s chilly enough I can see my breath, but only just.
Sylva and I walk in silence, our faces bare. Our boots sink into the sand with each step. Sylva follows me sullenly while I wander close to the water, as close as I can without the waves lapping at my soles. Each time I lift my foot is a tiny victory, free from the sucking sand and gravity. But I put my foot down again so soon. Again and again.
If I look down at my feet, I can pretend the sand goes on forever. Nothing in the world but gray grit, cool salty air, and the crunch of our footsteps. If I lift my head though, the gravel gives way to Phillo Point’s impassable rocks not fifty paces from here, capped with its decrepit lighthouse.
I stop at a rocky outcropping. It’s a single big chunk, larger than the two of us together but not quite as tall. Oysters have grown thick across its surface, dirty white and gnarled brown enveloping most of the water-darkened gray stone.
Sylva halts with me, radiating impatience I pretend not to notice. We’ve both grown skilled at ignoring what we don’t want to confront.
I wonder idly if the bivalves growing on the rock are good to eat. Back when we still went out on dates, Sylva liked mollusks marinated in lemon and coriander, never the crispy fried globs I’d gobbled down as a kid. Cured instead of cooked was superior, more authentic to the food’s origin, she told me when she took me to her favorite shellfish eatery. The restaurant was on the top of one of Ebipolis’s greentowers. I remember the intoxicating view, the best part of the whole night, looking down onto dozens of glass-paneled floors of swelling fruits and green herbs growing in dense hydroponic tangles.
Eating oysters fresh off a rock in the sea sounds even more authentic to me, but I doubt Sylva would agree.
Food doesn’t come from “the wild” on Ganymede. Eating wild seafood isn’t technically banned, but primarily because why would one bother? Food comes from a greentower lab, carefully grown, controlled, and prepared.
Sylva shifts her weight between her feet. Her pink scarf flutters in the breeze as she rubs her hands together. I know she wants me to break the silence, or at least keep moving. The pressure to explain myself, to justify, to please her is immense, building up inside my head. Even though I want to say something, I can’t find the right words for anything.
I’m so exhausted, always thinking about what she wants.
Perhaps a minute after I stopped walking, she finally speaks.
“I don’t know why you picked here, of all places.”
I exhale through my nose and watch the momentary mist of white fade into the darkness of the beach. My moisture joins that of the night and the ocean.
“You always told me it was too crowded in the city,” I say. It’s true, but it’s not actually the reason I picked this place.
I knew she wouldn’t like this place, not how empty or how wild it was. Crowds were unpleasant to Sylva, but far more boring was a naked patch of sand with some miscellaneous organic life, wild leftovers from Earth from millennia ago.
My reason for bringing her here is much more selfish. I want Sylva to myself for one last time. One final, unremarkable encounter so I can scour my memories of our mercurial, intoxicating relationship with the grit of mundane reality.
It is mundane, but I’m not feeling the peaceful closure for which I’d hoped. I suppose I’ve always come to Luridia Beach to be alone, to be present with the world, with Ganymede and the ghosts of Earth and the distant power of Sol, more than with any other person.
I didn’t expect this place to feel lonelier with Sylva.
“I don’t know why you thought I’d like the beach any better,” she says as she glances out at the water with a frown. “At least the city is warm. And besides, you’re the one who likes Ebipolis so much you insisted on staying.”
Inhale. Exhale again. As my breath becomes mist, am I releasing some of my life force back into the world? Am I spiritually bereft in that pause between breaths, floating in limbo until I take in fresh oxygen again? Or do I just feel empty when I’m with Sylva?
“I know, I know,” she continues when I don’t respond quickly enough. Her words are sharp, but tinged with more resignation than anger. “It’s not that simple.”
Sylva crosses her arms, tucking her hands into her armpits as the wind whips some of her copper hair free from under her hat. The strands float and struggle in the air, mimicking the movement of her scarf.
Guilt seeps in for the first time. I had my reasons, but I did drag her out to this chilly beach, away from the few places we had good memories, far from any lingering pockets of warmth.
“You know I’m going to miss you,” Sylva says.
I didn’t know.
I know I will miss her despite myself, despite my efforts to disengage entirely and forget. I honestly didn’t think she would miss me.
And I still don’t know, I realize after one, two, three hot, wet heartbeats. I want to believe everything that comes out of her mouth. Those precious few beads of honesty, or perhaps strategic vulnerability, drip out like ambrosia.
I used to fall for it every time. But that was before years of canceled plans, before the countless fights and three break-ups that didn’t quite stick. That was before she went to Rhea on a day’s notice for her own luxury vacation, after months of making excuses why she couldn’t take the time to travel off-world with me.
When Sylva told me she was moving to Io, my first reaction was relief. I was grateful, realizing I finally had my out, a way to end this after my willpower had failed me so many times before. Weeks after our most recent “break,” my desire to be with her had started to eclipse my reasonable doubts again. I might’ve wasted another three years on her if she’d let me.
A week later, Sylva asked me to come with her. I knew I couldn’t, that it’d be even worse for me than what we had here. I told her I was too attached to this moon to ever consider leaving. She didn’t argue much.
Honestly, I had thought Sylva would be relieved to leave me behind, even as I jealously hoped she would come to regret it.
“I didn’t think it’d matter that much,” I say, shrugging. “You like new places and meeting new people.” I clench my hands together until they hurt, then release. Then do it again.
“I liked you.” She tosses me a mournful look. Her eyes are wide, her mouth downturned, like the universe itself has let her down cruelly. The first time I saw that pitiful expression, I was seized by a powerful urge to comfort her, to change my mind and do everything I could to make her happy again. Now, I only feel a faint echo of regret. “You know that, don’t you?”
Sylva liked me, and I loved her. Neither changes who we are, or where we are.
“I know,” I say. I won’t offer her my own emotional confession. I’ve made a fool of myself enough for this lifetime.
“Look, if you don’t want to talk,” she says, every word suddenly like a shard of glass, “then I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
The frostiness of her voice is nothing compared to this cutting wind. Not when every part of me that used to respond to that coldness with a desire for warmth is scarred and calloused, used up until it became something else. Something less sensitive to her. Some way I could survive.
“If this isn’t what you wanted, then I won’t keep you,” I say. The words come so easily, like letting go of a rope stretched taut, sighing in the freedom of releasing it.
“That’s all you have to say for yourself?” she replies. “You know what? Fine.”
She makes sure to catch my eye, and I fall for it one last time. With her pursed lips and her razor-sharp eyebrows, she tells me in a look that I am the greatest disappointment she has ever had the misfortune of experiencing. She is an excellent actress.
Strangely, her scorn warms me a little. The absurdity of her final act of drama sparks a tinder of anger and amusement within me. I watch her leave, her pink scarf and mussed hair billowing in the biting wind. When she’s reached the edge of the road, she glances back. Too far for me to see her expression, but close enough for her to see I haven’t moved.
Petty satisfaction coils in my guts. Sylva was the one to hesitate in the end. Not me. She hates the distance she put between us and I merely accepted, and yet she still can’t fathom why I won’t just follow her. Why I will no longer be the one to apologize, over and over again.
When I chased her before, I could feel myself being pulled into thin, fragile strands, plucking out the inconvenient grit of my own self-respect. Immobile on the shore, I feel more like the rock. Crusted and ugly but sheltering what life I can hold.
I wait until after Sylva has disappeared from view. Only then do I turn back to the patient, gentle waves. I’m too cold to stand still any longer, so I step toward the rocky outcropping, breaking the barrier into the ocean.
My boots are waterproof but my leggings are not, I realize as the icy spray soaks through the fabric. I ignore it. I go deeper.
The water’s at my thighs, cold as Pluto, when I reach the outcropping. It’s craggy with oysters the size of my fist, thick and vying for a little patch of surface. I take off my jacket, even though it makes me shiver all the worse, and carefully wrap it around my hand. I’m impulsive, and maybe something like distraught, but I’m not stupid. I will endure suffering, but I won’t invite it needlessly.
With my now-cushioned hand, I reach for an oyster. Any oyster, whatever’s closest, whatever I can grasp. A pebbly-shelled thing of ugly colors, barely the size of my palm. It closes its shell as I touch it.
I can’t pry it off, so I hit it. Smash it again and again, until I crack something, in me or in it I’m not sure. It falls, broken, onto the thick clusters of bivalves below it. The others clam up, concerned only with their own survival.
Gently, I pick it up. My jacket is filthy and my knuckles sting, but I have my prize. The oyster smells stronger than the ocean, saltier and more organic. I could rinse it in the waves and rip it from its shell, scarf it down right here.
I have no tools though, and I feel more cold and aching than bold and powerful now. The few steps back to shore feel long and heavy, like trying to wake from a bad dream. The chill will cling to me all the way home.
I will take the oyster back with me, crack it with a seafood knife, wash it in my sink. I’ll admire the white flesh on its shell canvas, and I know I’ll think of Sylva, of all those dinners we had together and all the places she went without me.
Maybe I will just devour it raw.