The Girl Grown from Coral (Notes)
1. Whenever this One Guy comes through Alexis's checkout line in the Phoenix, Arizona Whole Foods, she can't help but imagine his tongue (flat and profound) positioned just below her belly button, skating along her clavicle, or their bodies emanating heat like stretches of road in the desert outside, hazing over imperfections and giving them each a flushed glow. Each time, just after she blushes when she first spies him, she can feel light-headed lust like slow smoke under her skin, seeping out the way she has seen coral (when scuba diving with her estranged father on vacations paid for by his guilt) release great silky clouds of eggs and sperm, surrounding her in ribbons of mist made of her attraction to this One Guy.
Coral is a simple animal, much like her desire for him: inspired by his narrow but muscular shoulders, the shapes in his curly auburn hair, face dappled with light freckles, lines of musculature drawn across his calves, the in-between-green-and-blue color of his eyes. She has paid such careful attention when he stands before her, absently tapping buttons after swiping his credit card or scooping his purchases into his eco-friendly grocery bag, that she knows what he'll buy to some degree based on the time of day he comes in: always apples (braeburns or pink ladies or Fujis), in the mornings a protein bar, most times at least one of those nasty Kombucha drinks, in the afternoon a large bag of chips, either hummus or salsa, and maybe a vegetarian frozen pizza, which always makes Alexis wonder—as she watches him leave, her head clearing like warm salty waters as the tide moves in—if all that is for him.
2. A New Mexican tourist has just smiled as she told Alexis about the bright red and soft pink coral in her silver rings and thick bracelets—"Coral are like us: what's left of the dead stacked into foundations for the living. One of the sacred gifts my pueblo received.”—and Alexis is twisting the ring of turquoise and coral that she got in her Gram's will, thinking of the mesas outside Gram's house and the Rio Grande flowing about a mile off, but then forgets the whole vast landscape when the One Guy is suddenly in front of her in a tank top—his arms looking especially solid and soft at the same time—looking right in her eyes and saying, “I like when you're working, Alexis. I try to always come through your line.”
A dizziness (like rising too quickly with a scuba tank or when she bums cigarettes while drinking) overtakes Alexis and her lungs feel a bit smaller than before as she pushes his items across the scanner and says, “Thanks. Nice seeing you. Too.”
He chuckles, lifts the pasta and tomatoes into his bag as she tries to conjure anything else to say, anything to prove that he just surprised her, that's all.
He slips his sunglasses over his eyes. “Well, have a good one.” Then he is gone and Alexis is still just trying to breathe (spinning her ring twice as quick as before), feeling like when a sudden tropical storm takes out years of diligent growth in a single unexpected wave.
3. All that evening until she closes out her register, she replays their latest interaction in her head, her legs still a little trembly as she sculpts what will surely be perfect replies for next time. She pictures the One Guy laughing like she knows he's not in a while, eyes wide as he's taken comfortably aback by Alexis's sudden confidence, her sense of humor, the way she plays right into his hand. His reaction (she knows) will be perfect, but she has to give herself the right self-image to pull it off, has to convince herself that she can put a hand on her hip and a smirk on her lips just right so that her One Guy never even realizes it wasn't natural—because if she doesn't believe it, how will he?
4. That night in her bed (nude because this fucking heat!) she watches headlights draw stripes along the ceiling and thinks of his lean body and almost-well-kept beard, the few light hairs peeking from his shirt collar, the ways she will impress him the next time he appears before her, bright as the desert sun. When her hands slide where his would go, she can suddenly see him more clearly than before, reaching out for her—his hair floating like he's underwater, crowned by small shells and pale crab claws long abandoned, and he's whispering to her like a bubbling spring—then pulling her by the hand: out the door and across the scrubby plains and rough mountains to the closest body of water, where it looks like back home, mesas like outside her old front door, a river beside.
Then Alexis sees herself, fertile as a reef: a school of little silver fish appear from behind her back as brittle stars and sea fans reach from her hair, soft anemones sprout from her hips, an eel snakes out of the cave of her loosely-held fist and bright coral branches from her elbow, thighs, the wrist of the hand still held in his.
5. But a few days later—after noticing that One Guy in the dry goods aisle with a girl she has not seen before who is definitely not his sister—Alexis decides that she likes the fact that coral is of all things immobile, could not pursue even if it wanted to, and seems to simply ignore mating but for the time and place when the seething clouds appear and collide, their substance coming together (a sweaty, cursing fuck in the backseat of his car or the community room on her break a few weeks later that neither of them could have planned for) only to then disappear with the tides like they had never even spoken, the singular proof of their union an anchoring polyp, swelling shoals, the layering bones of blossoms once met.
Austin Eichelberger is a native Virginian who teaches as much English and writing as he can manage in sunny New Mexico. Over sixty of his stories have appeared in journals and anthologies, including Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Eclectic Flash and Nanoism. More of his writing lives at austineichelberger.com.