After my first divorce, I took an adjunct position teaching freshman composition at Daytona State College, the first job I found more than a hundred miles from her without leaving Florida and, by August, moved what I had left, just a desk mostly, into a studio three blocks from the beach. There, my neighbors were musicians—a folksy-sounding couple who, when crooning baritone and mezzo-soprano over acoustic guitars, resembled Joni Mitchell or the Beatles but had the habit of bleeding into a kind of terrifying free jazz. Besides the noise, the motel-room-turned-apartment was claustrophobic, so I divided most of my time between campus and a nearby Starbucks, where I’d see, nearly every day, a lanky bald man somewhere in his late forties with a broad forehead and thick glasses magnifying green eyes—an atmospheric green like Florida sky after a summer thunderstorm. His pupils were specks. He reminded me of a praying mantis. Even his arms were mantis-like, perpetually bent at ninety degrees as he typed on a probably-ten-year-old brick of a laptop. I’d slowly grade essays (sometimes I actually wrote) as Mantis Man worked. About twice a week, always on a different day at a different time, and showing up on her own, a woman closer to my age (mid-thirties) joined him. She was also tall but lost a couple inches to a scoliosis hunch. She wore frayed drop-shoulder sweaters with wide necklines venting the end-summer heat. She didn’t wear much makeup, but her eyes were always traced in black, and when I first saw her, I thought Cleopatra. She was pretty, and if it hadn’t been for that shoulder-dulling hump, I think she would’ve been very confident. Instead, Cleopatra was an impressive woman who seemed to have the demeanor of an abused puppy. With a black cold brew ordered, she’d sit beside Mantis Man and read (always a classic; she liked Faulkner) as he worked. I assumed they were a couple, not because they displayed affection, but because they ignored each other. Any other relationship would’ve forced them to exchange some basic small talk.
Often, I stayed awake listening to my neighbors. They weren’t too raucous or inconsiderate, but the apartment’s walls were paper, and any lack of sleep was as much my fault as theirs because, when they played, I’d sometimes seal my ear against the wall above my bed and mouth their lyrics in delay. After a night of my listening late into the morning—this was a couple weeks before Halloween (people were ordering Witch’s Brew Frappuccinos and lots of pumpkin-spice-flavored everythings)—Mantis Man wasn’t in the Starbucks, but Cleopatra still arrived. For three days, Mantis Man remained absent. Cleopatra arrived each of these days, looking healthier. On the third, when an invasion of seagulls beaked crumbs beneath patio chairs outside, she came to my table. She wore some kind of beige poncho—it looked like a blanket with a hole in the middle and hasty stitching to form sleeves.
“You watch me,” she said.
I sipped my coffee.
“I guess,” she said, “my imagination can get a bit out of control.” The sun was low, the window a flare. Her face was a shadow. “Have you ever considered that you may be fabricating most of the world around you? For example, we’ve never talked. I’ve only seen you looking at me, so I’ve had to invent your personality completely.”
“Maybe,” I said, putting my pen down. “Maybe I’ve tried to make some assumptions about you.”
I sat up, straightened my stack of essays. “I’ve wondered who the man you sit with is to you.”
“No one.” She set her book and half-drank iced coffee on my table and took a seat. “He’s dead.”
Outside, seagulls competed for a shard of cake pop.
“I killed him.” She waved dismissively.
“Need help getting rid of the corpse?” I joked.
She crossed her legs as if she were thinking over my response, then met my question with another, “Do you swim in the ocean often?”
“Almost never,” I said. Funny thing, despite living so close, I hadn’t been once since moving. “Honestly, I get scared at the beach.”
She smiled like she had a dental lip retractor in her mouth, the biggest smile I’d ever seen. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with myself when I’m out there,” she said. “All around is the horizon and it’s like I don’t exist, or at least that I don’t have to exist.” She twirled her coffee cup in a puddle of condensation. “Want to swim?”
I had no reason to object. And I’d been so damn lonely. I gathered my students’ papers and locked my things in my secondhand Civic. We walked east a couple blocks until a ridge of dunes appeared then crossed a wooden walkway bridging sea-oat-feathered sand. At the base of the stairs, we removed our shoes. Green beer bottles stuck from the dunes like gems in the wall of a mine. Daytona is nasty, like a tropical paradise conjured by a deceitful genie. Above the ocean, the sky was purple. Behind, the setting sun wrapped the horizon like a thick orange rubber band. Little white crabs scurried. Waves broke. The sand pulsed wet and dry as if the beach was taking long deep breaths.
“I like to swim at night,” Cleopatra said. “Darkness makes the world small. Plus sharks feed at this hour. With you and them, I won’t be alone at all.”
Looking at the black water, I let out a fake chuckle soured by distrust and sought an answer to the simple question, What the hell am I doing? But I’ve never had a good answer to that question.
Cleopatra removed her poncho, folded it into a square, and set it on the sand. She hesitated, quickly pulled her shirt overhead, messing her hair, and kicked off her pants. She set her folded clothes on the poncho before unclasping her bra. Her curvature bunched up her right breast. I could make out a scar curving from her neck to her ass, a little pale road. This, I understood, was from surgeons opening her when she was a child, fusing rods to her spine. A boy I’d known in middle school had had the same operation.
In our underwear, we continued to the water. Wet sand sucked my feet. Our steps splashed. I inhaled, preparing for the cold. With the water waist-high, Cleopatra dove under a wave. I followed in her wake, and we swam until the sea was above our bellies when standing.
Cleopatra took my hand and pulled me toward her. “I’m glad I killed him. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t.”
I’d forgotten about her joke, and the recall gave me the idea that I’d been led into some prank. I shivered and had a terrible thought—I imagined Mantis Man watching from the beach, waiting for a wave to crash over my head before stretching his arms and legs into needles and striding across the water with great speed.
“In a few days I might be confused whether or not this actually took place,” Cleopatra said, still pulling me. “I might think I dreamed this swim.” Her strength was surprising. If she’d wanted to drag me underwater, she could’ve.
“It’s real,” I said, slipping from her grip. I slapped my palms against the surface of the sea. “I’m very real.”
She dunked and rose with her chin pointed to gather her wet hair behind. I kept shivering. It was October so the water was cool, and I was just standing, not moving my limbs. I considered what she’d said back at the Starbucks: All around is the horizon and it’s like I don’t exist, or at least that I don’t have to exist.
“I don’t think there are any sharks,” Cleopatra said. “Maybe they’re not hungry tonight.”
“Sharks are always hungry.”
“Mr. Shark,” she yelled, hands cupping her mouth. “Mr. Shark!”
“Mr. Shark,” I echoed.
We’d drifted farther, and the waves were breaking against my shoulders. I struggled to keep salt from my eyes. The lights of shore buildings were like headlights on a sparsely populated highway. Cleopatra surfaced fifty feet ahead. I swam over. That far out, the waves no longer broke on us; instead, they came in small hills that would lift our feet from the sea floor. Cleopatra made herself into an X and floated lazily on her back. Ahead, the water was black ink below a star-bright sky. It was like I was staring off a flat earth and outer space was within a rowboat’s reach. I don’t have to exist. Returning to the shore no longer felt in my power. I wanted to swim toward the stars, to see the waterfall off the edge of the world where, if the current caught me, I wouldn’t drown but would die from the shock of falling endlessly.
▴ ▴ ▴
On land, Cleopatra’s teeth clattered like crab claws while she covered her breasts with a straight-jacket hug.
“Want to dry with my shirt?” I asked, picking my clothes from the sand.
She nodded. I extended my clothing. Still covering herself with her left arm, she dragged my shirt across her chest then over her hair and down between her thighs. She handed back the shirt. I wrung what wetness I could and barely dried myself, mostly pressing the wet fabric to my soaked underwear before getting on my pants. I cuffed my jeans. Cleopatra put on her poncho. At the wooden walkway stairs, our feet and ankles were frosted with sand, and I offered my place to warm up.
My studio was clean because I didn’t stay in it much, and I’d been living ascetic. In the living area, I had a small sofa and a writing desk. A sliding barn door tracked the middle of the room, allowing me to hide my headboard-less full bed. The kitchen counter was low enough to accommodate a wheelchair. I owned four plates and three bowls (one I’d broken moving in, leaving me with two more than necessary).
I fetched Cleopatra a towel and some plaid pajamas, told her she could use my dryer, a stacked combo that took up an awkward amount of space across from the toilet. She took the pajamas to the bathroom, turned on the dryer, and rinsed in the shower. She emerged wearing the pajama pants and her poncho. “I’d like a drink,” she said.
I looked through my fridge. “I have some beer. Some rum.”
“I’ll take coffee with rum.”
I made two Keurig coffees with a couple shots of rum each. I dropped three ice cubes in mine. We sat on the sofa, which faced a bare cream wall. I didn’t have a television, and I didn’t have a way to enjoy music without headphones. The dryer rattled. My window blinds were rolled up. The panes looked painted black. With light illuminating the apartment interior, I knew anything out there could easily see in. Maybe Mantis Man was watching. Maybe he’d been jealously following Cleopatra. Or maybe, the two of them were conspiring, and he was waiting for my door to open so he could stretch into my apartment.
“So who is he?” I asked, feeling silly. “Boyfriend? Husband?”
“He’s nothing now,” she said. Then, “He wasn’t my husband or my boyfriend.”
I didn’t know what to say. I gulped my coffee. “How’d you kill him?”
“I fed him to animals. To dogs,” she said with no hesitation. “If you starve dogs long enough, they’ll eat anyone.”
“How many dogs?”
It seemed she was adding them up in her head by appearance. “Five.”
“You’d think.” She blew into her cup. “You know, like most things in life, feeding people to animals is about timing,” she said. “You have to starve animals just long enough, right before they’ll eat each other, then you toss the person to them.”
My neighbors started playing. Their voices came through the walls only slightly muted. Cleopatra swayed her head.
“Did you feed him alive?” I asked.
She sipped as if to give an answer then set her coffee on the floor and kissed me. I didn’t kiss back well. I worked to remove her poncho. She helped, pulling it over her shoulders. She wore nothing underneath. I ran my hand over her shoulder, walking my fingers like a little hiker up the mound. With the ruse of a massage, I guided her to face away from me. I traced my fingers along the pale scar then rubbed her shoulders, and she relaxed onto her stomach.
My neighbors were playing louder, two guitars strumming below a synchronized hum. I slipped off the pajama bottoms and kept my eyes on her back while we had sex.
▴ ▴ ▴
The dryer was clunking, and my neighbors were still playing. We’d knocked over Cleopatra’s coffee, but one dish towel under the couch easily did the job. Cleopatra checked her clothes and found they’d shrunk slightly. She dressed in my bathroom then sat in a folding chair at the plastic table that was my dining set.
“Have you ever seen them play?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I’ve never seen them at all.”
“If they’re going to play for us, they should play for us.”
I asked what she meant. She insisted we go to my neighbors’ apartment and watch. I dressed and fixed my hair with a finger-scrape of pomade, and we knocked on their door.
In the hallway, Cleopatra turned to me. “The dogs were all different breeds, if you were wondering. One was even a Chihuahua.”
A boy opened the door wide enough so that I could see inside. My neighbors were young, maybe twenty. The boy was skinny with hair just above his shoulders and a few tattoos down his arms. One, a rabbit holding a knife, looked inked in prison. The girl sat cross-legged on the floor with an acoustic guitar in her lap. She wore a gingham shirt that may have been his. Her hair was parted into two side ponytails. They didn’t particularly look like musicians; they just looked like kids. Or maybe it was that all the kids were looking like musicians.
I explained that I was their neighbor, that Cleopatra and I would like to watch them play.
“Aren’t you a professor?” the boy asked.
“Yes,” I said, slightly embarrassed.
“Are we too loud?” the girl asked.
“No,” I said. “The walls are just thin. We’ve been listening. We’d like to watch too.”
They looked at each other, and, after a moment, the girl said, “Fine by me.”
Cleopatra entered first. The apartment needed vacuuming. The kitchen counter was of normal height and cluttered with boxes of almond crackers, Kashi cereal, a bulbous air fryer and stainless-steel juicer. Below the counter, where stools should’ve been, empty seltzer cans, crunched almond milk cartons, and rolled-up pizza boxes crammed paper grocery bags. An acoustic guitar sat beside a small table. On the table was a microphone and a laptop. There were two electric guitars, one may have been a bass, against the living-room wall. There were a couple amps and a nest of wires. We sat on a corduroy loveseat jammed in the entry corner beside the door.
The boy picked up his acoustic guitar and sat at the table. “Are you married or something?”
“We don’t really know each other,” Cleopatra said.
“We don’t even know each other’s names,” I admitted, looking at Cleopatra.
“You have to know each other.” The girl laughed.
“We met today,” Cleopatra said. “I know him as well as I know you.”
At that, I considered introducing myself—if not to Cleopatra, then at least to my neighbors. But I didn’t, and it hit me how strange the night had been.
“We’ve been writing a new song,” the boy said.
“Don’t mind us,” I said. “Just play.”
They started something clangy, Fahey-inspired. The boy strummed simple chords, but the girl picked the strings as if her fingers were spider legs wrapping a fly. Her hands had to be moving faster than her brain. She’d probably performed classical guitar pieces at recitals her entire childhood.
I thought about asking Cleopatra to dance, but from how she leaned away from me, it was clear the rest of the night wasn’t about Cleopatra and I enjoying each other. The night was about us enjoying the young couple independently.
While maintaining his chords to hold rhythm, the boy started slapping the body of his guitar. His fingers tapped in delay of his thudding palm, making an echo of percussion.
The girl slowed and they began singing together. Where inside you is the garden? The daffodil, rose, wisteria? Wear a wreath and grow me poppy, peony, azalea. Azalea, azalea… Their voice was one. They were like two halves, and I was certain their relationship would last long enough for one to mourn the other. With the hair on my arms erect, I knew I wouldn’t see Cleopatra again. In fact, I’d never learn her name.
Without warning, the girl stopped singing and spiked the melody. Beneath blurred chords she layered screeching strings like warbling birds. The music was rootless, anxious, unstable, completely improvised. The boy kept singing, slowly gargling the names of flowers—Laaarrkspuuurr—and smacking the body of his guitar. It sounded as if a car alarm or a whining infant would fit right in. They had never sounded so intense. They were in love. I closed my eyes and tried to hear the beating of my heart.