When I was seventeen, his mouth tasted of sea water. I lay with him, on a futon mattress at ground level, covered in the freckled light of evening, and I remember thinking that he had brought the ocean with him, that it was inside of him.
I wanted to kiss him again, but I was startled, unsettled, to have found the sea in his mouth. It seemed like a strange metaphor, too perfect of one, explaining something I couldn’t see. Or maybe that’s how it seems now, looking back. Is it possible not to tint our memories with the future, once it is known? I remember at the time feeling the metaphor inside of that taste, brimming with a luminous surface tension, waiting to spill over.
He reached his arm over me, and it was comforting. I lay with my face very close, looking towards his eyes, green flecked with brown, vividly aware, and slightly slanted. He always had a weight to his body, even though he was slender. He was solid and heavy, especially in his legs and hips. Even as a kid, you can see that heaviness in pictures of him. The weight of his body. I think back on this now, with the strangeness of knowing.
He liked to tell me of the first time we met. I was very young at the time, and I’ve never remembered it, but for him it was particularly vivid, because It was his first day on the island after arriving from Egegik. He was nine years old, a few years older than me. They came to our house first - he told me that many times - they came right from the ferry, and we all went to see the Lion King in the movie theater.
He never told me about what it was like, what it felt like, arriving from Alaska with his big sister and his dad, into an all white town with houses built of wood, if he was scared or sad. He just talked about how kind we were to him. He was always like that, grateful for things that I took so wholly for granted.
Years later, my mom told me about how his dad went up to Egegik to get them, about how he had to steal them back. I never saw a picture of his mom. She drowned in the river, or the sea, there in Egegik after he left, like so many of his uncles - six of them, I think.
I remember thinking that it was like some kind curse, like a weird alaskan fairy tale, that brought his family, one by one, drunk, to the water’s edge. I worried about him when he was up there, like that water was calling to him, calling the salt of his mouth back to it, wanting it to wash the sea back out. I envisioned Egegik, the fish and alcohol, the concrete buildings and snowmobiles, and the big family who had given him his caramel brown skin, and slightly slanted eyes. His salty mouth. They were Native, he said. He never gave a tribe name. Just Native, not Aleut.
Looking back, I see how endless time was for me then. I always felt that we would be together someday. There was a certain feeling between us, indescribable, somehow sourced, for him, I think, from that first day, when we greeted him from Egegik. Funny how time shrinks as it goes on, constricting around us as we age, and grow.
When I was 20, his mouth still tasted of seawater. The same flavor, not just the salt, but the brine, seaweed, drying rocks, mud.
He lay in the little wooden house I had built, in the morning, and opened a beer. I didn’t really get it, what that meant. It seemed like an act of rebellion. There was something wild and cool about him, layered in with that gentleness. By the time I understood it, he was already back in Egegik.
I talked with him on the phone a lot after that. I knew in my stomach that he could change back, become sober again. That if I offered myself in his life, he would revive for me, come back effervescent and strong. There was some link, running back through to that heavy footed nine year old, arriving at our house, and it gave me a special power. Such a young thought, but one I still believe. I had moved to a city, and was walking down the alley behind my house. A cat was stuck at the top of a telephone pole, and was up there yowling, and yowling. I held my little flip phone to my cheek, it was getting hot there, and I told him that I wasn’t going to be his girlfriend.
The next time I saw him, years had changed. His body looked broken down, decaying from the inside. From the heart out, from the mouth down. His skin held tides of a different kind, and I didn’t see him in there. The boy with vibrant green eyes was buried in there somewhere, already drowned, one liquid for another.
Time shrank again, smaller still, until all of its possibilities became pricks of light, too small and fragmented to count.
I saw him on the street and I stopped. His heaviness had grown, taken over him. I love you he said, you are family. He was unsteady and full. The feeling of him was so thick, he was blurred, internally, caught in memories that distorted him. I saw him as a memory, then, too, and it sank through me. We never thought it could follow him. That the salt of his mouth could be called from anywhere. From our bay. Right off the dock, in the night. The heaviness of his body pulled him down, down. He held his breath there, I imagine, in the cold green black water, before the ocean came in, at last, to wash itself out.