The moon was as full as Ari’s womb. Sky and skyscraper traced the rows of stenciled water with purple silver light. It was a dirty beach, an urban beach. The couple sunk along the cratered path, treading carefully through the trash-mined sand, the sand that nearly
boiled into glass that August afternoon.
It was night now; post garbage pick up but pre-subway halt. The white noise of the asphalt city seemed sewed to its sidewalks and a low-tide stillness fell on the flats.
All that moved were the jittery crabs, the midnight schizophrenics,
each supping with its shadow. Once, when it was snowing, Harold had shaded Ari’s shadow on the wall beside his keyboard, letting its charcoal edges rub off on his shirts. Like the hermits and horseshoes, he supped with his shadows, and like the blues and fiddlers, he too was on a hunt.
Ari Manko craved clams. Steamer clams and Quahog clams, and littleneck, cherrystone and Pismo clams. Prenatal hormones don’t discriminate. Harold leashed a hand to Ari’s elbow as they balanced over the sweating rock plane separating city silhouette from its channel shore. Yellow foam lingered over lumps of crusted
seaweed, laced with broken wires and orange fishing twine. No matter how salt caked, the crumpled Cokes could never join their bottled ancestors in sea glass treasuries and no matter how cradled, the chunks of Styrofoam would never drift to driftwood. Beneath the soft flesh of their city foot soles, crustaceans were sleeping in their granular nests. This was what Ari wanted, what Ari needed. The real guys, the real thing. “Beach clams,” she’d said that evening. “You know, the spitting, salty, muddy kind.”
Ari had dug her city dry. Thrice she’d dragged Harold to the farmers’ market, leading him by his dimples through the stinking maze of still-flailing fish heaps. She shifted through street vendor stands and frozen package brands, letting the muscles work her out more than her own. She ate them fried and buttered and sautéed
and steamed, in sauces, on pizzas and fresh from the shell. Mostly, Harold played along. Ari amused him, mused him. He was an artist, after all, and found something vaguely romantic in her crustacean fixation.
They’d met back when their beds were lofted and their young lips green. Back when wax pencil poems laced their walls and Harold’s drawings littered the floor. Everything was a metaphor, every smile a simile. Ari and Harold embraced in elevators and existed to play-lists like Songs for a Cereal Dinner and Sleeting on the Subway. They had the purple crayon,
she would tease. Cooing for Harold to draw them up a nicer rug or a fuller moon or two cups of raspberry tea. Sometimes, lying naked like spoons, she would ask if he’d drawn her up too. “Of course, I did.” He would bite at her shoulder. “I drew myself a little muse.”
The website they’d giggled at said nighttime clamming was not recommended — a caveat which of course made the concept more appealing. They were drunk off of 42 weeks, high off their prenatal-class hyperventilation. Giddy enough to remember their green lip dates and to stretch the red-line outward-bound to its perimeter.
“We won’t be able to pull these charades once we have our mini us.” Harold skimmed his foot through a tidal pool, spraying Ari’s rolled up sweatpants with water.
“I want clams,” Ari said in a mock monotone. “I think we both know this baby’s happy staying just where it is.” Fourteen days past her due date, Ari had finally resolved to her eternal corpulence. Harold ran forward and stretched his thinly sculpted arms upward, turning the shimmering pools a muddy brown with every leap.
“I don’t blame the little guy,” he called back, “I love spending
time inside of you.” Ari laughed loud enough so he could hear, but not loud enough to block out her reservations. Harold knew how to play along, knew the right amount to smile and the ideal degree of twinkling his eyes. But the orb inside her was Ari’s idea. Ari’s decision that two years into wedlock meant throwing aside those tiny orange pills and re-growing her pubic hair. Their Star Trek marathon only made replacing their hookah with a crib slightly more enjoyable, and Ari could see his look of pained nostalgia as they painted over their stoned wall art.
During their first summer in the city, Harold had invented a strategy for never aging. “Ari, my air,” he had called to her. “I have discovered the solution to life.” She sprang on him, sitting on top of his stomach as he sprawled out on their living room floor. “Einstein’s twin paradox. You know, where one twin takes a space shuttle so fast that he travels faster than time?” Ari raised her eyebrows, kissing him to test his sobriety. “Well, by the time he gets back to Earth, everyone else has aged about ten years more than him. It’s science, it’s proven!” He sat up and took her face in his hands, “Ari, we’re saved!” They spent that summer
in constant motion, sleeping on Amtrak and renting bikes. If only they could stay moving, keep chasing time, eventually the skimmed off seconds would add up. Their friends and families grayed and wrinkled, but they didn’t age a day that summer — just sinking in the sun for their personal perpetual motion.
Harold found the first clam after only two tries. He scooped the rocky sand up like the clay on his wheel, moving it aside in cylindrical mounds until he grasped the fleeing shell. These clams were harder than the brittle littlenecks of Stop & Shop; a factor both had failed to consider prior to their impulsive race to the underground. Ari horded the shells in a little puddle between her outstretched legs, too tired to stand, let alone dig. She fingered the shells and washed off their ridges as her yellow spirited husband reveled in the childhood
impulse to treasure
Ari leaned back on her hands, reciting her breathing patterns
in rhythm with the retreating waves, hoping the clam men wouldn’t come before the sun. She liked it here. Liked the natural kind of art for a change. Harold had taken to drawing wombs during the course of her pregnancy. A pattern she all too frequently feared was a gesture, a suggestion, a proof that he truly was ready to put aside his pencils and his bow string. This was what it was to love an artist. Struggling to make oneself as beautiful as the inside of his head. Striving to out compose the intricate orchestra of his synapses, the fabulous landscape of his cerebrum’s left side. The ugliest Ari had ever felt was at her then fiancées’ studio show. The women in his portraits weren’t drawn with purple crayon. They were drawn like hourglasses, tilting their necks in inimitable angles, arching their backs far beyond her mobility. Ari knew he didn’t use live models, but couldn’t decide whether this was worse. The ideal exists in his head. It floats through his conscious while we’re eating, while we’re sleeping, while we’re sprawled out beside each other, naked and exposed. Again she would ask if he’d drawn her up too. “Of course, I did.” He would bit at her earlobe. “I drew myself a little muse.”
Their stretch of beach was dappled with half-footholes by the time Harold decided to run down to the parking lot where his cell phone would work to call a taxi.
“You go ahead and call it,” Ari insisted, still sitting half damp with her pod of unopened snacks. “Then you can just run back here and help me walk back up, that way it’ll arrive right when we need it.” Harold was hesitant. His urban instincts told him not to leave her there, but she had a point that the beach, however
littered, wasn’t exactly downtown.
“Fine,” he resolved, putting his muddy hands behind his back before leaning down to kiss her. “I’ll be as fast as I can…I might try to check the dumpster for an old bucket for these things.” Harold jogged away, his silhouette turning back again and again, turning her into a pillar of salt before he even crossed the dunes.
Ari was tired. Tired of the extra weight and tired of the waiting. Tired of sitting and guarding the pile while Harold got to run around in the land of allegorical poems and metaphorical art. She picked up the clams and let them slip down into her pool of water, rippling
each others’ ripples with a metronome pulse. She closed her eyes and let the salted breeze comb through her hair, easing her slightly into the cadence of the tide.
At first, she mistook his shadow for her own. Ari widened her eyes, sat up straight and placed both hands on her protruding stomach. She knew the man approaching wasn’t Harold before she saw his physical self, knew by the curve of his reflection, by the pace of his steps. Had her hormones been at their natural levels,
she probably would have screamed. Perhaps it was the estrogen,
the oestrogen or the b-HCG. Perhaps it was the canopy of reflections or the quiver of the dancing crabs. But perhaps it was just the way he looked at her, at her pile of clams, at her unborn child, that made Ari shift slowly forward and onto her feet.
He was a clam man. His hands were strong and calloused and his skin was a leathery brown. Dark plastic waders rose high above his waist, hanging loosely by faded yellow suspenders. Other than a gallon bucket and a rusted pitchfork, the clam man had only his wampum eyes. He came every dead-low, night or day. Came to watch his nests and kick away the crabs, the seagulls and the opportunistic. A professional scarecrow, he needed merely to exist. Even the thousands of dime black slugs seemed to ooze away in mass exodus.
Ari was embarrassed by the pile at her feet. How immature of them to think the flats were free range. How typically naïve. Her instinct was to scoop them up in her T-shirt and drop them one by one back into their caves. But Ari’s feet were caked over with mud, and all she did was stand awkwardly as the clam man studied her. Ari knew she was an unusual spectacle, standing bare foot on the city beach, full to burst in one of Harold’s largest shirts. She was used to being studied, used to standing still while another morphed her into colored oils or stained graphite. Used to the inferiority she felt to her canvass doppelgangers, taunting her from their dim apartment walls.
“I’m a muse,” Ari said aloud, the words sliding over her larynx
before she knew why. The clam man looked at her, his arms still frozen with the bucket and fork. His salt frosted eyebrows bent in slightly. Ari understood. He didn’t speak English. He spoke to the bathymetry of oceans and the cartography of sands, thought in a language of rolled r’s or silent q’s or extra kinds of vowels.
The clam man moved towards her, crunching brittle seaweed beneath his boots. Without breaking her gaze, he pulled a rusted knife from inside his rubber waders. Ari placed her hands on her stomach, backing away and shaking her head. She never should have let him call the cab, never should have teased him into slipping on the red-line and defacing the smoothed sheen flats. Harold was a nature shifter, not her. Harold was the one subjecting his surroundings to a mere two dimensions or a row of black dots.
But the clam man held up his hands, endearing her. He leaned down and picked up a shell from her pile; the corners of his unshaven cheeks twitching upwards as he slid the rusty blade between its ridged lips. Its hinge popped open, water spraying down around his weathered wrists. He held it out to her. She took it. Ari’s pulse softened and her palms dried up.
One day, curled up like spoons beside their child, Ari would tell Harold to let the bow of his violin wash the words from their walls and let his colored oils sing them to sleep. His wax paper drawings would crawl off their walls and cower at her three dimensions, erase themselves in envy of her fish scented hair, the heat of her arching body and the taste of the saline lumps falling through to her core. Ari pressed her lips to the lid of the clam and tilted in back down her throat — letting the silver red light of the city slide down with its egg-like slime.
The moon paused for a moment, holding in its gravitational pull like a suspended inhalation. Ari looked into the clam man’s pale wampum eyes, the eyes that guarded shells in granular wombs while the world rotated beneath him. She held his gaze. Held it even as the moon gradually let go of its transient hesitation,
oscillating the lingering strips of water out from around her ankles and into the trembling sea. Even as she heard Harold’s footsteps wrinkling the waves, his purple crayon taxi waiting to take her away. Even as she felt the insides of her sweatpants saturate
and drip down onto the bed of clams like the falling notes of a ballad.