Sting Harsh and Hot

As Jane slurped down her third cocktail, she kept eye contact with the anglerfish. It drifted up to the glass and away, its fluorescent light twitching in front of its gruesome face. Maybe Jane was projecting, but the anglerfish seemed like it was unhappy. Or maybe it was just ugly.

“Look at that thing. He’s enormous,” Jane said to her girlfriend. “Looks a lot like my first boyfriend, actually. He also had an underbite.”

“It’s female,” Tina corrected her. “Male anglerfish are tiny and don’t look like that.” Tina picked up a cocktail napkin from a basket on the bar and pleated it with her fingers. “The male anglerfish gets absorbed into the body of the female when they mate, and then she uses his testes to impregnate herself.”

“Huh,” Jane murmured, gnawing on her straw. “It turns me on that you know so much about anglerfish. Is that weird?”

“Yes.”

It was two in the afternoon, but the aquarium bar was dim and quiet, an artificial slice of night. Glowing fish, slow and golden as syrup, floated back and forth in the deep blue.

“Would you like another?” the bartender asked. Her voice was light and customer-servicey. Jane smiled at her and felt a compulsion to reach out and touch her feathery brown hair. She got overly friendly when she drank, hugging acquaintances and showering them with hyperbolic compliments. Jane tucked her hand under her thigh and pinned it to her seat.

“I’d like a Marlin Martini, please.”

Tina put her hand on Jane’s shoulder. It felt warm and damp through Jane’s t-shirt.

“Maybe we should take it easy and have some water instead,” Tina suggested. She had an annoying habit of doing that, saying we when she really meant you.

Jane looked at the bartender who wore a politely blank expression. The bartender’s dark eyes shined even in the dim light. They reminded Jane of summers at her dad’s house, when she’d fly up and down the blacktop on her StingRay scooter. She was always barefoot, the soles of her feet stained the color of soot. As she rolled down the driveway, she dodged spots of oil, marking places where her father had parked rundown junkers he would fix and flip for cash. When she was tired, the humid air drowning her from the inside out, Jane would stop and examine the shiny oil pools. Jane watched the tiny iridescent rainbows slowly shift and disappear as the oil changed temperature in the hot sun.

Deliberately, Jane pushed her empty glass forward. “I’ll have a glass of water and a Marlin Martini, please.”

Tina sighed, but Jane pretended not to notice, swiveling her head to look at the tanks around them. It really was a nice aquarium, and that somehow made it all the more sad. Fish and sea creatures of elaborate designs danced in the tanks. The creatures were most at home in tropical waters that would never be found naturally there in the Midwest. At the other extreme, the aquarium also had terrariums of snow and icy water for gentoo penguins. On the way from the arctic exhibits to the bar, Jane and Tina had stopped at the penguin enclosure and gawked at the birds.

“Aren’t they adorable?” Tina gushed, clenching Jane’s hand in her own. “They look so happy.”

The penguins paced around the snow mounds, leaping into the water, swimming around, and then hopping back up on the icy platform and doing it all over again. Even their countenances looked pained. The orange streaks on their beaks stood stark against the blankness of the snow like bloody gashes. White streaks in their feathers slanted down over their eyes, making them look like angry cartoons.

“Do they?” Jane asked, gently pulling her hand from Tina’s grasp under the pretense of itching her nose. “Look happy, I mean.”

Tina didn’t answer, seemingly sucked into the penguin enclosure. Wherever she looked, Tina actively searched for happiness, even in places where there was none. Jane suspected this was an annoying consequence of going to therapy.

Tina’s insistence on being positive was obsessive, to the point where Jane couldn’t voice any negative feeling without receiving a Confucian quip. Most recently, when Tina found Jane tucked up under the covers of their bed after opening a letter denying her a scholarship for her next semester at the local liberal arts college, Tina recited, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

Jane grabbed a pillow and threw it at Tina’s head. “I can’t afford to go to school, Tina!” she snapped. “Just let me be upset. I don’t need fortune cookie advice.”

A muscle in Tina’s jaw bulged and then receded. She took a breath like she wanted to say something, but she didn’t, instead leaving Jane to brood alone in their room. The next morning, Jane found a stack of self-help books on her dresser, everything from how to boost your self-esteem to transcendental meditation. She threw them in the trash. Neither Jane nor Tina mentioned the books again.

The bartender placed the glass of water and the martini in front of Jane, each on a square napkin. The napkins bore the aquarium logo with an image of a grinning clownfish.

The martini wasn’t really a martini, just a sugary blue cocktail served in a martini glass. It came with two maraschino cherries skewered on a little plastic sword. Jane plucked the sword from the glass, popped it in her mouth, and slid the cherries off with her teeth.

“En guard!” she proclaimed, waving the sword in Tina’s face.

“Let’s go over and sit at a table. I want to talk to you,” Tina said. She picked up Jane’s martini. The napkin stuck to the bottom of the glass.

“We can talk right here,” Jane replied, watching the pretty bartender from the corner of her eye. The bartender picked up a glass from a tub, wiped the inside and outside with a white cloth, and tucked the glass under the bar. She seemed enthralled in the mundanity of the task, her delicate eyebrows pinched together slightly. Jane felt a warm tingle in her body.

Tina shook her head, her braid swaying against her back. In the fishy light, her red hair looked sickly green. “I’d like to talk somewhere more private.”

“Well, we’re in a public place,” Jane pointed out harshly. She wondered why she found it so easy to be mean to Tina. Sometimes she slipped into it almost absentmindedly, like falling back on biting your nails once all the nail polish has rubbed off. Tearing into Tina for little things—leaving the kitchen drawers open, cracking her knuckles, spitting her toothpaste on the faucet and not wiping it off—was the most natural-feeling part about their relationship.

Jane slid off the bar stool, the bare skin of her thighs peeling painfully from the vinyl. “Over there?” she suggested, pointing to a booth pushed against one of the tanks. It was far enough from the bar but still within sight of the bartender.

“All right.” Tina picked up Jane’s glass of water in the other hand. The napkin lay on the bar, stuck to the surface by a ring of moisture. Catching the bartender’s eye, Tina said, “We’ll just be over at that table right there.”

The bartender nodded and picked up another glass, swished the cloth around inside it. “Sure thing. Just let me know if you need anything. My name’s Rebecca.”

Jane cast her a wobbly, wet smile over her shoulder and followed Tina to the table. She slid into the booth. Tina set Jane’s drinks in front of her and gave her a pointed look.

“I’m serious, Jane,” she said in a low voice, sliding into the booth on the opposite side of the table. “After this, you’ve had enough. Really, you had enough after the first two.”

Jane scoffed, suddenly feeling playful as the floaty feel of the liquor settled in her belly. “Preposterous, Tiny Tina.” She winked. Reluctantly, Tina smiled at the old nickname.

On a drunken whim one night, Jane had ordered a ukulele off the internet and was confused when the package showed up at the door to the apartment.

“Did you order something?” Tina asked. She pushed a stack of bills to the side and plopped the box on the coffee table. “It has your name on it.”

“I don’t think so?” Jane snatched up her keys and used one to cut through the tape. There, nestled in Styrofoam peanuts, was the cheap ukulele Jane had bought on eBay. “Oh, wait,” she said, laughing. “Yeah, I did.”

“I didn’t know you played,” Tina said. Her voice was warm with surprise.

“I don’t.” Gingerly, Jane lifted the ukulele from the box and cradled it in her arms. Her body naturally wanted to hold a guitar, which she had dabbled with in high school. Tucking her elbows into her body, Jane pressed the ukulele against the top of her belly. She strummed it tentatively with her thumb. It was horribly out of tune.

“I figured I could teach myself,” Jane explained.

Tina rolled her eyes. “Another project. You’re always trying to distract yourself from something, Jane.”

“Yes, yes, thank you, Dr. Freud.” Jane strummed the ukulele again. The strings wailed. “I’ll get one for you too. You’ll be Tiny Tina and I’ll be that Hawaiian guy. We’ll start a cover band and call ourselves Two-Kulele.”

“You are ridiculous.” Tina leaned over and kissed Jane on the head. The touch of her lips left a deep warmth like the sting of a receding sunburn.

Over the next week, Jane taught herself chords and linked them together to form recognizable renditions of songs. She would then surprise Tina in the shower, making pasta in the kitchen, napping on the couch, with the songs, sung in a falsetto and with parodied lyrics. It was a good week. Jane had almost forgotten it.

Jane turned to the side and examined the tank next to their table. Inside, a school of lemon-colored fish swirled together. A solid blur of neon yellow, the fish moved as one, first one way and then another.

Jane took a sip of the Marlin Martini. Even though it wasn’t real, the bartender had made it strong despite Tina’s hints.

“What did the bartender say her name was?” Jane asked between sips. The liquor burned her throat in a comforting way.

Tina shrugged. “I don’t remember. Rachel or something. Why?”

Jane shook her head and pretended to thrust herself deep into thought. She remembered the bartender’s name and was just looking for a way to bring her up.

“No, that’s not it,” Jane said, swirling her little plastic sword in the blue liquor. She took it out and slipped the point in her mouth, sucking on it thoughtfully. “It was Rebecca.”

She reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone. “I’m going to look up what her name means,” Jane explained before Tina had a chance to ask.

Tina leaned back in the booth and crossed her arms under her breasts. The way her arms rested pushed her breasts up and together slightly in a way that Jane liked.

“Does it really matter?” she asked. The levelness in her voice was beginning to dissipate. Jane got a kick out of annoying her girlfriend and felt guilty for enjoying it. Their relationship was like a mouth sore, she tried to explain to Tina once. If you quit poking at it, it’ll disappear, and you’ll never know that it existed.

Pulling up a baby names website that listed such horrendous suggestions as Chael and Braelyn on the home page, Jane typed in Rebecca.

“Rebecca,” Jane read aloud. “One who snares. Noose. To tie. To bind.” Jane looked over her phone and met Tina’s eyes. “Sounds kinky.”

Tina uncrossed her arms. She reached over and picked up Jane’s martini. Tipping her head back, she drained the rest of the drink. Tina set the glass back on the napkin, lining up the edges of the base with the damp circular imprint.

“All right,” Tina said. “Do me now.”

“What, right here?”

Tine tried to smile but couldn’t quite get there.

“No, look up my name and what it means.” She leaned her head back against the tank. The light from the sloshing water flickered across her face in delicate golden threads.

Names held a strange power. Jane had learned this as a child when her grandmother told her the story of Rumpelstiltskin, whose secret name uttered aloud broke the contract in which he was promised a child. In a fury, he grabbed a foot in each hand and split himself in two. Jane thought that was a pretty inconvenient way to kill oneself.

Tina tapped her knuckles on the underside of the table. The rhythm sounded like Jingle Bells.

Jane slipped her phone back into her pocket and reached across the table, offering her hands palms up. Tina placed her hands into Jane’s.

“I actually looked up your name when we started dating,” Jane said. “Christina is Latin. Means ‘Follower of Christ.’”

Tina scoffed. “Well, that’s lame. Follower.” She pulled her hands from Jane’s and put them in her lap. Tina looked into the tank next to the booth. Jane followed her eyes as Tina tracked a large, luminescent stingray, its body rippling in waves. The ray flapped its sides, buoyant and weightless. Its silver skin shimmered.

Tina looked at Jane and then over at the bartender, still painstaking cleaning glasses. “You know, I think you’re right,” Tina said, standing up and adjusting the legs of her shorts. “They’re not happy.”

“What?”

“The animals. They don’t want to be here.” She turned back to the tank and leaned her forehead against the glass. “I wish I could break this glass.”

“We’d get kicked out if you did,” Jane said with a forced giggle. She rubbed the condensation from her empty martini glass on her palm and smeared it on her forehead. The wetness felt cool and sobering on her hot skin.

“I’m going to pee quick. Then do you want to leave?”

“Do you?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

The stingray drifted up to the glass and tilted its body so its suckers could tickle and taste the spot where Tina’s hand rested. It hung there for a moment, suspended as if in a crystal ornament. It shot upward along the glass, far up into the tank where Tina could no longer see it.

“Be right back,” Tina muttered and swept away around the corner to the bathrooms.

Jane sat alone at the table for a moment, watching a sea anemone turn from yellow to a startling shade of orange. It looked shriveled and sad despite its outrageous colors, not like the lively, pulsating anemones on nature specials.

The anemone and the rest of the creatures in the tank made Jane sad, a feeling she did her best to avoid or at least ignore when it happened. She looked at the empty martini glass and wished it was still full.

She stood up. Her vision was fuzzy at the corners. Picking up the martini glass by the stem like it was a bouquet of flowers, Jane sauntered back over to the bar. She took deliberately assured steps to prove she wasn’t drunk.

Rebecca looked up from her glass-cleaning task and smiled at Jane.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked, running the ragged dish cloth over the glass she held in her hands.

Jane shook her head and then thought better of it. “How about a quick shot and then I’ll close my tab.”

“What’ll it be?”

“Ladies choice,” she said, trying to put on a flirtatious purr that she once saw Elizabeth Taylor do in a movie. She sounded more like Katherine Hepburn gargling.

Rebecca grabbed a bottle of whiskey off the top shelf. With quick hands she poured it into a shot glass and set it in front of Jane. The liquor looked like molten gold. As it cascaded down Jane’s throat, the liquid felt molten too, the sting harsh and hot.

Jane clapped the empty shot glass onto the bar. The warmth enveloped her body. She felt alive and unapologetic.

As Rebecca rang up her litany of drinks on the cash register, Jane blurted out, “I was wondering if I could get your number?”

Rebecca didn’t look up from punching in the numbers, but Jane could see her face tighten slightly.

When Rebecca finally looked up, she gave Jane a falsely sunny smile. Her teeth looked fluorescent in the bad light. “Oh,” she said, “I have a boyfriend, actually. But thank you for the lovely compliment.”

Jane wanted to punch her. The fake politeness of the rejection made it worse.

“No worries,” said Jane, offering her credit card for Rebecca to swipe. Rebecca handed her the receipt. Jane signed her name and left nothing in the tip line.

Jane was standing near the bathrooms when Tina emerged. Jane pretended not to notice the moist redness of her eyes.

The two women left the bar and followed signs toward the main exit of the aquarium. To get to the door, they had to walk through an expansive room with a large, shallow pool. Visitors leaned over the edge and placed their hands in the water.

“What’s this?” Jane asked, veering toward an empty space at the edge of the pool. In the bright water, dozens of brown and gray stingrays flapped along the floor, swooping up to brush against the hands dipped into the water.

Jane dipped her hand into the water. A large stingray fluttered up from the floor of the pool and tickled her hand. Its flesh felt cool and slippery against her fingertips.

“Whoa. Tina, come here.”

Tina sighed but went to stand next to Jane anyway, her hands crammed decisively in the pockets of her shorts. She stood next to Jane, but didn’t crouch down to look at the stingrays gliding along the bottom of the pool like flat, silent Roombas.

An aquarium worker with a tray of small paper bags walked up to the women and asked if they’d like to feed the stingrays for five dollars. Jane dried her hands on her shirt, pulled a bill from her pocket, and accepted one of the bags. The stingray food was in long, straw-like shapes. Jane put one under her nose and sniffed. It was scentless as a cracker.

Jane thrust the piece of food toward Tina. “I’ll give you ten dollars if you eat this,” she said. Tina looked away and said nothing.

Jane sighed and worried the stingray food with a fingernail. “I’m sorry I’ve been pressing your buttons all day. I’ll stop.”

Tina chewed her lip, her eyebrows pulled down over her eyes in a scowl. Jane hadn’t noticed just how upset she was.

After a moment, Tina said, “This just wasn’t what I expected.” She licked her lips. The tip of her pink tongue explored the flesh like a shimmering wet sea slug. “This just isn’t working out. You and me.”

Jane’s stomach plummeted. She both expected and didn’t expect the feeling. It was like driving fast over a hill and expecting the stomach flip but not expecting it to happen so viscerally, deep within the muscles. Jane wavered between replies: that’s not true, you’re right, I can change, it’s you who’s the problem.

“I’m sorry.” Jane didn’t specify what it was she was sorry for. She looked into Tina’s face, into her dark eyes that glittered. Tina’s eyes reminded Jane of a snail shell, glossy and hard. “I’ll try to be more serious. To treat this relationship more seriously.” Jane swallowed, and a wad of bile-flavored pain bobbed up and down in her throat. “It’s too hard to be who you want me to be. It’s unfair.”

Tina looked down at the stingrays for a long while. Finally she exhaled with what sounded like relief, or maybe just resignation. “You need to quit hiding from everything. You need to let yourself feel and stop making jokes about everything. You’re allowed to be happy or sad. You can let yourself just be in love.”

Jane nodded as if taking in what Tina was saying, but she really just wanted the conversation to be over. “I understand. I’ll work on that. I’ll try harder.” She reached out and touched Tina’s forearm with her damp fingers. “Come on. Let’s make these stingrays fat.”

Tina knelt down by Jane and stuck her hands in the water, running her fingertips over the smoothness of the stingrays’ skin. Following the example of other visitors around them, the women each took a piece of the food and clamped it gently in the notch between their index and middle fingers. They held their hands flat in the water, palms open. The stingrays, competing for food, rushed at their hands. The one who got there first swam over the women’s hands, gently pulling the food out from between their fingers.

Jane heard Tina gasp a little and then giggle. She looked at her girlfriend from the corner of her eye and was relieved to see her genuinely smiling. Jane smiled too. A quiet part of her, an instinct in her body, knew that this happiness wouldn’t last, that she and Tina would eventually go separate ways. Right now, it felt like a twinge, but she knew it would grow into a horrible dread in preparation for the loss of Tina, who would, one day, wake up and have had her fill. And she would have to stand there and watch Tina silently collect her belongings, watch her pack her half of their broken relationship into the car and drive away. She felt the sear of their parting as if it were physical, part of her skin and hair and nails ripped out. It would hurt, Jane decided, when Tina decided she was no longer worth trying to fix.

Jane grasped Tina’s hand under the water. A stingray, silvery and shiny, swept over their clenched hands. Its flesh caressed theirs, and it was as if they felt the sensation through one body.

Image courtesy of Flickr

About the author

Jen Corrigan is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of The Molotov Cocktail's 2018 Flash Monster Contest. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Seneca Review, Electric Literature, The Boiler, and elsewhere. She is a prose editor and book reviewer for Alternating Current Press. Visit her at www.jen-corrigan.com.

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