Evan Gilbert, Dear Ocean

Dear Ocean,

I remember hearing that opening up is healthy, that bottling things up inside can destroy you. I guess that’s why I’m bottling this message inside an empty Coca-Cola bottle and throwing it into you, to let my problems rest in your depths instead of mine. I remember hearing that you need to tell someone your struggles—but I feel like telling requires hearing, and people don’t hear—I don’t think people hear; I think ears hear, and I think people and their ears are separate. I wonder if that’s why some people believe in God. God hears. Maybe that’s why I believe in you, Ocean.


So I guess this is like a diary that you can protect, a secret you can keep….Can you keep a secret?
I tried on some of my sister’s makeup today. It felt weird. But I liked it. My dad almost caught me—I don’t think he would like it much. Can you keep my secret, Ocean?


Love,

the Boy Who Couldn’t Swim.


Something glistened in the darkness of the underwater cave on the ocean floor, catching Gabriel’s eye. This was his favorite place, his sacred place. A cave where the surface world and the ocean world met in a tragic communion. Things dropped in the ocean all ended here, drawn by the currents—wreckage of ancient ships, chests of rusting weapons, skeletons of the mutineers thrown overboard—it all ended here. Gabriel made the cave a palace; he had a throne built of broken glass, smoothed by the ocean tides. Sculptures made of the plastic toys that kids must have lost when sailing above. Libraries of books, now rendered unreadable, and scrolls whose origins may have ties even to the ravaged Library of Alexandria. It was a graveyard; a monument to man’s destruction.

 

Gabriel swam toward the glisten he saw near the floor of the cave. A Coca-Cola bottle, filled with sand, and a piece of scrap paper with words written by hand. He floated to the surface of the ocean to read the message. He had found messages in bottles before; they tended to be love letters, thrown haphazardly to the ocean tides as if the star-crossed lover assumed the ocean would guide the letter safely where it belonged. But the ocean never did. The ocean didn’t care for love, and Gabriel, in his solitude, didn’t care either. His head emerged above the water, and as the ripples died down, he saw his reflection. He smiled. He liked the way he looked. Maybe it was vanity. Or maybe he just appreciated how his bright red hair contrasted with his pale complexion, or maybe he liked how he looked when he smiled, or maybe he was only vain because he had nothing to compare himself to. Nonetheless, he smiled. He opened the bottle.

 

Dear Ocean,

I remember hearing that only 5% of your waters have been explored; the rest remains unknown. And I guess we have that much in common. I feel like the world only knows about 5% of me. Do you ever wonder why? Some say man doesn’t possess the skills or technology to know you, like no one can truly know me. But I wonder if people are more afraid of knowing; afraid of knowing what lies in the depths of you, in the depths of me; afraid of finding a monster…are you a monster? Am I a monster? I’m a freak, so I’m told. I wore a dress today, in my room, and I twirled in front of the mirror; I liked the way the sequins looked when I spun. Is that weird? My dad walked in on me…he looked shocked, scared, angry. Disappointed. He yelled at me, and he said “don’t tell me you’re one of those tranny freaks!” Am I freak? I don’t think I’m a freak, but maybe if people knew me…why don’t they know me? I wonder why they don’t. Do you ever wonder? Maybe you don’t wonder, I mean you’re not supposed to be alive. Or you’re not supposed to think and breathe and love like people. But then we only know 5% of you, and I don’t think it’s fair to say that you can’t possibly be alive. I’ve been thinking a lot about “alive” recently…what makes me alive…what even is alive? I’m not sure, Ocean. Maybe you know.


Love,
the Boy Who Couldn’t Swim

 

Gabriel read the note, and he re-read it; he capped the bottle, and he swam down to the cave. He wondered why he read this message. He wondered why he read any of these messages. Maybe he wanted to understand the monster. Maybe he wanted to know who to blame for his loneliness—the boy wasn’t to blame. Gabriel knew that. But, all the same, he wondered who the boy was. He wondered what made him write. He wondered why he liked the boy. He wondered if the boy liked him. He looked at the wreckage around him, a testament to the cruelty and brutality of man. They couldn’t be trusted; Gabriel knew that, too. But why, he wondered, did he keep searching for messages every day? And why, when another one appeared, did he rush to the surface to read it?

 

Dear Ocean,
I wore the dress to school today. I snuck out before my dad could see me…I wore it on the bus. I felt brave, at first, until people started talking. “Hey you little faggot.” You probably don’t know what that means, do you? A faggot is something people call gay guys, because it means a flaming piece of wood used as kindling. It scares me…maybe it doesn’t scare you, maybe you know nothing of flames, because fire does not exist under water. Maybe that’s why I like you so much. “I always knew you were a tranny.” I don’t consider myself a tranny; I’m just a boy who likes the way the blue sequins look like glistening waves of the ocean when I walk. But they called me a tranny, cause I wore a girl’s clothes. The girl in front of me wore her boyfriend’s jacket; no one called her a tranny. I wonder why. I wonder why, Ocean. I took the dress off after first period and changed to my spare clothes; I couldn’t handle the stares. But even after I changed, the voices followed me down the hall. Echoes of “freak.” Am I freak? I’m beginning to think I might be.


Love,
the Boy Who Couldn’t Swim

Gabriel always saved the love letters thrown trapped in bottles. They were objects of fascination, describing a love he had never felt; objects of jealousy, describing a love he doesn’t feel; objects of anger, describing a love he could never feel. But this time seemed different. Maybe, Gabriel wondered, the boy also knew of the brutality of man. Maybe that’s why the boy and his messages were so addicting; maybe he wanted to know what the boy knew. Maybe he wanted the boy to know that someone else knew. Maybe Gabriel wanted to feel connected, like he hadn’t felt in so long.

 

He waited near the surface to find where the boy dropped the bottle, to be there to see the boy when it happened. It came next Saturday. He saw the boat, and he saw the boy leaning over the edge, staring at his reflection. Gabriel wondered if the boy liked what he saw. Gabriel did. The boy was tall, and his skin was a darkened shade of pale, maybe from standing on a boat looking at his reflection in the sun too long. His hair was dark, and his eyes were longing and blue like the ocean; maybe blue like the sequins the boy loved so much. When the sun began to set in the sky, and colored light skipped over the calm water like a skipping stone leaving a rainbow in its track, the boy once again leaned on the side of the boat. With one hand on the railing, the boy reached into his jacket, pulled out a bottle and dropped it into the ocean. And Gabriel dove.

 

Dear Ocean,

The school called my dad; apparently they were worried about me having issues at home. He yelled at me…he slapped me across the face, and he told me to grow up, to be a man. I started crying. He rolled his eyes at me, then repeated the phrase I’ve heard too many times before, “Boys don’t cry.” Do you cry, Ocean? Is that why your waters are salty? I’m worried and I’m scared. I’m really scared, Ocean. Do you ever scare yourself? You are capable of so much beauty, but you are also capable of pain. Does that dark side ever take over for a bit? Does that dark side ever win? I’m scared mine will. I’m scared, Ocean.


the Boy Who Couldn’t Swim


Maybe Gabriel was addicted because the boy wasn’t writing to a specific lover. He was writing to the unknown. He was writing to the ocean, as if there was no one left in his world who he could write to. No one left in his world he could connect to. Maybe Gabriel understood.

In a week the boat came back; in a week the boy was there leaning on the side of the railing, staring at the ocean in the moonlight. Gabriel wondered what the boy saw in the ocean. Maybe he saw sequins. There was no longer longing in the boy’s eyes; his eyes were no longer blue like the ocean, they were blue like ice, blue like a once lively water now frozen over in cold. He was still. He was calm. Empty, but calm. The boy looked at the moon, and he smiled. He removed a bottle from his jacket, and he dropped it. Gabriel dove after it. And so did the boy, the boy who couldn’t swim. Gabriel saw him. He could feel the ripples of the boy’s gasping breath, and he turned around. The bottle sunk to the bottom. Gabriel reached the boy and dragged him to the surface. He struggled to bring the boy to the life raft attached to the side of the boat. The boy coughed, spitting water on Gabriel’s face. He opened his eyes slowly. Gabriel looked in those eyes up close for the first time; he wondered how a boy could be capable of such beauty. And he wondered how such beauty could be capable of such pain, of such desire for destruction. Gabriel wondered if he was in love.

 

“So I meet the boy who couldn’t swim.” Gabriel said with a smile. Ocean? The boy whispered breathily. “You can call me that if you want.” The boy stared for a while. His eyes weren’t as icy. H-how? The boy was weak; he was under for far too long. And he was cold. Gabriel covered the boy with the emergency blankets. “Shhh, all that matters is that you’re safe.” The boy reached for Gabriel’s hand. Thank you, Ocean. And he closed his eyes, still holding the merman’s hand.

 

Gabriel felt the warmth slowly return to the boy’s hand. And if the boy was awake, he would have felt the warmth slowly leave Gabriel’s hand; he would have felt the life slowly leave, as the boy’s father silently speared the merman in the heart from behind. Gabriel didn’t even have the chance to scream; his last words were an insignificant whisper, something like “oh how beautiful he sleeps.”

 

Dear Ocean,
There is probably no use in writing to you now. You’re no longer there, are you? He will pay. I promise he will pay. Did you know I woke up the next morning still in the life-boat? You weren’t holding my hand, so I thought you swam back to your home. Then I re-boarded the ship, and I saw the tank. I saw you floating in the tank. I saw you dead in the tank. My father looked at me, and he said “We’re going to be rich! All of our problems solved.” And for a second, to my shame, I thought about that. Maybe my problems would be solved. Maybe I wouldn’t be such a freak if I was rich. Rich people are never freaks; they’re visionaries. But then I looked at you, again. Beautiful and Dead. Did you know he never asked why I was in the lifeboat? He had to have seen me, but he never asked why… He will pay. I promise he will pay.

 

Love,
the Boy Who Couldn’t Swim

 

The reporters came the next day. The tank was covered in an emergency blanket. Who knows if the father realized that his son wasn’t there during the unveiling. Who knows if he wondered where his son was as he announced the real life Ariel, and he removed the blanket without even looking in the tank. Who knows what he thought when the reporters gasped and when he looked in the tank to see there was no merman. There was no Gabriel. There was a boy floating in a sequin dress draped to look like a tail. The reporters flashed their cameras. They made headlines:

 

“Fisherman Drowns ‘Mermaid’ Boy”

“Fame Hungry Father Kills Son”

“Deranged Dad Drowns Boy in Drag.”

 

Dear Ocean,
I hope that man only knows 5% of you, and he hope that he only knows 5% for the rest of his existence. I fear what they would do to you, what my father did to you… I will make sure he pays. A merman’s death wouldn’t have mattered; the world wouldn’t have cared. And if they saw you, you’d never get the peace you deserved… I wonder if the other kids would call me faggot if I said I already had an outfit picked out.


Love,
the Boy Who Couldn’t Swim

 

The last bottle fell to the ocean depths, to the floor of the cave. The messages of the boy joined the other artifacts in the underwater museum of human brutality. Something glistened in the darkness of the underwater cave. Gabriel was not able to swim toward the glisten in his palace, because he was the glisten; his tail and his glowing scales…

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