Maria sat on the couch, moving only enough so that the ice in her big plastic thermos jangled in its own melt. Her mouth always looked wet. A cool morning leaf, damp with dew and sap.
“Would you ever dive with sharks?” she asked me.
I was sitting on the floor in front of the mirror, braiding and unbraiding my hair. I wanted to watch Maria but it felt safer to watch her reflection, like I was looking in through a window at night and all she saw was the flat blackness of outside.
“Probably not. I used to get scared swimming in the deep end.” The endless feeling of reaching my toes for the bottom. Plus, it was cold.
“Some people have an intrusive thought where they imagine sharks in the pool with them. Once they imagine it, they can’t get over it. It’s literally all they can do, think about the sharks swimming next to them in the chlorine.” She put her thermos on the coffee table Sophie found next to our dumpster.
“I went down in a shark cage, once. It was awful, not because of the sharks but because they chum the water until you can’t see anything. They just become these murky shadows. The woman next to me kept putting her hand out like she was feeding a horse a carrot, flat palm and everything. When we got up I told her she was lucky she didn’t lose it.”
I laughed even though I wasn’t sure the story was supposed to be funny. What else had Maria done? I wanted a cigarette but she seemed health-conscious and I didn’t want her to think I was unhealthy, that I would be bad for her. Plus, the pain in my ribcage was sharp. Without Sophie’s warm palm cupping it, the pain had bloomed all the way up into the fleshy underside of my chin. It traveled up and down that highway of flesh all week.
Instead of smoking a cigarette or curling inwards, I sat next to Maria on the couch and tried to distract myself by seeing the room the way she did. Our hairpins scuttled into the corners, a picture of Sophie and I riding a roller coaster, Sophie’s scarves draped over my desk chair like naval flags.
“You have a lot of plants,” Maria commented, like she knew I was observing the spill of our life.
“Sophie works at a nursery and gets to take a lot of plants home.”
Before Sophie left for her trip, she set reminders on my phone that dinged every morning to remind me to water the plants.
“This way,” she said, still naked in bed one morning when we beat our alarm, “you won’t forget. It will be like I never left.”
Each day I would panic, sure that the plants would already be browning. We couldn’t have any pets because some of the plants were poisonous. I didn’t know what any of them were called so I didn’t know which ones were poisonous and I was suspicious of them all.
“You should bring some to the office,” Maria said. “If any would survive. It’s so dismal.” She looked into the mirror on the other side of the room and straightened her posture. Her hair was spun into a high bun.
“It really is,” I said. I wondered about every useless thing I ever said. I wondered if in my lifetime I had said as many useless things as there were rocks in the Chattahoochee. Probably not, but the only way to know was to count each and find the difference.
Maria, along with her always-present cup of ice, wore capris that cut her calves into pleasant, fleshy halves. We worked in different departments and only spoke on our rides up and down the elevator, which we always seemed to take together. When she agreed to come over, I texted Sophie immediately.
I have a date thing, I said. I miss you. Is that okay?
She responded, Yes! It was all her idea, anyway, but I wanted her to know that I could be variable too—that our constants might come from the same places, even if I didn’t know where that was.
Maria went to the bathroom. Unlike Sophie, she didn’t announce every time she left a room. I took the opportunity to look through the clear plastic lid of her cup. A lemon seed twisted in the current, a curl of something green. Mint. I stood and ran a finger over my teeth. They were fuzzy but since Maria was in the bathroom I couldn’t brush them, and instead had to settle for cupping my hands under the kitchen sink and pushing the water around in my mouth.
Miss you, I texted Sophie. Are you having fun?
The pain in my side swelled against my rib cage. I read once that there is a vein that travels all the way from your heart through your genitals and down to your toe, and if someone tugs it at either end, the sensation is enough to induce orgasm. What I didn’t read was how anyone figured this out. I hoped my pain was something like that; intentional, magically connected to all the other working parts of me from my brainstem to my clitoris, threaded around my spine.
Maria emerged with her hair down and her sandals in one hand. She put them by the door.
“Do you want to see something?” she asked.
Before I could respond, she bent her knees, left the ground, and landed in a perfect split. The toes of her left foot curled forward into a point, though there was nothing there to point to. She threw her hands up and wiggled her fingertips.
“Wow,” I said, kneeling in front of her. What else could I do? I wanted to put my leg next to hers and count all the ways they lined up the same, but I was afraid they wouldn’t line up at all.
“My friend in high school discovered that if you did a split while drinking, the muscles were relaxed enough to learn the motion. Then you could do a split anytime.” She pulled her legs in, so we sat facing each other.
“Your muscles can do anything if you relax enough. Eventually I learned to do a back handspring like this.” She stretched one arm across her chest and then the other. “You just have to trust the process.”
I was looking beyond Maria to a stack of Sophie’s magazines and nodding for too long. I wondered who Sophie was with at that moment, if they felt as cluttered as I did. Sometimes I imagined that she cut me open at night with the pair of silver sewing scissors she kept in her nightstand drawer. Peeling me open at the ribs, she tucked poisonous leaves there until my breast was padded with them. Sometimes the leaves healed my pain, and sometimes they made it worse. Each time Sophie knew what I needed.
Maria touched my face with her fingertips. We wanted the same thing, to be friends and to touch each other, and I let myself be swept with that simplicity. We knew what to do. She felt tropical, like a yard of warm sand and clear water. I did my best to imagine nothing.