The warmth from the hot chocolate radiated through the paper cup and my thick gloves. The warmth was a comfort to my hands and a mundane distraction for my head on this odd night. I nudged my car door closed with my left leg; it closed with a dull thud. I leaned against the car and gazed at the night sky. The stars twinkled in subdued glory, outshone by the lights from the Coleman Bridge behind me. The horizon boasted a bright orange full moon rising over the waters of the York River. Another car was parked in the lonely lot, belonging to a fisherman far out on the pier.
I scanned the beach intensely through the haze of eyes welling up with tears. She would have to show up tonight. I headed to the pier; tears of fatigue and frustration soon flooded my eyes and ran down my cheeks. I stopped to wipe my eyes on the arm of my coat. I regained some vision, although the pier lights seemed to glow with halos, like the moon through the clouds.
The lights of the pier bathed the river’s surface, and the water reflected back a murky, green color. Waves oozed against the shore. Again, I scanned the beach, but it was empty. She knew where I would be tonight, she had a supernatural sense of urgency when I needed her, and she could always find me near the water. Still, I possessed the doubt, maybe this would be the time when she wouldn’t come. With a sigh, I continued toward the pier, keeping my eyes on the smooth water’s surface.
Circular ripples disrupted the waves near the shore. The ripples converged toward central point instead of retreating from it. A noticeable hump in the water rose as the ripples piled onto a single spot on the surface of the water. Shore-bound waves were bent around this rising bulge of water and pulled toward it. The river receded from the shore as the watery hump rose into a curved pillar of water, about the average height of a human. The water compressed and whirled until the liquid sculpted itself into the silhouette of a lithe female. The form approached the beach as excess water fell from her body and back into the river. The saltwater silhouette hardened to glistening skin. She stood proudly on the beach. She was here; she would never abandon me. She always knew when I needed her.
The silhouette waved at me and strolled toward the pier. Her walk was awkward; she was uncomfortable moving with legs on dry land. However, she gained her land legs much quicker than I typically gained my sea legs. We met at the start of the pier.
Her name was Galatea, and she had been my friend for years. For as long as I stood or sat longingly at the sea, she was there. Throughout the years I had grown from a child to a young man, but she looked the same throughout the years. Her hair was bright green sea lettuce that grew from her forehead down to her lower back. Her skin glistened with light blue scales. Fin rays covered her arms and legs. A large prominent dorsal fin ran down the length of her back, but it was folded close to her body when she was out of the water. She had large, iridescent blue eyes positioned on the sides of her face. Her nostrils and mouth protruded forward, revealing a conical-shaped head. When she smiled, I could see small, pointy teeth lining her top and bottom jaws.
I immediately gave my friend a hug. “It’s good to see you, Galatea.”
Her voice was quiet, except for the infrequent dolphin-like clicks that interrupted her speech. “I know that look. There is a woman involved with your plight this evening.”
Abashedly, I gazed down at the murky river through the dock planks. Sadness surged within me, renewed as fresh tears rolled down my cheeks. I could only silently nod as I tried to catch my breath. My knees locked up and the nervous pulses in my calves weakened my ability to stand. I was ready to collapse.
Galatea sensed my weakness; she placed her arm in mine and supported me as we strolled down the pier. “Start from the beginning,” she said, quietly, stroking my hair with her webbed hand.
At the edge of the dock, overlooking the York River, I leaned my fatigued body against a pylon. I noticed that the lone fisherman was on the opposite side of the dock. He was barely visible and occupied with catching croaker; he would never see us. I turned to meet Galatea’s vibrant stare. She was waiting for me to speak.
Looking down at my hot chocolate for sanctuary I began my tale. “You remember Sara, right?
Galatea nodded and placed her elbows on the pylon. She rested her chin on her hands as she listened. Staring into her eyes was always difficult; Galatea had no eyelids, so her eyes were always upon me. If I stared at them too long, I would feel like I was drowning.
My voice was weakened with fatigue and mental agony. I wasn’t ready to recount this story just yet, but I came to the river to talk with Galatea. She was hardly the type of woman to relent to the weak or display an abundance of patience. “And you know of the great friendship Sara and I have had since I met her a little over a year ago. You know of my quiet madness over her, and that she is unattainable due to her relationship with the other guy.”
Galatea rolled her head in disgusted frustration. She pounded the pylon and a wave train splashed the pier’s planks to accentuate her point. The pylons groaned and I felt the pier lurch slightly. Galatea was becoming impatient. “Yes, I know all of this! Even with all the obstacles in your way, a part of you refused to relent. You were too inspired by a woman who has been on your side since the two of you met, but you always acted with only the best of intentions. I know all of this. Quit stalling!”
The steam rising off of the hot chocolate was my sanctuary once again. It was the only way I could begin this conversation. Galatea grabbed the paper cup from my hands and dropped it into the trash bin across from us.
I glanced from Galatea to the trash bin, where my warm refreshment was now soaking rusted fishhooks and dried squid. “Why did you—”
“I have little patience for cowardice,” Galatea growled slowly. Her eyes were locked on me as if I was a wounded fish struggling hopelessly, her prey. “It would do you a lot of good to keep my attention!”
“Okay, Okay,” I apologized. “This is a hard event to recount; I want to make sure I get it right. I have no desire to do Sara a disservice.” I quickly found solace staring at the dark eastern horizon beyond the lights of the distant oil refinery.
I began my tale. “I discovered a month ago, that Sara had split with the other guy. I never believed this time would come. I saw how happy they were. I saw what I wanted in my life; I saw what I was missing. Intellectually, I knew it wouldn’t be with her, but my heart would not give up on her. It was my one mad hope. So, I carried on, knowing where my place was.
“When Sara told me that she split with her boyfriend”—I pulled back from the docks and lifted my arms into the air—“I wanted celebrate. I wanted to feel sunlight beaming down from the sapphire sky.” I stepped closer to Galatea and leaned in. “But I could not celebrate. I would be taking advantage of a friend who had survived a traumatic experience. He had just left her, without apparent reason or rhyme. What the hell was I doing? I was torn between my desire to stand by her and the joy at seeing such an impossible circumstance beat the odds, possibly in my favor.”
“You have been practicing a balancing act, in one form or another, since you met her, Stephen,” Galatea said with a smile.
“Too true,” I conceded. “My heart was intensely torn with the predicament. So I decided to wait and regain my wits. She was leaving to celebrate Christmas at home, and I was going to wait until she returned in January to weave my little web.”
“It is two weeks until Christmas,” Galatea mused.
I laid my forehead on the railing of the dock. With a heavy sigh, I said, “Yes, it is.”
Galatea gripped my shoulder. “You defied your plan?”
“You sound like you’re surprised.” I tried to smile through my weak, sarcastic tone, but my bottom jaw quivered and tears rolled down my face. I squeezed my eyes tightly to hold back the flood, but it was to no avail. My heart would not be denied its misery.
“I tried the best I could,” I said, pacing my words between the convulsions as I caught my breath. “But it wasn’t enough.”
Galatea held me close with a single arm around my shoulders. There was tenderness in her cold touch I never recognized before. In a low voice, she said, “Tell me what happened.”
I regained some of my faculties after a long pause. “I went to see her tonight, because she was leaving in a few days and this would be the last time I would see her. My plan was simply to say goodbye to her and wish her well on her journey, and, at first, that was what I did. I walked from her office with a hug and a promise to keep in touch when she returned.”
I stepped back from Galatea and stared longingly at the stars. “That was where it was supposed to end. I was driving home uncertain about what the next few weeks would bring. Was I doing the right thing? What if she found someone else? Did I just lose my chance due to logical cowardice? A man bombarded with such absurd questions has two choices: confront them or let them fester until he is driven mad. I chose to confront them; I am mad enough. So I turned the car around and sped back to her office.
“The walk through the parking lot after I arrived was the longest walk I have ever experienced. My mind was muddled with more questions: Would I end the spectacular friendship I had built with this woman? Would I be laughed at and left with nothing but my pride? Could my heart take that embarrassment? I wanted to turn tail and run back to my car. Instead, I kept going, because I trusted Sara. I knew that she would not shut me out because I expressed a different feeling toward her. I want to say that at the time I believed I couldn’t fail, but that would be a lie. I knew I was probably taking a long walk that would end with the dissolution of another fantasy. I wanted to be free of this madness, so I had to act, regardless of the consequences.”
Galatea smiled and whispered, “You are braver than you think.”
I found the strength to chuckle weakly through my streaming tears. “I finally got to her door. It was closed so I would have to knock, but I lost the will to act. I stared down the hall at the exit leading to the parking lot and my car, my sanctuary, my way out. The exit felt so mockingly far away, but I still could run out before Sara would have known that I had returned that night. My hand defied my fears and rapped on the door. My madness subsided. When the door opened and Sara saw me, I had to follow through.”
Galatea stared me, her predatory focus was completely on me. It was a bit unnerving.
“I had thought about all things I could say to her. I rehearsed tired, romantic lines in front of a mirror for weeks in normal, idiotic fashion. No amount of rehearsing prepares a coward for these moments. I could have said anything when I sat down in her office and found my courage, but I only asked her if I could see her as something more than a friend when she came back in January.”
Galatea nodded and smiled. “It’s straight and to the point. There would be little reason for her to get angry with you. I see nothing wrong with it.”
I grabbed Galatea’s shoulders and stared into her sparkling eyes. “That’s my point! It was safe! I was already steering toward the rocks; I said the most inoffensive and safest words I could throw together. I had torpedoed my desire in a heartbeat! I didn’t believe what I had convinced my heart of for the past year. I know better. The love I feel for Sara is real.”
Weakness burned through my legs; I limped to the railing and leaned on it. I was staring down at the murky green water. Tears flowed as I surrendered to the real reason I was here, the real reason my soul felt broken. “I failed my heart, Galatea.”
Galatea touched my chin and gently directed my head so I would face her. Her eyes did nothing to ease my quivering heart. “How did you fail your heart?”
©2016 C.J. Staryk. All rights reserved.