One night, I stood in front of the mirror, as usual, naked, and oiled my hair with a viscous goo, a product of Alaska, “Walrus Oil,” it said, no particular color, a natural remedy, Ketchikan organic. Something to encourage my hair, bring on new things, new looks. And then I lay back, showered and cool, on crisp sheets, felt summer breath coming through the screens on both sides of the room. The sound of waves, the rhythmic slosh.
I never expected results. But a cry full of longing rose up from the cove, a toothy contralto, perhaps the walrus cow we’d heard about. How very unlikely.
My own Clarissa, I should tell you, fell into the sea, two Junes back, while rounding the the nun you can see from here. An accident, a luffing, in irons, the massive red buoy rising too close. And so I–confused by memory–dismissed outright this song I heard. I lay on my bed, lingered on the edge of boyhood, adolescence, and love–remembering Clarissa’s warm skin, her fears.
I heard the gravelly crawling, the sigh of elms, the house’s creaking, an opossum’s rustle. Aunt’s cat’s sat apart, staring at shadows. The moon slipped around the house–and came in the windows on the side away from the sea. I sat up, swiveled, my feet sought their slippers. I saw her, huddled directly ahead, weighing down the floor, blotting out the shelves of molding Miss Marples, Dickens, and Rip Van Winkle.
What can I tell you? How much I pitied her, not my aunt, but my visitor, her big eyes–one turned sideways, spyglassing me, calling on me to explain my hair, the cruel trick of oils, the impersonation of friends she had known, worlds foreign and, for me, impossible.
I thought about checking the tube for ingredients. Was there something in it, something written I had not considered? We sat that way for a time, waiting for the moon to move away–on to the elms, the tennis court, the cove where the boats lay slapping–the recovered Herreshoff sloop that had dropped Clarissa off at her watery grave, then come home.
I felt I owed my visitor some explanation, sitting upright, my hands on my knees, she with one flipper touching Agatha Christie–her tail, the porcelain toilet in the next little room..
“Do you have some kind of message for me?” I asked. “Is there something I should know?”
I expected her to disappear, as all apparitions do, fade into shadows, join recognized shapes– yesterday’s clothes on a wicker chair, rumpled blankets and a mahagony chest. An image mirrored.
She shifted and sniffled, a sinus of seals. I smelled seaweed and fish–some squid. Crab sand, pebbles, and eels. Rotting mud. Low tide. And most curious of all–the hardest to tell–the fragrance of sunlight and air, blond fuzz on the neck–the wry twist of her mouth. Her old friendly mocking, in water, tennis court, dance floor, and bed.
I hesitated–something twitching internally.
“Clarissa?” I asked, softly, fearing her voice, and what a question might bring.
“Clarissa?” I repeated.
But there was only more sighing–the volume up. A shadowy, flippery, uneasy hulk, one eye cocked, indicating clearly: Watch what you say–and think. And for god’s sake, stop globbing your hair with stuff that disturbs our sleep. Leave walrus fat for walruses, find some other goo for yourself.
I started to protest, but something pressed me down against my bed. Complying, on my back, I folded my hands behind my head, and resolved–once more–to leave in peace those who’ve lost their reflection. The Beloved Dead.
In the morning, she was gone. A salt stain remained, from bowl to bed, in the air, the scent of kelp, fiddler crab–the barest hint of maritime excrement.
I rose and showered, threw away the tube. Since then, I have gone dry, tousled, feathered, and fluffed. I have a girlfriend. I am kind. I say I love you. We read together. Study French.
I am careful. I do not sleep naked in moonlight, on sheets pulled tight. Nor slick my thinning hair. Nor yearn for things I cannot have. And never glance for long toward the bathroom door, in that windowed room, above the sea. And never think of her–my Clarissa. As you can plainly see.