Audio: Author Elizabeth Stix reads.
by Elizabeth Stix
Elaine Panopolis was woefully inadequate. This was documented fact. In college, a professor had written it in red capital letters across the top of her final paper: WOEFULLY INADEQUATE. In the coloring of years it had amplified and now Elaine took it to apply to her whole life. In fact, the professor had written, “Your footnotes are woefully inadequate” in simple black ink at the end, but what did that matter now?
She would like to say she used to be strong and had only been thrown off-kilter recently, but that would not be true. Elaine had never been strong. She had never felt indestructible, never stood atop a sand dune and shouted down the waves. She had never loved Andrew Bang; she never even liked him. Their first kiss, on a street corner after three rounds of beer: the cool night breeze, on her tiptoes in his arms. Elaine thought, “This is what it feels like to kiss a rubber mannequin.” She had been taking CPR classes, touching her lips to the Resusci Annie doll, pressing down against the dead girl’s mouth and giving her a second chance at life, only to watch her die again. That was what kissing Andrew had felt like. Like pressing against death, staving it off for a while. Andrew had laughed, then belched, and death wafted over her. She knew then that Andrew had her: that he was the only one who would ever want her, that she would never have the strength to leave.
Andrew spared her the pain of having to face that test though, because after four fraught years of dating, Andrew finally left her.
Since the breakup, Elaine had rented a room eight blocks from her old place on California Street, sharing a house with a middle-aged painter named Dorothy who made giant canvases with deep splotches of color that hung in every room. The whole place reeked of cat urine, or just somehow of cat, even though there was only one cat in the house, one sole survivor left after four became three and then two and then one. The cat, named Shrapnel, was a bony twenty-two-year-old tortoiseshell, and every time Elaine stroked its skull she felt as if she was telling it her last quiet goodbyes.
Dorothy, who went by Doro, was tall and didn’t have an inside voice and had red hair she kept off her face with colorful scarves. She had inherited the house from her grandmother and, with no mortgage to pay, supported herself by taking in roommates and occasionally selling a painting. Her second week there, Elaine had found a man sitting at the kitchen table who looked embarrassed when she pulled open the sliding glass door and discovered him eating a grilled cheese sandwich. Doro was scrubbing the sink with a Brillo pad and talking to the man with her back to Elaine. “It’s the cost of doing business. The price we pay. No one wants to live in a Communist country,” Doro said, elbows jabbing outward as she scrubbed the porcelain. The man was pale and lanky, with curly auburn chest hairs peeking out of a crumply button-down shirt. He smiled at Elaine apologetically and she slipped past him and into her room. It turned out this was Doro’s married boyfriend, Franz, who came by some afternoons, and Elaine would hear Doro scream and weep at him sometimes in her bedroom with the door closed.
One hot July day three months in, Elaine opened the back door to let the cat out and found Doro sitting in the yard after one of these tearful arguments. Franz had gone home, Elaine imagined, wherever that might be. Doro held a glass of iced tea in her hand and stared ahead at the chain-link fence that demarcated their patch of asphalt and spotty grass. A plate with crumbs from her breakfast sat on the ground beside her. Shrapnel picked his way through the weeds and sniffed at dandelions, first making his way toward Doro and then, changing his mind, curling up where he was.
Elaine found herself walking toward Doro as well. She stood for a moment behind her, feeling a flash of panic at having wandered this far into the yard without a reason and finding it too late to turn back. Doro looked up.
“Fucking sunshine,” she said. Her fair skin shone with sweat. “I’m too Irish for this shit.”
“Want me to get you a hat?” Elaine offered.
Doro faced forward again. “You’re sweet.” She said it with a flatness that confused Elaine. She didn’t know if it was a description or an acceptance of the offer.
“Pull up a chair,” Doro said.
Elaine walked to the paved area under the deck and dragged out a low folding chair with a canvas seat. She plopped down in it next to Doro, the tall grass scratching the undersides of her knees.
“Got any big plans for the weekend?” asked Doro. She sipped her iced tea.
“I haven’t thought about it yet.” It was nearly one o’clock on a Saturday. “I have laundry. I should probably give my mom a call.”
“You’re a good daughter. I should have known,” said Doro. “We could go to the beach. Want to go to the beach?”
Elaine had never socialized with Doro before. Elaine had not socialized with anyone, in fact, for months. She hadn’t even realized she didn’t have friends anymore until Andrew ended it and she didn’t know whom to call. She would make new friends when she was ready. Perhaps she would be friends with Doro.
“That sounds fun,” Elaine said, in a tone that seemed appropriate for the occasion.
“Yeah?” said Doro. She turned and looked more animated. “Yeah, let’s do it. Cool. Let’s get our suits on.”
Doro stood up and walked toward the house. Shrapnel stayed curled in the grass but followed her with his gaze. Doro paused at the door. “Can you drive?” she said. “My car needs oil.”
Elaine’s car needed gas. But yes. The beach with Doro. Yes. Elaine would drive.
. . .
She rooted around in her dresser and couldn’t find her bathing suit. She had packed up sloppily and shoved things haphazardly into the new place. All the drawers were emptied out onto the bed when Doro poked her head in, wearing a turquoise 1950s-style one-piece with thick straps over her shoulders and a floppy bow between her breasts. She wore large starlet sunglasses and a straw hat and had put on bright red lipstick. A sarong was tied around her waist. Elaine felt caught when she saw her, as if she’d been rifling through Doro’s dresser instead of her own.
“You moving out?” said Doro, surveying the clothes spilled everywhere.
“I’m just looking for my bathing suit,” said Elaine. Strangely, she was trembling. She picked up a sweatshirt to distract from her shaky hands. “I know I have one. I just don’t know where I put it.”
“Borrow mine,” said Doro. “It’s a two-piece. It’ll fit you. It has a bandeau top.”
She was gone before Elaine could answer. Doro came back with a red bikini with beaded tassels hanging off it and at just that moment Elaine spotted her black one-piece mixed in with her bras and underwear. She grabbed it and held it up. “I found it! No worries!”
Doro shrugged and walked down the hallway. Elaine squeezed into the bathing suit, remembering how unflattering it had been even when it was new, and now the elastic was shot and it offered no support anywhere. It actually cupped into a little gap right at the crotch when she sat down, but she didn’t have it in her to wear Doro’s bikini. She pulled shorts on and flip-flops and rubbed sticky sunscreen onto her face. Her stomach growled and she wished she’d eaten breakfast.
She presented herself to Doro in the living room. “I’m ready!”
Doro looked her up and down and smiled. “Cool beans,” she said. “Allons-y.”
. . .
They turned onto Fulton and went down the Avenues. Sometimes the fog rolled in the higher the numbers went, but not today. Doro sat comfortably slumped with her legs crossed wide and her foot resting on the glove compartment. Around 38th Avenue, she sat up straight and looked around.
“Slow down,” she said.
“Why?” asked Elaine, letting her foot off the gas.
“Slow down. Pull over. On the corner.”
Elaine turned on her signal and saw Franz at the same time. He was there, smiling, lifting his hand in an awkward half-wave. He wore long shorts and another of his crumpled button-down shirts, flip-flops, and some kind of fishing hat. He carried a large canvas bag. Elaine pulled up alongside him.
“Ladies!” he said, sliding into the back seat. He reached forward and patted Doro on the shoulder. “You’re going to get burned today, dear.”
“I better not,” she said warningly.
“Hi Elaine,” he said pleasantly.
“Hi Franz.” She didn’t know where he had come from or how long he had been standing there, but she had an idea why she hadn’t picked him up at his house. No one spoke for several blocks.
Doro broke the silence. She drew her words out long and hard. “How’s Shir-ley?”
“Shirley’s getting by,” he answered. There was a quiet chastising in his tone.
Elaine saw the peaks of the windmill by the beach up ahead.
“Franz is afraid to leave his wife,” Doro said, turning her head to Elaine and explaining, as if complicitly.
“I have left my wife, Doro. Be fair.”
“Franz is afraid to leave his wife because she can’t live by herself, because she doesn’t know how, because she’s very frail and needs him very much,” said Doro.
Elaine made a smile. “I see.”
“Doro likes to exaggerate,” Franz said warmly, giving her shoulder another squeeze.
“Doro doesn’t like to get dicked around,” Doro answered.
“Okay,” Franz acquiesced, leaning back.
“I see water!” said Elaine, and she crossed the Great Highway and pulled into the parking lot.
. . .
They picked their way over a reedy dune and plodded down the sand. Clusters of people dotted the beach, walking dogs, sitting in low folding chairs, or standing over children who squatted at the water’s edge. A couple of elderly women stood at the shoreline looking out and talking to each other, and a trio of gangly teenage boys played hacky sack. Doro spread a thin cotton blanket and the three of them sat down and began peeling off shoes and shirts.
“Come,” said Franz kindly to Doro, who shuffled over to him. He rubbed white sunscreen onto her back and shoulders. When he finished, he turned to Elaine. “You too,” he said.
Elaine glanced at Doro but she was eating a banana and looking at the horizon.
“Come on,” Franz repeated. He already had lotion squirted in his palm.
Elaine walked over, sat with her back to him and lowered her head. “Thanks,” she said. Franz spread lotion generously onto her back. He rubbed it on the sides of her neck and down her arms. He ran his warm palms across her back to the curves of her waist, where his fingertips met the edges of her swimsuit. Elaine kept her head down until he was done. “You’re good,” he said, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “Can you do me?”
He shifted his back to her. Elaine looked to Doro. Doro bit into her banana and raised her eyebrows at Elaine. “Have at it,” she said.
Elaine squirted sunscreen onto her palms and moved her hands along Franz’s back. It was rough with acne scars and dotted with moles. It was strong and muscular.
“Okay,” she said when she had finished. “Did you bring anything to eat?”
“Have anything you like,” he answered.
She reached into his bag. Two small, homegrown-looking apples. A container of Nutella.
“Are there any more bananas?” she asked.
“Sorry,” said Doro. “Last one.”
Elaine’s stomach tingled with hunger.
. . .
It was a lovely day for the beach. The waves sparkled and frothed and changed color with the currents from green to blue to deep black. Further down the shore, big black rocks sat like sleeping giants in the daylight. Nearby signs warned of rip currents and dangerous surf. It wasn’t much of a swimming beach and the water was numbingly cold, but Elaine could see windsurfers in wetsuits riding crests in the distance and men with their pants cuffs rolled up standing knee-deep in the water.
She lay facedown on the blanket. Franz was talking about a life coaching conference he had just come back from, five days of sitting cross-legged and crafting personal mission statements and learning to be your best self. Doro had gone through the program two years before and had been trying to get Elaine to go as well. It cost four thousand dollars.
Franz was describing an exercise from the workshop that involved sitting in a circle with a dozen people who had just been pretend-shipwrecked. They crowded on an imaginary life raft that accommodated ten people and had to convince the group why they should be allowed to stay on board. At the end, the group took a vote and two people were pretend-thrown to sea.
“I said I am a patient man and I see all sides of a problem. This is a valuable skill because one needs patience and perspective in threatening times,” said Franz.
“How is that empowering?” Elaine asked. “Choosing which people die, that sounds terrible to me.”
“No, dear,” said Franz, “you’re looking at it the wrong way. Of course every creature deserves to live. What would you say if you had to, though? You must know the answer to this question. It’s transformative to articulate your value.”
“I don’t know,” said Elaine. She twirled a fraying strand on the blanket. “I don’t think so. Everybody has the same right to live. No human being has less value than another.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Doro, sitting on the other side of her. “A mass rapist should live just as much as you should? What if it was you and Hitler? Would you jump off the raft so Hitler could survive?”
“Okay, no,” said Elaine. “Not if the person were going to kill thousands of people or rape them. Or kill one person. Without a good reason.”
“So you’re saying you would do it if it would save another person’s life but not your own, then,” said Franz. “You’re still not answering the question.”
“I recognize I have value,” said Elaine. “I’m not saying I don’t. I’m just saying…”
She didn’t want to explain this. She didn’t need to be the kind of person who would throw someone overboard. She didn’t want to judge Doro and Franz, but she was appalled that this choice came so easily to them.
“You should do the program,” Franz said. “I think you’d find it enlightening.”
Doro let out a snort.
It was too soon for Elaine to make new friends, she realized. She didn’t have her footing.
Elaine closed her eyes and let the sounds of the beach wash over her. Doro and Franz continued talking in quiet tones, and the cries of the boys playing hacky sack mingled with the calls of gulls overhead. Elaine squeezed sand in her hands and let the sun warm her. She wondered how late in the afternoon it was and what time it had been when they left. She still had to do her laundry.
Franz rummaged in his canvas bag. “You’re getting pink,” he said—to Doro, Elaine assumed. But then his hands were on her, smoothing hot lotion up her calves and thighs. She turned in surprise.
“I’m okay,” she said.
Franz left his hand on her calf. “Don’t be foolish, Elaine.”
Elaine wasn’t sure what to do.
“Yes, don’t be foolish, Elaine,” Doro echoed.
Elaine twisted to look at Doro, who stared at her from behind big sunglasses. “I’m not worried about it, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Doro said. “Franz knows if he ever cheated on me I’d cut off his balls.”
Elaine turned back to Franz. “I’m okay. Thanks, though.” She rested her face back down on her arms and shut her eyes. God, these two.
Franz didn’t answer. He ran his hands up and down Elaine’s legs anyway, along the backs of her thighs, all the way to the bottom of her bathing suit. He pressed along the edge of the seam. He traced his fingertips back and forth along her thigh.
Doro didn’t say a word. She stood up and walked into the ocean.
Elaine felt Doro’s absence in the air around her, but her mind had gone to static. It had been so long since any man had touched her, she had forgotten what it felt like. It was bad, and it was soft, and it was good, and she didn’t want him to stop. Something inside her had gone into override.
Franz massaged Elaine’s legs. He pressed his knuckles into the soles of her feet and tugged at each of her toes. He leaned forward and pressed into her shoulders and she felt the huff of his breath behind her, sensed the heft of his weight above her. He stretched her neck long. He slid his hand under her suit at her crotch and at the same time that Elaine opened her eyes, he pressed his finger deep between her legs.
“Hey!” she said. She torqued herself up, but he blocked her in the sand. “Get off!” she barked, and pushed her hand against his chest.
He released her. She scuttled across the blanket. Franz still smiled at her warmly, as if she was sweet and a bit silly and had just been shown a scary spider.
“We’ll teach you some lessons this summer, dear,” he said. “By the end of August you’ll not remember the girl you once were.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Elaine scrabbled around the blanket, gathering her clothes and belongings.
Franz looked disappointed. “I’m sorry if I upset you,” he said, pouting. “You never said no to anything. You can’t say that you ever told me no.”
Elaine’s hands shook as she shoved aside towels and banana peels, searching for her car keys. She stood up and saw Doro standing knee-deep in the water, her back to the horizon, staring up at them. Doro held her hand over her eyes, shading them from the sun. Elaine stared back. Out of nowhere, a sneaker wave rose up behind Doro and slowly pushed her off her feet. She stumbled and fell facedown. Then Doro was gone.
Everything else was the same. The wave lapped the shore and recessed, smoothing back onto the ocean’s surface. Elaine gaped at the spot where Doro had been standing. She squinted and waited and tried to make sense of…just, anything.
“Did you see that?” she asked Franz.
“See what?” He sat on the blanket looking up at her.
“Doro. She fell into the water. You didn’t see that?”
Franz looked at the sea.
“I don’t see her. Where are you looking?”
Nothing. Then all at once Doro’s hands jutted out of the water an impossible distance from where she had fallen in.
“There! There!” Elaine shouted.
“Doro!” Franz called out. He stood up and ran to the water’s edge. Elaine followed in a numb half-jog. “Doro!” he called again.
He turned to Elaine. “I can’t swim,” he said, stricken. “I can’t swim.”
Franz stood there like a jackass, arms hanging uselessly at his sides.
Then he roared. “I can’t swim!”
Elaine found her legs splashing into the water, clumsy as logs. Her arms flailed and the shallow sea floor went on forever. Finally she flung herself belly first into the waves and swam out toward Doro. The water was freezing. She knew it would be, yet it stunned her anyway. Salt water blurred her eyes and flowed into her nose and mouth. Her chest felt thin, her heart huge and pounding. She heaved for air in shallow gulps as she slapped forward in the water. The current was in her favor.
Doro’s face was contorted with horror when Elaine finally reached her. Her hair was soaked and her sunglasses were gone. Her eyes were wild with fear and she gasped for air in a panic. She grabbed Elaine’s arm and pulled her down. They both submerged. Elaine yanked free and Doro grabbed her again.
“No!” yelled Elaine. Doro fought the ocean desperately. She grasped Elaine’s shoulder and again pulled her under. Cold water rushed up Elaine’s nose as they grappled. Doro’s hands clawed at her and salt water choked her throat. Finally, Elaine broke the surface. “Get off me!” she screamed, and with her palm she pushed Doro’s head underwater. She held it there until Doro let her go.
Elaine wrapped her arm around Doro’s chest and side-kicked back toward shore, gulping and gasping as they went. Doro rode stiffly on top of Elaine at first, for what seemed like minutes, and then she went limp. “Doro?” said Elaine.
Elaine’s heel hit the sand. The teenage boys were suddenly there and they lifted Doro by the arms, and another man ran into the surf and helped them carry her in. Elaine stumbled behind them and collapsed on the beach.
The boys lay Doro on her back and Franz leaned over her, shaking her by the shoulders.
“Turn her on her side,” Elaine said. She dragged herself over and checked Doro’s pulse, then rolled her over. Water spilled out of her mouth. Elaine laid her flat again, lifted her neck, closed her nostrils, and breathed steadily against Doro’s lips. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. Doro coughed and spit water into Elaine’s mouth, then began to cry. Franz moved in and knelt beside her. “My darling,” he said.
“Elaine!” Doro wailed. “Elaine!”
“I’m here,” Elaine answered. She clasped Doro’s hands in hers.
“You saved me,” Doro wept. “You saved me.” She gazed up pathetically. “The wave knocked me over. It was so cold I couldn’t catch my breath.”
“You’re all right now,” Elaine told her. Doro cried while the onlookers stared. Two of the boys filmed it on their phones.
Doro moaned and sobbed, and when her cries slowed down, Elaine extricated herself. She let Franz take her place. Wet sand matted his hair and stuck to his pasty legs. Doro curled into him, the two of them locked in a burled knot of dysfunction.
“Okay,” Elaine said to no one. Her skin was cold and tacky from the salt, and her body vibrated. It occurred to her that everybody had been wrong about her, about every single thing, for her entire life. To a person, they could all go fuck themselves. She mapped out the distance from where she was standing to her keys, from her keys to the car, from the car to the Great Highway.
Elaine began to walk. ♦
Elizabeth Stix is a Bay Area native. Her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Tin House, Alaska Quarterly Review, the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine, and Best Microfiction 2019. Her story “Alice” won the Bay Guardian Fiction Prize. She recently discovered she has 978 photos of her cat on her phone. They are all amazing.
Jack Bober is an ocean photographer from Marin who focuses on surf in the Bay Area. His work has been featured in Surfline Swell Story, Inertia, Saltwater Magazine, and Marin Magazine, and has been selected as a finalist in both the Nat Geo Student Photo Contest and the Crimson Photo Competition.