Marina is not from here, this city of lights and windswept desert. She was conceived in a beached canoe and spent the first eighteen years of her life sharing central air and eating wheat germ with her parents in their small, oblong Oregon home on the Umpqua River. From her bedroom window, Marina could see where the backyard kissed the riverbed. She liked to rest her chin on the windowsill and trace the shape of the shoreline with her finger, separating the water from the land while she listened to the clicking sounds of glasses and bottles in the kitchen where her parents were drinking.
Marina knows about the canoe. One August afternoon before Marina began third grade, she came home from swimming in the river to find her mother on the kitchen floor, struggling to breathe under the weight of her naked father. It was three in the afternoon but the brand new bottle of gin on the counter was half empty and lime rinds were scattered on the floor. Marina proceeded to her room and closed the door. She knew about boys already but, hovering in her doorway a few minutes later, her mother had felt a need to explain. Marina sat motionless in her purple painted desk chair. “Your father and I married young,” her mother said. “We loved each other very much, but we made mistakes.” Marina tried to float her mind down the river that rippled outside her window as she listened to the details of how her mother and father had both been unfaithful in their first years of marriage, how they had decided to symbolically cleanse their marriage by canoeing down the river to where the soil of Oregon dissolves into the sea, how they had promised to each other in oceanic copulation never again to become unclean, and how, just now, they had only been reminding each other of that promise. “That’s why we named you Marina,” her mother said, her eyes full of intoxicated love. “You’re our promise.”
At the spelling bee that year, Marina was almost disqualified. She wore a large black number four pinned to her red wool sweater vest. “It’s organic,” her mother had said that morning, pulling it down over Marina’s head. O-R-G-A-N-I-C. “It’s a vest,” Marina had replied. “Yes, but it’s an organic vest, Marina. It’s better for the environment.” Marina advanced quite far in the tournament, spelling “whale,” “station,” and “grasshopper” with measured intonation, and watching as her classmates disappeared one by one from the stage.
“Number Four,” said a loud voice that belonged to a man Marina could not see. “Please spell, marina.”
Marina paused. She glanced over to where Miss Finley was standing at the side of the stage, but Miss Finley’s face was turned away, bent into the cheek of a younger male teacher who was whispering something amusing to her, and she did not see Marina’s bright blue eyes flashing back and forth across the audience. Marina looked down at her wrist, at the silver bracelet that was a gift from her mother. She pressed her fingers into the engraved letters of her name and looked back up into the light that contained the judge’s voice. “M-A-R-I-N-A. Marina,” she said, and waited for something to happen.
For a long time, everything was still. The faces in the auditorium had all melted into the light, which was whitish yellow with angular black swaths cutting through it. The only sound in Marina’s ears was her own breathing, and even though the stage was hot she felt cool, cold almost, chilled where her blond hair stuck to her face and neck in sweaty ringlets. She noticed that the black Mary Jane on her left foot was pinching her two smallest toes together. The Mary Janes were not organic, but that was okay because they came from a thrift store and buying them helped homeless people stay warm in the winter. Then Bobbie Anderson’s mother, who had been sitting in the front row, stood up. Bobbie Anderson had been eliminated by the word “receive” in the previous round. Bobbie Anderson’s mother raised a pointed arm at Marina and said loudly, “That girl cheated!” The words poured like hot water over Marina’s face.
Marina saw a large tweed shape emerge from the light. It was the voice that had asked her to spell her name, and it was inspecting the offending bracelet on her wrist. Marina closed her eyes at the sound of her mother’s voice shouting indecent things. Marina felt Miss Finley take her hand and lead her behind the stage, where everything was cool and black again. From her shadowy corner, Marina could see the four judges talking. It took only a simple explanation from Miss Finley for them to excuse the misunderstanding and allow Marina to stay in the competition, but the large tweed man still sputtered that she should have been disqualified.
“Where’s your bracelet, Marina?” her mother asked later that night. “I don’t want to wear it anymore,” Marina said, glancing toward the dust ruffle that hid its location in a shoebox under her bed. Her mother stroked Marina’s blond ringlets and held Marina’s pale cheeks in her hands. “Why don’t you like your name, Marina?” her mother cooed. “It’s the perfect name for my beautiful little mermaid.” Marina looked down at her bare feet and spread her toes. They looked a little webbed. “I am not a mermaid,” Marina said, and her mother laughed and kissed her head before returning to the kitchen where her gin and tonic was waiting.
Marina sat at her desk with twenty-four crayons spread before her, ordered from reddest to purplest like the rainbow. Bent over her Disney coloring book, she applied a teal crayon to the blank space inside the outline of Jasmine’s halter top, pressing hard to get the best color but being careful to stay in the lines. It wasn’t Aladdin or Jasmine but the colors of the desert that interested Marina. Marina understood that Oregon was beautiful; her father took her hiking during the summertime because he said it was important for her to appreciate nature. Their hikes usually culminated with the cresting of a particular steep hilltop. Then her father would pluck two of whatever wildflower was growing nearby and reward her burning legs and heaving lungs by squatting down so she could look into his eyes, and he would put one flower in her hair and the other in her hand. Sometimes he would start to say something about loving his beautiful daughter, but when the words wouldn’t come he would stand back up and throw open his arms and say, “Isn’t Oregon beautiful?” Marina liked the blue of the river and the green of the trees, but she was mesmerized by the reds and golden browns and rich dark purples of Jasmine’s desert. She liked the smell of the ocean that floated in and out of their house and the cool mildness it brought, but she dreamed about a heat like blankets of fire and rolling sand dunes that touched a starlit sky.
Marina was filling in the waxy obsidian of Jasmine’s hair when she heard the phone ring in the kitchen. She got up to answer it, but her mother was already there, laughing softly to the caller on other end of the line. “It’s your father,” her mother said, noticing Marina. He had left the day before for a conference. He had given Marina a hug with the arm that wasn’t holding his bag and said he was sorry to miss her spelling bee, but that he knew she’d do just fine. “Can I talk to him?” Marina asked. “No, Mommy needs to talk to Daddy right now,” she said, then turned away from Marina and carried the phone into another room. Marina stood in the kitchen listening, and though she couldn’t make out the words she knew from the sound of her mother’s voice that it wasn’t her father on the phone. Marina went back to her room and returned to her coloring book. Jasmine wasn’t quite finished, but Marina didn’t feel like coloring her anymore. She turned to a picture of Aladdin sliding down an awning with a stolen loaf of bread in his hand. Aladdin had a lot of problems, Marina could concede, but she loved him for never loving anyone but Jasmine. Marina reordered her crayons from purplest to reddest and tried not to hear her mother’s laughter echoing down the hall.
Marina started spending less time inside. She played by the river with whichever neighborhood kids were around and stayed for dinner with those of her school friends that were within walking distance. She had a few friends at school who didn’t ride the bus because their mothers picked them up. Marina started missing the bus, hoping her solitary figure on the curb would prove intolerable to these vigilant mothers. They would wave her over and invite her to come home with them for a while. Marina was always very polite to adults, and was well liked by everyone in her grade except Andrew, a lean, dark-haired boy with untied shoes who was only mean to Marina because he had a crush on her. When she could not avoid being home, Marina spent her time outside until it got dark enough that her mother emerged from the house to smoke her evening joint. “Goodness, Marina!” her mother exclaimed, startled to find Marina still patrolling the backyard. “What are you doing out here?”
“Playing,” Marina replied.
“Oh.” Her mother shifted the joint from one hand to the other. “Marina,” she said with a guilty smile, “let’s not tell Daddy about Mommy’s cigarette, okay?”
“Okay,” Marina said. She smiled up at her mother.
“What a sweet little thing,” her mother said, walking over to Marina and kneeling down to hug her. “My sweet little mermaid,” she murmured into Marina’s neck, filling Marina’s nostrils with the smell of the burning joint. Marina squinted her eyes against the smoke and held her breath while her mother caressed her, and when she needed to breathe again she buried her face in her mother’s chest, sucking in what air she could through the filter of her mother’s sweater.
An old wood-plank shed sat behind the garage, taking up a small corner of the backyard. Marina made a mental inventory of all the things inside it, and decided to claim the shed as her own. Among other things, the shed contained an unopened toolbox that had been a wedding present from someone unacquainted with her father’s disinterest in it, stacks of undistributed pamphlets on eating vegan, lots of buttons with big blue donkeys on them, some broken pieces of mismatched furniture, and a camping tent. Crammed into a corner was a faded red canoe that looked like it would probably still float.
Marina threw herself into cleaning up and rearranging the shed to make it a somewhat livable space. A lot of the things in the shed were too heavy or awkward for her to move around, so she had to be creative with her floor plans. She stole things from the house—blankets, picture frames, paints from her mother’s art supplies—to decorate the shed. She stopped standing on the curb after the buses had gone, and worked on the shed every day, from the moment she got off the bus until the sky had reclaimed its light. She unearthed a kerosene lamp that still worked, and then was able to work through the evenings, too. When it was cold, she was careful to bundle up and step inside now and then to stay warm.
The most difficult object to incorporate into the space was the canoe. Marina wasn’t sure the canoe would fit longways in the shed, but she wanted to try; she couldn’t just leave it perched in the corner, looming over her like it was about to topple down and crush her. She moved everything against the far wall of the shed to make a space for it to fall. Marina dragged the toolbox over to the canoe and stood on it for leverage. She ran her hands along the length of the canoe, feeling for where it would have the most give, and pushed with all of her weight, barely catching herself from falling forward with it. The canoe crashed into the front wall of the shed, leaving a gash and throwing open the door. It wouldn’t lay quite flat with the door closed, but if Marina left it open the nose of the canoe poked out only a few inches.
At school, Marina became withdrawn. She no longer raised her hand in class or dangled from the monkey bars at recess, which frustrated Andrew because he liked making fun of her for not being able to swing all the way across them like he could. Instead she sat on the basketball court, soaking up the heat from the sun through her blue jeans and drawing pictures in a notebook to hang in her shed. Sometimes Andrew would come by to throw a basketball at her or tell her she was too chicken for the jungle gym, but this time he just sat down next to her.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“That’s stupid,” he said.
“It’s for my place,” she said, and told him about her shed and all the things in it and how she’d been working on it for a long time now but it was almost finished.
“So it’s like a fort,” Andrew said.
“Yeah.” Marina closed her notebook. She had been thinking that if she ever wanted to move the canoe again she would need help. She was used to Andrew’s teasing, and decided not to care what he’d think of her parents. “Do you want to see it?”
The next day Andrew went home with Marina after school. Marina was surprised he agreed to come, and even more surprised that he let her sit by the window on the bus. When they got to Marina’s stop, she took his hand and they started running toward the shed. There was barely enough room inside for both of them to stand among all the clutter. Marina climbed into the canoe and motioned for Andrew to follow her. She gave him a moment to take in all the reds and purples and deep golden browns.
“Should we make a promise?” she asked.
“Okay,” Andrew said. Marina leaned forward and put her lips on his. Andrew stayed very still, and she could hear him breathing. She tried to lick his tongue like she’d seen her parents do and knocked her teeth against his. She sat back, and Andrew’s eyes were wide and staring at her.
“Let’s not finish with the promise,” Marina said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
Marina adjusted her hair like actresses do after kissing in the movies, and pointed out the door. “Do you want to go play by the river?”
A while later, Marina heard her mother yelling her name. Marina and Andrew were covered in mud when they came back up to the house. Andrew’s mother looked appalled, but Marina’s mother just laughed and opened her arms, spilling some wine out of her glass as Marina returned the embrace.
The next day at school, Andrew came to sit by Marina on the basketball court again. “Your mom is weird,” he said.
Marina kept her eyes focused on the tip of her pencil as she moved it back and forth across her notepad. “Your mom seemed nice.”
“My mom is normal.”
“My mom says normal people are fastest pigs, and if I ever become one she won’t love me anymore.”
“What do you mean, ‘fastest pig’?”
“I’m not really sure, but sometimes my dad’s the fastest.”
Andrew watched Marina draw a magic lamp. “I really liked your fort,” he said, and Marina looked up and smiled.
Andrew became a regular after-school visitor to Marina’s fort. Once while they were sitting in the canoe painting big swaths of purple on the wall, Andrew stopped to pull something out of his backpack. It was a piece of white construction paper with the letters of her name written on it in aqua blue crayon and bordered by big globs of hardened glue, coated with sand and pieces of broken seashells. He handed it to Marina. She held it out in front of her and didn’t say anything.
“It’s for your fort,” he offered.
Marina stared at it. M-A-R-N-I-A. Her face flushed. “This is a desert fort,” she said.
“I know, but I thought, since your name—”
“That’s not my name. You spelled it wrong.”
Andrew turned red and stood up, spilling purple paint all over the bottom of the canoe as he grabbed the sign from Marina’s hand. He ripped it to pieces and ran out of the shed. Marina sat in the canoe by herself and waited until she heard his mother’s car drive up, then she watched through the crack in the door as he got into the car without looking back at her. When she couldn’t hear the car anymore, Marina knelt down and picked up each of the pieces. She tucked them under her shirt and went into the house. In her room with the door closed, she laid out the pieces on her desk, and as she taped them back together she cried silent, open-mouthed tears. She pulled the shoebox out from under her bed and put the reconstructed gift from Andrew inside.
Marina avoided noticing that Andrew had fallen in love with her. Sometimes in the canoe he sat close enough to her that their bodies touched, and if she leaned against him he would become very still. Once Marina pretended to fall asleep while reading a National Geographic article about the Sahara Desert. She let her arms go limp so that the magazine fell into her lap and allowed the full weight of her head and upper body to press against his chest. After a few minutes, Andrew reached a hesitant arm around her shoulder and began to stroke her hair. He held her other hand in his and drew pictures on her palm with his fingertips. Marina was careful to keep her breathing steady and deep, and when she was sure she didn’t love him too she shifted and yawned. Andrew dropped his arms to his sides and Marina felt his chest stiffen. She sat up and apologized for falling asleep, pretending not to see the guilt in his eyes.
As they grew up, Marina chose to perceive Andrew’s loyalty and abstract affection as the dedicated impulses of a friend. In middle school, they sat together in the canoe and did homework, or read books by the river. They started spending time at Andrew’s house, watching movies on his big screen TV or playing basketball. Sometimes Andrew’s mother would leave them alone in the house to go grocery shopping, and Marina would pull the throw rug from the couch and drape it over them and tell Andrew stories about her parents. Sometimes she would cry and rest her head against his chest, which smelled like playgrounds and bar soap. In high school, Andrew invited her to his football games and took her to the movies with his friends. He encouraged her to take art classes and made fun of her for making straight-As. When Andrew got his appendix out, Marina sat with him in the hospital and made little creatures out of his Jell-O. When they turned sixteen and got drivers’ licenses, they strapped the purple-stained canoe to Andrew’s car and drove to the ocean, where they paddled up and down the coast taking pictures for Marina’s photography class or collecting seashells and tiny bits of sea glass wherever they stopped. When Marina’s father announced her senior year that he was leaving to marry his mistress, Andrew sat with her in the school parking lot and told blond jokes until she was red in the face and couldn’t breathe.
Marina worked on her college applications in the shed. She could have used the new computer in her bedroom, an apologetic gift from her father, but Marina preferred to draft all the essays by hand in the filtered afternoon sunlight and the previous day’s musty air. A few years before, to cover the purple paint stain that she and Andrew had never spoken of, she’d filled the canoe with blankets and pillows and had taken to napping there from time to time. She was propped up against a red velour pillow Andrew had spotted on one of their thrift store raids, and was trying to answer the question “Why Nevada?” when she heard the back door to the house open and slam shut. “Marina, are you out here?” her mother called, a faint slur in her voice. Marina tucked her essay under the pillow and stepped out of the shed to meet her mother’s curious eyes. “Marina, your father’s on the phone.” Her mother paused outside the shed, the red nose of the canoe seeming to catch her eye for the first time. “Always the damn shed. What are you doing in there?”
“Reading. What does Dad want?”
“Oh, baby, I don’t know,” her mother said, and pushed past Marina to go inside the shed. Marina started toward the house, but stopped. She listened to her mother’s weight shift between each measured footstep that creaked on the planked floor of the shed. Marina could hear her mother picking things up and putting them down in the wrong places and felt invaded and exposed. She was curious, too, and lingered to know her mother’s response to the more artistic and mature desert murals she and Andrew had recently painted on the walls. Marina walked back to the shed and held open the door to see her mother standing inside, thumbing through the now yellowed and weathered stack of vegan pamphlets. “I was wondering what happened to these,” she said absently. “This one has such a great recipe.”
Marina let the door fall shut. She strode quickly into the house and picked up the phone, but she had waited too long and there was only a dial tone.
When Marina’s admissions material arrived from Nevada, she waited to open it until Andrew came over, and as they huddled in the canoe, Andrew read Marina’s acceptance letter aloud and with dramatic flourish. “Congratulations,” he said, understanding that the domed sky of Nevada held all the colors Marina believed she was missing. Andrew folded the acceptance letter, put it back into its envelope, and handed it to Marina. His smile was sadder than he meant it to be, and Marina took his hand.
“I’m joining the Air Force,” Andrew said.
“I know,” Marina sighed.
“Your mother told me.”
“Oh,’ Andrew said. They sat together in the canoe while the sky darkened.
Marina went to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and majored in anthropology. She saw Andrew less than she had imagined she would, given her proximity to Nellis Air Force Base just outside the city. Andrew relocated often as he worked his way up the ranks, but whenever he passed through he made sure to see her. Now Marina has lived in Las Vegas for six years, and this desert has yet to keep its promises to her. The rich red hues of fire and love, of blood spilt in the name of honor and red courtesan’s lips are instead cheaply sequined show gowns, every other playing card, and towering restaurant signs. The magic here isn’t of swirling genies and flying carpets, it’s just flashy spectacle with strings attached. The lights of these city nights don’t burn like the stalwart promise of a thousand and one adventures, they are manic and hollowly neon. During the day, Marina looks for faces in the ridged red sediment outcroppings of rock, but finds only broken lines and chips of dust and pebble that once formed a single stone, tall and brave. The bright night sky that hovers over dark stretches of highway just outside the city limits is the closest thing to real, where the grand purple swaths of dying light collide with the silhouetted mountains and fade into radiant black. But even out here, with her back to the city and her face to the heavens, the arid desert sky seems empty.
Marina spent her first Christmas alone listening to the radio. She had developed a liking for country music, for the low and throaty voices of heartsick men who told her she was cherished and beautiful and the only one they all would die for. In the middle of the night, Andrew called from Guam, where he was learning to fly cargo planes across the ocean, and he sang her Christmas carols and told her the world was too small for her to feel so alone.
Marina works as a docent at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, where she has made a few friends and has taken to sleeping with the research assistants. They are gentle and hold her with awkward arms, and always ask, “Marina, where are you going?” when she puts her clothes back on in the dark and tiptoes out of their apartments, away from the promises she doesn’t believe they can keep. While she drives home, a comforting voice on the radio tells her that he loves her more than his twanging guitar, that if she would just come back home he would hold her forever and never let her go.
Marina comes home to her apartment one day with a box full of paints, a clear cerulean blue like the sky when it’s reflected in the flow of the Umpqua River, and three different shades of green for the pines, oaks, and cottonwoods of Oregon. She empties a closet of its contents and begins painting nothing in particular, just watching the bright colors swirl and dance on the dented ivory drywall. The single light bulb that dangles overhead casts a strange yellow glow as she decorates the closet with the blue and green throw pillows she has been subconsciously collecting and storing on an unused loveseat. Inside the closet, she hangs a framed picture of Andrew in his Air Force uniform and the postcards he sends her from places she has never been. In a corner of this closet Marina keeps a small shoebox, old and reinforced with crosshatched layers of masking tape. Sometimes late at night in the winter when the desert is glazed with frost, Marina unplugs the phone and crawls into this closet with a glass and a bottle of wine and shuts the door. She brings the old shoebox into her lap and delicately lifts the lid to savor the revealing of all its treasured contents. The box is filled with seashells, but buried down inside is a small silver bracelet with the letters of her name engraved on it. Marina presses her fingers into the crevices; the clasp is broken and it is too small for her wrist now. She pulls out a wrinkled piece of once-white construction paper, and a small amount of sand falls into her lap as she traces the misspelled letters of her name and all the places where once it was broken. The seashells vary in size and wholeness and are speckled with a thousand shades of brown and ivory and grey. For a long time she just looks at them. Then she refills her glass and begins to take the seashells out, one by one, and lay them on the pillows before her, like an old and lonely miser counting his gold. She holds them carefully, as though certain that at any moment each will break or dissolve into dust. She brings them up to her face and breathes in their salty smell as she tries to hear the ocean in her ears.
Liz Egan teaches creative writing and directs the writing center at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. She holds an MFA in fiction from George Mason University, and is co-editor of Gazing Grain Press, an inclusive feminist chapbook press. Her fiction has appeared in ink&coda and MAYDAY Magazine, and was listed as a 2016 Gertrude Stein Award Finalist.