Theo pulled out of the driveway in the dark, at 4:00 a.m. sharp. Becky put on The Little Mermaid before they were even out of the neighborhood, and the kids drifted back to sleep as it played. Theo stared out the windshield at the dark onrushing road as the cartoon creatures squawked and sang behind him—out they rolled from the Virginia mountains into North Carolina’s coastal plain toward Myrtle Beach. Water covers 71% of the earth, which made it seem odd to Theo that they had to drive nine hours to get to the shore—only because we rarely consider how small we are: a sport utility vehicle hurtling at seventy miles per hour would look from a satellite like a slow creeping insect making a pathetic break for open water.
The car hood began to take on its daytime sage green as the sky lightened. Along the horizon to the left, a fuzzy crack of orange light split open, began to spread upward and change colors into pink and blue. Scattering molecules in the atmosphere, changing the direction of the sun’s light waves. The sun pushed up from the horizon, surrounded by diffraction rings, caused by water vapor in the air.
The sea is 96.5% actual H2O, and the rest is composed of a whole lot of shit, including bacteria, plankton, archaea. Human lungs are 83% H2O—it seems odd, thinking about it this way, that we cannot breathe underwater; seems like it should be the most natural thing. Our bodies are about 65% water—only about 5% less than an actual white fish, whose body is, on average 70% water, and our bones skew the number, being only about 31% water. Our brains are 75% water. Our blood 92%. It would not be an overstatement simply to say we are water.
The movie ran its course and all went quiet. Becky dozed restlessly with no pillow, or even a balled-up sweatshirt, her head against the window. Mile after mile, and the car felt as if it were floating. This was Becky’s car. When he’d first climbed in, it was all he could do not to mention all the fat greasy splats between his legs, a good start to a fast-food Mahjongg puzzle. The kids slept in back. Inside, the air hung motionless, filling slowly with the stink of their sweaty child bodies, their sleep-yawning mouths, their farts. Theo drove on for two hours without a sound other than the tires’ humming and popping against road seams.
“Daddy?” baby Jen’s tiny voice called out into the car, over the tires’ humming drone.
“Yes, sweetie,” Theo said, craning to see her in his rearview mirror. She was in the center, as she was the smallest, and had been sleeping folded over onto a pillow in her own lap. The afghan’s pattern was impressed on the side of her face like the pencil scribble of a leaf.
Awakened, Becky straightened herself and said, “What do you need, sweetie?”
“I have to pee.”
“We’ll be stopping for breakfast in bit,” The said. “Can it wait?”
“Okay,” Baby Jen said. She rested her arms on her lap pillow and stared sleepily at nothing.
Urine is about 95% percent water. The other 5% is shit like nitrogen, potassium, calcium. Amniotic fluid is 98% water. Theo spent nine months floating in it with his twin brother Thomas, their developing lungs breathing one another’s urine and skin flecks.
Thomas was staying with them at the beach house this year—Becky was against it. He was newly divorced and going through a kind of second-college-days party spell.
When Theo had first met Becky, right after college, she’d approached him at Spanky’s thinking he was Thomas. He knew immediately by her familiar tone that she knew his brother and not him. Theo and Thomas had spent their youth not bothering to correct people who called one by the other’s name. Becky was out for an evening while her mom watched her boys, going through a divorce, and a little drunk.
Theo was Becky’s rebound marriage, he knew that. He’d fathered Jen. The two boys had a father of their own, such as he was, a man who traipsed in and out, disturbing their family’s fragile equilibrium far more often than necessary.
“Daddy,” Baby Jen’s voice was more insistent. “I need to pee.”
The boys stirred awake. One said, “I’m hungry,” and the other said, “me too, and thirsty.”
“We’ll never get there at this rate,” Theo said as he slowed for the exit.
“What’s the rush,” Becky said. “We’re on vacation.”
“Thomas won’t be able to get in until we get the key.”
Becky put her elbow on the console and leaned close to his ear. “You know what?” she said. “Fuck Thomas.”
The odometer clicked off the miles, and Theo’s back pain slowly morphed from dull ache to something like a screwdriver prying two lumbar vertebrae apart. The boys played video games on their little devices, and Baby Jen listened to Disney music on her device. Her headphones were pink, built to fit her little head, and had a loopy letter b over each ear.
Theo had been ready to break it off with Becky when she turned up pregnant with Jen, and not too proud to twist his arm.
“How did this happen?” he’d asked over a workday lunch at Panera Bread.
“You know how it happened,” she told him. “You were there.” She was beautiful in her work suit, thin and fit from her post-divorce fitness freak out.
“I thought you were on birth control.”
“I was,” she said, “but did I ever tell you I was? Did you ever ask?”
“I just assumed—”
“Did you wear a rubber?”
No, he hated those things.
“So,” she had said, “what steps did you take, exactly, to prevent it?”
They had married, quick and frugal, at a Real Estate office where one of the lesbian couple who owned the place together was a legally recognized wedding officiant, and Becky immediately moved with her boys into Theo’s house. They ate dinner together. Theo yelled at them to do their homework, take their showers. They all loaded up and took family vacations together.
By the time Theo pulled the Forester onto the crunchy white gravel of the rental lot, he was sweating from the pain in his back. The kids cheered and bounced, making the whole car rock. They had already caught glimpses of the blue ocean between shimmering dunes and they could not contain themselves any longer. In the center of the back seat, Baby Jen bounced her shoulders off one bouncing boy and then the other. Distracted by the ocean, neither boy complained.
Thomas stood in front of the rental, naked but for a skimpy pair of orange running shorts and purple running shoes. His hands were on his slippery hips. The back of his calves were rubbed smooth as a baby’s ass, but the fronts were still as hairy as ape arms.
Theo opened his car door and the outside air felt like being inside a convection oven. Windy and 105 degrees down here, and the forecast called for more of the same—old people would die in front of their TVs this week. Sweat was springing out of Theo; he leaked water from all over, that sixty-five percent of him that was nothing but water, nature trying to pull from him, dry him up, turn him into a crisp husk that the sandy wind wears down to blowing, scattering dust, particles that refract sunlight into beautiful colors, make people feel warm inside.
Thomas stood staring at a woman on the other side of their duplex rental, as she carried a blue cooler up. She wore brown bikini bottoms and a blue tee shirt. Her flip-flops popped on crackly yellow heels. A toddler seat was in the MILF’s back van seat. That wouldn’t bother Thomas, Theo thought. Breaking down a woman’s resistance was like playing a video game to him. His job was to jump and duck like the old Mario around whatever rolling, bouncing barrels of common sense and self-preservation she hurled his way. At least that was how he’d been in college.
Semen is 96% water. About the same as the ocean. All that life. All those little swimmers. Theo knew that Thomas and Becky had slept together before he met her. He strongly suspected they had slept together since they’d married.
“Yay,” Baby Jen yelled, “Uncle Thomas is here.”
“Cool,” Jake said, and Jonah echoed, “Cool.” They were not as overjoyed to see Thomas; unlike Baby Jen, they could remember a time without this uncle—or this dad figure, who they called not dad but Theo.
Jen leaned over Jake and yelled out the window, “Uncle Thomas.” He looked, and she waved like mad.
Becky sighed heavily, almost a growl. She said, “Jesus take the wheel.”
After Theo and Thomas put away groceries while Becky stood at the sliding glass door watching the kids down on the beach, Theo said the next thing was to run out for some beer and limes. Thomas insisted they take his car.
On the passenger side, Theo’s feet slid around on oil-soaked newspaper. The gearshift handle was broken off and Thomas had a screwdriver shoved down inside the shifter to engage it. A flat head with a yellow and black handle—from their dad’s Stanley tool kit. The back floorboard was full up to the level of the seats: fast-food trash, coffee cups with the brown sleeves, a burlap bag with flowery handles sewn on and TT 2006 on the side in purple letters.
It was a 1998 Honda Civic, given to Thomas by their parents when he’d gotten the job as a runner for a firm in town, which he kept for almost three months. The car’s roof and hood were pixelated with green tree-sap, made the car look covered in a layer of moss. The handles were broken on both back doors so neither opened. On the back seat was a black web belt frayed at the end into a small horse’s tail. A silvery-blue hair clip, big, the kind they used to wear in the nineties, or was it the eighties? They called them banana clips
A little way out Island Drive, Thomas looked at his gauge. “Shit, I’m out of gas.” He pulled into a station, patted his hips and said, “Damn it, I left my wallet back at the beach house.”
Theo filled the tank, used his Visa card. “You need money?” he asked as they pulled back onto the road.
“I don’t have any,” Thomas said, “if that’s what you mean. I used it all getting down here.”
Theo pulled out his wallet, flipped through his cash, and pulled out a fifty. He held it out to Thomas. “Thanks, dude,” Thomas said. He didn’t reach for the money.
Theo folded the bill and laid it in the console tray that had four pennies in it, embedded in brown grime almost to their rims.
Thomas said, “I’ll get you back. Promise.”
The cancerous stink of burning oil filled the car.
“It’s weird to think about,” Theo said. “These very molecules we’re breathing into our lungs spent eons under Saudi Arabia or South Dakota.”
“And they’re trying to give us cancer,” Thomas said.
“Something’s going to get you eventually,” Thomas said. “No sense obsessing.” He said, “I’m starving, dude.”
“Have you had lunch?”
“I told you: I used all my money getting down here.”
“Run out to Snead’s Ferry and we’ll hit a drive through.”
“No, no,” Thomas said. “I’m good till dinner.”
“You can crack me open one of those beers though.”
“That I can do,” Theo said, reaching between the seats for two beers.
By the time Becky set out noodles boiled soggy as Big Boy restaurant spaghetti, with a jar of marinara sauce glopped on top, Thomas was seven Corona cervezas into the twelve pack Theo had bought expecting it to last the three of them a couple days at least. Thomas watched the woman from next door—whom he had dubbed “The MILF,” as he ate spaghetti. She moved silently down on the beach with her own two boys, building a sand castle or a fort or something. She still wore the brown bikini. Wind blew her hair and she gathered it into a handheld ponytail for a few seconds at a time. Something about her body language, her total involvement with her two towheaded boys, was the movement of a single mother. Theo could not say how he knew, but he did. Two kites flew far out above the water, one yellow and one blue, with long colorful tails. Their strings glowed in the waning sunlight. Behind her, the tide was coming in, the vast ocean breathing out.
Breathing ocean, moon pulling at the water. Our bodies are small earths, more water than anything else. Theo knew the moon did not act on the water in human bodies as it did the earth’s water, but sometimes he still thought he felt the motion inside. Theo sometimes felt like a fish floating in the atmosphere. He and Thomas had been fish together, in closed carnival bag of amniotic fluid, breathing water from one another’s mouth, breathing their mixed urine. Blood is 92% water. Breast milk is 90%. Water in its constant cycle of evaporation, condensation, precipitation—the water content of a human body is entirely changed every couple of weeks, a continual flush.
Vacation fell into a daily rhythm—on the beach until one or two, lunch, afternoon at a water park or shopping strip or aquarium, back to the beach in the late afternoon/early evening, dinner somewhere out or at the rental, movies and board games at night, sometimes back out onto the beach in the dark.
The waves at the beach batter the air in a way that creates all these negative ions you breathe, molecules that wend their way into your blood stream and change you—make you happier, less stressed, more energetic. The cells of the blood changed by the air, change your mood. The cells of your body are only 70% you; a full 30% of your body is not you at all, but interacting bacteria, viruses, parasites. The human body is a small earth full of creatures. There are 100 times more bacterial cells in the body than there are human cells—according to the National Institute for health, there are more than 10,000 microbial species in the human, and they actually contribute more the body’s survival than does the actual body itself. Theo stayed down near the water a lot, inhaling all those good molecules. He did not call the office, and he did not check email. He floated free of work.
Thomas: at the first opportunity, he met the MILF next door. He stopped calling her the MILF and started calling her Mindy. He dragged his beach chair over beside hers. Baby Jen played with Mindy’s towhead boys, whose anachronistic names were Tommy and Freddie. One of Becky’s boys broke Tommy’s Styrofoam glider plane on the hard sand. Thomas bought him a new one while he was out picking up more beer and limes.
“He doesn’t have a job,” Becky said as she and Theo watched the boy assemble his new plane. “Where the hell does he get money?”
Theo had given him another fifty-dollar bill.
“They’re watching the kids,” Theo said. “Want to run up for a quickie?”
She stared at the ocean. After a few long seconds, she said, “Are you doing something tonight with that fish you caught?”
“I was thinking we could all go out for pizza so nobody has to cook.”
“Do something with it,” she said. “It’s stinking up the refrigerator.”
Theo breathed in the beach air, thought of all those good ions entering his blood, all those microbes working away. He was a planet full of water.
By Friday, the kids were best friends, the way kids will become obsessed with strangers they will never see again after the week of swimming and playing in the sand together. Friday night, Mindy and her boys crossed the deck divider for a cookout. Theo grilled burgers and dogs. Becky made macaroni salad and boiled corn on the cob.
Like the kids, Thomas and Mindy had shot through an accelerated friendship. They were together every waking moment, but had not gotten a chance to be alone together. On a run out for beer and the corn from a roadside stand, he told Theo, “I’m falling for her.”
“I’m not kidding,” Thomas said. “I’m in love.”
The brain is 75% water. So is the heart, the heart that we share with other great apes, most notably chimpanzees, with whom we are more closely related than either of us are to gorillas. We’re all walking bags of water from the same earthly well. In and out it flows. We rise, we walk, we fall, and we dry up. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust—wouldn’t it be better to say water to water, sea to sea?
“Love?” Theo said. “What the hell does that even mean?”
Thomas lowered his eyebrows at Theo. “Just because we’ve only known each other for a few days doesn’t mean it’s not real.”
The boys and Baby Jen, four shades darker than they were just six days ago, Jonah with a red and peeling nose, all sat in too-big deck chairs eating their hot dogs, staring into weary space. Freddie and Tommy did the same. Out in the dark the vast ocean heaved and breathed and batted around the ions in the air.
Theo awoke in the middle of the night. Becky was not in the bed. He slipped from under the comforter and walked out into the hall in his boxers. Harsh sibilants whistled up from the kitchen, angry whispering. He sneaked down the carpeted stairs and peeked around the wall.
Becky was at the kitchen sink in the dark, eating cold cereal from a red plastic bowl with a matching plastic spoon. She was in her thin nightgown and panties, nothing else. Thomas was standing with his shirt balled up in his hand. He was wet like he’d been swimming. The funk of cold hamburger grease hung in the kitchen, with that constant beach smell of dead fish underneath it.
“So, did you fuck what’s-her-name?” Becky took a bite of cereal, chewed, her jaws working.
“I already told you, I really am falling for her.”
“How many times have you said that about some girl you’ve known for a week?”
“What the hell, Beck?”
She turned to rinse her bowl in the sink, her breasts swung. Theo could see the outline of her panties on her loose butt. The bowl and spoon dropped into the sink with plastic clatter.
“You are incorrigible,” she said.
“Jesus,” he said. “Who are you to talk?”
“You know what?” She put her hands on her hips. “Fuck you.”
“This doesn’t have to be—I don’t want this to be ugly.”
Theo slowly backed himself up the steps and crawled back under the comforter. Thirty minutes passed and he almost went back down, but then she entered the room and crawled carefully into bed so as not to wake him.
They both lay silent, and still. And wide-awake.
The next morning, Theo loaded the Subaru while Becky and the kids packed. “We have to have the key back by ten,” he told them. “Don’t dilly dally.”
Thomas came down carrying the sloshing blue beer cooler. “You want some of this?” A good case of all different kinds of beer sloshed and clinked around in the icy water. “Take some of it,” he said. “Hell, take all of it.”
“I don’t drink at home anymore,” Theo said. “I don’t have time.”
Up in the kitchenette, Theo told Becky, “I have to run the kayak back.” Theo and Thomas had each taken it out only one time, and the rough waves had beaten and flipped them until they gave up.
“I’m not finished cleaning out the fridge,” Becky said. She was at the kitchen counter in front of all the contents of the fridge, a surprising lot of leftover food from just a week’s stay. It covered the whole counter. Bowls and bags and boxes. Cans of Sprite. More bottles and cans of beer. From the back bedroom came the kids’ tired bickering voices.
Thomas had on the same shorts from the previous night, and no shirt, scratching his chest.
“I’m taking the kayak back in your car,” Theo told him. “The rope still in the trunk?”
“Yeah,” Thomas said. “You want me to show you how to work the gear shift?”
“I have a better idea,” Theo said. “Why don’t you come with me and drive?”
Becky’s jaw tightened and she bore down on sorting groceries with all her attention.
“Cool,” Thomas said. “Let me grab a shirt.”
They crept along Island Drive. Theo held the rope tight, and the tip of the kayak nosed out over the rearview mirror like the tip of a giant orange bird beak.
“Dude, I was wondering—”
“You need money,” Theo said.
“Just enough to get me home,” Thomas said. “Just for gas.”
They pulled into Herring’s Outdoor Sports, a white one-story house with blue roof trim and a giant banner flapping violently from its porch in the beach wind. At the sand and gravel lot on the side, there was the rack of rental kayaks. The wind was hot and the day was bright.
They jumped out and went to untying the kayak.
“This thing almost drowned me,” Thomas said.
Lungs are 90% water, but you breathe water and you die. Before you are born, you are a fish, inside your mother breathing water: Theo and Thomas two fish, tangled in their mother’s womb, touching foreheads, breathing amniotic fluid in and out from one another’s mouth, breathing their mixed urine. What difference did it make, in reality, that Thomas had slept with Becky?
They carried it to the side of the building. They laid the kayak in front of the rack of them and straightened their backs.
Thomas rubbed his back and said, “When we come back next year, I bet we’ll both be old married dudes.”
Theo didn’t even realize he was doing it until he had already balled up his fist and punched Thomas square in the nose. Thomas staggered backward but did not fall. He leaned forward and cupped his nose in both hands.
“Ah, fuck,” he said.
Theo stood and watched. Blood dripped from Thomas’s left wrist. “Ah,” Thomas said, “god damn it.” He flung blood out of his hand and put it back to his nose. Blood is 92% water. Seawater and semen are around 96%. The human body is 65% water, crawling with tiny swimmers.
“What the fuck,” Thomas said. “Why’d you do that?”
“I don’t know,” Theo said.
“What?” he said. “You broke my fucking nose, and you say ‘I don’t know’?”
“Yeah,” Theo said. “I have no idea why I did it.”
Theo said nothing for a long time, just stood with his hands in his pockets. Thomas pressed on his nose to stop the bleeding and cursed quietly to himself.
Back in the car, Theo said, “I’m sorry about that.”
“Whatever,” Thomas said, his swollen nose gave his voice the clotted sound of a winter cold.
Theo pulled out his wallet. All the cash he had left from the week was a $100 bill. He folded it and placed it on top of the grimy pennies in the console.
Thomas glanced down at the money. He did not thank Theo, but neither did he refuse the money. He pulled out onto the sandy road and turned toward the beach house where four human bodies scurried around preparing for the next journey.