The Sand You Swallowed, by Latifa Ayad

Art: Black Mirror / San Junipero

I hear that you have a daughter now.  Does she look like me?  Ha, ha.  I know, last time we spoke I promised not to make jokes like that anymore, but I’m going all out, because who knows if this is even your address anymore?  We used to wish it, though.  If only there were some way.  My eyes, my breasts, your everything else.  We would make the ideal woman.

I’ll try to get this all out in one go, because I want this letter to be true, absolutely true, I owe that to you.  The urge to revise is an urge to lie, to make my sentences more perfect than I really am.  That’s what this letter is about, anyway.  I know I promised you I’d stop lying, and I did, but I never said I wouldn’t start again.

You remember, don’t you?  I can feel you resisting now, Michelle don’t bring that up again, don’t, it’s not good for you, and frankly I don’t want to hear it.  I can’t remember when you started using that word.  Frankly.

We were drunk that night, the first time we met.  You pulled me from the water by my hair.  Not my shoulders, my hair.  You were mad before you even met me, that’s what I liked about you.  I was face down trying to drown myself.  I wasn’t tearful.  You looked my naked body up and down, frowning, and said, “Don’t kill yourself, you’re beautiful.”  I looked down at myself then, wet sparkling in the moonlight, and wanted to see you too.  Was drum circle going that night?  Did you see me there first, dancing with bent joints, high knees, no smooth lines, no shaking hips?  Not after that older man, with the sagging suntan, who I thought wanted to twirl me like I’d seen him twirl that child earlier, who stuck his knee between my legs and lowered my crotch to it.

But you did seek me out, remember?  I think it was drum circle that night, it’s a miracle we weren’t caught, but then, it wasn’t tourist season.  Only Brits and Germans come to Sarasota in December.  I can hear the steady rhythm of the drums as we’re making love.  We were drunk though, and I tell my highschool students now that you can’t consent when you’re drunk, and that women can rape men, too.  I’ve never said, though, that women can rape women, is that an oversight on my part?  Or do I believe that, that one gal to the next, we’d never, ever.  But we were drunk, so who raped who?  Was it when I pulled your shirt over your head, or when you lowered your mouth to mine?  Your lips felt soft and small, and I was only afraid for the second before you put your hand on my shoulder.  Did we rape each other?  You seemed willing, you never acted strangely till years later (I know, that means nothing, everything, time) but I distinctly remember you kept licking your fingers.  You swallowed the sand that stuck to them, so it didn’t have to go into me.

After, I cried, and that was when it started, the lies.

This time, though, I was only lying for fun.  I didn’t realize it would get out of hand like this.  I was only doing it on dates I got from my online profile, a profile that makes me what every man wants: a pretty girl who claims to be “looking for a good time.”  The lies were small at first.  For example, that I was allergic to nuts.  That I’d never been to Disney World.  That I detested small dogs.  Once I told a guy that I’m the reason no one is allowed to scuba with the whale sharks anymore, over near Playa del Carmen, that you can only snorkel, can only delight in them from beneath if you’re a skilled free-diver, great spotted undersides, the moment their shadow engulfs you, and even though they’re huge, for once you don’t feel small—right, right, sorry—when he asked me why not, what did I do? I winked.

This guy took me to the beach for our second date (new to town, he thought this was romantic, oh wow, a sunset, wow) and after the sunset we retreated under the yellow lifeguard stand.

I got on a marine theme then, and the next guy I told I’d been born and raised in Orlando, that I’d started at Sea World when I was sixteen, and that girl, the one Tillikum scalped, we’d been friends, but on the date I cried for poor Tilly.  I know you’re probably laughing at me now, just like me, isn’t it, to cry for the whale.  Maybe, though, you’re not laughing at all, will you even read this?  He took her by the ponytail.  I remember the way your hair used to cloud around your head, growing out, not down, candy-floss masses of honey-colored curls.  Like real honey, not golden blond but that almost red, drippy color.  Orange blossom.  But when you met Mark, you’d straightened it by then, hadn’t you?  Or was that the year you shaved it?  I want to say it was the year you shaved it, except I don’t see Mark as the kind of guy who would go for that.  Not at all.  No offense to him, or to you.

I don’t think you believe in repression.  How can I forget something for years, and remember it, every detail, years later?  Maybe you think repression is a lie I made up to make up for my first lie, which I admit fully, have admitted fully, was a lie.  But you need to understand that within seconds of telling that lie to you, I believed it completely, the bark of a live oak on my bare back, the hand over my mouth, my throat, the darkness oddly clear around me.  I choked on the word rape then, I couldn’t quite say it, but you understood.  The emotional truth was still there, and the rape I claimed back then matched how I felt, because just below my skin was all dirt, and if I lay facedown in the water long enough I could dissolve myself.

It wasn’t till years later that I remembered the real truth, that you took my virginity that night under the yellow lifeguard stand.  Now things have gotten out of hand again, because when I told you that lie, it took me a long time to remember what I’d buried beneath it, and I can feel myself slipping again, I don’t remember who I am anymore.  I’m obsessed with creating someone, anyone, who understands how I feel, this deep longing that I know comes back to you.  A few weeks ago, when I saw Crystal (remember her?  I think she got a nose job) in the grocery store, she asked how my mother was, and I burst into tears and said, “She passed.”  And at the register the bagger asked if I had plans for the weekend, and I said I was having lunch at the Ritz, and then I spent fifty dollars on lunch at the Ritz, just so I wouldn’t be a liar.  The mushroom bisque was phenomenal.  There was a curling, script R on the surface in sour cream.

I haven’t told my mother yet that she’s dead.  If you see her, please don’t say anything.

It gets worse, though, and I fear this is when I’ll lose you, because it’s too much like back then.  Another thing you might not understand is that my recklessness, my passionate rule breaking, all came from that same place, that first thieved kiss.  Maybe you think it’s too insignificant a thing to repress, so small, just one kiss, how can you blame all this on that?  My first boyfriend didn’t understand, either.  He’s the only other person I’ve told about the kiss, though I told at least six about the rape, including the school therapist, who said that if it hadn’t been dealt with she’d have to report it to the authorities.  I said no, no, it had been taken care of and I was fine, which was a lie, everything then was a lie.  My first boyfriend though, when I told him the reason for my reluctance to kiss him, said, “Ew,” and broke things off with me, a few weeks later, when his lips on mine still sent me into a panic attack.

So between him, and you, I never talked about the kiss again, it just lived inside me, gnawing slowly at my inner flesh, and maybe that’s why I had to start lying again, to fill the chasm that’s consuming me.  Why doesn’t it count, my kiss?  Why can’t I call that rape?  That’s how I feel, as if a piece of me were taken that I can never get back, and that the rest of me were morphed into someone I’d never love again.  That’s why I was always tempting death, just a little more, just a little more, until finally you got fed up, when I was balance-beaming on the north bridge, at night when the guard was gone, and the water looked like black blown glass.  You begged me to get down, and every time a car would pass that middle section would sway slightly, where the grilles opened to let sailboats through.  When I finally jumped down onto the sidewalk, grinning, feeling beautiful, wind-whipped to perfection, bursting with the glow of death faced and thwarted, you looked at me hard and didn’t say a word for the rest of the night.  I stopped for you, Rita, do you realize that?  It was you who decided I would live.  Can’t you see that’s why I need you?  Twice now you’ve saved me, and we both believe in the rule of threes.

I never told you who did it, that first stolen kiss, because you always liked him, and I didn’t want to spoil that memory.  I’d tell you now, so you could protect your daughter, but he’s dead, anyway.  Do protect her though, from everyone.  Especially from her father.  I’ve learned, I know, no man can be trusted, and I’m afraid Mark has tricked you.  You trust him.

I want to call that kiss-thief a rapist, but I didn’t earn that, did I?  You didn’t understand when I told you the truth, that even though I hadn’t been raped at all, I had been violated.  I could tell you didn’t think so, from the hard line of your mouth, no sympathy, enraged at my long-standing lie, which I cried about late at night, when we stole fingers of gin from behind the cereal boxes and replaced them with water, and you stroked my hair and held my head in your lap and scratched gently my scalp.  I told you I hated every inch of myself.  That, that was true.

You said, “But it was just a kiss.”

You chose your first kiss, didn’t you?  I think you said his name was Tony.  It was awkward, and you’d choose someone else if you could pick again, but at least you got to choose.  I know, that doesn’t excuse my lie, and it’s so typical to lie about being raped, but can’t you understand?  I didn’t lie for personal gain, I didn’t lie to hurt anyone, I only lied because I didn’t know what else to do, because I couldn’t remember and I needed a way to explain that I was rotting from the inside out.  When I told the truth you didn’t understand, so maybe I was right to lie, because the truth didn’t matter to you, didn’t matter to anyone.  But it was just a kiss.  Why couldn’t you have said, “I’m sorry.”

The kiss-thief wasn’t wearing his lower dentures, and his bottom lip was weirdly soft, I felt the emptiness behind it, before he pushed through his thick, bloated tongue.  I remember that it was a particularly lovely day, because the windows were open and there was a breeze on the back of my knees.  I was facing the kitchen, he was facing the yard, and his mouth smelled like roadkill.  I don’t remember what came after that, and sometimes I worry that’s there more I’ve repressed and failed to remember, but maybe what happened doesn’t matter.  Maybe, though, if he had raped me, and I just haven’t remembered it yet, I could say, “There, see?” and you’d come home crying and wrap me in your arms.

But what really matters is the feeling, isn’t it?  That the opening and closing of his mouth on mine gnawed away at something in me, and sometimes I imagine myself at that age, with all the flesh below my nose picked clean, each tooth in my jaws white and sparkling and terribly visible.

I swear when I cross the bridge now, I cross on the sidewalk, every time.  I don’t swim out to the buoy alone, and especially not during a storm (though you did that with me, once, down in Nokomis.  We almost drowned, with waves so high we couldn’t see the shore, and the water freezing, February, I think we skipped school.  Your boyfriend at the time was there too, but he was in the park waiting for his dealer, and when he found us on the shore, coughing seawater through our laughter, he was furious.  On the way home we shivered in the backseat of his Jeep Wrangler, goose-bumped in our bikinis, pressing our arms and legs together.  Maybe you’ve forgotten that you were reckless, too.)

One of these guys, from online, has stuck around, and there’s something about him that reminds me of you.  If I can’t have one, why not the other?   When we have sex he wraps his hand in my hair and uses it for leverage.  I hadn’t told him any significant lies (just that my family owns a ranch in Texas, and that I get my complexion from a mistress my father keeps there) until recently he found marks on me, the kind I put there myself.  I wasn’t going to lie, but when he seized my wrists and demanded to know what had happened, when he grabbed my chin and tilted it upward so I’d look him in the eye, I said I was having a little trouble with an ex-boyfriend, and not to worry about it.  He says things can’t work out between us unless I report it to the police.  He says he won’t be with a woman who let’s herself be abused.

This is why I’m writing you.  Maybe it’s crazy, but I feel like if you can forgive me, if you can forget Mark and your life for a minute, I can remember who I am, I can figure out how to set things right.  I can fix things with this guy, or even better, with you.  Just a minute, that’s all it will take.  Can we go back to that moment, that first lie, and tell each other the truth?  I’ll kiss you this time, when you pull me from the water.  It’ll feel just as nice, but somehow I’ll remember, I’ll flash back to that true memory and explain what happened.  You’ll understand why I wanted to drown, please understand, that when he breathed that roadkill breath into me, I started to decompose, and I didn’t stop until I felt your hand in my hair.  Hug me to you.  I’ll cry before we make love, not after.  That sand you swallowed must have turned to cement in your stomach.  Don’t, here, let me swallow it for you, and I’ll suck your fingers one by one, lovingly, like they’re dripping with cake batter.  That was the problem, wasn’t it, that you swallowed everything until you got sick of it, no more cake, ever.

I know your daughter will be of particular importance to your decision.  Bring her.  She can build a sand castle, we’ll each keep one eye on her, and that makes two.  She’s too young to realize, and anyway, it’ll be dark.  How old is she now?  Two? Three?  I’m sorry again I didn’t come to your wedding, though I don’t think you expected me to.  Mark never liked me.  I can take you to the Ritz after, if you want.  We can even rent a room.  You, me and your daughter, and we can run her a bath, I’m sure they have gigantic tubs, she’ll love it.  What’s her name?



Latifa Ayad was born and raised in Sarasota, Florida. She is the current Assistant Fiction Editor of The Southeast Review. Her short stories and essays are published in The Normal School and Whiskey Island Magazine.

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