Where the Ocean Smell Comes From
By Remy Dou
The Atlantic Ocean ebbed in the pupils of his light eyes. They promised me the world, though his words promised the opposite. Patiently, I listened to his painful past, from which he was still recovering. My gaze followed the crashing waves of his lips. His soft, smooth cheeks and the three freckles on his perfect nose mesmerized me. He blinked and in that moment I lived a thousand lifetimes.
“I’m broken,” he said, pausing before continuing, “I shouldn’t have pulled you into this.”
“I could tell what you came from the minute we first spoke, and it didn’t scare me,” I replied.
“How could you know then?”
“Your eyes say a lot more than you realize.”
He shot me a quizzical look.
“You see? Now, they’re saying, ‘Is she for real? Can she really read the pain in my heart through my eyes?’”
A smile washed over his handsome face.
“You’re good,” he said.
“So, what now?”
“I don’t know, Ryan. You tell me.”
“Why is it always on me to make these difficult decisions? I’m tired of the guilt.” The tension rose in his voice.
“Well, this picnic was your idea.”
Over the dock, past the mangroves, and across the well-worn, sandy path the cool breeze penetrated our atoll of grass, carrying with it the smell of the sea.
“I know. I just felt like I could pour everything out to you. I’ve never been so open with anyone in my life. It’s scary,” he said.
“I have to admit, when you first said you wanted to tell me something I thought you were going to say you killed someone,” I said teasingly.
“Was that a joke?” He smirked.
“I love it when you smile like that.”
There was little left to say that hadn’t been expressed one way or another. The moment for action had arrived. I knew the decision had to come from him. We would be perfect for one another, his brokenness complementing my own, but I didn’t want him to ever resent me for pressuring him. I tried to sit patiently, keenly aware of the itchy grass beneath me. I regretted having worn a sundress.
Finally, he spoke, “Do you know why the ocean smells that way?”
His question took me aback, but for that very reason he had my attention. Everything about him was out of the ordinary. Maybe I just imagined that was the case, but thinking back to the moments we spent together, I knew I finally met someone like me.
“No, I don’t,” I said, taking a deep breath, “but I love it.”
He looked at me inquisitively. I surfed the undulating furrows of his brow, sliding down his temple and into the blonde sand of his short, youthful beard.
“Does it remind you of anything?” he asked.
“It reminds me of cornfields.”
“Yeah. Back home, that’s the closest I could get to an ocean. My dad sat me on his lap while he drove the harvester through the fields. This thing was loud and big, but halfway in he’d stop driving. We’d climb onto the roof and sit there talking. If we stayed out to watch the sunset, I’d pretend the rows swaying in the wind were waves beneath our make-believe boat.”
“You must have been happy when you got to Miami.”
“Yes,” I said, “and no.”
He seemed to be struggling with something.
“I want to be happy,” he said.
“I want you to be happy.”
“Back in Indiana, the night I met you, I thought you might be the one that could make me happy, that could understand me. I know that sounds stupid, but something about you struck me.”
“It’s not stupid.”
I didn’t say anything else, letting the silence draw more out of him.
“It’s like we’re cut from the same cloth,” he said.
“That’s such a girly thing to say,” I said facetiously.
His smile revealed the white surf of his teeth.
“You know what would happen if you and I begin this voyage?”
“Nope. You tell me,” I said.
“This is what would happen. We’d go out together nearly every other day and discover that we’d never met anyone like the other. We’d sit at the loudest Cuban restaurants and watch old couples dance to live music. You’d tug my arm and tell me to go up and dance with you and I’d say, ‘No, I don’t want to embarrass you.’ You’d laugh, get up, and ask an old man sitting alone to dance. I would stare, smiling, as you twirl around. We’d eat and people watch, making up stories about those around us. That would be our lives for a long time—movies, restaurants, TV shows, sofas, and love-making perhaps.”
He stopped to watch my reaction. I couldn’t help but fall prey to his sly humor and perhaps more.
“I’m not going to confirm anything,” I said coyly.
“Well, with skills like mine, it wouldn’t be long.”
I laughed out loud. “Really? You better be careful, buddy. I’d be the one you can’t resist!”
After a few moments of staring, he continued, “Those would be our days, Haley. But then life would wake us up. The life I dreamed of disappeared years ago when my ex left me. Now, I’m broken. Marred by the title ‘divorcee,’ with a baby boy I might not see for a long time. You know what would happen then?”
I didn’t want to know, because I didn’t think anything he was about to say would be accurate. I tried not to show the gentle ache of my heart.
“What do you think would happen?” I said.
“I’d find out that I could not bear to leave my son like my father left me, and that my only option is to move where he is, hundreds of miles away—far away from the peace I’ve found here. You and I will drive around in your car considering other options, but realize we have no choice. You’d have to stay in Miami with your aunt or move back to Indiana, and I’d have to go. We’d park near an old cemetery and walk between the crumbling tombstones contemplating life before finally saying our goodbyes.”
“You are so dramatic.”
“I know,” he said.
I didn’t know whether to scream or kiss him. I could tell he had a long road ahead, and although I knew his heart would heal, I didn’t think I could convince him of that.
“There’s something I’ve learned in life,” I said. “Nothing is permanent. If you make a mistake, you correct it and move on. You don’t have to carry the weight of the future on your shoulders. You can’t plan what’s going to happen, and when we get to those bridges we’ll cross them.”
We let the words resonate. They clung to the space between us like a breaking wave clings to the shore before retreating. Even after some time their shadow remained.
“Did I ever tell you I wrote you a poem a couple of weeks ago?” he said.
My heart palpitated. Either this guy was really genuine or incredibly slick.
“You certainly did not. I would have remembered that,” I said.
“I know it sounds like a cheesy line, but it’s true. And I don’t normally write poetry about people I’ve only known for a month.”
“Not normally, just occasionally,” I said sarcastically.
He smiled. “No, I never have. Well, unless you count the poem I wrote to Jennifer Love Hewitt when I was sixteen.”
“I’ll forgive you for that.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Do you want to read the poem I wrote?”
“This isn’t going to be super sappy, is it?” I said.
“Yeah, it probably will be.”
“Well, at least you’ve warned me. Go for it. I’m ready.”
I gathered my legs beneath me and rested my arms on my thighs, giving him my undivided attention—not that he didn’t already have it.
“Here it is,” he said, handing me a folded sheet of paper.
“You’re not going to read it?”
“No, I don’t think I can. Open it later.”
“Okay,” I said.
“It’s funny you mentioned the smell of the ocean reminds you of cornfields,” he began after some time. “Indiana reminded me of something similar, but in a different way. I never thought I’d meet you there. I never thought I’d meet someone I could care about this way so soon. It’s like you washed away every memory of the torture I went through trying to salvage what I used to have.”
I sank into his aquamarine eyes.
“Let’s take a walk,” I said.
I wanted a change of scenery. Everything that had been said echoed around us. The reverberations unsettled my bones.
Holding onto the poem, I carefully slid our leftover lunches into my hemp bag. The wind threatened to snatch his words away from me. I tucked the sheet of paper into the palm of my hand. He picked up my bag and offered his arm. We walked toward the dock, the wind slathering us with the smell of the ocean.
“Guys like you don’t exist.”
“I’m pretty sure I do,” he said.
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m not so great. I don’t want you to think so. I don’t want to end up hurting you. I seem to keep hurting the people I love most.”
“Whatever monster led you to believe this about yourself is not true. You are an amazing person. You love your friends, your family, and the people around you. Don’t believe the lies she told you. She left you for her own selfish reasons.”
He sighed. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“Stop feeling sorry,” I said.
We sat at the end of the dock. Our feet hung above the water, swinging back and forth. The sun floated on the surface of the choppy waves, bending, disappearing, and reappearing. Flecks of debris oscillated on the liquid merry-go-round beneath us.
“You are so pretty,” he said, looking into my eyes.
I smiled like a ditzy schoolgirl. “Thank you,” I finally responded. “You are very handsome yourself.”
“You know, I’ve been meaning to lean in and kiss you all afternoon, but I’ve been holding back.”
I didn’t respond. We both stared into the dark water, stealing glances at one another. The sun warmed our skin and filled us with drowsiness. He leaned against the dock post and I scooted closer, laying my back against his chest. While we lounged, the wind, seagulls, and water entertained us. I closed my eyelids and listened to the rhythmic lapping of the tide against the gravelly shore.
I wasn’t expecting Ryan to come along when he did. Even though it had been a year since my fiancée left me, I had no plans of finding someone new. I discovered myself again and I was happy with my life. But having girlfriends who think being single is a curse means getting dragged to every social event, party, and club they go to. What a boy from Miami was doing in Indiana at the time, I had no idea, but the depth of his eyes caught my attention.
My arms hung languidly against his. The touch of his warm, bronzed skin stirred my navel. I felt safe, secured by his firm frame, his gentle caresses, and his caring eyes roving over me. I floated on him for a long time, undulating with the waves of his breathing until I almost fell asleep.
“You never told me where the ocean smell comes from,” I said.
“Do you really want to know?”
“Well, I don’t want to ruin it for you.”
“What is it?” I said, sitting up and turning around.
“Well, it’s bacteria,” he said, letting the words sink in. “Actually, it’s dimethyl sulfide. Some bacteria produce it when they digest parts of dead plankton. The more it smells like the sea, the more bacterial growth.”
“That does kind of ruin it,” I said, smiling.
“I told you,” he said.
“Talk about perspective.”
We sat there a little longer, until our bodies ached.
“Are you ready to go?” he said.
He walked me past the mangroves, over the sandy path, and through the Sea Grape-filled park. We arrived at the narrow street where I left my tiny car. We hugged and said our goodbyes—no see-you-tomorrows, no talk-to-you-laters. The moment for a decision had come and gone. Nothing happened. My heart swelled with longing, but I braved it with a smile.
I sat in the car, watching him walk away through my side view mirror. Once he disappeared, I pulled the poem out of my bag, where I placed it for safekeeping. I unfolded the note and read his handwritten words:
I read it a thousand times before driving away.
That night I went to sleep trying not to think of him, but that was impossible. I lay on my bed wondering whether I should shower, but I didn’t want to wash the smell off my sticky skin. After a long time, I gave in, stepping into a hot bath. Once in bed, I prayed and read Ryan’s poem a few more times before falling asleep.
A couple days later, he called. I tried to contain my excitement.
“Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night?”
“I don’t know, why?”
“Will you be busy?” he said.
“No,” I said eagerly.
“Well, I hear there’s this loud Cuban restaurant over on Sunset where a bunch of old people dance and listen to live music.”
“Oh yeah? And if we go, will you dance with me?”
“No, but I’ll watch you dance with the old men.”
“Okay, Ryan. That sounds like a plan to me.”
“No, I’m done with planning—just a date,” he paused. “And maybe another one after that.”
I let a few seconds by. I could sense his smile through the receiver.
“I’d like that,” I replied.
After hanging up with Ryan, I walked outside, letting the sun drench my skin. I paused whenever the wind blew just to breathe in the warm, salty air.