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Easy Travel to Other Planets

It took Melissa nearly the full three weeks to grow used to sleeping in the bed in the bed that hung suspended from the ceiling of the flooded house, and even then, even after she had surrounded the bed with shower curtains to protect herself from water either splashed or slapped, she would find herself awake in the night’s stillest hour, listening to the pumps dull pulse as it circulated fresh seawater through the rooms, listening beyond that to the sea’s slow suck as it entered the cove on which the house was built. And from the center of her insomnia she would gaze up through the skylight above her at the meteor showers that streaked the Caribbean sky, and she would think: I am going to die from the strangeness of this. By morning I will be dead of the aloneness and the strangeness.

But when the dawn did come, and with its first light the sound of Peter’s speech—clicks and whistles and high-pitched creaks in an unoiled door as he swam into the elevator’s harness and pushed the start button with his beak, leaving the deep pool on the first floor to greet Melissa on the second and demand his breakfast—when she was again in the knee-deep water with the dolphin, stroking him and preparing him for the day’s first lesson, all her despair slipped away from her like clothes shed, and she was glad of everything.

And the dolphin: the dolphin was patient, mainly: what else if not patient? His belly was scraped a bit from the rough spots on the floor, his back peeled a bit from the sunburned hours he and the woman had spent together on the flooded observation deck. In shallow water, a dolphin thinks about the danger to his skin, which is twenty times more sensitive than a man’s and which dolphins feel to be the organ of dreams, though they do not sleep. Peter, under Melissa’s daily tutelage, had learned to thrust his head out of the water and, with his blowhole, to approximate a few words of English, for which he was rewarded with kisses that created praise in his skin and a sad remembrance of the sagas handed down from the distant times of his dry ancestors. In shallow water, a dolphin will sometimes fall to dwelling on the shortness of life and will seek to make the best of it with amazing feats of attention.

Melissa awoke, on the last of the twenty-one mornings, in full moonlight. Without bothering to change her leotard, she flung back one of the shower curtains and stepped out of the bed into the warm and glittering water, Her breasts were swollen, slightly but painfully, with the approach of her period, and she explored them absently with the fingers of one hand while she listened for Peter. From the level below, faintly audible over the noise of the pump, came the creaking of his nighttime sonar as he moved about in the deep pool, unaware as yet that she was awake. Melissa drew the shower curtain shut, then splashed slowly across the room to where the plastic thermometer was tethered to the floor. She examined it and, on a clipboard hung high on the wall, noted a water temperature of 84º F.—normal for St. Thomas in April.

At the freshwater sink, Melissa felt a swell of apprehension pass over her as she drew the mildewed washcloth across her face, and she found herself thinking of Jeffrey, who was awaiting her in New York, at the other end of her day. He would hate the cut of her hair at first, short against the constant wetness and the salt, but later, in rooms made dangerous with appetite, he would savor the suggestion of danger skirted and distance successfully traveled. Melissa believed that only she knew how to return to him, though there had been, and would be, others. She released the drain, and the water flowed out of the sink onto the bit of ocean which covered the floors.

Below, Peter briefly soared a lizard fish that was feeding on the algae at the pool’s bottom. Then he swam into the elevator and, punching the button with his beak, allowed it to hoist him up to the second story. He was still fascinated by the fact that electric lights were not fish, a discovery he had made by splashing water on Melissa’s desk lamp, and now he turned on his side to stare again at the floodlights as the elevator swung him out of its shaft and through the air over the flooded room. Once in the water, he looked for the woman. She had left her bed early. He made a noise like a human being with a cold and, when she did not appear, began slapping the water rhythmically with his flukes. Three slaps, Melissa appeared.

“Hello, Peter.” She ben in the dry area in back and held a bowl of cereal.

“CCccccxxxxxx.” He lifted his head out of the water and opened his beak to show he was hungry.

“Okay, okay, you greedy thing. Just a minute,” She stepped down off the dry catwalk into the water, and reaching out her hand, offered a caress.

Peter swam rapidly toward her, then glided between her legs, forcing them apart with his body and striking her shins with the front edges of his bony flippers. Melissa tried to swat him, but he was already out of reach behind her.

“Goddamnit, dolphin! I’ve told you not to do that.” Her shins were bruised purple from three weeks of this game. “One more time and I’ll leave you alone the rest of the day.”

Peter regarded her appraisingly. It is an attribute of the dolphin’s eye that it is clear-sighted in both air and water.

Melissa fed Peter on the observation deck, taking freshly dead butterfish one by one from his plastic feed bucket and giving them each a short toss, not more than an inch, to indicate they were his. He caught them in jaws containing eighty-eight conical teeth of a sharpness and whiteness so imposing as to be hypnotic, and several times they had figured in Melissa’s dreams: as mountains, as rows of prehistoric monuments, as a threat about to descend upon her leg. She looked out over the cove, listening to faint reggae pulse coming from the radios of the fishing boats at anchor there. Dr. Ehrler had instructed her to make meals as dull as possible in order to avoid reward associations, so she never spoke to Peter during feeding. He nudged her leg and squawked, wanting another fish. She stared at the moon. On one of fishing boats on the cove, a young down-islander discovered he had the wrong size replacement batteries for his transistor and flung them angrily into the water; they sank nearly forty feet and nearly hit a horseshoe crab. The moon traveled away, the sun rose.

“That’s all there is,” said Melissa, putting the empty feed bucket down in the water, letting it float aside like a toy. And she was halfway to sadness before she knew it.