fiction by Kate Bucca
When my boyfriend brought me the Pacific Ocean in five-gallon buckets, I opened the lids and watched the miniature tides smash against the orange plastic. He’d taken only two thousand gallons before growing tired of lugging them up the path from the beach, into his car, and across the country over and over again to reach my doorstep on the Atlantic coast. So the ocean still crashed against California, angry and young.
I poured the first eight buckets into my claw foot bathtub. From the fishermen at the docks, I bought four Maine lobsters. When I placed them in the water, they crawled around the bottom, trying to scramble up the sloped sides. I sent my boyfriend to the kitchen to grab scissors and we cut the yellow and green rubber bands from around the lobsters’ claws.
Should we watch? I asked. Probably not, he replied. But I couldn’t look away from the tub. One lobster attacked another, beating him until he scurried away. The bully moved on to the next lobster. This was a closer fight, but the victor remained the same. After the battle, he crawled to the drain and settled in under the shadow cast by the basket holding shampoo, conditioner, and shaving cream. I emptied and submerged the basket so he could crawl in. For the next few evenings, he’d scurry around the tub, chasing the two defeated lobsters and boxing them mercilessly. Once he finished, he scurried back to his lair. I figured the fourth lobster must be female.
The tides that remained in the orange buckets rose and fell behind schedule, still adhering to west coast time. On a late January afternoon, I brought home a coworker who was interested in oceanography to show him the tiny waves. When my boyfriend found us in the garage, he grabbed the nearest bucket and threw it at the man’s feet. The water rushed over my coworker’s loafers and soaked the cuffs of his khakis. He stepped back instinctively, stammered a confused apology and left.
I climbed the steps to the building’s laundry room without speaking, carrying a bucket of ocean in each hand. I poured them into an over-sized sink with a pile of new towels I’d bought that afternoon after my boyfriend remarked that my old ones were worn too thin. When I first moved into my own apartment, my mother bought me subscriptions to five different women’s magazines, insisting they’d teach me how to manage a home. Each month, I read the same lessons worded in new ways. The good housekeeper knew that she could set bright colors in laundry by adding a quarter-cup of salt to the water for the first three washings. I spent the afternoon lugging buckets from the garage in an attempt to preserve vibrant dye while my boyfriend begged me to come upstairs.
The female lobster shed her skin when she was ready to mate. One day she crawled out of her shell and worked her way beyond his aggression into the basket lair. I don’t know if it was his violence or his availability that attracted her. I wasn’t sure of the difference. After sex, he wouldn’t let her leave. He continued to beat up the others and returned home to her bare body. She was trapped by her own design.
I turned the next two buckets into soup. My boyfriend invited friends to join us for what I called a cioppino and clam chowder potluck. He called it a battle of the coasts. I borrowed stock pots from three neighbors and ran all four burners. While I chopped and peeled, sautéed and simmered, he talked about San Francisco and his apartment which was big enough for us both. Try this, I said and passed him a spoon. Too salty, he replied. I tried to cut the brine with extra lemon juice and wine. I added more pepper and potatoes and tomato paste but nothing helped. Finally, I added tap water to the soups while my boyfriend stared.
Our friends arrived and he refused to eat the soup. There was plenty between the salads, bread, desserts and wine people brought for him to ignore the main course. After everyone left, I cleared and washed plates, sprayed counters with Lysol, plastic-wrapped and refrigerated leftovers and reordered my space. Then we fought. The words spilled faster than thoughts could make sense and when we hit the art deco-print bedspread the only expression for anger left was in tearing clothes and too-rough limbs. I settled him into goodnight with a talk-tomorrow promise, although my mind was decided already.
I spent weeks determining purposes for the water that wouldn’t hurt my boyfriend’s feelings; tasks that would live up to his expectations. I pulled out the folder of pages I’d clipped from the magazines and searched through them for advice. With one bucket I cleaned the refrigerator, scrubbed off burnt-on cooking from enamel pans, and sponged out the sweat stains from my boyfriend’s white undershirts. Upstairs, the lobsters barely moved, increasingly uncomfortable in the foreign water.
I poured the ocean by the bucketful over my head on an early February morning. But I was stoic as the waves splashed over my skin, internally crashing as I tried to accept the Pacific. So I emptied the rest of the buckets onto the sidewalk and watched the water freeze into a thin sheet of ice, despite the salt.
My boyfriend stormed through the apartment when he discovered I’d poured out his gift. Do you know how hard it is to bring the sea to someone across the continent? I apologized and redressed as he drove away. He would call when he reached San Francisco, ask me to put the argument behind us and begin packing. I would dodge the conversation because I couldn’t explain the pull of the east coast’s older waves, the wild calm of an ocean that had settled into its identity.
When the lobsters died, I crawled into the tub, naked except for a pair of goggles. I dipped my head under the water, eyes open but shielded, and reached for the female. She’d grown a new shell in the past few days, but it was still soft and gave way beneath my fingers. I wanted to revive her, pull her Atlantic body from this Pacific water. I’d place her back where the tide caressed the shore of Popham Beach and watch her scurry to where the salinity didn’t sting.