The deep-sea fisherman was always squinting into the sun. The marine biologist studied the hearing abilities of longfin squid. The gift shop clerk wrote poems on the backs of receipts customers said they didn’t need. The clerk was pale, wiry, with baby-fine blond hair. The fisherman was tall and very thin, “like an eel,” he always said. The marine biologist’s skin was tanned the color of wet sand; she had a sea captain’s gray-blue eyes. The deep-sea fisherman was older and divorced, though there were rumors he kept his ex-wife on an island in the bay.
It was really a love quadrangle, with the sea as their fourth partner. The fisherman longed to be immersed in the ocean, but he was also afraid of this, so he pulled things out of the water, which wasn’t immersion at all, yet counted for it in his imagination. The clerk saw the sea as a companion to his moods—a site of majestic beauty, ordered turmoil, and oblivion. The biologist experienced the sea as the sum of all moving forces on earth, in which she was proud of holding her own.
Alone together, the fisherman and the biologist disparaged the clerk for working retail and being a landlubber. They thought he had naive views of the sea—like those she had discarded when she learned squids were cannibals, like those he had let go when he realized he was fishing halibut and albacore toward collapse—but they were drawn to the clerk because they liked to be seen as part of the romance of the sea, which the clerk made them feel, because the clerk saw the sea the way they had before they became jaded by it.
The sea was calm on the nights the biologist made love with the clerk. It was her idea to use the fisherman’s boat. The clerk didn’t know whose boat it was. He just knew she had agreed to walk the piers after work, when the sun was set. The fisherman made love to the biologist more often, usually in her apartment, but it was important to her to sometimes make love to him in her lab. She wanted him to see her squid—and vice versa—in their low-lit greeny tanks, to observe how they swam better backwards than forwards, dime-sized eyes trailing astern. She wanted to show him that her longfins could eat fish larger than themselves. The fisherman lived in a tall, narrow house in the hills above the sea. But he never made love to anyone there, except his long-ago wife, because he was ashamed to live in a house and not on the back of a whale.
There was so much contingency in the world. The clerk would notice that the sun striking the windshield of a car could make a small yellow circle on the street as well as a reflection that hit the clerk perfectly in the eyes. The spangle of light on the windshield looked like a solid thing, but it was precisely in that place only for him and for other people seeing that car at the exact same angle. But who else could that be? The biologist never looked where he looked; her head was never positioned exactly the way his head was positioned. The oceanfront was full of light, but everyone saw the sun’s dazzle on the sea in a slightly different place.
The next night, she lay in the arms of the fisherman and thought about nothing, except how the fisherman smelled like fish, which was not a bad smell, at the right temperature.
The third night they made love, the clerk raised this with the biologist: “Look at the moonlight on the water.”
“I know,” she said.
Lying in the arms of the clerk, she realized she wanted to be with the fisherman, who would only say if he’d caught many fish or few, if prices were high or low, if the weather was fair or dirty.
The next night, she lay in the arms of the fisherman and thought about nothing, except how the fisherman smelled like fish, which was not a bad smell, at the right temperature. It bothered her that he never invited her to his tall, thin house; and that, when some worry came up, he didn’t take her problem-solving skills for granted but tried to correct and control. She forever met him on the surface, which left her unsatisfied when she was away from him.
But when she thought of breaking it off with the fisherman and being left with only the clerk, she felt incredibly sad. She didn’t consider breaking things off with the clerk, though she didn’t take him seriously. For now, she needed everything exactly the way it was, though that didn’t mean she was happy.
The fisherman liked everything the way it was because he didn’t realize the biologist slept with the clerk. He was used to how his vocation and eel-like physique aroused deep love in certain women. He could keep them or let them go, he thought, mostly as he chose. Knowledge of the biologist’s betrayal would have sunk him.
One afternoon, the clerk became sure that the biologist slept with the fisherman. They came into the shop and the fisherman put his hand on her back and bought her a shark-tooth necklace, which she put on before leaving the store, neither looking at the clerk nor looking away. But after the clerk had walked the piers and rested his mind on the heave of the water, this didn’t bother him so much; he felt he was nice compared with the fisherman, who seemed arrogant. It bothered him even less when he figured out that he was making love with the biologist on the fisherman’s boat.
He didn’t believe the fisherman kept his ex-wife on an island in the bay, but he did believe the fisherman was divorced, just as he believed, with calm certainty, that moonlight sparkling on water and the spume of breaking waves and the shadows of clouds on the sea would always seem beautiful. He loved the ocean. He loved this time, felt lucky to have it. He was, in this summer before he figured out his life, living in a poem on the back of someone else’s receipt.