Leaving the Sea: Stories


Copyright © 2014 by Ben Marcus

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House Companies.


Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

Selected stories in this work were previously published in the following: “On Not Growing Up” (Spring 2008) in
“Fear the Morning” as “The Morning Tour” (Fall 2004) in
The Denver Quarterly;
“Watching Mysteries with My Mother” (May 2012) in
Electric Literature;
“First Love” in
The Ex-File
(Context Books, February 2000); “The Father Costume” as
The Father Costume
(Artspace Books, May 2002); “Origins of the Family” as “Bones” (February 2001) in
“The Loyalty Protocol” (January 2013) in
“I Can Say Many Nice Things” (Summer 2013), “Against Attachment” as “Children Cover Your Eyes” (February 2005) and “My Views on the Darkness” (June 2009) in
“Rollingwood” (March 2011), “What Have You Done?” (August 2011), and “The Dark Arts” as “Wouldn’t You Like to Join Me?” (May 2013) in
The New Yorker;
and “The Moors” (2009) and “Leaving the Sea” (September 2013) in
Tin House
. “The Moors” subsequently published as
The Moors
(Madras Press, December 2010).

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Marcus, Ben, 1967–

[Short stories. Selections]

Leaving the sea : stories / Ben Marcus. —First edition.

pages ; cm.

“This is a Borzoi Book.”

: 9780307379382

: 9780385350433

I. Title.

43 2014 813'.54—dc23 2013004576

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover design by Peter Mendelsund


For Heidi

What Have You Done?

hen Paul’s flight landed in Cleveland, they were waiting for him. They’d probably arrived early, set up camp right where passengers float off the escalators scanning for family. They must have huddled there watching the arrivals board, hoping in the backs of their minds, and the mushy front parts of their minds, too,
yearning with their entire minds,
that Paul would balk as he usually did and just not come home.

But this time he’d come, and he’d hoped to arrive alone, to be totally alone until the very last second. The plan was to wash up, to be one of those guys at the wall of sinks in the airport bathroom, soaping their underarms, changing shirts. Then he’d get a Starbucks, grab his bag, take a taxi out to the house. That way he could delay the face time with these people. Delay the body time, the time itself,
the time,
while he built up his nerve, or whatever strategy it was that you employed when bracing yourself for Cleveland. For the people of Cleveland. His people.

They had texted him, though, and now here they were in a lump, pressed so tightly together you could almost have buckshot the three of them down with a single pull. Not that he was a hunter. Dad, Alicia, and Rick. The whole sad gang, minus one. Paul considered walking up to them and holding out his wrists, as if they were going to cuff him and lead him away.
You have been sentenced to a week with your family!
But they wouldn’t get the joke, and then, forever more, he’d be the one who had started it, after so many years away, the one who had triggered the difficulty yet again with his bullshit and games, and why did he need to queer the thing before the thing had even begun, unless, gasp, he
to set fire to his whole life.

So he strode up as cheerfully as he could, but he must have overdone it, because his father looked stricken, as if Paul might be moving in for a hug. He could have gone ahead and hugged the man, to see if there was anything left between them, except that he was going to behave himself, or so he’d pledged, and his father seemed thin and old and scared. Scared of Paul, or scared of the airport and the crowds, where disturbingly beautiful people and flat-out genetically certified monsters swarmed together as if they belonged to the same species. Maybe that was what happened to a man’s face after seventy: it grew helplessly honest, and today’s honest feeling was shit-stoked fear, because someone’s son had come home and his track record was, well, not the greatest. Paul understood, he understood, he understood, and he nodded and tried to smile, because they couldn’t really nail him for that, and they followed him to the baggage claim.

In the car they didn’t ask him about his trip and he didn’t volunteer. His sister and Rick whispered and cuddled and seemed to try to inseminate each other facially in the backseat while his father steered the car onto the expressway. Alicia and Rick had their whole married lives to exchange fluids and language, but for some reason they’d needed to wait until Paul was there to demonstrate how clandestine and porno they were. They had big secrets—as securely employed adults very well might. Plus they wanted Paul to know that they were vibrantly glistening sexual human beings, even in their late thirties, when most people’s genitals turn dark and small, like shrunken heads, and airport trip be damned, because they couldn’t just turn off their desire at will.

Alone they probably hated each other, Paul thought. Masturbating in separate rooms, then reading in bed together on his-and-hers Kindles. Ignoring the middle-aged fumes steaming under the duvet. Just another marriage burning through its eleventh year. What’s the anniversary stone for eleven years of marriage? A pebble?

Paul sat and watched the outskirts of Cleveland bloom in his window, as if endlessly delayed construction projects held professional interest for him, a village of concrete foundations filled with sand, rebar poking through like the breathing tubes of men buried alive.

His father took the exit onto Monroe and the woozy hairpin up Cutler Road, which Paul had always loved, because of the way the light suddenly dumped down on you as you pulled above the tree line. The city stretched below them, the whole skyline changed since he’d last visited, ten years ago. The old stone banks—Sovereign, Shelby, Citizens—squatted in the shadow of new, bladelike towers that weren’t half bad. They were tall and thin and black, hooked at their tops, and were either sheathed entirely in charcoal-tinted glass or simply windowless. Someone had actually hired real architects. Someone had decided not to rape the Cleveland skyline, and there must have been hell to pay.

It was still a good fifteen minutes to the house. The time for basic small talk had passed, so maybe it was okay to try big talk. Someone had to break the silence before they died of it, and Paul figured he might as well address the elephant in the room. Or the elephant in the car, or whatever.

“Mom couldn’t come?”

“Oh, Paul, she wanted to,” his father said, eyes dead on the road.

“She wanted to and you prevented her?” Paul said, laughing. “You held her down?”

“No, that’s not it.” His father frowned.

“Mom’s resting, Paul,” his sister said from the backseat.

“She’s excited to see you,” Rick added, in a voice too loud for the car. Big Rick the Righteous. The peacemaker. Telling folks what they want to hear. Making folks feel better since 1971.

“Thank you, Rick,” Paul said, without turning around. “Now I know who to ask when I need to find out what my mother really feels.”

Rick was right. Paul’s mother was waiting in her robe when he came in the door, and she rushed up, hugged him, kissed him, smothering him with love while Paul stood there holding his bags.

“Oh, Paul!”

“Hi, Mom.”

“Paul!” she cried again, grabbing his face, tilting back to see the whole huge mess of him.

She looked so small inside her robe.

“You shaved! You shaved it off!”

“I did,” Paul said, stroking his chin, smirking.

He suddenly felt proud. This was his mother’s great gift—to make him feel good about absurdly common things, like grooming.

“Oh, my goodness, you are so handsome.”

His mother was crying a little. She couldn’t hug him enough.


This was nice. This was really nice.

“Morton, do you see how handsome your son is? Do you see?”

She studied Paul again, and he found that he could meet his mother’s eyes and it did not feel terrible. He smiled at her and meant it. He wanted to pick her up and run out in the street.

His mother would never, thank God, see him or his abused, overfed body for what it was. Even Andrea, at home, had to admit that Paul was not exactly handsome, per se, though when she was being affectionate she told him that he looked serious. He had a fair-minded face, she would say.

“Morton?” Paul’s mother called again.

Concern flashed across her face as she realized that she’d been left alone with Paul. The panic of someone trapped in a cage with an animal. Zookeeper, let me out of here! Paul felt bad for her, his poor mom, stranded with him, when who knows what he might do?

Paul’s father must have gone to the kitchen. Rick and Alicia had run upstairs to fuck, or whisper some more. Or whisper and fuck and hide while poor Mom dealt with Paul, as always. They’d done their time with Paul in the car, and now it was Mom’s shift. This was how it would be for the whole visit, the three of them playing hot potato with fat Paul.

She fussed at Paul’s coat zipper, then adjusted her robe, but there was nothing to fix and no one to groom and they’d already hugged. She was panicked. She wheeled and hurried into the kitchen, calling, “Come, come, you must be starving,” then fled from sight.

Paul waited with his bags.

“Where do you want me?” he yelled. He needed a bathroom and he wanted to change his clothes. “Where am I, Mom? What room?”

His mother didn’t answer; his father was gone—resting, probably. Everyone in his family was constantly needing to rest, but never from physical exertion. Always from the
kind of exertion. Resting from
Paul the difficult, who latched on to your energy center with his little red mouth and sucked it dry. You’d think that, given how long he’d steered clear of Cleveland, they’d be rested by now.

Alicia appeared at the top of the staircase, wearing a long T-shirt. She was disheveled and flushed. That hadn’t taken long.

“You’re up here, Paul,” she said, and he followed her, climbing the soft, carpeted stairs to his old bedroom.

His parents lacked Wi-Fi in the house, which figured, because old people hated the Internet. But they probably hated the Internet because they only had dial-up, and had to crawl through the
USA Today
Web site, which never fully loaded, with videos that never played, and click on e-mail attachments that took hours to download, so why even bother? The upshot was that Paul couldn’t really get on to any of his sites. He had a few JPEGs buried deep on his hard drive in a folder called “old budgets.” He brought the pictures up on the screen of his laptop. To be safe, he locked the door of his room, and then he settled in to try, sitting on the chair that his dad had painted red for him decades ago. He’d been back in his childhood house, what, all of ten minutes before his pants were at his ankles and his little person was out, lonely from the long flight, looking for friction. But the pictures on-screen reminded Paul, for no good reason, of people he knew. Civilians, instead of anonymous, Photoshopped nubiles. Civilians who had suddenly become naked, who were visibly uncomfortable in their poses, who seemed to want desperately to get dressed and head home to make pasta for someone. Paul’s sad man was cold and small in his hand, and nothing was working.

He had tricks for situations like this, a way to will himself into something passing for readiness, at least enough to travel to the other side, because stopping halfway through was tough to live down. He could have used a splint, Popsicle-sticked the little fucker until it stood, but that was when Alicia knocked and he jumped up and pulled on his pants, figuring there was about a 32 percent chance she’d know what he’d been doing.

“So,” she said, when he opened up, crossing her arms in the doorway. He guessed that this was the only cue he was going to get that they should have their little talk—brother and sister, adults now, believe it or not.

Alicia used to be forbidden to enter his room. In high school Paul had made a chart of those who couldn’t come in: Mom, Dad, and Alicia, their names in large block letters, plus, in smaller letters, Nana and that whole crowd. Fucking Nana and her skeletal friends, geriatric narcs who kept wandering upstairs to spy. Posted on his door as if he hadn’t also delivered the information verbally, numerous times, when admonitions were his preferred mode of rhetoric. What a man he’d once been, ordering everyone around. And they had obeyed! Never in his life would he command so much power again.

All signs of Paul were gone from the room now. Blush-colored paint reddened the walls, the punched-in holes spackled up and painted over. New floors—linoleum intended to look like wood—new furniture, sanitized air pumped in to cleanse the place of the errant son. It looked like a showroom for a home office dedicated to lace crafts and scrapbooking. It was hard not to realize what kind of kid his parents wished they’d had, and when he thought about that kind of kid it was tempting for Paul to want to track, hunt, and eat the little thing.

“How are you?” Alicia asked, and it seemed like she was really trying, for which bless her, because they had days to kill and might as well be friends.

They closed the door, sat on the bed. God, she looked old. Her face was slack and tired, and her eyes were muddy, as if she’d rubbed them all day and then poured red wine in them. But who was Paul to talk? He upsized his clothing almost every year and had moved on to the big-and-tall shop, which still carried some good brands. If his face remained smooth and babyish at forty, without the friendship-defeating beard he used to wear, with his shirt off he was shocking to behold, and he knew it.
was maybe too strong a word. Actually, no, it was fitting. He had small, thin shoulders and from there his body spread hard and wide, into a belly that spilled around to his lower back. A second belly in the rear, which might be why he ate so much. Two mouths to feed.

Paul said that he was fine, and Alicia looked at him intently, asked if that was really true. Paul insisted that it was, it really was, but how was
and how were things with Rick, and did they like Atlanta?

“We live in Charlotte,” Alicia said, stiffening. “We moved three years ago.”

Of course he knew that, had been told that, but it wasn’t like Alicia’s e-mail address had changed or anything, and you didn’t send things to people by mail anymore.

Paul assessed his sister and couldn’t really tell, because she wasn’t exactly a slender woman. Maybe she was technically showing. Some women hide it well. So he asked. He knew they wanted one, and what harm was there in asking?

“No,” she said, a bit too cheerfully, which was weird, given the thoroughly public way she and Rick had always demonstrated their urge for children of their own.

“It’s getting late, though, right?” This he knew. This was information he was quite familiar with. The sun starts to set at forty.

“We’re okay with it,” Alicia said. “We really are.”

Which was what you said when you weren’t okay, so he would drop it. But to himself he couldn’t quite drop it. Who was broken, his sister or Rick? Who was flawed and rotten on the inside? Or was it both of them, which was maybe what had attracted them to each other in the first place? Maybe there was a dating service for the barren. Sexually on fire, but fucking barren. Of course he knew how they’d met. He’d been there. In this very house. And Rick had been his friend. In high school they’d once almost gone camping together.

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