Inviting in the Universe

Inviting in the Universe

by Kathryn McMahon

The toothbrush sits in the black mug with the calcium scum that Leslie always plans to do something about. On the mug is a whale shark, huge and spotted like the winter night sky. She bought it in the Philippines after she went snorkeling as a thirty-second birthday present to herself, the last minute flights purchased on a whim—back when she trusted whims. The base is cracked and doesn’t hold water, but years later she still can’t throw it away. She dropped it in the kitchen. She glued it back together. Now the mug rests on the edge of the bathroom sink, not quite fitting the slope of the ceramic. Precarious, but what isn’t.

Leslie bought the mug because she didn’t have an underwater camera and needed something to prove that she’d been there. That she’d swum beside whale sharks with rumbles of David Attenborough in her head.

She hadn’t had a room to stay in, either, but on the bus to Donsol, she’d met another whim. A twenty-eight-year-old French guy, Gabin-something, also on the whale shark trip. He’d booked a room in advance and bought an underwater camera. That night, listening to his snores and the rolling clank-clank of the fan above the mosquito net, Leslie pictured how they’d eat breakfast, then swim side-by-side with each other, with the sharks, backs browning in the sun and everyone full-bellied and safe.

On the boat out into the bay, the Filipino guide told the group that no one was allowed to touch the sharks in case too many did and scared them away. Gabin dove in first, followed by a dozen uncertain tourists in lifejackets, and, lastly, her. The water was cloudy with plankton and colder than she’d expected. Everyone was ahead of her paddling after the shark, but it circled back, and Leslie was hovering above it, treading water as each end of the animal vanished into nebulas of plankton. Staring at its starry body, she could not imagine that something so vast could be afraid. Then Gabin yanked her foot, pulling her out of his way, and she gulped in green water as he reached forward and slid his hand against the shark the same way he’d slid it up her shorts on the bus. The black hole of a mouth that opened beneath her could have swallowed them both. She kicked up for a breath and felt the satisfying pressure of her flipper slicing across the back of his calf. Later, when they were toweling dry on the boat and Gabin spread his arms along the stern and tilted his chin to the sun, she’d still asked him to email her the photos. It’s a good thing she bought that mug.

Staring at its starry body, she could not imagine that something so vast could be afraid.

In her bathroom, Leslie brushes her teeth and returns the toothbrush with its ratty, bent bristles to the mug. When she gets dressed, she buttons-up a blouse someone else would say she looks good in. Or maybe tug at the tea stain on the hem and tell her to throw it away? A few weeks ago at the library, she borrowed a self-help book that said to clear a space in her closet so the universe could invite someone into her life. She didn’t believe it, but she did it anyway.

Whale sharks live alone too—except when the conditions are right, either reeled towards each other to mate or drawn to a magnetic sea stewing with nutrients. Leslie once wanted to make the conditions right. She tried being friends first. Going on blind dates. Tinder. What would David Attenborough say? That she is a solitary feeder? One plate and one fork claim the dish rack. Meals, she makes in groups of three because that’s how long leftovers last before they go off; some fairy-tale number.

In the kitchen, she sits and eats cold the remains of a frittata with chèvre and mushrooms and roasted red peppers. No one is there to complain about how she browned the top. Or to tell her that she has a chive stuck in her teeth. With the tines of her fork, she pokes at her incisors. Useless. She digs in with a fingernail. Opposite her is a dusty chair. Sometimes she sits in that chair, wiping the dust with the seat of her pants and mentally crossing off another chore. The house needs a deep clean, true, and she’s out of eggs and bread and could use a new toothbrush. The chive is wedged between her teeth, a bright flare each time her tongue glides over it.

Last night, she dreamed the whale shark swallowed her. It opened its mouth and three hundred bristled teeth caught her ankle. When she woke up, her foot was poking out from the comforter, and she’d forgotten to turn on the thermostat. Everything is right where she left it, right where she wants it to be or misplaces it. Leslie sets her plate and fork in the sink. On the counter is a folder she has paged through each evening for the past week. In other states, adopting alone is illegal, but here, for her, it’s time. She’s craving someone else’s bad dreams to keep her up. Someone with smaller, fresher fears who has needs she can name. Who lives from whim to whim.

The chive hasn’t budged. She remembers the calcium crusting the mug—and is proud for remembering. From the cupboard, she grabs the bottle of white vinegar to drench it. She will be more on top of things with a child in the house, she thinks, thumping upstairs to brush her teeth.

Beyond the bathroom window, the celestial jaw of night loosens its grip on the sky. Whale sharks with their astral skin are tracked by the same software that follows the galaxies. Even now, a whale shark is making its way from green sea to green sea as her knuckles knock the mug, and it slips, ceramic over ceramic, falling and shattering into a million lost stars.

About the author

Kathryn McMahon

Kathryn McMahon is an American writer living abroad with her British wife and dog. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Booth, Passages North, Syntax and Salt, The Cincinnati Review, The Baltimore Review, Jellyfish Review, Split Lip, and others. She has received nominations for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and the Pushcart, and was a finalist for the 2018 Smokelong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellowship. On Twitter, she is @katoscope. Find more of her writing at darkandsparklystories.com.