Before the oil turned the Gulf of Mexico sour and brown, we practiced reserved smiles and polite conversation as we crossed state lines, driving south from Nashville to vacation at your father's place in Pensacola, gauging how close we were getting by the number of crushed love bugs freckling the headlights and windshield. The house on the beach: the long, waxed surfboards, the blue hurricane shutters. The ocean fifty yards away, waving us in with rolling curls of crashing surf. We brought bathing suits and flip-flops, T-shirts and cut-off khakis. We loaded the refrigerator with two liters of blue agave tequila and three liters of margarita mix. We spent the morning and afternoons scuttling from umbrella covered chairs on the hot, white sand to the kitchen at your father's house�smiling like co-workers as we passed each other at the blender, freshening a drink and then back to the beach; a handful of peanuts and some celery for lunch and liberal amounts of sunscreen to keep our golden skin from reddening.
We shared a bed, too. As usual, your father offered us his bedroom and took the sofa bed in the living room. You, of course, protested, told your father he was too old for the fold-out, told him we'd be fine sleeping in the living room, there were two couches after all. He would have none of it, told us bedrooms were for married folk, winked and left us to unpack in the narrow pink bedroom. For eight summers we'd stayed in the pink bedroom, where the sun left its color at the end of the day through the western facing window. Our feet occasionally touched during sleep because the bed was a double. There we slept on our sides, our backs all but pressed together, our knees pulled up close to our chests. The little roars of the water came in through the screened windows with the sweet ocean air. You'd told me the first night that this kind of situation, the two of us in one bed again, was the business of vacationing.
That was the summer before the oil. Before the schools of mackerel and sea bass fought through the thick, sticky water in search of a new home or washed up on the shore, flopping about, sucking in air for a minute or two before their motion ebbed and their eyes turned dull. That was before the sugar white beaches turned brown and gray, and the signs appeared every fifty feet: Shoes must be worn on the beach at all times. No Swimming Allowed, eventually replaced with No Entry Allowed, Hazardous Conditions. Signs with the red ovals and white letters of danger and the black skull and cross bones of poison were posted at every beach entrance. The lifeguard stations stood empty. The black flags that bickered in the wind were kept high atop the flagpoles on the beach. Discarded napkins from closed ice-cream stands stuck in the cattails on the dunes and waved like weeping lovers to the ocean. The beach had been left silent. Helicopters no longer spotted for sharks. The sharks had moved on, long before the humans figured it out.
When the oil took Pensacola away, your father sold the beach house for far less than he had paid for it, but found it necessary to do so because he couldn't look at the filthy, slick ocean any longer. He moved back to New Jersey and its overcast winters and the never-ending cooing of pigeons. We were invited to come for Christmas.
When the oil had pulled the last of the seagulls beneath the surface sheen, I had become completely consumed. The television in the living room and kitchen stayed on 24 hours a day. It seemed that nothing could be done. No expert teams of engineers could undo what had happened. Some called it the end. Others held out hope that the damage could be fixed, that in time we would wake up one morning and everything would be back to normal. There would be clean up, of course. Plenty of damage control, but the worst would be behind us.
By the time the pitch clouds under the rolling gulf waves had rounded the eastern tip of Miami's South Beach and the Mercedes Benz convertibles and bright colored thongs had been replaced by hazmat suits and bulldozers that pushed black sand up and down the beachfront, the winter had settled in. With Christmas a week away, you left for New Jersey. The driver wrestled three large suitcases into the trunk of the pink-roofed taxi you took to the airport.
I went to a tree lot and bought a two hundred dollar Christmas tree that stood twelve feet tall and seven feet wide at its base. For hours, I untangled hundreds of feet of Christmas tree lights, I pulled the black, garbage bags from the attic with the plastic reindeer kept inside and the five shoe boxes full of colored glass ornaments. The television continued to deliver minute-by-minute accounts of the disaster. The oil couldn't be stopped. Not with siphons or barges, robots, chemicals, or a thirty-ton cement dump to close off the well. There was no remedy. Even the heavy, yellow cap installed on top of the blown well only lasted a month before the ground around it ruptured and left a thirty-yard tear in the ocean floor. I called you, to tell you about it— what I had seen on the television, the panic, the public denial, the feeling of loss. You didn't answer. For thirty-three days the oil flowed, uncontested from ocean floor to surface. For thirty-three days I left messages on your cell phone and on the answering machine at your father's house.
And then the well ran dry, and the gulf was thick like syrup. The television in the living room confirmed the news: the well was pronounced dead at 9:55 a.m. I called to let you know. The spring was coming. People were full of optimism.
The papers from Thomas, Wyatt and Jones arrived in the first week of March. Your attorney cited irreconcilable differences. A note, typed out on impressive stationery was attached. It cited the two hundred and twenty-three phone calls that had been logged between my phone and your cell phone, or to the phone number listed for your father's house. The note advised that a simple signature would be in my best interest, as a long, drawn out period of litigation, mixed with harassment charges would only delay the clean up of what had turned into an ugly situation.
The day after the signed papers were faxed back to Thomas, Wyatt and Jones, the men showed up with the moving truck. They worked without words. Their shirts stuck to their shoulders and chests, heavy with sweat, as they carried the things from the house and packed them into a long, sugar-white moving truck—a cavernous thing. I put the blender to work and whipped up a half dozen margaritas. The men thanked me, but refused to join me in a drink. I held up a chilled glass and toasted to their quick and quiet removal of our life together. They left the Christmas tree, which had dropped most of its needles, and the television. I stood out on the brick patio and drank until the sunlight died beyond the Nashville skyline, and the last lingering breaths of winter cold pushed me inside.
There was too much oil. Volunteers with shirts that read "It Can Be Saved" were turned away from Pensacola and ordered to go back to the homes they'd left so many months before. The T-shirt vendors wore ventilated masks to clean the air coming into their lungs as they packed up their boxes and headed east. The thick, black tide would ebb and flow itself clean. The scientists assured the world of that; they estimated between ten and fifty years before the Gulf restored itself.
The love bugs don't fill the air in early summer anymore. The smell isn't what you would think it would be. It takes some getting used to. The surf reddens exposed skin, so I wear a full wet suit and wade out past the rolling black waves where the gentle rise and fall holds me around the chest. And when the sun sits on the curve of the world, and the beach falls dark behind me, there's still a glimpse of what it used to be. I listen to the tide as the stars begin to show, the waves crashing in and pulling out. It almost sounds like water.
BIO: Jonathan Kosik was raised in the land of the MoonPie. He learned to write the same way he learned to drive a forklift, by running into things and trying to do better the next time around. His work has appeared in Clapboard House, Glossolalia, Monkeybicycle and in the Burrow Press collection: Fragmentation + Other Stories.