Whales: A Love Story
By Jason Derr
When Nicky Carter first came upon the scene he thought he had discovered two pink whales wrestling in the midnight tide. Only as the moon rose, casting a silver light on both the indifferent Pacific Ocean and the pink whales, did he realize he was witness to two rotund lovers, their fat rolls lapping at each others’ bodies, their low moans a faint melody on the breeze, their genitals working vainly to make a connection through their girth. All together Nicky Carter was witness to 700 pounds of lovemaking.
The image stayed with Nicky Carter for three days, like a stencil on the forefront of his brain. The image was superimposed on every thought, every interaction he had leaving no moment untouched. It was with him through seven cups of coffee, two arguments with his mother and one intense masturbatory session.
On the fourth day it began to fade from memory leaving Nicky Carter both relieved and lustful for its return. The world seemed duller without it, yet Nicky Carter felt a bit lighter, as if a weight had fallen from his neck. That was also the day he lost his virginity to his longtime girlfriend, Rebecca Stormhand.
“Will you be going to college?” Rebecca was mostly naked, though she had refused to take her shirt off during the act. At the time Nicky Carter had been frustrated by this, now he could imagine nothing sexier.
“I might, dunno”
“I will be. I got accepted.”
“Cool. I might go, or I might just read books.”
“Like in college, but on my own.”
“I don’t think college is for reading books.” Rebecca swept her hair back, revealing her neck and a small, rising red mark where Nicky Carter had bitten instead of kissed, as she had instructed him to do.
“Then what is it for?”
“Parties, drinking, figuring shit out…”
“I can do all of that on my own!”
“…and sleeping with strange boys.” Rebecca began putting her pants back on, her slender skinny legs slipping easily into the blue denim fabric.
“I can do all of that on my—are you breaking up with me?” She was in the door now, backlit by the light his mother always forgot to turn off in the hallway.
“Breaking up? No, I don’t think so. I’m just saying I’m going to college, is all,” and with that she was through the door and seven seconds later he heard the front door click open as she exited.
“I might go to college…” But the room was empty and Nicky Carter was feeling weighed down by his comforter.
Faith Fundamentalist Bible Church of God had been Nicky Carter’s spiritual home for almost 15 years. This was true despite the powerlessness Nicky had of attending elsewhere or of not attending anywhere at all. His rent, as his mother put it, was in attending church with her, his stepfather and little brother. For almost three years Nicky Carter had been considering eviction.
The church itself was a conservative breakaway from the larger Faith Bible Church known for such liberal activities as a weekly soup kitchen, renting space to the drunks and former drunks of AA and a woman pastor who refused to comment if she was lesbian or not. The two congregations were less than two blocks from each other and had been in a twelve-year legal battle over the original property that the congregations had split from. Nicky Carter did not know anyone in either congregation who had been attending at the time of the split.
During worship itself Rebecca Stormhand chose to sit with her father instead of with the Carters, as had been her custom of the last two years. School supplies, she explained, after worship they would be going to buy school supplies. Somehow this meant the hour of worship itself was unavailable to her to sit with the family.
“Nicky, what about you?” Nicky Carter’s mother was tall and thin and liked things done in the proper way. She had removed her eyebrows surgically years earlier and had replaced them with a thin pencil-drawn version.
“What about me?”
“School supplies? For college?” Nicky Carter just shrugged at the suggestion, fingering a list of books he had printed out at home, an ad hoc reading list.
“College boy!” Rick, Nicky Carter’s stepfather, his third in ten years, gave Nicky a hard slug to the shoulder. Rick was very keen that Nicky Go Away to school. Nicky was sure the words Go Away were always capitalized in Rick’s head.
“Maybe. Or I can just read books. Maybe get an internship?” Nicky Carter regretted the implied question mark in his statement. He made a note to always end verbal communication with periods.
“No. No sir. Not at all!” Nicky Carter’s mother did not like reading lists, or do-it-yourself plans. Nicky Carter’s mom preferred things be done In The Proper Way and Nicky Carter knew that those words were always capitalized in her head. Nicky Carter, wisely he thought, chose not to push the point and jotted down “The Iliad” on his reading list. His mother frowned and Ricky looked confused.
Worship at Faith Fundamentalist Bible Church of God was typical for its particular school of faith, in that they felt that they were not typical but were unique and wonderful and doing things right where everyone else had failed. For instance they had no set liturgy, but if the worship pastor varied from the usual order of things he risked the wrath of the board of elders. In fact the former pastor, a young man named Steven whom Nicky Carter had secretly admired, had been removed after he had disrupted the flow of things. Steven now lived by the beach with long-time best friend, Joe. Nicky Carter suspected that there was more to the story but as no one in the congregation would comment on it, he had no way of confirming one way or another.
Nicky Carter stood when he was expected to and sat when expected to. He avoided the testimonies and was really into it for the coffee and cookies afterwards. He figured that when he could not believe in God he could believe in the community. Sometimes it was enough. Sometimes it was not.
During coffee Nicky Carter noticed that Rebecca Stormhand had not, in fact, left to buy school supplies. She and her father loitered during the majority of the coffee hour before making their way to the aging green station wagon in the parking lot. Nicky had once received the greatest hand job of his life in that car, second only to his own endeavors. As they pulled out Nicky Carter wondered if he should have told her he loved her in the way he had, mid grunt, face full of sweat, half his brain wondering if he had done up the condom correctly. It may have been a mistake. One could never tell.
At Wal-Mart Nicky Carter’s mother steered him away from books and towards school supplies, bedding and new clothes. Nicky Carter’s mother seemed convinced that a good college education began with a proper comforter and matching pillows. Nicky Carter was convinced that a proper education began with a thesaurus, dictionary and a copy of On The Road. It was a topic they would never see eye-to-eye on.
At some point Rick had vanished and it was likely he was impregnating a checkout girl. This was not sarcasm on Nicky Carter’s part, just facts. In the three years he had been married to Nicky Carter’s mother Rick had knocked-up three girls, two of them teenagers and two of them check out girls, but not the same two. Nicky Carter’s mother knew all of this, knew at least one of the mothers socially and was in a type of denial that only red wine could purchase.
“Now Nicky Carter, I want you to look at this. You see that, the thread count. I think that’s good. Is that good? I mean is it university good?” Nicky Carter had no idea how to respond to that, backed up three paces, and tried to act as if he had no association with the woman in the floral dress, stains spreading slowly under her arms.
“I don’t know.” Nicky Carter had spied, in the discount book bin on their way in, a copy of Melville’s Moby-Dick. Nicky Carter had three editions of this particular book already, but had not yet brought himself to read it all the way though, always stopping 50 pages from the end. It was his intention to become very silent and thus invisible to his mother and little brother and make his way to the discount table. His mother and Ricky had a strict no new books policy that Nicky Carter was dedicated to circumventing.
“You stay here. You stay with me. I know you, Nicky Carter, you want to go look at them books, probably spend some of my money of them too. No, you stay here. What good has books ever done anyone.”
“I think you will find…“
“Oh look at these posters. They would go well on your dorm wall.” Nicky could see no practical use of a poster featuring a kitten in a letterman jacket.
Rick had been found looking at car magazines, which he declared to be the only literature ever worth reading. Rick did not himself know how to work on cars, but he knew he liked driving his car—an American made car, by-shit—and he knew he liked the photos of the women in the yellow lingerie who leaned up against the cars, grinning at you like they wanted to fuck you and like they wanted to be your sister. As a rule Nicky Carter avoided being attracted by anything with that much contradiction. That Rick was so fond of these magazines, often taking one into the bathroom after dinner, helped Nicky Carter stay away.
“Look at the engine on this one, by-shit. And look at the car too!”
“Sure…” Nicky Carter was an aisle away from Moby-Dick now, he could feel its gravity calling him, he could feel himself trapped in its orbit, with only one idiot blocking his trajectory.
“You think she went to college? I don’t think so. I don’t think she made no reading list either. She doesn’t need to, by-shit, don’t need to be better than no one. And look, she’s on the cover of a national magazine, by-shit.”
“Sure, Rick. Sure.”
“But you, Nicky Carter. You got to go to school. Get laid. Drink beer.”
“And learn.” Nicky Carter wondered if Rick had been drinking, his sudden urge to converse with his stepson when his mother was not around confirming a certain suspicion.
“And get laid. Did I say that one? Get laid. A lot. Read books, sure, do that. But get laid.”
“I’ve been laid!”
“Rebecca Stormhand don’t count. Trust me on that, by-shit.” Nicky Carter did not trust him on that, not at all.
Nicky Carter was anything if not organized. A small Tupperware bucket contained the beginnings of his dream education, all culled from his reading list. A notebook contained a list of subjects he hoped to study, by research and internship. A manila envelope contained important documents: bank statements, his passport and an unopened letter from Oldtown University.
These last five years he had kept his room in a sort of scientifically sterile perfection. This was not OCD or persnickety behavior, as his mother wanted to believe, but more of a steely determination by Nicky Carter to have things his own way and under his own control. His mother would have preferred a little more mess on this side of his door, and less on her side of the door.
Nicky Carter put the phone down, listening as he did so for a last minute tell-tale click of Rebecca Stormhand picking up on her end, the muffled hello and the faint welcome of her words. There was no such click, no welcome, and no hello. He instead turned to his Webster’s dictionary, chose a word at random and read the definition.
Any of numerous crinoids of the genus Antedon and related genera, having a free-swimming, stalkless adult stage with breached feathery arms.
Beyond his bedroom door—locked, barred against invasion, secured by a poster of Superman sweeping into the air, a gleeful smile on his face as if the process of breaking gravity itself was joyful beyond comparison—he could hear the tinny voice of his mother and the slow, drunken crawl of Rick.
“…I worry about him…”
“Boy ain’t right, by-shit.”
“He needs to go away. He needs to go and…in college you do things. You party. You make new friends. That is what he needs.”
“It’s what you need of him.”
“I do. I do, it’s true. All he wants to do is read. Read? Who reads? I ain’t read a book since high school, never saw the need.”
There was more that was said, questioning Nicky’s sexuality, doubting his ability to succeed, wondering if ever he had what he dreamt of in life if he would still be a leech, a drain on the family. But Nicky Carter missed all of that as he had crept through an open window and into the slowly darkening night, the smell of a late summer rain greeting him as he slinked across the yard fading into the darkness, another shadow in the evening.
At first the night was cold, like a stiff blanket, and then it was freezing, like a club to the back of the head. Nicky Carter had no place to go, no direction to walk and so he just chose the little alley that ran behind the house, down past a few overturned garbage cans and a pair of dogs enthusiastically hunting for dinner among the rubbish. Nicky Carter paid no regard to the dogs, moved past them with his head down against the wind, hands in his pockets.
Where the alley intersected the street Nicky Carter had a decision to make, and so he headed west, down past the overgrown shrub and out past the graveyard. For a moment he considered steering into the graveyard, hunting out his grandmother’s grave or, barring that, finding one of the groupings of high schoolers who so often chose the graveyard for a few cigarettes and a bottle of vodka. Nicky Carter instead stuck to the sidewalk, shuffling under the off-yellow of the street lamps, moving ever up hill.
It occurred to him he could just keep going, hitch a ride, get a job in a small town and begin the self-education he had dreamed of. Over the last year he had chosen three possible towns and rejected each of them. Wherever he went would have to have a good community center. Nicky Carter was not yet sure what he wanted to learn, but he knew that his campus would be a community center. Affordable classes of all sorts and, if one was lucky, access to a pottery studio. Nicky Carter was not sure pottery would be his life’s destiny, but he had heard that Paul McCartney’s daughter made her living making pottery and he assumed it was worth a shot.
Up above the stars were starting to peak out, sharp diamonds cut into the black. He had gone out far enough that the street lamps had vanished and the suburban homes had started to spread out, a slow drift into rambling properties, small farms and land filled with old cars and derelict trucks.
Nicky Carter stopped under a tree to tie his shoe, scratching three straight lines in the dirt before standing up again trying to stretch a kink out of his back. Any farther and he would be lost, officially lost. To his right was John Connor’s tire swing and to his left was a small trail that led to a thin scratch of beach sometimes, a secret known only to locals and late night revelers. Straight ahead was thick darkness and open sky. Behind him was the road home.
Nicky Carter chose the path to the beach, stepping carefully as the woods closed in around him, cutting off the silver glow of the moon. Roots twisted up to grab at him, shadowed hands in the dark with too many fingers. One large rock, sitting squat in the dark, caused him to stumble and twist his left ankle. When Nicky Carter looked up he could see the trail’s end, a space in the dark where he could see sand and hear water.
With a slow, determined limp he made his way to the clearing, stepping onto the beach with slow, cautious steps. The sand was brighter than he expected under the moon. Adding to this was the slow, dying light of a beach bonfire, started by revelers who had now departed for other destinations. Nicky Carter chose to nurse his twisted ankle in the warmth of the dying fire, tossing in a stray branch as he did so with no noticeable addition to his warmth.
Nicky Carter had no idea how long he slept, tucked up by the fire, sand in his hair. When his eyes did open he could just glimpse the pink fingers of early dawn on the sky. The ocean, which had been a liquid night, was beginning to take on a new morning glow. Nicky Carter’s head throbbed under the cry of hungry sea gulls, the pulse of the ocean and something else, something new that Nicky Carter could not identify.
Nicky Carter pulled himself up to his feet, one hand shooting out for a thin branch to use as a walking stick. When Nicky Carter had gotten to his feet, he rubbed the sand and sleep from his eyes and found that he was not alone on the beach. Something large and grayish-white and wild had joined him. When Nicky Carter breathed deeply he could smell the wildness: a hint of salt and fish, a feeling of coming from an alien world just below the ocean’s surface.
As he came closer to the thing its skin became clearer in his vision: grey, as these things are, but peppered with white, a discoloration or a sign of aging like an old man gaining white hair. Nicky Carter wanted to touch it, put a hand to its side, feel its labored breath and the texture of its skin. Instead he founds its face, found the dim curve of its mouth and the sunken half orb of its eye.
It occurred to Nicky Carter that in all his years of living he had never truly been in the presence of life. Here was something that had swum in mystery, in a universe as separate from his own as his was from those who lived in the sky. Nicky Carter felt he should be a poet, that he should say something to a creature like this, drowning in the morning breeze on a thin strip of unpopular beach. When he could stand it he stood facing the thing’s eye, breathing harshly through his nose, overwhelmed by the alien mind he could sense behind that eye.
Words failed him and silence became the best poetry for the occasion. So he sat in silence with the creature as the sun rose and as locals began to gather and someone with a cell phone finally called the proper authorities. He sat with the creature as Rebecca Stormhand arrived, hand in hand with someone tall and good-looking. He sat with the creature after they retreated to the growing crowd’s rear, after Rick and his mother and little brother had arrived in full tourist gear. He sat, silently, still and watching as help arrived.
In all Nicky Carter was witness to 23 tons of life.