UNDERTOW: tHE cHICKEN mAN
He is skewering whole chickens the first time you see him. Schick. Whump. Squelch. Repeat.
Raw, naked chickens, their skin always did remind you of human breasts, their surface puckered from cold, or arousal, or agitation. Schick. Whump. Squelch. You notice only his hands in motion, skin wet with poultry, gristle covering human flesh. He is as untouchable then as he should be later. Schick. Whump. Squelch.
You should remember how you wanted to turn away, avert your eyes the first time you saw him. But you won’t. You should remember, when his gaze locks you in, that he had dead, headless chicken bodies in those hands that you are beginning to think would be useful in other ways. Those hands, which are so sure of themselves.
After a while, you ignore the fact that what he was doing before, with the chickens, revolted you. You will disregard the nagging feeling deep in your abdomen that you shouldn’t be watching him so intently. Later, you will forget that you should look away when he sees you watching him; that your face will tell him what you are thinking, whether you want it to or not. After a while, you decide that it was just a look. Then it will be just a drink. Just a step closer. Just an accidental touch. Just an intentional one.
Soon, you convince yourself he is a friend. You will fail to remember that you had made a promise to someone else. You will forget about commitments and that it is your turn to take out the garbage. You will neglect your domestic obligations. You will learn how to smudge lines, make them blurry enough that you can justify letting his confident hands linger over yours as he passes you a drink, or opens the door, or pushes the hair off your face.
You become careless. All those commitments whispered in the domestic darkness mean nothing now. You learn how to lie to that other man’s face, so that this man’s chicken hands can touch yours.
Every time he touches your arm, your hair, your back, little pieces of you will break off. And you will spend a good portion of those first few months sweeping them up and putting yourself back together, like a casual puzzle you pore over one bored night at a hostel where it doesn’t matter if all the pieces are there because you aren’t going to take the time to finish it, in the end.
The first time he kisses you, you are surprised by how suddenly your cells start humming, and you feel that if they hum even one second longer the incessant buzzing will make you disintegrate into water, and now you are a vast ocean, and he is swimming in you.
Only you cannot reassemble quite so easily as before, and parts of you are always water now, and the tides get stronger. So you leave behind everything you’ve known because isn’t that for the best anyway? And besides, you’re an ocean now.
Kissing him feels like drowning. Submerged into the salt that lines his lips, a heady sensation of that moment you felt once, beneath a big Atlantic wave, your first experience of undertow. Where you reemerged, tasting of salt and fear and adrenaline. Where you wished it could stop but you also survived and maybe you want to test the waters again. Maybe they’ll be gentler this time, remember to ease your body back to shore a little softer. Maybe you will master the waves. But you like the way they pummel and batter your skin, how they make you feel supple and palpable again.
After some time, you will learn that undertow isn’t as appealing its hundredth time, and maybe the shore is not as dull or tedious or monotonous as you previously thought. You will wonder if you shouldn’t have just stayed where it was safe and predictable, but also now, as a body of water, crawling back onto the sand just submerges it, and you don’t really care to learn how to evaporate so you just keep jumping back into the folds of the biggest waves you can find.
You will do this because kissing him is like tasting memories. Like that bite of cake that catapults you back to your seventh birthday party, where Mattie had a temper tantrum, and the dog threw up rainbow sprinkles, and your best friend went to her other friend’s party instead because she had pony rides and all you had was rainbow sprinkles easing themselves between the floorboards.
Eventually, you will stop kissing him, for a while.
Then later down the road will learn that he has a girlfriend now, and as far as you can tell she is made of solid flesh, without a whiff of sea breeze or poultry about her. So, you start to think that you can be friends with him again, because the novelty maybe wore off anyway, and surely you learned something about integrity.
But can you really ever be friends with someone who hummed you into an ocean before?
You will decide that integrity isn’t all it’s made out to be, and now kissing him is borrowing something that doesn’t belong to you. Sneaking shoes from your sister’s closet and trying to return them without her noticing. A little more used, a new scuff or two. Hoping she won’t feel the warmth that your bare feet left after they slid so easily into the grooves she’d already made.
Kissing him is motion. Paralysis. Seeking solid ground in a whirlpool. Climbing hills in a tidal wave. Kissing him is repetition.
You will be stuck on this merry-go-round for more years than you care to count, and one or both of you will always be committed to someone else. It will take you a while to figure out that the tide has a predictable rhythm, and you can see when the waters begin rising. You will start to recognize that the intimacies that made you hum are now repeating themselves like old sitcoms on the one channel you got on the TV as a kid if you configured the bunny-ear antenna with the right amount of aluminum foil.
At some point you will stop paying attention to the details because you know the lines by heart, and the waves don’t thrill you like before. Eventually you’ll start to wonder if that tingling in your leg is imagined or if you’re turning human again, after all. Maybe it’s the universe telling you something, or mercury is in retrograde, but you’re pretty sure you have figured out how to contain your ocean with skin again, and maybe it’s time the only salt water you leak is sweat from an honest day’s work.
The last time you kiss him, you will pretend that you will see him again. You will think of the years of undertow, and how much salt water you have consumed. And how much your own vast ocean has drowned. You will think of naked chickens, and sprinkles in floorboards, and coming up for air when there is nothing but water all around you. You will begin to forget that his skin smells of spice and smoke and sweat; the way he tastes of salt and warmth. You will forget that he probably smells like her, too, the human he didn’t disintegrate. You will forget the Schick. Whump. Squelch. You will forget the chicken man.
Isa Down is an artist and writer. She is the author of the fine-art illustration book Inking Florals and her work has appeared in several magazines, including Parents, Today's Parent, and Fit Pregnancy, as a free-lance journalist.