Time's Swell

By Victoria Somogyi and Kathleen Chamberlain


All night salt water stroked and shaped the sand.

All night I heard it. Your bravura hand

Chimes me to shores beyond time's rocking swell.

The last cars leave the shabby beach motel.

—From "Night Thoughts: Baby and Demon" by Gwen Harwood


I remember nothing from before this place.

I ask her. Sometimes she is silent. Sometimes she tells me that she does not know, that she met me here, six months ago, that she knows nothing about my past. And then there are the days when she tells me that we've traveled through time, that we have come from the future and are trapped here. She tells me that she was a temporal scientist, that I was her project. That I am modified and enhanced for survival, for time travel, for perfection. Those are the bad days.

Sometimes I try to argue with her. If I am so altered, why do I look human? She has an answer for everything. Something about 23rd-century technology and spaceships that can move across time. It's crazy.

We live by the ocean. We talk of finding somewhere else, but we don't do it. We can hear the waves from our room.

The first thing I can remember is this room. I was ill; she was taking care of me. I don't know what was wrong. I have asked, but she says something about a miscalculated time jump. I do remember the worry on her face. I remember that she looked after me for days, that she sat beside me on the bed, that she cooled my fever with washcloths wrung out from a plastic bucket of ice water. I remember the day the fever broke, the joy on her face when she realized that I was all right. Joy, and exhaustion. She had been with me for days, barely sleeping.

And then she slept, and I watched her. Her skin was translucent. There were faint lines at the corners of her eyes. She was very beautiful. I began to undress her. Because I thought she would be more comfortable.

She tells me that I will not age, that my modifications will protect me. She tells me that she exists in the future and will be there waiting. She says she is sorry for what she has done to me.

I wonder if she used to take drugs. She does not take drugs now, although she drinks.

I bring men back to the motel. They want to sleep with me, and they are willing to pay. It means nothing, nothing but that. I tell her so.

"This is what you want to do?" she says.

"It's nothing," I say. "It's easy."

"I can't make decisions for you," she says. "Not now."

She knows when I leave for the bar; she is always gone when I come back.

I put on music, make the man a drink. We undress in the lights from the parking lot. I try to behave like the women on the television, on the movies you have to pay for, and the men seem to enjoy it.

Once one of them wanted to knock me around. I broke his arm. I told her about it when she returned. She laughed, but then told me to be careful, said that we couldn't afford to attract attention to ourselves.

She watches me, when she thinks I am unaware. Her look is sad, but it is hungry also, not unlike the men in the bar who wish to touch me.

I touch her, and she pulls away. I touch her, and I realize how much I want to touch her, that this is nothing like the men from the bar. I want her. She does not believe me.

"Don't," she says, and her eyes look dark, although they are not.

I step back, drop my hands, and she turns, pushing her fingers through her hair. She is angry, but perhaps not at me.

Once I did not step back. Once I drew her to me and put my mouth to hers. Her lips were soft.

I don't notice if the men have soft lips. Most of the time I don't kiss the men, and most of the time they don't seem to care. But I wanted to kiss her, I wanted to have her touch me, gently and relentlessly, the way she had during the fever.

It had been simple then, nothing but heat and cold and her touch. Sometimes I think I want to be sick again.

She didn't try to evade my embrace, but after a moment she twisted her face away. I could feel her heart beat against me. "Aren't you going out tonight?" she asked. "It's getting late."

I let go of her and left for the bar.

Of course she was gone when I brought the first man back. I hoped to find another one or two after him; we owed money for the room.

I don't know what she does while I am busy. I think sometimes she waits on the beach. She goes to the beach often, standing on the sand in the dark, watching the waves and the stars. One night she tried to tell me about being on her ship in space, about how much she wanted to get us back there. I said nothing, but I suspect she could see in my face that I did not want to listen. Now when we walk on the beach, she does not talk of the stars.

The night I kissed her, she must have been close by, watching. She came in only a minute or two after the second man left.

She had been drinking. I could tell by the slow precision of her movements and her deep silence. There were no other signs. When the people in the bar get drunk, they sing, or cry, or laugh too much. Or fight. Sometimes they sleep, but almost always they make some sort of noise first. She never does.

I had put the men's money on the table; she added some and then turned away.

We went to bed without speaking, and in the morning I paid for the room.

I don't know exactly where she gets money, or where she goes when I use the room with the men. I suppose I assume that she finds men, too. I see them look at her in the bar. They would go with her if she let them, even though she doesn't. Not there.

It surprises me a little to realize that I wish she wouldn't. For me, it's easy and it means nothing and I don't mind. For her—I don't know, but I think she might mind.

But we need her money, and so I don't ask.

The manager of the motel comes to our room sometimes. He has a dark moustache and a large stomach. His shirts are brightly colored, never very clean. The last few buttons do not close.

He tries to come in, but she is too quick for him, stopping him in the doorway or maneuvering him onto the sidewalk in front of the room. He wants to sleep with us, I can see by the way his eyes linger over us.

But he does not want to pay.

"Room like this ain't easy to come by," he says one day. We are standing outside. "Close to the water. Real nice place."

She says nothing, just looks at the pink building material crumbling off the wall and at the rusty stains under the gutters.

He tells her that he has been charging us less for the room than he should have. "I'm soft that way," he says. "I know girls like you got to make a living." He tells her that the owner would not let us stay if he knew what we did for that living; he tells her that he can protect us, can make sure that I don't have much competition in the bar. He tells her that he doesn't ask much in return, only the chance to visit us once a week or so. "Just friendly, like," he says, and puts his hand on her cheek.

She takes his wrist and twists his arm behind him, bending him forward. It happens so fast that he has time only for a surprised grunt. "Thank you, but we have all the protection we need," she says quietly. "It's something girls like us learn very quickly."

I follow her back to the room.

"We'll have to leave here," she says that night as we walk along the beach. The sun is setting, and the stars are beginning to appear.

I tell her that the manager will not be a problem. What he wants is the same thing the other men want. It will be just as easy; it will mean just as little. Only the form of payment will be different.

She shakes her head. The dying light shadows her face; she looks tired and beautiful. "He won't be satisfied with just a few visits. He'll want more. Money, favors . . . We can't . . . We have to leave."

The beach is empty. I watch her watch the retreating water shape channels in the sand. I want to touch her, but I don't.

I go to the manager's office the next day, tell him that he can come to visit me occasionally. "What about your friend?" he asks. "She will be out," I say.

I do not tell her that I have spoken to him. Now he no longer comes to the room when she is there, and she no longer says we have to leave. We still talk about finding somewhere else, but we don't do it.

Most of the time she is tense, quiet, restless. Since the time I kissed her, she seems to be trying not to look at me the way she once did. But sometimes I catch that sad, hungry gaze.

I want her, but she does not believe me, and I don't know how to make her understand that she is nothing like the men, that touching her would bring a fever I would welcome.

She has begun to go out more often, never saying where. I do not ask. I feel uneasy when she is gone. It's not that I fear she will leave me—somehow I do not believe she will—but I need her with me. When I am alone, it is almost as if I do not exist. I remember nothing from before this place. Her stars, her spaceship, her time jumps—it's all crazy, but it is a past of sorts. Or a future.

There are days when she seems happy, hopeful. I can feel her energy. She smiles and lays her hand on my arm. On some of those days, she is gone for hours, even all night; I don't know where she sleeps or if she sleeps at all. Sometimes we go out together, walking in the sunshine along streets full of shops and people. We talk. Sometimes we have a drink at one of the sidewalk cafes. Sometimes we buy ice cream or fruit from a vendor's cart and eat while we listen to the musicians who stand in the shade and play sad, comforting songs. If we can spare it, she drops money into the instrument case they leave open on the pavement before them.

I do not think she will leave me, but I wonder—what would she do if I said I was going to leave her? Would she say, "I can't make decisions for you"? Would she turn away as she does when I touch her? Or would she say to me, as I would say to her, "Don't go"?

I do not ask.

It has not been one of her hopeful days. She has been out, she has been drinking, she has been telling me—her frustration clear in the way her hands grip the bottle—that the technology is too primitive, that the tools she needs do not even exist yet.

"The tools for what?" I ask, not wanting to, but not knowing how else to stem her anger.

"For communicating with the damned time ship!" she snaps.

This is one of the bad days.

When she goes out again, I follow her.

She does not go far, only a few blocks. It is an old building, brick, dark. I would think it was deserted except that a strip of light shows when she opens the door.

The windows are covered, and when I try the door, it is locked.

I wait for an hour, but she does not come out.

By now, I have followed her several times. She either goes to that old building or boards one of the city buses.

I cannot follow her on the bus without her noticing me. But I am able to watch the building. It always looks abandoned, but if I wait, I see men come and go furtively. She is the only woman. I do not think she meets the men for sex. They stay too long or not long enough. There is one man who comes more often than the others. He has a thin, angular face. One day he came to our room. She was surprised, and, I think, not pleased. She asked me if I would mind taking a walk on the beach.

When I came back in sight of the motel, I could see that he was just leaving. As I watched, he kissed her, pressing her against the pink wall.

I hurried, to offer my help if she needed it, but she was alone by the time I got to the room. "Who is he?" I sounded demanding, even though I did not mean to be.

"Someone who's been helping me," she replied. "And I help him. That's all."

"You sleep with him." It was not a question.


"Does he pay you?"

She laughed. "We help each other."

"Do you mind?"

"No," she said. Nothing more. She poured a drink.

"You help each other?" I said after a moment. "What does that mean?"

She finished the drink, poured another. Finally she answered me. "There are things I need. Materials, equipment. He has a lab; he can get things for me. He also has . . . other business interests. I know enough chemistry to be helpful."

I waited, but she offered nothing further. Suddenly, I could not bear her reticence. "And those other business interests involve your fucking him?"

"That's just part of the deal; it's not your concern." She was angry. "Why should it bother you? It means nothing."

I crossed to her, took the glass from her hand. I wasn't sure what I intended to do, but I had to touch her. I began to stroke her hair.

"Don't," she said, and her eyes looked dark, although they are not.

I held her face and kissed her, and she was crying and kissing me back. "Don't," she whispered against my mouth. "Don't." But her tongue found mine, and suddenly we were pulling each other toward the bed.

We undressed. I wanted her, I was almost desperate to touch her skin, to have her breasts fill my hands, I tried to trap her wrists next to her head, I pinned her naked body beneath mine, I could hear myself gasping.

"Easy," she said, "easy," but she was not easy herself, she was biting my lip, pushing her thigh between mine, rubbing against me until we were both slick and panting, and then I was on my back and I felt the touch of her hand, stroking, stroking as if she would mark me like water on the sand, and I think I was sobbing as I gripped her shoulders tightly so that she would not stop, would not stop, would not leave me, would not stop.

We live by the ocean. We talk of finding somewhere else, but we don't do it. We can hear the waves from our room.

I bring men back to the motel. They want to sleep with me, and they are willing to pay. It means nothing, nothing but that.

She often goes out for hours. She drinks. Her businessman comes to talk to her. I do not know what she does for him, besides go to bed with him. I don't ask.

Now when I touch her, she does not pull away.

We walk on the beach at night. The air is cool, and the lights from the ocean road outline her face. She is beautiful. Sometimes she tells me that we are from the future, that she was a scientist on a time ship, that I will live into that future, that she will be waiting for me. That she is sorry.

We watch the water stroke the sand.

I remember nothing from before this place.

"Night Thoughts: Baby and Demon," by Gwen Harwood, appears in Gwen Harwood: collected poems 1943-1995, edited by Alison Hoddinott and Gregory Kratzmann. (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2003.)

Excerpt reproduced with the kind permission of University of Queensland Press and the Estate of Gwen Harwood.

Victoria Somogyi lives in New York City; Kathleen Chamberlain is a literature professor in Virginia. They have been individually published in other genres. When they wrote this story together, they hadn't met in person. To contact them, send them e-mail at CeaKelly@aol.com.