After We Were Nothing

Alan Stewart Carl


The two of us took the ferry over to the island because we needed to be surrounded by less. This was summer, so there was a certain containment to the place, a gathering of predictable things: country music and charcoaled smells and people scuttling about in rented golf carts. We rented our own cart and bought vodka and cranberry juice and drove along the beach. The wind made it hard to hear; the drinks made it hard to think.

We'd planned to find a condo rental or a hotel, but no place had room and neither of us had ever been any good at fighting for things. So we took to the beach and watched the cascades of sea go gray, then black. Oil rigs flickered in the distance and stars pocked the sky in fewer numbers than either of us had expected. We were still drinking our vodka.


The waves.

Like stampedes. See it?


Remember that story? How they used to drown horses.


To stop Poseidon from getting angry. They did that.

We learned that once.

Mmmm. Can't appease the waves.

All those horses.

How's that go? Only religion can lead to such evil?

Yes. Right. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.

You remember it.

Here. There's more in the bottle.


When we woke, neither of us remembered falling asleep. A light was shining at us across the sand and the bottle glinted empty between us. Maybe the cop sensed why we were there. Maybe that's why she threatened nothing, just asked us to move on. Or maybe that's how she treated everyone she found, not worrying about the who or the why.

We didn't protest. Only rose from tangled limbs and found our way to our golf cart, then to an out-of-the-way lot behind a bar. In that unenclosed space we remained until the sun had shone for hours and we could no longer suffer the heat.

Days went by. We carried little. It wasn't that we'd forgotten to pack the normal things; it was that we'd not wanted their weight. We each had one outfit and one swimsuit. We had our credit cards but not our wallets. We had our IDs but certainly not our phones. Unburdened. That's what we called it because we still wanted to believe in the gesture of words. We are unburdened, we'd say to the waitresses at the bars. We'd smile. And the waitresses would smile. And when they said things like, Kids left at home? we'd press our knuckles into our thighs and create a laugh out of nothing and say we just might never go back. Everyone liked this. We were the parents unburdened. Drunk and slurping on oysters. We were freedom. Life.


But I think we were confused.

Is there another lime?

The other night, I mean. Lucretius and Poseidon. Not contemporaries.

Depends on how you measure the time.

It's one-thirty. Lime time.

That was a joke.


Of course, Lucretius didn't believe in gods.

That's not right.


He believed in them. He just thought they didn't believe in us.

I could really use another lime.


Sunburns marked us in welts and peels. We did not talk about this. There was something appropriate about shoulders that looked flayed and ears that looked bitten. We couldn't lie down to sleep, so we took to spending nights leaning chest-to-chest in the backseat of the golf cart. Our breaths smelled sour with drink and brine. Our bodies smelled of dirt gone fallow. When we dreamed, we dreamed of our boy. When we woke, we claimed a peaceful sleep. Sometimes we tried to kiss with dried out lips. Sometimes we made an offhand mention of a condo or a hotel. But most days we just stared into the lateness of morning and twisted the cap off another drink.

Days went on, uncounted yet forward. And although we kept telling each other that the island was a tiny, precious thing, we continued to condense ourselves further, partaking of less land and less talk and fewer possessions. We abandoned our clothes and remained in our swimsuits. We burnt our IDs in a pit in the sand. When we moved, we kept to a single strip of space, passing from golf cart to beach to a wood-built bar with a row of taps and a backroom fryer that filled the place with smells of sweet-slick grease.

All we drank were vodkas with cranberry and ice. All we ate were boiled shrimp and crab. Then we gave up on the crab. Then we abandoned the cranberry. Then the ice. Then one of our credit cards stopped working and the waitress who had begged us to tell her about our kids, looked at her nails and said nothing as we fumbled and presented a different card.


What once sprung from the earth sinks back into the earth.

Don't look at me like that. You're the one who keeps bringing it up.

It's too much.

The words are too much now.

It's just a poem.

Yes. But I don't like the reminder.

Of Rome?

Of who we are.


Cedit item retro, de terra quod fuit ante, in terras.


I'm done. That was it.

It's too much.

I know.

Too much.


In the next days the other credit cards failed in succession and the rental company reclaimed our golf cart. We talked only about where we might sit, where we might sleep, how we might eat. Our world became a moving length of sand just large enough to hold the two of us and the bottles of vodka we still possessed. During the day, our length of sand stretched beside the docks where the gulls bickered and fishing boats thumped against piers. At night, our sand was alongside the remains of children's shovels and children's buckets and children's thoughts of castles. We did not touch one another. We moved when the police told us to move. They didn't know our moving meant nothing, that no matter where they found us, we existed only in the narrowest of spaces.

In an evening shade, the last of the vodka drained away. We sat beneath the docks, the two of us separated by a bottle and sand-crusted bits of rock and shell. On this island, the sun set neither over the water nor behind it, but rather to the unseen edge of land so that the last of the light came angled across the curls of waves. The sea moved in two directions at once, carrying everything forward and carrying everything away, pushing all that filled its depths towards the early stars hovering beyond the island's eastern end. We watched: sun-streaks wavering, stars waiting. The wind churned sand that scoured the burns on our skin. Then it was night, and the peaks of waves were blue roans stampeding into black and we could hear people laughing as they slurped their oysters and popped open their beer at the bars where the two of us had been mistaken for something freed. Alive.

There was no discussion. We could be less, we knew. We could appease. Leaving the bottle titled in the sand, we made our way up and onto to the dock where we walked until we found a flatbed boat tied with a rope. With hands touching for the first time in days, we climbed into the boat and stood splay-legged against its rocking, our balance failing then recovering as water sloshed inside and wetted our feet. The only light came from a beacon further down the dock, catching us dimly at the end of the row of boats, the sea reaching towards us with its invitation. We knew not a thing about boating and it took us both working in clumsy twists to untie the knot and set us adrift. We smiled at this. At the feel of the waves lifting us and lowering us. At the sensation of our bodies touching, tattered skin against tattered skin. We were hungry and we were drunk and we embraced there, half-standing, half-squatting, our lips sore from the sun, our kisses tasting of long, upturned weeks.

With as much balance as we could find, we climbed over the planked seats and the oars and we moved to the boat's rear where we knelt at the motor and took hold of its cord. We did this together. And together we pulled. And together we waited for a noise that did not come. We tried again. Then again. And when still we failed, we pressed at the grooves and bevels of the motor, thinking there might be a switch or a release or some clear and simple way forward. We took turns yanking the cord. We pulled as hard as we could, almost falling. We gasped. We struggled against the cord and against our bodies and against the motion of the sea until our breaths came fast and stuttered and we had to lean against the motor to keep ourselves standing. It was then, in that rest, that we found a keyhole just above the cord. It was small. It was little more than an impression in the metal. A plain and artless sliver. A truth we could not move.

The sea continued to sway. A few gulls cried out. Together in the damp we stared at the waves, watching one follow the next, their forms dark and viscous and smeared with the sulfured light of island bars and island condos and island stores. For a time, we closed our eyes and covered our faces. Then we wrapped arms around shoulders and pressed head against head.


I keep thinking about those words. Possunt ac fieri divino numine rentur.

I thought it was too much.

It is.

Nothing can be created from nothing.

But that's not how it really is. Those are just words. Old words.



Sometimes everything feels gone. Nothing. Then it all feels here again.

Like waves. That's what it's like. 


The boat rolled beneath us and we pulled each other closer. The tide had led us away from the docks and outward from the shore. From here, the island was small, a line of lights mingling, sounds lost, motions unseen. Our stomachs moved with vodka and hunger and the turns of the sea. Neither of us spoke. We watched the stillness of the coast: those blue and yellowed lights, that shore soft and undefined against the waves. After a while, we each lifted an oar and we began to row. Our arms ached. The island grew larger. This took a very long time.