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In Too Deep
The man who stares comes here to the aquarium every day at the same time. You’ll be adjusting an information sign, and he walks by, hands swiping through his hair, his eyes fixed on the fish. You glance over the biography of a tiger shark, knowing each word already, all the while feeling his presence.
He is tall, almost towering, his sharp nose constructed to fit his chiseled look. Rugged, standing there, he’s “The Thinker,” inquisitive with midnight navy eyes and a wondering frown. You don’t leave as his fingers tap at the space in front of each fish–capturing his fascination by his longing look into the tank. Sometimes his fingers leave an echo in the room and you think power but there are other people too, dim conversations you miss when you stay late at night.
Finally you say “Which one’s your favorite?” in a way that sounds careless, you hope.
His eyes linger on the fish before meeting yours. Your body is taken aback, nervous in a familiar place. “They’re all great,” he says, his voice floating, as if he’s the water in the tank. Then he turns, treading next to the tank, staring with yearning eyes.
You turn to a watching family, seeing your manager entering the exhibit. When you look back, the man is gone, until tomorrow, when he will come back as families leave with toy jellyfish, the exhibits empty.
Daily the man is perplexing but beautiful as you watch, gawking, until one afternoon he doesn’t tap his fingers and you realize he’s uninterested. You see his knuckles cracking by his side, his clenched jaw, the soft blink of his eye. That night you stay awake in the cool drifting air. When you do sleep, you dream of a man in a box being thrown into the sea, but although the box is opened, he swims deeper down.
In the aquarium the next day you polish the tank he goes to everyday, one swipe after another. You begin to feel better. You hum, looking for any spots you missed. That’s right. You will understand the man who stares.
You are excited when he comes, catching him before he paces. “Don’t they look great today?” you say, tapping the glass before him. “I don’t have a favorite either.”
The man stares at the glass.
“The tank was just cleaned,” you tell him. “Look at the catfish and clownfish, a few blue tang. Just watch them.” You take your finger away from the tank. His fingers replace yours, leaving new marks.
His jaw clenches. “I can’t,” he says. “I have. I–” He pulls back his hand, looks at you as if he’s embarrassed. “This is a good place to think,” he says, then he is gone, his steps echoing off the tanks of jellyfish.
? ? ?
His fingerprints are on the tanks, and when you leave, you don’t wipe them off. It’s not good, leaving it dirty, but that night when you lie in bed letting the image of the tanks melt in your head, you realize all of them really belong to the man who stares, not to the aquarium, anyway. His touch will be left there.
The next afternoon, the man does not come back, which isn’t surprising. You hate yourself, pacing, but he never comes.
On the third day you’re leaving the aquarium when from the corner of your eye you spot a new fish in the tank. The fish treads away from the other sea creatures, gliding his fins in euphoria. He strikes you with his stare, and you find the man’s face in his. You are unhinged, there in the empty aquarium, not knowing where you feel his presence, inside the tank or out.
You stand at the tank and feel the glass, wondering if the fish will be gone when you come back, ignoring all the signs you have inherited his madness.