A Raisin in Saltwater
by Lena Crown
When she was younger, she worried that she had no personality at all. She moved through the world with the mouths of her cells wide open, gulping, absorbing the isms of those around her in a fervent cycle of osmosis. She was keenly aware of her own permeability. Her thin skin allowed petty childhood insults to worm into her pores, unobstructed, to lay their eggs. She often felt as if she were seated in a remote corner of her mind, watching her cells respire, pocketed away to make room for whatever came through their apertures.
When she moved away to college and first met Henry, she was instantly drawn to his self-assuredness. He exuded confidence—in the way he moved, jerkily, yet somehow not inelegant; in his speech, peppered with slang he had collected from West Coast rap songs. Her cells hummed and hungered. This was back when college was an endless series of meetings and forgettings, greetings and introductions and phone numbers exchanged with the promise of a lunch date at the dining hall.
Henry was lounging with a few other boys outside her dorm one evening in September, sipping hot tea out of a ceramic mug clearly swiped from the University Center. He stood at roughly her height. She noticed how the other boys’ chests angled slightly toward him as he spoke. He spotted her lingering, and as he raised the mug in a mischievous salute, liquid sloshed over the side and splattered the sand at his feet. They both laughed in surprise and delight. She liked the narrow spaces between his teeth, even though it made him look a little like a dinosaur. His cheekbones were so sharp that they cast skeleton shadows over his jaw, softening only when he smiled.
They became inseparable. They adventured through the park after nightfall and snatched spare hours telling each other stories on the lawn. They had led parallel lives, to a certain extent—good grades from prestigious high schools in wealthy California suburbs; tentative forays into drugs and alcohol in their tweens; over-involved parents who nearly divorced and then didn’t. She flushed with pleasure when Henry called her his best friend to a room of faceless acquaintances.
Fall arrived and they watched the leaves change, red and blood-orange trickling through their petioles and unfurling in their veins. On the evening of the first snow, the boy she was seeing arrived at a party with another girl. So she took several tequila shots and left, tearing through the snow flurries to Henry’s dorm room, where she bawled drunkenly into his neck as he stroked her hair. Seated next to each other on Henry’s twin bed, she felt unsteady, as if she were hurtling toward him while sitting still, the air between them sucked out in one gasp until suddenly they were kissing and she was naked and nothing was ever the same.
Months later, as they lay together under his striped comforter, Henry asked, “Did I take advantage of you that night?” She shook her head automatically, but the question rattled her. Its echo followed her, reverberating against the walls of the shower as she washed her hair.
Henry was in a constant state of overflow, and she willingly absorbed his excess. He read too much, saw too much, thought too much to tolerate silence for long. He engaged her in arguments and ideological debates as often as he did conversations. He tutored her in the joys of craft beer, scented candles, and parody biopics. Eventually, it was his sardonic smirk twitching at the corners of her mouth.
One night, post-coitus, he wrapped her in his arms and jokingly quoted Groucho Marx: “If I hold you any closer, I’ll be in back of ya.” So he felt it too, the merging of their two bodies. She bucked at the pull. It was in these clumsy, tactless moments that she wondered whether she had really wanted to have sex and if she hadn’t, how that should make her feel. She calculated that she faked her orgasm approximately seventy-five percent of the time. She wondered how, if they were truly one being, he could be so oblivious.
He wanted her constantly. She lost track of the days spent at his apartment. He demanded two-hour phone conversations every day when they were apart. She saw her friends less and less until some merely smiled politely at her if they crossed paths in the hall. She felt herself leaving, bit by bit—a pound one week, another pound the next, shrinking to make room for the engorged love Henry poured into her. She retreated into the corner of her body where she watched her skin stretch taut over her clavicles and listened to her thighs knock together hollowly when she climbed into his bed.
For a lab experiment in sixth grade, she dropped a raisin into a small beaker of saltwater and watched its crumpled skin swell. There must have been a flaw, for how else could she continue to shrivel as she absorbed another’s substance? She wondered if the membranes lining her cells had broken, gone mad and begun hemorrhaging her matter. It hurt Henry to see her so vacant, she knew, but the more he thrust his hands between her ribs, groping blindly beneath her sternum, the further she retreated. She shrank until she was as small as a cell herself, then a molecule, then an electron shuttled involuntarily between atoms. On Valentine’s Day, he bought her a box of decadent truffles. She looked down from her corner at the chocolates in his hands, amused at the gesture. Such a paltry convention, as if she weren’t full of holes.
Lena Crown is an emerging writer from Oakland, California. She received a dual degree in Latin American Studies and Spanish from Washington University in St. Louis, where she was also selected for the Howard Nemerov Writing Scholarship. Lena currently lives in St. Louis, where she writes for ALIVE Magazine.
Lena Crown recently won Second Place in Asymmetry Fiction's Flash Fiction contest, as well as publication on their website. She was also chosen in March as a finalist in Writer Advice's 2018 flash contest.