“I’m a crustacean.”
Disbelief meets my gaze, then moves away. Jewel looks to the shells that decorate my room, the aquariums, the marked-down netting draped over my window. She looks to anything to save her the embarrassment of meeting my eyes, or the trouble of telling me I’m just a person, like her, like anyone. When she finally meets them, it is with resignation, and I know I’m being humored.
“Why a crustacean?” she asks, too terse, unforgiving.
“Never mind,” I say, looking away. I check an aquarium, skimming a finger over the light algae that floats on the surface. I resist putting the finger in my mouth and savoring its briny taste. Crabs eat algae. Protozoa. Other small creatures, given the chance.
“No,” Jewel says. “Tell me what it is. What makes you a crustacean? What crab thoughts brought you to this conclusion?” Sarcasm. Anger. A tone of voice that is new to recent months, would never have been used before I started changing. She doesn’t know the way my skin hardens on the backs of my hands, white chitin that I pick off daily. She hasn’t spoken with the fish in the giant tanks at the Chinese buffet. All she sees is me trying to be special again, something I’m not allowed to be.
“It’s nothing.” Just me, thinking I could go to her for reassurance. Thinking it would be like old times, when we were in high school and I was her crying shoulder and she stole kisses when no one was looking.
Jewel closes her eyes and runs her hand over her face. It’s something she does when she’s trying to cope. Only with me. An admission that I’m crazy, but she just has to deal with it, because she loves me and doesn’t want to hurt my feelings. She doesn’t know how much it hurts.
“When did it start?” she asks. My heart rises, but I temper it with caution.
“Last week. It was a feeling. Something inside is different.” I mean to start small, but I see the old Jewel in her eyes, curious, prodding. I tell her everything, from the taste for shrimp, the feeling of brine upon my skin. When I tell her about the flaking chitin, she looks at the backs of my hands, and my heart falls. They are raw, and lined, and I know what she must see. “I pick it off,” I say, and she gives me a weak smile.
“We’ll watch it,” she says, and holds my hand in hers. My eyes well and my heart fills with familiar warmth. After a moment, her voice softens. “You’re sure this time?”
I tell her I am, and she holds me close.
• • • •
When the sound starts, I worry I am changing too fast. That my body can’t recognize my ears. Can crabs even hear? I look it up, and they can, but the sound is still within me. The internal sound of muscle tearing, or joint cracking. A quiet rasp deep within me.
Jewel puts her head to my chest. She is my doctor more often than not, since we stopped trusting the real ones. Since they started looking at me with pity and condescension. Her mom is a nurse, and she says she’s picked up enough to diagnose me. Sometimes she’s even right. She lays her head there a long time, listening to the beating of my heart and the rasping within my chest. “Huh,” she says. “That’s weird.”
The fact that she can hear it scares me. Is my heart slowly descending, broadening, adapting to this strange body with an internal skeleton? “What is?” I ask.
She looks worried. “You,” she says. “You’re weird.” She grins, and I return it, hiding my worry for the length of a kiss. “Let me listen again tonight. I might have heard something, but I can’t be sure. It could be nothing.”
She pulls me down onto the bed, and we lie there staring at the ceiling, and each other, and we talk about the sea. I laugh at her awful jokes. Jewel goes quiet, and I turn to see her looking at me, into my eyes. I lay an arm over her side. “Are you okay?”
She nods, but it’s slow. “I’m sorry,” she says. “About yesterday. I should have believed you.”
I bite my tongue, something she’s taught me to do when I’m going to say something bad about myself. That it’s okay, because I do it all the time. Why should she believe me? Why would this time be any different from when I thought I was turning into a rain cloud, or a redwood, or any of the others? I can’t be trusted to know myself, or when I’m changing inside.
“It’s okay,” I say, but she still holds my gaze. “Really, it’s okay. We can’t ignore the past.”
Jewel nods, and smiles, but it’s misplaced and far away. “No,” she says. “Why would we want to? There’s a lot of good stuff back there, Crabby.”
I smile and hold onto the ridiculous moniker. Crabby. I like it.
• • • •
Jewel is worried about me. I don’t leave my room much anymore, preferring to stay close to the aquariums. I haven’t eaten the tank algae yet. Instead, I make health shakes with dried seaweed, using double what’s in the recipe. She drinks them with me and complains that they are awful. She tells me it can’t be good for me, and plies me with potato chips and nachos.
“Hey,” she says, deep within herself. “I think you should see a doctor.” She grows more concerned by the day, listening to my heart, checking my hands for new marks. I feel her pulling away, even as she worries over me. What will happen when I am a crab? Where will she fit into my life? How far can I transform before we can’t take the strain anymore? Before me being a crab is too much for our relationship?
I tell her I’ll make an appointment, but know I won’t. The doctors won’t understand. I sit in our room and search YouTube for information about crabs, looking for anything that might help. I find videos about the courtship of blue crabs. How they dance to impress their potential mates. How the female molts, makes herself vulnerable, and after the mating, the male protects her for days, until she is strong again. And then they part. I wonder which I am, the protector or the vulnerable. I wonder if I could dance well enough to convince Jewel to stay.
I find videos of crabs in captivity, and turn the volume up until I can hear the click of their steps over the glass-bottomed aquarium, the snap of their pincers, and the faint rasp of claws rubbed nervously together.
• • • •
Jewel retreats, and I know I haven’t danced well enough. I hide in our room, so she hides in her office, lying on the love seat and staring up at the ceiling. I worry I have lost her. I worry she will move on to another who is easier to be with, doesn’t require the constant care and attention I’ve asked of her.
We remain in stasis for hours, her in her office, me in our room. I am the first to give in, unwilling to stand by when I know she is hurting. Even if I am the one hurting her.
I pick the chitin from my skin before leaving the room, removing that constant reminder of what is wrong. I find her on the floor, stretched on her back, hands raised above her head. She looks to the door when I enter, then back to the ceiling.
I lie beside her, and we stare together for a while, neither willing to speak. She is the first to work up the nerve, talking without turning her head. “What do you think it’s like?” she asks. “The ocean. Is it a nice place to live?”
I’m not sure what she means. We’d talked about moving east, to the ocean, living in a small house on the beach. It was our dream. After a moment I realize she doesn’t mean in a house, but in the water itself.
I turn to her, and find her already looking at me. Her eyes glisten, and I wonder if she’s crying, because it’s such a foreign sight. “Baby?” I ask. “What’s wrong?”
She nestles against my chest, and I hold her tight, and tell her I’ll always be there for her, that my transformation changes nothing. Her voice cracks, and I can’t understand her words. She bunches my shirt in her hands. I try to hold them, and she recoils. I take her hand gently in my own, and see it for the first time. The back of her hand is raw, and red, and I see where she has picked the chitin from her skin.
She holds my hand, and I close mine, carefully, around hers.
Spread the word!