Peter Kispert

Fiction

Peter Kispert recently served as the editor-in-chief of Indiana Review, where he founded an annual book prize partnership with Indiana University Press, and as a site columnist at Ploughshares, where he covered publishing industry news. His work has appeared in OUT Magazine, Salon.com, The Carolina Quarterly, and been cited in The New Yorker and NPR. He has worked with Electric Literature and twice interned with Folio Literary Management. www.peterkispert.com.

Off Trajectory

We’re a hundred feet below sea level when Alan tells me he’s been seeing another woman. The submarine softly hums, intersects a haze of red plankton. Below: only darkness. Small portholes cast thin lines of light into the shadows, illuminating pods of eyeless fish and disturbed detritus. He says it’s been a few weeks.

“Your turn,” he says. His voice is cold and low, and there’s a rigid echo to his words.

I’ve heard him speak like this only a few times before. He’s telling the truth.

I briefly consider steering us upward, off trajectory, into sunlit water. We aren’t going to find the octopus we’re looking for, not without infrared beams—a fact we’ll both come to realize soon enough. Instead, we descend, black water closing in above us like a vaporous curtain.

“Your turn,” he repeats.

I pause in the hope we can forego this game of alternating confession. We played it on our first date: the old restaurant thick with gaudy cowboy decor, both of us racked with quiet nervousness, the peppery smell of steak like a subtle glaze on the air. We were both sinking into love, then. But the feelings aren’t transferrable, the game not a harmless one. There is nothing I can air to tip the scale of betrayal and mistrust in my favor.

“Well,” I say, focusing our low beams on a spit of white coral, “I can’t say I didn’t know.”

That I already knew is the only thing that will surprise him, and I’m aware of having departed from my own promise never to lie. It’s a cheap shot, sure, but I deserve it. I can almost sense his pleasure at not having to continue lobbing confessions—his tacit acknowledgement that I have nothing to counter with.

“How?” he asks.

A shimmer of silvery bubbles fizzes up from below us, a pocket of trapped gas loosened and ejected from the seafloor.

“Phone calls, late nights,” I say. “Mysterious disappearances.”

I can recall no instance of any of these things. I hope, perhaps futilely, he won’t ask for an example. I’m the woman with answers, but not here, not now. Now, I have only questions.

He’s silent, head cocked away, gazing through the porthole. I wonder what he sees but quickly remember we’ve seen nothing worth noting for the past half hour. He’s thinking, or ashamed. He realizes, I imagine, that his admission took things too far, would’ve been best kept silent. It’s what we’re both thinking, really.

“What’s her name?” I ask. The words seem to leave me without my approval.

“Lia,” he says. “A flight attendant.”

We sink, our heads softly aching with a tight pressure. I become suddenly aware of the smell inside the research sub: faintly sterile bleach cleaner suffused with a potent, grimy air from a coat of orange rust near the wheel. I exhale, the ocean floor rising to meet us. Two fluke undulate away from the light, stirring up beads of sand, obscuring our vision. I wait for the mist to clear, but it doesn’t. The water is so immobile and vacant even time seems to still. And time is about all we’ve got between us now: nine years, two miscarriages, a wealth of joint savings for distant days that will no longer exist between us.

Alan sighs, shifts his weight. I’m about to ask another question when I recognize I’ve already voiced my presumption to know the answer, effectively barring me from further inquiry. In the coming days, he’ll likely start from the beginning (the surprisingly passionate drunk sex, the accidental exchange of phone numbers) and move gradually through the fifth and sixth encounters—a slow, painful retelling that will leave me stung with loneliness in the months to follow. Nothing of our relationship but the vestiges of that story and this submarine excursion will last.

A green eel pulses in the soft oval of light in front of us, its shadow a dark ribbon through the water. I flick the side beams off. Alan is silent, waiting for me to arm him with argument or tears or disbelief, but I don’t. The game is over.

This piece is actually a sister story to 'Altitude,' which was published in Slice Magazine. In creating both works, I was interested by the thought of inescapable conflict: things that cannot be run from. I found both planes and submarines provided me with a kind of quarantine for characters, and I hoped to excavate the conflict's emotional depth within these impossibly tight enclosures.