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Shipwreck

by Joel Fishbane

Let’s play that old game: I’m going to tell you two truths and a lie.

One: a while ago, after months of delaying a wedding we didn’t want to have, my fiancée moved out. After three years, she had accumulated far too much to escape with in the night and the plan was for her to come back later, ideally when I wasn’t at home. This left me to live with the remains of the relationship. Her gluten-free beer. The citrus shampoo. I left the drawers overturned and the pieces of the model ship she’d knocked over during our final fight. We were lovers of the sea and fell in love after she beat me in a championship race using a glorious front crawl. Without her, the house had the echo of a shipwreck. Paddles leaned against the wall and lifejackets hung on hooks. I had never put these in storage, one of the many reasons we fought, and now they were useless because our kayaks were strapped to the top of the car she took when she drove away.

I endured the shipwreck until I finished the gluten-free beer, after which I reached out to friends, looking for ways to be saved. When Roberto said he had an extra ticket to a play, it was the opposite of a lifeline – I grabbed at the chance to leap into the sea.

At the play, Roberto ran into a woman he was trying to sleep with. The code of friendship dictated I distract the woman’s friend, something that could have been a crisis had we not, to our mutual relief, actually got along. No. It was more than that. I met my fiancée when she was moving ahead of me but this woman seemed to swim towards me as soon as I appeared.

In Weisel’s The Accident, the protagonist makes contact with Kathleen “without a gesture, without a move, without saying a word.” The moment is so striking that someone asks them if they’ve met before. “No,” replies the protagonist. “But we already know each other.” It was sort of like that. For this reason, I’ll call her Kathleen, even though that’s not her name. It’s also not the lie.


Two. At Roberto’s place, we talked until late into the night. Roberto took his conquest into the bedroom, leaving me and Kathleen alone. Our connection never wavered. It was like being in a play in which I knew all the lines: every sentence was the right thing to say. For the first time in months, I felt tall and proud and I saw how I might look to someone who doesn’t see the neglect that comes from trying to save a novel that is already sunk. It was good to look at a woman and not struggle to recall the wonder who had once pulled ahead of me with magnificent strokes. She beat my time by seventeen and a half seconds; years later, that half-second is what galled me, as if she had done it just to turn the knife.

When it became clear Roberto’s conquest was spending the night, Kathleen decided it was time to leave. She asked me my plans. Now, there’s only one reason a woman does this at three in the morning, and I was left with a difficult choice. Her place was not an option, for reasons I don’t recall. so it was either issue an invitation or walk away. Roberto didn’t live far from me – it was less than a ten-minute walk – but this would mean bringing Kathleen into the shipwreck. I hadn’t told her about my fiancée and I knew she would see the evidence and realize I was damaged goods. She would want the story and, because the wounds were still fresh, my reply would be the tale of sound and fury told by an idiot trying to change the past. This would ruin everything. One has to project equanimity when discussing former lovers to potential replacements. This way, the potential lover knows how they themselves might someday be portrayed.

“Well?” said Kathleen. “What are your plans?”

“I don’t live that far,” I said. “Come back and have a drink.”


Three. At home, I tried to keep her in the den because it was the crime scene with the least amount of clues. But I couldn’t keep her out of the bathroom and she guessed I wasn’t the sort to use citrus shampoo. I tried to maintain my cool. Welcome to the shipwreck, feel free to bail. In The Accident, Kathleen also brings the protagonist home, after which, we’re told, a dream floats in the air. A dream was in my house too because, in dreams, people don’t ask the way you expect. Kathleen didn’t bail. Instead, she kissed both me and my wounded pride.

“Heartbreak,” she said, “makes fools of us all.”

She stayed for weeks and this made it easier to endure the days that followed with all its packing and dismantling of a future that now would never occur. Restored, I resurrected the drowned novel and, with it, myself and my career. The shipwreck sank but, thanks to Kathleen, I stayed afloat.


You’ve probably guessed the lie. I never swallowed my pride, though I did take Kathleen’s number. By the time I called her, though, some old boyfriend had convinced her to give him another try. I had caught her in a singular window of time and, having missed it, she was gone. In the days that followed, a nightmare hung in the air and, with no one to lean on, I went down with the ship.

These days, I recognize it would never have worked. Kathleen hated water; she couldn’t even swim. But I wasn’t thinking about this then and I called out to her as I sank. I didn’t mean it. It was an accident. Heartbreak makes fools of us all.


Joel Fishbane’s short fiction has been widely published, most recently in Ploughshares, Miracle Monocle, and the Tahoma Literary Review. His novel “The Thunder of Giants” is available from St. Martin’s Press and has a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. For more info, please visit www.joelfishbane.net.

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Fiction, The River

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