The women loaded themselves onto boats. Large, creaking things made of driftwood, bound together by twine, the holes and cracks plugged by barnacles. Some of them waved to the men while they walked up the ramps and into the ships. Others found their friends and walked up together, laughing and looking relieved. A few offered long hugs and prolonged kisses to those left behind on the beach.
But all of them got onto the ships. The plan had been agreed to weeks ago. It would be to everyone’s benefit, really. Things simply hadn’t worked out. Everyone had certainly tried their best, but the whole thing had been a total mess.
So, tears shed, farewells exchanged, the ships lurched off from the shore and headed towards the horizon.
The men were at a loss. They stood there in the sun for a long time, moving with the shadows the trees cast on the beach to protect their feet. Some of them cracked jokes but no one really laughed. They just watched the ships move further outwards, growing smaller in a way that reminded some of them of wet spots drying on fabric. Eventually they went home.
It wasn’t the same for everyone. The men coped in their own ways.
For some, it was exercise. They spent hours in brightly lit gyms that looked and smelled like bus terminals. They wore gray tank tops split down the sides and grunted in front of mirrors. They hoisted metal over their heads and found pleasure in the veins running over their biceps. They gave each other high fives, and drank protein shakes the texture and color of human shit. They worked their bodies until they looked like anatomical sketches from medical textbooks. They bobbed their heads on the bus. They ate chicken breasts and green beans until they fell asleep.
Some of them bought motorcycles. Motorcycles the color of plastic fruit, their undercarriages lit up by bars of neon, their bodies slick and futuristic. They rode the motorcycles down city streets while the wind pulled apart their faces and screamed in their ears. They rode them down coastal highways and through dark alleys and high into frosted mountains. They drove them into the sides of buildings and cars, skidded out on country roads, flew over the handlebars and crashed their helmeted heads into the foyers of fancy hotels. They left long streaks of blood on the pavement and half of their bodies became gigantic scabs.
Many drank. And when they drank they didn’t stop. They gathered together in bars, bodies close and musky and rain-soaked, and filled up glasses the size of babies with amber beer. They chugged the beers and became very loud. They tossed their glasses at wall-mounted TV’s. Their lips became moist and droopy, and words struggled to escape them. They turned over tables and pissed in corners, or along sidewalks, or on the stages of gold-flaked opera houses. They leaned on one another, shouted in each other’s ears over the blare of eighty’s rock hits. They sang karaoke alone on stage at three AM, their bodies refulgent with neon purple, tears streaming down their faces, one fist held aloft to the heavens.
They punched each other’s faces. They punched each other’s guts. They yanked off their shirts and flexed their forearms, and said things like “Come at me, man!”
Pairs of them brawled in parking lots until neither fighter could breathe; until both just lay there, bloodied and splayed out on their backs, staring up at the few stars not drowned out by the city’s ambient light. Sometimes, sitting there in the dark, one man would turn his body on its side and press his face closer to another’s. Their beards would scratch one another’s cheeks. Sometimes they would lean into one another and kiss, their lips tasting of blood and sweat. Sometimes they would fuck, gently and noiselessly, right there on the asphalt. They would not ask for one another’s names. They would stand up at the end, slick and tired and well-fed, and wander home. They would never see each other again.
That was in the beginning, of course. The men got bored. Their cities seemed big and stupid. There was too much room. They didn’t understand why everything was so tall, so gray. It was like walking around a bad idea. They tore things down. They hammered away at towers of concrete and exposed the rebar beneath. They tore up whole streets and knocked over skyscrapers with big iron balls, peeled off the sides of buildings as though they were rotten fruit. What did they need all this room for? All these boxes full of furniture and sinks? They tore up sheets and pillows and used them for big fires. They danced. They collected the fragments of the city and told themselves they would build something new, something better.
The bigger men—there has always been bigger men—took the best metal for themselves. These men had never felt like their bodies were big enough, but now found space to grow. They built new, bigger bodies. They had been the most hurtful men, though all the men had been hurtful. Their large hands had caused so much pain that they were like bright red warning signals. There were lots of these men—many more than anyone wanted to admit. Their new bodies were ominous and traumatizing, like iron dinosaurs. They towered into the air, blocking out the sun, their biceps as big as condominiums, their legs made of train engines. Glowing industrial slag poured from their mouths, so that when they spoke the ground hissed and burned beneath them. They attached speakers to their shoulders and blasted Bruce Springsteen and Edie Vedder and Johnny Cash over the countryside.
The smaller men—there has always been smaller men—scattered under their long shadows. Some of them were caught under minivan-sized feet, their insides squished out through the holes in their faces. They fled to the ruins of the cities. They huddled inside old buildings like frightened mice in children’s films. They had always resented the strongest men, even when they wanted their big bodies; even when they wanted to crawl inside of them like fighter pilots getting into jets. They began planning. On large blue sheets of construction paper they traced maps and maneuvers. They circled weak points in red. They said to one another: attack here, and then here, and finally here. They nodded solemnly.
They lured the bigger men back to the cities with big slabs of red meat. They strung clothing lines between the skeletons of old buildings and hung flanks of beef from them. The strong men barreled into the city, toxic metal refuse spilling from their mouths and down into the streets below, their hulking bodies shattering the windows of the buildings as they rubbed up against them. They got caught in the corridors of the decaying structures, bodies twisted and stuck inside of the clothing lines. The small men streamed from the buildings like Lilliputians. They hurled makeshift spears upwards and into the strong men’s exposed joints. They crawled all over their bodies, streamed over them like ants, stabbing and shouting and swinging. The strong men roared their tinny roars and their voices became dying radios. They were too big to fight back. Eventually they died, strung up between the buildings like giant marionettes. The streets were full of blood.
The smaller men left the big men to fester. They fled the cities once again, the tall fallen structures looking too much like gravestones. They felt they had atoned for something, but were unsure. They had never been much better than the big men. They had hurt just as much. They had let their bodies become pain machines, too. They wanted to go back in time and become soft, pine-scented versions of themselves. They wanted to be like the insides of oysters. But there was no going back. They were stuck in their bodies for good—their muscles too big and rigid, their hands too calloused.
They missed the women. And not just because they were women. In fact, they weren’t even sure, really, what that word, women, really meant. All they knew was that some people had been put on boats and sent away, and now something integral seemed to be missing. What had made them women, they wondered? How was anyone ever sure? What had been the difference, anyways? No one could remember. But the emptiness was clear.
And of course, they remembered why the women—whoever they were—had left. How could they forget? All the things they had done wrong. All the horror and the pain they had caused. It was not the kind of thing you made up for.
They went back to the beach with binoculars and telescopes. They scanned the horizon, looking for something, some sign that the people on the boats were coming back.
They built statues and signals fires. They sent long text messages and didn’t even get angry when no one replied. We’re much better now, they said. We have tremendous calves. We are very good at climbing rock walls. We can change tires and jump over mountains. We like racecars, like to feel ourselves going fast, but also the way trees sway in the breeze. We have balanced our check books. Please come home, they said. Please come back. We’re not sure what came over us but we’re alright now. We eat lots of kale and we are considering opening small businesses. Some of us have shaved. We want to be like the insides of oysters.
They said: we will take all the pain we’ve built and shoot it into space. They said: we will fill rockets with our hate and send them to the edge of the solar system, leave the worst parts of ourselves to freeze in zero gravity.
But they got nothing back. Just the sound of the waves and the feeling of the sand burning the bottoms of their feet. They didn’t deserve forgiveness and they knew it. They felt it like an iron ball in the bottom of their lungs.
Every now and then, at night, some swore they saw something wavering on the horizon. A light, they thought. It might mean they had been forgiven. It might mean the others were coming back. Or, more likely, it might just be some far-off star, spread thin and shimmering on the water, ready to disappear come morning.