There’s a place called Cancer Beach. I don’t know if anyone else calls it by this name, but that’s how a lover once christened it to me. Cancer Beach must be somewhere near Grand Isle, maybe even Gulfport or Biloxi. I imagine it’s small and secluded, that you can’t see it from the road, because I feel like my lover and their friend would have driven down there to go skinny dipping in 2013, the summer before we met.
When they arrived, they found a sandy stretch speckled with BP oil and dead fish. I’m not sure if they were exaggerating (they probably were based on our time together), but I like to think that the oil would have looked something like phlegm, that the fish would have smelled like Bruning’s or the yellow fat in crabs. Though I can’t say where it is, or even confirm if the story is true, I carve out a spot on my map of the world for Cancer Beach; I know I’ve been there, even if only in bed beside you.
Each of us left home eventually. Someone turns the air conditioner down. Lean back, close my eyes.
I see the oil on his hands after he slips off the rubber gloves. He walks through the doors of his house and every surface is blotted with black fingerprints, the meaty part of the palm, knuckles, a life line longer than the heart line. These black oily breadcrumbs from all the evenings exactly like this one mark every place his hands have learned to go. They play over and over again, leaving no inch of his home untouched. Something like bedbugs or a prayer he learned by heart. He washes his hands. He goes to sleep.
What words fill Glenn Ligon in his dreams? What words could you have said that hold me to you?
“[we] came and went at the same time.”
"What words fill Glenn Ligon in his dreams? What words could you have said that hold me to you?"
I know Cancer Beach because the beat of oil moves time differently. No matter if three years had passed since the spill, the clean-ups, the lawsuits, the LSU trained Olympic team. There was a stickiness to these moments in this place. They still cling to each other like a sweat drenched shirt, your back against the sand in the same crude posture as the rotting fish, the slick black muck. Here, I wave the gnats away from my ear.
The newslady announces no one knows how long the cleanup could take. Fifteen years at the least. On the phone at Christmas, dad says Louisiana will have dropped into the sea before the microbes have even ingested half of it. Of course, we do our part to help them, eat our share. But this also takes time. Our accumulation works more like a dripping faucet. We can’t all have the momentum of gross negligence.
How long would breath hold between a live stream of the busted well and the day you got your braces off? How much oil could fill the Gulf between your bathtub and the Block Museum, December 2021?
It’s the words who appear the sharpest that dangle a cap to plug this leak. Precise as a cemetery plot, the letters do not touch. Air bubbles escape in the spaces between them. Big gulp. A burning sensation. And maybe it’s in that skin hunger that we come to know these letters as words, stitch them to each other as if to say, “I only want to pull you closer.” Deep breath. But I must ask, do you desire me? I read an answer in the fanning stretch of your toes, these letters he’s stenciled with enough clarity to know the word “white.” A time stamp on the live stream tells us the spill is over. Eighty-seven days. No, you never even left the shore.
But he has made so many, and I try my best to be with them all. This isn’t reproduction but a turning so familiar how another finger once also landed here. Is that hand the space between my neck and your palm?
I search for a different answer at the bottom of the frame, the place where a pipeline would go on the half-shell. Tuesday night, river, bend, the bathymetry of a tongue. We stop to get gas.
A bad shrimping season teaches me where to look. I learn how anticipation sticks to the skin; I see it here in every smear that is the shadow of his hands—those be-stills and so-soons that break as the breath quivers. Don’t stop. Black impressions tangle and hover like an opened mouth, porous even in their crushing. The only air is what you give me. Radio all the way up. Good-byes are just sonar pings, and each letter goes soft. These words he has stenciled fuck until every cell mutates and decays. We are exhausted. No, it isn’t over. Illegibility is the devotional act of living the pipeline burst. How could water be anything but oil?
Before we put the dog to sleep, the vet said I had a face like a raindrop. Somewhere a suit is only half listening—nothing could have prepared the system for a face like a raindrop. Something overheats or something turns too full, maybe the wrong lever was pulled or a meter left neglected, but he has to grab another syringe from the back because the dog isn’t dying how we would like. She is in pain, and we know that we’ve ruined it all somehow. I can’t say how long it took for everything to break, only that once it did, no one could deny the pleasure we felt in that.