Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of the novels The Art of Floating and Thirsty. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Writer’s Digest, Huff Post Books Blog, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, HYPERtext, and Bluestem. She has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for the past twenty years. In late 2010, after nearly five years in Shanghai, China, she repatriated to the United States and now lives north of Boston with her husband and daughter. Learn more about Kristin at her website or her Facebook author page. Follow her on Twitter at @kbairokeeffe.
Excerpt from The Art of Floating
Berkley Books | Penguin Group
© Kristin Bair O’Keeffe 2014
When her beloved husband Jackson disappeared without a trace, popular novelist Odyssia (Sia) Dane stopped writing, closed down her house, stuffed her heart into a cage, and started floating. It wasn’t the normal response to heartache, but Sia rarely did things the normal way. Exactly one year, one month, and six days after Jackson’s disappearance, Sia discovers a mysterious man on the beach. He’s mute, unresponsive, and looks as if he has just walked out of the sea. As unreal as it all seems, Sia sets off on a mission to figure out where her husband disappeared to and where this man came from.
Like any woman who refuses to take anti-depressants or drink heavily after her husband disappears, Sia began to float.
“You’re not floating,” her therapist told her again and again. “You’re disengaging from reality, a coping mechanism that often follows a traumatic event. You imagine your higher self is separating from your body so you don’t have to feel the pain around the loss.”
“Bullshit,” Sia said. “I’m floating.”
Two months after Jackson disappeared . . . two months after she’d taken to her bed . . . Sia dragged herself to the couch. Her ass was sore from lying on her back and her muscles ached. For a moment, the couch felt like heaven. Firm. Supportive. Stalwart.
But then Jilly and her heartfelt blah-blah-blahing. And then zhzhzip . . . Sia was up somewhere close to the ceiling, feeling lighter than a speck of dust floating through a streak of light. Except that unlike the speck of dust, she wasn’t graceful or fluid. She was clumsy and awkward. She was a terrible, awful, uncoordinated floater.
This is Jilly’s fault, she thought, as she grabbed at the air around her, trying and failing to find something to hold onto. No matter how hard she tried to stay upright, she just rolled forward into a crooked, unimpressive somersault.
This isn’t even a somersault, she thought. It’s a flop.
When she wasn’t flopping forward, she was flopping backward, which quickly led to a few moments of being completely upside-down.
Jilly and her big mouth. She’d been so excited that morning to find Sia out of bed and sitting, actually sitting, in the sunroom—though it was still as dark as an underground cave—she’d launched into her normal repartee, which she hadn’t gotten to do since Sia had taken to her bed.
“. . . and in yesterday’s yoga class,” she chattered, “Mrs. Wysong got stuck in pigeon pose again. And although at first Raj thought she was just teasing and didn’t pay any attention to her whimpering in the corner, when she yelped like a stuck pig, he rushed over to help. And, believe me, by then the woman was stuck. Everything but her eyelids had cramped up. . . .”
At first it felt good to listen to Jilly ramble on in such a normal, everyday manner as if no terrible tragedy had crashed into their lives, but then Jilly got brave—or as Sia would tell it—stupid.
“But after class, I had to run like hell because there are only two things anyone wants to talk to me about: you and Jackson’s disappearance.”
“Me and what?” Sia said.
When those two words popped out of Jilly’s mouth, paired so matter-of-factly, Sia heard them like this:
Her heart raced and sweat gushed down her torso, soaking her breasts and belly. Within seconds, the waistband of her sweatpants was drenched. She felt dizzy, and the room blurred into a smear of yellow and black. She put her hand on the arm of the couch to steady herself and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she was floating. Well, part of her was floating. The other part?
She looked down and saw herself—her corporeal self—and Jilly, sitting in the sunroom with serious looks on their faces, but she, Floating Sia, was up near the skylight.
What the hell? The skylight was, of course, closed and still covered with a large swatch of tarpaper, but the tarpaper had absorbed the heat of the sun that day and its warmth felt good on her back. What the hell is going on? she thought. What’s happening?
Floating Sia tried to reach down and grab Jilly’s hand but she only managed to knock herself off balance again. This time she tipped sideways.
Dammit, she thought. Am I dreaming? Did I fall asleep? Am I dead?
Though she still could hear Jillian down below, nattering on about Jackson and Raj and the unfolding of Mrs. Wysong’s crimped limbs, it was as if she were very far away, like a radio turned low in a distant room.
Breathe, Sia told herself. This is nuts. Get your ass back down there.
Like a good yoga student, she dropped her breath down to her belly and slowed her racing heart, but instead of sinking back into her solid self, she slipped right through the skylight and found herself outside in the shockingly bright sunlight. She squeezed her eyes closed. She hadn’t seen sunlight in over two months, and even the orangey-black brightness that seeped through her eyelids hurt like crazy. She waited, tipping this way and rolling that way, and when she finally managed to open her eyes again, she started to cry. The sky was perfect . . . a perfectly stirred cobalt blue . . . the kind she and Jackson used to leap out of bed for in the morning, the kind under which she’d been born.
Up there in the brilliant blue, Floating Sia could see the spot where she’d slipped into the world. While she bobbed like a buoy in the sky, she watched a flock of seagulls scatter, then land, on a spot in the ocean below. To calm herself, she imagined settling among them, the waves gently pushing her up and down, and after a while with this thought in mind, she was able to hold herself in an upright position for minutes at a time before tumbling either backward or forward.
Strangely, she could still see herself and Jillian in the sunroom below. It was as if the roof of the house didn’t exist or as if she had X-ray vision. The two of them were a little fuzzy around the edges but aside from that, things were quite clear. Solid Sia, as she began to refer to her corporeal self, was dutifully taking in Jilly’s lecture about having to get back into the world again and not allowing this tragedy to ruin her life. Solid Sia nodded every few minutes as Jilly spoke, but getting her ass back to bed was looking more and more appealing by the second.
On the other hand, Floating Sia felt good, better than she had in months. The sun was warm. She’d forgotten how much she needed it. She got brave and stretched out as if she were flying. Within seconds, she was halfway down the beach where she spotted her friend Mary by the lifeguard’s chair with her children, Simon and Amanda. The kids were digging in the sand and Mary was lying on a pink towel reading Oprah.
“Mary!” she called. “Mary!” Sia waved, but quickly realized that Mary couldn’t hear or see her. She stretched out again and floated away.
Across the lane, she saw M perched like a lovesick bird in the tree, the whiteboard resting face-up on the branch next to her with the word Love written in bright purple letters. M looked terrible. Worse than terrible. She was thin and brittle. Her hair was greasy and flat, pressed close to her head like a pale swim cap. Sia had never seen her mother like this, and instead of sticking around to get a better look, she balked and wheeled, then tipped over backward and continued on in a wild spin. It took more than a few moments to slow and right herself.
When she was able to move on, Sia discovered that no matter in which direction she floated—north, east, west, south—she could still see herself and Jilly below. It was like a magic trick, and when she got too overwhelmed with the notion of what she was doing, she took a deep breath and visualized her heart safely locked away in the tiny birdcage. A few minutes later when Jilly stopped talking about Jackson and started talking about watermelons, she dropped smoothly into her sitting self.
That was fucking weird, Sia thought. She ran her fingers across the fabric of the couch, then reached out and grabbed Jilly’s hands. She needed to hold onto something.
Because they’d had no secrets since that first day of kindergarten when Jillian had dragged Sia to the seesaw and demanded to know what her father did, what her favorite food was, how long she’d been able to hang upside-down on the monkey bars by her knees, if she wore shorts under her skirts so the boys couldn’t see her underwear when she hung upside-down, and why the heck she had such a weird name, Sia’s first instinct was to tell Jilly about the floating.
In Jillian’s world, boundaries were something dreamed up by other people to squash her natural curiosity. She had no sense of privacy, about her life or the lives of others, and she’d been this way forever, butting in where she wasn’t wanted and joyously blurting out things other people only thought.
But Sia didn’t tell her about floating. It was just TOO fucking weird and it made her look even more vulnerable than ever. That bugged her. Jillian would never have floated away . . . no matter how sad or pissed or heartbroken she was. Jilly was harder than rock; she was diamond. A glimmering gem that couldn’t be broken by hammer or stone or life.
But after Jack disappeared, Sia was the exact opposite. Just the wing of a bird . . . a mishmash of hollow bones and wispy feathers.
As soon as she was able, Sia crawled back to bed.