Right now there is a magnificent light show going on deep inside Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. With bright, electric flashes and flamboyant patterns, the cuttlefish, a squid-class of cephalopod, meet up for mating, only to die off afterwards as the new generation supplant themselves into the coral. The sadness of their impending doom is far outshone by their brilliant way of showing themselves off. I’ve wanted to see it for years now, but the best I could do was write about it. This story snippet, included in my book of shorts titled Cimarron Man and other stories, is free for the next few days (starting tomorrow the 25th). I hope you download the book, and enjoy the stories. And don’t eat cuttlefish. It makes me sad.
Dear Cuttlefish, Dear Cuttlefish
Dante approached her because he liked the vibrant pink hair and the little tattoo on the left forearm of a yellow star. Elegant. He hooked a sneaker into a stool rail and ordered a beer. Wheat. And then he tapped her on the shoulder, gently, next to the star. But not on the star.
“You here with anyone?”
She turned to sneak-a-peek over her shoulder, yet didn’t make eye contact. “No.”
“So you’re alone?”
“Correct.” Her drink of choice was a Bloody Mary. She tipped her head back and swallowed until an olive came close to her lips, but she didn’t let it slide in. When she put the glass back onto the counter, the olive slowly sunk down into a cloud of red.
“I’m alone too,” he said. The bartender, a rail-thin tattoo canvas with a scraggly beard, slid a beer across the counter to him. The bartender’s fingers read, Love Sucks, but when Dante combined the digits, it read, Luck and two s’s and the ove. Dante wished the extra letters made a real word. “I like the star,” he said.
The girl rubbed a casual hand over it, like it would brush away. “Thanks.”
Not a word.
“Hey,” Dante said, planting his ass on the stool, “what’s wrong? You always this sad?”
“Not always. Just tonight.”
“How come?” He nudged a thigh with a knee. “What’d the world do to you?”
Her eyes were green, like sea glass. Maybe it was the pink hair in contrast, but at that moment they were the greenest green he’d ever seen.
She sighed. “Have you ever heard about cephalopods?”
“Uh, maybe.” He searched his memory. He’d heard the word, but couldn’t recall any facts. Cephalopods, cephalopods.
Dante pictured two trout hugging each other and then cleared his head.
“Yeah, no. I don’t remember.”
The bartender ran a hand through a frizzy beard. Sucks.
“They live in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, and also Indonesia,” she said. “A class of squid.”
She waited for him to look excited, but he couldn’t muster it.
“Sorry, don’t know anything about them.”
“A lot of people don’t,” she said.
Dante took a sip of beer. A long one. Half of it was already gone. He’d just been to his uncle’s wake. And now he was lonely. Lonelier than ever.
Uncle Rev Gone.
How gone was gone?
He eyed the chick again and wondered if he had the drive to ask her home. So what if she didn’t accept? Sometimes he felt so wiped.
In the hospital, Uncle Rev would tell him he was tired, but not too tired to talk. His face had been bone and yellow, jaundice chicken skin. He’d say, Come sit by my bed, Dante, and we’ll shoot the shit. Needle in his arm and nurses coming and going.
Weeks and weeks of chemo, and he’d see something on TV about a dog getting abused by some asshole, and say, Poor thing.
Dante drained that beer like it was an IV hooked to his mouth.
“Tell me more. Tell me about the cuttlefish.”
He motioned to the bartender.
“They survive by using chromatic aberration,” she said. “That means they’re electric chameleons.”
Sometimes he felt like a chameleon.
The last three months had been a dry spell. A desert. Uncle Rev. The breakup. Regina hadn’t liked Dante’s new job. Didn’t have the nerve to say she just didn’t like him. Trouble was, she liked someone else.
Maybe this chick could crack it, crazy as she was, knew how to crack the dry spell. If she didn’t, he’d head down the street to Amo’s. Try his luck there. But nothing new happened in that bar, only drinks, a few wings and a fight. Chicks didn’t go to Amo’s.
There was nowhere else to go but here.
“And, oh, my name’s Dante. What’s yours?”
“Nice to meet you, Lola.” He thought of the Kinks’ song. La, la, la, la.
“Why do you like these cuttlefish so much?”
“Because they’re beautiful.”
“Beautiful, like you . . . Lola?”
She didn’t look at him after he said it. And then he wished he hadn’t said it.
“Tell me more about them. I really want to know. Honest.”
She twisted on the stool. “The cuttlefish are a direct symbolic representation of everything in our life, Dante. Once I found that out, it was as if I knew what God was, or Jesus, or Santa Claus. I just knew.”
There were shadows under the sea glass.
“That life is short.”
And blue veins showing through pale skin.
But she smelled familiar.
What was it?
What did she smell like?
“Well, yeah,” Dante said. “It is for some folks, I guess. Although, I’m going for a hundred.”
“They live only two years, tops. That’s not very long.”
“Hey, it’s better than a fly.” Gone.
“But to them it feels like forever.”
Another dude walked up and hovered next to Lola on her opposite side. When he whispered something, Dante cleared his throat. “Hey, Lola, can I buy you a drink?” He didn’t like the look of the guy. Scrawny. Strange.
“But I haven’t finished this.” She still had the olive.
“I know, but it’s almost gone. Last chance before I revoke the offer.
“All right, then. A beer this time.”
Dante signaled for the bartender to bring two, one for him and one for her. The other dude got the hint and headed to some other chick. Some chick with normal hair and no star.
Success. “So, they don’t live long,” he said. “That’s how nature works. You can’t be sad about that.”
“But I am. It’s July and July is mating season. They’re all dying now.” Lola rubbed the star again. It played peek-a-boo between her long fingers. “But first, they mate.”
“Oh, really?” Dante asked. “Tell me about that.”
“Well, you see, the procreation field is composed primarily of the male cuttlefish. When a rare female approaches, the men go crazy, flashing their lights and patterns, all in an act to impress her. If she isn’t impressed, she won’t mate. Typically the largest male wins out. But once the female signals an invitation, there’s trouble.
“The males go into battle, grabbing onto each other, pulling and twisting until the weaker one gives up. Then, the winner takes his prize, the female, and off they go.”
Her fingers came together to demonstrate. “The male wraps his tentacles around the female, forcing her to face him, then he inserts a sperm sack into an opening near her mouth. It doesn’t sound romantic, but it is. Sometimes a smaller male cuttlefish who’s disguised his body to look effeminate will come along, and while the larger male is tricked, the smaller one mates with the female too. It’s done to ensure both large and small specie propagate. I figure the larger male understands, or he wouldn’t allow it happen.”
Lola turned to Dante.
“Cephalopods die after procreation. Slowly at first, then in lighting speed. A matter of days. The colors fade, the eyes go cloudy. It’s as if all their life force is gone, just because of that one mating session. But it’s the most beautiful thing. A moment of completion; of purpose. Without it, their entire existence would mean nothing.
“They do it willingly. She knows. He knows. Cephalopods have a very short life cycle. It’s their fate and they wouldn’t have it any other way. Do you see what I mean that we’re all like the cephalopods? Do you see what I mean, Dante?”
Dante slumped on the stool.
“So, Lola, thanks for teaching me about the cuttlefish. Now when someone asks me, I’ll know.”
Goodbye, pink hair. You’re beautiful, but I can’t handle this. I need to be around someone who doesn’t talk about death. Someone that’s here.