I Used To
“Let’s go in there,” Kennedy said, pointing at a 1950’s building with a giant shell-shaped sign. She didn’t wait for an answer but darted ahead. I followed at my own pace. Already on our Morro Bay trip I’d learned that she could dawdle in any shop long enough for me to catch up, even a shop as unpromising as this one. It sold nothing but shells—tables of turbos and conches and cowries and cones, polished to pearly gleaming. Kennedy dallied among the displays, hefting large shells, fingering small shells, her intent face reminding me of how she looked at me during sex, as if my body was unusual and fascinating.
Kennedy was a blond in her mid-twenties, twenty years younger than me. When I introduced her to my friends, the men gave me “Good job!” smiles. Their wives pursed their lips, then became overly friendly with Kennedy, like semi-estranged aunts, amused by her enthusiasms, shaking their heads over her choice in men. Not knowing her well enough to give her the advice they itched to.
She held up a palm-sized red abalone shell, her turquoise fingernails accenting the ocean purples and blues inside it. “Locally farmed,” she said. “Have you ever eaten abalone?”
“I haven’t. It’s so expensive.”
Because the sentence I was forming in my mind began with “I used to,” I swallowed it. I didn’t want to be the old guy I Used To-ing all the time. I kept the memories to myself of how I used to dive for abalone off Salt Point, back before poaching and the otter resurgence made abalone so scarce. There’s nothing like the taste of fresh abalone, pan fried over your campfire after you dove down to the deeps. Buttery, smoky, briny, every chewy bite is a miracle. Before the divorce, I lined our Willow Glen bungalow’s garden path with my old abalone shells, their iridescent insides mirroring the flowers and sky. My wife got the house in the divorce. I thought about prying up the shells, but they would always remind me, not of my abalone diving days, but of her, of our cozy house and garden that she’d betrayed. Now the new guy was living there, among my I Used Tos.
Kennedy had moved on, examining swirled shells dyed pink and red and glued to stems to look like rosebuds. The romantic thing would be to buy her one so she could put it in her bedroom the way the girls of my youth saved their dried prom corsages.
I examined some abalone shells the size of dinner plates. The man behind the counter, older than me with weathered skin and an “Eddie Would Go” surfer’s t-shirt, explained that the shells were from the sixties. “They don’t get that big now,” he said. I nodded. I could have I Used To-ed with him, but then we’d have been two old guys chewing the fat, like the men who had hung out at the auto parts store when I was a kid.
“Bruce,” Kennedy squealed, “look at these cute little pirate ships!” The walls were lined with shell knickknacks—swans, turtles, clams with google eyes and splayed mouths, dolls with dresses of scalloped layers of shells. She pointed to a row of galleons with clamshell sails, red pennants flying from toothpick masts. No skull and crossbones, but if she thought they were pirate ships, OK. Sometimes pirates don’t appear to be marauders until it’s too late, and they’ve stolen all that used to be yours.
I figured I’d be buying her a shell ship instead of a shell rose. Two month’s acquaintance couldn’t compare with fifteen years of knowing, but I had to try to learn her. Tonight I’d take her to a romantic restaurant overlooking Morro Rock, the calcified remains of a volcano sitting solitary in the tide. We’d order abalone that would be chewy and tasteless, far from the wild-caught abalone of my youth. Then we’d go back to the B&B, where I’d clasp her young, dewy body and she’d caress mine, a strange, empty shell of what I used to be.
About the Author: Ann Hillesland's work has been published or is forthcoming in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Sou’wester, Corium, and SmokeLong Quarterly. It has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions, won the grand prize for prose in a Spark contest, and has been presented onstage by Stories On Stage. Ann is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte. Visit Ann's website here: