We parked in the driveway of her ex-husband, so I wanted to stay busy, carry something, but didn’t know where to start. It was drizzling. The students pulled up behind us looking tired and puffy, and Jasmine gathered them in and started joking. “What’s the matter? Enflamed dura?” They laughed. She turned to me and shook her head, “Hangovers.”
It was Jasmine’s graduate invertebrate zoology class, and the field trip was our third date. We met in the biology building where I was replacing a light fixture and she was setting up a lab on nudibranch and sea slug reproduction. I’d never heard of these creatures, but I asked questions and she smiled and told me that they were hermaphrodites, and that a group of sea slugs mated all together, playing whatever roles were necessary. “Wow” was all I could say.
Jasmine and I had coffee a couple times, and she talked about her work on the Oregon Coast. “You should come along,” she offered. “It could really change you.”
I didn’t think I needed changing, but it sure felt good walking down the rocky pass around twisted driftwood onto the flat, wide beach. Waist-high waves broke into soft thunder. I wanted some time with Jasmine, but two women flanked her, leaned in, and something made them all laugh. Were they asking about me or her ex-husband? Did they know him? The sand was smooth and hard, pressed here and there with bits of shell. When we got to a rocky point, Jasmine turned to me and said, “You’re gonna love this.” And I did. I loved it—stepping between the black ledges bristling with gooseneck barnacles and mussels snug in their blue beds. I put my hand on the massive colony and felt its valved contractions.
A young woman named Nicole kneeled on the rock next to me, dipped her hand into a kelpy pool, and came up with what looked like a psychedelic slug. “Nudibranch,” she announced.
“Right,” I answered quickly. “Jasmine’s really into those.”
She studied the creature for a moment. Out of the water, it looked like a sucked-on piece of red and white candy. “Phidiana pugnax. I think that’s what it is,” she said. “I’ve never seen one alive.”
“Jasmine will love it,” I repeated.
Nicole seemed tickled with the way I used her professor’s first name, and she asked if I worked at the university.
“I’m in maintenance,” I said.
“My dad does that at our high school.” She dropped the nudibranch into a clear plastic container and we watched it slowly grab the bottom.
“See those pretty red hairs?” Nicole squinted and pointed. “They’ve got stinging cells—nasty.”
I wanted to ask more, but Jasmine called me to the mussel bed. There were bunches of mussels everywhere. She said they’ve been going strong for a few hundred million years. Mind blowing. “This is how they breathe, eat and spawn,” Jasmine explained. “Strung in tight together.” She toed the cluster with her boot. “Let’s get some.”
“I’ll lend you some muscle,” I joked.
She rolled her eyes, shook her head, and handed me a small shovel. Prying into the colony and tearing them off one by one felt like crude work, but she said it was the best way.
Jasmine was thirty-four, a couple years younger than me. Rings of damp dark hair fell around her tan face under the raincoat’s red hood. Her eyes were a pretty light brown. “Having fun?” she asked, stepping closer to me.
“Oh yeah,” I said, pleased to be getting more attention. “It’s great out here. And your students are cool. They totally dig you.”
She put her hand on the middle of my back. “It’s nice to be dug,” she said.
Jasmine and I walked back together along the beach. Gulls picked at something near the waterline. The rain had stopped and the haze was burning off. It would be a good opening for a film. Windy wide angles that slowly narrowed into a cozy couple.
When we returned to the house, a tall man stood on the balcony. I’d guessed it was her ex, Ted Parker, and I was ready to meet him, if I had to. As we started up through the line of driftwood, he called out, “How’d it go?”
“Great,” Jasmine raised her voice to him. “Nicole found a fighting Phidiana.”
“Nice,” he said.
I looked up at him and nodded, but I couldn’t recognize any acknowledgment behind his sunglasses. Up in the driveway, his recycle bins were full of liquor and wine bottles. A student followed my gaze and said: “Parker’s a partier.”
Nicole laughed. “Yeah, I’m surprised he hasn’t invited us in.”
“It’s pretty early,” another student checked his phone. I listened and smiled. It was like being at the edge of a film set when nothing was required, when you could just watch people do their thing.
Jasmine asked if I would put the animals in the coolers.
She laughed. “The sea creatures. Our specimens.” She went into the house and came out fifteen minutes later. “Sorry,” she said, stuffing some papers into a bag behind the car seat. “He’s helping me with a research grant.”
“No problem,” I shrugged.
“We’re still friends,” she said.
I was feeling good about Jasmine. She and the students talked in the driveway. The sun came out and we shed our raincoats and sweatshirts. Nicole wore a white t-shirt printed with a red squid that hovered vertically between her breasts. What a great shot, I thought. She must have caught me staring, because she explained that they made the shirts in bio class.
“You use a real squid and textile paint. There’s a name for it in Japanese. We painted the squids and pressed the shirts on top,” Nicole told me.
“Nice effect,” I nodded.
“All right,” Jasmine wrapped it up. “I’ll see you all in the lab on Monday. No hangovers, please.”
We went to a bar called Barnacle Bill’s, a dim, beery joint fancied-up with nets and buoys.
“Fun song.” I read the bawdy lyrics on the menu. “But it can’t be much fun being a barnacle.”
“You’d be surprised.” Jasmine’s voice bounced up from the menu.
“They stretch out their dicks and knock-knock on the shells of other barnacles, looking for a lady.”
“You’re kidding me. No way. How long are they—the, the penises?”
“Long. Maybe seven times their body length. How else would you find a mate when you’re stuck to a rock?”
“Amazing. Wonder if I could work that into one of my projects.”
Jasmine tilted her head. Her eyebrows went up and she smiled. “At the Physical Plant?”
“No,” I said, laughing and shaking my head. “I hope you don’t think this is too weird. But I guess I can just tell you.” Jasmine nodded expectantly. “Well, I make films. Promotional films for adult lifestyle clubs.”
“You mean swingers?” Jasmine burst out laughing, and I joined her. A moment later, we laughed again, then took long sips of beer and settled into grins.
“I’m glad you’re laughing. Women have different reactions. But you being a biologist, I thought you might understand.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not sure a sexy barnacle scene is gonna sell for you.”
“Maybe not. How about lovers eating clams by the sea?”
“Eating clams?” Jasmine laughed.
“Innuendo, you know? I could show you one of the videos, if you’re interested.”
She went quiet and pushed the butter knife under her plate, passively inspecting the greasy decor. “I’m pretty hungry,” I said, looking around for our waitress.
When we got into the car I asked about the animals. “Are they going to be all right for the ride home? Do we need more ice?” I wanted to turn the attention back to Jasmine and her work.
“They’ll be fine.”
“So, you’ve done a lot of fieldwork?” I asked.
Jasmine had a good grip on the steering wheel and she was looking straight out at the road as it turned east away from the water. “I spent a year on Cross Island—
Berkeley’s marine lab. It was transformative. Ted and I were married then.”
“I learned a lot about inverts out there.”
“Well, you’re on an island. I guess it’s easier.”
“Invertebrates,” she chuckled. “Sea slugs, shrimp, squid.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “I like squids.” I remembered the shirts.
“We built this pool, filled it with foot-long squid and watched them grab each other and mate. It was incredible.”
“Group sex is big in the sea.”
“Yeah, a female will mate with several males in one night.”
“We also made a hot tub for the humans.” She shot me a quick sideways glance.
“Sounds fun,” I said.
“We definitely partied,” she went on, hands tight to the wheel, accelerating on the straightaways.
We were driving through the mountains somewhere near Eddyville when I asked about the squid prints she’d done with her students.
“Ted did that. He was filling in last term.”
“Well, Nicole certainly gets points for placement.”
There was a minute or so of silence, and then Jasmine said, “Oh, you wouldn’t believe the stuff we did. There were times. I don’t know.”
“What do you mean? Where? At that Berkeley place?”
“Yeah. There were times when we got drunk and—.” She lifted a hand off the wheel and brushed the hair out of her face.
“You might not think it’s anything. But we had parties—spawning parties, we called them.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, my interest growing.
“I guess this is what you do at your clubs.”
“They’re not my clubs,” I said, trying to stay cool while my wires tingled.
“You go to them? You’re making their ads, right? Are you into that?”
“Honestly,” I said. “It’s not my thing.”
“I bet,” she smirked.
She looked agitated, and I noticed the car going over the yellow line. “One night, in all of our drunken brilliance,” she said, “we decided to film it.”
She seemed to be watching something in the woods above the road. “The spawning parties. There’s a video of me with all these people. Some of them were students. I mean, grad students, but still. This was a few years ago. I think Ted’s got the only copy.”
I could hardly believe she was telling me all this, and I tried to think of what to say.
“Hey, Jasmine, it’s okay. I mean, we all have secrets. It’s not like it’s been released.”
“I’m a teacher,” she shook her head. “People have been fired for a lot less.”
Jasmine drove us back to school and we sat in silence for a few minutes. She dropped her head into her hands, and I rubbed her back. “It’s okay. You’re okay,” I whispered. Then she looked at me with reddish eyes and said, “I’m so sorry. You must think I’m such a freak.”
“No, I don’t.”
“I still feel trapped by it all,” she said. “Stuck.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, but she didn’t answer.
I unloaded the gear and coolers and helped move the animals into the sea tables, large flat basins circulated with cold, clear saltwater. They were like little fluorescent-lit stages—pumped currents and timed feedings—where the ocean carried on its inland play for science.
As we were finishing, I said, “Hey, Jasmine, we should get together this week. Can I call you?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Sorry I said all that shit.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about. Come on, let’s have dinner.”
“I don’t know. I really don’t go out much these days.”
“Just dinner.” I looked down at the large cooler of mussels. “How about I take a couple dozen of these guys and make us a nice appetizer? Let me cook you dinner.”
“I’ve got work to do on these mussels. Nicole and I are testing them.”
“Come on. You’ve got two coolers full. What’s a couple dozen?”
She paused for a moment, looked away, then returned with her eyes focused somewhere behind me on the wall. “Okay,” she said. Then she looked at me and her face relaxed into a smile. “Okay. That sounds nice.”
When I got home and took a shower, I was fascinated by what Jasmine told me about the orgies. I looked for her hot tub video online. Nothing, of course. If this video upset her so much, her ex should delete his copy before he does something stupid like get drunk and show his buddies—or get angry, and post it. Sometimes people hold things over each other.
That Friday, Jasmine came over around six. She was wearing a shimmery red and white blouse and a dark skirt. “You look great,” I said. We stood in the kitchen, I poured wine, and she said something about the sea tables getting too warm, that she might have to check on them later. I was disappointed, hoping she’d stay late, but I didn’t say anything.
I had a few things going in the kitchen—steamed broccoli, baked salmon, and the mussels, our first course, steamed with garlic, shallots, wine and butter. “Impressive,” she said, inhaling the savory aroma. “You could teach me something.” Jasmine glanced at her phone and said it was a text from Nicole.
“Maybe Nicole can check on the sea tables,” I suggested.
“We’ll see,” she said, reading the long message and typing a reply.
I set the steamed mussels out on the table with bread and salad.
“Looks great,” she said, putting her phone away.
“You look great,” I told her again. She leaned forward to take some salad and I could see creamy skin and a red bra between the buttons of her blouse. Using my fork, I pulled an orange mussel from the open shell. She ate a tomato off her salad and dipped a piece of bread into the broth.
I smiled and chewed the tender mussel, its musky taste reminding me of something aged and fresh at the same time. “Seafood is transformative,” I said.
“Transformative? How so?”
“To eat something so primitive like a mussel—something without a brain—
and think about it so much. You know, appreciate it with our brains.”
She smiled and nodded.
I put another brothy mussel in my mouth, then another. “Aren’t you going to have any?” I asked.
She spooned a wedged-shaped shell onto her plate and touched the bright flesh with her fork. “Have you ever heard of domoic acid?” she asked.
“It’s a natural toxin, like red algae. It’s in shellfish sometimes. It’ll transform you all right—memory loss, paralysis. Death.”
For a moment I stopped chewing and thought of spitting out the mussel. What an odd thing to say. Is this woman crazy? There were two or three seconds of us looking at each other. Then I resumed chewing and deliberately swallowed, wiping my buttery lips with a white cotton napkin.
“Well,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “I trust that these mussels are perfectly safe.”
Jasmine looked at me for a moment. “I believe they are,” she said, then lifted the glistening meat to her mouth. I watched the slow swimming motions of her jaw and cheeks, the pink sweep of her tongue.