In Elias Rodriques’ forthcoming novel, All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running, Daniel, a queer mixed-race Jamaican-American man living in New York City is drawn back to the conservative North Florida town he once dreamed of escaping, after learning of the sudden death of a close friend. What follows is unlike any coming of age story I’ve ever read. Returning to his former home stirs up memories long suppressed, but Rodriques’ lyrical excavation of Daniel digs into not only his childhood but also the experiences of his family in Jamaica. Though alienated from most of his peers as a teen because of his race, class, sexuality, and nationality, Rodriques sets Daniel in vivid nature scenes—such as the one that begins this excerpt—to show how he made his own home on the water. The dialogue throughout the novel is also a highlight, as we see how fluidly Daniel is able to code-switch to navigate between his multiple identities.
Back then, we body surfed until saltwater rushed into our sinuses and pushed liquid mucus out our noses. When we tired of trying to catch the tide, we waded out, stopping to dive under incoming waves. Above us, the rushing water sounded like wind heard from within a plane landing. We surfaced and continued out to where we could not touch. We treaded and bobbed in the tide and congregated on sand bars. When that exhausted us, we swam back to shore and baked in the sun until the day turned to a haze of half sleep.
We lived for water, salt, fresh, and brackish. We waited out schooldays for the weekends and school years for the summers to return to it. We stood on our river’s mud shores and cast lines, hoping to catch something big, only ever reeling in catfish. We wriggled our hands into their mouths, unhooked their slimy insides, and cast them back into our brackish river. After sweat and spray coated our faces, we kicked off our flip-flops and swam in murky waters. When the sun stole our shade, we moved on to the next shore or pier or dock or dinghy. We were all waiting for life after high school, after our no name-town in north Florida, so we figured we’d wait by the water.
On the best nights, we saw the glint of moonlight rippling on a current. I spent many evenings with the girl I loved in high school, Aubrey, trying to touch the moon’s reflection, our hands plunging through cold waters as if digging in the sky. I liked to stand in the glow and pretend we were characters in some fantasy book carrying out a ritual, my hair standing on end as the magic took hold. But I think it was just the feel of Aubrey’s eyes on me, a Black boy on the wrong side of skinny, who never thought anyone would want him, least of all her.
The longest night we spent on the biggest river that runs through Palm Coast, the Intracoastal, was when I was seventeen and Aubrey was eighteen. We made plans at lunch. She was waiting at our table and I hoped to rush through the free-lunch line at school, but it was longer than normal. The growing number of middle-class kids in line, all of whose parents worked in real estate or landscaping, suggested something was changing. But I wouldn’t learn what until the 2008 housing crash gave my county the highest unemployment rate in the state that had the highest in the nation.
By the time I retrieved my lukewarm burger and french fries and joined Aubrey, a dark-haired white girl standing to about five-six, lunch was almost over. After we shot the breeze, I asked what her weekend plans were. She said she didn’t have any. I said we didn’t have a track meet tomorrow, Saturday. She said we were going fishing that evening.
After school, I told Mom I was spending the night at my friend Twig’s house. An hour later, she dropped me off and, after she left, I drove Twig’s car to Aubrey’s house. In her neighborhood, every street name started with a B—Bird of Paradise Drive, Buffalo Bill Place, Brushwood Lane—so everyone called it the B section. The houses there were a little bigger and the lawns better kept than in my part of town, but Aubrey’s driveway seemed poorly paved for the neighborhood.
I knocked on her window and she came out. Her hair was up in a ponytail and her teal Abercrombie shirt was just short enough that it exposed the seabass tattoo on her right hip. I tried not to stare, but I kept glancing at the curve her hip bone drew.
You could’ve rang, she said.
I didn’t ring because I worried Aubrey’s sister would answer. A few weeks earlier, I stood behind her sister in line at Walmart. She was buying alcohol. When she reached the front, the white cashier with a buzz cut and goatee asked for her ID. She handed it over. He held it up to the light. She shook her head as she stared at his fake diamond earring. When he finally returned it and rang her up, she walked away and said, Fucking nigger. I wondered what Aubrey would have said to her sister if she was there.
They don’t care, Aubrey said.
She opened the garage. We hooked her dinghy up to a red truck as I tried to avoid looking at the Confederate flag bumper sticker that I assumed was her sister’s. Then we got in the car and drove to Bing’s Landing. As we pulled in, shadowy Spanish moss swayed from the branches overhead. We passed the one-room barbecue joint and the small grass square that made up the park. At the river’s edge, silhouettes swung and I heard a hook splash into the Intracoastal. I was trying to distinguish the line from the night when Aubrey reversed the truck down the ramp and the dinghy into the water. We got out, detached the boat, and held it still.
Get in, Aubrey said, barely more visible than the shadow people in the distance.
Where are you going?
To park. Can’t bring it with us.
What if I float away?
Hold on to the dock. As she walked away, she muttered, All them book smarts and not a lick of common sense.
I got in and grabbed its rough wood beams, which felt like they might splinter into my hand. The water bobbed beneath and I worried I would fall. Moments later, a gray-blue hue to her skin, Aubrey returned with the spear, the bucket, and the lamps.
Can we turn the lights on? I asked.
Got to wait till they’re in the water, she said.
I can’t see anything.
You afraid of the dark?
Aubrey got in the boat, shoved off, and guided us out with a pole. Then she turned the motor on and propelled us downstream. The front tipped up a few inches. The bow carved a V-shaped line into the water that would become our wake. Beyond it, no one else was on the river. Overhead, the stars were scattered across the blue-black sky like spilled glitter.
This good? Aubrey asked, turning the motor off.
It’s good, I said.
Aubrey plunged the pole to the riverbed and steered us closer to the bank. The shore ran in a soft incline up to a dark-gray forest where tree shadows faded into one another. She passed me the lamps and I dropped them in the river. They bounced on the surface. She turned them on, and they lit the bottom gray like the surface of the moon. Reedy, seaweed-like plants waved from below. Pebbles littered the dirt-sand, which looked softer than any beach I had ever set foot on. A thin fish floated off the floor and Aubrey yelled, Flounder.
Aubrey stabbed the spear through it. A ribbon of pink curled out. Then a sand cloud rushed up from where Aubrey hit the bed and blotted out the blood.
That’s what you’re looking for, she said, pulling the flounder out of the river and tossing it into the bucket. Sometimes they look like rocks. Only way to know is to stab.
You go first. I’ll watch.
Aubrey and I switched places. I steered the boat from the back, pushing the pole to the bottom, leaning my weight on it, and pulling it loose from the sticky earth. The dirt shores on our right gave way to short cement walls that I assumed the river overcame during hurricanes. Above them were waterfront houses with long wood docks lit by lamps. How often did they drain floodwaters from their floors?
Go slower, Aubrey said. Can’t see anything if you don’t go slowly.
As she peered over the side, my eyes adjusting to the night, I could almost see her bony shoulders through her shirt. It crept up to reveal a thin line of vertebrae. I tried to count them, imagined what they would feel like.
She let her dark-brown, almost-black hair down. I was surprised to see it fall so far below her shoulders. It was straight. She must have just straightened it. When she leaned to stab at the floor, her hair swung a long arc, blurring in the dim light before settling in front of her shoulders, a thicket hiding her face.
Slowly. They get scared if you don’t go slowly.
She had curled her hair for homecoming. Her pink ruffled dress almost matched the shape of her dark curls. The picture was so clear in my mind that I must have stared when I saw her.
Slowly, she said. Then she stabbed. I pushed a few more times and she speared again. When she hit rocks, she laughed as if mocking someone.
I am going slowly.
You’re going faster than you think.
Show me then.
We switched. Up front, I stabbed at every gray disk on this moon’s surface. At first, I cut through the water. Then my shoulders began to burn. The spear moved slower. My arms ached. I stabbed less than Aubrey did. How did she get so strong?
Can’t believe you’ve never been gigging, she said.
Not something my friends do.
All rednecks do it.
Don’t hang with any rednecks.
We’re hanging right now, she said.
You’re not a redneck.
Sure am. Daddy’s from the Panhandle.
I looked at the shore. The large houses with sprawling lawns began to look like miniature plantations. I could almost see the enslaved people, just now leaving the master’s house for their homes. Still don’t think you’re a redneck, I said.
I go mudding. Wear camo.
Only when you’re around.
We passed a clearing where there were RVs, trailers hooked up to trucks, and six or so rectangular trailer homes. The light was on in one. Two shadows stood opposite each other, then came together until they overlapped in an inhuman shape. Worried Aubrey would notice me watching them, I turned. At the clearing’s edge, instead of a wall, the earth crumbled into the Intracoastal.
You’re not like the others, I said.
What’s that supposed to mean?
I didn’t say anything. Aubrey asked to switch spots. As we tried to step around each other in the small boat, I smelled the river on her. Her body brushed against mine and it was softer than expected. She looked me in the eyes. My cheeks burned at our contact, at being close enough to catch her scent, and I turned away. I stepped to the back of the boat, pushed for a little, and then stopped to watch the bed. The mud floor looked soft enough to fall asleep in.
Tired already? she asked.
It’s hard work, I said.
Ain’t you Mr. Track Star?
That what they call me?
What my sister called you, when I told her what I was doing tonight. Probably shouldn’t have told you. Don’t want it to go to your head. She paused and looked up at the sky. Think you’re going to miss all this when you get that scholarship?
If I get a scholarship.
You going to get one.
Tell the truth, I don’t think much about that. Just think about getting on out of here.
You scared of ending up like your brother?
I didn’t say anything. In the distance, the river was black. As we got closer, it yellowed. Then it turned gray and transparent. If we went on for long enough, we would travel the path debris takes when it follows the current out to sea. We would stall where the river fought the ocean.
Beautiful out here, I said.
Nothing like it.
Never heard your voice so clear, I said.
What you mean?
School’s so loud. Out here you sound different. I never noticed your voice was so, and then I trailed off into silence.
We were quiet as a big boat motored by. In its wake, we bobbed, and it felt like I was standing on the waves. The shore looked like it was floating, the plantation-style houses and trailers like they might rock off the shore. Aubrey cussed under her breath. But when the bobbing stopped, even though our boat was small, it felt firm.
You good? she asked.
I was quiet as I looked at Aubrey, a gleam to her face from some mixture of sweat, river, and moonlight. Shorter than me but seeming to stand at eye level, she wasn’t smiling or scowling, as she so often was. Her dark hair framing her face, her large brown eyes wide open, she just let me watch her and watched me back. No one had ever stood so still in my gaze nor had I done the same for anyone else. I didn’t worry about my nose’s acne as I often did when I noticed other people looking at me at school. I didn’t feel a need to fill the quiet. As the frogs droned and the water slapping against the shores sounded like a dog lapping from a bowl, I didn’t fret about my crooked teeth and I smiled.
I’d ride down this forever if I could, I said.
We’d hit the inlet eventually, she said.
We could keep going.
Into the sea?
Across the world.
We stopped pushing and coasted in the current. Unoccupied by anything but watching the shore pass by and counting the silent seconds, we felt the weight of all the things we had not shared becoming too heavy. Believing love to be defined by mentioning every unmentionable, we spilled our secrets in jumbled words, sentences without periods. (I can’t bring myself to share them here, now.) We touched. We turned around, headed back to land. We waited out the moon on shore. We parted as the birds awakened around us.
I’m thinking of that night and our waterlogged days, now seven years ago and a thousand miles away, as I lie in bed next to my boyfriend, Virgil, in New York in 2015. He knows little of that time—when words drawled out of my mouth, when I thought I would never make it out of our conservative town. He doesn’t know the news that I have just read.
Phone cradled in front of my face, brightness low so I don’t wake Virgil, I read the Flagler Live headline again: ONE DEAD IN CRASH OFF US-1. According to the article, Aubrey was riding shotgun when her ex-boyfriend, Brandon, swerved off US-1 between Daytona and Palm Coast. Aubrey wasn’t wearing a seat belt. She flew through the windshield and landed in the woods amidst the untamed brush and longleaf pines. She died before the paramedics arrived. In the picture above the article, her dark eyes shine, her pale skin glistens, and her pink lips crack a bright smile in front of the sky-blue background of her graduation photo. She looks just as I remember her. The memories come rushing. The dark turns to a theater; a montage plays: sunlit Florida days scored by a melancholic soundtrack.
When reliving the past becomes too hard, I turn to Virgil. Still asleep, the comforter covering most of his nude body, he is the color of tea mixed with milk. His long limbs stretch across the bed, an arm tucked beneath my pillow from when he cradled me last night. Lying still, he looks like another fold of fabric in the morning dark. If it weren’t for his rising chest, I might think him a corpse.
I run a hand behind his ear and he curls into me without opening his eyes, burying his face against my side. His words are muffled when he says, You been up long?
Something on your mind?
For a moment, I consider telling him. If I do, will he be awake enough to listen?
No, I say. Just work.
He tries to pull me into him, but I resist.
I have to get ready, I say.
I kiss him on the forehead and get out of bed. The cold of his underheated Crown Heights apartment in March makes me shiver. Dazed, I shower in water so hot, mist blankets his windowless bathroom. After, I squint through the steam at the mirror to fasten my tie and try to lesson plan for my tenth-grade class in my head, but the memories of Aubrey keep interrupting. I’m shaking my head at the low knot when Virgil kisses me on the cheek and steps into the shower. I start over on my tie. When he is done, I’m still trying to get the knot right, though I have done this every workday for years now.
You all right? Virgil asks.
You’re usually gone by the time I’m done showering.
I look at my watch. I’m late. I grab my things and run out the door without kissing him goodbye. I speed down the stairs, throw the front door open, and jog for the same train that I have caught every morning for a long time. The cold March air burns my chest. The sidewalk hits hard against my soles, pain shooting up my legs. By the time I rush through the turnstile, down the platform, and onto the train, the shin splints that I developed in high school still burn. When I sit, I’m breathing heavily. Eventually, my lungs slow, the commuters and the train fade away, and Aubrey returns. I’m there with her, a teen in Florida once more. As she walks by my side, books clutched to her chest, my stomach flutters and I still love her, though we haven’t talked in years, though I haven’t loved a girl in years.