“I used to collect turtle shells.” I told her. Her face was blank in response. I knew it was a stupid thing to say but it has been years honestly since I cared about trying to be interesting. Years since I wanted attention. It’s an easy feeling to lose and a terrifying one to regain. She stared out into the distance, perhaps wondering if continuing to humor me was a better alternative than going back inside to the party that was winding down.
“I would find them,” I continued, “all around the woods by my grandma’s house. They were mostly snapping turtles, but sometimes there were painted turtles or box turtles. One time I even found an Eastern Spiny shell. I didn’t even really have to look for them, they always just stood out to me, like how some people always manage to spot four-leaf clovers.” I couldn’t tell you, even hours later now as I sit here nursing my lonely scotch, why I picked this lie. It wasn’t completely a lie mind you. Tommy always found the shells. He would take them home, and clean them, soaking them with salt and borax, scrubbing them with a toothbrush, using a paintbrush to coat them with polyurethane. I used to be fascinated with the morbidity of the process but remembering it now just turned my stomach. In for a penny, in for a pound I guess. “My uncle was a taxidermist, so he would preserve them for me.” My uncle is a manager at Staples and is a strict vegetarian.
A flicker in my brain finally tells me to do the right thing. Or maybe, as the case may be, the least wrong thing. I stop talking. I watched her thumb as it rolled the thin chain of her bracelet back, forth, back, forth, the precision of a long-practiced fidget. A thumb with a hand, opposable. Her face was still blank, her eyes looking over the balcony and following the path of a delivery person on a bicycle. Time was dilating in that way that you’re either excited or terrified. I thought it was the former but in retrospect it was certainly the latter. Regardless it felt like a day had passed and I might have the salvation of her inattention.
“Where are they now?” she asked quietly. It was a tone dripping with disinterest. Her eyes glanced down at her glass as she swirled the wispy remnants of ice cubes floating at the top of her untouched cocktail. I think of the unshelled turtle, this time on its back. It can bend its knees and snap its jaws but it’s otherwise useless, spineless and fragile. Tommy puts its colorful carapace gently in a shoebox marked “painted” and carefully returns the box to the shelf. One more unhomed soul with its most useful pieces carefully and lovingly preserved.
My tongue is dry, and I can feel hot tears trying to press themselves out of my eyes as my embarrassment grows. ‘I’m sorry’ I want to say. ‘You don’t deserve this’ floats across the on deck circle of words, but that’s even worse. My mind is racing with all the ways this went wrong. With all the ways I made this wrong. Anything worth saying evaporates. I decide to throw away my shovel and stop digging.
“I’ll leave you alone. Have a good night.” I somehow manage to get through all eight words without my throat catching. It’s not until I’ve almost slid the glass door entirely shut that I hear a half-hearted “g’night.” I wonder for the millionth time why apathy never works out for me. Why my brain turns to mush when I try to escape it. Better to hold it inside then to have it spill in someone else’s yard. Better to put the turtle in the shell so it’s not a sack of useless thumbs.