The faces of the Clowns—there must be nearly a hundred—smear away; white greasepaint drips and runs. Their frizzled shock of hair matts up into kinks and snags. The waves wash over and slap their mouths, suck back and splash again, each grimy rictus dribbling, the delicate outlines of their eyebrows bleared, yet still all of us are obviously Clowns. Yes, myself among the others. Our once-billowing shirts have become bloated, our goofy ties waterlogged, our suspenders sag, our polka dots grow unrecognizable in the mottled froth, and everything feels heavy, sodden, salt-encrusted, slowly weighing further down.
Our skin cracks, brittle, bleeding, dehydrated from prolonged saline exposure. Almost everyone’s already shit their too-big pants. Snot and slaver coat our muzzles. A warm spillage of brownish sludge and the backwash of someone’s ralph sloshes with the tides. My bare eyes see even though it’s pitch dark; see as if in night-vision green.
The Clowns, including me, including you, squint ahead, inhale, and wait for the next wave to crest and belly, double over, crash, attack. You have been stuck here for hours, amid the oncoming waves. You nod off, your head dips, and suddenly the salt water’s down your lungs; it burns, it burns so much you imagine that you’re drowning. This is one of the drills the Navy uses to train its Seals, to make sure they can endure waterboarding, but for us Clowns there is no reward for such an ordeal. No little medal or merit badge. It’s an exercise that only leads to being Clowns. Remaining Clowns.
This must be the second, perhaps the third time that I’m here. The other Clowns and I, we’ve been at the shore where the water breaks, suffering the surges all night, and now, through stinging eyes, the first faint backdrop of uncertain blue fades in, a feeble edge to the horizon. This round will be over soon, perhaps. Perhaps we’ll suffer another hour of the waves. Soon—not soon enough.
I look across at you. You seem well aware of the tides riding in, the time ruddering out. You have become one with the buttery pool of your drooling mask.
I wake up. My eyes open in the darkness as I catch my breath. Just like that, I exhale the Clown that I was, and the other Clowns disperse to nothingness. Where did you go? The indistinguishable space around me could in fact still be an ocean: the pale silhouette of rumpled blankets fold back like surf. The wake of blood rushing in my ears, thumping in my veins, the force of my heart shuddering my chest; my whole body struggling to leak out. Is this a bed or a body? Where’s the edge? Or am I bedding down into a body of water? I can hardly tell. Whatever it is (I am) slowly ebbs away…
Maybe afterwards, back in the breakroom, I’ll protest, “No, something like that, if it happens three times, you know it must be a dream,” convincing myself that the memory of the time that undulates in its suspension in my mental theater is no real time; it is so somnolent, ignoble, iffy, and adrift. The breakroom itself, with its twitchy halogen lights, its fug of stale cigarette smoke, its institutional cinderblock and exposed roofbeams, the breakroom is an aquarium. The other Clowns—their mumbled voices, dumb jokes, raucous laughter—all sound somehow underwater. Swells and sloughs as heard below the surface. Everything stop-motioned, deliberate, heavy, saturated with the sluggishness of such watery logic. And now, ok, you’re talking to me, but I can’t hear you. I just watch your lips, your sticky makeup coming unglued, trying to tell me something, something that could save my life.