Kim Steutermann Rogers
Fish out of Water
"You stole my skin," I say to the woman I've tracked from Hawaii to a gated community outside Chicago. Hydrangea in a rainbow of colors bloom beside the front door of the house. The woman's about my height and weight, a good decade younger, definitely more attractive with a splash of freckles giving her an innocent look I'm not buying. "I want it back."
She doesn't act surprised to see me at her front door. "I like your hair," she says.
I get comments about my silver hair all the time. Doesn't faze me. Hers is platinum blonde, my length, pulled into a ponytail. "What kind of person steals someone's skin?" I ask.
I've had my skin, a Roxy 3/2mm wetsuit, for three decades. Got it when I was shredding waves. Threads are starting to give at its light blue chest and the rest, in black, is super faded. My skin has seen me through a competitive surfing career, raising two kids, and, most recently, three years of graduate school setting transects over a fringing coral reef off the north shore of Kauai.
"Come inside," she says and disappears into her mini-mansion I trail her into the kitchen. "Kombucha?"
The air-conditioning's blasting, the chill making my nipples hard.
"Lemon ginger or mango?" she asks and before I can answer, she's cracked open mango, which happens to be my favorite. She offers me the bottle, making a show of checking out my skirt and tank top, rumpled from 20 hours of travel.
I don't take the bottle. Instead I cross my arms over my chest, and she sets the kombucha on the counter where I see a photo of her wearing my skin. But when I look closer, I see my silver-gray ponytail. The words staccato across my brain: She took a photo of me, printed it, and framed it.
"I wondered when you'd show up." She's wearing a sporty dress with a banana leaf pattern that looks like a dress in my closet. "I found your tracker," she says.
It's not really my wetsuit I want back. She took my scuba gear, too, including my BCD, a vest to control buoyancy under water. I keep a GPS tracker in its pocket to capture location details of my surveys. I need the data to graduate. I need to graduate to get a job. After a lifetime of almosts—almost making it as a pro surfer, almost living happily every after with the man of my dreams—I am determined to achieve my final goal of marine biologist. The tinnitus in my ears that started in peri-menopause grows louder, and I feel the anger that I usually keep tight, tighter than a limpet stuck to a rocky coastline, start to give.
"Why didn't you turn it off?" I ask. "I never would have found you."
"Exactly," she says and smiles her perfect teeth, probably veneers. I have to confess: Her confidence impresses me and makes me self-conscious of my mascara-smudged eyes, how I'm too old for college, too old in general. But things happen in their own time, I keep telling myself.
She stands so close to me I can smell her shampoo. It's mango-coconut, a signature scent sold exclusively at a resort on the island. She raises her hand, her fingers long, her nails manicured, and I note she doesn't wear any rings, just a leather-braided bracelet, like mine, and I swear she's going to rest her hand on my cheek.
An understanding blossoms in my mind the way cauliflower coral spawn, one night a year, releasing eggs and sperm to mix and fertilize. I can't decide if she wants to be me or fuck me. "You're twisted," I say. She takes it as a compliment.
I step back and ask, "Where's my gear?"
"In my bedroom."
I shouldn't, but I follow her upstairs.
My skin is laid out on one side of her bed as if it's sleeping. Or, as if she's been sleeping with it. The rest of my gear is in a duffel on the floor. I rifle through it, looking for my yellow Write-in-the-rain notebook in which I record all my survey data. The data will give our community that relies on fish from this reef a tiny measure of hope, that after a string of record-warm ocean temperatures and coral bleaching, the most abundant coral on the reef is showing signs of resiliency.
"Looking for this?" she asks, and I turn to see this woman whose name I still don't know holding my notebook. "You were busy saving that seal tangled in a fishing net. Let's just say I was keeping it safe for you."
I make a grab for my notebook. But she twirls away.
"Put it on," she says and nods toward my skin.
"I could have you arrested."
"Why haven't you?" she asks.
I hold up my phone. For a flicker of a second, I act like I'm considering calling the cops, but I just want my skin, my data. I just want me. I wiggle out of my skirt and slide my legs and arms into my wetsuit, my second skin. There's a long ribbon in the back connected to the zipper. I've zipped myself hundreds of times, but I ask, "Zip me up?"
She does, and the next thing I know her lips are on my mine. They're tender and taste of the sea. My reaction is instant, a wave of heat flushing my body—not a hot flash—and I consider what it might be like to sleep with a woman for the first time at 50.
But I don't take off my wetsuit. I don't fuck this woman. When she realizes her plan has failed, I see her eyes go flat, and I grab my skin, my data, and the rest of my gear, and dash down the stairs, leaving the front door open as I step into the welcoming heat of the day. When I get to my rental car, I search for directions to the nearest lake.
Kim Steutermann Rogers
spent a month in Alaska as a fellow at Storyknife Writers Retreat in 2016 and, again, in 2021. Her essay, "Following the Albatross Home" was recognized as "Notable Travel Writing 2019" in Best American Travel Writing. Her science journalism has been published in National Geographic, Audubon
; and her prose in Five South, Atticus Review, Bending Genres, CHEAP POP, Hippocampus
and elsewhere. She lives with her husband and 15-year-old poi dog named Lulu in Hawaii. Read more of her work at kimsrogers.com
and follow her on social media at @kimsrogers