Symbiosis: Zooxanthellae’s Dance of Love
San Jose, CA
2019, Middle School, Prose
The air that surrounds them is heart-clenchingly hot.
It’s always been, since the beginning.
It’s sticky, gnawing at the flush of their cheeks and blossoming honey-like sweat that kisses the aches on their backs. The fan spinning above the two’s heads lets out a rattling squeak, almost of defeat, in stilted increments. The breeze it carries only pushes the heat closer to their exposed shoulders, and finally, after a lurching motion, one of the figures moves—a boy, skin as white as the moon.
Running a hand through his hair, the boy moans, bare skin brushing through bone-dry hair and allowing small drops of sweat on his fingertips to slide down to a cheap pen’s barrel. He continues to twirl it, somewhat comforted by its tapping against the desk, a constant rhythm to the burning change around him. Of course, he’s stressed like usual (who wouldn’t be, he tells himself). It’s the heat, that warm feeling that kisses his skin. Leaning back against his chair, the boy carries a heavy hum between his lips, pushes back from where his feet are propped against the table—just the slightest bit too fa—and finds himself falling, breath swimming out of him in a second.
Landing flat on his pen, his spine splits open the plastic casket, and he feels the ink burst over his shirtless back. Quietly, fearfully, he swallows the groan threatening to break his skin, his cheeks turning an even paler white and accepting the scarlet bleeding onto his skin like a stream. Then, sleepy, the second figure stirs next to him. A woman.
She blinks, a murmur of confusion questioning the noise beside her. Raising her head, she blows out a loud sniff at the now bitter smell wafting through the room, throwing her legs over their mattress and blinded suddenly by the crimson, wet on his palms, the ground, and smeared across his cheeks.
For a brief second, she’s unable to tell the difference between ink and the blush of sweat, pushing back her hair in a panic and kneeling down to press a hand against his bare chest. Gingerly, she picks up the scraps of plastic under him, the glimmering of it glistening against her glossy palm. They tumble in her hand like seashells, and she finally looks into the boy’s eyes, the emotion in her eyes indistinguishable.
“Algae… You must be careful. You’re all I have.”
The shards sparkle, and he blinks, meeting her gaze, eye-level, meekly. He grabs his bruised arms and touches her rough, blistered, skin. It’s enough to tell her what he means. The woman quiets and stands up, holding out a quivering hand. “Here,” she says, her weak attempt to hide her lips from quaking failing. “Come on. Don’t make a fool of me.”
He watches her hand twitch before shrugging, pushing himself up. She retreats her hand in embarrassment, and gently, he grasps her two hands between his. “You’re the one who must rest, Coral,” he whispers before pulling her close, pressing a gentle kiss on the tips of her hair.
Up close, her face sports an almost bleached white, pupils tinted a pale red, with white bangs lingering dangerously close to her eyes. Between the heat and their skin, it only becomes all the stickier, the woman inching away reluctantly after a few seconds.
“But it’s so, so hot.” Coral begins to sob, another streak of sweat running down her loose cami-top and knees threatening to buckle with the rise of her voice. “We’ve been trapped in this tiny, pathetic, room all our lives and it’s only warming day-by-day. We’re weak!”
Mute, he cups her cheek and combs his mind for the right words—lies—to say. There was no relief in this small room they were confined in, heat and loneliness only haunting them from their first meeting, their first touch. It was all they ever knew, as if their love was set up to be cursed at the very beginning: a definitive death.
Coral pushes him away roughly, tripping over her ankles to the ground, and raises a stern hand at his approach. “Leave,” she starts to moan. “Us staying together will only kill you further.”
“We’ve already talked about this.” Algae steps forward, tone stern compared to her flimsy words. He’s used to this constant pushing, this stress that stems from her words. And like always, he recites the same receipt of comfort. “It’s not me and just you, it’s us. I can’t survive without you either, remember? You can force me to leave, but what will you do? You’re only going to grow more vulnerable than you already are. You can’t push me away now, we’re in this together.”
“You’re wrong… You must leave, leave, leave,” the woman rambles, her eyes no longer searching his and glued to nothing. He continues to stay silent. The only sound in the room is the creaking of the plastic fan above them, and he caresses her gently by the elbow with no more words. For now, it’s enough, and the two sit in the middle of the room.
Sweating, but together.
The air is what wakes him up. It’s what always wakes him up.
He jolts up in bed, the thin sheets damp with perspiration and knots he never knew he had hurting. Massaging his temples, he holds his breath, the slightly off rhythmic tempo of the fan scraping against the ceiling almost soothing.
Algae twists his head, staring at the woman lying beside him with her head propped upon three pillows and a tight furrow carving her porcelain skin. Something, somewhere inside his chest, lets out a scream and his heartbeat tightens.
“Coral, Coral,” he urges. “Is it too hot in here?”
The woman trembles, her eyes fluttering open. Her lips are barely parted, and her silent wheeze is only a gesture of her tongue searching for a sliver of cold air. The boy kisses her hand and brushes back the bangs sticking to her forehead, watching the tears that well up against the corner of her eyes.
“No,” she moans, eyes moving past him to the ceiling. “No, no… it’s so cold.”
He swallows back the drop in his stomach, the frown that wants to crawl his lips, and pushes back the itch that tells him to wipe away the puddle of sweat against his neck. “I know,” he laughs. “It’s so cold tonight, isn’t it?” He wraps the thin blankets they kicked onto the floor snugly around her shoulders, the familiar sting of worry sweltering his tongue. “It’s getting better now, isn’t it?”
Flush crawling his cheeks, his face starts to burn, and for a moment, he’s relieved the weak shadows of the night cover the redness gracing his skin. The movement of her head is small, almost invisible, and she gives him a wilted smile. “I’m really a fool, aren’t I?” She snuggles closer to him, holding his ink-stained palm. “You don’t have to lie. I’m- I didn’t want it to be like this. I-” she pauses for a second and allows the tears to roll down her cheeks. “I guess, this is the end, huh? The heat’s gotten to us.”
He manages to laugh. His eyes skim her face and inches to her stilling palm as she begins to fall asleep once more, her chest rising unsteadily. Today, for the first time, she’s cold.
The fan continues to rattle.
He continues to sweat.
Within this piece is the encompassment of symbiosis—this fragile relationship between the coral and algae’s system of survival. In this case, as temperatures grow (depicted as heat in the two character’s room), the woman, Coral, grows weaker and tries to urge Algae to leave when she becomes more stressed. After learning about these systems, I was particularly interested about coral bleaching and how when one of the two in this relationship becomes weaker, they push the other to leave, making them both more vulnerable and likely to fall in the end. I depicted these two in an intimate relationship, unable to live without the other, and slowly suffocated by the heat of their trapped room, or in a wider sense, the ocean. By the end, Coral is implied to have diminished, symbolizing the extinction that many marine animals will meet as climate change progresses and raises ocean temperatures. By putting this into human characters, I hope more people will be able to connect to this brief story and relate it to themselves, and how they would feel if they were in that situation with the depth of their actions. My reflection falls around the instability of our own human actions and the consequences that then occur in this personal interpretation, lover-to-lover.