Attentive Peace

I’m sitting at the desk in my room. The light of the late-afternoon sun that streams in through the windows of my shared room doesn’t quite reach me, but the shadows of the panes make my bed look neater than it is. There is relative silence, save for the occasional slamming door of my hallmates leaving for or returning from dinner. Orange peels lie in a neat pile off to one side, and I’m scrubbing my teeth with one of them to get rid of plaque. One leg is crossed over the other, with sweat forming where the skin meets. My fingers are sticky. I’m already a couple days into the semester, so the fine-point pen and green highlighter are out, waging war across my weekly planner. I bought a smaller, pocket-sized one this year, with the bulletproof logic that if the planner is smaller, my problems will be as well. My eyes dart back and forth from the syllabi to the planner for several minutes, trying to convince myself that I can make this hectic schedule work. In a moment of introspection, my leg slides off my lap and my gaze drifts to an object at eye-level. I should have mentioned that I’ve made a habit of placing my bookshelf on top of my desk, for spatial and convenience purposes, and so the object that sits on that first shelf is a conch shell.

I can’t remember how old I was when I found the artifact, but it was around the time in my childhood when all of my friends returned from the shores of a forgotten beach with perfect specimens, so I wanted one too. I ended up finding mine in the tire tracks of some massive vehicle that presumably picked up trash the night before. In sparing it, the weight of the wheel had crushed it slightly, so the inside of the ugly gray shell is exposed, especially towards the top of the spiral. It had been perfectly clean when I found it; whatever had lived here had long since moved out and left it to be buried by the tides. But the waters didn’t want it, and threw it so far from the waves that a child could find it, almost by accident. Since its miraculous discovery and rescue, the conch has been shuttled from one box to another. I’ve never really held it in all the years I’ve owned it.

I can feel that I’ve been sitting too long in my own skin; I’m acutely aware of the clothes hitching against the dry skin on my shoulders, and every snag sends a flood of tingles down my back – not the pleasant kind, but the kind that charges me up and demands that I move, so I reach out to retrieve the conch from its designated spot atop a stack of books. Its cold and shining surface stands out against the unchanging hardwood of the shelf. I don’t feel particularly inclined to taste or smell the conch, but I can almost feel the crunch of sand between my molars as I notice the shell’s weight in my hands. It’s roughly the size of a bag of coffee grounds. I scratch my thumbnail against the grain of the grooves and get a grating, hollow response. Not knowing precisely what shells are made of, I describe these interior surfaces as porcelain, marble, and enamel, and the outside reminds me of carved clay, with all its miniscule pores like acne scars and delicate grooves like a vinyl record. It was as if someone had run a small rake over the entire surface of the conch, creating stripes of gray and black that rise and fall with the curves of the shell, then pinched a toothpick between thumb and forefinger and playfully ruined its homogenous surface. The inside really does look and feel like marble, with veins of darkness against a pearly, faceless gray. Back on the outside, some of the outer layer has chipped away, particularly where the spikes on the crown of the shell are concerned. Underneath is a calcified something, glittering back at me in the low light of my Ikea lamp. If I hold the conch a certain way, the curvaceous figure of a woman looks back at me, faceless and serene, with her hair swirling around her, all the way down, where she ends in a point. I can imagine someone painstakingly sculpting something like this by hand – and to know that it grows all on its own!

My train of thought is interrupted by the sputtering of my coffee machine as it finishes making something I likely won’t even drink – I enjoy the idea of drinking coffee more than the actual execution – and I lean over to quickly punch the OFF button before the unidentified acrid smell starts to permeate the room. Since I’ve brought my kitten to Wellesley I’ve been extremely paranoid of how my room smells to my neighbors in the hall, so I have scented candles of clean linen and pecan pumpkin pie, nauseating rose-scented gelatin orbs, sachet bags of bamboo charcoal, and Lysol spray to counteract Pippin’s Febreze-scented litter. In my closet are mason jars of honey and rotting flowers and dried citrus peels.

I make my cup and sit back down, holding the copper mug in my hands and letting the warmth spread to my forearms. After the first sip I remember why my new coffeemaker is in essence nothing more than an aesthetic object to alleviate sensory homesickness: the coffee itself tastes like poison. I’m almost entirely sure that every time I use the copper mug, a little bit of metallic residue is mixed in, resulting in something that makes me pull a face I reserve for sensory experiences that are a bit too sharp. Pippin, who is curled into a ball at the foot of my roommate’s bed, raises his head and winks at me sleepily, then covers his face with a cream-colored paw. After a few seconds his little wheezing snores resume. Outside are the sounds of insects and birds in the trees and the Whiptails practicing on the grass of Munger Meadow below. I set the mug down on an agate coaster and pick up the conch again.

There’s a groove between the spikes (or are they tines?) where my thumb fits, suggesting that it’s meant to be held a certain way, like an old telephone. If I hold it to my ear as such, I can almost hear the whispers of something calling out to me. I had never been able to shake the myth of being able to hear the crashing waves through a conch shell wherever one took it, and even now the sound of its static brings me a certain kind of attentive peace. I hold it there until the whispers build into a quiet roar. When the children I worked with during the summer were overwhelmed by the noise of a crowded cafeteria, I pulled them aside and, smiling, cupped their small hands to their small ears and told them to go to their own little ocean.

I can also imagine holding the conch as a weapon, standing on a beach with it raised above my head, then bringing it down, hard. I cannot in my mind picture what would happen next, but the hand holding the shell shakes slightly. This image is most likely a manifestation of my academic frustration, because I give little thought to who is collapsed on the sand before me. Maybe this is how the outer layer of the tines was chipped away, maybe this was a weapon of violence cast out to sea, where the blood and skin was lost to salt. Or maybe it was just the months and years of relentless waves and gouging, agonizing sand. I wonder, selfishly, if my touch is the softest thing the shell has felt since its solidification on the ocean floor.

Then I remember that the conch is a corpse. It is, quite literally, a shell, serving no purpose but to passively retell its journey by the scars and cracks and holes inscribed on its weathered surface. I place it back atop the books and lean into my chair (as far back as I can lean in unyielding, unsympathetic college dorm furniture) and go back to highlighting. Without a word I retreat from my senses into an abstract world of deadlines, distant holidays, and event planning.

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