It is dark in the whale and hot. The air is difficult to breathe. Ira is coated in gunk, sweating in his black Speedo. The whale’s heartbeat booms and echoes like a giant drum. It’s intimidating. It sounds tribal, ritualistic, as Ira wades through the animal’s stomach in shock, up to his knees in liquid goop.
He hears water gurgling and rushing. Mournful moos that go unanswered. Eventually his eyes grow accustomed to the dark. In murky gray scale he can make out the swaying surface of the goop, spotted with mounds of algae, dying shrimp, stray squid tentacles, and the occasional fish head. Surely, somewhere, there is a throat that presumably leads to the mouth, but Ira can’t find it.
It must be a magical whale or the biggest whale of all time because its stomach seems infinite. Ira wanders for hours, passing sights he’d remember if he saw them again, but nothing repeats. He sees one of those intricate camp chairs floating in the muck. A Mercedes hubcap adorned with the gnarled skeletons of…Ira doesn’t fucking know. He’s just a graphic designer trying to get laid on Fire Island. In summers past he’s visited with friends, but this time he’s alone.
Liquid rains down on Ira and he closes his eyes and mouth. His body is bruised but still intact. He longs for his cigarettes—which are under his sun hat on his towel on the beach, near a hairy man in a tube top—but what he really needs is water. He wonders how long he can live without it. He dips his finger in the goop and touches his tongue. It’s so bitter it burns.
The initial panic has dissipated and bleak reality is setting in. He’ll never make it back to his Airbnb, which looked exactly like the pictures, only half the size. He sees his headstone—his name in a cold, boring font chosen by his parents. He’s forty-four. His life has been average. It was his childhood dream to live in New York City and become an actor. He moved there for college but gave up on acting after one class. He still lives there, though he doesn’t love it the way he thought he would. He shuffles between work and home, squandering his paycheck at a gourmet supermarket—the others depress him.
Ira has been single for much of his life. His hookups disappear back into the Grindr pool, rarely to resurface. He only likes a certain kind of man. They must be as tall or taller than him. He doesn’t know why. And he doesn’t like guys who are effeminate. Or overly masculine. They must know what’s going on politically. No one religious, but he also doesn’t want the lecture-y atheists or 24/7 activists. He wants someone he can make dinner with side by side while Schumann plays from his Sonos speakers.
Something catches his eye. Fabric from a…beach umbrella (?) has been stretched around a piece of coral, reminding him of that artist, the French guy who loved nothing more than to wrap things. Ira wonders for an insane moment if he is seeing art…but then remembers he is trapped in a whale and will die alone. He feels dizzy. A half-digested octopus floats by. This is, hands down, the grossest place he’s ever been. It smells like rotting fish and vomit, with hints of mildew and Band-Aid.
He wonders how many notifications are accumulating on his phone. Flirtatious responses to the rare selfie he posted on Instagram last night. He imagines the picture—blown up and pixelated—greeting visitors at the funeral parlor across the street from his parents’ house. As a child, he was mesmerized by the goings-on out his window, how wood boxes carrying corpses were delivered and received at a side door marked flowers.
If he can’t crawl out, maybe he can cut himself out. He passed a few sharp objects earlier—broken coral, giant crab claw—but now that he’s looking, he can’t find anything except an oar and some fish bones too small to do damage. His thirst is an unending tragedy. He feels like a child lost in an evil kingdom. Dizziness sends him stumbling.
Ira wakes up floating in the muck with a taste in his mouth like rotten strawberries. A bare-chested man is violently shaking him. Another man! It’s a miracle! Ira is elated. “Hi,” he says, his mind racing. What are the odds of two men being swallowed by the same whale?
It’s difficult to see in the low light but the man looks to be in his thirties. He’s wearing goggles. His bathing suit is in shreds. He’s built, but not excessively so. Wet strands of dark hair stick to his forehead. Ira steps closer and stares at the man’s face. He’s…handsome. Ira wants to touch him. Hug him or rub his shoulder. Run his hands through the man’s thick hair.
“You’re alive,” the man says coldly. He isn’t tall but it doesn’t matter. The air feels humid with desire. Ira imagines them fucking in the whale. Sex inside a body! That’s crazy. The whale’s heart thumps. Everything tilts and Ira grabs on to the man to catch his balance. The whale is on the move. When things level out, Ira waits a moment before letting go.
Austin seems checked out as they compare stories. Austin saw the whale and swam toward it. Ira had been looking at a turtle, or maybe a rock shaped like a turtle, when he was covered by a massive shadow, then had the surreal sensation of tumbling down what felt like stairs. Austin seems like he’s lost hope, but maybe Ira can restore it. Escaping the whale feels possible. “We can just break out, like in a prison movie.”
Austin holds up a jagged piece of wood. “There’s a hole I’ve been working on since I got here, but the skin’s really thick.” He stares at Ira like he’s sizing him up. “Wanna work on it?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” Ira says. He wades through seaweed, struggling to keep up with Austin. He fixes his eyes on Austin’s muscular back. Austin doesn’t seem gay, but still, Ira has to ask if he’s here for Pride. Austin scoffs.
“You’re looking for Jake.”
“There’s one other guy, but he’s probably dead by now.”
A third man! This can’t be. Ira wonders if he’s hallucinated Austin. That would be so Ira, to hallucinate a straight guy. “There’s another guy in here?” he asks.
“He was gay. He made sculptures. You’d have gotten along.”
“How do you know? You just met me.” Ira needs water. His eyes burn. He notices sores on Austin’s skin, then spots some on himself. It’s probably from stomach acid. If he doesn’t die of dehydration he will dissolve, slowly, painfully. Bile jumps up Ira’s throat and he swallows it back down. He breathes shallow breaths.
It feels momentous to reach a wall, but the hole looks pitiful. It’s more like a dent. It’s hard to see. Austin jabs the hole with the piece of wood a few times, then hands it to Ira. Ira jabs it for a bit. The wall feels elastic.
“Use your whole body,” Austin says. Ira leans into it. He gives it all he’s got.
“No, like this,” Austin says, taking the wood from Ira’s hands and stabbing the hole with new vigor.
Ira thinks of all the straight men who have corrected him in gym class, at pool halls, at Home Depot. Smirking IT guys at work, disgruntled AAA men changing his flat tire. Ira’s crush evaporates. Even if they work nonstop on the hole, Ira doubts they’ll break through. And even if they did, they’d have to somehow puncture the whale’s outer wall, which will be even thicker. They need a laser. A high-tech laser.
Austin answers Ira’s questions as if they’re an inconvenience. As if this asshole’s got someplace to be. Ira loathes the straight people clogging up Fire Island during Pride. Didn’t they get the memo? Did they just come to gawk? “Where’s the other guy? The gay guy,” Ira says.
“Probably decomposing somewhere.”
Ira picks up some kind of bone and stabs the hole with it. He and Austin fall into a rhythm, alternating jabs, but it isn’t clear if they are making progress. Ira’s hungry. Only an idiot would starve in a stomach, his father scolds in his head. Ira makes a face—he hates seafood. He feels like he’s about to pass out again. His eyes are on fire. “Can I borrow your goggles?” he finally asks. “Just for an hour?”
Austin shakes his head no.
“I need water,” Ira whines. Austin ignores him. Ira drops his bone. “I’m taking a break.”
“No time for breaks,” Austin says. Ira hates being bossed around. It took him a decade to find a boss he could tolerate. “You’re gonna die in here,” Austin says. “Do you wanna die?” Ira says nothing. “Well, I can’t die in here. I won’t. I’m fucking engaged.” Austin jabs the hole. Bits of whale flesh float away in a bloody clump. Screw him and his hole, Ira thinks, wading away.
“You’re weak!” Austin shouts after him.
“You’re trash!” Ira screams back. He can hear Austin cursing at him and it gives him a strange satisfaction. I’ll just take a short walk, he decides. Hours pass. It dawns on him in short painful moments that the wall was a good place to be. He should have kept wading along it. The wall led to somewhere, and in his haste, he’s wandered back into infinity.
Fuck it. He’ll just die. What does it matter? He’s already lived the best years of his life. Getting old is depressing. He wades with his eyes closed but they still burn. When he opens them, everything looks dreary and endless. His mind flickers off and on. His body will never be found. His friends and family will assume he drowned, which is embarrassing because he’s actually a decent swimmer.
Ira passes out and is shocked to wake up still in the whale, delirious from the heat. He thrashes around in a burst of energy that only lasts five minutes. His skin has the awful texture he saw on Austin. He thinks of his parents sorting through his apartment, finding the bottle of lube in the back of his sock drawer. To live is humiliating but to die is worse.
He thinks about his first real crush—his socially awkward junior high Latin teacher. In high school, he kissed a boy at a Gay-Straight Alliance dance, but then nothing else happened for years. Ira remembers his first boyfriend, George, whom he lived with the summer between sophomore and junior year at NYU. George was super tall, kinda fat, slightly stupid. They watched action movies, ate pizza, had sex—that was their routine. They always got pizza from the same place. The mushrooms were from a can, the peppers small green squares. They relished the homoerotic moments in the movies—a man hanging from a cliff, grabbing another man’s strong hand.
It seemed like their relationship could have gone on forever, but it didn’t—it ended the following semester. It seemed like it would be the first of many relationships, but it wasn’t. Ira usually lost interest after a few dates. After the first fights. Whenever he became serious about a guy, he started noticing their little tics. Everyone proved to be intolerable up close. But all the men he’s ever been with now seem wondrous and unique. People who will never live again.
Ira has gotten used to the whale’s heartbeat and can go long periods without noticing it, but he sometimes becomes fixated on it, waiting for it, listening to it, terrified of it. He craves water, air, sky. He hears a distant droning melody. He’s going crazy, his mother tells his father. He was always crazy, his father says. A jellyfish swims by, grazing his leg. Ira leaps away, tripping face-first into the sludge. A putrid taste fills his mouth. The warm liquid oozes into his ears. He lies at the bottom of the stomach in misery. He’ll just die and get it over with. He tries to will himself to stay under, but he rises back up. He tries twice more and stays under longer but surfaces again, sputtering and dripping with goop. He’ll just have to die the slow way—waiting for it to overtake him. It could be days.
He sits down, up to his shoulders in muck. He feels pressure to have deep, sincere, leaving-this-world thoughts, but decides that’s just homework and fuck homework. He tries to think of the best sex he’s ever had. He recalls various encounters but can’t wring any pleasure from them anymore. When he thinks of his friends, he feels anxious. He’s been meaning to call them back.
Ira zones out. He sees his fourth-grade classroom. The Burger King logo. A photo of Guns N’ Roses he masturbated to as a teenager. His lungs ache. There isn’t enough air in the air. Probably he’s hallucinating the droning melody, but he finds himself wading toward it. The goop is thigh-level. He limps past the remains of a seal. His legs seize up with cramps. He sees movement ahead and keeps wading. His eyes burn but he must see this. A blur, possibly a figure. It has to be. He wants it to be. Are those its legs? It has a head. Yes, it’s a figure, and he can tell by the way it moves that it’s not Austin. It’s a man trudging through dark wads of seaweed carrying what looks like a basket.
Ira’s heart races as he wades toward the man, who moves in rhythm to whatever he’s singing. He’s thin and pale. His flaccid penis bounces with each step. His pubes are bushy. There is something familiar about him. He is either the flamboyant man who single-handedly got the dancing going at Sip·n·Twirl the other night, or just the same kind of man, who is rare in life but in abundance on Fire Island. Men like this have always captivated Ira but he’s sometimes felt jealous of their freedom. Watching the man, it seems obvious that his joy is irreverent and radical, that someone who can create fun from thin air is a magician.
The man sees Ira and stops in his tracks. “Oh my god,” says the man, swinging his basket. “Who are you?”
The man shakes his hand. “I’m Jake.” His voice is high and spirited but not annoyingly so. It’s amazing to see another face. Jake has small features, a prominent forehead, and short, thinning hair. His skin is more decomposed than Austin’s, which makes it hard to tell his age, but he looks older.
“Are your eyes burning?” Ira asks, squinting at Jake.
“Yes. Can barely see a thing.”
“Austin said you were probably dead. I was working with him on that hole.”
“That stupid hole! I spent hours on it,” says Jake. “It’s never gonna give. The skin is too thick! I told him so many times. But he didn’t like my idea.”
“What’s your idea?”
“To get pooped out the butt.”
“What about the throat?” Ira asks. “Can’t we climb it?”
“Maybe. If we can find it. I’ve been looking for days, but this place goes on forever. I’m just trying to eat as well as I can and entertain myself when possible.” He pulls something out of his basket.
“Sushi?” He drops little bundles of seaweed into Ira’s hand and Ira stuffs one into his mouth. It tastes terrible, but he makes a show of enjoying it. Jake looks proud.
“We need to find the throat or something sharp,” Ira says. “Which way?”
Jake shrugs, then chooses a direction. As they wade side by side, Jake plucks shrimp from the surface and eats them. His voice is lilting, musical. His stories take unexpected turns. His line of questioning is natural and thorough, and Ira talks about himself for longer than he intends. Their taste in books is pretty different, but they like a lot of the same movies. Ira has never kissed a woman, but Jake once had sex with one. It’s thrilling to have a real conversation. A couple of times, Ira catches himself forgetting where they are.
Jake is convinced they’re in a blue whale, but Ira is sure that blue whales are extinct. Occasionally they pass one of Jake’s sculptures. All are in disarray except for a spiral of shells pressed into a dolphin carcass, which Ira compliments. Jake seems pleased. He asks Ira questions about design and Ira tells him about the font he made this past year, called Ethics—with narrow o’s and robust r’s—and how his coworkers never responded when he emailed it to them. Jake asks Ira what his favorite logo is and Ira says it’s still the Nike swoosh. Jake’s is the NBC peacock.
“That’s so gay,” Ira teases.
“It really is.”
“What does a peacock have to do with TV?”
“A peacock displays, baby.”
Ira is too light-headed to keep talking but happy to listen, so he asks Jake to tell him “everything.” Jake says he grew up in Virginia in a big house with a big family. He studied drama in college and acted in a few plays, then entered a career in customer service, first in department stores, then in hotels, where he grew restless. He became a flight attendant on boring short-haul routes, eventually working his way up to be the head steward in first class. For many years he traveled all over the world, until his drug habits, which he’d always had, grew in scope and intensity, becoming a madness that disassembled his life, costing him his job, his husband, and his West Village apartment. His sister pretty much kidnapped him and drove him to a treatment center where he suffered and played board games. Now he lives alone deep in Queens, head of customer service at Target.
Beams of light flutter over them. Ira shivers in excitement. His eyes dart frantically from one beam to another. “Did you see that?” Jake asks, grabbing Ira’s arm. The light comes in thin waves, illuminating, for the first time, the ceiling, which is bluish black and dripping. Jake goes wild, screaming and dancing. They must be in the throat! Ira rejoices. He’ll live differently this time! He’ll go places and he won’t spend so much time on his phone.
They must be in the throat, but Ira can’t see it. As far as he looks there is only the ceiling. Maybe the mouth is still hopelessly far away, and the light is just traveling as light often does. A beam passes over Jake and for a fleeting moment, Ira sees his face in remarkable detail. It looks full of humor and intelligence, though prematurely ancient.
“We have seen the light!” Jake shouts with what’s left of his voice.
“But where’s the throat? The walls?” Ira demands, desperately throwing out his arms.
“We must be really close,” Jake says. The light suddenly vanishes. Ira’s stomach feels like lead. “Come back,” Jake pleads. They wade around in the dark, waiting. “It’s going to come back,” he insists a few minutes later. “Any second now. I just know it’s going to come back.” But it doesn’t. Neither speaks for a long time.
Jake concocts a plan to make the whale cough them up, but none of the ingredients are available to them. They begin bargaining with God or whoever might be watching. If they escape the whale, they promise to spend the rest of their lives volunteering at charities. “Or at least a good portion,” Jake adds.
“At least fifteen hours a week.”
“Really? Fifteen?” asks Jake.
“Fifteen is a lot,” Jake says.
They are disintegrating. Jake looks half-dead, but Ira keeps telling him he looks great. Ira is forlorn. His legs ache with each step. His skin burns. Eventually he gives up praying for light and just focuses on Jake’s voice. It’s a beautiful voice, though it has been weakened by hours of talking and is now a whisper.
They find a floating island of seaweed and plastic. Jake crawls onto it and lies down. It bobbles but supports him. Ira crawls up too. Plastic bags, plastic cups, huge spools of knotted nylon ropes, a calcified surfboard, jagged pieces of kayaks. The seaweed stinks like rotten eggs. Ira lies next to Jake and drifts off. He sees a night sky or large expanse of water. He dreams they are discovered by the flashlights of scuba divers. Ira wakes up and sees Jake’s eyes are closed. He jostles him but Jake is unresponsive. His friend! He’ll never get to talk to his friend again. He’ll just have to lie here, next to Jake’s dead body, until he dies too.
Liquid rains down. “I hate when it does this,” Jake says, lips barely moving, like a ventriloquist. Ira bursts out laughing. “What?” Jake asks, inching closer. Ira feels happy and then faint. He closes his eyes. Jake holds his hand.
A voice breaks the spell. “We’d be free by now if we’d all worked together.”
“Austin,” Jake murmurs, but it can’t be. Ira sits up and opens his eyes. His vision is obscured by pulsating shadows.
“We’d be out by now!” Austin yells. Ira’s stomach tightens.
“Why is he here?” Ira mutters to Jake.
“Because his fucking hole was a failure.”
“Fuck you,” Austin says.
Ira focuses his eyes on Austin, who is standing right in front of them. His bleeding face and deteriorating skin look like a gruesome Halloween costume. His dark goggles look like bug eyes. “It would have worked if we all had worked on it,” Austin insists. “But no, you guys had to do your own thing. What exactly were you doing?” His tone is infuriating.
“You look like shit,” Ira says.
“You look like roadkill,” Austin says.
“You were initially very good-looking, let that be said. But now you look like a pizza the cheese fell off of,” Jake says.
“Well, you look like a bird with all its feathers plucked off.”
Jake anxiously puts his hands to his face.
“Did you start a restaurant?” Austin asks, holding on to the edge of their island. “Can I get a reservation at your fucking restaurant? Did you build a castle with a moat?”
“Your hole wasn’t even a hole,” Jake says.
“I got it deeper after you left.”
“Then why are you here?” Ira demands. He can’t believe Austin crashed his deathbed.
“Where do you want me to go, Ira?” Austin sounds deranged.
“I can die wherever I want to,” Austin says. He crawls onto the island and sits across from them. The island bobs and drifts. Goop splashes onto their faces. No one says anything for several minutes. Ira can’t take the tension.
“Why do straight people come to Fire Island during Pride?” he blurts out. “Are they just bored? Or do they long to be seduced under the boardwalk? Chosen and then convinced, gay for one night, under the cover of darkness…”
“My family owns a house here and has for fifty years.”
“Whoop-de-damn-do,” Ira says. Jake laughs.
“Go fuck yourselves,” Austin says.
“With pleasure,” says Ira. He scoots to the edge of the island, wanting to leave with Jake.
“Where’s the house?” Jake asks. He seems genuinely curious.
“That’s on my morning stroll,” Jake says. “Which house?”
“One. It’s right on the beach.”
“Is it the one with the wooden pillars?”
“Yeah. The gray one.”
“It’s got double decks?”
“Yeah. Actually, triple decks, if you count the very top, but it’s not up to code.” Ira feels trapped. He wants the conversation to end.
“It’s right by Stone Trail,” says Jake.
“One summer I stayed on Pepperidge Walk, but as far from the beach as you can get.” Jake wipes his face of gunk and sweat. “Your grandparents bought it fifty years ago? They must have gotten it for a song!”
Austin nods. Ira crawls back to Jake’s side. Austin and Jake discuss the post office off Dune Walk, some guy named Mike at the Casino Cafe.
“What do you do, Austin?” Jake asks. Ira feels jealous.
“I’m in advertising.”
“Oh, really? Ira is a graphic designer.”
“Huh. I’m mostly on the business side.”
Ira lies down again and closes his eyes while Jake and Austin talk about vacation days and office dynamics. Their grating human voices chip away at the black sky of his mind. But as the minutes pass and Ira feels more and more out of it, their chatter begins to soothe him. Little phrases slip into his consciousness—“double major,” “fourth-floor walk-up,” “destination wedding”—and linger for a moment, detaching from and reattaching to their meanings.
Warm goop is spilling over them again. Ira dreams he’s in a dilapidated movie theater. He dreams he’s watching Austin and Jake play tennis. They look incredibly sexy. Austin’s muscles glimmer in the sunlight. Jake dances merrily around the court, the ball flying past him.
The dream shifts and they’re all living in a loft overlooking Central Park.
Everything is slow and dim.
You’re dying, his dad says.
No, Ira thinks.
He wants more minutes.
He wants whole years.
Lifetimes where he lives as a woman.
As an outlaw.
A street musician.
Lifetimes where he really learns Latin.
Where he’s a king.
A benevolent king.
The images stop.
He can’t leave himself now.
To die will be like tearing the music out of a song.
His mind is slipping away.
He doesn’t even have to live, he just wants to keep thinking forever.
He won’t even say anything—he’ll just think!
He’ll just watch!
A wave of panic
a wash of relief
“Ira & the Whale” first appeared in The Paris Review. Copyright © 2022 by Rachel B. Glaser. Reprinted by permission of the author.