Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Short Story: The Swimming Pool

I was in the pool when my father came home. It was a day of firsts. It was my first time in the pool, and my father’s first time hearing about it; my first day after my first time doing it with Euge (some of the guys called him “Huge” although I had found out his nickname was quite baseless the night before), and the first time I finished an entire chocolate cake. It was also my last day being fourteen. The next day, I would turn fifteen, the magical basically-an-adult-already number I had been waiting for since being tucked into bed the night after my tenth birthday party; I would finally be allowed to get my ears pierced.
I was in the pool when my father came home all dressed up from work and smelling of the cologne he doused himself in at least three times a day. He walked through the back door and went
“What the…?”
And then
“Rainee!” he yelled, “what the hell?”
I didn’t know where my mother was, only that she had told me that the tiles were dry and the chemicals were working and I could swim until dinnertime.
“Someone should enjoy this,” she’d told me. I thought that meant that she would not be getting into the pool but she’d shaken her head, “I’ll come in a little while.”
That had been seventeen laps ago.

He had been away for a few weeks. My mother had discovered his affair with Pamela the day after his departure. She had used their entire savings account, set aside over their sixteen years of marriage, to have the pool built.
“I need it done by the 23rd” had been her only stipulation to the contractor. Still, she was shocked when he’d kept to the deadline. The contractor, Paul, was an old boyfriend of my Mom’s. She’d told me she’d broken up with him to be with my Dad. I understood: Sam had stopped talking to me since I’d admitted that I preferred Euge. It had been two weeks already and I had started to lose hope that we would ever be friends again. After hearing why she was having him build it, Paul had brought in extra workmen. I was glad.
My mother had told everyone and anyone. Everyone, that is, except my father. And Pamela. We saw her a few times in those weeks. It wasn’t hard since there was only the one small supermarket back then, and everybody was always running into everyone else. Pamela seemed to make an extra effort to speak to my mother.
“Rainee,” she would say staring into her eyes, “How are you?”
Pamela liked to stare. My mother said it made her feel empathetic, or sympathetic – I can never remember the difference. Talkative as she usually was, my mother had not said a word. It had made Pamela more nervous. I could tell because her eyebrows had slanted together, making her look sad.

The bottom of the pool was not painted grayish white like all the other pools I had been to. Our pool had a tiled mosaic of a beautiful mermaid. She floated down there surrounded by plants and fish and coral, waving up at me as I swam lap after lap trying not to listen to my parents fighting. Her long blond hair swayed in the water, tickling an orange fish. In her other hand she held a staff for good luck. Paul, the contractor, had called her Miranda, but I knew that wasn’t her name. In my mind, she was The Beautiful Cordelia, Queen of the Pool, imprisoned forever in the tiny rectangle in my back yard by a curse put upon her for having fallen in love with a Brazilian sailor named Ystarro. I reached out to her as I swam, keeping my head under water for as long as I could, but I couldn’t swim deep enough to actually touch her. Still, it was like she knew what was going on up there and wanted to comfort me.
For a few seconds, immersed at the deep end of the pool, I couldn’t hear my parents at all. Then, after holding my breath for as long as I could, I shot up towards the surface. Their voices became louder and louder until I recognized full words as I gasped for air. “Bastard!” I heard, and then “shit” and then “understand” and then “fuck” – all the words I was not supposed to hear, as if they had waited for me to reappear before yelling them.
I was afraid to stop my laps, afraid that they would start yelling at me if I got out. Not that there was any reason to. But sometimes it just happened, like when my mother had dropped her grandmother’s vase. So I went from one end of the pool to the other and they forgot about me and I could pretend nothing was wrong. I went back and forth one hundred and three times. It took only nine breaststrokes to get from one end of the pool to the other, five crawl. I was a good swimmer. My father had taught me. He loved telling people how I could swim before I could walk. Big deal, I think now, it was swim or drown with him. But that day I didn’t yet know better. I thought all fathers threw their infant children into the deep end their first time in the water. If they loved them. “Babies have an innate instinct,” he had explained, “they know how to swim from birth. It’s only later that we develop fear and all that crap. Society makes us forget how to swim, but we all know when we’re born.” The story brings tears to my mother’s eyes to this day. She couldn’t jump in after me because of her stitches from the C-section.
As I swam back and forth in the new pool, looking down at Queen Cordelia, I replayed the night before in my head. Stroke, picture Euge, breathe, listen to the curses and try not to, stroke, remember what it felt like when he first put his finger inside me, breathe, the sound of glass breaking, stroke, his penis, small and smooth, almost completely devoid of the thick pubic hair I have seen on my father’s, breathe, “maybe if you…”, stroke, his hands grabbing my breasts, pressing them too hard, breathe, “How can you…?”, stroke, he parts my legs a bit more and pushes himself inside me, breathe, “She’s a fucking cunt!”, stroke, his penis looked much smaller than it felt between my legs even though I couldn’t touch it with my hand. Was he circumcised? How different did a circumcised penis look to one that wasn’t?, breathe, “Do you really think…?”, stroke, he grunts and moves a little faster and it hurts a little, stroke, a door slams, breathe, he collapses on top of me and I can’t stop laughing and crying and he tells me to be quiet, that someone will hear, breathe, "…", stroke, … silence.
I stopped and looked up. Through the back door I could see my father sitting with his head in his hands at the kitchen table. I got out of the pool. My limbs would be sore the next day. My knees felt like they were about to buckle with every step although it may not have been from the exercise.

I sat down at the table across from my father. It would be the last time we’d sit across from each other at that table in that kitchen in our house but I didn’t know that.
“Do you know what a divorce is, Chunky?” he asked me without looking up from the spot between his feet on the floor.
Of course I knew what it was. I was almost fifteen after all, and no longer a virgin. I knew about the world and how it worked. I knew about good and evil and right and wrong and I knew what he’d done to be sitting staring at the ground like that. But I didn’t tell him that because I didn’t want to make him feel worse. So I nodded and just said “yes, Daddy, I do.” He told me they were going to get one and even though I knew everything I did, I hadn’t known that and I was sad and embarrassed to tell anyone at school. Everyone knew Pamela because she’d used to be married to the principal. The only way to change the situation was to eat something.

My parents called me Tournesol because it was the name of the hotel they stayed at in the South of France on their honeymoon where I was conceived. They sent me to France every summer after I turned nine so I could learn French, even though neither of them spoke a word of it. Languages were important, they told me; they themselves didn’t know any other than English. It was like how my mother would tell me to finish everything on my plate and then throw out half her own.
After that first summer in Lyons, I had returned horrified that they had called me Sunflower. “I’m not a hippie!” I’d yelled at them. I was a precocious child and had picked up on my father’s favorite insult at a very young age: “hippie crook” was what he’d called the plumber who hadn’t really fixed the sink, the bank teller who wouldn’t cash a check, the bus driver who’d watched us run to catch him but who’d closed his doors and pulled away. Hippies were people who talked funny and smoked smelly cigarettes. The men had long hair and they named their children Rainbow or Moonshadow or … Sunflower, as I’d discovered. My father had always laughed at people like that but here he was calling his own daughter by one of their names only in a different language. He had reassured me of their innocence: “we don’t speak French. We didn’t know.”
After that, they’d started calling me Chunky. At least they knew what it meant, they told me. As did I. I preferred Tournesol, but I’d asked for it, my father said, and now it was too late to change my mind. My mother tried to remember to call me Tournesol, but “Chunky is much easier to pronounce,” she’d explained.

As he sat across from me at the kitchen table holding his head in his hands, I imagined him begging innocence to my mother. But how could you not know that you were having an affair and with whom?
I got up and walked to the fridge where my mother had stored the chocolate cake for my birthday party the next day. My mother had, like ever year, hidden it under tin foil and behind a row of jam jars. She said it was because she didn’t want to spoil the surprise but I’d figured out that she was trying to make sure that I didn’t get to it before the guests arrived. The cake was always the same – her favorite -- Black Vanilla Forest. “You never know,” she’d hint a few days before the celebration, “maybe this year I’ve bought a different one…” But she couldn’t resist the gooey marshmallow filling. We had it for birthdays, on anniversaries; she ordered the Black Vanilla Forest from Rounders’ on every special occasion. In fact, I’ve still not tasted anything like Mrs. Rounders’ icing since. The cake was “big enough to feed an army”, my father would surely complain as he did every time. I also knew that my mother would eat the leftovers within a day or two, skip dinner for a week and add an extra five miles to her morning run.
I had only invited my one friend from school. The other guests were my mother’s sister and a couple of cousins my parents’ age. My birthdays were rarely for me. I was too embarrassed to have people come to my house. They already made fun of my nickname and the fact that it fit me. What else would they find if I gave them the chance?

I pulled the aluminum foil off the box, opened it and liberated the cake from its translucent plastic cover. Then I went to the dining room to get a fork out of the top drawer, one of the good ones, made out of real silver.
“Want one?” I asked my father.
“What?” He still hadn’t moved.
“A fork.”
“No thank you, Chunky,” he said sadly, not even bothering to find out what it was that I was eating.
My parents were forever sitting me down for talks. But the way I saw it, the only time they agreed was when they were telling me how fat I was. I was doing them a favor by staying, as the doctor had put it, “a little too high on the higher side of average.”
That day I tried again and again to get my parents to warn me about eating the chocolate cake. I slurped loudly and scraped the bottom of the patterned plastic tray it sat on. I yelled “anyone want any cake?” and “Mom, I’m eating the whole thing!” But neither came and sat down to give me the usual lecture about food and health and pounds and BMI and body fat and heart attacks and diabetes. None of it. My father who would only have had to look up, stayed silent until he bolted out of the kitchen very suddenly and ran upstairs.
Both of my parents are very athletic so by the time I had reached their bedroom, he had already pulled out his suitcase and had started throwing his clothing inside.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, “so sorry.” He kneeled beside me and took my hand. I remember the tears in his eyes.
“I will see you a lot, I promise,” he told me. “We’ll do fun things. I’ll buy you presents. I love you, Chunky.”
I thought of how Euge had caressed my face after collapsing on top of me. Soon afterwards, maybe seven or eight minutes, he’d told me I should go because he would have to go down to dinner pretty soon, but he hadn’t invited me to stay, nor had he walked me down past his parents in the living room. He’d stayed under the covers, embarrassed, I’ll bet, to show me that he wasn’t so huge. But I had seen it already, I knew. Like I knew that my father would not keep any of those promises and that he didn’t love me anymore because he hadn’t said anything about the chocolate cake, or the noises I had made eating it, or the fact that I had done more than fifteen minutes of exercise like he was always telling me to. Euge called me Tutu but only when it was the two of us. He didn’t speak to me in school, or in front of other people. My father was packing a suitcase and my mother had disappeared. I couldn’t be bothered about Euge or the rest of them.

Back downstairs I got out the whipped cream. At least it loved me. My mother was sitting in the same seat where my father had been a few minutes before pushing large bites into her mouth with my fork. She didn’t say anything about the good silver. Instead she asked me if I remembered the name of the store where she had bought the cake.
“The same place you buy it every year.”
“I know,” she said, “but I can’t remember what it’s called right now. It’s on the tip of my tongue. I hate when that happens.”
“Don’t think about it, it’ll come back to you.” It was what she always said when I forgot something. I didn’t want to tell her that it was Rounders’. It made me feel I knew one thing she didn’t, as if that evened out the divorce thing they’d sprung on me.
She stared at the cake in the same way my father had stared at the floor.
“We should always have this cake in the house” she told me.
That was when I knew everything was over. The marriage, the nights of playing Rummikub after dinner, my parents as I had known them, my relationship with Euge; it was all over, nobody really cared about me.
By then more than half the cake had been eaten, mostly by me. I remember concentrating hard on squirting the whipped cream, a large windy mountain of it, on a tiny corner of the cake, and forking off the largest bite I could. The white sugary cream ended up on my nose and all around my face. Some of it dropped down my shirt and into my lap. I felt like a child and waited for my mother to wipe it off me, or to say something at least. But she herself had a dark ring of chocolate icing painted around her lips like badly applied lipstick.
The cake had started tasting funny but I didn’t stop eating it. Cut, bite, chew, chew, chew, swallow.
Doing the same thing over and over felt good, familiar. As everything changed over the next few months, I held on to the things I knew. Stroke, breathe, stroke; cut, bite, chew, chew, chew, swallow. Push off from ankle, lift leg, angle forward, place on ground; pick up receiver, talk, put down receiver; hit red button, lean back in sofa, watch moving screen. I held on to the things I knew, because it suddenly didn’t feel like I knew much anymore. In the end, it was a day of lasts, a day of irretrievable change, the day when I lost more of my innocence than I thought I had left to begin with.
Later that night, after my father had left and my mother had gone to bed where she was to remain for the next few weeks, I walked back out to the pool. Queen Cordelia hadn’t tried the cake. I rolled up my pants and dipped my feet into the deep end. Then I carefully floated the last bits of my Black Vanilla Forest birthday cake down to her on the plastic plate. She cheered up immediately, I could tell. There’s nothing like chocolate cake.

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