And she’s swimming, and she’s swimming, and be damned if she’s not trying her best to look like she’s got this covered, like she knows what she’s doing, instead of how she really is, which is exhausted after two lengths of the pool and seasick as hell. The little old guy who got in after her is slicing through the water like a speedboat to her left, and she wonders – between trying to time her breathing right and sucking her chin in and trying to look suitably, casually happy – whether there might not be someone under the water, pushing him along while he rotates his arms dutifully. There’s probably a market for that, she thinks.
Speedboat man is coming up fast again, doing the big-mouth-breathing thing and sending up a tidal wave in her direction. She flounders on top of the swell then drops into the sudden dip that follows, feeling the toast she stuffed down an hour earlier roll like oil in her stomach. God knows there’s enough water in there to set it afloat, and to sink her oversized body like a rock.
Gentle exercise, the doctor said without looking at her, fingers busy at the keyboard, dripping with words that she tried not to read over his shoulder. Gentle and regular, much like the shape of the rolls on her belly, she thinks, the ones her son loves to weigh and smoosh with his red hands. Except this gentle and regular is good, wanted, whereas her own is not, which brings us neatly back to why she is here.
She has chosen the far left lane in a bid to stay close to the ladder. What it turns out to mean, though, is that during her all-too regular breaks, she has to flatten herself against the side of the pool as more people climb in, their bodies hard and enviable. She hadn’t expected there to be anyone much at this time, the day still fighting off that early morning half-light, but she seems to have chosen the preferred hour of the fittest. These people won’t roll home to daytime television and pureed pears; they have jobs and lives and purpose.
The good thing about swimming, her thin friend had said, is that everyone’s equal in the water. Everybody floats! She laughed through a sip of full-fat latte and added, “Really good for your joints too. Nice and gentle.”
Another body, dropping into the water next to her. She sees irritation in the eyes below the tight red rubber cap, and presses herself into the wall, making no difference to her volume at all. Red-cap bobs away to the far side and launches himself out like a bull, all shoulders and thick neck, head down. She realizes she’s come to a stop again, more breaks than swimming now, and damned if she doesn’t feel like staying put for good. A cold walk from the changing room and two lengths in, and her resolve is gone. Do it for your boy! Her friend had said. She had nodded in response, sipped her fennel tea. I think I really will, this time. I’m tired of it, you know? She had all the stock responses, meant them all again. Saw disbelief in her friend’s eyes, flashed her mind to How It Would Be this time next year. Cut again to the pool, where she’s hanging like a bloated sea lion waiting for some tourist to throw her a goddamned fish and take a picture. She’s tired.
Speedboat man has lapped her God knows how many times now, with his big mouth and his tidal waves. The concrete lip of the pool is hard and gritty against the back of her head, and the water splashes up over her closed lips as he approaches. She doesn’t mind, really. Her days are an endless stream of get down please, don’t do that, good boy – good boy! – no, Thomas, there’s a clever boy and she’s tired. So if it takes speedboat man silencing her with water, then who is she to complain? The water, cold at first, is a comforting warm-cool now, and she thinks obligatory thoughts about wombs and her son and how water should be a gentle place to be. And it is, really, she thinks, or it would be except for the ripples sent out by Speedboat man, and the noise, cavernous, bouncing round and round between the water and the tiled walls and the lacquered wooden ceiling, repeating, repeating. She’s so goddamned tired. She wants to cry.
There is no up or down in the womb, they say; babies are still hooked up to their mothers’ circulatory system, so there’s no dizziness from being head down – something to do with blood pressure. Everything is just suspended in the warm and the wet, and the vital, comforting roar of a heartbeat and digestive system like water rushing into your ears. She looks down at the surface of the pool and sees the reflected ceiling, long bar lights suspended and fracturing again and again with the ceaseless movement. She has the sudden urge to be the one to fracture them, the agent, not the one splintering into shards this time. Her lines are curved, her edges rounded like the plastered walls of the pool, but she has been split a thousand times into screaming, deadly fragments. She craves peace.
She sinks. Her last thought before she goes under is one of surprise. Surprise at her daring, her decisiveness. She has permission from no one, did not check for the white flash of disapproving eyes. She simply sunk, swallowed by the heavy peace of the water, her own weight pulling her down as she kisses out fat, excited bubbles that race to the surface. She wonders if they would stay down if they knew how loud, how desperately tiring it was up there. But they have no shame, they are round and perfect and flying up to the light.
She will miss her son, she thinks. Mothering is hard – days are ten-times as long when there’s not just one wake-up but many, plenty in the dark hours too – and she’s tired. But she will miss him – his too-big mouth nearly full of tiny white squares, the way he kisses her by pressing his face on hers and pulling away before adding a cheery “Mah!” like an afterthought. She will lament the loss of a relationship in which she is indisputably the beautiful thing someone else has ever seen, but she is tired. Maybe he will come to the pool one day. Perhaps his father will remarry, find someone better, and they will come to the pool as a family. His new wife will not need to come alone, early in the morning, leaving her boy with his father and a hurried, embarrassed kiss. She will watch them from the bottom, disembodied bellies and legs and hands, and think about how her boy has grown.
Beneath the water, the floor of the pool slopes down into the quiet dark. Circular lights set flush into the sides are ghosts in the blue and she lies there on the bottom, a lazy mermaid with bleached skin, cradled by nothing at all and watching in quiet, surprised amusement as speedboat man sets off on another length. There’s nobody pushing him, it turns out.
Lorrie Hartshorn is a contemporary literary fiction writer, whose work has been featured in a number of journals, including Compose, Severine, Paraxis, 1000 Words, The Pygmy Giant and Anthem. She is the editor of Halo Literary Magazine, a new journal of short fiction by women.