Sara Heise Graybeal
The day Carter broke up with me, I shattered my phone and then I went to the pool. It’s at the far end of my townhouse development, two turquoise ovals carved in concrete. Past the chain-link fence you can see Pilot Mountain, but only on a clear day. I didn’t go there to swim, just to sit.
You get one key to the pool when you move in, and four wristbands. That was handy this year, before Carter broke up with me. He has two kids, and the kids could run and jump and splash in the water and we could sit in the shade and talk. All they had to say was, “Dad, can we go swimming today?” and the rest—dinner, bath and books, sleeping side by side in the big bed in my extra bedroom—was understood.
When I got to the pool today, a guy and a girl were standing in water up to their chests. I’d never seen them before. I wondered if they lived together or apart. Before Carter broke up with me, he was trying to buy the townhouse next to mine. That would be perfect, he said. We’d be right there, side by side, but still have our space.
Carter could have just moved in with me. Already I’d taken down the wall hangings in the extra bedroom and set up shelves to hold the boys’ cars and board games, and I bought a rug for twenty dollars with Thomas the Train on it, which they loved, and I was on the lookout for a set of bunk beds. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe making an offer on the townhouse next to mine was Carter’s way of establishing distance, not proximity.
His offer wasn’t taken. My new neighbors are from New Jersey. The woman pulls her toddler around in a wagon most afternoons. The little girl waves and says, “Hi, Corey!” and the woman says, “Courtney,” smiling apologetically.
I dragged a lounge chair into the shade and slipped my phone into the drink holder, careful not to cut myself on the glass screen which had shattered into cobwebs thirty minutes before. Then I swiped my sunglasses over my eyes and inspected the couple in the pool. The boy was tanned and muscular, with thick hair across his chest. The girl was pale and sharp-faced. Their words reached me over the lap of pool. “What I keep praying,” the girl was saying, “is that I’ll find someone who is ready at a time when I am also ready.”
The boy didn’t speak so much as mumble, or maybe it was the water between us. But then the girl said, “What?” and I realized she hadn’t heard him, either.
“I get it,” the boy said. He swiveled his arms from his sides to his front, like he was trying to pile water between them. Then he eased down from standing to floating and kicked his legs, deep under the water, until a yard or so sat in the space between their torsos.
“Where are you going?” the girl asked. “Are you mad?”
“I’m not mad.”
Clear water, rippled from his treading, reached the edge of the pool and knocked against the side. When we came here with Carter, the kids always asked me to get in. “Sorry. I don’t do pools,” I’d say. The kids would jump off their rafts and crash into the water, which would arc up and douse me. Carter would shout, “Come on, dudes! Don’t get my girlfriend wet!” and the little guys would hoot and clamber and do it all over again.
Carter would grin while I patted the towel at my damp swimsuit and hair. He’d say, “You’re a champ.”
“They’re kids,” I’d say. “I don’t mind.” But he always shook his head and looked away.
Carter thought that because his ex-wife, Eliza, had left their family and moved to New York City, it meant that no woman could truly love him and his sons. If she was capable of abandoning them, who would stay?
I stalked Eliza on Facebook every day while we were together. She seemed to be liking her new life. She tagged each picture so you could tell where she was, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building. I kept waiting for somebody to comment, “What about your kids?” but nobody did. When she updated her profile picture with her cheek pressed against a man in a suit, I stalked him, too. Kyle: intern at Merrill Lynch. Then Andrew: software developer for something called Grouper. I stalked them all. I watched them eat rye bread with pastrami and sauerkraut and spinach and apple and feta cheese salads at little café tables on the sidewalk. I watched their steaming coffee mugs on balcony railings against the sunrise. Some nights when the boys were in bed and Carter was taking a shower, I watched them dance on Facebook Live, in bars with blue and green spinning lights. Even after she moved on to the next—always taller and better-dressed than the last—I still watched her exes, these men who went to work among skyscrapers, who’d never heard of me or my townhouse on the side of a red dirt hill that led down to Walkertown, North Carolina, from which you could sometimes see Pilot Mountain, but only on a clear day.
I never told Carter. I never asked whether he was watching them, too.
When she called to talk to the boys in the evenings, I stepped out on my patio to give them privacy. But through the open window I could hear her asking, “What’s that on the wall? Where are you?” and when the boys said, “At Courtney’s house,” I smiled—at their earnest little voices, and at the silence that ensued.
In the pool, the boy was clearing his throat. “I guess my question would be, what are the things I missed in this relationship that led you to decide—not to correct anything for the sake of us, but in the future. What I could do differently.”
He sounded genuinely hurt. So she was breaking up with him; the swarthy boy wanted to be with the sharp-faced girl, but the sharp-faced girl was ending things.
The girl said, “I don’t think you could do anything differently. I don’t think it’s about that. It’s about me not being ready—”
“I know,” the boy said sharply. “I get it.”
The sun appeared in shards from behind scattered clouds, spraying the water with light. When I was three or four, my mother would take me to the pool and make me jump in. I remembered standing at the edge, squinting through the brightness trying to find something to catch me. “Go on,” my mother said each time. “Try something new.” I’d topple finally into the cold water, nose clogged, tears jabbing my eyes. Afterward, while I clung to the cement wall coughing, my mother would ask, “Well? Was it worth it?”
Every time I said, “Yeah.”
The boy cupped water in his palm and trickled it over his head, blinking dazedly in the bright light. The girl sank into the cool water until her shoulders were covered. I thought maybe their conversation was over, until the boy said, “Just be careful who you meet online.”
The girl pulled herself reluctantly back up to standing. “Wait a minute. Who said I was going to talk to people online?”
Carter was on Tinder when we met. We didn’t meet online, though. We met at the hardware store. He was unshaven, in paint-stained overalls; his arms were full of tape and sandpaper and brushes, but he let me pass him in line. In the parking lot, he told me he had two kids and a pending divorce. It was too much too soon, but it made me like him. He wasn’t hiding anything. A couple days later, eating ice cream sundaes on his front porch, he asked me if I’d lost someone. “Why?” I asked.
“There’s something about you—a wall up.”
I shook my head. “I haven’t lost anyone.”
After we got together, I asked him to take down his Tinder account, and he said it was kind of a hard habit to break. He said he didn’t message anyone, he just liked swiping. He liked that it felt like blackjack, every swipe was a tiny bit of risk.
Then he asked me to be his girlfriend, and I asked him again to take it down, and this time he did. I watched while he did it. Afterward he kissed me and said, “This will be good for me.”
That was the last time I thought about it until four months later, when he called me crying and said he’d gotten back on.
“Why?” I wasn’t mad. I was confused, and a little scared, at the crying.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes I feel alone. I’m sorry, Courtney.”
“Well, it’s okay. Did you get back off again?”
All I could hear were sniffles through the line.
It might have been a good time to tell him about Eliza’s new navy-blue sofa bed, where she and her boyfriend James, a neurosurgeon, put his mother when she came down to visit from Connecticut; or the trip all three of them had taken to Coney Island last weekend where they ate snow cones while the wind whipped their hair into their mouths; or Andrew, who she’d stopped dating a couple months ago and who was currently at a tech conference in Cancun; or his new fling, Maria Fernanda, who worked for the Blanch Law Firm in Manhattan but was happy to accompany Andrew back to her home country to drink piña coladas and work on briefs at a table facing the beach.
But I couldn’t tell Carter any of that. Probably he was right, I had a wall up.
“Hey,” said the boy in the pool. “What if we match on Bumble?”
The girl swirled her arms gently. “I’m not going to make a dating profile.”
“I know, I know.”
“But I really want you to understand that.”
“Listen to me,” the boy said. His voice tightened, like a cord stretched between two poles. “I—get—it.” Soon, I thought, he’d stalk out of the pool, water clinging to his swim trunks, and beeline it to his car. The girl would stay, trailing her fingers through still water, staring past the fence into the hazy air.
On the other side of Pilot Mountain was the town where Carter’s mother was buried. He said he wanted to take me there, that we should leave flowers for her.
My mother left when I was fifteen and never came back. I looked for her on Facebook for a long time. Once I found someone with her name and a profile picture of a vampire. I sent her a friend request. The next day the account was gone.
I told Carter we could visit his mother’s grave any day. I’d just call out of work.
But we never made it to the other side of Pilot Mountain because Carter broke up with me. He said he didn’t see it panning out. What does “panning out” mean, I opened my mouth to ask. Then he said Eliza was moving back from New York.
Then he asked when would be a good time to come by and get his things.
Then he said he was sorry, that he’d asked that question too fast.
Then he said I’d been unimaginably awesome—that’s what he said, “unimaginably awesome”— but he could never get close to me, but that also he was doing a shitty thing right now and he didn’t want to make it shittier.
After we hung up, I went straight to Eliza’s Facebook page, but sometime in the last twenty-four hours she’d made it private. So I checked James’s page, but his had always been private; Andrew hadn’t posted since getting back from Cancun, and without access to Eliza’s page, I couldn’t figure out how to find Kyle. I tried fifteen different last names trying to think what his had been, and then I threw my phone and it exploded against the wall and sprayed like tears across the carpet.
Sunlight spattered the pool, the last clouds tugging back. In the distance, the green mountain rose to a sturdy gray dome. The boy and the girl were hugging. Why were they hugging? Her head leaned on his chest. His hands rested on her hips; he smoothed his thumbs against their soft ripple.
I picked up my splintered phone and searched for Carter on Facebook. He hadn’t unfriended me yet. He still had the same stupid profile picture he’d had when we met, blurry in his garage. I’d lined it up next to Kyle’s in our first weeks together, wondering if I could leap like Eliza had from Pilot Mountain to Manhattan, a brown-haired, blue-eyed catapult. That was before the pool days, the nights when I tucked his kids under the sheets in my guest bedroom and whispered, “Sleep tight, boys,” as I closed the door.
I pictured Eliza pulling her suitcase back over the wooden hump of his front door and down the hall into his bedroom, putting her shirts and pants in the drawers where I’d stored my deodorant and hairbrush. I pictured the boys rushing to her, saying, “Mom!” and then I tried to picture them saying, “Can we go to the pool today, Dad?” but already it was hard to imagine, already I could see that they might ask for a day or two, but that after that they wouldn’t. They would be too busy, too distracted. I imagined them standing on a chair helping their mother cook pasta. I imagined them taking that trip to see his mother’s grave. On the drive home, the boys would tap their mother’s shoulder and ask for help with their tablets or their juice boxes and, once she finally turned back around in her seat, Carter would clamp a hand on her shoulder and say, “You’re a champ.”
And she would smile.
The boy and girl climbed out of the pool. They wrapped towels around their waists and walked out the gate and down the sidewalk. I watched them as long as I could.
Then I got up and stood at the rounded lip of concrete at the edge of the pool. I stared out past the chain-link fence. I jumped through the wall of soft air.
The water filled my empty spaces: my armpits, the backs of my knees, my ears and nose. I fought the urge to come up sputtering. I forced myself to the bottom and I stayed there while my breath ran out and darkness gave way to images behind my clenched eyelids—navy-blue sofa-beds, sprinkles bleeding into vanilla on Carter’s porch, the Thomas the Train rug I’d thrown in the dumpster and then dragged back out and then thrown back in again. My lungs burned. My feet kicked. My body thrust itself free from my brain, up through the blue, up to the fresh air and bright sky where I imagined my mother still waiting for me, hands on her hips, all those years before she ever thought to leave, asking, “Well? Was it worth it? Was it worth it?” And here I was gasping for air, telling her finally that no, it wasn’t worth it, it wasn’t worth it at all.
Sara Heise Graybeal is a writer and researcher based in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her writing appears in Hobart, The Rumpus, Beloit Fiction Journal, Moon City Review, and elsewhere.