Fiction from NER 43.4 (2022)
hat summer, vermin fled the Alabama heat, scrambled into the pool, and drowned. They must’ve been compelled by the pumps churning the water, the waves cresting teal-blue from the pool’s sides before flattening in the middle. The pool carried so much from the shallow end to the deep and back. Dry leaves curling like upturned palms. Black hair ties eventually looping toward the bottom. And mice, roaches, and miniature snakes.
You discovered them your fifth day working as a lifeguard. The county pool lay hidden at the base of a concrete hill, and you eased your father’s old green Camry downwards, past the oaks and maples that kept the place out of sight of the main road. The job was your father’s idea, a way to maintain the swim techniques he’d taught you in case of emergency, what better way to spend your first summer home from college. “Call me when you get to work,” he’d said when you’d left the house that morning. He’d heard on the radio about a string of assaults in the area. “You lock yourself in and keep quiet until the other guards arrive. They need to start being on time anyway.” His elephant UA bobblehead nodded on the dash as you parked, silly in a way his warning wasn’t.
Not that you were worried. Sure, someone might have seen you slip out of the car in your red swimsuit and guard shorts. Sure, you’d dyed the ends of your afro light pink, what your father called “loud as your mother.” But you locked the gate behind you and doubted anyone could scale the twelve-foot fence surrounding the entire complex: the lifeguard office’s wooden hut, the adjoining cinderblock bathrooms, the pool stretching twenty-five yards behind both.
And anyway, what you cared about was endearing yourself to the other guards. Jacob, Simon, and Renee—who’d worked summers here for years—told you to check the skimmers each morning, those white boxes stamped into the pool’s concrete deck, recently renovated and repaved. The skimmers collected whatever had fallen into the water during the night, whatever the pumps had pushed out. Critters, they warned you. Millipedes. Rats. All trapped in a mini cyclone in the skimmer’s basket. You were the newbie, your job was to clean it out.
You’d been lucky your first few days. No one had come swimming, and when you lifted the skimmers’ lids, you’d found them empty. But that day, before the others had arrived, you found a mouse. Terrifying, that white-furred body, bulbous with drowning. You hollered.
Jacob heard you. He shouted your name from outside the entrance. You ran, stumbling over the half-door separating the guard office from the pool deck, nearly colliding with the front gate.
“What’s up?” he said as you removed the padlock and let him in. “Why’d you scream?”
You couldn’t speak, so you led him onto the deck, your legs wobbling. Sunlight fell over his shoulders, the stretch marks above his biceps. Like something had clawed him and he’d survived. He was a third-year at Jefferson State Community, and, in a brief moment of trust your third day, he’d stroked your wrist and told you that his biggest stress was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
“I got you,” he said, crouching down, chuckling. He snapped on white plastic gloves. Past the pulsing in your chest, you saw sunlight tumbling around and around in the curls of his dark hair.
Was it a pretense, a kind of show, this response to how overwhelmed you felt? You backed against the fence, pushing yourself against the wire until it pressed diamonds into your shoulders. You could see the mouse so clearly, its thin hairs lifting as Jacob scooped it from the water, its bones slipping under patches of bare flesh. Its skin was pink, as if the creature were embarrassed.
Jacob laughed at the sight of you. “Book smarts aren’t everything,” he said. Then he leaned back and flung the mouse over the fence.
An odd thing to say, really. Given the cleverness of the other guards. The four of you spent hours chatting in the office, lounging around the gray folding table, knowing each other more quickly, more intimately with all the lazy time. Your pool was so secluded, so hard to find, that it was the least crowded in the county. Had been, Renee said, for years.
In early June, you learned that she wanted to be a marine biologist, that working as a guard kept up her athleticism between semesters at UA. Every now and then, when the office’s whirring fan wasn’t enough to keep her cool, she’d vault over the half-door, dive into the pool, and swim a few laps, a brown streak that vanished at the far end before reappearing.
“Might as well work on myself while I’ve got the chance,” she said once, after she’d finished rinsing off the chlorine in the outdoor shower and begun retwisting the puffy sections of her hair. “Next summer, I’ll probably be working in a lab somewhere. Doing something else.”
“You won’t be the only one,” said Simon, his chin resting on the office table. Headphones bracketed his ears, the tinny speakers playing that summer’s Usher hit. Practice, he said, for when he’d start working at his uncle’s radio station.
“You a listener?” he asked you, wincing as Renee’s twists flung droplets his way. He had a dark, narrow face, thin facial hair lining his lips.
“Not really,” you said, as Jacob rolled his eyes and said, “Not everyone’s a listener, man.”
“Well, actually, I heard it one time,” you said, before sharing the memory of your father playing the station one morning before he left for his job as a warehouse manager. Men had laughed through the speakers, claiming that Obama was “chickening out” as he ran for reelection. All of a sudden, the man believes in gay marriage, said the host’s baritone. Holding office for four years must’ve made him soft.
Or he’s learned to care about other people, your father had said, and you agreed.
“I mean, my uncle’s no bigot,” Simon said in response, tugging his headphones around his slender neck. “He’s not saying—gay people shouldn’t get married. He’s just saying Obama’s too scared to say what he really thinks. That homophobia shit’s not too popular right now.”
You thought: It could be the other way around, like he was too scared to come out in support of love, before. Though this you didn’t say aloud. You were earning a painting degree at your little liberal arts college in upstate New York, the sort of place where pink-colored hair wasn’t out of the norm. When the guards asked how you spent your school year, you talked about camping on the quad with spiced cider or volunteering at the co-op or writing letters to university presidents about the de facto segregation of your dorms.
“Damn, that’s a lot,” Jacob said, yawning, his square jaw elongated. “Don’t you ever just, I don’t know, study?”
“Well, there are so many things to care about,” you said, though you didn’t add that, while standing on platforms at campus rallies, you were good at getting the rest of the crowd to care too. More petitions signed, more emails added to list serves.
Maybe because the other guards were two years older than you—and didn’t feel the need to express themselves in funky afro colors and fake gold tattoos—you wanted to impress them. You’d be the first to volunteer to clean the toilets or pour Pine-Sol on the bathroom’s green floor or climb into the guard chair if and when somebody finally came swimming.
During your third week, a white couple showed up in matching black suits. They paid their five dollars to swim, though the woman mostly lounged in one of the deck chairs and read, peeking up at your place in the chair from beneath the brim of her sun hat. Her husband swam laps, ignoring you both.
“I’ve never seen that,” she said, nodding at your hair. “Young people are so creative.”
“Try it out,” you said. It was hard to tell her age with her hat and sunglasses. The brown hair plastered to her neck showed no signs of graying. “Doesn’t have to be a young thing.”
“Oh no,” she said, laughing. “Some things you let go when you get older.”
After forty-five minutes, the couple left, their backs shiny and pink. You returned to the shelter of the office, where the other guards played cards.
“What’d she say to you?” Renee asked, tossing a water bottle to your place on the half-door. You loved to sit there, one leg dangling inside the office and one leg out, the ledge wide under your hips. Jacob sat beneath you at the office table, his eyes tracing the metallic rose tattoo you’d pressed onto your skinny calf.
“Nothing much,” you said, unscrewing the cap. “That my hair looked nice.”
“It’s cool,” Renee said. “Like someone blew a giant chewing gum bubble around your head.”
“Thanks,” you said. You smiled, too hard, and Renee smiled back. This was the first time any of them had paid you a compliment.
Not that the moment lasted. Right then, a large black beetle waddled over the sill, inches from your toes. You squealed, slid off the ledge, right into Jacob’s lap.
“Damn, clumsy,” he said, his cell phone clattering to the floor. But he didn’t move to pick it up, not yet. His fingers pressed into your thighs, where he’d sort of caught you.
Across the card table, Renee and Simon laughed.
“Girl,” Renee said, shaking her head, “you are too much.”
“What do you mean?” you said, though that only made Simon laugh harder.
“And now—,” Simon said, gasping for breath. “She got the nerve to pretend we can’t see what’s going on. You two need to admit it.”
You looked back at Jacob, at the way his eyes suddenly lowered. Everyone could see it, your little crush, though you hadn’t fallen into his lap on purpose. He’d simply been there and you’d trusted him to catch.
“What do you think a little bug’s going to do to you?” he said, reaching around your shoulders. He flicked the beetle away, its shiny body sailing out and over the deck.
“Who cares what it can do?” you said, slowly getting up. “They’re gross.”
Jacob looked at you, one eyebrow raised. Then he looked down at his fingers. Nodded. Said, “Okay, yeah, but it ain’t all that. You don’t have to let yourself get worked up.”
Years later, when you were twenty-four and interning at your second New York gallery, you looked through the glass doors and saw a pigeon lying on its side on the pavement, one wing bent at a funny angle as it kicked itself in circles. It was trying, you guessed, to fly.
“Oh my God,” your boss said, her bun stiff and immune to the shaking of her head. She stepped away from the watercolor figures hanging from the walls, bodies her client had painted in fragments, a back hunching along the Brooklyn Bridge, two red-sneakered feet dangling over the Hudson. “Clean that up. I can’t have people seeing that out front.”
You were still blinking at it, the gray diagonal of its extended wing. You couldn’t make out a beak. There was only mush where its face should’ve been.
“It must’ve flown into the glass,” you said. “And fell. From somewhere way up.” On the sidewalk, a few pedestrians stepped around it, pointing, their bodies a cluster of peacoats and combat boots and slouchy canvas totes. Only a few let themselves stare open-mouthed.
“I don’t care how it got there,” your boss said. In her reflection in the glass, you could see her scratching her nose with green fingernails. “Get it.”
You went out with a dirty towel, which you placed over the pigeon, gone still by the time you reached it. The towel covered the bird, a lump under the red, dust-stained cloth.
“You’re going to pick it up, right?” said a man who’d stopped to watch, heavyset in a military-green puffer coat. He was squinting at your hair, dyed a quieter indigo by then. “Or you planning on leaving it there?”
You wrapped the towel under the bird. Because you couldn’t quite bring yourself to toss it in one of the metal trash cans, you placed it in one of the alley’s cardboard boxes. Your hands shook, remembering the bird’s soft crush against your palms.
It wasn’t until you washed your hands in the gallery’s black bathroom that you realized: You hadn’t shouted. Not outwardly, anyway. You dried your hands, no longer shaking, your mind searching inside yourself for any trace of the girl who would have screamed aloud at the sight of the pigeon, who wouldn’t have been able to bring herself to touch its corpse, who was never the one to move on first.
For instance, you’ve never forgotten that Wednesday in late June, when you, Renee, Jacob, and Simon were locking up. Closing time, and you’d only had to guard a grandmother and two children with neon water wings, as well as the same white woman in the sunhat, who’d read poolside until she’d fallen asleep. When she’d woken, her skin glowed maraschino red.
“Can’t believe she didn’t even swim,” Renee said, slinging her backpack over one shoulder. She’d changed into jeans and a white tee that exposed her midriff, and you stared at the scar trailing her torso. You’d never noticed it before, thin and pale pink against her dark skin. “If I wanted to sit in the sun, I could do that in my front yard for free.”
You waited for Simon or Jacob to ask about the scar as you walked across the parking lot, your sandals slapping the fading lines and lumped concrete. But neither one of them did, lost in their own conversation. You heard Simon say to Jacob, “Can’t today, man. Not heading that way.”
“Renee,” you said finally, when she was climbing into her black compact. You pointed at the scar. “What happened? You look like you’ve been cut in half.”
“Oh, that’s so old,” she said, not quite laughing, rubbing a thumb over her belly. “From a car accident two years ago, when I was a sophomore.”
Her ex had been drunk, she went on, her dumb idea to get in the car with him. And of course he was driving too fast and flipped his car miles from campus. He split his head open, needed surgery on his left eye. And she? Well, the seatbelt saved her life and left behind its handiwork.
You reached out and thumbed the scar’s swell, still soft. “Renee, I can’t even—”
“It’s not so bad,” she said. She stepped away from you and folded her body into her car. Her smile twisted before she closed the door and said through the rolled-down window, “Really. These guys saw it when it was worse.”
You felt Simon and Jacob behind you, only vaguely listening. Simon had gotten into his own car and was playing a song you’d never heard, all bass. Jacob stood at your shoulder, texting someone on his flip phone. But you thought about it long after Renee and Simon had driven away.
“What does she mean it’s no big deal?” you said to Jacob, who stood with you. “He could’ve killed her.”
“Yeah, but he didn’t.” Jacob was still texting, and only then did you notice that your car was the last in the lot, his brown sedan nowhere to be seen.
“My brother needed the car today,” he said when you asked, though he was looking at the pines encircling the lot. Leg hairs curled up his calves, thick and dark and making their own way, and he scratched them, nervous. “So I’m going to take the bus.”
“I can drive you,” you said, and he shook his head once, his gaze retreating. But you insisted and he went, “Well, if you want to.”
“Awesome,” you said, so giddy that he laughed. When he climbed into your passenger seat, his legs bent against the glove compartment until he eased the seat back.
You drove, going on and on about Renee and her boyfriend and how she had to still be upset. “Did he apologize?” you asked. “Or has she talked to anyone about it? Her dad? Her mom? I know they didn’t let that slide. I don’t believe she’s let it slide.”
“Yeah, I mean, I guess,” Jacob said. He looked up from his phone for once, watching you. “I’m sure her ex feels bad about it.”
Beneath your voices, the stereo played a Mariah Carey album, which was your mother’s before she’d felt in her spirit the need to move to Atlanta and make street art, soon after your younger sister stopped breastfeeding. She’d given it to you and told you to play it when too much time passed between visits. She was still your mother, even from afar, she said, and one day you’d understand what it meant to be hungry for your own life.
“What is this?” Jacob laughed, turning down the volume on the ballad. Aside from giving you directions down several side streets, he hadn’t spoken. “Do you listen to anything less sappy? Something that might be on the radio?”
“She is on the radio,” you said. But when you glanced at him, he was smiling. “And she wrote this. She writes all her songs, actually.”
“I wouldn’t know,” he said. His large hands rested on his lap, pulling at his guard shorts. “She’s not what I listen to.”
You wanted to ask him what he would’ve preferred, but then he was eyeing the uniform of your red swimsuit, asking why you didn’t change clothes when you left work.
“Because I’m going home anyway,” you said, steering the car. “And you don’t change.”
“Well, I’m a guy,” he said, chuckling. “Nothing’s going to happen to me.”
You didn’t admit it, but you knew what he meant. Once, you’d driven out to Riverchase before heading to work, needing time to kill after dropping your sister at science camp. You’d stood outside the mall’s Forever21 in your swimsuit and guard shorts, studying the chevron patterns on the sundresses, wondering if you could work that textiled look into your paintings. Your work was all over the place, your professor had remarked the previous semester, and you wondered if using a technique with deliberate organization—crosshatching, dots, stripes—would prevent you from going wild on the canvas. As you studied the fabrics, a gray-sideburned man came up behind you and with sweaty fingers pinched the inner flesh of your thigh. You turned, startled, your fist faltering as it raised. He only grinned, his chapped lips splitting. He kept walking, looking back at you over his hunched shoulders, but you didn’t forget it. Nor did your thigh, burning. Nor your mouth, for once too startled to scream.
You didn’t tell Jacob this, already aware that he saw you as the girl who always overreacted. But he was becoming a different person beside you, stiffening as the sun went down, as the manors on the street turned to peeling bungalows with cars parked on the lawns, as you passed liquor store after liquor store.
“This is me,” he said, when you pulled into a cracked driveway. “Appreciate you.”
And then he was out of the car, jogging up the front steps, not looking back. The porch dipped under his weight. Moths fluttered around the dusty lightbulb before he passed under them, disappearing into the house, into a life closed off to you. You drove, heading towards your family’s four-bedroom house in Pleasant Grove. He’d gotten out of your car so quickly, and there were things, you felt, he wasn’t telling you. Two weeks prior, when the county clerk had been a day late in dropping off your paychecks, he’d cussed under his breath and swum laps for the better part of an hour.
When you got home, your father greeted you at the side door before the garage had a chance to fully lower. The round stone of his body filled the doorframe, both blocking the light and part of it.
“Where were you?” he asked, still wearing his navy-blue work uniform. He pulled you against him. Over his shoulder, your sister sat at the kitchen table, awkwardly carving her spoon into his string-bean casserole.
“Dropping off Jacob,” you said. “From work.”
“You couldn’t call?” your father said, pulling back. He ran a palm over his stubbled chin and explained that he’d heard more about the assaults, that a man was following women home from your neighborhood grocery store and raping them in their garages. He was still out there, eluding police, and when you were late, when you hadn’t called—
“But I was with Jacob,” you pointed out. “And I wasn’t even at a grocery store.” Behind your father, your sister rolled her eyes and shook her head, her ponytail swinging, her hoop earrings too. Don’t get him started, her expression said. Behind her, a large roach shimmied up the wall, right legs, left legs. You held your breath, your scream, though you knew you’d have to let it out eventually.
“Well, that’s all right,” your father went on. “But I didn’t know where you were.”
The next morning, you joined your family at the kitchen table. Your father had made blueberry pancakes, which he’d stacked on a cream plate, and your sister was already helping herself. Perhaps, given the way your father leaned forward, his chin resting in his large palms, his wide fingernails pressing the bags of his fifty-something eyes, you should’ve known what was coming. It was the same look he’d had when your mother wanted to take you and your sister on a road trip through the South. “Absolutely not,” he’d said to her. “Just the three of y’all in that finnicky car of yours? And driving in the dark?”
“I know college has you thinking you’re all grown up,” he said now, thumbing the side of his mug. He exhaled, and from his breath came the sharpness of hickory coffee. “But with everything that’s going on around here, I need you to stop all this riding around. You go straight to work—and take your sister to camp—then you come back. Nowhere else, not unless you’ve got me with you.”
“What do you mean? You’re going to follow us everywhere?” you said. You glanced at your sister, who stared at him, open-mouthed.
“If that’s what I have to do,” your father said, and beneath the fear darkening his eyes, you saw the clench of his whole body, his tight arms and stomach pushing out the front of his navy button-down.
“Mom would hate that,” your sister murmured before she stabbed her pancakes with her fork, and though you knew she was right, you pressed your foot on top of hers in warning: Don’t do that.
“Maybe,” your father said, shrugging. Then he nudged the pancakes closer to you. “But I learned a long time ago I can’t help how she feels.”
The evenings you and your sister had spent driving to the park or mall or local Publix were over. Or changed, at least. True to his word, your father trailed you from aisle to fluorescent aisle, eyes scanning from left to right as he hummed Marvin Gaye.
“Please keep your cell where you can hear it,” he said two Sundays after you’d driven Jacob home. You and your sister had wanted to go to Target—you for sundresses to throw over your swimsuit after work, your sister for underwear, believing she’d outgrown the cotton multipacks your father usually bought. “You call me when you’re ready to leave, and then we can all go out and get dinner. Your pick.”
Unclear, why exactly you needed to call him when he was five feet behind. You and your sister walked down the orange-lit aisles and touched everything: natural hair shampoos and pastel sweatshirts and stringy swimsuits. Your father only peeled away when you finally stopped near the underwear racks, when your sister turned and said, “Dad, can we have some privacy, please? We’ll stay right here.”
“So unnecessary,” she muttered once he’d left, saying he needed to pick up a few things in the men’s department anyway. “I mean, I’m fourteen. And you’re an adult.”
As she shook her head, her flat-ironed hair brushed the blue straps of her bra. You shifted your weight, your feet squelching in your flip-flops. She looked older than you as she examined a pair of pink leopard-print panties, similar to the zebra ones your mother had once mailed the two of you for Valentine’s Day. You both had worn them to the zoo, making the gift into a joke, not yet thinking of other occasions to wear them. You walked past the gated animals, entranced by the elephants’ graceful lumbering, horrified by the hissing cockroaches twitching in their tanks. “Damn,” a man in a black baseball cap said as your sister leaned against the glass, the striped underwear peeking over her jeans. “Thicker than honey out the comb.” She’d rolled her eyes, ignoring him. His friend, green eyes landing on you, said, “Or no, man. Look at baby girl over here. Legs so long I want her to crawl over my face.” None of that happened nowadays, with your father nearby.
“Tell me what’s going on with you and that guy at work,” your sister went on, dropping the leopard underwear into her red basket. “Before Dad comes back.”
“We’re good,” you said, though you made a show of rearranging the bras by size. “Since I drove him home, we’ve been talking.”
You didn’t add the details: That he’d brought in Eminem albums for Simon to play, asking what you thought of lyrics about getting jinxed and moving on. That he’d brought you a scone from a coffeeshop. “Look at you,” Simon had said. “Bringing wifey breakfast.” And Jacob had said, “Shut the fuck up.”
“Whatever you say,” your sister said. The store’s overheads lit up the blush she’d applied too heavily. “You think you’d ever bring him around Dad?”
“If he ever asked me out,” you said, before taking her arm and leading her to the sundresses, ignoring her when she said, “You could ask him, you know.”
You weren’t afraid to ask him out, but you wanted him to admit he cared, to say aloud what he hinted at when Renee and Simon weren’t around.
On a mid-July Wednesday, when the reading woman had left and Renee and Simon napped in the office, you and Jacob dove to the pool’s bottom. You swam towards the leaves clustered in the drains, grasping them and rising to dump them on the deck’s concrete sides. Jacob followed, the two of you brown blurs spiraling beneath the depths. He held his breath longer than you, his body hovering below yours for minutes after you rose. His fingers traced circles around your ankle, teasing, and aloud you said, “That’s—nice,” though maybe he couldn’t hear, with the water between you.
When he finally surfaced, a giant mosquito landed on the waves. Your body scrambled back, impulse-fleeing.
“It’s a mosquito-eater,” he corrected. It balanced on the ripples you made, rocking. “It eats the mosquitoes.”
“That’s more terrifying,” you said. He slapped the water, droplets splattering your face, the mosquito eater flying away over the crystal wave.
“Calm down,” he said, laughing. Then, as if some drawbridge between the two of you had lowered, he said, “Hey, you want to go out with me? Maybe Friday?”
Of course, you would have other dates over the years. At twenty-six, with the Broadway bank manager who admitted that yes, he loved acting but he had to get practical about his life choices. At twenty-nine, with the condo agent you’d met online, who joked that he couldn’t believe you’d once dyed your hair pink and green and orange. At thirty-one, with one of your colleagues at the school where you’d taken a teaching position. Benjamin, who worked in the math department and brought you daisies.
You’d moved back to Birmingham by then, though it wasn’t the same place you’d grown up. Black people had scattered across the freeway, mixing into the suburbs your father had once felt radical moving into. New glass coffeeshops and tourists renting bicycles. The economy was still reeling from the pandemic and recession and political chaos, all of which had left you shaky, unable to paint. And maybe, too, you were unsure of what you were supposed to be making. You’d had a few successful galleries by then, articles in New York publications praising your grayscale figures contained in tight spaces: doorways, windows, prison cells. Still, you’d felt lucky to snag a teaching job at the high school you’d graduated from. Lucky too, to find a one-bedroom apartment in the changing Lakeview neighborhood.
“Our students are going to talk,” Benjamin said, twirling noodles around his fork.
You shrugged. He’d chosen an Italian restaurant far from campus, and you’d had to drive forty-five minutes, the absurdity of the distance dawning on you as you sat in traffic.
“I can’t remember the last time I was on a date,” he said. “I’m bursting with excitement.”
The restaurant’s yellow light settled over his bald head, his closed mouth as he chewed.
“Really?” you asked. You spooned your soup into your mouth, trying to recall the last time you’d seen a man blush—or that you yourself had. Sometimes it felt like you’d forgotten how.
“Of course,” he said, smiling at you. He wiped his mouth. “Can’t you tell?”
You and Jacob hadn’t gone to a sit-down restaurant. On your date, after he’d picked you up from your father’s and swore to bring you back by eleven, he took you to the movies. A film where a blond actress needed two brothers to rescue her from a kidnapping. You’d bought your own ticket—“Sorry, looks like my funds are low,” Jacob had said shyly after stopping by an ATM on the way—but you hadn’t cared as you sat beside him in the darkened theater. His heat radiated toward you, this boy who’d spent all summer warding tiny creatures away from your body. He felt different in the blue darkness, fully dressed in an ironed green polo and khakis. He kept his eyes on the movie, where one of the brothers was saying he’d pay anything to get the girl back. Under the armrest, he took your hand gingerly. You gripped his fingers and squeezed, and he ran a thumb across your palm.
When the darkness of the end credits covered the theater, he leaned in slow and kissed you, his fingers faint as they lifted your chin. How soft they were as they slid along your jawbone. How clean this difference, this separation, before the melt of your tongues meeting. After, he pulled back and said, “I don’t really want to take you home yet. If that’s cool.”
Neither of you had eaten before the movie, though you’d spent a full day working and tiptoeing around Simon and Renee, not telling them what you were up to. He drove you to a fast-food joint off I-20, and you sat in his car, laughing over fries and Oreo shakes. He’d paid this time, and you didn’t know what that meant.
“I thought you were going to scream,” he said, “when they tied her up in that basement.”
“Why would I scream about that?” you asked and slipped the tip of a fry between your lips.
“’Cause you scream at everything. Half the time, you’re not all that scared. I can tell.”
“Maybe,” you said, your voice trailing. Was that the point? Did you have to be out-of-your-mind-terrified to scream? Or could you let out whatever you felt, turn up its volume, even if you were only a little unsettled? You looked out at the red and blue of the burger stand, kids your age smoking on concrete tables and leaning back on their elbows, baring their chests to the night.
“But I know you’ll handle it,” you said. “Like that first time with the mouse.”
“I hate touching mice too, you know,” he said. “What would you do if I started screaming about it?”
You turned to him, slipping your feet out of your sandals, your burger wrapper empty in your lap. He looked sheepish, the streetlights pouring in behind him, pink stubbing his cheeks. Or maybe it was the pockmarked pattern of his acne scars, there from long before you’d met.
“I’d love if you screamed,” you said. “I’ve never heard you get that loud before.”
He kissed you again, though your bodies weren’t quite in the dark, the whole front windshield lit up by restaurants and streetlights. Anyone could’ve seen you. You wanted him to put his hands on your breasts, on your backside, and when you said as much, he went, “Let’s move to the back seat. Where I can get to you.” And you did, where you kept kissing, your bodies turning over and over against the seat until his car windows fogged.
“Like I got my windows tinted,” he joked, pulling back and laughing again. Silently, you disagreed. You thought the steam meant that the two of you had announced your feelings to the world. Even your breath couldn’t contain itself.
“Hold me?” you asked, leaning into him. During your kissing, you’d pulled off his shirt, and now you pressed your cheek to the bright yellow of his chest. You didn’t bother trying to pull up your dress or tease out your afro, flattened in the back. Two unruly coils jutted over your forehead.
“All right,” he said. He was slow to put his arms around you, though you could feel his heart hammering in your ear. It slipped into you, rang through the entire pulse of your body, alive and bright with want. “Five minutes, okay? We’re not trying to—. It’s just making out.”
You thought the date had gone well. To your father’s pleasure, Jacob had you home at ten thirty and your younger sister said she’d seen him waiting in his car until you fit your keys into the front lock and stepped back into the safety of your home. You spent the night in the lavender of your bed, remembering the shape of his body, your intertwined heat, the way he’d held you for fifteen minutes before he’d said he’d better get you back.
But the next day at work, Jacob came into the office and slung his backpack into a chair and walked out without saying hello. From the half-door, you watched him spring from the diving boards once, then twice, then continuously, his body cutting into the water’s surface. When you came over and said, “Last night—,” he spit water before you could finish. Then he swam away.
Never before or since have you met someone who suddenly wasn’t there anymore. Aside from figuring out shifts in the chair or bathroom cleaning, he didn’t speak to you. Not that day nor the next nor the next. Instead, he and Simon spent long hours in the water, shooting a palm-sized basketball into a goal Jacob had brought in and parked poolside. The few times you bumped knees under the office table, he pulled away. The texts you sent at night went unanswered. When, four days after your date, you worked up the nerve to ask if he wanted to hang out, he said, “I dunno. I’ve got a lot going on.” You learned to sit still on the office’s half-door, your knees folded against your chest to hide the flurry of your heart.
That night of your date, how he eventually squeezed you tighter than you thought possible, played around and around in your head. But you kept quiet, ironing your face from the inside, as the other guards talked about what they were going to do when they got back to campus, how this was the time in their lives to party and be free and irreverent. Renee and Simon, who still knew nothing about you and Jacob going out, were determined to enjoy the remains of summer, playing loud music and cajoling the reading woman into ordering them a pizza, since she came to the pool only to lounge and, technically, you still had to guard her.
“I’ll have to convince my husband to come back,” she said, smiling wistfully as the other guards held slices of pepperoni between their fingers. “Make it worth your while from now on.”
You weren’t eating. Instead, you stared at the brown freckles coating her shoulders, a hardening of her sunburn. “Convince him?” you asked. “Why should you have to?”
“Oh, I’m making it sound more serious than it is,” the woman said, waving her hand, though the gesture didn’t match the sheen in her eyes. “He just gets busy sometimes.”
And then—a week after your date with Jacob, when you dreaded going to work, when you dragged your sketchbook onto the deck to copy the dull patterns of floating leaves—the campers came.
Their yellow school bus descended the hill, heading toward the pool that had belonged to the four of you all summer. The children squealed from the windows. You could hear them from where you sat cross-legged on your towel, soft beneath you. Their hollering pulled you out of the fugue of your sketchbook.
When you got to the front office, the children were bounding down the bus steps—seven, no twelve, no fifteen in number. Renee shouted at them to line up, her hair half-twisted from where she’d been interrupted. The children peered over her shoulders at the water, their bodies striped with sunscreen.
“Tell them someone peed in the water,” Simon groaned, donning his sunglasses. “Tell them they can’t swim for forty-five minutes. An hour. However long they were planning on staying.”
“No,” you said, quietly. “They’ll be devastated.” From where he was helping Renee get the kids in line, Jacob opened his mouth to say something to you. Then didn’t.
As the other guards tried to get the kids to settle, their counselor came up to you, sweating in a gray camp T-shirt and jean shorts. She must’ve been in her mid-twenties, or maybe closer to your age, but her eyes were dark and baggy under her visor’s orange plastic.
“Please,” she said. “Please, don’t make us find someplace else. Our usual pool was closed—some nut put in too much chlorine—and so the county told us to come here, said you guys were always empty. I think these kids’ll actually cry if they can’t get in.”
You put a hand on the hot blaze of her shoulder. “We got you,” you said. So easy to remember your own childhood, pools like this one with your father teaching you to swim, worried you’d one day drown. All the days your reedy body cannonballed into the deep, exhilarated, with him applauding from the sidelines. Even now, children move you. How they let themselves feel everything, how they’re not afraid to make noise about it.
After a while, you got the kids to calm down, to spin three times in the shower before sitting cross-legged on the deck and awaiting the swim test. In order to jump from the diving boards or free swim in the deep end, they would have to freestyle from one side of the pool to the other and back. Without stopping.
“That sounds easy,” said one girl with green goggles bubbling from her forehead. She looked older than the others—or at least taller—though she eyed the water warily.
“Well, we’ll see,” Renee said, though you were already walking away, heading to the guard chair at the deep end, trying not to look at Jacob climbing into the chair at the shallow. Behind him, Simon stood in the office with the camp counselor, counting out bills.
Nothing’s as easy as it looks, you thought, starting up the ladder. A mouse, who should have known better, who could tread water for three days, could surprise himself by drowning.
You almost missed him. The boy, seven maybe, sneaking out from the group. But there he was running toward the deep end. Jumping in.
Maybe he did it for the laughs erupting from some of his peers. Maybe he wanted to prove something to the others, rolling their eyes. Either way, when he surfaced, his reasons for going in had become unclear to him too.
He rose. Looked around at the water disturbed by the tiny island of his body, by the pumps too, cleared and chugging at full force. Renee was turning away, telling the other children not to follow his example. From the other end of the pool, Jacob echoed her, shouting that everyone needed to follow instructions.
And then you. Standing at the pool’s side. Seeing the boy claw at the water, his buzzed head bobbing, his mouth opening and closing, a slippery pink.
You dove in. Scooped him against you, one arm hooked under the swell of his belly. You frogged out your legs. Propelled you both to the pool’s side.
The boy spluttered at its edge. Mostly saliva, he hadn’t had time to swallow much water. Ooohh, went the other kids when you pushed yourself up and over the pool’s side without using the ladder. When you lifted the boy up and out too.
“Let’s stay in the shallow end, okay?” you said, leading him to Jacob, who was looking down on you from his high place in the chair, one hairy leg extended like he’d been about to jump in but hadn’t. “He’ll take care of you.”
“Mmkay,” the boy said. Then he looked up at you, your dripping hair. “You’re pink.”
The kids didn’t stay long. Only an hour, where you watched them doggy paddle across the blue, spray water into each other’s faces, or start games of chicken your whistle shrilly ended. It shocked you, how easily the boy who’d nearly drowned got over it. How he swam in the shallow end with his buddies in shark and goldfish trunks. How, after only twenty minutes, he came over to your chair.
“Can I try the swim test again?” he said, standing with one foot on top of the other, wobbling. “I think I know how to swim now.”
“Maybe next time,” you said, pushing your sunglasses back over your eyes. For the first time in your life, you decided it was better to be neutral, to make no promises, to show neither excitement at his confidence nor fear for his failure.
The end of summer came fast. Soon, there was only a week until the pool closed for the season, and you’d head back to New York, Renee to UA, Simon to his uncle’s radio station, and Jacob to Jefferson. You never found out if he transferred. You never worked at the pool again, and by the next summer the police had caught the grocery store rapist, and you relished the solitude of going places alone.
That entire week at the pool, as the four of you scrubbed the bathrooms and dragged the deck chairs to the storage shed and checked the skimmers for the last time—ants and centipedes and one mouse you dumped without complaint—Jacob played music. Elusive dubstep beats with wailing, songs about being too close. Once when you all played spades around the table, he put on a Mariah Carey album, her latest one, casual and more up-tempo than her earlier ballads.
“Fuck is wrong with you, man?” Simon said, getting up and changing the disc. “You in love or something?” At the table, you examined your hand. You didn’t look up at Jacob, at whatever his face was doing in the silence.
“My turn then,” Renee said and put on Drake, a track where he couldn’t make up his mind whether he was rapping or singing.
Renee sighed as she sat on the half-door, gesturing for someone to turn up the volume. “Drake,” she said. “I’m telling you. He’s hard and soft at once.”
On your last day, the pool empty in the dusk, you locked the gate, aware of Simon and Renee shouting, “Y’all take care!” from their cars, their engines revving as they flew up the hill and out of sight. It was Jacob who walked you across the parking lot, who touched your arm as you opened your car door.
“Hey,” he said, his thumb light against your bicep. His eyebrows were furrowed, as if his thoughts were similarly wrinkled. “When are you going back? To New York, I mean.”
“My flight’s tomorrow,” you said. You leaned away from his touch. “First thing.”
“Oh, okay,” he said. “Well, I hope you have a good time.”
He stepped back and let you get into your car. Let you drive away without looking back.
You grew older, adjusting to muted adulthood. You stood indifferently beside your father while he remarried, a woman from his church tall in her orange taffeta. You walked through the Birmingham library with your mother, merely listening as she gushed over your framed paintings, how good you’d gotten when, on a whim, you’d returned to using color and filling up the canvas. You sipped coffee and watched your sister’s children build forts, hauling blue pillows off your couch and belly-flopping onto them. “We’re swimming!” they shouted, when you shushed them. “This is the pool attached to our space-ship!”
One day, the summer of your thirty-sixth year, you took them to Railroad Park, your sister out on a date with her husband. They’d wanted to feed the ducks, though they’d gone skittish, picking at their cotton leggings and making you go first. Then, throwing the white crumbs onto the grass and backing away as the ducks scrambled towards them.
“They’re right to be terrified of these guys,” a man said, coming up to the three of you. He slid his hat back from his forehead. He could’ve been anywhere from twenty-five to forty. “Can’t imagine a meaner animal.”
“At least they eat mice,” you said, smiling politely at him. Your niece and nephew squealed and gripped your legs as a duck spread its wings and sent water scattering.
You thought he’d continue his walk up the path, but he stuck out his reddened fingers and you gave him bread. He let one of the gray ducks waddle up to him and take it, its beak nearly catching his finger.
“Close one,” he said, relief sweeping his face. And then he wiped his fingers on his trousers and walked away.
“Auntie, auntie!” your niece said. “What’s this?” And when you turned to her, she held up a giant cicada, its body green and large and nauseating. It buzzed.
You screamed, knocked it out of her hand. It landed on the ground with a dull thud, and you flung a piece of white bread over it. You couldn’t kill the cicada, but at least you could bury it.
“Auntie’s scared,” your nephew said, laughing. The sound contagious, catching your niece, who giggled and pointed. It caught you too, and you laughed through the air in your lungs, the space the scream had made. Where had she gone, the girl who screamed at any and everything? You clutched the hands of your sister’s children, remembering how easy it had been for you once, to release whatever you felt.
What remains of your eighteenth summer: The moment Jacob arrived at your house to pick you up for your date. He, your father, you on the front lawn. The roof’s shadow rising over the grass, over the chirping of grasshoppers and squirrels scrambling up the gutters. You wore a yellow dress from Target and felt more naked than you had all summer, the cotton brushing your skin. You’d wondered if it was too short, but your sister had rolled her eyes: Who cares? Show it all. Jacob had stammered, “Hey” when he’d seen you in it.
You expected your father to greet him the way he’d always talked about greeting boys you might bring home. Shaking their hands and squeezing until knuckles popped. The Right Hand of Fellowship, he’d always called it, parodying the language of your family’s church.
You were ready for your father’s bullying. You ignored the mosquitoes stinging your arms, the night stirring into dusk. But instead your father drew closer to Jacob. Gripped his shoulder.
“Be careful with this one,” he said. “She’ll get you in ways you don’t expect.”
They looked at you, their faces unknowable, except for the slight pink swirling in Jacob’s cheeks. Great, Dad, you thought then. You’re making me sound like a crazy person.
Relief cooled you when Jacob said only, “Okay, sir.” He unlocked his car for you to get in.
This strange, strange moment, which you’ve only just now understood.
You, another sort of dangerous thing, in how easy you were to love. You could spook anyone with how close you were willing to get, with how you opened yourself up to the world and opened others too. Now, the hardest thing is getting back. She is waiting, the girl of you, shouting from a distance for your return. ■