Fiction, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011
Jessie pressed her face against the passenger window of the Volvo, as far as her seat belt would allow her to sit from Anne. Six years old and sullen, she glared at the road, as if even blinking might be a compromise.
“What are you doing in your swimming lessons these days, Jess?” Anne glanced over. Jessie’s gym bag, containing swimsuit and towel, rested primly on her lap, like an old woman’s pocketbook. No answer. When Anne had been just a friend of Jessie’s dad and not her stepmother, Jessie had been talkative and clever, prone to puns and riddles about numbers. Why was six afraid of seven? Because seven ate nine and ten.
“Do you want to talk?”
Still no answer.
“Do you want to listen to the radio?”
A minute shrug.
Startled into relief by this small movement, Anne tuned the radio to an oldies station. Aretha sang, “You better think, think about what you’re trying to do to me.”
As long as Anne could remember, she had watched her own mother careen from marriage to marriage, picking up new children like chalk marks on a cue ball. At twelve, Anne had sworn, “No children.” Now, twenty years later, she had acquired a child, a husband and the ghost of her husband’s first wife, who had died two years before of cancer.
As soon as Anne stopped the car, Jessie opened the door and stuck out her skinny bare leg. “Kids get picked up at four o’clock,” she said.
“Wait a minute,” Anne said. “Is it okay if I watch your lesson?”
Jessie shrugged again. Clutching her gym bag, she scuttled across the parking lot and disappeared into the dark building.
Anne followed. She sat invisibly on the balcony above the pool. Jessie emerged into the pool area, her stomach poking out in imitation of Lynn, her swimming instructor. Lynn, seven months pregnant with her first child, met Jessie and another girl and walked with them to the pool. The girls automatically reached for Lynn’s hands. The tile surrounding the pool was slick with standing water. Anne could see her warn them to watch out. Lynn eased her way down the ladder into the shallow end and held her hands out first to the other girl, then Jessie, to help them into the pool.
Jessie bounced in the water and giggled with her friend while Lynn helped the rest of the class: a girl with bright red hair and a chubby boy in checked swim shorts. Anne felt a twinge, as if someone had taken her stomach between thumb and forefinger and abruptly tweaked it. How could Jessie be so easy with Lynn? When all the children were in the water, Lynn stilled them momentarily—a hand gently touching a shoulder, a finger to her lips—and showed them how to kick while holding on to the edge of the pool. She moved down the line, straightening legs and balancing paces. Dark blue and red kickboards awaited them, stacked by the ladder. Jessie kicked with a big, bent-kneed stroke, laughing at the water she splashed.
Across the pool, middle school kids warmed up for swim team practice. A slender boy, his chest the unmuscled box of early adolescence, slicked back his dark hair and pulled on a pair of goggles, then made a shallow dive. Anne watched him pull with his arms, trailing his legs behind. At each breath he faced her, his mouth a perfect “O” for oxygen. Charles, her husband, had been a swimmer in high school and college, and still had a swimmer’s lean body, though he never exercised.
A wail grabbed her attention. The red-haired girl was sobbing as she tried to scramble up Lynn’s body out of the water. Lynn, leaning back to accommodate a wiry five-year-old on top of the baby in her uterus, soothed the girl, but she was inconsolable. “You said I wouldn’t get water up my nose, but I did!” The other children perched on the edge of the pool, watching the drama. Anne, curious, looked for Jessie’s reaction. Jessie had drawn up her legs and wrapped her arms around them, and was studying the ceiling. Anne wanted to hold Jessie until her brittleness softened, but that would require Jessie allowing her to hold her at all.
Finally Lynn plucked the crying child from her and carried her to the side of the pool. Even from where Anne sat, Lynn looked exhausted. “Time’s up.” Her low gravelly voice wafted up to Anne. “I’ll see you all on Thursday.”
When Jessie came out of the dressing room, her face was carefully composed, but her hair stuck up in wet spikes. “Let me see your comb,” Anne said. “I’ll fix your hair.”
Jessie walked ahead of her up the stairs. “I like it this way,” she said. When Anne reached the car, Jessie stood rigidly in the sun beside it.
Anne unlocked the door. “Jessie.” She crouched to look into her stepdaughter’s face. “Jess. We used to be pals. Do you think we could talk?”
Jessie reached for the door handle, then yanked her fingers away.
“Are you okay?” Anne reached for Jessie’s hand, but Jessie stuck it in her pocket. A tear leaked out and wobbled down the valley beside her nose. She angrily brushed it with her forearm. She stared at the tire until Anne’s knees got stiff.
Anne straightened. “I love your father. I love you. I hope you can hear that.”
Exiting the parking lot, Anne let a car go by, then pulled into traffic. It wasn’t until after she glanced a second time in her rearview that she realized what she was seeing. The driver of the black Corvette behind her wore a mask, a blank white oval, with circles for the eyes and mouth. When she looked again, she saw that the passenger wore one as well.
Lately the newspapers had been full of violence: teenagers shooting one another in the mall parking lot, a young woman killed when two middle school boys dropped a boulder from an overpass onto her car. The boys had stayed to watch the EMTs take the woman away. Watched and laughed, according to some stories Anne had heard.
Anne adjusted her mirror to see the occupants of the car more clearly. The driver tilted his head back, as if the eyeholes were not high enough. The passenger thrust one leg out the window, using the mirror as his footrest.
The Corvette crept up behind her. Anne jammed the accelerator, thrusting a protective arm across Jessie. The Corvette sped up, too, preserving the same lack of distance. She ran a yellow light as it turned to red, and looked back again. Still there. Lounging in the same nonchalant poses, the blank masks creating an air of insouciance that made her stomach clench. She pulled into a Gulf station and stopped, her heart thudding. The Corvette continued on. As they sped by, the passenger turned, as casually as Anne might have shifted position in bed, and flicked his middle finger at her.
The gesture reduced her alarm to annoyance. She said nothing to Jessie, but the rest of the way home, she glanced frequently in the rearview for black Corvettes, masks, anything sinister.
When they arrived, Charles was waiting by the door with the van keys. He pushed back his hair, making it stand up like a shock of faded wheat “It’s been a long day. You guys want to go out for pizza?” he asked.
“That would be good,” Anne said.
Jessie, who recovered her equanimity as soon as she saw her father, ran to the van. “I call front seat,” she yelled, reaching for the front passenger door.
Charles and Anne followed more slowly. He swung her hand. “You okay?”
She nodded. “Something a little strange,” she said. “I’ll tell you later.”
At the van, Charles scooped up a screaming, giggling Jessie and deposited her onto the back seat. “We’re going to give Anne the front seat tonight.”
“But I called it,” Jessie insisted. Her eyes became bright with angry tears and there was something menacing in the way she stuck out her jaw.
“We’ll give you a raincheck,” Charles said cheerfully to Jessie. Why don’t Jessie’s moods make him uncomfortable, Anne thought.
Jessie brooded while Charles started the van. Then she called in a rush, “Lynn said I kicked good and soon we can swim without kickboards or anything, and Melissa can’t kick at all, but Robby is as good as me.”
Charles glanced up to the rear view mirror to look at his daughter. “That’s great, Jess!” he said, with real enthusiasm. Anne was constantly amazed at the affection in his voice: for her, for Jessie, for the endless stream of patients who came through the doors of his pediatric practice. “It’s good to see you, kiddo,” he said, squeezing her hand.
By bedtime, when she told Charles about the Corvette and the boys in masks, the whole thing seemed silly. Still, he listened. “Is that illegal, driving in a mask?” he asked.
Anne found herself wondering how Charles’ first wife would have dealt with the masks. Would Gena have been haunted by them? She didn’t think so. Anne had known Gena, not well, but the way you know someone who lives in the same town, who shops at the same grocery. Often, as she drove to the high school to teach, she had seen Gena running, a long-limbed woman whose fair skin was reddened from day after day of distance runs. Gena’s stride had always seemed a sign of her self-sufficiency. Anne was independent too, but in a more enclosed way. If she were to take up running, she would run endless laps around an isolated track.
Driving home from work a week later, she saw the black Corvette ahead of her at the stoplight. Her stomach tightened. She was mesmerized by the reflection of the driver’s bare arm in the glossy paint of the door. He flicked a burning cigarette out the window as the light changed. She watched it jump and skitter on the asphalt like a nervous animal. When she pulled up beside the car, she saw the mask again. Before he drove off, the driver waggled his fingers at her, a wave that could have been friendly, but because of the mask seemed threatening.
When she told Charles that time, he asked, “Did you get a license number?”
“No.” She hadn’t even thought about it.
“Maybe you should call the police,” Charles said.
Anne looked at him. “And tell them what? That there’s a guy in town who wears a mask when he drives his Corvette?”
The weather turned a sudden corner into fall. A cool crispness planted itself firmly in the yard. Jessie came down to breakfast one morning dressed as a fairy. She’d gotten a heavy dose of Cinderella lately—having seen the DVD at a friend’s birthday party and then borrowed the book from the school library—and had appropriated not the role of Cinderella, but that of the fairy godmother. She flounced into the kitchen wearing the starchy lace nightgown Charles’ sister had given her. On her head was a fairy tiara: a rhinestone necklace Anne had bought her at a yard sale. The same costume, with the addition of a pair of Anne’s old heels, had served for Glinda the Good Witch the week before, shortly after Jessie saw “The Wizard of Oz” for the third time. Several times a day, she would ask Anne, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”
Today, however, she pulled her chair to the table and waved her wand—a tinfoil star stapled to the flattened end of a cardboard paper towel tube—over her Count Chocula. “Now you are diamonds,” she said solemnly, then placed her wand beside her bowl and picked up her spoon.
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll break your teeth, eating diamonds?” Charles asked.
“No, fairies’ teeth are made of carbide,” she told him, smiling a mouthful of her own glittering white teeth, and milky chocolate mush.
The doctor’s daughter, Anne thought. Fairy tales and hard science.
“Are you wearing that to school?” asked Charles.
“Can I?” Jessie said. She cocked her head at him as if this were an idea she had just considered, and not a ritual they went through with each new costume.
“Are you in a play, perchance, performing the part of a fairy?” Charles asked her, adapting the ritual to this new character.
She considered this as well. “I don’t think so,” she said. “But there is always that possibility.” Anne envied them their banter.
“Well, how about school clothes today, in that case?” Charles told Jessie. “What do you think?”
“Can I wear my blue and red kilt skirt?” Jessie asked. All the girls in her class were wearing kilts now, a style that had filtered down from the high school to the elementary: kilts and miniature denim jackets. Much like the outfit Anne had worn at her age, only Anne’s jacket had been a blue blazer.
“Is it clean?” Charles asked.
“I think so,” she said.
“Bring it down and let me sniff,” Charles told her. “If it passes my inspection, it probably won’t offend anyone in your class too much.”
She jumped up from the table. “Back in a minute.”
“Hurry,” Charles said. “You don’t want your diamonds to get soggy.”
He reached for the box of Count Chocula. “Are you eating that stuff, too?” Anne asked. “I wondered why it was going so fast.”
“It’s addictive.” He poured cereal into a bowl, adding just enough milk to dampen it.
She sliced a bagel and put it in the toaster. “Better you than me.”
“I’m getting most of my daily vitamins and minerals,” he informed her, reading the back of the box.
“I think you need more milk,” she said, “if you want that much calcium.”
She juggled her hot bagel from hand to hand, then dropped it on her plate. They ate in comfortable silence. Charles read the morning paper. Jessie—her outfit having smelled satisfactorily of laundry detergent—turned the pages of a Shel Silverstein book of children’s poems, mouthing the words to herself. Anne went over lesson plans, trying to banish the morning fog from her brain. Today she was to introduce her ninth graders to Romeo and Juliet, a task that took more energy than she felt at the moment.
Lately Jessie had seemed easier with her. Twice she had asked for Anne’s help in tying her shoes, and yesterday had given her a tentative backrub while Anne slumped in her chair after dinner, exhausted after a long day of work. Jessie’s small fingers dug lightly into Anne’s shoulders. When Anne sighed, Jessie’s hands became more assured. Before this change in Jessie, she would have given anything to get past the silent treatment phase, to return to the days before their marriage when she and Jessie would wrestle and giggle in tickle fights. Before it mattered so much whether Jessie liked her or not. But this tentative, wistful affection frightened her. She had no idea how to respond. She had tried describing it to Charles. “It’s like she’s afraid of me,” she said. “She wasn’t afraid of me before.”
“Well, it’s understandable, isn’t it?” Charles replied. Meaning, Anne thought, that it was understandable that Jessie would be afraid of loving a second mother and losing her. But Charles had spoken in the professional voice he used with patients who called him at home after office hours. He avoided discussing Gena with Anne, as if to discuss her were to invoke her ghost between them, an apparition he feared might scare Anne away, or perhaps himself. Still, sometimes she woke to feel him violently trembling beside her. She thought maybe she wouldn’t talk with him about things between Jessie and herself right now. But watching the banter between Jessie and Charles made her feel inadequate. She would just have to give it time. Time would make her into a mother and Jessie into her daughter. Or it wouldn’t.
Charles handed her the paper. “Remember those masks you told me about?” He pointed to an article on the front page. Two boys in white masks had beaten a small girl. Brutally, judging from the description of an observer in the emergency room. A neighbor had called the police. The newspaper headlined the article “Halloween Tragedy” and mentioned gang retribution, an older male cousin.
“Horrible, isn’t it?” he said.
Jessie pushed her book in front of Charles. “What’s this word?” she asked. “With the z in the middle?”
“Amazing,” Charles told her.
“Amazing.” Jessie rolled the word around on her tongue as she carried her empty bowl to the sink. “Amazing, -zing, -zing.”
“So is it time to call the police now?” Charles asked.
“I don’t have a license plate number or anything,” she said.
“You know what the car looks like,” he insisted.
“What if they think I’m crazy? Or want to know why I didn’t call before?”
“Call anyway,” he said.
After Jessie put on her jacket, Anne walked her to the bus stop. She usually left Jessie to chat with her friends. This time she waited until the bus arrived, then watched her run up the steps.
At home she phoned the police. When she explained about seeing the masks, he asked her to repeat the information to the detective in charge, who told her he’d be in touch if anything needed clarification.
Driving to school for another day of teaching, the ineffectuality of words rattled through her head. Say something enough times in a row and it becomes meaningless, she thought. “Amazing. Horrible. Unbelievable. Meaningless, -less, -less.”
After the eleven o’clock news, Charles turned off the television. The local newscaster had briefly mentioned the little girl, saying that she remained in critical condition. “I’ll be up in a minute,” Anne said as he started upstairs for bed. Instead, she sat on the sofa, staring at the television. What could she have done differently?
The blank screen gave her no answers. The objects in the room—a hand-tinted photograph of her grandparents, two voluptuous chairs, Anne’s piano and Jessie’s half-size guitar, Charles’ scientific history books and Anne’s volumes of poetry side by side on the built-in bookshelves—remained mute.
Walking down the hall, her bare feet stepped almost silently on the cold wood floor. Jessie’s door was ajar, as always. Anne slipped inside. The slight breeze caused by her robe opened the door a couple of inches further. Jessie lay on her back, one leg sprawled from under the covers. Anne pulled the quilt over Jessie’s leg, then sat carefully on the edge of the bed. In the light from the hall, her stepdaughter’s face looked slack, devoid of her daytime animation. She gave a small snort, then stretched out her foot until it touched Anne’s thigh. Anne breathed in sharply at this unexpected sleeping trust. The digital clock on the bedside table transformed each minute to the next. Dreams flickered across Jessie’s eyelids. Once she sighed, then turned. Anne wrapped her hand around Jessie’s foot and held the warm skin until her own eyelids began to drop. She jerked awake. Jessie’s faded bear had fallen beside the bed. Anne picked it up and slid it between the child’s arms, then tucked the quilt around her.
The next morning, Saturday, she left Charles and Jessie working on a tree house and drove to Regent’s Hospital. Maybe she could do something for the family. She took the elevator to the pediatric ward and asked a nurse if anyone from the girl’s family was present.
“There.” The nurse nodded to a woman about Anne’s age asleep in the unnaturally bright waiting room, a folded coat between her head and the wall. The woman wore another coat over a sweater, a pair of khaki pants and bedroom slippers. In sleep, her face had sagged into her jowls. Anne sat opposite her.
Doctors and nurses passed and nodded at each other, or stopped to compare notes, their intricate movements meshing as succinctly as a tango.
Anne picked up a gossip magazine someone had left on a table. She leafed through it, glancing at the sleeping woman as she turned the pages. None of the words registered in her brain, and the pictures started to blur after the eighth or ninth photograph of airbrushed perfection. After about twenty minutes, the woman woke, shifted in her orange plastic seat and looked around. When she placed herself, her jaw seemed to lock into place. She stood, leaving her two coats on the chair, and walked to a room down the hall. Opening the door, she leaned in, watched for a moment, then closed the door. A large man came from the elevator with two cups of coffee balanced in one hand, a bag of doughnuts in the other.
“She’s not awake,” the woman said.
The man handed her a cup of coffee and opened the bag of doughnuts. “Is she supposed to be?” he asked. “I mean, did they say she would?”
“They didn’t know.” She shook her head. “They said it would be better if she was, but it didn’t have to mean anything.” Sitting in the chair beside her coats, she ripped a small semicircle from the plastic lid of her coffee cup. Steam drifted up toward her face and dissipated. She set the cup in a nest created by the crumpled coats, and stared at the picture on the opposite wall, a reproduction of the Norman Rockwell doctor’s visit, not what Anne would have expected in this stylish modern hospital.
He took a jelly doughnut, then placed the bag on the floor by the woman’s chair. “You want me to spell you?” he asked.
“No. Just sit by me.”
He sat and placed his hand over hers on the arm of her chair. Anne watched, trying not to look like she was watching. The woman’s hand quivered beneath his like a cornered animal. Finally she patted his arm and lifted her trapped hand from underneath. She held both hands together between her thighs as if trying to warm them. Anne wanted to say something, but the moment had passed when she could do this gracefully, as a stranger just come upon the scene. She went to the soda machine and bought a Coke. The can rattling down the machine’s gullet startled her. She held it but didn’t open it, unwilling to inflict more noise on the quiet room. The woman hovered over her coffee cup as if it were the only warm thing in an arctic wasteland, but did not drink it. The man picked up a magazine, then left it closed on his lap. They sat in the waiting room, an island of incomplete gestures.
When Anne got home, the house felt empty. “Anybody home?” she yelled. No one answered, so she went through to the backyard.
“Hi Anne,” Jessie called from the leaves of the large oak that dominated their backyard. She sat cross-legged on a platform fifteen feet in the air that hadn’t been there that morning, a hammer in her lap.
“Where’s your dad?” Anne asked, looking around. What she’d done seemed crazy. She wanted to tell him so they could both laugh at her overactive sense of responsibility. Maybe he could keep her posted on the girl’s progress. That seemed a much more reasonable approach.
“He went to the hardware store.” Jessie said. She placed the hammer on the platform. Then she clambered down steps nailed to the trunk and plopped into the grass.
Anne sat beside her and brushed Jessie’s hair behind her ears. “How long ago did he leave?” she asked.
Pulling away, Jessie studied her Mickey Mouse watch. “Ten minutes, I think.”
The back door opened and Charles came out, holding a plastic bag full of nails. “Hi guys,” he called out cheerfully. “Looks great, doesn’t it?” he said to Anne.
Anne strode up the back lawn. “How could you leave her alone like this? Anything could have happened.”
Charles looked down at the bag of nails, “Like what?”
Anne crossed her arms. How could he not see? She thought of telling him about her trip to the hospital, but what could she say? That she had gone to give solace and instead had watched a couple not eating donuts while she didn’t drink a soda? “She could have fallen, or gotten cut, or—didn’t you read the article you gave me yesterday?”
“Sure I read it,” he said, looking back up at her. “That was on the other side of town, in a bad neighborhood.”
Anne shook her head. “You still think there’s such a thing as bad neighborhoods where bad things happen? And good neighborhoods where they don’t? Wake up, Charles. Wake up.”
The next morning, Anne returned to the hospital. The woman was still there, in the same chair, as if it were her new address, but she wore different clothes. The man lay stretched out on a lime green sofa too short for him, asleep. Anne sat down next to the woman, determined this time to speak, but before she could say anything the woman said, “I saw you yesterday. You got a child sick in here?”
“Yes,” Anne said, surprising herself with the lie. “My daughter. Jessica.” Then she flinched, superstitiously afraid she might bring illness to Jessie.
The woman nodded. “She must be real sick, they don’t let you go in to see her.”
Anne thought for a moment. “Pneumonia. They think it’s better if I don’t expose her to any germs I might be carrying until she’s out of danger.”
“I got a daughter Clea.” The woman pointed down the hall. “In there, room 507.”
“I heard,” Anne said quickly. “I mean the nurse told me.”
The woman perked up. “Really? They tell you anything? They won’t tell me nothing.”
Anne shook her head, “No, I just know she was beaten. Nothing more than that.”
The woman gave another quick search of Anne’s face, as if Anne might be concealing some information for her own hidden reasons, then settled back into her seat. The searchlight of the woman’s gaze made Anne uncomfortable. Why had she lied?
“How’s she doing?” Anne asked.
“This doctor says medicine isn’t an exact science. They don’t know when Clea’ll come to, but they say she will.”
“Come to?” Anne asked, feeling the way she used to feel as a girl, when she could not help peeling back the scab that had grown over a wound, despite the knowledge that fresh blood would have to be staunched. “You mean it’s as if she’s passed out?”
“No,” the woman answered patiently, as if to a slow child. “She’s in a coma.”
A nurse glided to the woman and spoke to her in low tones Anne could not hear.
Anne felt stupid: she had underestimated this woman’s intelligence, she had intruded where she had no right to be—
She heard the soft slap of rubber soles and the shuffle of slippers. The nurse was gone. The woman had disappeared into her daughter’s room, leaving the door ajar.
Anne couldn’t help it. She followed the woman and peered into the room from the hallway. First she noticed the sounds: the steady whirs and beeps and low-pitched hums of machinery. A new nurse put the finishing touches to the drip bag she was suspending from a narrow rack, then smiled at the mother and turned to go. When she saw Anne, her expression sharpened. “May I help you?” She blocked the doorway.
The girl’s mother looked up. “She can come in, if she wants to.”
The nurse grudgingly shifted. When she moved out of the way, Anne saw a small dark-skinned girl in the middle of a big white bed, one tube going to her mouth and another, via a needle, into her arm. Bruises darker than her skin marked her face. Extending slightly beyond her mouth was a small rip, beginning to heal over.
“I’m Joan.” The woman sat heavily at the foot of the bed. “This here’s Clea.” The bed sagged and the unconscious girl shifted to her left side.
Anne had to restrain herself from asking: Should you do that? Instead, she whispered, “She’s a pretty girl,” leaning forward so Joan could hear her.
Joan answered, “You don’t have to whisper. In fact, they told me it’s better if you talk normally, that Clea can hear everything in some part of her brain, and normal talk might help snap her out of it.” She looked over the face of her daughter with some pride. “She’s my baby.”
Anne hesitated, then asked. “Do they know what happened?”
The room became thick with the sounds of machines and traffic outside.
Anne looked around at the tables crowded with carnations, baby’s breath, and homemade get-well cards.
The woman followed her glance. “Those are from Clea’s class,” she said, pointing to a vase full of pink carnations. “She’s a popular girl in school.”
Anne looked back at the closed eyes of the girl and tried to imagine what she was like awake and alive. Did popular mean she was nice to everyone, or the sort of girl others envied? Was she a bossy child? She wondered this about Jessie too. What did other children think of her stepdaughter?
Clea wakes up. During the time she has been unconscious, her bruises and broken bones have healed. She goes home with her parents, laughing at the wheelchair in which she must ride to exit the hospital. She remembers nothing from Halloween. They move to another town, a nicer house. Clea’s new friends know nothing of her beating. No one speaks of white masks to her. She is again a happy child, the most popular in her class.
No. There was no beating. Anne meets Joan through PTA. They’ve just moved into Jessie’s school district. The two girls become great friends and spend all their free time together. Anne and Charles often have Joan and her husband for dinner. Years later, the girls graduate high school, Clea the class president and Jessie the valedictorian.
No. Jessie was the one beaten. Anne leaves to go to the grocery store one evening. Where is Charles? Oh, he went over to the neighbor’s to borrow their lawnmower and got caught up in a conversation on the ACC basketball championship. When Anne returns, she finds the door wide open, Jessie unconscious at the foot of the stairs, her nightgown twisted and torn, blood already beginning to harden at the edge of her mouth. Anne cannot stop whimpering, her body will not bend into the shape she needs to pick up her stepdaughter from the floor—
“Anne, Anne,” Charles shook her so hard she felt her teeth rattle. “Anne, you’re asleep. Wake up,” he demanded.
“I’m not,” she said, not because she thought the dreams were real, but because she remembered daydreaming, trying out scenarios as she lay in bed unable to sleep.
“You were,” he said more gently, and wiped the tears from her face with the back of his thumb. He held his wet thumb up to her for evidence. “Look. You were crying.”
She nodded and buried her face in his warm chest. A flood of grief. It was too much, too difficult to be a mother, too many things to look out for. She tried to explain, but choked on the mucous that clogged her throat.
Charles stroked her hair and made inconsequential sounds of encouragement. “Shh, sweetheart. Shh, baby.”
The next afternoon, Anne went to the pool without Jessie. She told Charles she was going to register Jessie for her next swim class. “Can’t one of us do it when we take her to her lesson?” he asked.
“I might as well do it now,” she said, and resisted the temptation to explain. She didn’t even know why she was going. She ran upstairs and rummaged in her bureau for the swimsuit and goggles she had bought two summers ago. She found them in the back of her sock drawer and stuffed them into her handbag, underneath her checkbook. As she came back downstairs, she met Charles at the bottom of the steps.
“Decide not to go?” he asked.
“I forgot my checkbook,” she said.
“Okay,” he shrugged. He moved past her up the stairs, then turned abruptly and kissed her. “Don’t stay away too long,” he said. “I’ve hardly seen you lately.”
She felt a sudden weakness in her thighs. He was right, she could register Jessie any time. She didn’t know why she had put her suit in her bag; she never swam. But as Charles continued up the stairs, she continued down. The sharp air when she opened the front door decided her. She would walk to the pool.
As she walked the familiar roads, she thought of Joan sleeping pillowed on a coat, Joan plopped down heavily on her daughter’s bed, and Clea with her sticklike limbs.
In the changing room, she slipped off her clothes and donned her suit quickly, stuffing clothes, shoes, and bag into an empty locker.
The water she slipped into was surprisingly blood-warm. She took a few tentative breaststrokes, keeping her head awkwardly above water, then ducked under. She felt suddenly heavy, as if she might cry. She swam underwater half the length of the pool.
On the next lap she switched to the crawl. She pulled her hands straight through the water, fighting their tendency to flow in wavy lines. It felt nice not to think, as if all the problems of the world were held safely behind the glass bricks, which let in only the last of the afternoon light.
She lost count at sixteen laps, but kept swimming, turning at the deep end and pushing off. Back to shallow, back to deep. After a while the glass bricks went dark. The clock high on the wall said she’d been swimming for forty minutes. She took a deep breath and sprinted, plowing through the water, aiming not at the far wall but through it. She hadn’t known she could swim so fast.
In the dressing room, she was surprised when her pee felt hot, almost boiling, summoning up a childhood memory: peeing after a swim in the rain. She showered, using bits of soap someone had left in the soapdish. The hot water felt soothing. She peeled off her swimsuit, then rubbed the soap bits through her hair. Her body felt suddenly hers, her life her own. She hurried through dressing, and dried her hair quickly under the hand dryer, knowing that she needed to get home and explain, though she didn’t have a real explanation. Where were you? Charles might ask. Swimming. That part was easy. But why? Why didn’t you just say what you were going to do?
As she pushed open the door into the dusk, Anne remembered what she had heard her students say to each other in the halls, when they thought she wasn’t listening: I ditched. That’s what I did. I ditched my life, for just a little while.
On the bench outside the dressing rooms were Charles and Jessie.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, startled.
Charles stood and took her hand. “We came over to escort you home,” he smiled.
Jessie leaned into Anne, rubbing her soft hair against Anne’s arm. “We missed you.”
They walked out of the YWCA into the mild winter night. “Swing me,” Jessie demanded as they reached the curb, holding out an arm to each of them. Anne reached down for Jessie’s hand.
Charles pointed across the parking lot. “Are those students of yours?”
Anne looked up. A bulky high-schooler crouched in the back of a white Toyota pick-up truck, flailing an arm through the small window in the back of the cab. A slender girl with curly blonde hair stood beside the truck, embarrassed.
“I think I might have had the boy,” she said. “But I’ve never seen the girl.”
As they came within hailing distance, the boy pulled his arm out of the cab and sat back on his heels, frustrated.
“Want to borrow a kid?” Anne asked, surprising herself.
The boy looked up. She saw now that she had never taught him, though she might have taught one of his older brothers or cousins, someone with a family resemblance of left-hooked noses and streaked blond hair.
“Locked my keys in the truck,” he said.
“I thought that might be the problem,” Anne said. “Where are they?”
The boy did an athletic one-armed swing over the side of the truck. “On the floor. I must have dropped them.”
Charles picked Jessie up under the arms and hoisted her into the truck bed. “Here, Jess, you want to scramble through the window and get this boy’s keys for him?”
Standing in the bed of the truck, Jessie was a little taller than Charles. She gave him a stern look. “He’s not a boy. He’s a man.” Jessie watched Charles a moment longer to make sure her point was clear, then slithered through the window headfirst.
Anne tried to put the girl at ease. “She’s in one of her correcting phases, or we’re in a phase where we’re always wrong, depending on whose point of view you take. We’re hoping not to have to deal with another until she’s at least sixteen.”
The girl smiled politely, but didn’t seem to think it was very funny.
“They’re right down there below you,” the boy said to Jessie, pointing through the driver’s seat window.
The girl, apparently deciding to act as if she belonged to the situation, pointed too. Jessie found the keys and uprighted herself. She held them over her head like a trophy.
“Just unlock the door,” the girl said.
“Or toss them out the window you came in by,” said the boy.
Jessie threw the keys with a deft overhand that surprised Anne, and the boy snagged them. “Thanks,” he said to Charles, turning to include Anne in his relieved smile. Jessie slid back through the window and held out her arms, not to Charles but to Anne. Anne grabbed her and swung her high over the side of the truck, both of them laughing. Their laughter infected the others, until they were all almost hysterical, the kind of relief that you feel when a major disaster—a tornado or a highway accident—has been averted. For a moment Anne felt that these were her best friends in the world.
“Well, bye!” she said, as they began to drift toward their car, and the boy unlocked the truck for himself and the girl.
“Bye!” “Good-bye!” “Don’t lose those keys!”
On the drive home, they all piled into the front seat of the van. Jessie wiggled around in her seatbelt until her head lay in Anne’s lap and Charles leaned over her against Anne’s shoulder. Anne drove with pleasure, delighting in the response of the steering wheel as she followed the boy and girl out of the parking lot. The girl turned and waved when they got to the stoplight. Anne waved back, then followed them down the dark road. She opened her window, and felt the unseasonable warmth of the night breeze ruffle the hairs on her arm. The girl turned and waved once more and the truck sped up.
“Look!” Anne called to Charles and Jessie.
Ahead, under a streetlight, dried leaves flew from the bed of the pick-up truck— like children who have awaited their turn by the pool’s edge and now dive in and swim across, one by one—above the car where her husband and daughter leaned on her and slept, trusting her to take them safely home.