CLAIRE DIDN'T LIKE swimming pools. Maybe it was unfair to use the plural because even though she was 33, she’d never stepped into one until ten seconds ago. But then the chlorinated water closed like a corset over her ribs, and she was done. She stayed in the water anyway, shivering against the pool wall, and was developing nervous tics because of it. She nudged her ears under the rubber swim cap, which she’d bought at the front desk because she had noticed a little girl wearing one in the foyer. It had been a mistake. Further down the pool, a woman was swimming laps in the deep end. Her arms swept from behind her into the air like wings. Then her hands disappeared again, fingers first, without a splash. The woman pulled her body across the pool like it was nothing. Easy.
Claire had never learned to swim as a child, and she was here now only because she was supposed to be. Last June, her knuckles had swollen to bursting, like spring buds out of season, skin drawn tight over knots of bone. She was on the number five bus one afternoon, tires bouncing over potholes and the sunlight slanted golden through windows scratched with fucks and shits from pocket-knived teenagers, when she finally looked down at the pain and noticed the mounds of bone between deep ridges of shadow. After the knuckles, her hands followed in July, the fingers folding up and then twisting down into her palms. By August, her hands had collapsed into even tighter buds, holding onto nothing, the fingers gnarled and useless.
Three months of flipping through National Geographic in the gray chairs of a waiting room, and Claire lost faith in everything but black coffee and Maureen. The woman behind the front desk. Claire had developed a sixth sense about her. She could read the progression of her own disease in the purse of the woman’s lips and the resulting cracks in her crust of pink champagne lipstick, as the silver chain hooked onto her glasses swayed against her cheeks when she winced at the computer screen.
The doctor had said swimming lessons would be good for her, the way her grandmother used to say Brussels sprouts would be good for her. They both gave their recommendations in that same sharp tone that headed off questions, probably because they held reservations about their own advice. So here she was shivering in the shallow end on some half-baked experiment in pain management.
One of the swim instructors heaved a little boy out of the pool. He perched the child’s feet on his thigh, and the boy tensed like a diver on the edge of a cliff, his arms steepled overhead. Then he jumped, catapulted by the instructor’s arms. He flew high, his ankles tucked tight against his thighs. Then, at the apex of his flight, the boy opened his arms wide and seemed to hang suspended above them against the brassy lights. He landed with an explosion of white froth and the slap of wet swim trunks.
That’s when the instructor turned and met her gaze. She guessed he was the one who would give her lessons. Fuck. She wished she were a clam buried deep. A limpet. A thick, armored shell coiled tight over her soft inner self. Anything but having to explain why she was here to this man who looked too healthy and broad-shouldered to understand.
The boy dog-paddled to the side of the pool and climbed out. The instructor watched and shouted that he’d see him on Wednesday. Then he turned back to Claire.
He came toward her, striding through the thicker medium so that little whirlpools eddied around his hips. Hips wide and solid and tense with muscle, hands flat as paddles, dipping in and pulling him forward. He churned the water on his way toward her, and then he smiled.
Picture him a father, the uterus whispered to her in that voice it sometimes had. That idiotic voice that suggested idiotic things. Her own voice screaming at it to shut the fuck up already. Sure, he was handsome. He seemed good with kids. But what good did that do her? There was the arthritis. And even without that, there was her history. She didn’t date, didn’t go out, didn’t trust men generally. Looking at his six feet of muscle reminded her why. She dunked herself deeper in the water, till it hid her up to her shoulders. She wasn’t the sort of woman who found that thing appealing anyway. Manly men. No thanks.
But his smile wasn’t a halfway smile, just a pinch of the lips and then a slow fade—no, this was the smile that fills the face like water in a jug, brimful to the eyes, crinkled at the corners, and she wished she loved him. But that was just her uterus doing the thinking again. Thinking it had a biological clock and that reproduction was an option.
She wished she could slap it.
“I’m Brandon,” he said.
Water dripped down his nose and through the dark stubble on his chin.
“Claire,” she said, and he offered his hand. She hated this moment. Every time. She lifted her knob of bone laced with flesh and offered it. People stepped back an inch usually. Their jaw muscles clenched. They got it over quickly, like she’d just forced them to touch a slug.
His hand closed warm and sure around what was left of hers, and he said her name. “Claire. Nice to meet you.” He went on smiling, but now the crinkles deepened into rows, deep furrows in his brown skin, and she liked him again for an instant. He finally let go of her hand and dipped his palms back into the water, paddling about absentmindedly, as if he just needed to be moving, treading water—keeping himself afloat. She understood that. “So what made you decide to take up swimming, Claire?”
She hated the sound of the disease. She hated admitting it. Like naming it made it real. But she told him anyway. Maybe it was to hurt him. To show him he couldn’t pretend she was normal.
It worked. His eyelids drooped, and his smile flat-lined. Suddenly, he became earnest. He started talking, something about his sister.
“It’s been really hard for her, you know? Real hard to adjust. There are so many things she can’t do anymore, and it’s always getting worse. The MS just doesn’t go away. Is it like that with the arthritis?”
“With what I’ve got, yeah.” She dug her knuckles into the flesh webbed over her ribs, wishing she could hang onto something.
“It just takes so much out of her, you know? But she’s so brave. I got to give her props for that. My little sis can be tough as shit.” He glanced behind him. “Don’t tell my boss I swore.”
He winked at her.
Claire couldn’t tell if he was flirting or not, so she decided not. “How long has it been since she got her diagnosis?”
“Six months,” he said and sucked in his lower lip. He seemed unforgivably young.
He was doing what everyone else invariably did. Since the diagnosis and the occasional dose of truth-telling, she had become the world’s confessional, as if seeing her sorrow, people couldn’t resist the chance to tell her their own. She knew the whole “sorrow shared” deal, but she could never quite bring herself to believe in it. Though this time there was something different.
She didn’t believe in the something different, either, but she waited for him to finish, to get it all out, to tell her his sad story, and behind him the boy was waving at them from the row of walkers parked along the pool deck, evidently not ready for his lesson to end. He shouted at Brandon.
Brandon ignored him. The boy edged onto the lip of the pool and jumped into the water again, knees tucked, and his splash fell over them like rain. A drop landed on Brandon’s throat and slid down the Adam’s apple, and she wished it weren’t like this—she was so tired of hearing one story after another, as if the entire world was nothing but one vast ocean of collective pain. But he was still talking about his sister’s physical therapy and her cane, things Claire tried not to think about for herself just yet, and maybe he saw this on her face because then he smiled. “I must be boring you,” he said, which was true.
For a moment, Claire forgave him because he was aware enough to say that, and Brandon glanced over his shoulder to the child who was again pulling himself onto the gravelly pavement.
“Looks like your student needs you,” she said and pointed her chin across the pool.
He turned back to her and his eyes flinched, a sudden hardness between them, and she wondered if she had got the tone wrong, if her impatience had seeped through—well, bye now.
But then something went wrong on the pool deck. The child slipped just as he pulled himself out of the water. He lost his grip and his forehead struck the deck. A wail rose over the plash of water from the senior laps, and both of them sliced across the pool to where the boy stood. A surge of joy shot through her heart. She hadn’t known she could still move this fast. When they reached him, a trickle of blood beaded at his temple, and three red drops fell into the pool, rippling like clouds of red ink.
Brandon pinched the boy’s chin and tipped his head back to look into his eyes. “At least you didn’t give yourself a concussion.”
“How do you feel?” Claire asked, and she was surprised to find she actually cared, not because of the blood or the man beside her but really and only because she cared, inexplicably, about this child she didn’t even know.
The boy answered her question as if it was a matter of course for a stranger to ask how he was feeling, and he said it stings, and she said here, let me, and she climbed out and scooped her towel into her elbow and bent over the child and pinched the towel between both her curled hands. She daubed at his forehead, and the boy’s eyes drifted closed, safe and trusting, and she patted away the blood—pat-pat-pat—and he stopped crying, and when the blood was all gone, reduced to an unthreatening rust-colored splotch on her towel, she asked him how that was now, and he opened his eyes and looked up to her with gratitude and said all better, and they smiled—her and the boy. The boy tramped back to the locker rooms, drawing a dark trail of water behind him, and she dropped her towel on the bleachers. Then she descended slowly down the stairs into the pool, taking each step and curling her toes against it, savoring it. Entering the pool like a believer to her baptism, relieved, because she wasn’t dead yet and wouldn’t be for a long while, and pain is pain is pain, as Gertrude Stein would have said. We all feel it, it goes around like the common cold, but for five minutes, a little boy was free of it, and that was all that mattered. She let the water envelope her, carrying her thighs, her ribs, and even her gnarled hands, and then she glanced at the white towel on the bleachers, knowing that even if she could, she would never wash out the blood that had stained the weave and settled there, as much a part of the towel now as the frail loops of spun cotton.
M.C. Easton's poetry collection, Sagebrush and Cedar, was published by Watermark Press, and she blogs at mceaston.wordpress.com. She is currently finishing her third novel, The Gods of Kittitas County.