In her dreams Becky Mandlebraun saw swimming pools. Most recently, there was the skinny four-lane pool her childhood swim team had practiced in, and after that, like the next bead on a chain, came a dream of the roomier eight-lane pool they eventually moved into. Before that she dreamed of the Miltons’ backyard pool, that perfectly round, above-ground atrocity where Stevie Milton had grabbed Becky, then fourteen, by the armpits and whisked her back and forth, as if she were seaweed or cloth, with every swish coming closer to touching her breasts. Not that she minded. Not that she didn’t laugh and encourage him. Another dream revealed the tiny inflatable baby pool her mother had set in the backyard when she was just a toddler. And then, as if by association, she saw the tiny inflatable baby pool she herself had set for Alison and Jessica, her daughters, now in their twenties, grown. Olympic pools came to her next, fifty meters of pure blue, pools she’d seen every four years on television, pools in Australia, pools in Mexico, pools that, when the surface was still, looked surreal in their huge, blue televised perfection. Once, she’d envisioned the worn, tile-ripped, six-lane pool of her college before its athletic facility was renovated, as well as the state-of-the-art, twelve-lane spectacle once the job was done. There was the pool of her grandmother’s country club—Jews allowed—and the curvy, built-in pool of her sister’s best friend’s swanky backyard. Her childhood swimming teacher, Mrs. Windom, had the same kidney-shaped pool, lounge chairs on the deck, potted geraniums scattered about, tables with umbrellas for the mothers to sit under while Mrs. Windom commanded the children: kick, breathe, pull, breathe, dive.
There were the pools of her dreams—a strange, disembodied distance of pools—and there was the very real pool of her bathtub to which, every night during these years of her illness, fully awake but craving sleep, Becky gladly retreated. Nothing like a warm bath, she often thought.
Two years home from college, and her older daughter Alison refused to move out. Not that Becky minded. She just worried that she was holding Alison back.
“But you need me,” Alison argued.
“I have your father,” Becky countered.
“He works. He’s busy. Besides, he doesn’t really understand.”
Becky sighed. Alison had a point. When it came to her illness, John sometimes understood, sometimes didn’t. But that was the best it got with most people, she knew. It wasn’t so bad. “You need a life of your own.”
“I work. I meet people. I have a life.”
“For now, anyway. Until you’re better.”
“Honey, don’t kid yourself. It’s already been two and half years, and we’re talking quite possibly years more. We’re talking, possibly, about—”
“You were always so active,” Alison cut in. “You’ll be that way again. Don’t you want to be that way again?” Alison, such a pretty girl—high, defined cheekbones, strong and elegant widow’s peak—frowned deeply and often. She was frowning right then.
“I want that. Yes, of course.” Becky watched as Alison’s frown became the smallest of smiles. She reached forward and cupped her daughter’s face. “You don’t owe me anything, you know. You’re a young woman. Don’t you want a life of your own?”
“This isn’t about me. You’re the one who needs help. And I’m here. That’s all I’m saying. I can help.”
If only her daughter could.
Still, the loyalty was magnanimous, boundless, and Becky often wondered where such generosity came from. And why had the pain begun so suddenly, the way it had? First her throat, then her legs, then her arms. Her body was humming and throbbing. Soon she was cycling in and out of spells, an hour or so long, of intense, sickening, and terrifying weakness. At their worst, she could barely lift a pinky. Finally the spells subsided, but when her strength didn’t return, she withdrew from her weekly tennis game. Then she withdrew her membership at the Middlesex County Y, and that meant the end of swimming, a lifelong pursuit, a way of moving as natural as walking. After a time, after so many missed classes, she dropped her yoga lessons.
Alison was right; she’d been active, though she hadn’t noticed until the activity so abruptly ceased.
Medically the test results were negative—false negative, she’d discover years later of the test, notoriously unreliable as it turned out, for Lyme disease—and that was a different kind of pain, the pain of being doubted. “Humming,” she’d describe to a confused doctor, incredulous herself that her arms could feel almost electrically charged, an intolerable sensation, though when she considered it, she decided it wasn’t truly pain. Just painfully unbearable because bodies weren’t supposed to hum. Soon she withdrew from the doctors because they seemed angry with her for contracting something so difficult to diagnose. So many symptoms, but without positive test results, what did they add up to? An endless sore throat, rashes that came and went on her neck only, aches all over, ice-cold feet, and an inability to sleep despite baffling, relentless fatigue. Chronic fatigue syndrome, some guessed. But what did that mean? Soon enough she withdrew from her editing position at the college to take only contract work at home.
Their home in Middle Haddam, Connecticut anchored a quiet dead-end, shrouded by oaks and willows, and for that she was grateful. The seclusion matched her mood. She knew there was a greater world out there, suffering. The recent news of Hurricane Katrina, hitting the South, was awful. And the world was finally protesting the Iraq War. But by necessity she distanced herself from all that, craved the isolation her home brought her. If she needed something to look at, there was always the Connecticut River, visible through the trees. But she rarely bothered to notice it. These days she rather liked the watery images in her head. Flat blue surfaces. Pools waiting to be used. Water, smooth as glass, waiting to be broken by a body. The river always bubbled, burbled, jumped. The river was a kind of extrovert, constantly babbling about this and that to anyone who would listen. But a pool was different. A pool was patient, silent, still. Like a friend, it would be there when she was ready to take the plunge.
Swimmers were dreamers, she knew. A pool was a place to get some serious thinking done, which is what one did when one engaged in repetitive exercise like swimming. Once, she’d traveled to Key West, accompanying John on business, and while he was in meetings she had toured Hemingway’s estate. Long after, it was the pool she remembered. Straight edges, sharply rectangular, and surprisingly long. An athletic pool. A thinking man’s pool. A pool for the imagination. A rather masculine pool, though Hemingway had claimed he’d built it for his wife.
Yes, swimmers were dreamers, she knew, and now in her dreams she was swimming. Easily, she glided through the water, regaining in her mind’s eye all she’d lost over the last years in the plain light of day. A person could have a genius for swimming, she once read in a magazine, an article about an Olympic hopeful, and she nodded in instant recognition of the idea. Not that her own stroke had been at such a level; yet hadn’t it been a stroke that garnered admiration? Hadn’t Tommy Duffy, her high school friend and teammate, sitting in the bleachers, timing her splits, analyzing her strategy, once described her stroke as perfect? The race over, he’d thrown his hands up, as if surrendering. Dripping, she’d blinked then grabbed her towel.
“How’d I do?”
Yes, a person could have a genius for swimming, a gift for balancing the resistance of water with the body’s natural, muscular urge to battle such resistance, to get on with it, to accelerate. A person could find a rhythm, kicking three beats per stroke, holding the time as mindlessly and reliably as any seasoned percussionist. Yes, swimmers were singers, blues players, jazz artists—that was their genius. You found your breath the way a singer found hers in the midst of song . . . subtly, no disruption of rhythm, no crack of melody. If your arms sang the tune, your legs provided backup instrumentation. The music was in your body, your gut. They called it a sport, but what did they know? That blue stuff swimmers swirled in was the great bass—the instrument primal and deep and gigantic they so very much loved to play.
Her husband wanted a vacation, and who could blame him. John told her this one night, while she lay in the tub, her head resting on the pink inflatable pillow behind her, her body absorbing the plentiful magnesium of Epsom Salts—no humming now, no pain now—her mind getting drifty as her body soaked and relaxed.
A vacation, yes, of course. After all, they hadn’t gone anywhere in years. Before the illness they’d both been caught up in work. But once the illness began, a luxury such as a vacation seemed irrelevant, ridiculous. “When you get better,” she remembered him once saying, “we’ll go to London. Take in the shows. The way you’ve always dreamed.” She was in the bathtub then, too, and she’d nodded, smiling warmly because he’d remembered her dream.
She was aware that by now, over two years later, John might very well be having an affair. Recently she’d seen a program on daytime TV about people with chronic and/or degenerative illnesses. There was a husband on it, devoted to his wife with debilitating Parkinson’s, who mentioned that it wasn’t at all uncommon for the men in such situations to divorce, to leave the wife. This man, a kind of hero, couldn’t imagine it, but the statistics were plain. “It happens more often than not,” she recalled his saying.
John tried to be her caretaker, to fix her breakfast, to draw her baths, to patiently read the time away while she rested—she so often rested—but like all those men who chose to leave, his own needs were powerful forces, not to be denied indefinitely. It wasn’t the lack of sex that drove the men away, Becky realized, it was the lack of everyday, common-enough nurturing, having the dry cleaning dropped off, the cozy Sunday suppers cooking while the football games played on. These men who ran from the ill wife would be the same men who, in another scenario, would marry surprisingly soon after their beloved spouse’s death. These men were so many men, she figured. Because they never bargained for life on their own. The illness, then, was a kind of death. Her death. And so her husband John, like her eldest Alison, needed to move on.
She urged him to vacation on his own. He shook his head. His glasses inched down his nose. She would have reached to adjust them if she could. How she enjoyed fussing over him, straightening his tie, running her hand through his wavy hair. In the tub, she adjusted the pink inflatable pillow behind her head.
“Take Alison, then,” she offered.
“She won’t come with me,” he said, chuckling a little. “A girl her age wants her freedom. A vacation with her old man . . . that’s not it.” He laughed quietly again. The bathroom air was hot, and he wrangled himself free of his sweatshirt.
“Why don’t you ask? You never know. It could be refreshing. Go back to Key West. She’ll like that. I can tell her where to go, what sights to see. I staked it out back then. You barely saw it either, as I recall. You were locked up in meetings. So it’ll be new to you both.”
By day John had been locked up in meetings, but in the evening he was free as any tourist to wander about, drink piña coladas, watch those magnificent, blazing tropical sunsets. Under the dramatic pink evening skies they had strolled about, holding hands, for hours. Later, giggling about how her mother was handling the kids back home, as if the business trip were some practical joke they’d managed to play and get away with, they had rushed to bed early, eager to make love. One night, after sex, still wide awake, she’d described Hemingway’s estate, the separate quarters where he wrote, the plain yet stunningly rectangular swimming pool.
“It was all I could do not to dive in. Truly! Such a hot day. Such a gorgeous pool.”
John had said, “You should have gone for it. I would have bailed you out of jail if that’s what they’d done with you.”
“That’s very kind,” she’d answered, laughing, pulling him once more toward her.
Now she said, “Go, go. And if Alison won’t go with you, go anyway. Key West is bound to be a good place to meet people. You won’t be alone for long.”
And so John left, with his brother Bart as it turned out, and Alison stayed. She was adamant. The girl wouldn’t budge.
“All right then. We’ll do something together. The two of us. We’ll make it a kind of at-home retreat. What do you want to do?” Becky asked.
They were sitting at the kitchen table. It was eleven in the morning, and Becky had just managed a few bites of breakfast. She wore flannel pajama bottoms and a loose cardigan sweater over an old tee shirt. She looked frumpy, she knew, her glasses hanging by a chain around her neck, her hair uncombed and yanked, expediently, into a behind-the-head knot. She wanted to apologize to Alison for her appearance, yet it wasn’t exactly her fault. The illness, she almost began to explain.
“We could do an enormous amount of baking. Loads of cookies. Like we used to. We can mail them off, or freeze them. Dad loves oatmeal.”
“I tire on my feet. And I ought not to eat sweets. Bad for the immune system.”
“I forgot about that. Sorry! We could—”
“You could get out and be with your friends.” She imagined herself alone, all day in the bathtub, soaking or swimming or singing—call it what you like. The prospect was appealing.
“Or I could take you for a drive,” Alison urged. “Such a beautiful fall day. Come on. You need to see the change of season.”
Becky looked out the window. The dry world astonished: blue sky, trees gone mad dressing themselves up in gold, crimson, and orange. She sighed at the loveliness. She pulled the plug on the pool so rapidly filling in her mind.
“Okay?” Alison clapped her hands, then grabbed her coffee, tossing the last sips down. “We’ll bring some fruit and nuts in case you get hungry. And I’ll get the Bonnie Rait tape you like. And we’ll bring a pillow and blanket in case you get sleepy. Anything else you can think of?”
Suddenly Becky found herself again craving the tub’s liquid warmth. “The pillow and blanket’s a good idea,” she said. “You never know. That’s the problem with this condition. One moment I’m fine. The next minute, well . . . you never know.”
There was a small art museum in Old Lyme that Becky knew of but had never seen. They could drive there express, on Route 9, or take the quieter roads, following the river. The latter was Alison’s choice.
Bonnie Rait sang about love gone wrong, and somehow the music blended with what Becky perceived as the travails of the river, winding down-current, beside them. How unusual to think of the Connecticut River like this, a sad and hurting body. But the music, she knew, had cast a spell. Listening to the songs—love gone wrong, love in the nick of time—Becky’s mind turned to John and his brother in Key West. Had she been wrong to send John off? Most likely he’d have been as overjoyed as Alison to see her taking a road trip. She’d tell him tonight on the phone, and he’d tell her how sorry he was to have missed it. Or maybe not. Perhaps he was having an even better time than she imagined. John’s brother was divorced, and perhaps they were getting on like two bachelors, drinking the afternoon away at some outside bar, listening to live music, spotting two divorcées who happened to think the Keys were just the place to visit, too.
She dropped her head to her chest, and Alison asked, “Tired?”
“You like to think looking down. I’ve noticed that. But look around you. Mom, look ahead. Isn’t this glorious?”
They were on a different country highway now, two lanes, no one else on the road. The river had disappeared, and forests of colored trees lined both sides. On the left, the sun hit the trees, creating magnificent illuminations, mixtures of green, brown, and gold with something close to red. This was no time, she knew, to think of the aqua of chlorinated pool water. Yet the more she stared, the more blue she began to see. The blue of the swimming pool she and John had skinny-dipped in that second night in Key West. They couldn’t exactly see it, of course, for it was night by then, the pool more black than aqua. But the next morning when she peeked out her hotel window, there it was, still and light and sparkling. The sun was hitting the pool the way it was hitting the leaves right now, as if these very leaves, that very pool, harbored special meaning. Back then she got the meaning. Their pool, their secret: John and her, holding tight to each other in the slippery deep end. But this—this green and orange flittering of leaves—this was a foreign world she now inhabited, as bewildering as her endless illness. Just like her abundant and meaningless symptoms, these leaves were a sign she couldn’t read.
As Alison had predicted, Becky did fall asleep on the way back. They had gone to the museum, Alison needlessly holding her arm as they shuffled through several rooms of Connecticut impressionists. Who knew there even were Connecticut impressionists? she’d thought. But then she thought of those leaves, that sun. The river came to mind, too, and, surprising herself, she warmed to the image of its familiar sparkling flow. How could there not be Connecticut impressionists, she realized, and she began nodding, taking in the attempt to grasp it, the meaning of this confluence: light and landscape, water and air.
On the ride home, as she fell asleep, it was not to the thought of swimming pools but to the thought of a brisket dinner and an apple crisp, a favorite fall meal she suddenly craved.
Before nodding off, she mentioned it to Alison.
And Alison burst into tears, as she was starved, starved, for that very meal, too.
They were going to try a new therapy. Alison had surfed the Internet all afternoon and practically all night. There were doctors who had luck reversing the fatigue syndrome, Alison explained. Becky was probably carrying a huge viral load, Alison added, quite authoritatively, as these were opportunistic infections that sprang up when the immune system went down.
“See? There are explanations. We can lick this.” Sitting across from her at the kitchen table, Alison handed her a stack of printouts from the computer, which Becky leafed through, unsure where to begin reading. How in just a night could Alison have figured all this out?
“Internet, Mom. We should have gone there sooner.”
“We did,” she answered, to which Alison only shrugged.
Alison had the phone now in her grip and began to dial for an appointment with one of the doctors named in her stack of documents. In her excitement she stood tiptoe.
“They can see you next week,” she squealed happily. “Cancellation,” she mouthed. She gave a quick jump. “Oh, thank you so much!” she shouted, and with her free hand she began waving merrily to Becky. But she wasn’t as gullible as Alison. She smiled back so as not to burst Alison’s hopeful bubble, but Becky didn’t believe anything like this could be as simple as a few hits on the Internet and a lucky appointment. Not after two and a half years of what she’d been through. Still, because her daughter with the high cheekbones and lovely widow’s peak smiled so rarely and was smiling so widely now, she waved back at her waving, even giddy, girl.
The giddy girl made a rare plan for the afternoon—movie and dinner with a friend—and took off.
Before she did, she’d reached her hand into the tub, swishing bubbles back and forth.
“It’s ready,” she’d said to Becky, who stood beside her, slowly disrobing.
Becky stepped into the tub, lowering herself carefully. She had a cup of water to sip as she soaked, and had brought the radio in so she could listen to the afternoon’s classical program, Entertainment Today. A recent performance by the Philadelphia orchestra was soon to air.
“Okay,” she said to Alison. “Off you go. Go!”
Leaning over the tub, Alison kissed her cheek. In an instant the girl was gone, racing down the stairs and then slamming the front door. Soon the car engine grumbled. Becky was alone.
Entertainment Today, she thought to herself, and by that she meant this warm bubbly bath and the dreams the soaking would spur. Soon enough she was once again in the pool of her childhood swim team, the second one, the bigger one. She was swimming freestyle behind Tommy Duffy, which meant she got the benefit of his draft and didn’t have to pull quite so hard. Buoyed so by her friend, her breaths came easily, and her arms, once the initial pain of excess lactic acid eased, once she’d warmed up, swung easily around and around. Through her goggles she saw bubbles and the toes of Tommy’s feet, and when she looked down she saw the black line marking their lane. Nearing the end of a lap, the line became a T, and with the visual cue she knew to pull once hard, tuck her head, and flip into a turn. They swam on and on, one lap, ten laps, forty laps, seventy laps. At seventy-two laps they’d completed a mile, and Tommy stopped, waiting for Becky to reach the wall.
“Another?” he asked. She knew he meant another mile.
Both Becky and their coach nodded. Tommy nodded back. Then their coach pointed at Becky. She would take the lead this time, Tommy would catch her draft.
“But coach,” Tommy instantly complained. He wanted not only the harder practice but also, she knew, to protect her from an unnecessary long-distance workout. After all, she was more a sprinter than a distance swimmer.
“No problem,” she said, adjusting her goggles before dipping below the surface. In an instant she pushed from the wall, exhaling all the while, causing bubbles to stream forth, slipping past her sleek body and drifting toward Tommy’s. The bubbles! They were one of the many wonders of swimming, as if by her very breath she’d given birth to a whole school of tiny, transparent fish.
Go, Becky had urged so often, but now that Alison had actually gone, Becky had to admit she missed her concerned, friendly presence. Still, she was glad for Alison and only hoped she’d stay away as long as she wanted. After a long soak like that, Becky felt calmed, refreshed. She’d be well enough throughout the day.
Except she wasn’t. By the time she dressed, walking only from closet to dresser to closet, she felt exhausted, needed to lie down. She fluffed her pillows, surrendering, as she often did, to the illness’s indomitable powers. She lay on her bed, stared at the ceiling. After a time she rose to retrieve the radio in the bathroom. Entertainment Today had finished, and an interview with a film producer now aired on an afternoon talk show. But she couldn’t focus on the conversation, so she switched it off.
This is how time passed: quietly, slowly, in silence as dense as fog.
Her other daughter, Jessica, was away at college, and later, up from her rest, Becky impulsively composed Jessica a note.
Jessy, Dad has taken a much needed vacation to Key West with Uncle Bart. Surely they’re downing piña coladas for us all. Alison is an angel. She thinks she’s found a cure for my tiresome ailments, via the Internet. You can find just about anything there, right? Even love, they say. So why not a cure? I’ll be a good patient and do what Dr. Alison, or any other doctor, says. Meanwhile, all is well enough, my sweet girl. Your mother thinks of you often. Am thinking of you right now. Take your studies seriously, go to bed early (ha!) (correction: ha, ha!), and come home for Thanksgiving, yes?
Okay, she conceded, one daughter leaves, is urged to leave, even for a few hours, and the other daughter gets instantly written to, urged home. So I’m human, Becky thought, more amused than bothered by her contradiction.
The note sealed, she decided to walk, however arduously, to the post office. A tiny cottage, the post office was about a half-mile away, a still doable distance, up their lane, onto another river road, then onto Route 16.
Stepping out from the woods surrounding her home to the open road ahead, Becky delighted at the expanse of sky, clear and blue, above her. Beyond the grassy banks the river eased along, the crests of its small waves glinting. She smiled and thought to wave at the thing; it seemed so friendly suddenly, so alive.
Soon she approached their neighbors’ house, the Tarlans, where she hoped to avoid running into Suzanne, who in the five years since her husband’s heart attack was almost always outside, mowing or gardening. She was a fanatic, and the sight of her neighbor’s physicality, her able body, her arms taut and muscular, made Becky seethe.
A woman with an ill husband gets busy, Becky noted, still approaching the elaborately landscaped Tarlan property. But a husband with an ill wife gets out. Was that the general pattern? Could she trust the report from the TV show? If she searched the matter on the Internet, if she plugged in the right words, could she find the truth of it? But what did it matter, the general pattern? She’d urged John away. She’d felt a certain guilt at her incapacities, his loss as well as hers. “Go on,” she’d said.
“You sure?” John had asked, shaking his head. He was about to drive to the airport. He was giving her one last opportunity to call the vacation—the separation, however temporary—off.
“Of course. Go, go.”
As it turned out Suzanne Tarlan wasn’t outside working her land, but Becky ran into her anyway at the post office.
“Haven’t seen you in so long,” Suzanne exclaimed, grasping Becky’s hand. “You’re okay, yes?”
Becky pulled her hand away and took a step back. “Okay. Yes. Thanks.”
“Okay, too. Out with friends this afternoon.” Becky paused, considered for a moment whether she wanted to get further involved in conversation with Suzanne, and then added, hesitantly, “She’s taken the week off from work while John’s away.” Her neighbor looked surprised to hear of John’s journey. “A little vacation,” Becky explained, the initial awkwardness of the meeting quickly giving way to something else, something like much-needed adult company. “Much needed,” Becky then said, though she was speaking of John’s vacation and not herself. Suzanne nodded.
Becky purchased her stamp and slipped her note in the “out of town” slot where, she knew, the bulk of everyone’s mail went. “In town” and you might as well hand-deliver—Middle Haddam was that small.
Suzanne was waiting for Becky, which made her feel awkward again, but what could she do? The two walked back together, slowly. Becky thought of telling Suzanne to go on, take off, not be held up by her, but instead she reached out, briefly held her neighbor’s arm, glad suddenly for its strength. When Suzanne noted how perfect the late September day was, remarking at the translucency of the sky and the refreshing temperature, Becky readily agreed. “It’s good to be out.” Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. Much needed, she thought to say again.
But Suzanne was talking. “We should have you over soon.” She followed this with an apology for the invitation not coming earlier.
“Don’t apologize. I’m not doing much these days,” Becky remarked. She looked away from Suzanne. As a car passed them, she pretended to examine it. “It’s been a hunkering-down kind of time,” she added, as she waved foolishly to the unknown driver in the car, which was already beyond them.
“Any luck with the doctors?” Suzanne said. They’d turned onto the first of the river roads and headed downhill. Becky’s legs were getting jiggly with exhaustion, and she reached out again, momentarily, for Suzanne’s arm. “I hope you don’t mind my asking,” Suzanne continued as if not even noticing Becky’s touch. “Alison doesn’t say much, but she gives us little reports.”
“Mostly she says you’re fine. Tired but fine. If there’s anything I can do.”
The two had stopped in the middle of the empty road. A breeze passed, and above gulls flew about, gracefully swooping. River gulls, Becky liked to call the familiar birds.
“People are getting sick, you know.” Suzanne’s voice was now a near-whisper.
Becky turned her gaze from the sky to Suzanne. “People? What people?”
“Connecticut people. And other people, too. Massachusetts people and New Jersey people and upstate New York people and Long Island people. Lyme disease, they say, because of Lyme, right here, downriver, where it was discovered.”
Her hand still on Suzanne’s steady arm, Becky recalled her recent trip to Old Lyme, to the Connecticut impressionists. The impression she’d had that day was a good one—not of people like her, lying in beds, all over the state.
“I’ve been tested.” Letting go of Suzanne, Becky began walking again, this time at an even slower pace. “Negative.”
Suzanne sighed, which spurred Becky to sigh again, tiredly.
“Thanks, though. Thanks for your thoughts.”
They continued on in silence, though a friendliness swelled between them, the result, Becky knew, of simply laying her hand on Suzanne’s arm. This was help. Simple enough. Once they’d reached Suzanne’s home, they stopped again and stood gazing at the river, sparkling in the day’s bright light.
Suzanne said, “On a day like today it looks so inviting, I wish we could swim in it, but the currents, you know, and the pollution. Those deadly, invisible forces.”
Becky nodded. “I never thought about swimming in the river,” she said. “But you’re right, it does look inviting.” Before heading off she added, “Invisible forces be damned.”
Once home, she crept through the path by her house that led to the river. There was a clearing there where they could launch a boat if they liked, but they’d never gone for boating. Now she stood in that clearing, under the vast blue of the fall sky, and the water, its sparkles and froth, rushed past. She kicked off both sneakers, then tugged at her socks. When she dipped her toes in, first one foot, then the other, the water was cold yet, surprisingly, warmer than the air. High sixties, she figured, risking her entire right foot. Soon she sat on the grassy bank, her pant legs rolled up, both feet and lower legs dangling freely over the lip, sliding with the force of the current downriver.
The privacy here was remarkable, she realized.
Summer having come and gone, no boats sped past, and even the sky was clear of traffic: no planes, hardly a bird.
Okay, she thought. Why not?
She kicked her feet then, fluttering them methodically in the water as she would if they were propelling her from behind.
Still seated on the bank, she bent at the waist and began to swing her arced arms in the air, first one then the other.
At every fourth swing she turned her head to the right to catch a deep breath, as if she really were launched in water, as if there were no other way to breathe, as if she were her old self, swimming.
Alison had left a phone message. She was staying out a while more but would be home by nine.
Becky opened the fridge, pulled out some leftover spaghetti and salad. She ate to the sounds of the TV, first the news, then a series of reruns, comedies all of them. Tired, she never budged, even to bring her dinner plate to the kitchen sink. At nine, as if she were on curfew, Alison burst through the door and rushed into the living room, a blaze of energy. She flopped on the couch beside Becky, snuggling up to her as if she were home from her first day of elementary school rather than an evening out with a friend.
“Fun?” Becky asked, reviving at the sight of Alison.
Alison laughed in response.
“You see? You really needed to get out.” She stroked her daughter’s dark hair, smelled her coconut shampoo, kissed the crown of her head. She wondered if she’d ever been so glad to see her.
“I guess you were right,” Alison finally answered, sitting upright, easing herself from Becky’s embrace. Before Alison left the room, grabbing Becky’s dinner plate as she did, she said, “I guess I’ll have to do that again soon.”
John, too, was having a good time.
“Very good. Surprisingly good.”
“Better than planned,” he said.
“You had a plan?”
“You know. Nothing. That was the plan. To have a rotten time. Because Bart’s an asshole. How good a time could I have?”
“You could have planned to meet other people. And Bart’s not entirely an asshole, John. You know that.”
“Well, I have, I have. It was never a plan, but I have met others. I’ve met the nicest couple from Colorado, and we’re having dinner most nights. And you’re right, Bart’s not an asshole at all. The divorce seems to have bettered him. Funny, isn’t it?”
There was a long pause during which Becky so wanted to reach through the phone to receive a kiss John couldn’t possibly transmit long distance.
“What? What’s so funny. A little hard-earned wisdom is all that is,” she said.
“I suppose so. Well, now.” He cleared his throat. “Question. You mind a question?”
“When did I ever mind a question?”
“You might mind this one. But I have to ask.”
“You want to stay on? That’s okay. John, I can’t tell you how much I understand. Do it. Just do it.” Her head began to sag but her voice was steady. “Go on. Do what you have to do.”
“That’s not the question.”
She lay back on the couch, finally flicking the TV off. She turned the lamp beside her off as well. In the darkness she felt more secure. If she were to fall apart here in her living room, she’d do it unseen, even to herself.
“Permission to come home. That’s the question.”
“Permission to come home. That’s what I’m asking for.”
She laughed and bolted upright.
“Permission granted. Oh my God, thank you, thank you!”
“It’s the couple from Colorado you should thank,” he said. “They keep telling me to get back to you. That you don’t need to be such a hero. Talk about wisdom. We ought to go to Colorado sometime. We could use some of that.”
“There must be something in that mountain air. Something we don’t get here by the river.”
“That would be altitude,” he noted. “In spades.”
“That would be perfect,” she said. “What time?”
“By dinner. I’ll be home by dinner tomorrow. So it’s settled.” He paused, then added, “Becky, quit trying to lose us. Not going to work.”
“Is Bart staying or leaving?”
“Becky, did you hear me?”
“Yes. Yes.” She paused, flushed with happiness. “So, what is Bart going to do?”
“He’s found a lady friend. He’s thinking of moving down here. He told me to tell you you’re a genius. Keep planning, he said. Tell her to dream on.”
Before bed, soaking in her tub, exhausted and achy, Becky did dream on. The pools this time came to her en masse, in chronology. For a moment she was two years old again, stepping into that first, tiny inflatable pool, sitting squarely on her plump behind, splashing and kicking. Soon enough she was at Mrs. Windom’s kidney-shaped pool, the mothers seated across the deck, the panes of their sunglasses as they stared at the children, at her, as plentiful as the potted geraniums. Standing at the pool’s edge, she threw her arms over her head, bent her body, and Mrs. Windom held her hand across her knees as Becky attempted her first dive. She popped up quickly, jubilant at the accomplishment, bowing to the many claps of many mothers. Again, she begged Mrs. Windom—or was it her grandmother at her country club pool?—and, three dives later, she managed the maneuver on her own. Again, again, she implored as Stevie Milton whisked her up by her armpits, throwing her in the air, laughing with her as she splashed sloppily down. Around and around they went in that horrible, above-ground pool, Stevie finally sliding his hand over her breasts, she giggling yet alert as ever to this wonder, a boy’s touch, a first touch. Sink or swim, coach was calling, and, dreaming on, she was now in the cramped, four-lane pool of her childhood swim team, racing one lap of the butterfly—big two-footed kicks, both arms swinging, head rising for a huge gulp of air. When she reached the wall, the pool transformed into that larger pool the team eventually moved to, and now she was trailing her friend, Tommy Duffy, her eyes moving from the sight of his fluttering feet to the black line below. At the T, she pulled hard, tucked her head, flipped, pushed, blew in one powerful burst a million translucent bubbles that skimmed past—quick!—like a darting school of fish. Raising her head for air, she was now in the twelve-lane college pool, in the midst of an endless afternoon workout—200 laps, 250 laps—like nothing she’d ever done before. For a moment she clung to the wall, gasping, wondering if she could go on. But go on she did. Married now, but newly so, she was now blissfully entwined with her husband John, both of them naked in a hotel pool in Key West. Yet a moment later she was alone, staring at the striking beauty, the austere elegance, of the pool Hemingway had supposedly built for his wife. A gorgeous pool. A pool of temptation. Should she take the plunge? Could a swimmer like her resist?
In her dream she did dive in, shattering the smooth blue stillness, and she began stroking her way toward the pool’s end where she lifted herself out, walked a pace or two forward, only to dive again into one of a series of magnificent Olympic pools. Skimming along each of their surfaces, her stroke tireless, her pace steady, she swam the length of one pool, then, quickly, the next, one after the other, for in her dream they were now conveniently lined up, as if Mexico bordered Australia, as if the distance of four years’ time were but the length of one of these pools.
The next one wasn’t a pool at all, but in the matter-of-fact illogic of dreams, this didn’t matter. How sensible, even ordinary, to plunge at last into the Connecticut River, upon which she then swam, long distance, that early training suddenly paying off in water more a wilderness, a moving changing entity, than something stagnant and contained. Upriver was how she kicked, against the swift relentless current, her arms churning, the lactic acid building, until her body screamed with pain. Yet onward she went along the lengthy lap this river represented, knowing as only a dream-filled swimmer can know that if she just kept at it—constantly kicking, endlessly stroking—she’d get there, she’d do it, she’d swim her way home.