Featured in Colorado Review
Published Summer 2017
That summer we hardly ever left the pool. We dropped stones and shells into the water to make a real ocean floor. We pinned fern leaves to our hair. We dove and shot across the surface like mermaids on the run, squeezing our legs into long tails. Some days the pool was Atlantis, or the lake of Excalibur, or the River Styx, or the Sargasso Sea and its sunken ships. All the magical places we’d read about in sixth grade that year. Other days it was a sacred spring. We were two vestals, hooded priestesses collecting water for the temple under a clear blue sky. Sometimes we pretended you were the priestess and I the inductee. You poured water over my scalp as I tilted back my head and promised to be devoted forever and ever. We decorated the pool ladders in daisy chains, dandelions, and black-eyed Susans that got torn off by the high school girls, then wilted and dried out on the concrete. We belly flopped into the pool, splashing the high school girls on purpose. We dove to the bottom of the deep end, our ears exploding from the pressure. We played Olympics, spinning in somersaults off the diving board and judging our performance. We leapt off the white plastic chaise lounges, the picnic tables, the pool ladders, our legs splayed and long like frogs. We floated in the pool so still, our long hair fanned in feathers. We looked up at the sun with our eyes wide open. Back then we didn’t care how we looked in bathing suits. We were afraid of nothing.
It was the summer we worked for Stephanie at her camp. Stephanie Bullard was a star. She had made it to the finals of a huge tennis open in New York City when she was only nineteen. For a year after that she couldn’t even walk through our little upstate town without people stopping to congratulate her. We treasured the Sports Illustrated with her on the cover, her face all golden in sunlight, her arm, long and tight in muscles, reaching up to the S of Sports as the ball launched from her palm, a superhero ready to fly off the page, the issue date September 7, 1983, a launching pad. We knew the story inside by heart. How her mother died giving birth to her. How her father, Ron, raised Stephanie on his own, teaching her how to play tennis in the parking lot of his car dealership. That summer the magazine was five years old.
Our mothers were secretaries at Mr. Bullard’s car dealership. They loved to tell us the story of how they became friends all those years ago, and we loved to hear that story because it was the story of how we became friends, too. How my mother fixed your mother’s broken typewriter ribbon, and how once they started talking they couldn’t believe they both had girls the same age. But in the telling they left out the part about how our fathers both left—yours when you were a baby, mine when I was three—and the part about how both our fathers never came back, because no one liked that part of the story, not even us.
Mr. Bullard was the one who suggested we help out at the camp, and our mothers thought they had won the lottery.
“You girls are so lucky you get to be Stephanie’s helpers this summer,” our mothers said as they dropped us off that first day late in June. “Can you believe it? You girls are going to be working for the greatest tennis player in America.”
We couldn’t believe it. Especially those first two weeks of summer vacation. They went by slow and fast. When Stephanie talked—even when she was just telling us what to do—time shot past us. The sound of her voice slipped into our ears and ran up into our brains, translated into instructions for chores, but our eyes were darting, seeking out the details that defined her. Her diamond stud earrings, her black sunglasses, her tennis dress with yellow piping on the hem, her short blonde hair, the freckles on her arms, her bitten-down nails, the scar on her heel that ran up her leg, the muscles on her right arm twice as big as the left. Each piece of her a new treasure we’d discuss later in the pool when time slowed down and stopped.
We had a routine. Every morning after our mothers dropped us off, we cleaned the pool. Leaves and debris were everywhere. We dipped long nets. We filled huge plastic buckets with rotten leaves that blew in from the woods. Grass, petals, and twigs stuck to our bathing suits, our toes, our calves, our wrists. Then we waited for Stephanie. We scooped water into tennis ball cans we found in the trash, whispering pretend prayers at the diving board, a converted altar, to pretend gods who lived in the trees, in the sky, in the water.
We watched Stephanie as she walked down the path to the pool from the big house, where she lived with her father, her blonde hair glinting in the sun, too bright to look at for long. She leaned against the diving board, and as we looked up at her, we saw ourselves reflected in the plastic lenses of her sunglasses, two girls looking right back at us like two different girls we couldn’t believe were us.
She gave us instructions. Check the pool’s filter traps for frogs that got stuck inside. Scrub the picnic table umbrellas with the stinky cleaning fluid that smelled like chemicals and roses. We sighed and pretended to complain, just to get her to stay and talk to us more.
“We were just about to dive in before anyone gets here,” you said, looking at the empty pool, the water flat as glass, and I copied your voice when I said, “Please, just five more minutes.” We loved looking at Stephanie up close, the tiny diamonds that floated in her earlobes like singular stars.
“Come on,” Stephanie said with raised eyebrows and a smile, tugging gently on the ends of our braids. “Pretty please?” Her sweetness washed over us like warm water. Stephanie looked at her watch and went inside to her office. We went back to the pool and scooped up warm, slimy frogs from the filter traps, their bodies panting in our palms, so fragile we were afraid of squishing them to death.
The high school girls arrived in cars they were given for their sweet sixteens. We watched them as they arrived, their tanned, caramel calves, thighs pale at the top from their identical tennis skirts we dreamed of wearing someday. Their rackets rested on their shoulders like rifles, as they marched down the path to the locker room. They never got leaves stuck in their hair or bleach stains on their bathing suits. They were going to be tennis stars. At least, that’s what Mr. Bullard told them at the beginning of the summer.
“By the end of the summer, girls, you’ll be amazing, just like this one here,” Mr. Bullard said, squeezing Stephanie’s shoulders. “Or rather, could have been amazing,” he added, winking. He leaned into her ear, his nose brushing her cheek, his dry lips puckered into a quick kiss, that sounded like a slap. Stephanie didn’t flinch. Stephanie’s neck turned red. We both touched our cheeks as if we could feel his dry lips, too.
“I would have given my left arm to see you win Wimbledon. Hell, I’d have given my left leg,” Mr. Bullard said louder. “Hello, second mortgage!” He was pumping her shoulders as if they were flat tires in need of air. “I’m just kidding with you. Coulda, woulda, shoulda, right?” he said into her ear and kissed her again. “Right, girls?” He slapped Stephanie on her butt before he walked away up the path to the big house, the back of his neck bright red. Mr. Bullard had converted his summer house into the camp, making the pool house into locker rooms and an office, and building another tennis court. A small wooden sign hung above the back door, The Adirondack Tennis Camp for Young Women, and it swung like a wild pendulum when he slammed the door behind him.
Stephanie took out one of her diamond earrings. She wiped the stud on her shirt and then put it back in the hole.
“You know he’s just joking with you all,” Stephanie told the high school girls as she adjusted the earring, her words pouring into the air fast, like water falling from a tap, the high school girls and you and me drinking them, thirsty for her voice. Stephanie said she’d meet everyone at the courts in five, and she told us to put away the nets. Then she went into her office and closed the door.
That summer the camp was only a year old, but it had been two and a half years since Stephanie’s accident, since she stopped playing competitions. Stephanie was at a big tennis tournament in Australia when it happened. We were in fourth grade, watching the game in your living room, our mothers on the sofa, us on the floor Indian style. Stephanie was up one set, 6-0, and 2-0 into the second set when it happened. Stephanie lunged for a shot, but her legs went from straight to folding in a flash. She sat back up, trying to pull up her sock, but it wasn’t her sock she was trying to pull up, our mothers explained to us later; it was her Achilles tendon, which had snapped. You gasped and your eyes bloomed in tears as you watched Stephanie struggle to stand, and I gasped to be like you, but the tears did not come.
“Just like a rubber band,” you said of her heel, your hand covering your mouth. We felt for our own tendons and inspected them at the top of our heels, this guilty part of our bodies we had no idea could betray us. We kept that Sports Illustrated, too. The one that said, “It’s Over” on the cover and showed her crumpled on the ground, a sharp, bright tear rolling down her face.
Every morning we pretended to clean the locker room when the high school girls were getting ready for their tennis lessons. We didn’t really need to Windex the walls because there was a cleaning crew who did the hard stuff like the toilets, but having an excuse to listen to the high school girls, to watch them and study them, was what we really wanted.
The high school girls brushed their hair into tight ponytails that pulled back their hairlines closer to their ears. They drew black eyeliner under their eyes and painted their lips glossy, making them look thick and wet. Later we wondered why they wore so much makeup just to play tennis. They were only four years older, but they looked like grown-ups. They wore bras they bought in the women’s section at the department store. They stored tampons at the top of their lockers without hiding them. Their legs were smooth and shaved, unlike ours, still fuzzy with yellow wisps. We studied their bodies as if they offered answers to the mystery of when ours would change to be like theirs.
We wanted to be just like the high school girls. We wanted to wear dresses like theirs, lip gloss and bras with lace trim on the straps. We wanted breasts to fill them. We wanted our own cars when we turned sweet sixteen. We wanted expensive trips to Europe so that when we went back to school we could talk about where we went on summer vacation. We could talk about how we also took lessons from Stephanie. Yes, that Stephanie, we’d say. We wanted that, even though playing tennis was the furthest thing from our minds, a cost we couldn’t possibly imagine asking our mothers. We wanted these things in our own private silence.
The high school girls’ names were printed on their lockers, white on blue plastic tape we polished with paper towels: Karen McIntosh, Jennifer Walsh, Rachel Fried, Gina Johnson, Tara Whitman, Julie Vecchi, Melissa Connor, Debbie Patel, Susan Linden, Lisa Aglio, Christine Baldi, Ginger Chan, Jodi Martin, and Ursula Fisher.
But Ursula had more talent than the rest of the high school girls put together. One afternoon when all the other high school girls were up on the courts, Ursula came down to the pool. We swam back and forth, trying to kick like dolphins, our feet pressed tight together, our spines arching above the surface as we wove in and out, stitching a line across the water. Ursula never said good morning to us when she arrived. So we were surprised to see her standing at the edge of the pool, looking down at us, one hand tucked behind her back, clasping the inside of her other elbow, an open soda held cold against her thigh, dewy with condensation.
“Have you girls seen Stephanie’s earring?” she asked us, an eyebrow raised like an accusing teacher. “Stephanie asked me to ask you both about it.” We didn’t know, we said, and we really didn’t, but already we were imagining what it would be like to find it and return it to Stephanie. We waited for Ursula to leave, but she just stood there, sipping from her soda.
“Why don’t you play tennis with us?” Ursula asked, looking down her nose. She honestly wanted to know, she said. I sank down and sucked in water and spit it back out warm, the chlorine coating my tongue. When you said, “We don’t have rich daddies,” I sucked in and spit out again, the streaming arc landing on Ursula’s sneakers, the sound of the water hitting Ursula’s laces, like a dog peeing on a tire. Ursula stepped back and cursed at us. We swam fast to the deep end, breaststroking beneath the surface. Bubbles fizzed off our legs. Our long hair waved behind us. But even underwater we could hear her shout, “Dirty bitches,” the words clear and sharp in our ears. No amount of water cleaned away her voice. On the other side of the pool, gulping for air, you flicked her away with a wet finger.
Sometimes we slipped rocks into our bathing suits, our bodies deformed and bumpy, the sharp stones pressing into our hips, our stomachs. We held exercise bricks as we jumped into the deep end, dropping fast. Lying on the tile at the bottom, we looked up at the surface, a blue ceiling that rippled and heaved with the high school girls above us, like flying naiads.
On really hot days, Mr. Bullard showed up after lunch like an unwanted guest. Slow at the dealership, he’d say, explaining himself as he sank into the water. He drew lines of laps above us. An angry Poseidon. We studied his body, skinny legs, white round belly. We laughed when we saw his wrinkled penis floating out from the sleeve of his bathing shorts. When it felt like our lungs might split open, we shot off the bottom in tandem torpedoes, seven feet through the blue, willing our mouths closed as bubbles streamed from our nostrils. At the surface we gasped and inhaled buckets of warm air. Sometimes our nipples flashed when our bikinis were not tied tight enough. The high school girls laughed and pointed. We splashed them and Stephanie’s dad told us to “cool it” as he watched us fix our suits, not looking away like he was supposed to. We had no concept of our beauty, our youth. Our hair smelled like chlorine and strawberry shampoo.
Sometimes when Stephanie coached the high school girls, we snuck into her office, paper towels and Windex an alibi. The room used to be a guest bedroom back when the place was still Mr. Bullard’s summer home, but the furniture set had never been taken away. We snooped through everything, every drawer, every surface, every closet, looking for pieces of Stephanie. The bedside tables were stuffed with cans of tennis balls. The dresser overflowed with magazines: Sports Illustrated, Tiger Beat, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, all dated from eight years ago when Stephanie was sixteen, the same age as the high school girls. “Would we have been her friend then?” you asked, as we opened more drawers and tried to picture her back then, teenage Stephanie alone in her room.
We pulled out the magazines from the drawer, and we squealed when we discovered three Playboy magazines at the bottom, the most recent issue, that month, July 1988, on top.
“I’m going to lock the door,” you said, putting back the other magazines and turning the metal lock on the doorknob. I looked out the window to check that Stephanie and the girls were still up on the courts. They were there, girls in white dresses chasing tiny yellow balls like clumsy puppies. We climbed up onto the bed and leaned back against the wall, legs straight out. You spread the magazine across our laps like a blanket, left side on your thighs, the right on mine, the glossy paper cool on our skin.
So many breasts all different shapes and sizes, we had no idea. We had seen our mothers’ and the high school girls’, but these breasts swelled with pointy red nipples as large as plates, so pointy and hard they looked like the knots of balloons.
Then a pulse, a thrumming above our collarbones, our ankles, and high between our legs, a drum beat that came from nowhere, our bodies more awake, more alive than than ever. You laughed and I laughed too, because we feared what sat in the silence. We laughed at how the models posed. We mimicked their mouths, pushing out our lips. We stuck tennis balls in our bathing suits and pretended they were breasts. “I’m so sexy,” you said. You cupped the hard balls. You dropped your mouth open like one of the girls in the pictures.
We posed in front of the full-length mirror behind the door, holding our tennis ball breasts in our palms, the glass smudged in fingerprints and powdered in dust. We looked at our faces up close, the brown of our eyes, the freckles on our cheeks. You held your arm up over your head to inspect your armpit, tugging on the five or six dark hairs that had appeared there that year.
I was the one who suggested we sit on the floor to look down there. You paused only for a second, as if I had asked you to jump off the high diving board, a dare you couldn’t resist, and you sat down like you were falling, spreading your legs in the same motion. We opened our legs wide, moving the fabric crotch of our bathing suits to the side.
“Can you see anything?” you asked, your fingers holding yourself apart, but I couldn’t see beyond your fingers and fabric, even though I was dying to see, that area still an illustration from a biology book, an oval with a straight line like a coffee bean. We wanted to see the holes, the anatomy of the folds. We wanted to see what we were about to become. We felt no shame. We were still soft and smooth with children’s skin.
The slamming of locker doors cut the air. “The high school girls,” I said, as our bodies leapt up without thinking. The doorknob rattled. Stephanie’s voice, loud and impatient, asked what was going on, and we said, “Nothing, nothing, nothing.” You unlocked the door and Stephanie pushed it open, hitting the wall.
“We were cleaning the mirror,” I said, my tongue a thick piece of chicken, clumsy and in the way. “We were cleaning your office,” you said, waving at the furniture. We grabbed the Windex bottle from the top of your desk.
The Playboy magazines were exactly where we left them, gathered in congress as if all the naked women were having a meeting. We willed Stephanie not to see the magazines, but she was already gathering them off the bed. The world stood still. Air floated in our lungs, neither in nor out. The high school girls in the locker room. Stephanie by the bed. The clouds outside the window hung in the sky, paused in their race to the horizon. We heard Stephanie talk low. She told us to get out, and when we didn’t move straight away, she growled the next time she said, the “get” a snarl, the “out” a grunt. We shot out of the office like water from a broken dam, and we laughed uncontrollably as each and every one of the millions of nerves in our bodies released everything we held inside like confetti from a rocket.
The pool was our church, our confessional. It heard our secrets and kept our promises. We made them in the early morning, before the clouds burned away. We held on to the bottom rung of the ladder and shouted out loud to be heard, our voices swirling and dipping, slow but bright. Our voices underwater could say anything. Our voices underwater said what we couldn’t say to the air. You said you saw your mother and her boyfriend doing it, and they cursed at you to go away. I said my mother cries at night when she thinks I’m asleep. Why does she do that? We promised not to tell a soul. We crossed our hearts. We hoped to die. We swore when we grew up we would be different. We swore we would leave and never come back. We swore we would have families with a mother and a father.
On the hottest days, when even the shade of the woods was too warm, we slipped under the house into the dark and musty crawl space where the air was cool and smelled like wet leaves. We could hear everything in the rooms above us through the thin floorboards. The high school girls in the locker room talking about trips they had planned for Labor Day weekend. Stephanie talking to the high school girls about her plans to compete next year. Their voices so close, their feet just inches from our faces. Sometimes we heard Ursula call her mother on the office phone and say she was going home with another girl after practice, but really she just stayed at the house with Stephanie. Sometimes we heard Ursula and Stephanie talking in the office. Sometimes we heard crying. Sometimes we heard moaning, like someone was in deep pain, but we knew they were not. We knew they were lost in a kind of pleasure we couldn’t even imagine. We knew what they were doing. “Girl and girl,” you said, like a question. A big question, the word “girl” hanging between us like a cloud. So many truths coming undone like a broken necklace of beads, each ball of glass crashing, crashing, crashing.
One afternoon at the beginning of August, when the rain had sent most of the high school girls home, Stephanie invited us into her office. We were sitting under the diving board with piles of leaves and acorns we had gathered as pretend offerings in our game of vestals, the diving board an altar, our towels around our shoulders our priestesses uniforms, when she shouted for us to come inside. The pool blurred in points of gray as we walked to her office.
Stephanie gave us towels to dry off. She was all smiles, all arms swinging, her muscles rolling. We both looked at the dresser and then at each other as we smiled with our eyes, so happy to be invited in.
“How about I teach you how to wear makeup,” Stephanie said, as she reached into the drawer and pulled out a small red bag we hadn’t seen when we had searched her desk. “You’re old enough now for this sort of thing.” When she handed us eye pencils, it was like being given the keys to a new car, a pass to a private club, an open door into Stephanie. We laughed as we tried to draw around our eyes.
“It’s not a crayon, girls!” Stephanie said, grabbing the sticks. “This is how you do it.” We watched her stretch her eyelid, her jaw slack and her mouth open so we could see her fillings and the stains on her teeth as she looked into the pocket mirror she’d set up on her desk.
“I used to use the waterproof kind when I was competing,” she said, like she was instructing us, and we ate up every word. “You have to look your best for the cameras.” We nodded. You have to look your best for the cameras, we thought, a new rule we filed away with how we were supposed to act when we grew up. She sat down on the bed and turned your face to hers as she applied the pencil to your eyes.
“What was it like?” you asked, the drumming of rain on the roof filling the long pause Stephanie took to answer, and I listened, the pattering in time with me wishing I had been the one to ask Stephanie about being a star.
“Everyone wants you. Everyone wants to know what you think, what you like, what you love,” she said, while brushing the pencil across your lid, her face only an inch from yours. You probably could feel the heat of her breath on your face, and right then I wanted to be you so much it hurt my ears.
We were shocked when Stephanie snapped the pencil in two. She threw the pieces in the garbage. She kicked the bin. It tipped over, spilling out envelopes and papers and the broken pencil.
“No point in makeup anymore,” Stephanie said, walking out of the office, slamming the door behind. Hearts bashed inside our ribs. Stephanie, a wild animal outside. As we picked up the garbage and kept the broken pencil for ourselves, we found a letter from a doctor in New York. The paper, smudged with fingerprints and wrinkled in corners as if it had been held tight, carried sentences that blurred together, but these words in black type—“No longer fit to play”—jumped and crackled off the page like wood in a fire. We tore the page into a thousand pieces, as if breaking up the words could make what they said go away. We thought we had that much power.
On the days of no clouds and the sun too bright, we swam in the creek in the ravine. We swam naked because even our bathing suits were too hot. When we peeled them off, I apologized for my breast, the one that had started to grow before the other, and you told me not to worry. You didn’t care. You said you wished your breasts would just hurry up and start growing already, instead of being just little mounds.
In the shallow water, our backs touching silt and stones under us, we floated in the coolness and grew silent. We didn’t say it out loud, but Stephanie was on our minds. We thought of how we waited for her to come down to the pool before we ran and jumped flips, just so we could see her clap for us. We jumped the highest when she was there. The way the brown of her eyes grew almost black near the water. The way she smelled in the morning when her skin was still damp from showering. You turned onto your front and asked me what I was thinking about and I said nothing, and you said you were thinking about nothing, too.
When we climbed out of the water, the silt from the creek coated our arms, our legs. Standing up, you bent down and scooped up more, applying it to your face, rubbing circles into your cheeks, your eyes bright white against the brown clay. I did the same. We rubbed our bodies with the clay all over, our necks, hips, thighs, chests, our hair, until we were plated. We stood facing each other, two carved stone statues, purple and wet and shiny. You took my hands in yours and before I knew what was happening, you kissed me on the lips. I felt the pressure of your mouth against mine, but I felt it travel down my neck. I felt it in the palms of my hands, my ankles. The memory of it, even the next day and week, every time I touched my lips where yours had been, a shot of pleasure and pain welled in my chest as I replayed it in my mind. We both laughed when you pulled away, breaking the sound of the water whispering in the creek. The cicadas that had held their breath for that single moment let go in a crescendo of music. September and school were only theoretical, as impossible as alchemy.
When the cleaning crew was at the pool and we couldn’t swim, we’d watch Stephanie coach Ursula at the courts. Stephanie coached Ursula separately from the other high school girls. She was that good, the high school girls said, as if we needed to know why Ursula got special treatment. Stephanie hit shots to Ursula over and over: backhand, forehand, up to the net, away from the net. Our heads moved where Ursula moved. We sucked on Skittles and watched Stephanie and Ursula like they were a movie. The grass was yellow from the sun and sharp against our legs, but the candy melted on our tongues in red and purple sugar. Crickets jumped between us, the sounds of the balls knocking in the hot air, even and steady in our ears like water lapping on the shore of a lake, back and forth.
When the noise pattern of the balls changed we noticed Ursula had slowed down. She missed her shots. Her face was red and sweat dripped off her nose, her eyes squinted tight, as she tried to hit back the balls Stephanie flung, but she kept missing.
“Why are you even here?” Stephanie shouted at Ursula. “Why are you wasting my time?” Stephanie stopped moving. She tucked her arm behind her back, cradling her elbow. The Skittles in our mouths tasted sour, the sweetness burned. Ursula just stared back at Stephanie.
“You’re not even remotely talented,” Stephanie said. “You’re just an ant. A tiny little worker ant that can carry a million times its weight but be squashed flat by a dirty shoe,” Stephanie spat. Ursula looked down at her feet. We knew she was crying because her chin was shaking. We did not move. We did not blink. Ursula was all marble statue, no flesh, unreleased. No one moved until Stephanie walked away, throwing her racket at the net as if she were in the middle of a big game. We sat so still. We breathed. Ursula breathed. We spat out the Skittles, half-melted candy in the gravel.
When Stephanie had left, Ursula turned to us and shouted, “Go away!” We did not move. “Just go away,” she shouted again, running toward us, her tennis racket raised above her like a spear. We ran into the woods, leaving Ursula and the puddle of Skittles behind. Later that afternoon, when the high school girls and Stephanie were back on the courts practicing, and Ursula was part of the high school girls again, we went into Stephanie’s office and tore off every cover of her Sports Illustrated collection. We crumpled each page into a ball. We left them in the trash in the middle of the room.
We loved to play Olympics. We were divers competing for the gold. High flips, pointed toes, no splash got the highest points. On the diving board, three steps, knees bent, and we shot up into the sky, turning our bodies back down before slipping into the water. We did it over and over until we realized a few of the high school girls were watching. We only went higher.
Stephanie joined in. By then we had forgotten about her and Ursula. She pretended to be the judge. She scored us. We dove. She scored us again. “That’s a seven,” she shouted at me. “Come on, you can do better than that. I want to see a ten!” Everyone watching me. I loved it. I stepped one, two, three to the end of the diving board. My feet pushed down. My body dropped. The surface of the water right there, my body reflecting my red bathing suit, my brown braids. And then I was gone. In the sky, knees to chest, chin to knees, spinning and unfolding, piercing the blue. No splash. Swish and glide. Everyone cheered.
You next. Your turn. Your first dive was all legs, too much splash. Stephanie booed. You stood back from the edge of the board and studied it before you stepped and leapt and rose to the sky in a perfect arc. You slid into the pool like a needle. Claps and whoops, your face all smile when you climbed up the ladder, but Stephanie’s mouth was a tight, straight line before it broke apart into “I think you can do better than that.” And you took it. You were going to show her.
I was whistling and cheering until I saw you land on the board, too close to the edge. Without the pressure of your toes to push it down, you lost your thrust back up. You tried to nose down what little upshot you got, but the momentum was gone. Your body was a comma instead of an exclamation point, the head of the comma hitting the diving board on your way down into the pool. I could tell by the amount of splash how much it hurt to hit the water. You disappeared into the deep end and didn’t pop up, and I held my breath, willing you back up, glued to the cement like in nightmares where I can’t move or run away. I saw you down in the blue and I saw a black veil of blood wafting around you like smoke.
Stephanie was the one who saved you. She dove in with her sneakers on, pulled up your pale body, laid you down on the side of the pool. And when you still didn’t take a breath, she was the one who gave you mouth-to-mouth, tilting back your head and sealing her mouth around yours. I stood there, beside the diving board, across the pool from you, and watched how she pressed down on your chest and pumped air in and out. I saw Stephanie kiss you again, and then again, her thin pink lips touching yours, her tan hands holding your nose shut and cradling your chin until you coughed. I watched Stephanie help you sit up, her arms, your face, her slim fingers wiping off the water, or maybe tears, from your cheeks.
I sat across from you both on the floor in Stephanie’s office. You were you and Stephanie. You and Stephanie leaned back on the bed. You and Stephanie against the headboard, waiting for your mom to pick you up. I pulled out a magazine from the dresser, but neither of you looked at me when I opened the drawer. When Stephanie put her arm around your shoulders to hold a towel to the gash on your head, I heard you sob into her neck in a baby voice. I watched your hand grope out from under the towel, reaching for hers. And I saw her take it. She held it up to her chest, close. Of course, I was jealous. I am guessing you have a scar from that day, a souvenir of that summer. I have no such memento, nothing I can touch.
It was almost Labor Day when they drained the pool. At first they covered the water in a giant blue canvas while they waited for the county to come inspect it. And then one day the water was gone, emptied overnight. No one knew exactly why. The high school girls blamed your blood in the water.
“You can gets AIDS, you know,” the high school girls said. Ursula said it was because you almost died. Stephanie said they’d fill it back up again soon. We thought, this is what they do when an accident happens. We thought Stephanie teaching tennis to a bunch of high school girls at her father’s summer house was normal. We thought the club was normal, that all girls and no boys was normal. We thought two twelve-year-olds working for Stephanie was normal, too.
We stood at the edge of the pool. The ladders led down to nothing. The diving board was dismantled from its frame, lying on the ground like a broken toy. We should have been sad, but we weren’t. We jumped into the shallow end, running our fingers across the side of the pool, moist with morning dew, as we walked to the deep end. At the bottom, all the stuff that had been dropped in the water over the summer lay scattered: the band aids, barrettes and soda pull-tabs, and in a puddle by the drain, a dead frog, swollen in the hot sun, its white belly gray and bursting. I was the one who saw the earring first, glinting in the sun on the blue tile.
“Stephanie’s earring,” I said, holding it up, but the joy I thought I’d feel at finding it didn’t appear. The back of the stone had browned in rust, and one of the prongs that held the stone in place was bent. It made no sound when I dropped it into the drain, too small to even plop. You looked at me and said nothing, and I said nothing too, your silence an apology for something you didn’t even do.
The next day, we saw Ursula knock tennis balls against the wall of the deep end in the pool, the echo of rubber bouncing off cement, hollow and wooden. We didn’t think anything of it until later. We were alone in the locker room, spraying the locker doors even though the high school girls weren’t there yet, their lives no longer that interesting to us, when we heard what sounded like shouts of pain outside. Through the fuzzy, hot air, in the shade of the locker room overhang, we saw Stephanie pushing to and fro, her calf muscles in tight balls, against Ursula, her back against the wall of the pool, her tennis racket on the ground. Whines and groans, the only sound in the air, hovered above the pool, their voices alive, like sad music. Ursula’s tennis dress was up around her ribs, and we saw how Stephanie’s hands were sandwiched between their bodies. In the late summer light, it took a while to understand what we were seeing. Tingles in our privates, pinpricks of pleasure shot through our bodies as involuntarily as knee jerks. Our hearts beat fast, while what we watched went slow.
I was the one who told on Stephanie. I was the one who took the path up to the big house. You waited down by the pool, too shy, you said, to talk to Mr. Bullard. When he opened the door, he didn’t invite me in. He just stood there on the threshold, white shirt, white shorts caught up around his thighs, his floating penis hidden under the fabric. I watched Mr. Bullard’s face as I explained what had happened, searching his eyebrows, his nostrils, the corner of his mouth, but his muscles stayed put, like rocks in the woods.
“They were doing it in the pool,” I said, wondering where I had learned the language to describe what we had seen.
“I see,” he said, combing his fingers through his hair. “Anything else?” And because he asked a question, and because I had this need to answer any question even though I knew I should have stopped talking already, I kept going.
“Stephanie has porn in her dresser drawer.” Breasts tied off like balloon knots flashed behind my eyes. I rubbed my thumb across my wrist to keep my hands still.
“I see,” Mr. Bullard said again. Then he just stared at me, right into my eyes without blinking, and I wanted to look away but knew I had to hold on, my tongue touching the roof of my mouth as I said hold, hold, hold without sound and looked right back at him. Mr. Bullard told me I had made a mistake. Mr. Bullard told me I had imagined what I saw. Mr. Bullard told me to run along and get back to my little friend so we could play. Mr. Bullard patted my cheek, he said, “You’re a good girl. A really good girl,” as he shut the door, the wood panels peeling at the bottom.
That summer, sex was everywhere. It was in the finger holes of the pool filter covers, in the hollows of the trees. It was a duck biting the neck of a hen while they mated in the creek, and the red-tailed hawks above them, locking talons in a skydive, coming apart only right before they hit the ground. It was the Barbie dolls you brought in from home that we stripped and knocked plastic and naked against each other while we laughed. It was the rabbits we saw copulating in quick, tiny thrusts before they came apart and acted like nothing happened. We thought sex was violent and messy. But a few summers later, when we were at basement parties, in the arms of high school boys in darkened rooms on mildewed sofas, too ashamed to say where we wanted to be touched, too scared they wouldn’t like us if we told them, we came to first know sex. We smiled, and said to those boys, “Yes, that felt amazing,” even when it did not. We learned to enjoy it only later, much later.
I drove past the dealership the other day. I thought of you. The water that summer is what I remember most of all. The fabric of it on my skin, the way it has felt since then, my body ageless in its light hammock, my feet in the surf, my hands under a tap washing, the back of my neck in the rain, and always the pool. I’ve never left the pool. Have you?
Samantha Storey was born in New York and raised in London. She works as a news editor and a fiction writer. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and the Seattle Weekly. She has been recognized with an Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Center for Fiction. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family, where she is currently at work on a novel. "Voices Underwater" is her first published story.