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Coming About

2011 Short Story Contest: First Place Winner

No one expected the water to be warm enough to swim in, and they hadn't brought suits or towels. She'd not been in a pool for years, not once since Ben died, and even longer since she'd gone swimming in a lake. Such a fragrant lake, she thought. So earthy. She patted the surface of the water, amber with tannic acid, and wondered if it would stain her cotton bra. The others, all younger except John—he wore boxers—slipped in nude before she noticed. She had walked in up to her waist as fast as she could become accustomed to the water so they wouldn't see through her nylon panties, purchased just for this trip in case she had to undress in front of the other girls in the small cabin below deck. The waistband cut into her soft middle as she watched the group swimming toward the sunny part of the lake, John in a crawl and the rest of them dog paddling along, splashing, talking. She could hear words: jib and jibePainterTell-tale. And then laughter.

John had shown her a picture of his wife, Marie, and she was heavier than she expected a man as athletic and weathered as he was to be married to. But that happens, bodies change, she thought, as hers had; but she did okay, walking six miles at the mall on mornings when she could fit it in, and on the field trips she led at the nature center. She would tell Amanda about him. The captain said he could arrange to use the park's radio telephone tonight if they kept their calls to a few minutes each. So she'd tell her, tell her she met a widower, a man with a sense of humor who could be spontaneous and liked to hike. He was a retired architect, and she'd made a mental checklist of all the details of his life she'd gleaned from conversations over meals as they balanced their plates on their knees in the cockpit. She'd tell Amanda and she knew she wouldn't care much, not now. Ben had been gone for years, and Amanda had a child of her own, a teenager, and was getting her own sense of the challenges.

They hiked to this inland lake from the pier while the captain motored down to Rock Harbor for more fuel. The captain said they'd need a full tank in preparation for the return trip to the mainland, in case Lake Superior had flat seas again. He dropped them at the pier at Moskey Basin with their daypacks and lunches and they hiked to Chickenbone Lake, single file along the moist, packed path and she pointed out wildflowers she knew, blue-bead lily, and Dutchman's-breeches, and when she found the rare ram's head orchid everyone listened with more than politeness, she could tell. They all laughed when John kneeled behind the decaying bowed ribcage of a moose to have his photo taken, and he'd grabbed her arm to pull her into the picture. "It's a timeless and universal design," he said, words she'd added to the checklist, and she could still feel where he rested his arm across her back, how he'd given her a little squeeze through her fleece pullover. She kneeled alongside John for the photo, the flies abundant and noisy. She'd remember to ask for a copy.

She noticed John's hands at dinner the first night out of Two Harbors when they hugged the Minnesota shore and anchored in a bay overnight instead of making a rough crossing to the island. In the galley he was the first to gather the dishes, heat the water for tea and begin washing up, and he asked her if she would dry. His hands were wide, cobby, she thought was the word to describe them, a word she knew from crossword puzzles. Ben's hands had been fine surgeon's hands, with slender fingers and a narrow palm with a bony wrist.

She patted the surface of the water again. She didn't want to get her hair wet as all she had was a bandana for a towel. She'd try to cover her bottom half as soon as she got out, if she could do that alone, and dry off and dress by the log where she left her folded and stacked clothing and her hiking boots next to each other, the laces tucked inside.

She had done too well with Amanda, too soon, she thought, allowing her to develop adult tastes and diversions even as a child. Without a sibling, she and Ben had taken away Amanda's childhood for weekend trips to bed and breakfasts and art museums. She tried to recall when Amanda might have squished her toes in water that wasn't chlorinated or Caribbean blue. Around her feet she could feel sand, muck and decaying leaves, and she manipulated a piece of wood with her toes. She wondered what lived in the lake. Leeches, certainly, and there were broken clamshells on the shore but she couldn't see the bottom through the tea-colored water. She remembered when a pubescent Amanda had cut her foot on a piece of glass when they'd spent the day at a beach on a trip to Cape Cod, the trip where she had wanted to charter a sailboat but Ben and Amanda slept in and then insisted they shop for antiques and new school clothes. Ben cleansed and stitched the two-inch cut in the parking lot, while she held the sobbing Amanda on her lap and the forceps for the sutures at the same time. He stroked Amanda's head later, in a restaurant, and told her how lucky she was to have her own surgeon and surgical nurse on hand wherever she went. That brought a smile to all three of them.

Ribbon-shaped leaves of bur-reed floated on the water's surface and she sent a wave in their direction with a cupped hand. Ben had been a good father. That's what everyone said, he was a good father, attentive and deliberative. She couldn't deny that.

She watched John's crawl as he swam toward the center of the lake, where the surface turned from brown to blue in the sun. She noted that he breathed on both sides. She would tell Amanda this, too, that she'd been swimming in a murky lake with naked young people. When they reached the sun they stopped and treaded water in a circle until one of the younger girls spun toward the shore, her face sunburned and her hair wet against her scalp, one eye squinting and the other, with its pierced glinting eyebrow, like a large almond, and waved an arm.

"Hey, Pauline, come on out, it's nice out here." The young woman with the pierced Egyptian eye was waving at her. She waved back and smiled and splashed with both hands. She'd been a capable swimmer in nursing school, competing on a team against the other all-women dorms. In her fourth year Ben came to the meets, arriving in his scrubs and sitting up high in the wooden bleachers, elbows on knees with a textbook open on the bench next to him. She was flattered that he took the time away from his internship for something so frivolous—that's what she thought it must be to him, in his last year of medical school, his residency locked in—but he cheered her in the humid natatorium and met her outside the locker room and walked with her back to her room where she encouraged a kiss before he reported for his shift at the university's hospital.

They hadn't slept together before they were married, although she had allowed him to suckle her breasts in the dark, pressed against the brick facade of her dormitory. Suckle her breasts, such an old-fashioned phrase. She knew it would be different now, and she didn't disagree, like Cindy and Pam out there treading water in the nude with three adult men, talking about something she caught only in words in phrases. Port tack, she heard, and luffing. They made it look easy; not the treading, but the manner in which they expected themselves to be taken seriously, even with their nudity and youth.

She knew she'd have more time for trips like this, more time for swimming, if she gave up the house. Two years ago she'd looked at a model for a new town house on the lake, where there was a breeze every morning and cooking herbs in pretty pots on the deck. It was closer to downtown, and to the medical center should she need it, but Amanda protested, even cried, when she said she planned to sell the house, with its complicated landscaping and color schemes. "It's all we have of Dad," she sobbed, and Pauline hugged her and patted her head. "Of course, honey, of course," she said.      

The next day she hired a landscaping contractor to remove a perfectly trimmed and thick hedge parallel to the long driveway. She imagined screams when the contractor wrapped a chain around the base of each shrub and tugged with a pickup truck. She offered the perennials to a neighbor who dug them out and smoothed the ground and spread grass seed over the garden.

But maybe she was being too hard on Amanda. It was she after all who had encouraged her to volunteer at the nature center, what with her knowledge of flowers and birds—she even knew the Latin names—but the other volunteers were what her grandson Luke would call "lame." And with the book group, another of Amanda's ideas, she seldom agreed with the choice of books but went along with it for the sake of politeness.

She ran a finger around the elastic that formed the leg openings in her panties. Grit had accumulated from the stirring up she'd done of the bottom. The water was colder down there, viscous like gelatin, she thought. She swirled it around her legs, and rubbed one foot on top of the other. Her calluses softened under the sand and she watched the others, still talking, swimming again, toward an island with a granite outcrop that rose up in a curve from the water like a mythological beast. Spinnaker, she heard, and then her name, louder, Pauline.

"Too cold for you?"

She splashed down under water, her knees sinking in the muck, and laughed when she saw the captain standing behind her, barefoot and wearing swimming trunks. He dropped an armful of towels and unbuttoned his Hawaiian shirt.

"No, it feels good. Refreshing, that's how it feels."

He nodded toward the rock. "Looks like they're having fun."

She rose and shaded her eyes with her palm, looking at the swimmers and then back at the garish colors of his shirt. "Yes, yes it does," she said.

She'd tried to learn how to surf in Hawaii, while Ben and Amanda watched from lounge chairs on the shore as she battered herself in the waves. They were patient, at least Ben was, while Amanda flipped through a magazine. But Ben didn't ask her about the balance surfing required, or how the boards differed, what it felt like the first time she rose from her knees to her feet. For their next vacation there were no waves, not even a beach when he surprised her with a trip to Aspen where he and Amanda waited in a French café while she went to a bookstore for a field guide to birds.

The captain waded in stiff-legged and dove, coming up next to her. He rubbed under his arms and lowered into the water to rinse, washing his face and massaging his arms. She arranged a stray wisp of her hair that emerged from her bun and had an urge to reach and do the same with his, curly and thick enough so that water had little influence on what it did.

"I heard you were quite a swimmer," he said.

"In my day, yes, it was my college sport." 

"It's still your day, isn't it? What's your sport now?"

She laughed and crossed her arms and checked her bra straps.

"Have you lost your chops?"

"Do you mean do I still swim?" She looked down at her panties, billowing in the tannic water. She lowered her arms. It was near dinnertime, and she was hungry from the long hike. The water was black from the deepening shade of spruces along the shore and she had goose bumps. Her nipples were firm under the wet cotton but she didn't turn from him; she flexed her shoulders backward.

"I'll race you to the rock," he said.

After she finished nursing school, first in her class, she followed Ben to his residency, and they married in a courthouse on his day off. She worked at the hospital for two years and when Amanda was born she waited twelve years to return to work, renewing her nursing credentials at a community college.

Until then, she swam on a masters' team on Tuesday mornings, hurrying to the weekly training and races once Ben was out the door and Amanda was off to school. At her first race she was paired with a stout immigrant man, Alberto, who lifted his elbows high in the crawl, his forearms cutting in without a ripple, the surface of the water warbling and bubbling, his feet never foaming the water. She was aware of her own splashy stroke in the next lane and when she beat him he shook her hand with a solid grip and a nod as they caught their breath in the shallow end. She wondered if he let her win, but decided not when she heard him speak to the coach about what it would take for him to win against the classy lady in the blue bathing cap. Six years of Tuesday afternoons in his pied-à-terre, the scent of chlorine on his skin a pheromone, until his employer transferred him to another city. He asked once that she go with him.

And then there had been the aborted race with Ben, in the resort pool in Mexico where they'd taken Amanda for her 18th birthday. Ben arranged for a spa package to be waiting for Amanda in her own room, connected to their suite, and they let her have half a glass of champagne and in the night she'd thrown up her dinner and the cinnamon cake they asked the chef to make for the entire dining room. Ben cried when everyone sang to Amanda, who blushed and held his hand as he stood by her chair. They let her sleep in the next morning, and went for an early walk on the beach. The maintenance man loaded his tools into a golf cart next to the empty pool as they returned. Ben splashed a foot in the water and challenged her to a race.

"C'mon," he said. "Show me how it's done." She said no, she was hungry, she didn't have her suit on, they should check on Amanda.

"You could swim in your shorts," he said. "Do you have a sports bra on?"

"It doesn't matter what I'm wearing. I'm not going to do it. We can have a nice dip later in the day."

"Why not?" he said. He gripped her upper arms.

"Ben, stop it, please."

"Why?" he said. "You love to race. Or do you only do that on Tuesdays? In bed? With that greasy old man?" He forced her backward until she stepped down, onto the quarter-round steps that rose in the corner of the pool, missing the first one and biting her cheek and tongue as she fell backward with the jolt onto the concrete. She was crying when she came up, and she spit red saliva toward him.

He apologized when he saw the swirl of blood in the water, with an "oops, sorry," as if he'd dropped her toast or bumped into a stranger on the street. He handed her a towel when she pulled herself up on the handrail and he peered at her mouth, a hand on her jaw. She had seen this action a thousand times when he met with a patient: where is the pain, the soreness, the lump, he would ask, with a "sorry" if a static shock passed between him and the patient's jaw as he shifted his feet in his carpeted office. She didn't look into his eyes, and they heard a deck chair scrape on the concrete and saw Amanda, in a fluffy white robe, her skin clear and her eyes bright even upon awakening, as she scrambled behind a potted cycad and ran to her room. Ben followed her.

"Race to the rock?" the captain said again.

She made a mental list of the reasons why she shouldn't race. She was cold now, through to the bone. Arthritis had made its first appearance in her shoulders and hips. The captain was young and would surely beat her. The wind had kicked in, just this minute, and the lake's surface was choppy away from the shore. The tamaracks on the island were illuminated in the afternoon sun, and she heard the tremolo call of a loon. She pushed down her waistband to her knees and hooked the top with her big toe, standing on one leg and resting a hand on the captain's shoulder for balance. Her panties floated in front of her, bulging and contracting like a jellyfish. She twisted her arm up her back, releasing the clasp of her bra, and she flung it with her panties to the shore where they slapped onto the sand. The sound, or maybe it was the perfect arc as they twirled through the air, made both of them laugh.

"Ready?" she said. He nodded. She positioned her feet. "Then set, go," she said. She pushed off. When the captain's face touched the water she was on her second stroke, kicking.

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Allison Slavick lives near Cable, Wisconsin, where she works as a consultant to nonprofit organizations, especially museums, around the country. She is a mountain bike and cross country ski racer and berry picker. Her short fiction has been published in Storyglossia, and won the H.E. Francis/Ruth Hindman Foundation Short Story Award.

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