JENNY BARTOY

The Pool

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - JENNY BARTOY

I reached the shal­low end and searched across the Olympic-sized pool for my fa­ther, al­low­ing my­self to hope that he had wit­nessed my lap. With joy­ful splashes, my sis­ter and brother per­formed an end­less se­ries of hand­stands near me. Shouts and whis­tles bounced off the glass ceil­ing in a deaf­en­ing rain. Above it, an op­pres­sive ex­panse of grey muted the day’s prom­ise. I scanned the swim­mers in the deep end and rec­og­nized the back of his shape. He grabbed the edge of the pool and lifted him­self up, mus­cu­lar and con­fi­dent. My fa­ther had swum com­pet­i­tively in high school—or so he said. His drip­ping body rose up­ward, salt-and-pep­per hair slicked back, and I re­al­ized he was greet­ing some­one. My mother’s best friend, Chris­tine, strolled in. Her curly black mane bounced with her step. On her arm, a tote bag brimmed with tow­els. She wore red pants rolled up to her shins. From the cor­ner of my eye, I no­ticed her two boys run­ning to­ward the shal­low end. A school­girl smile spilled over her face as she spot­ted my fa­ther. I was twelve years old, and I ex­celled at gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion. I hunted data with fierce des­per­a­tion because facts were a life pre­server in a sea of lies. Facts were an an­chor in a per­pet­ual parental storm. That morn­ing, I had ob­served the im­promptu plan­ning of the pool visit as I fished ce­real from my break­fast bowl. I had made a note of spo­ken de­tails, cat­a­logued my par­ents’ body lan­guage, an­a­lyzed their tone of voice. There had been no men­tion of Chris­tine meet­ing us at the pool, and I doubted that my mother knew. She must have been too de­lighted with this gift of a soli­tary Satur­day morn­ing to ques­tion my fa­ther’s mo­tives. With a giddy smile, she had zipped our parkas and ush­ered us into the Fe­bru­ary driz­zle where my fa­ther waited in the warm­ing car. Chris­tine headed to­ward the wa­ter where my fa­ther waited, bi­ceps sup­port­ing his weight. The pose flat­tered his mid­dle-aged body. She leaned for­ward, and he reached up to kiss her. As I stood, shiv­er­ing in three feet of wa­ter, in a uni­verse far re­moved from theirs across the turquoise waves, I saw my fa­ther kiss­ing my mother’s dear­est friend. Their lips met softly, with in­ti­mate fa­mil­iar­ity and no hes­i­ta­tion.

Time skipped like a scratched record. As they pulled away from each other, my eyes re­played the mo­ment over and over again. Their im­age burnt my retina like a film neg­a­tive stuck in the pro­jec­tor’s gate, melt­ing with car­toon­ish dis­tor­tion. I held my breath and wished the pool wa­ters would rise and swal­low me whole. My fa­ther low­ered him­self and folded his arms across the tiled lip of the pool. His legs flapped in the wa­ter. The non­cha­lance of their fluid rhythm turned my stom­ach. She crouched, knees to­gether with fem­i­nine aware­ness, so that they could be at eye level with each other. They chat­ted, flir­ta­tious and com­fort­able. They looked happy. My mother had met Chris­tine, a teacher at the lo­cal ele­men­tary school, when my brother had been as­signed to her class years be­fore. Their pas­sion­ate friend­ship had been quick to bloom, fu­elled by a mu­tual en­thu­si­asm that seemed to me reck­less. My mother gushed about Chris­tine’s wild spirit and ir­rev­er­ent hu­mour. She blos­somed as they be­came close. We dis­cov­ered her, silly and brash, as if em­bold­ened by at­ten­tion from a teenage crush. Our fam­i­lies fre­quently gath­ered for ca­sual din­ners. My mother must have felt lucky at first. My fa­ther could stand spend­ing time with one of her friends for once. He seemed to gen­uinely en­joy Chris­tine’s com­pany. Dur­ing those evenings, my mother and Chris­tine’s hus­band, a gen­tle oaf, were the quiet ones, bear­ing the brunt of jokes and ex­chang­ing sym­pa­thetic smiles on the side­lines. I of­ten brought a book and hov­ered near the adults af­ter din­ner, while the younger chil­dren ran up­stairs to play. From be­hind the bound pages, I spied my fa­ther and Chris­tine danc­ing a coded tango at the table. They teetered on the edge of im­pro­pri­ety, drunk on chem­istry and sloppy about hid­ing it. A brush of her naked arm sidestepped by a broth­erly pat on the shoul­der. A lan­guish­ing stare in­ter­rupted stac­cato by a sar­cas­tic com­ment. I re­mem­ber a sick­en­ing ten­sion, not un­like the stress of watch­ing cir­cus clowns per­form an act of ac­ro­batic pre­ci­sion. Chris­tine was charm­ing and friendly, but I had be­gun to dis­like her with a fiery in­ten­sity months be­fore. It was vis­ceral, and I couldn’t quite un­der­stand it. My dis­dain flus­tered her; I could see it in her eyes when they met mine. I had unmasked her. She thought I knew. Yet, un­til that day at the pool, my com­pre­hen­sion of their af­fair had the blurry qual­ity of a bad dream. The situation was so grotesque in its grown-up bla­tancy that it felt in­ac­ces­si­ble to my naive brain, like a bub­ble float­ing just out of reach. Clues sur­rounded me, fire­flies of adult in­for­ma­tion, at once ob­vi­ous and in­tan­gi­ble. With

an­i­mal in­stinct, I knew that Chris­tine was a threat. I dreaded any plans in­volv­ing her and loathed my fa­ther for their con­nec­tion. But noth­ing had changed. Life was as it had al­ways been. My mother had no­ticed their chem­istry, but when she had com­plained to my fa­ther on a car ride home from Chris­tine’s house one night, he had mocked her sus­pi­cions. The Gypsy Kings CD to which my mother had sung and shim­mied from be­hind the wheel ear­lier that day now pro­vided a dis­cor­dant score to their con­ver­sa­tion. I heard him laugh and ac­cuse her of para­noia. In the dark­ness of the back­seat, I stayed still be­tween my slum­ber­ing sib­lings. Ques­tion­ing my fa­ther was for­bid­den, so I did not. I ob­served him and Chris­tine as they ex­changed amorous smirks at the pool’s edge, obliv­i­ous that I had be­come com­plicit in their se­cret. I let my body sink into the wa­ter. Dread squeezed my ch­est in a vise so tightly that I might burst. A mil­lion in­con­se­quen­tial pieces of me would van­ish into the chlo­ri­nated ex­panse. The weight of the wa­ter would ab­sorb my im­plo­sion, and I would dis­ap­pear. At the bot­tom of the pool, I let out my breath into a stream of bub­bles that rushed to the sur­face, each of them filled with my anxiety, each of them plump with the se­crets I knew I would carry. I dredged up my in­ner ac­tress. They hadn’t seen me see them. I hadn’t seen any­thing. I came up for air. Chris­tine and my fa­ther re­ceded into the back­ground, two small fig­ures by the deep end, as the rest of the pool with its myr­iad swim­mers zoomed into loud fo­cus. With a jolt, I tuned in to the clam­our of the chil­dren around me. My sib­lings had to re­main clue­less. I forced a smile as I joined their hand­stand game. Later, our fin­ger­tips wrin­kled like prunes, we headed to the locker rooms. On the women’s side, I skirted Chris­tine’s light-hearted chit-chat and made a bee­line to a pri­vate chang­ing stall, anx­ious to shield my pre­pubescent body and bro­ken heart from view. With each minute that passed since their kiss, de­nial’s ten­ta­cles sank deeper into me. Was I cer­tain? Did I re­ally see it? We gath­ered at the exit. My fa­ther an­nounced we would give Chris­tine and her boys a ride home. All of us kids squeezed in the two back rows of the mini­van, the younger chil­dren noisy with glee. My fa­ther was in the driver’s seat, and Chris­tine sat across from him—where my mother would. My hair was wet and cold. Stiff win­ter clothes stuck to my damp body and we all stank of chlo­rine. I knew the smell would linger for a while.

As my fa­ther and Chris­tine buck­led their seat belts, they glanced at each other and smiled. I sat mis­er­ably close to the stage in this tor­tur­ous theatre and prayed that I would dis­in­te­grate into the tan up­hol­stery of the back­seat. He reached over, and his fin­gers gen­tly grazed her cheek. My heart flinched. This was the ca­ress he used with my mother in mo­ments of af­fec­tion. A cu­rated bal­ance of pos­ses­sion and ten­der­ness on which I had re­lied as a bea­con of re­lief when my par­ents’ re­la­tion­ship seemed volatile. In an in­stant, that ges­ture had be­come fraud­u­lent. He grinned, Chris­tine beamed. My ev­ery hair stood on end as elec­tric­ity pulsed, screech­ing, through my body. Years later, when doubts would cloud my mem­ory of their kiss at the end of the pool, the im­age of his hand brush­ing the soft skin of her jaw­line re­mained etched on the soft tis­sues of my brain in colours as vivid as an Andy Warhol paint­ing. In the back­seat, with a lump in my throat and a rock in the pit of my stom­ach, I willed my­self to be­come in­vis­i­ble. But to them, I al­ready was. He turned the ig­ni­tion. We drove Chris­tine home. As she and her chil­dren climbed out of our fam­ily car, a numb­ing veil of nor­malcy set­tled over us. Be­side me, my brother and sis­ter bick­ered. My fa­ther tuned the ra­dio to sen­ti­men­tal easy favourites. We headed back to my mother through the win­ter rain, and I thought of my se­crets left float­ing on the sur­face of the pool.

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