“Pedophile,” Amy says. She lowers her face into the water, covering her mouth, but I follow her eyes across the pool. He sits alone at the end of the bleachers on the concrete deck. Instead of watching the children, who move in fits and starts across the lanes, learning the breast stroke, the back stroke, free style, he’s bent over, hands clasped, staring at his feet.
“The new boyfriend of a parent, probably,” I say.
“He’s not here for Hailey, or Jessica, or Justin.” Her eyes move again around the aquatics center, matching kids in the pool with the parents who clump together in the bleachers. We know all the kids who come for lessons, all the parents, if not by name, then by face, by presence. “Ped.”
“Yeah, okay.” I roll my eyes. But Amy’s already gone. From the edge of the pool I watch her glide underneath the water, like a shark, toward the other end. I glance toward the locker room, waiting for Katie, my 5:30, to appear. But I don’t see her, so I sneak a look back at the man. He’s in his thirties, maybe, old enough to have a kid taking lessons. He’s not out of place in jeans, a zip pullover, and hiking boots. When our eyes meet, I look away.
When I was eleven, in a hotel pool, I was playing with my younger brother when I felt someone watching. A guy in the hot tub. The same age, thirties maybe, with a neatly clipped rust beard, wide green eyes. Handsome in a way not out of place. I turned away, feeling my cheeks warm. He had made a mistake, I thought—I was big for my age, with breasts the size of lemons already. I was thirteen, or fifteen, he thought. Still too young.
But I felt the strange pangs of desire, being desired. Not like a crush, something different, unknowable, like the deep end, where my brother and I were forbidden.
When I looked back, he continued to stare. I didn’t understand. I felt ashamed, as if I did something wrong. I was too big for my age. I was too curvy. In a way out of place. I grabbed our inflatable pool ball and crouched behind my brother in the shallow end, who splashed at the water, pretending he was Batman or some other superhero. The next summer, we took swimming lessons. I swam competitively through high school and now work as an instructor at the aquatics center between semesters at college. If there’s one thing you should teach your kids, I commend the parents at orientation, it’s how to swim.
“Katie!” I wave across the pool to my 5:30 and swim over.
She’s younger than I was then, maybe seven. We start with moving her arms, slicing the water, pulling back through the water, slicing the water again. All learning is through repetition, until it feels natural. As I tread water, watching her, under her goggles she stares off into the distance, syrupy unicorn fantasy eyes.
“Watch your stroke.” I lace my fingers around her forearms and we go through the motion again and again. They’re just little kids, and it’s hard for them to focus on the important things. I stand in water up to my chest, my hand under her stomach, the only thing between her and the bottom, as she slaps her arms against the water, her eyes closed, her lips parted. When I glance up again at the bleachers, the man’s gone.
In the parking lot that night, I look around, lock my car doors, text my parents. I don’t remember when exactly it all became natural: looking over my shoulder, texting my parents, gulping just enough air when turning my shoulders between strokes. I think about Katie tonight, her flailing arms, body straining away from my grasp, inching toward the deep end. Knowing, at some point, I have to let go.
Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Summer She Was Under Water (Black Lawrence Press, 2017) The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press 2013), and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press, forthcoming), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books 2013), and three collections of fiction (The Company of Strangers, forthcoming; From Here, 2014; and Close Encounters, 2007). Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers, The Washington Post, and the Literary Hub, and she’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize six times. She is the editor in chief of the online lit weekly jmww.