Published Monthly



California, 1980
by Clay Waters

I broke though the water and raised myself up out of the pool. Though the afternoon heat was dissipating, I was still half-dry before I reached my chair.

The orange-pop sun had just dropped below the fenceline, highlighting the purple cloudline behind the Santa Ynez range. Dusk's moment of clarity had arrived, every molecule emerging discrete, a counterpoint to the low amorphous rumble of rush hour and the burbling waterfall at the other end of the pool.

The pool's edges were scalloped with royal blue tiles, gilding the gentler blue of the pool itself. Easy steps of gray slate dawdled down into the shallows. At midpoint it angled down, a tame crevasse going down nine feet. Denise and I had spent the summer floating in that secure, Ph balanced, algae-free slab of water, the strong overkill of her father's zealous chlorine ritual keeping us half-drugged, like worshippers willingly hypnotized in a miasma of church frankincense.

I heard the sliding glass door scroll open, followed by the clap of bare feet on the sandstone patio. Denise laid a pitcher of minty tea and a record-store rag down on the bone-white card table. "Read it," she ordered, smiling obscurely and flicking me on the nose.

She turned and pointed her toes toward the water, pitching herself in. The last of the light made slow zings across the surface as the water undulated under her smooth movement, winnowed through several hundred hours of swimming lessons.

The white table had originally been part of the pool itself, submerged in the pool's alcove, a hideaway sheltered by prickly bushes for people to sit and drink around. When she was eight Denise had tried to swim under the table and had conked herself unconscious. If her dad hadn't been watching….Now the table stood aloof, stark whiteness amid the gray tiles, like an unslimed antiquity from Atlantis. The alcove itself, stripped of its reason for being, had become a hidey-hole where she'd often duck to change clothes.

"So what do you think?" she asked, unfolding her long body into a languorous backstroke.

"Hold on." I picked up the smudgy paper--The Santa Barbara Whine, har har--and read the bit Denise had marked with a smiley face.

Apparently, scientists at Cal-Berkeley (my dad called it Beserkley because of the hippies) were predicting that 23 million years from now, California would break off and drift away into the Pacific.

"Ok. So what do you want me to do about it?"

"It's interesting, that's all." She clambered out of the pool and wrapped up in a purple beach towel. We sat drinking tea, listening to the ice slowly cracking in the pitcher.

Tonight our folks are together at one of the city's tame Bacchus Balls to commemorate the new pinot noir. It's a new grape, hard to grow in California. My father has his doubts about it, but he's hoping. They'll be out till past midnight.

We're alone. But nothing will happen. Nothing does.

"They say we're due for a big earthquake too," Denise said. She blew her nose undaintily in front of me--one of the privileges of friendship. Denise runs distance for the track team, acts in the school play, takes a tan well. Secretly virgin, a little superior to her environment. Her friendship was one clue that maybe I was too.

"How long is the pool open? That's the real question."

"Daddy says he's putting the tarp after school starts," she said. "He still thinks you can catch cold if you swim in the fall. What a dope."

Everyone would want to know where we'd been and what we'd done. Denise had spent a week in Rome and three days in Paris. The neatest place I'd been was here, in the Morrison's backyard. Denise had met Paul McCartney backstage; the coolest person I'd seen all summer was Denise.

And then there was Molly.

"What will we say about Molly?"

"That she was a sweet girl," Denise said. "A little strange. That we didn't see it coming."

The funeral had been that afternoon. All I could think about during the ceremony had been getting out of my sweltering pants and starched-up shirt and jumping into the Morrisons' pool. We'd been back from the reception a couple of hours, having folded our dress clothes respectfully across the den sofa.

Four nights ago Molly had wrapped her father's exercise weights around her ankles and jumped into their family's pool. Just six-feet deep at its deepest, someone had said. She'd been really tiny. The windows along the back of the house had been curtained off--because they overlooked the pool I figured. We'd never been invited over when she was alive.

Had she treaded through the water one last time, to confirm the depth, to test her resolve to really go through with it? I pictured her pale, grim, determined face and could imagine it. Molly had seemed immune to contentment, shunning it like the sun.

Everyone said she looked peaceful. Even I did, though I didn't think it. I thought she looked quizzical in her coffin, skin suspiciously puffed and unlined, as if she'd been inflated slightly and squeezed back into her trusty black coat, which was still swathed in Bad Brains and Clash buttons.

Besides Denise and I and a few others with folks in the wine trade, the only people our age there were three thin guys and a stumpy girl who came and left the funeral together. Even without being palely alienated from the rest, they stood out by wearing buttons with pictures of Molly. I didn't get close enough to see for sure, but she may have been smiling in the photo.

"Did you talk to her mom?" Denise asked. "She's still lost in space. Talked about building the pool for Molly when she was a toddler. They called her Waterwings. Then she got older and didn't like the pool anymore. Then they find her at the bottom of it…isn't that just too pitiful?"

"This is going to sound goofy, but what if we'd just invited her over that night? To play Scrabble or something lame like that."

"She'd have done it next Saturday night."

I was pawing for thoughts. "But why was she alone Saturday night in the first place?"

"You've been alone on a Saturday night and didn't kill yourself."

"That's because my pool's not deep enough."

"Smart-ass."

"How did we miss it?"

"What was there to miss?"

"I don't know. Wearing black all summer?"

"Totally. But that was Molly. She was always moody."

"She could draw," I said. Molly's one tenuous connection to school life had been art--Ms. Dobbs (with either a discerning or pitying eye) would send her charcoal and pencil sketches off to academy competitions, though her conglomerations of cemeteries and goggle-eyed girls went unappreciated.

"She was talented but way twisted," Denise said. "Personally, I'd just rather be kinda smart rather than some weird super-genius."

"She wasn't all that weird. I mean she wasn't a troublemaker."

Denise gave me a sour look. "Well, she's a girl, she wasn't gonna start fires up like Joel Hardacre, you know."

"Maybe if we'd been just a little nicer to her, gotten her more involved in things."

"What are you talking about? We were nicer to her than anyone else. Oh god, you're not going to start writing bad poetry, are you? You didn't, like, have a crush on her?"

"Not a crush-crush." I always thought she was cute in a mousy way. But I didn't have much--anything--in common with her, besides the fact her mother worked for Denise's dad. "I mean, no one else was so punk."

"You appreciate her now," Denise said. "When she's gone. It's always like that. Too bad we never find out what people really think about us until we're dead." She lapsed into silence for a few minutes. The silence didn't feel uncomfortable, like a harbinger. It had been a strange day all around.

Then, in a low drone unlike her usual ringing voice, she added: "Who can tell what's happening in someone's head? Anyone can kill themselves if they really want to."

"You tried that once before," I said, just teasing.

Denise didn't say anything, just kept staring into the lapping water.

Then she stood up, approaching the pool with an odd hesitance. Then, bouncing on her heels, she dived in, making a dark splash.

I listened, waiting for Denise to knife through the surface, but heard nothing.

The water recovered its pristine calm. With the sun just down and the porch lights off, the pool had become opaque. Even if there was something bad happening, I wouldn't be able to see it.

I stood up. Still no sound, beyond the gurgling of the fountain.

The air felt chilly on my neck. It had been a minute, at least. If she was playing, then she was trying hard. If she was trying to scare me, she was doing that well too. My lungs felt pressed, as if I was under water myself. Time was speeding up.

"Denise. Denise? Denise!"

My voice sounded thin and shrieky--my words skipping once across the water and dropping under like a stone. I jumped in feet first, plowing the water like mud, fingers flying frantically in the hope and fear I'd touch something.

I submerged, but everything around was blue-black.

Resurfacing, I gasped, "Denise! This isn't funny."

I stayed quiet for a couple of seconds, as long as I dared, then made a cement-footed slog for the shallows, as if I was running through a bad dream.

"Nick! Over here, Nick!"

Rapturous relief flooded over me--if not for the surrounding water I could have collapsed on the spot. "Where are you?"

"Turn around!"

Denise crouched in the alcove, chin comfortable on her knees. She lowered her pointed toes into the pool, dashing water vaguely toward me.

"Now you're my hero!" She said, with contentment.

My relief drained away. I lumbered through the water towards her, feeling slow but crafty.

I knew what I'd do: Stay silent until I got close enough--then smack her hard, hard enough to draw blood, hard enough to kill her grin for good.

Instead I got dumbly up next to her, like some ancient anonymous sucker turned to stone by a spiteful sprite.

She wore a slightly dazed look, as if digesting the confirmation of a long-held belief. "Wow, that was something. I’m flattered," she said, sincerely, vacantly. She tickled my stomach to get a reaction. That always worked. But I felt sick there. "Don't even try, Nick." She dug in harder. "Laugh, Nick." She looked up. "Nick?"

I turned.

"Nick, come here!" She splashed into the pool beside me, sounding afraid.

I found words: "You had to scare me to death just to prove I liked you?"

"But you never talked about me like that." Already she was near tears.

"You don't think I liked you before?" And I’m supposed to still like you?"

"You still like me, don't you? Tell me!" The last two words dissolved into a craggy jag of crying. "It's just the funeral. Nick, look at me! Look at me, Nick! Please! Don’t hate me! I was stupid! Talk to me, Nick! Slap me, Nick! Slap me hard!"

She flinched back her shoulders severely, thrusting her neck out and exposing her coltish collarbones, eyes closed, lips trembling.

It would feel good to leave her that way: To pedal home with my good clothes folded in my backpack and write her out of my life forever--for a while.

Instead I scrunched her hair up in my fist and dragged her toward me, putting her trembling face up to mine. I rested my mouth dumbly on her cheek and slopped my tongue and lips over her face in a mockery of lust. I punished her with kisses, my pleasure wholly spite as I waited to be pushed off, for her trickle of tears to cease, for her to pay off her debt in the salt rolling down her cheek.

"Please, Nick--" Before my tongue muffled her again she managed, "--it hurts."

We hugged and held each other until we were still as the pool. Then we got into our towels and stumbled inside and shut the sliding glass door for the night.

***

She emerges from the deep freeze with the ice cream. The freezer's smoky chill appears to conjure her, smiling like an ambivalent witch, lively menace in eclipse for the night.

She scoops out two bowls of strawberry and places them on the kitchen counter to melt. Nothing else will happen tonight.

The Morrisons keep their house a bit warm, so I open the window of the guest bedroom, over the pool.

There's another Denise under the sun now, one who watches--coolly, secretly, smiling--her friend splashing around shrieking her name. But I wouldn't see her tomorrow. Not even by the pool.

Things change: Usually slowly. Sometimes like earthquakes. You can't predict. You just live on.

The chimes struck midnight. School is 11 days away. It still feels like forever.

In a moment I'll return to the den and we'll eat ice cream and fall asleep in front of HBO.

I listen in the dark and imagine, under the gurgle: plates, shifting.


Clay Waters has had stories and poems appear in The Santa Barbara Review, Liquid Ohio, and Abyss & Apex. He is currently watching too much Doctor Who than is healthy. He works and writes from Hoboken, New Jersey.

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