They are teens, actually, the women poolside. The boys decide which ones wear g-strings, which ones straddle laps, who is off-limits. The boys bend into easy shapes, kick feet at the spray, watch. Taut on the diving board, the girls stretch their mouths into child’s screams as they fall at the water. It’s fall but every day at the indoor pool with the high ceilings and the fogged-up sunroofs and the Kool-Aid blue water feels like a performance—just like summer.
Naomi Kahane’s act is nonchalance, she stands apart on the tiled deck. A fat girl at the pool, what’s the problem?
At Melissa Chester way up high on tippy-toes, the boys chant “Melissa! Melissa! Melissa!” and Naomi uses this moment to slip away before the lawless energy finds her. Mr. Hara, the only authority figure present, plays sheepdog to the class’s Wile E. Coyote: knowingly powerless and mostly disinterested. He reads the newspaper, legs up on the bench.
“I’m just getting a drink,” Naomi lies to her teacher. He’s the one who thought up this trip as a way to reward the class for Bowling for Cancer. First bowling, with all the ass taunts, then this. She was sure that earlier in the day the bus driver—the one that sometimes smokes out his window on the way to school—gave her a sympathetic wink. She sat near the front, with her backpack covering her wide lap, her arms folded to cover her rolls of stomach and breasts. She wanted to ask him if he’d let her drive around with him for the three hours they were supposed to frolic at the pool.
“Go.” Mr. Hara doesn’t look at her directly. His eyes go to the boardwalk. He’d probably avoid looking at any of the girls right now, because girls in bathing suits are too close to indecent for a teacher’s gaze, but he uses his perfect poker face with Naomi even when she’s fully clothed. Or even, like now, when he’s not looking at her. She thinks that he hates her, and she thinks that she might hate him more.
Cotton batting, Styrofoam chips—there is no way to hide thighs in a bathing suit. Naomi pads past the lifeguard chair without incident. Past Jimmy Canterell—tall, nice guy Jimmy Canterell. He’s got his eyes wide at Melissa Chester who’s pretending to be scared at the edge of the diving board, her black one-piece cut so high her hip bones are waving hello to their fans. Gretchen looks like she’s going to say hi, but Jacob Siegel’s hanging off her, Jacob who once called Naomi Shamu the Whale.
Go. Keep going. Naomi holds the air in, battles gravity, but her belly does its own thing. Two loaves of soft bread here, then there.
Fitting in with the crowd of mothers and their charges in the kiddie pool. Bathing suits with flat, wide straps. Plump women with pubic hair crawling out of their swimsuits.
A little boy stares. Naomi tries raising her lip in a snarl like Billy Idol, but one of the women looks over so she drops it. The woman is saying to her friend, “The case-lot place is cheapest.”
“Then you got forty cans of soup.”
“Well, you have to be smart about it.”
The kid paddles over, his orange swim trunks blazing like a sunburn on his bum. Naomi wonders how children can have such big eyes. He doesn’t blink. She doesn’t smile, not even when case-lot mom calls out “Nathan” to check in. The boy retreats.
From the big pool, single-word protests fill the air—“Melissa!,” “Briony!,” “Masud!”—and end in splashes in the deep. Naomi smacks at the water, bad water, bad water. She treads in place, or goes through the motions. Her feet touch the ground.
Over by the high divers Jimmy, nice Jimmy, the tallest boy, stands with his hips lop-sided, one knee bent. All he’s missing is a cigarette and a brick wall behind him. He’s got a smirk on his face. He’s too proud of it to know he should hide it. If Mr. Hara saw that smirk he’d know to keep an eye on him.
Jimmy heads into the handicapped washroom on deck and then a minute later Melissa Chester follows him in. One of them—Naomi imagines it’s Jimmy—pushes the little red rectangle into place: Occupied.
Most afternoons, Naomi gets the house to herself for a few hours before her parents come home. Some days, when the sun lights up every dot of dust between her and the framed living room photos of generations of zaftig Kahane women, she takes off her shirt and bra and lets her palms hover at her breasts. She waves at the air and wills the specks to rain on her, prickle her. Goosebumps rise at the contact. That is how sensitive she is.
Now she relaxes back into the hot water. She has her own secrets to relive—public encounters; hotel, airport trysts. (In her affairs, the men are older. The light filters; she is sharp angles and cheekbones. Her belly rounds into rounder, fuller breasts. Her hair is shiny like polished marble countertops. They—there have been many—say her name as if it is an admission. Naomi.)
The red Occupied wiggles. A hint of green Vacant comes in, then out, of view at the pace of Jimmy’s slow tongue at Melissa’s ear. Or else it’s Melissa’s head down low pushing into Jimmy, Jimmy’s hard back teasing the door latch at her beat. Occupied, yes, oh yes. Naomi can picture Melissa saying it. Oh yes, with her eyes wide, just like she’s practiced in the mirror, fogging it up. Everyone has.
Underwater is the only kind of quiet in this place—it vibrates the racket into a quiet so intense it numbs. Just close your eyes. Let the water on like a blanket. World out there be damned.
Little boy swims in again. He gets close, his big eyes unblinking even against the chlorine. They stare at each other and it stings.
The first man who made love to Naomi was a European. Karl. He ate salty licorice, fish called gravlax. He drank wine with his meals. Together they watched Bergman films and they both knew exactly when to laugh and when to cry. On their first date he took her to a small park hidden between two churches, all cobblestones and ivy, private enough for the perfect romantic picnic. He saved a paper-wrapped truffle for dessert. “Take a bite when I kiss you,” he said. He exhaled softly in her ear, and kissed. The truffle was creamy smooth. Not too sweet like the kids like it. The good stuff.
She didn’t want him to meet her high school friends, and he said they shouldn’t waste time with others. So they were each other’s secrets.
When does a moment become big enough to erase other, littler moments? This eclipsed everything, made up for it all.
On their second date at his hotel he asked her to undress. He ran the shower hot. For Naomi, right then, all previous showers disappeared into routine—Karl moved soap in circles at the small of her back and this moment became something new, the beginning of a new pattern, something else. Bodies feel best when they’re wet. Hands lose traction even at hips. Urgency overtakes panic at the thought of slipping. It’s not a shower anymore, what it is requires a new word, a new classification.
The mind, Naomi read somewhere, is the body’s main erogenous zone. Turn it on and it can make the body wonderful. She learns also that you can turn the mind off, too, when it suits. Some moments earn a place in memory and some don’t. Mr. Hara is not a memory; he is a fact in the present, then dismissed from the mind. Jacob Siegel? Same.
Karl? Karl is hers, a memory on repeat. She remembers new things about him each time.
The steam coming off the showers smells fake-sweet like apples, like the apple shampoo that all the girls use. Melissa Chester pushes the stuff around in her hair, and soft meringues fall to the tile.
“Where’d you go?” Gretchen pokes Naomi in the fattest part of her belly.
“Kiddie pool. It’s like a Jacuzzi.”
“Did you see . . .” Gretchen turns her head towards Melissa Chester.
“Mmm.” Naomi waits for it.
“Yeah,” Gretchen hooks a finger at the bottom of her suit. “Change one letter and you know what.” But the look on Gretchen’s face isn’t condemnation, it’s jealousy.
Melissa Chester punches the button on the hair dryers that make it impossible to hear. Her towel is a thin white shortie.
Sometimes girls just have a sense. Melissa is half-bent, her eyes closed, wet hair being attacked by hot air. A spontaneous moment of silence sets in as many of the girls, almost women, understand that something has just happened. They wouldn’t say it this way but they know Melissa Chester has betrayed them. She has scored too high. Introduced a foreign currency.
On the bus back to school, Melissa sits with her best friend Isabelle Reimer. They slouch into a pair of harps, whispering. Jimmy Canterell holds onto his smirk. He laughs at his friend’s impersonation of Andrew Dice Clay, but late. Like maybe his ears are plugged with water.
The bus ride back will be easy for Naomi. Fat girl at the pool—was there one? The others are distracted by themselves.
The school is the same yellow and blue it’s been for all of time. But in fall it appears colourless—the paint is faded and the fall rain washes everything grey.
“Funny to bring you all the way back to school just so you can go home again.” The bus driver takes a long drag on his cigarette. He wears jeans instead of the blue pants the other drivers wear. He’s tall so he always looks a little uncomfortable folded in behind the wheel. He wears faded white running shoes. “You live closer to the pool, no?”
Today is one of those days that rejects its season. The sun burns through shriveled clouds. Teenagers walk with jackets tied around their waists, shirt cuffs pushed up around their elbows. Sunny days on the west coast always feel like a reprieve, and in fall they hit like a dose of anarchy; gym drills scrapped to take advantage of the dry field, lunches outside on the grass. Now, after the three o’clock bell, small groups linger by the front gates. There’s no reason to go anywhere.
“No?” he asks again, like a European, turns a statement into a question at the last second. That’s how sure of themselves they are. The driver has black hair, black stubble on his face. She thinks he must be Italian or Spanish. Naomi hesitates before answering because she can’t think of how to affirm a question phrased in the negative.
“I get on at Central.”
“F’you want, I’ll give you a ride back. The other bus will be at least ten more minutes.”
Karl was the first. The contours of his face blur in her memory, teasing her. He was such a pleasant tease. Her mind can’t decide how it was that they’d first met—maybe in a fine restaurant, or else, the first, very first, time she met him could’ve been when they were standing in line at a movie. He’d overheard her with a friend, or her him, and it went from there. When he first touched her, it felt right, almost as if she were guiding his hand. Naomi. He said it and she knew she was his. She was prized, desired. Naomi.
The bus retraces its route. Small houses flash and are gone. Tricycles for sale at the liquidators, $39.99. Naomi forgot that tricycles even existed. She says so out loud, trying to sound sophisticated. “Tricycles, how old-fashioned,” she says.
“Are you Italian,” she asks as they slow.
“Probably. Bit of everything.” He watches the road, answering a second after he hears her questions like he’s concentrating hard on driving.
“I’m Jewish,” she offers. He doesn’t ask her anything so she decides to sit in silence the rest of the way. She lifts her backpack to her lap, leans over it.
“I’m Stuart,” he says finally. “You’re Jewish and I’m Stuart,” he laughs. Stuart, the bus driver, pulls over near the park.
He pushes his foot down and the bus rests, sighing into the dirt shoulder under the pines. He’s undoing his belt as he rises. He doesn’t have far to go to reach Naomi. She’s in the seat closest, the lady chauffeured.
It feels different, this. “You’re just fine,” he says. He takes a handful of her stomach, squeezes. “When you’re older the guys won’t care about this.”
She is Melissa and he is Jimmy, she thinks. She is not a slug, but maybe. And maybe that would better than what she is. His look must be the opposite of unrequited, his eyes go cloudy, like he’s looking at an ocean or at heaven, but he’s looking down at her legs. He must see something in her—and he must think she sees something in him.
When it’s over he tells her that she’s a good girl. It’s a funny thing to say, she thinks, and she wills it from her mind. He touches a lever and the front doors part. She hops off like she does each morning, landing hard like a kid on two feet. When she gets home it’s almost dinnertime. We had to go to the poooool, she’ll whine to her parents. She’ll cry and cry, her fat cheeks red and swollen from tears, and knowing how cruel kids are, they’ll understand how hard it must’ve been. »Poolside was selected as the Winner, Fiction Category, Lush Triumphant 2010 Awards.