Don’t You Swim?
by Sara Lippmann
If she’s smart about it, Nora can survive the whole boat ride without incident. The boat, a 60-foot catamaran, accommodates 12 other families. Plus crew. Equipment, buffet and bar. Maybe, it’s not even him, standing in line at the port with his wife, her straw tote and rash-guarded twins. His Dartmouth cap a giveaway, but maybe, he won’t recognize her. Abortion Roy. She will hustle to the stern and slather sunscreen on her children, pump and rub, hold on, lobster ears, the neck is always neglected, let me get in that crease and blend, she will fiddle with snacks and size out snorkeling masks while silently Jedi-ing his family to the prow. Even if their eyes meet she can pull this off. College had taught her, among other things (semiotics, Saussure, the bus route to Planned Parenthood) how to master the I-don’t-See-You Game: a way of seeming engaged but aloof, gazing past a shoulder as if wrestling a problem of the universe too grave for the mere mortal in her field of view. She angles her chin to the sky. A pelican nose dives into the sea. She calculates. The trip would be an hour out, drop anchor, flutter with angelfish, then another fifteen. Once they reach the island, she would be free.
Welcome to Catamaran Adventures. Watch your step, the skipper says. He holds out his hand to women, but to women and children only, and she takes it, allowing him to ease her up the suspension ramp. Nora acts according to plan, muscling to the back, her husband securing seats with their stuff, spreading shovels and towels and limbs, but soon, he will be off again. Evan is never satisfied to stay in one place. The deck fills ups quickly. Sure enough, once the captain finishes safety precautions, her husband rises to roam. It is a party boat and beer in hand, he wants to party. Who doesn’t want to party? Family style, of course, he says, rustling the swampy heads of the kids. Theo and Racine are five and nine. Theo wears floaties like blood pressure cuffs. Racine hocks fresh spit in her goggles, squeaks it around the lenses with her thumb to seal off fog. It is 9:30 in the morning. The wind kicks up; the water a choppy blue green, as if a satellite view of earth had been fed through a blender. Nora’s stomach churns. Abortion Roy. What were the chances? But then, this was the Caribbean in February, so here they were with half of suburban New Jersey. It was statistics, not fate. Nora knuckles the rail. Her hair whips her face in salt-crusted strands.
Boat drink? Evan says.
Weak stomach, Nora clutches her mother roll.
He tips his beer, nods, offers to drum up a Dramamine.
Within minutes, the men have found each other, ball caps covering baldheads in the signpost of fraternity. It’s like a scene from Animal Planet: the glance and sniff, chests swelled to bumping. Already they are close talking. Nora’s husband never misses an opportunity. You were in Hanover? My wife went to Hanover. Evan says Hanover instead of Dartmouth, a trend popularized by Harvard co-eds who claimed matriculation at Boston in faux-humility, occasionally Cambridge, before clarifying no, no, no, they never crossed the pond. Maybe you know each other. Nora! Evan waves, boisterous. He is proud of her pedigree. When he smiles, his dimple flashes and he looks like a boy – not Theo, plagued with her resting bitch face – but more like Racine, toothy and open, jaw thrust and ready to slurp up the world on a chilled half-shell. Evan is always telling Nora to put herself out there, be friendly, mingle, you never know who you might meet or what they might bring to the table. It’s never too late to start something. His outlook would be a refreshing mist should ever she wish to be misted. Now, as he tilts his amber bottleneck, her children clamber over her with their wants, chewing gum, lollipops, whatever she has, her bathing suit slipping off her shoulders as they dig and reach for crackers, juice, pawing her face like puppies for the sunglasses from her head. The skipper weaves through the deck indicating life jackets beneath the cushioned bench, Roy’s wife breezing by, did we pack enough sandwiches, I can’t find Jack’s no mayo. The wife has a nose whittled thin and a voice that lilts low in register before trailing off. Roy says they have everything they could possibly want right here. Clear the aisle, the skipper says. Roy performs the big green salute. Their college mascot was an anthropomorphic beer keg, but she was never up on school spirit, was only filled with Roy’s overachieving sperm her senior year.
Fertility is wasted on the young. One night, a party or not even, a casual hang in an off campus house stuffed with trash salvaged furniture and a pair of milk crates, the season, fall, that one week of prime leaves before interminable winter, couch greased with beer and back knee and newsprint and sweat. Nora is not sure how she wound up there. She entered parties the way she entered most things in college, with a mix of curiosity and ennui, like sampling a vaguely repulsive pairing of food, whipped cream with oatmeal or tuna and peanut butter, just to see how the effect would play on the palate. Roy was attractive in a textbook way, iron arms, thick neck, and Nora gravitated toward people like this, whose physicality could either protect her from outside elements or shatter her to pieces. At the party he flirted with her in a knowing, indiscriminate fashion, casting a wide net the way tuna fishers snagged the idle, unwitting dolphin, no big. There are bound to be accidents. She was there. She was drinking. Her feet stuck to the floor. It was interesting to gauge how much she could pour into herself before her bladder protested, breaking the seal. She was a vessel. Her tolerance was disproportionate to her size. They’d lived in the same dorm freshman year so he wasn’t a total stranger.
When he hovered over her, hand on the lintel, face flushed from drink, grinning, she told herself with the right cowboy boots and the right shorts he could be an early era Bill Murray, yodeling on a bike in the woods. This tapped her need for discovery. She wanted to see how he tasted, salty, sour, shove her tongue down the scratchy flesh of his throat and nudge loose the saucy beads of sloppy Joe from his molars, she wanted to pull on his three foot bong and hose that tray of white powder cut like fence posts, and she wanted him to hunger for her in return and also not, to see her as a body and absent of body, to take her for what they were: two lusty, anchorless souls colliding in the most abjectly human, intimate yet impersonal of ways.
Like that, they fucked, once twice, she threw up in his bathroom, wiped her mouth on a washcloth that smelled of mildew and bleach, squeezed his torqued up tube of toothpaste to shellac her gums with a bit of mint. Maybe he walked in on her hunched over the toilet, maybe it was his roommate who found her mid-retch and held back her hair in his fist, sweeping it across his beard and sniffing it up like a bunch of dried sage.
The abortion, like everything else, she approached as experiment. Rode the bus in winter, heavy chains wound around tires crunching through a foot of fresh snow, frost clouding the glass in a latticed virus she could not see out from, and thought: this is what makes me! As much as it was an uninspired thought, it was honest: Nora was an acquisitive girl of a certain privilege. There were life experiences to collect. She pinched her wrist to remind herself that this was happening to her and not to someone else. The person in the adjacent seat was a mouth breather and a knitter, her needle dipping in and out of her chaste hand, which made Nora think of that well-traveled joke about marriage and armchair coverlets. She even said: Do you know the one about the crocheted doilies? One what? The woman called her dear, so Nora fell quiet.
At the clinic she rustled herself down along the butcher paper flounced over the table, kept her socks on in the stirrups. They were the red stripe and heather stitch of sock money, as if a lovey had been disemboweled then reconfigured onto her feet. The process was cold and crampy but then it was over and Nora had lived through it, was living in the gerund sense. Behold Nora in the world! She imagined picking up the phone and calling girls from high school: long distance at Boulder, Maryland, at Emory, but thought better of it, leaving the incident to tunnel inside and callus over, like a spongy layer of moss hiding a sinkhole. It was adult. She was capable. Nora heard stories about other girls, girls who waited, paralyzed by guilt or indecision, less fortunate girls, girls without access or immediate funds, and thus, saw their bellies bloom into a second trimester. Recently, a big media personality made seven figures off a memoir that engaged such ethics. But Nora had taken care of herself efficiently – six weeks, barely a heartbeat, nothing more than a mush of cells. Later, she’d stab herself black and blue with needles of progesterone and wish she could have harvested away better parts of herself for when she needed them most.
Roy sticks out his hand. Howdy! He squints in scrutiny but really he’s protecting his eyes from the sun. The catamaran snags a wave and his cap flies off, sailing into the air. He leaps to retrieve it and his belly dips out of his shirt, a happy trail she doesn’t remember arrowed toward his trunks, but he misses, which is fine because at that moment the engine heaves a sputtering exhale and stills, his hat bopping on the surface beside a lone seagull, easily within reach. She is surprised to see he still has good hair.
Jessica Pine, right? Which is amazing, as Evan just uttered her name, but it doesn’t take listening skills to make it at the Ivys. Nor does it take a name to impregnate a classmate and yet somehow he remembers a first and last. Jessica Pine must have been someone. What had she done with her bachelor’s degree? The captain says prepare to snorkel. The men have their phones out, trading contacts. There are plans for dinner, for playdates, the kids roughly the same age, can you believe. Were you econ? He says without glancing up, punching letters. A pale scar runs along his isthmus between thumb and forefinger. For an instant, Nora feels a nostalgic twinge for the raw fumble of human desire before a mind-numbing choreography sets in. How messy it can be, how beautiful when you don’t know what you’re doing. They’d slept diagonally in a tangle of unwashed sheets.
You have a strawberry on your ass, Nora says. Matter of fact, blunt affect, like a Tourette’s tic, but Abortion Roy looks up. They make eye contact. Weird, gross, Mom, she hears. Evan raises a brow as if to say: Honestly? This is the best you can do? The twins – Roy’s twins – (dodged that one, twins running in his family) come around for an adjustment of their straps. His wife tugs on his sleeve. How does she know?
The boat rocks in place, the motion unsettling. Heat floods her cheeks. If there’s a flicker of recognition on his part, she misses it, busy as she is pushing down the oceanic swells. In another life, this is the moment she’d puke.
Joke, she defuses, awkward shrug, and everyone laughs, dismissing her pitiful attempt at humor.
Tonight at the hotel she’ll tag them in a post, arms looped, beach sarongs, staggered by height and hair color, filtered through the brightest of light: Sea la Vie. Long Live the Class of 1993.
Now flip-flops gather like bones at her feet. Shirts are shed, chests white. Snorkeling gear resembles gas masks. The men pitch over the side with a splash, lift their arms to catch their squealing, insistent children. Roy’s wife tosses off her wide-brimmed hat.
Don’t you swim?
Nora puckers her lips.
Live a little, Roy hollers. Water’s great!
She gets cold, Evan says, it’s not her thing. Nora stills her mouth. She stretches her legs on the ledge, connecting her constellation of sunspots with a fingernail. The families kick their flippers, plastic tubes poking out of the surface for air. She imagines what they see: tropical Parrotfish, sea turtles, school of steel-pointed barracuda.
In the distance the island beckons. Nora bridges her eyes. The place looks like paradise, but it’s not undiscovered. It holds an exclusive contract with the catamaran company. Porters in floral crowns mix overpriced cocktails beneath a tiki hut, silver trays gleaming. When they dock she will walk the plank onto the hot sand where drinks and horses and slow-moving iguanas and French fries in Styrofoam and deep, deadening naps beneath the mangroves await.
Sara Lippmann‘s collection, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts) and her work has appeared in Slice Magazine, Fourth Genre, Diagram, Midnight Breakfast, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Rutgers University and St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. Find her @saralippmann
Photo original: Rhododendrites via Creative Commons