I'm in between books (manuscripts) and doing a social (media) experiment... Before writing young adult fiction, I first started writing women's fiction, and although I was successful in getting three (count em, three!) reputable NYC literary agents to fall in love with my manuscript(s) as well as several editors at major publishing houses, we were never successful in actually getting the elusive book deal, so they remain unpublished in my computer.
In some ways, it makes me sad not to have at least one of the two manuscripts out in the world, as I do believe that Swim Back to Me contains some of my best writing, as well as lots of raw, relatable, universal truth and emotion. It's a simple story of a woman on a precipice, and though much of the emotion contained therein is, of course, autobiographically rooted, I assure you the story is "blown up" and fictionalized and none of the events contained therein are true. Well, not most of themm anyway. . .
At any rate, I'm going to post the first few sections of the story up here (without any other fanfare or flagging on facebook, twitter or other social media). If you are reading and would like to continue to read, please post a comment saying so, so I know whether I should continue to post sections. I will remove each prior section when a new one goes up, and leave each section for a week or two.
Here we go,
The Swimming Season
By Gae Polisner
We never know the worth of water
until the well is dry.
I signal and turn into lot. My foot trembles uncontrollably on the gas pedal. It’s any wonder I’ve managed to drive myself here.
It’s barely evening, yet already dark, the lot lit dimly by a few ill-placed sodium lamps that spill their melancholy yellow into the center of the damp pavement leaving the corners in deep shadows.
This time of year is soul crushing.
If it were summer, I wouldn’t be here.
My car rolls toward the back of the lot, deserted save for his black sedan. My pulse bangs in my ears. I need to breathe, to slow down.
I maneuver into the spot near his in the darkest corner, leaving a space between us.
A mist has begun to fall again, dusts my windshield, dappling the hazy aura from his headlights across my lap. He turns off his car and leaves me in darkness.
Am I here? Did he really believe I would come?
I keep my car idling, my eyes down, still I feel him turn and take me in expectantly.
He waits, and I breathe. When I manage to lift my gaze, it is only forward, glued to the outline of manicured hedges that line the back of the lot.
I mustn't turn. I know this.
If I do, I will see that look, the one that seeks to devour me, to drink me in like liquid.
If I do, there is no chance I will ever drive away.
But wait. If I start there, you’ll never understand. If I start there, everything will seem black and white, and you'll condemn me.
Instead, drift back with me a few weeks, to the beginning of September, when fall is but a vague threat, the full force of summer still in the air.
Come back to the kitchen, where the phone is ringing, and Richard is in the shower, and I have mayonnaise on my hands.
I can’t ask Cazzie to answer it because she’s already running late, which is ridiculous since it’s the first day of school. Of course, I’m not ready either, am still pressing fake turkey slices between bread, a sport-top water bottle squeezed under my arm, a veggie chip snack bag gripped in my teeth. I let it ring.
“Cazzie,” I yell, dropping the chips to the counter and shoving the whole mess into her lunch bag, “Let’s go!”
She appears flying down the hall in a Little Miss Grumpy t-shirt, a pair of frayed jeans, and her new clunky Steve Maddens adorning her sleek, 5-foot-6-inch frame. She has make-up on, a new privilege permitted by us now that she’s in tenth grade. She’s done a good job – a hint of green eye shadow, some smoky eyeliner, and a pale blush gloss on her lips. Her corn-silk straight hair is just-brushed so that errant, static-charged strands lit by filtering sunshine, rise around her head, angelically. She’s a lovely girl, my daughter.
As always, the moment I see her my morning’s anger and frustration melt away, and I want to hug her and tell her how beautiful she is, but of course, I wouldn’t dare.
“No meat, right?”
“Great!” She snatches the bag from my hand along with the moment, but at least kisses my cheek which I take as a ‘thank you.’ She’s reminded me a hundred times in the last two weeks of her new, non-carnivorous state. Does she think I wouldn’t remember? “I’m likely staying after. I’ll text you,” she adds, and is gone.
As the front door slams and reverberates, a memory. Her first day of kindergarten, how she clutches my hand on our way to the bus stop and, when the bus arrives, buries her head so forcefully between my thighs that Richard jokes (captured on video forever) how she’d crawl back into my womb if she could. The recollection fills me with a momentary, overwhelming sense of loss.
I reel, but blink away the feeling, yank open the refrigerator, and search the white-lit space trying to recall where I put the snack bag of baby carrots for Henry. Veggie bin? Deli drawer? Fruit drawer! I retrieve them triumphantly, and sigh. This is the first of nearly 300 bag lunches I will make for the kids this year. And, God forbid they’re willing to eat the same thing. But, for Henry, it will be peanut butter and jelly instead of tofurkey (can I blame him?) which means twice the stuff to take out, assemble, and put away.
By the time Richard has left for the office and Henry is showering, the phone is ringing again. My heart skips a beat. Maybe it’s Ellis from the DEC. I prickle with sweat just thinking about the rambling, desperate message I left him last week. That’s presuming he got it and even remembers my name.
I snatch up the receiver, but it’s from a local number I don’t recognize.
“Hi! Good morning.” The voice is perky and female. “This is Emily Dutton, is this Henry’s mom?”
“Oh, yes, hi, this is Norah. I’m sorry, who did you say this is?” I tuck the receiver under my chin and head back to the fridge for the jelly. As I do, it slips to the floor with a bang. I pick it up and explain apologetically.
“No problem. Emily Dutton. Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No, no, it’s fine. Just trying to get the kids out the door, you know. What can I do for you?”
“Actually, I’m calling for my husband, John. He’ll be Henry’s Little League coach for the fall. John is out of town, so I’m making calls for him.” She laughs, uncomfortably. I feel for her stuck with the job. “The games start this weekend. Sorry for the short notice, but that’s all the League gave us, too.”
I try to stay focused, but now that the fear of hearing Ellis’ voice after all these years has dissipated, the actual import of the call has settled in and rattled me and I’ve worked myself into a different sort of panic: Despite his promise, Bruce Madigan, Henry’s son-of-a-bitch coach from last season, didn’t draft the kid. He’s going to be heartbroken.
“Since the first game is this Saturday,” the woman – Emily – is saying on the other end, “John is hoping to sneak a practice in Friday, after school. Get the kids warmed up and acquainted. He knows it’s short notice, so no big deal if you can’t make it, if Henry can’t, but it will be up at the elementary fields in case you can. Do you know them? Just let us know if he can’t make it.”
“Uh huh, no he can.” I scrawl the information on the back of an envelope, my brain fighting tears, my mind searching for how I’m going to break the news to my son. “He’ll be there,” I say, again, punting.
“Oh, great! That’s terrific! We’ll see you then.”
I can tell she’s about to hang up and I should let her hang up, but instead I blabber. “Shoot, look Emily, I hope you don’t mind me asking this, and I’m sure John’s a great guy and all, so please don’t take it personally, but I’m a little upset they’ve got Henry with a whole new team again. His coach from last season swore he’d draft him. So, is it possible there’s been a mistake? It’s just that Henry has been bounced from team to team for the past three seasons. He’s only ten. It seems a little unfair.” My whining is met with an uncomfortable silence on the other end. “I’m just saying that maybe John drafted him before Madigan got the chance?” Even as I form the words, I know it’s not the case. Madigan was a total prick last season. Why would I expect any different?
“Hmmm. I really don’t know,” Emily finally says. “You’d have to speak to John. Who did he play for again?”
“Madigan. Bruce Madigan?” I spit the name with antipathy. “Honestly, he’s a jerk, the last person on earth I’d actually want coaching my kid – any kid – do you know him? But Henry was counting on it. He spent the whole season trying to prove himself. He’ll be crushed. It’s going to totally undermine his self confidence. . .”
More silence, then, “I’m truly sorry, Norah. Norah, right? I’m just making these calls for him, until he gets back. I wish I knew what to say.”
I’m a fool. This poor woman. I simply wasn’t prepared for this on the first day of school. Not when I’ve got so much else on my mind.
“No, no, of course. I’m the one who is sorry. This isn’t your problem. Bad enough you’ve been stuck making the calls.” I offer a stiff laugh in commiseration, but she doesn’t join in. I should just let the woman off the phone. “We’ll deal with it. I’m sorry I brought it up. Sorry to have bugged you with it in the first place.”
“I understand, believe me. We have our own issues with the league, which is why John coaches now. Even still, as I’m sure you know, they’re pretty stringent about this stuff. They don’t really entertain special requests. They’d have a thousand parents clamoring –” She pauses, and I can practically hear her roll her eyes. “Still, I’ll tell you what. I’ll talk to John when he gets back and tell him how upset you are. But, I’m sure Henry’s going to like the team. John’s very fair and it’s a great group of boys. Our older son, Nicky, is in Henry’s grade, so they probably know each other. I’m sure he’ll have a great time.”
I nod. I just want to get off the phone. “Thanks, Emily, I’m sure you’re right. I shouldn’t have mentioned it at all.”
“No problem,” she says. “I’ll talk to John. It can’t hurt. He’ll call you back if there’s anything he can do. Otherwise, he’ll see you Friday. Four sharp, at the fields.”
“Right,” I say, hanging up as Henry walks into the kitchen. “Hey, Bucko, I say. It breaks my heart how carefully he’s dressed and combed his hair with all his usual ‘first-day-of-school’ enthusiasm. He takes the bowl of cereal I have waiting, pours milk, and heads to the living room to eat.
“Good news!” I call down. “I just got a call from your new coach. He has a son in your grade. Nicky Dutton. Do you know him? Anyway, it sounds like an awesome team! Practice this Friday already, at four!”
He’s not dumb. It takes all of two seconds for him to register my false bravado, to stop chewing and look up at me, his face contorted. “Are you kidding? I’m not with Madigan again?” I close my eyes for a second and breathe, then give him one of those pathetic smiles and shake my head. “But he promised!” He pushes his bowl away, tears filling his eyes. Milk sloshes over onto the coffee table. “Forget it. I’m not playing then.”
“Henry --!” He storms past me to his bedroom and slams the door. A second later, it opens again. “See, you say I’m good, Mom, but I’m not! Nobody thinks so but you. I’m not playing baseball anymore! Not now! Not ever again!”
If only, I’ll think to myself a thousand times over by the time November comes and goes. If only.
∞ ∞ ∞
Body arched, toes balanced on the edge of the coping, I push off and wait for the first shock of cold to hit, the layers of buttery cool to slip aside and let me in, to envelop me and wash it all away.
I surface, breathe, and go under again, the sun warming my face momentarily with each rising. After several laps, I center myself over the deep end and let my body fall.
After nearly a minute I push off and resurface, and begin my aerobic swim. I’ll do twenty-five laps of each stroke – crawl, breaststroke, backstroke, maybe even few laps of crummy butterfly – then follow that with ten laps of sheer leg work using a kickboard. When I’m done, my chest will heave and my thighs will burn, but I won’t be tired. I’ll feel invigorated, restored, and the return to my routine will feel lighter and more bearable.
After twenty laps, I stop at the diving board to readjust my goggles. On the stone bench is the telephone. Did I hear it ring? Maybe I missed Ellis or one of the kids. Or maybe Richard, wanting to apologize.
The thought of Ellis makes my stomach spiral. The thought of Richard, not so much. We had argued earlier, in our non-yelling, but still-cutting sort of way. I had called Richard at work, after I finally got Henry calmed down and off to school, to vent about Madigan. When his secretary transferred and he picked up, I had blurted a recap of the whole ugly conversation with Emily, of Henry’s tears, and his declaration that it was the end of baseball for him. I was anxious for support and commiseration, and maybe praise for how I had finally brought Henry around.
Instead, Richard was annoyed. “You’re making a big deal,” he had said. “Like always.”
“I’m not. I didn’t, Richard. I know it’s not the end of the world, but I’m worried about him. He holds on to this stuff. And, he’s going to think that none of the coaches want him. You didn’t see him. You should have seen his face.”
“You shouldn’t have said anything to her, Norah. It’s not their doing. Now, she’ll tell her husband we’re nuts, a pair of those crazy sports parents. I know you mean well, but you can be overzealous. You just make it harder for him.”
The word overzealous had infuriated me, as did his concern for what some jackass coach might think of us. Let him get off his ass and coach Henry’s team himself then, and we wouldn’t have these problems. I had begged him to coach. After all, he spends half his life watching baseball. It had been a point of contention between us.
“Watching isn’t the same as coaching, Norah. It’s not my thing. I won’t be good at it.”
“They’re seven (eight) (nine) years old. How good do you have to be? They can barely hit the ball. You help them hit it. You help them to run the bases.”
His look. “You don’t play sports. You don’t understand.”
Whatever. This time, I had stayed quiet, kept the thoughts in my head. Right or wrong, my anger was misplaced and I knew it. It wasn’t Richard’s fault that the League – no, Bruce Madigan – was a piece of crap. Yet, now, staring at the phone, I feel the resentment and hurt rise up again, course through my veins. Why can’t he just take my side?
I listen again to hear the ring, but the phone is silent. I haul myself out, dripping, and scroll down caller I.D. to make sure. Nothing.
It doesn’t matter anyway.
I dive back in, and start my laps again.
Ellis Ratner was the sexiest man I’d laid eyes on in my twenty-two years when I’d met him.
Late forties then, tall, prematurely thick silver hair, chiseled features and magnificent midnight blue eyes. I was a sophomore when I took his Environmental Law class at NYU Law.
He was also very married, very flirtatious, and due to his chiseled magnificence and great wardrobe, perhaps, rumored by a few amongst the student body to be gay. My lips, however, (not to mention my hips, thighs, breasts) caressed by him behind the lectern late one night way after my last evening class had ended, suggested those few might be wrong.
Ellis was as successful as he was smart and good-looking, and, despite his infidelity, his professional aspirations remained altruistic and pure. In addition to his adjunct position at the law school, he was Counsel to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and worked on some of the biggest hot-button issues in the state. He was always in the paper, often on the news, and always waging war against corporate greed before that in and of itself was fashionable. And, for a while, between sophomore year and graduation, he dragged me around everywhere with him, touting me as his protege.
Of course, I shouldn’t have let myself get involved with him. I was young and foolish, and Ellis was incredibly persuasive. Plus, if I thought he looked good in suit and tie behind a lectern, I was wholly unprepared for how he’d fare in jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers, his silver hair rushing back, his windbreaker billowing out behind him, as he leaned in to kiss me against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. Ellis wasn’t made for the classroom, but for the outdoors, for standing windblown, yet stoic and firm, against a backdrop of roiling, crashing waves.
It was during what we affectionately referred to as the Great Piping Plover Takeover of 1991 that he officially took me on to intern under him at the DEC. And, by under him, well, never mind. The whole thing was fleeting. I barely remember it now.
I must swim another twenty laps before I realize that my anger toward Richard has morphed into this odd, swirling reverie for Ellis. Why Ellis, from whom Richard thankfully stole me away more than 20 years ago, should suddenly be on my brain, is beyond me. I haven’t spoken to the man in nearly that many years, and I’ve never, ever looked back. For God’s sake, he must be closing in on seventy.
I do another twenty laps then stand in the shallow end surveying our yard. The sky is a perfect crisp blue, the landscape in full bloom against it. Towering sprays of Miscanthus grasses offset more delicate hydrangea trees swollen with blossoms of blush, white, and lavender. Wisps of butterfly bush bob above the fence on tall stems, alternating with Joe Pye Weed, sappy and covered in bees.
The weather is glorious! Richard is right. I shouldn’t get so worked up. It’s not the end of the world if Henry has to struggle a bit. He has a loving home and family. Some silly fiasco with a baseball coach isn’t going to make or break things.
I step from the pool, wrap myself in a towel, and lie back on a chaise lounge, enjoying the chance to bask in the early afternoon sun. Goodness knows, I’ve earned the reward. In addition to taking care of the kids and the house, I’ve spent countless hours this summer gardening on hands and knees, installing bed upon bed of ballet-slipper pink, double-rose impatiens. They look lovely against the backdrop of hydrangea, all of it still blooming in profusion like a gift. Sure, the yard guys did the big parts, but I did the beds, the pruning and weeding, the keeping up.
This yard – this pool – is my sanctuary.
At the very least, I feel vindicated about the pool. Richard had teased me for two years about the wasted investment. But, not this summer. Not anymore.
The initial argument was that we didn’t need it, and that the cost-benefit ratio was too small. ‘No one will use it,’ he had argued, ‘our property is too small.’ Still, I had pushed for it. I had grown up with a pool, spent hours with my siblings splashing around, playing Marco Polo, trying out new dives each summer. I thought it would be good for our kids in the same way. It’s not like Cazzie and Henry have all that much in common. A pool would bring them together. Plus, I had argued, hadn’t Richard spent four times the cost on himself over the past years, for tennis club dues, Yankees games, and concert tickets? Certainly we’d spent ten times the cost on the kids for their lessons and coaches and equipment. Why was there never the money for what I wanted?
I held my ground and happily proffered my own meager savings to the pot, even if it only amounted to a few thousand dollars. Eventually, Richard gave in, all the while warning it would go to waste. And, for the first two seasons he was right. The kids and I went in now and again but not nearly as much as I’d imagined. It became a point of contention between us, a stressor. Another failure on my part.
But, this spring, a new resolve had come over me. In addition to finding my way back into something resembling the workforce, I vowed I was going to swim. In early April, I called the pool company and asked them to open us up.
“It’s a bit early, Mrs. Merrill. Give it a few weeks, and you’ll be past the danger of the last frost.”
But, I didn’t care. I knew instinctively that I needed the water, the submersion, something new in my routine to buoy me. I knew that I needed to get in.
During the first weeks, Richard alternated between mild amusement as I shivered and toed my way in, and disgruntlement about the costs to heat it so early in the season. But soon he did an about-face, watching with noticeable interest as I plunged in daily as April came and went.
“Good for you!” he’d exclaim, watching poolside as I repeated my series of laps, connected by passable flip turns, or “Wow, look at you!” when I inadvertently showed off my new, streamlined figure. His enthusiasm was sincere. He meant it. Yet, by mid-July, something else had crept in, too. Jealousy, maybe, or else, concern. My thighs were firm, my arms toned, and something in Richard’s compliments held more than just praise. I could hear the hesitation, some small, niggling fear, maybe, that the good effects might not go appreciated by him alone.
∞ ∞ ∞