It was the year loneliness broke my back. September 2007, and I’d only been in town three weeks. Fall was the season I associated with Boston, so why not build the city into my plan? I’d finished out my job at the ‘word firm’—that’s what we called it, the editors. My ‘word tools’ thesaurus project had come to a close. When I sat with my boss, he politely told me there wasn’t any more work. It was done. We were done. He was nice about it. But I couldn’t help feeling there was something else afoot. My father didn’t much seem to mind that I wanted to move after that. I hadn’t thought I was a drifter, but I was beginning to feel like one.
I was at the bus stop one morning when Bart—my just three-weeks neighbor, who lived one floor down—offered me a lift. It was raining, I’d gotten drenched on the way to the bus stop. I thought, “Why not?”
We’d chatted a few times in the hallway. He was sweet, but not at all my type. He was tall, towering tall, his teeth uneven. His dark cropped hair fell across his brow, the strands almost perfectly in line. Fastidious seemed too fussy a word for him, but pretty near close. Though really, I was only making up reasons not to be interested in him.
“I’m going downtown anyway,” he said. “Where are you headed, Emma?”
“The library? For–?”
“I’m job hunting,” I said.
He careened into the right-hand lane. I found Boston drivers terrifying, so I wasn’t sorry not to have my own car. Besides, I didn’t know how long I would be here.
“You’re from Portsmouth, right?” he asked. I nodded. Everyone knew it was the poor Northern relative of Boston. “And you were in…?”
“Editorial,” I said.
He hung close to the car in front, threw a glance in his rear-view mirror and then pulled swiftly to the left to pass the car that had come to a halt. I put my foot on the floorboard, instinctively, as if to break.
“Editorial, huh?” he said. “I don’t do much reading.” I knew from our stairwell chats he was a computer geek, stayed up until 2 a.m. most nights, four hours after I generally went to bed. “Were you happy at it?”
“Happy?” I smiled.
Editing was what I did because I’d been a voracious reader since the age of fourteen, the summer my mother died and I read The Lord of the Rings cover-to-cover, twice. I hadn’t been much for reading until then. It was late August, and I lay sprawled on my belly, head shoved in a book, as I clung to the twin bed in the rental my father had found. He thought we needed to get away after she died. “It was okay, I guess.”
“So—did you want to leave the job, or—?”
“They pretty much let me go.”
He raised an eyebrow, his finger hovering above the turn signal. I watched the raindrops gather on the windshield. It had not let up.
“Yeah, I wasn’t thrilled about that part. I mean, we all want to walk away, right?” I paused.
“So you figured leave town?” Bart slammed on the brakes at a red light, the metal screeching. The dampness, I figured, wasn’t helping.
“Are you metal-to-metal?” I asked.
“You know, your brakes. Are they worn thin? Metal-to-metal means you’re going to need a serious brake job—they can’t just turn the rotors.”
Bart looked at me with a mix of worry and confusion. He drove a 1990 Toyota Camry, which meant it wouldn’t be that expensive a job, I said.
“How do you know so much about cars? I mean, for a girl—woman.”
I’d spent several months answering phones at a mechanic shop after freshman year at college. I’d gotten into Smith College on scholarship, but that summer I stayed on in Northampton to work at the local mechanic shop. After all, what was there to come home to? Tory, nearly a decade older than me, had left years ago.
I laughed. He should have gone to Smith, I told him.
At the corner, he hung a right. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think that’s pretty cool. Not Smith, I mean. But the cars.”
When he dropped me at the corner of Congress and Water Street, I insisted he just pull over. I told him I’d walk the rest of the way. It was coming down now, sheets of unforgiving rain.
“Are you always this self-effacing?” Bart asked.
All artifice had left his face, if there was any to begin with. Beneath his narrow spectacles, dark lashes framed his eyes. I felt badly then that I’d lied to him. I wasn’t going to the library at all. And why? Why had I lied? I was going to the Y for a swim. But I didn’t want to go into my private life, because for me swimming was a private matter. Most people don’t really get it: why water would fill the space of so much else missing in your life.
The year my mother died, she’d been sick six months so I stayed home all summer. I knew what was coming. She had bone cancer and by early August, she was breaking bones when she flipped over in bed. The smell in her room had gone from lavender to stale clove, the scent of the candle she had burning most of the time. She played quiet music and, when she wasn’t sleeping, read. My dad was busy doing a summer school stint. Daily I brought her breakfast, because Dad had early morning classes. When I carried in the tray, she would lift her gaze from the book she was deep into. Her cheeks had gone hollow; her tan skin sallow, icy black hair grown thin and lank. I used to make myself smile. “Look at you. All sunshine,” she’d say, as I walked out of the room.
I didn’t do it for her; selfishly, I did it because her face would brighten, for an instant, and that was the look on her face I made myself memorize when I lay in bed at night, trying to sleep.
The day of her funeral, I turned fifteen. It was bad timing, my dad knew, but my aunt from Burlington was in town and we had to hold it that day. That evening, I went to my best friend’s home and stayed for a week. Departure, I’d learned, had its place.
At the pool, the man took my money and gave me the change. “Hey, don’t forget to drop your towel in the bin, swimmer. Will ya?”
I piled my items in the locker but had forgotten to bring my lock. I carried out my towel, my wallet buried in it, and set it on a plastic chair inside of the pool area, like the tidy little package I believed I had made of my life.
“Lady, you wanna shower?” called out one of the swim guards. “We mean it here.”
I stifled a smile; I liked the guy for calling me out. Because, well, too few people had.
I stood beneath the spray of water and through the steam and spray light refracted off the glass portions of the roof, I marveled at the Art Deco-style of the place. It was one of the nicer Y pools I’d been to in a while.
My mother had been a swimmer; she’d swum on a team in college, competed nationally, and was known for an exceptionally fast backstroke. She’d broken records in her college, if not the country, so when she met my father he’d taken to calling her Speedster. The name stuck, and throughout my growing up years, as the last child in our house, I heard a lot of “Hey, Speedster, you gotten her up yet?” Or “Speedster, where’s Emma, seen her?”
One evening, midsummer, I stepped into the backyard to find my father sobbing under the willow, holding his chest. His breath came out in gasps. He looked up at me with an expression so profoundly sad I turned around and ran into the house. I couldn’t fathom what he felt, when I couldn’t manage what I was feeling. I guess you could say I fairly hated him that summer, not just because he was gone a lot teaching, but because he stole my sadness. I couldn’t be that sad at her bedside. Even at fourteen, I knew that.
In the fast lane, I noticed a tall slender woman at the far end, bending down to gather her kick board and flippers. Then she righted herself like a tall tree, flowing upward; I felt my breath catch. She looked every bit like my mother had in photographs I’d seen, when she was young, decades before her illness.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her as I swam. She kept to her side of the lane; we weren’t doing a clockwise rotation the way they did at some pools. But she held to her lane and kept at her freestyle with an even cleanness I found engaging, if impossible to match. She was rhythmic and solid, the swimmer I imagined my mother to be. With her hair pushed back into the cap, all I could see was the tan hollow of her cheek.
As I swam, I thought I could ignore the images that flooded me. I saw my mother in my bedroom, curled up on the sofa with King of the Wind, which she read to me unceasingly—even though she knew I hated horses—because she’d grown up reading it herself. And At the Back of the North Wind, which I finally made her stop reading because something bad happened in it. She told me it was okay for bad things to happen. It was, after all, made up, right?
“It’s just a story, Em. And stories don’t have power our lives.”
Even then I knew that was only half true. My mother worked for two summers in the library in Portsmouth before I was born. She was making a point.
“They don’t have power unless we give them power. Stories. You could turn your back on them, if you wanted to. Or you could decide they’re the only way we can know our world.”
I knew my mother from her stories, I realized, as I watched the woman on the other side of my lane, stroke after stroke, relentlessly crossing the pool. She swam faster, and I tried to swim faster too to keep up with her. I wanted to follow her, to change our lane structure and go counter-clockwise to trail after her. The way I had trailed my mother in the backyard of our Portsmouth home, where the willow hung low and the creek, a quarter of a mile from the house, grew silent in summer. She wandered back there sometimes. One time I followed her, watching furtively as she picked a will-o-the-wisp and stuck the stalk, the tip of it, in her mouth. She carried a book beneath one arm, and as she walked she hummed. It was the Anthem, not the National Anthem, but the ‘Marseillaise’, which her family sang—her French mother, who’d emigrated to Canada before Maine. She hummed it loudly and with verve. When she reached the creek—it was spring, then, and the water was high—she dropped her book on the bank and stripped off her clothes, every last one of them. She caressed her breast—to my horror—her nipple, briefly—with the tip of the will-o-the-wisp and then dove into the water.
Years later I would ask myself why that scene had horrified me so. Was it because my mother was a sexual being and I’d never discovered it until then? Or was it because my dad, I realized, wasn’t the sole source of her sexual pleasure? But either way, the image left me unsettled. I wanted to forget it.
The summer she was sick, as we sat on her bed together reading, she said to me, “Emma.”
I looked up.
“You’re going to have the change soon,” she said.
She adjusted herself on the bed, the quilt splayed across her chest and beneath it I could see underneath her nightgown, the single solitary point of a nipple. It stood out, and as she spoke I found I couldn’t stop looking at it. She told me about “the change,” about getting my period—which I hadn’t, miraculously, gotten by then. And then you can have a child,” she said. “And,” she said. “You’ll have pleasure, Emma.”
I colored, even then.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” she said.
I laughed uncomfortably.
She held my gaze in hers. “A body—your body—isn’t something to fear.” I noticed the bone of her shoulders, the thinness of her wrist, and I saw the degree to which her body, what once had given her pleasure, had failed her. It had fought back, stolen from her, what she had.
She turned to the candle burning, the clove scent rising and filling the space between us. “You’ll love many men, Emma. But will you do one thing for me?”
I looked at her, spellbound and fearful.
“Love yourself,” she said.
My breath caught in my chest. I wanted to ask, did she mean to love myself in my heart? Did she mean to love myself with the touch of the will-o-the-wisp, when even the man you loved failed you? I didn’t know this then, entirely, of course. But I knew she meant something other than what I wanted her to mean.
“Don’t be afraid of all that you are.”
Then she set down her book and closed her eyes. I knew she needed to nap now and I left the room. And when I went to my own, I shut the door, closed my eyes, and wanted to forget everything she’d said to me. I wanted to pretend she hadn’t just told me what every woman needs to know. I wanted to pretend she wasn’t leaving me when everything she said was precisely because she was leaving me. She didn’t want to leave any one of my bones unturned.
The woman in my lane pulled herself up onto the edge of the pool, swung her legs over and onto the cement in a single, supple move and pushed to standing like a long egret. Her suit, navy with a solid white stripe, stood out against the white-tiled walls at the far distance of the pool. Water dripped from her. I had stopped now at my end of the lane. I knew I was staring; then I felt a flush of something I hadn’t felt in a very long time. I felt a wave of nausea or fear, I wasn’t sure. I pulled myself up onto the edge of the pool, clumsily, in an effort to exit as she had. By the time I reached the showers, she was gone. Then, as I stood in the steady shower stream, I let myself do something I hadn’t done in years. I felt something let go. I turned my back to the rest of the changing area, wrapped my arms around my chest as my father had done below the willow tree, and began to sob.
“Good swim?” the guy asked at the front desk, when I dropped my damp towel in the bin.
I couldn’t say anything, but outside, when I caught the bus home, I sat in the front seat surrounded by two mothers with toddlers on their laps, an elderly man whose face was concealed by a newspaper, and two teenagers whose earphones were draped over their bodies. Beneath the thin colored wires, their breasts were forming and I wanted to tell them what my mother had said. And for reasons I still don’t understand, that day I began to feel not so alone. My mother had worn her aloneness the summer she died. What she hadn’t taught me then I figured out that day at the pool. In the length of the woman swimmer’s body, in her breadth, and in the shaking of my own ribs as I stood crying in the shower.
Someone once told me that when people we love are dying they teach us how to live. My mother taught herself how to live. It was the swimmer in her that taught me how to love.
At the apartment complex, I took the steps in two. When I reached my flat, Bart poked his head up from the stairwell and called up to me, “I’m onto you, Emma.”
I looked down at him blankly. My hair was still wet.
“Why did you say you were going to the library, when you were going to the pool?”
I felt a tightness in my lungs. Was he stalking me, or just calling me out? And then I relaxed. “Because,” I said to him, “I never really considered myself a swimmer.”