Clare is alone in the hotel swimming pool when the boy and girl appear, hand-in-hand, at the door in the tall perimeter gate protecting the pool and its authorized users from everyone else.
The boy speaks first–he’s a man, really, somewhere in his mid-twenties, sandy-haired and hefty-jawed, a wad of gum stuck in his cheek. He clutches the handle of a leather guitar case. The girl looks younger. She’s all softness, with big brown curls and skin like an ironed sheet, barely a woman by legal definition. The boy reaches through the wrought-iron bars for the door handle. It’s locked.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he says.
Ma’am. Clare, the only other person around, is ma’am. When did she become ma’am? When did the threshold rupture? Was it today? Just now?
“Never call anyone ma’am, ever,” she says, paddling closer to them. “Really.”
“He’s just being polite,” the girl says. “We’re from Tennessee. Manners are in our DNA.”
“Good for you,” Clare says, turning around and swimming toward the far end of the pool. It’s too small to swim legitimate laps here, but she crams exercise into every day, even during vacations. She logs everything on an app. One finger swipe and there lies the so-called quantified self: an entire life broken down as steps, strokes, degrees of incline, miles, calories burned with the devotion of votive candles—all the data meaningless to anyone minus Clare and the companies spamming her with invitations to feel worse about herself, right along with convenient solutions for feeling better.
“I’m Trish,” the girl says. “We’re staying down the street. There’s no pool.”
The boy whistles and says, “Such a beautiful day,” as if this is reason enough for Clare to open the gate. He blows a pale caul of bubble and Trish lances it with her pinky finger, collapsing gum across his lower lip. “Hey,” he says to her, scraping up the gum with his teeth. He breaks into the sort of transparently libidinous smile Clare has struggled against all her life—struggled in the sense that she wants far too much to be wanted, wants not to want it.
“We were wondering if you might let us in?” Trish says.
Clare tries to remember herself 15 years earlier, at their age, tries to calculate—among all the shenanigans perpetrated in her former incarnations, phases which plastered her over and over, like the concentric rings of tree bark—if she would’ve boldly asked a stranger to let her into her hotel pool. She remembers, after arriving in New York friendless and underage, asking a random woman on the sidewalk to buy her beer. The woman had taken Clare’s cash and returned with a 12-pack. Ask and you shall receive, Clare had learned. Now it is Clare with the advantage, Clare who’s old enough, upward enough in her economic mobility to afford the amenities which the scrappy young bohemians cannot. She swims to the side of the pool and heaves herself up and onto the concrete. She grabs her hotel key card from a chaise lounger, holds it to the lock, and opens the door.
“Thanks,” the boy says. “I’m Jim.”
“Trish and Jim,” Clare says.
“That’s us,” says Trish.
Clare should introduce herself, but she cannonballs back into the pool, her body sinking right to the bottom, where she opens her eyes for a painful, chlorinated second—all she can take before shooting up for air. She reopens her eyes and refocuses, registering everything all over again: the sky, the sun, the red brick walls of the hotel courtyard, the clattering noises leaking from the open windows of the hotel kitchen, the scent of pollen radiating with nuclear strength from the blooming trees.
“We really can’t thank you enough,” Trish says. She’s taken a seat and kicked off her shoes, a pair of dirty white Chuck Taylors. As she unbuttons her blouse, Jim, shirtless now, descends the steps into the pool. His body is scrawny and unattractive to Clare, who prefers a guy with some bulk—not necessarily more muscle, just more—like her husband. She wonders what he is doing at that moment. She pictures him hunched over the keys of his laptop, enclosed in one of the antiseptic conference rooms of his office, the halogen and glass walls making its inhabitants look like aquarium animals. She imagines herself taking a sledgehammer to his cage and offering him her hand in rescue.
“Where are you from?” Jim says.
“New York,” Clare says.
“And what brings you to New Orleans?”
“A wedding. It’s tonight.”
“Not your own, I assume,” Jim says. With both hands, he combs his wet hair back away from his face. “I mean–because you’d be in the pool on your wedding day, not because you seem ineligible for marriage. Can’t say anything right today, can I?” He grabs one of his feet and lifts it upward, coming within impressively gymnastic range of his mouth, even with the boost of flotation.
“I’m already married,” Clare says. “It’s a colleague–I work with the groom.”
“I knew it,” says Trish, now seated on the side of the pool, her legs dangling in the water. Clare notices now that she’s not wearing a swimsuit, just a sheer lace bra and underwear. Clare, momentarily scandalized, reminds herself that there have been times when she’s donned the same. She grew up in Florida, where there were midnight drives to the beach and stark-naked sprints into the waves. There were games of strip poker. Truth or dare. Seven minutes in heaven. Florida, where the heat drove its citizens to a different dimension, like a mythical lost city. Clare usually looks back on those moments wishing she could bleach them not only from her memory but those of her co-conspirators. Now, Trish’s rose-colored nipples staring her in the face, Clare ricochets; she considers letting herself enjoy the memories, letting herself forget the context, which was that all of these sets of past behaviors comprised Clare’s campaign to be anyone else but herself, and they had built and built, like a staircase without rails, higher and higher, steeper, into more perilous territory, into the clouds.
“Trish fancies herself a bit of a psychic medium,” Jim says.
“Sorry?” Clare says, realizing that Trish had known the groom is a colleague without Clare telling her.
“I just see little things, here and there,” Trish says, wiggling her fingers like she’s casting a spell. Could Trish see her? Could she pull out Clare’s thoughts like little apothecary drawers and find the one labeled with the name of the groom?
“So, why are you two here?” Clare says, stalling, unsure if she should or shouldn’t probe Trish’s alleged gifts.
“We’re performing. Jim plays guitar and I sing.”
“That’s adorable,” Clare says, reaching out of the pool to get a cigarette from her pack and lighting it with her waterlogged fingertips. Once a pack-a-day die-hard, she only smokes on vacations now.
“I’m still a student, but I’d like to work in the country music industry one day.”
“Where do you go to school?”
“It’s a small Christian college. I guarantee someone like you hasn’t heard of it.”
“Someone like me?” Clare drags and exhales. What does she look like to them, she wonders. Old—that was confirmed—and possibly bitter. Someone apparently ignorant of small Christian colleges. A heathen, maybe. How amusing that each view renders her a different person. For better or worse—what matters is the novelty. To know a new person is to momentarily know yourself in a way that feels like escape. Her friends insist she needs therapy, but Clare can’t think of anything worse: sitting alone in a room with someone professionally trained to force you to confront yourself. She’d rather be drawn and quartered. She’d rather be called ma’am all day, every day until she dies.
“I think she just means, you know, someone from New York,” Jim says.
Trish slips herself off the ledge and into the pool, wading toward Clare in the waist-high water, her eyes on the wake kicked up behind her circling hands. Clare realizes she’s forgotten about her cigarette, which stands burned into a cylinder of ash, perfect as a bale of hay. She tosses it away.
Trish says, “How are you feeling about the wedding?”
“It’s a wedding. I’ll show up and eat shrimp cocktail. Drink too much. Dance badly. Leave.”
“What?” Clare says.
“You know the bride, too.”
The bride. A former ballerina with the formidable bona fides. Dainty but sharp, her small teeth like a little purebred dog’s. Clare remembers her decisive dancer’s footsteps outside the coat check where Clare had absconded with the groom at their company Christmas party years ago. The two of them huddled into the corner, hidden inside a coat redolent of tuberose perfume, four martinis smearing her vision as badly as vaseline, his hand smothering her laughter. Clare had never confessed to her husband. Confessing felt histrionic. Unnecessary. There had never been sex. Not with him.
“You do know her,” Trish says, with the buoyancy of a person catching onto her own brilliance. “She bothers you.”
“She’s lovely,” Clare says. “Everything bothers me.”
“You’re not in love with the groom,” Trish says. A statement, not a question.
“I am not.”
“She’s in love with her husband,” Jim says.
Trish lifts a finger. “She said she was married. She didn’t say she was in love with her husband.” Trish turns to Clare. “Are you in love with your husband? It’s tough to tell.”
“Yes,” Clare says. This is also the truth. She recalls meeting him for the first time, selects that wistful vision of him maintained in her trove of memories, his silhouette crowned with the sun. He was the first to come along and love all of her selves, compressing their layers into a diamond. For all that, what else could she do but love him back?
“That could make your life easier,” Trish says. “Or it could make it harder.”
“Both are true,” Clare says. “But why is it tough to tell? What do you see that I don’t see?”
Trish steps closer. She’s a foot away now, close enough for Clare to see the small things that make her human: the electric green zigzagging of her veins, the faint rise and fall of her nostrils ingesting air, a twisted eyelash.
“There’s just a lot buzzing around in you,” Trish says, her narrowed eyes boring right into Clare’s. “A lot. Like an electrical storm. Everything is charged. I see one thing and then something cancels it, comes and strikes like lightning.”
“I’ve lost the plot,” Jim says. “You’ve started talking in a key I don’t understand.” He turns, wades back towards the steps, his muscles emerging as he seizes the railing to exit. Trish looks at the muscles. Clare looks at Trish looking at them.
“There is no plot, Jim,” Trish says. She turns to Clare as if it’s Clare who understands. “Just this moment, right here, between the three of us.”
Jim pulls his shirt back across his chest. He unlatches the guitar case, pulls out the instrument. Begins strumming a tune Clare doesn’t recognize.
From her hips, Trish leans back into the pool and floats, a maneuver Clare has never quite gotten the hang of. She can’t let herself go. Can’t let herself be a body. Could not do it even as a little girl in her swimming lessons, her mother looking on fretfully, as if there was something wrong with her because she could not float. That was what her mother saw in her: errors.
“I love this,” Trish says. “Just floating in the pool. Sometimes it’s good to have a little moment like this—to defy gravity.”
Jim begins to sing and Trish joins in, her voice sweet and clear and angelic as Clare expected. Something about Jesus.
In a few minutes Trish will be dressed again, too, hand-in-hand again with Jim, the two of them back out and into their lives, the gate closed and locked behind them. Later, after the wedding, Clare will stand here again, her dress peeled off and thrown onto a chair. She will lean far, far back, releasing one foot at a time from the pool’s craggy bottom. She’ll sink. She’ll keep sinking. Water will flood her ears, her eyes. She’ll try again and again and again, sinking every time. So, she’ll keep looking for it, Clare. The search of her lifetime: that elusive version of herself, that version of herself meant for floating.
Megan Peck Shub is a producer at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Her stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Salamander, Monkeybicycle, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, No Contact, and Peach Mag. She is a contributing editor at Story Magazine.