Bodies, bodies. The beach was crowded, Marcella had not expected all these people everywhere--she had forgotten it was Saturday, forgotten, even, that it was June. Today, after Anthony's phone call, she had come here gulping for broad sky, a long horizon, a vast and indifferent emptiness, but instead the beach was alive with babies crying and children running and their parents yelling or laughing or just watching, with that look of contentment she faintly remembered from a long time ago--
She veered toward the tide line, away from the massed umbrellas and beach blankets, going through a swath of tiny shells. They crunched beneath her feet, but she did not alter her path.
Anthony had said, "I've got some news." His voice had been odd, solicitous and pained at the same time, and when he had said it, news, her throat had caught and she had thought again that she hated the phone. "Toni has gotten a job. Babysitting."
"Babysitting! Our Antonia?" She laughed with crazy relief, see, you worry for nothing--
And then he told her where.
"What?" she whispered, her laughter gone, gone. "Anthony. You can't let her."
"Chella, what the hell am I supposed to say?" There was a pause and then he went on more quietly, grimly, "She found the job herself. She didn't tell me ahead of time. We like shows of initiative."
Marcella didn't keep in touch with anyone from Cape Cod. It was Anthony's place, it always had been, and when they divorced it had seemed natural to leave it, too, entirely. She hadn't even known Callie McClatchey, Cecil's daughter, was getting married. Hadn't known Callie had not one but two children--Cecil's grandchildren, and Betsy's, too, whom they would never see.
Anthony said, "The McClatchey girl does need someone to help her, I suppose--"
"Stop it. Please."
"I'm sorry," he had said. "I'm sorry." And she had known he was. He was not a consciously cruel man.
She walked on, mechanically, down the beach. The shells were still crumbling beneath her feet. Why was it satisfying to be destructive? She resisted the impulse to stop, squat down, examine the wreckage her bare feet had wrought, here on her beach, only a few hours from the Cape, in Connecticut. She had come to this little town blindly, after the divorce. It was near the boarding school where Anthony had sent Toni, and even though Marcella had known it would not make much difference, she could not bear to stay in Boston, so far away. Now Toni was in college but Marcella was still here, and she still could walk this beach and, most days, have no one recognize her. Even with all these people, she could be alone.
She had not asked Anthony when Toni's job was starting. Already, even without details, her brain was barreling ahead, painting its pictures--it could be that right now Toni was holding the baby. A tiny girl, Anthony had said. Marcella remembered how an infant would turn its head toward a breast, even a stranger's, mouth gaping like a fish, seeking even when there was nothing there to find. She wondered how Toni would deal with that, and felt a brief smile on her face like sun. Toni would just hand the baby over, as quickly as she could. Velocemente! To Callie McClatchey. To Cecil's daughter. She looked like him--blond and blue-eyed, with an open, oval face. The brother was dark, favored Betsy. Marcella remembered him, too, quite clearly. She couldn't think why. Did the baby perhaps take after him? Or in its tiny face, in the baby with whom she, Marcella, shared no blood, none at all, could one find Cecil again? Was Toni seeing him right now, not knowing what she was seeing? And the smile fell away.
She had left the public beach by now, and though there were still people it was quieter. She headed down to the water, and the coolness on her feet, the gentle splashing of her steps, calmed her in spite of herself. Perhaps she would swim later. An ordinary thought--and she felt a timid swirl of resentment, because she had been having more of these small pleasures lately, coming upon them like green atolls in the endless gray sea of days, and she wondered now if she had left them behind again. Only yesterday--yesterday--she had eaten some of the first sugar corn from the farm stand down the road, let the butter trickle down her chin. Then she had devoured a whole pint of local strawberries, and for the first time in a long while had felt the glee that comes from being alone, and doing what one pleases. She had felt carefree, or at least able to pretend--
Just then a small figure charged by, splashing her, and she exclaimed in surprise. It was a little boy, about three years old, his belly childishly round but his limbs just beginning to lengthen. Even as he flashed past she could see the sweet, faint outlines of muscle in his shoulders, his calves. But then he stopped short, and she turned to see an inflatable ball, colored like a globe, floating away past the wave line.
She had to clear her throat. She hadn't spoken since that morning, on the phone. "Is that your ball, sweetheart?" If he had been her own she would have said caro. Dear one. Something she had always thought she would say, to a little boy who was hers.
He didn't answer, just regarded her with a steady gaze that seemed older than the rest of him. "I'll get it for you," she said.
She waded out and retrieved it, turned back. Up on the beach, she saw a couple who must have been his parents--they smiled at her, waved, but did not come closer, and she could see that they were letting their son have a tiny slice of independence, letting him talk to the nice lady by himself. She thought of what they saw when they looked at her: a tallish slim woman (she heard her grandmother, her nonna, long ago: molta mingherlina--you are too thin,--Marcellina), dark hair twisted up on her head, not much gray, not yet. Alone--did they wonder why? The mother was holding a baby. She shifted it up higher on her hip as Marcella watched.
The boy had not moved. "Here is your ball, darling," she said, and held it out with both hands. Still he didn't move, and she walked slowly toward him, afraid he might dart away. She had not looked at a child this closely for so long! His eyes were solemn, dark brown. "Would you like to catch?" she said, and he gave a hint of a nod. She threw the ball, and in a sudden burst of movement he caught it, turned, and hurtled toward his parents. She waved to them and they waved back but the little boy did not look at her again, and the young family continued down the beach.
She stood bereft in the water, and thought again of Anthony. He had never liked wistfulness, regret, longing for anything that had not come, that never would. If he could see her expression now, he would stop, one step too far away. His lean, handsome face would harden almost imperceptibly. There might also be a hint of old pain in his eyes, a look that would make her want to reach out to him--but she wouldn't. Because she was the one lacking, the one who had failed.
Their conversation had ended badly. She had wanted only to get off the phone. To be alone, to howl. Anthony, though, had wanted to chat; usually he was all business. Finally she said, "Anthony, please." It had stopped him short. She did not say caro; why would she now? Still, today she felt that he noticed. She said, "I must go."
She knew he heard it, that he knew what she meant--must, right now, I cannot stay in control. "I'm sorry to have upset you," he said.
"It wasn't you," she managed to say. "I'm glad you told me."
"Otherwise it would have been a nasty shock," he said.
"Yes." Then she realized that he had said it as a test, that even now she was supposed to pretend otherwise. Even now, after seven years, Anthony could not have stood the mention of Cecil's name. "How hard this must be for you, too," she said, and then was disgusted with herself. Dio mio, she thought, still I say the wrong thing, always it is wrong--
An old, familiar silence. Then a thought came to her, hitting her like a fist. "You won't tell her," Marcella had said.
"Of course not," Anthony had said, as though he had been waiting. "I will not tell her a single damn thing."
In a cramped upstairs closet of a two-hundred-year-old house in Mashantum, Massachusetts--on the bay, the bicep of Cape Cod--Jed McClatchey was hunting for his old wooden tennis racquet. He wanted to give it to his nephew, Jamie, who was three and whose first word, still his favorite, had been ball. Jed hadn't bothered to ask Callie if she approved. Once upon a time, he was sure, the answer would have been no; Jamie, like as not, would see beyond the racquet's sporting purpose to its other, weaponlike possibilities. But now Callie was exhausted and probably wouldn't care, and Billy, his father--who would have been all for it--was back in New York trying to make partner. When Jed felt the need for a coherent reason to be here on the Cape, jobless, for an entire summer, he told himself that he was just here to do some of the things Billy would have. Teach Jamie, direct him, show him how to hit balls. The man things.
For now, though, he was not finding the racquet. Maybe it wasn't in this closet--or even in the house. It was exactly the sort of thing his mother would have carted away to the congregational church for their annual rummage sale. She had been unsentimental about mere things, an attitude he had admired. Her confidence had seemed to him absolute. Sweetie, you don't need that anymore, she would say, plucking from him the stained, beloved shirt or his first, too-small fielder's glove, and he would believe her, as he always did. As he had believed no one since.
But there was still plenty of junk left to paw through in the closet, which was full, in the way of summer houses, of odds and ends made sacred and immovable by the passage of time. He ducked his head back in, narrowly missing the low lintel of the door. There were enough faded shirts and high-water pants to outfit an army of home improvers. Outdated, water-swollen best sellers his parents had read at the beach. Dead tennis balls, useful if they had had a retriever, which they did not; wooden racquet press; still no racquet. Two lefty golf clubs he had once bought at the same rummage sale, wanting to make himself both a golfer and ambidextrous. A box fan, caked with dust, with a grille from the heedless bad old days that was wide enough for Jamie or, next summer, little Grace to stick a finger through. And if this was so, Jed wondered, why were there not more missing fingers in his generation, before people worried so much? Nevertheless he took the fan out of the closet, reminding himself to throw it away.
At the bottom of the closet, among the dust bunnies, was a half-crushed shirt box. It felt light, and he opened it expecting to find nothing or, at most, some old, ill-considered birthday gift. But instead, neatly folded, there was a woman's bathing suit.
He felt he was seeing it not only with his eyes but with his whole body. A one-piece, plunging neckline, dark blue with vertical white stripes. Almost clownish--but then he lifted it out of the box and held it up by the straps. Yes. He remembered. He popped out the firm cups of the bra, gingerly, with one finger, as if he were touching her actual breast. He remembered what he had seen, and a ghost of old desire swirled deep in his groin.
How old had he been?--that afternoon by the pool, their pool, when Marcella Atkinson had been stretched out in a lounge chair, alone at the corner of their patio? She had seemed separated from the rest of them, from the party that was going on, not only by the few feet that the chair was pulled away but also by her stillness and, Jed had sensed, her sadness. And her beauty. Her perfect legs and olive skin and dark upswept hair had not seemed to belong with the cheerful Yankees in their madras shorts and flowered dresses, grilling fat American burgers and drinking gin and tonics.
That had not been his mother's last summer. The memory was older than that, there'd been a chance for it to sink in, he had had a good long time to dream about Marcella Atkinson before everything, even the patterns of his idle thoughts, irrevocably changed. Before his mother had walked into their own house, back in Atlanta, and encountered a stranger, the last stranger she would ever meet.
"Jed?" He started. "Where are you?"
"Jamie is asking about some tennis racquet." Callie was in the doorway, the little bundle of Grace on her shoulder. Her blond hair was uncombed and she was wearing an old white oxford cloth shirt of their father's, a relic perhaps of this very closet, what she now called her milk-truck shirt. "What's that?"
"A bathing suit."
"Yes, I see." Callie came closer and squinted at it, as though she were nearsighted, which she was not. "That's not Mom's."
"I know. Weird."
"Some girlfriend of yours?" Jed made a face, his heart thumping, and wondered why he was not telling her about his teenage crush.
"What?" Callie said, misinterpreting. "It's a nice suit. Kind of sexy. Come on, whose is it?"
"I told you, I don't know. You want it?"
"God, no. God. I'm as big as a fucking house."
Even though Grace was only ten weeks old, and, accounting for her prematurity, barely a newborn, Jed instinctively cringed. "Cal."
She ignored him and said, "Maybe Toni will want it. Toni!" she called, and it was too late to stop her. He heard steps in the hall, and Jamie appeared, running. "I want the tennis ball racquet!" he declared.
"We'll find it," Toni Atkinson said, behind him. She pushed a strand of her dark-blond hair behind one ear and leaned artfully against the door frame, crossing one long tan leg over the other.
Jed refused to let her catch his eye and instead turned his back just in time, folding the suit small, small. "It's not here, bud," he said. "I'll keep looking. Maybe it's in the barn."
"Toni," Callie said, "we found this bathing suit--Jed, where is it?"
"It's not her kind of thing." He had gotten it back in the box and closed the lid, and now he stuck it in the closet as casually as he could, behind a pile of books. "Bunch of stuff here I should take up to the church," he continued, to no one in particular.
Toni cocked her head, raised an eyebrow. "Let me see it," she said. "Not my thing? What is my thing?"
She said this looking at Jed with perfect coy confidence, and it was true that only minutes before Jed would have taken this opening and run with it. Toni Atkinson was nineteen, an adult, he wouldn't be doing anything wrong--he had already gone over it in his mind. He could have said now, for instance, that she was more given to string bikinis, which was true; but all of a sudden he did not particularly care to answer her. "Jed?" she said.
And yet he didn't want to arouse suspicion. Toni would be the type to sneak in here later and go into the closet and find the suit, and then--what? He looked straight at her and grinned, feeling an unfamiliar shame as he did so. "You don't need some old-lady bathing suit," he said. "Trust me."
"And I do?" Callie said.
It was not as strong a protest as he would have expected, but he acted as though she were in her old form. "Sure," Jed said. "Embrace it, Cal. Old lady mommy. Hip no more."
For a moment Callie looked like she was trying to come up with one of her normal snappy retorts, but then she just gave him a halfhearted smirk and sat down in the armchair next to the bed, her hand limply on Grace's back. Toni said, "Do you want me to take her?" and wordlessly, Callie handed her over. Jed knew these were matters he didn't really understand, but still he didn't like Callie's look of relief. Grace was so tiny still, wizened and unsmiling and as light as a puppy; Jed had seen her in the hospital in Greenwich, when she had been in her little plastic box with cables strung all over, and he could not forget that sight. He felt that he or Callie should never put her down. He tried to ignore Callie stretching her now-empty arms to the ceiling, clearly relieved, turning her face to the light streaming through the old, small-paned window. Toni was already out the door. She liked to have Grace to herself, Jed had noticed.
But then she turned and said, in what was clearly an afterthought, "Hey, Jamie, big guy. Let's go look for that racquet. Maybe it's in the barn." She held out her free hand to him with a sweet smile, and then raised the same smile to Jed--Lady Madonna. He resisted rolling his eyes at her, instead smiled weakly back.
Jamie began to follow and then looked back at Jed and Callie, reluctant. "I'll be there in a minute, pardner," Jed said.
"Be careful," Callie said. She smiled too but it was automatic; her eyes were opaque. "Be careful with that racquet."
Jamie screeched, "Mommy, we don't know where it is!"
"I know, sweetheart," she said, not looking at him. "I'm sure you'll find it." She settled her head back into the faded chintz. It had been their mother's favorite chair. She said, "I'll just stay here awhile." She did not look at Jed.
He heard Toni's and Jamie's footsteps go down the hall, then down the creaky back stairs to the kitchen. The screen door squeaked open, slapped shut. Callie was looking out the window, her gaze flat against the trees. Jed eyed the closet door. It would be the most natural thing in the world to go get the bathing suit back out. To say, Do you know whose this is? To say, Why is it here?
But instead he whispered, "Have a good rest, Cal." She gave him the barest of nods.
He left the room then, but instead of following Toni and Jamie's path down the hall, he made an abrupt turn, into his own room, and shut the door. He sat down on the edge of his childhood bed and stared at his empty hands. They tingled.
The ghost of memory, of the desire, shimmered again and then it was no longer a ghost but alive and warm and vivid. He had been keeping it at bay--why?--but now he could see and feel it all. An ordinary day, an ordinary party, Marcella Atkinson perhaps slightly more than ordinary at the edge of it. And then not at the edge but at the center. His life had not been ordinary for a long time.
The party had been mostly people from the Nobscusset Tennis Club, which was the grandiloquent name they had for the little collection of clay courts in the woods half a mile away. There had been kids in the pool and a few dads, but mostly the adults were dry and dressed and drinking; Jed himself had been directed, by his mother, to help entertain, and so he had been in the pool, throwing kids around, letting them climb on him. He preferred doing that to having the parents of his friends ask him about college and what he was majoring in and all the rest of it, which was what would have happened if he had been making conversation over by the grill. He'd known he would have ended up telling them he was pre-law, but he wouldn't really have meant it, and he hated himself when he said something just to sound impressive. He had just finished his freshman year, and he hated, too, the idea that his life would take predictable turns.
Callie was there but she was mooning around waiting for their friends, specifically Ham Storer, to show up. He remembered that. And Toni was there--she must have been ten or eleven, and Jed had had the distinct impression that she was showing off for him, which he thought was funny because he himself had been showing off, just a little bit, for her mother. Maybe he'd stood in front of her to throw a ball, maybe, oh, he'd flexed a muscle once or twice. Marcella Atkinson had been sitting at the corner of the patio, alone. He tended to notice her when she was around, which was not often--she seemed to play tennis only under duress. If one of his friends had happened to ask him about her--and maybe they would have; surely he wasn't the only one noticing her--he probably would have said she was hot. Another thing to impress. But in his mind, he held her more gently. With more awe.
He was trying to ignore Toni and not be rude about it, and he ducked under water and swam to the deep end. When he came up, he found himself looking directly at Marcella. He was in a little space of quiet; he checked; the kids, including Toni, were now in a knot at the other end, playing Marco Polo. He propped himself up against the deck with his elbow, and when he looked back, furtively, at Marcella Atkinson, she had sat up in her lounge chair, and was taking off her dress.
It was only a beach dress, of course. Her bathing suit was underneath. He wondered for the briefest of moments if she was going to swim, and then, for a moment that was even briefer, the dress caught around her hair and she twisted to free herself, and her bathing suit pulled back, and he saw her nipple, dark as an unblinking eye.
He had been almost nineteen. He had seen nipples before, whole breasts in fact. He was not a virgin, and he fancied himself an adult, but as the dark privacy of Marcella Atkinson's body flashed by him--almost instantly she twisted again, and the suit slipped back, and her breast was covered--he had realized he wasn't. He realized that normally he would have felt a throb of transgressive glee, a thrill of good luck, and that that would have been wrong. Because instead he wanted to run and protect her. To hide her, even though now there was nothing to hide. He gripped the edge of the concrete deck and resisted.
Instead, as he watched, she pulled the dress the rest of the way off. She sat back in the chair, unaware of what had happened, and looked down at the bundle of the dress in her lap, pensive, as if she did not know what to do with it. And then she looked straight up at him.
She had light-green northern Italian eyes. They were startling against her skin, her dark hair. They were wide open and innocent with a guileless, heartbreaking longing, and he knew that somehow it had everything and yet nothing to do with him.
His old self--the self he had been until a minute before, the self he was jettisoning at that very moment--would have been disappointed to realize she wasn't looking at him. But this abrupt new self (he saw with the clarity of memory) knew he had seen something mysterious and fascinating: Marcella Atkinson's body, and Marcella herself. He thought of the girls he knew who seemed to offer him sunny manicured lanes instead of turning, twisting mysteries, and he knew his own life would not be ordinary, that it would instead be boundlessly rich. He was eighteen and fortunate and things had always gone well for him, and while he knew that his good fortune so far had not involved much choice on his part, he thought that being an adult, in the land of choice, would only improve things. He stared at her for another long moment. He was all nerve endings. And then he knew suddenly that he had to get away.
He turned his back to her and heaved himself out of the water, took a towel from a nearby chair, covered himself. When he turned to her again, Marcella Atkinson was looking beyond him, into the trees, like she wanted to escape, and he knew she was no longer thinking of him at all. Somehow it didn't matter. But escape seemed exactly the thing and so he left without saying good-bye to anyone and went to the club. It was empty; everyone was at the party. He slammed balls against the backboard for an hour, sweating out his lust and wonder, effecting the change in himself. When he had gotten back home, the party was breaking up, and the Atkinsons were gone.
He sat now, rigid, on the edge of his bed. He knew Callie was still in the other room and that she was not really resting and that something was wrong. Through the open window he heard Toni's voice, indistinct but with an impatient edge, and he knew Jamie would come looking for Callie soon, and he would have to intercept him. And he knew that since that moment years ago, when life had seemed to lie exquisite before him, he had lost faith in any ability of his for agency or happiness.
And he knew also that Marcella Atkinson's bathing suit should not be there, in the upstairs closet of his parents' house. He knew that later, when the room was empty again, he would go back for it. He would hold it in his hands, and figure out what to do.
Excerpted from THE SWIMMING POOL © Copyright 2011 by Holly LeCraw. Reprinted with permission by Doubleday. All rights reserved.
The Swimming Pool