by Delphine Hirsh
It was hot. So hot. Triple digits by eight AM. The twins and I sat on towels in the car to avoid burning the backs of our thighs. I “held” the steering wheel with my fingertips. The twins had rivulets of sweat lacing their ears when I kissed them goodbye at the schoolyard and drove away.
I crept to the gate looking over my shoulder, opened it quickly, thinking someone might call to me, ask what I was doing there. I don’t know why. I had every right to be there: my friends had said “use the pool, as often as you like.” They were away, and I had twisted my ankle so I couldn’t run. Even if someone had stopped me, I could have explained. Or maybe I would have burst into tears. But there was never anyone there.
The pool was at the end of Lotte and Stefan’s back yard but raised up, six feet higher than the yard, and nestled in by three walls bursting with bougainvillea, honeysuckle, jasmine. I wondered if the pool leaked somewhere, causing this part of the yard to be especially lush. Rectangular and generous, it wasn’t like some candy pool, only good for show or small children with floaties. And while the water sparkled clear, the pool glowed jade-mint from its green iridescent tiles. Patches of shade moved across it as palm trees in a neighbor’s yard swayed ever so slightly.
At first, I wore my bathing suit. Then, after a few days, I stopped wearing it. I didn’t even bring it. I stopped looking around too. I just stripped and jumped in. Crumbs and odors of lunch and breakfast and last night’s dinner, dog hairs, my sweat, the twins’ sweat, possibly their tears, my husband’s sweat, gone. It was like being unpainted in a cool green caress. Before my laps, I floated face-down spread-eagle, armpits and genitals open to water and sun. My breasts bobbed like playful seal pups. My shoulders, rib cage and back, unharnessed from draconian bra straps, exalted, unused to the movement of air, the feeling of nothingness. After my laps, I threw off my goggles, sunk down under the water, legs out, arms out, dancing, spinning, hair fanning. My body was just a way for me to experience water, light, air, quiet. After, I lay in the sun on the side of the pool, breathing, trying to think nothing.
I don’t know if he’d been watching me for days or if this was his first time. He stood on the balcony off Lotte and Stefan’s master bedroom in front of open French windows, facing the pool, across the yard from me. Naked. Not moving. He was a big man, well over six feet, about my age. Tall, broad, with long arms and legs, a beard that was neither full nor thin nor groomed, and thick hair that stuck up on his head in places from sleep or lack of washing or both. His arms, neck and face were darker than the rest of him. He was looking at me, all of me, curiously. He didn’t move. He didn’t call out to me. Then he held up one palm, and possibly smiled. I’m not sure. The sun was in my face.
I think it was the fact that he was completely nude that reassured me. The times when I’d been presented with the genitals of unknown men, they just had their flies unzipped, belts splayed menacingly, pants and underwear in a bunch. They held their penises in their hands, jerking frantically, beady-eyed, hoping to get what they wanted before they were caught. Or they had been mostly naked, wearing coats and shoes, looking at my face as they exposed themselves to see my reaction. None of the men had ever been entirely naked, except for the old man with Alzheimer’s who lived down the street from us and occasionally took his trash out in the nude. He didn’t scare me either.
I didn’t make any sudden movements. I was in a rapture of slowness, birds chirped. I wasn’t as new to naked men, to penises, to sex acts, to anything as I had once been. Between the twins and my husband, there was a lot of male on display at home, often sticky or expectant or needing attention in some way. It was really only my own nakedness that remained somewhat private and quick, confined to a bathroom, a small closet, the middle of the night.
On the drive home, I wondered if I should call Lotte and Stefan. But they were far away in a different time zone. And, as I considered it more, it was like them–generous but absent-minded–to forget to tell me that they had a house guest. People from their native Netherlands often stayed with them–just the kind of people who would be naked outside during the day. Should I mention it to my husband? A few months earlier I would have. I didn’t.
The next day, I went back. At some point after my laps, I noticed that the man was again on the balcony watching me. I put on my sunglasses, nothing else, and looked directly at him from the pool. He had pockmarks on his shoulders and face, possibly from old acne or sun spots. He had an average amount of reddish-brown hair on his body; his beard and pubic hair were slightly redder. I didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything. He held his long arms open to indicate that he was taking in the sun, or maybe in surrender. I got out of the pool, as I always did, and lay still beside it, drying. There were scars, I didn’t know if he could see them, and the breasts, which lolled into my armpits. But I lay there with the air on me. Then I got up, dressed as he watched me still, and went home.
I did not call Lotte and Stefan, or any other friends. Just as I hadn’t told anyone about my husband’s infidelity with his old girlfriend a few months before. I was inside my own head, like a narrator in a French movie: She sliced the cold plums for her sons’ lunches. The juice stained her fingers violet. She wondered if she would ever be fully free of the mental images of her husband coupling with another woman. Also, were the American Spirit cigarettes she bought yesterday actually healthier than Marlboro Lights? So much seemed unknowable. Besides, I wasn’t going to stop going to the pool. For two weeks, it was mine and I would have it.
He never appeared anywhere else than on the balcony. He never came down to the pool, he never called out to me, he never sat in the chairs behind him, and he never wore any clothes. The fourth day that he watched me, I noticed that he had an erection. Maybe he saw me notice. He put his big hands down to cover it. He didn’t stop looking at me. And I at him. But when I lay down by the pool, I lay perpendicular to it with my legs open for him to see me. Only my ob/gyn had seen those parts of me in the light since the twins. The man put his hand on himself, staring at me. I fluttered my eyes behind my sunglasses and relaxed. After a few moments, I heard him. A croaking sob. I opened my eyes. He held his penis and presumably his semen in one hand, and covered his eyes with the other, his head down. When he looked up, it seemed that he might have been crying.
The next day after I slipped out of the pool, I spread my legs open to the man where he stood on the balcony, his penis erect. He didn’t move as I started to touch myself. I slowly licked my fingers and took them to my nipples, then between my legs and then inside my vagina. He put one hand down and began to stroke himself. When I turned over, on my knees with my backside arched towards him, touching myself through my spread legs, I looked back over my shoulder to see him. He was looking right at my face.
I didn’t go to the pool during the weekend. My husband was solicitous, accustomed to my distance since his revelation. We’d resumed occasional relations though, a measure of his need for reassurance, maybe my own as well. We went to the beach with friends both days. While the fathers built sandcastles with the children and the other mothers sunbathed, I swam far out and took off my top in the ocean and thought of the pool.
On Monday, I went back. It was still hot but not as hot as it had been. When I got out, the man was there on the balcony. For the next five days, as the sun shone and the air moved and the birds chirped, I opened myself and did as I had before, as did he. Eyelashes, sun spots, arm hair burnished gold, beads of water, saliva, tightness, flooding, floating. Now we smiled at each other afterwards. And as I lay back down in the sun across the yard, he lay down up on the balcony with one of his long arms leaning off it in my direction, or propped up on his side looking at me. His whole body was an even brown. Mine too. Sometimes, I went back in the pool and swam again before I left.
Lotte and Stefan were returning on a Tuesday. On Monday, I went to the pool. I looked up at the French windows but they were closed. Next to the pool was a small plain brown box. I opened it. Inside was a green stone on a fine gold chain. The stone was the exact color of the tiles of the pool, and glowed in the sunshine. I put it on. The housekeeper was arriving as I left, water from my hair still dripping down my back.
The heat lasted through October, and the four of us went to Lotte and Stefan’s for a late-afternoon lunch on a Sunday. We hadn’t seen them since their return, what with this and that. I brought a large bouquet of birds of paradise to thank them for letting me use the pool. I wasn’t nervous about what they might know or not know. I just wasn’t.
“This is the nicest pool on earth,” my husband said to Lotte and Stefan, after he resurfaced from cannon-balling into it.
At the outdoor table in the shade, I put salad on the twins’ plates.
“My cousin said there was a mermaid in the pool when he was here,” Stefan said, reaching for the bottle of rosé in an ice bucket. My husband looked my way but I kept putting salad on the twins’ plates.
“That’s too much,” my husband said. I took some off the plates.
“Yes, I’m so sorry. I forgot to mention that Sem would be staying here,” said Lotte, sitting. “It was last minute. We didn’t know he was going to be in town or we might not have even gone away.”
“His wife and his daughter Brita died last year. Killed in a car accident,” added Stefan, holding his glass in mid-air, then putting it back down.
Lotte pressed her fingertips to her forehead, and bit her lip. Everyone was silent for a moment.
“Still too much salad, Mom,” said Luke. I took more off his plate.
“He said the sun was good for him,” Lotte whispered, blinking. I felt for the green stone around my neck with my fingers. Back home, we carried the sleeping twins upstairs and put them in their beds, removing only the sandals from their buttercup feet. Later, I cried in the shower. No one noticed, I think.
That night, I knew that I wasn’t leaving, my husband wasn’t leaving, no one was leaving. I listened to my husband breathe and covered his hand with mine.
In February, we were invited to Stefan’s fiftieth birthday party. We were late, racing from a work dinner like prisoners on a jailbreak. The kitchen was crowded, five languages were being spoken, Lotte was barefoot and holding two bottles of tequila. Stefan whisked my husband away towards a birthday gift, a vintage guitar being held awkwardly by a man with a too-big head. Women with full lips and imperfect teeth and just the right amount of eye make-up smoked cigarettes inside.
The living room was packed with people dancing. I pushed my way into the middle and joined them. I could see a neighbor Franco spinning vinyl, head bobbing, in a corner. As I danced, other friends and I clasped hands for a moment or kissed each other’s hair and then resumed dancing, song after song. My husband came and danced, then kissed my sweaty brow. He would go home and relieve the babysitter. I kept dancing, making figure eights with my hips, jumping, whipping my hair, wiping away sweat trickling down my neck and cleavage, interested in the scent of a new perfume I was wearing. I must have had my head down because I didn’t notice him until he was right in front of me.
“My mermaid,” he said. I stopped moving and looked up. My eyes feasted on his nearness. Indeed, he had scars from acne on his cheeks above his beard and on his neck. He reached out to touch the stone on my necklace. His hands were calloused. He pushed aside strands of my hair and put his thumb on the stone, just below my clavicle. A new song started. He took my hands, and we danced–perhaps ridiculously–a kind of swing, a light jitterbug. He smelled like a man who had been on a long flight. I liked it. He spun me out and brought me back in, his long arm around my waist. My friend Pilar looked at us, puzzled, and kept dancing.
Later, I felt hot and light and shaky when Sem led me off the dance floor, through the kitchen, and outside to the dark steps leading to the pool. There was tightness, heat, damp between my legs. Magically, Sem produced two orbs of wine from his left hand and offered me one. Without asking, he took off his jacket and put it around me. He lit a cigarette. I put my fingers out, and he gave the cigarette to me and lit another for himself. His sleeves were rolled up, and the hair on his forearms glinted in the lights from the house.
“I am married,” I said because I felt I had to.
“I know,” he said.
“He was with an old girlfriend not long before you were here.”
He smiled. “Lucky for me.”
I exhaled slowly. The smoke and my hot breath a hovering nebula.
“I didn’t know,” I said. He turned his face to me.
“It doesn’t matter. I wanted to thank you,” he said. “I wanted to be dead. Then I didn’t. I was ashamed that I was still alive. And then…I wasn’t.”
“If I had known, I would have put on a much more elaborate show.”
He laughed. “Is it too late?”
“I think so,” and I could feel my upper lip stick to my incisors as I smiled.
“Then this?” he held out his hand.
We danced until Pilar came for me. From the car, I looked back into the night where Sem stood in the spotlight of a streetlamp like a marionette as the curtain rises.
Delphine Hirsh is a French-American native New Yorker and Princeton University graduate who spent many years working at the American Foundation for AIDS Research, occasionally smuggling Elizabeth Taylor’s fluffy Maltese into other countries. She lives in Los Angeles, and also write children’s books and screenplays. She can be found at www.delphinehirsh.com.