Swimming Lessons

Sunday, January 15, 2023

They get to the class, Alice parking the car, the tires pressing up against piles of slushy, dirt-stained snow. Icicles are hanging from the swim building, looking threatening. Alice hates the winter. She thinks it’s morbid. She goes around to the rear passenger door of the car and opens it. There’s always a small part of her that wants to linger outside a moment longer. Sometimes she imagines waiting outside the door, perfectly calm, as Hazel cries in her car seat. Instead, she opens the door right away, almost too fast, so that it swings open wildly, bouncing off its hinges. She raises her eyebrows and gives an enormous, toothy smile as she says, “Hey, my silly girl.”

Hazel scowls. “I’m not your silly girl,” she says. It doesn’t matter what Alice does now; it’s always wrong. “Too cold!” screeches Hazel as Alice hoists her out of the car. She’d refused to put her coat on when they left the house. Alice hadn’t wanted to force her but knows this was probably wrong, too.

“You know Papa and Nana are coming?” says Alice. “To watch you swim. They love to watch you swim, you know.”

“I don’t like them.”

“Oh, sure you do.”

“No,” says Hazel. “Nope.”

“You do,” says Alice. “You like them, sweetie.” Alice’s parents are the only family Hazel has left aside from her, but of course Hazel is too young to understand this.

They enter the building. The smell of chlorine burns Alice’s nostrils. “Ew,” she says. “Yucky, right?” Hazel is staring wordlessly at the swimming pool through the small window above the receptionist desk and doesn’t respond.

Inside the changing room, a topless mother is wrangling a baby out of a wet swimsuit on a plastic changing table. The mother’s breasts are hanging down over the baby, whose mouth is open and searching. Alice wants to tell the mother the baby is hungry, but she doesn’t say it. It’s easy to forget what it’s like to have a baby, but Alice remembers. She dresses Hazel, distracting her by chattering about the swimming lessons. Hazel’s swimsuit is a pink two-piece with small purple hearts on it. Alice despises it, but her mother bought it, and Hazel loves it. She begs to wear it, unlike the clothes that Alice buys her.

By the time they leave the changing room, the topless mother is breastfeeding. Alice smiles at the mother, making eye contact. The mother smiles back, and for a second, it’s like they are the only two people on the planet who understand some unspeakable yet powerful truth about love and sacrifice and motherhood, but the moment is quickly over; the baby has pulled away and is howling, and Hazel is yanking Alice’s hand toward the door. It’s a moment Alice might remember forever if she didn’t have a child distracting her.

The air in the swimming room is hot and stuffy. Alice’s chest constricts, so she inhales harder, but it only makes her cough. The pool is filled with splashing, shrieking toddlers. It’s a hellish place, the swimming room. Astonishing that anyone chooses to attend.

Alice’s parents are sitting side by side in dirty white plastic chairs. They wave to Hazel, barely seeming to register Alice’s existence.

Hazel gives a shy wave, then enters the swimming pool without hesitation. She’s brave that way, Alice’s daughter. The swim instructor is a young man with dark hair and red cheeks covered in pimples and various sores. He can’t be more than eighteen years old, yet for some reason all the parents trust him to ensure their children don’t drown at the bottom of the swimming pool.

Alice sits down next to her parents. “So good of you to come.”

“Of course,” says her mother. This is the first time they’ve spoken in person since Alice’s breakdown. Alice swallows hard, her throat tightening.

“How has she been?” says her father.

“Oh, about the same. You know, tantrums and such, but she’s happy. We’re good.”

“That’s good,” says her mother. “Very good to hear.”

“She was singing a song. On the way over here. About a whale.”

“Oh?” says her mother. “Well, that’s cute. Isn’t that cute?” She turns toward Alice’s father, who nods.

Her father is in a bad mood. Alice had sensed it right away, glimpsing his face from across the room. She’s spent her entire life tracking her father’s moods. Although her father was technically around when she was growing up, he was never really present. Alice suspects this has something to do with her own recent issues, but she can’t be certain. She’s never certain about much, which she suspects is also her father’s fault, but she can’t be certain about this, either.

Hazel is holding onto a pool float and splashing around. Her brow is furrowed. Hazel is a quiet child except when she’s alone with Alice. Alice secretly loves this. It’s like she’s the only one who gets to know her daughter.

Hazel turns away. Alice watches the back of her head. It bobs in and out of the water. At least once a day Alice imagines a horrible way Hazel might die. One time they went to the beach, and Alice was watching her walk along the sand, admiring how tall and perfect she was. The moment was so perfect Alice actually thought it: this is perfect. Like the entire reason for being alive was contained in that moment. It was in that exact instant Alice imagined the waves snatching Hazel from the shore and pulling her out to sea. Alice knows this is ridiculous and unlikely, but she also knows one day they will both die, that at some point she will no longer be with Hazel, and this makes her feel so awful it’s as though her body is disconnected from the rest of her, like she’s levitating. When she thinks about this, she doesn’t understand how all parents aren’t just floating around, untethered to the earth.

With the instructor’s help Hazel goes under the water. Alice inhales deeply. The air in the room is stifling, heavy and steamy. Alice dabs at her brow. Hazel comes back up, smiling.

Alice and her mother clap, but Alice’s father is staring at the pool. Alice wants to speak to him but doesn’t. Instead she sits there, allowing his toxicity to vibrate between them.

Alice misses the time when she was melting down, and people would always pretend to be happy around her. She knows they were actually afraid, but it turns out she doesn’t care if other people are happy so long as they pretend to be happy for her sake. She wonders if this makes her a terrible person, but she doesn’t really care about the answer, which is further proof.

Hazel turns to Alice, giving her a thumbs-up. Alice gives a thumbs-up back. Hazel turns away again.

There was a time when Alice didn’t go to the swimming lessons. For several months her parents had taken Hazel. Alice feels bad about it, but what could she do? It had started with the dishes. Alice was scrubbing a plate when she thought, If I have to do another dish in this house, I’m going to jump off a bridge and into the river. It was just a thought, they were all just thoughts, but didn’t thoughts also have power? Weren’t thoughts actually the beginning of everything?

Hazel is holding the pool float and rapidly kicking her feet as the instructor watches. The water makes white waves. Another child shrieks. Beads of sweat slide down Alice’s chest, pooling at the center of her bra.

Alice is glad she’s at the swimming lessons now. Even though the room is muggy and oppressive and the instructor is a child himself covered in horrific zits and she has to sit by her sullen father wondering about his anger and her childhood. It’s better this way. To be here.

Hazel lets go of the pool float and kicks off, heading away from the other children. But the instructor is focused on the shrieking child and doesn’t notice.

“Hey,” says Alice. “Excuse me.”

Alice looks around. Her father is gazing somewhere past the water. Her mother is staring at her cell phone. Hazel is kicking her feet faster now, paddling hard away from the group. Then Alice watches as her head goes under.

“Hazel!” Alice stands up, rushing to the edge of the swimming pool, the rest of the room blurring, the entire world narrowing until all that remains is the hazy place where Hazel lurks beneath the water, dark strands of her hair floating up toward the surface. Just then Hazel’s head pops out of the water, and the instructor turns, casually handing a pool float to her, but the way he does it, it’s like he was going to anyway, like he was on top of it all along and Alice had nothing to do with it.

“That’s enough for today,” says Alice to the instructor. “I think we’re done now.” She’s standing at the edge of the pool, dripping sweat. The teenager looks at Alice like he’s unsure who she is. Alice takes a step back. The room is spinning. Her parents are staring at her. Hazel cries when they leave the swimming class.

In the car on the way home, Hazel whines that she’s cold. Alice feels herself starting to lose it again, and she grips the cold steering wheel. To stop herself from thinking, she repeats in her mind: I’m better now I’m better now I’m better now.

Later that night Alice’s mother texts her. Didn’t want to talk about it there but I hope you’re doing okay. Know I am ALWAYS IN YOUR CORNER!!!!!!

Alice doesn’t respond. She prefers her father’s silence to her mother’s attempts at forced love. She knows it’s bad to feel this way, that her mother is trying, but it’s also how she feels, and she knows it’s bad to stuff your feelings, to pretend your feelings aren’t what they are, so in the end she’s just confused about it all and that’s why, after Hazel goes to sleep, Alice tears open the family-size bag of Ruffles and squirts an embarrassing amount of ketchup into a bowl then lumbers down the hallway to her bedroom. Her bed is unmade, and there are papers and books and bottles of sleeping pills stacked on her nightstand. She opens her laptop and brings up her show. Her life will never be more than this. It’s enough because it has to be.

The show is a dumb reality show about people in their twenties who can’t stop cheating on each other. It’s like it’s physically impossible for them not to cheat. Sometimes Alice thinks this show is the only thing that has kept her afloat this past year. After several minutes, Hazel appears in the doorway.

“What are you doing?” says Alice. She sounds harsher than she means to. She pauses the show. She has a chip in her mouth and feels the salty ridge against the surface of her tongue.

“It’s so dark out,” says Hazel.

“Yes, it’s supposed to be. It’s night. You need to sleep.”

Hazel’s lip quivers. Her eyes scrunch up. “But if I close my eyes, it will be darker and darker.”

Alice softens and says, “Okay, okay, yes, I do understand that.”

Last spring, the night Hazel’s father had screamed about the rent, Hazel had walked in like this and stared up at them with her big eyes. Even in that moment Alice had thought how perfect her daughter was, how it was a miracle she was here at all. “I’m surprised you haven’t killed yourself yet,” Hazel’s father had said to Alice just moments before, and Alice had said, calmly, “Okay.”

“Okay,” says Alice. “Do you want to watch my show with me? Just this one time.”

“Just this one time,” repeats Hazel. She stumbles toward the bed. She’s wearing the dark green footie pajamas Alice bought at Target for $9.99 with her last paycheck. The important thing is for Hazel to see that Alice is doing better now. Her daughter will see that she’s trying. She’ll remember it. That her mother tried.

“We’ll have girl time, okay?” says Alice.

“Okay,” says Hazel sleepily.

Alice brings Hazel into the bed. Her body is warm, generating heat like the laptop. Alice pushes the laptop farther away and brings Hazel closer, snuggling her in. “This is called a slumber party,” says Alice. “You do it with friends. You have chips and you drink pop and laugh and watch a show together, okay?”

Hazel nods. Together they stare at the laptop. There’s a woman whose skin is some hue of orange. She’s wearing a pink bikini and talking to a shirtless man whose name Alice remembers is Bill. Just then another shirtless guy appears on screen. The woman stands back as Bill starts to yell. Bill is cursing, waving his hands around. He looks like a total idiot. Alice’s stomach lurches.

“This is Bill,” says Alice, “and he’s a terrible person. You want to stay away from men like this. Understand me?”

Hazel’s eyes are big but sleepy. She nods once, slowly, and mumbles around the thumb stuck in her mouth, “Okay.”

Sunday, January 15, 2023