At the Pool
Julian does not care for the men’s natatorium at Camden. Yet he paid for a membership and he is going to use it.
He dislikes how boys chuckle about his swimwear, which runs from ankle to throat. The water is too cold: 24 degrees Celsius; he knows that because the staff has written it in chalk. The building keeps odd hours, too, five in the evening until midnight. Not a widower’s hours.
He could accept those were it not for the sign: OCEAN WATER LET IN. The grammar is awful, but he already knew by the taste, and by the stinging in his eyes.
The pool is close to the city wharf and built two meters below sea level. Brine is filtered for grit and contaminants but otherwise the Atlantic flows right in, or out, depending on the tides.
Ocean water. That means ocean troubles. Not sharks, not jellyfish, it means the ocean’s real troubles.
Today’s swim is quick, twenty-five laps at most. (The lanes are in yards, which is something else he hates. The yards and brutalist architecture and hazy indoor shadows.)
He misses a day, now swims again on Thursday. After some ten minutes he hears a voice, the same as if it were coursing through him:
‘Hello, I’ve noticed you. You are a strong swimmer. Strong all over.’
An ocean woman. Not a sea nymph, but some would refer to her as that. She is not corporeal or ethereal. She is pure ocean.
Speaking with her is a crime. A felony in some regards. To lay down with her is a death sentence. He swims on. She follows.
‘Don’t be nervous, you can answer. I’ll understand you, too.’ She makes a ridiculous bubbling sound, exactly like a man underwater. He laughs. They both laugh.
‘You see, Julian. It’s fine.’
How does she know his name? Does she know of his wife, too, murdered in their home?
She says, ‘So quiet! If something is bothering you, just tell me.’
It surprises Julian what he asks: ‘Why me? Of all the men here?’
He nods to the others, so young and agile. Nods to their abdomens and rippled backs, like waves underneath waves. Some clients swim naked and he envies that most of all. It burns him up that they are bold enough to, and that their bodies are firm. Full. No one would say Julian is full-bodied.
‘Them, they are spoken for. But as for you?’ She shrugs. It is her way of asking.
‘Spoken for, you mean, they are married? Or there are others like you?’ She only stares and he gets it, she means both.
Of course there are other nymphs. Why would members strip bare if there weren’t? Yet because he cannot see their companions, it is a safe guess those men cannot see his, either. He may as well name her, the same as if she were a hurricane. Who else would?
He is too embarrassed, though. Not so soon. No matter what he named her, it would feel rude and abrupt.
Julian visits the natatorium again in four days, with no sign of her the first dozen laps. In time his limbs are heavy, fatigued. They feel twisted up in pool currents until, forty laps in, he realizes it is the opposite. It is the current which is twisting.
‘Is that you?’
‘It’s me. Why? Who were you expecting?’
‘I don’t think expect is the word.’
He swims eighty laps in all, then five dozen on Tuesday, with another four on Wednesday. By Thursday he is exhausted and slow, laboring to finish even one lap, the same as a dead barge. Yet he stays until twelve o’clock, playing word games with the woman, telling jokes, singing funny songs.
He is sleepy enough to forget that he drove home, parked the car. He wakes after sunrise in the driveway, the engine running, the damp swimsuit filling his car with the odor of seaweed. He checks the mirror. He used to act this way when he was in love.
But this affair, if that is the word, never moves forward. Instead, there are more setbacks. A lifeguard and two members are caught here, at the natatorium, with three ocean women. The pool closes indefinitely. Word has it the city shuttered the place for good.
The members are jailed, let out with bonds. Their trials are soon, but it is sure the lifeguard will hang. Julian makes inquiries into his lost dues, but no one who takes his call can answer that.
And when he finds the nymph again—whom he has started calling Shenae, adding three letters to She—they are swimming off of Mailer Beach. For three days in a row, they sing coquettish songs again, giggle at the sunburnt retirees who swim by.
This evening Julian asks a favor of the woman next door, which he is reluctant to do. Not that his neighbor might mention anything: she is young, with long, smooth arms and an ankle tattoo, and rarely notices him. Yet even if she does not know about Shenae, it embarrasses him, having paired off with a mostly false lover. It is the same as if she saw a life-sized doll in his bed.
But there is a front entry lock he needs to pick, and he saw her do that once, after forgetting her purse. The woman acts happy to see him, slapping him on the arm when he says he is locked out. Her hair is wet, though the back of her top is still dry. He shuts his eyes and tries not to imagine why.
It only takes her a few minutes, using a straightened paper clip and bent aluminum strip. ‘Voila!’ she says, now hits him on the arm again. When they shake hands, he has to take the right one from his pocket and nearly drops the door key. His palm is cold with sweat.
She grins: ‘Now you can rob an apartment.’
It is the last true afternoon with Shenae, who seems especially free today. Well, she was free before, perhaps he means free-loving, although that is not the expression, either. We all love freedom. No, the way she acts is emboldened.
She pushes water heavily into his mouth. He knows it is the same as a tongue but anyway he loathes kissing like that, he always has. It is a smoker’s kiss, and by point of fact her salt water has a stale taste, nicotine-stale.
Is she tipsy? Drunk on ocean water? To put it another way, is she drunk on herself?
‘Did you bring your bucket?’
‘For sand. Are you building sand castles like a cheeky boy?’
So formal! And since when does he address anyone as miss?
‘Bring one tomorrow. Any time, and anywhere on the beach. Fill it with water. No matter when you come, or where, doing that will scoop me out, I promise.
‘Then, take me home, draw a bath and pour me in. We will be together, and the drains will deliver me back here when we’re done. And if you want to see me again, just bring a bucket again.’
He does exactly as she says. The bucket. The beach and tub. Not his bath, though. Instead he collects her, then breaks into 105 South Caye Street, just as the neighbor taught him to. A man named Vitaz lives here.
He carries Shenae through the master suite, now stirs her into bathwater with perfume. The act makes him sob: leaving her brine-colored hands and lovely wants for some other man to have. It is a slow-witted dog, that one. It was Vitaz who killed Julian’s wife.
‘Do you mind, Shenae?’
‘Mind, my love?’
He telephones the authorities, who find the old murderer dozing in lukewarm soap. How else do police catch us with our invisible contraband mistresses, other than a tipoff?
Julian waits a year for the trial, and four years for the hanging. He waits alone, quiet and alone, though, in the end, it is Vitaz who will be silenced, condemned to die for taking a lover he did not see. And after then, at last, the flies will carry off his importance.