Winter at the Pool

By Emily Taylor

ecause the windows are fogged and the shadows of the skiers graze the surface of the drifts outside, Jonathan doesn’t notice her at first.  A man in the pool raises his head out of a sidestroke and gasps.

 

“There,” he says, and points to the window.  Jonathan gets down from the tall chair fast.  His heels jolt through his spine and his whistle bangs against his chest.  He rubs moisture from the glass and they stand, face to face.

 

A girl, a young woman, cradles a hurt bird in her arm that bleeds into her ski jacket and the snow.  She has no poles, and her skis look bent.  She looks at Jonathan.  The swimmers tread water in their lap lanes as if in formation.

 

It isn’t a bird in her arms.  It’s her arm that looked like a bleeding arching wing.  Jonathan’s own arm tingles, remembering before his brain does how it felt to have a splinter of bone jutting forth into the fluorescent night in the parking lot.  His stink mixed with the metallic smell of blood on baked asphalt.  And more than the pain, the Herculean effort to hold back the gush of tears which would be worse than blood, because they would make him a boy and not a guy and definitely not a punk.

 

The girl’s knees bend and she sways and falls into the snow, not unlike the startled birds that flew into the glass picture window of his mother’s Florida condo.  An ocean view, and unanticipated streaks.  The girl’s blood is dark on the blue snow.  The last of the shadows fall.  Jonathan runs.

 

“What’s your name?” he says, when he reaches her.  The snow is knives in the arches of his bare feet.  He thinks she’s more than beautiful, she’s absolutely lovely.

 

“Caroline,” she says.

 

“Caroline,” Jonathan says.  “Look at me, Caroline.”  That’s all he can say as they wait.  His swim shorts stiffen into his thighs, and the skin that covers his ribs vibrates, like a short-haired dog does.  The paramedics roll Caroline out on a stretcher, sliding in the snow.

 

 

“You came to see me,” she says.  She lifts her hand to him, and he feels the thrum of her pulse in his fingertips.  Her fingers are small and white and straight.

 

“I told you I would,” he says.

 

“I don’t remember,” she says.  “I’m sorry.”  Most of the skiing injuries have flown south for the spring and she is alone in a room with three beds.  He imagines sleeping beside her at night, listening to the wheels of the orderlies’ mop-buckets recede down the hallway.  He imagines warming the length of her body, the backs of her thighs and their softness.

 

“I didn’t bring you anything,” he says.  Her ears are perfect, he sees, like shells.  He imagines taking one of her earlobes in his mouth.  She is still lovely now, his own bird rescued from the throes of the storm.  He saved her.  She is the first thing he has ever saved.

 

“I seem to have destroyed quite a bit of my memory,” she says.

 

“Really?” he says.  She nods, chin lowering deep into her neck.

 

“Will it come back?” he says.  It seems like the right thing to ask.  He’s only heard of such a problem on the soap operas that his mother started watching in the condo, sitting on the floor in front of the couch.  She’d ask Jonathan or Anna, his sister, to bring her fresh glasses of juice and ice to go with the vodka she kept between her splayed knees.

 

“Maybe,” Caroline says.  “Stay awhile?”  She reaches out her hand to gesture, and her hospital garb slips down her shoulder.  He sits immediately, because his knees have become unhinged.  He would like for her to cling to his neck.  He would like for her breath to warm his collarbone.

 

“I can read to you about makeup tips,” he says.  He holds up a magazine he picked up on a rack outside.

 

“Does it tell you how to dress for success?”

 

“Not in this issue,” he says.  Jonathan’s wearing a boxy sweater he’s worn all winter, misshapen now, and smelling like the inside of his car.  Not good.

 

“Maybe in the next one,” she says.  He feels the blood rush through his body at the idea of being invited back.  He remembers his own hospital bed and the long stretches of time he spent alone.  Wisps of hair grew out of his chin and when his mother came, finally, to take him home, she winced when she kissed him.

 

 

While Caroline rests in the hospital, Jonathan tries skiing for her.  He rises over the incline of the mountain on the lift, suspended, his poles tucked under his arm.  His weight sags the chair to the right and his skis brush treetops.  It feels like flying.

 

Going down the hill on skis does not feel like flying.  He snakes across the wide trails and his muscles stretch and compress, twisting.  His short skis push into their wedge.

 

“It’s okay,” he says to her later, slouched in the hospital chair, too sore to straighten. “I can see why you like it.”

 

“You don’t have to like it,” she says.  “I just wanted you to try.  It’s not right for you to work at a winter resort without trying.”  Her voice is clear now, where before it had been scratched, throaty.  It’s a louder voice than he had imagined from a girl so hurt.  It’s as full as if she had once used it to call across rivers.

 

“Was it worth it?” he says.  Her arm is a white sculpture of tape and plaster.  It will be damaged and shorter than the other when that is done.

 

“I think it was,” Caroline says.  She falls asleep then, and he doesn’t take it personally.  The pain medication brings it on.  They have been spending time together here in the hospital, and it’s not quite like dating.  It feels like the ‘hanging out’ he did as a teenager in Florida, spending evenings in the parking lot riding skateboards and daring one another to ride down the stairs.  In the lot, the sun made waves of hot air so their boards became blurs.  Jonathan lied to those guys about what Brooklyn was like, and graffiti he never tagged on fenceposts.  He also lied to them about his father, telling them that Garth was in jail for stealing cars instead of contracting work on apartments and houses of people who lived near the park.

 

 

Caroline’s memory bank is still shadowy, and the doctors hope that by resting, whatever was knocked loose in her brain will reattach.  They tell Jonathan to keep coming and talking to her.  The rest of her life will brighten.  I used to go to summer camp, she said once, while eating a boring hospital dinner.  The fruit punch was toxic.

 

“What?” he said.  He stood up, hovering.  “Hey, it’s coming back.”

 

“Just bits and pieces,” she said.  But in the morning, she didn’t remember summer camp at all.  She always remembers Jonathan.  When her fingers are cold, she holds them out to be pressed between his own.

 

Jonathan wonders if Caroline’s was always the left-side smile that snags over her tooth in the front, or if this is something new that happened after the accident.  It is so conspiratorial and sweet.  He thinks about who might be frantic to see her.  Someone who loves the sound of her bare feet on hardwood floors and the way her cold fingers feel against his ribs.  Or someone who loves the way her hair turns him on when it brushes past his navel.  He can’t imagine that she wouldn’t be missed:  When her gown rides up on her legs, her calves bloom from thin, arched ankles.  When he leans close, he smells the ripeness of her soft stomach and ribs.

 

He can’t think of what to say to a girl who can’t remember herself, so he gives Caroline his own autobiography.

 

“My mom transplanted us to Florida from Brooklyn.  All of a sudden everybody was body surfing instead of playing basketball,” he says.

 

“That must have been difficult,” she says.

 

“I hate how heavy hot air feels,” he says.  “I hate it there.”

 

“She must have wanted something different,” she says.

 

“I grew so many freckles that first year they called me Spot at school,” he says.

 

“I wonder if I’ve ever been to Florida,” she says.  They listen to an ambulance whir through the parking lot to the entrance of the hospital.

 

“Were you trying to get lost?” he says.

 

“I don’t know,” she says.  “It worked, if I was trying.”  Her voice is close to his ear.

 

“Maybe you’re a spy,” he says.

 

“Maybe I’m an astronaut,” she says.

 

“An alien,” he says, “is more likely.”

 

“I’m glad I found you,” she says.  And they stop.  Because they haven’t spoken this before.

 

“I’m a sucker for a girl bleeding in the snow.  You must have known,” he says.  He takes his index finger and traces a wrinkle in her blanket.  His body dances on the inside when he knows he has brushed against the side of her breast.

 

“I was looking for a sucker,” she says.  “Somebody dumb enough to risk frostbite for me.”  She moves against his hand, leaning into it.  He closes his eyes.

 

“Where’s your family?” he says.  He thinks he can shock her into knowing, if he brings it up suddenly.  She shakes her head.

 

 

He can’t imagine that her mother or her father or her lover have not put out search warrants.  Every morning he expects to open the paper and see a photo of her in front of a chalet – with friends – while he lets the water soak into his instant oatmeal.  But then he thinks of his own mother, swimming in her cocktails.  She may not even remember where he is right now.  She didn’t know where he was when he used to go down to skateboard in the lot.  When he finally rode down the stairs, the pain in his busted arm was so great that he threw up on the asphalt.  No one brought his skateboard home because they didn’t know where he lived.

 

His father’s phone calls, a Sunday night affair, usually made him so tired from want that he often just narrated plotlines from the sitcoms his mother let them watch.  But that time:  I broke my arm, he said.  The cast itched against his wrist.  You scared me, big guy, his father said.  The phone cradled in his neck.  Jonathan was so happy he forgot the pain.  He regrets most from his childhood that his mother was too proud to say what he has learned as an adult.  His father may have not been right for his mother, but he would have been right for Jonathan.

 

 

“Caroline,” he says.  He stands in the doorway.  She is looking out the window.

 

“How can you be certain that’s my name?” she says.  “Maybe it’s just a name I liked.”  He can see her restlessness, the way she rolls her feet, and presses them against the bed frame.  Where would she go?

 

“Caroline feels like I was named after a great-aunt.   Someone who baked a lot,” she says.

 

“You shouldn’t move.  The bandage,” he says.  The sky has gone dark and no one has turned the lights on.  He smells her smell in the dark, and tries to imprint it in his memory.  This is Caroline.  This is mine, he thinks.

 

 

Jonathan tells whoever is knocking on the bathroom door to go away while he has a private moment.  There, at his temple, he has found the first gray hair.  Or, at least, the first one that he has ever noticed among the thick brown ones.  He pulls it from his head and examines it, light at the root, light through the length, and tough and wiry.  He lets it fall to the ugly carpet that blankets the bathroom floor.  In the apartment he shares with six other people for the winter season, no bedroom belongs to any one person.  Rather, they sleep in shifts – the bartenders and wait staff in the day, the others at night.  Of these housemates, none of them remember running into a beautiful Caroline with dark blond hair and a penchant for daredevil ski stunts that could get her killed.  No one remembers having served a girl like that in a bar or in a restaurant.  No one fitted her for the newest bra or pair of boots or skis.  No one remembers cutting her hair or painting her nails.  Perhaps she had come up for a long weekend on a bus from Boston or New York.  Perhaps the group she arrived with was so large that they had not yet accounted for her absence.  And perhaps she lived alone, so there was no one at home who missed her, and no one at her job who cared.  Jonathan wonders if she is an accountant, tired in the evenings from watching numbers across a screen, or a social worker, sitting in living rooms with families too broken to look her in the eye.  Perhaps she has a pet, a hungry Dalmatian dog or tabby cat wondering if she’ll ever return.  It is too strange, he thinks, that there is no one searching hospitals for her.  But then he thinks of his own sister, Anna.  He has not talked to her in weeks.  If she was to take a long weekend away from Atlanta, where she lives, and go hiking the Appalachian Trail, on a whim (though Anna would not do anything on a whim) he would not know it.

 

He runs the water and he pushes it into his eyes, careful to not lean too close to the sink for the smell of the mildew that emanates from the basin, no matter what they scrub it with.  More than the empathy he might pretend to conjure for Caroline’s pacing lover or mother or workmate or pet, Jonathan feels even more the blind fear for when she will be found and then lost to him.

 

 

“Mom,” Jonathan says.  He had to look up her number.  How long has it been since he last called her – weeks?  A month?  She doesn’t answer, and then she does.

 

“Where’s Anna?” he says.

 

“Your sister?” she says.   He waits.

 

“She’s home.  Or did she go away this weekend?”  He thinks Caroline may have a mother like his.

 

“I don’t know,” Jonathan says.

 

“Have you talked to your father?” she says.  It’s always about him and her, after all of this time.  “Maybe he knows.”

 

“I haven’t talked to Dad,” Jonathan says.  But he has.  He has been talking to his father for years now.  Ever since he discovered that his father had been waiting, all that time, for him to come home.

 

 

The snow has started to thin and melt, and he starts the truck.  The wheels have dug ruts from spinning.  The roofs of the condos all sag and drip melt-water.  His lifeguarding hours will be non-existent by next week, and he should go down to New York to help his father with his spring projects, building room dividers for yuppies who long for suburbs.

 

Jonathan goes to work and watches old men in the pool, the retired ones who can stay up here longer than the others.  They glide with the fur on their bodies streaming water.

 

“How is she?” a man asks him, toweling off.  He points to the window.

 

“You were here that night?” Jonathan says.  He leans down from the chair.

 

“Yeah, you were great,” the man says.  He shakes water from his ear.  “I’d like to try to drown while you’re on duty.”

 

“She’s good.  She’s still in the hospital.”

 

“Do you know what happened?”

 

“No.  She can’t remember.”

 

“Still?” the man says.

 

“No,” Jonathan says.  The man shakes his head.  Jonathan wonders if he is a doctor.  Many of them are.

 

 

“Do you have any gray hair?” Jonathan says.  He has gotten used to the feel of her hand in his, and now he intertwines his fingers.  He cannot imagine his life without the weight of her fingers.

 

“Is this a funny way of getting me to remember how old I am?” she says.  It’s morning, and he thinks of other mornings in her life.  He wonders who she calls out to, generally, to ask, did you get the newspaper?  Want some coffee?  Or maybe on a lazy weekend, Come back to bed.  Someone who likes the way she looks naked on the bed, ass in the air, with the curtains open so the neighbors can enjoy the show.

 

“No,” he says.  “I just wondered.  I found one.”

 

“Come look,” she says.  “I don’t know.”  She leans her head into the light and rests her cheek on his palm, and he moves his fingertips against her scalp, combing.

 

“Careful,” she says.

 

“Does it hurt?”

 

“No, it just feels, I don’t know, tender,” she says.  Her hair is a not-blond, not-brown, shining color and he lifts it into the sun and moves it between his fingertips.

 

“Nothing,” he says.  He wonders at her age, and looks at the hand that isn’t bandaged. It is unlined, unspotted.  The bones run down into her wrist.  His mother’s hands changed so fast from pale northeastern hands, to olive and freckled and sinewy, tight with the Florida sun.

 

The steel of the hospital bed frame groans as Jonathan shifts his weight on it, and moves his hand to Caroline’s neck, his thumb at her jaw.  Her mouth is warm against his, and he leans forward, gathering her against him.  He feels her to his toes and he wants to gasp his joy.  They move apart and look at each other.  She rests against him.  Jonathan wants to make the world over for Caroline.

 

“Lie back down,” a nurse says.  She has opened the door.  Jonathan stands.

 

“I should go,” he says.  He thinks about all the times he has said that before, and all of the different reasons.  He wonders if any of those other times, he also really meant, I should stay forever.

 

It is dusk on the day Jonathan kissed Caroline, the lovely girl with the broken arm and the swollen brain, and she kissed him.  He drives down through the valley and the   hamlets that seem to lean away from the ski hill.

 

At a gas station, he fills his tank and buys corn chips.  He can’t see the ski slope anymore, or the lines that the chair lifts make as they trace their way up the mountain, or the gray hospital. His head begins to clear with the smell of gasoline, and he pulls off his gloves and rests them on the hood of the truck.

 

Big guy, his father said, I’ve got something for you.  He threw him the keys, and Jonathan wanted to say it didn’t make up for the long stretch of time when he was only a voice at the end of a line, but it was a start.  There are ways to say I’m sorry, and there are ways to say it without saying it, and Jonathan let his father clasp him in the kind of embrace he had needed for so long.

 

He drives back, knowing he was foolish for wasting the gas.  For a person who doesn’t have a checking account to waste gas.  He wonders if Caroline has a checking account in a bank somewhere, and he knows that he is going back to the hospital.

 

When he gets there it’s dark, and she’s sleeping, but the nurses all know him now and they let him sit by her bed for an hour or so, watching the surges and deflation of her breaths.  She wakes up and looks at him.

 

“You’re back,” she says.  “You’re here.”  He can just make out her face, lit by the small green blinking that monitors her vital signs.

 

“I forgot something I was going to tell you,” he says.  “So I came back, but now I can’t remember.”

 

“What do you think?” Caroline says.  “Am I a contortionist?”  Jonathan looks at her and shakes his head.  “Am I an actress?  Let’s guess.”

 

He doesn’t want to guess anymore, and thinks that she is likely no kind of performer, but she has something firm in her eyes that could make her good at it.  He thinks other people would rely on her for their truth and she is the kind of person who could get by without a checkbook.

 

“I need you to tell me if you want to look for your other life,” he says.

 

“Is that what you forgot?” she says.  “That’s a lot to forget.”

 

“Do you think there’s someone waiting for you?”  He knows he shouldn’t press her brain.  The nurses are so gentle with her, you’d think she was a perfect egg.  Some snow slides off the roof of the hospital and rushes past the window, crashing on the ground.  Water ticks from the faucet in the bathroom.  Caroline doesn’t answer.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says.  “Hard question.”

 

“I’m trying to decide,” she says.

 

“Are you leaning one way or the other?” he says.  She shifts on the bed and the metal creaks.

 

“Downhill,” she says.  “Flat land.”

 

Jonathan sits at the end of the bed and rubs her heels until she sleeps.

 

 

——————–

Most recently, Emily Taylor’s short fiction appeared in the Heyday anthology New California Writing: 2011.  In 2009 she was the winner of the Ecotone Evolution contest for their special issue celebrating the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, and lives in Columbus, Ohio.  Website: emilytaylor.org


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