Walking was never a problem; she had perfected a slow graceful gait a long time ago. Only sudden motions made her lose control and stagger. So after sliding the Mercedes carefully into her space in the Country Club’s flower-bordered parking lot, Pilar let herself down even more carefully from the driver’s seat. Opening the rear door to reach for her things, she misjudged and stumbled to the side, falling against the next car. The hot metal made her hand burn. Careful, she told herself. No time to make a mistake with her life now and embarrass Ian. Everyone knew him.
She checked her appearance in the car’s darkened rear window. Everything in place: white sun visor over cropped bleached hair, tanned face, large dark glasses, white designer jacket, white designer pants. She had bleached away all traces of a one-room house in a Mexican village in her odyssey across the continent. Only her exotic name remained. Reaching slowly for her tote, she hefted the weight onto her left shoulder and concentrating on her task, closed the door again without losing her balance.
The rules at the club were strict. No food or drink in the pool area. So she did what everyone else did; stashed the water bottle in her tote bag, for discreet sips when the lifeguard wasn’t looking. Her pink designer water bottle held the equivalent of several martinis. She had liked gin even before.
The pool was clear green glass in the sunlight. Large chaises lined up in neat blue and white rows on the edges. The lifeguards were just drifting back from lunch, climbing to their perches to take turns being bored. She should swim a few laps at least. Get some exercise, Ian had said this morning. The cold water would feel good. Her present floating feeling would add to the pleasure of the swimming. And she did like to swim, or she had before. When was before, she wondered … maybe if she should figure out where before ended and after began…
At the pool entrance, two little girls scampered past her, giggling. They had no children; she had agreed to that before they married. And once the business was so successful, Ian could afford a dozen secretaries; there was no need to work. A cleaning woman kept the house. Pilar cooked. Ian appreciated that. Ian appreciated everything she did for him. He said so.
Often, if she paced herself during the day, she would be just right to have one martini with him when he came home at seven. He knew, but they never acknowledged that he knew. He was simply very kind to her, the way one is kind to a sick person. They had no social life as such. Ian only need that she appear “appropriately gregarious” –– his teasing phrase –– on his arm at important business functions.
She chose a chaise at the far end of the pool, in a corner shaded by the large trees, away from the sun worshipers and their oiling. The weight in the tote was comforting as she set it down. Only a few more moments and she could have that first cool sip. And it must be a sip. There was the drive home to be accomplished, and dinner to arrange. Plenty of time if she was careful. Shedding jacket and pants, she stretched slowly, knowing her body was attractive in the pink bikini, knowing most women did not look this good at her age. No children to spoil the contours, as Ian always said. She took care of herself. No foolish eating. Sleek. That was the word Ian loved to use when he undressed her. She lay, passive as always, because that was what Ian liked, to play with her like a doll. Sleek, like a beautiful eel, he would croon, my beautiful sleek little eel.
She settled into the mesh of the chaise, her left hand automatically reaching for the tote –– finally, that cool sip –– when she heard the slight tapping sound she dreaded. She’s here, she thought, and I was so hoping she wouldn’t be. Hand hovered over the water bottle. I will not look at her. I will not open my eyes. But it didn’t matter, she could see her anyway, as she had so many times. Tall and slender, somewhere in her 20s, a body Pilar could envy, sleek and tanned like her own, the white bikini even more brief and daring. Close-cropped dark hair was sculpted around a narrow face, almost feral, with dark eyes that gleamed.
Scrape. That would be her turning the chaise away from the pool to face into the sun. Squeak. That would be her sitting down, surprisingly heavy. Thunk. That would be the first sneaker. Then clack. That would be it. Pilar was always surprised at how carelessly the young woman tossed aside the second sneaker with its light tan leg, its metallic knee joint and rounded cup at the top; sliding it out of the sun under her chair.
Now would come the slow methodical coating with lotion. She would always begin with the stump, almost caressing the blunt rounded flesh as if she felt sorry for it. Then working over the good leg, the inner thighs, the belly. Sitting up and very limber to do the back, reaching around and around; now up over the breasts, the neck. A long leisurely traversal of the arms. She looked almost like an animal grooming itself as her face emerged, glistening, from her ministering hands.
She had a peculiar way of flopping back into her chair when this ritual was accomplished. She too had a tote, also kept close at hand, and from it would come large dark glasses and a book. Always it was the large hard cover variety, no beach books like the others.
She could be trusted for almost an hour. Pilar had timed her, because if this were all she did, come and sit in the sun and read and show off the good parts of her body, which were very good indeed; dare some young man to stop and flirt, then Pilar would not have hated her so much. She would say it, almost aloud, to herself, I hate her.
Opening her eyes, she turned cautiously to the right. There she was, not 20 feet away, absorbed in a large red book. Did this woman work? She looked too old for a college student. Graduate school? The books always looked like textbooks.
Left hand groped through the opening of the bag and found the water bottle, and slid it toward the mouth, one eye on the lifeguard across the pool. He was fixing his umbrella for the umpteenth time. That seemed to be what lifeguards did, fixed umbrellas. It was more than a sip. She allowed herself a longish pull on the straw, only stopping when the burning in her throat threatened to make her cough. She must not attract attention. The cool burn slid down her throat. She imagined that she could feel its progress down into her stomach, her intestines, spreading out to her arms, her legs, up to her face, all of her body calmed and soothed by the cool burn. That was her name for it. The cool burn.
She would not have to care about the one-legged woman for a little while at least. There would be plenty of time to swim before the other one left her book. She retreated behind her eyelids. Cool, cool, burn. Around her the chaises filled. Men and women came and went, fitting lap swimming into lunch hours or flights from housework. No children were allowed. They had their own pool, on the far side of a tall sheltering hedge. Their squeals were muted, mingling with splashes and conversations. She dozed.
A chair scraped, loudly. She woke. Too late. Now would come the worst part. Again it didn’t matter if she looked. She had looked before, and she knew what would happen next. The young woman would be standing beside the chaise, not holding on to anything, balancing firmly on one leg, pulling a cap over her hair.
Then she would hop, nimbly, the 10 feet or so to the pool’s edge, where she would bend her only knee and lower her body until her hands supported her on the side of the pool and she could sit with her leg-and-a-half in the water. Then launching herself off the side, she would begin to swim. Once in the water, she looked exactly like everyone else.
Opening eyes was necessary. She had to check the lifeguard. Safe. Left hand found the bottle; this time it was a sip. A pot-bellied man crossed her line of vision, pale-skinned, dripping water, breathing heavily. Whale, she thought. People should take better care of themselves. She wondered why he wasn’t ashamed to let people see him like that.
Across the pool, a good body was oiling himself after a swim. Graying hair, but all the lines were trim, tanned, and light. Like Ian. He took care of himself at the gym. She had never been there. He had never been to the pool. The left hand reached again. No. Too soon.
Always, always, one must be careful. Accidents could lead to questions, and questions to discoveries. She made sure there would be no such problems. Four liquor stores, one each week, so no one could say she bought a lot. Even the cleaning woman would never notice where she kept the bottles in the laundry room. She had never felt the need for friends. Other women seemed so busy, so involved, chattering on about things which bored her. They never watched the same TV shows she did. Caring for Ian took up so much time, cooking lovely dinners, shopping for clothes, the hairdresser, the tanning salon, and lately, the diet consultant. He wanted her beautiful. She knew that.
The small head appeared at the edge of the pool. It would be followed by the rest of the body, hoisting itself deftly out of the water, one knee doing the work of two. And then the hands, the rising on one leg, and the hopping, that awful hopping, back to the chair. The woman had company. There were voices now, and two chairs scraping up to hers on either side. Two tanned bodies, two bright voices chiming, “How was …?” “Oh, didn’t I tell you…?” “I guess so …” Young laughter.
Now, a long pull on the bottle. Remember the car. Never mind, I’ll swim it off. I’ll be fine. I will. I can walk. I have two legs. I can drive. I learned long ago. I can swim, kicking with both feet. This I can do.
Sun visor tossed aside, she strode the 10 feet to the edge of the water –– no cap –– and dived into the pool, making a graceful pink arc of her sleek body. The water was only cool, cool, no burn. She swam away, kicking at the water with two legs; beating at it with her arms; like a woman putting out a stubborn, long-burning fire.
Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s career has included theater, journalism, and teaching writing. Her articles have appeared in Delaware Valley magazines and newspapers. She grew up in Trenton, attended the College of New Jersey, and taught at the then Lawrence Junior High School. She lives in Bucks County.