One Thursday afternoon, in the summer after sixth grade, Susanna appeared in her kitchen just before four in the afternoon. She carried a small purple duffel packed with goggles, a black monogrammed towel, a navy Speedo with a starburst motif, and three swim caps: lycra, rubber, and luxuriant silicone.
“C’mon,” her dad said, finishing his O’Douls and grabbing the keys from their hook on the wall.
Water Polo for Beginners met at Dominican University, in the north end of River Forest, a suburb of Chicago. It was a place of neatly trimmed lawns, Frank Lloyd Wright houses, imitation Frank Lloyd Wright houses, streets shaded by canopying oaks, and herds of young girls zipping along on clanking pink steeds.
That afternoon, Susanna noticed for the first time that no children played on the lawns or wraparound porches of the stately homes. The expanses of golf grass in front of the biggest houses were too well kept, as if no one had ever walked on them.
“With this training, you’ll be a shoo-in for varsity your freshman year,” her dad told her. He had been a water polo star at his high school, Brother Rice. Pictures from this happy era hung in wooden frames in their parlor, each bearing a plaque engraved with her father’s name and a summary of his accomplishments. In the last photograph, he was eighteen. He hadn’t played in college.
The Dominican University campus was a collection of Gothic stone edifices at the edge of Thatcher Woods. Once it had been Rosary College, a women’s finishing school, before the friars on the board created an English As A Second Language program and advertised it in South Korea and Hong Kong, bringing an influx of pleasant, perpetually lost young Asian women into the neighborhood. Their tuition funded the name change and these new, eloquent structures. But Water Polo for Beginners met in an old slouchy box of a building with a strange word carved into its lintel: NATATORIUM.
“What does that mean?” Susanna asked.
“Natatorium,” her father pronounced, savoring it. “From the Latin natātōrius, meaning ‘swimmer, swimming.’” Latin had been required at Brother Rice. He reached to tousle her hair, but Susanna had already begun tucking it under the first of her caps.
“It just means a building with a pool, Susie.” His hand gripped her bare shoulder. “Now go in there and kick butt.” He gave her a little pat and opened the door.
The Natatorium was a long room dimly lit by a distant skylight. The pool was a shallow stretch of green neither long nor wide enough to be called standard, its bottom and sides unevenly tiled in congealed bone-yellow.
The water’s warmth surprised Susanna. It felt ancient, infused with the sweat of centuries of Catholic athletes.
Her classmates were four other girls and two boys. The teacher was a candy bar-shaped woman named Gwen with cropped wheaten hair. After explaining the finer points of the eggbeater kick and side-breathing, she unzipped her sweatshirt, revealing a mauve one-piece.
“Okay, watch.” She stepped out of her track pants and leaped into the pool. One moment Gwen stood at the shallow-end, arms thrust forward; the next, she was a creamy stripe in the flat green water. She hoisted herself out by planting her palms on the edge and pushing up, a trick Susanna repeatedly tried and fail to replicate.
The other girls in Susanna’s water polo class were Randi, Michaela, and Helga. Randi and Michaela were twins, or sisters very close in age. They were short, with flat chests that made Susanna self-conscious, and carried pagers that they called “MTV Beepers.” They always addressed Susanna as “Susie,” even after she asked them to stop.
At the start of each practice Randi and Michaela kneeled at the edge and dunked their white latex caps. In unison they turned to face each other and flipped the caps, releasing a capful of water over the other, a chlorinated baptism. Randi stretched her cap across Michaela’s forehead, Michaela stretched her cap across Randi’s forehead, and together they pulled the rubber back over their knobs of hair.
Helga was pale and chubby and never seemed to hear what anyone said. On land she moved as if underwater, with giant slow steps, but in the pool she slowly sank, drifting like a manatee. A Speedo was required, but Helga wore a skirted orange floral print maillot to every practice. She never wore a cap over her long white-blonde hair, binding it instead in double French braids, which floated behind her like glowing seaweed.
Throughout every class, Gwen shouted, “You okay, Helga?”
In response, Helga surfaced and arranged her features into a placid look, as if humoring Gwen. Privately Susanna thought that Helga should be placed in a lower level, in water polo special ed. But there was no such class. This was Water Polo for Beginners.
After practice, Susanna learned that the single locker room had been allotted to the boys. She found this unfair; the girls outnumbered them two-to-one, a ratio that tilted further in their favor if Gwen was counted. She, too, changed in the storage closet, crouched between piles of kickboards and the shining wet goals.
“How was it, sweetie?” Her father’s neck was brown against his bright blue shirt.
She rubbed the slippery skin behind her ear. “Fun,” she lied.
“Good.” He touched his shining black hair. “Glad to hear it.” Susanna thrust her head out her window and let the hot air whip her face: cut grass, impatiens, roasting Italian sausage. When the car stopped, it took her a second to register that they were home.
Her mom was watching the news on the tiny kitchen television set near the sink. She looked up and gaped, her face lighted blue. “I’m so proud of you,” she said.
At the start of the next practice, Susanna and the other four girls arranged themselves in two lanes. The two boys stood at the edge of the pool, looking down at the girls’ caps. Jacob was black and Sven was white. Both were skinny and short.
“You guys can be in my lane,” Susanna said, surprising herself. Neither boy moved. She reached up to tap Jacob’s foot, and then stopped her hand. He walked gingerly, as if he were sore. She didn’t want to hurt him.
Susanna had only just begun to feel shooting pains of growth in the balls of her feet, but Jacob moved as though he felt them everywhere: down the lengths of his twig arms, in the high backs of his knees, even on the tops of his smooth hands, which were small for a boy.
Jacob always arrived at the Natatorium nicely dressed, in a collared shirt and gray slacks. He had closely cropped hair and thick, bristly eyelashes. His skin was not brown but blue-black.
Undressed, Jacob’s thinness was severe. In profile he seemed to disappear, a straight line against the green wall. He was able but clumsy in the pool, moving towards the yellow ball chest-first, forgetting to put his head down. When he did remember, he forgot to breathe and lurched upright in a coughing panic.
“Steady breath, steady pace, Jacob! Let’s go!” Gwen yelled.
Wet, Jacob’s dark skin absorbed the Natatorium’s green light. His little ears reminded Susanna of cookies. His mouth was pink at the edges, his bottom lip a pink finger’s-width above his pointed chin.
Susanna grazed Jacob’s foot with her fingernail, waiting for his response. Gwen’s bare feet came slapping across the wet deck. Susanna yanked her hand underwater.
“Get in a lane,” Gwen said. “Let’s work on eggbeatering.” No one had heard Susanna’s plea. The boys slipped into the pool.
Gwen hooked her thumbs in her waistband and slid her pants down, leaving her light blue fleece over her swimsuit. “Okay, okay, stagger yourselves in the pool, okay?”
Susanna pushed back from the wall, staring at the rainbow chlorine halos in the ceiling as she pulled towards the center with little scooping motions. She imagined that the tiles were covered in algae, the pool water thick with it. Squinting, she saw only the intimation of feet, pale rectangles buried in murky water.
Gwen clapped to regain their attention. She lifted her right leg and held the knee at a ninety-degree angle. “Forget everything you know about treading water, the way you do when you’re just trying to keep your head up. This is much more athletic. What you need to do is turn your leg, twist it like this.”
She pivoted her leg up, moved it back, and then brought the knee forward, slowly then faster, like a complicated, sexy dance move. “You need to do it with both legs at the same time. This is your base, your motor.” Gwen cast her pale blue eyes upon the wall above the pool and set her soft mouth in a line. “Go.”
Susanna swished, trying. The water seemed colder around her knees. Her parents had signed her up for swim team because she was hopeless on land, incapable of third position in ballet, useless at serving a volleyball, deadly to any team’s prospects. Her dad said she was just better in the water, but this wasn’t true: as a swimmer, Susanna lacked both natural ability and competitive drive. She would never make Districts, much less State. But she was happy in the quiet below.
Gwen surveyed the class, rubbing her brow. “No. Okay.” She tossed her fleece on the deck, missing a puddle, and stepped forward. Then she was in the water with them, eggbeatering so high that her entire torso was above the water, green foam swallowing her thighs.
The other girls didn’t actually change after practice, just pulled their clothes on over their suits. Susanna wondered why they bothered going in the closet at all. The boys, she was sure, took off their suits and put on real underwear. Susanna did, too, sealing her wet suit inside a Velcro pouch, a gift from her father. She used it at every practice, hoping he would notice.
After class they waited for their parents in the Natatorium driveway, not speaking. When they left the pool and went out into the sun, their conversations about movies and friendship bracelets ceased, as if some switch had been flipped. Only Helga was animated, rocking on the balls of her feet, humming tunelessly. Her baggy shirt made her look like a deluxe camping tent.
Susanna was always the last to be picked up.
“You know how some other dads play golf? I practice lateness,” her dad joked, his mouth curling in a way that suggested that Susanna, too, must smile.
That summer, all of her attention went to Jacob. She watched him hungrily, wishing he would speak to her. She wished that they could hold hands. Susanna could tell that he was smart, that he was thinking deep thoughts.
In the water Jacob and Sven never spoke to the girls, only shouted at each other. Their yelling matches sometimes turned into conversations: once, catching the ball, Sven had shouted, “Got it! What’s your favorite subject? ” before winging it back to Jacob in a yellow arc.
“Social studies! I love ancient stuff! What’s yours?” Jacob grinned and hurled the ball back to Sven, his narrow torso twisting into an impossible hourglass. Susanna didn’t hear Sven’s response because it didn’t matter. She was enthralled by the way the boys were nice to each other, by their excitement, which she imagined emanating through the water in yellow lightning bolts, coming to her. She could collect tiny pieces of information about Jacob by listening this way. Over the weeks she learned that Jacob’s favorite food was cheese pizza, his favorite drink a neon-green soda called Surge. He liked to watch golf on TV with his dad.
He never spoke to Susanna, or any of the girls. Sven didn’t, either. They were their own team, Susanna thought. But outside, the boys, too, turned their backs on each other. Were they quiet because they disliked her?
Jacob waited with his feet turned out, like a dancer. Sometimes she wanted to ask, “Jacob, are you a dancer?” But she wasn’t stupid. She wouldn’t do that.
She was curious about his collared shirt. Like everyone else in the class, Jacob did not go to school with Susanna, which felt like an opportunity. What could she say to him that would make him recognize that she understood, that they were alike?
Susanna was so engrossed with watching Jacob that she did not notice until the fifth practice that Sven and Helga always left in the same white Lexus. They had the same white eyelashes, same strange rosy mouths: they were siblings, too, just like Randi and Michaela. Twins.
In the third week, Susanna’s dad became concerned.
“I’m going to come to one of your practices,” he said. “I want to make sure you’re doing everything right. This could really be something for you. It could get you into college.”
“You have to take everything seriously. You have to try.”
After dinner, while her mom read and her dad did something on the computer, Susanna lay on her back and practiced eggbeatering, tracing her pelvis with her fingertips, hoping her parents would see. She decided to ask Gwen for tips at the next class.
But in class all she could see was Jacob, his lithe movements, the panicky heat of his body when she swam beside him and let their legs kick against each other in an ecstasy of splash.
Susanna’s mom picked her up from the second-to-last practice, her mother’s sadness evident in her drawn little mouth, her careless outfit of khakis and an overstretched t-shirt, the loud country music blaring on the radio.
I just wanted you, a woman sang, over and over.
“Mom?” Susanna said.
Her mother did not turn. “Yes, sweetie.”
Susanna was cold despite the heat of the car. She leaned against the window and quickly fell asleep.
Susanna dreamt that she was Jacob’s wife. They lived in a gray stone cottage deep in Thatcher Woods. Jacob was a woodsman. Every day he rose at dawn, dressed in a brown doublet and satin-lined doeskin leggings, and went out to fell trees with his ax. Susanna was a root worker, selling advice and spells from a shack. Every night Jacob came home with game slung over his shoulder, bunnies and squirrels, which she skinned and served with tiny potatoes from their yard and rosemary lemonade.
At night they went into a dark, velvet-lined bedroom. Jacob undressed her, revealing Susanna’s enormous belly. She was carrying their firstborn.
Jacob bowed his dark head and kissed her navel. His hands ran up to her full breasts and caressed; they ran below, where she couldn’t see, and stroked her. She twitched. A deep breaking came, a floe of gold. Jacob lifted his head to smile at her, his jaw shining blue in the candlelight.
“Susanna, I love you,” he said, holding her hands.
Now they were in the murky green pool. The baby was coming with pain. It felt as though her spine was being unzipped. Jacob swam between her legs to breathe encouragement. She closed her eyes and remembered to push.
Their child was lovely, mauve with gills and turquoise eyes. A waterbaby, diving like a dolphin.
Susanna woke on her bed. Her mom had pulled the coverlet up around her. The door to her bedroom was wide open. Had she made a noise?
She hadn’t changed after practice, not wanting to miss watching Jacob. Her damp swimsuit clung, wetter between her legs. She felt a dull ache.
Behind her window was summer: the high hum of tree bugs, the grumbling lawn mowers, the hot sidewalk where she and Elise Downing once fried an egg. School had been over for a whole month. Why wasn’t she happy?
The world of the dream floated away, abandoning her. She hated her single bed, her small window. Susanna imagined Jacob’s bedroom in River Forest: billowy white curtains, French doors, a four-poster bed. A desk where he sat with his back to her.
No boy would have a room like that. Her dream wasn’t real.
Anger came. Why did she want to think about him in the first place? Jacob, who did not even know her name?
Susanna’s mom drove her to the last practice; her dad had to work late, and had not mentioned visiting her class again. They passed an Episcopalian school, copper-roofed houses, frantic squirrels.
Susanna’s head was cloudy. Was it true that when you dreamt of someone, they dreamt of you, too? Did Jacob know that she had imagined herself as his wife? Did he miss their little merbaby, too?
She vowed to swim to him in the pool today. Bravery would set her free.
When the car stopped, Susanna shouldered her bag and hopped out, not saying goodbye.
Susanna was late. The others were in the pool, and Gwen had already shed her top.
“Hustle, hustle,” Gwen said, not unkindly.
Susanna walked to the edge of the pool and dropped in feet first, landing hard on her ankle. Fluid enveloped her. She wanted to cry, but she was underwater. She sank.
Her goggles showed the entire green world: Randi and Michaela’s tandem kicking, Helga and Sven’s bovine sloth. Where was Jacob? The one who was different, the one who was like her?