The Midwest |

Marine Life

by Okla Elliott

1. When Jeanette was seven, her parents decided she should learn to swim—like other children. The doctors assured them of her safety and went so far as to recommend it. Swimming would be good for her, the doctors agreed. Jeanette’s father was enthusiastic. Her mother worried but went along with the whole thing, hoping for normalcy in her daughter’s life. Jeanette’s father was the first in the pool. He squatted, submerging himself completely, then stood; the water in the shallow end came just to his waist. Jeanette was overwhelmed by the odor of chlorine and thought she might vomit. Later she would remember the matted hair on her father’s chest and losing herself in the unnaturally blue-green water and the wavy feeling of nausea. She leaned her weight on her left foot and balanced with a hand against the wall while her mother removed her right leg and set it safely away from the water. Jeanette’s mother helped her to the edge of the pool. Her foot felt slick against the wet tiles. Her father opened his arms toward her. He put his hands around her hips and lowered her into the cool water. Her mother entered the pool and laid a tentative hand on her back, near the knotty hump of muscle and shoulder blade. Jeanette tensed when she felt the hand touch her hunched back and pulled away. Balanced on her father’s massive hands, Jeanette dipped one arm, then the other into the water, kicking her leg, then the stump, into the air. “You’re getting there,” he said. “You’re doing it.” He let go of her for a few seconds at a time, always replacing his hands as she began to sink. It was an effort, but before long she could manage an awkward breaststroke and a functional doggy-paddle on her own. She marveled at the feel of the surrounding water and its buoying resistance. Jeanette’s mother watched husband and daughter happily. It was an odd image: arms flailing, leg and stump kicking—leg and stump, leg and stump, leg and stump—Jeanette’s light chestnut hair turned to dark, wet mahogany. My little frog in the pond, her mother thought and wanted to giggle but immediately felt guilty and so didn’t. Jeannette thought how her parents didn’t match—father muscular and tall, mother with loose, untanned skin that reminded Jeanette of a cold mushroom. 2. It was a decade later, in college, when Jeanette met Billy. On their first date he cooked dinner (Cajun-style) and rented a movie that he insisted no civilized person could live without seeing, but she couldn’t pay attention to the movie. When Billy had proposed his apartment for their date, Jeanette worried. Guys often thought of her as a novelty fling. In high school, Jeanette had been what the boys called easy. She knew what they said, how she’d let a boy do anything to her if he just asked. In her diaries from that time, no two days went by without an entry describing the rub of a car seat, the itch of grass against her skin, the shapes and tastes of boys. Her therapist told her what she already knew. She was trying to achieve a sense of beauty, of physical authority. She knew what she was doing, she told him, but she didn’t stop doing it. The boys didn’t stay around long—usually for a few weeks at most, and then only if they didn’t have the honesty to break things off after the first night. They wanted to say they had done it—whether for themselves or their friends, she was never sure. Only one lasted. Doug Sisk. They dated for nearly six months, practically a marriage to Jeanette. On their first date, they had sex, or tried to. When she began undoing the straps that connected her leg, Doug stopped her. “Can we do it with it on?” he asked. His inexperience was obvious, and when the prosthetic became cumbersome, and he didn’t know how to react, he lost his erection. “It’s okay,” she told him and meant it. She peeled the sagging condom off and took him into her mouth. From then on, that was the only kind of sexual contact they had. She wrote entries in her diary referring to herself as a mermaid. Doug’s loving mermaid. The backseat mermaid. The sad mermaid, woman with no lower half. But Billy didn’t try anything beyond a goodnight kiss after he drove her home. It was sweet—and infuriating, but mostly sweet—the way he kissed her so tentatively, as though he might hurt her with the pressure of his lips or the weight of his hand on her thigh. After he was gone, she stood on her porch, looking in the direction his car had gone. The pleasant tingle of gooseflesh formed along her arms as she remembered Billy’s smell. 3. Jeanette saw Billy as somehow out of place at the university. He had been raised on a farm in Kentucky, and it always seemed to her that he would be more comfortable shooting aluminum cans off the hood of a junked car in some far-off field than talking philosophy at the college bars. But then again, she thought, the men shooting at the cans with him probably would have said just the opposite. When he got drunk he affected a Kentucky drawl, which had once been his but now was a memory, and called the other guys at the bar boy and told them what they were saying was pure horseshit. Jeanette didn’t know what he was trying to prove by acting that way. He always had a way of out-talking someone, but when he got drunk, he forced this fact onto others in the vulgar way some men unbutton their shirts to show their muscles. The first month passed and they still hadn’t had sex, yet Billy came over everyday with a movie or Chinese carry-out or a bottle of seventeen-dollars-or-less Chianti (Billy, applying the law of diminishing marginal returns, had declared seventeen dollars the most one should ever spend on a bottle of wine) . Jeanette began to see her life as a bent extension of her past, like a stick half-submerged in water, all the negativity washed away in a shimmering, otherworldly distortion. Nothing made sense, though she didn’t ask it to. They went to the bars less and less. They created a domestic environment and cozily immersed themselves. Billy gained ten pounds from the rich foods and slow evenings. Jeanette felt as if she were becoming a film critic from the movies Billy rented and analyzed as they watched. Jeanette swam everyday at the university pool. She received strange, sometimes rude, looks from the other swimmers when she locked her leg and other items in her locker, but this was nothing new to her. She chose bathing suits that covered the scars along her sides and back from the surgeries she’d undergone over the years, and she wore her bathing suit under her clothes to avoid having to undress completely in front of strangers. Even with Billy she preferred the lights off before she would change into her nightgown. Despite whatever awkwardness in the locker room and on her way in or out of the pool, she forgot the rest of the world the moment she was in the water. It was the only time she felt graceful, buoyed up on the coolness. There were days when walking made her feel grotesque, like some bent troll, despite all the talk her therapist gave her about her uniqueness. And on her way to and from the locker room, she used a single crutch, which made the usually difficult task of walking even more awkward. But in the water she didn’t limp or lack the strength to climb a too-tall set of stairs. Ever since that first experience years ago with her parents, Jeanette had loved swimming and was enthralled by any body of water from pool to pond to ocean. She had invited Billy to join her several times until it finally came out that he couldn’t swim and, probably due to mild hydrophobia he didn’t want to admit he had, refused to learn. At first she was offended, wanting so badly to share this part of herself with him. He consoled her, saying that it was wise to keep something to oneself in a relationship. She thought this was untrue, but that was the kind of thing people said and everyone agreed was true, so she didn’t argue. And her love for the water was so absolute, that once in the pool, Billy’s absence was forgotten. 4. It was Billy’s twenty-third birthday, so on her way home from the pool she stopped by a bookstore to buy him a present. As she walked the aisles of mystery novels, horror novels, romance novels, she could feel the wetness of her hair through the thin material of her shirt. On a book cover she saw a woman deformed by cleavage and ecstasy—the ecstasy presumably caused by the muscular man behind her, the cleavage enhanced by a torturous bustier. The airbrushed couple reminded Jeanette of her father and his new girlfriend. He had left her mother, who had grown overweight and depressive. He was an athletic thirty-eight, his girlfriend a curvy thirty-two. “We’re too young to give up on life like your mother has,” Jeanette’s father explained and squeezed the new woman’s thigh. Jeanette couldn’t remember the girlfriend’s name. To her mother she was bimbo or slut or bitch. To Jeanette she was the non-committal Dad’s new girlfriend. A woman and her child walked by, carrying religious self-help books. The boy asked in a failed sotto voce whisper: “What’s wrong with that lady, Mom?” The woman smiled awkwardly at Jeanette and rushed her child ahead with a slight push between his shoulders. People with faith always seemed eerie to Jeanette. Looking at her stiff prosthetic leg Jeanette felt no urge toward faith, though throughout her life, evangelists—pastors and overzealous old ladies—had seen her as a sure convert. She straightened her back as much as her hump would allow and thought again of Billy’s present. She finally decided on Wallace Stegner’s,Angle of Repose, a book she had read before on a recommendation from a friend of her mother who taught English at a small private college. The narrator of the novel is a one-legged man in a wheelchair with a debilitating bone disease of some sort (Jeanette couldn’t remember what exactly or if the book even named it). Jeanette had found the depiction of handicap unconvincing, but then she always found any depiction of handicap unconvincing, even if the author was handicapped. She was so close to her experience that externalizing it seemed impossible. Her mother’s friend had hoped Jeanette would begin writing about her experiences. She had always kept a diary, but being a writer—the kind that people take seriously—had never appealed to her, though she loved reading anything from Tolstoy to Dean Koontz. And the way her mother’s friend discussed writing, it seemed like one more therapy or another kind of faith, a certain solution to an insoluble problem. But she had liked the book, and the narrator reminded her of Billy. There was a feel to the book that echoed Billy’s personality. Searching, hardened, somber, self-effacing. She couldn’t find the right word, or rather the list of right words went on and on. The heft of the book in her hand as she waited in line also reminded her of Billy. She wanted very badly for him to like this present. That was the night they finally had sex. They had waited so long in anticipation, floating slowly toward this occasion, that they treated the event with the reverence of clumsy teenagers. The lights were off in the entire apartment except for the bathroom across the hall. They could see flesh colored outlines of each other. Maybe the glint of an eye. A silhouette of an ear or nose. Jeanette could feel Billy holding his weight above her, not resting on her, as his hips slid forward and back. She was fixated on the shape of his tensed shoulders. She felt phantom twinges in her missing leg, strange echoes of the pleasure Billy gave her. When he was done, and she could feel his come inside her, he flopped on the bed with a theatrical groan. Jeanette’s finger was the beak of a strange bird twirling in Billy’s fluid seeping out of her. She was reminding herself that she could never have children. Her doctor had told her when she was fifteen, and it angered her greatly, though she didn’t particularly want children then or now. Jeanette eased her head back onto a pillow and stared at the gray-glowing ceiling. She heard the bed squeak as Billy got up, then she heard the shower running, washing her off of him. She looked around her bedroom at the stuff she owned. It was nice, expensive stuff. Even in the semi-darkness she could tell it was nice, expensive stuff. Her mother, since the divorce, had been giving Jeanette gifts, cash or furniture or clothes, whatever she thought Jeanette might want. Her mother had sold the house and the boat she barely remembered they owned for outrageous prices and was now living in a small apartment outside of town. She had taken up watercolors and bird watching. She sat on her balcony, listening to Enya, eating handfuls of nuts and berries, drinking herbal tea, and painting the same landscape over and over. When she went to the store, she couldn’t find anything she wanted, though buying things made her feel better, so she heaped expensive gifts on her daughter. Eventually forgetting why she’d begun buying things for Jeanette, having gotten in the habit of giving her daughter gifts, she began sending cash. The following evening, Billy showed up at her door, asking if she was ready yet. She had forgotten that Dave and Madhu were throwing a party, in part for Billy’s birthday, but mostly because it was Saturday night. Billy playfully affected a British accent, saying “Chop-chop! Cheerio!” Madhu was had promised wonderful Sri Lankan snacks, and Billy was boyishly excited to try them. Billy drove to the party. On the way to the door he walked just a bit too fast for Jeanette to keep up comfortably. She nearly tripped over a chunk of concrete jutting out from the driveway and only just caught her balance. Billy with his long muscular legs led the way to the front door. Jeanette, half-hopping to keep up, followed. To Jeanette the doorway seemed like the entrance to a desert cave, dim and lit with a sickly yellow light. The air inside was dry and smoky from too many cigarettes. Billy walked in naturally and was greeted by handshakes or pats on the back from the guys, hugs from the girls. Someone handed Billy a mixed drink. Jeanette tried to keep close to him but had trouble maneuvering through the crowd. She found a seat near an opened window and hunkered in to wait it out. Her lungs suffered in the dense smoke. This would be over soon, she told herself; it would all be okay. Billy found Jeanette and kissed her. Two hours later they were part of a brief four- or five-person conversation. She watched him go, always with two or three friends, through the door into the back room; always being what they must have thought was discreet. She wanted to go outside where she could breathe, but didn’t. When they were back at Jeanette’s apartment, she started for the bedroom. Billy went to the kitchen and grabbed a beer and sat at the formica-covered kitchenette counter. 5. For nearly a month after the party, they didn’t go out. Billy was the old Billy, and Jeanette was the old Jeanette. Only now sex had become commonplace. Sometimes they would go a week without thinking about it. Other times an entire day would consist of little else. It was during this time that their arguments started, minor at first, then working up to screaming matches. Billy accosted her when her mother sent money or gifts. “You’re just bitter,” Jeanette would say. “You’re just a spoiled bitch.” Billy knew she was right, but he also knew he was just as right—therefore an impasse. Two rights can make a wrong, he thought, and then thought it was a little bit funny. He almost told her, in order to lighten their mood, to repair the damage they had just done with their mean honesty, but he chose not to let loose of his anger and so remained silent. The arguments got worse, more frequent and crueler. They were learning how to hurt each other. And then—the completion of an arrow’s arc—they began seeing each other less, just as in the beginning of their relationship they had gradually seen each other more. It was a balmy night and the streets were yellow with the streetlights’ hazy glow, and they were eating expensive appetizers on the outdoor patio of a restaurant made for nighttime dates and afternoon power lunches. Jeanette hadn’t seen Billy in days—was it five or six?, Jeanette wasn’t sure—the longest they had gone without seeing each other since the beginning of their relationship. It was only five or six days, but it bothered her. “What have you been up to lately,” Jeanette asked and scooped spinach and artichoke dip onto a pita wedge, casual as she could be. “Hanging out with a friend.” Jeanette had a Spanish professor who joked that it was harder to lie about infidelity in Spanish, because the word “friend” has a grammatical gender, like all Spanish nouns, and so you can’t offer the noncommittal “friend” but rather must admit whether it was “un amigo” or “una amiga” (unless you were willing to outright lie, of course, Jeanette thought). “Oh,” Jeanette said and set her pita wedge down. “Yeah,” Billy said. He was lost, but he could still nod. He took a drink of his wine, not looking at her. “How’s that going?” “I don’t know.” “Okay.” She was drinking her wine now too. “Can we just have a nice night? I’m here with you now because I want to be.” Jeanette had often wished she were the kind of woman who threw wine in men’s faces. “Tell you what, Billy. Fuck your nice night and fuck you, and fuck your friend. Okay?” She was up and stomp-hobbling away, thrusting her prosthetic leg in front of her and pivoting around on it, setting her foot down and, with a little jump, thrusting her prosthetic leg. . . 6. A few days later, as Jeanette was packing a bag to go to the pool, the phone rang. She hadn’t heard from Billy in nearly a week, but she knew it would be him. He always called her Saturday afternoons to go see a matinee; that way they could see the new movies that had just opened the night before without having to wade through the crowd of teenagers out on Friday night dates. She smiled thinking of how Billy had a designated method for everything, and though she didn’t want to, she forgave him. She listened as Billy left his message. “Hey, just calling to see what you were doing. I think we’re in need of a good romantic comedy right now. Heh-heh. Okay. Call me.” She was not sure whether she would return his call, but she was happy to have the choice. The drive to the pool was clean as a pure, high-pitched tone. The sun was bright, though not blistering, and gave a sharpness of detail to the leaves and street signs and other people. She forgot to check how many other swimmers were in the locker room as she stripped down to her bathing suit. She hopped her way to the pool, then dropped her crutch and jumped into the water with one smooth motion. She heard Billy’s message—the awkward affection, the near-desperation in his voice—as she swam lap after lap. She was so happy, so simply happy that she ignored the cramping in her abdomen, until it became violent and painful. Her stomach jolted, as if she’d been kicked, and she gasped a mouthful of water. She rolled over, thrashing her arms behind her like a novice swimmer. The muscles along her abdomen cramped again, this time deeper and longer. She kicked and swung her arms, slowly making her way to the edge of the pool. She felt a hand on her arm and the phantom kick of her missing right leg almost simultaneously. Muffled, seemingly from the other side of the room, someone asked her if she was okay. She spit burning water. Air came into her lungs in saving punches. Her right leg was a writhing phantom eel. Her vision cleared slowly and she looked everywhere, trying to understand what had happened. In the water she saw a trickle of red rising; all around her was a pink so light it was nearly invisible. The lifeguard pulled her out of the pool and helped her to the locker room. He didn’t even try to think of anything to say. 7. Jeanette’s mother arrived at the hospital a few hours later, all tears and bustling worry. Her regular physician, Dr. Shreve, had been called in. The battery of tests lasted nearly three hours. Jeanette felt fine—maybe a little light-headed, but fine. After they had done their array tests, she was assigned to a room and her mother was allowed to see her. “What’s going on? Are you okay?” “I’ve only seen nurses so far. The doctor is on the way, they say.” “You can stay at my place for a while if you want. How do you feel? Did they tell you anything?” The prospect of staying with her mother comforted Jeanette. Images of childhood—stuffed animals, hand-sewn quilts, hot cocoa—flooded over her, but her happy imaginings were interrupted when Dr. Shreve came into the room. He sat down and rubbed his forehead with deep pressure as if trying to press some thought from his mind. He finally looked Jeanette in the eyes and she immediately liked him, knew he was a kind man. “Do you have a boyfriend?” Dr. Shreve asked, glancing to Jeanette’s mother. “Yes,” Jeanette said, confused. “What I mean is,” he said, regaining his professional tone, “you will have to refrain from sexual intercourse until the operation and likely for several weeks after as well.” Jeanette’s mother blushed at the insinuation of her daughter having an active sex life. She had wondered vaguely if her daughter had sex, had seen signs she hadn’t admitted until now, and never feeling close enough to ask, while Jeanette had often wanted to talk to her mother about her sex life, but being generally ashamed of it, and for other reasons she didn’t understand, never had. It struck Jeanette as sad that her mother probably still believed she was a virgin. They sat silently for several seconds after Dr. Shreve left the room. She stayed the weekend at her mother’s apartment, which did not feel like home as she’d assumed, but rather like a lived-in hotel room. She wondered who was living in their old house as she looked at watercolor after watercolor her mother had painted, mostly of the sparse, man-planted pine forest behind the apartment building. She cried, thinking about her upcoming operation; a tear splattered and ran the colors of an aqua green sky. At dinner one night, Jeanette and her mother ate silently, as they often did, not knowing what to say to each other. Her mother was an excellent cook, had taken culinary classes at the local community college a few years ago and read recipe books with an interest that seemed almost scientific to Jeanette. That night, they were eating steamed asparagus, a baked cheese Jeanette didn’t know the name of, and arugula with a with what her mother described as “a fragrant garlic and mushroom” sauce. Jeanette wanted to laugh when she thought of what Billy would think of such a meal. “Have you ever wanted to go to Italy?” her mother asked. “What?” “I just thought of it because they have food tours you can do in Italy. I read about them in Gourmet. You go town to town eating the best food or most famous regional food or whatever, you know.” “That sounds nice.” “If it’s something you might want to do with me, we could,” her mother said without force. “After the surgery, of course, when you’re feeling better. If you want to.” “Yeah, that sounds nice,” said absently and studied her asparagus, trying to think how best to approach it. She decided she should cut it in half first. “You know, your father and I didn’t divorce for any real reason.” Jeanette stopped with her food and looked at her mother. “He and I just stopped loving each other. On paper, it was a perfect marriage, but then it just stopped being perfect, or even doable. It happens. Normal relationships end. It’s normal for them to end.” Her mother resumed eating. That word normal stuck in Jeanette’s mind. And end. She ate and tried not think about any of it. “Would you like some more sauce?” her mother asked and smiled sadly. 8. The day before her surgery, she worried around the apartment. In the bathroom her chin was cut off in her reflection, making her more angry at her hunched state, how it made her too short to even stare at her reflection dramatically, like people always do in the movies—and like they do in real life. Steam rolled off the tub’s cool porcelain as Jeanette undressed, tugging at the straps of her leg, then tossing it carelessly into the corner. The too hot water soaked into the tension of her muscles. She wanted Billy there, to listen to him, to see the bob of his Adam’s apple when he laughed. She slid down the curve of the tub, submerging herself, eyes closed, the water a muffled roar in her ears, her hair a fanned-out, mahogany seaweed floating on the surface just above her.