The Pool

The new house had a pool.  On sunny days it sparkled like an uncut blue diamond, meeting the blazing eye of the sun glare for glare.  On overcast days it was a gray eye, glistening with unshed tears. In the winter, it glazed with a cataract of disuse.  The pool was never drained, because it was warm all year round in Houston.

Dora watched the moods of the pool from her lounge chair, where she sat every afternoon with a book and a drink.  The book was always a romance.  The drink was always frozen –  pina colada, strawberry daiquiri, fuzzy navel. They came in foil pouches and were sold in the frozen food section of the grocery store. All she had to do was add rum from Stan’s bar. Stan never noticed what was missing, or if he did, he didn’t notice Dora long enough to ask her about it.

The new house loomed behind Dora’s lounge chair.  It was so large it required four air conditioners to tame the ferocious Houston heat; during the day, it seemed to hum contentedly.  At first Dora had tried to break the cool, waiting silence of the house with television, but she only succeeded indenting it like the skin of a balloon. She didn’t like the afternoon programs anyway.  The Home Shopping Network had provided brief escape – she bought patio furniture, sunglasses and set of margarita glasses with green cactus stems. She offered these gifts to the new house, but, like Stan, the house remained cold and aloof.

She tried to feel comfortable in the silence, tried to settle into it like a couch. She brought her book into the living room, pretending to ignore the chnk chnk of the icemaker calling her to the refrigerator.  But her soft, involuntary grunts as she hefted herself from the cushiony depths of the sofa embarrassed her – like dirty footprints on the plush white carpeting the decorator had talked her into. Guiltily, she had finally taken her book out to the pool.

She wore her new “BlueBlocker” sunglasses ($39.95 from Home Shopping Network), liking the way they intensified the brightness of the afternoon, sucking yellows and blues from the summer palette and lighting the afternoon with an eerie luminescence.  The sunglasses robbed the pool of its blue depths.  With the glasses on, she could barely make out the concentric circles on the pool’s mosaic floor. She’d never realized there were so many kinds of blue: Aegean blue, azure blue, sapphire blue Sinatra blue, blue, blooded blue, blue-because-you’re-untrue.  The intricacy of that tilework had charmed Stan – “real craftsmanship”, he had called it.  To Dora it was just confusing, all that blue on blue. They should have added some green, she thought. Or red.

She always spent the early part of the day reading, taking long deep swallows from her book, alternated with frequent, appreciative little sips from her drink. By mid-afternoon, the famous Houston humidity was a palpable presence, gently pushing her book aside. The heat filled her soft legs and arms with a warm, heavy torpor.  Drugged and pink with sun, she watched the pool through slitted eyes.  The water rippled secretly. It seemed to gently surge and slow just below the surface, a rhythm she could almost see.

She thought how it would feel to sink into the pool  – – a cool luscious cocoon enclosing the overheated, overstuffed flesh of her body.  She would stroke to the deep end, light and buoyant, feeling young and supple as her once-slim, long-legged self, the honeymooning Dora who had stripped off her bikini top and tossed it at an open-mouthed and cautiously wading Stan, the Dora who had tumbled in the midnight surf of St. Thomas like a mermaid conjured from her husband’s adoring eyes.  She would swim to that young, newly balding Stan, water sluicing down her arms in a fluid, sensuous  cascade. Her scalp would sigh as the pool massaged her hair from its sensible coif into a flowing corona around her head, a dark lotus blossom, and Stan would watch her with a smiling gaze, arms held out, beckoning, drinking her in with clear and depthless blue eyes, watching her….

Her eyes snapped from half-mast to full mast.  The slender effortlessness of the honeymoon Dora slipped from her with a nearly audible splash.  Her hot, sweating scalp prickled tightly under the weight of seeing but unseen eyes.

Someone was watching her.

She lumbered up, unsticking her caftan from her sweating breasts and belly with a grimace, glancing apprehensively at the house.  The many windows and French doors stared blandly back, preoccupied with guarding the air-conditioned interior.  The unmistakable feeling of watching eyes came from behind her, and she turned to look beyond the pool.  The lush subtropical growth – hibiscus, climbing roses, ferns, lantana, and hydrangea – edged the yard in a gradient of shifting, rustling shades of green. Only the pool, chuckling quietly in the dappled sunlight, broke the thick and humid silence.

She twisted the loose material of her caftan uneasily. Perhaps someone was peeking at her through the fence….although she could see no knothole or missing boards.  She was used to being looked at covertly –her bulk drew eyes, but always in quick sneaking little glances that pocked her skin like burning match heads.  This felt different – an unblinking scrutiny.  Afraid (but even more, self-conscious) she hurried into the house, locking the door behind her.

She scanned the backyard from the French doors, but could see no signs of the watcher. Just her book, tented forlornly on the lounge chair. She uttered a shaky laugh – a small sound the house swallowed effortlessly.  She removed the cordless phone from its cradle and returned to the French doors, hesitating. She thought vaguely of calling Stan, but quickly dismissed it.  The police would certainly come if she asked, polite and deferential, their eyes taking in the oversized surroundings – the enormous house, the enormous pool, and the enormous woman that was herself. She found the anonymous gaze of the watcher easier to bear than this thought.

Hardly aware she’d decided to, she pressed the quick dial for Ruth.

“Hello mother. How are things with you  – getting to know Houston yet?”

Three children, a corporate lawyer husband, and a host of charities had given Ruth’s voice a cheery, not-to-be-argued with efficiency.

Dora peered out at the pool. The water winked brightly in the sun.

“I’m OK. Stan’s very busy, of course. Now that the decorating is finished, there isn’t much for me to do.” She uttered a little laugh.

With Ruth on the phone, she somehow felt safer.  Still carrying the phone, she walked out to her lounge chair for her book. Ruth’s voice scolded her.

“Oh, now, mother! I’m sure there are all kinds of organizations you could join. Just think about what you’d like to do, and do it.  Volunteer for the Readers Are Leaders program – I think Houston has a chapter. I can get you an in.”

“Mmmm hmmm,” Dora said.  She scanned the yard. No sight – or sense – of an intruder.  Whoever it was (if anyone had been there) was gone now.  The sun bounced bright spears off the surface of the pool and into her yes. She’d left her sunglasses back in the house.

Ruth’s voice buzzed her ear.  “You must make an effort mother. For yourself and for Daddy.”

Dora stared down into the blued mirror of the pool.  Her face was a pale moon in the water. Ruth’s voice continued in her ear, smoothly practical.

“I’m afraid we won’t make it down for the Fourth.  The girls have ballet, and I have the Leukemia dinner. Can you imagine, two thousand dollars a plate.  It’s my biggest yet.  Anyway, we’ll make it for Labor Day, promise.”

Dora protested.  “But Ruth, it’s been more than a year. I mean, we – Stan especially – would like to see the girls, is all.”  In the pool, her reflection wavered, the chin quivering faintly in the trembling water.

“I’m sorry mother. But we’ll be down soon. I have to run now. I’ll call next week.  Love to Daddy.” This was Ruth’s customary sign-off.

Dora thumbed the handset off. The pool-reflected Dora did the same. She raised a hand to her full cheeks, watching the pool Dora double, then treble in the watery mirror. She straightened (the pool Dora disappeared), glancing around the yard again. That feeling was creeping back. The feeling of being watched.

Reluctantly, she turned back to the house (the pool Dora waved sadly) and was halfway to the door when the book slipped from fingers suddenly thick and nerveless as sausages.

She turned slowly. Blue water sparkled. Blue tiles circled. From the depths of the pool, blue eyes regarded her.

She gasped, taking a step backwared.  From the pool, blue hands beckoned.

She looked around the yard frantically, a plump hand fisted at her mouth. A small breathy sound – uh! uh! uh! – was coming from her. Her thoughts whirled like panicked sparrows.  From the pool, there was a small splashing.  As she watched, a sudden confusion of blues seemed to merge and swirl. The water eddied briefly, and then cleared.  She was alone.

The backyard drowsed in the somnolent Houston summer.  Somewhere nearby a lawnmower buzzed into life. The skin of her face felt hot and red and sweatless.

Surely she hadn’t seen what she thought she’d seen.  There could not be a blue man in the pool, waving to her. It was the daiquiris, of course.

She took a tentative step toward the pool.

The daiquiris and the heat (and the humidity, her mind amplified, in Ruth’s brook-no-nonsense voice).

Another step.

Yes, that was it. The daiquiris made her a little emotional.  And then there was Stan…..

Two more steps.

The water was clear and blue and blameless. She had just gotten a little light-headed, that was all. Hesitantly, she peered over the lip, keeping her feet well away from the edge, ready to jump back. The muscles in her legs trembled with adrenaline. She felt as light and tense as a deer.

No deer looked back- only the pool Dora, white and frightened.

She scanned the depths. Nothing. As she looked, a deeper shade of blue seemed to coalesce at the far end. It swirled softly, the color thickening.

Without waiting to see more, Dora grabbed her book and ran awkwardly to the house, daring only one quick glance back at the glistening depths before closing herself inside.

~

Midnight.

The grandiose master bedroom opened onto the backyard patio. Dora could hear the low murmur of the pool from her bed.  Spotlights bounced from the quiet night water, reflecting in the chandelier over the bed.  Dora watched the play of light on crystal, waiting for Stan.

He came home later than usual – well after two. He undressed quietly and got into bed, setting his alarm and then settling quickly with his back to Dora.  His hair smelled smoky.

Dora whispered “Stan?”

He flinched  “Jesus! You scared the crap out of me.”

Her mind raced. You can do this. It’s like Ruth said – make an effort.  She opened her mouth to tell him – what? The words trembled on her lips. She started to say, “I’m afraid” but his impatient voice cut her off.

“Well? Come on, now. I’m tired. Big day tomorrow.”

Outside, the pool lapped quietly.

“Nothing, Stan. It’s just that Ruth can’t make it down for the Fourth.”

Stan sat up. She tensed hopefully. Maybe….But he only fluffed his pillow and lay back down.

“Well, that’s probably best. Looks like my deep sea fishing trip is back on. She’ll make it soon – probably Labor Day. Go to sleep now.” His breathing quicklybecame slow, regular.

Long after Stan drifted off on a tide of easy sleep, Dora lay awake.  The chandelier was a sparkling, watery prism in the pool-lit darkness

~

Three days later, unable to bear the dense silence of the house, she resolutely tugged her caftan on.  Outside, armed with a book, her sunglasses, a towel and a glass of tea, she peeked at the pool.  The pool Dora peeked timidly back from a surface as unrippled as blue glass.

Settling in the lounge chair, she slipped her glasses on and scanned the pool. Nothing. Behind the spectrum blocker, the blue mosaic of the pool flooring faded to white. The summer color palette of the back year turned green and bright.  She felt her muscles slowly untense.

She took up her book. Palmetto bugs chirped. The sun beat down. Nearby, she heard the thhhhhhhhrrrrrrrrrrrrmmmmmmmmmm of a diving board, followed by a low splash. A neighbor swimming

The afternoon passed. The sun climbed laboriously into the bleached sky, pine trees whispered overhead in the light breeze. Her pages riffled quietly in the stillness.  And after a long slow time, she felt the tug of eyes pulling her gaze from the book, above the book, toward the pool, into the pool.

Nothing visible but the washed-out blue of the water. Trembling, she drew her breath, removed her glasses, and looked into the pool.

He was there.

Only a foot away, just below the surface. A pattern of blues that shaped itself into a man. Eyes a deeper shade of blue, regarding her solemnly.  Dora.

She stared, her hand drifting to her throat like an untethered balloon in the sluggish heat.

He glided backward slightly, holding out his arms, palm up.  Stay.  I won’t hurt you.

Unaware she was doing so, Dora leaned forward. Fear and excitement raced through her. Her body thrummed lightly.  She felt poised for flight – ready to sprout great filmy wings and leap to run skimming across the surface of the pool, flitting over the fence and gone even before the intuition to run could fully form.

Graceful blue hands spreading wide.  Please, Dora.

His face was watchful, ready to be sad. Slowly, she set her book aside. He smiled – small and careful, head cocked, waiting. Dora?

He stepped closer now, still smiling, his blue density more distinct. Yes, a man.  Clearly a man, youngish, maybe thirty.  Like Stan when we married, she thought.

They regarded each other in the hot summer silence. He took a step back, then another, and suddenly whirpooled away.  A gentle wave undulated the surface.  Before Dora could react – “Oh!” – a blue commotion coalesced at the lip of the pool and he was back, gazing up at Dora from just below the surface at the deep end. Unexpectedly, she smiled.

He lifted a blue finger. Watch me!  Seal-like, he dove backward through the depths, somersaulted gracefully, and returned to the edge. This time she laughed outright.

His eyes laughed with her. He held out his hands, beckoned.  Come in, Dora.

She shook her head, almost girlishly. No, I couldn’t.

He mimed pouting, then was off in a blue whirl, swirling across the bottom of the pool. Beneath his passage, the intricate mosaic floor magnified and came to breathtaking life.  Returning, he read the pleasure in her face and bowed deeply, a graceful dancing master of the water. Dora clapped.

Again, his arms spread. Come in, Dora. Dance with me.

She nearly giggled. She opened her mouth to speak, and suddenly the back door opened and Stan’s angry voice stung the air.

“For God sakes, Dora, what are you doing? It’s six thirty and  you haven’t even started dinner!” The door slammed.

Stricken, Dora searched the pool. Only the water, rippling madly. He was gone.

She gathered her book and towel and glasses, dragging it out as much as she dared.  At the deep end – blue shadows.  A waving hand. She smiled a tiny smile. An angry knocking at the glass of the French doors made her jump. Stan’s voice, faint and angry through the glass.

Dora went inside.

~

That night, Dora listened for the pool. Stan was out again. She pictured the dark, quiet depths, glimmering in the moonlight.  She imagined gliding through the night-cool water. He would be darker at night, midnight blue, waiting and watching in the velvet shadows of the deep. Soothed by this image, she drifted peacefully to sleep, hours before Stan came home with his smoky-smelling hair. Goodnight.

~

A sticky still August morning. Stan absently sipped coffee, scanning the Wall Street Journal.  For the tenth time, Dora glanced at the clock on the microwave, trying not to fidget. Seven fifteen. From the kitchen, she could just glimpse a flash of Caribbean blue through the French doors. Finally, she could stand it no longer.

“Stan, won’t you be late?”

At the sound of her voice, Stan gave a start, rattling the paper “Dora, I’m the CEO. I can’t be late.” He returned to the paper.

“I just thought…” she trailed off.

Minutes ticked by. Dora went to the refrigerator, but didn’t open it. She wasn’t hungry. She had lost weight this past month. Stan hadn’t noticed.

She paced in front of the French doors, but from this distance the lip of the pool was too high. She could only see the surface of the water, not make out the depths.

Stan finally rose. “I’ve got to go to Dallas today. I’ll be back late tonight or early tomorrow,”  he told Dora.

She reluctantly pulled her eyes from the pool and glanced at Stan, smiling absently. He looked at her a moment, surprised. Something in her far away expression reminded him briefly of the younger Dora – the slim Dora that had caught him without trying, rich and sexy and confidently accepting Stan’s helpless homage.

But now she was staring out the window again, revealing her sagging jaw line and puffed double chins, and the moment was lost. Tersely, he said goodbye to Dora and left the house.

The sun pounced playfully on the pool. Cool ripples played across the surface. Inside the house, the air conditioners set about their chilling business.  Dora called Ruth.

The machine picked up – Ruth’s voice, brisk and practical.  “Sorry we can’t come to the phone. Leave a message.”

At the beep, Dora hesitated, then gently cradled the receiver. The click was loud in the wide, deep silence of the empty house.

She drifted to the French doors and contemplated the pool. Another relentless Houston day. The pool’s surface was a brilliant blue zircon, promising relief.

She took a deep breath and went out.

~

She descended the wide, low steps at the shallow end. Her caftan billowed gracefully around her dimpled knees. She waded until she waist deep, chest deep, chin deep. The bottom of the pool sloped gently beneath her feet until she felt the water close softly over her head.  To keep from bobbing to the surface she pushed water upward with the palms of her hands. Her movements were graceful – she was good at this and no longer thought about or even felt the effort.

Underwater, she opened her eyes, and he was there, smiling. Dora!

Her caftan swirled elegantly. He bowed grandly and extended his hand. Shall we dance again, my dear?

She swam to him, shy and eager – but of course!   She went deeper and – going deeper, and he revolved about her like a dolphin, making her laugh silvery bubbles that escaped her  nose and mouth in a silvery stream.

Every two minutes or so she broke the watery blue membrane of the surface for breath.  Shewass shy about the way her caftan drifted and billowed upward as she made her way back down to him.  She tried to hold it close to her body, but his hand is a cool blue shadow on hers.  Dora, Dora.  You don’t need to do that.

He did not look only at her face. With Stan, it’s as if she has somehow grown more invisible even as she has grown larger.

His blue hands were gentle on the caftan. You are beautiful.

Later, as the sun watched from the west, she examined her fingers. They were deeply shriveled at the tips, as if starved.  She’d een in the pool since seven thirty this morning.

He revolved about her, pleading, persuasive.  Don’t go yet. Stay with me, Dora.

She remembered that Stan is gone, that she was alone.  Her eyes burn with chlorine.

His blue gaze was eloquently sad.  I need you.

She thinks, there are worse things than pruney fingers.  She took his outstretched hands and they swam to the depths where the blue shadows gathered, welcoming.

~

When the sun climbed high again, they are tracing the pool’s mosaic floor, laughing, racing, sleek as blue otter.  From the house, are  sounds, but they are distant, unimportant.

She somersaults gracefully, laughing – bravo! bravo! – when Stan’s shocked face appears above them.  His eyes are wide and blue. For once, his face is not angry or impatient or distant.  His mouth slowly says Dora.

She glides to him gladly, once again the honeymoon Dora, buoyant and free. Stan!

But before she can reach him, more faces appear. They pull Stan away from the lip of the pool.  There is a commotion at the surface as something – big and shadowy, she cannot make it out – is pulled slowly and heavily from the pool.  More faces peer over the edge, mouths moving, heads shaking.  Stan’s pale face briefly reappears, calling – she waves, but he is wiping his eyes and does not see her – and is once again pulled away.

The rippling, lapping waves gradually quiet.  Soon the faces are gone, and the calm of afternoon descends. Alone again, the pool sparkles benignly in the sunlight, blue and blue and blue.

© Copyright Sandra Stephens (nee Sandra Miller)

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