I rose at eight, so that my parents wouldn’t think I was a bum, and sat at my little desk, really a folding snack table in the guest room, doing the crossword until they left for work, when I sometimes took a quick nap. They never reproached me, but I wallowed in my failure and liked to imagine the look on their faces if I got a job in their buildings buffing the floor. Then I went running. Then lunch. Then down to the pool.
The apartment complex (I wish there were a more graceful term for these minor high-rise city-states) actually had a very nice pool, small but almost empty on the weekdays, set on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Hudson and Manhattan. On a clear day you could see the individual cars traveling across the George Washington Bridge and up and down the West Side, like corpuscles in an IV drip. On a stormy day you could see the weather before it arrived.
That summer I swam, snoozed, and got my first tan ever. I tried to read, but my heart had turned against literature, which I blamed for much of my misfortune. Had I looked at Tolstoy or Stendhal, I think I would have hurled myself off the cliffs. On the other hand, I was afraid that opening a new book by a promising young writer might trigger a homicidal rampage. Would that I had never learned to read! The only safe choice was Simenon’s mystery novels about Inspector Maigret, which I consumed one after another, in measured doses, like lithium. Sometimes all you can stand to think about is a guy with a mustache solving a murder.
The only other weekday regulars at the pool were a few lizardy old-timers and this weird Russian family. At least, I thought they were Russian. The leader was an overweight guy with a toupee and a tiny Speedo swimsuit. It was a garish brown-red color—rust, really. (I mean the toupee here, not the Speedo, which was—get this—white!) I kept waiting for it (the toupee) to come off when he swam, but it never did, so maybe it was real after all. It didn’t look any faker than his mustache, which turned up at the ends like Poirot’s. (I read a few dozen of those Agatha Christie books that summer, too.)
The woman (his wife, his daughter?) was blonde and stocky, and when I hung, resting between laps, on the side of the pool, and she climbed down the ladder across from me, I could see how her thighs were scored with the plastic pattern of her chair. It looked like welts, like someone had whipped her, and even though I knew it was only from sitting and reading Us magazine, I instantly felt something sorrowful and hurt about her, like there was always smoke in her eyes, smoke only she could smell, or else she was allergic to something that was there around us but that I was too crude to sense.
Then there was the kid. He was five or six maybe. A real whiner. He was blond, and wan and no matter what he was doing—floating in the man’s arms and practice kicking, jumping into the pool, eating a cookie—he screeched incessantly in this high, petulant squeal that set my teeth on edge. I shouldn’t say this, because I’m sure I was a kid like that, too, but I couldn’t stand the little crybaby.
But the thing I wanted to say, the significant thing, was about the guy’s boobs. Yes, they were hairy, but that wasn’t the key issue. What I really wanted to mention was that one of them was bigger than the other. I think the left. And I mean dramatically bigger, like several cup sizes. I didn’t even notice it at first, he had so much else going on, but one afternoon I just happened to lift my gaze from Maigret Sets a Trap and there he was, rising from the pool, mustache drooping, water streaming through his body hair like rushes along a sandbank, and I saw it, one flat male breast and one pendulous female breast. It was as if something womanly, long buried, was fighting to burst forth, as if the man was riven in two. Although I knew he couldn’t see me behind my shades, I felt like he was staring right at me, with a plaintive face, and deliberately showing me his burden and his wound. What could cause such a thing? Cancer? Cholesterol? Love? (Love in the Time of Cholesterol?) The mad thought occurred to me that it might start throbbing wildly, like a cartoon creature in raptures, and I quickly looked away. I admit, it kind of freaked me out.
To read the rest of this piece, purchase the issue.
August Kleinzahler, The Rapture of Vachel Lindsay
George Seferis, Helen
Jason Zuzga, Liquid Courage