Leah Porter sprung off the diving board and soared high above the pool. She tucked her body tight, spun two quick somersaults, and descended in a clean line. When she sliced the surface, she knew it was good—an almost flawless entry. Deep under, she pushed off the pale cement bottom and bubbled to the surface.
As Leah swam to the ladder, she flashed her best Hollywood smile—the one she’d learned from Esther Williams in Neptune’s Daughter—at Kevin Smithson, the aquatics director. She grabbed the aluminum ladder and planted her foot on the bottom rung. Alison, who’d followed Leah, had made a clumsy splash that still rocked the water around them.
Had Alison seen the red marks when Leah mounted the diving board in front of her? They were the smallest kind, etched with a needle where her right thigh disappeared into her pelvis.
“Hey,” Alison shouted, treading water. “Are you taking a pee?”
“Gross. No,” said Leah. “I’m getting out.” She flicked water in Alison’s face, giving herself a split second to grab her towel from the bench.
On the pool deck of the YMCA Aquatics Center, Leah wrapped herself in pink terrycloth as Kevin approached. He pulled from his pocket the coveted black and white striped Dolphin band. “You did it, kiddo,” he said, stretching the band so that it fit over Leah’s swim cap and around her neck.
Leah looked up at Kevin, shivering.
“The first girl to make Dolphin in over a year!” Kevin announced, louder than Leah would have liked. “You may be pint-sized for thirteen, but you’re powerful. Congrats.” He patted her on the back.
“Thanks. It feels good,” Leah said. She waited for it to feel good. She yanked off her swim cap, releasing a tangle of auburn curls just as she’d watched Esther Williams do in film after film.
The rest of the afterschool kids shuffled to the locker room in their flip-flops. Though Leah had been coming to the YMCA After School Program since she was eleven, not a single kid had even high-fived her for earning her Dolphin band. Leah dreaded the shower and the locker room. She stalled, arranging her goggles in their plastic case. At the water fountain, she rinsed out her neoprene cap.
“Get moving,” said Kevin. “You’ll be late for assembly.”
Outside, leafless black branches looked like cutouts against a darkening lavender sky. It was January, that hard part just after the holidays. At home, dead pine needles covered the floor beneath the Christmas tree her mother always took too long to haul to the curb. Her mother would be packing up at work and heading to the Y carpool line like everyone else’s parents.
Leah knew of others at school who harmed themselves. Honor students, theater geeks, even a cheerleader. Some snapped rubber bands against their wrists until thin red lines appeared. Some rubbed the backs of their hands with erasers until the skin burned and broke open. Others used shards of glass on their arms and legs. They recognized each other’s strategies: long sleeves even on the hottest days, stacks of bracelets to cover a wrist, Band-Aids worn for months at a time.
Swimmers’ suits exposed most everything. But Leah had chosen skin no one would ever ask to see. And she had mastered slipping off her clothes in the locker room. If you used the curtained changing stall, people wondered. Once, early on, a big-boned girl named Rita made sharp eye contact from behind her locker, signaling that she and Leah belonged to the same hushed network of self-harmers.
In the shower, Leah’s swimsuit clung to her flat tummy and small breasts. She went to her favorite locker where the baggy sweatshirt waited. A few rows down, the older girls obsessed over Kevin.
“Have you seen his calf muscles? Holy cow,” somebody said. “How is that even possible?
“He was cuter this summer when his hair was blonder,” said Alison.
“Yeah, whatever,” moaned Tina the ruling ninth grader. “He needs to lighten up.”
“No kidding,” said a girl in the bathroom stall. Leah recognized Cecily’s nasal voice. In sixth grade, Cecily had been Leah’s go-to after school friend. But in seventh grade, Cecily discovered sarcasm and lip-gloss. When she dubbed Leah boring, Cecily rose in popularity. “Kevin treats that stupid Y manual like it’s the Bible or something,” said Cecily, exiting the bathroom stall as she zipped up her jeans. “Those ranks are just a way to keep us busy while our parents work,” she said. “Kevin needs to stop pretending something amazing is going to happen when I become a new kind of fish.”
“You’re not a true believer?” asked Tina. Leah understood sarcasm. She just couldn’t produce it. “You’ve got to believe, sweetheart,” Tina said. “It’s like Transformers!” she shouted, running out around in her bra and underwear. She jumped up on the bench in the middle of the room. “Look at me! Tah dah! I’m a fucking Flying Fish,” she said as she leapt into the air, then landed with a thud.
Leah forced a chuckle.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Cussing was against the YMCA rules. Nobody had warned Leah that by the time you got to the top, your friends might be too cool to care. Leah wanted to be back with the elementary school kids who climbed their counselors like jungle gyms. She wanted to be a fifth grader, shamelessly going after each band: red for Minnow, green for Fish, blue for Flying Fish, black for Shark, and the final black and white striped one for Dolphin. The order soothed her.
Leah still owned the first manual she’d gotten when she was eleven. Most
kids lost theirs repeatedly. Leah’s was like a scrapbook of the years since her father had left, each page covered in counselors’ autographs, confirming her skills as she passed them off. From the beginning, Leah had excelled at swimming, so Kevin Smithson’s signatures outnumbered all the others. Leah had practiced her own intertwined K and S in imitation of his: the arms of the K cradling the smaller S.
If Kevin lived a life beyond the Y, Leah did not want to know about it. He seemed set apart from all the meanness. Blameless. And if, years later, Leah came back to visit the Aquatics Program, she expected to find Kevin still there, unchanged, unmarried, unpartnered.
The program was what Leah needed. She only half cared that the other kids looked past her. Counselors at the Y yelled, “Hustle up! Get in line!” But Leah took her time. She breathed in the smells of each hallway: the squeaky-clean Clorox scent of the lobby, the eggs and bacon wafting from the diner where men who rented rooms upstairs ate breakfast, the sweat of the stairwell leading to the adult gym, the chlorine that welcomed her to the Aquatics Center. She inhaled the mildew of wet towels in the lost and found bin. And she added to the list of philias her father had started years earlier. Topophilia, she wrote in the back of her manual, love of place.
The older girls in the locker room began arguing about a sixth grader who claimed to be “on the rag.”
“No, no, dearies,” said towheaded Lizzy in her best British accent, her goggles perched on the end of her nose, her index finger wagging at them. “Alison might be making it through leak week or flying the Japanese flag,” she lectured. “She might be getting a room at the Red Roof Inn, or visiting her Aunt Flow. But, ladies, Alison is most definitely not on the rag. How crude! How infantile!”
Leah produced a convincing enough laugh, thankful that nobody had ever asked about her period.
End-of-the-day assembly was, Leah knew, a form of babysitting. Most of the older kids complained about having to sit still on the floor watching movies that were safe for the youngest grade-schoolers. Leah didn’t care that everything had to be G-rated. Re-watching was the best kind of watching. Leah’s hair, still damp beneath her hoodie, was the color of Ariel’s and Wendy’s. So what if redheads’ pale, freckled skin never tanned? They could sing “I Want More,” they could get back their voices, they could learn to fly.
When the carpool counselor with her walkie-talkie called Leah’s surname, “Porter, to the pick-up line,” she slung her backpack over her shoulder and headed toward the lobby doors. A Y staff member opened the passenger side of her mother’s Camry. On the floorboard, fast food wrappers rustled. An empty Diet Coke crunched under her shoe. The car smelled of fries.
Leah’s mother was on her cell phone. “Alright,” she said. “I’ve got Leah now. Call you back later.”
Audrey Porter looked more of a mess than usual. Her hair stood at attention in random places, lifted by static. Her scarf, which had seemed nice enough that morning, was all tangled up in her safety belt. Though Leah had anticipated her mother’s delight when she told her about earning the Dolphin band, she no longer felt like sharing. Maybe at dinner, maybe over breakfast.
They pulled out of the parking lot and merged into traffic.
“How was your day, sweetie?”
“Solidly average,” said Leah. She fingered the black and white elastic Dolphin band inside her sweatshirt. She would not let her mother’s messy sadness seep into her swim life. She’d wash the band with Woolite to keep the white parts bright.
Leah’s father had left them when she was eleven.
He’d broken the news at bedtime, just as they were settling in to read A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Her father voiced each character, even when he was tired. And he had seemed tired more often lately. Specks of grey flecked his thick brown beard. The deepened creases in his forehead looked like scars.
Back then, Leah’s dad worked into the wee hours of the morning in his office above the garage. Her mother complained that her father’s side of the bed was never unmade. Each day before she left for school, Leah crept up the stairs to say good-bye. In a corner, her father sat with his coffee, designing miniature pools for koi. Around him lay sketches of rooftop gardens and walls of plants. From her mother’s sharp questioning, Leah had learned that the sketches were called renderings.
“What did you render last night, Paul?” her mother asked when he came down to the kitchen to refill his coffee.
Why the question stung, Leah did not understand. But its effect on him seemed cruel, a fault in her mother. He answered with elaborate artistic details. Leah’s mother showed no interest.
Leah was six when her dad explained to her that his designs were biophilic, that bio meant life and philic meant having to do with love.
“Ha!” she said, as if she’d just forced him to crown her king in a game of checkers. “Love life.”
“That’s about right,” her dad conceded. “Though I never thought of it that way. The bio part, the life part, is about science.”
“You’re not a scientist,” she said.
“True. But I rely on them, people like Lex. He’s a botanist, which means he knows all about plants. Our buildings are covered in plants that attract butterflies and birds,” he said, arranging his X-acto knives in their case. “People do better when there’s other life around.”
“I guess so,” said Leah. She imagined squirrels and mice scurrying through the hotels her father had created. But hadn’t he just said our buildings?
Lex had been at Leah’s birthday party when she turned five—and at every birthday since—mingling among the parents in the kitchen, the tallest Asian man she had ever seen.
“We’re working on an enclosed playground for a children’s hospital in Australia,” her dad told her one morning as he stacked foam mount on a small shelf. “Its walls will grow like a forest and the air will be filled with birdsongs. That’s biophilic design.”
“So there’ll be kangaroos and koalas? I want to go.”
“Well, it hasn’t been built yet. The animals won’t be big like kangaroos. We’re hoping for parrots and clownfish, the kind of things that will delight little kids who can’t get outside much. But without a lot of ruckus for the doctors and nurses.”
“I don’t like ruckus either.”
He paused, lifted Leah up, and sat her on his desk. “You, my beauty, are a logophile, a lover of words. And of course, a hydrophile.”
“A lover of hiding?”
“Nope, a lover of water. You shed your plastic water wings before you went to preschool. Took off towards that ladder at the deep end of the pool, fearless. Mom and I were ridiculously proud. But it was all you.”
“Yep, that’s me. A hydrophile. And I think you’re a Leah-phile.”
“You’re right about that.”
When it came to her dad, Leah was usually right. She had long felt as though she housed somewhere inside herself a map of her father, an ever-expanding guide to which she added details as she learned them—his childhood love of figs from a backyard tree, his fear of being stuck inside an elevator. He’d seemed knowable to her in a way that her mother never had.
So when eleven-year-old Leah cuddled up next to her dad one summer evening, eager to read with him, she could sense he was elsewhere. She rested her head on his shoulder, just far enough from his neatly trimmed beard not to feel the scratchies as he leafed through their worn copy of A Swiftly Tilting Planet.
“What chapter were we on?” he asked, too chipper.
“Come on, Dad. Chapter 4. You love Chapter 4.”
“Guess I’m distracted.”
“Your heart’s pounding.”
He smoothed the covers around Leah’s legs. “Honey. I need to tell you something.” Leah thought he might be sick, something awful that might make all of his hair fall out. “I got the job,” he said. “The one in Australia.”
Leah sat up, putting space between herself and her father. This was supposed to be good news. Why did he sound so apologetic?
“When did you find out?” she asked.
“A few days ago. I had to make sure I’d say yes before I told you.”
“Well, duh, of course you’d say yes. You wanted it. You said so. You worked like crazy to get it.”
“But it’s a long way away. And for a long time.”
“Yeah, well, you knew that from the beginning,” she said. “When do we leave?”
“Oh, sweetie,” her father murmured. “You’ll stay here with your mom.”
It took Leah a minute to feel the distance between your mom and plain old Mom, but as she did, her eyes began to sting. When her father gathered her into a hug, Leah felt the burden of her mother’s long sadness shift from her father’s body to her own.
It would take months for Leah to realize her father had been looking for a job that would take him away from home. It would be longer still before she could understand her father’s new life with Lex—their coupledom, her mom called it.
Lex and her father flew to Australia on an October school day as Leah sat in math class. That afternoon, she climbed the stairs to her father’s office over the garage. Maybe he had left her something, some sort of sign that he was still a Leah-phile, that he’d be coming back. She opened drawer after drawer. In one, she found tidy bundles of pencils held tight with green rubber bands; in another, a black zippered case that Leah recognized as her father’s old tools, long since replaced by sharper, fancier ones.
Over their first Skype conversation, her father explained, “We’ve already had the day you’re having now. We’re thirteen hours ahead of you. We’re finishing the day that you’re just starting. Look, I’ve already showered for bed.”
Leah didn’t want to look. She didn’t want to see her father in his pajamas. Didn’t he get it? Everything had changed: PJs once meant story time with her. Now PJs meant Lex. “That’s cool, Dad,” Leah said. “You’re settled in, and I’ve got all my work ahead of me.” At last, she had succeeded at sarcasm.
The first time Leah’s dad came back to the States at Christmas, they had dinner at a downtown restaurant not far from the Raleigh Y. Leah stared at the fancy menu, most of it unrecognizable things she probably wouldn’t like anyway. She did like French onion soup. And her father knew to order it for her sans fromage.
When the waiter left the three of them alone, Leah’s father raised his glass to propose a holiday toast. He mock-cleared his throat. “A benediction from the great Hamilton Wright Mabie,” he announced, smiling at Leah, who recognized the author of Fairy Tales Every Child Should Know. A copy of the book still sat on her nightstand. If any friend ever asked, Leah intended to tell her about the long-before- Disney fairy tales. She wanted to shock somebody else with the darkest ones: birds pecking out eyes, a mother who wants her beautiful daughter’s liver and lungs removed.
“Leave it to Mabie to give us such a gem,” Leah’s father declared, tipping over the poinsettia centerpiece as he lifted his wine glass. “‘Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.’”
“Cheers,” said Lex, clinking his wine glass against each of theirs.
“Merry Christmas,” said Leah’s dad.
“Cheers,” offered Leah as she raised her ice water. She saw that her father’s happiness had released the deep creases in his forehead and that the skin beneath his eyes shone pale and smooth.
Under the table, Leah pressed the softest part of her inner forearm up against a sharp edge. She pressed until she could no longer keep her face all pleasant seeming. Then she looked down at the red mark she had made and wondered how long it would last.
That January, Leah’s mom enrolled her in the Y-Youth Corps After School Program. Mrs. Porter had taken a full-time job at NC State’s Design Library, where she’d worked before Leah was born. Leah was pretty sure they didn’t need the money. Her dad sent checks that took care of things. Maybe her mother needed a place to remember who she had been before she’d become Mrs. Porter.
One warm late-March night, Leah sat on her bed with her window open and listened to her mother and their neighbor Anna Hargrove chatting on the deep front porch. The rocking chairs Leah’s father had made creaked on the floorboards beneath them. The women’s conversation grew louder as they popped the cork on another bottle of wine. Leah’s mother was crying, and Leah pictured her in those baggy clothes that hid a body whose shape Leah no longer knew.
“Wonder when he decided,” she said. “When we were little kids playing in the creek together? Or in seventh grade, when I put my head on his shoulder at that middle school dance? How about after prom? We’d made out in his parents’ car, and there didn’t seem to be any, you know, problem.”
“Who the hell knows,” said Anna.
Leah had never heard a swear word sound like comfort before.
“Maybe he’d reached some understanding when I stayed the weekend in his college dorm,” her mother said. “I mistook his restraint for tenderness.”
Leah knew what restraint meant. She’d heard enough in health class about middle school girls who had lacked it. Nobody said anything about the boys.
No kid on Earth wanted to think the how and when of her parents doing it. Leah should feel guilty for listening in. She heard the flapping windsock on the porch below, a breeze moving through its hollow insides.
“Paul thought at least he could make some of us happy—me, his parents and mine. But falling in love with Lex stunned him. It wasn’t just the sex he’d denied himself.”
“Such a martyr,” Anna said.
“Seriously. I asked him, what was all of this?’”
Her mother must have gestured at their house, maybe even pointed up towards Leah’s room, making Leah herself a question.
“In that ridiculously kind voice of his, he said, ‘Audrey, you and I both know it was its own kind of love.’”
Leah pulled her bedcovers around her. How had her mother been duped?
Whenever Leah had trouble making up her mind about something, her dad had urged her, “Go with your gut, baby. Go with your viscera.” He’d taught her that viscera was the tissue hat held stuff together inside you. “You’d better learn to pay attention when it’s talking to you,” he said each time Leah stalled. “People who don’t feel bad all over.” Had her dad been mean enough to say something like that to her mother?
Somewhere early on, Leah figured, her mother’s insides must have stopped talking to her, allowing her to imagine all kinds of things. Maybe, as she developed into the beautiful young woman Leah had seen in old photos, she came to believe that her flawless skin had the power of an ocean tide, strong enough to pull the boy she loved toward her.
But her mother’s skin did not have that power. The boy was just pretending. And she should have known it, should have felt the absence beneath all the excitement of their parents and friends. Her mother’s mistake was far scarier somehow than her father’s pretending.
A week after she’d listened to the porch conversation, Leah lay on her bed, aching. She would not be fooled or foolish. She needed to press hard on something, break it open, leave a mark.
As a toddler, Leah had yanked fur off her stuffed animals and gathered it into wads. Her parents called this “pulling fuzzies.” The rhythmic tugging and the repetitive rolling of the fur between her thumb and forefinger calmed Leah. She hoarded the fur in clear plastic jars lined up on her bookshelf.
Leah rolled over on her bed, opened her laptop, and searched cutting. Both the lure and the disgust had been there since she’d heard about it at school. A girl in her math class had been called to the nurse for harming herself. Descriptions of her bleeding arm traveled through the hallways and onto the playground.
The Eraser Challenge went viral sometime that winter. Students dared each other to rub their own forearms with an eraser while they recited the alphabet. You had to come up with a word that started with each letter A through Z, a simple task. But as the pain grew, it got harder to remember even the words you’d find in toddler’s books: W for wagon, X for xylophone, Y for yarn, Z for zebra.
In February, there was a special all-school meeting in the auditorium. “This is not a game,” said Principal Bowers. “Germs are passed through shared erasers. The burns can become infected and leave scars. Please, talk to a school counselor if you or a friend needs help. If you’re trying to keep a friend safe by staying silent, you need to know that telling a trustworthy adult is best for both of you. It’s not ratting your friend out if they don’t know how to help themselves. And some secrets are exhausting to carry around.”
Leah didn’t know Principal Bowers cared about anything other than rules and schedules. She’d almost started crying as he talked. She wanted to be safe. She wanted everyone to be safe. Who didn’t?
That afternoon Principal Bowers sent an email alert to parents. But at the end of the school day, many kids headed straight home to their computers where they could google every ugly detail.
The next day, two boys bragged in the cafeteria, showing off their burns. Leah did not touch the pimento cheese sandwich her mother had sealed in a zip-lock bag. She broke her Oreos into tiny pieces that she could suck on like mints.
Now, a month later, Leah lay on her bed listening to Anna Hargrove say goodnight as her mother clanked empty wine bottles into the recycling bin. Leah longed for sharp tools. When her mother came upstairs and got in the shower, Leah crept to the hall closed and rummaged through the sewing kit. Then she scoured the medicine cabinet in her own bathroom for Band-Aids and creams. In her room, she emptied the barrettes and hair ribbons from their box into her underwear drawer. She tucked her supplies neatly inside and slid the box under her bed. She would try to wait. Maybe the longing would pass.
During social studies, Leah thought about her tools. When no one was looking, she touched the soft space beneath her breastbone, midway up from her belly button, the place her father called the solar plexus. “A little bundle of ganglia and nerves,” he said. “Like a tiny brain for your viscera.” It would be hidden by her bathing suit, and the pediatrician never lifted her shirt up that far—not even when he felt for the breastbuds that arrived so late, not even when he noted aloud that she had fallen off the growth chart just when she should be “blossoming.” Mortifying.
At the YMCA, Leah envisioned the quiet of her bedroom. She watched the afternoon move too slowly on her sports watch. One the carpool line began to form, her heart raced. She did not care if her mother looked frumpy. She did not care if the car was a mess when a counselor opened the passenger.
As soon as her mom pulled into their driveway, Leah hurried up the stairs to her room. Her mother was in the kitchen, getting out pots and pans. She’d be measuring, stirring, listening to Public Radio.
Leah lit a match to sterilize the sharp end of the safety pin. She lay on her bed, lifted her shirt, and pressed the metal point down just hard enough to draw a small amount of bright red blood. Surface scratches. She made two. She needed another. And another. Scoring, she thought. Four parallel lines and a cross hatch, as she’d been taught for tallying wins in board games.
Under her lacy canopy, Leah checked the time on her bedside clock. She’d read that cutting was different for each person, that some kids felt high, some grew calm. She waited. Why wasn’t this as helpful as pulling fur from her stuffed animals? Had she done it wrong? Maybe she should rescue her stuffed bears from the attic and remove the last bits of their fur, the hardest part along the seams that she could never quite get when she was little. She rubbed her thumbs and forefingers against each other in the circular motion she’d used on her fuzzies.
Beyond the foot of her bed, the bookshelves her dad had built reached from floor to ceiling. There was her doll collection and, below the dolls, her picture books with their brightly colored spines. On the bottom shelf sat the two plastic jars brimming with the fuzzies that Leah would not let her mother discard. She got up and retrieved a handful. No one would know. She lay back and fondled them, just as she remembered doing as a toddler. “Self-soothing,” her mother had called it back then—as if it were an achievement.
Leah looked at the cabinet her father had designed for her very own TV, a gift he’d had delivered on her twelfth birthday, the first one he’d missed. Leah had managed to sound grateful over the phone, though she’d imagine he might fly home and surprise her. Instead of getting to hear her father read to her, Leah flipped through the channels with the remote control. She happened upon an Esther Williams Movie Marathon. Neptune’s Daughter and Million Dollar Mermaid enchanted her. That night, Leah dreamed of 1940s ladies in modest swimsuits, of perfectly choreographed water ballets, of long legs and pointed toes emerging from the water.
On their weekly Skype call, Leah told her father about the movies she’d discovered. “Ah,” he said. “You have retrophilia. Love of things past.”
Leah found images of Esther Williams on the Web. Against her mother’s rules, she printed them in color, using up a whole expensive cartridge. She made a collage of the pictures and slid it beneath the plastic protector of her big three-ring binder. If she felt alone at school, Leah looked at Esther’s face, her ivory skin and full red lips, her pointy boobs and auburn hair. Leah loved the shot of Esther looping under water in a perfect backbend.
A classmate asked, “Is that your mom?”
Leah smiled. “No, she’s someone who was famous a long time ago. Probably old enough by now to be my grandmother, if she’s even still alive.”
Leah lay on her bed, thinking of Esther’s perfect skin. The first scratches she had made began to sting. Where was the calm? She tried to envision herself as a synchronized swimmer moving effortlessly through the water, a small part of a satisfying geometric shape.
Leah looked at her clock. Six and a half minutes of something—far less than she’d hoped for. She took the open safety pin to her skin once more, digging just a bit deeper across her upper abdomen. She grabbed her hand mirror and held it at an angle to watch herself bleed. She could be both her own guard and the danger from which she was being guarded. It was 6:50.
At 7:00, Leah’s mother called her down to dinner. Leah grabbed the Neosporin and Band-Aides from her box. On her bright red scratches, she rubbed the clear ointment and watched as it mixed with bits of blood that turned it pink. She taped a line of Band-Aids across the hash marks. “Be right there,” Leah yelled down the stairs. In the bathroom, she ran cold water over her hands.
Leah and her mother faced each other at the dinner table. They spoke with customary caution, as though the wrong words might split something necessary to their survival.
“You’re a little pale,” said Mrs. Porter. “Do you feel alright?”
“I’m fine,” Leah heard herself say as she speared a green bean with her fork. She was frightened to have answered so easily. She wished her mother would reach over and test her forehead for a fever. From the space Leah now occupied, her mother was like a museum statue protected by a red velvet rope.
For Leah’s fourteenth birthday, her mother bought her a shadow box. Inside, she had arranged Leah’s swim bands earned over nearly two years. It looked important, like the store display she’d admired: one neatly folded American flag, perfectly creased inside its triangular box. Over her desk hung each rank Leah had achieved the past two years: Rookie, Cadet, Corporal, Sarge, Lieutenant, and Captain. Her mother had arranged them in the shape of a diamond with the empty center spot awaiting Leah’s completion of Master—the only rank left for her at the Y.
Ten whole months had passed since Leah had earned her Dolphin band. All Leah had to do to achieve Master was learn to cartwheel on the low balance beam. But she’d lost her motivation. Leah wondered—but dared not ask—if, once she’d gotten her final certificate, once it was framed and filling in the center, her days at the Y would come to an end. Other eighth graders caught the bus directly home to empty houses; thirteen year olds did their homework and took care of themselves until their parents returned from work. Leah wished her mother understood that she could not be left alone, that the privacy of her bedroom terrified her. She was ashamed that she could be trusted—more ashamed even than she was of the cuts on her body.
Whenever Leah thought of entering their empty house, her mind drifted to the box under her bed, to the eraser, straight pins, and embroidery needles, to her book of matches, hydrogen peroxide, Neosporin, cotton balls, and Band-aides. She wondered if somewhere in the house still lay her father’s old drafting tools—that beautiful protractor with its perfect arc, his compass with two legs, one sharp end for holding a point and another with which to incise a circle, his set of X-acto knives in its zippered plastic case.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Leah’s alarm sounded for swim practice at 5:30 AM. Her feet hit the floor reflexively. She slipped her sweatshirt over her head, pulled on her leggings, and stepped into her fuzzy boots. The electric candles already set in the windows for Christmas cast a soft light in her bedroom. Though her mother said it was a fire hazard, Leah slept with the candles on. She hadn’t needed a nightlight when she was little, just a crack of the door to let hall light through. Now the door stayed shut.
In the kitchen, Leah grabbed a PowerBar and filled her water bottle. Just before 6:00 AM, her mother dropped her off at the Y, as she’d done each morning since Leah joined the AAU team that fall.
Leah faced a corner in the locker room and squirmed her way into the high-tech suit that helped her glide through the water without drag. Her legs were now shaved, and her fair skin looked foreign to her. She’d not really needed to remove the leg hair that was blonde enough to be invisible. Still, her mother had understood the social pressure to own a razor and shaving cream.
Nearby, Laura, an eighth grader who had actual boobs and Kaki, whose black hair completely filled the space between her legs, engaged in the same morning struggle of getting into their suits damp from the previous evening’s practice. Leah tried not to stare.
Poolside, Leah stuffed her ponytail into the Y swim cap and suctioned her goggles over her eyes. The 300-yard warm-up was her favorite part of each day. She could awaken gradually. She didn’t have to respond to a coach’s demands. All she had to do was find her rhythm in the water: pull, reach, pull, reach, pull, breathe. Today, she felt strong in her core as she rotated her body with each pull. When she got to the black T painted on the bottom of the pool, she took several hard strokes into her flip turn. Then she snapped a clean pike, made a solid hard push off the wall, and reached long for a streamlined position. She pumped her butterfly kick—1,2,3—then flutter kicked to the surface.
Once she’d completed the warm-up, Leah lifted her goggles to her forehead and stood with her lane mates at the shallow end. They studied the whiteboard for the rest of the workout and groaned about the laps ahead. But Leah had grown to love the math of each swim set, the patterns to discern, the yards to calculate, the intervals to make. One at a time, fastest swimmer to slowest, her lane began. In the middle of the pack, Leah practiced the art of circle swimming—never crowding the person in front of her or getting too far away from the person behind. She felt encased in her own glass tunnel. Her ears filled up with water, muffling all sound. She’d searched online to find the word she wanted to describe this feeling: autophilia, love of being alone.
She satisfied Kevin’s rule not to take a breath in or out of her flip turns. “Stop giving up all your momentum,” he’d shouted at last night’s practice.
During the morning sprint set, Leah heard him yell, “You’ve got this. You’ve got this.”
She did not have it at all. Even when she was swimming well, she was drowning.
That afternoon, the school bus dropped Leah off early at the Y. With half an hour to kill, she wandered back to the pool where she knew Kevin would be teaching mothers with their babies. Leah sat on the bench by the lifeguard stand and pretended to study her flash cards.
“Hey,” shouted Kevin from the far end of the pool. “You don’t need to sit on that lousy bench. You’ll get splashed. Come on over here. You can study at my desk.”
Leah popped up and hooked her backpack over her shoulder. She couldn’t suppress a smile.
For weeks, she’d been trying to stop hurting herself. She’d found loads of stuff online—more than she could read—and she’d tested out each thing that had helped another kid. First, she’d cut deep ridges into the underside of her desk, hoping that pressing down hard, breaking the grain of the wood would be enough. She’d tried dropping red food coloring into a glass of water and watching as it diluted to pink. An online forum had counseled her: “Envision your skin as the skin of someone you cherish.” The only person Leah could think of was Esther Williams. Pathetic. A Hollywood star no one her age even knew had existed.
Leah wanted to open her box of supplies in front of an adult who would understand. She made a sentence inside her head: “I use these.” But she couldn’t say it aloud, not even behind the closed door of her own room.
In the past few weeks, Leah had dreamed up dark possibilities, a way out that would unfold all on its own, a way that would not require her to speak up or to have a friend who would speak up for her. She would bring about an infection on purpose. She’d find another tool, something in the drawers of her father’s old office. Even if her mother noticed her riffling through her the cabinets, she could say she needed something for a school project. Her mother was just that easy to throw off, just that slow to catch on. Leah would not sterilize the point with her matches. She would not clean the marks it made with hydrogen peroxide or soothe them with Neosporin.
It would take several days, she’d heard from a girl at school who’d done it, for the puffiness to start, for the pus to gather, the red streaks to appear. Once the infection set in, she might even run a high fever that would send her to the school infirmary. The nurse in her crisp white dress and shoes would dial the library desk where Leah’s mother worked. The nurse’s voice, kind and sure like Kevin’s, would break the news, “Leah is ill. You need to come and collect her.” It was an expression that had fascinated Leah the few times she’d gotten sick at school: “Come and collect her.” How do you collect a person?
“I’ve got fifteen minutes till I start my aquatots class,” Kevin said as Leah approached his office. “You’re welcome to my cushy chair. And if you want a break from that stupid volleyball, I’ll text your counselor.” How had Kevin remembered her frustration with never getting to the ball in time to save it from hitting the ground? “I’ll just say I needed your help,” he said.
Leah had not felt so singled out, so cared for, since Kevin had placed the Dolphin band around her neck.
Kevin’s office, adjacent to the deep end with the diving boards, had a plate glass window that allowed him to keep an eye on things. “I’ve got to remove some lane markers. Make yourself comfortable,” he said, pulling his chair out from under his desk and pushing a few books aside to clear space for Leah.
When he walked away, Leah ran her hands over the fake leather seat. There was a warm scooped out place where he’d been sitting, and Leah settled herself inside of it. She watched through the window as Kevin unhooked the ropes on which the lane buoys floated. When he moved on to picking up kickboards from around the pool, she checked out one of the books lying open on his desk, Every Baby a Swimmer.
The photos inside seemed unreal. In one, a baby, maybe a year old at most, was all the way under the water, his eyes wide open, his mother’s hand guiding, possibly even pushing him through an underwater hoola hoop. The chapter she’d flipped to was called “Submarines All” and it described “submarine day,” when all the parents and babies go under together. Kevin had highlighted a whole section with a bright yellow marker. Leah’s eyes raced across the words: The baby is held close with his head pressed against your neck so that as you sink, the water does not rush up his nose, but flows in a swirl along your body. Leah was certain the water would go up the baby’s nose anyway.
On a yellow legal pad, Leah spotted notes in Kevin’s neat handwriting: Read the Intro to The Baby Swim Book, the passage about Polynesian women from Melville’s Typee. Leah saw a bookmark sticking out of the second book and flipped it open to a page where two dark-skinned, bare-breasted women with enormous nipples sat in the water holding their babies, their faces mostly hidden by floppy round hats.
Kevin had seen this picture of the women with their saggy boobs? And this book with topless pictures sat right here on his desk at the Y, next to the boxes of swim bands and the rosters of afterschool kids? This, Leah reassured herself, was a different kind of topless.
Beneath the photos of the dark-skinned women a long caption appeared in tiny print. Leah had to bring her face down to the page to read it. More than a century ago in his novel Typee, Herman Melville described with amazement the sight of a Polynesian mother teaching her newborn to swim: “No wonder that the South Sea Islanders are so amphibious a race, when they are thus launched into the water as soon as they see the light.”
Leah pressed a hand against her own chest. She closed the book. Could a baby really be hatched at the bottom of a pool of water and rise to the surface to find its mother? Could coming into the world ever be so easy? Leah imagined a race of amphibious people, toddlers who never wore water wings, middle schoolers who did not have to pass off ranks at the Aquatics Center, people who were born Flying Fish or Dolphins, people who swallowed water but did not drown.
Kevin popped his head in the office. “You okay in here?”
Leah lifted her face and felt her cheeks grow warm. “I’m checking out your baby swim books,” she said.
“Oh, those. Pretty amazing, huh?” Kevin stacked the books and notes to carry out to his class.
“I guess.” She hesitated. “More scary than amazing.”
“Till you see it work,” Kevin said. “You’ll just have to stay tuned. This particular class is new. But in a few weeks, they’ll all be going under.”
Out on the pool deck, mothers in their modest suits perched on a blue sponge kickboards, their babies in their laps.
“Hang around. They won’t even notice you’re in here,” Kevin said.
A few minutes later, Kevin began to teach, and the mothers stared at him. When he described the physical affection babies get in the water, the eye contact, the sense of being securely held, he no longer sounded like the guy who blew the whistle and yelled, Clear the pool Buddy check. As he read about the Polynesian women in the water, those words felt like a soothing song Leah wanted to believe: the delighted mother reaching out her hands, swooping her baby from the water before it could choke.
Leah stood at the plate glass window watching the mothers lower themselves into the water. The toned bodies of aerobics instructors, the flabby tummies and thighs of non-athletes, the beautiful breasts with deep cleavages, the saggy breasts with foldy skin, fashionable swimsuits pretty enough for water ballet, maternity suits stretched and faded and filling up with pockets of water. It did not matter. Leah would have taken any one of these women, or let them take her.
In a little pack, the ladies advanced down the pool’s slope, cooing to their trusting infants as Kevin instructed them. They walked through the shallow-end—first thigh deep, then waist deep, then chest deep—each baby nestled creature-like against its mother’s chest. At the five-foot mark, Kevin said, “Now bob up and down. Feel your shoulders get wet, but keep all heads above water. Your babies will discover safety. Each time you go down with them, you come back up together.”
Leah stood, transfixed, feeling her own smallness.
On website after website, she had read the direction: Tell someone. Leah had practiced aloud, “Please, stop me,” hoping those words would make other words come.
Out in the pool, the babies burrowed into their mothers’ bosoms.
Leah put her hand on her throat and spoke just above a whisper. Lover of water. Lover of place. She felt the vibrations in her voice box.
Kevin would be finished soon and would come to her. Leah would give up her seat at his desk and claim the smaller chair nearby. He would settle in, surrounded by all the baby swim books. Leah would claim the smaller chair nearby. She could stay all afternoon if she needed to, ignoring routines, waiting for her words to come. She wouldn’t leave until the carpool line had formed, until Kevin knew and could deliver her to her mother.