Image: “Endurances #3,” by Marc Cohen, pen/ink on paper, 2018, 11×8.5 in.
By Stanley Delgado
Mom told Wendel it was like swimming in saliva, it was so warm; he would love it—absolutely love the pool. She knew he was on summer vacation, so he couldn’t say no. “See,” Mom said, “how hard things are always worth it?”
Last year, Mom had taken Wendel out to help her look for a new place. She wanted, she told him, just a place with a pool and a view. That was it. But she also spent a lot of time talking about chakras and auras. “There’s a thousand things that can move you. You know, body-and soul-wise,” she had said. “Like, are the bedroom windows facing the sun going up or coming down? That kind of stuff.”
But after Mom couldn’t find a place cheap or nearby enough, she gave up, started traveling, and devoted herself full-time to her body. Dad kept him up to date with her. Here she was at the small-circuit IFBB competitions in Venice. Santa Monica. Coconut Creek and Miami. Flexing and posing in differently colored and styled wigs, super shiny but self-contained, like a glowstick. Mom with arms the size of Wendel’s thighs. In some pictures, she stretched out and looked like a perfect letter X.
That year, she had sent him a t-shirt with a little decal of revolvers on it and bold text that read: Are These Legal? Arrows pointed out to the sleeves; the back of the shirt spelled out International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness. The shirt had been too small for Wendel. Lovelovelove you, her note ended.
A week ago, Mom phoned him. “Guess who?” she said. And she told him about the pool and everything. “You can meet Hanna too.” She clicked her tongue like a gun-cock. Wendel had seen those pictures—mom holding up trophies and hugging another woman.
Wendel said okay. He had only swum once before, back when he was seven and a kid in class threw a pool party. Everyone had dared each other to see who could hold their breath the longest. Wendel held his breath for twenty-two seconds and impressed everyone there, all the girls and the adults, too. Maybe he could beat his record again.
He packed lightly and studied himself in the mirror, wearing old swimming trunks and no shirt. The trunks were a tighter fit, and he bobbed up and down on his toes, watching himself jiggle. He never noticed how much his body did that. If he looked at his stomach a certain way, it looked like Donkey Kong’s face—nipples for eyes and a wide belly button for a mouth. His ears got hot. Wendel took a deep breath and sucked in. His stomach wasn’t so big when he did that.
He stuffed his post-it notes in his pocket—his summer homework before going into fifth grade. They were kind of like a vacation diary, but instead of writing his day down, he was supposed to write questions on post-it notes. Things about his day. And then the class, in the fall, would stick all of them on the whiteboard, unsigned, and everyone would see how similar they were to everyone else.
Like for that moment, for example, Wendel wrote: Do you feel bad when good things happen? Like to be safe? Do you also sometimes see faces in furniture and stuff?
Mom came to pick him up in a roomy black car, and Dad waved bye from the living room window.
Mom’s new apartments were way out in Blythe, a town Wendel had never even heard of before. The whole way over there, Mom talked about how she was a personal trainer now, about the silver and bronze medals and the gold ones in the future. Once they got out of L.A. and the sun started to go down, he didn’t know what to ask, so he pretended to fall asleep. The trick to sound like you were asleep was to breathe deep and make it sound like the ocean.
Once they got into Blythe, he got up and looked out at the dark and wide streets, the empty sidewalks.
“It’s like living on the moon, huh?” Mom said. “Cielito. Look at how many stars you can see.”
All of last year, Mom talked and talked about a place with a view, but everything out here was so flat. L.A. had beaches and big buildings and a purple night sky. Blythe had nothing, and people didn’t mind living in it.
Do you sometimes feel bad for bad things you say about other people in your head? Like, as soon as you think something real bad-bad, all of a sudden, you see all the good in them.
The person Mom wanted Wendel to meet was Alejandra, who went by Hanna. She was waiting for them at the entrance to the apartments, and she stuck her hand out for Wendel to shake. He noticed her eyes looked like she had just finished laughing from a good joke. “Hey, there,” she said.
They walked through the apartment’s plaza. Hanna eyed him while she talked with Mom about the drive in.
The blue of the pool shined through the little potted palm trees and onto the apartment windows. The pool had small lights built into its frame underwater, so it glowed a fake blue, like magic spells in anime.
“They keep it warm till like two a.m. We can go in if you want,” Hanna said.
Wendel gripped his backpack tighter around his shoulder. There were a man and a woman in the pool already. The man had his arms stretched out on the rim while the woman swam low around him, looking up into his face.
“I don’t know,” Mom said. “Don’t want to bother those two.” Mom whistled like the movies. The woman stood up straight, and the man whistled back the same way.
Don’t you think men/boys and women/girls kind of look the same? Like if you look really super close.
Upstairs in the apartment, they turned on the hallway light, and moths scribbled around.
“Hey, look at this.” Hanna clapped, and a lamp in the living room blinked on.
He could see the rest of the place. It was wide and roomy with a balcony; the view was too dark to make out. There was a big leather couch in front of a widescreen and unpacked cardboard boxes.
“Is he hungry?” Hanna asked Mom. “Hey, you hungry?”
Wendel was but didn’t want to say it. Mom looked tired and like she was going to answer for him anyway.
“He said he ate with his daddy already.”
“That was like, what? Four hours ago?” Hanna took Wendel’s backpack and hung it on a door hook.
“I’m okay,” Wendel said. “I ate with my dad four hours ago.”
Hanna found that funny. “Okay. Whatever you say.”
“Do you want to sleep on the bed or the couch?” Mom asked.
“He can take the bed,” Hanna said.
Wendel fell asleep looking at the popcorn ceiling of the bedroom. There were classrooms back in school that were all destroyed because they had this type of ceilings. This type of ceilings hurt the lungs; they had pieces of glass so small, it was like inhaling real dangerous glitter. That was what the school said.
Wendel woke up early in the morning. He went out into the living room and past Mom and Hanna asleep on the couch without any covers, using each other’s arms and legs like blankets. He looked out the balcony window, and the view was so rocky and dusty. It looked like how he imagined the dry nostril looked like when the other one was all runny. But he could see the sunrise, so maybe this was the view Mom really did want.
Do you ever see things like other people? Being in their shoes/skin and “walking a mile in it”? I think you should at least walk a few feet in it. Or like wiggle your toes and see how the shoe fits. That at least. Yes/no?
Breakfast was greasy stuff from a diner down the block—for Wendel and Hanna—and a protein shake for Mom. Hanna whistled in the shower. Mom downed her shake and wiped her mouth with her big t-shirt.
“This is stuff I’m supposed to take for a sponsorship, you know?” Mom said, sucking in her stomach to burp. “I take it for a year, and I’m supposed to post pictures on my blog, on the Facebook thing. You know, just show people it works.”
Wendel ate his eggs slower. He poked the egg yolk without popping it. “So it does work?” he asked.
Mom thought aloud, smashing a moth with a clap. “I think so. Either way, I have to work out. You know, like if in case it doesn’t work, I still have to get bigger. Like buying stuff because the way they look on the mannequin, except I’m the mannequin.”
“How is it like that?”
Hanna came in from the shower, wrapped tight in towels. She sat on the leather couch, crossed her wet and shiny legs, and started to clip her toenails. Wendel’s ears got hot.
“I’ma go shower,” Mom said. “Eat your food.” She pinched one of his ears.
When you eat chicken, you can grab a thigh and point to a living chicken and say, “That is the thigh.” But not with egg yolks. How close-related are yolks and chicken babies? 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0. Pick how close you think.
Hanna called Wendel into the living room, and he brought her a box of the greasy diner stuff. She tore off big bits of the toast. “God, if I ate all this, I’d sink straight down into the pool.” She picked up a corner of her towel to wipe her mouth.
“I think you’d float,” he said, “because it’s so heavy. It’s like a ball in your stomach. It’s something about the volume and density.”
Hanna laughed. “Smart,” she said. She flipped through the TV’s channels quickly before tossing over the remote. “Shy people are always the smart ones, huh?” she said, digging a little more into her food.
Wendel stole a glance at her; she was grinning at the TV. He hesitated a little before speaking. “Dumb. That’s not true.”
“Which part? That you’re not shy or that you’re not smart?”
“I’m just saying shy people aren’t always smart, I think is all.”
Hanna cackled. “Every shy person I ever met is smart. You know dumb shy people?”
“Yeah, a lot.”
“Well. There was this kid in my last class. Ezra Trapp? And one time, we had like a project to do together about the rainforest. So we went to my house, and we were cutting up construction paper, and he got hungry. I told him he could get a TV dinner, and he was like, ‘What’s that?’ I told him it was the freezer food for the microwave. And so he went to the kitchen and then he was like, ‘This stuff inside plastic boxes?’ And I told him yeah and said to poke a few holes in it before putting it in the microwave. Then all of a sudden, I hear, like, banging noises, and I go to the kitchen, and Ezra’s standing there with a big knife. He’s stabbing the food… like, he was trying to stab holes in the food and not the plastic. And he never says anything in class, so…”
Hanna was laughing. “Aw, Ezra Trapp,” she said, like they were talking about a sad puppy. “It’s not that dumb, though. He never ate TV dinners, plus you told him to poke holes without saying in what.”
“Everyone eats TV dinners.”
“Not Ezra Trapp. Maybe only super-smart people like you eat it. Supers-mart sciencey people.”
“I’m not either, though. I don’t even like science.”
“Really? You don’t wanna grow up and be NASA or something?”
“NASA is like a group. You can’t be a group.”
“Very smart, see? What would you wanna do, then? When you grow up and everything and go to college.”
“I don’t know. But drawing, I think. For videogames or comics or… One time, I went to a beach, and there was a guy drawing people. Except with big heads, like cartoons.”
“Caricatures? You want to draw those?”
Wendel smiled and nodded.
“You should draw me sometime.”
How do you tell even if someone is smart/dumb? Is there a type of math problem? Especially one to see if you are both?
Outside, people were splashing and shouting. It was 11 a.m., and it was going to get hotter. Wendel and Hanna were watching some kind of Hollywood-insider show when Mom came in, her waist and bald head wrapped with towels.
Mom sat down next to Hanna and flung one end of the towel over her shoulder; the scar where her left breast used to be was a bit yellow and crooked like a smile. Mom was looking down her nose at it, unscrewing the cap of some aloe vera gel and squeezing it on.
“Hey,” Hanna whispered, pointing an elbow at Wendel.
Mom didn’t even look up at him. “He’s seen it a thousand times.”
Hanna looked at him, and he nodded. He was in second grade when Mom got the surgery. He used to watch her clean up and take out the sutures.
“Itchy as heck,” Mom said, rubbing the aloe vera in deep. “Are you gonna take a shower?” she asked Wendel.
“We’re going to the pool, though.”
Hanna laughed. “He has a point. California’s in a drought and all that drama.”
“Nasty,” Mom said. “Go change, then.” Mom slapped at her chest; she squeezed her hand into a fist, and it sent a ripple of vein and muscle through her arm. “I don’t really think this protein shake works.”
Hanna pointed at the TV screen. “Hey, look. It’s that thing I told you about. The guy in Uganda with the child soldiers.”
“I think this protein shake is just pure sugar and caffeine. Jesus.”
Hanna turned up the volume. “So scary.”
Mom stood and told Hanna they should go get dressed, the pool was waiting.
Which one do you get when you are embarrassed—itchy or sweaty? Or red “like a tomato”?
Outside, he realized how bigger Blythe’s sky was. It was like a perfect blue dome, no buildings or powerlines. Mom and Wendel walked down together while Hanna changed. Mom was wearing shorts, a tanktop, and a baseball hat.
There were whole families out in the pool. A large guy with tattoos floated with a baby, and older women sat on the rim, splashing their feet, baking under the sun, and filling the air with the smell of coconut and bleach. But it was the littler kids Wendel was paying attention to the most—the ones near his age. They played so crazy in the pool that the water looked like boiling soup. Walking closer, he could feel how much his body wasn’t totally his; there were parts that looked bigger than they felt—the parts that jiggled every step he took. The kids were all skin and bones, and he couldn’t shake the image of them kissing and being boyfriend/girlfriend. Wendel crossed his arms and sucked in a big deep breath, but the shirt clung like a mask to his Donkey Kong stomach. His tight trunks made it hard to walk right.
He noticed most people were looking at Mom, though. The breast she was missing. The muscles bigger than any man’s there. The parents looked once, mouthed a greeting at her, and looked back at each other. The kids were a bit meaner; they widened their eyes and pointed with their chins, letting everyone know. Look. But Mom walked on, stretching an arm and rubbing Wendel’s neck.
Some littler kids ran in from the front door with ice cream cones, and he heard the ice cream truck jingle. “Can we get ice cream before we go in?” he asked.
And Mom said, “Sure, if you want.”
If you don’t get red, itchy, or sweaty, maybe you get stomachaches when you’re embarrassed? Because there is also that option.
While they were in line for the ice cream truck, Mom asked Wendel what he thought about Hanna.
“I like her. She’s cool.”
“Cool is good.”
Wendel looked down the wide avenue, apartment complexes the color of teeth badly brushed. There was a major highway just over a dead hill, filled with speeding eighteen-wheelers, and the rush of traffic sent off a breeze. The line moved.
“How did you meet her?” he asked.
Mom smiled, scrunched her nose. “She was one of the people I met in the hospital. Like a counselor, kind of. And I thought she looked like this girl I knew when I was younger, so I was like, ‘Diana? From Alameda?’ And obviously, it turned out she wasn’t, but then we got to being friends.”
“And then we stayed friends for a long time.” Mom looked down at him and answered before he asked. “And then we started what we are now.” Mom made the sound of a toy gun cocking—click-click.
It was their turn. He asked for strawberry shortcake, but the ice cream man said he only had three flavors. He got vanilla.
“Why don’t you get strawberry?” Mom asked.
“I don’t like the taste if it doesn’t have the shortcake part,” Wendel said.
Mom asked if the ice cream man at least had raspado.
“Don’t know what that is,” he said. “Only three flavors. Sorry.”
They walked back to the apartments. Mom said she couldn’t have anything super sugary like that, and how hard could raspado be? It was just ice and flavoring.
“He’d get more money with raspado,” Mom said. “It doesn’t expire like milk. I mean, really, how hard could it be?”
The splash and clop of the pool grew closer. Wendel at the ice cream slowly. It was like he was wearing August as a uniform, it was so hot.
“Did Hanna and Diana ever meet?” he asked.
“Oh, no. Diana died in a car accident back when I was like nineteen, I think.” Mom laughed.
The same kids were still in the pool.
“But… I don’t get it,” Wendel started. “If she was dead, why did you think Hanna was Diana? Why did you even talk to her?”
“Because she looked like Diana from Alameda. Maybe it was a ghost.”
Closer to the pool, Wendel saw himself the way the kids must have. Fat little dude with a melting ice cream cone about to get in the pool—a fact—and with a mom who was only so far away from looking like an action figure. He saw Hanna was in the pool already, floating lazily and facing the sky; the men sucked in their stomachs and puffed out their chests. The women sitting on the rim talked. The kids were shouting, and he could only make out the basest syllables—ah-oh-ee-yu.
“C’mon, take off your shirt,” Mom said. “You gotta put sunblock on.”
“I’m eating my ice cream,” he said. “I’ll put it on when I finish.”
The girls were looking at the backflip-boy and shouted at him; Wendel couldn’t tell if the girls were mad or happy, though. But the backflip-boy was happy.
The backflip-boy and the girls sank deeper into the water, and their hands disappeared.
“I’ll go a little later. I want to finish the ice cream.”
The backflip-boy and the girls went deeper inside the bigger crowd of kids. The big splashes were like brief, wet wings.
“Wendel.” Mom said that one louder.
Everyone in the pool turned to look at him.
“Wendel. Take off your shirt. Come on.”
He launched the ice cream cone at Mom’s feet, and it splattered white up to her legs with a soft crunch. The people in the pool stayed quiet or said, “Oof.” Mom did nothing. Wendel didn’t even look her in the face as he stomped away and climbed up the stairs back into the apartment.
If you were on a desert island, which kind of ice cream would you have till the end of time: vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate? You cannot have all three (neapolitan).
Upstairs, Wendel watched TV for what felt like forever. Neither Mom nor Hanna followed him, and as soon as he got up into the room, the sounds of the pool continued like nothing happened.
Wendel flipped through the channels. Steve Harvey came on—bald, with a mustache and a smile that looked like he was smuggling starlight in his mouth. He said that everyone in the audience at home should listen to his grandmother’s advice. “If you gonna walk to the moon and back for someone, make damn sure you got some comfy shoes.”
The audience cheered and said, “Say it!”
Steve Harvey then said, “Sometimes, you don’t got to Straighten Up and Fly Right. Sometimes, you just got to Straighten Up and go right to the bathroom.” The audience laughed.
Mom used to work in TV. Makeup and stuff. Before she got sick and all. Wendel went to a live taping of a sitcom once. The family didn’t talk to each other when the cameras weren’t rolling, and there was a red sign that would blink on sometimes—applause. The guy in charge of the audience kept reminding them with every new take, “When you hear a joke, pretend like it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard.”
Dad had been the one who took Wendel to Mom’s first competition at a dirty beach where people smoked stuff that smelled funny. Venice Beach Amateur Bikini 2010. All this happened after the big fight when Mom had already been healthy again for a year, when she got angry and punched a hole in the wall and Dad said, “Like I can’t?” Then Dad swung into the wall and broke his hand, and they all went to the emergency room.
There was a big crowd at the beach, kids on parent’s shoulders and all. Mom was the smallest one competing. She didn’t have the thick veins like all the others, and it was kind of obvious she was wearing a wig. Whispers tore their way through the crowd when they saw one of her swimsuit’s breast cups was flapping in the wind, empty.
Mom didn’t win. They didn’t even know where she ranked because halfway through her posing, the announcer said, “After a year since going into remission, y’all please give her one more big round of applause. The biggest y’all can do. Let’s see it.”
And Mom took off her wig and stormed away.
Dad and Wendel caught her backstage, and Dad treated her to a fish-and-chips place nearby.
Mom was too angry to eat. “I told Jerry, I literally told him, literally specifically, to not mention that shit. Like I needed fucking pity applause.”
Dad and Wendel ate a bit. After finishing, Dad said, “Hey, you know, I was thinking about the house and everything. And I just think it’s been so empty, and if you wanted to, you could maybe —”
And Mom cut him off and told him about her plans to travel for a while. Compete in other contests.
“How?” Dad said. “With who?”
Mom smiled like those questions were gold.
Mom and Hanna finally came back by sunset, wearing shorts over their bathing suits and carrying oily plastic bags. Wendel stared at the TV, waiting for a word about anything, but Mom just said they brought food—oysters and crab legs.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Hanna said. “Seafood like a thousand miles away from a sea. And that’s what I’d be thinking too, if it wasn’t so actually freaking good.”
He watched them set the table. That was not what he was thinking about at all.
“I don’t think I ever tried oysters,” Wendel said.
“Well, you’ll try them now.” Mom laughed.
How do you tell if oysters are alive or dead? Have you seen the video of a clam walking with its tongue? You should watch it if no. It’s on YouTube.
They were all eating, talking a little. Wendel stayed away from the oysters and focused on cracking his crab legs so he wouldn’t eat bits of exoskeleton.
“You know,” Mom said, “you could come with me when I work out.” She was looking at her food, but Wendel knew she was talking to him.
“Hey!” Hanna whispered and something thumped under the table.
“What? I’m just saying, is all. If you have something to be, you know, embarrassed about, you can…” Mom trailed off and chewed. “You shouldn’t walk around all, like, inyourself, you know? Arms crossed and all. It’s not good to walk around like that. And if there’s any way you can help it, you should.” Mom looked at Hanna, whose brows were raised. “That’s all I’m saying.”
“Sure, but he doesn’t have to be a bodybuilder or anything,” Hanna said.
“I’m not saying that.”
“And if he’s comfortable with how he is,” Hanna said, “then… you know.”
“I’m saying that too.”
“It’s okay,” Wendel said, “I can go. To see you and stuff. When you work out.” He looked at Mom and Hanna; both seemed surprised.
“See?” Mom said.
He knew just because he said it, it didn’t mean anything. It was being nice, was all.
“Well, make sure you still stick with drawing,” Hanna said.
“Drawing? Drawing what?” Mom got some oysters and put them on Wendel’s plate. “Get some.”
“He told me today he’d like to draw when he gets to college. For videogames. Comics.”
“Oh?” Mom said. “You never told me anything about that. I’ve never even seen you draw anything.”
“I think it would be cool,” he said, trying to figure out how to eat the oyster—from what angle.
“So you got superheroes?” Mom said. “Batman, Superman, that kind of thing?”
“He said he wanted to do caricatures.” Hanna raised her brows at Wendel.
“What’s that?” Mom asked.
“I can do superheroes, too,” Wendel said. He got a fork and tried to pry the oyster out of the shell.
“Just use your mouth. Suck it out.”
“Like, so what are your ideas for superheroes, then?” Hanna asked.
Wendel smiled. “For one I have, his name is Solar Shot Cannon.”
“Solar Shot Cannon Man,” Mom repeated slowly.
“No, just Solar Shot Cannon.”
“What does he do?” Hanna asked.
“Well, he used to work in like a power plant, I think? And one day, he got trapped in front of some solar panels—”
“Jesus,” Mom said.
“Yeah, and he got trapped, and it burned him so bad that it gave him superpowers.”
“Christ,” Mom finished.
“Yeah, and his power is that he has like one super powerful blast that he shoots out of his mouth.”
“Nice,” Hanna said.
“But the thing is that the blast is so powerful that if he shoots it, he basically turns into a star. So he’d blow up the entire world if he shot it. So the whole thing about him is that he has to stop the bad guys by talking to them? Like, he’ll have to be, like, ‘Hey, stop robbing this bank, or I will destroy this entire planet. Don’t make me do it.’” Wendel bit his lip; he had never said the whole thing aloud like that. He sucked the oyster down, and it tasted like the ocean. He had to shut his eyes to swallow it.
“Your face!” Hanna laughed and squeezed a lemon onto the other oysters on his plate. “Try it like that.”
“So he just talks to the bad guys?” Mom rubbed an eye.
The oyster tasted better. “Yeah,” he said, “he convinces them to not be bad anymore, or else he kills everyone.”
“How does he know he has the power to shoot the star thing anyway?” Mom pressed.
“I don’t know. He just does.”
“No, see, you have to think about that. Or else it sounds fake.”
“It’s already fake,” Hanna said.
“Sun Solar Man sounds like a big liar, is what I’m hearing.”
“I don’t know the story yet, but I like drawing him. So…” Wendel shrugged.
“Exactly,” Hanna said. “De said he likes drawing, not writing.”
“You should make a superhero out of me,” Mom said. “Instead of a big liar who doesn’t even know if he has superpowers. I have superpowers.” Mom flexed; it was like dozens of tiny pebbles were buried under her skin. “Supermujer. Supercabrona. You come up with the name.”
Wendel ate another oyster; they were dead, obviously, not moving and all, but in his mouth, they were so slimy, it was like they were squirming back to life.
Hanna picked at her teeth with the sharp edge of an oyster shell. “I wish I took some art classes back in college. Would’ve been cool.”
“What do you do?” Wendel asked, polite. He was paying attention to his own oyster shell, the jagged and sharp edges.
“She’s a counselor,” Mom said.
“Majored in psychology, minored in child development,” Hanna said.
“So you talk about dreams and stuff?” The oyster shell was the color of a dirty tiger. “With kids?”
“No.” Hanna smiled to herself. “We don’t really do that.”
“That’s what I thought they did too,” Mom said.
“I mean, will we talk about dreams if someone wants to? Sure.”
Wendel turned the shell around and noticed how the lightbulb from the ceiling fan painted rainbows on it. There was this movie he saw once, where some guy in a suit was eating oysters and talking crazy, slurping them down all violent.
“But just the fact that a patient wants to talk about dreams is way more interesting. Like it makes me wonder if they look at their horoscope every day too.”
The guy in the movie then cut his mouth.
“Yeah, but dreams mean things, though,” Mom said.
“God.” Hanna smiled at Wendel. “Just like a Capricorn. Always wanna win, right?”
Wendel laughed but didn’t really know at what. The guy in the movie started bleeding, and he kept eating the oysters, laughing the whole time. Wendel pressed a thumb against the edge of the shell, and it was like very small, sharp teeth.
“Hey, well my horoscope said it was going to be a good day. So, you know, as far as I can tell…” Mom shrugged, and Hanna laughed.
Wendel put the oyster shell to his mouth. A pool of lemon juice and salt washing the inside of it was calling his name.
“Well, if my horoscope,” Hanna started, “says it’s gonna be a bad day, does that mean the day cancels out and becomes like a boring day? Does, you know, that mean that—hey. I think you’re bleeding.”
Mom and Hanna were looking at Wendel. The lemon juice and salt had stung, he noticed. And his lower lip felt wet and hot inside and outside.
“How the hell?” Mom said.
Wendel looked at the shell, and the blood in there was a loud red.
Do you ever feel ugly? If you do, then I do too. If you don’t, then I don’t. Yes No. Pick one.
Wendel sat at the edge of the pool’s deep end, swirling his feet around in the anime water. There was no one around, and the air conditioners in every window chugged. He held a dishrag soaked in pool water up to his mouth. When Mom and Hanna saw the cut was deeper than they thought, they realized they didn’t have any hydrogen peroxide or alcohol, so they went outside with a clean dishrag.
“It’s got bleach, I mean. That’s something.” Mom had dunked the dishrag under and wrung out the water. “Here, let me see where the cut is.”
“I guess this isn’t a bad idea,” Hanna said and didn’t finish the thought.
“It’s got bleach,” Mom said again.
Wendel winced when the pool water found his cut, and Mom smiled an apology.
The blue of the pool danced around on the apartment’s walls every time Wendel swished his feet.
“This,” Hanna said, “looks really, really nice.” She slipped out of her shorts and dove in head-first; a big plume of water sprayed out.
Mom said, “It really, really does.” She ran back upstairs, saying she’d change for the pool.
The pool water burned the cut but in a good, medicine way.
Hanna was a vague, dark, fishlike shape swimming under the water till she popped out at the other end of the pool. She did backstrokes, swimming back toward Wendel. He looked around at the palm trees and clear night sky.
“This sucks,” he said, the dishrag still in his mouth.
“What’d you say? Thith thuckth?” Hanna laughed and broke the spell of her backstroke; she sank deeper, and her leg splashed through the surface of the water. She swam closer to Wendel. “So why’d you get mad today?” she said, biting back a smile.
“I mean, it was funny.” She cackled. “I heard your mom’s voice get all deep and loud, and I looked over, and splat. Freaking ice cream all over her legs, God. And you just marched away, your arms all high like a little soldier.”
Wendel laughed a little too. “Dumb,” he said.
“Why’d you get mad?”
Wendel tried to balance the soles of his feet on the surface of the water, trying to get it just so that it’d look like the water was harder than it looked, like he was walking on it.
“Hey.” Hanna struck the water with her palm and sent a wave at him. “You getting mad now?” She sent another wave, higher.
“No. Are you, like, doing child psychology on me?”
Hanna shook her head, grinning. “Nope. Child psychology would be like”—Hanna splashed him again—“like if I gave you some toys and just watched you play.”
Wendel looked at the apartment windows facing them. They were all shut.
“It’s obvious,” he said, removing the dishrag.
“Well, it’s not obvious if you don’t say it.”
There was a deep ringing noise behind Wendel, feet clambering down. Hanna’s eyes followed something down the stairs, and she opened her mouth like she was pulling out a laugh from somewhere deep. “You should say it, like, real soon.”
Just as Wendel began to speak, big arms grabbed him from under the armpits and lifted him up into the air. He took a big breath just before plunging down into the water, and it was so deep that he felt his legs wriggle at the pool’s floor, trying to find footing. The water flooded his mouth and nose, and through stinging eyes, he could see the blue-white-green of the pool; the shock of the water was so potent, it didn’t feel like he was wet, just surrounded by warm, soft noise—saliva. It was over just as quick. The same arms locked themselves under his armpits again and lifted him up to the surface, making him weightless for a moment before pulling him out of the water and holding him high in the air. He heard Hanna shouting so full and loud, and he could feel Mom’s arms holding him tight-tight, and through his back, he could feel the laughter under her ribs. He stopped holding his breath and let it out.
Do you know how to swim?