The Shark and the Minnow
They offer him up to me like a lamb for the slaughter, and because he thinks he’s a martyr he just endures it, barely struggling as one of them holds his head stiff and the other two hold his arms, all of them treading water and me just trying to reach them slowly.
They all have dark eyes and hair and the indistinct shape of high school boys; they could be easily mistaken for each other by someone who didn’t know them, and they often are. They shout for me, “Come and get him,” “He’s all yours,” and I feel my face go hot because they know; that’s why it’s him they’re holding for me instead of someone easier or smaller and the smiles on their faces dare me to deny it.
I am the shark and he is the minnow, much bigger than me in this artificial ocean, and I know have to catch someone for this game to be over but they all swim away so fast. I’m desperate for it to be anyone but him, I’ve never wanted it to be him, but they’re holding him there for me and he’s not struggling, so I have to go to him, I have to let him save me from floundering.
Wet hair sticks to my face and chlorine clouds my vision as I reach out with my hand, withered from the water I’ve been struggling to keep out of my mouth and as I touch his head they let him go and the water calms around us all.
“Finally,” one of them says and swims toward the side of the pool where the other girls are sitting, long since bored with the game.
As small children we played a game pretending to all be siblings. After school when someone’s mom picked us up in a van that smelled like stale french-fries we’d pick names and favorite colors, and beg whoever was driving to stop by a store so we could play pretend. The fun was in making people believe something that wasn’t true, but I realize now they never had a reason to believe otherwise.
I told them before we started that I’m a horrible swimmer, even though they’d known already just as well as they know I hate the taste of licorice but they still wanted to play anyways. Once I got tagged I figured they’d just get tired of swimming past me round after round and call off the game. Instead they had to make a big scene out of forcing him to lose to me, making me touch him, making him save me from floundering, and I want to hate them for it, but I can’t because they’ve never had a reason to believe otherwise.
Surrounded by vague mountain outlines the pool feels like the bottom of a bowl, and I can’t help wanting to be wandering through them alone instead of in this lukewarm pool with people who think they know. It’s hard to remember when they began to know – I’ve known these people as long as I’ve known that m summer comes after spring every year but there must have been a time when I w asn’t embarrassed by the smiles suggesting things I don’t want to believe about myself.
We grew up together on sidewalks and in backyards, damp from the humid air of late summer and the rain that waits in the clouds like a scream in someone’s chest. We crawled under porches together and rolled down hills with our arms tucked in our shirts, we became itchy from all the grass and had to scrub three-times as hard in the bathtub to soothe the skin. We know each other by our shadows and the way our feet fall in the dark, we know who is sick the most often and who is best at tying knots. We know all of these things about each other, and so it’s easy for them to all assume they know this about me, too.
But I don’t like pools. I don’t like swimming. I don’t like one-piece swimsuits and I don’t like the way cracked concrete feels under pruny feet. I don’t like feeling indignant, but I am often, because they believe what they don’t really know. I thought since they’ve known me all these fourteen years that they might have understood me better.
“Helen,” someone shouts as I’m still trying to recover my breathing.
“Categories or Marco Polo?”
They’re all in the pool again, moving around in the water like colorful pieces of plastic and I’m drifting toward the edge, away from the currents created by their bodies.
“I’m done, guys…” I say as I try to lift myself out.
“Sorry, I’m not used to swimming so much,” I try to laugh a little but my arms are weak and I don’t know if it’s just from the swimming.
“Well obviously,” one of the boys says. He used to have pale skin but every summer more freckles fill him like a canvas. “But it’s not like there’s anything else to do, so categories or Marco Polo?”
There are eyes on my body as I stand dripping on the pavement and I know that they’re his. I wonder if anyone can tell that I’m afraid.
“No, really, I think I’m gonna go take a nap,” I say and wrap myself in a towel, covering shapes and lines that I wish weren’t appealing.
“Lame, Helen, very lame,” someone says, splashing a little water my way. I know who’s speaking by their voice and I remember when he learned to pour milk from a gallon jug.
“Yeah well it’s my vacation, too, dumbass,” I say. “And I was up early. So suck it, I’m taking a nap.”
“Whatever,” one of the boys says and I think about the time he helped me get laundry off the line when it started raining but I know he’s not thinking about the same thing because he turns around and forgets I’m there.
Hannah asks me to bring her shirt in off the porch when I go back to the cabin and I say sure, trying to make leaving alone less awkward. Hannah cried the first night she slept over at my house – she was scared there was something in the closet but it was only the cat playing with strings hanging off the dresses I never wore.
It’s hot as I walk back across the grass to the cabin where we’re staying. Dry grass sticks to my wet legs and I walk under the uncovered sun, doubling the leftover water on my skin with beads of sweat. We come to the mountains every year and stay in the same cabin. It’s big enough for all three families as long as the girls share rooms and the boys sleep on the couches downstairs. The walls inside are layered in newspaper for insulation; we’ve been coming long enough for me to read every room.
At night the adults sit on the porch and drink blackberry wine or play poker in the kitchen in the steam of washed dishes while the little girls make forts in the darkness with branches and leaves. Sometime recently I’ve stopped helping them. I stay on the porch with everyone else now.
It smells clean out here and I wish I didn’t have to go inside; I wish I could be here without them. Or without him, at least. But then I’d just have to go home and remember he’s there, too. He knows how to slip through the night without anyone seeing him, he knows there’s a tree leading up to my room where I broke my ankle sometime long ago, he knows my father can’t fix the lock on my window. It’s hard to escape someone you’ve known forever – there’s not even a way of understanding life without them.
The women are all gone for the store by the time I reach the cabin and I’m glad because I’m so tired of answering my mother’s questions. Last night I confided in her when I shouldn’t have, out there on the porch when everyone else was asleep, one of the only times I can remember being with her without him there too. But when I said very quietly why I was afraid she told me “That’s just his way of showing affection; don’t be such a prude, Helen,” and I knew better than to say that him and his affection could go fuck each other.
I bring Hannah’s shirt in off the porch and realize that I’m alone. There’s a note from one of the men about going fishing and I know I won’t be taking a nap. I sit on the end of my bed for a while, not sleepy at all but tired of being in this place with these people who think that they know and me always having to pretend that they’re right. I don’t have to wait for long before he’s there in the doorway of the room I’m sharing with his sister, still dripping from the pool and chest heaving without his mouth open at all. I’m still in that stupid one-piece swimsuit.
The towel is a weak defense but I pull it closer around me anyways, covering my shoulders still a little burned from July. He doesn’t say much as he sits on the bed next to me and shoves my damp hair away with hands all clammy from the pool. I smell like chlorine and sweat; he smells like last week’s laundry. There are things I’ve learned not to say so I keep my mouth closed and eyes down just in case he might see how much I hate him and mistake it for love.
“I told them I was going on a hike,” he says and I nod.
I know if I try to get out there won’t be anywhere for me to go and I’ll just be making up excuses for the next few days about tripping over rocks or falling down the stairs so I just hold the towel there around my damp swimsuit, not looking at him in the face.
I close my eyes when I start to feel his hands on the back of my neck and squeeze them shut tighter until I start to see those little blue and purple shapes in the great dark space of my head. I try to smell the mountains on my sheets as I’m pressed down into them but all I can find is the scent of old clothes that I know very well, that I’ve known so long and that I’ll know forever.
I think about what I did to let this happen and I can’t remember anything, only the school uniforms and falling asleep where I shouldn’t have and the first bra I owned, delicate and lacy and white and I think that maybe this is what I’m meant for because as I’m thinking I can hear him say “You keep saving me,” and the guilt is pulling at my swimsuit with hands that helped me whittle sticks and I want to save him because I know that he needs saving although I don’t know what from except for that dark place he sometimes stands on the edge of when he calls me and asks if I love him even though he has to know that I can’t, and I’ve tried so hard.
When I open my eyes he’s gone, leaving a damp spot on the bed and my towel in a heap on the floor. I pull my swimsuit up and sit there for a while longer because it’s a little comforting to feel it on me before changing. People are in the house now, I can hear voices downstairs, and I change quickly and glance in the mirror before going down to meet them.
I’m not even pretty.
Poker chips are still on the table from last night where my father taught him how to play Texas hold’em and pretended not to see me there while he sipped on his beer. Sometimes I think he knows, that he really knows, but drinking helps him forget, and maybe that’s okay, because at least he doesn’t think about me like everyone else does.
My mother stands at the sink with the other women; they’re washing dishes from lunch and getting things ready for dinner. I hear Hannah’s voice against the boys’ outside and the little girls’ playful shrieks coming from the creek out front. The screen door swings open wide and he’s there in front of everyone else, barely glancing in my direction as he asks, “Have a nice nap, Helen?”
One of the boys makes a face at me as he walks by and I feel that knot in my chest that happens when I try to keep words inside which I know to do because what good could happen if I told them. I walk into the kitchen and sit with Hannah while the women cook. Once as we were falling asleep she asked me to describe the person I’d fall in love with. I couldn’t see her face in the dark when she asked, but she laughed when I said “Quiet,” because she knew exactly who I didn’t mean.
He’s there beside my mother as she’s cooking and I rarely see her this happy. He can make her laugh and she loves him for it; I remember watching her show my father clip after clip of old Marx brothers films, laughing and clutching her stomach and shouting, “Oh, this one! I forgot about this one!” My father grunted occasionally as my mother wiped away tears.
“Wanna know how to tell if the pasta’s done?” My mother says to him and he says “NO,” like a cartoon character because he’s really quite good at that and she throws her head back and laughs.
“Okay, show me, show me,” he says with his hands on her arm because that’s how he shows affection and she dips the wooden spoon into the pot and pulls out a noodle.
“Blow on it,” she says and he blows on the pasta with a dramatic flair only he could be capable of creating and she makes a face like he’s ridiculous and says “Now throw it at the fridge.”
The other women in the kitchen are laughing softly and watching the little girls playing in the creek and no one seems to notice that my mother and him are about to throw noodles across the kitchen.
“Throw it at the fridge?” He says, “What the hell, Ms. Emma, are you trying to get me in trouble? You’re just trying to get me in trouble.”
She laughs with his hands on her arm still holding the spoon and he adds, “I am not doing the dishes tonight.”
“Yes, throw it at the fridge!” She says. “If it sticks it’s done. I’ve been cooking spaghetti longer than you’ve been alive – I know what I’m doing! I wouldn’t make you do the dishes by yourself, anyway.”
My mother doesn’t look at anyone else when she talks with him, not even at me. I leave the kitchen before they start throwing the pasta and go outside to the creek.
The little girls are catching tadpoles; my sister’s among them with her lean, shapeless body and all their faces look so much alike with their hair smoothed to their heads. The men are coming back up the trail and I smell the cooler full of mountain fish and the cigar smoke that is most likely my father’s, and I think about how strange it is that I am here, that something decided I belong here, with these people and in this skin.
I could have been anyone in the world and I could never have existed at all. But this is my place, here; everyone else seems to think so. I belong here – I just have a hard time believing it sometimes. I hold my knees to my chest at the soggy bed of the creek, feeling the cool moss with my toes and watching the little girls catch frogs and stumble through the muddy water. I think about how different I am from them, and I wonder when that all changed.
My little sister shrieks with her friends as they slip through the shallow edges of the creek, looking for small creatures with their feet. I think that she’ll be beautiful when she grows up; she’ll be like the girls that fairy-tales are written about, she’ll be the most beautiful girl in all the world. And it’s a little bit sad because sometimes we seem so far away from each other, because I’ll have to wait until she’s older to explain what happened to me, if I ever explain it at all.
About the author:
Born and raised in the capital of the old Confederacy, Mary Coggins is a writer deeply influenced by the concept of place in her writing. Mary has a degree in English writing and hopes to continue developing her craft in graduate school. She currently lives in Nashville with her two cats.