Photo by Christina Schmidt
“Hush,” my father says, “hush, hush.”
I go under again, hush the same sound as the water rushing into my ears, hushhush. Underwater I open my eyes, see his hand, a tentacle snaking in my direction. I surface out of breath, my mouth gaping like a fish’s, my hair in my eyes. Water pools in my ears, my eyes. I can touch the bottom but not fast enough to run, his fingers around my wrist anyway, pulling me toward him, the water pushing the hair on my naked torso, sliding like cloth. And so I pick up my feet and go under, watch my arm moving closer to him until there’s slack in his elbow. Then I pull hard twice and come free, slipping backwards through the flashes of sunlight moving in the water.
I watch him from underwater, the weight of all that water like the flat of a hand on my head, I rise, gasp, go under again, my arms grabbing water behind me, hands cupping it for more purchase, pressing it forward, moving away, away. Everything in slow-motion, the water impossible to be quick in. My hair floats out in front of my eyes, bouyant with air. And now he is under the water too, looking for me, his eyes wide open. There are bubbles in his eyelashes, his face is outlined in tiny bubbles. He wants my ankle and reaches for it, his palm up and open.
I push the water with my hands, they come out into the air and down, but I stay under. Bubbles sheet up everywhere. Lungs tight, I lay back and kick hard flat out at him, and when I come up to suck in air, he’s there standing chest deep, one hand at his neck. He coughs, shallow like a person with breadcrumbs in his throat.
“Hush,” he says, coughing out the words. “I won’t hurt you.”.
I’m sorry, I think, I didn’t mean to kick you.
“Stay over there.” I say it low like a man.
I am thirteen, and this is the last time he’ll touch me. I mean to make it the very last time. I have a new bikini, yellow with butterflies. I have breasts and hair. And now he is swimming towards me, his head above water, his eyes locked on me, not losing me. He covers in seconds the five feet or so distance I’d gained by kicking him. His pale arms under water look like glimpses of fish. I back up, but it’s too slow that way, he swims faster. He hooks his hand around my bikini pants, the elastic stretching. It tugs at my groin.
“Come here,” he says. He is standing in the water to his shoulders.
I can see the pool behind him now, where my mother lies in the sun and watches while my brothers horse around in the pool. Children boil in and out of the chlorinated water, tens of them. We went first to the lake beside the pool; my brothers drifted back to the diving board, my mother dozing in the sun. I see her raise her hand and wave at us. The scarf she wears over her hair flips in the breeze. Her face is just over my father’s shoulder. Her sunglasses cover her eyes completely.
“Come here,” he says, and slides his hand around my waist until I can’t move. My hair swirls in the water, a kind of seaweed, a kind of fish.
“It was an accident. I didn’t mean to.”
I say nothing.
“I swear it. It was an accident.”
“Let me go.”
“It was an accident.”
I say nothing.
“Jesus Christ. You’re going to tell her, aren’t you?”
“Let me go.”
Calm. I fight for calm because I know that’s how I’ll get away. I want to kick him, hard, again. I want to punch his grim face right in. I want to hold him under water until he dies.
He has me by the waist and I can’t get anywhere. My arms, crossed over my chest, are pinned between us. I’ve arched my back so that only my forearms touch him; I am taut in a curve like the edge of something in a centrifuge. I look over his shoulder at my mother lying in the sun; she gleams with oil. She’s turning pink, too fair for the light.
He drops me. Suddenly. I kick away a safe five feet, but now I can’t touch bottom. I tread, my arms circling, circling, my hair sticks to my forehead, my cheeks, cloying like netting. I watch him in case he’s coming again. He stays where he is.
“Listen to me. Listen to me.”
He had slid his hand over my breast, under my suit. He had moaned in my ear. Again. But today I am finished with him entirely.
I am listening.
“I didn’t mean it. I swear I didn’t.”
I say nothing.
“I didn’t mean it. Christ. Just don’t tell your mother.”
I say nothing at all, but I make him go away, dissolve him in the bright specks of light glancing up from the ripples, focus my eyes past him so he becomes just another sunlit particle, another trick of light, another nothing in the water. Behind him, my older brother front flips into the pool, an arc of spray articulating his curve. He shouts and my father answers, backing away from me, turning around to face them.
When he gets to the shore, the lake water runs off his body and back to where I am. But I don’t care. I let my legs rise until I’m flat on the plane of the lake, bouyant as air, my eyelashes pearled and clumped with water. I let the sky take everything over, then kick out to the lifeguard stand, where it’s deep and cool, and I can dive.