Claudia sat by the poolside, her jeans cuffed and scrunched below the knee, pale feet dipped in the water. It was night. The only lights for blocks were lodged in the pool walls, which lent the water a cold blue glow. Her ankles swirled in disinterested circles, and from the beach chair where Annabelle sat, cross-legged with her hands tucked in the bends of her knees, Claudia’s ankles were the only part of her still discernible. Her face and torso seemed to disappear into the nighttime. Unseen trees could be heard rustling and Annabelle sat still, watching the severed feet she took to be her older sister’s.
Claudia spun a ring of keys around her finger. It flickered silver and then vanished from sight, landing with a clink onto the cement siding. She picked it up. She spun it again.
“Water’s nice,” she said.
“Prettier at night,” Annabelle said.
“Prettier when you can’t see the Rec Center.”
This comment hit Annabelle unfavorably. She scrunched her nose. Before, she had felt as though of the night as a separate space—a sealed pocket of her life—but now she was reminded that everything that existed around the pool at daytime still stood by at night: the black hardtop of the basketball court, a racquetball wall, and the town Rec Center itself, a building which tomorrow would reveal to be little more than a grey dome without windows. Next to the Rec Center was an outdoor track, and inside that, a small jungle gym was being built. Its installment brought construction trailers and open-mouthed dumpsters to the parking lot. And around them, encircling the pool was a black chain-link fence, the acknowledgment of which, in spite of being invisible at this hour, nonetheless deprived Annabelle of the feeling of escape she had indulged before. Her imagination rebuilt the scenery around her until she was sure she could make out the faintest traces of the fence and the trailer and the Rec Center, and bit by bit, from the core of her head she could feel her own eyes adjust.
“Stick your feet in—it feels good,” Claudia said. Annabelle scowled.
“It doesn’t look warm. Is it warm?”
“Of course it’s warm.,” Claudia said. She dipped her hands in and paddled them back and forth for proof. “Still warm from the sun. It’s nice.”
Annabelle wondered if the water was actually nice. People who went in always said it was. Perhaps only because they were already in the pool. By then, it’s too late to feel cold.
“I’m wearing tights,” Annabelle said, holding the arches of her covered feet. She didn’t feel like getting wet, anyhow.
When Annabelle had gotten into the car wearing a sweater and tights, she hadn’t known Claudia would drive her to the Rec Center pool. Claudia would have told her, but neither she had predicted the drive. Before tonight was about going to the pool it was about getting in the car, the destination no more concrete than someplace out of the house. Though at half past ten on a Monday night in town like Lenox, the center of town is all but asleep, and in a town like Lenox the center of town is all but the entire town. She could have gone to the conservation lands, but the woods were gnarled and damp and she knew of kids who went there. Besides, Claudia trusted the water. She felt a sense of ownership over it. After having spent two consecutive summers perched in a lifeguard chair, her house and the pool were the two places in the world to which she had keys.
“Take your tights off,” Claudia said. “Come sit by the water.”
Annabelle couldn’t understand why it mattered so much to Claudia whether Annabelle soaked her feet. She was more than content on the beach chair, though at a distance, she had to force her voice bit louder than she wanted in order to be heard. It made her feel like she was yelling, and she hated to yell. She never got angry—as far as she remembered. It was an emotion she was convinced she had been born without. Even now, sitting at night with her sister by the water, all she could manage was to feel uprooted: that and slightly cold.
“Are you sure this is okay?” Annabelle asked. “Are we allowed to be here?”
“It’s fine. The lifeguards and I have snuck in tons of times. Nothing happens.”
“I mean—” Annabelle realized how anxious she sounded and cut the sentence off.
“We’re fine. Who’s going to see us, anyway?” Claudia swirled her feet around some more. She enjoyed the way they glowed, the way they looked slightly swollen in the water. In truth, she had only snuck into the pool once before, and she had worried a bit about going, but she talked herself out of the worry on the road and now rattled all the arguments she came up with to her anxious sister. Softening Annabelle’s fears, she smiled to herself. She liked the idea that her sister considered her the kind of girl to sneak into pools at night.
“I promise,” Claudia said. Assured, Annabelle let her legs slide out from inside her tights. When Claudia looked away, she stretched her sweater back over her bare knees.
Annabelle and Claudia had left their house for one reason: mom was home. Dad had known but never warned them. Claudia had just picked up Annabelle from ballroom dance, only to come home to find two wet leather boots drying by the heater. A duffel bag slumped on the doormat. They stepped inside, and there she sat on the kitchen countertop, swinging her legs and holding a toaster waffle, once bitten. She wore a black coat. She smelled drunk. When the girls walked into the kitchen, they stood at the doorway, silent. Their mother took a bite of her waffle, chewed it carefully, and minded to swallow before she spoke.
“Well, aren’t you happy to see me?” She said.
“Welcome back,” they said, before heading upstairs to their rooms.
The sisters never spoke about it, but it was silently agreed that these past four years—the years that led to their mother’s rehab—had made some of the best moments they could remember. Their mother was an ebullient drunk; she laughed with her head back, spoiled her daughters, let them go to concerts on school nights and talked to them with the elastic words of someone sharing a secret. She colored in her past as a teenager in such a way that her former self, independent from the daytime mother she was, managed to befriend her children. A few drinks and the three girls could talk like the friends they were, separated only in time. And they’d talk until the alcohol made their mother’s eyes slack shut, at which point she’d give them long, bedtime hugs that tightened at the last moment: hugs that clung to them with ever-growing love and desperation.
Throughout the past four years, she only drank one kind of drink. She called it the “gin fix.” It was a concoction of Tanqueray and cans of Gosling’s diet ginger ale, which earned their own spot in the family fridge. They were always in the fridge. Each gin fix only demanded half a can, which meant she learned to drink gin fixes in even numbers. And when she was feeling generous, she’d give sips to the girls. But this was only after dinner, when Dad was in his office and wasn’t looking. Claudia liked them, and though Annabelle never made up her mind, she pretended to dislike the gin fix, recoiling at the warm feeling in her throat in a way that made her mother never question the safety of pouring more. It was a treat, it was a tradition, it was a fix to the mother-daughter distance that teenagehood brought. A little bit of alcohol to be shared—just like a TV program—a mindless something to be collectively absorbed. It kept them in each other’s company. It kept the girls by their mother, who kept by the Goslings in the fridge. With gin, there was a reason for Annabelle to do math homework at the kitchen table rather than in her bedroom.
But after four years of the gin fix, something broke. Her liveliness slackened and her tenderness seemed to grow claws. The girls stopped coming home and their mother stopped leaving. She lay with her head bent into the sofa, her legs dangling over one arm. Their father took to playing hours on end of Xbox, wandering into the kitchen only to eat. He played through nights until he found himself having beaten every game in the house, at which point he didn’t feel like buying another one. Instead, he bought a program. A desert-dry three months in Tuscan, Arizona: a summer-camp for addicted mothers like his wife to live poolside, healing in the most luxurious –deprivation available. When she accepted it without fight, the family celebrated her last night by drinking one last gin fix, and their father drank with them, and their mother promised she’d call home every day.
Two weeks later was the first they heard from her. She appeared at the door, and she brought her Goslings with her. Tuscan was hell, she told them. They made her cry and took notes; she’d never go back. So their dad opened the door and welcomed her. That night they ordered pizza to normalize the family again. While Annabelle picked off the pepperoni, her father spoke for the group. He said they missed her, because they had. He said they loved her, because they did. He said they were glad to have her back, because she was back, and once you’re in a situation liking it is the least you can do. But dinner ended, and when the parents retreated to their room, the girls abandoned their plates in the kitchen, grabbed their keys and shoes, left a note and left home, not fully aware of which parent they were fleeing.
It was the deadness of Lenox that brought them to the pool. Here they sat, in their day clothes, breaking the water’s tight surface with their eyes.
Claudia stood up and faced her sister. Her jeans were wet where she cuffed them.
“I have an idea,” she said. “Let’s go for a swim.”
Annabelle watched as Claudia’s dark shadow shed her cardigan. She tossed it onto the concrete, where it sat like a puddle. Crossing her arms and pinching the waist of her shirt, she looked at Annabelle, who sat with her sweater stretched over her knees.
“So?” Claudia asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What’s there to worry about?”
“We’re sisters, it’s fine.” Claudia began to remove her shirt, starting from the bottom and peeling it over her head. It wasn’t until she felt the cold wind against her stomach that she realized the mistake in her reasoning: simply “being sisters” had never prompted her and Annabelle to be naked in each other’s presence before. It was a ritual that stopped with collective baths—memories that existed in photograph only but not in the mind—baths recalled in the implied perspective of the mother, who took pictures of her daughters as she proceeded to sponge them both. Yet since then, since their mother stopped bathing them, they had never been naked in the same room. Being sisters did not make it fine.
But by Annabelle’s failure to reply, Claudia knew it was the right justification to give.
Annabelle drew her knees from the inside of her sweater. Her legs were goosebumped and cool. The warm pocket of air from under her sweater blew away, but upon watching her sister remove her clothing, it felt like extending her legs was the least she could do.
After unbuttoning her pants, Claudia fiddled with her bra. As she talked, her fingers worked the clasp behind her and torso squirmed in such a way made her seem unaware of either action. It looked as though someone else’s arms were feeling for the strap while her head—fixed on her sister—sensed none of the action below.
“I guess you don’t have to swim,” Claudia said, “but I’m going to.”
“Okay.” Annabelle didn’t know whether to feign calm and watch her sister undress, or whether take cue from Claudia’s eyes and talk only her sister’s face as if nothing were the matter.
“Just do what you feel like, no shame either way.”
Behind her back, her fingers pinched the single clasp, and the band of her bra hung loose from her sides, like little whips. One at a time she coaxed her shoulders out of the straps and she caught the bra in front of her, as if breaking its fall. Holding the bra by her side, she faced her sister, half-bare.
Her breasts were smaller than Annabelle had expected. They looked like tea cakes. They had a matter-of-fact quality to them. A very literal chest, Annabelle thought—like a boy’s. And it was true: underneath her clothing, Claudia had pointed shoulders and narrow hips, and silhouetted by the darkness of the town, there was something undeniably boyish about her figure.
“Are you hungry?” Claudia asked, swirling her bra in her hand. “If you are I can open up the snack bar and make us stuff.”
“I’m fine,” Annabelle said.
“You sure? The snack bar has Pop Tarts. And a microwave.”
“Really, I’m not hungry.”
“Do you want a drink? Capri-Sun? Hot cocoa? They have hot cocoa powder so I could fix you up some if you wanted.” She tossed her bra onto the ground. “Just tell me if you need anything.”
With that, she removed her underwear, threw it over by her bra and jumped in the pool.
Annabelle watched her sister’s swimming body move back and forth. Her arms made figure eights on the pool’s surface while her nude legs tread water below. With her body in the water and her head stuck into the night, she was only visible from the neck down. The pool lights gave her skin an ivory glow, and when the water shook, her body appeared to vibrate. She swam in circles—a headless, luminescent pool creature.
Annabelle felt a dry wind sweep through her sweater.
“Jump in already,” Claudia said. “Come swim with me. It’s relaxing.
“You’re sure the water isn’t cold?”
“It’s warmer than the air. I promise.”
Daring herself out of her seat, Annabelle stood up. She walked two steps towards the poolside. She held bunches of her sweater in her hands, but she did not lift. Claudia was watching her. She stood there, willing the intention to swim but without entirely intending to, until Claudia sensed that her gaze was making her sister uncomfortable, and she turned her back. Annabelle dimmed her mind just enough to allow her hands to ease the sweater up and around her head, and just enough to let them take off her tank top underneath. She stood there, eyeing her sister’s back, standing by the pool in nothing but her underclothes. She unclasped her bra but held it against her chest with her arms. Suddenly, she realized again where she was. This was the Rec Center pool, a place babysitters had taken her, and a place she often took the kids she babysat. Old men swam laps in this pool. Toddlers peed in it. Children clung to kickboards and feared they’d drown. And there was the Rec Center she passed by every day on the way to school, and there was the track field and the jungle gym and the patch of grass worn to dirt where the whole town stood and waited by the ice-cream truck. This was Lenox. And here she was, holding a loose bra up to her breasts while her naked sister slithered in the pool, waiting to hear the splash that meant she joined. All this, because her mom was home and there was no other way to react—no response more or less rational. Thinking of the Rec Center, of home, she allowed her bra to fall to the ground, whisking away her underwear in a quick jump. Hardly making a splash, she slid herself into the water.
Claudia was right; it felt nice.
Neither sister spoke. The two girls, decapitated by nightfall, treaded around each other, their speeds even and equal as if turning around a fixed center of mass. Their bodies loomed, suspended and preserved in the pool. Their hands and legs paddled as if disconnected from their thoughts. Neither took their eyes off the other.
Claudia eased herself over to the ladder. She clung to its handles, but her feet ignored the rungs.
“What do you think mom’s doing right now?”
“She’s probably passed out.”
Underwater, Annabelle twisted her legs.
“Most likely on the couch.”
“You think dad’s up?”
“Maybe playing Xbox.”
Claudia floated on her back.
“I wouldn’t mind. As long as he doesn’t see us wet and ask questions.”
“He won’t. He never does.”
“You’re right. And he trusts us.”
“Maybe we should talk to him.”
“Are you cold?”
“No. But I will be soon.”
“Does that mean we should go home?”
The girls turned one more circle around each other that night before reentering the darkness, slipping on their sweaters, climbing into the car and returning home.
With that, Jared Garland removed her underwear, threw it over by her Nassau Weekly and jumped in the pool.