fiction by Monique Cuillerier — from issue four
The class had just started when I arrived. Two rows of white plastic chairs faced the pool, pushed against the tile wall. The row nearest the women’s change room door was full—six men and women sitting shoulder to shoulder in the warm, humid air, inhaling the biting taste of chlorine.
I walked between the chairs and the pool awkwardly, making my way to the second, further, row. Another six seats, but only one was occupied, by a woman with thin blonde hair and a fixed smile. I left two empty seats between us.
“Hello,” she said before I had had time to settle. She leaned towards me, stretching out her hand. “I’m Brenda.”
“Hello, Brenda,” I answered automatically, taking her limp, damp hand and shaking it as briefly as I could.
“Your name is?” she followed up with.
“Alice.” It escaped from my lips before I could stop it. I didn’t know why I had said it. It was there before I thought twice.
I had always liked the name Alice, with its pretty dresses, blue ribbons, hurrying rabbits.
“Nice to meet you, Alice,” Brenda said with a shark-like smile.
The plan had not included speaking with anyone. When I had played out the possibilities in my mind that was not a part of it.
“My son is the one with the blonde curls. There,” Brenda pointed out, “wearing the red and
black trunks. His name is Dafydd, spelled the Welsh way.”
Of course, I thought.
She pronounced it wrong, was the thing I thought next.
But both thoughts were pushed out of my mind by the twisting feeling in my stomach. Would I have to return the progeny introduction?
My discomfort only lasted a moment, however, because Brenda ploughed blithely on, barely giving me time for more than indistinct sounds and the odd nod of the head in between her revelations.
Over the next twenty-five minutes, I learned:
1) Dafydd was an only child, but not through lack of trying.
2) Brenda—and her husband of eight years, Camden—were originally from Montreal and had only moved to Ottawa because of Camden’s job.
3) Brenda found the strong smell of chlorine in the pool area to be quite distressing, but was willing to put up with it for the sake of Dafydd learning to swim.
4) Brenda was a stay at home mom, but she felt judged for it and she was planning on returning to work soon so that would stop.
5) Before Dafydd was born, she worked as an office administrator at a real estate office, but she hated it and she wanted to do something different but she was not exactly sure what.
6) When she and Camden got married, they struggled with the size of the wedding but ended up settling on their 175 closest friends and family. It was, she had lamented, a bit small, but she had enjoyed the intimate feeling.
By this point, I felt like the discussion had really run its course, but I was mistaken. I had almost forgotten that I was at the pool. The sound of the children’s lesson—squeals, splashes, and whistles—had faded into the background as Brenda regaled me with her life. It was only when she started to dwell interminably on her wedding—when she was describing the exact details, how many bridesmaids (eight), how many flower girls (two), her “colours” (champagne and blush, which I would have thought were the same colour, but did not want to ask for an explanation), and the menu (something called a “duo” plate of lobster and steak, which, as a lifelong vegetarian, I was both appalled by and curious about).
And then, just like that, there was a final sharp whistle and a stampede of children leaving the pool and not-quite-running on the pool deck.
Brenda rose in Pavlovian response and picked up a towel. “Dafydd!” she called unnecessarily, as the boy was already coming towards her. She wrapped him in the towel and threw me a small smile that accompanied a brisk nod of her head. I was dismissed.
She hustled the child towards the family change room and was gone.
The next week was marked by a protracted debate with myself as to whether I should return. I had previously invested a great deal of thought into the swimming lessons and I was loathe to abandon the project so easily.
Another half-hour with Brenda, however, was not precisely what I had signed up for.
Even I could admit to a degree of curiosity.
Had she managed to work out the Thanksgiving dinner issues with her mother-in-law? Would Dafydd attend French immersion for kindergarten or would she be waiting until he was a little older? (She had, after all, planned her pregnancy so that he would be advantaged by being one of the older—if not the oldest—children in his class. She did not want to waste that advantage now.)
And then it was Tuesday again and there I was walking out onto the pool deck. I was a little earlier than the previous week, but there was only one empty chair in the closer row. The people on either side of it were speaking to each other, leaning across the slight space. Before I could excuse myself and slide into the spot, Brenda was waving me over. I waved back reflexively and walked past the others towards her.
It took me a moment. Somehow, I had forgotten. “Hi!”
“How are you?” she followed up with as I walked towards her. I’ll admit, I was taken aback. I had not expected that I would be required to provide content. But my confusion only lasted a moment, because Brenda took up last week’s monologue without further diversion (or, indeed, waiting for my response).
In short order, I learned that:
1) Camden’s twin sister, Kaelin, was visiting from Vancouver. This was difficult for Brenda, as she and Kaelin (a lesbian doctor mother of three teenagers) had little in common and she (Brenda) felt that Kaelin looked down on her. Camden insisted that this was, in fact, not the case and Brenda needed to get over herself as Kaelin was a lovely person, but Brenda knew better.
2) Brenda had told Camden he could go and sleep in the second guest room while his sister was visiting.
3) Dafydd was (and she said this in a quieter voice) seeing a speech therapist but this was not progressing as quickly as Brenda had hoped. She was also annoyed that the therapist used candy as a reward during the sessions and “how would Dafydd’s speech be when his teeth were all rotted out from the sugar?”
4) Brenda’s best friend, Anne, was going through a painful divorce, but Brenda was not sure how much longer she could support her, as she (Brenda) was finding the whole matter to be quite stressful and unpleasant.
I nodded my head as appropriate, as we sat, inhaling chlorine and sweating in the humidity. The small downtown community pool was kept at a high temperature for chronic pain and disability swimming sessions. It was good for the small children, too, of course. I remembered when Jessie was a baby and going into the pool was the opposite of an unpleasant shock. Rather, it was like returning to the womb. 92 degrees of comfort and warmth.
What am I doing here? I confess I am morbidly curious. What more can there possibly be to Brenda’s life? It seems so full already.
And complicated. I never realized there were people who struggled with so much… material in their lives. Everyone Brenda knew only added to the drama.
This week progressed along the same trajectory as the others, with new events and the introduction of yet more characters: an old boyfriend of Brenda’s from high school (Rick), Camden’s mother and father, Brenda and Camden’s neighbour Penelope—all ailing or nosy or pissy or on the edge of a breakdown. I left with a list of six new items, the star of which was Dafydd: he could not decide between a Mickey Mouse birthday party and a Cars one. They had gone to Disney World last summer and Dafydd had liked Mickey. But Cars! Camden thought it ought to be Star Wars, but Brenda said Dafydd was too young for that.
I felt breathless by the time Brenda wound down and the children exited the pool.
The weeks passed by, piling one upon the other, and any hesitancy or fear I had at first—well, I couldn’t remember why there had been a problem.
I began to look forward to it.
I was running late. It was snowing something awful outside and the traffic had been difficult, cars sliding here and there, pedestrians hunched over, trying to find their way through the blowing snow.
“You,” was what the woman began with, as her hand reached out and touched my arm as I moved past the first row of chairs.
“I just wanted to say…” Her voice trailed off and I was standing there, her hand on my arm, feeling awkward. Should I say something? I had no idea what she wanted to tell me, so I waited.
“Brenda,” the woman began and so I stood there, eager to hear what would come next.
“She isn’t easy.”
“No,” I replied, an understatement if there ever was one.
“Marika, who sits here with us sometimes? Sometimes she skips the lesson—just drops
her daughter off and comes back at the end. When she does, you’re welcome to sit here.”
“Thanks,” I managed.
“Really. We feel bad there isn’t always space for you here.”
The other parents nodded in unison.
“We all know what it’s like. When the lessons started, we didn’t know.”
“We didn’t know what Brenda was like.”
“We all made that mistake—of sitting down beside her. And, well, you know how that goes.”
“I’m not sure how I could not sit with her at this point.”
The woman sighed, deeply. She had a neat dark brown pixie cut and a Lululemon jacket, the logo obvious.
“I understand, I guess. But just know you’re welcome here. If you can. If there is space.”
I continued on to the other chairs. Brenda was already there and I hoped she didn’t know what the others had said. I don’t know why I cared what she thought.
“Hi, Alice,” she greeted me, the same as always.
It felt like a long moment, but I am sure it was no longer than usual before she continued.
“You would not believe the week I’ve had,” she began.
The remaining weeks melted away. Brenda’s life could not have been more fascinatingly
bizarre. When she spoke of her constellation of friends, family, and neighbours, the problems with her husband and child, she said the words slowly, savouring them. I couldn’t understand it and that was what brought me back. I wanted to get a feel for her substance.
“I can’t believe this is the last week of the session,” she began, to my surprise.
“It has gone by quickly,” I answered hesitantly.
“Dafydd isn’t really all that enthusiastic about swimming lessons.”
This was such a complete understatement that my mouth dropped open before I could stop myself. Dafydd regularly had tantrums—full blown, lying on the ground, arms and legs flailing tantrums. It was utterly off-putting to witness in a child of four who could speak. And Brenda would just sit here beside me, shaking her head slowly and watching the instructor deal with it.
“But this is important, swimming. It’s a life skill.”
“Not that we do much near the water. I don’t like boats, of any sort or size. And we don’t
have a pool at home, of course.”
She said it almost slyly and it made me look over at her, look more carefully. There was a
speculative look in her eyes.
“What are you going to do for the next session? Your… daughter? son? I don’t think you ever said.”
And it was as simple as that. My mind froze and black spots swam in front of my eyes. I could not catch my breath and my stomach clenched and I wanted to vomit. What was it that I had decided I would say? The words were just on the edge of my memory, taunting me.
“My—” But I couldn’t look at Brenda and I rose unsteadily. Don’t get up, I told myself. You need to calm down. Stop, breathe. But there was something that propelled me forward and I teetered one way, then the other, stumbling blindly away.
The floor was wet, of course, and I had not taken more than a couple of steps before I slipped. Everyone, I knew, was looking at me now.
There was no embarrassed child in the pool, though. No child of mine to look over and furiously blush or laugh or sigh and shake their head.
Certainly not my dear, forever three-year-old Jessica.
MONIQUE CUILLERIER is a writer living in Ottawa. Her stories have appeared in Round Up Writer’s Zine, Black Heart Magazine, and 5×5 Literary Magazine. She is currently working on a science fiction novel and has a story in an upcoming SF anthology.