Esther spent four afternoons a week sitting on the bleachers by the pool, just watching and waiting, because apparently this was what kids in the tropics did – they learned to swim. Esther couldn’t swim very well, she wouldn’t drown but she wasn’t very comfortable in water. She couldn’t say it to anyone at first but she hated those poolside afternoons, her son barely seven years old and learning the butterfly. She hated putting on Ethan’s red swim cap, struggling to stretch it over his mass of thick auburn hair and then removing it later, the terrible smacking sound it made. She hated helping him wiggle out of his wet swimsuit after class, the way it clung to his skin. She hated seeing all those tiny exposed penises, like miniature mushroom caps; it was indecent, really. Why did the mothers strip their children down in front of everyone? She draped Ethan in a towel and held it closed with one hand. Afterwards, she’d wrap the wet swimsuit inside the towel and place it in her bag. Her books and wallet were marked with water stains. Esther was not like the other mothers at the pool. For one, her husband was not a high-paid executive, he didn’t work in “wealth management,” whatever that meant. Her husband was on a one-year assignment; one of the conditions of the transfer was free tuition at the fancy American school. Many of Ethan’s classmates had live-in nannies who watched the kids, cleaned the house and cooked the meals, even though the mothers didn’t work. Esther couldn’t understand this. What did those women do all day? And yet most of them brought their younger children with them to the pool and let them run amok, chasing each other and shouting while Esther tried to read. They gummed cookies and crackers and left a trail wherever they went, even though a sign clearly said no food allowed.
Hugh and his daughter were new to the school in October. Hugh was a stay-at-home dad; his daughter and Ethan became fast friends. Ethan looked just like Esther in a way that was disconcerting, a boy looking so much like a woman. He was long and lean, his face showed no signs of once being a baby. Even at seven, she knew what people were thinking and whispering about him. That he played girl games at recess, pumping his legs on the swings instead of kicking the ball with the boys, that he liked to wear colorful plastic bracelets stacked up high on his arm. Let them talk, she told herself. It wasn’t until Hugh arrived at the pool during that hot October afternoon that Esther had her first friend in Thailand. Until then, she’d spent the pool afternoons reading books and eavesdropping. The other mothers couldn’t decide whether to throw themselves at Hugh or ignore him; his indifference to all of them but Esther confused them. The mothers chatted and planned Thanksgiving dinners: what store had the best turkeys, where you could find Stove Top stuffing and canned cranberry sauce. There were several large dinners being planned but Esther’s family was not invited to any of them.
Esther joked with Hugh that the school should have a poolside bar for the parents, all that waiting and watching, didn’t they deserve a drink? The next day Hugh brought mojitos, disguised in travel coffee mugs. They fell into a routine of alternating who brought the drinks. Esther usually poured wine into stainless steel water bottles. With drinks in hand, they gossiped: which kids were in learning support, which mothers were having affairs. It wasn’t long before the gossip turned around on them. Did you see them? Canoodling on the bleachers? And what’s inside those bottles?
Esther loved stealthily tucking the water bottles into her bag; the shared secret with Hugh softened the edges of her longing for home. She was disappointed when her phone beeped after she sat down on the metal bleacher, the water bottles full with a new margarita recipe. So sorry, can’t come today, Margo wants a proper holiday after all so have to hunt down a turkey. LOL.
She helped Ethan into his swimsuit, stretched the red cap over his head and then nestled the black goggles over his eyes. He kissed her on the cheek and ran to join the other kids in the pool. She sipped her margarita alone and read her book. She didn’t notice the other water bottle disappear and she didn’t notice the toddler girl sitting by the box of flippers and kickboards, sucking down the sweet concoction. Later people will say: How could you not notice? The other mothers will act as if Esther had been part of their community of mothers, cooperatively keeping watch out for one another’s children, and had broken a solemn vow. Esther will know the truth which was that none of those other mothers ever gave her the time of day, that they called her son a poof, that even with full-time nannies doing all the work they couldn’t keep track of their kids or husbands. The mothers will not give Esther any credit for frantically searching around the pool for the missing bottle once she realized it was gone. They will not acknowledge that she probably saved the child’s life – her own mother too busy talking and texting to notice that the child was stumbling around and talking loudly: bye, bye, bye, hi! If Esther had not scooped the child up and told her mother of the mistake, how long until she would have realized her three-year-old daughter was drunk?
The child’s father will tell Esther to leave when she brings flowers to the hospital; through the window of the hospital room door, she’ll see Hugh, his arm on the mother’s shoulder. Her son will not master the butterfly stroke. By the time she discovers his swimsuit wrapped inside the towel at the bottom of the laundry basket, it will be covered with mold.
About the Author: Shasta Grant’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Jelly Bucket, Wigleaf, mojo, Corium Magazine, Mojave River Review and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a prose editor for Storyscape. She divides her time between Singapore and Indianapolis and can be found online at www.shastagrant.com.
Story Song: "Come To Me" by Lily & Madeleine