by Amanda Miska
I’ve never been an enthusiastic beachgoer. Probably because I never learned how to swim. Growing up, my family had been poor, with only money for necessities, of which swim lessons were not one. I could tread water if I had to. I could paddle my arms and legs in a perfunctory manner, enough to get by. But I couldn’t race, couldn’t maneuver my arms and legs like that for miles. I couldn’t jump in and save you.
Issue #81 soundtrack: The Mites "Washaway"
The clear topaz water of Lake Abiquiu is surrounded by large rocks the color of old bones. The glare makes it impossible not to wear sunglasses, and the flat, hard ground is uncomfortable for sunbathing. I’m still learning to breathe: I’m not used to the dry, hot air out here in New Mexico. I drink bottle after bottle of water, but can never seem to quench my thirst. I had a nosebleed in the car on the way up to the lake, ruining my favorite tee shirt because no one was carrying any tissues.
We drop our stuff on a clear patch of rock. My husband, Erik, strips down immediately and jumps in the water with a yawp. His boyishness was something that had attracted me when we met, a naïve sort of sweetness and insatiable energy. But now we were pushing thirty, and he was the same boy he was ten years ago. He still got wasted at football games and refused to eat any vegetable unless it was expertly hidden in some sort of meat.
Erik’s father, Alan, has recently gotten remarried to a beautiful local artist named Inez. She is petite, but boisterous: what a sleazy old man might call a real firecracker. Her skin glistens, flawless at fifty even without makeup. I want to hate her, but she’s also kind, generous and charismatic. I see why my father-in-law loves her, though I cannot understand what she sees in him. He is bitter and self-deprecating, which I attribute to his divorce from Erik’s mom when Erik was just a baby. He has worked outside in construction most of his life, giving his skin the rough texture of old leather, but unlike most men his age, he has maintained some lean muscle and avoided a middle-age paunch. Alan and my husband look a lot alike: the high, shiny forehead, wide-set blue eyes, nearly hairless arms and legs. When I look at him, I feel like I’m seeing a more bitter version of my future.
I’ve only seen my father-in-law a total of two weeks in the span of my seven year courtship/marriage to Erik, and Inez is practically a stranger, so I feel uncomfortable undressing. I am already self-conscious of my ample breasts and thighs. Next to Inez, I feel monstrous. She wears a floral two-piece. Despite having two children from a previous relationship, her stomach is taut with no signs of trauma, the fruits of weekly Pilates classes. I notice only a slight droop in her breasts—the bikini has underwire—which makes me feel slightly better. But not enough to remove my cover-up.
Inez stands at the edge of a rock and jumps, arms pointed upward to heaven, chin tucked into her neck, cutting through the water like a rudder. I am paging through a magazine, but behind my sunglasses I watch her swim straight paths from rock to rock.
Further out in the water, my husband and his father are a pair of bobbing heads. I’m glad he’s not alone. Drowning is at the top of my list of fears, sandwiched between tarantulas and house fires. I remember reading an article the previous summer that explained how drowning doesn’t look like drowning. From the outside, everything looks okay, even though a steady, insistent current tugs at them beneath the surface, pulling them down and under. The shock sets in like calm: even they don’t know they’re drowning. They don’t fight. They don’t flail.
Inez pulls herself up out of the water, dries off, and plops down next to me on her towel. She pulls out her sunscreen and applies it liberally to her face, chest, and hands.
“I don’t know how you can be stuck inside a classroom all day. Flourescent lights, I think they steal your soul. This,” she says, gesturing towards the water and sky, “this is where art comes from.”
I nod, even though it all sounds a little new agey to me. She continues.
“Once I started working for myself, I could never go back.”
“It’s not so bad. Just biding time until Erik finishes up and we buy a house so I can have a studio. I mean right now we live in a studio.”
“There is no biding time. Life doesn’t wait for you. You have to grab it by the cajones and pull. Hard. The only way to make anything happen.”
I knew she was trying to be encouraging. Knew she was right, even. But I’d never been a make-it-happen kind of girl. I was always the girl who things happened to. The passive voice. Not that I’d wanted to be that way. It just—happened. Even Erik had been an accident that stuck.
“I would love to see some of your work. What do you paint?”
“Abstracts, mostly. With some occasional still life or mixed media collage. I’m not sure I’ve found my niche yet.”
“Your niche finds you, when the time is right,” she says, patting my bare knee. “Hey, can you get my back?” She hands me the bottle of sunscreen.
From behind Inez, I watch Erik and his dad racing back towards us, so fast that I can’t tell who is who. They are simply two parallel streams. They are neck and neck, but then one pulls ahead. It’s Erik who touches the rock first. Seconds later, his dad pops up out of the water and dunks him. They are both laughing and breathing heavy. I rub the remainder of the sunscreen from my hands onto my shoulders as Erik breaststrokes the rest of the way to shore.
When he comes out, he bounds over to me like a puppy who’s just had a bath. He wraps his arms around me, and I shriek.
“You’re getting me all wet!”
“I know. Don’t you wanna go in?”
“You know I don’t really like the water.”
“But it’s hot.”
Up near the edge of the lake, Inez stands with her arms around my father-in-law’s waist. I see her slip her fingers into the back of his waistband, thinking no one is watching. Erik leans in for a kiss, his wet hair dripping all over me. I pick up his towel and push it at his chest.
We go to an authentic Mexican restaurant for dinner. Inez puts on a dress and heels so I follow suit, but I still don’t feel pretty. I feel heavy, and I’m sunburnt. We have a reservation for 6:00, but we are late leaving the house because in the mirror, I notice that I have a growing blemish that won’t cover up no matter what I do. I finally just dab powder over it with my eyes closed, turn around to avoid another glimpse of myself, and walk out to the car.
“Another nosebleed,” I lie.
“You okay now?” my husband asks.
“I’m fine. It’s not a big deal.”
At the restaurant, I enjoy myself for the first time the whole trip: I try fried plantains and sopapillas, washing them down two real margaritas (made from tequila and lime; that’s pretty much it). There is a live band, and Inez pulls Alan up to dance. Her hips have probably never been told no. Erik and I watch from the table. He holds a hand out to me and raises an eyebrow. I shake my head.
“I don’t want to. I’m too full.”
“Jesus Christ, Aimee, would you snap out of it?” he says over the din of the trumpets. It feels like the whole restaurant can hear, but I know it’s just me.
“What do you mean?” I say, even though I know. Even though I feel helpless to change it.
“I’m going to take a piss.”
He storms off to the bathroom. I wait a few minutes and then make my way slowly to the ladies room. I put my face close to the mirror and angrily squeeze at the zit on my chin. Nothing comes out, but I scrape my skin, and it reddens further where I’ve rubbed off my makeup. I’m always making it worse.
Erik and I return to the table at the same time. I’m embarrassed at the mess I’ve made of my face, so I keep my head down, avoiding eye contact with my in-laws.
“Where were you two? Sneaking in some one-on-one time in el baño?” Inez teases.
She is flushed with dancing and sangria and has never looked more beautiful.
“We’re a little tired still. Jetlagged,” Erik explains before I can say anything.
I just nod in agreement, so Alan grabs the waiter, pays our bill, and we head home. Our drive is silent except for the stereo playing Inez’s Peter Gabriel cassette. He’s singing I want to be your Sledgehammer.
That night in the guest room, Erik turns away from me, and five minutes later, he is snoring. I am trying to read, but I keep hearing a distant sound like a whimper. It starts to grow louder, and I realize it’s not a whimper but more of a high-pitched moan: Inez in the throes of passion. My face reddens, my heart pounds, and I grow a little damp between my legs. I want to stop listening, but she only gets louder.
I dig my heel into Erik’s calf and shake his shoulder.
“Hey, wake up. I can’t sleep. Your dad’s getting it on with Inez.”
He rolls over onto his back and sighs. The room is silent for a moment, and then we hear the louder, masculine groans and Inez pleading, yes, yes, don’t stop, baby, don’t stop.
“God, they could keep it down, especially when they have company,” I say, but rather than irritated, I’m even more turned on.
I reach for Erik’s dick, which is hard now, but he pushes my hand away and turns over again.
I lost my virginity to Erik on the top bunk in his dorm room. We were both 19 and tipsy on a friend’s boxed wine. I cried after because it hurt and because I didn’t come and because it wasn’t romantic and because it was nothing like I expected. But Erik was so giddy, he danced naked around the room, flaccid penis bouncing against his leg, singing Madonna falsetto. Touched for the very first time! I laughed then and relaxed a little.
Of course, it wasn’t always as bad as the first time. But it’s never been great. Never what I’d read about in books or seen in movies or heard my girlfriends describe. Since getting married, Erik and I have sex, on average, once a month. We only have two positions, foreplay consists of about five minutes of kissing and two minutes of rubbing, and I’m always wishing he would hurry up so I can sleep. We are both tired all the time. He gets home late most nights after class. I keep telling myself this is only a season or a phase, but even I know I’m lying. Passion wasn’t a thing we had lost that could be discovered again somehow if we hunted for it. It was something we never had to begin with.
The next few days, we eat a lot more Mexican food, including a home-cooked feast courtesy of Inez, go to the Georgia O’Keefe museum to look at vagina flowers, buy souvenirs from the outdoor market, ride bikes around town. We don’t talk much. The strain is palpable, but, of course, we don’t talk about that either. We just keep busy.
One day, when Inez goes into work, I tag along with Erik and his dad to the YMCA. I run on the elliptical upstairs while they join a pick-up basketball game. The exercise machines are in a loft that overlooks the lap pools. There are dozens of teenagers in suits and caps milling about, jumping in and climbing out.
When I was their age, I was baptized at a YMCA: when I was thirteen, my parents joined a fundamentalist church and made me go with them. When they accepted Jesus, I pretended I did, too, even though I didn’t know what it meant—I was just afraid of a place called hell and being separated from my family forever. When my parents decided to get baptized, I went along, too. There was no church building or hot tub, so we went to the local indoor pool on a Sunday afternoon. A bunch of girls from school were there for competitive swim practice. They wore Speedos; I wore a long white robe over my too-small two piece. In the shallow end, I professed my desire to be obedient to God, repeating word for word what my parents had said. The pastor held my nose and dipped me under like dancers at the end of a tango. I came up sputtering. The girls from school were drying off in the corner now, and I could tell they were talking about me.
My parents eventually abandoned their evangelism for the next fix to fill the void. A Buddhist Temple. Iyengar Yoga. Deepak Chopra devotees. They are now Unitarian. As an only child, I suspect I was another one of their pursuits that led to a dead end. They weren’t the worst parents in the world, but they seemed ill-prepared for every milestone: Mom sent me all alone to the corner drugstore to buy pads on the day I got my period, and Dad’s response to our engagement announcement via email had been, “Good Luck!!” Two exclamation points.
We go to an opening at Inez’s studio. There is wine and cheese and fresh fruit and a large selection of anatomically correct nude sculptures. I drink too much wine and have a desperate urge to fondle one of the sculpted penises, but I restrain myself, chastised by an abundance of Do Not Touch signs.
I step outside and take out my secret cigarette stash from the cosmetics bag in my purse and light up. Deep breath in, exhale out. I cough. Who am I kidding? I haven’t actually inhaled since my first cigarette in 9th grade.
The moon is full, a startled face in the sky. I stub out the cigarette, put in a piece of mint gum, and go back inside. Erik and his dad are standing at the refreshments table, sipping their beers. I follow Alan’s eyes over to Inez, who is surrounded by admirers, talking animatedly, gesturing at a sculpture which I now only realize is my father-in-law, who must have posed for her.
I try to imagine Erik posing for me to paint him. I try to imagine Erik slipping his hand into my back jeans pocket as we walk, or kissing me up against a wall. I can’t do it. Erik is static: I can’t imagine him doing anything that he hasn’t already done a hundred, a thousand times.
Our flight leaves the next morning. I have a hangover, so I load up on candy and potato chips and gossip magazines at the newsstand. Erik buys a crime novel and a Gatorade. He lets me have the window seat—he’s always been sweet, even when he’s angry with me.
The man in the aisle seat appears to be asleep with headphones on, so an hour into the trip, as we read side by side, I say, quietly: “Maybe we should take a break for a while.”
“This was our break. I took off from class—you took vacation days.”
“I mean from us,” I say. He pretends to be reading, turns a page.
“I know what you meant.”
He closes his book and reaches for my hand on the table tray. I let him have it. He squeezes. I squeeze back. He closes his eyes and leans his head back against the seat. I don’t look at his face because I’m worried I might start to cry, and I’m worried that he might cry, too.
I lean my forehead against the cool window, counting swimming pools until we’ve risen so high that the clouds obscure my view.
Amanda Miska lives and writes in Northern Virginia. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Black Heart Magazine, Whiskey Paper, Buffalo Almanack, CHEAP POP, jmww, Cartagena, and The Collapsar. Find her on Twitter @akmiska and visit her blog tumblingtowards.tumblr.com.
Georgia Ponirakou lives in Athens, Greece, with her boyfriend and a little dog. Though she originally studied classic biology at the University of Athens, she turns to photography in order to creatively interpret the world around her. Her photography was recently featured online at Camera Work and Kiosk of Democracy. To view more, visit the artist's Flickr portfolio.
The Mites are a girl-fronted dream pop band from San Antonio, Texas. "Washaway" is the first single from The Mites' soon-to-be-released debut LP. The band is made up of vocalist/girlfriend Ali Korte, songwriter/boyfriend Reed DeAngelis, and drummer/best friend Raul Vela IV. For more, visit the band on Facebook, Bandcamp, and Tumblr.