Until Karen, he’d never met an adult who was afraid of the water, who didn’t know how to swim.
This was just Kentucky — no ocean for miles — but still. Not long after he and his parents moved to Bardstown, into the big house with the big in-ground pool in the backyard, they seemed to have a party every weekend, and there were always people swimming. People diving crooked and awkward from the board in the deep end, splashing. People putting on a pair of goggles and frogging along the bottom, snatching up plastic rings they’d thrown and watched sink just seconds before. People coupling off when it was dark and the pool was lit green and ethereal by its underwater lights to just kind of drift, running their hands over one another’s sheened shoulders and necks, while everything beneath the water moved blind and unknowable.
Most of these people were professors like his parents. They listened to NPR while they drove around town in their Subarus, and didn’t look so hot in beachwear.
Karen, though, so feared the water she refused even to wear a suit. She took the deck chair in the corner and sat with her back to the fence, wearing a sundress with a conservative neckline and a pair of wedge sandals she would dangle from her pale feet in this sexy way that made you forget she was a biology professor. Looking out on the scene from his bedroom window, he could tell in two blinks that one of these people was not like the other.
When he wandered outside, though, to refill the bowls that held chips or salsa or guacamole, or to freshen some of the guests’ drinks — when he saw her up close — she no longer looked as if she’d escaped the set of some French film, shot in black-and-white, with German subtitles. Her left eye listed toward her nose. There was a delicate-looking rash — quarter-sized pink splotches — climbing from her collarbone toward her ear. Her hair had been brushed but looked unhealthy. Wispy. As if it might at any moment unlodge from her skull, follicle by follicle.
None of his parents’ new friends had kids at the high school, and he hadn’t yet talked to a person his age for the past three months, but he was mostly okay with that. For a long time, since way before they’d moved, he had felt bereft without having ever lost a thing.
Which wasn’t the case for Karen. She was in her early thirties and already had been widowed, had buried a child. Still, she got dressed up most Saturdays and came to these parties. Still, she sat in that deck chair and looked out over the pool like it was the French Riviera.
Once, during a party late that summer, he stayed in his room all afternoon and into the night with the window open and his eyes closed, just listening. Every half hour or so he would roll over on his bed and speak into a digital voice recorder a thing or two about what he was hearing: Some bird calls make me want to buy a bb gun. Is that poet outside singing along with the music or being wounded? If you listen long enough to nothing, it makes a sound — it’s like you can hear the trees growing, getting older.
He realized once it was full dark that he hadn’t heard Karen say anything for quite a while. He worried she’d left, and right away went to the window to get a look at all he’d been listening to. Karen was there, and so was everyone else, and it was like he’d never seen any of them before in his life. It was like the not-looking for so long had altered everything he saw.
He went to the kitchen and grabbed a fresh pitcher of sangria out of the fridge and carried it outside. Everybody but Karen was in the pool. There were three couples, including his parents, and the women were all on the men’s shoulders, about to begin a game of chicken.
Right about the time he set the pitcher down on the outside bar next to the empty, somebody — probably his dad — blew a whistle. He looked first at Karen, who was leaning forward now, her arms resting on her knees, her fingers laced, smiling in the direction of her colleagues, and then at the pool, which was chaos.
Ethel Hale was a little big. She taught chemistry and wore a pink swimsuit with one of those butt ruffles. Two of her husband Tom could fit inside one of those swimsuits, and Tom had Ethel up on his shoulders, the folds of her butt cover swamping his back. With every step Tom took, he seemed to clamp down on his wife’s thighs harder, hoping to hold her in place. Ethel called out, “Slow down!” and waved her arms in the air in little circles like she was exercising, looking for balance.
They went down fast together in a jumble of limbs before they even reached the other couples.
Karen laughed from deep in her throat, in a kind way. In the pool, his parents were squaring off against the Albrights. Shane was the poet. Susan taught Psych. They were around his parents’ age — mid-forties — and were in pretty good shape. They ate organic, ran half-marathons, and loved to drink. Susan’s forearms were rippled with muscle, and she reached out for his mom, growling.
He began walking toward Karen. He knew already that she never swam, that she never so much as dipped a toe in the pool, but he was thoroughly imagining what it would be like to try to walk around with water up to his waist and her on his shoulders. His hands on her thighs, or his arms braced around her calves. He was only sixteen, but he didn’t think it would be so hard to keep her up in the air.
His mother yelped and told his father to circle right. Karen crossed one leg over the other and looked up at him.
He hadn’t said anything to anyone in hours, and he wondered if his voice would work when he finally tried to speak. He cleared his throat.
He wanted to ask Karen if she had nightmares about the water — so that he might begin to understand her fear. He wanted to ask her if her house smelled different now that her husband and child were no longer in it. He wanted to ask her why she came to these parties to begin with. He couldn’t imagine what this group of people had to offer her.
He decided to begin by saying something about the sangria. Her glass was still full, and he was going to ask her if it tasted all right.
His parents and the Albrights splashed and shrieked. Karen dangled her shoe so that it nearly fell and then snapped it back into place with a thwack.
He focused on her eye — the one that drifted sometimes toward her nose in a way that was remarkably and undeniably cute — and took one final breath. Before he could speak, though, she held up a hand and started talking about caterpillars. She’d been studying them, and there was something about them that she wanted him to know. She didn’t look at him while she talked — she kept her eyes on the pool — and so he turned away from her, too, and watched the chicken match while he listened.
“The thing is,” Karen said, “these caterpillars are basically defenseless. For millions of years, they’ve had no way of fighting back, of keeping this or that bird from snatching them up and swallowing them whole.”
His mother gave his father more instructions — crouch low, stand up tall, move left — and Susan Albright did the same thing. The men mostly laughed and tried to keep their balance, but the women had no humor in their faces. Tom and Ethel Hale had stopped watching the fight and were kissing without tongue near the deep end.
“So how have they survived?” Karen asked. “What is it that has happened over all these years to keep them alive? Why are there still butterflies?”
He got the idea from the dreamy way she was asking the questions that she wasn’t expecting him to answer, that she was going to keep talking. He kept his eyes on the pool, though they had kind of defocused.
“They’ve adapted,” Karen said. “Up close, a lot of caterpillars have the face of a snake. They have odd- and dangerous-looking little horns. They have tail whips, false eyespots.”
He couldn’t remember ever looking at a caterpillar up close. He tried to imagine what all these things would look like but couldn’t. All he could imagine was the person right there beside him. The one he wasn’t looking at but whom he knew was wearing a sundress and had one leg crossed prettily over the other. The one who was looking out at the pool just like he was. He heard more splashing, but everything except Karen’s voice sounded like it was coming from very far away.
“So a hungry bird gets up close to one of these caterpillars, wanting to snatch it up for dinner, and then that bird sees with its own two eyes what looks like a snake, or maybe some kind of lizard. Like the kind of beast that might want to kill it. And so that bird moves on to some other worm or insect without such a dangerous-looking face and the caterpillar gets to live another millennium.”
The last sentence she spoke had the lilt of a song to it, and he knew that it was the end of the story, but he was afraid still to turn and look at her. Afraid of what he might see in Karen’s face.
He imagined — but only for a moment — how he first learned to swim. His mom would take him to the Y, and he would lie across her outstretched arms, his face in the water. She would instruct him to kick, to paddle his arms. He thought about what it might be like to wade into the pool with Karen, to hold her while she took a deep breath and then stuck her face down into the water. He thought about what it might be like to tell her to kick. To tell her that she was doing it.
When his eyes refocused on the pool, Susan Albright and his mother were cinched together in a mean embrace, like a statue, something unmovable. Their arms were strung with veins, pulsing blood the boy knew was hot, and the men were doing everything they could to keep their heads above the water and the women on their shoulders. Their chins dipped into the pool and their mouths filled with water they spit out while gasping for breath, while stumbling. But the men were still smiling on those heads attached to those straining necks. They were completely unaware, the boy thought, of how hard the women above them were going at it. Of how hard they were fighting to keep from going down.