Construction Literary Magazine

January 2017 Writers Respond

Float

Float

Photograph via Flickr by dawn_perry

After graduating college and quitting Steak ’n Shake, Diana DeHart realized the greatest benefit of an office job was not having anywhere to be on a Sunday. This wasn’t a pleasure her mother, who worked weekends at Inspiration Hair, had ever experienced. It was Diana’s first summer in Chicago, and whittling away the afternoon over beers with her boyfriend, Danny Rubin, she had never been happier not to work in the service industry. It was late August, and hot, and they were drinking at Cedar Tavern. Danny had picked the place for its beer selection. He had all sorts of thoughts about artisanal brews and opinions on how hoppy an IPA should be. Diana drank whatever he ordered. She wasn’t picky about beer, but she did like the breeze that came off the lake and watching people walk by their table.

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” Danny asked.

“I don’t know, it’s a while away.”

“Well, what do you usually do?”

“Go back to Missouri to see my mom.”

Diana was from Willard, a small town outside of Springfield. When Danny had asked about where she grew up, she told him about Jason Pyrah, who ran the 1500 in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, and Lori Endicott, who played volleyball in 1992 and 1996. They had grown up in Willard too, and when Diana was a kid, they came to her elementary school and talked about the importance of hard work. The other people who made it out of Willard, which to Diana was their real accomplishment, never came back.

“Would you come to Miami with me? My parents want to meet you.”

They had been dating for eight and a half months. They both worked at Whittenberg and Olson, a big Chicago firm with three Michael Kellys on staff. Diana was a paralegal there and Danny was a lawyer. They had met at the firm’s holiday party.

The week before the party, Diana had the flu, and spent three days in bed, watching daytime television alone. The only person who knew she was sick was the head of human resources at the firm, whom Diana had called to ask for the time off. When she started feeling better, there was no one to tell at all; she just went back to the office.

She met Danny at the open bar, and they had a bunch in common—stealing the same kind of pens from the supply room, a mutual curiosity about the receptionist’s sex life. They ended up at Danny’s apartment, which was dustless and disordered, and it was good to be home with someone. She could have left it at a night, but Danny asked for her number.

Later, she found out that he had a regular housekeeper and that he’d noticed her when she started at the firm. His office was outside the photocopy bank she used, and he timed his bathroom breaks to walk by her. As cute as that story was, told to her after a bottle of very good wine on their third date, they kept their relationship a secret at the firm for five months.

She didn’t mind being a secret at the office. It was more fun that way. When they were alone in the copy room, he rubbed past her in ways that seemed innocent, and sometimes they met in the handicapped bathroom. She didn’t need more from him at work. She wasn’t lonely at the firm; she was busy there. It was during the evenings and weekends, when she stayed at home and came up with new equations to pay off her college debts, that she liked having a boyfriend. Then, Danny took her out of her apartment and to restaurants and on day trips. And even when she wasn’t with him, there was something about knowing she could text him, that someone wanted to know if she had gotten stuck at the dentist or if a magician had come on the ‘L’ and made a woman’s scarf disappear. Her mom didn’t have anyone like that, and Diana was happy to have found a way to avoid such loneliness.

She didn’t really know anyone else in the city. The friends from Willard stayed in Willard. Her friends from Mizzou moved to St. Louis or went back home.

The other paralegals were ok, but they were all waiting to hear back from law school. Diana didn’t want to become a lawyer. She was a paralegal because it paid well, and she didn’t know what she wanted beyond getting rid of her loans.

They came out at the firm’s Memorial Day picnic. In line for the Ferris wheel, Danny took her hand. She kind of liked them as a secret. She wasn’t ready to imagine a life with him, a life of leasing new cars and never being without healthcare.

Now at the bar, Danny was using the force of his blue eyes and looking at Diana intently.

“I’ll go to Miami,” she said.

She had never spent Thanksgiving with anyone but her mom, but she had never been invited to a boyfriend’s house before, either. Her mom would understand; she liked Danny. But then, he was easy to like: tall and not too handsome, with an even smile that opened up his whole face. Her mom had only met him once, when Danny drove Diana out to Willard for the 4th of July. At the firework show, he lit her cigarettes, got her drinks, and didn’t drink too much himself. But on the ride back to Chicago, he complained about the cigarette smell that clung to his clothes and commented on how many people were missing teeth. Diana never told her mom that Danny drank a lot, sometimes too much, and occasionally his parents helped him with his credit card when he forgot about the bill. There was something childish about him, as if he had never known the unpleasantness of being an adult, an innocence that Diana almost admired.

“Great,” he said, and went on about the family boat, and how excited he was to see his little sister, who would be back from Middlebury, and the family dog, Burger.

“He’s such a funny guy. He loves jumping into the pool, but once he gets in, he remembers that he hates swimming, and he’ll try to stand on whoever’s in the water. So you’ll have to be careful when you’re swimming with him. He can scratch you up pretty bad.”

He pulled out his cell phone, and showed Diana pictures of his family’s labradoodle that she had already seen.

She was already regretting agreeing to the trip. Meeting Danny’s parents was one thing. Meeting them in a kidney shaped pool was another. She had no girlish fear of how she would look in a swimsuit—she had generous proportions and a small waist. But she had only been in a bathing suit to tan, never to swim.

Danny didn’t know this. It hadn’t come up. In the months they had been together, there had been so few opportunities to be in the water. But in Miami, meeting Burger and the rest of the family, she would either have to swim or admit that she couldn’t.

Swimming wasn’t a big deal in Willard. Lots of other kids had moms who were too busy dealing with babysitters and ex-boyfriends to add swimming lessons to the schedule. Diana wasn’t afraid: during baths, she often stuck her head under the water without incident.

Across the table, Danny was just smiling. Sometimes he got like that. It was easy for Diana to picture him as a little boy, blowing bubbles into the water as his mom watched from the bleachers. She doubted Danny was particularly good at swimming. Swimming was just something he had grown up with that she hadn’t.

“Imagine how nice it’ll be to escape Chicago in the fall,” he said finally.

That night, alone in her apartment, Diana found a class that promised she would be able to swim by the holidays. The site had photos of a young man coaching women older than Diana, smiling as they waded in the shallow end of the pool. She already knew how to stand in water. But the classes started a week from then, and were on Wednesdays, the same day Danny had a poker game with his Northwestern frat brothers.

When she went to buy her swimsuit, she thought of her mom. They used to do every errand together. Diana had resented it at the time, even though the trips to the supermarket or the pharmacy were usually for her in some way. Back then, she wanted to stay at home and watch TV. Now, picking up chicken cutlets and Q-tips on her own, she realized how lonely such tasks could be, and she missed her mom most when she was shopping.

The first day of swim class was sort of like the ad. Diana was the youngest woman there, and the instructor, Josh, the same smiling one from the web site, had everyone stand belly button deep in the pool and put their faces in the water. A lot of the women were nervous about this. One of them said she was afraid the water would close in on her. But Diana liked the feeling. It made her believe she didn’t need anything, not even air.

In the locker room after class, Diana smiled at the other women changing. She could have been one of them, old and apple-shaped, learning how to swim because she was retired and there wasn’t much else to do. She was suddenly glad for Danny and this trip to Miami. She didn’t want to spend the rest of her life out of the water.

He had texted her while she was swimming, wanting to know what she was up to. There was a time when each text message from Danny was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her, and when he didn’t text her, she would hold her phone all night like a rosary. If she wanted to, she could text him back, and lead him to her place for the night. In the morning, they would have sex and eat cereal and he would wear the suit he kept in her closet to work. She looked at her hands. The pool had taken all their color and left them smelling like chlorine. She wrote back that she was already in bed.

That weekend, Danny took Diana to a Cubs game with his friends Ari and Rachael. He had known Ari since summer camp, and Rachael since Ari started dating her in college. But after Danny met Rachael, they realized that they knew plenty of the same people. Six kids from her high school went to Northwestern too, and her best friend from summer camp was from the same suburb of Miami as Danny was. This happened a lot to Danny. Another boy from his summer camp went to high school with one of his frat brothers and a girl in his first year law section had the same host family while studying abroad in Rome. It was only Diana who could connect to this world in one way, through Danny Rubin.

The Cubs were playing the Marlins, and Diana wore a teal tank top. She didn’t care about baseball, but was happy to dress for the visiting team to make Danny happy.

In the third inning, Rachael invited Diana to the bathroom. Looking in the mirror, Diana felt silly in her tank top. Baseball wasn’t like college football, when it had been enough to wear black and gold every Saturday for the Mizzou games. Rachael, in a Cubs jersey that went past her jean shorts, looked like a real fan.

“Are you excited to go to Miami for Thanksgiving?”

“Yeah, it’ll be nice to be somewhere warm in November.”

“God, I would love to get out of Chicago for the holidays. Last year, there was an awful snowstorm and Ari’s Uncle got into a car accident on the way to Thanksgiving. It wasn’t a super pleasant evening.”

“How long have you been celebrating Thanksgiving with Ari now?”

“Four years.”

“Wow,” Diana said.

Four years ago, Diana was a sophomore in college, and she took the bus to Willard for Thanksgiving. Lance, her mom’s boyfriend then, picked her up. They ate defrosted venison, and her mom and Lance smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey and cokes the whole day. She went back to school on Friday, saying she had to study. But really, she wanted the campus to herself. She organized her cabinets and went to the movies. That weekend, when the library was pleasant and quiet, when she went three days without talking to anyone, convinced her that she could go a lifetime alone. But in Chicago, before Danny, she had been lonely,

“Either he’ll propose or I wasted a lot of time watching ESPN and doing his laundry,” Rachael said.

The time was not wasted. In the seventh inning, Ari proposed on the scoreboard. Both of their parents were in the stadium, and after the game, the parents, the engaged, and Danny and Diana went out for drinks. There was a lot of joy that evening. Diana was happy for Ari and Rachael, the same way she was happy for a lost dog who found his way home after having been missing for weeks. A found dog, an engagement: these were good things. But she felt like she was on the edge of a memory. Years from now, looking back on the photos of the night, Ari’s mother might wonder who the girl in the teal top was.

That week at swim class, they learned how to float. The nothingness of floating confused some of the women, but Diana already knew how to rest on her back with her arms outstretched. She stared at the ceiling and imagined all the dust that had collected on the backside of the rafters. It might never get wiped away. She imagined herself as a speck of dirt, part of that city of dust; if she fell into the water, she could float. When she got home, she didn’t shower. She wanted to keep the smell of pool on her, a smell no one would recognize as her own.

On Saturdays, Danny liked to go to expensive restaurants. He called himself a foodie. Until she met Danny, she had never heard of Nutella, but the deconstructed version of it at Alinea turned out to be pretty amazing.

At Shwa, the waiters acted as if Diana’s comfort and opinion about the wine were things that mattered, as if she weren’t a kid who had been making French fries at Steak ‘n Shake a year before. It was like that at all the restaurants, and she began to expect the cappuccinos to arrive before dessert, and noticed when salad forks were not replaced with dinner ones.

“So, I bought our tickets for Thanksgiving,” Danny said.

Danny paid for almost everything they did. This didn’t bother Diana.  She had seen her mom support herself, and having Danny cover everything was easier. Besides, most of what he wanted them to do, like fly over Thanksgiving weekend, she couldn’t afford on her own.

“Have you ever taken someone home for Thanksgiving?” Diana asked.

“No,” he said, and jerked his chin up and grinned. Diana didn’t like to interrupt that look either, and when he started talking about visiting a restaurant in Spain, she didn’t stop him. She had never been to Europe, and if Danny wanted to take her there for a dinner, why should she object?

Afterward, back in his apartment, they lay in bed and played with each other’s hair; his was soft and brown, fine like a child’s. Danny repeated the story of seeing her at the Christmas party—she was wearing a red dress and he knew he had to talk to her. It was the kind of nonsense that usually preceded sex, but when Diana kissed him, he rolled over and fell asleep in his clothes. He drank too much at these restaurants, and the cappuccino, even if it came before dessert, didn’t always help.

Danny had given her a key to his apartment last month. She didn’t think he was losing interest, but she had never been with someone long enough for sleep to become more appealing than sex. Sex with Danny had always been different. He was the first man who was as concerned as she was that she not get pregnant. He was also the first one to make her come. While she had enjoyed sex before Danny, she now saw the point to it. But sometimes coming made her feel far from him. She had shared a goal with those bare-chested boys from Willard and Mizzou. Their orgasm felt like something she was apart of. Danny always wanted them to come together, but Diana didn’t care about timing. With Danny, she only thought about herself.

On the way home from her swimming class, she saw Josh on the ‘L.’ His eyes were red from chlorine and a tuft of chest hair came through the V of his collared shirt. For the first time, she noticed he was handsome, with thick lips and a strong nose.

“You’re fearless,” he said to her.

That day was the first time the class swam without his help, and Diana was the only one who made it across the width of the pool, though her limbs flailed about the whole way and she was out of breath when she reached the wall.

“Water isn’t so bad,” she said.

“Well, most of the class is scared of it.”

For a moment Diana let herself feel proud that she was not afraid. It was only resources, not will, which had circumscribed her life. Once she paid off her loans, she could do anything.

“So why are you only learning now?” Josh asked.

She didn’t want to mention Danny. She didn’t want Josh to know that she had a boyfriend, and that her boyfriend wouldn’t understand that she came from a place that didn’t include the time and money for swimming lessons. But she ended up explaining about Thanksgiving in Miami and the pool and Danny’s assumptions anyway, because that was the truth, and to pretend otherwise was a waste of both their time.

“What does your boyfriend think you’re doing on Wednesday nights?” Josh asked.

“I’m not sure. He plays poker on Wednesdays, and what I do hasn’t come up.”

Diana looked away and watched the skyline from the window of the train. Whenever she saw the Wright Building, or the Willis Tower, or enough buildings together that each one’s height no longer seemed like an architectural feat, but like a different, taller world, she reminded herself that this was what she had wanted, to live among skyscrapers, and now she was.

“When did you learn to swim?” she asked.

“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t swimming. And in high school and college, that was all I did with myself. ”

“Were you good?”

“I used to think so. I was fast in high school anyway. But then at Michigan, there were guys who had tried out for the Olympics and I was pretty slow compared with them.”

“But you stayed with it?” Diana asked.

“I didn’t want to give up my scholarship. But really, I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I always swam, you know?”

Diana nodded, though she had never had a verb attached to her identity like that. Maybe if she had learned to swim earlier, things could have been different. Maybe she would have been good. Maybe a school would have paid her to swim there. Then she wouldn’t have had any loans and she wouldn’t have had to become a paralegal, but then she wouldn’t have met Danny. It was easy to imagine the swimmer she could have been without having to do any of the work. And anyway, this fantasy included a mom who could drive her to practices and meets. Diana’s mom barely had time for grilled cheese and canned tomato soup. She might as well imagine her life as a bobsledder.

“All that swimming, I don’t know if it got me anywhere,” Josh said. “It’s not such a big deal, swimming.”

“Not for anyone who knows how to do it.”

When the lessons with Josh ended, Diana signed up for a technique class on Thursdays, and this time, told Danny where she was. The people there were not apple-shaped, but runners and cyclists who wanted to swim too. They had all learned as children, but Diana was better than they were. Their years of wading in lakes and pools had left them with bad habits to overcome. She took up lap swimming, and her time at the pool replaced the time she used to spend on an Excel spreadsheet, organizing her debt. Whenever she reached the edge of the pool, she caught her breath and wondered if she had sweated at all. On the nights when she had the pool to herself and had tired of laps, she would force herself to the bottom of the deep end and sit in the corner, holding her breath, feeling the pressure against her ears, and refusing to be afraid.

Diana and Danny had already been to two weddings together, but Ari and Rachael’s engagement party felt different. Kate and Justin and Elizabeth and Greg hadn’t noticed she was there. She was just a date, drinking at the bar. But at an engagement party there was the expectation that Diana would still be around for the wedding. Diana wasn’t sure where she would be in twelve months. Hopefully, closer to paying off her debt. Being with Danny—that would be all right too.

The party was at the University Club. Diana had been there before, for an event against cancer and another time for a charter school. Danny gave money away sometimes, and got tickets to those kinds of things. The party for Ari and Rachael felt like another charity ball. There were the same flowers, the same open bar, the same men in bowties handing out pastries on silver platters.

“You’re here!” Rachael said to Diana as they checked their coats.

“Of course we are here,” Danny said.

“You look beautiful,” Diana said.

“Ugh, God. I can’t eat anything in this dress,” Rachael said to Diana, and grabbed her hand like they were little girls and led her away.

“Ari’s parents are driving me crazy. They’re already pushing for a kosher wedding. We’re still deciding on the locations, and they want to make sure we don’t serve cheeseburger sliders as an appetizer.”

“You don’t eat meat.”

“Yeah, but I’m so over the whole yarmulke thing.”

“Don’t let it get to you,” Diana said.

“I know. This should be fun.”

“Everything that should be fun never is.”

An older woman with thick lipstick came over to kiss Rachael, and Diana went to the bar. Her life in Chicago was full of free food. It wasn’t like that in Willard. In Missouri, she’d joined the Young Catholics for the rice krispie treats they served after prayer. But now, some organization—her law firm, a non-profit, Ari and Rachael’s parents—was always spending more than she could imagine for a night of free drinking, and she wasn’t inured to the opportunity of an open bar.

But on her way there, she saw Josh. It always surprised her to run into someone in Chicago. The city still felt too big for coincidences.

“What are you doing here?”

“That’s some hello from my favorite swimmer,” he said. “I went to camp with Ari’s little brother. I’ve known the Rosenfelds my whole life.”

So Josh was part of the same world as Danny, a place where childhood included infinite time and infinite money. But now she was apart of it, too. Her boyfriend was going to be the best man at this wedding; the bride told her secrets about catering.

“Then you must know my boyfriend, Danny. He went to camp with Ari.”

“Danny Rubin? That guy stole the keys to the Bob-mobile.”

“What is a Bob-mobile?”

“Well, the owner of the camp was named Bob, and we called his golf cart the Bob-mobile. ”

He touched her arm, and she could feel the remains of chlorine on his fingers. She could see that he was pretending, working as a swim instructor. Giving up his weeknights to teach swimming and his Sundays to lifeguard was just a break for him, a time to figure things out before going to law school or medical school or doing whatever he would do to make sure his children could swim and go to summer camp and forever be meeting people a few steps away from where they had started. In five years, he would be no different than Danny.

“So what’s our lie?” he said.

“What?”

“How do we know each other?”

“There’s no need to lie. People will assume we studied abroad together or something,” she said.

From across the bar, Danny shouted, “Babe. We’re doing Irish Car Bombs. Want one?”

She didn’t like him drunk. He didn’t become angry or mean. He just forgot how to take care of himself. He assumed cabs and coats would materialize, and stumbled around until they did, which was how the night ended. He told Ari how much he loved him, while Diana gathered their things and found him a Vitamin Water for the ride home.

“That could be us,” he said in the cab.

“What?”

“Us,” he said. “Ari and Rachael. Having an engagement party. We could have an engagement party.”

“We’d have to be engaged first.”

“I know. But we could be. Don’t you think?”

“And then be married?”

“Yeah, engaged and then married. We could do the whole thing, all the parties. You’re so pretty,” he said, and patted her on the head. “And I love you so much. Babe—is there anything to drink in this cab?”

Diana handed him the Vitamin Water and looked at him, his beard already growing in from the morning’s shave, his too big nose, his thick cheeks. Here was a life she could have, one where Danny took care of her loans, and they got married. He would make partner at the firm and she would go back to school to be a nurse or a nutritionist. There would be babies, and she would take some time off from her job to care for them. Maybe they would move to Florida, to be closer to his family, and they would fly her mom out for the holidays. Diana would go back to work eventually, but not before the kids learned how to swim. She’d probably get to go to that restaurant in Spain too. Maybe they would have to talk about Danny’s drinking, but he would probably find a way to moderate it on his own. That life wouldn’t be bad. It would be more than what she had started with anyway.

They didn’t swim at all in Miami. It rained all weekend. Later, the smell of air-conditioned air and citrus would always remind her of Danny’s house and that weekend, when Danny’s mom whispered to her that the vegan pie had butter in the crust, when Burger slept in her bed, and when, on the way to the airport, Danny held her hand while his parents argued about the traffic, and she decided to stay with the life she saw in front of her.