Undertow – Peter Gooch

Selene sprinted down the steep, grassy slope that led to the beach. DB, always cautious—laden with beach chairs and their picnic hamper—called after her, “What’s your hurry? Lake Michigan’s been here for a couple of thousand years. It’s not going anywhere.”

“Catch me,” she shouted, looking back over her shoulder.

She waded out until the wavelets reached her thighs. The heat from a long mid-western summer lingered in the torpid shallows. Swells lapped at her like tongues, one after the other. She could feel him watching her, but she didn’t look back. She hoped he would follow her into the lake. The black two-piece bathing suit he had picked out for her in the city couldn’t hide the red welts on the back of her thighs from the night before.

She liked him, but he wasn’t right for her—not even a little bit. Perhaps that was the attraction, part of the fun of it. He’d told her he hadn’t dated much in college. That said a lot.

Inhaling a deep breath, she dove in. Silence closed around her. The only thing she could hear was her heartbeat and the sound of air bubbles from her mouth. She swam underwater for a long time. When she couldn’t hold her breath any longer she knifed upward. Surfacing, she flipped her hair out of her eyes and looked around. She was alone—no one in the shallows for a hundred yards in either direction.

Back home in England, swimming in the sea filled her with sorrow, reminding her of her how insignificant she was. A middle-class girl fresh from Nottingham University—Nothingham everyone called it. Nothing. Here in a huge lake in the middle of America, her youth and her perfection made her weightless. There was nothing she could not accomplish, nothing she could not become if she chose the right stories.

Farther toward the west, an old woman paddled a sea-kayak. Her broad, brown shoulders flexed as she expertly skimmed the kayak across the surface of the water.

The scene felt like something from another life. Growing old wasn’t something she could imagine. Not now. Not her. When she met DB, they had started down a path, the end of which neither of them could quite make out. It would be wonderful for however long it lasted. She knew it. If only he could be made to understand what they were doing.

Rolling onto her back, she angled in toward land. As soon as she could touch down, she scanned the shoreline. He was sitting in a chair at the edge of the water, wearing his broad-brimmed straw hat and his round-lensed sunglasses, the hamper open at his feet.

Far down the beach were scattered groups of vacationers. Couples walked along the shore, hand in hand, or with children in tow. There wasn’t a house on the ridge for a hundred yards on either side of his mother’s cottage perched high above the strand—high above everything. To the east lay the state park and its crowds. To the west was the steel mill, and then, a long way away, the towers of Chicago nearly lost in the blue autumn haze.

She turned and swam parallel to the shore, savoring the feeling of buoyancy, the rush of water across her skin, the heat of the sun. The word “limerence” pricked into her thoughts—the first bubbly tickle of obsessive attraction. That delicious feeling hadn’t happened to her in a long time. She could no longer picture a face.

By the time she reached shallow water again, she was breathing rapidly. Wading in toward the beach, the ridged surface beneath her feet and the weight of the water against her legs made her dig her toes into the fine sand until she reached the shingle of pebbles that marked an elemental boundary.

DB was waiting for her, nearly supine in one of the beach chairs. With his straw hat and old-fashioned sunglasses, he looked like a man wearing a bad disguise. Still young, barely thirty-five, he seemed to her a holdover from another time.

She picked up a towel from the empty chair and dried her hair, twisting it up in a knot. Drying off, she felt heat rising from the sand. In a couple of months there would be snow where she was standing. Turning his face up to her, he smiled and handed her a glass of chilled white wine.

She watched him watching her. “The lake’s so warm. You should go in.”

“Later.” His face looked flushed under the brim of his hat. A drop of liquid rolled from his temple down to his chin.

“You’re going to bake.” She sat down next to him. Above them arced the vault of the sky, blue, empty, limitless.

He looked at her over the rim of his wine glass. “Seeing you in the water made me remember that old Visconti film—the scene at the end, on the Lido beach.”

“Watching me made you think about pubescent Italian boys?” she laughed. “I must be doing something wrong.”

He said, “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know.” She let the mineral taste of the wine bathe her tongue. “Visconti, huh? You do know that you’re trapped in a world that’s not your own? It’s your mother’s world. Life didn’t stop in the eighties.”

He shrugged helplessly. “Mann is timeless. Anyway, it made me think about the equations of desire—wanting something so much you’d give up anything—you’d pay any price.” He gave her a look.

“Or, alternately, maybe wanting something only a little,” she said.

“Or that.” He dug his toes into the sand.

“Equations, eh? Ever the CPA.” She looked out over the water to the blue line of the horizon. “Does wanting a thing frighten you?”

He took a long drink from his glass, emptied it and poured himself another. “Makes me envious, actually.”

“You’re a romantic.” Selene unhooked her top. She let it drop onto her lap. Her nipples were hard. Her breasts were still good—high, full, no wrinkles yet. She settled back in the chair, letting the sun warm her. “One plus one, plus one equals one. There’s an equation for you.”

He gave her an ambivalent smile. “I think I’ve read that somewhere.”

“I saw a book of poems on a shelf at your place in Ann Arbor.” She cupped one breast in her palm. “Do you want to touch?”

He stared out at the lake, didn’t move. “Not here.”

A man wearing a baseball cap trudged past in calf-deep water. He looked at Selene, waved a desultory wave at them, and moved on.

She sipped her second glass of wine more slowly than she had the first, plucking absently at one nipple—teasing it erect. A tingle from the wine seeped all the way down to her toes. Making love the night before, he’d pulled out and sprayed all over her stomach. At the moment of ejaculation he’d given a little gasp of surprise. She’d wanted to laugh but didn’t.

DB sat up in his chair. “People will see you.” A tiny butterfly the color of lime custard landed on the brim of his hat. Above the rims of his sunglasses, his eyes followed the creature as it navigated the edge, wobbling when a breeze came. He avoided looking at her.\.

“Yes,” she said. “I don’t mind.” Squeezing the other nipple, she made it stand up like its mate. “Do you think I’m ugly?”

“Of course not. It’s just not what generally goes on around here.” He was smiling, but he looked uncomfortable. The green butterfly lifted off, skimmed the surface of the water and disappeared.

“I’d kind of guessed that.” She enjoyed the heat of the sun on her breasts—she enjoyed his discomfort. This would be something for him to remember later, at some point in the future. Maybe they’d still be together then—she didn’t think so.

Far out from the shore, the woman paddled back, her face hidden by huge, wraparound sunglasses—the kind only old people wore. Selene made no move to replace her top. Her eyes followed the rhythmic strokes of the paddle as the woman’s kayak glided across the surface.

DB flipped through a magazine on his lap. Two men and two women walked past. The men made no effort to hide their glances. The women stared straight ahead.

“You’re making a display—” He slid his sunglasses down his nose.

“What are you so worried about? Do I embarrass you?” Selene gave him a cool look, running her hands down the length of her thighs. She tugged a little at one of the ties that held the bottom of her suit together.

“I’m not embarrassed, I’m simply wondering what you’re doing—what the point is.” Suddenly, he sounded cross with her.

“No point.” She gazed up at the blankness overhead. “I just want to float a little more.” She stood up.

“Don’t go out too far. There could be a current—an undertow. People drown every day.”

“It’s just a lake. Not the ocean. Why don’t you come in with me?”

“I’m reading an article.” He held up the magazine.

“Suit yourself,” she said.

She dropped her glass in the deep sand and walked into the water, wading out until she reached the first drop-off where it felt cooler. Bouncing on tiptoe, letting the gentle swells lift her, she felt the riptide tugging around her ankles, teasing her out toward the middle of the lake. She pushed off the bottom and floated on her back above the current. Undoing the knot of her hair, she let it fan out in the water behind her.

When she finally looked, DB was still sitting there in the bright sunlight. Down the beach, toward the park, a group set up their chairs and coolers. She could hear their voices booming across the water. Two children wrestled in the shallows—high-pitched exultations carried on the breeze.

After a while, she felt a disturbance in the water nearby. DB had swum out to her. Thick hair plastered his head. Red eyed, he was breathing hard from swimming so far underwater

“You’re right, the water’s fine,” he said. Sinking under the surface again—he exhaled a chorus of bubbles.

Before he could come up, she undid the ties to her suit bottom and tugged it between her legs. When his head emerged, the bit of black cloth floated on the water between them.

Turning onto her back, she kicked toward shore. Her thoughts buoyed on the surface of the swells—transient, fragile as a breath. He would never know her. She would never tell him about the dreams that weighed her down late into the night.

***

Peter Gooch is a painter, a former professor of art, and writer, living in Corrales, New Mexico. He is the winner of the 2019 Bosque Press Prize for Fiction.