Moms at the Pool

by Melissa Benton Barker Read author interview December 19, 2016

She sits at the edge, the cement going at her bathing suit bottom like a cheese grater. One leg, she folds under, the other she dangles over the water like a fishing pole, a miracle of tiny droplets falling from her toenails when she lifts her foot.

Her little one, age six, has just discovered the diving board, so he takes to it over and over, in celebration and in grim determination. Thus she sits, here at the edge of the deep end, demonstrating her mild mistrust of the lifeguards and their shiny adolescent wonder and distraction.

They open and close the diving board at will, the adolescents. The six-year-old stands under them, eyes pleading, the gap between his teeth pleading. It’s like when he was a baby and pulled an all-nighter learning to pull himself up in his crib. He needs to get it done.

Just a few feet over, two women she’s never seen before are deep in conversation. One, like her, sits at the edge of the pool. She has golden hair and a face cut with deep, wide lines. Her face is much older than her hair. Her friend, who is totally submerged in the pool, all but her bobbing head, has a body like a buoy.

Golden says: “It was the first time I’d been on vacation with my kids in five years, so there was no way he was going to get away with it. I let him have it.”

The diving board is open again and six-year-old makes a run-walk for it. He stands in a long line of little ones, little string beans and rib cages, ready to take the plunge.

Two drowned bees circle her toes. She wonders if they could still sting. She makes little waves with the palms of her hands, to push them away, towards the children.

“I said, ‘This room smells like an ashtray and from the look of these sheets, my kids are gonna come out of here with crabs!’” says Golden.

The popular moms are on the other side of the pool, not-watching their children. One of them she’s supposed to be friends with, except that they ignore each other in public. The other one is the Queen of Them All. She wonders if they see her and deliberately ignore her, or if it’s simply that she fails to register.

Six-year-old on the diving board, always looking for her gaze. He pauses in the middle of the board, mid-run, as if waiting for her to stop spying on other mothers. He never opens his mouth but his eyes say: “Mom! Mom!” Then he runs, his body lifted, freezing in midair, one arm caught up, elbow crooked, palm splayed to the wind, knees bent against the water, and when he drops, he goes way down, body obscured, a lit-blue blur. He stays under just long enough for weak spark of worry. Then he pushes towards her through the water, slick fingers scrabbling at her knees.

She just has to give it this much attention. He’ll do it again and again.

“So he says, ‘Ma’am, we boil these sheets between guests. We boil them.’ And I say, ‘All right, you go right ahead and boil and I’ll sit here and watch you do it. I’m on vacation. I’ve got all day.’”

The popular moms rustle in the distant shadows, like animals. One of their husbands looks straight at her, she thinks. He sees her.

She decided that she would wear a bikini, so here she is in it. She decided because she is forty, and she figures from here on out it is all downhill. She lost the baby weight, years ago, but now a padding of fat has appeared. It’s fat from eating the generic brand ice-cream that her husband keeps in the freezer. She won’t even eat it with him. She says no thank you, primly, to make him think he’s the only one with these terrible habits, but then she eats it all alone in the kitchen, spoon to carton, the cheap sugar gritty against her teeth. She wears the bikini anyway. If she stands and tilts her hips just right, it doesn’t look half-bad.

Buoy-body asks her friend: “So did he?”

“Naw, but he took the price down by half. I said, ‘I’m not leaving without a deal.’”

But if she pitches her body forward the wrong way, a bit of fat slips over her bikini-bottom like a lip, an unhappy lip.

The teenagers close the diving board again. The six-year-old only has eyes for her. He swims towards her, kicking strong and straight, arms doing the crawl but barely breaking the water’s skin. A group of older boys make a run at the edge of the pool, make cannons with their bodies, fly over them, and when a foot catches the top of her son’s head, he goes down as they explode into the water. The water displaced by the older boys lifts in shards all around them, her son erased by the whirlpool of their velocity. Buoy-body slips under the rope that divides the deep from the shallow, moves deftly, brings her son up with an effortless loop of her arm, and deposits him at the side of the pool.

Her son grips the wall. His eyes say: “Mom! Mom!”  She cups the curve of his soaked, matted curls, and in this blink in all of time there is no one else in the world.

The popular moms lean back on their elbows. They bake themselves, eyes turned up towards the sun. She wraps her arms around her boy. His slick body cleaves to her as his tiny rib cage rises.

Golden shakes her head to clear the air and they all go right back to where they started. She says, “Believe you me, I wasn’t going nowhere without a deal. I said, ‘You can’t feed me a line like that. You can’t feed me a line.’”

About the Author:

Melissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University-Los Angeles. She lives and writes in a small town in Ohio. She has previously been published in the Manifest-Station and Literary Mama.

About the Artist:

More of Timothy Meinberg's photography can be found at Unsplash.

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