Fix your gaze on a point on the other side of the swimming pool instead of on your husband or the woman he’s watching. The silver birch at the edge of the fence separating the pool from the parking lot is oddly shaped so give the tree a glance as if you’re amused by the angular bend of its branches. Read aloud the rules for the hotel pool from the sign at the entrance—“no drinking pool water” and “no running or unnecessary noise.” Make a joke. This will distract your husband momentarily. He will chuckle and reach across the small gap between your deck chairs to touch your wrist. When he rests his head against the back of his chair, then turns to watch the woman again, do not follow his stare. Do not pretend to clear your throat or sneeze. Do not say, “Please stop; you’re killing me.”
The sun seems to pool on the surface of the water, gleaming. Admire the view. Hum calmly to yourself as if all is right with the world. Glance at the back of your husband’s head—turned away from you, turned toward the woman—and imagine running your fingers across the back of his neck. Imagine him turning his head, opening your palm against his mouth and kissing the inside of your hand. Imagine him setting his eyes on you as he pulls your chair closer to him. Tell yourself he loves you because he does.
But look at her. Slide your sunglasses down the bridge of your nose and look. Past the sprawl of deck chairs and upturned sandals and beach towels twisted on the pavement, look at that woman sitting in a blue sky bikini at the edge of the pool as she swishes her legs back and forth in the water. White thighs, white shoulders, white cheeks, warmed and honeyed by sun. It’s hard not to see her as you imagine your husband sees her: flaxen hair rippling down the valley between her shoulder blades and lifting with each slight breeze. She smiles as her girlfriends splash around in the water, an easy grin that doesn’t tremble with uncertainty the way you imagine your smile sometimes does. Golden, she is. A romance. Another beam of heavenly light pooling on the earth.
Your husband will not stop looking. The woman is stunning; you don’t blame him. But he’s crossing a line. Say, “How about San Francisco for our next trip?” Say, “Should we try tapas again for dinner tonight?” But do not say, “Please stop; you’re killing me.”
Remember that he moved across the ocean from France to become your husband (you will feign amusement later when he tells you it was his culture that made him look). Remember the times he hugged your body against his to stop you from walking out after arguments. Remember how tightly he embraces you when you fall asleep together, how he always reaches for you during the night. This man has chosen you. He holds on. So what if he looks at other women sometimes.
He’s scaring you now because he’s looking at this woman with such certainty, such focus that she feels his eyes at the small of her back and turns. Their gazes fix on one another. Now they’re part of one another’s worlds. For a moment, they want each other completely. The woman begins to move for him—arching her back, trailing her fingers through her damp hair, shifting her head so the blonde tumbles over her shoulder then toweling it even though she doesn’t seem to have the need. This is for him. He knows and watches.
You feel sick. Take a sip of water. Ignore the wrenching in your belly and the shame you imagine you’ll feel later that night when he fucks you, opens his eyes, and becomes disappointed to see you instead of her. Take another sip. Stop looking.
Remind yourself that he loves the way your brown skin deepens to copper when the sun heats it. Remind yourself that he loves the way the knots and coils of your black hair catch his fingers when he tries to run them through. He loves the thickness of your thighs, the fullness of your mouth. Begin to forgive because he can’t possibly understand why this act of watching is so violent. He’s never known the brown girl you once were—black father, white mother—who grew up surrounded by white. He’s never known the girl who looked into her mother’s blue eyes and wondered if a day would come when her own eyes would lighten and skin would turn peach so she could be like all the other girls and get love. He’s never heard the way other children once teased that girl about her fleshy cheeks and mouth and ass and thighs. He’s never seen that girl standing in front of a mirror wondering when those cheeks and mouth and ass and thighs would narrow or pulling those untamed kinks from her hair. He’s never seen that girl’s white baby dolls. He’s never thought about how long it took that girl to become this wife stretched out like a lioness on the chair beside him. He doesn’t now know how hard it is to keep that tormented little girl quiet.
You wonder what it would be to tell him, what tie it might bind. But your life has been punctuated by moments like this one—these moments of being eclipsed—and nothing you have ever said or done has turned anyone’s eyes away from the light to see you in the dark. You’ve learned how much safer it is to pretend not to care. So bite your tongue. Act as if the odd angle of a tree branch is more interesting than the golden hair on which your husband’s eyes have landed.
You want to retrieve his gaze but what usually works to entice him does not work today: pointing your toes to stretch your legs—hers are longer; running your fingers over your thick thighs—hers are slender; pursing your heavy lips—hers are lean. So lure him into the pool. He’ll come. When you get him into the water, wrap your legs around his waist and pull him against you but not hard enough to make him wonder. Tilt your head upward so the sun flickers in your dark eyes. Do not go under the water. If you do, two things will happen. One, your husband might take those moments to look at the woman again and want her more. Two, and this is much worse, when you come up for air, your hair will curl and kink and shrivel up. Wither. And your husband might look at the woman again and see the slick of blonde hair falling down her slight pale back and forget you’re there.
The woman has already forgotten if she ever noticed you at all. She’s in the pool now, swimming toward you and the man you love. The water mirrors her blue eyes and trickles down the slick of blonde hair. And there’s that smile made without struggles. Your legs are wrapped around your husband’s waist, your arms around his neck. Yet this woman is so sure of herself, so sure of him she doesn’t care.
“She’s coming,” you tell your husband. Now he remembers you. He senses you again. He takes you by the hand and you slide along the cold water behind him as he leads you to the other side of the pool. He takes you in his arms, turns his back to the woman, kisses your shoulder.
“I like how you shine when the sun hits you,” he says. “It loves you almost as much as I do.”
Likely, he thinks you’ve just noticed his watching her. Likely, he thinks he’s concealed it well. You want to scream but keep your chin lifted. Pretend nothing has happened. You’re good at this. Marriage has that effect.
The woman stops swimming. She treads water. Watches you with blue eyes glimmering then scans your husband’s back. Keep your eyes on him. Rub your nose against his. Laugh. She needs to know she hasn’t made a difference.
Your husband nuzzles you, cradles your back, passes his lips over your collarbone. He says San Francisco would be nice. Says he’s not in the mood for tapas. Tell him you are. Tell him it’s what you want. He owes you now, whether he realizes or not.
When your husband climbs out of the pool and returns to his deck chair, watch carefully, as he drops into the chair and dries his face with a towel. He no longer looks at the woman. Instead, he reads his book, suns, takes a light nap. The woman passes but he doesn’t notice. He’s come back to you. It’s over now. Breathe. Swim a couple laps to loosen the pressure in the center of your chest so it doesn’t drag you to the bottom of the pool.
Linger in the water. Let the sun dry the wet from your face and shoulders because you like how it feels. Walk to the deep end of the pool, pushing against the flow. Take in the clean, cold scent of chlorine, the sound of water lapping against the concrete edges of the pool, the soft streams coursing between your legs. You love the water. You’ve loved it since the first moment you jumped into an ice-cold pool as a girl and discovered that if you stayed, the water would warm you. What was challenging was learning to float. You learned you could either brace your body against the shivery surface and sink, or relax and let the water carry you.
Lift your toes from the bottom of the pool. Glide onto your back. And spread your limbs out like a star.
Rumpus original art by Peter Manges.