It broke above the surface of the water and floated there. There was no extension of hip. No gluteal clench. No lift of long white legs and curled feet that might then plunge into the spine’s arch, pushing a perfect head above the chop. No hands to rub salt from eyes. No eyes. No hair to whip a spray. Nothing but a woman’s bottom bobbing on the water.
There were people on less lonely stretches of sand not so far away they wouldn’t hear if I yelled with all I had. Instead, I looked at the extraordinary object and wondered what one can do with what one can’t see when there is so much of that. We fill unknowing with make believe. We’re so remarkably good at it, we almost get by. We think we do. It’s like surviving under water by pretending to breathe.
I told myself she had been on a boat with her sister. It was a small vessel steered by the throttle arm coming off the motor. The engine was off. They had wine and wanted to drift. That was her idea. She had slept with her sister’s husband a month earlier while her sister was in New York shepherding a group of eighth-graders on a class trip. She wanted that off her chest.
When they were halfway through the second bottle, she told her sister about the husband. Her sister said she was all right with it. She asked her sister how that could be true. And when her sister asked, in turn, if she wanted her to be angry, she said yes. But you’re still my sister, her sister said.
So she described that night a month ago when she and her sister’s husband were watching Bogart and Bacall in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. There was wine then, too. Near the end of the film, when Bacall swayed her hips and folded into Bogart’s arm while Hoagie Carmichael played piano, she got off the couch to imitate the move and liked the way her sister’s husband looked at her. He was obvious. She finished her glass, stepped between his legs, and knelt to undo his belt. He stroked her hair.
Her sister sat on the gunwale, splashing feet in the water. We should swim. She replied, you’re not listening. How can you not listen? I’m too upset with you to swim. Her sister laughed. Come on. We’ll take turns. One of us should stay in the boat. All right, she said stiffly. Turns.
I walked away from the ocean and through the sawgrass at the beach’s edge to sit on the lawn of a big house where an exaggerated dog barked through a glass wall. I could still see the woman’s bottom from there. Smaller. Compressed. I wondered if it would sink after a time, or if other bottoms would float to the surface like that one had done. Twenty. A hundred and more. Until the ocean was thick with them.
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