The girls lay out in the hot, tropical sun on hotel towels laid over the concrete. Their skin was darkened from the sun, glistening under a sheen of sunscreen and sweat, and they had undone the knots of their bikinis at the neck and spine and hips. At midday, the light was scorching, blindingly bright off the white concrete, but Howard’s eyes, though still squinted, had grown accustomed to it. Standing waist-deep at the far edge of the pool, he watched the girls, his eyes moving across them and returning, drawn each time to these subtle exposures: an unbroken line of skin from leg to ribs, the rounded edges of their small breasts. Beyond them was the pale green ocean, the sky hazy and storm-gray above; the hotel was separated from the bay only by a concrete wall and palm-lined walkway.
Howard took a long sip from the styrofoam cup of lukewarm coffee and rum he’d brought out from the hotel bar, then set it back on the edge. He had come to this developing Caribbean nation for a conference, the taxi from the airport taking him down what looked like an alley, then through a gate in a barbed-wire and wrought iron fence. He wondered if this – an ocean-view hotel with a pool and palm trees and girls lying in the sun – was what they meant by development.
Feeling the sun beginning to burn the skin on his shoulders, he lowered himself down into the water up to his jawline. The heat felt good, cleansing; Howard had never understood the people who went north on summer vacation. These girls across from him had it right. Since his role at the conference was minimal, he had looked forward to the trip as a vacation, a chance to get away from the office and from home. Over the past year or two, he and his wife together had grown apathetic, content to occupy the same life without sharing it. The process had been gradual, and Howard had only noticed when he found himself returning the flirtations of a coworker, without the stab of anxiety that Ellen might perceive a change in him. To Howard, this trip was as much an attempt to compel he and Ellen to notice each other again after his absence as it was to distance himself from the rising temptation.
The girl in the middle of the three reached her hands down toward her hips to find the strings to retie her suit, and Howard’s eyes snapped toward the motion, following her hands, watching if perhaps the gaps still left by her bikini might open more in the process. But she was careful, practiced at tying them without looking, and quickly had her exposures concealed. She rolled over and sat up, took a drink from a tall, sweating glass. Then she stood and walked up to the side of the pool and, clamping her nose between knuckle and thumb, stepped away from the edge.
By the time the wave of her entry rose up against Howard’s lips, she was swimming a casual breaststroke lengthwise across the pool, passing by him midway through each lap. Her hair was loose, slick when her head breached the surface, filamentous below, and Howard thought of mermaids and sirens, of river currents and the tide, and sailors lost at sea, who never knew they had drowned. He wanted to submerse himself completely and open his eyes underwater to see her better, wishing he had goggles; he wanted to swim forward and by intentional mistake collide with her, to stop her, to be noticed. The longer she swam, though back and forth, the farther away she seemed, and yet he didn’t want her to stop, either. Finally she did, standing hip-deep in the water as she squeezed water from her hair, then pushed herself up and turned to sit on the edge of the pool, glancing across it briefly in his direction.
Though she had already turned away, Howard smiled at her. In his mind, he hoisted himself out of the water and walked around the pool – or swam across it – to her, sitting beside her, standing in the water before her, talking with her. And with this thought he understood, that the sailors drawn down into the sea were not unaware that they were drowning. They knew, they just never thought to care.
About the Author:
Matthew Brennan is a writer and editor from the Pacific Northwest. He earned his MFA in fiction from Arizona State University, and serves on the editorial staffs of the Hayden’s Ferry Review and Speech Bubble Magazine. Brennan’s short fictions and literary translations have earned several awards and fellowships, and more than fifty of them have been published in journals and magazines, including Superstition Review, Two Lines, The Los Angeles Review, So To Speak, Per Contra, Emerge Literary Magazine, The Eunoia Review, Recess Magazine, and Fiddleblack. View his work, publications, and blog here: http://matthewbrennan.net