My mother married Lou on my twelfth birthday. She pointedly ignored me as I moped and pouted and flounced around our hotel room in a display of martyred persecution. When I grumbled that the wedding would be a distraction from the festivities that ought to have been my due that year and in all future years, she stared me down and said, “Consider your new stepfather your birthday present.”
The wedding was held in a church of epic proportion. As the reluctant flower girl, I made the long walk down the aisle past rows of polished mahogany pews, under a heavenly buttressed ceiling. I was wearing a new pair of highly coveted high heels, every step an embarrassing hobble, unused as I was to their strange imbalance and the way my crammed toes were forced to bear the weight of all my body’s gravity. I chafed inside a rose-colored taffeta dress topped with an itchy-sleeved bolero jacket.
At the reception, I sulked quietly at my table, my shoes kicked off, lying concealed beneath the folds of the damask tablecloth. I was seated beside my Aunt Margot who pretended not to notice me stealing sips of her champagne. She must have had a few glasses herself because at one point she pulled me close enough so I could smell the sweet burn of her cigarettes and whispered, “Aren’t you just going to be the luckiest little princess,” and then, staring at my mother sitting beside her new husband, Lou, at the sweetheart table, “And he’s not even all that bad looking.”
Lou Bianchi’s hair was bone white and thinning, the shiny skin of his scalp catching the light when he bent over to whisper into my mother’s ear. He wasn’t fat, but he had a fleshy slackness that reminded me of Play-Doh. I thought he looked pretty bad but I chose not to share that with my aunt and risk her unglazed eyes narrowing their focus wholly on me. Seated in her high-back chair, my mother was holding court, her mouth wide in delight as she greeted her guests and accepted their flattery and congratulation. Even I could see she was extraordinarily beautiful with long raven black hair framing her elfin face and a petite, lithe figure like a ballerina. Next to her, I thought Lou looked like something that had risen from a crypt.
A week before the wedding, my mother quit her job as a waitress and she and I moved out of our apartment on a seedy street in Glenn Oaks and into Lou’s six-bedroom mansion in a prosperous subdivision of Calabasas. We hadn’t packed much, just a few boxes of clothing and some of my mother’s more expensive shoes. All the furniture would stay—my tufted white headboard and small writing desk, my mother’s wooden vanity table, the third-hand grubby couch with pilled corduroy armrests—to be picked up the next day by a service that removed and disposed of unwanted items for a fee. “This is what money can do,” my mother said triumphantly. “You don’t even have to take care of your own trash.”
My room in the new house was about the size of our whole apartment and had a canopy bed with swaths of baby pink tulle held in place by twee satin bows like something out of a fairytale. An oversized stuffed white unicorn stood beneath a bay window, the golden fabric of its tiered horn glinting prismatic in the sun streaming through.
“How old does he think I am?” I groused, my hands crossed over my chest. Lou had retreated to his office, leaving us to unpack.
“People without children don’t know how to gauge age and interests. He’s just trying to make you feel welcome.” She walked over to the stuffed unicorn and stroked its rainbow-colored mane. “It’s not like you have to sleep with it.”
It didn’t take us long to unpack my clothes; my jeans and black t-shirts—attire perfectly conformist in Glenn Oakes—looked dark and gothic hanging on white satin hangers. I pressed a small switch on the underside of one of the shelves and a strip of lights illuminated, shining directly on the clothes like they were actors on a stage. Even after all my clothes were out of the boxes, the closet was only a quarter full, the lights shining down on an all but empty theatre. “We’ll buy you some new things,” my mother said. She fingered the fraying hem of my faded Old Navy sweatshirt where the ribbed fabric had torn to reveal the encased white elastic band. She wiggled her pinkie finger through the hole. “It’ll be fun,” she said.
We went to the same mall as usual but this time my mother led me into different stores, ones where every polished surface shone to high gleam under too bright lights and where the racks were filled with the types of clothing the other girls in my new Calabasas school wore: A-line mini dresses and sweatpants with midriff baring crop tops that flattered their toned belies and twiggy legs. I had seen my mother studying the other girls, making scrupulous invisible notes as she watched them ascend the grassy knoll into the school building when she dropped me off and picked me up, always being careful to follow the prescribed carpool instructions—no parking, no lingering, follow the direction of traffic—even though many of the other mothers stopped and got out of their cars to chat as if the rules did not apply to them.
“Look,” my mother said standing me in front of the dressing room mirror. “You have such a beautiful natural shape.” She pinched her fingers around my waist. “If only you could lose a few pounds, you’d be a perfect hourglass. You see?”
I did see. My shoulders were broad, hulking, my hips wide and rounded, my stomach thick and doughy. My hands and feet were cartoonish, clown-sized on long gangly limbs. I had grown four inches that summer, my body rocked by the onset of puberty. And while my mother had been busy being charmed by Lou, I had stayed home in our apartment baking Duncan Hines brownies, liberally eating the leftover batter in the bowl with my fingers. In the mirror, the slender, pixyish frame of my mother stood behind me, and I saw I had swelled into something large and beastly—the ogre to her ingenue.
“Don’t worry. We’ll get you into shape.” My mother smoothed down the folds of the white pointelle sweater she had encouraged me to try on. The fabric pulled obscenely over my chest, gaping open between the pearled buttons down the front. “You are going to look so beautiful,” my mother said, handing me back my hooded sweatshirt with the words Not a Girl Scout printed in spikey lettering across the chest. “We have a new life here. It’s important that we fit in.”
It took a while for us to settle on the right fitness routine. At first my mother enrolled me in the Calabasas country club soccer program. She stood on the side lines cheering me on as I ran haphazardly across the field missing the ball when, at last, and usually to my surprise, I came close enough to swing my foot at it. I didn’t really mind the soccer practices, even if I was hopeless at the game. I liked the smell of freshly cut grass and the girls showed me how to braid my wet hair at night and sleep in it so that the next morning it would look crimped and tousled in a way I thought was fetchingly avant-garde. But my mother could only handle the demoralizing effects of my performance on the pitch for so long. “All this running around isn’t working for you,” she said. “You need something more targeted.”
Lou had a dedicated exercise room in the basement of the house, across the hall from a built-in metal steam sauna left by the previous owners. The exercise room was outfitted with an ancient stationary bike and a bulky treadmill covered in dust, its thick black plug trailing behind it unplugged on the floor like a rat’s tail. My mother went to work purchasing a set of weights with a matching rack, a step machine, a new treadmill and an elliptical machine. She showed off the newly updated gym to Aunt Margot when she came over one afternoon. “Jesus, Dee Dee”—my aunt was the only one who called my mother Dee Dee—“this must have cost a fortune.” She pressed buttons at random on the treadmill and the belt sprang to life with purposeful efficiency. “He just lets you buy whatever you want?”
My mother shrugged her shoulders and tossed her hair. It was obvious to me she enjoyed this version of herself: carefree, capricious spender. “Pretty much. He’s happy if I’m happy,” she cooed. My aunt opened the glass French doors leading into the backyard and stepped outside. My mother did not allow her to smoke inside the house. She lit her cigarette, taking a drag as she stood facing the view: the Saltillo flagstone patio, the carpeted expanse of green lawn still freshly striped by the landscaper’s lawn mower, the blue stretch of the infinity pool, and beyond, the whole grand crown of the Calabasas mountains range. She exhaled a plume of grey smoke. “Happily ever fucking after,” she said and tipped the ash into a nearby potted topiary.
My mother took me to a hairdresser who fussed over my frizzed locks before applying chemicals that made my scalp tingle. She sent me home with the instructions not to let anything touch my hair for twenty-four hours and to sleep sitting up for two nights. But I fear I am implying that I was an unwilling participant in all this zealous reform and that would not be entirely true. I too was fully enchanted by the promise of my impending transformation. I had watched enough movies to know the redemptive effects of wardrobe upgrades and a good haircut, the way an ugly duckling like myself could be made irresistibly alluring in a montage minute. The twelve-year-old me just hadn’t expected it to be so much hard work.
Along with the new gym, my mother purchased lessons with a private fitness instructor named Ken, like the doll. Ken came over Tuesday and Thursday afternoons after school to “exercise our bodies and our minds” as he put it. He had remarkably white teeth and a big blocky head. I imagined a personal trainer would be dressed in tight spandex like Richard Simmons, but Ken always wore a starched button-down shirt tucked into a pair of chinos as if he was on a job interview at a bank. After my mother displayed her spindly arms for Ken’s assessment with affected embarrassment, Ken announced she needed to “bulk up” and began her on a regiment of lifting weights. He put me on the treadmill to “exercise my heart muscles” which I guess I did because I spent most of the session slow walking on the treadmill, fantasizing unlikely scenarios in which I made out with a boy in my class who I was crushing pretty hard on. Andrew had offered me the last of his chocolate milk at lunch the week before and I responded to this small kindness with an unbridled, though highly secreted, passion.
Two or three months went by, and my mother’s arms remained spider-leg thin, and other than perfecting half a dozen intricately choregraphed scenes in which Andrew professed his undying love before taking me roughly in his arms, I too remained unchanged. My mother’s grand epiphany happened while I was lounging on a deck chair in the backyard by Lou’s Olympic sized pool, reading The Great Gatsby for school where we were learning about the American dream.
She clapped her hands together. “I’ll sign you up for swim lessons,” she said.
“I already know how to swim,” I said, laying the book open on my lap.
“Exactly. It’ll be easy. And you can practice in the pool. It’s heated and it’s a shame no one uses it.”
That night she had me watch the movie Million Dollar Mermaid. We passed a bowl of unbuttered popcorn between us, sitting on Lou’s plush L-shaped white sofa, which was so deep, when I sat back against the cushions, my feet didn’t reach the floor.
“Look at those legs,” my mother said, eyes fixed on the Technicolor screen.
The women leapt into the water tank from suspended swings in graceful arcs, their feet pointed, their arms curved over their heads. They wore sparkly yellow swimsuits and crimson red lipstick. When the camera panned in close, you could see how much fun they were having by their open-mouthed smiles and the charming tilt of their heads. It seemed conceivable that I too could be one of those glowing mermaids, flashing my perky smile, twinkling bright as a star as I was raised up above a sea of tanned, toned legs, impossible for anyone to ignore.
“We were born in the wrong era, Lilibeth,” my mother said, squeezing my shoulder. “Look how glamourous women used to be.” She stretched out her legs and pointed her polished toes, wiggling her feet back and forth like she was treading water. “Those women had real class.”
My friends at school cautioned me against participating in my school’s ultra-competitive swim team and besides, I was not good enough to make the team anyway. My mother found an alternative, a private swim school, part of a larger chain, where you could pay for monthly lessons. In the busy afterschool hours, every lane was occupied by instructors and their students, all of whom were younger than me. There was even a pool off to the side for one- and two-year-olds accompanied by their mothers—it was always mothers then—and always the one mother with something to prove on display in a string bikini. Students were sorted together by age and skill level, each group comprised of a four to one ratio and a cutsie aquatic-themed moniker like Octopus or Jellyfish or Grouper.
Like my mother, I had fallen hard for the romance of swimming but, of course, swim class was nothing like an Esther Williams movie. We didn’t make stars with our legs or emerge from the water carried on an incandescent wire platform in the shape of a seashell. And we certainly weren’t held aloft by a male swimmer clad only in red underwear while we lay on our backs, fluttering our limbs through the water in dreamy strokes. Instead, we learnt to slice through the water with strong, rhythmic strokes, to modulate our breathing, to power ourselves forward with the force of our thighs and the quick pulse of our feet.
By virtue of my advanced age, I was assigned to the oldest group, Sharks, and was expected to already know the basics of back and breaststroke. When I jumped into the water and swam the width of the pool, the instructor, a boy with pocked acne scars and a slight overbite, grimaced like I had stuck a needle between his eyes. “Like this,” he said. He waded over to me—the water was shallow enough to stand in—and rolled me onto my side. He brought my arm up over my head, pressing on my elbow to keep it locked, and guided it down to the water as he eased me back over onto my stomach, so my face was submerged. I reached the end of the pool and hoisted myself onto the pool’s ledge, my legs dangling in the water. “You feel the difference?” he asked. I nodded, but I could only feel the shock of having a boy, almost a man, touch my hip and waist, his mouth so close to the back of my neck. Chris wore swimming trunks and a long-sleeved rash guard, but I was in a one-piece black bathing suit my mother had picked for the occasion because it was “slenderizing.” Suddenly, I felt wildly conscious of the wet fabric cutting tightly at the crotch.
Parents sat on the other side of a glass-walled partition, watching their children paddle through the water and blow bubbles, waving at them when they could catch their eye. My mother made sure to come early so she could sit in the front row wearing her driving glasses to better track my progress. Anytime I looked up, she was staring at me intently, hungrily. She didn’t wave.
“Make your arms strong, not bendy like a noodle,” she coached me as we walked through the parking lot to the car after the lesson. She windmilled her arms around her face.
Water from my lank hair dripped down the back of my shirt. “If you’re so good at it, why don’t you join the swim team.” I opened the door to the front passenger seat of her new SUV.
“Wait,” she said. She spread out two towels, one on the seat and one on the back of the chair, protecting the car’s leather interior.
I climbed inside.
“I’m just saying, these lessons aren’t cheap. Just try your hardest.”
“You’re not even paying for them.” I reached up to change the radio station on the car’s console.
“You have no idea what I pay for,” my mother said slapping my hand away.
By the end of the month, two girls had graduated from Sharks. They were awarded a blue ribbon at the end of their last session and fêted with perfunctory applause by the swim school staff. Their spots were quickly filled by a gentle obese boy with flabby pancake breasts who had to sit out most classes because of chronic nose bleeds and another boy who looked a lot like Andrew—same white, almost translucent, skin and fine downy hair on his upper lip. I instantly felt a desperate infatuation for the boy, assiduously nourished on a steady diet of sly side-glances and PG-13 fantasies. I thought my attraction to Damien who so closely resembled Andrew spoke highly of me as a burgeoning sophisticate. I had “a type,” and what could be more sophisticated than that?
Thanks to Chris’s tenacious efforts and my own resolve not to make a fool of myself in front of the other members of my swim class, my form was slowly, but unquestionably, improving. I could swim the length of the pool in quick practiced strokes, could feel the wingspan of my arms carving through the silken water with purpose, could do a flip turn off the wall of the pool rocketing my body with the powerful contraction of my legs. Much to my mother’s gratified delight, I practiced my technique swimming laps in Lou’s swimming pool every afternoon after school. Sometimes my mother would sit out on the lounge chair reading a magazine, looking up occasionally to toss out criticisms designed to encourage. Keep your feet pointed she’d say, flapping her palms from the wrist, it will give you more speed. Try taking less breaths. You don’t need that much air. Don’t swing your elbows. Keep your head neutral. It hardly mattered to me. With my head submerged in the water, I could barely hear her, my mind and body soaring through some other plane, some oneiric underwater world where all sound was drowned out except the pulse of my heart beating steadily in my ears. She would persist in her painstaking breakdown of my technique even after I had toweled off and showered. If Aunt Margo was there, lounging in the adjacent deck chair, she’d say, “Give the poor girl a break,” but if it was just my mother and I, I would endure her harangues, longing to be back in the water, left to steep in my uninterrupted inconsequential thoughts, answering only to the insistent pressure of my expanding lungs.
Most evenings Lou worked late into the night; he was an executive for an oil company which required his availability for international calls at odd hours. Sometimes he worked in his office downtown, but more frequently, he worked from his home office which was a converted guesthouse on the west side of the property. My mother and I would forage for food in the depths of the walk-in pantry and extra wide fridge which was stocked and meticulously organized by Luda, the Ukrainian housekeeper. My mother’s diet consisted mostly of pickles and pimento olives because, as she asserted, they were low in calories and acidic enough to overwhelm her tastebuds and quell her hunger. My habit was to select from the generous array of cereals, pouring two or three different types into a bowl of whole milk, hoping to hit on a winning combination. The two of us would perch on the counter stools, our plates and utensils clattering loudly in the large stone kitchen. When we were done, we would wash our plates and put them away and wipe down the flecked black granite countertops so you couldn’t even tell someone had been there.
When Lou chose to eat dinner with us—communicated to Luda through some enigmatic means—the housekeeper would prepare meals both simple and savory: roasted chicken with braised brussels sprouts, seared salmon with asparagus and rice pilaf, chicken pot pie in a flaky crust. We’d eat in the formal dining room, Lou at the head and my mother and I flanking him on either side.
“You should come watch Lilibeth at practice some time,” my mother said to him one evening, about five months into my classes. She twirled some linguini onto her fork.
Lou turned to me. He finished chewing. “You have been practicing very hard. I see you sometimes out my office window. Good for you, Lilibeth.”
“She’s quite good, you know.” My mother took a sip from her wine glass. “The instructor says he is going to let her participate in a swim meet next month. He thinks she has a shot to win it.”
“Of course, she does,” Lou said, squeezing a wedge of lemon into his pasta. “She’s going to be the next Michael Phelps.”
I picked at my shrimp, letting their conversation crackle in the airspace above my head, attune to every minute fluctuations in current.
“Do you like swimming, Lilibeth?” Lou asked me, smiling. There was a piece of parsley stuck in his incisor.
“It’s good for a girl to have a hobby,” Lou said.
“This could be more than a hobby for her,” my mother countered, her voice growing shrill with emphasis. She sloshed the wine glass she had raised in her hand, her elbow resting on the table. “This could be a career.”
Lou chuckled mildly, but I could see the way his shoulders were tensing, the deliberate angle in which he clutched his fork and knife. My mother was committing the sin of being too eager, too ambitious. “Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Diana.”
My mother threw her napkin down on the table in disgust. “I’m not,” she said petulantly.
“What is it you want?” Lou asked with aggrieved patience. His forced calmness only fed the flames of my mother’s anger.“I want you to take her seriously.”
Lou had set down his utensils but now he picked them back up again and began cutting into his shrimp with exaggerated slowness. “Let’s just finish this lovely dinner, shall we?” He kept his gaze focused on his plate but in his words were all the handsome, glittering surfaces of his grand house and the appreciation and respect he expected my mother to afford them.
My mother picked her napkin up and laid it out across her lap. We finished our meal in a brittle silence.
The following week Lou didn’t join us for dinner, and on Friday night my mother went out with my aunt to eat at a restaurant. I wanted my aunt to eat dinner at Lou’s house; I suggested we ask Luda to prepare a meal Aunt Margo could eat with us in the dining room under the cut-crystal chandelier, but my mother said some things don’t pair well together and I thought of my assorted combination of cereal flavors. When my mother came home, Lou was still in his office and she let me trail her into her bedroom where she kicked off her stilettos and shimmied out of her cocktail dress. I could see the little hard knobs of her spine running down the length of her back.
The master bedroom had two ensuite bathrooms. One for Lou and one for my mother. My mother’s bathroom had a vanity with large bulbs like the kind you would find in a starlet’s backstage dressing room, and her counter was covered in glass bottled perfumes and tinctures. She applied a white cream to her face, scrubbing vigorously, and rinsed it off at the sink. She blotted her face dry and caught my eyes watching her in the mirror.
“Come here.” She held out her arm to me and I came close enough for her to wrap her arm around me. She squirted a dollop of lotion onto my hands and instructed me to rub the cream up my arms. “Smell that,” she said. “It’s very expensive. Isn’t it divine?”
I sniffed my hands which smelled deliciously of orange blossom and pistachio.
My mother unscrewed a small black container and removed a lick of white cream, massaging it into her neck and the pale skin of her chest. “Never forget the décolletage; it’s the first to go and when it does, there’s nothing you can do about it.” She moved her hands up to her jaw line, tugging upwards at her skin. In the mirror’s reflection, her dark gypsy eyes sparkled, her skin was pale and unblemished, her cheeks rosy even with all her make up removed. “Your mother is the prettiest mother in all of Calabasas,” she laughed, locking her eyes with mine, giving me a squeeze in her arm.
“Why is it so important to be prettiest?” I plucked one of her lipsticks from the counter and slid the tube’s black and gold cap off and on with my thumb.
My mother emptied a dropper’s worth of serum on her fingertips and massaged it in tight circles around the orbits of her eyes. “There are three types of currency: wealth, wisdom, and beauty,” she said. “Any one of them can buy any of the others but all of them have a relative value. You can’t know how much you have of one if you don’t know how much other people have of it too. Don’t forget that, Lilibeth.”
She tipped a bottle of perfume onto the tips of her two index fingers and rubbed them behind my ears. “There,” she said, sniffing me. “Now you smell like a million bucks.”
After the first few weeks of swim school, my mother stopped sitting in the first row behind the glass and began sitting in the back, sometimes scrolling through her phone throughout the session. In the last couple of weeks, she hadn’t even come inside but had dropped me off at the front door and left to run errands before picking me up in the parking lot where she would flash her lights when I came outside to find her. One time she sent Aunt Margot to fetch me in her station wagon with velour seats that felt sensationally warm against the back of my bare thighs. “You know, you don’t have to take swim lessons,” she said cranking down the window and exhaling a stream of smoke, lit cigarette dangling between her fingers. “Wouldn’t you rather hang out with your friends from school?” I thought about the girls I ate lunch with who liked to trade Lisa Frank stickers and engage daily in earnest prime time television exegesis.
“But I like them,” I said, working my tongue over a stinging canker sore nestled below my gumline.
Aunt Margot sped up to chase a yellow light. “Your mother always knew how to get exactly what she wanted,” she said.
By now, I was the strongest swimmer in Sharks; Chris barely glanced my way during the lessons, just calling out freestyle or breaststroke or butterfly and then nodding in approval as I swam my laps so he could quickly turn his attention back to Damien or one of the other students. He wanted me to compete in the annual swim meet only open to those who attended one of the school’s several southern California locations.
I was swimming freestyle, flip turning at the end of the lane, when I must have misjudged the distance and hit my head hard on the pool wall. I remember floundering, confused in the water for a second, the unexpected, ridiculous shock of treachery I felt towards the pool wall which had betrayed me by not being where it was supposed to be, as it had been so many times before, and then I was lying out on my back on the deck, sputtering and coughing up water, Chris’s pockmarked skin hovering over my face. There was some brief talk about calling the ambulance, but I waved the idea away, already mortified by all the attention. In the end it was decided I should just go and wait in the changing room for my mother to come pick me up. Damien was dispatched to stay with me and make sure I didn’t suddenly slip into a coma.
The changing room was unisex with stalls around the parameter for older children who needed to change in privacy. Damien and I sat on the bench in the middle of the room. Someone had handed me an icepack and I held it against the base of my skull where my head was throbbing ruthlessly.
“You okay?” Damien asked.
“I will be,” I said, removing the ice pack and checking to see if there was any blood on it. There wasn’t, but it still felt like I was bleeding.
“You must have really hit your head hard.”
“I guess so.” I shrugged. The whole thing was so humiliating. I prayed my mother would hurry back quicky.
“I thought Chris was going to have to do CPR on you,” Damien said.
“Well, thank god, it didn’t come to that,” I said dryly, and Damien smiled.
Some of the boys wore rash guards but Damien never did. He had a thin chest, narrow shoulders, and dime sized brown nipples. The skin on his torso was smooth, hairless. When he sat, his bellybutton disappeared into the folds of his stomach.
“You don’t have to wait with me,” I told him. The reality of being so close to someone who had had a starring role in my daydreams for months was making me feel unnerved. “Really. I’m fine.”
He looked at me gravely. “I’ll stay. I’d never forgive myself if anything happened to you.”
I laughed out loud, assuming his proclamation had been delivered in jest, but he looked at me seriously, a bloom of red rising in his cheeks. “You’re a really good swimmer, you know,” he said.
I blinked at him foolishly. I had seen that expression on men’s faces when I was out with my mother at a restaurant or the grocery store or pretty much anywhere at all. That look of naked interest. In all my fevered imaginings, I had never considered Damien might be experiencing a similar flush of infatuation.
I fumbled with the compress at the back of my head. “This ice pack is burning my fingers,” I muttered.
“Here. Let me help.” Damien slid closer on the bench. He leaned in towards me to reach his arm around my head for the ice pack.
It was some combination of head injury, Damien’s wordless confession, and opportunity that gave me the courage to press my lips to his. Our lips met for a fraction of a second, but I remember his tasting of peppermint candy cane and chlorine. When we sprung apart, the compress dropped out of his hands and onto the floor, but it was okay because my head had never felt better.
My mother deliberated about whether I should attend the swim meet the following week, objecting I needed to rest after my injury.
“We can have a girl’s night in,” she offered. “I’ll let you pick the movie. Like we used to do.”
“But I’ve been training for this,” I said, petulantly. “I’m good at it.”
My enthusiasm for swimming had superseded hers, and now her attitude had, bafflingly, slid down the rungs of interest, passing apathy and landing firmly at solid aversion. “You can’t spend all your time swimming,” she said. “You’ve got to make friends.”
“I have friends already,” I protested, wounded by the injustice of her implied criticism.
I persisted, and eventually she gave in. The meet was held at one of the school’s locations in the miracle mile district. My mother complained about the traffic the entire drive.
I thought my triumph at the meet would bring her around so I swam my heart out and won the competition by a mile. My mother smiled and applauded with everyone else when I stood on the makeshift podium to receive my medal but when we were back in the car she was quiet and withdrawn, absentmindedly tapping her rings on the steering wheel, a habit of hers when she was upset. She pulled off the highway exit, driving through the dusky streets of our neighborhood, a neighborhood that had grown familiar enough to call home but which would remain so only for a short while longer though I did not know it then.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She looked over at me. The streetlights flared and dimmed outside the car windows illuminating her in relief and then plunging her back into darkness again. “Nothing. Who said anything’s wrong?”
“Will we show Lou my medal when we get home?”
“If you want to.”
I lifted the medal off my chest and stared into its shiny gold surface. There was no name printed on it but I thought I might ask my mother to take it to a store to have it inscribed with the name Lilibeth Bianchi. “I might try out for the swim team in the spring semester. The school swim team,” I said. “I think I’m good enough now.”
“Oh Lilibeth,” she sighed. “Haven’t you had enough of the swimming?”
I looked at my mother, but she was keeping her eyes trained on the road. I sat shivering in the car, dripping on the towels draped across the passenger seat.
“I like swimming,” I said.
“I know, but remember, this was supposed to help you be slimmer, more graceful.” My mother reached over to pinch my thigh through my jeans. “Look at you. You’re like a bodybuilder. All big fat muscle. That’s not what you wanted.”
My mother was right. My body had changed, but not in the way we had envisioned. I hadn’t lost any weight while taking swim lessons; if anything, I’d probably gained pounds. And I hadn’t become dainty or willowy. My shoulders and chest had broadened and hardened; my thighs were mighty locomotives. And I loved it. Loved the feeling of being powerful, formidable. No fey sprite but an amazon queen.
“That’s not what you wanted,” I said. “I want to swim.”
“You’re only saying that because I don’t want you to. You’ll see. That’s how it is with mothers and daughters. If I say high, you say low. If I say black, you say white.”
“So maybe I need a mother who sees the world the way I see it.”
We were stopped at a traffic light, my mother gripping the steering wheel tightly. In the lurid red glow of the brake lights from the car in front of us, she looked desperate and unreal. “Everything I do is for you, Lilibeth. Everything. That is how I see the world.”
That summer we moved out of Lou’s house and into a small cottage rental in Tarzana. Lou extended me an open invitation to come back and use his pool anytime and I did use it once or twice that summer, but it felt weird having to show ID at the security booth and buzzing Luda on the intercom to ask her to open the property gates, so I never went back. My mother got a job as a paralegal in a small law firm and there was a time I thought she would end up marrying one of the younger law partners, recently divorced, who worked there, but he moved away to Colorado and my mother stayed in the job until she was too sick to keep coming into the office. By then I was already in college and she didn’t want me to come back, so it was a shock when I finally saw her during my winter break and all her beauty had faded into something sad and wistful like a sepia photograph of a time in the past that was simpler or more complex but definitively irretrievable. She saw my astonishment when I first hugged her, every bone palpable beneath her thick sweater, and she gave me a rueful smile. “I guess there’s a fourth currency and that’s health, and without that, you’re pretty much screwed,” she said. And I was immediately brought back to that night in Lou’s bathroom and my mother’s orange blossom moisturizer.
Lou must have really loved her in his own way because he came to visit her several times while she was sick. She held on another six months, and I know he came to see her at the house and then eventually in the cancer ward. He was there for the funeral too, appropriately somber in the back row, not taking up more attention than should have been his due as ex-husband of less than year. He called me a month after she passed which was when I discovered Lou had been subsidizing the rent on our little house and, most likely, helping pay for my college too, the source of the “scholarship” my mother claimed I had earned. He offered for me to stay in his place. He was fully retired by then and had converted his office back into a guest house and said I was welcome to it anytime. I thanked him as best I could while trying to suppress the sudden swell of tears his kindness prompted, but I declined his offer. It would have been too strange, too raw, to live back in Calabasas, among those resplendent hills, in a land of luxury where I didn’t belong. Instead, I stayed by my aunt the summer between my junior and senior year at college and after I graduated, I moved to NYC where I lived in a one-bedroom windowless walkup in Hell’s Kitchen with two other girls.
Is it distasteful I met my husband at my mother’s funeral? Maybe. I know she would have loved the dark serendipitous drama of it. He was working the front desk to earn money during graduate school. I said something snarky—some comment implicating a morbid fascination on his part—and he looked so wounded, I had to be extra kind to him. When we speak about my mother, I feel a small bloody bubble of remorse well up in me for exploiting her worser qualities. He shakes his head and questions how I “came out so normal,” and a part of me hates him for it.
I never swam competitively again but sometimes when we vacation to the west coast, I’ll take the girls to the hotel pool and they are sufficiently impressed by my ability to swim like a dolphin and beat their father in any race. I show them how to make their arms strong and rigid and tough like steel and how to swim the length of the pool with their fingers brushing the rough plaster floor. I cradle their smooth shoulders in my hands as they float on their backs and teach them to trust the water and I whisper into their ears and tell them that it was my mother who taught me how to swim.
Photo by Clark Tai