by Erin Blue Burke
Her pool is a private one, a gated community of exercise, and everyone who sees her swimming back and forth from end to end knows she wants to be left alone. Many of them have had their own scandals, and it is understood within their club, their club of fame but especially their club of this particular exercise facility, that she is allowed to live without her scandal between these walls. This is a different dimension, and the illusion of an alternate reality is allowed to exist.
But she knows it is impossible to escape completely, for everyone who sees her plays a hypothetical interrogation in their heads, speculates about her feelings, her mental well-being, why it is exactly that she is spending so many hours swimming.
Next to her there is a man who swims almost as often as she does. He is elderly, thin and translucent, white wisps of hair, wire glasses. Each time they make eye contact, he nods to her, perhaps some gesture of respect. He paddles across the pool without submerging his head, which she does not understand because this is exactly what she relishes about swimming: the way the rush of water blocks out everything else when she dives under, the way she feels momentarily, when she pushes off the wall, like a torpedo, like something powerful.
If she could, she would swim constantly, never climb dripping from the pool again. Counting laps, it is easy to avoid her reality. If she stayed in the pool forever, she would never accidentally stumble across the news again, never hear music again. This is perhaps the most difficult thing, that because of her husband’s indiscretions, she has had to wipe away the entire soundtrack of her life.
Often, she wishes her husband had been a different kind of celebrity. A television star, a director. She wishes he could have just been a song writer and never actually the song performer. He would be so much easier to avoid that way. But although stations have pulled some of his songs, and the record he was working on got cancelled, there is no way to escape his music completely.
Really, any music is painful, even the pop songs the lifeguards play at the pool, those bass rhythms she dives back under to avoid. Every time she hears a guitar, she thinks she might collapse. Every song has some element that aches her. She knows that every song would have been judged by him in a certain way, and his opinions had constituted her entire musical life. Her mental encyclopedia of musical knowledge had come directly, and only, from him.
Perhaps, she resolves while swimming, she will only listen to classical music now. Or Gregorian chants.
When she and her husband were first dating, she would sit with her feet propped up on the studio soundboard, listening to him play and sing for hours, memorizing the tunes as the band worked through them. Throughout their marriage, the background music of her cooking dinner would be him tweaking out notes on the guitar, using the piano to play out chord progressions.
Every event in their life together has had a corresponding record release: the funkiest one from their early marriage, the one full of overly sentimental ballads from the year their son was born, the most critically acclaimed one the year her mother had died. She will always remember sitting in the hospital room with her mother, oxygen being pumped into those failing lungs, and getting a phone call from him about his Grammy nomination.
The things her mother would say now. She has finally succumbed to her mother’s idea of diseased celebrity love. It has finally crushed her, as her mother believed it did all who held the title. This had been her mother’s unending belief while she was still alive, the unique sadness that would come for her daughter, the public crisis she would eventually find herself in. It had been both a warning and a sympathy.
Yes, she thinks, this has been one of the hardest things, the way she has had to handle everything with the public watching, the way everyone in the world has wondered how she didn’t know. Weren’t there any hints at home? people speculated. Had he not done something like this to her at any point in their relationship?
But he had been completely different with her, entirely calm and loving and sweet. So thoroughly a family man that when friends complained about their husbands, both as partners and fathers, she found herself shrinking away from the conversation with nothing to say.
This, of course, has made it all worse, that he had hidden it so well and purposefully.
She has given exactly zero interviews since the accusations were made two months ago. Instead, she has gone to the pool daily and swum for hours until her skin seemed it might turn into the pelt of a seal. She has driven home and cooked lonely dinners. She has called her son repeatedly, now off at college, and often received only his voicemail followed by a text. I’m fine, Mom. I’ll call you later. Later would be a span of days.
The thought she cannot have, and yet consistently finds herself having, is the speculation of what she and her son were doing while her husband was being a terrible man. She thinks about them at the park, at birthday parties, at the skating rink, at the soccer field, all while being made a fool of across the country without knowing it.
She also cannot stop thinking about the girl. The girls. The first girl who thought she was getting a dream and instead found herself in an uncomfortable and impossible scene. The girl who accused him of groping her, of placing his hands on her breast and kissing her before someone had pulled him away. That someone had been her husband’s manager, and that manager had been the one to call her two months ago to let her know the story was going to break. She was never given the chance to even doubt the veracity of it.
How many times did it happen, she had asked her husband on the first night.
Just once, he had said, and I was drunk. And it was so long ago.
But it had not been once. It had been chronic. There were more girls, more accusations. Girls who had met him on tour, girls who had served him in bars.
Women, she tries to remind herself. Women who are grown now. But in her imagination, in those scenes she tries to avoid and thus encourages, she can only think of them as girls, teenage and young adult fans who had wanted to find in him a kind of man they could admire.
How had she been so lucky, though? Statistically, she should have some story of victimization to tell. But no one has ever touched her, has ever even kissed her without her approval. How has she been so lucky to avoid it all of her life and yet married a man who had thrown other women into those dreadful statistics?
She turns over and dives down, closing her eyes, wanting to reach the bottom of the pool, willing her ears to fill up with pressure so as to perhaps relieve the brick that has decided to permanently reside in her chest. She walks around with the heaviness perpetually now; she wakes up in bed and it rolls back inside her, a constant company. To be alone in her house now, such a large space of unfilled rooms, makes her hear echoes constantly, ghosts. She turns on mindless television in the background just for the noise, home improvement shows she has no interest in, and it sometimes temporarily relieves the weight. Other people living normal lives, chatting about paint color, and she can pretend she still lives in that world.
Surprisingly, only occasionally does she find herself thinking about her husband in the present, imagining him in a pathetic and angry state, his con up, his career lost. Some nights she cooks herself elaborate dinners, all of the chopping and sautéing a distraction for her hands. It feels wonderfully vindictive when she throws out the leftovers; she would rather the trash have it than her husband, and there is pleasure in her power to make this happen. She thinks of him in his own lonely house, the meal that could have been his now mixed up with the eggshells and onion skins.
More often, though, she thinks of him in the past, examining and analyzing their life together from every angle. She had thought their relationship reliable, their communication transparent. Everything about them had felt genuine. He was well-known when they met, although not a true celebrity. That came later. She had watched the cascade of it, the offers that made the records that sold the tours that grew larger and more extensive. But in the beginning, it had only been them, and they had no reason to care for one another, no ulterior motive, save for their desire to do so. She had foolishly believed that this, the fact that they had been together before luck struck, would insulate their relationship from future catastrophe.
She cannot uncover any kind of early warning sign in her memory, any single instance that had made the hairs of her arms stand up in caution. Then again, for years he had lived entire sections of his life on a tour bus, in more cities than she kept track of. When she counts it, more than half of their life together had been spent apart, and she realizes now, in these days of upheaval, that she had been married to a stranger. There was his true self that had lived in its own world, and there was the person he had appeared to be at home. But she cannot shoulder blame, as she has recently determined; his mask had been flawless.
The goggles dig into her eyes, and when she, in broad strokes, reaches the wall of the shallow end, she takes them off, props them up on her head. It makes her feel serious. Olympic. She rubs her eyelids, spinning down beneath her lashes where dark circles have permanently graffitied themselves into her complexion. She thinks she will do backstroke for a bit, give her eyes a break from the suction. She lets herself fall backwards, floating face-up, moving her arms up and down to slowly glide toward the other end. Above her is the ceiling of glass squares, the clouds segmented by metal framing. She closes her eyes, stills herself, imagines that perhaps she could be a lily pad, a boat, something that would never be asked to leave the water, would always be permitted the gentleness of being held up by it. When she opens her eyes again, the paddling man is next to her. She cannot hear him, but she can see his head bobbing up and down on the other side of the lane marker.
As she swims, her chin tucked, she watches the lifeguards, the tanned teenagers who swap turns at the chair in shifts. She wonders if they judge her, if they watch her strokes, her hours in the pool, and connect her with the news stories. Perhaps they have sympathy for her. Perhaps they laugh at her.
Two weeks ago, she had run into the news in a doctor’s office waiting room. One of her husband’s victims was being interviewed. She had backed out of the office, breathed through a slight panic attack in her car, and skipped her appointment. But one of the lifeguards, the girl sitting in the chair now, looks like a younger version of that woman on the television, and now, as she swims, she is beginning to wonder if even the pool is going to be taken away from her.
But she knows the logic by now: everything and every person reminds her. And she cannot escape humanity.
The girl sits on the stand, her brown hair waist length, sun highlighted, a constant youthful sheen that can only be scrubbed away with age.
If she wanted to, she knows she could look the women up. She could find their faces both shamed and praised on the internet. She could find news videos of the interviews. She could find contact information for their lawyers. Some days she wishes she could apologize to them all, but she is not sure how this would help. She is not sure they would want to hear from her.
Still, she wishes she could gather them all together, heal them, a kind of support group, women all hurt by the same man.
But her hurt is, of course, unique. She is the only one who has lost an entire life and cannot point to something physical to match the emotional pain. But no one has come forward with sympathy for her. To the world, she is the one who made the mistake of marrying him. And while the debate has swirled over the way people have blamed these girls, these victims, over any kind of choice they made to put themselves in such a situation, no one wants to even think of her as a victim at all. Even one who they can blame.
Eventually, after her body has grown accustomed to the weightlessness, after her fingers feel too soft, she climbs out of the pool. She can still do this, and she takes pride in the way she can pull herself up onto the edge, that she doesn’t have to go over to the ladder in order to remove herself from the water. For a moment, she sits there, her feet still dangling, swishing back and forth like a child’s. She pulls off her goggles, her swim cap, watching the paddling man coming back toward her, slow and content.
This is when the moment she always dreads happens, a predator she knows is always waiting to attack her. She hears the first beats, a syncopated drum, and already she knows. She doesn’t need the guitar that is joining in, the synthesized accompanying notes. She wants to move, to go back down into the water and swim so she cannot hear, but the pool water has become glue to her thighs, and she cannot lift them.
The man paddling toward her looks directly at her, and she thinks he must know. She thinks he must know who she is, who is singing over her head, over all of them, as if in some kind of twisted divinity. Surely someone must know, must know she is there, must know it is his voice. Someone will change the song soon, she thinks. She realizes she is not breathing. The music is still playing.
She wants that man in the lane next to her to stand up out of the water, to splash to the edge and wave his arms and say, “Wait, wait, you can’t play that here!” She wants those wire glasses to be knocked off his nose in the commotion. She wants to feel the relief of a different tune, of someone caring.
He comes to the edge of the wall, looks to her and smiles and nods, acting polite, before turning for another lap. She can feel herself glaring, angry. Can’t you hear? She looks toward the lifeguard, but he is oblivious, giving orders from the chair to another lifeguard about how to arrange the kickboards. Can’t you hear? Can’t you see me?
Still the song continues. She can feel the same dizziness coming on as that first night, that night she sat on her couch and tried to understand how her life would never look the same, how her ability to trust would never be regained in the same capacity. It has shriveled inside of her like a dried fruit, and she cannot grant its pitiful richness to anyone. Not to this man who has now turned away from her, slowly making his way to the other side of the pool. Not to these lifeguards who are supposed to be watching over her. Not to herself, who cannot even get up from the edge of the pool to ask them to change the song.
She is not sure when it ends, for she can no longer hear. She can only see. The unnatural blue of the water. The glass of the ceiling. The small wakes created by swimmers, slowly lapping toward her ankles. At some point she will have to get up. But she might dive in for another few laps first, disappear into the water where no one seems to see her, where silence will be kind to her.
Erin Blue Burke is a writer from Huntsville, Alabama, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has previously appeared in Hypertrophic Literary, Cleaver Magazine, and Southern Humanities Review.