One of the men mentions buoyancy, and that’s when I know: they’re talking about me.
I had suspected. This is our third day in the same hotel, the third day I’ve ventured down to the pool in early evening to catch what gold remained from the day, and the third time four bespectacled Australian men pulled lounge chairs up poolside to face me and talk together while I swam.
It’s a small pool and I’m ungainly in it, like a fish unhappy in a too-small tank. I’m not much of a swimmer, and even less so with an audience. Mostly I float.
Today, as yesterday, the men take notes, one in a leather-bound notebook, one on a laptop, and two on a white board that they pass back and forth between them.
I pretend I don’t notice.
I love the pool, though it could be cleaner. The water is OK, but I push away debris—small pieces of bark and the odd dogpaddling beetle.
Floating is easy for me—easier than trudging through air. I lie back, and I spread my limbs. I paddle with small movements of my arms, or I open and shut my legs like Vitruvian man, sans six-pack or penis.
I have a black swimsuit—something I picked up at a discount store when I realized the hotel had a pool. I chose the largest size on the rack and brought it back, and it’s snug, but it works OK. I also bought a swim skirt. I hadn’t intended to swim—hadn’t prepared—and I’d hate to look like I’m smuggling tarantulas down there.
I figured I was fine, because who’d be watching anyway? Only four of the most inquisitive men of Perth, it turns out.
Ears under, you catch a lot, unless you choose to ignore it. I listen closely, and I hear what they’re saying about ballast. One man is arguing for containment in the top section, and I see him gesture at me. The others issue negative grunts and growls. Accent plus pool water can make them unintelligible, except in those moments they disagree and their sharp voices blade right through.
I’ve moved out of the sun, or rather the sun has moved a few feet behind me, blocked as it is by the high brick fence of the courtyard. That circle of light is what I’m here for. I cup my arms and paddle back a few feet, eyes closed but attuned to bright heat.
Through the water comes a low grumble of approval. I open my eyes, and to my side I see a furious flurry of note-taking.
Just now, along comes a fifth man in a sport coat. This new guy may be Kazakh. Or a hat rack. Blackjack? Crab shack? But there seems to be a language barrier, and I’m glad. It makes them enunciate, and it makes them inexplicably louder. Water-friendly.
There is a problem with containment. The Kazakh seems not to understand “ballast tank.” “Bladder,” he gets.
My eyes half-shut, I see a Perth man gesture with two hands. He makes ells of thumbs and forefingers and I’m framed that way.
When I was little, my friend Tina had a pool, and she warned me not to pee in it. She swore the water would turn bright red, like clouds of blood. Only next time she said blue. I peed once—purely scientific. It’s after I first learned about litmus reactions, and I wondered if the red or blue varied by person, or by diet.
I waited until she dried off and went inside to use the proper facilities, and then I let go, prepared to swim madly in circles until it dissipated. It was a big pool and I was small in it. Anyway, if it was even the normal pale lemonade, it got lost in there.
But I didn’t pee here, in front of four Australians and a Kazakh. I feel I’d like to clarify.
In a long string of words, hard to make out, I hear the Kazakh say “direezhibul.”
Science has its own language, and I know little of it, but I do know some, like how I know a little Persian: sandal, pajama, taffeta.
The men say pneumatic. The men say ballonet. I start to understand I am a model, or, I dare to believe, a muse.
On a whim I take a deep breath and go under, anchor my fingers in the bottom filter. This is hard for me. I’m built to float. At the bottom of the pool I can’t hear the men, but I look up, see five faces peering down.
Lungs burning, I let go and shoot up like a bobber, tread upright and look straight at them.
They look away, all but one, in four different directions. The fifth one, the leader, doesn’t look away, and I understand how he is—a guy who doesn’t know what weird looks like, who doesn’t get social cues. My brother is that way, brainy and oblivious, no shame in him.
I warm to the looker.
“The water’s nice,” I tell him, and he nods, and I resume my float.
Above the surface, the watchers chatter. Something has excited them, but not in the regular way. Through an eye slit I see frantic erasures of the white board and four gesturing fingers directing the one marking.
Talk of fuel tanks, payload, buoyancy compensation. What if the ballast could move along a rigging? It worked that way in some of the first airships. Someone is worried about the effects of dolphining.
So I dolphin. I used to live near Akron, and I’d see the blimps doing it on windy days—rising and then diving, then rising again. They did look like dolphins. I understand the verb.
I turn to my front and I try it. I dive and I rise and I dive again, and that’s how I swim the length of the pool; then I turn, a little clumsy, and dolphin back.
The men flip their board, bottoms-up, and the guy with the notebook draws frantically. My effort has winded me, so I tether myself with my toes under the lip of the pool.
I’m pregnant. Twenty weeks. I don’t know the father very well—it was a one-time thing at a conference I went to. I got the tote bag—much like the one the guy carries his laptop in. By now I’ve figured them for aerospace engineers, staying in a discount place on the cheaper edge of a city, where future single parents go when they’re traveling on business and the per diem is a set rate. It’s nice to keep some of that travel money in the pocket—the company envisioned me in the city center, paying for parking and eating at restaurants instead of gas stations, and it set a number, not overly generous, but OK, no need to mess with receipts.
I like being set up like that. It would be nice if that’s how life could be—if we all had a per diem. A baby means no more interstate travel; I don’t have anyone to watch him while I go.
I lie back and try to sense the baby moving. At twenty weeks, most people can feel the fetus pretty consistently. I notice a shift every now and then—a butterfly tickle.
The Kazakh looks friendly so I swim to him.
“Do you know what the quickening is?” I ask.
This doesn’t translate, and the Kazakh is as red as the Kazakh flag may be. Or, wait—that’s blue. Baby blue.
The man looks at his English-speaking companions, who appear flustered but ready to help.
“The quickening is when you begin to feel the baby move regularly. I haven’t experienced it yet, but I read about it. It happens around week twenty. I’m twenty weeks now.”
“Well, congratulations, then,” says the man with the notepad, beaming. “I didn’t realize….” He lets that trail off.
“Yep,” I say. “I’ve got a little blimp in my cargo hold.”
All of the Australian men are congratulating me now, and one of the whiteboard guys is shouting the word “pregnant” and miming a belly for the Kazakh, who joins the chorus, and rolls the R in “congratulations.” The man with the laptop is typing like crazy and looks like he just figured out gravity. The man with the notebook is peering at me and drawing with fast strokes.
I tell them I don’t have a mate, then clarify. I have friends—some pretty good ones. I have mates in the Australian sense, and also in the science sense. I mated. But I’m not currently mated.
There’s an Australian-themed steakhouse about a mile down the road, and I pass it on my drive into the city. I ask the men if they’d like to go there when I dry off.
They’d wondered about the place, they told me. They felt some offense at the deal advertised on the sign out front—“Let us throw some shrimp on the barbie—four-ninety-nine with entrée!” And the guys like shrimp, but hell.
“I like shrimp,” the Kazakh offers helpfully.
And the Australians are unanimous, in an embarrassed way. They like shrimp, too, on or off the goddamned barbie.
“I prefer ceviche,” notebook guy says, a jut to his chin.
The Kazakh mentions a zero-lift drag coefficient and says something about hull form. An Australian mutters a reply, something about sacrificing speed and a more acute angle of streamlining. Another has a notion related to Sparrowhawk airplanes suspended from zeppelins like puppies on the teat.
“Give me a half-hour,” I tell them, and today when I climb the steps out of the pool, I’m dragged to terra firma by several strong hands.
Karen Craigo is the author of the poetry collections No More Milk (Sundress, 2016) and Passing Through Humansville (Sundress, forthcoming in 2018). She also has a new chapbook, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Hermeneutic Chaos, 2016). She maintains Better View of the Moon, a daily blog on writing, editing, and creativity, and she teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri. She is the nonfiction editor and former editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review, as well as the interviews editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.