Karen Craigo ~ Lighter Than Water or Lighter Than Air


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.