Treading Water

Barbara Lawhorn

Natalie and I sit cross-legged with our knees touching on a Mexican blanket, surrounded by prairie grass taller than her basketball center boyfriend, Troy. It was just us, smoking hitters and whispering because it feels like we are the only people on earth. If I had to choose one person, ever, it would be Natalie—zombie apocalypse, bar fight, even as my untrained legal counsel. We became friends in preschool and have lived three blocks away from each other our whole lives. Sometimes, I confuse her face for my own, or she tells a story and I think it happened to me. I never went to Paris. My father never had prostate cancer. I’m not 6 months pregnant, wearing a bikini with unbuttoned cut-offs. My hair is short, whereas hers is long, sun-kissed, and in a messy bun.

I feel bad, maybe, about the weed, but Natalie does not because it is from nature and how can anything from nature really be bad? Easily, I explain, but Natalie says simple things like that so plainly they sound like the truth. I don’t moralize. Natalie looks like she belongs in the front row of church, her skin like an Ivory soap commercial, her nose peppered with freckles, and the most perfect teeth that come as the result of orthodontia. Even pregnant, she’s dainty. Natalie is adorable, but I love her because of what she is like underneath the adorable. Every exquisite risk I’ve ever taken has been with her. Same for her, except Troy.

“You’ll understand,” she says, “someday.” The first time she knew something I didn’t.

She hands me a bottle of cocoa butter lotion and lies on her back. I rub in slow circles around her belly, and she lists what she sees in the clouds. “Tiny bear. Dandelion. Closet door. Tornado.”

I leave for college in three days and the thought of it makes me start to cry. Soon, I’ll know something she doesn’t, college. I am glad I have my Jackie O sunglasses on, but I don’t wipe my eyes fast enough and a tear falls right on her glistening belly. She grabs my hand and squeezes it so hard my bones rub, it is just enough for me to gather myself.

“I could defer,” I say, twisting my nose ring.

“Turtle,” she says, pointing. I look at her toenails, chipped robin’s egg blue.

“I’ll come back when you go into labor. I’ll be here.”

“Troy will be there. My parents too,” Natalie says dreamily, eyes closed.

“Fuck Troy. Fuck your parents. You don’t need them.”

“You. Can’t.” She struggles to sit up. I know better than to try and help. She clutches two handfuls of prairie grass, rips hard, and holds them like two ragged bouquets, roots webbing. She shakes them and dirt flies. I smell the earth and the grass along with my own armpits. She throws them feebly and makes a half-hearted yell. I regard her over my sunglasses. We look into each other. She frowns, then gets consumed by giggles, swallowed whole, and ends up flat on the blanket. “I am going to have a fucking baby,” she cries. She feels far away. I use my arms to bridge the distance. It is hot, sweat begins to trickle down my back, but I wrap her up in my arms, kiss the top of her sun-warmed head, and whisper, “I should be there. I want to be there. I’ll be sick with worry. I may die. Seriously, of like a broken heart. For real, it happens.”.

“You can’t see the baby. I can’t see the baby. The baby is not ours. They are going to take the baby. I agreed and signed the papers.”

Her stomach rises and falls with her breath. She places a hand on it protectively.

“I know it’s real, I know. I just want to get to that day and deliver it. My brain can’t imagine beyond that. It shuts a door and when I see that day, you aren’t there.”

“But Troy is?”

She says, “Troy may always be.” Fucking Troy.

“Let’s go swim,” I say, so as not to throw all of the rocks I have been collecting for Troy.

I drive Natalie’s white Ford Mustang with the top down and Oasis’ “Wonderwall” blaring on repeat. We loop around the lake to get to our spot, the one with a rock that we warm ourselves on like snakes before jumping off of.  No one goes to the cove but the dragonflies that cluster there.

Natalie shimmies out of her shorts. Her bikini is red with white polka dots. I wear a one-piece, all black, meant for swimming. She grabs my hand. Smiles a smile meant only for me. I look away and swallow another sob.

“Come on, then,” she says and we shriek as we take off and hold each other’s hands as we plunge in. Even as we surface, we hold on to one another. We gasp. The water is so cold. Treading water, we don’t let go.

She says, “It’ll be just like that. Afterwards. Like surfacing, like coming up for air, like it was a dream.”

I feel so wide-awake. Maybe I’ll never sleep again. My teeth chatter. My heart rebel dances in the cage of my chest. We work to stay in one place anchored by our woven fingers. I imagine the fetus curled up like an ear listening to the music our braided being makes, the thrashing of our legs, the air that sings out of my lungs because of the effort it takes not to let go.

sand hills

Barbara Lawhorn is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. She’s into literacy activism, walking her amazing dog, Banjo, running, baking and eating pie, and finding the wild places, within herself and outside in the world. Her most recent poetry and fiction can be found at Poetry South, Flash Fiction Magazine, High Shelf Poetry, Dunes Review Literary Journal and is forthcoming in the White Wall Review. She lives joyfully in the Midwest with her favorite creative endeavors ever–sons, Mars and Jack.