Swimming Lessons

by Andrea Bridgeman

This is you with your coat half-on, holding onto the hallway mirror. This is pain clutching your head with its talons, struggling to stay on top, its hind legs scratching and gripping at your back. Not a headache or the ebb and flow of late-night nausea; no, this is hurt emanating both from and beyond you. This is a light swinging over your head. This is the distinct feeling that everyone around you knows: they're staring through drywall and floorboards and each other, a thousand sets of eyes unmoving from the inch of space you're occupying while they talk sideways out of their mouths. Any one of these people could cut, wrap and label you in about a second but it doesn't really matter because you're not here. At least this person on full display, trying to keep the melting pieces of themselves together doesn't feel like you. This is what happens when there's a part of yourself you can no longer reach: you straddle a white line on a glass table because it's the only thing you can really know. The room begins to drift, like sand. Your pain is you. This is.


Minnow can't tell if she's tired or it's the light or what, 'cause something is up. Oh God, have her eyes  always looked like this? Thoughts of cucumber slices, cold water, and gritty face masks rush forward but she puts them down, her hands braced against the bathroom sink. Moving closer to the mirror, her lips slightly parted, she lets the patch of fog obscure her for a moment. Refusing to even open the mirrored cabinet and look at what's inside. Today, she will own this - once she figures out what exactly she is supposed to be owning she'll do it without the nagging feeling that she's really just something in need of constant repair. This moment right here is not triumphant. Sometimes she goes out into the world feeling like she's won the game - her bare face her trophy - but today she'll just try to be a woman. No podiums, no placards, no judges. Maybe this will be enough.


Pull the bar back slightly and you can slip through sideways. Bonus if there's nobody on duty or a herd of bodies pushing through, each with their bag and coat and personal, individual need to be going where they're going more quickly than all the other people in their way. If you see the lanyard of a badge it's too late. Your backpack gets stuck as you push through and a girl wearing a flower dress over grey tights gliding through the guichet next to you smiles. It helps to keep an old ticket in your back pocket, just for show. You hear the train but can't ascertain its direction: coming or going, they all sound the same. You run anyway – if it's the wrong way you'll feel slightly embarrassed. You are embarrassed for thinking this. As the train rattles through the dark you sneak glances at the girl, now reading a newspaper on the next car while a near-empty soda bottle rolls around her feet. A fan blows stale air on your face as you try not to make eye or arm contact with any of the people standing around you. You want to see at which stop she gets off, but look away. In this moment you try not to be you.


Someone took the aspirin out of the bottle last night and delineated with them the contours of a sizeable white cock atop the coffee table. The couch is free of bodies (surprisingly), but smells like a roach. At least there's no vomit on the rim of the toilet or cigarettes put out in the bonsai. Paul remembers almost everything but will later pretend not to. Stashed away at the back of the fridge is his orange juice, now two thirds gone to the mouth of a stranger. He picks at his fingernails while waiting for the kettle to boil, wanting to catch its whistle before it wakes up the rest of the house and he has to pretend to be hungover and not want to go to work, both of which are lies. When he was a kid Paul could never choose between ice cream flavours - he doesn't see how this is relevant to what he's doing now. The sun is up and dances over everyone. Winter is here and everyone talks about it like it's never going away. But it does.


You've got a quarter that the vending machine won't take. You ask a man on his phone leaning against an enormous Viagra ad if he wouldn't mind swapping change and he moves from you, thinking you're asking for money. By the time you turn around a man in green sneakers has purchased a bag of chips meant to taste like buffalo wings with just one good quarter. When you say something, he offers you the chips. You decline.


Watching the lights go out always makes her sad, sitting there with a cigarette dangling between her index and middle finger. She hasn't used the latter digit in a few days - not since she flipped off from inside her mitten the cop who saw her puking outside the diner at 9 AM and asked, “You all right?” She watched him watch her as he took a booth all to himself, and wished for all the world that he would order the pancakes and be extremely disappointed. Hoping their flaccid, crispy edges and little wrinkly blueberries would ruin his day, she shoved her hands into her coat pockets, trying to remember the amount left in a savings account soon to see the withdrawal of $21.95 on top of rent and groceries, some of these stolen. That same middle finger she peed on while holding the stick.


You go to the clinic for condoms. This week there's banana tossed in, which you take because you can't afford not to – though you wonder, as you push open the front door and step on frozen dog shit, whether fake flavour causes allergic reactions. Tonight it's Vlad's, a guy who keeps dollar bills around specifically for railing; where one gets the sense there's just been paint slapped over nicotine-stained wallpaper rolled over wallpaper down to the grey carpet over linoleum over wood over concrete; where people don't always know each other’s name but tend to act like they do in the presence of a vile or a little plastic baggie. Where nothing can mean anything.


From: alex_grav1@hotmail.com
Sent on: 14 January
At: 1:15 AM


Only just got to reading your email: Christ.

I'm sorry. Been busy. It is difficult for me, you know, trying not to think about the fact that you're There and I'm Here and this is how we said it'd be only now there's this...thing that's keeping Us going. I want to support you however I can, but I hope you understand that I can't come back. I mean, the distance alone...When is this happening? You know, my sister had one a few years ago...I can ask her to give you a call if that helps. I don't really know what else to say. I will call you tomorrow as soon as I'm back home. I can't believe this happened. Of all the times...Fuck. I'm sorry, Mon.


Each night begins to feel like a stamp on a letter that's never going to be mailed. You can admit this now, at this hour. The cat that was here last night is missing, out there somewhere with all the other lost things: coins, bobby pins, buttons dropped out of pockets, the words we want to but never say – oh yes, they're there, sitting on the curb, waiting to be picked up. You think they don't matter but they do. You watch the sky lighten to feel like you're a part of this morning, catching the sun spots that no one else does, holding the quiet in your arms like a sleeping baby, like it's your own. You know well this morning-after romance but not this couch, not this radiator upon which you sit. You know this thick, stale taste in your mouth. There are cards on the table – some, too, on the floor – and you vaguely remember someone taking off their shirt. Banana condoms in your back pocket, unused. You spot a pair of green sneakers down the hall, next to the bathroom door which adds to the feeling that you've seen all of this before. The deep, rhythmic breathing of someone in the next room lulls you like a wave. You've worn this shirt for so long that if you take it off, you're afraid the scent, the way it fits might go away. And you'll be left, naked.


Minnow can't find her shirt. Still squinty-eyed, she rubs her arms, surveying the room. Her neck one giant tangle of nerves. Smudged blue on the back of her hand: either a phone number or a cautionary footnote to last night. Inside her skull she can feel her heart beating. A dude who she thinks is named Beans sleeps on his face, a long, pale arm draped over the edge of the bed. Tattooed across his knuckles are the letters F R E E (the other fingers bearing what? LIVE? LOVE? BORN?). She covers his bare ass with an itchy blanket. Her pants are not only on but zipped up, and there is no stray husk of a condom on the floor, the remnant of a strange, nocturnal creature who carries off parts of herself she doesn't mean to give away to places she has yet to find. So this is encouraging. She hears a cough and the rustle of window shades from the living room, and instinctively grabs a shirt off the ground: two nuns with glow sticks, one hiking up her skirt to show a little leg, the other praising the lord, arms up, head down. Minnow doesn't see the back, which reads: JESUS RAVES.


There is a pretty girl in the hall. You've seen her before, outside of this, but you don't know from where. You see her before she sees you and you look: at messy hair tucked behind a slightly goofy ear; at the way she yawns; at her bare, slender feet. She smiles at you. A door closes. When you get up from the couch the little things you want to say to her will remain. Are they lost if you let them go?


Mona let herself go out tonight on the promise that she would only hang – no shit, no smoke, no hustling from stoop to stoop. No walking home with the cold against her back, grateful for the warmth inside her chest. (Hers is a fake fireplace.) With the date hanging over her head she wants to believe she can function properly. 'Cause she's spent countless normal nights, fucking boring nights on couches and sitting in corners with a drink between her legs; and now that she's actually got something to care about, some serious shit on her plate – well, can she really do this? Can she step out of her front door and feel like she's part of a world whose contours she can bear? Does being alone (and she is alone; she has to believe this to be able to walk down the street without stopping and telling every person she passes about what kind of person she suspects she may really be or asking them, any of them – the guy with the ponytail and cowboy boots, the woman pushing the double-wide, kitted out stroller, the little kid holding onto his mother's gently swinging arm – for advice, because they're bound to know better or maybe inform her of what she's been missing out on this whole time), does being alone have to be this big sleeping dog you're afraid to wake, or can you walk it eventually? Basically: Mona wants to be as new as the snow atop the brownstones, piling slowly on the hat of the guy sitting at the metro door whom she passes, taking the escalator down, closing her eyes as the warm wind touches her face.


Location: 1300 de Maisonneuve Ouest
Account Number: 065976XXXX
Date: 01/02/2014
Time: 15:47 PM

Withdrawal amount: $40.00
Remaining Balance: $48.91

Enough to get you through the weekend. This is not your money. You tell yourself that if it were you'd hold onto it a little tighter. This is a school day. Your own bullshit is the easiest thing in the world to swallow if you tell yourself it tastes good. The moon is there in the pale sky but you can't see it. You shove the receipt in your back pocket. This is you heading east. This is a call to your parents in the back of your mind. This is taking and not giving something back but stealing's not the right word.


Beans enters the room, still incredibly pissed about his shirt.

Minnow enters the room, marker scrawled on her hand.

Paul enters the room and keeps his shoes on.

Mona enters the room, thermos of water in hand.

You enter the room as you are. Talking Heads, everyone with their clothes still on. Dudes already camped out on a corner of the couch, bongs in hand. You see Vlad, wearing a Guantanamo-like jumpsuit, and he beckons you over. This must be the place. He sticks a beer in your hand and pulls a cigarette from behind his ear. Rings of smoke blown over your head and everyone's an angel for a second. A girl with heterochromia iridum contacts believes Vlad when he tells her it's your birthday: you get a kiss you didn't earn. You try to down your beer casually, feeling like you've got catching up to do. The room loosens its tie. You see the girl from the other morning pass by and you feel as though you've known and seen her but in all the wrong ways; like you're passengers on the same train but you can never get up and cross the aisle to share the ride. This is you bumming another beer from Vlad. This is a door closing.

You talk to a girl with short hair and bitten nails who keeps checking her phone. You think she thinks you're boring. She reminds you of a girl in some porn you watched this week and you tell yourself you'll stop doing these kinds of things. You have a hard time making eye contact with this person whose name you can't remember. She asks if she can ask you a personal question; you ask if she can ask you later. You think you want to kiss her but you don't: want to, kiss her. Someone touches your shoulder and you turn around. Here's Beans with his sunglasses on, brotherly hand outstretched. This is a hug you want to hold on to. This is the room in one piece. The girl with short hair stands next to the makeshift bar, her back turned to everyone. This is a corner of the wallpaper peeled back. Take the steps to the basement and sit in the dark, why don't you. Listen to the footsteps over your head without feeling like a fugitive. Get in the mouth of your fear and swim. This is you, standing in the middle of a room.

Miraculously, there is no one in the bathroom. You pull the pills out of your front pocket, shoving aside the empties to make room. This is someone pulling back the shower curtain. There she is, sitting in the shower, brown hair falling over her shoulders like water. You want to sit at the edge of the tub but you don't. Leaning against the bathroom sink you ask if she's all right. She nods. You nod. This is an itch at the back of your throat. These are the words you want to say: see them there, waiting to be picked up? I told you they didn't go away. This is a knock at the door. She looks at you, eyebrows furrowed slightly. She asks if you're all right. You turn from her and crush the pills with the bottom of a bottle, trying to keep the powder separate from the rest of the world. You want to be as pure as this.

Swimming Lessons is out of print from The Blasted Tree Store.


Contributing Author

Swimming Lessons by Andrea Bridgeman is a Blasted Tree original short story.

ISBN [Digital]: 978-1-987906-04-2

Cover Design by Kyle Flemmer - Cover Image by Ana Labate