The Swimmer

They had been at the beach all morning, the three of them baking slowly, going into the water at different intervals and for different lengths of time. Their positions on the beach were similarly staggered; Fabienne’s towel was tucked in a nook formed by two crumbling formations that jutted out of the clay rock face that lined the beach like a scribbled attempt at a straight line. Emma and Catherine were lying six feet apart, one enclosed in shade and the other angling her body every hour to better face the sun. Their parents were gathered more closely together, towels overlapping, passing magazines back and forth to one another and chatting. They had been family friends for years, but while the parents’ relationship had become more fierce, the girls’ had dissolved. It was a delicate friendship to begin with, as they only saw each other once a year for a week, and now that they were older an awkward distance had inserted itself between them.
By noon it was always too hot, and everyone was hungry. They headed back to the village on bicycles and had lunch. Cold ratatouille with salad, and rosé for the grown-ups. Emma and Catherine giggled when Emma was allowed a sip. She was sixteen. Her skin was tan and clear and she was beautiful. Over her bikini she wore an oversized white button-down shirt (an old one of her father’s), the effortless chic of which made Fabienne’s heart pang with envy and admiration. Catherine had some of her sister’s features, but was notably less striking. At fourteen, she still had some growing to do; her nose seemed too big for her face, Fabienne thought, and her body was softer and rounder around the edges.
After lunch, both sets of parents went promptly for their afternoon nap. A delicious nap, this one was. Warm skin tingling from their cold showers, insides tingling from the rosé, and gentle street noises mixing and rising through the open windows. This was the hottest time of day, and most locals would agree that if you weren’t shoulders deep in the sea, you had most likely withdrawn into the cool shade of your abode and gone horizontal.
Not so for Fabienne.
While her parents dozed in the mezzanine of their summer rental apartment, she remained alert, alone in the living room. Though she did not profess to love the beach as much as her parents did, she was loathe to be left without distraction. And despite having nothing to do, she would not go so far as to nap during the day. This was beyond the pale. At thirteen years old, Fabienne was deep in the trenches of early adolescent ennui, though she did not know of it or conceive of it as such. If left this way for too long, she would descend precipitously into a boredom so profound that it threatened to turn her into the kind of zombie teen her parents had been reading about and bracing themselves for.
This was such a moment. Boredom yawned at her like a shapeless, gaping monster. Alone in the living room, Fabienne paced with restlessness, picking up various books and games and setting them back down again. At lunch she had overheard the parents talking about a boat. The idea of it stressed her out, but she didn’t think they would actually do it. Her father mentioned it every year, and they had never gotten one. Good, she thought. No boat.
She moved toward the windows and looked out onto the town square. There, she saw Emma and Catherine, sitting on the low wall that defined the outline of the playground. Catherine’s body was angled towards her sister’s, she was looking directly at her as she spoke; her gaze unfaltering, her focus absolute. Meanwhile, Emma’s eyes wandered over the scene in front of her, taking in the activities and faces in their surroundings. Fabienne could see her mouth move in answer to Catherine, a tantalizing display of attention while her mind was elsewhere. Neither sister looked up, or they would have seen Fabienne gazing down at them. Like a left-out sad-sack, Fabienne thought.
Fabienne thought again about how much easier life would be for her if she had a sister. An older sister, whose lead she could follow and who would be her guide into the world. She rested her arms against the window sill and watched them. She watched with wonder and longing and fear.
“We’re taking the boat today!”
This declaration came from Fabienne’s father.
“What?” she asked.
“I rented the pointu,” he said. “We’ll meet the others at the port. Come on let’s go we’re late.”
Fabienne was standing beside the stairs, finally ready after having spent some time carefully braiding and re-braiding her hair down the side of her neck, so that it rested on her right shoulder as opposed to falling straight down her back.
“But–” she protested.
“Non, come on. Ça suffit.” Her father did not let her finish. He swiveled around and started down the apartment building stairs. Fabienne shot a panicked look at her mother.
“Sweetie, it’s okay,” her mother said, gesturing her along. “We’ll get to see the island from private spots. Your dad knows about hidden beaches!”
“But Mama–”
“Honey, I’ll be right there. And you don’t have to get into the water if you don’t want to.”
When they arrived at the port, the others were already there. Emma had one foot on the boat, straddling the short expanse of saltwater between it and the dock. What little remained of Fabienne’s confidence boost– achieved through the success of her braid– immediately deflated.
Fabienne’s father was the de facto helmsman of the small white and blue fishing boat. They inched out to sea slowly at first, making their way through the other boats coming in and out of the island’s only port. As soon as they crossed the limit lines demarcating the slow zone they accelerated, speeding across the smooth surface of the Mediterranean.
After about fifteen minutes of wind and bouncing and salt spray and loud engine noise, the boat sputtered and came to a stop, surrounded by tall rock on all sides. At the foot of the cliff was a small strip of pebbly beach, which the cliff cast in its shadow. The sea was radiant, its baby waves making it look like puckered silk in the sunshine.
Emma jumped in immediately.
Fabienne watched as she disappeared momentarily beneath the wobbly glaze of the water, her body a blur under its surface. Catherine was soon to follow, shrieking as she jumped. Fabienne’s heart quickened as she held on more firmly to the edge of the boat, which rocked more with each frenzied departure from it. She closed her eyes and a few more splashes signaled the entry into the depthless waters of the rest of their company, until only Fabienne and her mother remained.
“I’m just gonna lie down, hon, the water’s too cold for me. Want to come next to me?”
Fabienne’s mom was stretched out on the bench, one leg dangling off the edge so that her toes could dip into the water with every other bob. Fabienne kept her eyes closed. Loud splashes, echoes of laughter and noise bounced over towards her from where her father, Emma, Catherine, and their parents swam in the sea.
In an instant it all came back to her in vivid detail, the wave that grew before her eyes and yanked her underneath its grey mass. Again she felt herself being whipped around by the currents, losing track of the light, her sense of which way was up. Screaming but hearing nothing in the deafening chaos. Swallowing and inhaling salt water. She remembered thinking, this is it. She had really thought it was over. Then she remembered being tossed around and around and finally spit back up onto the sand, thrust with such violence that the wet sand grazed her stomach and sent a fiery burn through her body.
“FAB!” Emma called.
Fabienne’s eyes startled open. She turned her head to where the shout came from, and saw Emma waving at her from the pebble beach, barely big enough for two people’s towels.
“Come on!”
Somehow, that was all it took.
Astonished by her own action, Fabienne leapt. She flew, floated, and swam to shore.