Bands of winter sun filter through the skylight, striping the water with light. The pool’s floor is the color of sapphires, a sunken treasure sparkling there beneath the moving water. Descending the stairs at the shallow end, you feel buoyed and cinematic. You are Esther Williams slinking into jeweled blueness, until the chlorine stings your eyes. Your friends are already in the pool, floating or stretching. No one speaks. You walk, graceful as an astronaut, the water forcing you up on your toes. Then you raise your stiff feet, and for a second or two, the water holds you.
Surrounding the pool are bright pink and blue polyurethane floats, safety belts, ankle and wrist supports, hand paddles, flippers, and inflatable rings for children. A canvas hammock dangles from chains fastened to a steel pole. The hammock is to lower people into the water who are unable to use the stairs.
The Ursuline Sisters run the community center, and on the wall, next to the pool rules, hangs a bronze plaque depicting Saint Ursula and her maidens aboard a ship, with a short hagiography. Ursula was a fourth-century British princess betrothed to the son of a pagan king. To delay her unwanted marriage, Ursula asked permission to sail the seas for three years with eleven thousand virgin companions. Near the end of this grace period, while sailing off the shores of Cologne, they were massacred by the Huns because of their Christianity. And so Ursula triumphed: Jesus was her only lover; she was never a landlocked, bitter bride.
Today’s water-therapy instructor stands at the side of the pool doing deep knee bends. She is perhaps fifty, in a navy swimsuit and red flip flops, thin except for the heavily veined cellulite clumping on her thighs. The instructors come and go. Most are college girls working toward physical-therapy degrees. Before class, they apply frosty lip gloss and watch the TV suspended from the ceiling. They never actually enter the pool, preferring to yell their instructions from the side because chlorine is bad for their highlighted, butter blond hair. You, who paid sixty dollars for a garnet-brown rinse to color your creeping strands of gray, fully experience the ravages of chlorinated water.
You move your weight from foot to foot. The water muffles the popping of your hips. You are thirty and arthritic. Two years ago, when your fingers and toes started to hurt, you thought, This is a strange flu, and then you thought: Arthritis. Well, I’ve always been mature for my age, ha, ha. Then your hands stiffened into claws, and your knees locked and would not straighten. The doctors said, “Chronic rheumatoid arthritis,” which made you think of nursing-home crones hunched over playing gin rummy. Then you got sicker, and you started hearing stories: My cousin ended up in a wheelchair after only three years. . . . The lady down the block has hands like pretzels. . . . My stepfather’s knees are fused, and he walks like Frankenstein.
As you wave your hands through the water, the stony heaviness in your fingers starts to subside. There is a big, witchy nodule in your wedding-ring finger and one developing on your pinkie. You plunge your hands deeper, slide them across your stomach.
You have a zygote — “Zoe Zachary Zygote,” your husband calls it — and the world is fuzzy and mint green, soft as lamb’s ear. And your health is much improved. After all those dark days, you have suddenly plunged into Candyland. The trees blossom with caramel apples; the sun shines its Creamsicle rays especially for you.
Of course, you still worry, the word chronic embossed in your brain in fright-show letters. Will you backtrack into full-time convalescence? Will you be able to screw the nipple onto a baby bottle?
The instructor crashes into the pool and shouts, “Let’s warm up by walking across the pool and back five times!” She’s new and seems more like a maniacal phys-ed teacher than a physical therapist.
The water makes walking a snap. You wish for a sudden monsoon season. With rainwater up to your waist, you could race through the grocery-store parking lot like the track star you were in junior high.
There are just five women in your slow-movement aerobics class. Marjorie — a retired nurse who now sells cosmetics — is the oldest at sixty-five. Or is it Sister Barbara, an Ursuline Sister who lives in the run-down convent visible through the windows? She hasn’t offered up an exact number, and her vanity charms you.
“This methotrexate makes my mouth so damn dry I could spit cotton,” Marjorie says. “I’d love an ice-cold beer.”
Sister Barbara cups water in her hands. “According to legend,” she tells you, “Saint Ursula transformed great buckets of ocean water into beer. Imagine all the water in this pool transformed into golden, sparkling Michelob.”
You lower your mouth and lap at the air just above the water, like a cat.
Carlin says, “How about a pool filled with chardonnay and chocolate?”
Carlin is in her early thirties. She is in the Junior League and has a Range Rover and two children and an orthopedic surgeon husband and multiple sclerosis.
“I’ll pass,” Marjorie says. “Do you know the number of catheter bags that leak into this pool all day? I wouldn’t drink from it if it were filled with champagne. And let’s not even talk about floating chocolate.”
Sister Barbara cracks up, and you laugh weakly, nausea fluttering your throat. Carlin mouths the word bad, then laughs.
Marjorie and Sister Barbara can barely contain themselves. They both have lupus and call themselves “the luscious lupus twins.” Lupus can be deadly, but to you it sounds like a cone-shaped purple flower: On a fresh spring day, I went strolling through a field of heather and lupus. On top of having lupus, Marjorie has ovarian cancer. Apparently, the chemotherapy has sent her lupus into remission. (“A miracle cure!” she says.)
Heather, the baby of the group at nineteen, walks across the pool with her head down, looking sullen. This has not gone unnoticed, but you don’t badger each other.
“Leg stretches!” the instructor yells.
You all line up next to the chrome handrail jutting from the side of the pool. Grasping the bar with one hurting hand, you raise your left leg to the side, to the front, to the side, to the front. Heather exhales loudly.
“What is it, hon?” Marjorie says.
Heather wipes away a tear with her raw-knuckled hand. “Just look at my face. It’s huge! Jesus, I hate prednisone.”
Prednisone is a steroid that suppresses the immune system. It also causes severe mood swings, weight gain, and acne — and, in an interesting twist, gives you lustrous facial hair while causing the hair on your head to fall out. Worst of all is Heather’s current problem, Cushing’s syndrome, a steroid-induced moon face.
“Switch legs!” the instructor calls.
You lift your right leg too high and wonder whether a zygote gets dizzy. Zygote — the most beautiful of all medical terms. Actually, thanks to the wonders of time and cell division, your zygote has transformed, first into an embryo, and now into its current incarnation as a fetus. You are eleven weeks pregnant and already sentimental, unable to give up the term “zygote,” the miracle of that first primitive cell.
Heather goes on: “My bitchy doctor was all like, ‘Well, if prednisone makes it more comfortable for you to walk around, what’s the problem? Is the bloating in your face really so bad, comparatively speaking?’ ”
“Oh, Heather, she sounds like a royal bitch,” says Marjorie.
“No lie,” you say.
“I’ll tell you what, those damn doctors love to prescribe that nasty prednisone,” Sister Barbara says.
“My husband isn’t as pro-prednisone as he used to be,” says Carlin, “since he had to live with me while I was taking it.”
“Wave goodbye with your foot!” the instructor calls out.
“What I felt like saying,” says Heather, “was ‘Well, of course you wouldn’t understand how seeing your face swell up like a blowfish would be a drag, Doctor Hagula; you’re not even pretty.’ I’m going to tell her that. I mean, God, I’m a freaking medical anomaly. What else could possibly go wrong? And I’m getting a fat body to match my pumpkin head. Crohn’s disease is supposed to make you stick thin. If I could be sick and fabulously skinny, that would be another thing altogether.”
“Well, they say chemo makes you too nauseous to eat,” Marjorie says, “but I stopped for a banana split on my way home yesterday.”
“Don’t even talk to me,” Sister Barbara says. “I ate an entire box of chocolate-covered cherries while I was watching TV last night and woke up at 2 A.M. with the sugar sweats.”
“Let’s pick up the pace, ladies!” the instructor yells, slapping her hips. “Let’s stretch out that lower body!”
You sway like an elderly hula girl. On the soundless TV, a group of girls play soccer while one small girl looks on from the sidelines.
“Jesus Christ,” Heather says, “I hate these commercials. ‘You can give a girl a ball, or you can give a girl a doll.’ Is that Nike’s version of feminism? What does that say to a disabled child? That if you have to sit on the sidelines, you’re a sissy piece of crap? Why don’t they show handicapped children playing sports? Because they do play sports, and they certainly buy the Nike gear like all other kids.”
Carlin grins at you. On her swimsuit is the famous swoosh. Beneath the water, you wear Nike pool shoes.
“I do like those Tiger Woods commercials,” Sister Barbara says.
Heather slaps the water. “Oh, Sister Barbara, I hate those, too. Sure, they have all those cute little kids looking into the camera and saying, ‘I am Tiger Woods.’ But of course they never show the Indonesian children who sew Nike shoes in sweatshops for a dime an hour. I guess their sport is sewing.”
“I wonder why they keep the TV on in here,” Marjorie says.
Sister Barbara reaches out and touches Heather’s hand. “Sweetheart, how many milligrams of prednisone do they have you on?”
You, too, have become outraged by commercials and magazine stories; you write letters to editors and rage about pesticides and the sodium content of canned soup. Before this illness, you were easygoing and charitable. After the diagnosis, it became clear that your previous good works — all that prancing around like Mother Theresa with eyeliner — had only disguised your innate evil. When people said, “Gee, I’m so busy. I really envy you being able to stay home and watch TV all day,” you wanted them killed. You wanted their severed heads shellacked and stuck on a stick in some psychopath’s closet: “Gee, maybe in the next life you’ll have more time to watch TV.” But now you have a zygote, and everywhere people in their vulnerability are too much for you to bear: the old woman at the drugstore struggling to work the blood-pressure cuff; the fat boy walking his teacup poodle in the rain.
“Move like you mean it!” the instructor yells.
“For the love of God,” Sister Barbara says, “does she think she’s teaching the ‘hydrocrunch’ class? Doesn’t she know we’re the slow girls?”
To improve coordination and muscle tone, you each strap on hand paddles. The velcro straps scritch-scritch, and now, underwater, your hands are as leaden and clumsy as they are on land.
“Arm circles!” the teacher yells.
Your shoulders creak as you windmill your arms lethargically. Inside you is a zygote; you’ll never walk alone.
Carlin falls back into the water, coughing, her hands slapping the surface. There is a slow second in which you each lunge toward her before she stands upright, sputtering, “I’m OK, I’m OK.” Sister Barbara unstraps her hand paddles and tosses them to the side, then pats Carlin on the back. Carlin coughs and laughs in the same breath. “Geez, Sister Barbara, anything to lose those water weights, huh?”
“You got it, hon,” says Sister Barbara.
The instructor blows her silver whistle. “Miss, are you OK? Can you breathe, speak, or cough?”
Marjorie whispers, “Isn’t that what you say when someone is gagging on a pork chop?”
“I’m fine,” Carlin says.
“Are you sure you’re OK?” you ask.
“Yeah,” Carlin says, “and anyway, I deserve it for staying down in the shallow end so my hair wouldn’t get wet. I didn’t have time to put it up before I left the house.” Her long, gleaming black hair slopes like a stole over her shoulders. Then her smile fades, and her shoulders sink. “My balance is so terrible today. And I almost couldn’t drive because the streets looked so wavy.”
Heather says, “On the other hand, even wet, your lipstick still looks perfect.”
Carlin smiles weakly at Heather. “I’ve been in a flare-up for about two weeks now. I started feeling awful right after my high-school reunion, which I went to because I’m a moron. You could tell the people who knew I had MS; they were like, ‘Oh, Carlin,’ with this delicious smile on their face. Then, when I was in the bathroom, I heard these two bitches in the stalls saying, ‘It’s so sad that she’ll go blind, isn’t it?’ ‘Sure is. God, by our next reunion she’ll probably be in a nursing home.’ ‘Oh, let’s not talk about it. It’s too depressing.’ ”
Sister Barbara nods. “People who aren’t happy with their own lives feast on the troubles of others.”
If this is the world awaiting your zygote, you will most certainly home-school in the wilderness.
Carlin closes her eyes and lifts her head to the sun cutting through the skylight. “It’s funny; everyone hopes the homecoming queen will turn into the Goodyear blimp, but I gave them so much more. As the night went on and the gossip about me spread, I could feel the mood in the room change. It was as if people were mentally comparing their life to mine — or what they imagined my life must be like — and they were coming out way ahead. I felt their joy at my fate. I have never, ever felt more powerful. I’m pretty sure it’s how Jesus felt at the Last Supper when he said, ‘This is my body, which will be given up for you.’ ” Carlin opens her eyes. “Anyway, that feeling didn’t last. On the drive home, I felt like shit. I wanted to stop and buy a pistol. If it wasn’t for my kids, I would have blown my brains out the day I was diagnosed.”
Everyone stares into the water.
Marjorie says, “You know, last night I was watching my husband at the dinner table, eating his chicken breast and baked potato. We’ve eaten maybe a million meals together, and I’ve never given it a second thought, but last night I was watching him chew his chicken, and I thought how it would be after I’m gone, how it would be for my Francis to eat his dinner all alone in our kitchen. And I thought maybe I’d sneak into the closet and get his hunting rifle and shoot him, so he’d never have to eat dinner alone, and I could stop worrying about him being lonely.”
“Oh, you guys,” Heather says, “I’ve totally been wanting to shoot myself all week.”
The instructor claps her hands together. “Ladies,” she says, “we need to get back to our exercise! Don’t be such a bunch of sad sacks. Remember, when we feel tempted to indulge in self-pity, we must think of others who are less fortunate.”
“Saint Ursula, help us,” Sister Barbara says.
Right on cue, the locker-room door slams shut unaided, as if Saint Ursula and her maidens were slamming down their beer mugs in disgust.
“Think of Christopher Reeve,” the instructor says. “Just think of him! Superman sits strapped in a chair all day, completely helpless. He can’t even lift a spoon.”
“Excuse me, Miss,” Sister Barbara says.
That Miss sounds awfully pointed, particularly because the instructor’s age qualifies her to be a ma’am. But the instructor must mistake Sister Barbara for a dotty old woman with a gray bubble cut and a flowered lavender swimsuit, because she turns and grins as if she’s about to be offered a plate of brownies and says, “Yes?”
“It is not right,” Sister Barbara says, “to use the misfortune of others to cheer ourselves. It is an insult to Christopher Reeve that his recent tragedy would be used as a catalyst to brighten people’s lives. You can be quite sure that your pity is of no use to him. You can be quite sure that, in the eyes of God, the greatest sin is gleeful, self-congratulatory compassion.”
You wonder why you ever switched over to the Unitarians. Unitarians suck. The whole idea of a peaceful God sucks. How you miss your old Catholic God, capable of eternally punishing people for acting like assholes. Then again, the Unitarian God is kind and loving, while the Catholic God is a stormy friend. But you don’t want God concocting any schemes to punish your zygote for your own murky doubts, so you block them out — Gloria in excelsis Deo.
The teacher is still smiling at Sister Barbara, but in a dazed, frightened way. She suddenly remembers a dental appointment and tells everyone to exercise at her own pace. You cruelly freeze your eyes on her fat, flapping hips as she climbs out of the pool and walks to the locker room.
“Did I come on too strong?” Sister Barbara asks. “No one likes a bully.”
Saint Ursula and her maidens received a three-year reprieve, but all you get is an hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
There’s five minutes of pool time left when a male water therapist screams and fakes a fall into the deep end, Jerry Lewis–style. He bobs up, gasping, and waves wildly to a little girl in a red, ruffled bathing suit, her sandy blond hair in a ribboned French braid. The girl parks her silver walker by the pool stairs and sits down on the first step. Robin’s-egg-sized muscles pop out of her upper arms. The water therapist stalks over to her, Godzilla-like, growling, his arms raised over his head. Then he gently scoops the little girl into his arms, and she squeals as he puts an apple green safety ring around her. Beneath the water, her misshapen legs are a secret. The therapist pulls her around, their heads pressed together, and she answers his questions seriously, with a lisp.
You try to concentrate on Marjorie and Sister Barbara’s conversation — Penney’s has a half-off sale on support bras; will they have just one cup?— but in your peripheral vision is the miniature silver walker, shiny as a tin star, decorated with Hello Kitty stickers. The therapist throws the girl a sponge basketball, and they take turns dunking it in the mesh basket at the side of the pool.
“Two points, Tiffany!” says the girl’s mother, who stands at the side of the pool, clapping.
You decide that your zygote is healthy, that your own illness serves as insurance for the well-being of your baby. (If only you could get that policy in writing.) Then you glance at the silver walker and pray, Please, God, anything but that. Tear me to shreds, bring it on, but please, please, please not that.
Tiffany misses a long shot, and the sponge basketball hits you in the shoulder. As you lob it back, you offer her a phony smile. This is the kind of person you are now, praying for protection against this beautiful child, actually worried that she will place some sort of hex upon your zygote. This is the sum total of the wisdom you’ve gained from your illness.
Sister Barbara says to you, “You’ve been quiet as a church mouse today.”
Heather says, “Yeah, what gives?”
You feel the heat of tears behind your eyes, your lips twitching and fluttering like a pageant winner. Then you tell them you saw two blue lines on a stick.
You are a celebrity.
In the locker room, everyone sits on the long wooden bench and peels off her bathing suit. You take great care to look at each other only above the neck as you step into the group shower. Usually, hot water bursts from the tiny metal heads with such force it feels as if you’re being blasted with a pellet gun, but today the flow is like raindrops.
Heather and Sister Barbara gaze at you as if you’re the Virgin Mary. Marjorie tells you that thirty is the perfect age to have a baby; that’s how old she was when she had Timmy, the last of her six children, and she “completely enjoyed” him. As she reaches up to turn off the shower nozzle, she gives you a toothy, devastating smile. “You’ll be such a fun mom,” she says.
The world is lit by pink and blue birthday candles. Your heart is a three-tiered white-frosted cake studded with Junior Mints.
In the dressing room, you contribute your part to the chorus of popping toes and knees. Your shoulders clench as you bend down to step into your underwear — but, my God, you have a zygote now!
Carlin tells a story of how, shortly after she was diagnosed, she was sitting on a bench at the mall, giving her baby Katherine a bottle, when two women wearing shapeless peasant dresses and Birkenstocks walked past her, glaring. The women circled back to tell her that “breast is best,” and that she was probably poisoning her baby by feeding her formula. Then they gave her a pamphlet from the La Leche League.
“I told them the medicine I took for the MS could transfer through my breast milk and kill my baby,” Carlin says. “I really let them have it. Those hippie bitches were in tears by the time I was through with them.” She hooks her black bra and pulls her shirt down over her head, then vamps in front of the fogged mirror. “And the moral of this little story is that, because I couldn’t breast-feed, my tits are still riding high.”
“To have your tits riding high is the best moral of any story,” you say.
Marjorie and Sister Barbara agree that, at their age, they couldn’t achieve the same look with a bra made of steel.
No one really wants to leave, but you all put on your rubber-soled shoes and walk carefully out the door. The cold stiffens your fingers to iron bars. Gritty sand covers most of the sidewalk, but here and there are patches of gleaming, bare ice.
Sister Barbara loops her arm through yours and says, “Careful there, Mom” — which is ridiculous: your “baby” could ride in Jiminy Cricket’s backpack; it could swim laps in a dessert spoon. Still, you feel as if you don’t need your car today. You could probably fly home.
At the edge of the parking lot, Marjorie stops and says, “I’ve got the new Bettye Belzer catalogs in the car. Would you all like to sneak a peek at the latest lipstick shades before you head home?”
The slow-movement class piles into her tanklike green Mercury. Your breath forms a pulsing cloud as Marjorie sticks a catalog into your gloved hand. For the moment, you and your zygote are barricaded from the horrors of the world. The light snow powdering the car windows shields the outside from view, but you still hear the roar of cars on the highway. You’ll be driving on that highway soon, but not quite yet.
In the front seat, Sister Barbara traces her finger over a pale palette of lipstick colors. Snuggled up to you on the left, Carlin is looking at alpha-hydroxy creams. On your right, Heather frowns at a page of mascaras. “My roommates all want husbands,” she says, “but my hands are so shaky, I’d be happy to partner up with a nice drag queen who could apply my mascara without stabbing me in the eye.”
“It would never work,” Carlin says. “All the women would be chasing after him, begging him to line their lips.”
Marjorie says, “Isn’t it strange? Young women of my generation didn’t generally wear eye makeup, just lipstick and powder,” but Sister Barbara says, “Speak for yourself, hon. I never left the house without my false eyelashes.” Marjorie puts on the wipers to clear the windshield, and you see a winter bird perched on a stop sign, the trail of zooming cars on the highway, and the car heater kicks in, moaning, Not yet, not yet.