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Eventually Hank started packing too, grabbed his good slacks, his stained shirt, crammed them in. He worked a wide circle around Helen. He told her twice that it would all be okay, that he would get to the bottom of it, that she just really shouldn’t worry about it right now, not until maybe she had time to think it through better.
“Just shut up, Hank.” There were still the baths to do.
The car radio blared when he turned the ignition, and they listened to half of a country hit on the way. Hank hummed part of the chorus, tunelessly, to indicate that they were done fighting now. She stared at her window, at the reflection of the dashboard in the glass, until the bathhouses came into view. They were wooden, whitewashed polygons that Hank said looked like UFO’s, what someone in the nineteenth century would think a UFO looked like. He was being conversational now, friendly, modeling the way in which one puts a conflict behind oneself. Helen considered asking what a real UFO looked like. She considered asking him whether Brian knew the difference between an IUD and a diaphragm, a hysterectomy and an oophorectomy, a vagina and a cunt.
The air outside felt frigid as he trotted beside her. “Do you really want to go in the water?” he asked. Helen was carrying their swimming suits in her purse. The flap wouldn’t close.
“That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? That’s why we came, isn’t it?”
They paid and walked to the larger of the two buildings. Two couples floated in the water, one with a pair of blonde children, young teens, all staring at Helen. She chose the nearest dressing room and pulled the shower curtain as Hank dropped his pants. She changed quickly. When she dipped her foot in the pool, she was surprised by the mildness and plunged down, to hide her body in the refraction. The middle schoolers were giggling. The girl was touching the boy’s hip under the water. Maybe they weren’t siblings. Maybe they were boyfriend and girlfriend.
The step railings looked acid burnt where the water lapped. Hank pushed off, trying to float on his back, but his spine kept bending, kept shoving his hips under. Helen stared at the rescue hook behind him, at the unlit spotlights on the rafters, then she tried to close her eyes, tried to keep them closed. The reflection of the ceiling windows wrinkled on the water but remained recognizable if she held still, if she let the floating noodle hold all of her weight, if she didn’t move at all. It would be best not to move at all.
“See how bubbles come from between the rocks?” Hank’s voice was the loudest in the room. “We’re actually in the mouth of the spring.”
Now she felt the bubbles clinging to her calves and thighs like carbonation. When she closed her eyes again they were fingertips, erotic and unwelcome. Hank kept talking, pointing at the support beams, joking about the way the extra floating noodles fit into the wall frames, the foresight of the founding father.
“Can you imagine that, Thomas Jefferson floating naked right here?”
“Hank,” she said, “I’m trying to relax. I came here to relax. Okay?”
He frowned and splashed toward the deep end—no, it was no deeper. The cord across the center of the pool was for holding on to. It didn’t divide anything. This was just a hole in the ground. They were all just bobbing in a useless hole. The water was warm, slightly above body temperature, the web site said, a very light fever. People used to drink it, but that wasn’t recommended now. Nobody was ever cured of anything here.
A man, one of the husbands, appeared from a side room, slapping his drenched hair back from his forehead as he stood dripping on the planks. He cupped his hands to be heard over the thrum: “You have to try it. It’s amazing. Like living under Niagara Falls.” A cheap, silver-lettered sign above him read: Water Massage. His wife shrugged shyly.
“I’ll go,” Helen called.
An open urinal rusted beyond the doorway with a set of soaked steps descending beside it. Three quarter turns and she was under the platform, where the floor planks gave way to exposed rock and more slime-thick Astroturf. She lowered herself into the run-off stream with her back to the wall and waited. The attendant shouted, the wood clacked, and the water erupted. Her hands clawed at beams and rock as her suit straps flung off her shoulders. The force frightened her. She pictured little Brian in a public restroom shrieking over the roar of a toilet.
Her feet learned where to wedge themselves. Her waist tilted to lessen the force on the numbing spots across her back. It wasn’t relaxing so much as obliterating, nothing but the habit of holding on. She hadn’t noticed how taut her neck was, or her shoulders and back, her stomach, like strands of twine snarled into a fist-thick ball, every end pulled to breaking. Her fingernails pulsed as she pictured Brian’s shoelaces, the impossible task of loosening mud-dried knots, digging at the weave, before giving up, before jamming his naked heel in as he squealed. She could do no better. She’d wanted him closer, at one of the commuter colleges, but Hank wouldn’t hear of it. You can’t control a boy forever. No one could blame Helen. She was innocent. Everybody was innocent.
The girl was angry, vengeful even, but it was Helen she chose, not a dean, not some acne-scarred town deputy. Helen wanted to hate her, wanted to call her every silly name: bitch, slut, whore. She was probably pretty, too, a flirt, the kind Brian enjoyed. It was partly her fault. Helen wondered what she had been doing when the girl was copying Brian’s home address from a student directory, choosing the right mailbox to drop it in, isolated, but not too isolated. It had probably happened last weekend, so she’d slept on it a couple of nights, had seen a counselor already, a nurse maybe.
Helen tasted salt on her lips, and snot, and she would have wiped at her face, but her hands, her arms, everything was drenched. The head of the unconscious girl kept rocking open-mouthed with Brian’s thrusts. Or maybe she hadn’t passed out. Maybe Brian and his brothers hadn’t spiked her glass, or poured her cup after new cup. Maybe her eyes were wide open. Helen’s head tipped forward, and water spilled around it, over it, leaving her only a wedge of air. The girl was gasping Brian’s name, slapping at him, pleading.
Helen wanted to keep rocking under the weight of the collapsing water, but the wood clattered, and then she was just squatting in a half-stopped stream again. Her back was dead, the skin nerveless. She wasn’t moving.
“Ma’am?” It was the attendant’s voice. “Ma’am,” he called. “You got to come out now.”
Helen drew herself up. Her body was heavy, her flesh like soaked clothing, a drenched parka. She steadied her weight on each stair, scuffing her toes when she didn’t raise a foot high enough. The wood was old and dank and beginning to rot. The whole platform would need to be replaced soon, the whole building.
Everyone in the pool was staring at her—the father, the other husband, the middle school boyfriend, and Hank. “You have to go now, ma’am,” the attendant said. He was pointing at a plastic kitchen clock hanging from a high nail. The other women and the girl were gone. The men and the boy bobbed, their arms and shoulders and chests, everything above the water, naked.
“Helen,” said Hank. “We still have twenty minutes. Go try the girls’ bath.” He must not have thought she’d heard, because he called louder. “We paid for the time,” he yelled. “We might as well use it. I’ll meet you in the car after.”