Out of the Water by Rebekah Matthews
My friend Meredith has postpartum depression so once a week I take out her out with me to do things. We go to dinner or see a movie. I get a Groupon for a water aerobics class at the YMCA in Waltham, and I suggest we try that. She doesn’t want to, she says she still looks fat in a swimsuit. I say it’s either this or yoga because physical activity is supposed help with depression; Meredith says she would rather be tortured than share a room with other yoga moms, in their stretch pants and whatever positive life-mantras they tell themselves about karma. So we try the water aerobics. It’s twice a week in the evenings, Mondays and Wednesdays. On our first day we register at the front desk, where a man makes copies of our driver’s licenses and takes down the details of our Groupon. We change in the locker room, rinse off in the showers, then wait with our towels by the deep-end of the pool. The area is bright, with tall windows, and noisy, but in a good way. There’s a shallow-end aerobics class taking place at the same time with 80s songs playing on the radio, and people swimming laps at the far end, the sounds of their splashing constant and distant. When the instructor appears, a woman named Cami, she explains to Meredith and me that we’re supposed to tie these foam belts around our waists to keep from sinking. Cami has a boy’s haircut and an alarmingly pretty face, and she tells us that she loves having newcomers in the class, she hopes we’ll have a fun time. Meredith and I climb down the ladder and into the water, which is lukewarm, and we tread, staring at each other nervously.
It’s a rather large group of other women taking the class, most of them a lot older than Meredith and me, probably in their 50s and 60s. Cami stands on the ledge of the pool, making an X sign with her arms, saying that’s what we’re supposed to start doing with our legs to warm up. She talks in a firm but sweet voice, encouraging the most basic of responses in the class, and I suspect that probably she’s used to coaching small children. She explains that we are going to be sweating a lot, even though we might not notice it, and she’s brought a cardboard box full of bottled water that we need to drink later because it’s important to hydrate.
A band-aid floats past us and I wave it away with my hands before Meredith can see. She’s already uneasy, complaining how she feels so awkward in the water with the belt, and I feel it too, off-balance and out of control; it’s difficult to make even simple movements. We’re supposed to tuck our legs up then straighten them out, and neither of us can figure out at which angle this is actually possible. “I think I’m really bad at this,” Meredith says to me, re-arranging her belt.
The instructor overhears her and reassures us, bending down to talk closer to us. “You’ll get used to it!” she says. “It’s like I’m asking you to do aerobics while you’re floating in outer space for the first time.” I don’t know why but I had assumed she would teach in the water with us, not above-ground, and it’s an odd dynamic to have to strain my neck to look up at her to see what she’s doing.
Some of the older women wear swim caps that look more like shower caps, loose bunched fabric, white or with floral patterns, and two of them talk to each other more than they pay attention to the class; I think it bothers Cami, and that she tries not to act bothered.
She claps and tells a story, saying that she had a job interview earlier this afternoon. “They asked me what was one big mistake I learned from,” she says, reaching for one of her own bottles of water, chugging it before continuing. “I said one morning I meant to brush my teeth with toothpaste, but I accidentally used my facewash instead. I learned from that one!” Everyone laughs, even the two talkers. She laughs at herself, and seems pleased by the attention.
We run in place, which Cami tells us is the hardest part, once this is over it will get easy. After that part of the class, she brings out sets of foam weights for each person; she asks each of us which ones we want and Meredith and I choose the lightest possible, light blue. Cami shows us how to move them under the water.
We cool down by stretching our backs and legs, holding onto the ledge of the pool. The class is officially over and everyone else climbs out one by one, makes a beeline for the hot tub. Out of the water, I realize the workout was more intense than I had thought, and I’m still struggling to catch my breath. I take one of the bottles of water from Cami. I say thank you, I really enjoyed the lesson, I feel good, I liked her story. She lights up and reaches forward and touches my shoulder. She says, “Oh, I really appreciate you saying so!”
“Thanks for the water, too,” I say. I want to say something else nice but I think I am out of compliments. I feel guilty leaving her there by herself. She looks so young and small, now that I’m not looking up at her.
While I’m driving Meredith back to her house, back to her husband and her new daughter—our hair is still wet, our muscles so tired but not unpleasantly so, that it almost feels like we are relaxed—I ask Meredith how she’s doing. She confesses to me what scares her most is that she doesn’t really have postpartum depression, that this is just the way she is. “What does that mean?” I ask her.
“Like maybe I’m just the kind of person who wasn’t supposed to have kids.”
“Is that even a thing?”
“Who says it isn’t a thing?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I know it must be really scary right now, like you just have to wait around to feel better. But I remember when I was dating Amy, she said she was like that, for a little while, when she first had her kid, but then when he got older, when he started talking, it all really changed, and he became more of a person to her—”
“Yeah, I know,” Meredith snaps. “You’ve told me this story before.”
I am quiet for the rest of the ride, saying a clipped goodbye to her, see you next week, as she gets out of the car. I shouldn’t get mad at her: she’s been a good friend to me for more than a decade, stayed on the phone with me for hours when I was trying to make sense of getting dumped for the seventh or eighth or ninth time; she accompanied me to friends’ weddings as my +1 when I didn’t have a date. But back at my apartment my cat cries for his dinner and I talk to him in a mean, annoyed voice. If I didn’t talk to him that way I would probably be talking that way to myself. Last week I went to the doctor for my pap smear and she said I’m at that age, my mid 30s, where if I want to have kids, I had better decide soon. I am sure if I resent Meredith she resents me for all the same reasons just in reverse. That night I fall asleep holding my pillow in my arms and I have a dream about the swimming instructor, it’s her I’m holding in my arms, in the deep end, and it’s either me or her who is weighing us down but we don’t know which one, and I’m trying to get us to shallow water.
Before class one evening I can’t find any of the smallest-sized belts, and as I’m trying to tighten one of the medium-sized belts around my waist, I call out to Meredith, who is already in the pool, asking her to get back out and help me. Meredith either doesn't hear me or chooses to ignore me; before I know it, Cami, the instructor, is approaching me, standing way too close to me, asking me if I want her to help me. I say, “Oh, yeah, I guess, can you?” Her forehead is only centimeters away from mine; she grabs the fabric closest to my stomach and pulls, threading the strip of cloth further into one of the plastic hooks. “I’ve done this lots of times,” she says, and pulls it again for me, testing. “Is that tight enough?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I say, flustered. Something in my voice changes and I move my head even closer to hers without meaning to. “Yeah, thanks.”
When I get in the pool and take my place next to Meredith, I stare up at Cami on the edge of the pool and wonder what kinds of things she wants from people, what kinds of things she could possibly ever want from me, if anything, and Meredith notices me looking like that and asks me, “What are you doing?”
“What? I’m not doing anything.”
“Okay,” Meredith says.
The two women who usually ignore Cami are talking to each other about a church trip to Israel, and something about ISIS. Cami is trying to do more intervals with us, she is saying, to build up our endurance; we run in place in the water for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds, run in place for 45 seconds. During the resting periods I try to inhale, to get a deep enough breath, but it feels hard to do with the water around my chest.
The best part of the class when Cami tells a story, though sometimes weeks will pass and she won’t tell any, then in one class she’ll tell two or three. Today she says she was substitute-teaching for a PE class for fourth graders, they were playing soccer, and there was this smaller girl who was playing goalie. She wasn’t very competitive, wasn’t good at sports, and her teammates were getting mad at her for letting so many balls just roll on past her. She was trying to talk herself into being able to guard the goal better, and Cami says she overheard her. “It’s okay, this won’t matter later,” the girl was saying. “I’ll live a thousand hours after this and this is just one hour, it won’t matter.” Someone in the class asks Cami, “Did that actually work?” Cami makes a face and looks embarrassed. “It didn’t—the other team still kept scoring.” But Cami thinks it’s a good idea anyway; we should think that way when we are working out, when we feel so tired. Every class lasts an hour. When we start the cool-down part, now, disappointment hits me harder than the exhaustion does.
In the hot tub I tell Meredith one of my ex-girlfriends emailed me the other night, with a 3:30 AM timestamp, apologizing for things that happened over five years ago. She must have been drunk, I say. What did she think was going to happen?
Meredith says, “You always want to talk about your ex-girlfriends.”
“Sorry,” I say. “I am just trying to remember.”
“Sometimes I forget those things ever happened. A relationship, two normal people doing that. How I was able to even do it.”
“You can still do it,” Meredith says in a half-hearted tone.
This will probably be her last class, Meredith tells me in the locker room. There’s a machine attached to the wall where we put our suits inside and it vibrates and spins around, effectively drying them. We wait for it to finish, naked under our towels. She’s going to start therapy, Meredith says.
“That’s good,” I say, “Right? Maybe that will help.” When she doesn’t respond I say again, “Maybe that will help.”
For work I’m supposed to fly out to Texas for two weeks to help my company’s Dallas branch since their manager just left, to interview possible replacements; I would rather cut off my foot than stay in Dallas and when I complain to Meredith in the car, she says it must be nice to travel, she never even gets to leave her house. I feel myself wanting to give up on her, but I’m tired of myself just as much. When I consider the worst part of being away in Dallas, I’m annoyed when I know it will be missing Cami’s class.
When I get back from Dallas, I return to the YMCA class without Meredith. I’m sitting in the hot tub with a few of the older ladies, angling my back so the jet stream hits at the right angle, and suddenly Cami is there, lowering herself onto the floor, sitting on the ledge, taking off her shoes, putting her feet and legs into the water. “Hey, where has your friend gone?” she asks me.
“She’s busy, you know how it goes,” I say.
“Was it something about the way I was teaching?”
“Oh, no, of course not,” I say. “She really liked you. She thought you were so nice and funny.”
She looks relieved. “Okay. Are you going to stop coming too?”
“No,” I say.
“Good,” she says. “I got worried, when you were both gone for so long.”
I am surprised she noticed. I reassure her I was just traveling to work. I start asking her about herself, and she seems to easily want to talk to me, even follows me to the locker room and sits on the bench while I change, though I go in a bathroom stall this time to do it.
Besides teaching classes at the Y, Cami is substituting at a few schools, hoping one of them will offer her a full-time teaching job soon. She lives with her boyfriend, and they both love animals, probably too much; he has a little dog, a terrier, and she has two cats. Her mom recently died, they look just like each other, everyone says so, and she shows me a picture of her on her phone and I agree, they do look alike. She asks me if I have a boyfriend and I say no, I’m gay, and she seems a little flustered but not that flustered. She says she tried being gay in college but she doesn’t like vaginas. I laugh to cover my discomfort, and she asks me if I like the bottled water she brings—I say yes, though I think to myself I can’t imagine having strong feelings about bottled water either way— and she says we should go to her car because she has a ton of boxes of bottled water in her car. She gets them in bulk at Costco. Okay, I say, and we go outside in the parking lot and she opens her trunk, gives me a cardboard box full of them. I try to be as gracious as possible, though it’s a strange gift and I’m not really sure what she’s trying to accomplish by giving it to me.
When I get home I carry the box up the stairs with me. I put it on my kitchen floor and break open the plastic wrapping with my fingers, and sometimes, on my way into work in the mornings, I’ll take a bottle to drink in the car, but I mostly forget about it, and the box stays in the kitchen.
During the class tonight, one of the talkers refuses to climb the ladder down all the way into the pool. She keeps exclaiming how cold the water is. She dips a foot in, then most of her leg, but draws it back out. Other women in the class try to encourage her, but several minutes pass and she’s still not all the way in, so Cami decides to start the class without her.
Every so often I look to the ladder to check on the woman’s progress, and she’s still not all the way in. I look away and look back at Cami. She is looking at me looking at the woman. She starts laughing and I laugh too, and there’s something about her eyes, because they are blue, but not blue like the pool, another color altogether. I try to see something behind them and I think I almost do but maybe I don’t at all. But I think she seems glad I’m looking at her.
Meredith gets so bad that she stays in bed almost all day, and her husband calls me, upset and worried, saying sometimes she barely talks. I go to their house and sit with Meredith in her bed. She breathes in like she’s preparing to blow out dozens of candles then exchanges small talk with me for a few minutes, and then it’s like she runs out of air and has to stop. When I ask her how therapy is going she says, “We just talk about the same thing over and over.”
I talk to her without really expecting her to say anything back. I talk about what we can see from the window, the clouds, the tree with the big branch that is about to fall off, it probably will fall in the next storm, I hope it doesn’t crush anything. I ask her, “Does the wallpaper drive you crazy? You must look at it all the time. Like that famous story. All these vertical lines, up and down, like a prison cell.” She finally laughs at that.
I explain to her that now I’m friends with the water aerobics swimming instructor, Cami, and that after class we’ve started going to this diner down the street—Cami asked me to go with her the first time, I asked her to go with me the second time. We share French fries and I mostly listen to her talk; she tells me how she gets into fights with her dad over the phone, how she keeps telling him to go to the doctor but he won’t. She loves her boyfriend but he plays too many video games. She thinks it’s cool how much I travel for work. I tell Meredith, “She has all these ideas. She thinks we should go on a road trip to California together. And she thinks we should go to all of these concerts together. But I ask her to hang out other times, like not after class, and she never does, so I don’t think she really means what she’s saying. Which is fine, you know, I know what this is.” I add, “Sometimes she calls me Poodle, like as a nickname.”
“Why does she do that?” Meredith asks.
“I don’t know,” I say.
Eventually I run out of things to say to Meredith; the pauses between my stories are too long and eventually Meredith falls asleep. Before I leave, I sit with her husband in the kitchen and he says he will make some tea for us. He talks about the new medicine Meredith is starting. He hands me the baby while he microwaves two mugs of water, which is exactly how Meredith makes tea. I say, “They say babies smell so good to women, like it’s some kind of hormonal thing.” I sniff the baby’s head and I don’t smell anything. I feel a surge of panic, wondering if I’m missing something inside of me, and I think that must be how Meredith feels, every morning, waking up.
There’s been some drama at the Y, Cami tells me at the diner one night—new management or something and also someone left a shitty comment about her on the Waltham YMCA Yelp page. I ask what the comment said. Cami squeezes the ketchup bottle over her fries but it’s mostly empty so just air comes out. She says, “It doesn’t matter, it didn’t bother me.”
I feel a lurch in my stomach even before she tells me that she’s going to stop teaching the water aerobics class soon; she found a full-time job, an admin job at one of the schools she subs at, plus this bullshit at the Y—she mentions the new management again—it’s just not worth it. And when she tells me, after that she starts laughing and says, “Your face! Oh, you look really upset.”
I don’t know what to say back, so I don’t say anything.
“We’ll still hang out,” she says.
Afterwards we walk to our cars and she tries to give me bottled water, again, another entire box full. I say “No, that’s alright, look, I really don’t need this.” I add, “It’s just not necessary. Like at all.” She looks a little sad and uncertain though for once I don’t try to reassure her. I get into my car and when I get home I leave my towel in the back seat. I wonder if the towel will stay damp, and turn moldy, and smell up the car, but days go by and it dries in the sun.
After Cami leaves, I stop going to the Y, but then, unexpectedly, Meredith gets better and she wants to start again, so we return. I even recognize the new instructor; she had taught the shallow-end aerobic class and occasionally filled in for Cami when she was out; she is jolly, a little overweight, and likes to tell jokes she claims to have made up herself. Today’s joke is: I was going to tell you this joke about pizza but I’m worried you’ll think it’s too cheesy.
I realize I had finally adjusted to moving around in the water, and am now barely phased by it, but Meredith struggles. She keeps floating backwards, accidentally, and running into me.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“No, I mean I’m sorry for a lot of things,” she says.
“I know,” I say, and when she floats into me the next time, I hold onto her arm and try to hug her.
Meredith went shopping yesterday and she wants to show me the new outfits she got for herself, so after class we drive to her house and I go inside with her and sit on her bed and hold the baby while Meredith models each new dress. She looks good; she even bought a bikini. Maybe she’ll wear it to class next time, she says.
I ask Meredith how she got better, if it was therapy or the medicine. “Probably both,” she says. “You know, I complained I talked about the same thing over and over in therapy and then I just got bored. I got tired of saying how much I didn’t want her, I didn’t want my daughter. How many times can a person say that? Then I think my brain got tired of thinking it. Eventually it wanted to think about something else. So I started thinking about other things.”
The baby falls asleep in my arms. I look outside and see that clouds are rolling in, that it will probably storm soon. The branches of the big tree scrape against the window and I say to Meredith, “This tree still makes me nervous.” She says, “A little bit of rain won’t break it.” I say, “It could.” Last week Cami texted me. I didn’t text her back, but still her message made me happy for days afterwards. She just wrote, Hi I miss you Poodle. I still like and hate thinking about her—I hope it’s like what Meredith says, in a different kind of way. Her brain was stuck for a while, then it moved onto something else.
Rebekah Matthews lives in Boston and watches a lot of TV. Her stories have appeared in such publications as Wigleaf, decomP, and Barrelhouse. Her novella, Hero Worship, was published by Vagabondage Press.