Sara was so small. I had a pet name for her, I’d call her ‘little woman.’ She wasn’t an alcoholic like me, and she was extremely conscientious. I liked that about her, even if she was sometimes sort of a nag about it. She was always recycling or donating to some obscure charity, forcing me to ‘participate.’
She carried around this little rusted steak knife in her brown Michael Kors purse. I didn’t buy the purse for her. She’d always say she kept the knife in the purse just in case anyone tried to rape her. She’d had a negative past experience.
“Don’t worry, little woman, you got me. You don’t need that little knife anymore,” I’d say, drunk, before we left out anywhere. I resented the knife a little. For me it was symbolic of my inability to keep her safe.
“I’m taking it just in case,” she’d always said. I would just shrug and we’d leave.
One day we were at the community pool. There were signs posted everywhere saying glass wasn’t allowed. I had a glass bottle of whiskey wrapped in a towel. We were laying out by the poolside and listening to the kids scream and play and splash. We had an old-school boombox playing 90’s rap next to us. It was a racket. I wished we were anywhere else as I snuck sips from my bottle.
She was laying out on the chair next to me. Her eyes were closed when she said, “you think I can’t see you?” Her brown hair was falling over the pool chair, being pushed gently by the wind, and the freckles on her face were getting dark in the sun.
“I was hoping you couldn’t,” I said. She always started in on the booze with me but I was getting good at skimming around the issue to something else. I always thought it was funny how I did that instead of walking out on her. If only she knew the effort I put in to avoid getting into arguments.
“Well, I can,” she said flatly, “there are signs everywhere that say you can’t have that here.” She waved her hand absently through the air, indicating the signs. Her eyes were still closed.
“Don’t worry, baby, no one can see,” I said.
“I can,” she said. All I could think of was how the hell she was able to see me with her eyes closed.
“That’s only cuz you know me so well,” I contended. She was getting good at learning my bad habits. Her eyes were still closed but she gave away a subtle smile, then ran her fingers through hair. Her hair fell back down in quiet sandy brown waves. “Come on, let’s get in the water. I can put this damn bottle down for a moment,” I said.
“Oh, can you?” she asked. I didn’t answer right away. I was drinking deep for the courage. I hated public pools and the public in general and my pale skin always got burned when I took my shirt off.
“Of course,” I said finally, wiping away the small amount of liquor I’d spilled on my face. Her eyes popped open right after I wrapped the bottle and put it back under my chair. I knew she waited for me to finish to avoid arguing. We both hated conflict.
“Well, let’s go,” she said. She stood up and looked down at me. Her lips were nearly the same color as her skin, this soft brownish-pink color. Her almond hazel eyes were wide and glittering with life and good humor. The sun was behind her and she was glowing like some sort of sexy benevolent alien, an otherworldly being. Why she was ever with me, even for that small amount of time, I’ll never know.
We got in the water and it was so cold because of the heat of the day that I was shivering at first. It was the contrast, but I got used to it. We avoided the children and the other adults. The sun glowed off my white skin and bounced off the water into my eyes. After 30 minutes or so of splashing around, with me mostly just admiring her tight little body and trying not to sink like a stone, the liquor on my stomach started to roll. I climbed out and went back to the chair, leaving Sara to swim alone.
The bottle was at my lips again when she came back, dripping.
“You know, one day you will have to own up to your problem, Jonny,” she said, taking her seat next to mine. I knew she was trying hard to not go all-out heated.
“You’re probably right, babe, but are you going to make me do it today?” I laughed slightly at my own joke, trying to break the tension.
She only frowned and laid herself back out to collect the sun. She closed her eyes. The little beads of water reflected light and rolled slowly across her brown skin. The kids kept screaming. The air was so humid that I was choking on it. I could smell the herb the lifeguards were burning beyond the fence. No one was overlooking the pool.
“Be right back,” I said.
“Don’t get into any trouble,” she said, smiling with her perfect straight and white teeth, eyes still closed. I was happy she was smiling. It meant she wasn’t too upset about the booze.
“Not intentionally,” I clarified. I left her there, basking. I made it to the fence where two scrawny teenagers wearing red trunks were passing a joint. “Hey kids, how about sharing?” I asked.
They both looked at each other curiously. “What?” The one asked. He had blonde curly hair spilling over a pretentious visor. I didn’t like him.
“Let me hit the joint kid, or I’ll kick your ass,” I said, trying to get my point across. I was already drunk and irritated. The other kid had dark hair falling into his face and he laughed at the way I called out the clean-cut guy. Luckily, Blondie had left his spine at home and he passed me the joint and I hit it and held it and looked up at the popcorn clouds stretching over the glass blue sky. I hit it again and gave it over to the other kid. The other kid seemed okay.
We were silent for a moment.
“No one’s watching the pool, eh?” I asked. I normally wouldn’t have said anything but the little woman was teaching me how to care a little more, and I found myself sometimes wanting to do the right thing. It made me feel kind of sick.
Then my attention was called away from the two stoners and the fence. There was a more intense, panicked screaming breaking through the other joyous shouts like a thousand steel knives piercing through a thin sheet of metal. The hair went up on my arms and the back of my neck. I looked at the two fools in front of me, the lifeguards, and saw that distant out-of-touch look in their eyes. Stoned, they turned to each other. Before they turned back to the scene I was already gone, rushing through the green manicured grass, cutting my foot on a piece of broken glass when I made it to the cement, leaving a trail of blood up to the poolside. The kids in the pool looked scared, their eyes were bulging out of their heads as they clamored out of the water away from their drowning peer. I was the only adult except for Sara who was standing by her chair and looking across the pool at me. I turned back to the water. All the children were getting out, then I saw the end of the frantic splashing at the deep end and a mass of wet hair going under. I hopped on the foot that wasn’t bleeding. I dived in.
The water was as icy as before, slicing through my uncut beard to my face, working it’s way up my nose. The chlorine burned my eyes and the cut on my foot. I squinted, searching for the unfortunate child as I dived down, further and further. I was beginning to think the damn pool didn’t have a bottom when I found her. A dark-haired little girl in a striped one-piece suit, her eyes glazing over, her arms spread as if in an embrace.
I was running out of breath myself when I scooped her off the bottom of the pool. I held her in my arms and planted my feet and pushed upward, kicking. The sun was above us, cutting through the water in wavy yellow slices. I needed a breath but it was too early to take it, only water surrounded me. And all the while I thought to myself, please don’t let this poor little girl be dead, she’s an innocent, please Lord take my drunk soul instead.
Finally we busted through the surface, through the weird chlorine-fueled purgatory. I knew the little girl was unconscious. She wasn’t struggling. The whole pool was pink from the blood leaking out of my foot. I tried to keep myself in control and took measured strokes to the poolside and Sara met me there and helped the little girl out. The lifeguards were there but they seemed mostly useless. They stood around the little girl’s frozen form. I climbed out of the pool.
“Out of the way fuckers,” I said. They obliged.
“Jonny, what’re you gonna do?” Sara asked. I didn’t know how to answer her. I waved her away and knelt beside the girl. I checked to see if she was breathing and she wasn’t. Her face was puffy and distorted and I felt like it was turning blue. It could have been my mind playing tricks on me.
Still I panicked and punched her as hard as I could in the chest and a fountain of water flew straight out of her mouth. Then she was coughing and gasping for air, rolling on the ground. The lifeguards moved in and took over and I limped away.
I stumbled across the cement to the grass. I got on my hands and knees and vomited. The alcohol mixed with bile burned on the way up, scalding my nose and throat. Sara gently patted me on the back, then started rubbing in circular motions between my shoulder blades.
“You’re alright baby, you’re alright,” she said in a soothing voice. I closed my eyes and waited for the heaving to stop. My gut was clenching, unclenching, clenching. Finally, it went away and we grabbed our things. I cradled the liquor in my arms like a baby wrapped in a towel as we walked toward the exit.
On our way out the parents of the child I’d saved stopped me and threatened to sue us over the bruise on their daughters chest.
“Where were you?” I asked. The husband’s mouth worked up and down like a brain-dead fish trying to suck oxygen out of the air. His cold dark eyes were going in opposite directions. “That’s what I fucking thought,” I said. I turned to make a dramatic exit, but he assaulted me from behind. I fell hard on the back of my head and there were shooting black stars streaking across my vision. The man’s hands were around my throat and I felt the pressure crushing in my windpipe. The world was going dark around the edges.
Then, still shining bright like she was when she was standing in the sun, was the little woman. The steak knife was gripped in her small fist and she brought it down hard into the man’s shoulder. Blood shot out of the wound. The father screamed and let go of me and I stood up as fast as I could and threw him into his wife and daughter. The whole family collapsed on each other and me and Sara made our escape.
I limped the whole way home, leaving a steady splattering of blood on the sidewalk.
At the apartment, Sara wrapped my foot after going out and cleaning my crimson off the concrete. We were laying on the bed. “You were so brave today,” she said, “at the pool.” she reached down and grabbed onto me. I tilted the bottle of whiskey up and finished it off. I tossed the empty to the floor.
“No little woman, you were brave. You and your little steak knife. The bravest thing I did today was wake up,” I said.
We made love then passed out, exhausted.
Jon Carter is a writer out of College Station, Texas. He is a psychology major at Sam Houston State University. He writes prose and poetry that focuses on the underside of society, his work is grunge-fueled and honest. He has published work in ‘Down in the Dirt’ magazine but is still relatively new to getting his work out there.