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The Ash Swimming Pool

ISSUE:  Fall 2018

Illustrations by Nicole Rifkin

It had been nearly fifteen years, and no one Ali knew looked much like the way they had when they were younger. She wrote Grace’s name on a piece of paper in red felt tip and held it at arm’s length in front of her. In the rush of bodies, the automatic doors that led to the baggage carousel barely had time to close before opening again. There had been some kind of strife—though not a bomb—and there were police, a couple of soldiers moving with intent back and forth through the building. The glass walls were stained with cigarette smoke. In the food shops there were near fights at the discount sections: half-price carrot sticks with hummus, blood-colored smoothies, pita bread. She was so afraid of planes that sometimes, at night, she thought she could hear their seizing rattle, the doomed click of an engine shutting off 36,000 feet above her house. In the e-mail, Grace wrote: I’ve got nothing but air miles, I’d love to come and stay for a bit. 

It was late when she got the message. She forced the cork back into the bottle of wine, though there was only a glass left, put it in the fridge. She started writing a reply: Of course—whenever you want—how long has it been? But then, seeing the time, she wondered if Grace would realize how absurdly late she was up—refreshing her e-mail, scanning all kinds of online flotsam (news sites, photos of animals in strange poses, clothes she would never buy). Wherever Grace was it was probably bright, early, productive. Ali waited until morning and then opened the draft again and sent
the message. 

When Ali was younger, she’d enjoyed going on planes. Grace’s parents owned a holiday home on an island off the Spanish coast and would fly the two of them out for the summer. Grace—who was so daring it hurt Ali’s teeth—would press the button to call the hostess five or six times a flight, ask for more ice or free magazines or simply say she’d forgotten what she’d wanted after all, sorry she didn’t actually need anything. 

She’ll spit in your drink, Ali whispered. She’ll crash the plane. Grace only reached up again, eyes sliding to the side to watch Ali’s reaction. Once more, she’d say. 

Mostly on the island they raced or played badminton. At the north end, the cliff had decayed enough that a long-abandoned house had dropped into the sea. There was a shop that sold avocados and a small bar where red-skinned Brits went to drink sangria and eat potatoes that came crusted in salt. Some of the Brits would end up at Grace’s parents’ parties, where the girls hid under the table of canapés and watched the legs passing, sneaking out to steal half-drunk flutes of champagne. They were too old for hiding under tables but something about being on the island—their tanned legs and arms, their hair bleached nearly white, skin rough from sand in the wind—made it feel as if they were younger, as if it would take decades for them to make it to adulthood. They would maybe never make it there at all. 

The summer Ali was fourteen, the island’s volcano erupted with little fuss. There was ash on the streets, on the windows, in her mouth when she ran along the coastal road chasing after Grace, who was faster than she was. The two girls rocketed about, scarves wrapped around their faces like bandits, threw handfuls of ash at each other. Grace’s parents stayed inside,
the shutters pulled closed, the car locked in the garage. Most everyone else stayed in too. The streets were empty. It was the way Ali imagined an apocalypse would be.

A minor rock star lived in a walled house on the island. He came and went in his private plane, and the island was small enough that they could always hear it taking off or landing. They would often go out to watch the limousine cruising the heat-wavered streets to deliver or collect him. Around his compound, the ground was made up of lava rock that had been crushed into shards and pebbles, perfect for holding a swing-ball pole or yard ornament. In articles they had found on the internet, the minor rock star did not speak of the island, only of the houses he owned in Paris and the Ivory Coast. Descending toward the island, they had peered out the fuselage windows at his walled compound below, the lurid blue stripe of pool, the flat white roof where—only once—they had seen someone who might have been him sunbathing in small red shorts. 

It was a long summer. The excitement of streets all to themselves soon wore off. Grace’s parents did not bother to throw parties, only sat at opposite ends of the sofa watching American television shows with the air-conditioning
turned up high. Ali and Grace had small arguments, almost domesticated, which Grace always won. They argued about the color of socks or who got to eat the last cracker. They gave each other matching Chinese burns up and down their arms or drew pretend tattoos on their bellies with ballpoint pen. They took their frustration out on the house: tore single pages from the middles of dusty books, buried broken pieces of glass at the bottom of the fish tank; stole lipstick and reddened their mouths, left kiss marks on mirrors, glasses, each other. They slept half the day, woke up groggy and
grit-toothed with boredom. 

The smoke and dust had not cleared but the airport was running again, so Grace’s mother flew home for a meeting. They’d stretched out on the floor and listened to the sound of her wheeled suitcase on the tiles, and, later, the noise of the plane taking off. 

I asked to go with her, Grace said. 

What would I do? Ali said. 

Grace didn’t answer. Ali wanted to say something to wound her but she could never come up with retorts when she needed them. Not like Grace, whose mouth was razor-lined and who Ali had seen breaking down other girls at school until they wept. One summer Grace had declared she would be a lawyer when she was older and they’d snuck into the TV room and watched courtroom dramas, fast-forwarding through the boring bits. 

The next morning, they woke to the guttural roar—well-known—of the minor rock star’s plane taking off, hugging the border of the island and then skimming away. Grace’s father was asleep on the sofa. They made careful triangular sandwiches with leftover beef, took the swing-ball pole, and trekked along the dusty road in their flip-flops. The minor rock star’s house was out on its own, nudged up against the cliff. 

A good vantage point, Grace said, and plunged the swing-ball pole into the ground. They had played before—both had bruises the size and shape of the small ball—played tactically and with a knowledge of each other’s weaknesses, which Grace’s mother, watching them and drinking a gin and tonic one cool morning, had said was barbaric. 

Ali gripped the bat between both hands, whacked the ball with all her strength, watched it coming in hard toward Grace’s bat and rebounding. They played until their arms ached, then rested in the shadow of the wall, which might have been white once but was now gray with volcano debris. They ate their sandwiches quietly, licked the salt and mayonnaise off their fingers. 

Let’s go, Ali said. 


The beach, Ali thought, but didn’t say it.

They played again. Ali could feel the ash in her chest. When she bent to spit, it came out gray. Grace had a renewed energy, a strong arm. Ali set her feet, held the bat in her damp hands. The ball curved round, tore free of the rope with a cracking sound, arced high and over the wall into the garden. 

Ali could see Grace’s fists opening and closing by her sides.

Shall we leave it? Ali said.

He’s not around. 

We’ll get in trouble.

Not if no one knows. 

There’s glass, Ali said hopefully, but looking up they could see that the top of the wall was bare, absent the usual decoration of broken bottles meant to keep stray cats away.

Grace smiled at the lie, said: Hold your hands out. 

Ali cupped Grace’s bare foot in her palm, heaved upward. At the top of the wall Grace reached back, pulled her after. They lowered each other down the other side. The metal storm shutters were drawn over the windows and doors; there was an abandoned tea cup on a dusty Formica table. The pool hadn’t been covered and was scudded in a layer of ash. Their ball had rolled into one of the pool filters, the lid missing, filled with a mulch of dead locusts and a crushed mouse. Ali pulled the ball out and held it up. Grace had already taken off her T-shirt. Underneath her clothes she was wearing her swimsuit, which they both normally did, though this time it seemed to Ali more purposeful, as if she’d known they would come here and the ball would go over the fence and she would swim. 

I don’t think we should, Ali said. Later she would think how often she ended up saying this, like a mantra or truth. She didn’t think they should but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t. Grace threw her arms above her head and leapt forward. She was, for a second, suspended, braid flying up off her back, the pale skin around her eyes, her belly button sucked into her ribcage so that she looked oddly shaped, badly made. Then she dropped and was underwater. Ali waited. The sun was very hot on the concrete. Someone had left a glass with a lemon in it near the plastic deck chairs, and there was a watch on the table. She considered climbing back over the wall but Grace would be annoyed and she could think of nowhere to go but back to the house. She pulled off her T-shirt and shorts. The sunscreen on her legs and arms felt gritty when she rubbed them. 

The water tasted of explosions and silt. They sank down and swept the silent bottom until the blue-and-white-patterned tiles showed through, chased bubbles of soot up to the surface, swam after each other through the water. When they were done swimming, they lay on the concrete and baked. Ali dozed.

When she came to she was sunburned. She could hear her pulse thundering behind her sore red ears. Sitting up, she felt a panic like hands pressing on her chest, tightening. It was not that she didn’t understand. She did. All
summer—and the summers before that—they’d lain beneath the food table, their fingers damp with stolen champagne and canapés. In Ali’s mother’s house there were rooms that were out of bounds to protect the carpet. She was used to being corrected on pronunciation or the wrong use of a word by the adults she knew. There were films at the cinema she was too young to see. There were eyes that passed over her looking for someone older. She would be fourteen for twenty years. Except she wished, desperately, near total panic, that they had not done it. Had not swum in the pool and then—brazenly, dangerously—fallen asleep. She wished she had said something.

Grace was awake and watching her. She had a raccoon-like band of white where her sunglasses had been. From across the tiny island they could hear the whirr of air-conditioning in dim houses. The wind had picked up for the first time in days and there were clouds of ash leaving the black, lava-covered rock down by the sea and threading up into the sky like tornadoes turned over. 

Grace said that she wanted them to go back the next day. So they did. They didn’t take the
swing-ball rope or the sandwiches. They could see rain approaching in great, billowing clouds. They climbed the wall, dropped down. They hung out, sunbathed, swam again. Underwater Ali shouted and watched the air and noise roil to the surface. When she came up, Grace wasn’t there. She got out of the water, sat wondering what to do—it would be so like Grace to have gone. Ali gathered her clothes together, then heard a sound coming from inside the house. She left wet footprints on the too-hot concrete. Stunted cacti pushed out of the lava-rock flower bed. The side door of the house was ajar. She waited for the alarm but there wasn’t one. Of course there wasn’t. No one on the island even locked their doors. She stood looking at the gap. The house threw a shadow over her wet shoulders. She imagined all of the minor rock star’s things spread out like in a mausoleum, with Grace moving through it all, touching everything she could reach, leaving fingerprints and kiss marks on the mirrors. 

Grace was there. She pushed out through the door and swung it shut behind her. There was something about her face, hysterical, her smile pitched too high like the wrong-voltage bulb in a light socket. 

What were you doing? Ali said. She could hear her own voice, awful, as high as the smile.

Take a pill, Grace said. Take a chill pill, Ali. 

They went back every day that week. It made Ali so anxious she couldn’t sleep, lying awake listening for the whir of small propellers descending from the sky. One night she found herself downstairs on the sofa watching sitcom reruns with Grace’s father, who seemed disinterested to see her. Most nights she just lay in bed thinking about the way they broke into the house that did not belong to them, the way Grace moved around the rooms. In the bed next to her, Grace slept so soundly she didn’t even wake when Ali slammed the door, thudded her feet against the floor. 

She would dream about that place for years to come. They would swim and sunbathe and, at some point, slink along the side of the house and in through the back door, which Ali always left open, just in case. The house was dim and stunk of unwashed clothes. The sink was piled with dirty mugs and plates. Grace had taken to bringing her mother’s lipstick with them. She drew the letters G+A in red on the dirty glass-top table and on the mirror in the hallway and on the front of the fridge. She started re-
appearing from darkened doorways with strange stashes of stolen goods: CDs, dirty T-shirts, teaspoons; once, even, a newspaper with half of the Sudoku filled in. It did not matter what she stole, it was the act of stealing itself, the way she showed Ali each object and then waited for a reaction. Just as she’d done on the plane journeys where she’d called for the flight attendant, the ray of her attention turning slowly and systematically toward Ali. One day she smashed a carton of eggs on the side, spread the mess across the counter. In the fridge was a mess of broken condiment jars, glass gleaming through the chaos. Ali reached out to tidy up but Grace clicked her tongue in annoyance and Ali stopped herself. Eventually they went back to the pool. 

They didn’t fight about it, and later Ali would wonder if this was because she was afraid. There was something different about Grace. She smelled of the minor rock star’s stolen aftershave. At her parents’ house, she would take the carton of milk from the fridge and drink straight from the neck, dragging her wrist across her mouth when she was done. More than that. Something else. The way she held herself, the way she spoke, the shape of her body beneath the oily water of the ash swimming pool. It was only later—older, looking back—that Ali would see this and wish she, too, had been different, though she could not say precisely in what way.

The wind finally blew the ash away, the streets clear. When Grace’s mother returned she threw a party that lasted all night and into morning, the edges of the tablecloth swishing, the broken glasses and sodden blinis. The rain darkened the concrete, soaked the thirsty earth. The minor rock star’s plane bent under the downpour, came down, lights blazoned across the still, flat-roofed houses, Grace and Ali in the window watching out. And for a moment—Ali could not remember when it happened, but they were holding hands hard—it had seemed as if the plane was falling rather than flying, guttering too low, the left wing tipping away. 

After the ash pool, they drifted apart. At the time, Ali had felt master of the decision, stern with it. There had been something about Grace which had frightened her and which, she decided, she wanted no part of: the arrogance with which she had thrown herself into the pool, the black gap of the open door. Her damp footprints threading all over the compound. 

Now, standing, holding the sign in front of her, she wasn’t so certain. Had she really been the instigator of the separation after all? If she thought hard enough, she remembered it differently: Grace ghosting her, ignoring her phone calls, her waiting for an invitation to go out in the summer which had not come. 

There had been other friendships, though none she thought of much. Their names faded from memory. Her relationships were the same, brief, not serious enough to merit much discussion, with so few indelible moments. They were like the rooms she rented in other people’s houses, differentiated only by the color of the walls or the scent of the soap in the bathrooms. Even jobs tended to blur together, so that she’d come to in front of filing cabinets or holding clipboards or leading a child to the bathroom and try to remember what exactly her role was. What an old story, how tedious to be telling it again, to be beating a dead horse trying to make it walk. Women were always unsatisfied, incapable of fulfillment, longing for something but never quite clear what. Women were not cut out for living. 

Except that, over the years, she’d come to see how she was lacking not because of some missed opportunity or failed relationship or because she was a woman, but because she no longer had Grace. She had needed Grace because she was herself docile, nervous, lacking in any sort of courage. Years flooded past and mostly she was happy to see them go on their way without disaster or much excitement. She wondered what would happen when Grace arrived, how they would go about it. She thought that, perhaps, it would be a great upheaval. The two of them would take Ali’s life by the scruff of its neck and shake it. They would start again. There would be no more gray, no more TV remote or bolognese or going to the gym. She needed a new way of speaking about her life, a new translation. 

She went into one of the cafés and bought a bad cup of tea in a plastic cup. The plane should, at least, have arrived. She would not have much longer to wait. She put sugar in the tea, added too much milk. Went back out and stood holding the sign awkwardly in one hand with the tea in the other. She braced her body for someone to come walking toward her, say her name. She wondered if Grace would look the same. Her tea sloshed out and burnt her. A child standing nearby turned and, frowning, watched her as she swore. 

Swearing makes your hair fall out, he said. It makes it all fall out.

That is a lie, she said.

A thought struck her. What, she thought, if the meaning of Grace’s e-mail was: Help me. What if Grace was standing now at Customs or waiting for her bags and was thinking that her life needed shaking up, and that Ali was the one to do it? What if she remembered the ash pool differently—the stench of the volcano, the lipstick smears—and blamed Ali for not seeing what was happening and doing something about it? What if, all along, she had wanted something from Ali rather than the other way around? As if both were hoping the other would be—
something, some sort of catalyst. The thought did not relieve her. One of them had to be the train—better late than never—the opening door. Only one of them could be the person who stood waiting. 

Something was happening. Some kind of action being taken. She could see the soldiers—who’d been lingering hopefully near the coffee shop—starting to run. A vibration ran through the building and rattled the wine glasses hanging from a nearby bar. Outside the big window, a bus veered off course and nearly hit the plastic barrier. A woman near her seemed about to drop her baby, her arms creasing open, the child’s bare head tipping toward the ground, before jerking herself upright. The doors out to the baggage claim stayed closed for the first time in hours. Ali was holding her paper sign tight enough that the corners were softened with sweat. Looking around, she thought perhaps she saw Grace’s face in the crowd, unchanged from the way it had been, turned toward her, waiting. 


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