pages Breaststroke

by Jessica Kinnison

Published in Issue No. 167 ~ April, 2011

My husband is in love with another woman, and I like her. His door is always open, and she keeps calling me in. He is in love with another woman, and I like her. I like her so much that I keep going back to her, stepping into her shoes, marrying myself to him and to her, despite myself.

My husband no longer makes a fair profile. He is a mix between man and hardwood. His legs are paddles with their heads bent flat. If wood were that pale and freckled and warm, if it had dips and creases and points wrapped in skin, then…yes, his legs would be paddles with their heads bent forward.

His torso is sculpted with purpose, agility, and miraculous speed. His chest, my favorite part, is a barrel also made of wood, if the wood was seamless, all made from one sheet, all cut from the same trunk and wrapped so that it might have no corners, no points. It is a barrel built for aging wine, harvesting organs, gurgling, holding in, and letting out. It is built to last.

His belly was once the flat pride, bottom of the boat. It is curved and full of odd noises and weak points and scars. It used to be fun to ride along the bottom of the boat. Now, it is work. Will it work? The barrel─the boat, the middle of the body─is unreliable. Will it work? It doesn’t matter now.

Cover it all with a thick layer of gray, curly hair that lets light in and out of its tired maze. Then you have the profile of the man whom I slept beside. The imagining of the breath of his profile is how I fill my spare time now. I spend my time imagining my husband’s breathing: the symphony of energy expended by his body and bones and the universal sound of the heart pumping blood, the heart doing what the heart actually does. When he was beside me, I didn’t think of his breathing at all. There was nothing to imagine.

My husband left me two years ago to conduct safaris through Uganda and Mala Mala. He rafted the Zambezi River. He photographed zebras with their fantasy skin and lions strong and able-bodied with stones for muscles and paws the size of human skulls. We were together for twenty years. We were together so long that his hair became blue and his eyes white. I couldn’t see him; I only remembered him.

I saw a picture once of the Zambezi river with zebras and lions wading together on its banks. A raft slogged its way into a fiction-worthy orange and blue sunset with streaks like streamers whooshing madly from bicycle handles. The water below was as alive as tires spinning. I could feel the water spraying my cheek or maybe I mixed a bunch of pictures together. Zebras and lions? Come on.

Come on, it is worth noting that I thought a safari was more believable, more easily explained, to you, the reader, than what actually happened:

We fell out of love.

We fell out of love with ourselves and with each other. We grew old. I left him. He left me.

He lives down the street now, and I beat my drum so loud all day that I know he can’t forget me. For his part, he circles our house like a dancer around a fire-beating his chest, stomping his feet, chanting, chanting, chanting something too soft to hear.

My husband never left this city-he didn’t ride that raft into another life. He doesn’t have white or blue hair. His hair was brown, sort of blond-brown like parchment, and his eyes are still blue, just blue like that sunset reflecting the spinning wheels. Yes, like that. He has never been a lion tamer or poacher or journalist; he works with numbers down on Wardour St., 10 blocks from where I sit now. I stare at him each week over coffee as if I’m underwater, and he’s inside a submarine. I swim around tapping on the glass. He continues to circle at night while I secretly try to decipher his chants, as quiet and loud as the wind is quiet and loud.

I don’t recognize myself. I’m swimming beside him. I’m tapping, trying to find a way in. He loved me for the first year or two. That’s my one consolation: I was loved for one, maybe two whole years. Then I loved him for about the same amount of time. We stayed together for twenty more years, never quite synchronizing our affections.

Now I am middle-aged. My feet are like flippers so heavy, so wide and plastic that when I catch a glimpse of them I assume they are someone else’s. Then I follow them up to my fingers. My fingers are like fins, sharp. I’m all swollen knuckles and knees and hips and toes. I’m permanently waterlogged. I waddle when I walk. So I just swim. I swim and swim and swim. I swim through the skin my husband and I have stretched and groped and wrinkled. I swim through waves of it, over and over again like a yogurt sea, lumpy and cool with freckles and dips and scars. I see it all. I see all the skin we’ve shed; I keep swimming. I was a swimmer, you know?

You may not trust me now. But I was a swimmer. He fell in love with my breaststroke. My breaststroke was my best stroke. I swam with purpose, miraculous speed, and agility. He used to stand at the water’s edge. And, after I rode him all the way home, he became my home.

Now I breathe his name every morning as I get up and hang my feet over the side of the bed like an addict having her morning smoke, like a captain praying to his ship. Before I brush my teeth, I do it. Before the coffee. Before checking to see if, in fact, my heart is beating again like the hearts of zebras and lions on the Zambezi. I don’t even check to see if my river is moving, if it is, in fact, following its course, if the fist of the lion isn’t, in fact, my human skull having been caught up in a riptide.

My human skull must be empty because we’re at it again. We have coffee every week. Every week, I see him more as he is and less as I imagine him to be. He is no longer in love with the woman I was in my youth-my weightless anchor, seamless posture, wonderful breaststroke. I like that woman. He says he likes the way I’m wearing my hair now, blue, I mean gray. And he recognizes my eyes so gray, I mean blue, as easily as he recognizes his own eyes. Yes, we are at it again. Love, I mean. His hair is now white. Parchment is over. He is breathing. He is in love with another woman, and I am starting to like her. I like her so much that I keep going back to her, stepping into her shoes, marrying myself to him and to her. I get in close.

I get in close. Finally, we take it from the tank of the coffeehouse to our bed of water. I steer from behind, regulating his curved, solid breath by the river of moisture slipping down the ravines of his coarse hair. My husband is in love with a woman of the water, aged and still, and still in possession of a mean breaststroke. Will it work? I’m swimming and swimming and swimming. I stop. I’m climbing back into the boat. Will it work? I ride him all the way into the open sea without an anchor.

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Jessica Kinnison runs a network of community gardens in New Orleans, Louisiana and has worked as a print journalist in Louisiana and Mississippi for ten years. Her play, "Baby", won the 2008 Southwest Theatre and Film Association's Ten-Minute Play Contest. She is currently working on a collection of flash fiction based around images related to water.