“Come! Come!” my grandmother said. “Would you like something to drink? Bevy, why don’t you get the men something to drink?”
“The men have legs too,” my mother said as she headed toward the pool.
My grandmother ignored her and linked her arm in Paul’s. “I’m so glad you came! Billy and I have been dying for some good company.”
My mother perched herself at the water’s edge and dangled her bare legs into it. “Cold,” she said to no one in particular.
I plopped down beside her on the concrete. Behind us, my father was chatting up Paul with the loud please-don’t-hit-me voice he used in all social interactions.
My mother glanced over at him, shook her head and sighed. She stared deeply into the pool as if she were seeking her reflection in it, her face blank and still as the water itself. I wanted to say something to break the spell of her unhappiness, which I could feel heavy inside me. I looked down to see what she saw, but there was only the bottom.
“Cannonball!” Matthew cried suddenly. For a moment he was tucked and suspended like a home run, catching the light before shattering the surface.
“How many times have I told him not to do that!” my grandmother yelled as she stood to wipe the splash off her lounge chair.
But my mother just smiled wide as a day as the emptiness into which she had been staring was replaced with the happy, wet face of my brother, appearing like a newborn from the depths.
“Oh!” she giggled, flicking water at him with her toes. “That was a good one!”
“Did I get you?”
“You know you did!” she said, pulling her own wet shirt away from herself. “You always get me.”
Her whole demeanor changed as she beamed into Matthew’s face, and she was still laughing, high and bright, when I slid off the ledge to join him. I gasped. The water was February-cold and sharp with too much chlorine. The life preserver pushed against my jaw and half strangled me as I bobbed by the neck like a buoy. But I was happy, so happy with my mother laughing and the sun in my face and the water so cold but so clean.
“Look, Mom!” Matthew said, treading water by the diving board. The rest of my mother’s family retired to the upper patio for drinks, and my father shuffled uncertainly behind them. My mother stayed with us, watching Matthew.
“My God!” she said as the minutes passed. “Aren’t you getting tired yet?”
“Nope!” Matthew gurgled. “I could go for hours.”
“All right, I’m timing you. I bet you can’t go five more minutes.”
Even I knew he could go five more minutes.
“Piece of cake,” Matthew said.
“It’s not that hard!” I called out, eager to show that I could do it too.
“It doesn’t count when you have a life preserver on,” my mother said, with a roll of her eyes.
• • •
Forty-five minutes later we were out of the pool and my mother was presenting Matthew to her family as if he were made of gold. “Can you believe that he just now finished treading?” she bragged happily. “I’m telling you, Mom, my son is going to be an Olympian.”
I was jealous. I wanted to be an Olympic water-treader too.
My grandmother finished off her Scotch in one gulp and sized up my brother. “Big deal,” she snorted, lighting a cigarette and exhaling smoke through her nostrils.
My mother winced. She wrapped her arms around Matthew like a second towel and looked toward my father, who stared with sudden interest into the bottom of his glass.
“Jesus, Mother,” she said. “Why do you have to be like that?” She glanced once again at my father as if he might stick up for her, then spun around and marched toward the house. Matthew and I followed her.
She slammed the kitchen door behind us so hard that I could feel the slap of its wind, her fury—the house and I both shuddering with it.
“Don’t you listen to her,” she said to Matthew. “Your grandmother just doesn’t want me to have anything good in my life.”
She bent over the sink and splashed cold water on her face.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I’m a woman.” She shut off the faucet and stared out the window. “And she doesn’t like women.”
“Because they remind her of her mean, miserable self, that’s why.” She turned to us then. “You kids love me, right?” she said, and she said it like she hadn’t asked us a million times, like we hadn’t shouted a million times, “Yes!”
“More than anything!” I cried, throwing myself at her legs as if I could fill her whole being up with myself so that my love would be inside of her. I wanted nothing more than to be the good in my mother’s life.
We headed back out, and the first thing I noticed was that the air had taken on the peculiar smell of Billy’s basement. We came upon my relatives collapsed over the patio table, pounding their fists and laughing so hard, they were crying. Even my grandmother, whose expressionless face was locked in by one too many face-lifts, was doubled over, killing herself with giggles, which she somehow managed to do with a British air. But the weirdest thing, the positive indication that the world had flipped on its axis, was that they were all laughing at a story my father was telling. No one ever laughed at my father’s stories.
“What’s going on here?” my mother demanded.
“Oh, Bev,” Uncle Paul replied, wiping tears from his eyes, “you never told us that Ed was such a magnificent comedian.”
“See, Bev!” my father said. He turned to Paul. “I’ve been trying to tell her!”
“Shut up,” my mother said. She faced the rest of the group with her hands in tight fists at her side. “I can’t believe you assholes are smoking pot with my children here!”