The Drowned Maidens Club - Jaclyn Dwyer

Jamie and I are blowing bubbles at the bottom of Lake Wallenpaupack and popping them like smoke rings. Jamie’s cross-legged in an old tire that’s stretched and cracked to accommodate her. I settle into the ground and rest my back against the part of her thigh that squeezes over the rubber. She’s been here longer than I have. A perpetual sinker and discouraged Accident, Jamie knows she’ll probably never leave. Our President, Ms. Shannon teases her, says Jamie’s stubborn, but also weighted down by mounds of heavy muscle leftover from her tennis days, before Jamie toppled out of a booze cruise eight beers in and drowned like the rest of us.

When she reaches into my face and pokes her finger into my bubbles, her hand accidentally brushes my cheek. She feels like memory, like that anxious moment right before you slice a cake, and my whole body shivers. Jamie doesn’t say, “I’m sorry” or even acknowledge that she’s touched me except to retract her arm and turn her body to face Ms. Shannon. She’s shaking the old school bell, whose rusted clapper dropped out years ago, to call the meeting to order.

“Before we start, let’s all welcome our newest Innocent,” she says.

Everyone looks at me, still clapping, as Ms. Shannon continues, “The focus of today’s meeting is floating. You have to think of yourself as light and buoyant. Your body is a hot air balloon. Your lungs are an internal raft lifting you upward. Arch your back and imagine a thin cord tethering your heart to the surface.”

I heard that one girl ascended like the Virgin Mary just last week, rising in a gushing plume, her night gown billowing like the pulsing body of a jellyfish. Before her, another went, clawing upward on a rope only she seemed to see. The rest of us look up to these girls because they’re the success stories we’re meant to become.

But it’s not enough to learn to float. Floating doesn’t get you where you want to be. You have to swim too. The shape of the lake is a giant bowl. There are no shallows. The Wallenpaupack is sixty feet at the deepest point, which doesn’t sound like much, but it feels much farther when you’re swimming up and not over, fighting the pressure like a kitten running with a strip of masking tape across its back.

Ms. Shannon asks for volunteers to share their progress for the week, and when no one raises a hand, she hooks my elbow and tries to lift me up. She tows me a few feet before I anchor my foot in a tangle of weeds. “I don’t have any progress to share,” I protest. Ms. Shannon squeezes my cheeks between her fingers and thumb and explains loud enough for everyone to hear that Jamie Grove is here because she wants to be. “But you’re different,” she says.

Some of us drowned. Some of us were drowned. That’s the difference she means.

*

The Wallenpaupack is manmade. Philadelphia Power and Light flooded the valley and drowned the city of Wilsonville with water from the dam. The churches, homes, even the post office are still down here. The only thing the electric company moved were the graves. The town saw its first crane the day the movers loaded caskets onto a flatbed, stacked them like alphabet blocks and drove them up the hill. The Wilsonvillagers were so excited, everyone took pictures to document the movement of the dead. SCUBA divers used to come down to photograph the underwater city, but the sunlight can’t penetrate the pollution well enough to make it worth it. Pictures look like they’re taken through sooty New York windows. So it’s just us, swathed in a morning fog that rolls in with the current and lifts when the ashy debris settles on the bottom of the lake.

Ms. Shannon puts her fist into the small of my back and begins to push, and my body rises until I feel the water getting lighter, and there is as much beneath me as there is above.

“Good job,” Ms. Shannon praises after she takes her hand away, and I sway back to the bottom.

I plop down on a clot of grass, and Jamie lays her head in my lap. “Good job, goody good,” she mimes.

I go to smack her in the arm and say, “Hey quit it, bad-y bad,” to try to show her that I don’t mind her teasing and I can do it too, but my hand only catches the water in front of me. Everything I say sounds stupid.

I weed algae from her hair. Her body is so heavy. Every part of her feels like rock. I think this is what a friend is, something heavy and secure, but I’m not sure. There were girls in dance class and girls in neighboring desks whose last names began with letters that were alphabetically close to mine, but the phone never rang for me. My living room floor was never clotted with pillows and sleeping bags arranged to fit like Tetris blocks between sofas. I saw the covers torn off magazines and taped inside binders and the lipstick rubbed off on the bus ride home. I bought the magazines and make up, but still nothing happened. It never occurred to me that I should be the one to pick up the phone.

My fingers stroke Jamie’s forehead. Her skin is raised like a sheet of button candy where tiny pimples sprouted underneath her sweatband. She even lets me push back her bangs and smooth her eyebrows. Jamie swings her body around and stretches her feet across my lap. Jamie isn’t pretty or anything, but she tries, and her eyes don’t squint when she looks at me like they do with everyone else, which makes me feel special. Her arms are as thick as my legs.  In my dreams, I sometimes imagine Jamie lifting me and hurtling my body toward the surface in one swift whoosh. I grab a stone to scrape the beard of zebra mussels that have been growing around the half-moon of her heel. I file her foot until it’s polished smooth as the rock I’m sitting on.

Her parents let her get a tattoo of the Olympic rings on her ankle when she turned sixteen, but Jamie only ever made the Trials. I trace the blue, yellow, and black colored circles with my finger until Jamie brushes my hand away.

“You know I was on the dance team,” I say.

“Dance isn’t a sport,” she says.

“We performed the pregame show at an Eagles game.”

“Still doesn’t make it a sport.”

“My dad took me to the US Open once.”

“Yeah, who’d you see?” she says, her voice lilting.

“I can’t remember,” I’ve finally got something to say, but all those players in white flouncy skirts and matching bloomers looked the same. There were those sisters everybody knows, but I can’t think of their names. “Justin Timberlake and Anna Wintour were there.”

“Who?” Jamie asks. I don’t explain.

*

No one talks about what got us here, but we all seem to know. Frankie went skating late in the season, slipped through, and got trapped beneath the ice. Jamie thought her life jacket was too puffy and made her look fat. Veronica’s mother never took her children to the Y for lessons, so when the canoe tipped, it was a straight shot down. Diana is a Storm Girl, swept under by a current in the ’55 flood. Ms. Shannon is an Intentional and seems to like it here more than the rest of us. She knotted an old boat motor to her ankles, kicked it off the edge of a dock, and dove in after it. The Baby was just a baby, but she’s the only other Innocent. She’s like a beach ball everyone tosses around. When it’s my turn to hold her, I imagine her buoyant belly held inches under the surface, the slight resistance pushing against her mother’s palm.

I rub red clay onto The Baby’s toenails and sing the nursery rhyme about the piggies, but I can’t remember which one ran away and which one cried and what they bought at the market. So I make it up: “This little piggy wore pink lipstick. This little piggy wore white tennis skirts.”

“Good. Start her young,” Jamie says.

Jamie takes The Baby and bounces her soft and controlled, like a ball right before the serve.

“A-girl-has-to-always-look-her-best,” Jamie says beating The Baby against her thighs in a steady rhythm. “It’s not my fault orange isn’t my color. I mean, tell me who looks good in orange? Right Baby? Who? Who?”

When The Baby doesn’t respond, Jamie throws her palms up and says, “Exactly my point.” The Baby’s hair flutters like the thin fingers of an urchin as she drifts back to Jamie’s lap.

Jamie flips out of the old tire, which sends the loose bottom coughing. She spreads across an algal plume. Ms. Shannon balances The Baby on one hip and holds Diana’s head in her free hand, cupping the soft curve of her skull, “Lean back. That’s it.”

Jamie scrawls her name in the clay with her index finger, dragging her nails through the silt. She erases with her palm, and scribbles again.

Ms. Shannon tosses The Baby upward and catches her each time the baby’s plump body returns. The Baby giggles like it’s a game, but it’s not for some of the others. Diana leaps with all her might, springing from bent knees and crying each time her body sinks into the soft clay.

Diana gets frustrated, wipes her nose and blubbers, “I wanna go home.” So Ms. Shannon has to pull her aside and re-explain, “Getting out of here is not going home. You can’t go home. You realize that?”

Diana’s been here so long all her people are gone. No one would claim her even if she was found. There were witnesses when Jamie went under, and The Baby’s mother confessed. But me, I slipped away miles from here when a stranger hooked his elbow in mine, and a girl who looked exactly like me pushed me into his van. No one will ever come for me down here.

I arch my back so high, only my toes are touching the bottom. When I kick them up, my body starts to slowly rise before it falls like an unfolded sheet of paper.

Ms. Shannon squeezes my cheeks between her palms and says, “Excellent job!”

After Diana calms down, she manages a ten-second float on her own. Her eyes are closed and her hands are spread flat across her stomach. “I feel so skinny when I’m floating!” she exclaims.

“That’s it, Di.” Ms. Shannon cheers as she bounces The Baby on her hip and babbles in baby talk, “Isn’t Di a good fwoater? Yes, she is. Why, yes, she is.”

Jamie rolls her eyes and attempts the same move, just to prove that she can do it too, but she can’t get up. Her hair spreads across mud. I think maybe she just needs a little extra help, but no one’s big enough to lift her. She’d need two of us to balance her, but Jamie’s too proud to ask.

The Baby’s lips spread in a wide toothless smile.

“What are you smiling at?” Jamie says to her. “You can’t do it either.”

“You want me to spot you? Come on,” I say, trying to be nice enough for both of us.

“I don’t need your help. I am a nationally ranked singles player,” she blurts. Jamie combs her bangs forward with her fingers, pulling the edges of the hairs to even them out in a straight line across her forehead. “Sorry. Sometimes I forget.”

“You don’t have to apologize,” I say. I understand that it’s easier not to try then it is to fail and wish there was a club for Drowned Girls Trying to Find Girl Time where I could report progress like this.

*

I give up my practice for the night to sit by Jamie and sift tiny pebbles through my hands. The Baby crawls over, and I pull her onto my lap.

“You be the Daddy and I be the Mommy,” I say to Jamie.

“How old are you?” she asks.

“It was just a joke,” I murmur, even though it wasn’t.

The Baby’s head bobbles like the end of a fishing line when I bounce her on my lap. Ms. Shannon says, “Oh, how special. I wish I had a photo of this, both Innocents together.” Jamie pulls The Baby away from me and she starts to cry.

“You have to keep bouncing her,” I say.

Jamie hands The Baby back.

She resents the distinction between the Innocents and Accidents. Accident implies fault on the part of the drowned, a lapse in judgment or element of complicity. She sees herself as innocent as me. “I mean, what were you doing at Target that day? Didn’t your mother teach you not to talk to strangers? Where were your parents? Everyone knows these things happen when girls like you are alone.”

“What do you mean ‘girls like me’?” She doesn’t say dumb, naïve, but I know that’s what she’s thinking.

“Girls who don’t have street smarts. You know?”

I don’t know, but I could explain, “There was a girl there. The girl looked just like me. She could have been my friend. How was I supposed to know?” I could say, “My sister was busy that day,” and that “I’m glad I went alone. If she was with me, it might have happened to both of us and she’d be down here too.” But when Jamie asks, she’s not really asking. She’s just mad that Ms. Shannon strokes my nose the way you’d pet a horse and says that girls like Jamie are like the all-crust end of white bread you keep reaching over and eventually throw away.

Ms. Shannon tells me to get to work again, “I don’t want you stuck down here. You’re better than this.” She doesn’t say anything to Jamie, even though she’s sitting right next to me.

For Ms. Shannon, “better,” means I didn’t get drunk every Friday night, so drunk that when I flung my shirt up for the boys I flung my body out of the boat.  But, if after I fell from a boat of eighteen people, no one dove in after me, I might be sad. I might be jealous too.

*

After practice, Jamie and I lie flat on our backs to watch the jellyfish migrate. They transverse the lake every night searching for food, their four tentacles shimmering like a cloud of mutilated stars, each one missing radius. Each jelly is no bigger than a quarter so they look more like snowflakes than stars. Last night I saw Cassiopeia’s chair, and the night before Orion, missing a belt buckle, shimmied across the water like an epileptic Elvis.

Jamie reaches her finger up and waves it around, “That’s a dinosaur,” she says. “You see it? Right there. Quick before it disappears.”

It’s coming close to me, and I’m afraid I might get stung, so I squinch my eyes shut and say, “I see it,” even though I see nothing but a blur of light through my eyelid skin.

“Open your eyes,” she says, wiping her palm over my face like someone sweeping closed the eyelids of the newly dead but in the opposite direction, “It’s not going to hurt you. They’re so small, they don’t even sting.”

I hold my eyes open so wide I feel like a surprised cartoon. She finds a treehouse, a minivan, and a boxer. I inch closer to Jamie until our elbows are touching. I claim to see them all without asking if the boxer is a person or a dog, and then I grab her hand. Touching her feels like dancing used to. Her skin is hot. It’s the first warm thing I’ve felt since I’ve been down here.

We sleep in an empty church each night, but I’d pray even if we slept in a public school. I pray for my parents to find me or give up looking. I pray to my sister to find a girl to take my place. I pray for the man who took me to never take another, and for the girl with him to find a way away from him. I pray to Adjutor, patron saint of swimmers, boaters, and drowners, instead of praying for myself:

Dear Adjutor,

God grant me the serenity to swim

Turn my feet to flippers and fins

Let my lungs lift me to the littoral zone

For someone to find me floating.

Amen.

Jamie says prayer is bullshit, but I pray for her, too, for her bullshit and for her bloated body to find its way to someone she loves.

Diana locks herself in the confessional at night while Jamie and I sprawl on pews near the altar, whose marble slab is so heavy I think it’s the anchor of the entire city and if it could surface, everything, including us, would float up with it. Ms. Shannon tells us the pine bench is good for our spines, like the cradleboards of Iroquois babies, and will help us master floating. It just feels like camping. Instead of counting sheep, I count Jamie’s bubbles streaming upward, translucent links in a chain.

“Seventeen. Eighteen, Nineteen,” I whisper.

I can hear Jamie scratching the pew. Jamie’s been working a knot in the wood for several nights now. Jamie breaks through the pine and presses her eye to the hole.

“Look, I took an outie and made it an innie. Look. Hey, look,” she says, “Man if there were a hole in that boat, I wouldn’t be the only one stuck down here.”

I look until her eye is gone.

I wish I had someone to bury secrets in, someone to build and arsenal of understanding guarded by passwords and pinky promises, but I don’t understand why she wished her friends had drifted down here with her. Maybe that’s the difference between Accidents and Innocents. Accidents are girls who’ll kiss the boy whose name they saw you doodle in your notebook just so they can have someone to kiss.

*

Jamie’s running late and lays her portable make up case on my pew because there’s no space on hers. A sliver of mirror, an antique camera missing a lens, and tiny shells are lined up like a row of broken jewelry.

“Don’t touch my things,” she says. When I think she’s not looking, I run my finger across the raised zipper of the case like I did her forehead. I kneel beside the pew and push my lips together then press them against the smooth plastic until a tiny bubble squeezes out, and I feel a smack against my cheek. “What were you doing, freak? Were you licking it? I said ‘don’t touch.’”

Diana asks if I’m alright.

“I’m fine,” I say. I try to see my face in the stained glass windows, but Joseph’s feet are too small and Mary’s habit is too high, and the swaddling cloth of the manger is too white.

*

The Baby went in the night, so Ms. Shannon skips the silent bell and convenes our meeting by asking Diana to read from How It Works: A Sinker’s Guide to Swimming. When Diana gets to the part about staying in the here and now, accepting your own powerlessness, and letting the water lift you up, I stop listening and twirl divots into the clay. I spin and spin until I don’t know which way is up.

Diana asks me for a spotter, so I cup my hand between her shoulder blades. She can still only float when someone’s holding her. She’s like a child who needs a reassuring palm against its back to fall asleep. I picture The Baby’s body rising toward her mother’s hand, like the center of a peach glowing bright red everywhere the pit has touched.

I ignore Jamie who grinds her fist in one of the holes I’ve spiraled like  she’s a boxer fitting a new glove.

There’s dirt under the nail of my big toe. When I bend down to scrape it out with a rusted fishhook, Ms. Shannon holds her arms out. I think she’s asking me for a hug, but I don’t want to give it to her. Ms. Shannon is the kind of mother that might hold her baby underwater just to keep it small and hers, so I keep digging at my nails with the fishhook.

*

That night in the pew I tell Jamie, “That was mean. You shouldn’t hit other people. Didn’t your mother ever tell you that?”

Jamie pokes her eye through the knot. “You don’t know mean. You love everyone so much, I bet you didn’t even try to get away.”

“I did so.”

“Did you run?”

“I couldn’t. There was nowhere to go.”

“See I told you,” she says.

“There was nowhere to go.”

“Admit it, you could have tried harder.”

“I could have tried harder.” I say.

I try to find the perfect moment, the one where I should have run. Was it before he washed me in bleach until I smelled like a bathroom? After I was in the van, we stopped at a really long light at a five-point intersection. Maybe it wasn’t that long, it just felt long, but I didn’t ever try the door. How do I even know it was locked?

I run my fingers over the scabbed patches of my skin that feel like coral in an abandoned tank then turn my back to her. Jamie calls my name and says she’s sorry, but her apology is a cheap carnival prize that won’t survive the car ride home.

*

I decide to keep ignoring Jamie. I watch Jamie outline her eyes in black, as if they aren’t otherwise there. I don’t look to see whose name she writes in the bottom and don’t notice when her tire becomes a gaping eye socket. Eventually, Jamie will come back. I sit on her tire and wait. It’s possible that Jamie returned to the church, and she’s taking a nap in the pew. She’s a lazy girl. She doesn’t really practice at practice, so why would she stay just to sit here when she could be sitting somewhere else?

“Sitting isn’t swimming,” Ms. Shannon scolds.

“Have you seen Jamie?”

“You have to want to learn to swim,” she says, “Jamie Grove doesn’t want to learn.”

When Ms. Shannon frowns at me, she looks so pathetic, I tell her I’ll try harder and ask her to spot me. I push against her hand between my shoulder blades and feel my pelvis lift. My legs are heavier than I expect them to be.

“Lean back on me,” Ms. Shannon says, “to pull them up.”

I feel like I’m about to topple backwards but it works.  The first time she lets her hand slip from my body, I don’t even notice it’s gone. I can leap eight feet up and hover horizontal like David Copperfield’s assistant. The water is so clear, I can see the moon shimmering in wavy stripes of a tiered Jell-o mold.

I try to move up, but I’m climbing a Stairmaster. Ms. Shannon says, “You’re more of a stomper than a kicker. Keep your knees straight. Like this.”

I rub my legs close together like a cricket calling to a mate. The skin inside my legs tickles, but I’m ascending, inch by inch.

“That’s it! You’ll be swimming before you know it,” Ms. Shannon says. She strokes my nose and smiles, “I’m so proud of you.”

The takeoff is a grand plié into a squat jump. Floating is the first half of a back bend. Kicking feels like split leaps. Rolling over is a pirouette turned on its side.  I translate all the swim maneuvers into dance moves and practice over and over so I can show it to Jamie.

When I get back to the church, I’ll tell her, “Hey, Jamie, a thousand people saw me that day. There was the guy pushing a train of shopping carts who was so close, when the girl’s ponytail swooshed, it almost whipped him in the face. There was a lady in sunglasses who watched the girl shove me into the back of the man’s van but didn’t get off the phone. None of them did anything, either. What was I supposed to do?” I’d tell her, “I saw that girl coming toward me, and I didn’t move. I wanted her to speak to me. I waited for the ‘Hello.’” I’d say, “See, Jamie, I’m an Accident. Just like you.”

But Jamie isn’t in her pew or anywhere else in the church.

Curled on the hardwood pew with only my own bubbles to count, I stay awake all night, waiting for a finger to push through a knot in the wood.

*

There is nothing emptier than waking up when someone who was there every morning before is just not there anymore. I tell myself that Jamie’s pulling a prank to get back at me. She’d do that. Friends do that. I convince myself that Jamie is teaching me something about the way girls are, and I forgive her.

I head to the meeting, calling, “Jamie? Jamie!”

Shorn beer cans glimmer like oversized coins. I feel like my body has been laced to whiskers and ask myself: What kind of girl are you that even Jamie Grove can’t stand to be around you?

I’m the girl who never saw it coming, not the paneled van or the muscled arm. I never saw his face. I was afraid to really look at him. I wanted to be able to say, “I didn’t see anything,” only the cold splash of my own wake and the bobbing hull of a boat whose name was half burnt off by the sun Litt— M— Sunsh—.  I’m the girl who hated seeing my face blinking on the TV those few days before he dunked me, the still image of my class photo, the Fourth of July picnic with the rest of my family cropped out, each one stretched to fit the screen. I bet Jamie would have faked her own abduction just for the attention. I wonder if she fell into the river on purpose, like she was trying to lure some boy in after her, and he just didn’t feel like getting wet that night.

I flop into her tire and wait for the meeting to begin.

“You’re in my spot,” she says.

“Where were you?” I ask. I get out of her tire, but she doesn’t get in it.

“What do you care?”

Jamie’s eyes are framed in dark pencil lines. She’s standing with her fingers splayed over her thighs, the spiked heels of her boots sinking into the mud trying to find a way to feel good about herself, but even her shoes can’t lift her up.

“You don’t have to be so mean, Jamie.”

“Christ, you’re still harping on that? Get over yourself. You think anything I do has anything to do with you or anyone else?”

“Jamie – ”

“Jamie? Jamie?” she mimes. “God, you’re pathetic.”

I try to maneuver around Jamie, but she keeps stepping into my path.

“Oh, now you want to leave? Where do you think you’re going to go?” she asks.

I don’t have an answer. I don’t need one, but Jamie does. She wants to know she’ll win the match before she agrees to play.

I still half expect Ms. Shannon or Diana or even Saint Adjutor to show up like a superhero swooping in to pull me from the grasp of the enemy and fly me to safety. I’m waiting for it, as I waited all those days in that room, but no one was there and no one’s coming now.

I’ll be waiting forever if I wait for Jamie Grove to change, and I realize that forgiveness isn’t a feeling. It’s my sister on TV pleading, “We just want to know you’re okay.” It’s a gurgling baby still reaching for its mother’s face. It’s a deep squat into a lunge.

The silky bottom seems to be pushing me away as much as my soles are sinking in. When I start to move, the suction of my feet pulling free erupts in loud kisses that stir the bottom where I was standing. The water is a starry nebula radiating outward from my body as if everything is about to break apart. Bubbles rise, rush into each other, and then disappear as a hurried applause crashes around me in splintering waves of sound.

 

ABOUT THE STORY:

I am obsessed with crime shows. Every night before bed I fall asleep to Law & Order, the streaming dun-dun of a heartbeat soothing me to sleep. I find it comforting knowing that whatever horribleness has opened the show will be resolved at the end, the bad guys caught and punished, the victims redeemed. After exhausting the episodes, I moved on to other crime shows, real-life crime dramas like Dateline and 48 Hours and docudramas on the ID Network. The trouble with these true crime shows is that when a person goes missing, she isn’t always found. Unlike the familiar comfort of the Law & Order chime, I felt very unsettled watching these shows. I wanted to know where the missing girl was, what happened to the missing boy. Who took them? Did they run away? Were they on an Alaskan adventure to find themselves like Christopher McCandless? Will they ever come back?

For my own closure, I began to imagine a place where all those missing girls were, a kind of purgatory where they were just hanging out with each other until their bodies were found. As I dreamed about this place, I started to wish this place into being, so I wrote it into existence like a kid gluing horns on ponies so he can live in a world with unicorns. Most of the characters came to me as selves independent from the crimes that ended them in the lake. I wanted to separate the self from the crime that had been committed against that self or body and avoid labeling passive victims as the “girl who had that thing done to her” while at the same time call attention to this problem by creating the hierarchy system of Innocents, Accidents, and Intentionals.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jaclyn Dwyer earned an MFA from the University of Notre Dame, where she received the Sparks Fellowship. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of literary magazines including Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, New Ohio Review, andWitness. She is currently enrolled in Florida State’s PhD program in Creative Writing, where she is a recipient of a Kingsbury Fellowship. Her website is www.jaclyndwyer.com

 “The Drowned Maidens Club” appears in the Fall 2013 issue of The Pinch.