Natalie woke that morning with blood between her thighs and dripping down her legs. Usually she can predict her periods, but her body’s out of whack from the abandoned fertility treatments. AJ wants her to watch him practice holding his breath in the bathtub, so she sits on the toilet lid. He wears his blue swim trunks. “It feels good,” he says, stepping in. “Not too hot,” he adds, reminding Natalie that he’s better off—at eight—filling the bathtub and gauging the temperature himself. He closes his eyes, holds his breath, and slides below the water, legs still bent in the short tub, his hands fisted at his sides. She watches his eyes open and widen. A second later he’s sitting up, shaking his dark wet hair, saying, “I opened my eyes underwater!” Plugging his nose with thumb and forefinger this time, he descends again, cheeks air-puffed, eyes squeezed shut. She feels him counting, practicing, determined. One of her long brown hairs is stuck tentacle-like to the tile near the faucet. At least he’s bathing and his hygiene has improved. She remembers the time she’d gone to take a shower and noticed a foul odor. Then she’d found a mixing bowl from the kitchen full of his urine. When she’d asked why he’d peed in the bowl and left it by the toilet, he’d said, “I just wanted to.”
Bad Luck Thursday, AJ calls today, because his swim lessons are on Thursdays after school. He’s the only one in his class who hasn’t gone underwater. This is his last chance or else he’s a Guppy again, quarantined to the wading pool blowing bubbles with the toddlers. “I can’t be a wuss,” he told Natalie. For the past week he’s been practicing holding his breath in the bathtub and counting to ten.
Glen, a kid AJ’s age who lives down the street, is in the advanced swim class. Glen’s mom told Natalie that Glen’s “kid-needy,” and AJ’s welcome over any time. Natalie wants AJ to have a friend, but all AJ says about Glen is that Glen laughs too much and always has a runny nose.
The other day AJ told Natalie that he believed he was fat. They had a serious discussion. No one, AJ insisted, said this to him. No one at school, not Glen, not Glen’s mom. He’d figured it out by looking at Glen’s body when they were changing into swim trunks and then comparing it with his own. Natalie told AJ that he wasn’t fat and that, in fact, he was on the lean side. Glen was very thin and would fill out in time. At their ages, she explained, bodies changed quickly. She swore she’d let AJ know if he got fat. But later he wanted to talk again. He’d decided that she wouldn’t tell him the truth.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because,” he said, “you’re my aunt and don’t want to hurt my feelings. You feel bad already and sad for me like everyone else does.” He didn’t say because his mom died, but she knew that that was what he meant. AJ calls Natalie Mom in public now— he’s been doing so for over a year, and living with her coming on two—so people won’t talk or ask questions. But in private she’s still Aunt Natalie, because they both feel an unspoken devotion to his real mother, no matter how much she fucked up.
“You’re wrong,” Natalie told AJ. “You can trust me. As your aunt and your legal guardian, I’m obligated to tell you if you’re fat, because it’s a health risk and my responsibility is to keep you healthy.” This seemed to appease him.
AJ dresses and then sits for his breakfast, his usual: a toasted chocolate chip bagel with cream cheese on his favorite SpongeBob plastic plate and a matching pebbled plastic cup of orange juice. Natalie believes—like AJ’s therapist once told her—that a busy schedule and a routine are best for grief and trauma, and she and AJ both appreciate their rituals. They’ve been late to school too much, and Natalie urges AJ to hurry and eat. She doesn’t want to face the office ladies again, particularly Ms. Jenkins with her disdainful, crinkled powdery face. AJ’s hair is damp and his cheeks flushed. She knows he’s still thinking about the swim class. He leans over and pats Sugar, their tiny black mutt, who waits for scraps under the table. Sugar used to run in frenzied circles as if still caged at the pound. Now three years later she mostly sleeps—making comforting wheezy snore noises—and limps when she walks as if her front left paw is sprained, though the vet can’t find anything wrong.“But in private she’s still Aunt Natalie, because they both feel an unspoken devotion to his real mother, no matter how much she fucked up.”
“Here,” Natalie says, running a towel over AJ’s head, and he ducks, saying, “Stop.” But then he holds still and lets her dry his hair, his glance granting her permission. He picks at his bagel and takes little sips of orange juice, delaying on purpose. They both hate the school drop-off. Saying goodbye is difficult, more so lately. Does it have to do with the second anniversary of her sister’s death? They’ve tried not saying goodbye, walking together to class, not walking together, feigned indifference, pep talks and affectionate sendoffs, hand-holding assurances, simply touching pinkies one last time in a coded I-love-you goodbye. His brave and sweet expression, how he tries not to be afraid—tries not to cry—devastates her, and most of the time she drives away from the school in tears.
In the buildup to drop-off the tension escalates, and this morning he says, “I hate school, I wish it would burn,” and she says, “Eat your bagel.” Her husband, Phil, a production assistant, works long hours and travels and is barely home, so he can’t take over the drop-offs like the school counselor suggested. When Phil’s home it’s like he’s an affable spectator to AJ’s deep connection to her: Natalie’s never had such a bond, as if she and AJ are continuously together in their thoughts.
“We need to go,” she reminds AJ now, and he swipes his hand across the plate in frustration, the half-eaten bagel landing on the carpet, and then leaves for the bathroom, where she knows he’ll dawdle. Sugar gets a corner of the bagel in her mouth before Natalie pulls it out.
On the drive to school, AJ apologizes and then stares out the passenger window. It’s the usual blue-skied Southern California morning, a few white bushy clouds and the palm fronds shimmering.
He says, “You don’t think I can do it?”
“You can,” she says. “You’ve been practicing.”
He faces her. “What if I can’t?”
“Really,” she says. “You’ve been practicing.”
“A pool is harder.”
“Lots of people have trouble learning to swim,” she says.
“The noise under the water is different than the bath,” he says. “It sounds”—he considers, then decides—“like a big empty space that can swallow me.”
She’s about to respond when he adds, “I hate that sound.”
“The noise won’t swallow you. I promise.”
He gives her a patient look.
“You want to skip it?”
He looks out the window again.
“I won’t be disappointed,” she says, in case. She knows he knows she has a policy against quitting. “We can do private lessons.”
“I don’t want to be a wuss,” he says.
“Please stop using that word.”
They’re silent for a minute.
“What if I buy earplugs? That might help. People wear them in the pool all the time.”
He nods thoughtfully and she’s pleased.
A minute or so later he says, “There, look!” and she sees the old Asian women who walk in a group near his school, wearing wide-brimmed sun hats, some with canes. She silently blesses the ladies, knowing AJ believes that spotting them is a good omen.
They’re on time and AJ tells her not to park the car, meaning he’ll get out at the drop-off on his own, she shouldn’t walk with him today. He has his look—I’m going to be brave, it says, I’m trying, I’m doing my best, because I love you and need you and need you and love you—and she feels herself clenching as she pulls the car to the curb. He steps out—resolute—and gives her a grim look. There’s something wizened and sad in his expression, some finality, acceptance, and incomprehension, and she feels the equivalent blooming inside her. She pulls the car from the curb and drives away, fighting the tears, knowing that he is, too. In her rearview mirror, she sees him slumped with his oversized backpack, making his way among the other kids to his room.
Natalie’s supposed to work on designing a website, but when she gets home from buying the earplugs, she can’t concentrate. At her desk, underneath a stack of papers, she finds a form she’d filled out for AJ’s baseball coach. She hadn’t turned it in, instead filling out another with a more generic, more acceptable response. There’s an X over the form, but she can still read it:
Are there any personal or physical problems I should know (or conference privately) about?
My sister, AJ’s mother, died last year of an accidental overdose. AJ found her. He said she looked like a mannequin of his mom. He can’t look at pictures yet. Therapist says this is normal.
She was the youngest; I’m the oldest.
This morning I noticed his breath smelled and I said, “Have you been brushing your teeth?” Yes, he said, but he’s brushing with water only!
I’m in over my head.“There’s something wizened and sad in his expression, some finality, acceptance, and incomprehension, and she feels the equivalent blooming inside her. “
Natalie crumples the form and throws it in the trash. She liked AJ’s baseball coach, with his practical, military-like sense of discipline. He wore a cumbersome metal back brace over his fancy shirts to the games and practices, and at the preliminary parent meeting, he said that though he wanted and expected to win, baseball wasn’t just about winning. “It’s also about learning how to lose,” he said. His wife she liked less, with her long peach-colored nails and self-possessed efficiency, sitting in the stands and gossiping while slicing open her mail with a knifelike mail opener. Natalie got in the habit of waiting in her car for AJ. During the games she volunteered in the snack stand, pouring boiling water into Cup-a-Soups and making hot chocolates. AJ wanted to quit, and he purposely lost his bat, admitting he let it roll from the trunk when he was supposed to be putting it away. He also scribbled two sad faces in permanent marker on the interior of the passenger car door on their way to practice one afternoon, swearing later he hadn’t, suggesting that she’d left the car door open and someone wandered over and vandalized it when she wasn’t looking. She remembers how she surprised them both by yelling “Bullshit!” and that almost immediately afterward he confessed. Despite everything, they finished the season. AJ keeps his trophy on the bedstand next to his lamp.
Phil calls during his break. “Don’t worry,” he says. “He’ll be okay. Whether he makes it or not.”
Natalie sits on the couch and puts her cell on speaker on the coffee table. She lifts Sugar and places her on her lap, smoothing her fur, Sugar’s eyes slitting with pleasure. The ibuprofen she took earlier has made her menstrual cramps feel ghostly.
“He’s putting too much pressure on himself,” Phil continues.
“He’s got the doggy paddle down,” Natalie says.
“The other kids in his class are already younger than him. Imagine having to be a Guppy again.”
They’re quiet for a minute, listening to Sugar’s wheezy snore.
“A month from now, he won’t remember,” Phil says. “It won’t matter.”
“I wish,” says Natalie. “He says the sound underwater has an emptiness that’s going to swallow him. So I bought earplugs.”
“It’s probably related to Gina,” he says.
“Isn’t everything?” Natalie says.
Phil considers for a minute and then says, “He’s come a long way.”
She knows he’s talking about the field trip. His class had gone to the Queen Mary. Natalie hadn’t volunteered to chaperone, thinking she’d get a break.
AJ had called from his teacher’s cell phone, not sounding like himself, more like a robot.
“What is it?” she’d asked.
“I’m fine,” he said, monotone. “I’m okay. I took a bus and I’m in Long Beach.”
“I know you’re in Long Beach.”
“I’m on a field trip,” he said. “I’m okay.”
“Why are you calling?”
Then the teacher was on the line, asking if Natalie could please come pick AJ up, something seemed wrong. “I don’t mean to scare you,” the teacher explained, “but it’s like he’s incapacitated. He won’t move. He barely speaks.”
In the car on the way home AJ apologized and said he didn’t remember getting to the Queen Mary.
Natalie still texts her dead sister. A one-way conversation. It’s a strange habit and no one knows. After she hangs up with Phil, she texts—I hated learning to swim. I thought about telling AJ. But it might make it worse. We had those matching red bathing suits. You had this radiance and didn’t seem to care what anyone thought. I used to think, What’s that like? You’ d make me laugh so hard. I heard Phil describing you to a friend the other day and he said, She was alternative before the word “alternative” was a thing. I keep thinking about that—and she presses send.
A minute or so later, her phone dings and Gina’s name pops up. She doesn’t look at the message, savoring the idea that her sister is alive, knowing it’s crazy. But finally the anticipation makes her check: WRONG NUMBER.
Strangely giddy, she texts: Who is this?
But whoever now has her sister’s number doesn’t respond.
Natalie laughs—really laughs. Wrong number. Gina would love that. She’s still laughing, a painful joy, as if she’s her sister, too, and Sugar looks at her quizzically.
AJ reminds Natalie of her sister. The way his voice grows tremulous when he turns emotional; how his upper lip and chin wobble before he cries. How he looks out the car window with that faraway expression, as if realizing something he wishes he hadn’t. They’ve got the same thin-shaped face—mouth, eyes. His are brown; hers were blue. But they’re the same, the left eyebrow swooping upward in what looks like a tiny cowlick. She decides to tell AJ, saying, “You remind me of your mom.” As soon as she speaks, remorse and pity stir, and she worries that she’s upset him. He’s at the dining room table, picking at a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, not wanting to eat too much or too soon before swim class. Sugar is dreaming under the table, her tail thap-thapping.
“You remind me of her, too,” AJ says.
He takes a sip of his water and then asks: “Why don’t you and Uncle Phil have kids?” He sees something in her face and says, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she says. “We’ve tried.”
He nods. “I like Uncle Phil,” he says, peeling the bread from his sandwich. “Mom used to say,” he says, “that you were the responsible one, Aunt Caroline the ordinary one, and she— Mom—the bad one.”
“Your mom always thought she was worse than she was,” she says.
AJ says, “My teacher says everything happens for a reason. But I don’t think so.”
“That’s stupid,” Natalie agrees, adding, “and not true. Bad things happen for no reason.” He seems uncertain, so she adds: “Your mother didn’t mean to leave you.”
“Okay,” he says, looking away.
Natalie sits in the stands and watches with the other parents and spectators. She wears her darkest sunglasses in case she gets emotional. The instructor, Emiliano, is a high school junior from the water polo team—the lessons are at the outdoor high school pool—and he takes AJ aside near the showers, sensing his nervousness, giving him a pep talk. Emiliano is handsome—he likes to look at himself and flex his muscles—and he’s kind. She watches him gesturing as he speaks. AJ nods solemnly. He’s wearing his earplugs, but she knows he can hear, and his swim goggles are perched on his head like glasses, kicking up his hair. Seven other students have showered and assembled in the shallow end, waiting. The water is bright and sparkly and smells of chlorine. There’s a light, tickling breeze and a golden-orange afternoon glow. Natalie sees Glen’s advanced class partitioned near the deep end, Glen gliding underwater like a porpoise. His mom has brought her own portable chair and reads a magazine.
Emiliano leads AJ to the steps and they wade in. Natalie feels her stomach constrict, understanding that AJ is going first while the others watch. Emiliano demonstrates floating on his own back; then it’s AJ’s turn, and he flips to his back and floats with Emiliano’s hands beneath him but not quite touching. He’s doing very well. His blue swim trunks—the same ones he wore all week to practice in the bathtub—inflate a bit. The kids are in a circle around them, the water undulating in little waves. Next AJ stands and pulls his swim goggles down to cover his eyes. He grasps the side of the pool and kicks his legs, and when she sees that his face is down in the water, her chest balloons with anticipation. She loves him and will always love him and he is hers and she is his. Then he lets go of the side and submerges below the water and she counts with him: one, two, three, four—imagining the terrible sound, a pulsing nothing that swallowed her sister—and he’s up again at ten. Emiliano is smiling, and AJ, she sees, has pulled off his goggles and is searching for her face. She lifts from the stands and sees him see her—his stare incredulous, his smile growing, his arm lifting, and his hand with the goggles waving. Her legs tremble as she goes to him.
From The Secret Habit of Sorrow. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2018 by Victoria Patterson.