ELSA’S PARENTS and sister have become meaner than usual, and her cat, Jonas, resents her. She has a nagging concern he wants to eat her.
“He bit me again this morning — I woke up to find half the toes on my left foot in his mouth! I kicked him away but he just came back, all fangs and hissing, till I locked him in the coat closet.”
But that’s only the beginning, Elsa tries to explain to her cousin Gerard. She has to speak in short bursts: he’s conducting his water exercises, his head bobbing in and out of the water in orderly arcs. She knew she’d be interrupting his routine, but this morning’s episode has brought things to a head. On her way to work, anxiety commandeered her every thought and movement. Before she could catch her breath, she found herself tearing through Gerard’s garden gate and rushing to his salt-water pool.
“Oh, Elsa,” he says, his feet spiraling around a large stalkof kelp just below the water’s surface. He runs a watery hand across his spiky brown hair, and brine curls down his back. “What are you going to do?”
“What’s even worse, my landlord left another threat-of-eviction notice today.” She sets her briefcase down near a baby potted corpse flower and ventures closer to the pool. “I’ve done nothing wrong. My rent is always on time. I’m a quiet, orderly tenant. I thought getting a cat would mollify the buildingassociation, but unless I become a cat, I don’t think it’ll help.”
Gerard dunks, flips neatly into a ball, and spins back up; he swims to where she stands at the edge of the pool and rises. “Have you had any hints of your self?” He looks at her carefully, scrutinizing, and she wants to shrink into the empty void of mediocrity. Still, his voice is tender. “Anything at all?”
“No,” she murmurs, mesmerized by the ripples his body makes, the way the water slaps against the side of the pool and then laps backward over itself, folding the brine under to dissolve in a never-ending cycle of thrash and renewal.
“I’m not sure I approve of where you’re living, anyway. Those nasty gangs — I read about them in the newspaper. Packs attacking Plain Ones right and left, even children.”
“I saw that, too. They usually go for adults, though — people who ought to have blossomed by now.” Her shame forthe disgrace she’s caused her family burns on her face.
Gerard smiles. “Come in for a swim. You’ll feel better.” He shoots backward through the water, darkened spiny ridges flashing on his skin.
She almost wants to but imagines how painful it would be. “I can’t,” she says, then makes an excuse. “Work.”
“Of course. The monster.”
“I’ve never been a swimmer, anyway.” Even standing for too long in the shower makesher skin feel prickly and sore; she usually just soaps up before turning the water on and then washes her hair in the sink. “I think I’m allergic to water.”
He laughs. “Off you go, then. See you later–” His words bubble as he dives backward.
Elsa trudges out the gate, hardly even waving back at the friendly centaur trimming his hedges next door.