Do You Know Alicia?

by Kimberly Jean Smith

That was Jack,” my husband says, putting the phone down in our recently renovated kitchen. “Margo left him for a woman named Alicia. Do you know Alicia?”

“What?” I say. It sounds like Phoot, which is the sound a can of fresh tennis balls make when opened.

Bill, my husband, is standing before me in his blue Lacoste shirt and khaki shorts, eating breakfast cereal from one of our new ceramic bowls. “He wants to come over,” says Bill. “To talk. I don’t know if he meant you or me. Can it be you? I’ve got golf with Gary.” Gary is the president of the college where Bill works, so I know he has to go.

I’m trying to maintain eye contact with my husband, but when walks to the sink what I see is the calendar just behind his head, which has the days that Margo and I have committed to swimming marked out in red. That’s everyday, except weekends, from 11:10 a.m. to 12 p.m. It’s been that way for two years now, but still I mark it in red Monday through Friday “M. swim 11:10-12.” David’s soccer games in purple. Kate’s in orange. Bill’s golf in blue and our tennis matches in green.

Words won’t take shape in my mouth. Bill takes the silence to mean yes, I’ll stay, like I’m considering this new information about Jack and Margo very carefully to better console Jack when he arrives, and when the words finally hit my tongue Bill is already gone.

“What do you mean Margo left Jack for Alicia?”

My words hit the silent place where my husband stood seconds ago. I walk to the sink and rinse Bill’s bowl before putting it in the dishwasher. Our nine-year-old, David, is with Edward Durbin’s family in Haverhill to scrimmage against Easton. Six-year-old, Kate, is upstairs asleep with the flu. Bill and I canceled our weekly tennis match at the club, so I could take care of her. Nevertheless, we’re certain she’ll be ready for Tuesday’s meet. They’re so energetic at that age, and Kate plays hard. Just like David. Just like Bill. Just like me. We are a very athletic family. We play to win, but we have fun too.

Margo and I didn’t meet at the pool. Bill had Jack over for dinner at the house because Jack is a dedicated local alumni of the college and they were going to strategize about how to increase gift giving from the older alums. Bill, who’s been Development Director at the college for the last six years, needed money from Jack too, for a proposed sports complex with a hockey rink and state of the art track. Jack was already one of the school’s most generous givers, so you can’t just come out and ask him for more money. Or you can, but it’s better, Bill explained to me, if a really big donor thinks the whole thing is his idea. So what Bill was doing in talking to Jack about the sports complex and how they hoped to raise most of the money from the oldest alums, was setting up in Jack’s mind how important the whole sports thing was to the school. Anyway, Jack came through with $30,000. That’s the kind of money Jack has. Bill got a raise when it happened. I wonder when Bill will start worrying about what will happen to Jack’s giving if he and Margo are busy getting a divorce.

It was Jack who suggested Margo and I get together. He suggested it when he found out I liked to play squash. Margo, he said, liked to play. I said, me too. I even liked taking the classes like kick-boxing, even aerobics, that kind of thing. Margo, he said, has been known to take kick-boxing. I said I love to swim. Margo, he said, had been on her college swim team. We laughed. I called Margo the next day. The truth is, I had seen Margo once at the college pool. I noticed her slicing the water with her powerful forearms. That woman, I thought, has a beautiful stroke.

Before Margo, I was swimming 40 laps a day between my part time job in the dance office at the college and picking up Kate and David from school. But I don’t know that Margo ever noticed me. Once we set up our daily schedule, it meant I swam before work, not after, and I went to the office with wet hair and the smell of chlorine on my arms.

I didn’t mind. Swimming with Margo made the rest of everyday better.

“Hey, look at our tight asses,” she’d say as we walked into the locker room the full-length mirrors, reflecting back our long strides, our straight postures our small firm breasts. “Our husbands are such lucky guys.”

It was true of course. We had beautiful bodies. Our bodies were more beautiful than some of the young faculty wives at the college. We were a little bit older, yes, but we hadn’t let that be our excuse to just let things go. I had Kate and David. Margo had Cathy and James, who were a bit older than mine. James, 16, was away at prep school in Massachusetts. Cathy, 13, still at home. Everybody on every team. James, everyone agreed, would probably pay for college with a lacrosse scholarship. With Katie and David it was hard to tell yet; they were so good at so many things, but Katie loved gymnastics, so we spent a lot of time on that.

Margo and I started measuring our lap times, marking them by Margo’s diving watch. And then we started standing on the scales before and after each swim, comparing the numbers between one day and the next. I’d touch Margo’s bicep. “Hey, that’s bigger than it was. It must be the sprints.”

“Yeah, plus I’m doing the weight thing at home. You do weights?”

“I have, but not since Kate was born.”

“They say it’ll keep you from getting osteoporoses. Look at the tummy of yours.” Margo snapped my belly with her wet suit. “So flat. So sexy. How do you stand it?”

I knew our voices were booming around the locker room. I didn’t care. There were only little old ladies sitting on the benches, removing their suits with the thick padded bras, the crazy swim caps. They swam faithfully everyday, but something had happened over the years their bodies had run away from them, filled out. There were covered in layers of flab. They slipped in the pool and they swam like slow whales down the lanes. It was like Margo and I were in a different world. The old girls wanted to maintain what was left of their flexibility and a certain amount of strength. Margo and I had different goals. We wanted to win. Beat each other. We would have races and were constantly outdoing ourselves, getting stronger and faster. One day it would be her. The next it would be me. Our times were amazing. No other forty-year-olds swam so fast. We’re ready for the Olympics, we’d kid each other. We are that good.

I hear the toilet flush upstairs and the thought, “I should check on Kate,” flashes through my mind.

Bill must have gotten it wrong. Maybe Margo left Jack, maybe. But for a woman? That wouldn’t be like her. She didn’t fool around. Margo was straightforward about life. Sure she played but in a forceful way. We did the same thing five days a week. We saw each other a lot on the weekends. We did sports together. When you do sports you don’t need to leave your husband.

Once, soon after we met, Gary and I went to dinner with Margo and Jack. Their Cathy baby sat our Kate and David. Though Katie was only 12 at the time, I didn’t worry. She had Margo’s confidence. I thought, nothing could go wrong when a girl like that’s in charge. The next day when Kate was getting out of the bath, I saw a rose-colored mark on the fleshy upper part of her arm.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Uhm,” she said. “I’m not supposed to say.”

“Why? ”

There was a pause before she answered. But not a long one.

Then she said, “Katie bit me,” without a bit of hesitation in her voice. I understood immediately that she wanted me to know and had known she would tell me the minute it happened.

“It looks like something you got in gymnastics,” I said.

“But Katie did it, Mom. She told me not to tell you. I’d get in trouble.”

She was watching my face as I studied the bruise. It was a near perfect sphere with little purple dots where teeth had almost pierced flesh but hadn’t broken the skin. I rubbed my thumb lightly across it.

Kate blinked. “I wouldn’t go to bed because I wanted to watch the rest of the movie.” Her eyes wandered my face, wondering if she was going to be punished as I supposed Katie had tried to convince her she would.

“Hmmm,” I said. "It looks like something that happened falling off the beam,”

And then I leaned in and gave the bruise a little kiss because I wanted her to know that I wouldn’t be seeking justice on her behalf and hoped she wouldn’t be holding it against me.

I didn’t want to not be able to see Margo just because our children didn’t get along. I already had this little pit of excitement in my stomach whenever I thought about our next encounter. I knew I had found a friend. And until I met her, I didn’t know I had gone so long without one. We spoke the same language. We moved through the world with the same gait. With other women I knew, you ended up talking about kids and husbands. With Margo, we talked about ourselves, how quick and strong we were as if our quickness and strength added up to something, like it was leading someplace. Margo wanted to know how fast I had run the 440 hurdles in high school, and I had ever tried diving. She cared that I was the number one dart player in my sorority. Who else was going to care about that?

The first time we swam together I was struck by the length of her legs and the perfect way she gathered her brownish-blonde bob into a ponytail she tucked under her swim cap. Margo is a tall and slender woman. She has no hips and hardly any breasts. Everything is muscle, but in a totally natural way that comes from really using them.

I noticed my body was like hers, but fuller and stronger too.

My arms cut through the water––one-two, one-two––with Margo in the next lane, moving to the rhythm I set. I opened that water, hips rocking, carving small valleys, elastic waves rolling over my buttocks, ankles slicing and slipping, shoulders back across and down and up, beating at the space between the start of a lane and the other end where once again I’d meet Margo.

“Wow, but your fast,” she said out of breath, water beading across her forehead. She gripped the tile with her right hand, her delicate chin and strong jaw, hovering over the glassy pool. Her eyes were the same uncommitted blue, deep set and narrow. There were little wrinkles around them from the way she tenses her face, sturdy, critical and full of joy and exhilaration.

Margo moves through everything with the same ease and confidence. She isn’t the least bit embarrassed that I see her naked. In fact, after our first swim and a shower, she stood before me rubbing lotion into her skin. Her pubic hair, dark from the shower, before my face as I sat drying my feet with a towel.

“Here,” she said, tossing me the bottle. “It’s great for your skin, and you won’t smell like chlorine all day.”

I went to work after that, a job that earns us spending money for vacations and pays for the kids’ team fees and private coaching sessions. I entered the office of Dean of Theater and Performing Arts Melanie Lyons, picked up the mail from its tray and a stack of files ready to go back from her secretary’s desk.

“When you see Cindi, tell her to take her lunch,” Melanie whispered over the receiver. Melanie has had dinner at my home, so I always find these moments odd. And I know she does too by the way she complains about Cindi and how hard it was to find a really good secretary from candidates in the town surrounding the college. It’s very much the college and the town around here, and my part-time job is one that would usually go to a townie, so it can be awkward sometimes.

But once I started swimming with Margo, I didn’t care anymore.

I’d move around the office, my thighs tense under my jeans as I walked to the filing cabinets, blood rushing from upper arm to lower leg. I could feel these things happening as I moved, and it was beautiful to me. My heart wasn’t a vague space somewhere in my chest. It was a muscle, whose existence I knew precisely from my swim. I could feel it pumping, hear it even as I swiveled in Cindi’s office chair, answering Melanie’s line while she ate her lunch. It made everything else inconsequential, and so I could focus on the most boring filing and sorting projects with ease.

One day, I noticed my crotch was wet. Inside, I was wet. I knew it sounds weird. But it didn’t make me think I was weird. I loved my husband. I loved my kids. And Margo loved hers, I thought. I explained the wetness as being a small part of the total package. The super joy of having a new friend. And the delight of feeling so in touch with my body, knowing it could move and do things. So, it wasn’t really sex I was thinking about, not exactly. The desire was more like a side effect of all that motion, and I tried to disconnect it from Margo.

I look at the clock. Two hours since Jack called. I decide to heat soup for Kate. When I get to her room, the TV is blaring.

“I was calling you, Mommy. But not very loud.”

“I heard you,” I lie. “That’s why I’m made soup.”

She turns the TV down low, and I watch her while she eats it. Kate isn’t a delicate girl. Already she is tall with broad shoulders like Bill. She is quick too, and I hope she’ll be stronger and better than me. I take away the tray, and push a curl behind her ear.

“Go to sleep,” I tell her.

“But I’m not tired anymore, and I want to watch TV.”

“Go to sleep anyway because you’re sick, and you’ll wake up and feel better. Maybe tomorrow we can go to the gym. You need to get moving again.”

“OK,” she says tucking the blanket under her chin. I turn the volume down a little, and watch for a second as her lids flutter trying to focus on the set. That’s why I can’t believe that Margo had really left Jack for Alicia. Our kind of love isn’t like that. You didn’t have to leave your husband for it. Margo and Alicia can meet at the pool or the club and swim or play tennis. What else was there to do? Where else could they go? Why leave your husband for any of that? We were mothers. We had children.

I think about this while rinsing Kate’s bowl and spoon and putting them in the dishwasher.

The truth is, I know Alicia. And so does Bill, though he doesn’t remember. Her picture is in the most recent edition of the college’s bi-annual magazine. The magazine that goes out to alumni letting them know what a wonderful job the college is doing. Alicia Rosenblatt, visiting professor of women’s studies.

I find the magazine next to the couch and flip to the article. There she is staring back at me all long graying curls and eyeglasses, head cocked to one side, caught mid-smile surrounded by book-lined shelves.

I remember the day Margo and I had just gotten out of the pool and Alicia seemingly appeared from out of nowhere. She was shorter than us, with round fleshy arms and a towel wrapped around her body that gapped where her hips pushed it open.

“Hey,” she said. “Do either of you have a little shampoo? I forgot to pack mine.”

“Here,” said Margo, reaching into her bag. She poured some liquid into Alicia’s hand.

“Thanks,” the woman said, walking away. Her hair was long and dark, where it wasn’t gray. Her body wasn’t really strong like ours. It wasn’t taut.

Later, I heard Margo call from the shower stall next to mine. “Yoohoo, lady who borrowed the shampoo. Do you need conditioner?” But I had already forgotten about this stranger, so Margo’s interest in her surprised me.

“Sure.” I heard curtains opening, a bottle being passed back and forth. “Gee, thanks.” Then a little giggle like at a slumber party, but even then, I wasn’t thinking anything about it really.

Two days later, Alicia was back and this time Margo started talking to her. “Oh, hi. How many laps you do? Twenty, not bad. Well if you ever want to join us...” Margo looked at me. “This is Linda. I’m Margo. We’re pretty serious. But we could show you a thing or two.” I thought she was just being polite.

And then Alicia was everywhere. On campus, I suddenly noticed old posters announcing a lecture she was giving: Deliverance and Desire: Sociocultural myths of sexuality, enchantment and fulfillment among women labor organizers in turn-of-the-century New York.

I saw her walking across the great lawn a couple of times with one or two female students surrounding her, serious expressions on their pale troubled faces. Alicia’s curly, curly hair, blowing wildly in the breeze.

Once, I watched her stop in the middle of the path and take a mass of it in her hand. She held it off of her face for a moment to answer a girl’s questions. She paused, then smiled. It must have been some kind of a joke or something because after a moment the girls laughed. Then Alicia moved on, the girls following her. She had a stride somewhere between a plod and a bounce, like she was weighed down by her book bags and heavy hair but held up by big ideas and a questioning spirit.

Then one day, Alicia was no longer in the far outside lane swimming with the old ladies, but in one of the inside lanes swimming with Margo and me. Or trying to. At the end of a lane, Margo would stop and hold onto the pool ledge, telling me to go on while she waited for Alicia to catch up.

I looked back. There Margo was, resting her hand under Alicia’s stomach, watching while she kicked, telling her how to get more power from her stroke, manipulating her arms slowly through the water, demonstrating the motion of the fingers as they broke the surface, placing Alicia’s hand on her own shoulder blades, so she could feel the motion in all its simple complexity.

Alicia had the same serious expression on her face that I had seen on her students. I knew then that she was going about learning to swim in all the wrong ways. You couldn’t become a better swimmer the same way you read a book. Alicia was always going to be a slow graceless swimmer that thought first instead of moving. She didn’t have a husband or children or the energy that Margo and I did. She was younger than us, and already gray. She had a round belly and her bottom sagged. I understood we could never truly be friends, and I thought Margo understood this too.

I wipe off the counter, and then I looked at the clock.

Where’s Jack?

Bill walks in. Before he can even put his clubs in the closet he asks, “How was he?” He looks troubled. I’m still hoping he misunderstood about Margo. Or maybe Jack got it wrong. Maybe Margo really said, “I’m leaving,” meaning to go swimming or shopping or whatever we do when we leave our husbands for, say, a few hours. “I’m leaving to go swimming. Be back soon.” Maybe, just maybe, that’s what Margo said and somehow Jack hadn’t heard right. Because Margo wouldn’t just leave like that. She wouldn’t do something like that without telling me.

“Linda,” Bill says again louder. “How was Jack?”

I fix my gaze on my husband. I try to decipher what really might have happened by studying his face and figuring out how much he knows and how much he got wrong.

“He never showed up,” I tell him. “Bill, what were his exact words?

“Jesus, Linda. He didn’t show? Why didn’t you call him? He was really upset. You know, this isn’t a simple thing. Not a simple development at all. Gary’s worried about how this may all end up for the college. She's a professor, you know.”

Bill moves to the phone talking all the time.

“Gary said the Women’s Studies Department has known for months they were having an affair. Why didn’t you know, Honey? Jesus, Babe, why didn’t you at least check on him?” He trails a finger down the list by the door. I know the number by heart, 323-4128. Bill dials it and waits for a ring.

“Yea, Jack. Hi. Bill. What’s up? How ya doing? Yea, Linda and I are here and... She’s here. She’s right here.”

Bill hands me the phone. The expression on his face says, “Do something. Save this.” I don’t know how to save this. What is worse, I have now come to believe that Margo left Jack for Alicia. The weight of my certainty has now crawled into my throat where it sits waiting to come out like a scream. I believe that my body is probably shaking and that this is something Bill should not witness. I turn my head to the wall and push him out the door, like Jack and I are about to share a secret that Bill can’t know.

“Hi, Jack,” I whisper.

“Yea, well, hi.” Jack clears his throat. “So, what’s up? Have you heard from her.”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Did you know?”

“No, I can honestly say I did not know. And I’m shocked.”

“She says they met at the pool.”

“Yea, I guess they did. Are you OK?” I am weeping. I’m not wearing socks and my feet are cold and stiff against the tile. There is a sharp pain in my belly that moves in waves from my chest to my head. I clutch my throat to stifle a sob. I imagine Jack then on the other end. I wonder if is he is sitting in the dark. Is he shaking as we talk? But none of it makes me feel close to him––akin to him. In fact, I feel alone. I turn and lean hard against the wall. I’m having trouble gripping the receiver. My legs are giving out. I feel the floor slipping out from under me, and I just manage to slide down the wall until my ass hits the floor. All of it is true.

“You know the thing is,” says Jack. “I always wondered about Margo. I mean, maybe I should have wondered more because there was that thing in college with her and that girl she crewed with, you know. Well, and now this. You didn’t talk? I guess this Alicia, she’s some broad from the college. Does Bill know her? No, I guess not. She’s, uhh, in that women’s studies thing? Anyway, what the fuck is that? You see where I’m going? Why?”

Are his insides falling out? Because when I think of Margo with Alicia, I feel sick. So sick that imagining a day without Margo makes it seem like I cannot go on to deliver David to another match or Katie to another one of her meets. What does it matter if Bill plays golf on Saturday morning or Friday evening? To think of Alicia’s bow mouth on the thin lips of Margo, those lips that frame such a steady row of white teeth. And the way she looks when she smiles, unmasking herself, making a place for me, telling me we can hold out for more here. There’s more to it than just this. That Alicia should see that smile instead of me. That she should see it and not understand it. And how can she? She doesn’t know that smile as an extension of Margo’s brute strength. She doesn’t know Margo’s triumph. How you get in the pool, and you swim as hard as you can and you forget about your husband and your children. It’s just you and your body and the woman you maybe love. And the victory, waiting for you at the end of the lane is Margo and that look, that look that says, let’s go again. We can do it. And we’ll be better and faster and younger next time.

––"Do You Know Alicia?" was first published in Rio Grande Review, Fall 2007.