Water in Your Ears
  Taylor Losier

I keep my eyes open beneath the water, watching as the waves ripple the surface, casting everything in a cool blue. Everything above me seems distorted and unsteady: the lane ropes that sit on the side of the pool, the bleachers that are normally filled with parents, and the smiling, cartoonish giraffe, whose painted yellow neck keeps shifting, as though he’s trying to spot me from his vantage point on the wall. I smile back, glad it is him I can see and not the tiger or the ape, whose smiles look more ferocious than I’m sure the artist intended.

I’m not sure how long I’ve been here. All I know is that the water hums around me, like a mother singing her child to sleep, and I rock gently as it shifts. It is never still, as though wishing it could pull and push as ferociously as the free tides of the ocean far away. But the roof is blocking it from the sky, and the moon never reaches through the narrow windows that sit among the rafters, so for now it has to settle for swaying me back and forth. I allow it to do so, as if it could find some comfort in the imitation of strength.

A slight pressure begins to close around the base of my lungs, spreading upward toward my throat. I know this means I will have to leave soon, but I stay sitting on the smooth tiles, holding tightly to the weight that keeps me down. It is yellow, brighter than the giraffe, and its paint is not yet chipped. The lifeguards use it for training, maybe meant to simulate the weight of a person, although perhaps not the shape. They had left it here, and I took advantage of it so that I could watch the fluorescent lights create patterns on the walls. I hold on to those patterns, and only let go when I feel the trickle of warmth between my legs that is my brain telling me it can take no more. Reluctantly, I uncross my legs and push off the bottom towards the surface.

I break through the water quietly, inhaling deeply. My lungs and my eyes sting but I swim to the pool’s edge and dutifully replace the brick back where it belongs, sheltered beneath the lifeguard stand. No one sits there, despite the rules on the wall that state that all swimmers must be under surveillance by a guard at all times, and the posters that warn about the risks of secondary drowning. If they really cared they wouldn’t make the place so easy to break into. After all, the key isn’t well hidden: it’s always placed in the top drawer of the pool supervisor’s office, the door of which can be opened by reaching through the window. And no one ever questions a familiar face when they go to grab the old, bent key to open the pool.

Above water, I can still hear the hum of the filters, this time accompanied by the ticking clock high on the wall and the patter of my feet as I hoist myself out of the pool and make my way to the locker rooms. I shiver. The giraffe smiles goodbye as I leave and I avoid making eye contact with the ape that stands guard next to the locker doors. I think I would have put a tree there instead.

I don’t bother finding a stall to change in: the room is empty and I know lessons won’t start and parents and kids won’t arrive for another while yet. I focus on the task at hand: drying my hair as best I can with a damp towel, pulling on socks as I balance on one foot, and trying not to place that same foot in a puddle, to partial success. I shove my slightly wet toes into my heavy boots, lacing them tightly, tying the knot twice because the first simply won’t do.

Then comes my sweater, warm and covered in black hairs from my mother’s cat; the elbows are nearly rubbed out and the sleeves are stained. If I wash it these would go away. Except for the elbows. But I pull my coat overtop and that works just as well, since no one can see my sweater then, especially when I wrap my scarf around my neck. I’m not planning on taking them off until I get back to school. My sweater is striped and maybe I can pass the marks off as part of the pattern when I do have to take off my coat.

Despite my coverings the cold bites as I step out of the community center. It is winter, and winter has a way of seeping through layers and spreading ice through your bones so that everything creaks as you walk and you in turn walk slowly so that you don’t fall. My hair is ice to the touch – frozen into strings – and I pull my hood up higher in the hopes of saving it.

But it is quiet so I don’t hurry along the back streets as I make my way back to the brown brick school. I imagine that the world is locked up in their living rooms, wrapped in green and blue tartan blankets as they sip hot chocolate and trade stories with their loved ones. I know that it is only lunch and that most people will be at work, sitting at desks as they warm their toes with electric space heaters, and that there is a short supply of old houses with chimneys in this city. I like the world better as I imagine it, not that I have much to complain about in regards to the world as I know it.

I live in a middle-class kind of town, where families come to settle and children wear nice clothing that their parents buy for them from the strip mall down the street and where university is expected and affordable for most teenagers, so long as they get the scholarships to send them there. The houses are new, in a style that is repeated once or twice or even three times on each street. The city itself probably only has five or six house designs in all, classified in my head as Tall (Three Windows), Wide (Three Windows), Wide (One Big Window), Tall and Wide (Five Window), and the Victorian Model. They can be subdivided into Garage and No Garage.

There are also apartment buildings, but those look like giant barns and the people who live there don’t really fit into the city’s picturesque ideal of itself and are subsequently whispered about around water coolers and in lunchrooms.

I lived in an apartment for three months before my parents had found a Wide (Three Windows) that they liked well enough to move into. Once relocated, we never spoke of our time there. My mother always says that we were lucky to move out before Christmas, or the family photos would have been ruined.

What I remember of our short time in the apartment complex is rippled and muffled, almost as if I were viewing my memories from the bottom of the pool. There was an old woman on the first level who smiled at me every day in our first month there. She offered me dried slices of bright orange mangos that had been dipped in red and brown spices that made my tongue and lips burn, but in a nice kind of way. She told me the name of the spices and I liked the way they felt in my mouth, although I’ve forgotten their names now. My father made me stop taking the food because didn’t I know never to take food from strangers and that they would talk to her and ask that she please not do so anymore. I didn’t see her much after that, and the image of her warm face has been washed out of my mind.

I also can’t remember the face of the man on the second level who threw bread down from his balcony for the pigeons, and all I remember of our other neighbours is the vague murmur of their voices through my bedroom wall, and the much louder stomping of those above us.

I consider turning off of the road to the school to go back there, so that I can knock on each of their doors and introduce myself. Maybe the old woman still has mangoes for me, if she’s alive. Maybe the man on the second level will let me feed his pigeons. I can ask our neighbours why they were always whispering, and what about, and tell them that the hum of their voices was the lullaby that rocked me to sleep, and our neighbours above us that they were my alarm clock in the mornings.

But the school is in front of me and my parents made me return the gold coloured building key the day before we moved out, telling me that I was a good girl for not having lost it, which I translated to “Unlike your brother”, who always forgot his. They replaced it with the silver key that leads into our Wide (Three Windows), and added to that a few years later was the four digit code I got when we moved up into the Garage category.

I climb the short steps through the double doors into the school, tugging at my scarf so that it slides off of my neck and trails onto the ground. There are bunches of students sitting in groups on the floors or on the stairs, some talking louder than necessary and laughing every few minutes, while others stare at their phones or books. Maybe they like pretending to be social so that they don’t feel as if a day was wasted in class, or maybe they really do wish there was no one around, because they find it better that way. If that’s the case though, they could always go slouch on the lockers or hide in the library like the other students do, but then I suppose they still wouldn’t be alone. I’d invite them to the pool with me, but that still wouldn’t fix anything.

When I first started going to the community center at lunch, there was a group of almost-friends who came with me. We had tentative plans to start a water polo team so that we would have a real excuse to go there, but people started to trickle off once the walk got too cold. Then our plans were set back when the teacher who was supposed to be our coach left town to go out West with the music teacher and to get away from her ex-husband. The ex-husband left town eventually as well, although I’m not sure where he went. I hope it wasn’t out West.

Soon after this everyone decided that it wasn’t worth going to the community center at lunch anymore, and stopped making the trek. I wasn’t there when they reached that decision though, since I spent that morning at the dentist. Instead, I got my mother to drop me off at the pool for what I thought was practice. When I saw no one else was there I just assumed they were all running late, so I took the key and made my way on deck. I waited for a while before I realized no one else was coming.

At first I thought I kept going to “practice” out of spite, and then I settled on the idea that I was going just in case someone else decided to come back. I thought that reason made me seem like a better person. I could always invite someone, but the noise on the deck echoes as loudly as the voices do in the school’s atrium; louder, even, since there’s no “Go Rams Go!” banner to help soften the sound.

However, my unwillingness to even invite along my old friends strikes me, and makes me think that maybe I’m no longer suited to company. I don’t know why, since up until recently I quite liked spending time with others: talking and laughing, all much too loudly. My mother has recently noted that I’ve become much more philosophical lately, to which my dad replied that I better not be thinking of studying it, if I ever want to get a job. But I have no interest in philosophy, and simply enjoy the silence.

After carefully placing my coat into my locker, I grab the books from the top shelf and press them to my chest, arms wrapped around them to hide the sleeve stains. I make my way between the students who, eyes on the hallways clocks, have begun to rise and make their way back to various classes. The noise is louder now, as hundreds of feet squeak against the white, fake-tile floor, serving as a backdrop to the last minute conversations and gossip.

I sit down at my desk in English class, sliding my notebook over the scratched and graffiti-coated table top. I tilt my head this way and that, reading the notes left by students before me. Some defunct phone numbers, some derogatory comments and, most eloquently scrawled in blue pen so that it’s indented into the wood, PARKER WUZ HERE.

I stare at the scribbles, wondering if Parker passed this class and if I should add my own mark, when I notice the ripples that the flickering fluorescent lights are making on my desk, so similar to the light reflected through the water. The chatter of my classmates is distorted in my ears, as if I were separated from them by a wall or curtain water. Their faces are bright, some calming and relaxing, others unintentionally ferocious.

I try to focus on the details, but they slip from my mind and are obscured by the simple facts that serve to define them:

The girl with the long blond hair used to always wear pigtails, with bright orange hair ties holding the ends together.

The boy in the back of the class could do a handstand for ten minutes, and his face would turn red as a tomato after seven.

The girl in front of him got caught picking her nose; a worse fate than the boy beside her, who got caught cheating on a multiplication test.

And the teacher at the front of the class used to date the music teacher, until she left to go out West.

I turn my gaze back to watch the fluorescent lights, still rippling faintly on the desk, and I sway, my eyes closing as I realize that, for now, I have no other explanation except that my mind is stuck underwater.

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