She Swims with Otters

Selina Sits on the stone bench and is surprised to find it so cold. To avoid this she shifts her weight, which is about thirty pounds too much these days, from side to side. For a Sunday, the museum is fairly empty so she should be able to spot Polly right away. She fidgets with her skirt, checks her watch for the fourth time, and looks down the empty corridor.
Gazing at the cubist paintings that hang across the hall, her mind wanders. She thinks of the time Polly’s parents convinced her mother to send them off to that religious camp. God camp. That was what Polly had called it. She told Selina that she did not want to go because they would make her stop smoking and start thinking about God. They had started smoking to prove something, although now Selina could not remember what it was. Polly had smoked in the cab the whole way there. It made Selina sick to smoke in a car so she watched the houses go by and hoped Polly would not throw up.
Selina wonders what John is doing with the children and she tries to figure out how much clean-up it will involve when she gets home. She likes her life with John. It makes her feel secure, but getting out once in a while makes her feel glamourous and cultured. She used to do this all the time. She was wild and spontaneous. Now she normally chooses things that are planned, safe. Events befitting middle-age. She has been looking forward to this outing for three weeks, ever since she put it on her Avon flower basket calendar. She makes a mental list of all the things she would like to see while Polly is here and hopes that she will want to stay for a while this time.
Selina hears her name echo across the hall. She turns to see Polly rushing towards her, heels clicking loudly and hands waving.
“God, I’m sorry I’m late. I had a rough night last night and the headache will just not go away.” She opens her suede handbag and pulls out a cigarette.
“You can’t smoke in here,” Selina points out. She has forgotten how Polly can be. She starts to regret meeting her. It would have been better if she had come alone.
“Well then let’s go somewhere else,” Polly is already turned to go so Selina collects her bag, sweater, and disappointment and follows her friend.
Polly chooses a bistro downtown where she knows the owner. She greets him with a lavish hug and throws off excuses for staying away for so long. He looks at Polly in a way that makes Selina think they are more than just friends. Polly orders two white wines. She opens her purse, takes out a pack of cigarettes and offers one to Selina.
“I don’t smoke anymore.”
“Since when?” She says, fishing through her purse for some matches.
“Since that summer. For God’s sake, Polly! Don’t you see? There are a lot of things I don’t do anymore.” They always come around to this but usually not so soon.
“God, you act like it happened to you.”
“Well you certainly don’t act like it happened to you.”
Polly stops, hand in bag, and stares at her. Selina did not intend to be so mean.

The camp was set back from the road so Selina and Polly had to walk along the narrow gravel driveway to get to the main buildings. Polly lit another cigarette, her sixth one since they had left home. Selina lit her first.
“Oh, God, I look awful,” Polly had produced a mirror and begun fooling with her hair. Selina exhaled smoke and gave her a nasty look. “Come on Selina, at least your thin. These jeans make me look like a cow.”
Selina looked at her friend and thought about what to say. Polly was a bit overweight but those jeans looked better on her than some of her others.
“Come on,” Selina finally said.
They came into a clearing. Three log cabins were on the right and one large cabin, that served as the dining hall and main lounge, was to the left. Several counselors sat at one of the picnic tables on the porch checking in the campers. Selina picked the one in the middle. Rod was the cutest counselor.
“My God, is he gorgeous or what?” Polly was beaming and doing a little jump-skip step as they headed toward their cabin. “How old do you think he is? He’s got to be at least twenty-one. God! He’s great!”
Selina thought so too but she was not worried. Older guys had liked her before. Rod was not going to be hard to get either. She just hoped Polly would not be too hurt.
They had free time after the orientation and knowing Rod was supervising the swimming they chose that.
“ Polly if you don’t pick one soon we’ll never get to swim.” Selina motioned towards the light blue tank. All Polly could talk about was Rod’s thick brown hair and blue eyes. Selina grabbed their towels and wrapped a pack of cigarettes in them. “Polly, come on!”
“OK, OK,” she said. Polly finished applying strawberry gloss lipstick that made her lips look like candied apples and followed Selina down to the lake.
Rod was already in the water with some of the other campers.
“How are my lovelies,” he said as they dropped their towels a chair. Selina looked at Polly and rolled her eyes.
“Is the bottom gross? I’m not coming in if the bottom is gross,” Polly said inching her way into the water. Selina was already out to her waist but she dove anyway. She knew that it made her look graceful. When she surfaced she was close to Rod. Polly was still wading in.
“What kind of name is Selina anyway?” Rod was treading water.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean is it Russian, French, or what?”
“It’s a dancers name,” Polly said as she finally reached them. “Her mother wants her to be a great dancer.”
“And are you a great dancer?” Rod asked. His head bobbed up and down with the water. Selina did not answer. Instead she smiled at him and swam back to the shore.

Polly waits for her to apologize but Selina cannot make her mouth form the words. They are caught at the base of her tongue, thick, like honey. Instead she chooses to change the subject.
“So, this new guy. Is it serious?”
Polly finds her matches and lights her cigarette. She shakes her head in time with her wrist as she puts out the match.
“Are any of them? Nah, this guy was a creep too.”
“Why do you put up with them, Polly?”
“It’s my choice. Don’t make it sound so tragic.”
Selina thinks that it is just that, tragic. She shrugs and looks at the television over the bar. The girl in the commercial is talking about the frustration of removing eye make up as if it is the source of all women’s troubles. Selina has not found this to be so. The owner comes towards them with chilled glasses brimming with wine. Selina wonders how he can carry them, so full, without spilling. Polly moves her ashtray to make room. She flirts with him and, without even touching the full drink in front of her, orders another round. Selina picks up her glass intent on not spilling but her hand shakes and wine runs down the side of the glass.

Selina sat on the shore and watched Polly and Rod in the water. Each day she tried to get Rod to follow her to the shore but he always stayed with Polly. This was new to her. It made her feel helpless. She was almost frantic to get his attention. Today as she watched them she saw something else in the water. Several brown heads surfaced then disappeared. She heard Polly scream and saw her wriggle closer to Rod. He laughed as the family of otters peered above the water and swam by. Rod imitated them, swimming on his back and spitting water between his teeth. This sent Polly into a fit of giggles and she had to join Selina on the shore.
“Isn’t he the best? I can’t believe he’s even interested in me,” Polly said.
“Oh, I wouldn’t count on that for too long.” Selina was not used to being jealous. It had made her mean. “You don’t really think he’ll stay interested unless you put out, do you? There’s at least a dozen girls here that would kill to be with Rod and they are a hell of a lot more experienced than you.”
****************
That night Selina tossed on her cot. Polly usually went for a walk with Rod after the camp nightly meeting but tonight she had not returned after the lights-out bell. Selina felt anxious. She wondered if she should sneak out and look for Polly. She did not. She knew what she would find. She had practically pushed Polly to it. She would have known how to handle him better than Polly. How not to be pressured. Selina thought it should be her out with Rod and Polly back in the cabin. That was how it had always been.
She pretended to be asleep when Polly finally came in. She expected Polly to wake her so they could talk but Polly got into bed quickly. She turned to look at Polly and was surprises to find her crying. Selina did not know what to do so she went to sleep.
***************
“Do you want to go for a swim?” Selina asked the next morning. She had not told Polly that she had seen her crying. It made her feel awkward, like a stranger forced to make familiar conversation. “I’d like to see the otters again before we leave.”
“I’ve seen enough of them.” They had a few hours before they left but Polly was already packing.
“Are you going to say good-bye to Rod?”
“No.” Polly sat down on her bare cot and pulled out a cigarette.
“I told you we’d still be able to smoke,” Selina said. “They couldn’t stop us. We’re old enough.” Selina tried to make up for the awkwardness. Polly was always the one to talk non-stop. Now she sat with her unlit cigarette and cried.

Selina takes a sip of her wine and searches for a safe topic of conversation, something that will not upset either of them. She still thinks of Polly as a child. Maybe it comes from being a mother. More likely it is that Polly still acts childish. She is compensating. This is what Selina thinks when she tries to be clinical and unemotional about it. She wants to ask Polly if she will ever grow beyond this or if she wishes for children even though she can never have them. Polly is telling Selina how outraged her parents are at her life-style.
“They’re still so old fashioned. I should never tell them anything. They just don’t like anything that’s fun. Besides, I have the gift of birth control why not use it, right?” It seems to Selina that Polly is making an effort to appear happy, carefree. It makes Selina feel tired. She hope it makes Polly feel happy.
She wonders if Polly feels any of the remorse that she felt when she stood by Selina’s gym locker and confessed she was in trouble. Polly had cried then. Selina had looked at Polly to see if she appeared different, pregnant. Selina had felt guilty because it might have been her instead. She also felt terribly thin.
“It’s a good thing I never had to go to them for the money,” Polly continues, “Your mom was so cool. She was with it.”
Selina’s mom had gone to the clinic with Polly. She had watched her mother comfort Polly with reassuring pats and hugs. Selina had held the strip of condoms the nurses had given Polly so that she could be responsible next time. They were in pretty colors; pink, yellow, and blue, like candy. It turned out that after the operation she would not be needing the condoms after all. Selina’s mother pointed out that this kind of operation could ruin a dancing career. She told Selina to keep this in mind.
The owner comes to bring the next round. He takes Polly’s empty glass but Selina’s is still partially full so he leaves it aside the full one.
“God, we’ve gone through a lot together,” Polly says. She is beginning to achieve a glow and sentimentality from the alcohol. “Why don’t we get together more often? I really miss you Selina.” She fumbles around in her purse and finds her cigarettes. This time she leaves the pack on the table.
Selina considers having it out once and for all. To tell Polly exactly why they do not get together more often. She is tried of having these conversations and drunken remembrances, but she will not say anything. She feels guilty because she could just have easily been in Polly’s place. She had been more suited to it. Perhaps if she had been more supportive then, she would feel less obligated now. She wishes Polly would marry and free her.
Polly lifts her glass and knocks her pack of cigarettes off the table. She leans over to retrieve them. Selina is embarrassed and looks away. She watches two young girls enter the bistro. They look to be about seventeen. One of the girls is holding a baby. The other carts a bag full of diapers, bottles, and bibs. Little girls playing house. They choose a table by the window, behind Polly. They order beers but opt for coffee when asked for ID. Polly has retrieved her cigarettes and struggles to light another. Selina continues watching the girls, fascinated. The girl holding the baby pats her and whispers in her ear. Selina imagines that she is telling her great secrets. Polly turns to see what Selina is staring at and before she can stop her Polly is at the other table asking to hold the baby.
“Oh, what a pretty baby, yes, such a pretty girl.” Polly uses a sing-song voice through pursed lips. The mother beams proudly. Polly continues her baby talk.
“So tiny, so young, so much for someone so young.” She rocks the baby back and forth. At first Selina is afraid that the girls might yell at Polly or that she might drop the baby. What surprises her is how comfortable Polly looks. She seems transformed, full of life, a vision of motherhood. Selina does not notice the tears.

She Swims with Otters

Ruth Anne McCauley

Cave Creek, United States

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