This is the story I wouldn’t tell you when I was your girlfriend. You kept asking and asking, and your guesses were so lurid and specific. Was I a kept woman? Was Belvedere like Nevada, where prostitution is legal? Was I naked for the entire year? The reality began to seem barren. And in time I realized that if the truth felt empty, then I probably would not be your girlfriend much longer.
I have to admit, this story has really very little to do with second person! The first (above) and last paragraphs do address a “you,” in that same person-and-a-half voice. The “you” is an ex-boyfriend the narrator is talking to. She does not interact with him in the story, and she merely recalls having seen him, so I am not sure, perhaps he is actually a heterodiegetic character (the more you use new vocabulary, the easier it gets! I did not even have to look it up to spell it this time! Though I will check it just to be sure… It is right!). But those two paragraphs are still very much “I” paragraphs, as are all the paragraphs in between. Not that there are many paragraphs in between; it is a very short short story.
Still, it is a wonderful story, and I do love to spread the gospel of wonderful stories! I will confess, I did find a message board posting that contains the entire text of the story (it is that short…1676 words, not quite a flash but very close to it). It is a four-year-old collection, and the story was in Harper’s in 2007, and a movie has been made of the story. In any case, I bought the collection, instead of checking it out of the library, because it was reserved for the next 300 years (she has a movie coming out, The Future, so she is “hot” right now). That assuages my guilt a little bit. I am glad I did, it is wonderful!
This story is something you just have to accept without doing a lot of detailed questioning. It starts with the “you” paragraph quoted above. Then we move into the story itself, the one she would not tell. Oh, it is so much better than a year spent naked or as a prostitute! She taught three old people how to swim – in her house! No water! There was no pool, no lake, no ocean, so she put bowls of salt water out to teach them to breathe correctly (face down, exhale, turn head to side, inhale) then showed them all the strokes. She was on her high school swim team so she knows them all. She was particularly impressed by their butterfly: “I thought the kitchen floor would give in and turn liquid and away they would go…”
This started because she was living in an incredibly small town (we never find out why she was there, but she was stuck there, alone, afraid to ask her parents for the money to get out; she writes her parents regularly to tell them she is working with a made-up agency called R.E.A.D., teaching at-risk youth to read). And she overheard one of the old ladies at the store talking about how you have to breathe underwater to swim. And she yelled out, “That’s not true!” And she offered to teach them to swim in her apartment!
She looked forward to these lessons, twice a week. For two hours a week, she was Coach. They thought her name was Maria, though it was not; she does not know why they thought this, and we never learn her real name. They left her casseroles in exchange for the lessons, so she did not need another job. This was how she spent the year. This is what she was afraid to tell her boyfriend, because it seemed to boring compared to prostitution or nudity. I think I would be completely enchanted by learning this! I think she is much better off without a boyfriend who would think this was “barren” – or without a boyfriend she was worried might find it so.
Then the story ends with another person-and-a-half paragraph that sheds some light on why this is coming up for her now. Loneliness triggers past loneliness; all new losses feel like all the losses that have gone before.
The sort-of switch in person is very effective because it starts and ends the piece, and emphasizes the reminiscent quality of the recollection. And the pain of the present. It is really quite special. It is a piece I wish I had written, a piece I could have written!
But I might have gotten all bogged down in details, just like swimmers in real water! I would have drowned in explaining why she was in Belvedere in the first place and how she managed to live, to buy toilet paper and pay rent when her only income was a casserole twice a week. I have to remember this! Sometimes those things do not matter! A lot of people probably think they do and they will dismiss this story as drivel, but this collection won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and was one of Time magazine’s top ten books of 2007, so emotional truth can take you places logic and facts do not begin to reach!