Eleanor, dressed in her bathing suit, appeared taller than she was. The beachgoers had laid her flat on the short blades of grass by the side of sand dunes and waited. They watched her. They did nothing. Her face might have been considered pretty if it wasn’t for her swollen cheeks and bruised skin. A time passed. They continued to wait and watch, and eventually they realised she was dead. By her side was a mask with a long rubber hose connected to an oversized bag, which could fit easily over one’s shoulder. The rubber hose was wrapped around Eleanor’s bony shoulders; attempts at strangulation. Everyone on the beach had one: the entire length of sand was lined with men and women lying in the sun, skin cooked or raw, their faces buried behind their masks, hoses running the length of their middle-aged bodies. They called the contraption The Dolphin: a new era in personal life-saving and fresh-air apparatus. Everyone had one. This was summer living.
The day before Eleanor died she had spent the afternoon drinking cocktails with her friends. They all wore The Dolphin. It clashed nicely with their red sundresses. They said to each other, ‘I am so glad that we decided to bring them. Don’t you find it’s been getting harder to breathe?’ and they all agreed. Especially Eleanor. She had worn The Dolphin all summer. Her husband, Braun, had bought it for her. If Eleanor had been honest, and she knew she shouldn’t be, she would have admitted to the others that The Dolphin hadn’t helped at all. It had only made breathing worse.
The group of friends had stopped telling the truth a few years ago.
They were drinking Old Fashioneds. They liked Old Fashioneds. They were drinking Old Fashioneds wearing The Dolphin, enjoying themselves. They sat around the table and watched each other through masks. They always came to this beach for summer. Their husbands were around somewhere. If she was being honest, and she knew she shouldn’t be, she would tell her friends that she was more than happy that Braun left her alone. She had gotten used to it. The friends had done everything together the last few years and sometimes it felt like they were the same person. They looked around the table at each other, sipped and smiled. The afternoon moved slowly. Eleanor looked at her watch. Conversations were had but were unimportant. They had all become unimportant. Eleanor was tired of them.
After a time a waiter came to the table with another Old Fashioned and smiled.
‘Oh goody,’ they said as he placed the glass on the table. They looked around the table and admired each other.
‘You’re wonderful. And you’re wonderful.’
Nothing was better than a compliment. They sipped.
‘This has turned out to be a delightful afternoon.’
‘Oh yes, very delightful.’
Eleanor looked at her watch. She let herself think of the end.
Later that afternoon, the friends decided to take a walk along the beach. Arms linked, they walked slowly and spoke of their respective daughters, Chelsea.
‘Chelsea did well in the swimming competition.’
‘Chelsea always does well in swimming.’
‘Chelsea is taking ballet classes this summer.’
‘Chelsea will be good at ballet.’
‘Chelsea is growing up so quickly.’
‘We’re all proud of Chelsea.’
Chelsea had become a problem for Eleanor. If she was being honest, and she knew she shouldn’t be, Eleanor would have admitted that daughter Chelsea was suffocating her. Just like the last time.
After the walk Eleanor went back to her room leaving the women behind her. It was quiet. Braun was nowhere to be seen. She sat on the bed and removed The Dolphin from her face and held it in her hands. She tapped the plastic visor. It made a shallow sound. She held the rubber hose up to her ear and listened closely for the hiss of oxygen but nothing came. The room was very quiet. Eleanor’s arms lowered and her shoulders sank. Her breathing was laboured. She let herself think about the past week. Then she let herself think about the past year. The past two years. All the years before that. Now that she was alone she realised that she hated it all. Most of all she hated the other women. She felt the Old Fashioneds swim through her blood. She hated that, too.
When Eleanor was young her mother had told her that hate was a strong word to be used sparingly. Eleanor agreed. It was a strong word. It perfectly described how she felt about her life. Eleanor wasn’t sure what exactly she hated the most. She thought. She thought that perhaps she had gotten her feelings wrong, that it was dissatisfaction that she felt. Braun would say she was dissatisfied. Chelsea would say that she was dissatisfied. Chelsea would say anything. Chelsea had died when she was very small.
Eleanor thought. She was right. It was definitely hate.
The room was dark and smelt faintly of the cigar smoke that came from the neighbouring apartment. She wondered where Braun was. They hadn’t always been separate – there had been the few short months before their daughter Chelsea was born when they truly loved each other. Eleanor had proven she loved him. She had agreed to move in with him. She had agreed to a child. She had a bad habit of making everyone happy. Braun would laugh at her jokes and Eleanor willingly touched him in public. They enjoyed going out every night and sometimes for no particular reason other than to show each other off. Conversation flowed. Things had definitely soured since then.
Eleanor sat on the bed and closed her eyes. The Dolphin fell from her hands. It landed on the carpet. She liked the sound that it made. It reminded her of something. She opened her eyes. ‘Yes,’ she told herself, ‘Of course.’ She smiled. She let herself think of the end.
There had been brief moments when breathing was effortless. Eleanor’s latest round of suffocation had intensified when she joined the group of friends. She had met them because of the accident.
They called the group, ‘Mothers Who Had Lost Children’. Eleanor had joined against her will. Braun thought it would be good for her, to come to terms with the loss. In actuality it was Braun who should have joined the group. When Eleanor had found Chelsea in the bath blue and purple, she couldn’t remember how Chelsea had gotten herself in there. When the police asked her what had happened, she had thought for several moments and told them, ‘She simply must have crawled up out of her cot and hopped in,’ and she could see how this might have been possible. She would have seen Chelsea through the window while she was hanging out the clothes and she would have thought, ‘I have such a clever and charming daughter.’
In the end it didn’t matter how Chelsea had gotten in the bath. Eleanor remembered looking down at her in the water and marvelling at Chelsea’s cleanliness. She had looked so peaceful floating in the bath. Eleanor hadn’t wanted to disturb her. There was a tremendous rush of air colliding through Eleanor’s lungs. At first it hurt, but then after a time, it was painless. Eleanor took a deep breath. The water was calm and not at all like the sea. She leant toward the bath and pushed her arms deeper into the water. The water made Chelsea feel warm and Eleanor pushed down on the little body to see if it would float. Eleanor took a deep breath. She smiled.
Later, after the police had spoken to Eleanor, they advised Braun to take her to the hospital. Shock, they said. They were right. It was a type of shock. At the hospital Eleanor sat on cold starched sheets and watched her husband cry. Eleanor closed her eyes and swallowed. She remembered something: Chelsea had cried. And then Chelsea was in the water. Then she had felt relief. Eleanor breathed deeply and fully; as she used to. She had a feeling that could only be described as weightlessness: like the astronauts, she thought.
‘I want to go home now,’ she told him. Braun looked at his hands. They shook.
For days afterwards Braun’s hands shook into the size of fists. Whenever Eleanor was near he fantasised about her, about how she would look dressed in hues of anger: flesh blue, purple and yellow. He noticed how Eleanor had begun to walk around the house: upright with clear eyes, the way she used to walk when they first met. When Eleanor caught her reflection she smiled at herself, recognised an old friend. Her body began to crave adult touch. Often Eleanor would brush against Braun in the hallway. They would make eye contact. There would be that old feeling between them. Eleanor was happy. She wore lipstick again. Braun felt the return of fists. I want to erase you.
Braun told Eleanor’s mother, ‘She doesn’t seem to miss the child.’ They both agreed they preferred Eleanor a certain way.
‘Muted,’ they said, ‘Without …’ They thought of ways to bring their Eleanor back.
One night in the hallway after their bodies had collided, Braun told Eleanor, ‘I don’t like you like this.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Eleanor felt two hands press against her torso and harden. Braun smiled at her, ‘You must blame yourself for that terrible accident. I can make you feel better again.’ He leant into her and pulled her head into his chest.
‘I can make you feel better again.’
Eleanor’s heart ached. She was coming to an end.
Braun dialled the number for the Mothers Who Had Lost Children. They were just what he wanted her to need. Braun drove her to the first meeting.
It hadn’t struck Eleanor as odd that all of their daughters’ names had been Chelsea. That was the consequence of popularity. There were four women and she rounded out the group as ex-mother number five. To Eleanor they all looked oddly similar, the way people do when they spend too much time together. When Eleanor sat down, three of the women, Alice, Poppet and Gretchen, looked at her and smiled. They wore the same smile – the type you wear when you think you should. The fourth woman, Betty, didn’t smile. She sat and sobbed. Betty spoke about her Chelsea. The others looked on and nodded their heads when they should and said, ‘This will pass,’ when Betty’s sobs became too loud. Eleanor hated being with the women and she hated the way they looked at her, almost as if they needed something from her. Eleanor didn’t say anything at the meeting and she barely listened. She didn’t need to be there.
When Braun picked her up he asked, ‘How did it go?’ She told him, ‘They all seem very sad,’ and he took this to mean that she was sad. ‘Maybe next week you might like to open up to them,’ he told her. She stared out the car window and said nothing.
Weeks went by. Eleanor learned that the other daughters had died at various ages: car accident (six), horse accident (eight), poisoning (three), death through sleep (five). Eleanor’s Chelsea was the youngest at two. Betty spoke at length of how they told her Chelsea died in her sleep, about her grief. About how she and her husband had tried to have another baby but couldn’t. One night Eleanor noticed Gretchen pull at the neck of her blouse and recognised the sign immediately. Eleanor pulled at hers. The two of them caught each other’s eyes. Betty continued to speak of her grief and guilt. Sometimes she would simply say, ‘I misplaced her.’ Nobody else spoke of grief. Especially Eleanor. She didn’t speak about her Chelsea’s death at all.
When the other women spoke to Eleanor she could hear distance in their voices, how time and proximity had made them become ‘we’:
‘We try very hard to move on.’
‘We try to be there for our families.’
‘Husband wants another daughter.’
Months went by. Braun had mentioned a few times that perhaps they should have another child. He would try to stroke her face. Eleanor wanted it all to end: words of children, the mothers’ group, life with Braun.
The night Eleanor decided to leave the group everything changed.
‘My daughter is alive.’
Betty’s admission caught them all mid-heartbeat. ‘She didn’t die like they said she did. I simply misplaced her. Chelsea came to me this morning and told me she wanted peanut butter on her sandwiches for her school lunch tomorrow. Isn’t that a wonder!’
‘Are we feeling well?’ the others asked her.
‘Oh my, yes!’
Betty’s smile was electric. This made the others, Eleanor included, feel happy. It was strange. They should have asked questions but they didn’t know where to begin. When Betty spoke of her Chelsea her face softened and her lips parted; oxygen flowed. She hadn’t accepted the doctor’s terminology: dead. Passed away. Gone. It was her husband who made the funeral arrangements. She didn’t attend the burial. How could she when her daughter was in the back yard on the swing set needing supervision?
They should have asked questions but they didn’t know where to begin. Finally Gretchen asked her, ‘Why did you come tonight if she is alive?’ and she answered, ‘I wanted to share my good news,’ and then she said, ‘They made me come.’ The women nodded. They all understood who they were.
The grief counsellor stood and said, ‘Betty, this must stop. Chelsea hasn’t been with you for many, many years.’
‘But I found her this morning.’
‘Betty, this must stop.’
Betty lowered her head and her shoulders sank. Such weight. There was silence. Then Betty growled. Her legs shook. Betty growled. It came out through her throat like a siren. The others didn’t like it. It hurt. Poppet was the one who went to Betty and threw her arms around her. It was Poppet who said, ‘Yes, I saw Chelsea this morning. She looked so happy to be starting school.’ The growling stopped. Betty lifted her head and looked at them all. ‘Did you see the dress she was wearing?’
‘Yes. It was a beauty,’ Alice said.
Eleanor and Gretchen watched and tried to loosen their blouses. It was becoming difficult to breathe. The three women hugged each other and then Poppet said, ‘My Chelsea will be school friends with your daughter, Betty. How do you like that?’
‘We like it very much,’ Betty and Alice said.
The three of them turned to Eleanor and Gretchen. There was silence. Some part of them wanted Betty to feel better, wanted her to be cured and to have her daughter, to no longer feel alone. And yet.
‘Chelsea will be good friends with everyone,’ Gretchen said.
Much to her disappointment, Eleanor had a habit of having to make everybody happy. ‘Yes, Chelsea will be wonderful.’ Words were bitter on the tongue. Now they were grouped together. They were we. The group played make-believe because it was, in the end, easier.
That night after the meeting, Chelsea rose from the bath and turned five and the next day she would start school with the others. There was much to do; food to be made then eaten, identities to be forgotten. Eleanor’s lungs hammered against her spine. She clutched at her stomach. It was becoming difficult to breathe. Braun came into the kitchen and stood over the top of her. His hand rested on her body. She jumped.
‘They say Chelsea will need lunch.’
‘Is this progress, then?’
‘Do you remember how to make sandwiches?’
She placed two slices of bread on the counter and stared at them. Braun didn’t recognise her.
It was hot the day Eleanor died. When she woke she looked towards her sleeping husband. She hadn’t heard him crawl into bed early that morning. He hadn’t wanted to wake her. It was an old habit to break, their sleeping together. There were indentations along his spine, moon-shaped and slashed. She squinted and recognised her work. She couldn’t remember what she had tried to find inside of him.
Eleanor rolled out of bed and walked to the bathroom. She didn’t bother turning on the light. She reached for her make-up case and took out a red lipstick, and with thick strokes drew around her lips making them large and round. She tasted lipstick on her teeth and swallowed. Next she pulled her bathing suit over her body and felt the tiny, overlapping bulge of skin at the edge of her stomach; the trace of a child that never went away. The bathing suit clung to her body the way it was meant to; the way that made her feel uncomfortable. It was becoming harder to breathe. She turned her back on her reflection and left the bathroom, walked past Braun and without saying goodbye, left the bedroom. She picked up The Dolphin and walked out of the house. She left without putting her shoes on.
The beach was empty. The sand warm underneath her feet. Halfway towards the water’s edge she let The Dolphin fall from her hands into the sand. She liked the sound it made. It reminded her of something. The memory stung. It had been so long ago. It wasn’t the type of memory people classified as important. She was twenty. Her friends from college had left for the summer, gone back to their families, gone back, gone back. But she had stayed. Alone. She refused her mother’s phone calls. She sat outside in the sunshine and read a book. She took off her shoes. She lifted her skirt above her knees. Then she took her skirt off and watched the streetscape in front of her. Eleanor swallowed the silence around her. Satisfaction. Her eyes widened: Eleanor imagined the life she could have if she was left alone. Her body became quiet: this is how life should be, she thought, still. A body unified with emptiness. Later in the afternoon she became sleepy; let herself fall into dreams right there in the chair. She would do it all again tomorrow.
Eleanor smiled. She was at the edge of the ocean. She took the first step; the cold water on her toes made her sigh. Then she walked out into the ocean, aware that she had forgotten how to swim. The water crawled up her knees and headed for her hips. The water was cold, not at all like Chelsea’s bath water, and the rocking of the small waves made her head swoon. She felt alive. Behind her were voices:
‘We are safer on the beach.’
‘We need to come out of the water.’
Eleanor welcomed the water as it held her gently, her skin buzzed with sensation, reminded her that she hadn’t felt like this in years. I am here, she thought.
By the time Eleanor’s neck was hidden by salt and seaweed she had fallen in love with the sea, the way it made her feel wanted, welcomed. Behind her:
‘We don’t want to go under.’
‘Yes, we mustn’t go under. We don’t swim.’
Eleanor breathed in the water. She was free.