Ana and the Water

Carla Guelfenbein
Nicole Bell
Picture of sky as if looking up from under water, with pool tiles reflected onto sky
Peggy Reimchen / Creative Commons

Our neighborhood’s community pool had been built back in 1929, when President Ibañez decided that “the physical fitness of the youth” had to be improved. A replica of the grand School Pool, in Independencia, ours was scaled to half its size and had been neglected over the years by each successive mayor of the city of Santiago. By the time I was a teenager, the building was falling to pieces, but it still maintained—without a doubt—its nostalgic yet majestic air. On its art deco façade, the word piscina was carved in flowery letters that, its architect had believed, would lend it the air of a French spa.

It was there I took refuge after the coup. The house where I lived with my mother and father had become a living hell. Every day after school I went to swim. For a while a rumor went around that the neighborhood rats had built nests in the facility, and now almost nobody used the pool. Just toothless elderly people who stayed by the edge, eyes half-closed, half-floating, half-living. Every once in a while, someone else appeared who swam laps compulsively, maybe trying to flee from something, like I was.

Papa until then had left every morning with his hair slicked back, carrying his briefcase, not to return until night. He worked at the Central Bank. After work he usually stopped by his Socialist Party chapter meeting or met up with some colleague in the neighborhood bar. A few days after the coup, he lost his job. “Back again, idiot? Socialist scum. Best get home if you don’t want ’em to jab your ass with the rifle.” That’s what the new guard at the Central Bank told him, blocking the doors. Papa had passed through those doors each morning on his way to the basement office where he worked archiving “very valuable documents.” He was incapable of hiding his pride when he said it, which was embarrassing. The chances that a man like Papa actually had such important responsibilities were next to nothing. But in any case, those were his glory days, when with his briefcase in hand, his back straight, wearing his only dress pants—shiny from Mama’s incessant ironing—he passed through the elegant doors of the Central Bank. He was forty-eight. And his passions were—besides the Colo-Colo soccer team—that miserable job and the dream of socialism, which would finally arrive with the government of Doctor Salvador Allende. The president of the people.

But everything had gone to hell. Now Papa was staying at home, like a man on a planet shrunk to the size of a pinhead, just trying to survive. I remember the first time I saw him drunk when I arrived home from school. He was staggering from the kitchen into the living room, until he collapsed onto the floor. A shiver went up my spine. A terrifying shiver, as if I had suddenly been transported to a barren arctic landscape, nowhere to go. I dug my fingernails into the palm of my hand. Mama appeared in the hallway and, wiping her hands on her apron, took me by the arm and led me to her room.

“Stay here, you hear? Don’t move.”

I heard her try to lift Papa off the living room floor. He groaned, she shouted. He had twisted his ankle when he fell and had no intention of getting up. A short time later, Mama returned carrying a tray with a plate of mashed potatoes and a fried egg, still runny. It was my favorite dish; I loved breaking open the yolk on top of the fluffy mashed potatoes and then stirring it all together into a wet mixture that I savored with every bite.

From that day on, the shouting never ceased. When I returned from school in the afternoons, I could hear them from the street: “You’re going to get yourself killed! And then what the hell are Ana and I going to do?” It wasn’t only Papa’s dreams that had been shattered.

The most unbearable thing was the fear. Every night we heard the military trucks, weighed down by watchful eyes beneath olive-green helmets, moving through our streets and stopping at someone’s house. “Juancho Cortés has fallen,” Papa said, and he took a long swig from the bottle of whatever he was drinking because Mama had already given up and didn’t try to stop him. And the following night: “Hueso Andrade has fallen.” Just like that…Sometimes, in my room, I would turn the transistor radio on at full volume so as not to hear the trucks or Papa’s predictions.

Fortunately there was the pool. Before the age of nine, I had collected various medals in swimming. Mama had harbored the hope that through my success I would escape that “filthy pit,” as she called our neighborhood. I never understood why she would say that. I liked my neighborhood. Now, at fifteen, the matter of competitions seemed ridiculous and childish to me. I had read a Japanese story about a swimmer whose mother had pressured her so horribly to become a national champion that one morning she woke up with one of her arms extended alongside her ear, rigid. In time her upright arm shriveled up until one day it fell off, like a dead tree branch. I didn’t want that future for myself.

The important thing was that I knew how to swim. And swim well. I would put on my cap and my black swimsuit, and enter the pool by the stairs, slowly, as if descending into a subterranean sky that every day embraced me with its softness and its silence. I would swim from one end to the other, powerfully propelling myself with my legs, while the water swept away my fears and my curtailed hopes for my life. I felt how gracefully my body moved; I was conscious of every muscle, every inch of skin touched by the water. Within that gigantic and deserted rectangle, my body belonged to me. I belonged to me. Sometimes, submerging myself in the deep end, I would listen to the muffled noise of that silence which is not silence, and I would look at the glass-arched roof where the last rays of light entered.

When I arrived home from the pool, Mama would serve me a plate of food at the table, and as I rushed to fill my stomach she would sit silently at my side, looking at the wall, her dark hands on the table like two fallen birds. As the days passed, her eyes became more opaque, distant, absent. Sometimes her eyes, wide open, would stare at me, and I had the impression that a part of her was escaping to another world and desperately needed my proximity in order to remain tethered to this one. Whenever that happened, a horrible loneliness overcame me. And I would think about the pool.

It was a Saturday afternoon
when I saw the boy for the first time. When I left, Mama was watching Sábados Gigantes on the TV while Papa napped in his bedroom. Ours was the only TV on the block, and on Saturdays in the past a few neighbors usually came over to watch Don Francisco. But not anymore. Nobody visited anybody, because everyone feared they would be accused of holding a political meeting. So Mama was watching Sábados Gigantes alone, putting whatever food was within reach into her mouth.

The boy was leaning on the edge of the pool, his arms crossed over the floor tiles, his body submerged beneath the water. He was wearing a close-fitting bathing cap that left his perfect ears uncovered. His eyes followed me from the time I left the dressing room until I got into the pool. I began to swim like I did every day, sticking to the side of one of the pool ropes, but it was difficult for me to match my breathing to the movement of my arms and legs. The boy’s fixed gaze, which had run up and down my body undisguised, left me uneasy. At the same time a strange excitement filled me; I felt that with his virility he violated a space that belonged to me. He began to swim and soon reached me, passing me. I hadn’t even managed to arrive at the other end before he was coming back, his strokes strong and efficient, with the relaxed style of someone whose natural medium is the water. As we crossed paths, he raised his head and our gazes fixed on each other. At the fourth lap, we had achieved a rhythm in which our bodies met at the exact center of the pool, and we did nothing more than smile and continue on our way, knowing that in a few moments we would meet again. Having finished my series of twenty, I paused and rested my elbows on the edge, my back to the length of the pool. A group of elderly people were doing leg exercises, rocking from one side to the other without rhythm, like broken-down pendulums. It took me by surprise when he stopped next to me. I could still hear him breathing heavily.

“I’ve never seen you here,” he said. His thick eyebrows and direct gaze lent him an air of confidence.

“Me, neither,” I replied.

“Do you realize that we’re the only ones here who, between the two of us, aren’t more than a hundred years old?” He had a firm but gentle voice.

I laughed, and without waiting for a response, he moved away to swim. I had imagined that we would continue talking and discover—like in novels—that we had hundreds of things in common, that we were two lone melancholy people who had found each other at the most unlikely end of the world; the old romantic story that I still was unwilling to reject. After a couple of minutes I threw myself into my second series of twenty, but I decided not to raise my head when I crossed paths with him, to concentrate on my task, that meticulous task of listening to the whisper of the water. But it wasn’t possible anymore; now he was swimming to my side and matching his rhythm to mine, looking for the synchronization of our arms. We did twenty laps more, and then another twenty. It was approaching the time to leave. Mama had asked me to come home early. She feared that something could happen to me. Our neighborhood’s streets, which once belonged to us, had now become threatening.

I waited a few seconds at the steps, imagining that the boy, seeing me leave, would follow. But he didn’t. He continued with his untiring rhythm, without lifting his head or acknowledging my departure.

The following day I arrived panting. I had run the last two blocks to get to the pool early. I put on my swimsuit and cap and went out under the expanse of the arched roof, where the water, quiet as a sleeping ballerina, reflected the metallic supports of the ceiling. And there he was, like the day before, resting his arms on the edge, his smile, his tenacious eyes. I had barely entered the water when he began to swim toward my side. Now we didn’t need to make any effort, because our bodies seemed to understand each other and moved in unison. They brushed each other and then my skin tingled, my breathing became rough, and I had no choice but to slow down my strokes, which he did, too. Like the day before, we hardly exchanged words. I would have liked to have seen his hair, which I imagined was dark and long, like most boys’ at that time. But I also longed to see his body, which I could only sense beneath the water, a body that I suspected was slender and firm like that of some animals.

Each afternoon we swam together. When I returned home now, nothing mattered to me. That Papa had shut himself away in his bedroom and barely came out, that he muttered and cursed in his delirium, that through his door a sickening smell began to emerge, or that Mama every day, seated at the table, calculated the pesos we had left before falling into poverty: none of it concerned me. Their world wasn’t my world anymore, because now I had my own.

Sometimes the boy’s hands gripped my waist and his strong legs intertwined with mine in a type of spiral. We were protected by the stillness of the water, by the silence, by its denseness, which hid us not only from the world but also from one another. We observed each other with long inquisitive looks, never translated into words. Maybe we sensed that if we let the outside world burst into ours, everything would end. I liked to look at him. His slightly broken nose made him appear rustic, quarrelsome even.

Sometimes we sank to the bottom of the pool, like I used to do before he arrived; embracing each other, we listened to the hissing emitted by the water around us; or we floated on our backs holding hands, and then half-closed our eyes so that the light coming from the ceiling and shimmering on the surface would leak into us, just as we had leaked into each other’s lives. I was in love, if that floating without words could be called love. Our feet had never together touched a piece of land. A piece of reality.

One afternoon when I arrived at the pool, the boy wasn’t there. I waited for him while I swam. Every once in a while I raised my head in case he had appeared, and every time, in my imagination, his body took on new forms. But that day the boy didn’t come. Nor did he the next day, nor the next. I kept swimming, but now I did it furiously, slapping the water with my palms until my stiff muscles forced me to stop. It was hard not to cry—tears that would merge with the water. I left when the pool’s lights had already been shut off and the guard, with the tired appearance of those who work hard and earn little, shooed me out with his broom and the filthy rag he used every afternoon to clean up the pee left on the yellowish tiles by the grandparents.

I thought maybe everything had been a product of my imagination. As a girl I used to imagine things. I imagined that Batman and Robin were my friends and that I met with them every afternoon in the corner of the small plaza nearby. They told me the state of the world, but also their problems. Sometimes they didn’t get along well. According to Robin, Batman never consulted him when he had to make important decisions, and Robin felt he was mature enough to be included. I always agreed with Robin. But mostly, I loved to imagine that my destiny was to die of love, like Juliet. The lines between the imagined and the real had become murky.

Given my history, it wasn’t impossible that the boy didn’t exist. Besides, at home all of us were going a little crazy. One day I gathered my courage and asked the guard with the broom and the rag if he had seen the boy at all. The man, without paying much attention to my words, answered that he had never seen a boy with the features I described.

While Papa remained shut away in his bedroom, Mama wandered around the house waiting for things to change, for the trucks to stop, for the neighbors to go out into the streets to gossip again—for life, in short, to resume its march.

One night, all our fears became reality. The night patrol, instead of continuing on its usual course, stopped in front of our house. I heard when the engines turned off and silence flooded the night once again. Silence that only lasted a couple of minutes until they were inside. Them. Shadows. Evil. Mama, who for some time now had been sleeping in the living room, came to my room and hugged me, and we went out together into the hallway. There were a half-dozen of them, armed and dressed in war uniforms, a spectacle that in our tiny living room could have seemed laughable if it hadn’t been so terrifying. One of them shouted: “Where’s the Communist?” Mama hugged me tighter. We were backed into a corner, while the men moved around opening doors and hitting the walls and whatever was in their way with their rifle butts. One of them, with a swipe of his hand, overturned the corner table where Mama jealously kept her imitation Murano glass trinkets, which fell to the floor and broke into a thousand pieces. Suddenly I saw him. The boy. His crooked nose, his firm voice which wasn’t gentle anymore. While the others continued on their way, shouting, he snatched my journal, which I had carelessly left on the dining room table the night before. He opened it, mockingly read a few phrases aloud, and gave a thunderous laugh. His burning eyes fixed on me. I felt a tightness that barely let me breathe. I thought I would pass out; I clung to my mother. His laughter transformed into a bewildered grimace, as if before his eyes a loved one was being assassinated. “Alberto, the idiot’s in here!” someone called to him, referring to my father, who must have been lying in bed, half conscious, waiting for the door to open and for everything to happen as it had so many times in our minds. The boy, who now had a name, Alberto, entered the room, and came out with his gun in Papa’s back. I can still see both faces, one after the other. Over his drunken sobs, Papa had a tranquil look. As if now that his destiny had finally befallen him, a new peace had inhabited his soul. Alberto’s expression, despite his efforts, betrayed fear and horror. Of that I’m certain: the dread that he experienced that night was no different from my own. They all went, leaving Mama and me alone in the silence of the curfew. My father never returned.

Today I’ve returned to our neighborhood’s piscina.
Alessandro, my husband, is with me. The walls are peeling and the room smells of chlorine and rot. It’s been twenty years since I’ve been in Chile—or in a pool; in my memory, the water holds the images of that night. A couple of months after Papa was taken, an international organization helped Mama and me flee Chile. Mama hasn’t wanted to return, not even once. “What for?” she asks me. I could offer so many reasons: in order to forget or not to forget, to open wounds or to heal them, to simply stroll around the block and recognize, in the large battered paving stones and in the trees, our history. But I say nothing. In the end, maybe she’s right. I don’t know.

I swim slowly from one end to the other. I feel the strength of my muscles, which have never lost their memory of the water, or of the boy’s skin brushing mine, his strong hands clasping my body to his. On the edge of the pool Alessandro sits, wearing a bathing suit that’s too big for him and makes him seem thinner than he is. He observes me the way the boy did. I remember the story of the little swimmer whose arm became a stick and then broke. I feel the lost pleasure that being in the pool used to give me, and soon my strokes become more decisive, as if I want to destroy the water and the silence that is not silence.

Carla Guelfenbein is a Chilean writer. Author of six novels, including La estación de las mujeres (The Women’s Station), her prize-winning work has been widely translated.
Nicole Bell is the recipient of an MA in literary translation from the University of Rochester. She lives in Spain.
Originally published:
September 1, 2020


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like

The Blessing of Kali

Irene Muchemi-Ndiritu