Under the Surface

"Are you sure you aren't coming swimming with me?" he asked me while he was entering the cold water on the lakeside gravel.

"You know I'm not . . . I don't like swimming," I replied, just as I do every time he asks me; as if he had forgotten, or else he does it because he doesn't want to remember.

You will never know the real reason. I will never tell you. For us to spend the third summer, our summer together, by ourselves, without anyone interrupting us, there had to be a sacrifice. On that early July afternoon not only did I see everything but I didn't do anything—and by doing so did everything. It was probably fate—that I went to the house from the beach because I was feeling sick all morning and wanted to throw up. Perhaps I was reading, perhaps not, I probably wasn't doing anything, except walking around the house and going out onto the terrace a few times. I saw you playing on the beach, you and the little one with long curly fair hair. It isn't true that I didn't think about what happened later that afternoon, that I didn't even wish for it. I have never cared much about children, I haven't even thought about them and it only seemed that we would have one—just because in a relationship between two people who love each other this usually happens. I probably wouldn't even think about that seriously if I hadn't seen that woman selfishly moving around you, flattering you, purposely setting her hair right when speaking to you, the corners of her lips trembling before uttering a word, biting her lower lip and—seemingly incidentally but in fact meanly and selfishly—licking it, and your look becoming moist and frozen.

That's when I knew I had to take action. After all she was more attractive than me and she had the ability to release a kind of a warm magnetic field around her, which I simply can't do. And that's how it happened. When you put your hand on my stomach I knew I had you and that's when I decided to have you forever, whole and completely, without intermediary, disturbing elements, which could jeopardize our love.

But when the little one came along, you changed, especially you didn't look at me the way you used to. Not anymore as a lover but as the mother of your child. As the mother of the little one who was becoming a girl and then more and more, I noticed, a little woman. Every time you returned home you first hugged the little one, played with her honey-brown hair, kissed her on the cheeks and only then was it my turn. And the first months the little one was crying, she was crying indescribably a lot, so that already at that time I thought something should be done. She was waking me all nights with her piercing screaming so that I was getting up trying to silence her, while you rarely got up because you needed your sleep, as if I didn't because I was staying at home with her. To take care of her. To take care of your child. For your favorite sweetheart, as you often put it, and didn't even notice that it hurt me. She knew all too well that she came first, that you loved her more than you loved me. Often I noticed a mocking smile in her big bright eyes when you hugged her while I was waiting my turn after you grew weary of each other. The little one could be mean, very mean and conspiratorial. She was making up totally false things: like, for example, that she didn't get the food she wanted that day or which I promised to her the day before, and that I slapped her a few times because she didn't obey me at the shopping center, when she tore herself away from my arms only to attract attention and the employees were searching for her over the loudspeaker and the shop assistants were rummaging among the coat hangers together with me until they finally found her in the sportswear department. She was laughing in my face, as if to say, look how many people were looking for me, everyone wanted to find me, including you, who don't have anyone in the world who would care for you the most. And then at that moment when they brought her to me I didn't really slap her but I held her stronger and slightly touched her hair, and she screamed as if it hurt;

but it didn't, I was the one feeling pain because she embarrassed me just as so many times before; all eyes were turned on me, as if to say, how did you bring her up so badly, what kind of a mother are you and similar things I was reading from their looks. And you, at home, weren't furious with her but with me, for letting her out of my sight, for allowing your child to tear away from mother's safe arms.

She did this lots of times only to be at the center of attention. When friends came over to visit, she would sit in the armchair, cross her legs and then like a little woman asked for a child rather unusual questions, also about sex. Oh, how everyone adored her, this one will be the true destroyer of men, she will hold them at bay, even now you can tell how smart she is and on top of that, it's clear she will be a real beauty. Smart and beautiful, guests said while looking at you. Her father's daughter, they must have thought, thank god she doesn't take much after her mother. She has his blue-greenish eyes, his big lips and disarming smile with which she can achieve everything, his remarkable skill of communicating . . . Surely many a man asked themselves what you saw in me. OK, now that we have a child, yes, but what you had seen in me then when you were falling in love with me. People are always calculating things, falling in love with people, pretty like themselves, judging for whom they aren't pretty enough and who is the one not worthy of them. But when they looked at us, they probably noticed and thought that you would probably deserve someone more attractive than me. But no woman in this world would be capable of loving you as much as I do, no woman in this world would be capable of doing what I did—just by doing nothing in that crucial, fatal moment.

When the little one came, everything changed. Our Sundays were no longer there, like they used to be, when we would lie in bed until noon, with a huge wooden tray on the floor, laden with fruit, wholemeal bread, cheese and coffee with cardamom. No, just as we started to wake up and you hugged me, the door would open and she ran to us in her nightie, jumped on the bed and hugged you. And everything was over for that Sunday, for that week. Our time was becoming more and more the little one's time, she was the one giving the rhythm to our mornings and nights. You didn't want us to, as I suggested once, simply lock ourselves in; you never know when she feels like it and she creeps from her room into our bedroom. That isn't good, it isn't human, you said, she is still a child and she needs us . . . That's true, I said, but not every time she feels like it . . . what about us? She is our daughter, you looked at me sharply, reproachfully, as if I didn't love your child enough. Every time I woke up in the morning, felt you beside me and started touching you, I was looking toward the door in fear, listening carefully and wishing not to hear the tiny steps coming toward our bedroom and the door handle not to bend.

She always managed to steal attention. Even on my birthdays. I had prepared everything carefully, tidied myself, everything was all right, but then, when people came, some also with their children—so it is if your birthday is in summer and everyone is delighted by the barbecue, set in the garden, where children can move around without fear and danger—the little one was again in the center of attention and interest. And the moment after they gave me presents, they forgot why they had come at all. I mentioned to you that I wanted to celebrate differently, not in the afternoon and with all those children, but in the evening, the two of us together, alone, and we would take the little one to our parents. You were against it both times, as if to say my birthday was a holiday for the whole family and that also our parents would be insulted if we didn't invite them. I gave in only because I would do anything for you, because I love you as much as I have never loved anyone else and especially as much as I have never been loved. But you don't know how it is to love someone more than they love you, to know that his touch and squeeze can squeeze someone else harder while you're willing to give him everything you have and find, do anything, give him even what you don't have. And precisely that I did for you and once in my life took what meant the most to me and was slipping away for the fifth year.

That summer the little one was four and a half years old. It was a very hot summer, such as I would be delighted about once, like the summers before the little one was born which we used to spend on the Adriatic, alone. But with her arrival some kind of family vacations started, with our friends and their children. The couple we spent July with three years ago also had a child, who was no longer that. She was fifteen years old, tall and slim, even a little taller than I was and with skin so perfect like only some teenagers can have. You think I haven't noticed how she stretched her young, long and not entirely developed body like a puma, how she purred and pouted her lips whenever you asked her something and—seemingly without interest but in fact completely in love—she talked to you? About what, I was thinking, when I watched you from a distance so that I couldn't hear words and saw only body language which was unambiguous and clear: we like each other very much. I knew you wouldn't dare do anything, she was only fifteen, she was the daughter of our friends, only a decade older than your daughter. But as I was watching this creature, a growing woman whom you would surely touch in a few years, three perhaps, and in different circumstances and wouldn't just stick to the foolish conversations with her—whatever can you talk about with a teenager as long as the conversation is not an excuse to be with her, exactly the way and the amount of time the rules of decency allow—I was discovering more and more the little one in her.

It was probably fate—that I got up that July noon and went from the beach to the house above it. I don't remember exactly what I was doing then, probably nothing special, except going out onto the terrace a few times and watching you talking to a fifteen-year-old girl while playing with the little one. The next time I looked you and your sea princess were building sand castles. You were alone, after our friends also the girl had moved from the beach to the shadow.When I looked through the window the last time, I saw your sunburned body, lying under the sunshade. The little one was playing on the sand next to you. The tide started to move the inflatable plastic dolphin you had left on the sand by the sea. The little one noticed that. When the sea ran all over the dolphin and the first stronger wave started carrying it away, she ran after it. I stepped onto the terrace and at that moment wished for exactly what started to happen. You were still sleeping, the little one was walking after the dolphin, trying to grab it, but it was evading her more and more. I knew: one scream, one strong scream would have woken you up, you'd have jumped after the little one, grabbed her and torn her from the foam, which was bubbling on her body. At that moment I saw a chance for things to be the way they used to. Me and you, alone, and no one to measure the rhythm of our hours, days, nights, our years in the future. It seemed as though everything around me had stopped, the sounds disappeared and the light was blindingly white. With eyes slightly open I was watching the scene, and it seems to me I didn't feel anything. No pain, no fear, I was only watching what I thought as it went along. The little one clung to the dolphin's handle fins but then a big wave tore the inflated animal away from her so that she helplessly let go. I saw her little hands trying to hang on to it and then she was drawn into the depth. . . . I didn't watch anymore. I turned round and went into the house, poured myself a glass of cognac and fell onto the bed. I shut my eyes, and the world in front of me and behind me darkened. I fell into a sleep without sleep. And when, after a while, I felt a hand and saw the watery eyes of our friend, I knew it had happened. That the story was over. The little one—she hugged me and squeezed me tight. The little one is gone, the woman burst into tears. I got up, dizzy from the cognac and probably a weird sleep, and saw you sitting in the armchair of the living room, wrapped up in a white cover, squeezing the little inflatable dolphin. Our friend was sitting next to you, on the sofa beside his fifteen-year-old daughter, who saw death for the first time in her life. There were some more people in the house, then policemen and the coroner came. The girl had found her. When she returned to the beach after lunch, she saw the little one's body on the surface, with her face turned toward the seabed. As if mad, you presumably jumped into the sea and tried to revive your sea princess who had already swum away to different seas, oceans, rivers and lakes. Yes, it seems to me that although we had buried her body, she somehow spread into the waters of the Earth. I sometimes even feel that I remember her meeting my eyes, seeing I was watching everything but didn't help at the moment she was trying to hang on to the dolphin with all her might. That I just let her die.

Not that I didn't feel bad after her death; after all, she was my daughter as well. But in those few months I felt bad because of you, reproaching yourself with her death, because you, as it sometimes happens, fell asleep on the beach for half an hour at the wrong time. And you felt guilty because of me as well, the mother of your child whom you didn't protect against death. I was loving, very loving and understanding toward you, I was persuading you, consoling you that it was an accident, that it wasn't your fault that this happened. It seems to me as if her death became your final commitment to me, although at the same time I know that what you feel for me isn't as much love as the feeling of guilt.

Once, for a moment, I think, you doubted me and asked: You loved her, too, didn't you? Of course, I replied, she was our child. I remember your look, as if you weren't satisfied with the answer and wanted to hear more . . .

And I hugged you, snuggled up to you and started slowly and gently to make love to you. It was Sunday morning and nothing could interrupt us.

You have changed with the little one's death, you're more vulnerable and soft and don't flirt with other women and girls so much anymore. When you carefully mention to me that we should have another, second child, I sadly turn away and say: you know that I can't, it's too painful. You caress me and let me know with a kiss that you understand. But you don't. You will never find out the truth that I don't like swimming because I feel that as soon as I would sink into the water, I would feel her soft hair on my skin, her little arms would cling to me and drag me into the depths.

Sometimes I dream about her being taken away by the sea on her dolphin and I run after her, then about her and the dolphin grasping me and dragging me to the seabed. I always wake up in terrifying pain from such dreams, clinching me in a rigid spasm, while I can hardly breathe and my heart pounds, not only as one but beside my own I can hear another, smaller heart, beating quicker. I never wake you up. I wait until it goes away, go to the bathroom and take a shower. Then I come back, lie down next to you and kiss you with immense love and tightly squeeze myself to you.

From Fragma (Llubjana: Beletrina, 2003). By arrangement with Studentska Zalozba. Translation copyright by Laura Cuder Turk. All rights reserved.