All morning the girls came in pairs. They chewed brightly coloured gum, wore Day-Glo crop tops, and shorts too tight for their bums. Small strips of flesh, untouched and unaware, poked between synthetic layers, rubbing against seams and hems. Here we are! their small bodies shouted; here we are and here we go.
Walking through the Lido foyer, they were soft youth and over-perfumed longing, flavoured lip balm and summer songs, the tune of which hung thick in the air long after they’d forgotten the words. Youth was this sticky sugar rush, a crushing girlishness, a potent, gelatinous pink, and I wanted none of it.
The heat had hit 40c and no number of ice-filled baths or water bottles could calm the raging thump in my head. I had avoided the local lido and its cloying cherry-teen glaze all week, sitting instead in my dad’s flat with a hand-held fan and the door to the refrigerator half open. Inside it, dishes of iced berries, cold grapes, and water-clogged pears melted into mush. I scooped the pureed fruit into the blender, added water, took a mouthful, then chucked both the cup and slush away. The heat metastasised sugar, metastasised my body into a sucrose sludge; it was something I couldn’t fathom. Chuck it away, cut the girl out of girlhood. Skip this ‘sweet’ syrupy moment and re-solidify into a harder shape, an edge, a precise outline cutting across the table, the landing, the sidewalk, the sky.
After three sweltering days inside, I was dreaming of open water, pools widening into lakes, salmon-swimming ravines, ravenous seas, oceans that would swallow me whole. Maybe out in the blue abyss another, harder form of girl, unwatched and unhallowed, would be waiting for me: a force of blue, a pound of wave, a roaring harshness that no sugary swell could claim.
Damp copies of Anne Serre sat on the bed, Anderson and Freud on the floor. My father lingered in the hallway, told me the lido was open, the water would do me good, the holidays were not supposed to be spent indoors. I thought of the blue, thought of the girls, thought of the sickening rituals replayed there, thought of the blue again, then gathered my books and headed for the front door.
Between pages, I caught sight of the girls: pops of yellow, purple, red, orange, pink. I lay on my back, Serre a shield against their lurid colours, the intrusive glare of the sun, the even more intrusive gaze of the lifeguard overhead.
Serre’s governesses romped, bold typeface on faded paper. Fire in their blood, they dragged themselves against wild grass, the dark earth dirtying their petticoats and their souls. I looked up from the page to hear a whistling sound, a wheeze of voices attempting girls’ names. Boys circled the pool in their usual turn, all clothed in beige and shockingly pale in tone. They had these bristly little moustaches above their top lips, an attempt at manhood. From within this slouching troupe, the whistling came. I had no desire to speak back.
One of the boys locked eyes with me, started motioning my way. I buried my head in the sacred soil of Serre’s page. Though they all looked the same, this one boy had my name in his mouth, kept repeating its syllables over and over: A-re-thu-sa, A-re-thu-sa, A-re-thu-sa, melts. Flushed but not flustered, I ignored his mispronunciation, his insistent stare, the wiggling worm of moustache fat on his lip. Serre pulled me in, posed a game, a question, kept me from looking up or throwing my book in his face.
This same boy, it turned out, was everywhere. I jogged in the street, he was there, looking, my name on the tip of his tongue. I walked in the park, he was there, doing press-ups, his bony arms extending into the ground. I turned a corner, he was there, his thin lips, stony eyes, and sparse moustache all baring down on me. I hated this boy – hated them all – their squat brotherhood, its pallor of maleness. When I saw him there, looking, I wanted to be my harder-edged self more than anything.
The towel stuck to the back of my neck. Sweat clung to the hairs on my arms. The boys broke away, like slices of stale bread spread amongst many small hands. They moved with feigned boldness towards the girls by the pool and their motions went like this: stale boy would stand behind pink girl, pull on the strap of her crop top, and laugh. Pink girl would mouth shock, eyes relaying delayed panic and falling prostrate on the floor. Spooning in, stale boy would put a limp hand on pink girl’s thigh, fingering the flesh between top and shorts. Their shallow eyes skimmed the seams of clothes, the beginnings of bodies. The girls would laugh their high-pitched laughs like tinkling fountains, and plant polyethylene kisses on the boys’ hands. All afternoon they would fold into each other, a pink sameness creeping up, two pale bony bodies now one.
I clung to Serre, to the serrated edge of her prose, to the restless revolutions of her girls, and the spiteful conspiring they visited on men who dared to climb the gates of their worlds. Still, the same boy lingered near the edge of my towel, lisping my name, a rustle of hair and spit as he over-enunciated its ‘a’s, ‘r’s and ‘t’s.
A-re-thu-sa, A-re-thu-sa, A-re-thu-sa, melts. I gripped my book. A-re-thu-sa, A-re-thu-sa, A-re-thu-sa, melts. I stood up. A-re-thu-sa, A-re-thu-sa, A-re-thu-sa – I threw it hard into his wormy face.
There was a scuffle, a sound like a squawk, as I legged it away from the towel. Anger like sun stroke scaled my legs, my arms, my head, propelling me forward, elemental force-fuelled, away from the real fire. I knew he was after me, shame rising through his face, moustache wilting above the hole of his mouth. But he was no match for me, and when he thought he’d grasped my strap, my blue dress flying inches from his hands, I dived into the pool, away from cherry-eyed boys and cherry-lipped girls, hoping the water would ferry me out to sea.
Pale legs kicked and pink soles trod over me; I dived deeper still, down to the basin of the pool. No longer a fleshy thing, perspiring and mired in the sucrose shame of it, I let go, shedding layer upon layer, taut skin into translucent liquid skeins. Arethusa, Arethusa, Arethusa, melts, the water whispered. No hands or fins, but dazzling brightness, aqua marine sheen, rippling through vein and bone. Arethusa, Arethusa, Arethusa, melts, the drain murmured. There was a tugging, a burst, a body broadening out into a watery world no longer its own. Arethusa, Arethusa, Arethusa, melts, the bubbles chorused. I heard a whooshing, my arms reached out, chlorinated blue gave way to azure green.
Swept out into ocean, no mermaid foam but a harder line, I roared. A crashing wave, a typhoon’s blast, a tsunami rumble, water to water. This melting was not the end, but the becoming of me.