It’s the third time this week, or maybe the fourth; Georgette isn’t keeping track but knows it’s happening more often now, her mother’s restlessness swelling exponentially in these last languid weeks of summer. The more motionless the days become, the more her mother searches for ways to quiet her blaring loneliness, frantic to soothe a long-held ache.
Georgette is floating on her back in the hotel pool, ears beneath the surface of the water, when she spots her mother gesturing to her from the row of poolside lounge chairs. She is waving Georgette over urgently but discreetly, hands moving sharply close to her body.
Come here. Now.
Georgette pretends not to see. A moment later, her mother rises from her lounge chair and Georgette rolls over in the water, swimming reluctantly towards her as she approaches the edge of the pool.
“I need you,” her mother says, crouching down. “Get out.”
Georgette takes her time swimming to the shallow end. Emerging from the water, she is already hot; the central Florida sun begins to dry her skin as soon as it’s exposed, leaving it clammy and reeking of chlorine. She walks the long way around the pool to her mother’s chair. After two hours in the water, her feet are shriveled and puckered, numb to the scorching concrete.
“Don’t sulk, Georgie, and get your hair out of your eyes.”
Her mother reaches across her lounge chair to sweep back Georgette’s overgrown bangs with her one free hand, a fresh coat of nail polish still drying on the other. She tucks and smoothes Georgette’s dripping wet hair with efficiency, making a hasty one-handed attempt at twisting it into a loose ponytail over one shoulder.
“Mom, stop.” Georgette ducks her head away, out of her mother’s reach. “I’m not a baby.”
“No, you’re not. You’re a beautiful girl, Georgie, but if it weren’t for me no one would ever know.” Her mother frowns at Georgette’s frizzy tangle of dark curls. “Your hair is a mess.”
“It’s the chemicals. Uncle Richard puts too many in the water.”
“If you would just let me brush it out…”
“No,” Georgette says, turning on her toes to angle away from her mother. “I want to go back in the pool.”
“I need your help now. You can go back in when we’re done.”
“It’s too hot out here. Can’t we do it later?”
“He may not be here later. You know that.” Her mother hands over her beach towel. “Dry yourself off.”
Georgette makes a feeble attempt at wiping her damp arms and legs. “So what if he’s not here later? Someone else will be.”
Her mother tilts her head pointedly. “What have I told you?”
Georgette slouches, deflating under her mother’s glare. “Take every opportunity you get.”
“Because you don’t know if another one will come along,” her mother adds, softening her expression but not her tone. “Give me your towel.”
“I’m still wet.”
“You need a new one,” her mother says, looking with disdain at the faded, thinning terry cotton fabric.
“I don’t want a new one. Daddy bought this for me.”
“I remember,” her mother says, abruptly tugging the towel from Georgette’s hands in one swift motion. “What was it, three years ago? Has he remembered your birthday since then?”
“I know, I know. You think your father is a saint.”
Her mother puts her hands up in defeat, her fingernails flashing the same loud, garish nail polish she wears every summer: Catalina Red, a cheap drugstore shade that chips easily and has too much orange in the base color. Georgette begs her mother each year not to buy it.
It’s so ugly, Mom. Pick a different one.
No! It’s my signature color. It makes it harder for them to forget me.
Her mother leans back, sizing Georgette up. “That’s good enough, I guess. Do you remember which one it is?”
Georgette gives a sidelong glance to the poolside bar. “Dark hair, sunglasses. White pants. Near the big palm tree.”
“Right. Here’s the cup.”
Georgette takes the large plastic tumbler filled to the brim with Diet Coke and petite square ice chips. She peers down at the soda, imagining the syrupy liquid sticking to her bare legs, the ice shattering onto the pavement around her feet.
“Do I really have to? Again?”
“Oh, hush.” Her mother waves her hand dismissively. “You do your part and I’ll do mine. Then we’ll both be eating lobster tonight.”
Georgette nods in silence, knowing the alternative is oily tuna salad mixed with limp celery, maybe a handful of broken potato chip pieces from the bottom of the bag. She begins to sweat; the late summer humidity is a fog, heavy and slumbering, surrounding the enclosed swimming area and adjacent blacktop parking lot. Her mother takes a thin filtered cigarette out of a wrinkled carton in her pool tote. She fishes through a wasteland of gum wrappers, lipstick tubes, tanning oils and back issues of Vogue for her lighter.
“Why are you still standing here?” she asks without looking up.
Georgette looks across the length of the hotel pool to the man at the bar. She jiggles the ice inside the tumbler of soda so it rattles noisily against the cheap plastic.
“Can I get dessert after dinner?”
Her mother finally retrieves her lighter and ignites the cigarette waiting between two fingers. She stares at Georgette through the round, oversized lenses of her sunglasses.
“You know that’s not up to me.”
Georgette takes a deep breath and steps away from her mother’s chair.
“Wait,” her mother cries, grabbing her arm. “Can you see my roots?”
Her mother repositions the chiffon headband wrapped around her bleached blond hair, teasing more volume into her curls with her fingers. “Are you sure? I’m behind on my color.”
“Do I need more lipstick?”
Georgette sighs. “Yes.”
She turns to go but her mother snatches at her again, drawing her in close.
“Hang on, let me fix your swimsuit.”
Before Georgette can pull away, her mother is adjusting the ruffled neckline of her peach-pink bathing suit, pulling the front hem down and moving the straps out to the edges of her shoulders. The tops of Georgette’s small breasts, barely large enough to fill an A-cup bra, begin to show, peeking out from behind the frilled polyester. Georgette hates these new growths on her chest: it feels like she can always see them protruding out of the corner of her eye, bobbing up and down when she runs the track at school or pedals her bike uphill.
“Soon enough you’ll be doing this yourself,” her mother says. “Besides, there’s a boy over there with his eye on you.”
“Up against that wall. By the umbrella stand.” Her mother looks left with downward eyes.
Georgette follows her mother’s line of sight to a skinny, bare-chested boy in blue swim trunks leaning against the concrete wall that surrounds the pool and patio. “He looks old.”
“He’s 14, maybe.”
“Right. He’s much older than me.”
“You’re supposed to like that,” her mother says, exasperated. “You’re almost 12, anyway.”
Georgette says nothing, only looks across the pool at the boy. She can’t imagine him looking at her, at least not the same way men look at her mother; like she has something they want, something they need. Like they can just reach out and take it.
“We should get you a two-piece bathing suit next year.”
“I don’t want a two-piece.”
“All the other girls your age are wearing them. And you’ve got a lovely shape. I don’t know how you manage it, with all the junk food you eat.”
Her mother’s eyes linger over Georgette’s body, admiration and jealousy co-mingling in a silent observation.
“You should show off what you have while you have it. I’d kill to have your figure again.”
Her mother pokes critically at her own thickening middle, a noticeable bulge barely camouflaged under the black spandex of her swimsuit. She works as a fitness instructor, but most of her classes are taught at the local senior center and don’t involve anything more strenuous than rhythmic lunging and side-stepping to inoffensive pop music.
“Alright, go. Go now before he catches on,” her mother says, giving Georgette a gentle shove.
Georgette walks slowly around the chaise loungers towards the bar, weighed down by the heat. Weaving her way through discarded sandals and crumpled beach towels, she carefully avoids a pair of small, shrieking children running circles around a woman wielding a tube of sunscreen.
“Hey there, girly.”
Georgette squints against the high sun as her uncle approaches, slinking up alongside her in three smooth, efficient strides. He wears his hotelier garb: a pressed cream-colored linen suit, a turquoise dress shirt with the first three buttons left open, and faux-alligator skin loafers without socks. Georgette suspects this choice of footwear is her Minnesota-bred uncle’s best attempt at passing as a native Floridian.
“Hi, Uncle Richard.”
“Back again already? That’s…what? The fourth time this week?” Unlike her, Uncle Richard has been keeping track.
“I guess so.”
“Your mother sure likes to run her gambit, doesn’t she?”
Uncle Richard smiles at her, toothy and serpentine, his overbaked skin crinkling around the corners of his eyes and mouth.
“You know Mom.”
“I do. Doesn’t know what to do with herself without a man hanging on her arm. She never did.”
Georgette can sense her mother watching them from a distance, silently urging her to bypass her uncle and get back on task. But for once, Georgette is interested in something her uncle has to say; her mother keeps most stories from her childhood to herself.
“She was always like this?”
“Oh, you bet,” Uncle Richard says as he leans in close, shamelessly happy to be in possession of coveted information. “That’s why she married your father, after all.”
Georgette frowns. “Mom loved Daddy.”
Uncle Richard grins again, revealing the fleshy pink of his gums. “Sure, sure. For a while.”
“I gotta go,” Georgette says, shaking her head and stepping to move around him.
“You know, if you and your mother are going to come around so often, I might have to start charging you some kind of rent on those lounge chairs.”
Georgette turns to look at him. “What do you mean?”
“I’m just saying. You’re family and all, but this is my hotel. My business.”
Uncle Richard lowers his voice and a trace of his former self slips in, revealing the flat consonants and overstressed vowels of Midwestern diction.
“I don’t want it developing a certain…reputation, let’s say.”
“Reputation,” Georgette repeats.
“This is a family hotel. I’m sure you can understand, Georgie.”
“You want me to tell my mother that?”
Uncle Richard laughs wildly, then clears his throat to compose himself. When he speaks again, his voice has recovered its neutral affect, the one he uses with his hotel patrons: charming, conciliatory, and endlessly hospitable.
“No, no, don’t tell her that. But maybe you can tell her the joke. About her paying rent.”
Georgette nods. “Sure.”
He clucks his tongue and pats the top of her head the way he would a small, annoying dog. “Good. You’re a good girl, Georgie. Your mother’s lucky to have you.”
Uncle Richard wanders off toward the deep end of the pool, setting his sights on a rotund middle-aged woman wearing a lime green kaftan and clutching a crystal-studded purse. Nearly all of her chubby fingers boast large, twinkling gemstones.
Widow wealth, her mother would say. Their husbands croak and suddenly they’re rolling in it. They don’t even know what to do with all that money. If only.
Georgette turns her attention back to the poolside bar, refocusing on the man in the white chino pants. She knows her mother is watching, and it dampens her urge to bypass the bar and slip into the hotel lobby, retreating into the cool, dry air. Uncle Richard, who survived 28 Minnesota winters before relocating to Florida, keeps the thermostats in the lobby and the first floor public rooms set at a crisp 64 degrees. Sometimes the guests complain about needing to wear sweaters while they play bingo, but Georgette revels in the cold, often sneaking away from the pool when her mother is distracted to lie on the pillowy black sofas in the hotel lounge. The fine-grain leather upholstery, smooth and chilled, feels like lying down on soft-packed snow.
She looks back at her mother, unsurprised to see her observing Georgette from behind a magazine, her body tense with anticipation. She is, for a brief and dizzying instant, the center of her mother’s universe. A satisfied feeling rushes through her like a surge of electricity. The hotel lobby loses its allure. If she diverts from the plan now, her mother will be furious—but only at first. What follows after will be worse: once the fury fades, it will be swiftly replaced with indifference, a chilly disregard for anything Georgette says or does or wants. For days, they will circle around one another in their miniature apartment, barely speaking, just eating and sleeping and watching television beside one another in some split-screen version of their regular life.
Eventually and without warning, her mother will warm to her again, suggesting they spend the day at the pool or pick out new makeup at the drugstore, but Georgette never knows how long she will have to wait. She hates these men and she hates what her mother asks her to do, but not more than she hates living behind the soundproof glass of her mother’s cold shoulder.
With a revived commitment, Georgette sets off again toward the bar. She relaxes her shoulders, tips her chin up and straightens her back. As she gets closer to the man her mother has marked, Georgette stretches to see what he is drinking. He sips something clear, loaded up with ice, offset with a wedge of lemon: a vodka on the rocks.
Georgette is relieved. Her mother says you can tell almost everything you need to know about a man by what he’s drinking: beer drinkers are sloppy and handsy; whiskey drinkers are cheap and don’t like to be told no; gin drinkers are untrustworthy.
Never believe a man who drinks gin. They’re liars and cheaters.
Doesn’t Daddy drink gin?
You’re damn right he does.
Georgette prefers the vodka drinkers. They are the easiest to tolerate. They don’t ignore her, but they don’t ask too many questions, either. At restaurants, they encourage her to order things like Shirley Temples and shrimp cocktail, wanting to please her but also, she is certain, wanting to keep her quiet. If she offers up a compliment about their expensive watches or engraved cufflinks, she is usually invited to order off the dessert menu.
When her mother brings the vodka drinkers back to their apartment above the 24-hour diner later that night, they wait until Georgette has slipped off to bed before they start pawing at her mother on the couch. And they don’t linger the next morning, overstaying their welcome in the cramped, airless kitchen, pretending to enjoy the depressing breakfasts her mother offers.
By the time Georgette emerges from her tiny rear bedroom in the morning, they are already buttoning up their dress shirts, smoothing the hair away from their foreheads and making polite exits out the door. Georgette will often watch them from the window above the buzzing neon diner sign, hailing cabs back to Uncle Richard’s hotel in rumpled trousers, fumbling only slightly with their wallets in the face of burgeoning hangovers. The vodka drinkers can hold their liquor. She likes that about them.
The man at the bar empties his glass, biting the pulp out of the lemon wedge with his large, wide front teeth. Georgette sidles up behind him unnoticed and stumbles towards his lap, tipping forward her hand holding the tumbler of Diet Coke. Ice chips and caramel liquid spill out onto his pristine trousers, all over the ground beneath his stool and down both of their legs.
It’s a graceful, practiced move, one that Georgette has perfected with a certain amount of pride. Her mother may have choreographed this routine, but Georgette can’t deny the fleeting thrill that comes from executing this stumble maneuver with gorgeous precision, like a dancer in a ballet.
The man yelps in surprise, cursing, and jumps to his feet, shaking the ice off his lap and grasping for cocktail napkins.
“Oh, no!” Georgette says, pitching her voice higher, into the same girlish range her mother uses when talking to men. “I’m sorry! I must have tripped.”
The man, still sputtering and patting down his body with a wad of flimsy napkins, finally looks at her. Georgette watches the transformation on his face, his initial anger softening as he observes her, considering her age, taking in her long hair and slender stature.
“I’m so sorry. The ground is slippery,” Georgette says.
He smiles politely, still flustered but working hard to gather up his composure. “That’s alright. Are you ok?”
“Yes, thank you. Are they ruined?”
The man stares back, confused. “What?”
“Your pants. Are they ruined?”
“Oh.” He glances down at his chinos, taking one final futile swipe at them before tossing the soggy bunch of napkins onto the bar. The soda has left one wide, blotchy stain in his lap and another down the length of his left leg. “No, no, they’re fine.”
“My mother is right over there. She can pay to have them dry cleaned.”
The man shakes his head without looking. “That’s not necessary. Just, ah…be more careful, ok?”
He turns away from her, back to the bar, and signals the bartender for the check. Georgette’s heart sinks. She remembers a time, years ago, when her father took her fishing on Tiger Lake. Georgette had a largemouth bass on her fishing line, and was working hard to reel it in, when the line went slack. The fish had slipped off the hook and her pole snapped back abruptly, suddenly weightless in her hands.
The man puts a few bills down on the bar to pay his tab and rises from his seat. Georgette seeks out her mother’s spot alongside the pool, noting the furtive way she is watching them from behind her sunglasses, her stiff posture betraying her agitation.
“She’s right over there,” Georgette says, stepping in front of him to block his exit. “My mother, I mean. In the purple headband.”
She points her mother out to the man, arm outstretched gracefully, waiting for his interest to be piqued. His body tenses slightly when his eyes rest on her mother draped strategically over the lounge chair, excelling at pretending not to be deeply invested in the activity at the bar.
“I’m sure she’d want to pay for dry cleaning. If you’d just go talk to her,” Georgette says carefully, watching him closely.
He weighs his options for a moment, hesitation turning to intrigue as he analyzes her mother from a distance. He bites back a smile and casually shrugs his shoulders.
“Well, I’ll walk you back over to her, at least. Make sure you don’t slip again.”
Georgette smiles. “Thank you.”
Always let them think it’s their idea. Whatever it is. You plant the seed and let it grow.
Georgette crosses the hot concrete, guiding the man towards her mother. She sees her mother bracing herself, preparing her face, angling her shoulders in their direction, the movements perceptible only to Georgette. Her mother, with her giant curls and buxom chest and freshly lacquered lips, readying herself to be presented to this man. Like one of those tropical birds Georgette has read about in nature magazines that enact elaborate mating rituals, parading around with their vibrant plumage on display. Her mother, a bird of paradise on a lounge chair.
Her mother looks up from her magazine, tipping her sunglasses down her nose. “My goodness, Georgette, you’re soaked!”
“I spilled my drink,” Georgette says.
“Are you alright?”
Her mother’s voice is heavy with concern and Georgette’s adrenaline surges once again, her heartbeat doubling its rhythm. They are play-acting; performing a well-rehearsed duet, but this is all there is for Georgette. This is the closest they come to being a mother and daughter naturally intertwined in affection for one another. She sees those kinds of people sometimes around the pool: mothers who absent-mindedly braid their daughters’ wet hair because they like the feel of it between their fingers, daughters who drift away from their friends just to tuck their heads for a moment into the soft, doughy stomachs of their mothers. Whenever she notices them, Georgette watches their interactions with rapt attention, mystified by how they seek one another out seemingly without thinking. She wonders what it feels like to retreat toward another person rather than away from them.
“I ruined this man’s pants.”
“Oh?” Her mother cranes her neck to look around Georgette.
The man emerges from behind her. “We had a little run-in,” he says, gesturing vaguely at his stained chinos.
“Oh, no! I’m so sorry!”
“That’s quite alright.”
“No, of course it isn’t! I would love to take care of the dry cleaning bill.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“It’s not negotiable,” her mother says, reaching for her purse. “I insist.”
Her mother pauses, her hand on her wallet. Georgette knows it’s empty, nothing but balled-up gas station receipts and punch cards for local fast food restaurants inside. Her breath catches as she waits to see if the man will call her mother’s bluff.
“I couldn’t let you do that. Accidents happen.”
“Are you certain?”
“Well. That’s very kind of you.” Her mother lets go of her wallet and looks up at him, her watermelon lips shimmering in the heat. “At least let me offer you a seat.”
The man sits on the edge of the empty lounge chair beside her mother, pointing his knees in her direction. His trouser hems ride up, exposing legs that are covered in dark, curly hairs. His sandaled feet are wide and bony, a shade lighter than the rest of his skin. He reminds Georgette of her father, with his gently receding hairline, bristly mustache and veiny forearms. Most of the men do, in one way or another, though her mother would never admit to having a type.
Her mother and the man shake hands as they trade first names, her mother’s manicured fingers clasping delicately around his left hand. He isn’t wearing a wedding band, but Georgette knows that doesn’t mean anything.
They leave them on the nightstands. Housekeeping finds them all the time.
The man says something quietly through a sideways smile and her mother laughs churlishly, throwing her head back and allowing the sound to erupt freely from her throat. It echoes off the concrete walls of the swimming area before dissolving into the stagnant air.
Her mother glances at Georgette then and seems almost surprised to see her standing there.
“Oh, honey, why don’t you go for a swim? The water looks warm.”
Again the movements are barely noticeable: the slight widening of her eyes, the subtle nod of her head.
I don’t need your help anymore. Don’t get in the way.
Georgette stares back at her mother blankly. It happens every time, but still, she is bewildered: it takes only a minute for the peak of her mother’s attention to come and go, to leave Georgette riding the downturn of the wave. She won’t get another chance to feel that surge again for a few days; not until her mother decides she has had enough of the withering items in their refrigerator, the air conditioner that puffs out streams of room temperature air, the queen-sized bed in her room that only smells of her and not of foreign cologne.
“Go on, Georgie. Go take another dip. Before it gets too late.”
Georgette nods and remembers to smile before she walks away. “Ok.”
The pool has cleared out considerably, as it always does shortly after noon, single guests seeking out overpriced lunches in the hotel dining room and families shuffling up to their suites for midday naps. She walks along the perimeter of the pool, no longer side-stepping the crowds and clutter. Ahead of her, the boy her mother pointed out earlier peels himself off the concrete wall and positions his body in her path.
“Hey,” he says.
She pauses in front of him. He is, as she first thought, at least three years older than her.
“What’s your name?”
“You staying at the hotel?”
“Yes,” she lies. “We’re from Minnesota.”
The boy straightens up and bends forward to whisper. His chin is dotted with acne and he stinks of cigarette smoke, but his blond hair is silky despite the humidity, feathery curls skimming the tops of his ears.
“We’re going to smoke behind the dumpster in the parking lot,” he says, nodding at a boy and girl sharing a lounge chair behind him, arms and legs entangled, their skin sticking together in the heat. “Want to come?”
Georgette stares at the boy and thinks of what she could do: loosen her hair from its braid, shaking out the water and tossing the damp, kinky mess behind her shoulders. Extend her painted toenails toward him, lengthening her leg. Laugh loudly, find a way to touch his arm, compliment his choice of shoes or taste in music. Refuse a cigarette politely at first, but ask for one after a few minutes, as if he has convinced her to be adventurous.
Behind her, she hears her mother’s laughter at the edge of the pool, brazen and overeager. She turns toward the sound and sees the man’s hand already resting tentatively on her mother’s thigh, her mother leaning in close to him with her breasts squeezed together.
She turns back to the boy. “No,” she tells him. “But thanks anyway.”
His face collapses with disappointment, and he swivels his head quickly away.
“Whatever,” he mumbles.
Georgette walks to the shallow end of the pool. She wades in slowly, goosebumps spreading along her stomach and ribs as the water creeps up her body one inch at a time. Once she is wet up to her neck, she dunks her head under quickly, flooding her nose and mouth with the chlorinated water. She swims across to the deep end, pumping her arms and legs to propel her forward in the empty pool.
She comes up only briefly for air before submerging herself again, exhaling gradually, tiny bubbles tickling the sides of her cheeks. She opens her eyes, blinking as they burn, waiting for them to acclimate to the chemicals. Sinking down to the bottom of the pool, she lets her arms and legs go limp, keeping herself suspended in the water.
Georgette tips her head back to look up through the surface of the water, out of the pool and beyond the concrete walls, at the blank sky hovering above her: glimmering and fluid, aquamarine, silent.
© Sarah Bradley
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Sarah’s interview.]