Blinding | Ali Bryan
Gather the children. The leggy girl, eight and full of promise. The freckled and fat-footed boy in the Ninja Turtles trunks. The slippery baby with the coppery hair and a penchant for breastfeeding.
Guide them across the pool deck avoiding the snapped goggles and wet Band-Aids and Croc-ked lifeguards. The towels in lumps against the wall. The moms that don’t swim. Adjust your sagging suit.
Stop outside the steam room and study the sign. Note the shapeless seniors hunched and parked like stuffed animals behind the foggy glass door. Wonder if there’s room for your small army to join their séance. To melt away.
Remind your kids this is not a play place. It’s a place to sit. A place to drip. A place to think. About what? They ask. Anything, you reply. Thinking is free in the steam room. Your children process this with fierce anticipation. They think about what they’ll think about. The baby grabs your breast. Milk is all she thinks.
Push open the door and swallow a cloud of heat. A woman in a practical Speedo with cashew skin leaves to make room. An older woman follows. Arrange your brood across an upper bench. Remind them that they’re here to think. The boy closes his eyes.
Observe the man across from you. His hide-like skin, tanned and age-spotted, his large hands bracing the edge of the seat. Hair the color of steam. His smile. Wonder why he’s smiling. Assume he’s a pervert. Here, alone. Which of you is he staring at? Which of you does he want?
Tug your kids into a tight heap, like a pile of laundry. Close. Embrace the heaviness of the steam, the silence and the scent of the chlorine. Ignore the baby’s desperate attempts to nurse, the man’s desperate attempts to connect. He’s still smiling. He watches. Hope that he will go. Hope he will award you two minutes alone in this sacred place to think/not think.
You’re lucky, he says. To have three. Three kids he means, of course. Their fleshy thighs press against you, their sopping hair and wrinkled suits graze your arms. Know they worship you. Know the weight of their expectations. Heavy as steam.
I am, you reply, as you contemplate his comment. Strange, but not perverted. A benign observation.
I used to have two, he says, wistfully, thoughtfully. My son died ten years ago. In a car accident. The story, like the car his son was driving, moves full speed ahead. My daughter crosses her ankles, fidgets, traces shapes on the blue tiled wall. My son is still thinking, eyes squeezed shut. The baby bounces her face off my chest. He came to the top of the hill. They think it was the sun, hey? Blinded him. Head on collision with a tractor-trailer. Died instantly. The man shakes his head.
His grief floats around the room. You swallow it whole. Taste his pain. I’m sorry, you whisper. Sorry that you lost a child. For thinking that you were a pervert. For thinking that you were anything but a human looking for something: connection, commiseration, compassion.
We only have our daughter now to rely on. We are old.
Sit, all of you, with your thoughts, which swirl and collide and touch. Except for the relentless baby who does not. You stand. Collect her on your hip, tell the others it’s time to go. They open the door sending in a rush of cool, thoughtless air. You stop and turn to the man. Your words have fled, but you still have your hands. You touch his shoulder. You touch his shoulder. You touch his shoulder.
In the locker room you dress. Your son jumps up and down, shares what he was thinking. Your baby feeds. Your oldest brushes her hair. You stuff wet towels into a bag, order kids to stand in a line, collect things, tie laces, zip coats.
You walk outside into the blinding sun with your three.
About the Author:
Ali Bryan’s first novel, Roost, won the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction and her second novel, The Figgs, was a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. She’s longlisted for the CBC Canada Writes CNF prize, shortlisted for the Jon Whyte Memorial Essay Award, and won the 2020 Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Story. Her debut YA novel, The Hill, was released in March from Dottir Press. She lives in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, where she has a wrestling room in her garage and regularly gets choked out by her family.