UNDERWATER is a short story by Sara Bresciani, exploring themes of life, humanity and incredibly difficult situations which some readers may find distressing. We hope you enjoy UNDERWATER.
Blurring shades of blue and white slide past her as her arms thread through warm waters.
She watches them, admires them as they wobble and disappear beneath her, replaced by her own shadow. It is a momentary glimpse of peace.
Do as you are told.
The voice in her head is a muffled whisper, a sinister imprint. Goosebumps claw at her skin.
Take off your clothes.
They send a chill through her veins, arms heavier with each stroke.
Blurring shades of blue and white. Light, beautiful. Pure. How easy it would be to just let go of her body and become water?
She keeps her eyes open and…
Her arms still. She floats face down, the water keeping her on the edge. The air prickles her back but the warmth against her front is soothing, comfortable. She holds her breath, mouth and nose buried underneath the waterline.
You are mine.
She exhales. Her body begs for oxygen. She fights it. She wants blue and white to be the last thing she sees before she is finally set free…
She emerges as Philippe opens the door to the indoor swimming area and peeks inside.
Air flows back into her lungs. It isn’t relief.
“Mister Douglas called, sweetheart. Seven thirty at Le Crystal, like always” he announces, leaning against the doorjamb “He sent you the outfit.”
Isabel nods and he leaves, closing the door behind him.
– – –
The cigarette touches her lips and she pulls the smoke in, savouring it.
When she was young, her mother always reprimanded her for smoking. It is just another bullet point to her list of bad habits, really. There are moments when all she needs is a drag – the desire is visceral, untameable, and it always succeeds in grabbing that very last ounce of sanity left within her, pulling it out and waving it in front of her like a trophy. An unhealthy reminder that her life is, somehow, fucked up.
Isabel pulls the cigarette out of her mouth and shrinks into her coat, the chilly winter air of Montreal ruffling her blonde hair as she stands outside in a black cocktail dress.
“You must be Isabel. I’ve been waiting for you.”
– – –
He slaps her face so hard that it makes her body tingle with pain. Rough fingers, channelling strength she can’t take. She recoils. Looks at him, silently pleading. Her eyes are becoming hazy with tears – all she sees is his blue jacket and the white shirt underneath, unbuttoned.
Swaying back and forth.
Back and forth.
– – –
It is two in the morning and she is slumped on the couch.
It’s only been two weeks and he bought her satellite. It is great to binge American shows through the night, and that way she does not have to go out and try to socialize, be an ordinary person.
Philippe swings by every couple of days and they have take-out from a cheap Chinese shop around the corner; he is meant to be her Protector, yet she likes to think of him as a friend of sorts. They comment on the Habs games, pretend to have earned the fancy apartments they live in, and part ways after a few hours. He calls her once a day to inform her of a new appointment with a Client, while she watches the sun set and then rise in front of the documentary channel. She likes to watch eagles. They set her free.
– – –
She is patting the bruises on her arms with a pack of frozen peas when the phone rings. She stumbles over clothes strewn across the floor and a few empty bottles of beer, stopping to look at the display.
She fears it’s him – and she cannot suffer the blow twice in a day. She can hear his deep voice creeping up from somewhere, like that memory you desperately try to erase yet inevitably comes back when you least want it to.
She picks the phone up.
“Isa? It’s me, Denis. I think I’m in front of your building…?”
She nearly runs to the window, pushing the shutters open and leaning over. She casts her eyes down.
They are standing in the semi-darkness of the street, one looking up, the other one looking around.
Denis and mom.
– – –
She knows it is not part of the deal, but she likes him. Really likes him.
She winks more than she should, drawing herself closer to him as he catches up with an old friend. She links her arm under his, admires the outline of his chest underneath the white shirt; she feels his blue jacket under her fingertips, soft and velvety. She smiles and pretends to laugh at his friends’ jokes for a couple of hours, champagne glass in hand. It works its way through her, making her feel giddy, lightheaded. She can feel her self-control slowly slipping away.
He whispers kind words in her ear and suddenly they are gone, walking around Mont-Royal Park – engulfed in ice, snow and silence. It is a quick detour, he says. He tells her about his business, and she admits she has always dreamed of visiting Seattle. He promises he will take her there, one day.
He touches the small of her back, is onto her before she realizes it.
She gives in.
– – –
Her mom keeps calling her Lea, one of her childhood friends. She doesn’t really know what to say.
They sit on the couch a few feet apart. It is the third program on eagles in two weeks. She draws her feet up, tucks them under her legs, covering the bruises on her arms with a blanket. She stares as the eagle dives towards a lake, dipping its head underwater and catching fish, only to take off again through the valley.
“Lea, when are we going to visit Jean-Marc?”
Isabel turns around.
“It’s me, mom. Isabel.”
She thinks she sees a flash of recognition in her eyes, just for a brief second. Her face lights up. It makes Isabel’s heart throb with emotion.
Then her mother’s expression turns into a blank spot.
“Do you remember that—that day we drove to Toronto and got lost, Lea? It was fun, wasn’t it?”
Her heart falls into the pit of her stomach.
– – –
He has booked her five times in five days this week. Philippe gives her all the information with a knowing smile, yet doesn’t ask anything.
He pours her a glass of red wine in his city loft every time she goes over, lavishly decorated it makes her feel as though he lives inside a bubble. They stumble into bed or onto the kitchen counter just as easily. She knows it will earn her enough to get through the next few weeks and he’s not that bad, so she complies – even though his touch has become rougher, his tone demanding, and his stare makes her feel uncomfortable, on edge.
They lie tangled among satin sheets, her back to him. She is aware of every aching muscle in her body, thoroughly exhausted, feeling her own breath catch in her throat. The mattress dips and heat flares against her back. His lips touch the shell of her ear.
His hand slides over the curve of her hips.
“C’mon Isa, I know you like it…”
His nails dig into her skin.
“Do as you are told”
He turns her around. His blue jacket and white shirt hang on over the bedroom door, looming over her as he grasps her wrists, pinning her down. Forcing himself into her.
She tries to wriggle herself free.
“Shut your fucking mouth!”
It only takes a second and his right hand aggressively clasps her neck. She is choking and finds herself wishing she could just draw herself out of her own body, slip away… before a painful blow on the cheek knocks her unconscious.
– – –
She stays on the phone with Denis for nearly an hour, explaining why her mom staying over simply does not work, she has a life to follow. How the bruises on her body are now more prominent and she can’t let her mother see them, she would like to say. She doesn’t.
Denis reminds her that she has dropped the burden of her mom’s disease onto his shoulders for too many years with the excuse of being the youngest sibling, which he had bought into. It is time she does her part.
She punches the outside back of the couch in an angry outburst and recoils with a grimace. A shooting pain sizzles through her arm. She curses under her breath, holding her bicep.
“Lea, honey, do you have any butter?”
Her mom appears in the living room with a ladle.
“I don’t have any, mom” Isabel replies, letting go of her arm “Just use oil.”
She nods absent-mindedly but doesn’t move, as if anchored on the spot, and waves the ladle at Isabel.
“Do you… have any butter?”
Isabel sighs, walking towards her. She takes her hand and gently leads her to the kitchen. It looks nothing like the sanctuary of the well-nourished; the open fridge is half-empty with a carton of milk, a couple of tomatoes and leftover pizza.
She lifts her arm to reach an overhead cabinet, her jumper sliding up, revealing a large, purple bruise below her ribcage. Her mom’s voice trembles.
“What—what is this?”
She grabs the oil bottle and quickly closes the cabinet, pulling her jumper down over the marks.
“Nothing—it’s—here… take the oil, mom”
“What happened to you?”
“It’s fine, you don’t have to worry—”
“Was that your husband? Don’t lie to me, Lea—”
“I AM NOT LEA!” Isabel finally erupts.
She sees her mother’s concerned look, feels her limbs pulsating with pain and his voice chilling her bones. Then her mom’s tone changes. She is suddenly ten years-old again.
The last brick of wall surrounding her falls and crumbles. Tears spill freely from her eyes, and she falls into her mother’s arms.
It is the most liberating moment she has had in a while.
– – –
She leaves a note for Philippe on the kitchen counter. I can’t do this anymore. She wants to leave it at that but remembers how much worse it could have been without him by her side, so she adds ‘Thank you for everything’ for good measure.
Denis is surprised to see them. He doesn’t say anything though, just lets them in, taking their suitcases upstairs. It takes a few hours for Isabel to explain everything – what her life consisted of, what she had gotten herself into, how her mom’s fleeting moment of consciousness has helped her see the light. She lifts the jumper’s sleeves to show him the marks of her bad choices. He shakes with anger, threatens to find the fucking bastard. She tells him to leave it alone. She just wants to start over.
– – –
She finds it strange to be in a public pool, yet nonetheless comforting. She sheds the towel onto a bench and walks to the edge, dipping her toes into warm waters. She lingers, feeling the eyes of those around her on her bruises.
She wants to forget.
And she dives. Blurring shades of blue and white blend underneath her, a tingle crawling down her spine. She feels her arms growing heavy and memories resurfacing.
This time she punches through them and keeps swimming.
UNDERWATER is by Sara Bresciani. You can find Sara on Twitter at @SaraBresciani13