They will use the natatorium at the Amsterdam Hotel for the lessons. It is a lovely pool of green tile, gold-leaf tendrils growing down the sides, and a bold heliotrope of yellow tile covering the bottom. The walls and ceiling are sky blue. They cannot use it during the guest hours, and must swim either in the early morning or at night.
Both, insists L., hating to take so much money from Mr. Huber for so little work. He comes early for the first lesson, marveling at the beautiful warmth and crystal water. He leaps from the sauna to the pool, laughing to himself. His moustache wilts in the heat.
When Aliette comes in, steaming from the showers, her hair in a black cloth cap with a strap under the chin, L. lifts her from her chair and carries her into the water. Rosalind sits in the corner by the potted palm, takes out her knitting, and falls asleep.
In the beginning, they don’t speak. He asks her to kick as he holds her in the water. She tries, making one tiny splash, then another. Around the shallow end they go, three, four times. Rosalind’s gentle snores echo in the room. At last, Aliette slides one thin arm around L.’s neck. “Stop,” she says, panting with pain.
He brings her to the steps and sets her there. He stands before her in the waist-deep water, trying not to look at her.
“What is wrong with Rosalind?” he asks. “Why is she sleeping?”
“Nothing is wrong,” Aliette says. “Poor thing has been up all night.”
“I trust that she was not caring for you? I assumed you were healthy,” L. says.
Aliette hesitates and looks down. “She was caring for me, yes—and others,” she says. Her face is tight and forbidding. But then she looks at him with one cocked eyebrow and whispers, “L., I must admit that I like your other suit better.”
He is wearing a new indigo bathing costume with suspenders, and he looks down at himself, then at her, puzzled. His new suit cost him a week’s wages. “Why is that?” he asks.
She glances at the sleeping nurse, then touches him where a muscle bulges over one hip. “I liked the hole here,” she says. Then her hand is under the water, where it looms, suddenly immense. She touches his thigh. “And here,” she says. Her fingertip lingers, then falls away.
When he has steadied himself to look at her face, she is smiling innocently. She does not, however, look like a little girl anymore.
“They were only small holes,” he says. “I am surprised you noticed.”
“I notice everything,” she says. But her face grows a little frightened; her eyes slide toward Rosalind, and she gives a great roar, as if he’d told a stunner of a joke. This awakens the nurse, who resumes her knitting, blinking and looking sternly at the pair. “Let’s swim,” cries Aliette, and slaps both of her hands on the water like a child.
During the late lesson that night, as Rosalind again succumbs to the heat and damp of the room, Aliette watches with amusement as L. tries to hide his chipped tooth from her by turning his face. He has waxed his moustache mightily, and the musky fragrance of the wax fills her head and makes it swim. She laughs, her face in the water. He thinks she is only blowing bubbles.
By the end of the first week, Aliette has gained ten pounds. When she is not swimming, she is forcing herself to eat cheese and bread with butter, even when she is not hungry. She loosens her corset, then throws it away. At night, though exhausted from swimming, she climbs out of bed and tries to stand. She succeeds for one minute one night, and five minutes the next. She has a tremendous tolerance for pain. At the end of the week, she can stand for thirty minutes and take two steps before falling. When she does fall, it is into bed, and she sleeps immediately, L.’s poetry beating around in her brain like so many trapped sparrows.
All that week, L. paces. On the cloudy Friday, he kicks the notebooks full of weightless little words, and they skitter across his floor. He decides that he must quit, tell that Wall Street Huber that he has another obligation and can no longer teach Aliette to swim. Blast her pathetic little legs to hell, he thinks. L. stands at his window and looks down into the dark street, where urchins pick through boxes of rotting vegetables discarded from the greengrocer’s downstairs. A leaf of cabbage blows free in the wind and attaches itself to the brick wall opposite L.’s window, where it flutters like a small green pennant.
“Porca madonna,” he says. Then, as if correcting himself, he says in English, “Pig Madonna.” It doesn’t sound right, and in the wake of its dissonance he finds that he is completely unable to walk to Park Avenue and quit.
Late that evening he sits by the pool. He touches the place on his thigh where Aliette’s finger touched him a week earlier. He does not look up until he hears a throat clearing, then startles and finds himself staring up into Mr. Huber’s face, the fat man’s hand on his daughter’s capped head.
“Papa is going to chaperone us the nights that Rosalind is off,” Aliette says, her eyes bright with merriment. L. tries to smile, then stands, extending his hand for a shake. But Aliette’s father doesn’t shake L.’s hand, just nods and rolls the cuffs of his pants over his calves. He takes off his shoes and socks and sticks his legs, white and hairy, into the warm water. “Go on,” he says, “don’t let me get in the way of your lesson.” He takes a newspaper from his pocket and watches them over the headlines as L. carries Aliette into the shallow end.
L. is teaching her the frog kick, and she holds onto the gutter as he bends both of her knees and helps them swing out and back. When her father’s attention is fixed on an article, Aliette takes L.’s hand and slides it up and over her small breast. By the time her father has read to the bottom of the page, L. has moved his hand to her neck, and he is trembling.
As Rosalind sleeps under the palm the next morning, Aliette tells L. that her father didn’t say one word to her in the cab home. But when they were coming up in the elevator, he asked her if something wasn’t a little funny about L., something a little girlish. And she laughed, and related to her father the gossip about her swim coach’s bosom friends.
“Very subtly, of course,” she says. “I am not supposed to know of those things.”
She tells L. that later, as she was drinking her last glass of buttermilk before bed, she left out his book, open to a poem titled “And Into the Fields the Sweet Boys Go—"
L., face dark, interrupts her. “That poem is about innocence; my Lord, I’m not—”
She puts a hand on his mouth. “Let me finish,” she says.
He shuts his mouth, but his face is set angrily. She continues that she heard her father and Rosalind talking about L. in the morning, and her father called him “that nance.”
L. is so offended he drops Aliette unceremoniously into the water. She swims, though, and reaches the wall in three strong strokes, her legs dragging behind her.
She says, grinning, “You didn’t know I was a nixie, did you?”
“No,” he says, darkly. “I am amazed. And for your information, I am not a—”
“L.,” Aliette says, sighing. “I know. But you are a fool.” Then, very deliberately, she says, “The nances of the world have many uses, my dear coach.”
When he says nothing, trying to understand, she droops. “I’m tired,” she says. “This lesson is over.” She calls for Rosalind, and will not look at L. as the nurse wheels her away.
Only later does he realize she has read his book. He cannot look at her that evening, he is so flattered and fearful of her opinion.
Sunday, his day off, L. goes to Little Italy for supper with his family. His mother holds him to her wren’s chest; his father touches his new linen suit with admiration. In Rome, Amadeo was a tailor; here he is a hearse driver. He mutters, “Beautiful, beautiful,” and nods at his son, fingering the lapels, checking the seams. L.’s older sister is blind and cannot remark upon the visible change in him.
But in the trolley home, his stomach filled with saltimbocca, L. thinks of his sister when she touched his face in farewell. “You have met a girl,” she whispered. Lucrezia has never seen her own face, and cannot know its expressions—how, at that moment, her smile was an explosion.