He is at first a distant wave, the wake-wedge of a loon as it surfaces. The day is cold and gray as a stone. In the mid-distance the swimmer splits into parts, smoothly angled arms and a matte-black head. Twenty feet from the dock he dips below the water; a moment later he comes up at the ladder, blowing like a whale.
She sees him step onto the dock: the pronounced ribs heaving, the puckered nipples, the moustache limp with seawater. She feels herself flush, and, trembling, she smiles.
It is March 1918, and hundreds of dead jellyfish litter the beach. The newspapers this morning include a story, buried under the accounts of battles at the Western Front, about a mysterious illness striking down hale soldiers in Kansas.
The swimmer lifts his towel to gain time, wondering about the strange, expectant trio that watches him. The man in the clump is fat and bald, his chin deeply lined from mouth to jowl. His shave is close, his clothes expensive. A brunette stands beside him, the wind chucking her silk collar under her chin: the fat man’s young wife, the swimmer thinks, mistakenly.
Before them sits a girl in a wheelchair. The swimmer’s glance brushes over her, and veers away when he sees her wizened child’s face, the diluted blond of her hair, her eyes sunken in the sickly white complexion. A nothing, he thinks. That he looks past her is not his fault. He doesn’t know. And so, instead of the lightning strike and fluttering heart that should attend the moment of their meeting, all the swimmer feels is the cold whip of the wind, and the shame at his old suit, holey and stretched out, worn only on the dark days when he needs nostalgia and old glory to bring him to the water.
The swimmer is a famous man. He is an Olympian: gold medalist in the 1908 London Olympics in the 100-meter freestyle, anchor on the 4x200 relay. Triple gold in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics: 100-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke, anchor again on the 4x200. He was on the American Swim Association’s champion water polo team from 1898 through 1911. He is, quite simply, the World’s Best Swimmer.
His name is L. DeBard, though this was not always his name. He was born Lodovico DeBartolo, but was taken from Rome at the age of six and transplanted to New York, where the Ukrainians, the Poles, the Chinese couldn’t pronounce “Lodovico.” He reworked his last name when he discovered in himself literary agility and a love of Shakespeare.
He is a swimmer, but he is other things, too: a forty-three-year-old with a mighty set of pectorals, one chipped front tooth, and a rakish smile; a rumored Bolshevik; a poet, filler of notebooks, absinthe drinker, cavorter of the literary type. He knows a number of whores by name, though in the wider world he is thought to be a bit queer, his friendships a mite too close with the city’s more effeminate novelists and poets. He has been alone in the company of Tad Perkins, C. T. Dane, Arnold Effingham. Something is suspect about a man-poet anyway, and many of his critics ask each other, pursing their lips lewdly, why he is not in France, fighting for the Allies. The reason is that his flat feet make him unfit for battle.
And today he is one last thing: starving. Poets and swimmers are the last to be fed in these final few months of the Great War.
The fat man steps forward. “L. DeBard?” he says.
L. wraps the towel under the straps of his suit. “Yes,” he says, at last.
Then the girl in the wheelchair speaks. “We have a proposition for you,” she says. Her voice reminds the swimmer of river rock: gravelly, smooth.
The girl’s name is Aliette Huber. She is sixteen, and she is a schoolgirl, or was before her illness. She won her school’s honors for French, Composition, Rhetoric, and Recitation for three years in a row. She can read a poem once and recite it perfectly from memory years later. Before the polio, she was a fine horsewoman, a beautiful archer, the lightest dancer of any of the girls at the Children’s Balls society had delighted in staging in the heady days before the war. Her mother died when she was three, and her father is distantly doting.
She knows L. from his book of poetry, which she read when she was recuperating from her illness. She feels she knows him so intimately that now, freezing on the dock, she is startled and near tears: she has just realized that, to him, she is a stranger.
And so, Aliette does something drastic: she unveils her legs. They are small, wrinkled sticks, nearly useless. She wears a Scottish wool blanket over her lap, sinfully thick. L. thinks of his thin sheet and the dirty greatcoat he sleeps under, and envies her the blanket. Her skirt is short and her stockings silk. L. doesn’t gasp when he sees her legs, her kneecaps like dinner rolls skewered with willow switches. He just looks up at Aliette’s face, and suddenly sees that her lips are set in a perfect heart, purple with cold.
After that, the swim lessons are easily arranged. When they leave —the brunette pushing the wheelchair over the boards of the docks, her trim hips swishing —their departure thrums in L.’s heels. The wind picks up even more, and the waves make impatient sounds on the dock. L. dresses. His last nickel rolls from the pocket of his jacket as he slides it on over his yellowed shirt. The coin flashes in the water and glints, falling.
At night Aliette lies in her white starched sheets in her room on Park Avenue and listens to the Red Cross trucks grinding their gears in the streets below. She puts the thin book of poetry under the sheets when she hears footsteps coming down the hall to her door. But the book slides from her stomach and between her useless legs, and she gasps with sudden pleasure.
Her nurse, the brunette from the dock, enters with a glass of buttermilk. Rosalind is only a few years older than Aliette, but looks as hearty and innocent as Little Bo Peep, corn-fed, pink with indolence. Aliette tries not to hate her as she stands there, cross-armed, until Aliette drains the glass. The nurse’s lipstick has smeared beyond the boundaries of her lips. From the front hall, Mr. Huber’s trilling whistle resounds, then the butler says, “Good afternoon, sir,” and the door closes, and Aliette’s father returns to Wall Street. The girl hands the glass back to Rosalind, who smiles a bit too hard.
“Do you need a trip to the water closet, miss?” the nurse asks.
Aliette tells her no, she is reading, and that will be all. The nurse goes. When her footsteps have faded, Aliette retrieves the book of poetry from under the covers where it had nestled so pleasingly. Ambivalence, the title says. By L. DeBard.
While L. and Aliette wait to begin their first lesson the next day, the mysterious illness is creeping from the sleepy Spanish tourist town of San Sebastián. It will make its way into the farthest corners of the realm, until even King Alfonso XIII will lie suffering in his royal bed. French, English, and American troops scattered in France are just now becoming deathly ill, and the disease will skulk with them to England. Eventually even King George V will be afflicted.
In New York, they know nothing of this. L. eats his last can of potted meat. Aliette picks the raisins from her scones and tries to read fortunes in the dregs of her teacup.
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.
In late April, the newspapers are full of news of a strange illness. The journalists try to blunt their alarm by exoticizing it, naming it Spanish Influenza, La Grippe. In Switzerland, it is called La Coquette, as if it were a courtesan. In Ceylon it’s the Bombay Fever, and in Britain the Flanders Grippe. The Germans, whom the Allies blame for this disease, call it Blitzkatarrh. The disease is as deadly as that name sounds.
Americans do not pay attention. They watch Charlie Chaplin and laugh until they cry. They read the sports pages and make bets on when the war will be over. And if a few healthy soldiers suddenly fall ill and die, the Americans blame it on exposure to tear gas.
L. has gone tomcatting with his writer friends only twice by the time spring rolls into summer. The second time, he has only had one martini when he pushes one very familiar redhead from his lap so roughly that she hits her head on the table and bursts into tears. G. T. Dane comforts her. When Dane is leaving, the indignant redhead on his arm, he raises an eyebrow and frowns at the steadily drinking L.
From that night on, his friends talk about him. “What’s eating old fishface L.?” Tad Perkins will ask anyone who will listen.
Finally, someone says, “He’s writing a novel. It’s like having a mistress. Once he’s through with her, leaves her on the floor, weeping for more, he’ll be back.”
The friends laugh at this. They raise their glasses. “To the mistress,” they cry.
Aliette’s cheeks grow plump, and her legs regain many of their muscles. By May, L. is being driven crazy by the touches, leg sliding against leg, arm to knee, foot sliding silky across his shoulder. He immerses himself in a cold-water tub, like a racehorse, before coming out to greet her.
Their flirtation slips. Dawn is pinkening in the clerestory window, and L. is lifting Aliette’s arm above the water to show her the angle of the most efficient stroke, when his torso brushes against hers, and stays. He looks at the dozing Rosalind. Then he lifts Aliette from the water and carries her to the men’s room.
As she stands, leaning against the smooth tile wall and shivering slightly, he slides her suit from her shoulders and slips it down. To anyone else, she would be a skinny, slightly feral-looking little girl, but he sees the heart-shaped lips, the pulse thrumming in her neck, the way she bares her body bravely, arms down, palms turned out, watching him. He bends to kiss her. She smells of chlorine, lilacs, warm milk. He lifts her and leans her against the wall.
When they re-emerge, Rosalind still sleeps, and the pool is pure, glossy, as if nobody has ever set foot in it.
Who, in the midst of passion, is vigilant against illness? Who listens to the reports of recently decimated populations in Spain, India, Bora Bora, when new lips, tongues, and poems fill the world?
And now, when they don’t touch, they share the splash and the churn, the rhythm of the stroke, the gulps of water in the gutter, the powerful shock of the dive, and a wake like smoke, trailing them.
Aliette leaves her wheelchair behind and begins to walk, even though the pain seems unbearable when she is tired. She loves the food she loathed before, for the flesh it gives her. She eats marbled steaks, half-inch layers of butter on her bread. She walks to the stores on Madison, leaning against a wall when she needs to, and returns, victorious, with bags. On one of her outings, she meets her father coming home for lunch. As she calls to him, and runs clumsily the last five steps, his eyes fill. His fleshy face grows pink, and the lines under his mouth deepen.
“Oh,” he says, holding out his arms and nearly weeping. “My little girl is back.”
In the hot days of the summer, the pool sessions are too short and the day that stretches between them too long. In his anxiety to see Aliette, L. writes poetry. Those short hours of relief aren’t enough, so he walks. But on the streets everything sparkles too brightly: the men selling war bonds smile too much, the wounded soldiers seem limp with relief, their wives too radiant and pregnant. He hates it; he is drawn to it.
To forget her need to be with him, Aliette keeps herself busy. She takes tea with school friends at the Plaza, goes to museums and parties, accepts all dates to the theater that she can. But when her dates lean in to kiss her, she pushes them away.
Five times in the Amsterdam before July: that first time in the men’s room; in the lifeguard’s chair; in the chaise longue storage closet; in the shallow end; in the deep end, in the corner, braced by the gutter.
All this time, Rosalind sleeps. The days that Aliette suspects she won’t, she fills her nurse’s head with glorious evocations of the cream puffs that are the specialty of the hotel’s pastry chef. Rosalind, she feels certain, will slip out at some point during the lesson and return a half an hour later with a cream puff on a plate for her ward, licking foam from her lip like a cat.
The second wave of the illness hits America in July. People begin to fall in Boston, mostly strong young adults. In a matter of hours, mahogany spots appear on cheekbones, spreading quickly until one cannot tell dark-skinned people from white. And then, the suffocation, the pneumonia. Fathers of young families turn as blue as huckleberries, and spit a foamy red fluid. Autopsies reveal lungs that look like firm blue slabs of liver.
Aliette slips away on a day that Rosalind is off, visiting a cousin in Poughkeepsie. She takes a cab to the dark and seedy streets where L. lives, but is so thrilled she doesn’t see the dirt or smell the stench. She gets out of the cab, throwing the driver a bill, and runs as quickly to the door of L.’s close, hot bedroom as her awkward legs will allow.
She comes in. He stands, furious to suddenly see her in this hovel. She closes the door.
It is only later, sitting naked on the mattress, dripping with sweat and trying to cool off in what breeze will come from the window, that she notices the bachelor’s funk of his apartment, the towers of books and notebooks lining the walls like wainscoting, and hears the scrabble of something sinister in the wall behind her head. That is when she tells L. her plan.
That night Mr. Huber is chaperoning. L. pays his friend W. Sebald Shandling, starving poet, to sit by the pool. Shandling is foppish, flings his hands about immoderately, has a natural lisp.
“Watch me like a jealous wife,” L. instructs him.
And his friend does watch him, growing grimmer and grimmer, until, by the end of the session, when Aliette comes to the wall and touches L. on the shoulder, he is pacing like a tiger and glaring at the pair. Mr. Huber looks on with an expression of jolly interest.
In the cab home that evening, as the horse’s hoofs clop like a metronome through the park, Aliette asks her father if L. can come live with them, in one of the guest bedrooms.
“Daddy,” she says, “he told me how disgusting his room is. But he cannot afford to live elsewhere. And I’ve decided to train for the New York girls’ swimming championships in September, and need to add another session in the afternoon, at the Fourteenth Street YMCA. It will just be easier if he lives with us.”
“You have become friends?” he says.
“Oh, we get along swimmingly,” she laughs. When he doesn’t smile, she adds, “Daddy, he is like a brother to me.”
And her father says, without much hesitation, “Well, I don’t see why not.”
On the July day he leaves his hovel, L. stands in his room, looking around at the empty expanse. He hears children playing in the alley below. He goes to the window and watches. Two girls skip rope, chanting.
I had a little bird, they sing, rope clapping to the words.
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window.
Then they shriek and fall to the ground, clutching their chests, giggling.
L.’s world is spun on its head. Now he deals with servants, people calling him “sir,” any food he likes at any time of the day, the palatial apartment filled with light. And, of course, midnight creeping, and free midafternoon siestas in the cavernous cool apartment, as the servants sit in the kitchen and gossip about the war. In mid-August, L. is deemed chaperone enough, and Rosalind stays home when they go to the Amsterdam or the Y. If Aliette’s father leaves for work a bit later than usual on those mornings, the servants’ bland faces reveal nothing. Rosalind begins wearing a long strand of pearls, and French perfume. She takes to sitting on Aliette’s bed, combing her hair and asking the girl about her dates with the Ivy League boys. Her voice is rich and almost maternal.
Aliette tells her father that she no longer needs Rosalind, that she is healthy, and he can let the nurse go. Rosalind becomes his nurse, for he has discovered gout in his toes.
One golden night at the end of September, they are all listening gravely to the radio’s reports of war dead, eating petits fours in Aliette’s father’s study. Mr. Huber and Rosalind go into his bedchamber to treat his gout. Through the walls, L. and Aliette can hear their murmuring voices.
L. takes the cake from Aliette’s hand, and lifts her skirt on the morocco leather couch. She bites his shoulder to keep from screaming. Throughout, they can hear her father moving about behind the wall, Rosalind’s heels tapping, the maid dusting in another room.
When Rosalind and Mr. Huber return, Aliette is reading a novel and L. is still in his wing chair, listening intently to the radio. Nobody notices the pearls of sweat on his forehead, or, when Aliette stands for bed, the damp patch on her skirt.
The marvel is, with all she and L. do together, that Aliette has the time to train. But she does, growing muscles like knots in her back, adapting her kick from the standard three-beat to a lightning-quick eight-beat flutter, better suited for her weak legs.
At the competition in September in the 200-meter freestyle, she is already ahead after her dive, and draws so far away from the other girls that she is out on the diving platform, wearing her green cloak, when the other girls come in. She also takes the 100-meter freestyle.
The captions below her picture in the Times and the Sports News say: “Heiress NY’s Best Lady Swimmer.” In the photo, Aliette stands radiant, medals gleaming in the sunlight on her chest. If one were to look closely, however, one would see a bulge around Aliette’s waist.
The slow rumble of influenza becomes a roar. September drips into deadliest October. In Philadelphia, gymnasiums are crowded with cots of sailors healthy just hours before. America does not have enough doctors, and first-year medical students, boys of twenty, treat the men. Then they too fall sick, and their bodies are stacked like kindling with the rest in the insufficient morgues. More than a quarter of the pregnant women who survive the flu miscarry or give birth to stillborn babies.
Aliette’s stomach grows, but she does not tell L., hoping he’ll notice and remark upon it first. He is in a fever, though, and sees nothing but his passion for her. She begins wearing corsets again, and she makes a great show of eating inordinately, so that her father and Rosalind think she is simply getting fat.
The plague hits New York like a tight fist. Trains rolling into the boroughs stop in their tracks when engineers die at the controls. After 851 New Yorkers die in one day, a man is attacked for spitting on the street.
Mr. Huber sends his six servants away, and they are forbidden to return until the end of the plague. Three of them won’t return at all. Mr. Huber, Aliette, Rosalind, and L. remain. They seal the windows, and Mr. Huber uses his new telephone to order the groceries. They buy their food in cans, which they boil before opening, and their mail is baked piping hot in the oven before they read it.
After the second week of quarantine, Rosalind becomes hysterical and makes them drink violet-leaf tea and inhale saltwater. She paces the apartment wildly and forgets to brush her hair. They cannot persuade her to make up the fourth for bridge, so they play Chinese checkers, backgammon, and gin. Mr. Huber suddenly unveils his collection of expensive liquors, and dips gladly into them. When he has had too much, he and Rosalind go into the servants’ quarters and hiss at one another. At those times Aliette sits on L.’s lap, and presses her cheek against his, until the shape of his moustache is embossed in her skin.
When her father and Rosalind return, Aliette is always balanced on the arm of a couch, air-swimming, as L. critiques her form. He makes her air-swim and do jumping jacks for hours every day. The cloistered life suits her. She is radiant.
After a month, Rosalind watches from a window as a coffin falls from a stack on a hearse, the inhabitant spilling out when it hits the ground. She goes nearly mad. She breathes into a paper bag until calm, and makes them wear masks inside. She forces them to carry hot coals sprinkled with sulfur. The apartment stinks like Satan.
When Aliette and L. kiss through their masks, they laugh. And when Aliette comes to L. in the night, she swings her coals like a priestess swinging a censer.
On a lazy day of snoozing and reading L. gets a letter from his mother. He doesn’t bother to bake it. He tears it open, Aliette watching, hand over her mouth.
In three sentences, in her shaking hand, his mother tells him that his father, hearse driver, was one of the rare lightning deaths. Amadeo toppled from his horse and was dead before he hit the ground. Two hours later, Lucrezia fell ill, her knees wobbling, joints stiffening, the fever, the viscous phlegm, the cyanosis, the lungs filling.
L. understands only years later that when his sister died, she died of drowning.
He stays in bed for one week and does not weep. He lets Aliette hold his head for hours. Then he rises, and shaves his moustache off. Its outline is white on his tan face, and looks exceptionally tender.
In the first week of November the crisis slackens. People emerge into the street, mole-eyed and blinking, searching for food. In some apartments, whole families are found dead when their mail can no longer fit through their slots. Rosalind, however, will not let the Huber household leave the apartment. L. reads the baked newspapers, saddened. In addition to his family, he has lost his novelist friend, C. T. Dane; his fellow swimmer Harry Elionsky, the long-distance champion; the actress Suzette Alda, with whom he once danced for an entire night.
Life picks up again, though some new cases are still reported, and the horror is not completely over. More than 19,000 New Yorkers have died.
Early in the morning of November 11, the streets burst into triumphant rejoicing in victory. Sirens blare, churchbells ring, New Yorkers pour into the streets, shouting. Newspaper boys run through the sleeping parts of town, shouting, “The war is ovah!” An effigy of the kaiser is washed down Wall Street with a fire hose; confetti pours down; 800 Barnard girls snake-dance on Morningside Heights, and a coffin made of soapboxes is paraded down Madison, with the kaiser symbolically resting in pieces within.
Many people still wear masks.
A mutiny occurs in the Huber apartment, and Rosalind wrings her hands as the other three rush into the street to join the celebration. They are all in their nightclothes. Mr. Huber dances a jolly foxtrot with a dour-faced spinster. When a blazing straw dummy is kicked down the street, L. turns to look for Aliette. She is standing on a curb, clapping her hands and laughing. As the dummy passes, the wind picks up and billows out Aliette’s nightgown. Through the suddenly sheer garment, he sees how her belly is extended above her thin legs.
When Aliette sees him swaying there on the sidewalk, his face pale, she puts a hand on her belly. A soldier and his girl pass between them, but they don’t notice. When she turns, L. is beside her, gripping her arm too tightly.
He drags her into the building and to the doorman’s empty room. A thin wedge of light falls across her flushed cheek.
“You didn’t tell me,” he says. “How long?”
She stares at him, defiant. “Since May,” she says. “That first time, I think.”
“My God,” he says, then leans his forehead against the door, above her shoulder. She is pinned. He rests his stomach against hers, and feels a pronounced thump, and another. “My God,” he repeats, but this time with awe.
“A good swimmer, I’ll bet,” she says, daring to smile a little. But he doesn’t smile back. He just stands, leaning against her, until he feels another kick.
They wait until December, a day when Mr. Huber has returned to Wall Street and Rosalind has gone shopping.
Once the house is empty, they pack only what she needs. In the cab to Little Italy she squeezes his hand until it goes numb. The driver is singing boisterously to himself.
“You’re kidnapping, you know,” she whispers to L., trying to make him laugh.
He looks away from her, out the window. “Only until we can figure out what to do. Until you have him and we can be married.”
“L.,” she says, ten blocks later, “I don’t want to be married.”
He looks at her.
“I mean,” she says, “I would rather be your mistress than your wife. I don’t need a ring and a ceremony to know what this is.”
He is silent at first. Then L. says, “Oh, Aliette. Your father does. And that is enough.”
His mother, aged with recent grief, meets them at the door. She looks at her son, and touches his lip where his moustache had been. Then she looks at Aliette, and holds open her arms to embrace her.
The detectives don’t come looking for Aliette for a week, unable to find out where L.’s mother lives. When at last they do, she hides the couple in her bedroom, and opens the door, already talking. In her quick jumble of Italian, the detective who knows the language passably becomes confused, then tongue-tied, then shamefaced when he tries to tell her why he is there. “L. DeBard,” he says. “Noi cerciamo L. DeBard.”
She looks at him as if he were the greatest fool the world had seen. DeBartolo, she cries, hitting her fist on her chest. She points to the card in the door. DeBartolo. She throws her hands to the skies, and sighs. The detectives look at one another, bow, and leave.
In the bedroom, L. and Aliette listen to this barrage, and press tightly together.
The next day, Aliette goes into labor. Though the baby is more than a month early, Aliette is very small, and it takes a long time. From morning until late at night, L. paces down the street, finally going into a bar. There, he discovers Tad Perkins drinking himself into a stupor, alone.
“Isn’t that old fishface L.?” Tad cries. “My God, I thought you damn well died.”
“You’re not that lucky,” L. says, laughing with great relief. “You still owe me thirteen dollars.” He sits down and buys Tad and himself four quick martinis.
Later, staggering slightly, he goes out into the street. The moon is fat above. When he reaches the apartment, all is still. His mother sits beaming by the side of the bed, where Aliette sleeps. In his mother’s arms, he sees a tiny sleeping baby. A boy, he knows, without being told.
When Aliette awakens, she finds L. sitting where his mother was. She smiles tiredly.
“I am thinking of names,” L. says, hushed. “I like Franklin and Karl.”
“I have already named him,” Aliette says.
“Yes? What’s my son’s name?”
“Compass,” she says. And though he presses, she won’t tell him why. At last, grinning, he accepts the name, vowing to nickname him something more conventional. He never does. After the child is a few months old, L. will find the name suits his son to perfection.
They have a month together in that tiny flat. L.’s mother bustles and looks after them, feeding them elaborate meals, and rocking the baby while L. reads Aliette his new poems.
“You are growing into the best poet in America,” she says.
“Growing?” he jokes. “I thought I already was.”
“No,” she says. “But now you might be.” And she lies back, letting the words from his poems sift into her memory. She looks a little ill, and doesn’t complain, but L. can see that something is not right with her. He worries. At night, he hears a soft rasp as Aliette grinds her teeth in pain.
Soon, the detectives return. L.’s mother does not let them in this time, but their voices grow loud in the hallway. They shout and rage at her. At last they leave. L.’s mother is shaky and collapses into a chair, and puts a cloth over her face, and weeps into it, unable to look at the couple for fear.
L. looks at Aliette. “I am taking you back,” he says. “I’ll keep Compass with my mother.”
Aliette says, very quietly, “No.”
“Yes,” L. says. He tells her that he knows she is ill and her father can afford physicians that he cannot. If she returns without Compass, her reputation will not be tarnished, and no one will know about her pregnancy. Later, when they marry, they can adopt him. Their argument is quiet, but goes on for many hours, until Aliette finally succumbs to her illness and the pain and his arguments. She has been afraid that she is growing worse: she feels herself weakening, and allows herself to be convinced about something that, if she were stronger and less frightened, she never would have countenanced.
At last she clutches Compass to her chest and smells her fill of him. Weeping, feverish, longing for him already, she agrees to go.
L. stops the cab a half a block from Aliette’s father’s house, and leans close to her. Their kiss is long and hungry. If they knew how often they would remember it, for how many years it would be their dearest memory, this kiss would last for hours. But it ends, and she climbs out, wincing with pain, and he watches her walk away, so lovely, the feather of her hat bouncing.
When Aliette walks back into the house, her father is sitting in the parlor, head buried in his hands. When he looks up, he clearly does not recognize her. She looks at the mirror above the mantle, and sees herself: pale and skinny again, hair dun-colored, her face above her fur looking a decade older than her age. When she looks back, Rosalind is in the doorway, and the tray she is holding is chattering. Her face is pinched with unhappiness, while a broad, bright smile spreads across her father’s red face.
After the doctor visits Aliette, she is forced into bed rest. She sleeps while, across town, L. holds Compass and sees Aliette in his son’s small face.
Only years later does Aliette trace the pieces of her loss in the evidence scattered through her fever. Her father’s expression when he looks at her as she first walks in, a mixture of hurt and relief. How the doctor asks probing questions about her delicate parts until she admits to the pain, and allows him to examine her. How her father’s expression changes after conferring with the doctor, how he looks at her angrily. And a year later, she will hear him shouting at Rosalind one night when drunk. “Nobody, nobody abandons a Huber,” he’ll say. “We were right to do what we did.”
Two nights after L. has returned Aliette to her father’s house he is feeling a little restless, anxious to hear of Aliette’s health. He decides to take a walk in the wintry streets, to kick through the snow and work off his anxiety. He leaves Compass in his mother’s lap, and hurries down the dank stairwell and into the night.
He does not see the shadows detaching from the alleyway, or how they steal close to him. He feels the sudden grip on his arms, then the handkerchief with the sour stink of chloroform pressed over his nose and mouth. The gas lamps flicker and darken, the street becomes wobbly, and a snowbank catches him as he falls.
Much later, L. can see a golden light growing between his lids. His head is bound with pain. His eyes open slightly. He is on the hard wooden floor of what appears to be an office, a vast mahogany-paneled room, bookshelves, paintings of ships. His fingertips lie on what feels like rubber.
Two unfamiliar faces loom over him. “He’s waking up,” one says. The men back away, and in their place stands Mr. Huber, transformed and dangerous with rage. Beside him is Rosalind’s brunette head, in her mask, eyes filling with tears. Suddenly, L. feels cold. He is naked, he realizes, a window is open, and snow is pouring in and powdering the rug.
“You deserve this, and more,” says Mr. Huber.
L.’s lips move, but he can’t say anything. He closes his eyes.
“Rosalind,” says the fat man, “give it to me.”
When L. looks again, Rosalind’s eyebrows have come together above her mask in a frown. But she hands Mr. Huber what he wants, something that appears to be a blade, glinting. Aliette’s father stoops closer. Through his numbness, L. can feel hands grasping his legs roughly and pulling them apart.
“Bastard,” Aliette’s father breathes in his face. L. has only a moment to smell his sour breath before he goes out of L.’s line of vision.
He hears a thunk. Then such pain, and so impossible, that L. blanks out again.
Time runs fluidly through the rest: the discovery of the fiercely bleeding L. in the snowbank by a police officer on patrol. The rescue and delivery to the hospital, the doctors unveiling his wound, vomiting, the cauterizing of the hole between his legs. And, at last, the fever that makes him delirious, and lasts for months.
His literary friends come to visit him, and out of kindness they do not bring the newspapers lurid with the story of his gelding. When L. seems unlikely to survive, W. Sebald Shandling visits L.’s mother. He finds her holding Compass. The baby is chewing on his father’s most recent poems. In an act of uncharacteristic selflessness, Shandling persuades a publisher to take the collection, to provide something for the baby in the case his father dies. And L. rages while the world shifts into treaties and recovery, while President Wilson is struck by influenza but recovers in time to sign at Versailles.
Just when his fever begins to dissipate, L. catches one of the last strands of the flu.
For three days the only thing he can hear is the gurgle of water in his lungs. He doesn’t think he’ll live. When the worst is over and he can sit up again, a young doctor whose face is prematurely lined comes to see him. He looks as if he might begin to cry.
“Mr. DeBard,” he says. “I am afraid your lungs are so damaged you will never swim again. They’re so bad, you won’t be able to walk far unaided. You will wheeze for the rest of your life.” Then he gives a curious half sob, and says, “I followed your swimming, sir. When I was a boy, I admired you greatly.”
L. looks at the doctor for some time before closing his eyes and sighing.
“Frankly, doctor,” he says, at last. “Of all the many things I do extraordinarily well, it is not the loss of swimming that upsets me.”
The doctor frowns and is about to say something. Then, remembering, he flees.
By the summer, L. is still recovering, walking around weakly. His mother leaves Compass with a neighbor when she visits, but brings a photograph of the boy that L. stares at for hours, and keeps in the breast pocket of his pajamas when he sleeps.
In all the time L. is in the hospital, Aliette does not come to see him. She is paying dearly for her transgressions, supervised day and night, only allowed to go to the pool with her female coach. She is not allowed to see Compass, though two or three times she tries to slip out at night, only to be collared each time by her coach or her father. She is not allowed to keep the baby blanket she had taken with her, and is not allowed to send money for his care. Rosalind and another nurse follow her everywhere, even to the bathroom. She spends her rage in the water, holding her breath until she almost drowns.
L. comes home from the hospital on the day his new book sells out in one hour. Though his enemies claim it is the shock of his story, the scandalous tale, they cannot explain why it continues to sell long after the story is forgotten. Compass cries when he sees this strange man, but slowly grows used to him, and in a fortnight he tugs on L.’s reinstated moustache and touches his cheek in wonder.
At last, after its third time around the globe, the pandemic burns itself out. By the end, whole villages have been wiped clean from history; in a single year, more Americans have died from it than from all of the battles of the Great War. In one small part of its aftermath, the plague will be linked to an encephalitic state in which patients can walk, answer questions, and be aware of their surroundings, but with such vagueness that they are described as somnambulists, or sleeping volcanoes.
L. and Aliette never meet again. She will hold her breath every time she sees a man walking a little boy down the street, and go home so agitated she will be unable to speak. She will begin letters that she will never send, and with every new one she tears into confetti she will hope fervently that L. and Compass understand.
But at first L. doesn’t understand. Her absence is an ache. He knows that if they were to meet, they wouldn’t be able to look at each other, hot with shame and loss, but he doesn’t understand how Aliette could give up her own son; it seems a horror. Then, Compass begins to speak and to develop his own little grave personality, and on the boy’s fifth birthday, as they sit on the glowing grass of the park and eat cake together, L. looks at his son, who is kicking his legs at the sky, and in the fullness of the boy’s presence and his delicious joy, L. finally knows what Aliette has done. She has released Compass to him, an exculpatory gesture, a self-sundering. He imagines her in the city somewhere, staring out the window on her son’s birthday, and knows she is dreaming of their child.
By then, though, no other life is imaginable, and Compass will never tell L. he missed having a mother, for the older he becomes, the more his father will depend upon him. And L. will still be drenched with sweat every time he smells lilacs or sees a tiny blonde from afar.
L. reads about Aliette’s few, small, rebellions in the newspapers. How she is arrested for nude bathing at Manhattan Beach after removing her stockings before swimming, and how through this act and its subsequent uproar, women are liberated from having to wear stockings when they swim. He reads of how she goes, with an escort of four strong matrons, to bombed-out Antwerp for the 1920 Olympics, and wins every gold medal in women’s swimming, breaking world records in that estuary, more mud than water. He saves the papers for Compass, for when he is older. And L. is there on the opening night of her water performance in the Royal Theatres, but leaves when he sees the falseness of the smile pasted on her face. When he wakes up the next morning, his heart still hurts.
And in the papers he notices her one last rebellion: she is arrested for swimming at night in the pond in Central Park. But the mayor intervenes, and from this incident comes a good thing: New York’s first public swimming pool. She sinks quietly back into her life, coaches a few women swimmers to the Olympics, and has no more children, as far as he can tell. He hopes, from his spacious apartment on the East Side as he watches Compass grow, that she is happy.
Aliette watches him, too. She follows him as he grows famous, and reads every one of his new books. She leaves them strewn so conspicuously in her home on nights when she holds soirées that her high-society guests, most of whom have never read a line of poetry, cite him in interviews as their favorite poet. She reads the profiles of him in the papers and watches Compass grow and become his father’s amanuensis, his nurse, his friend. Compass goes to Harvard when his father is offered a lectureship there, and lives with him during his college years. He graduates with a degree in English, and holds three school records on the pool’s walls. Later, when the interviewers can induce the boy to speak, he smiles his serious smile, and says, “I can’t imagine a better life than the one I live with my father.” Aliette snips this quote and carries it in a locket that hangs from her neck.
One night she turns on the radio and hears L.’s dear voice reciting some of his oldest poems, the ones from Ambivalence. He gasps slightly with his troubled lungs as he reads the lines, “I have dreamed a dream of repentance / I have known the world eternal.” She listens, rapt, and when she switches off the radio, her face is wet.
She sees him only once, in all this time. They are both old, and he has just published his twelfth book of poems. He stands on a stage, behind a lectern. His hair is white, and he is stooped. He reads deliberately and well, stopping after each poem to catch his breath.
He does not notice the plump woman in the gray cloche and chinchilla coat in the back of the auditorium. He doesn’t see how she mouths with him each word he reads, how her face is bright with joy. Later, after he has shaken the hands of his admirers, and is alone with Compass in the theater, she is long gone, in bed with a hot-water bottle. But though she is nowhere around, he has felt all evening the change her very presence makes in the air.
He walks on the arm of his handsome son onto the cool New York street glistening with rain. Out on the sidewalk he tells Compass to halt. L. lifts his face to the drizzle and closes his eyes, breathing deeply once, twice. When he brings his face back down, he is grinning.
Then he tells his son, “This feels like that breath you take after coming up from a long swim underwater. The most gorgeous feeling, that sip of air you feared you’d never have again.” He looks at Compass, and touches his cheek, gently. “Surfacing,” he says.