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Underwater Calisthenics Photograph by Jennifer Rowsom.

Underwater Calisthenics

After the third dollar store pregnancy test, I asked Miranda what I should do about it.

AFTER THE THIRD dollar store pregnancy test, I asked Miranda what I should do about it. On a piece of stationery bordered by dancing teddy bears, she wrote out a list in her puffy script: Natural Cures, double underlined in pink. The scented marker made my underwear drawer reek like bubblegum for days.

I followed Miranda’s list like gospel. One hundred jumping jacks before breakfast. Loads of parsley. Mug after mug of strong black coffee. (“Since when do you like coffee?” asked Aunt Ruth. “Since always.”) As the caffeine cartwheeled around my system, I’d swim violent lengths at the community centre.

Hard, punishing strokes. An imperfect, floundering butterfly until I choked back water and felt like passing out. I threw up triumphantly once or twice afterwards, but later realized it was probably just morning sickness.

At church, the other girls asked God for clear skin and Friday night dates. I prayed for cramps and blood. And forgiveness for the sinful acts I’d committed that got me into this mess, offering an extra special sorry to Jesus Christ if He’d ever seen me and Trevor go at it.

The first time I attempted to fall down the stairs, I teetered for several minutes but didn’t have the guts. I begged Miranda to push me the second time. She didn’t throw enough power behind the shove so I just kind of got turned around, landing a few steps below her. We laughed in disbelief at my carpet-burned knees until the tears came. I didn’t try again after that.

“If I have an abortion,” I said as Miranda dabbed Polysporin on my knees, “will I be sending the doctor to hell for murder?”

“It’s their job,” Miranda said, rolling her eyes. I noticed she didn’t answer my question. I was taught in Sunday school that dead unbaptized children go to this place called Limbo. Limbo is not quite bad and not quite good. I picture a huge white room with endless rows of chubby babies just floating around, shaking silver rattles and cooing at each other. It doesn’t sound too terrible, actually.

Once, a mouse got into our Sunday school classroom. It ran all over like a little wind-up toy. Miss Alma jumped onto a chair and screamed, “Somebody kill it!” All the kids tried stomping on the mouse as it scurried by. Eventually, Miranda’s brother Michael trapped it under a waste paper basket. Everyone clapped. But we could still hear it fluttering and scratching in its tin prison. The janitor came and crushed its tiny body under the weight of the Old Testament. Miss Alma herded us into theantechamber to wait for our families. I asked her if the janitor was going to hell for killing one of God’s creatures. She pretended to not hear me.

“Adoption is an option worth considering,” said the wall-eyed nurse at the walk-in clinic, pushing pamphlets into my hands.

I parroted this sentence at Miranda.

“Like anyone’s gonna want your retard kid!”

“My kid’s not retarded,” I said, with only a little hesitation.

“Obviously it’s retarded,” said Miranda. “It’s got a full retard for a dad.”

Miranda had introduced me to Trevor. He went to her brother Michael’s school (“A special school,” Miranda called it, lolling her tongue around and slapping at her chest). It sounded just like our school, except the kids took fewer classes and called the teachers by their first names.

The thing about Michael is his spine is crooked. He wears a brace but you can’t really tell because he mostly wears loose-fitting sports jerseys. He also wears winter hats all the time, even in summer. Michael almost died when he was a baby. He had water on the brain and doctors had to drill in a tap-like thing to keep his head from expanding like a hot air balloon. I picture it being like my bathroom sink tap, with a side for cold water and one for hot. Now the tap or whatever is on the inside. It’s called a shunt.

“Why did your head have so much water in it?” I’d asked him once when we were younger.

“We are all a large percentage of water,” he replied, before showing me his action figures.

Michael brought Trevor along to a Canada Day barbecue at the park. Trevor was really cute. He had these crazy blue eyes and so many freckles that they all kind of blended into each other.

“Hey there, Ribfest,” Miranda pushed two fingers into the concave of Trevor’s chest. “This is my friend Bethany.”

“I brought butter tarts,” I said.

“So I guess I’d better try one to make sure they’re not poisonous,” Trevor smiled and took a bite out of the one I was holding, so I was feeding him. Miranda shot us a disgusted look.

“You’ll have to make some just for me sometime,” he said, snaking his arm around my back.

“She got them from Mariposa Market,” said Miranda. “They’re famous, you know. You can buy them basically whenever you want.”

Miranda looked me up and down. Then she turned her back and made a big show about announcing it was time to light the sparklers.

MY PERIOD WAS THREE WEEKS LATE when Trevor drove us to Bass Lake. We got freezies that made our lips blue and a can of Mountain Dew. We started making out but then I ran off to puke in the bushes. I figured that was as obvious an opening as any.

Trevor snapped a long blade of grass that had gone to seed and chewed on it, looking like a farmer chomping on some straw and inspecting his acres.

“So what makes you think it’s even mine?”

It felt like a slap. I wanted to slap back.

“You think I go around doing it with every boy I know?”

Trevor hugged his pale grasshopper legs to his chest. I started counting the freckles on his face because I didn’t know what else to do. I made it to twenty.

“So what are you going to do about it?” I shrugged.

He stood up. “So maybe you should tell me when you know.”

He sucked back the dregs of the pop, tossed the can onto the grass and headed back towards the car. I didn’t feel like following him.

After that, I figured we were broken up.

LAST SUMMER, I leapt into lake water so cold that I could barely gulp in air when I surfaced.

I felt that same breathlessness when one of our wooden kitchen chairs made full contact with my abdomen.

After I managed to wedge in a breath, I bolted. My Aunt Ruth chased after me, screaming that I was a Jezebel and a whore and that I owed her everything, not the least of which was a new chair.

I sprinted and sobbed for ten blocks before leaning on Miranda’s doorbell. It was Michael who answered.

“Greetings, Bethany,” he said. “Would you like a cup of water?”

When Miranda’s mom came home, I told her what happened through tears. Lainie held me in her ample arms and sighed. “Poor dear. Poor little soul.”

Miranda raised an eyebrow when she saw me sipping chamomile tea on the couch.

“Bethany is having a rough go at home, dear heart,” said Lainie. “She’ll be staying with us for a while. She’ll sleep in your room.”

“But I don’t want to share my bed.” 

"Sleep  on the floor, then!” Lainie slammed a fist on the coffee table. “Christ, girl! Where’s your head?”

Miranda’s bedspread smelled like Love’s Baby Soft and mildewed towels. On the wall facing me was a constellation of glow-in-the-dark star stickers that I picked at idly while waiting for sleep. I usually slept on my stomach, but the mottled bruises splayed across my belly kept me from that. Miranda talked in her sleep. Otherwise, she’d stopped speaking to me entirely.

I was alone a lot. Miranda worked at a day camp and Lainie was back and forth at odd hours, taking on as many cleaning shifts as she could handle at the new casino. She used to clean private homes, but stopped after a client got too “handsy.”

“Just because they’re paying you for one job, they think they’re entitled to another,” she said, shaking her head. “Never be alone with men, Bethany, no good can come of it.” She regarded my still-flat belly with pity. “But you already knew that.”

Michael went to summer school and had also gone silent. I wondered if he felt weird about what happened with Trevor and me. Or worse, hated me because of it. Maybe Trevor said awful things. Maybe Michael believed them.

One day in late August, instead of immediately hiding in his room, Michael disappeared into the kitchen. He emerged a few minutes later, presenting a plate of perfect grilled cheese sandwiches. We ate them while watching The Price is Right.

“Have you noticed how no one seems to bid on the first Showcase Showdown?” said Michael. “They just pass and wait for the next one.”

“The next one’s always better.” I replied. “Not always,” he said.

We watched in silence for a minute.

The second lady won the first showcase. Bob reminded us to have our pets spayed or neutered.

“I want to see your scar,” I said. Michael hesitated for a moment before doffing his toque and tilting his head towards me, smacking the fleshy horseshoe on top.

“Do you think it’ll bring me luck if I touch it?” I asked him.

“It hasn’t brought me much luck, so I don’t know why you’d bother.”

I touched it anyway.

UNDERWATER CALISTHENICS replaced the frantic butterfly as my pool ritual. Sub-aquatic jumping jacks, handstands and back floats. The floats were my favourite because they blocked out the world. I’d dip my head back just enough to have the water cover my ears. The echo chamber of the pool deck was muted, the world made gelatinous. I’d stretch out my arms and legs like a snow angel, the water supporting me like a trillion tiny hands.

I watched a Mommies and Toddlers class starting in the shallow end and became very aware of the tiny swimming pool inside me. Somewhere in there, a veined jellybean floated and throbbed. I positioned my body into another back float.

“We are all a large percentage of water,” the fluid amplified the sound of my own voice, words humming within a skull that felt as vast and white as Limbo. “Adoption is an option worth considering.” Salty tears and chlorinated water stung my eyes in equal measure.

As an experiment, I curled up into the fetal position and promptly sank.