Pool Party – Katie Orr

We can see Lindsay’s ribs through her shirt. We tell her that she’s getting too skinny, that it’s not safe, that she needs help. What we don’t say is that if she weighed more than us, that’d be a much bigger problem.

Hannah Vance lived with us sophomore year and, at first, everything was fine – we were best friends. Then, we went home for winter break, and she came back to school carrying an extra 15 pounds. Everything changed after that. It wasn’t just the weight gain itself; it was what the weight represented. The body is a powerful communicator – it tells everybody who you are, whether you really have your shit together or not. It says a lot about your friends too. Everybody on campus is jealous of us and that’s how we prefer to keep it. But that wasn’t so true when Hannah Vance was around after that winter break. Needless to say, she wasn’t on the lease the following semester.

There’s a pool party today at a hotel in town. It’s an indoor pool because it’s winter here – it always is. Everybody in our year will be there. I know that seems like a lot of people, but our college is smaller than the high school I went to. This is an important day for us as a friend group for two reasons: nobody on campus has ever seen us in bathing suits, and we rarely have an excuse to drink during the day.

We didn’t show up to college so invested in our bodies, and we didn’t plan our weight loss as a group either. We just found each other. Then we found hot yoga. Then we found laxative teas.

Our opinions regarding our bodies are only discussed in a matter-of-fact way. We don’t let it get too serious, or else we may end up like Lindsay who, by the way, really should be getting help. College is supposed to be fun after all.

For example, one of us may take off our many winter layers – massive coats, ex-lovers’ hoodies – and reveal that our jeans barely hang to our hips, almost suspended in air like a magic trick. And the rest of us will say, “You look amazing. You should be so proud of yourself.”

Or, on a more contentious occasion, we’ll shop in town, and somebody will pick out a pair of pants and we’ll all become very silent, holding our breath while she tries them on. If they’re too big, we laugh manically, say, “We’ll grab you a smaller size!” like we’re employees earning commission. If they fit, we say, “You’re probably just bloated.” If they’re too small, we say nothing.

And then there are our eyes, sunken in and bruised like peaches so one might think we haven’t slept in days, though sometimes it feels like all we do is sleep. We are animals in this perpetual winter, either running in wild hungry circles or under the covers.

We wake up at 8 a.m. and go to a hot yoga class in town, sometimes two in a row. We come home and drink a cup of laxative tea. Then we go back to sleep until noon, skip our morning classes, promise we’ll go tomorrow.

When we wake up from our nap, we go to the gym and use the elliptical or the stationary bike for two hours and watch reality TV on the little machine screens. Then we sleep more or go to the library to study where we drink loads of tea and sometimes little plastic packets of honey. I’m not sure why, but we don’t put the honey in the tea; we scoop out the contents with our tongues and let it drip in sweet clots down our throats and our chins.

On weekday nights, we watch shows about French cooking. “Look at that cheese,” we say. We plan our next meal. Everything we’ll order. The whole menu. We take turns describing our dream meals. They never come.

On the weekends, we go out. We start with exactly one glass of champagne then switch to vodka for the rest of the night. Friday night is the precipice of our week, what we’ve been working so hard for, the time for everyone to see us. And because there is only one bar in town, everyone will see us. We spend the days waiting for them to be over – exercising and sleeping them into nonexistence. The night is all that matters.

The morning of the pool party, we take turns shitting. We’ve each had three cups of laxative tea and we hop around in our bathing suits, which are old and sag on us in all the right places. Our chests and asses and stomachs flat, we are girls again. We don’t look sexy, but that’s not the point. Was it ever? There’s a manic buzz in us on mornings like these – our school isn’t a party school so there are rarely opportunities to enjoy the daylight hours. We’re giddy and lightheaded and the time ahead is pregnant with possibility. It’s one of those occasions that’s so exciting, I’m mourning the end of it before it’s started.

“Weigh in!” Carson calls to us, laughing like it’s a joke, like we never do this. We take turns stepping on the black scale, its foot pads worn. The words STEP HERE are rubbed out so that it reads S P H R E. The moment between stepping on the scale and seeing the number is my favorite and least favorite part. Though we say nothing when we’re done, I can tell everyone is happy with the numbers, making the day feel even more momentous.

After a long, subzero trek through the snow, we arrive at the hotel 1 hour and 47 minutes late and everybody from our year is already there, including Hannah Vance. As expected, they stare when we arrive.

The air is dank with memories: indoor swim lessons, winter birthday parties at Splash Lagoon, a staycation with my mom one Christmas at a shitty hotel. Salt-covered boot prints vandalize the pool deck. Little piles of winter outer layers clutter the water-stained lawn chairs. A few pairs of snow pants line the perimeter of the pool, one pant leg fallen sadly in the shallow end.

We sit on the last two unclaimed lawn chairs and take turns drinking vodka from the flask we brought. It hits me quickly and I immediately reap the benefits of vodka on an empty stomach: the dingy pool glitters, I’m too chatty but everything I say is important, I’m obsessed with my body and my friends’ bodies and all the glory the body has to offer if you just treat it the right way. Even after years of drinking, it still amazes me that the less I eat the drunker I get. It feels like a biological gift created just for me.

We take turns jumping into the empty pool which smells over-chlorinated and feels like bath water, the temperature thawing my wintry bones. When Lindsay jumps in, she’s under for a second too long and the rest of us look at each other, waiting for some signal to worry. But then she rips through the surface, gasps for air, laughs wildly.

We play Chicken, wobbling drunkenly on each other’s bony shoulders, our shrieks echoing too loudly through the pool area. The pool deck empties slowly, people gathering their coats, shooting us judgmental looks on their way out.

When we lose Chicken, our bodies fall under the water, our red noses releasing bubbles and our hair splaying out like mermaids. The alcohol feels like a blanket, makes it difficult to stay afloat even in the shallow end.

Carson yells something at me. I feel a rush at my back and then I am face down in the water and somebody’s legs are wrapped around my neck. The same force that pushed me down, pulls me back up. I cough water from my lungs and smile. I face Lindsay who has her own pair of legs wrapped around her neck. We laugh in slow motion, wet clumps of hair blinding us. I’m laughing so hard I hardly notice the moment Lindsay stops. First, I see the legs fall from her shoulders, then the whites of her eyes. I hear the crack of her head hitting the side of the pool, then there are dark red swirls turning the blue water purple. The surrounding gasps seem to come much later, a delayed reaction that ripples through the air. And then we are stumbling to the bathroom, Lindsay in our arms, blood hitting the pool deck in sharp, deliberate drops.

Lindsay sits on the blue tiled floor of the bathroom, holding the back of her head. Blood is gushing through her fingers, her hair matted red. We run through an entire roll of toilet paper, blotting uselessly at her wound. “Am I better yet?” she asks. “Almost,” we tell her, trying to simulate the sense of urgency we might feel if we were sober. Everything feels fake, like we’re kids playing doctor. Only briefly does the weight of the situation hit me, and then I lose it again.

“That looks really bad,” we hear. It’s Hannah Vance washing her hands at the sink. We don’t answer, just roll our eyes.

“Alright. Ignore me,” she says. “But toilet paper isn’t going to do much for a head wound.” She says “toilet paper” like we’re using spoons or something equally ridiculous. Lindsay lays her head in Carson’s lap, getting blood all over her thighs. Carson laughs, her own head nodding forwards and backwards like it might roll right off.

Hannah Vance turns off the sink, puts her hands under the dryer for a moment, then walks toward the exit door. “Jealous bitch,” Lindsay slurs at Hannah, lifting her head. We laugh loudly, drunkenly.

“I’m not jealous of you guys,” says Hannah. “Nobody is.” The girls don’t hear her, continue to giggle stupidly. But I catch Hannah’s eye; there’s an earnestness on her face and, horrified, I believe her.

“She’s going to need stitches,” Hannah says on her way out the door.

Sirens signal the end of the pool party. I have no idea how long it’s been – time has slipped into something uncontainable. Lindsay is loaded into the back of the ambulance. We watch in our bikinis and winter coats, holding hands, shaking. We take turns saying that we hope she’s okay.

What we don’t say is that we wish it were us in the ambulance. We worry we will never become as sick as her. And simultaneously – somewhere else, maybe in another version of this story – worry that nothing, nobody, is stopping us from becoming even sicker.