When the dolphin appears in Ava Long’s swimming pool, she thinks at first it is a shadow, the gray outline of a zeppelin circling above her house. Then, the gray sliver flicks its tail and dives to the bottom of the amoeba-shaped pool, and Ava thinks the neighborhood kids are playing some sick joke on her. Hahaha, your kid drowned in that pool, so now watch this dolphin die in it. Except that her baby didn’t drown in the pool but in the crib, which no one, not even Ava, seems to understand.
She slams her lipstick on her bureau so hard the cap pops off and rolls under the radiator. Ava gets down on her knees to find it, crawling on all fours, which she hasn’t done since the baby left. That’s her word for it, left. One day the baby was stuffing fat toes in his mouth and the next she was watching a static elephant snapped to the crib rails on the video monitor. If she stared long enough, maybe the baby would return, pop up in that space as if he’d gotten lost sleepwalking and found his way back. Six months in, this hasn’t happened yet, but the dolphin makes her believe that it can. Ava swipes the screen on her phone, checks her iBaby app and sees the trunk-heavy toy toppled onto its face in the room next to hers but nothing else, not even a shadow to suggest the baby is near.
The thing with loss is that it stacks. Comes in threes, isn’t that what they say when a celebrity dies? Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett went the same day, and Ed McMahon right after. Not that her husband is dead, just moved across town into an apartment to get some space. Jim said it was the house he couldn’t bear, but Ava knows it’s her he can’t stand to be around, not after what she did to their baby.
She caps the lipstick, gives up on her eyes, which are always dark and puffy these days, as if someone has punched her twice in the face, and heads downstairs. On the way, she kicks a rubber duck, steps over a rattle giraffe with plastic rings stitched to each of its feet, and gets tangled in a plush caterpillar. When Ava tugs the sliding door open, the dolphin raises his nose out of the water and cackles at her. He dives under the surface and disappears in the deep end. The pool is scabbed over with algae. Leaves clump on the bottom and the water gleams green with neglect. Her feet pad the warm concrete, and the dolphin bobs beside her, his dorsal fin cutting the surface in slick waves.
“Are you for real?” she asks.
The dolphin whistles, as if to assure her it is. She curls her toes around the edge and the dolphin pokes out its nose and rests the slick snout on the coping between her feet.
That was the thing Ava missed most. Having a baby was like having a mirror. Parenting was a constant pantomime. She said bye-bye, and the baby opened and closed his little hands. Ava blew kisses, and the baby smacked his lips in loud sucking thwacks. She laid her head on the sofa, exhausted from wiping his tiny nose and butt and chin, and the baby flopped onto a pillow in the middle of the floor and pretended to sleep. Ava yawns and the dolphin opens its mouth and flicks a pink tongue between beady teeth. She raises her arm and gives a beauty queen greeting. The dolphin sinks back into the water, rolls to its side, and waves his flipper until Ava can’t bear it. She runs back into the house.
It takes a few tries, but Jim answers when she calls.
“What is it this time?” he asks.
Ava has tried to get him to come back to skim the pool, mow the lawn, and fix the mailbox that was home-runned into the street. Jim sends tanned boys in his place who stomp around her yard shirtless and veiny. Each teenager who knocks at her door and flicks tawny fringe out of his face is another pawn in their standoff. It was just supposed to be a trial separation, but Ava won’t go to Jim’s apartment, and he won’t come back here. It isn’t real if she doesn’t see it, she tells herself, and keeps her husband’s cell listed in her starred favorites in her phone.
“There’s a dolphin in the pool,” Ava says.
“Ava, I’m busy. Some of us work, you know?”
“I’m busy too,” she says. “I just thought you should know about it.”
Ava wants to say “him” but is careful to choose “it.”
Before she met Jim, Ava spent three years with her eyes pressed to hard lenses learning the shapes and movements of microscopic life. Fuzzy paramecia crawling across slick slides with fuzzy little hairs. The crowded inside of her swabbed cheek glowing neon pink. Stacked cancer cells that were impossible to kill despite her neglect. Ava let them incubate for days, growing hot and hungry. She couldn’t be bothered to walk the twenty minutes across campus to feed them. By then she’d met Jim.
When she and Jim were planning the wedding, Ava had wanted to honeymoon in Orlando, to wear bride and groom Mickey ears and swim with the dolphins at Sea World. Jim was so horrified he made her watch some awful movie on dolphin slaughter even after she agreed to honeymoon in the Rockies and register at REI instead of Bed Bath & Beyond. The movie showed how dolphins communicate with sonar, sending clicks through the current and listening to the tone and shape of what echoes back. She learned that their echolocation is so complex they can see the shape of an object by the sound it sends back, the way an ultrasound finds the shape of a fetus inside an amniotic sac. It made her want to honeymoon with the dolphins even more, to see if they could confirm what she suspected, that she was already pregnant though Jim had wanted to wait, to enjoy each other before having kids, as if there was nothing enjoyable about tennis ball cheeks and toes the size of Tic Tacs. At the reception, Ava shunned champagne, clinked glasses and pretended to sip the crowd’s well wishes. She didn’t tell Jim until the two of them were at the end of a cliff where he could have pushed her but didn’t. At the end, there was a lot Ava didn’t tell Jim.
Ava unpeels the basket suctioned to the side of the tub and carries it out to the pool. Instead of dumping the toys, like the baby would do, she sets the basket on the steps submerged in the shallow end and sets sail a floating island of ducks and turtles and fish. It’s a verifiable ark of water friends. The dolphin bumps the basket with its nose until all of the animals break free and drift.
The dolphin rests its chin on the coping at Ava’s feet. It opens its mouth and cries. Its pink tongue quivers, extends, and recoils. Ava’s breasts tighten at the sound, which alarms her. Ava has the urge to dip into the water and open her shirt, to let the dolphin’s body fold into hers and feel the heft of its body thrum against her. Though it appears full grown, the dolphin, too, nursed a mother once, a hungry sliver beating against her soft underbelly.
“What do you want from me?” she asks.
The dolphin fetches an orange fish and carries it between its teeth. Before it releases the toy, the dolphin bites down and the fish squeaks. What it wants is no different from a baby. It is hungry. It wants fish.
Ava had taught their baby sign language, showed him to clap his chubby hands together when he wanted more and rub them like washing when he needed a diaper change. She was doing it for Jim who panicked when the baby cried, especially at night when it seemed like there was nothing Jim could do. Sometimes he raised his voice, not quite yelling or screaming, “What do you want?” which only made the baby cry more. Jim didn’t believe the signs would be of any use and mocked her for months as she flapped her hands in the air saying “All done. All done,” again and again. “This is how they learn,” she said, “through repetition.” Jim said he’d be talking no time, but their baby never spoke.
When Jim calls, Ava lets the ringtone play through twice before picking up.
He says, “Why is our house on the news?”
“I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen.”
“I’m listening now,” he says.
“Well, now I’m busy.”
“Buying dolphin food.”
Ava feels kind of important having something to do, something to care for. When he left Jim said, “You need to take better care of yourself before we can talk about the future.” Jim said “the future” but Ava knew he meant “our future.” He made it seem like their trial separation was all about her when he was the one who wanted to leave.
At the grocery, the magnetic doors open without hesitation, and Ava feels special. She doesn’t even tear up when she passes a mother with a newborn swaddled close to her chest in a sling, or when she catches twin toddlers tucked into one of those plastic car carts. Ava passes up the tinned sardines and skips over the tuna with the cartoon fish smiling on the can.
At the grocery Ava considers a can of sardines. She walks back to the seafood case not in search of the meaty fillets, but of something with a head and eyes, a fresh catch straight from the ocean.
Ava points to the cod, “I’ll take a few of those, and a pound of shrimp.”
The man behind the case digs his gloved hand in the ice to grab a fistful of gray coils and sets them on the scale.
“Anything else I can get for you?”
Since he asks, Ava feels a need to answer. The flounder is silvery and slick, not that puffy yellow cartoon from the Disney movie paling around with Ariel.
“Throw in one of those,” she says.
The man wraps the flounder like a present and seals it with a barcoded sticker Ava carries to the front of the store. She cradles the butcher-wrapped packages against her chest the way a man holds a football. The way a tired mother holds a baby.
At the register, the cashier scans the items one at a time, pausing between each to read the labels, even though each one is marked for easy scanning.
“You’re that lady.”
Because it’s on the forefront of her mind, Ava initially thinks, “the lady with the dolphin,” but that’s not what the cashier says.
“The one whose baby drowned in her pool.”
“That’s not me,” Ava lies. She tips her head down so that the cashier can’t look at her straight on. Ava shakes her hair into her face. “You’re thinking of someone else,” she says.
“Really? I remember they did a whole special because it didn’t happen right away like you’d think it would. Can you imagine, going swimming with your kid, laying him down for a nap to fix him lunch and he just doesn’t wake up to eat it? Dry drowning, they called it. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
“No,” Ava says. She’s waiting for the total to let her slide the card and get away.
“They made it sound like that torture the government does to all those terrorists. What’s the word for it? You know what I’m talking about.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yeah you do. It sounds like some kind of sport.”
Ava is horrified that this woman has made the connection between what happened to her son, which was an accident, to that kind of purposeful torture, but the cashier is not the first. Jim’s mother had said the same, and the pharmacist at Target, and the paper that ran the story after the autopsy came back. The way some people looked at her, the way Jim looked like her, was what broke them apart, as if she’d done it on purpose.
“Waterboarding,” Ava says just to get away.
“That’s it! Well, anyway,” the cashier says, handing over the receipt, “you sure do look like her.”
Ava grabs her bag of fish, knots a chiffon scarf under her chin and she’s Mommie Dearest backing away, adding one more store to the list of places she’s vowed to never return.
The pool had been Jim’s idea. He’d been raised in Minnesota, land of perpetual snowfall, yards clotted with milky slush that froze to sharp peaks and cut your hands worse than gravel macadam if you fell on it. His childhood narratives boasted ice thick enough to skate from swing set to shed, but he whined about chopping the sidewalks with an icepick when salt wouldn’t suffice. Jim thought life in Florida was all palm trees and pink sunsets, that their whole life would be one long vacation once they moved to the coast.
The house was a flip, a slapdash remodel meant to turn a buck. Ava felt cheated before they even moved in, anxious when the inspection showed the A/C had been installed upside down and that the bathroom vanity had no back to the cabinet.
“You’ll never see that,” Jim said, “No one will even know it’s there if they don’t look for it.”
But they had looked for it, and now Ava knew so it was all she could see.
Jim loved the ease of the house. Ava worried about the pool, imagined their child toddling in and silently slipping below the surface before anyone discovered him gone. Some of the houses had wire fences that reached all the way up to the roof like a backdrop on a softball field so the whole yard is caged in, but not theirs. This was just a row of tall wooden pickets like the one the guy in Home Improvement stood behind so you never got to see his face.
The pool became a concession she made because of the baby. “You got that. I want this,” Jim said, gesturing toward the belly she could no longer hide beneath empire dresses and oversized tshirts. “Marriage is about compromise,” Jim reminded her.
Except that she hadn’t decided to turn up pregnant. It just happened. Ava blamed the pro-choice bumper stickers and women’s choice rallies for influencing Jim, as if subliminally suggesting that everything in her life was a choice. The problem with choice, Ava sees now, is that it belies accidence, implies blame, as if everything was her fault.
On the drive home from the grocery, Ava starts to think maybe she could keep the dolphin if not for a long time, for at least a little while. Like a stray cat or lost dog that shows up on the stoop, she would shelter and feed him until he was claimed. The documentary said something about cement walls, how swimming pools are like torture. Every sound the animals send out bounces back to them again and again. She could build the fence higher, install some kind of filtration system, get some indigenous green life to make the dolphin feel more at home. Sure, she knows all about the horrors of captivity, but after all it wants to be here.
It could’ve been worse, people told her after the baby. “I mean, he could have been brain damaged or something,” they said.
“Just think,” her mother said. “You might have had to make a decision. You know, pull the plug. This way, God chose for you.”
“You mean it could have been worse in that my child would have lived?” Ava said.
“Well, he wouldn’t have been your child, not the child you knew. He would never be the same.”
That was the problem, her child was her child who would always be the same.
By the time she returns home, a news crew has drawn neighbors to the end of her driveway. Not again, Ava thinks. Boxy cameras and microphones that look like fuzzy cocoons crane over her fence. Ava parks a few doors down as if she, too, is a rubbernecker searching for the good gossip and sneaks in through the side door to her own garage.
She sets the fish in the freezer on top of the bags of frozen breastmilk she can’t bring herself to toss. Liquid gold the mothers from La Leche League called it.
In the documentary Jim made her watch, a mother dolphin carries her dead calf for days, drawn slack across her back, urging the baby to breathe, breathe, unwilling to let go. What Jim doesn’t understand is that Ava is still Mama, Mum-muh-mee, Mum, even after the baby is gone.
Someone pounds at her door. She hopes that it’s Jim, but Jim wouldn’t knock. Though, now, maybe he would. Ava tugs the curtain to the side of the glass, the way she used to do with the crotch of her bathing suit slick from a dip in the pool when she had to pee. “I’m not peeing in our own pool,” she told Jim. She even got one of those signs to hang by the gate. “We don’t swim in your toilet so please don’t pee in our pool.”
A blonde woman with magenta lipstick slaps her palm to the beveled glass in the front door and barks Ava’s name. “Ms. Long! Ms. Long!”
Two men in sport coats but no ties flock to the porch behind her. One with a foam-tipped microphone and another with a camera. The woman clamors with questions. Her arms flail and her acrylic nails tap the glass, eager to catch anything Ava has to say.
“Is that a saltwater pool?”
Ava shakes her head and drops the curtain. The woman screams louder, calling for Ava as though she is a criminal or some kind of celebrity.
“Ms. Long! Please!” she begs.
The backyard brings chaos after her. Ava slides shut the patio door, squints even though she is wearing sunglasses and watches the gray triangle trace the perimeter.
The woman shouts at her from behind the fence. Ava slides her sunglasses to the tip of her nose and stands atop the diving board. She walks to the edge so that she is over the water. The dolphin pokes his head out of the water and bobs as her side like one of those inflatable ring toss games where you have to sling a ring over a drifting bottlenose.
“Ava, are you part of a protest movement? Are you trying to make a statement? Further a cause?”
“I’m no activist,” Ava says. “I’m just hospitable. Mi casa is su casa, pool included,” Ava says.
“Yes! The pool! Tell us your plans. What was his name? Your son? Tell us about him, Ava? It’s good to talk.”
“This has absolutely nothing to do with my personal life,” Ava says.
“Ava, everything is personal. Won’t you let us help?”
“I’d like you all to leave now,” Ava says.
She wants to pull a Clint Eastwood, grimace and bark her best “Get off my lawn” but Ava knows from experience that’s the clip that would play on the evening news.
She checks the iBaby app again and again, mostly to avoid clicking other things. The pregnancy announcements flooding her facebook feed, that Fox News clip of herself, screaming “I told you he was cold! He was cold!” and Nancy Grace’s scrolling headline “Frigid Mom’s Chilling Confession.”
When the sun sets, the creamy clouds melt like sherbet left out too long. Ava sits on the porch swing, wide enough for two, where she used to rock the baby to sleep on cool nights when Jim was working late. She can hear them on the other side of the fence, prowlers, paparazzi, rustling like foxes in the brush while the water ripples and splashes in soft susurrations. At each breech, a flash, blindingly bright strikes across the yard. Their urgency echoes like an emergency Ava doesn’t have time to answer.
She waits until it is quiet and dark to pull the fish from the freezer. When she gets close, the dolphin does a kind of shimmy across the surface of the pool, its white belly upturned to the moon. The pool is cleaner now than it was this morning. The dolphin must have licked the algae from the tile and scraped some leaves from the bottom to chew. A few long stems poke from between its teeth like toothpicks.
Ava doesn’t play Sea World and slide the fish into its mouth, not because she is afraid of getting bit, but because she knows from the T-Rex in Jurassic Park that animals want to hunt. Starting with the shrimp, she tears through the tape and unwraps the butcher paper. Ava holds the plastic bag over the water and shakes loose the raw, gray shrimp which plink into the pool. She saves the flounder for last, letting it flop in. The scales catch glints of moonlight as it seesaws to the bottom, like a piece of paper weaving through the air.
The dolphin does laps, scooping the shrimp with an endless yawn. It has to tear the flounder, which is bigger than its mouth and more violent than Ava expected. She understands now why all those dolphin shows use smaller fish, bite size bait to keep from distressing the crowds.
In the morning, the dolphin’s skin is more white than gray, like ET at the end of the movie. Ava wonders if it is sick, if flounder was the wrong choice, if she fed it too much or not enough fish. The water is turning from green to brown. She doesn’t know how to drain the pool, but she unravels the hose from where it coils against the house. While the pool fills and then overfills, Ava grabs a canister of Morton from the pantry and dumps it in. The toy ducks drift over the edge and maroon in the grass.
The woman in magenta lipstick arrives so early Ava wonders if she ever left. She is armed with index cards bearing statistics, data, quotes from specialists Ava doesn’t want or need to hear. She shouts at Ava from over the fence. The camera pans from the newswoman to Ava to the dolphin.
“I’ve contacted experts,” she says, waving a fistful of facts.
“I’m a biologist,” Ava says.
The woman frowns as if she doesn’t believe Ava.
“We’re here to help you,” she says. “We’ll find a way in. You can’t hide forever.”
After the baby was born, Jim stood at the front door pumping hand sanitizer into people’s palms. Shoes off, two squirts each. They even made both sets of parents re-up their Tdap vaccines, afraid the baby might catch whooping cough. Now, those people are probably rolling their eyes at her after what has happened. They don’t call. They didn’t send cards.
Ava knew about germs. She didn’t know that water, a mouthful of pool gone down the wrong pipe, could do so much.
In college, Ava took Micro I & II and got A’s both times. It was tedious work studying living things too small to see. Preparing the slides, getting the pink Gram stain all over her jeans, locating isolated clots of cells in the great expanse of white. Bacteria. Viruses. Germs. Cancer. Things that can sneak into our bodies and hurt.
But when the baby was born, Ava shunned help. She declined invitations to Mother’s Morning Out at the local church and wouldn’t take Saturday spa days when her mother-in-law offered to watch the baby for her. She let her fingernails chip and tucked her split ends into the underside of her bun. Ava was a mom now and proud of her soft breasts that sloped where once they floated. She could do it herself. She could.
So she was a little tired, distracted maybe when she took the baby swimming that afternoon. He was a little fussier than usual, having cried through most of his morning nap, and he’d rubbed sunscreen into his eye, which was red and puffy. Still, she had taken the effort to get his swim gear on and a dip into the pool might wear him out.
“Kick, kick, kick, kick, kick,” Ava said as she whirred the baby around the pool. He squirmed in her arms. “Good job,” she cried.
What was she thinking when his chin dipped below the surface? How long was it under? Ava’s not sure. One moment he was plopped in her arms and the next he was sputtering and coughing and she was slapping his back with the heel of her hand.
“That’s enough swimming for today,” she said when the baby stopped coughing. She took the baby into the house, toweled him off and set him down in the crib.
From the outside, the baby looked fine when Ava laid him down that day. Inside, tiny droplets of water clung to his bronchioles so that they couldn’t expand and inflate. How long did he lie there, wanting to breathe and not getting air? Did he panic, the way drowning victims do in the water? Was it painful? Was it slow? Did he reach for her when she was not there? Ava can’t bring herself to ask these questions.
It’s not the accident Jim can’t forgive, it’s what Ava did after.
Ava said “night night” and kissed the baby on the mouth even though Jim said it was creepy to do so.
He slept a long time, longer than usual. Ava checked her iBaby app three times during The View and once while folding laundry. He lay flat on his back, arms over his head announcing a touchdown when she decided she’d better wake him up. When she came back his lips were blue. At first she wondered if it was something on her mouth, some allergic reaction to her lipstick.
Inside though, Ava knew. Ava closed her eyes and prayed. She opened them. He was the same. She held the baby’s head over her shoulder, his limbs dangled limp against her chest and began to sway with her. If she could rock him to sleep maybe she could rock him awake?
It’s not what Ava did, but what Ava didn’t do Jim can’t forgive. Ava danced with him, cooing into his cold cheek begging “please please” for almost twenty minutes before calling 911.
Ava waits until she is alone to abandon the dolphin as she abandoned her son. Ava marches down the stone walk, into the past the magnolia shedding white petals onto the lawn, over the gravel rain garden meant to filter the storms by slowing the trickle back into the earth, and into the street. Each step takes her farther away from the woman she thought she was, the woman she wanted to be. When she reaches Jim’s apartment building, she’s not sure which door is his. There are four to choose from, but she gets it right on the first try.
“I figured it’d be you,” he says.
“You didn’t think I’d come,” she says.
Jim takes a step back so that Ava can pass by him into the room. His height has always surprised her. When they first met, Ava was in heels and said to him at a party. “You’re not so tall. I’m taller than you.” She made the host turn them back to back and felt the soft curve of his body in the small of her back. Ava knew she had lost but didn’t back down.
“So this is it?” she says. The living room feeds into the bedroom and is separated from the kitchen by a breakfast counter. Jim has an octagon-shaped table he took from the patio. He’s tucked two of the chairs under the counter even though they’re obviously too small.
“It isn’t much,” he says.
“Are you kidding me? It’s huge. It’s all yours and not mine.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Jim says, but they both know it does.
The baby’s end came so abrupt and unexpected. Neither one of them could take another end like that. This weaning away from each other gives them a chance to say good-bye. It took coming here, seeing the picnic table pulled into Jim’s living room, to realize that’s what this is. Ava wondered how he brought it here, if he had to take it apart and reassemble the table leg by leg or if he borrowed a friend’s truck. It didn’t matter, she realized. It was here now. It was his.
Jim offers her a seat on a sofa she’s never seen before. Ava shakes her head, but touches the gray suede, surprised at how soft it is. She wants to press her cheek to it as she did when she came home with her first set of fleece sleepers, before the spit up and stains, before the washer-wear began to pill the tiny sleeves. Jim had thought her silly for buying so many clothes when people were always showing up with gifts, even before baby was born. Now, she wished she’d bought more.
“You want to see it?” she says.
“Sure,” Jim says.
“You can’t take him,” Ava says.
“I know,” Jim says. “I wasn’t planning to.”
Ava leads Jim to the side yard of the house they used to share and unlatches the gate to the pool. Jim follows her to the edge. They both look down into the water, but the dolphin isn’t there. Ava slips her foot out of her shoe, dips her toes into the water and splashes, as if to call it out of hiding. She squats and reaches both arms in, elbows deep, trying to stir something awake. “Hello!” she calls, “I’m back.”
She paces the deck, as if she can get a better angle, as if maybe the sun’s reflection is skewing her vision.
“It’s gone,” she says. “It was right here. I swear. I didn’t make it up.”
“I believe you,” he says.
Jim nods. “Of course.”
Ava’s not sure if he believes her or not. Jim sits on the side of the pool and swirls his legs in uneven circles Ava sits near enough that his wake reaches her. It is dark enough that their reflection is almost visible. Two wobbly shadows fan out across the surface, tall and wavering.
“There are times when it’s quiet at night where I almost feel relieved,” Jim says. “Do you ever feel that way?”
“No,” Ava says, and she realizes the man beside her is a stranger. “I want another.”
“How can you even think about that now?”
After they lost the baby, Ava tried to brush against Jim’s back when he was washing the dishes the neighbors sent. She dragged her nails through his hair as he paid the bills and signed the papers they never expected to have. Jim started coming to bed late, at first after she’d fallen asleep, and then not at all, moving first to the couch and then out of house.
“You’re still a mother,” he says, and he tries to take her hand. His fingertips are cold and wet as they fold around hers, trying to separate her grip from where she’s clutching the coping.
“I know,” says Ava, but she doesn’t believe it.
Ava slinks into the pool and splashes away from him. As she ducks under the water, she can hear Jim calling her name. Ava sinks deeper until Jim’s voice is blotted out by clotted whorls of grinding metal and what she’s sure is a gentle chorus of clicking and cooing. Ava opens her eyes. The bright oranges and yellows and pinks of sunken toys scatter across the bottom of the pool. She begins scooping the rings, sweeping them onto her arms like a child. Ava’s shirt balloons around her thin body. The rings bounce against one another with each stroke of her arm like a set of singled-cell organisms colliding under a high-powered microscope, magnified a thousand times over. Ava makes a game of it, holding her breath as long as she can, swearing that she won’t come up for air until she’s collected them all, and she has so many more to go.