Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Aloof in Freckles

Helena spent her 14th birthday sitting by the pool. Her father's driver dropped her off at 11 am and she told him to return for her at 4, "That way we can pick up Daddy together." It wasn't the biggest pool she had ever swum in, she was quite sure it was the smallest. And it was in the shade half the day, which made the water cold, and there was algea in the deep end. Sometimes she found water bugs swimming on the surface, but she enjoyed watching their mechanical movements, she attempted to tell her father about them, that they might be a divine idea for a movie - giant water bugs and he, naturally, would save the world from them. But he ignored her, as he often did when he was preoccupied with making a movie, even though she used his favorite word, "Divine," Liz used that word so often, and he hung onto all her stories, so Helena thought it might work for her, but she was coming to the conclusion that it wasn't a word that kept her father enamored of Liz, it was something else entirely.
Liz's pool was perhaps the grandest pool Helena had ever put her toes in, and she paddled in the Playboy mansion pool when she was 8, or was that 9? Her mother's indoor pool had Chinese lions at each end, the lions were slightly larger than their standard poodles Cassandra and Pharaoh, and sometimes the poodles drank the water that exited the lions' mouths, but even funnier, sometimes the poodles sat next to the lions, and when the sun was low, it was hard to tell who was a poodle and who was lion.
But this pool, the Farmington Club pool, had no fountains in the guise of lions, no Playboy Bunnies, and no starlets asking the help for another "one of those divine drinks . . . weren't those just divine? So divine we need another, and another, and another . . . " This pool sat too close to the stables and the hound kennels and the road. There were no palm trees, only pines and some rather old oak trees inhabited by crows, and a particularly chatty squirrel. There wasn't even a snack bar, only a country store across the road, the road her father asked her not to cross, but she went once, and bought herself a can of Tab and some grape flavored bubble gum.
She always brought the same book with her, and People magazine, and they usually lay under her lounge chair, because she would rather die than read The Great Gatsby or the gossip about her father and mother's divorce again. She found a book in the dusty den of the house her father had rented for the summer, and thought she might trade it for The Great Gatsby, something about a place called Peyton, but it wasn't on her summer reading list.
The other swimmers arrived at the same time every day, 12:45, dropped off by a large woman in a wooden-sided station wagon, a Country Squire, but some of the letters had fallen off, so now it was a "C unt y S  ir", something Liz would have told everyone about, "Why she doesn't fix it, I have no earthly idea, can you imagine what the grocery boys think?" The kids would pour out of the wagon, still wearing blue jeans and riding boots, and the large woman, always in a moomoo, she had a different colored moomoo for each day of the week, would holler, "Don't swim for another half hour or y'all will drown with cramps! I'll be back at 4:30, be ready! I don't want to be late for Cocktail Hour!" And then she would speed off in a cloud of gravel and dust and turn toward town.
The kids always filed past her as if she were a Greek statue, and she could smell the horses on them as they stripped down to their bathing suits, socks and t-shirts and little paddock boots flying everywhere, "Are you going to wait a half hour?"
"Hell no!" and they would all jump in and the never-ending game of Marco Polo would ensue.
"Marco"
"Polo!"
"Marco!"
"Polo!"
The girls were not much younger than Helena, maybe a year. And they were all formally introduced on the first day at the pool, "Girls, this is Helena Howe, her father is Bud Howe, you know, the movie star? Isn't that right Helena?" and Helena nodded, embarrassed, and she could see the girls didn't know who her father was, and the woman in the moomoo could see that fact too, so she tried to shake some recollection loose, "Oh you know Mr. Howe, he was in those biblical movies they show on Easter, and wasn't he in that movie about monkeys? The scary monkeys?" Still blank wide looks from the girls, so they made the best of the moment and asked Helena for some really important information, "Do you ride horses?" They all cocked their hips and pointed their little paddock boot toes at her, and it was then that she noticed they were all flat-chested, not a training bra among them, "No, I don't ride horses, but my brother surfs." And this was true, her brother was in Hawaii for the summer, "bumming around" as her father liked to call it, and she couldn't wait to see him again in the fall, because Bud Jr. was her most favorite person on earth, he was like no one else, and he didn't care what anyone thought of him, especially not his father.
So it was like this everyday, somewhere way into the incessant game of Marco Polo, the girls would stop, and suddenly realize that they hadn't said hello to Helena, and they would huddle in the middle of the pool, treading water, breathy and quietly, and then they would send one scout to the edge of the pool to ask Helena if she would like to play Marco Polo with them? And she always declined with the same phrase, "Maybe tomorrow," and the scout would always reply with the same, "Suit yerself," and would swim back to the others, where they would shrug their shoulders. Helena always felt their relief. They didn't really want to play with her and she didn't want to play with them.
"Helena, are you enjoying the country sweetie?" Her mother had called to say Happy Birthday early that morning, "Because, you can always fly home to Malibu if you're not enjoying yourself."
"I'm fine mother, really I am. Daddy said I could take riding lessons if I like."
"Horses are dangerous Helena . . ." her mother hated horses.
"Daddy rides them in all his movies. He told me I should learn how to ride if I want to be a movie actress. Mother, isn't it terribly early there?"
"Yes dear, it's 4 am, but we just came in from a party, I haven't even been to bed yet."
"Oh, well, thank you for calling Mother."
"Sweetie, when will you be taking these riding lessons?"
Helena didn't answer, she pretended not to hear her mother and hung up.
Today was the same as all the other days at the club pool, except it was her birthday. Her father promised to take her to a very lovely restaurant for dinner, and he had a new dress ordered for Helena from the ladies' shoppe in town, a dress he was assured was just right for a young woman as beautiful as Helena. The sun had moved to her end of the pool. She closed her eyes and tried to ignore the game of Marco Polo. But the game stopped and she opened one eye, waiting for the usual invitation, but she saw instead a group of boys step through the pool gate. The girls in the pool herded together and giggled. Helena thought of a movie she'd seen last year, a movie about a herd of mustangs, the girls were behaving like frightened mares. The boys were older, maybe 15, one looked like he might be 16, and they headed for the chairs next to Helena. They threw down their towels and peeled off their polo shirts, "Is anyone sitting here?" One of the boys asked Helena about the chair next to her, he had a nice smile, he looked like he went to a prep school in Massachusetts, they all looked like that really, in their cutoffs, and docksiders, not like the boys in California, "No, the girls in the pool are the only ones here besides me, and they like to sit over there by the wall." She pointed. The boy lowered himself in the chair next to her, and stuck out his hand to shake, "I'm Percy, and you are?"
"Helena, nice to meet you Percy."
"Never seen you here before Helena." Percy swept his long brown bangs across his forehead and leaned back in his chair. "My brother's the tall one, his name is Frank, and that goofy looking red head is Danny. So do you ride horses?"
"No. Do you?"
"Yeah, yeah Frank and I play polo - see that arena over there? We play on our school team. My father plays polo too. He taught us. So you don't ride?"
"No, but those girls do, they ride with Mrs. Zinnia."
"Oh, yeah, we've seen those girls. We met them at a wedding the other night, Mrs. Zinnia's son got married. Good Party! You shoulda been there, but you don't ride, so . . ."
"No, I guess only the people who ride went to that party."
"So if you don't ride horses, what do you do?"
"I'm here for the summer . . . "
"You don't live here?"
"No, I'm from California. I play tennis in California."
"We play tennis . . . hey, wait! You're Bud Howe's daughter, aren't you his daughter?"
"Well, yes, yes I am."
"We heard he was here, making a movie, and he had a daughter. My mother was asking Mrs. Zinnia all about you the other night at the party, but all Mrs. Zinnia said was that you were aloof, and that you had more freckles than any child she'd ever seen, but you don't seem to have too many freckles."
"Why thanks, I think."
"Oh, I meant to say you don't seem aloof either, I mean . . . "
Percy's brother cannonballed into the pool and suddenly a wave of water fell over Helena and the boy. "Aw shit, I wish he wouldn't do that!" The girls got out of the pool as the boys dove in, they wrapped themselves in their towels and stood talking, strategizing, and shivering. Helena wished she were invisible, she wished her driver would come early so she could leave. Percy touched her arm, "You want to swim with us? We don't bite."
She thought for a moment. She wanted to swim with Percy, and the other boys for that matter, they looked like fun. But the girls had asked her to play Marco Polo for weeks now and she had never said yes. No wonder Mrs. Zinnia called her aloof, and Helena knew she wasn't like these girls, she had hips and breasts under all those freckles. She had smoked cigarettes and drunk champagne with boys much older than Percy and Frank, "No thanks Percy, I think I'll pass this time. You guys swim, it's too cold for me."
"Too cold?"
"Yes, too cold."
"Suit yerself." Percy took a running leap and dove straight as a Roman arrow into the green waters of the deep end. Helena saw one of the girls drop her towel and jump feet first into the shallow end, "You guys want to play Marco Polo?"
"Marco!"
"Polo!"
"Marco!"
"Polo!"

1 comment:

Gretchen said...

Couldn't wait until the ride home! Love this! And not just because it deals in freckles...a day in the life of a country club outcast....