CW: very strong language, sexual harassment
Natasha is so plump her breasts are already filling an underwired bra her mother had picked out for her, it’s pink. She looks so tan in it that other girls think she’s dirty. She smells of chlorine and strawberries. She dives so well she’s the only one allowed at the deep side of the pool in swimming class.
Ken is scrawny like a young tree with his skinny branches. He’s mere kindling, no obstacle to the hormonal wildfire. He notices hair starting to grow under his armpits. He wakes up underneath a moist, cold stain almost every day, but his hot skin quickly dries it. Everyone calls him Ken, and not even his teachers remember his full name anymore. Is it Kenneth? Kennedy? Keenan?
‘Alright, but which one’s the fanny again?’ Ken asks. ‘The front or back?’
The boys look to each other for silent understanding, consulting their definitions with the dictionary of misguided profanities all pubescent boys share. Finally, one of them laughs carefully, and the others follow, the roar rising together with the fire they’re sat around. It doesn’t matter what the boys are called. Ken will struggle to remember their gormless teenage faces years later, tutting and shutting his eyes, looking for their names on the insides of his eyelids. Unless he drowns before his time. Otherwise, he’ll come up empty.
One of the boys yells, ‘Fanny’s at the front, you wanker!’
Ken nods to himself and gets up. He brushes the creases out of his trousers. ‘Fine then, I’ll do it,’ he says and his companions hoot. They wave the sticks they’ve just used to char sausages over the worst bonfire Ken has ever seen. A shabby collection of branches that would make Ken’s dad, who’s a firefighter, attempt the sign of the cross with his foot.
It’s like they’ve just declared a long-awaited war, and the disputed territory enclosed in Natasha’s skin stirs in its sleep on the other side of town. Can the rivers of her veins tell they’ve been claimed? Does the mound of her pubis know there’s a victorious flagpole with its name on it?
Ken has a strange hobby. He likes to imagine what people look like on the inside, especially his dad. He lies awake at night, listening to the noises on the other side of his bedroom wall, and pictures the toll which the smoke and debris from the fires must take on his father. The lungs are an old sponge dipped in tar. The throat is an exhaust pipe of their twenty-year old Ford. The tongue is an overcooked steak.
‘She’s so fugly, Natasha is,’ one of the boys says and gets up as well. ‘Ugly bitches are supposed to be fire in bed, apparently.’ He slaps an invisible butt and thrusts back and forth with his crotch. ‘You do it from behind so you don’t see her face.’
Their sex education teacher says that the best form of contraception is a glass of warm water and a kiss on the cheek. He tells them all about sexually transmitted diseases instead. Suddenly, Ken imagines his friend’s testicles, swollen and mouldy like meatballs forgotten in aluminium foil at the back of the fridge. Whatever this fungus is, he must have caught it from that ghost chick he’s still pummelling, turning his face away in perfectly rounded disgust.
‘Remember, you have to hold it for five seconds,’ says the friend and the vision pales. ‘Can you count to five, thicko?’
Ken’s hand twists into the most obscene gesture he can think of and he turns to go without a word. The one finger salute is more than enough of a farewell in this adolescent world of defying everything, including each other. ‘Yeah, that’s the one you gotta get in there!’ they yell after him and Ken holds it up until the darkness swallows him and the howls stop.
Natasha can’t run or jump or play volleyball. All she can do is swim. She finds blood on her sheets one morning. Her mother slaps her gently on the cheek and hugs her, it’s a tradition in the country the family comes from. She gives Natasha a cotton plug to put inside her and it hurts, but it works, too. Natasha only worries that the string will dangle out of her swimsuit in class and someone will pull at it.
Ken doesn’t put his bedding in the wash every day. He sleeps under the crusty surface, hoping to be a dormant volcano that night, every night, but he erupts in his sleep anyway. It helps to turn to the blinding light in the window when he wakes, but the contours of a face he dreams of can only be exorcised with a splash of icy water in his reddened eyes.
His mother calls him Kenny, sometimes Kennydear, especially when she’s exasperated. If he had to describe her in one word, he’d go for harmless. If Ken had to imagine her heart, it would look like a badly built dam always on the verge of bursting, the concrete walls softened by the metallic liquid of her blood. But he avoids imagining his mother on the inside.
‘Mum, I’m not wearing this,’ he says without a good morning and brings his father’s old trousers up to his eye level, looking at the uneven legs. ‘Where did you have these shortened?’
She shrugs and chomps on the end of the carrot she’s just cut up into even chunks. No food gets binned in her household. Waste not, want not, dream not of having more money. Luckily, Ken will eat anything put in front of him.
‘I did them myself, Kenny,’ she answers without looking. She reaches for another carrot and he observes her profile, listening to the steady chopping sound. Her cheek is a pale shade of pink. Mother’s beautiful, he thinks suddenly.
‘Did you put the rubber band in, too?’ he asks, stretching the waistband like a catapult.
She nods. ‘Your father’s a tad bigger than you.’
‘I’m not wearing this, mum.’
She begins to say something, feeding the carrot into the knife’s blade, up and down, up and down.
‘I’m not wearing this, mum,’ he interrupts.
She shakes her head and tries again.
‘I’m not fucking wearing this, mum!’ He throws the trousers onto the kitchen table.
She turns to him fully, dropping the knife into the pile of carrot carcass, about to pick one of her classics. ‘Language, Kennydear.’ Or ‘you kiss your mother with that mouth?’ Or one of her originals: ‘I don’t speak backyard Latin.’
But before she can say anything, Ken’s eyes widen and his mother grabs her face. He realises why she wouldn’t turn to him. ‘What were you thinking?’ he blurts out in the middle of his own train of thought. ‘That I wouldn’t notice all morning?’
She shakes her head again and goes back to cubing the carrot. She rarely has many words for her Kennydear in the mornings, all spent at night down to the last rugged vowel she stifles into the pillow so he can’t hear her pain. Mother’s beautiful on the side that doesn’t belong to dad, Ken thinks and leaves the kitchen without another word. The hall’s as dark as the bruise around his mother’s eye.
Natasha’s bathing suit chafes her groin. She’s outgrown it already. She tucks the string into the little mesh pocket of fabric on the inside. The tight swimming cap pulls at her forehead. She feels like her eyes are twice as big as normal.
Ken wears his father’s old trunks. They itch once they get wet. Ken could be a fantastic swimmer if it wasn’t for the fact he constantly worries about the trunks slipping off his bottom and bloating on the surface of the pool for everyone to see.
This is how it goes every time: they shower before getting in the pool. Hygiene is important. The teacher lines them up at the edge, and they brace themselves, eager to seek shelter in the cool water. He counts them. They throw glances at each other, curious, menacing, longing. The new, unwanted hair bristling on their legs, tufting in their groins and armpits, lies flat and dark against moist skin. The teacher turns away and goes into the changing room for a minute or two to make note of the absences while they stand and stare at the turquoise tiles and each other.
Ken feels a bony elbow slide into the flesh between his ribs. ‘Go on, then,’ one of the boys whispers to him. ‘Five seconds.’
Ken steps out of the line. Natasha’s legs are crossed. She’s worried the tampon string may be dangling out.
Ken takes the five steps between them and his hand shoots out. His eyes meet Natasha’s. Hers are blue and almost hidden behind the lashes. The lashes still harbour some stray droplets from the shower. His are amber. The sterile light makes them shimmer like embers.
The hand finds the place where Natasha’s legs meet and it thrusts in between them, sliding against the slick fabric and grating the delicate tissue lying underneath. The boys hoot again. One of them looks at the big clock on the wall, starting the countdown, but he only gets to two before a flat splash echoes like thunder.
Humiliation is a word too long for Natasha. She feels a touch so violent it has to be passionate. She looks into Ken’s eyes with involuntary desire. She needs him to reciprocate. She hates him. She grabs his shoulders and shoves him away. He stumbles and the pool sucks him in. It’s the deep end.
Humiliation is a word too short for Ken. He senses a new texture under her swimsuit, soft folds of skin over indomitable bones. He loves her. Her hands land on him with sudden intent. He stumbles and the pool sucks him in. It’s the deep end.
Ken can swim fine, but not this time. Not even the cold, sterile water can wash the contours of Natasha’s face out of his vision this time. For years, he will be waking up in the middle of the night under stained sheets and staring at the cracked ceiling until the perfect O of her mouth fades in his mind. Unless he drowns now.
It’s the cold that shocks his mouth open. His lungs take up water and he imagines them briefly, a clean sponge unlike his father’s, but saturated with liquid. The back of his nose hurts as if he’s snorted a bit of a drink when laughing. He can’t tell which way is up at the deep end. His body is busy dying. His mind is busy picturing Natasha’s perfect O. He will be telling himself in the middle of the night under stained sheets it was pleasure he saw on her face. Unless he drowns now.
He stops moving and the nose pain goes away, replaced by a feeling of fullness, like he’s a swollen log that’s just been put out by a bucketful of water. Natasha’s perfect O, and that thing he felt underneath his fingers. He will be telling himself in the middle of the night under stained sheets no woman ever felt like that again. Not even his wife, straight out of the ocean, when he groped her through her thin bikini like an animal in heat and she smiled in surprise.
Natasha wouldn’t care if Ken drowned, but she’s seen his mother before. A small woman with an almost permanent black eye nobody talks about. She would cry. Natasha jumps in and reaches for Ken. He grabs her and lets himself be floated back up. Dead wood.
Ken feels Natasha’s petite hand, quick and decisive like a current. His fingers intertwine with hers until there’s no liquid left between them, only skin. She drags him back up. His lungs burn two fires inside his chest as if they’ve learned to use the oxygen from water to fuel themselves.
‘What is wrong with you?’ Ken hears Natasha whisper as he chokes, still half-submerged in the pool with her.
He shakes his head in response. She tries to wriggle her hand out of his. He holds her through his brutal gargling and she gives up. Her hand limps inside his while he empties the contents of his lungs back into the pool through his mouth and nose.
‘Kendrick. You’ve got a death wish or something?’ she goes on. Everyone around them stands frozen in the same straight line.
A frantic flip-flapping announces the teacher’s return. He doesn’t say anything. He clutches at Ken and pulls, fishing him out. The only sound echoing in the big, tall room is Ken’s spluttering, growing more and more human with every exhale.
‘Kendrick. You’ve got a death wish or something?’
Natasha’s hand is squeezed so hard she can’t tell which fingers are hers and which are Ken’s. She’s worried he’s yanked her tampon out somehow and now there’s a pool of blood around her. She’s worried he’s taken everything she has. She turns to look. There’s nothing.
Ken squeezes Natasha’s hand so hard she has to understand he couldn’t be more alive than in this embrace. It’s nothing, just kids, the teachers will tell their angry, confused parents. But the only thing that’s nothing is that nothing will ever be the same again.