Fiction · 08/15/2018

Polka Dot Swimsuit

I sit on a plastic seat by the motel pool, my skin turning red. Above, palm trees sway in the hot breeze and offer little shade. I long to be in the water.

A lady steps out of the pool, shakes her gypsy-dark hair, and sprinkles coolness on my thirsty skin.

“Little girl!” Her bikini has pink and white polka dots. She looks at my shorts and shirt. “Jump in, cool off.”

I turn a beetroot shade.

“Sorry, I gotta go.” I scuttle away, find refuge in our room’s balcony.

Later, I see the night sky’s reflection in the pool, the outline of a crescent moon visible in the water. There are craters in the moon, my sixth grade teacher said last year. I visualize a moon-world with mountains, glaciers, and continents. And lakes where I swim in a polka dot swimsuit.

Soon, a storm approaches.

+

Dad’s job has brought us to Arizona this summer. We’re in the motel until he finds a rental.

I beg Dad for a house with a pool. “Everybody here has one.”

He gives me reading assignments with instructions to stay indoors.

“Denial’s good for the soul, learn to live without,” he says.

He denied Mom a new washing machine, a new vacuum, and a smartphone. She left.

+

Ignoring Dad’s instructions, again, I wander the next day. I find breakfast in the lobby: a chewy bagel and an apple from the fruit basket. The stench of stale coffee overpowers.

There’s no one in the pool. I let my legs dangle over the side, wiggle my toes. A palm frond tickles my shin.

Polka dot lady shows up, slides into the dirty water.

“Come, swim,” she says. “It’s not too bad after the monsoon storm.”

“Why’d you call it a storm?” I ask. “There was no rain, only dust.”

“Because this is the desert,” she laughs. Her dark eyes stare. “You don’t know how to swim, do you?”

I squirm.

“Your parents didn’t do their duty.”

+

I asked Dad for a cell phone all last year.

He said, “We’ll see.”

I still don’t have one.

Dad says he’s who he is because of his hard life. “You have luxuries I didn’t dream of,” he says.

He walked two miles to school. His mother added water to leftover stew to stretch it out. “Forget cell phones. We didn’t even have a landline.”

+

Gypsy-hair stretches out her hand, and I jump in. The water’s gritty after the storm, but I don’t care. My skin drinks the water, my feet dance. I blow bubbles, I splash. She turns me over onto my back, supporting me with her hands. Amazingly, I float. Happy, happy.

+

Later, I dry my wet clothes on the balcony railing before Dad gets back.

He returns late, settles down with a night-cap, and doesn’t offer explanations.

I keep my secret, too.

+

By the fourth day, I can hold my breath under water, paddle my feet, move my arms freestyle. My beautiful teacher even guides me to the deep end.

And then I see him. Dad’s early. I want to sink.

“Out of the pool. Now!” I hear.

“Stay,” my polka dot gypsy friend says.

He roars. “Get out!”

She walks up to him. “Sir, one moment?”

He’s studying her wet swimsuit.

I see her magical gypsy aura, it’s real.

+

I don’t stop my grin. Dad can’t swim. I can.

In the sky above, the moon’s risen early this evening. It’s curved like a smile.

+++

Sudha Balagopal’s recent short fiction has appeared in New Flash Fiction Review, New World Writing, Jellyfish Review, and Dime Show Review among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections. Find more at www.sudhabalagopal.com/.