Congratulations to Lauren Parvizi for winning second place for poetry in the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest!
You can read “Resurfacing” below.
The first time Dee saw the man rise from the water it was past midnight on a Tuesday, the same night Tom left their apartment for the last time. As the door shut behind her fiancé, she had thrown, in quick succession, the wine glass in her hand and their two plates, with her shoddy attempts at a reconciliation dinner, uneaten and congealed.
They shattered, of course, into a hundred small pieces. The sound was heartening, but afterward, she cut her hand picking up the shards and sat for a long time with her back against the wall moaning into her knees. Eventually, she cleaned up the mess, finished the bottle of wine, and crept outside.
She was never cold anymore, as if her empty womb was an oven accidentally left on, but she still had to brace herself against the wind and tuck her long hair beneath her hood to stop it from whipping into her face. She grimaced against its bite, but the dark, at least, felt more like an invisibility cloak than a menace.
She walked all the way to the Palace of Fine Arts, where she stopped to admire the dome’s peaceful reflection in the still pond beneath, hopeful she might find an entrance to a world of mirror images, reproductions of her life made perfect by their inverse.
Perhaps that’s why she wasn’t scared when the man emerged from the pond, his pale, moon-shaped face and head like a hippopotamus’s floating quietly across the water. When he arrived at the water’s edge, his arms darted to the surface, his hands grasping at the ground to pull him upright in a half breath. He was shirtless, shimmering in gold as each bead of water on skin caught in the moonlight.
Dee was more than twenty feet away and couldn’t make out the exact lines of his figure, except to see he was narrow through the waist and ropey at his shoulders. A moment later, he ducked into the shadows. She waited a minute or more until he appeared again, dressed in loose pants rolled at the ankles and a tattered red t-shirt, ripped at the collar. A sound must have spooked him because he froze mid-step, cocked his head, and disappeared back into the dark.
Dee and Tom had been breaking up for years, but the baby did them in, grief breaking each of them open before a final cut split them apart. Sorrow was a wicked bedfellow for a couple whose conflicts were many and loud.
Aside from all the bad times, the thing was, they loved each other. Everyone said so. The way Dee and Tom looked at each other made you notice.
Like a train wreck? Dee wondered now, alone in their apartment. Her apartment.
One time they went to Big Sur and made love on a secluded trail, and the mossy ground left the back of her shirt stained and damp. Tom plucked redwood needles from her hair, and they talked about houses and having a baby for the first time. The next morning Dee woke with an ache in her back, but even that pain seemed to promise a future together, as if their discomfort might bind them like a fractured bone healed stronger at its breaking point.
A few weeks later, she thought she saw the whites of the man’s eyes bright against the pond’s filmy surface, but before she could be sure, the water swallowed any hint of him. As the moon waned throughout the month, the pond was enveloped by night. Certain parts of certain streets were so dark she could hardly see further than her nose. But that was enough to make it to the yellow glow of the next streetlamp.
Most nights she came home and fell into bed without acknowledging the alarm that would jar her to life at 6 a.m. Other nights, the impending wake-up droned against her consciousness; she cupped each minute in her mind and watched it slink through the thin web of her thoughts.
Thoughts about ______, her baby. She couldn’t bear to say his name, but she replayed as many moments as she could from the 217 days he’d spent growing inside her. She sifted through each remembered feeling searching for a reason, a plan for returning what had been taken from her. Her mind played tricks on her though, pulling her one direction and another: A punishment? A lesson? A random tragedy?
She required explanation. To decode the puzzle was to put her life back together again —the baby was one piece, Tom another. If she couldn’t, she might die from the lies she’d told herself about their life and all that was supposed to be.
Every belief she’d ever had disappeared under the hard, white light of her grief. If she couldn’t trust what she once knew to be true, then what could she hold onto? She’d forsaken any semblance of faith when she stopped praying for fearlessness in high school. She’d never had a strong enough foundation to believe in the face of unanswered prayers. Doubt licked incessantly at her heels.
Sometimes she didn’t feel bad at all. One night she went out drinking with friends and felt, between the first and fourth glasses of wine, if not normal than numb.
“You’ve never looked better,” her pal Clare said. They had finished off a dish of salty peanuts. Dee’s mouth was sour and dry. She licked the corner of her lips and considered Clare’s praise. It wasn’t true. She’d lost a few pounds, sure, but a gray hue saturated her skin, her cheeks had sunk, listless as hope.
At home later, the room spinning, Dee clasped her hands on her belly and waited for an answer to a question she wasn’t brave enough to ask. It wasn’t a prayer exactly, but it wasn’t not a prayer.
The next morning, Saturday, she walked down Chestnut in search of coffee, her head aching. Her usual café was overrun with the brunch and baby crowd, and even though nothing pleased her more than settling into a seat with a cappuccino in a real cup, she shouldered her way back outside.
She found herself walking further into the fray, until she was past the shops and restaurants, back on Baker headed toward the Palace of Fine Arts. She sloughed off her jacket and let the cold air charge through her.
The man had slipped her mind, self-pity leaving little room for much else, but when she saw the reflection of the clouds shifting along the water, she thought again of his lanky, dripping wet form rising from the shallows.
She didn’t expect to see him again, not during the day. The area was crowded with locals jogging toward the bay and milling tourists snapping iPhone photos of the cocksure swan who swam lengths across the pond. On the grass, a woman nuzzled a baby strapped to her chest, and the math came to Dee without her consent: three weeks and two days past her due date; seven weeks and six days since Tom left; eleven weeks and one day since ______ was born warm and perfect had his heart not already stopped. She reckoned but nothing made sense.
A man crossed her path walking from the sidewalk to an old minivan, paint chipped and dented. Something about his broad shoulders and measured steps struck her as familiar. Rolled-up pants revealed narrow ankles and bare feet. His black hair was scraggly and matted like a shaggy dog. The man stepped into the van’s open sliding door, and Dee caught sight of his eyes. She recognized their wide-set focus. And his torn t-shirt, too, the same one she’d seen him change into before.
As she passed the open van door, she glimpsed the makings of a room: seats replaced with piles of mess surrounded loose bedding, a flattened throw pillow. She supposed she’d known the man was homeless without acknowledging so.
She walked for another hour before returning home, sweaty and tired. A note was stuck to her apartment door. She knew it was from Tom before she saw the sharp slopes of his handwriting. She knew what he wanted, but withholding comfort was the only power she had anymore, and so, she hadn’t returned his calls for three weeks and three days.
It was the longest she’d ever gone without attempting to accommodate him.
A few days before he moved out, he laid his head in Dee’s lap. She’d grazed his scalp with her nails while he cried about _____ and confessed he’d been having doubts about them, him and her, for months. Later, after he left, he explained to Dee that even though he didn’t want to be together anymore, he still wanted to grieve together. But Dee’s grief didn’t want company. “Maybe you should consider what happened a sign,” he’d said. “We’re not meant to be.”
She folded Tom’s note, unread, into a tiny square, and threw it away.
In the shower, she lathered herself with soap and washed in lukewarm water. Something came back to her. The man’s feet and hands, grimy and black along the nail lines. She imagined letting him soak in her tub, gently scrubbing his feet and hands with a washcloth until the water turned grey and his skin as pink and new as a baby.
She still didn’t call Tom. When he called, she didn’t answer.
One evening she went to a nearby Episcopal church. She hadn’t been in a church for years, and she felt unsure how to behave, worried someone might see her for the phony she was and cast her out. But no one seemed to notice her other than to smile demurely if they caught eyes.
The sermon was nothing like the Catholic mass she’d attended with her grandmother a handful of times as a child. It was quiet and reverential. Her mind wandered. She fidgeted during moments of prayer. She was too ashamed to ask for what she needed and too angry to give thanks.
Afterward, Dee took herself out to dinner. She sat at a marble-topped bar and ordered an expensive bottle of wine. The bartender pulled out two glasses and two place settings. “Just one,” she told him, and he smiled as if he and Dee were in on the same secret.
Tom used to bring her here. They’d come once while she was pregnant but not yet showing, and she’d drank an entire glass of wine. Tom called her European, and they laughed at those other, less sophisticated kind of moms-to-be. But, on the way home, they’d fought. About the cost of dinner, the rent, the fact that they’d never even been to Europe together and now, with a baby, they probably never would.
Maybe if she hadn’t had that glass of wine, if she hadn’t yelled so much, her blood pressure skyrocketing. Maybe, if, then.She could not stop obsessing about all the things she could have done differently. This kind of thinking made no sense. She knew that but couldn’t help herself. She couldn’t stop trying to make meaning where there was none. If she could learn her lesson, solve the equation of Tom plus dead baby divided by all the mistakes she’d ever made, then maybe, she could make herself whole again.
Dee swiped the last piece of bread through the remaining tomato sauce on her plate. While the bartender cleared her dishes, she savored the final sips of the wine, spinning it round in her glass, pink tears streaming down the sides. When she stood from the bar stool, the room tilted. She slowed her movements so she could find her footing, lift her purse, and put her coat on, carefully locating each sleeve before she shoved her arms through.
She plodded one sure step in front of the other into the wet wind. It was past ten o’clock on a Sunday night. The streets were quiet, but lit windows of the apartments above revealed the lonely habits of another weekend at its end. The pond was as still. She sat down on a bench, her legs suddenly overcome with fatigue, her back hot and damp with perspiration.
A woman’s laugh rang out against the night, and Dee turned to see the backs of a couple, hand in hand, picking their way home. Dee closed her eyes. Soon her grief quieted enough for a single word to find its way to the surface: a plea, a question, a prayer. Please.
Dee was crying again, but she was too tired to be embarrassed. The park bench, the drunk tears; it was inevitable somehow. She surrendered, let the tears fall in fat drops, let her mouth droop open, let the snot collect at her nostrils and trail towards her upper lip.
The muffled crack of a splash jarred her eyes open. She wiped at her tears to better see where the moonlight caught the break in the water’s smooth surface.
After a minute of stillness, she became convinced she’d imagined the sound. But then she saw him. The whites of his eyes darted towards the water’s edge. He pulled himself out just as he had the first time. He glanced around, cocked his ear to attention, and slowly stood upright.
For a brief moment, Dee considered standing and walking away, but she didn’t move. A reluctant peeping Tom, she watched the man in a state of both discomfort and curiosity. She was closer to him this time, but at an odd angle, so she had to strain her neck and her eyes to make out his form as he stood, shook his head, and ran his fingers through his hair. His shoulders were straight and strong, but his torso was hunched, ready to dart.
A flash at his hip caught her eyes. His hands fumbled at his waist before he brought something to his face. A fanny pack. He set it on the ground and quickly dressed, pausing if a car rumbled down a nearby street. She realized, with a tightening in her throat, he would walk past her to get to his van. She wondered if she could hurry into the shadow of the tree at her back to avoid him. He picked up his pouch and began to walk in her direction, but she didn’t move. She hardly breathed.
When he was spitting distance, outside the shadows of the closest trees, he paused, squatted, and poured into his hand the contents of his pack. Dee could hear the gentle clatter of coins as they collected in his palm. He placed one on the ground and topped it with another. Stacks of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters.
Dee had envisioned a bathing man, but he was collecting change, the unspoken wishes of expectant tourists.
His process was slow and methodical. The heat of the alcohol had worn off, but Dee’s body burned, lit from within. Her limbs ached to move against the frigid night, but the man seemed in no hurry, though surely, he was freezing with wet hair and only a t-shirt.
“Hey,” she suddenly called. Her voice carried louder than she expected through the damp air. The man jerked back and nearly fell off his heels. She stood and raised her arm as if to catch him even though she was some feet away.
“Sorry.” He shoved his coins back into his pouch and stood. He swiped the hair from his face. “I just wanted to know . . .” She paused — what did she want to know? She suspected what she really wanted was for him to see her, to know she was there. “Aren’t you cold?”
“No. I mean, sort of,” he said. His voice was raspy, and kind. “But I’m used to it.”
“Me too.” For a moment they stood staring at each other. “Sorry for scaring you.”
“You didn’t. Not really. I thought you might be a ghost is all. In the fog.”
A ghost. Was she? What did you call the lifeless who existed among the living? The fire inside her did feel unnatural somehow, and she realized, with a start, she’d spent all these nights walking in the cold hoping to extinguish the smolder. Her womb was empty, and the burning was a constant reminder. She wanted to feel like herself again, but to even admit that triggered a rogue wave of guilt against her rib cage drawing her further down. She had to hold her breath and grind her feet into the ground to stay upright.
“Hey, you okay?” he asked.
She nodded. She was still standing.
Concern was etched in the dark creases lining his brow, the small bag clutched to his chest.
“I’m okay,” she said. “Take care.”
“Hey, you, too. Have a nice life.”
As she walked away, she heard movement behind her, the coins jangling in the man’s hand. When she came to his van, she paused. Then, she slipped her jacket from her shoulders, left it hanging on his side view mirror, and started her solitary walk home.
When she got there, she would discover, with relief, she was chilled just enough for the comfort of a warm bath.
Lauren Parvizi is a freelance online producer and editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She received her MFA from San Francisco State University and a certificate in editing through UC Berkeley Extension. Lauren is actively querying her first novel. Find her on Instagram @laurenparvizi.
View the list of all of the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest winners.