The Virgins

The Virgins

The Virgins 1920 1280 Rebecca Moon Ruark

He has revealed his supernatural truth to a near stranger. Now, in the aftermath, he and she stand in awkward silence, poolside.

“Maybe it’s the Virgin,” she says finally as she watches the water at their feet. She expects the boy to roll his eyes in reply, but he doesn’t. Just as he didn’t laugh when he told her, only moments ago, about his recurring vision.

He felt compelled to tell her. Though, even as he did, he wondered, am I really this guy, the guy who sees religious icons come to life—at college? And then the revelation: I am never going to get laid.

Both are freshmen. Both are from “the heartland.” This is how the two were introduced at orientation for the California university’s swim and dive team, NCAA Division I, pathway to Olympic glory: the big-time. The way the coach said “the heartland” made it sound diametrically opposed to the big-time; “Ohio” worse; “Cleveland” worse yet. This is what the boy thinks.

The girl thinks it’s nice to already know someone without really knowing him, this first week of fall semester. She and he share the dying language of Cleveland: Dead Man’s Curve, lake-effect snow, pirogues, and pop. They don’t delve further: East Side/West Side, neighborhood, or parish.

With only one statement, her Virgin quip, she declared herself Catholic and maybe hinted at her sexual inexperience. She’s already tired of feeling years younger than her female teammates, who boldly strip before each other in the locker room, while she dresses and undresses in a bathroom stall.

“If it’s the Virgin, this is our shrine,” she says, tired of the sticky silence between them. From their vantage point at the edge of the Olympic-size pool, the dive boards stand to the right. The locker rooms and bathrooms are farther on, and if you keep going, you hit the grand foyer of the aquatics complex with skylights that open and close. But here, the lights over the pool are off. Through the windows, she sees dusk coming on in California, and it’s almost tacky it’s so pretty.

She and he aren’t sure why they stayed after practice to watch the still water, just inches past the toes of their sneakers at the pool’s edge. But they are alone, and neither could have made this happen; so, maybe there is a force at work here besides freshman loneliness.

“A shrine, like Lourdes,” she says, hoping to draw him out.

“Or Fatima,” he says, upping the ante.

He is legit, she thinks.

She is beautiful, he thinks. Even more so as she is now than when she is in her suit and wet from the pool. Now, she wears a sweater that is of the lightest brown color that reminds him of the rabbits that made his suburban home theirs, that would hop around the dewy grass at dawn as he headed out to meet the carpool. Rabbits. Even his subconscious is horny.

September in California, but she is dressed for warmth, a sweater and scarf over worn jeans. Her hair looks like the water itself, smooth and gleaming.

He tells the girl now that his visions started when his mother’s life stopped. “It was the exact moment of her death”—he somehow knows this to be true—when he was competing at a meet in Euclid, crushing his best time at the fly. “And there she was, the Virgin, maybe, veil and dress of white, arms stretched wide, under me in the pool.” She moved with him, not stroking or kicking, only gliding. Her head tilted a little—half pitying, half questioning, like, who will you become now? He slowed down to watch her, his Virgin vision, and missed his chance at beating his record.

He didn’t think he would, but he is telling this girl, this lithe, beautiful diver—she cuts through the water like a pin—and she only waits to hear more. “I slowed down to watch her,” he says again.

The girl nods her head and looks as casual as if he were telling her about spotting a Hollywood star in Malibu, which seems to be one of the more popular hobbies at this school.

He hopes she doesn’t extend his metaphor, if that’s what it is. If the Virgin Mary is his mother, he is the son, the savior. The boy knows this can’t be; he’d hardly been able to save himself this year after his mother’s suicide. He probably would have drowned himself, if he hadn’t hated so much to lose in the pool.

The girl bends down to the blue water, dips her fingers in, and brings them to her lips. “Holy water, then,” she says and smiles. This is the first time she’s really looked at his eyes and they are crazy pretty, almost gold, with lashes forever.

It is a Saturday evening, and the sun is setting outside the aquatics facility. It is eerie, poolside at twilight, she thinks, but she doesn’t want to go. She isn’t sure she likes him, but she doesn’t pity him. She can’t like anyone she pities, so maybe she could like him.

She is a virgin, despite the high school party half-naked bumbling that could have culminated in intercourse. Intercourse. The word alone was enough to stop her—like it was one more class to squeeze in. She is a virgin, though she feels unclean. No matter her dad’s protestations against too-skimpy swimsuits and her mother’s virginity-as-pearl-beyond-price wisdom, too many eyes have followed her as she walked poolside, so that she developed the habit of crossing her arms over her breasts, feigning cold, even when she isn’t. She feels freer clothed. She thinks of her newest niece, an infant who is swaddled tight before sleep to soothe her. She understands this seeming dichotomy.

The boy thinks he should ask the girl about diving; but then she’ll ask him about swimming. His times have been poor here, like the water is more viscous in California or he is fighting an undertow. But he doesn’t want to voice this, because he is here to compete and win. He wouldn’t have gotten near the admissions office without his best times.

In a little while he will say, “come on,” like it was all a joke to play on a fellow frosh: I see dead people; I see apparitions of the Blessed Virgin.

He, too, is sexually inexperienced, but he is anxious. He should get out of here, because he doesn’t entirely trust himself not to grab this girl and put his mouth on her, whether she wants it or not. So he eases himself a couple steps away from her and the water.

Two months later, they will. It will happen over Family Weekend, when his roommates are out shopping at Target for coffee pods and food in pouches. It will happen in a pup tent—one of the few items of any value he brought with him to college, with visions of camping by the ocean and of how his mother would have closed her eyes to the California sun and only listened to the waves crash like no lake’s waves can.

He and this girl will envelop each other in the shelter of the tent in a dorm room two thousand miles from home. Their bodies will find the way, grappling for purchase in the dark. Another month of this, along with the stories that come with such sharing, and the layers of familiarity—they are from the same place—between the boy and girl become too much, hot and suffocating, as fall turns to winter at the college. What had bloomed between them will go the way of the leaves on what can hardly pass for trees, in this California, this paradise. But right now, he feels cemented to this spot at the pool where his future will be decided.

She can tell this boy is hurt, like some kind of maimed animal that was once too big and strong to let suffer now. Maybe she should put him down, tell him he’s broken or crazy—seeing visions—or, as her doctor father would say, simply out of his depth here. He is small-town at the big-time. There is no room for heart or heartland here.

But they have a kinship, she thinks. The lake from which they hail has a pull that can’t easily be severed. He has lost his mother, and in her stead there is this Virgin, and she is messing with the swimmer’s times and team. How to drown a vision? In the girl’s periphery, she spies what she needs and tells the boy to close his eyes.

He hears nothing but the soothing sound of the water cycling slowly through the filters, a hymn in this self-made shrine. He smiles to think of the girl, this star diver, conspiring with him in this creation. They have made something this evening, haven’t they? A place in which to worship and be worshiped, if only for a moment.

When she finally tells him to open his eyes, she has slipped into the water. Her sneakers stand empty, poolside. He takes off his and puts them with hers, and it is an intimacy, leather and laces touching, he will never forget. Wrapped in white—is it paper?—she has masked her hair and clothes. The white sheets trail from her arms as she floats on her back in the water.

To speak would disrupt the spell she is trying to create and break. So she waves him into the pool.

He should be turned on, right? This beautiful girl is calling him into the pool. But the warmth he feels, even as he lowers himself, fully-clothed, into the cool water, is like a melting in his chest.

Without speaking, she tells him to swim above her as she glides below, fluttering slightly, hardly rippling the water that encases them, like a liquid cocoon.

Face to face, they watch each other’s eyes. This is prayer, he thinks. This is love, she thinks.

Later, they won’t speak of this shedding of the old in new waters. A baptism? He and she would have rolled their eyes to the sky at that too-tired image. That was then, when they clung to the heartland, the small town, the ritualistic feast days and foods. Here is home and ceremony and sustenance now. But they won’t speak of this night at the big pool, not even to each other.

Now, the image is dissolving, as white specks like underwater snow funnel around them and fall away.

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Header photograph © J. Bish.

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