The Deep End

An original short story.

Nicola gasps for breath as his fingers clench tighter around her throat. She feels command of her body slipping away, starting from her shoulders, to her arms, to her abdomen. His strength does not give. His free arm rises slowly, the knife glistening, and she sees her reflection in it: eyes wide, veins embossed and pulsating against the thin skin on her temples. Her last will to survive arrives in a jolt, sending her knee kicking right into his groin. He buckles instantly and crumples to the floor. She picks up the knife and flees.

Turning from the alley, she joins the crowd on the sidewalk, the endless sea of couples traversing the Strip of bars and restaurants for every stage and price point of their relationships. She smooths down the fabric of her dress and starts walking at a leisurely pace, brushing her hair down. She recalls his features: chestnut brown hair, blue eyes, the deliriously charming dimple that all worked together to disarm her. She slows her breathing, relieved to have escaped yet another near-death experience at the hands of a handsome man. Francis.

Then, she hears a distant and muffled ping. Nicola’s eyes snap open, and her vision transitions from a blue purple haze of her walking down the Strip to her reflection sharpening into focus in the mirror. Her long brown hair cascades over her shoulders, a pair of narrow-set, almond-shaped eyes framed under a pair of straight, dark brows. Nicola looks down at her phone, lipstick still in her right hand, suspended mid-air. Her heart rate starts to descend. The room grows frigid.

“I’m on way. Waze says my ETA is about 8 minutes!” the text reads.

“Shit,” she mutters under breath. She dabs her lipstick from corner to corner of her bottom lip, smacking it against her upper lip to evenly disperse the pigment of Merlot red that livens her complexion. Her movements are smooth, fluid, practiced. Ritual.

She stuffs her calfskin leather top-handle bag with the necessities: phone, wallet, keys, lipstick—her hand hovers over the sealed condom on her dresser. She stares at it. She picks it up and drops it into the bag’s interior pocket and zips it closed. It’s been years for her. She tries to imagine coming home with him, the warmth of the contact of his skin, the breathy exchange between their mouths, the whisper of sheets rippling beneath them as they plunge into a bed. No arousal comes. Her pulse only slows to 55 beats a minute, verified by the FitBit on her wrist. She removes it. Everything is cold, but she doesn’t shiver.

She takes one last look in the mirror, angling her body to 45 degrees. She doesn’t know why she does this, or why other women do. It’s decades of learned dressing room behavior that nobody ever talks about. Does anyone even look at anyone from this angle? Aren’t they either looking from the front or the rear? It’s odd, to be so specific about it. It’s a shame nobody ever sees me from this angle. It’s a shame nobody ever sees me at all.

Another ping comes. “Hi Nicola, I’m outside.”

He doesn’t even bother coming to the door.

It will be fine. I’ll be fine. It’ll be fun. Just have fun.

Dating has been a full-time job with zero yields for the last four years. The endless haircuts, manicures, pedicures, wardrobe upgrades, dining out, and talking to strangers have amounted to nothing but a pile of bills in exchange for the elusive promise of romance and happiness. Unlike even the shittiest jobs, she gets no pay raise, no promotion, and certainly no recognition.

She approaches the vehicle, keeping her eyes on the broad-shouldered figure in the driver’s seat. He does not exit to greet her or open the door for her. Nicola laughs to herself.

“Hi. You look great,” he says, leaning across the empty passenger seat to look up at her from the rolled-down window. Nicola pulls the bottom hem of her long dress up, gathers the excess fabric loosely into a fist, and slips in beside him. The car seats are black leather. They always are. The car smells like pine and musk, a good combination. A common one. She takes a long and silent whiff. Images of just about every other car she has slid into in the past months that looks, feels, and smells just like this one, flash rapidly in her mind.

“It’s nice to finally meet you, Francis,” Nicola says, flashing a smile as she tucks loose strands of hair behind her right ear. Like clockwork. Impeccably timed, neatly executed.

Francis’ eye glistens and the dimple sidling next to his smile deepens. He breaks his stare away with a clear of his throat.

“Let’s get going,” he says, putting his hand on the clutch and stepping on the gas.

Nicola places the tips of her index and middle finger on her wrist. She finds her heartrate unbearably placid, her prior efforts for excitement now in vain.

Nicola has been to this restaurant on the Strip three other times over the course of the month. She is embarrassed to see the same staff waiting her table for the fourth time. She quickly makes eye contact with him, and a feeling of failure and desperation washes over her. She shakes it off by glancing back at her date, who has been speaking for the past few minutes without pause. He has not registered her neglect.

“So I saw on your profile that you’re not religious,” he asks, munching on a French fry. He dips it in mayo instead of ketchup. Who even does that? she thinks to herself.

“Yes, I’m not,” she replies. She invites no further questions and offers no further explanation.

“That’s okay. God is for everyone,” he replies with nonchalance.

Sensing his misstep he adds in a slightly hushed tone, “We love all sorts of people.”

He hunches his shoulders to relegate his size, and leans closer, tilting his eyes to look up at her with a knowing smile beneath them. She makes an effort to smile back, but any appeal Francis had possessed previously in her mind was evaporating, and the entrees hadn’t even arrived.

Dim, forgiving restaurant lighting and one glass of wine make him an attractive man. His shoulders seemed broader and his skin clearer in the photos than in real life. Nicola pushes the sequence of photos she had looked through numerous times out of her mind; his chestnut brown hair, his blue eyes, the dimples. The dimples are just as charming as they are in real life, which relieves her. She stabs a bloody strip of steak with her fork. Still, this is better than the last time. He’s the least of an asshole in the batch.

Nicola and Francis had been exchanging text messages for a few weeks, longer than the others, before Francis asked to take her out to dinner. She never knew how she felt about these things, often vacillating between excitement at the uncertainty of prospective romance to complete emotional sterility. Sometimes she would throw her phone in the trash can so she would stop looking at it so often. Other times she would forget about it for hours.

She blanks out of his monologue repeatedly, but Francis does not seem to notice. Her thoughts land on the application for a Master’s degree in Anthropology that’s been bookmarked on her browser for the past four years. She tells herself to check it out later when she gets home tonight.

Nicola wills herself into attention, focusing on the sound of Francis’ voice. The sound of the breeze and the rustling tree above their table helps tether her to the present.

They talk about the weather, how unbearable the humidity has been, and vacations they would take if money were not an issue. Except money is always an issue. Francis makes her laugh, which surprises her. She settles into it. There is a flow to their conversations, the kind sufficient to wash the grime off of dirty dishes in a kitchen sink, but not quite strong enough to pull her into an undertow of romantic aspirations. Sometimes it requires a little push, but the progress is better than it has been compared to her previous three other men she has never heard from again. He never seems to mind her lack of response, and she can’t decide if this is a good or bad thing.

“We should go for a swim sometime, I’m a member at this great hotel where we can hang out for the afternoon,” Francis suggests.

Nicola is surprised to find her head nodding: “Sure,” she says. “That sounds fun.” To her surprise, her pulse quickens. Just a tad.

The days between dinner at the Strip and today’s swim were agonizingly long.

In the locker room, Nicola closes her eyes and sees herself stepping into the pool: Francis’ eyes trail her as she descends into the water. She emerges, her hair sleek and straight neatly behind her slender face, and finds that he’s nowhere in her immediate line of vision. She does a scan from left to right and finds the water completely still. There is nobody else around.

It happens quickly. She is submerged against her will, her arms flailing desperately to break the surface of the water for a gasp of air. She is dragged deeper into the water. Her chest constricts and her eyes start to sting from the chlorine. The grip on her right ankle does not give and she can feel the blood constricting and she knows it’s going to leave a scar and that’s if she survives. Panic takes her in a chokehold and her vision goes black.

A knock on the door thrusts her back into reality: the hollow sound of the empty locker room and the cold of the tiles against her feet shock her into attention. “Everything okay in there, Nicola?”

She approaches the mirror just before the exit to the pool, her eyes tracing from her deltoid to her waist, the crease on her quadricep to her calf.

“Yes, fine!” she answers back. Her pulse livens, and her cheeks flush. She steps out into the pool area. He is the only figure in the water, chiseled muscles bared and his skin slick with droplets from the pool water. They exchange glances; he flashes a smile, and she returns it. She pushes down a small cough to quell the butterflies in her stomach.

She dips one leg slowly into the water before immersing herself. When she breaks the surface, he had already made his way toward her.

“I’m terribly out of practice,” she says, running her hands down her sleek, dark hair behind her head.

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of you,” he says. “Can you float?”

She nods. She releases her weight from her body and relaxes into a supine position, surrendering resistance to the buoyancy of the pool water. He places one hand on the small of her back, and she feels her pulse slightly quicken. Maybe this could work out. She allows herself to enjoy the prospect of how well this date could go. Maybe they’d have lunch afterward. Maybe she could retire from this second job of zero yields after all.

She closes her eyes as her muscles relax, and the water cradles the back of her head and the outer perimeter of her face. Francis’ arm is strong and unyielding, and she thinks about how it would feel around her waist. She feels her bicep brush against his chest and abdomen, lean and roped with muscle. Peace. Safety. Maybe, finally.

In a swift and unanticipated motion, Francis lays his free hand on her forehead palm down, and he lifts his chin and closes his eyes. “Lord Almighty, you are our one and only Savior,” he says to some invisible entity above him.

Nicola’s eyes snap open instantly and widen. Her body stiffens. She breaks away from him in a frantic splash, freeing herself of his grip and whatever peaceful moment she had allowed herself to briefly enjoy.

“What the fuck are you doing?” she demands, voice low, eyes narrowed, slowly backing away from him.

Francis chuckles. He does not seem to register her aversion. “Nicola, it’s not a big deal! Listen, I really like you and would like to see you again, but we just have to get this out of the way first.”

He wades towards her, the dimple indenting into the corner of his mouth, water droplets falling from his hair.

“It’s important to me,” he adds.

“I’m not religious by choice,” she hisses.

“Do not come any closer, or I will scream. Do not contact me again. Whatever you think this is, I’m not interested. Goodbye, Francis.” She makes for the stairs out of the pool and walks into the locker room, her steps hurried, not once looking back.

“Okay, so he wasn’t a creep? He didn’t try to force himself on you?” the question hangs in the air, her friend Sophie unsure whether to express amusement or concern. Nicola’s stare extends past Sophie, watching people enter and exit the café before returning her gaze to the cup of half-sipped coffee. The rummage of rushed footsteps, dishes and utensils clacking, and conversations are a welcome distraction to recalling the memory of… whatever that was.

“First of all, they’re all different tiers of creepy. Second, it was worse than you can imagine,”

Nicola had called Sophie in a huff, walking to her car after leaving Francis alone at the hotel. They met at the the Grey, a small coffee shop near Sophie’s place—their usual debriefing spot.

Nicola stirs her coffee, trying to wash off the opaque ring of liquid that had dried inside the cup. “So we’re in the pool, and for once in years, I feel nervous. I actually thought it’d be cute, a little flirty, you know?”

“I mean, he’s kinda funny, and kinda cute.. and also kind of an asshole, but definitely not as bad as the others,” she adds as an afterthought.

Sophie stares at her in anticipation, eyes unblinking. Nicola recalls stepping into the water and the rush of excitement she had felt as the distance closed between her and Francis.

“Then he tried to baptize me! Baptize! I’m an atheist!”

“NO.” Sophie mouths the word, her mouth a perfect shape of the letter O.

Laughter erupts from their table. “That’s it,” Nicola declares, taking a sip of her coffee.

“I’ve gone off the deep end. You have no idea how much I have to hype myself up before every date just to feel something before going out with these lunatics.”

“Well, what do you do to hype yourself up?” Sophie asks, slicing a fork into the apple pie between them.

Nicola looks at her reflection in her fork, her face spliced into threes, dispersed among the prongs.

“Think about bloody murder.”


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