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Fiction

Pickle

Yolanda glanced at the timers seated on steel fold-up chairs under the white tents at the edge of the Olympic size pool, three timers per lane. She noticed the way they casually, so confidently chatted with each other during the race and then how they simultaneously got up and approached the edge of the pool, looking intently at the water as they pushed the appropriate buttons on their gadgets; one of them authoritatively writing something on a clipboard. She had to remind herself that they were just parents, like her, volunteers timing their kids at a swimmeet. But she wasn’t like them. She checked the Hannah Montana watch on her wrist, the one her daughter would no longer wear, and saw it was almost time for her to relieve one of these parents.


“Just do pickle,” that’s what Carol told her. “Tell them it’s your first time and ask for pickle, it’s the easiest.”  Do pickle? Yolanda didn’t know what it meant to do pickle. She thought pickle was just something you eat. But Carol said it was easy, so maybe she should ask for pickle.

Yolanda did not want to mess this up. She didn’t want to embarrass Gracie. “Whatever you do, Mom, don’t take the stopwatch.”  It was Gracie’s first year on the swim team and she was fitting in so well. Everyone seemed to like her, maybe because she was so fast.

Don’t take the stopwatch, don’t take the stopwatch, Yolanda repeated to herself, engraving her daughter’s plea in her head as she walked towards the timing tents. She looked down at her soaked canvas sneakers and tried to avoid the squishy sound by stepping lightly, even though no one could possibly hear it in the jam-packed pool deck. It was covered with water and people, kids dripping to and fro, parents walking and standing making it difficult to squeeze through, heads towering so tall all she could see was a sea of shoulders and chests.  She felt small, smaller than usual.

Swim meets always reminded her of tent cities, like the one she called home for a few months after crossing the border. But the swim meet tents were opulent versions, whiter, almost sterile, perfectly erect, housing the various teams and their families, the food tent, the coaches’ tent, the timers’ tent, the officials’ tent. Here, the masses smelled of expensive perfume, aftershave and chlorine. No trace of the scent of human waste she had grown used to in the tent city.  Her mouth watered when she passed by the food tent, bacon and sausages momentarily invading her thoughts. But quickly she recognized the uncomfortable feeling in her stomach was not hunger, just nerves. Don’t take the stopwatch.

The first time Yolanda stepped on a pool deck was the day of the team tryouts. Gracie seemed to know how to do everything, as if she had been competing all her life. Yolanda was holding the silicone cap, trying to figure out if she could stretch it out sufficiently to cover all that beautiful, long hair Gracie had tied into a sloppy twist. But Gracie grabbed the cap from her mother’s hands, bent down at the waist, lowered her head and in less than a second the cap was hiding every strand of black hair. The goggles she borrowed from Megan made her look fierce, so competent and for a moment Yolanda did not recognize her daughter. 

“Good luck, mija,” her mother told her in almost a whisper as Gracie skipped then ran toward the pool. She had grown so tall in just the last few months, taller than Yolanda now. But that wasn’t saying much. Gracie had long muscular thin legs. She looked tanned and beautiful under the California sun, a welcomed variation from the pink skinned children overflowing the pool deck, her skin distinctly lacking the orange tones of parents’ sprayed-on tans.   

In the water, Gracie’s brown skin glistened, as if the sun’s rays were creating a spotlight. She swam freestyle, the only stroke Cesar had taught her. Yolanda noticed the way the head coach stopped chatting and turned to look at Gracie. He looked down at his clipboard then back at the pool. Yolanda knew nothing about swimming, but she could tell her daughter was fast, faster than most of the other kids.

A year in swimming had given Gracie much needed confidence. At first, after only a few months in California, Gracie’s 6th grade teacher called Yolanda for a conference.  Yolanda was worried. Maybe Gracie was getting into trouble. Or maybe she was hanging out with the wrong crowd. To her relief, the teacher told her Gracie was quiet. “Too quiet,” she reiterated with a worried look on her face, like there was more she wanted to say. “She never talks to the other kids, doesn’t raise her hand in class. Her school work is satisfactory, but she seems withdrawn and we’re concerned about depression.”

Depression? Yolanda couldn’t help but laugh, then immediately feared she might seem uncaring. But depression was the one thing Yolanda had not worried about. She was preoccupied with finding food, a place to live, a job, and making sure Cesar would never find her and Gracie. Sometimes she worried about the gangs, the guns, about Gracie getting pregnant, about drugs.  Depression was a foreign concern.

Back in San Antonio, when a caring neighbor dropped off some used clothes for her and Gracie, she suddenly had a vision of the two of them wearing these clothes in another place, far away from Cesar. Her instinct was to hide the bag, although she didn’t immediately understand why or how she would escape. But slowly the plan seemed to unfold before her. She asked the same caring neighbor for more supplies, food cans, bottles of water, and finally money.  She didn’t know how much it would cost for bus fare from San Antonio to California, but she figured she would get as far as possible and try to work wherever they ended up, eventually finishing the trip when she made enough money.

Yolanda had a half sister living in California and she was pretty sure she had never mentioned her to Cesar.  When Yolanda and Gracie arrived, her sister found houses for her to clean and after a few months one of the ladies offered her a job as a live-in nanny for her three children. The oldest, Megan, was Gracie’s age and she suggested Gracie could attend Megan’s neighborhood school. “Yes,” she said eagerly. Not because the award-winning suburban neighborhood school was so much more superior to Gracie’s drug-infested, jail-like elementary school, where shaved heads and tattooed pre-teen bodies sauntered about. No, Yolanda was thrilled because she was certain Cesar would not find them here.  Here, was an excellent hiding place, where thin, tall women carelessly walk and jog perfectly manicured streets, pulling tiny little dogs until they can walk no farther and are then carried like precious furry babies.  In a place like this, Cesar is nothing more than the name of the dog food she feeds the family puppy.

It was a requirement that swim team parents time for at least an hour if they had a child in the meet. Up until now, Megan’s mom, Carol, had always volunteered for two time slots, one for her daughter and one for Gracie, while Yolanda watched Carol’s baby and toddler.  But Megan had woken up with a fever and Yolanda was here on her own for the first time. 

“Somebody didn’t sign up!” She had heard a mom complain earlier that morning as she was trying to set up the folded chair Carol had lent her for the day. She didn’t know exactly how to sign up, like she didn’t know exactly how to unfold the chair.  “Who didn’t sign up to time?” Something pulled at her stomach, a knot that also needed unraveling. “Who didn’t sign up?” The shrill came out of the tall, blond, athletic mom’s mouth.  Athletic mom had two daughters, Fast and Fastest. Her Mercedes plate labeled them “swmchix.”  But they were better known as swim bitches. Parent meetings Yolanda never attended were often called to discuss swmchix complaints, and once, her daughters were thrown out of the team for fowl language and cat fights.  But they were reinstated when the team hired a new coach and needed more money.  

“Did you sign up yet?” asked the nice red-haired mom, who probably noticed Yolanda’s guilty face. She knew athletic mom would never let it go. “Come, I’ll show you.” She and Yolanda walked to the clipboard hanging from the team tent, swaying in the breeze. A pen was attached to it. Red-haired mom showed her a page with squares and hours and asked her what time she wanted to volunteer. “Oh, no matter,” she said looking away from her bright green eyes, “any time.” She signed her up in the 11:15 to 12:15 slot.

It was 11:05 and Carol had told her to stand near the timer’s tent early, so she could see which two were not holding the stopwatch. There were three chairs for their team under their timing tent. One parent held the watch; one held a clipboard with the kids’ names and the third parent only had to push the button at the end of the black cord when the child’s hand touched the pad under water. She figured that was “pickle” because the black thing at the end of the cord looked like a pickle. It was important she didn’t get the stopwatch because it was tricky figuring out which buttons to push to start it, to stop it and then to clear the numbers before the next swimmer. But standing there watching the expert timers, she realized the clipboard parent had to do a pickle too, both clipboard and pickle. She was sweating even though it was a cool fall morning. The knot in her stomach seemed to tangle up even more. Should she interrupt and let them know she was there to take their place? Should she tap a parent on the shoulder? Should she say something? But the meet was going so fast, one kid after the other, standing on the block: Take your marks, beep, splash. Take your marks, beep, splash and splash and splash.

For a moment, she thought of Gracie and wondered if her event was coming up soon. She would miss it if she was timing. Gracie was off running around with the other girls, checking the charts on the wall, figuring out her times, the number of seconds she needed to skim off her official times so she could increase her national rank. She looked like a darker version of the others in her team suit.

Unlike the other swimmers, however, Gracie did everything herself. There was no parent with her when she looked at the postings on the wall for her heat and lane numbers. No one demanded that she warm up before her event or nagged about stretching, or jumping up and down so her heart rate would not be at rest when the buzzer went off. Other parents were constantly repeating these instructions to their children, it seemed. But Gracie was on her own and the only thing she worried about was her mother timing for the first time. She feared the officials would have to stop the meet because of her. What if she was off on all the times, or worse, if she stopped the clock too soon before the swimmer was done? If she had to time the 200 yard events, she would have to count the number of times the swimmer went up and back. Could she do that? She wished her mother wasn’t here. Not this meet. It was too important and she didn’t want to worry about her mom.  

But there was so much about Yolanda Gracie didn’t know. She had not been born yet when her mother was tossed in the river after being raped repeatedly by the coyote and two of his buddies who claimed she didn’t have enough money to get her across the border. They left her for dead, but thought that if she was still alive, she would probably drown. Maybe it was the strength of Gracie growing inside her, or maybe just pure luck, but Yolanda hung onto a sturdy branch underwater and waited, then surfaced to take in a desperate breath and that’s when she heard the truck drive away. She pulled herself onto the edge of the river and rested her bruised, aching body. Lying under a prickly bush, she waited for darkness to cross the river. She wasn’t sure if she could swim across, but she had overheard some of them say the water at times reduces to a trickle and you can practically walk your way to the other side. But she had also heard of unexpected currents in certain areas of the Rio Grande that no one, not even a skilled swimmer could survive.

Gracie was so scared during her first meet when she saw the official coming toward her after swimming a 50 yard butterfly. He was a huge man, obese, a large mass of white, white pants, white shirt, white Panama hat wobbling towards her. Underneath his hat was an ear piece connected to what looked like a small microphone. He held one hand to his ear and spoke into the mike. He took the clipboard from the seated parent and marked in large red letters DQ, next to her name. Gracie was dripping and panting for air, holding her hands together over her chest as if she was praying.  Carol stood behind the timers’ chairs, holding Gracie’s towel, waiting for the official to explain to her why she had been disqualified. Yolanda was holding Carol’s baby when she spotted her daughter sobbing, being comforted by Carol, walking towards the team tent.

Gracie, ¿qué pasó? She asked, forgetting for an instant she was not allowed to speak Spanish to her daughter around her swim team friends.

“Tell me what happened?”

“I got DQ’d,” she said between sobs and tears.

“DQ’d? What does that mean, honey?”

“Disqualified!” She screamed at her mom and ran toward her coach withthe towel around her shoulders blowing in the wind like a cape. Yolanda felt the stares from the other parents and she held back her own tears as she walked back to the team tent, looking for the baby’s binky who by then was crying too.

The broad-shouldered dad holding the stopwatch began to look around, as if ready to be relieved from his duty. Not the stopwatch please, thought Yolanda, the pickle, I need to get the pickle. She looked around as well to see if there was any other team parent ready to take over for broad-shouldered dad. He seemed anxious. Maybe he had to go to the bathroom. Bathroom. She hadn’t thought about the bathroom. What if she had to go to the bathroom once she started timing? Maybe she should go now, but then she could miss her chances of getting pickle.

Across the pool she spotted Gracie, rooting for one of her teammates. She was kneeling down at the edge of the pool with her hands cupped around her mouth yelling into the splashing water. She was surrounded by two girls and one boy. All of them yelling and smiling and clapping. She was thrilled to see her daughter having such a good time, and for an instant, she wished she was Gracie.

“Are you next?” It was the pickle woman, asking for her replacement. Had Yolanda been praying, she would have thought this was a miracle.  But she didn’t consider her supplications prayer, just intense wishing and hoping.  God had done so much for her already, had kept her alive, had given her this beautiful, capable daughter, a place to live and had kept Cesar away for almost a year. How could she pray for pickle?  She was relieved, but still nervous about this responsibility, about the bathroom issue, and what if Gracie needed her. She felt bound to the chair as if shackles were placed around her and for one hour she was a pool prisoner, doing her time.

Yolanda looked at the swimmers that paraded in front of her and silently wished them all well. She hoped they could go faster than their last time. She knew from Gracie that’s what they all wanted. It was fascinating watching their faces when they were told their times–the thrill of half a second faster or the complete defeat of half a second slower. She had never thought of time this way. Her natural clock didn’t include seconds, only days, months, years, a lifetime. These kids broke it all down to an instant, a breath. A breath could make the difference and they tried to breathe less and less each time.

If she was more like the fetus inside her, she imagined on that cloudy full moon night, she could reach the other side easily. She tried to keep her thoughts on her unborn Gracie, how fortunate she was to be able to breathe in water. Each step in the cold sludgy water was a step closer to a new life. As long as she could take a step she was okay. The current was not strong and she felt only a slight pressure on her legs. She wondered if maybe she should have taken off her jeans and shoes; worried for a moment that all her clothing might drag her down, should the water get much higher. But she was holding on okay; the water only waist high. She prayed. She prayed to the Virgin Mary, a mother. Surely Mary would get her to the other side. She wouldn’t let her die, let her baby die.

After about the fourth or fifth swimmer, Yolanda began to notice that in her lane, kids went slower than the others. Maybe this was the designated slow lane and she felt bad for the kids lined up behind her. Did they know they were in the slow lane? Lanes 3 and 4 seemed to have all the winners.   In a way, she felt a little less pressure. The winning kids were always so stressed out, some even screaming either with exhilaration or despair at hearing their times. Not the slow lane kids. Their joys and disappointments were quieter, noticeable only in subtle facial expressions.

She was tempted to press the button on the pickle just a second or so before the child touched the pad, just to give them a little help, a happier day, but worried too that someone might notice. Were they watching her hand, the moment she pushed the button? She didn’t want to mess things up.

The pain from the bruises was intensified by exhaustion. She was shaking violently and maybe it was the cold water or the constriction of every single muscle under extreme pressure.  If she were to start bleeding underwater, she wondered, would she even notice? Wet upon wet can’t get any wetter.  Mojado, that’s certainly what she was at that moment, that’s what they called illegal Mexicans and now she understood why. She wasn’t Mexican and had only been in Mexico a couple of weeks before getting to the border. But they wouldn’t care that she was from Guatemala. A mojado is a  mojado no matter where they came from. She thought of her home town in El Quitzal and missed her mom and wanted to ask her if the pain she felt was from the rape or if she was losing her baby. So she asked anyway in a whisper and hoped to hear an answer. The water was now at her neck and for the first time in her life she wished she was taller. She prayed and thanked Jesus for the moon, for enough light to see just a bit ahead of her, but feared too all this light might give her away. As if Jesus heard her concern, the moon would occasionally hide behind the clouds, leaving her in such darkness she would extend her hands as far as she could hoping to touch the end of the river, the invisible, unimaginable other side.

She looked at those little hands reaching out to touch the pad and wished they would do it more forcefully. Some of them so exhausted they seemed to linger, floating a bit just before touching. That’s why they are in the slow lane, she thought. They don’t have the drive that gives them that final push. Not like her daughter, she was certain her daughter probably leaped her entire body into that pad with such vigor. And she realized she had never really seen her daughter end a race in the water and made a mental note to do that, soon, after she earned her freedom from this chair.

She looked to her right and was startled to see Gracie on lane three, getting ready, stretching, jumping, shaking her muscles, bending down at the waist, shaking her arms, then upright shaking each leg systematically. It was a routine she was used to doing, but Yolanda had never really noticed all the idiosyncrasies. It reminded her of that baseball player she’d seen on TV, she didn’t know his name, but he seemed to touch at least six parts of his body before holding onto the bat. It was like a superstitious ritual and she wondered if Gracie was superstitious.

In her lane was a chubby but tall girl with a kind, innocent face and freckles over her nose. She looked very nervous, frightened even. Her very large, overly-made up mother was excessively protective, giving her instructions that were too obvious, “That’s it honey, just get up on the block when it’s your turn…no, not yet.” Yolanda wondered if there was something wrong with the child and she gave her a reassuring smile. The child smiled back so sweetly and Yolanda felt an urge to wish her good luck but was afraid to speak. Up until that moment she had not said a word, only smiled politely at the two other parents in her lane. Right when the girl got up on the block, she did it. She whispered “good luck” and hoped the girl had heard. Immediately she felt guilty she had not wished her daughter good luck and looked for Gracie’s eyes. Gracie was already standing on her block, bent at the waist, probably imagining the swim, each stroke, the victory.

The buzzer went off and Gracie was far ahead of the pack. It looked like she was being chased, or shot at, or both. That’s it Gracie, you go honey. She thought it but wouldn’t say it. She didn’t think it was right to cheer for her daughter from another lane.  The child in her lane seemed to move in slow motion. Was she floating? No, she was swimming but barely moving, each stroke a struggle. Yolanda wondered if she was okay. And what if she wasn’t, would the officials stop the race? Would someone jump in if she couldn’t make it across? It was a 200 yard swim and she would have to go up and down many times, but she was still on her first lap.

Yolanda heard the child’s mother scream from behind her chair, “Go, faster, come on, faster, kick-kick-kick, go, go!” She was surprised to hear this, thinking a caring mother would probably tell her daughter to get out of the water instead. That’s what she would have done if her child was struggling in a pool. How could anyone throw a child who could barely swim in a swimming competition? Yolanda felt a heat rising up within her. “Faster, faster…” yelled the mother. The child was obviously getting very tired, her arms flailing in all directions. Could a child drown here, like this, with all these eyes upon her? The official kept his eye on the girl, not because he was concerned but because her stroke was almost unrecognizable and she noticed him saying something into his tiny microphone and calmly writing on his clipboard. Everyone was now looking at the slow child, mildly fascinated by her inability to swim properly.  “Go, faster, kick-kick-kick, pull, pull, pull!” mom kept yelling into Yolanda’s ear. “Come on, go, go, go!”  The child had her head tilted completely back, trying desperately to catch a breath.  “Go, go!”

Why don’t you go, she wanted to say to that mother. At first the thought seemed momentary, an involuntary reaction. But as the water splashed repeatedly in the same spot and Yolanda concentrated on the girl, as if trying to will her to the finish, the anger began to grow until her face became flushed with fury. “Go, go” screamed the mother.

Why don’t you get in that pool, she screamed silently and suddenly, a flood of emotions she could not recognize seemed to drown out her rational mind.  Let’s watch you swim across, bitch. The rant reverberated only in her head. Better yet, let’s throw you in a river and see if you can kick-kick-kick, faster, faster. You go, go, go and see what it feels like to have water up your nose, your body sinking, your muscles giving out, come on, kick-kick-kick and suck, suck whatever air you can get because you re sinking, bitch, so pull yourself up, pull, pull, pull and pray, damn it, pray for an angel, for someone or something to carry you, to push you or throw you on to the other side, but there’s no angel, is there? only you, by yourself, drowning, and you push and you kick and your arms thrash about, and you wonder how you can get to the other side when your limbs don’t do what you tell them to do anymore, so you fight, you fight the water, you fight your body’s weakness because if you don’t, you are going to drown, you are going to die and your child will die with you. 

Yolanda’s left leg was now shaking up and down and she was making a fist with her right hand. She could not remember feeling this kind of anger before, not even when muddy, filthy strangers’ hands were all over her body and she felt them grabbing, savagely shoving, thrusting, pushing as if she weren’t a person at all, just a dummy, or a corpse, a lifeless piece of flesh.  Not even when Cesar punched her in the chest and she felt all the breath go out of her. “Run, Gracie, run” that’s all she said. No real anger in her voice, just fear. But now, now she felt a volcanic wave of indignation rising within her, with all the unfortunate circumstances in her wretched life erupting in this one moment; fuck this mother, fuck the  official, fuck these rich sons of bitches, fuck these white tents. She wanted to grab the fucking stopwatch and make it all stop. All of it. The meet, the polite and useless chatter, the phony cheering, her anesthetized existence, with a push of a button make it all evaporate. Get that child out of the water! She wanted to scream, but didn’t.

“Mami, did you see me?” Her daughter’s voice interrupted her internal rage. She was breathing hard, panting just like her daughter, their hearts beating so fast. The two other parents in her lane were now looking at her. Gracie had won the heat and was waiting in the water for the chubby girl to finish so she could get out. “I did it, I am going to the Junior Olympics!” beamed her little girl. Yolanda put her hands in her face and began to sob. “Congratulations” she heard the parent next to her say while gently putting her arm around Yolanda. Yolanda could not stop crying. The child in her lane seemed to go slower and slower, so agonizing to watch. The meet was at a standstill, waiting for her to finish. Yolanda felt a sudden rush of shame, such evil feelings for people who were now congratulating her and accepting her daughter as part of their world. She should be grateful and smile politely. “Go, go, go” shrieked the child’s mother in Yolanda’s ear once more.

Yolanda did smile politely, and in that instant, she felt an overwhelming peace come over her. She knew just what she had to do. She wiped the tears from her face, got up from the chair, walked to the edge of the pool, looked at her daughter in lane three, then back at the child’s mother behind her empty chair and waited for their eyes to meet. When she saw the woman look at her, she said to her, slowly “hija de puta,” just before stepping off the edge and dropping into the water. The other two timers in her lane stared down at her stunned, as if an alien had fallen from the heavens and splashed upon the earth. Yolanda spit out some water, cleared the soaking hair from her eyes, looked up at the opened-mouth parent statues above her and demanded, loudly and deliberately, careful to pronounce the words properly “Push the button on my pickle.” She turned and lunged towards the girl, grabbed her by her torso, the way one would grab a small torpedo if it were launched by hand.

With a powerful force the child’s hands slammed into the pad, ending the race.

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