Emma Törzs


Allie’s ex-stepfather, Jim, had a pool with a deep end, where the clear water went blue like candy. This was the summer we were thirteen, and sex had just passed the threshold from concept to corporeal—not an idea anymore but a real beating force beneath the façade of the clean-faced world, like magma tucked in the locket of the earth’s crust. The pool had a diving board. Jim sat on his yellow chaise lounge and handed out ratings, shouting “Three! You call that a splash? I could sneeze a bigger splash than that!”


Jim had been married to Allie’s mother for eight years, and they’d been divorced for one. Her mother, Gretchen, was skinny like a little boy, and there was something disconcerting about her prettiness, as if she put it on backward every morning. Sometimes Jim asked Allie, “Is she on or off this week?” and usually Allie said, “On.”


Unlike my parents, who worked full-time and were never around until the evening, Jim had his summers free. He was an instructor at the local technical college and I’d always found it hard to imagine him in front of a classroom, though I’d known him for years and had seen him in his button-ups and ironed jeans. Since he'd split from Gretchen I mostly saw him poolside, stretched out and browning in his aqua trunks, drinking lemonade. Each time we came over he kissed Allie hello, a quick press of dry lips on her blonde hair, right at the part. She was built on stronger lines than her mother, and when she bent her head for his greeting she looked lovely and grownup, like a woman receiving benediction.


One day I asked, “Does your mom think it’s weird that you still hang out with Jim?”


She gave me a purse-lipped glance.  “Why would it be weird?”


I wasn’t sure. It was a question I’d been asking myself about everything lately, including my own parents. What had as recently as a year ago seemed entirely normal now struck me as unspeakably bizarre: the way my father held his breath while reading, how my mother did sit-ups each morning in her underwear. And they seemed to feel the same way about me, my father in particular. He’d never been affectionate, and his scarce hugs felt even more uncomfortable these days, as if he wasn’t certain whom he had his arms around. It made me feel lonely and free. 


“Well,” I said. “He’s not your real dad.”


She bit the skin around her thumbnail and examined the chipped polish. In her halter-top the curves of her tan shoulderblades looked soapstone smooth, carved by a steady hand. “He loves me,” she said finally.


I wiggled my eyebrows at her.


“You’re disgusting,” she said, and tried to smack me as I rolled away, laughing. She grinned and shook her head. 


But we stopped going to the pool so much, and I noticed Allie ducking away from Jim’s kisses when he reached for her, leaving him with a bemused, anxious expression, though his face smoothed out when he caught me looking. Once school started, we didn’t visit him at all.  


In mid-October my mother and I ran into Jim in the grocery store, a box of oatmeal under one arm, his collar starched and his tan already fading, and for a second I didn’t recognize him.


“Hey, you,” he said to me, and then, to my mother, “How’s Allie doing? I haven’t seen her in a while.”


“She’s good, Jim,” my mother said, and nudged me. “You said she made the softball team?”


“Yeah,” I said. “She did.”


“That girl,” Jim said, mouth twisting in a half-smile. “What a powerhouse. Never seen her hit less than a double. She keeping up with her homework?”


“As far as I can tell,” my mother said. She was looking at Jim the way she sometimes looked at me, the moment before she pushed a strand of hair out of my eyes or cupped my cheek.


“She got an A on her last English paper,” I said, and Jim looked pleased.


“She’s always been a good writer,” he said.


“Well,” my mother said, and hefted our shopping basket toward the door.


“Tell Allie I said hi?” he said to me. “Tell her Thursday’s still enchilada night.”


In the car, my mother said, “Why don’t you girls go to Jim’s like you used to? I think he’d like to see more of Allie.”


I felt guilty in a gut-deep, sour way, which made me petulant. “’Cause it’s weird,” I said, repeating what I’d said months ago. “Don’t you think? He’s not even her real dad.”


My mother looked at me, then back at the road. “Love is love,” she said. “Nothing’s realer than that.”


She had a tendency to oversimplify; many things are as real. Fear, for example, and desire, both of which I felt in spades that summer. But now my own daughter is thirteen and I watch her father pull her close, his hand on her shoulder, his lips on her hair, and I remember standing by the pool and wishing, wishing, wishing—not knowing what I wanted, not knowing what was real, not knowing anything at all. 




Photo by Frederic Törzs

Emma Törzs lives in Missoula, Montana, where she writes and waits (tables). Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as Ploughshares, Narrative, Salt Hill, and The Cincinnati Review. You can also find her work around the web in places like the Tin House Blog, Hobart, PANK, and Joyland


This story was originally published in Issue 13 of The Literarian