It shouldn’t have surprised me in the end, what happened with Catherine. I could tell from the day I met her there was something unreachable lurking under her eyelids. Her skin had a luminous, pearly quality, especially against her red hair. Her eyes were wild and bird-like, flicking left and right. I can’t tell you their color. I was never able to get a fix on it. She was gone before I could.
The first day I met her she pushed open the thick glass door of the firm I worked for with a strong hip. In her arms she juggled huge portfolios that architects carry. She had an authoritative walk and wore her pencil skirts and high heels like a uniform that seemed to restrain a willful personality. I had to dress up, too, as the receptionist. I was not self-assured enough to wear that costume every morning with conviction the way Catherine did.
She bounced toward my desk and balanced her hips against it with the portfolios under one arm and a leather backpack slung over the other shoulder. “You’re new, aren’t you?” She thrust a hand at me. “I’m Catherine,” with that lovely Texas lilt.
It was 1985 and I was just shy of thirty years old, new to the office, new to Austin, Texas and newly married to a man I had followed to this unforgiving landscape for him to attend graduate school. When we met in college he was easy-going and funny. Since we married, he had become distant and demanding. For whatever reasons, we were bitterly disappointed in each other. We validated all the inadequacies and insecurities that we felt in ourselves instead of building each other up. In my case, I felt like a failure as a musician, lacking in sex appeal and filled with anxiety. I didn’t like crowds or busy bars as he did; I preferred being out in nature.
Austin was our third move in as many years. I was lonely, and Texas and I were not becoming very good friends. There was a scorpion in the bathroom on our first night, and the view of the scrubby bushes and rocky hills outside my bedroom window made me feel like I had been transported to the set of an old depressing Western movie. A friendly and enthusiastic female face was a welcome sight. I took Catherine’s hand. It was compact and warm, her grip firm.
“I’m kinda new, too, to this place, anyway,” she gestured to the office. “I do the drawings, you know, architectural renderings. I’m at the bottom of the ladder, the artist.” She gave off an exotic scent, a wild concoction of pine, cigarettes and sandalwood. “Well, I’m glad to meet you. Let’s get a beer sometime. You drink beer, don’t you?” She clicked down the hallway with a boyish bounce.
In the mornings I’d don my dress-up clothes from Kmart and head to the bus stop while the air was cooler. I saw some promise in the reflection of the sun off the dew in the scrubby pines or glistening over the great boulders that grew out of the ground next to them. By five o’clock my polyester get-up was itchy, and I felt defeated. On the way to the bus the air was no longer cool. The heat and glare would be unbearable, and I would squint all the way home. Once there, all hope was gone, and I was ready to eat and go to bed.
My husband wanted to go out all the time to Sixth Street where the bars and music venues were in Austin. I went sometimes, but the noise, dark streets and drunken crowds scared me. "You're so uptight," he'd say. "Did something happen to you as a kid? You're afraid of everything. And why don't you ever dress up, wear some heels or something?" I felt like he wanted me to be someone else. I tried to change, but it seemed false. I never felt loved or desired as I was.
I had given up any hope of doing anything with my music degree. I felt I wasn’t good enough and had decided I wanted something else. The colleagues my husband brought home balked when I told them I was a receptionist in an office. “What do you really do?” they asked. When I answered that I wanted to be a preschool teacher, they looked right through me. I was a blank to them.
Catherine was not always at the office, so I saw her once or twice a week, but looked for her often. One morning, she came in with wet hair and explained that she went swimming every morning before work.
“There’s this pool,” she said. “It’s a natural spring made into a pool. It’s built right into the rock formation. You should come with me. I mean, I’m not supposed to swim at 6 a.m., but I squeeze through the fence. How about tomorrow morning?”
I had always been a fearful person and usually had an extrovert friend to follow in life. I was afraid of heights, of open or unfamiliar spaces, of the dark, of deep water, even of parties. Playing recitals in college caused incredible anxiety, and rarely had I felt empowered by them. I was not the rule breaking type, but that was the Texas way, and the Catherine way. That make our own rules and take the law into your own hands stuff of the Wild West. I wished I had one ounce of her fearlessness and guts. It fascinated me. Maybe I thought some of it would rub off. Or maybe it was just a rush to be around it. I was also flattered that she would invite me.
I went with her the next day and watched her muscular body leap into the clear water. There were delicate wildflowers growing out of the rocks, and I imagined her as one of them. Strong and beautiful. I remembered a time when I was a little girl, when I climbed trees, swam in cold rivers, and ran races with my dog. When did I lose that belief in myself? To this day, I’m not sure.
She was everything that I wasn’t. Brave, accomplished, self-assured, mysterious and irreverent. I began to study her, to mimic her jerky eye movements and boyish walk, the toss of her head. I started to smoke Marlboros, but I could never swig back quite as many beers as she could.
“Come on, girl, you need to feel what this is like,” she said one night after work. “It’s cold, like an electric shock. It’s the greatest rush you’ll ever feel, like a drug. It sets me up for the day better than anything I can imagine.”
I preferred prayer or yoga in the morning, a slow reflective start to my day. I had almost drowned at a public pool when I was seven and had to be dragged out. I hated cold water, and getting wet. And breaking the law by being there before the place even opened always had me on edge.
One night in October, my husband and I had gone out and the evening ended with too much drinking and a big fight. He had left late that night, and I didn’t know where he was.
The following morning, still not knowing where he was, Catherine and I met at the Springs. I didn’t say anything to Catherine about the previous night, but she always urged me to jump in with her, and this morning I wanted the risk, or the danger, anything to get rid of my hopeless feeling. She said, “All you need to do is dive in, then swim to the side. I’ll be right there waiting.”
I stood for a long time, my eyes mesmerized by the clear, depthless water. I shivered with cold and fear in my underwear. I made her stand with me and hold my hand. While cold sharp rocks stabbed my feet, the first rays of sun warmed my backside. The tang of cedar and pine was on my tongue.
And then we jumped. The descent from that rocky outcropping seemed to take forever. I made out a line of pines in the distance with a blue sky above. The impact of the cold water knocked my breath away. I panicked, confused about which direction to go, and felt her hand on the small of my back. I was conscious of her touch and continued to feel it even after it left my back. It felt hot in the cold water.
I can’t say that it was exhilarating. Terrifying, yes. I sat on the edge of the pool, crying, Catherine and I wrapped up in a big towel together. “You did it!” she said. All I could think of was her holding me, and the touch of her hand on my back.
The experience confused me more than ever. I wondered if I was falling in love with a woman. I’d never had feelings for a woman before this. I anguished over the possibility that this was the problem in my marriage and over what would happen next, where this would lead. I kept all of this to myself.
I continued to go to the Springs with her every now and then and watch from the side. One morning a couple of weeks later, we sat with cigarettes after her swim and she mentioned her husband. I knew of him, but she had never brought him up before. “Come over for dinner. I’ll make cheese grits and barbecue. You can meet my husband.” She blew smoke above our heads.
Both the husband and their house could not have come as more of a surprise to me. He was an obese man, bald on top with stringy red hair hanging down his back. I could not imagine her with him. They lived in a suburb crowded with ranch houses that all looked alike. The furniture was mundane, the art on the walls store-bought. Catherine stood out among the furnishings and next to him like a wild captive. I could find no vestige of her anywhere with the exception of a couple of drawings of Native American relics. It occurred to me that I had no idea who this woman really was, that the person I had these feeling for was a stranger. I had idealized her with a kind of idol worship. I was a stranger to her as well.
Around this time Catherine started to travel a lot and was always vague about her destinations and reasons for travel. After a few months of this, she revealed that she’d been having an affair with a man in Houston, was leaving her husband and moving out of state to start a business with her lover. She said she would write to me, and I should start swimming, just jump in every day.
I was stunned. I realized I’d been living in a dream world, escaping my misery by having a crush on a woman I hardly knew. I had believed that Catherine could somehow save me from the godless climate and terrain and my marriage.
She never learned how sickened I was by her news or the kinds of feelings I had developed for her. Or that I felt terribly betrayed that she had not told me her big secret. She said she hadn’t told me about the affair because she thought I’d disapprove.
After the initial shock was over, I came to realize that she had taken me under her wing, a scared and confused young woman, and tried to inspire me to be more. She didn’t think much of it, probably rarely thought of me. But I understood that she sensed something in me worth saving and that meant something to me.
We had a pool in our neighborhood in Austin, only a few blocks away – a small, cement pool in a shaded park next to a children’s playscape. The deepest it got was ten feet. Weeks after Catherine moved away, I started to go there. I wore clothes over my one-piece suit and went at a time when the pool would be empty. I knew how to float on my back. I began in the shallow end and over a period of weeks made my way to the deep end on my back looking up through the live oak branches at the Texas blue sky. In a few months, I was able to swim across the width of the pool at the deepest point.
I would never be the adventurous daredevil that Catherine was. It is not who I am, and perhaps not who I wanted to be either. I didn’t need to become her, but I think Catherine did inspire me to reach.
We met one last time at Barton Springs before she left town. I just watched; I never jumped in that pool again. She wore a bright orange swimsuit. The sun illumined her from behind so that she became a black shadow encircled by orange flame. A hiss of steam came off her body when it hit the water.
Sneakers squeaking on polished hardwood mixed with animated announcers’ voices nearly 2,500 miles east were barely audible from my TV speakers over the exuberance of the eight boys in my living room. The Warriors were less than a minute from sweeping the Cavaliers in the 2018 NBA Finals. I increased the volume on the remote, snapped a picture of the young spectators, then sent the image to their parents via a group text with the words, “The picture doesn’t really do the volume in my house justice.”
Dollops of salsa and dip dotted the coffee table. The cutting board had been cleared of its third pizza, but the air...