By BETH HAHN
Swimmer Cyanotype Print by Rosalind Hobley.
A man swims to the left of Julia, and a woman to the right. They are blurs of misted goggles, the glint of a silver, latex cap. They flip like sleek fish at the pool’s wall.
Julia is sure they are having an affair. The two showed up at the same time, splitting the three-lane pool with Julia, who had gotten used to swimming alone. At first, she resented the wake of their bodies in the water—that reminder of competitive sport. She watched as they left the pool, noticing the nod, a touch as they crossed paths at the changing room doors.
Julia is a night swimmer. She likes the pool’s cool indoor lights and the way the black winter sky beyond the glass windows feels framed and distant. The goggles distort her peripheral vision—creating a blue shadow that she imagines as one of the sea creatures she and James used to visit at the aquarium when they first met.
If James were at home, she would tell him about the swimmers, but he is in New Zealand, studying the impact of climate change on a fur seal colony.
Under water, Julia feels the shudder of the commuter train as it passes.
Compression, airway, breath.
Be the stranger who will save your life—
Julia’s father told her that. He said it sideways, like so many other things. She remembers his profile best, the downward slope of his upper lip, the jut of his chin. He was civic-minded, a government employee who bought a brick house. When her mother spoke, she wasn’t so circumspect. She was an assistant at the county clerk’s office and told Julia that if no one was the boss that meant you were the boss. Colored chads stuck to the elbows of her hand-knitted sweaters. She kept a pack of long skinny women’s cigarettes hidden in the car’s glove compartment, and sometimes Julia would catch the acrid odor beneath caramel candies and an air freshener that smelled of invented, virulent flowers.
In scouts, Julia learned cardiopulmonary resuscitation. She sat on her knees in a semi-circle and watched a nurse pump the chest of a pale mannequin. Each girl took a turn. When it was Julia’s turn, she could feel the weighted plasticity beneath her palms, the resistance of the body. Together, the scouts counted compressions. Julia’s hands were sticky from sweat and the starch her mother used on her uniform. She leaned over and pressed her mouth to the mannequin’s alcohol-swabbed lips. The mannequin’s chest rose as it was supposed to, and Julia told herself that if the mannequin were real, she would take her hands and they would stand up together. Julia would let the mannequin lean against her until she felt strong.
One day, Julia’s father took the train into the city and didn’t come back.
When Julia’s father said that about salvation, they were choosing donuts to bring to Julia’s grandmother’s nurses. The counter girl, in her pink apron, opened the glass doors that housed the donuts and reached in, one hand sheathed in plastic. Her bangs stuck to her forehead. The floor was sticky with the milky glaze of spilled sugar packets and creamer.
That was the summer that Julia got a spy kit for her birthday: a stick-on moustache, plastic eyeglasses that reminded her of Alvin the Chipmunk.
Julia’s father leaned over the register to take the oil-spotted paper box and said those words to the girl instead of to Julia, as if Julia were a bystander.
When it became clear that Julia’s father wasn’t coming back, the truth of the matter was made plain: he’d fallen in love with an ecologist who had a bamboo swing chair in her living room and dressed in a caftan printed with darting birds. This was in the nineteen-seventies. The ecologist’s house smelled of the sweet fungi of damp grains. Avocado pits rested in water on the windowsill, their tendrilled roots thick and white in the sunlight. Julia’s father, whom Julia associated with the shined black shoes of city life, wandered his lover’s house in heavy suede sandals.
The ecologist told Julia about habitat modification, and Julia drew a line of animals trudging over a brown hill.
Julia finds the man and the woman standing by the locker room’s fogged glass doors. He has his hand on the woman’s shoulder. The woman looks down, her hand on her stomach. The meaning of the pose can’t be disputed.
Julia slips on flippers and skims the water’s surface, her body propelled like a skiff in a strong current.
Julia used to think she wanted to be the mother of five children. It was the sort of decision girls made at slumber parties: how many children? What sort of house? Marry a doctor or lawyer?
Lie down on the pool’s concrete deck, lips slightly parted, wait for a husband’s breath.
When Julia’s mother saw the drawing Julia did at the ecologist’s house, she said, Oh! How well you’ve observed all the details. She liked the elephant’s eyes and the tiger’s tail. Where can we put it? she asked. They cleared a spot on the refrigerator for the drawing, and Julia told her mother what the ecologist had said about habitat modification.
Is that what she calls it? her mother asked. She put her hands on her hips and studied the drawing.
Julia’s father came home in nineteen eighty-five and re-laced his black city shoes. At night, he fell asleep on the sofa in front of the television set, on which a helicopter flew over a burning house.
His heart stopped on a Sunday, without the warning of illness or instinct.
For emergency alerts, Julia’s phone is set to the sound of glass breaking. She is about to leave for the salt pool when the commuter train crashes.
She squints at her phone and reads, then streams local news. On the tracks, an SUV has been reduced to blackened and bent metal. The train is still on fire. The light throws shadows across the snow, where the passengers stand scattered, watching the burning train.
The day they went to the donut shop, her father put his hand on Julia’s back as they walked across the parking lot. They’d been talking about Julia becoming a lifeguard before they’d gone in, and they picked the topic up afterward.
In the water, Julia said, a ten-pound brick is like a one-hundred-pound body.
He opened the box and let her choose a donut—even though her mother had said not to, even though there would be fewer for his own mother’s nurses.
He took one, too, and winked at her. What no one knows—he began. He unrolled the car window in a way that made Julia think of an erasure on a chalk board.
Julia picked at the icing and licked her fingers. She turned to look back at the donut shop. The counter girl’s eyes had been as red as if she’d been crying. Julia thought that if she worked in a donut shop, she’d never be sad. If she were sad, she’d just eat a donut, and then she would be happy.
Julia team-builds for a cleaner energy company. At work, she clicks through photographs of the accident. In the orange light of fire, a woman cradles a man in her arms, her white blouse pinked with sweat and blood, her face a blur, her features indistinct—but all Julia sees is that it’s the man from the salt pool, his head tilted back, his jaw open. Julia searches for the woman from the salt pool but doesn’t find her.
At the salt pool, the swimmers’ lanes are still and expectant.
Julia does a slow crawl on her back, her eyes closed. When he’s at home, James is an insomniac. He thinks of the things that can go wrong—and sometimes of what has already happened. She knows he wonders if they did the right thing— leaving their old lives. When he can’t sleep, Julia runs her finger lightly over James’s back until he sleeps. She tells him anything, inventing as she goes. The rabbit in the field. How to make a tourniquet, cook in a tin can.
Julia’s scout leader had said never to begin chest compressions until the heart stopped.
Seal sleep in the ocean, rotating in waves. From the shore, they look like shadows of beasts blocking the sun. The seal pod returns to the same rookery year after year to spawn and mate and rest. It is summer at the rookery, in New Zealand, a wheel away from Julia, who still has her eyes closed, and James’s ex-wife and daughters, who are thriving without him on a ski holiday as he scrambles red rocks in his gators, his hand bandaged from a bite. A pup he aims to tag shines with amnion on the rookery’s rocks, the mother propped on flippered elbows, nose to sky, rolling in birth. Around her, seal flush into waves, their black heads bobbing, whiskers white against molting fur. Once a colony has been disrupted, mating is impacted. Births dwindle. Here, incredibly—with everything—the seal are thriving.
The woman in the photograph who saved the man after the train crash is a fertility doctor in the city. She rode the same train as the man and woman from the salt pool. Once, sitting between them, she felt like a circuit bridge, their desire racing right through her. Good god, she thought. These two. She sought their faces out in the night-mirrored windows, expecting something heightened and hot, and was surprised to find only their ghost-selves skipping between stations, pellucid and remote.
Her ex-husband had an affair. He had waited until the girls were at sleepaway camp, the house bolted and sullen with quiet. He faced his computer, his back to her.
Something happened, Helen.
Unlike the dissolution of her marriage, Helen understands that the train crash is a situation in which someone must be held accountable: the conductor, perhaps, who worked back-to-back shifts, or the transportation agency, who approved the non-traditional third rail. Or the dead woman who drove her SUV on to the tracks. She’d drowsed in the slow line of traffic. Her SUV was brand new and comfortable, so new that when she went to the grocery store, she still couldn’t gauge how well she parked. The car was not the right size for the dead woman. Standing, she hadn’t even been five-foot-two.
But the dead woman liked the sleekness of the dashboard, the evenness of the heat, the touch of the steering wheel.
She’d been on the phone with a friend when she reached the crossing. All the cars before hers had crossed the tracks, so when it was her turn, she went ahead, but got stranded there, the wooden gate coming down with a clip. Fuck, she said to her friend. Hold on. She got out of the car to have a look. She thought of the paint, what her husband would say, the cost. She didn’t think of her own life, or the lives of others—not because she was terrible. She wasn’t. She was like anyone else. It was only that it was snowing, and how it was already too late to cook. The roads would surely freeze—the one that led to her house, that serpentine road—always the last to be plowed, where trees fell on the power lines in a storm and snaked across the shining asphalt, and why are they beeping and what now—
Two investigative officers from the transportation agency interview Helen. They sit down at her dining room table—one in her ex-husband’s spot, the other in her eldest daughter’s—and ask her questions about that night’s timeline. But she can’t remember. Maybe she’d still been thinking of the man and woman. The man wore a blue jacket. He was clean cut. He had the look of a young Republican, red-cheeked, glossed in the sheen of unchecked pride. She guessed his profession: day-trader.
One of the investigators shows her a diagram of the train car. Every passenger has been assigned a number. Her number is circled, and so is the man’s. She learns his name and writes it down on a scrap of paper.
The dead are highlighted in blue.
On a day when light rain turns the snow to mist, track workers in orange safety vests load the first two passenger cars and SUV onto wide-bedded flatcars and cover them with black tarps. At a slow but steady pace, the cargo is hauled back to the train shed.
In the shed, the train is set up again. The interior of the train is white with ash. The seats are lumps of charred and melted plastic. Investigators, donned in polyethylene coveralls, pass back and forth all day, creating a timeline of the accident. They form mathematical equations that explain speed and impact and pause to marvel that anyone at all survived the first car.
Helen isn’t ready to take the train yet, so she drives into the city instead. At a stoplight, she picks out the donut shop in the strip mall where she worked as a teenager. It’s been turned into an off-track betting parlor. On hot days, does the back room still smell of sugar and roach repellent?
She was unhappy the summer she worked there. She felt helpless in a way that she’s never felt again—even when her marriage was dissolving. All the world framed and distant beyond the glass and where did she fit—
Once, Helen remembers, a man and his daughter came into the donut shop. The daughter wore a fake plastic moustache and fiddled with it as she chose flavors.
The father, paying, had said, Be the stranger who will save your life.
What a strange thing that was to tell a young woman—a whisper of intimacy where none existed.
Other swimmers occupy the man and woman’s lanes. They come and go like guests at someone else’s party. But one night, Julia emerges from the changing room to find them back at the pool. They are swimming side-by-side—the man in Julia’s lane, next to the woman. Julia takes his old lane. When the two get out of the pool, Julia sees that the man has a red scar running up his side; the woman looks smaller, as if she’s lost muscle.
When James is away, he sleeps just fine—even if he’s had a late-day coffee or a sweet made with chocolate.
After junior year, Helen had wanted to follow the Dead, driving across the country in a van with two friends, but her father said No. In this house, you earn your adventures. So she worked at the donut shop. Her friends sent her postcards from the Grand Canyon, from Big Sur. Her friends sent her a postcard of seal basking on rocks with the word Miracle printed on the back. The next week, there was a cassette tape of a show in Chula Vista. She played the cassette on a boom box in the donut shop, imagining herself dancing with her friends, the sun warm on her face.
She understands now, looking at her daughters, why her father said No. She thinks of men in rusted vans, of the interior pyrotechnics of the hallucinogens, of colors muddying at the end of a tie-dye bath, the bleed of green into yellow, dirt under the nails. He’d tried to make it about earning and trading, but it was about protection.
At home, her grades were an issue. Her music was too loud. She snuck out through the back door at midnight. It was teenage stuff. Waves of estrogen and progesterone crashing and building. She sees it in her IVF patients, knows that it will happen to her daughters, remembers the release her mother told her about—the placidity that arrived after menopause. An entire life built on waves, and then, one day, the water still enough to float on.
Two years later, after her first year at college, she followed the Dead. Yes, fun, but food sickness in a latrine and finding her way to the medic tent, the nurse who drove her to the hospital so Helen could get an IV in her arm, fluids. Precautionary antibiotics for anything else—when they still did that.
Medicine was the only miracle.
She comes to it in the same way she came to understand her own marriage: she was lucky, and then she wasn’t. In the end, there is no one Helen wants to blame.
The investigators have just one more form, a last question.
Let’s get to the bottom of this.
All right, let’s.
James told Helen she was too rigid. He’d live with this other woman, this woman who didn’t need as much order.
Where did you meet? she asked out of curiosity.
At the aquarium, he said. On lunch break.
James comes home in the middle of Julia’s winter. He’s spent his days outside. His skin is brown from the sun, his hair whiter. He smells unfamiliar—like he used to when they met in the aquarium, the blue shadows of sea creatures flicking over his skin—like someone else’s husband.
In the car on the way home, they pass the strip mall where she and her father bought donuts. She starts to tell James what her father said, but then wonders if it happened at all.
Is it a memory of a memory.
The only person she could ask would be the girl behind the counter—
Helen wakes before dawn. How stiff she’s been since the accident. Too stiff for her morning runs, though in the gray light, she gets up and stretches.
On the night of the crash, the train was full, and Helen stood near the doors, reading an academic paper on a new fertility drug.
The man and woman boarded.
The woman said that there weren’t any seats, but he pointed. There’s one seat left. In the back. Go get it. She walked past Helen. Her hair was tucked into her coat, which wasn’t black, like everyone else’s, but orange. I’ll see you at the pool, he called after her.
Helen watched the man as he watched the woman. He loves her, she thought.
Images skip—smoke, fire, and two acts of collective survival: breaking the emergency window, forcing a door.
I’m a doctor, she said when she came upon the man bleeding in the snow. It’s all right.
But it wasn’t. He was going into shock. His cheeks were no longer red, but pallid and waxy.
This is some bullshit, he said, looking at the sky.
She kept her hands pressed to his wound and put her coat over him. Her coat, she saw, was blackened and torn in the same way his clothes were. She stabilized him on the snowy slope. When he reached what would have been his last breath, she tilted his head back and lifted his chin. She pumped his chest, counting, the fist of her hands disguised as his heart.
Beth Hahn (she/her) is the author of the novel The Singing Bone (Regan Arts, 2016) and The City Beneath Her (Regal House, 2025). Her poetry has been published by DMQ Review, Ran Off with the Star Bassoon, and Small Orange Journal. Her short fiction appears in Milk Candy Review, Fractured Lit, HAD, CRAFT, and elsewhere. She is at work on a hybrid collection of flash and prose poetry. Find her at beth-hahn.com
Swimmer Cyanotype Print by Rosalind Hobley.