“Let’s eat food, for lunch,” she said.
“Can’t do that.”
“Let’s drink a drink in a bar.”
Recalling certain past behaviors, she deduced he was in the grips of the hotel unwellness. In a patient tone, she said, “I want to see you, Malcolm. Tell me, how should I achieve this?”
“I think I could swim,” he said.
Ninety minutes later he was standing beside the pool in trunks, while Susan trod water before him. He crouched into a squatting ball, toes hanging over the pool’s edge. Tipping slowly forward, he flopped into the water. His body rose to the surface, facedown, lifeless. A long while passed; Susan watched, smiling. They had swum together many times and she expected a performance. Malcolm breached, gasping. “We called that one Dead Man’s Float,” he said.
“My school friends and I.”
“You never had a friend.”
“I had four friends.”
“What were they like?”
“Rich brats, like me. One was sex obsessed, one was sporty, one was gay, I guess. One was weirdly content.”
“Who were you?”
He wondered how he should put it. “A lump of heartbroken clay.”
“Why were you heartbroken?”
“Well,” he said. “It was before Frances came around. I’ve told you all this.”
“Not really you haven’t.” They were facing each other, swimming in place. “Tell me now,” she said.
He took in a mouthful of water and spit it upward in a thick stream. “Who knows where to start.”
“Start at the end.”
“My father died and Frances showed up unannounced at the academy.”
“And you didn’t know her very well at this point, right?”
“Had you known your father?”
“Almost not at all.”
“But you were heartbroken about his dying?”
“No, I was ashamed of that.”
“Because of the way it happened,” she said.
“Of course. It was in all the papers, you know. Fragrant Frank Price. My father had made so many enemies, and they were having a lot of fun with the details. And my mother was made out to be some sort of monster.”
“Did the other kids know about it?”
“And were they terrible?”
A moment passed. Susan said, “Tell me why you were heartbroken, Malcolm.”
“I was heartbroken because Frances and my father never made the pretense of having even a passing interest in me. Most of us at the academy felt this to one degree or another but my parents were extreme. Not a word on my birthday. Not a card. Ten months had passed without my seeing either one of them, then my father died and Frances showed up in a fur coat, tipsy at eleven o’clock in the morning. ‘How are you, pal?’ she asked me.”
“Were you angry with her?”
“I was in awe of her.”
“And she took you away from the academy.”
“She asked me what I wanted to do and I said I didn’t know. She said, ‘Do you want to come away with me?’ and I said that I did.”
“How old were you?”
“Twelve years old.”
Susan’s arms were starting to burn but she continued swimming. There was no one around but them; the air was warm, the pool cool, the light dim, and all sounds were softened, doubled. Malcolm’s face had gone blank. It was rumored that after Frances took him out of school he’d never gone back, and she asked him if this was true.
“I never set foot in a classroom again,” he said. “But, there was Ms. Mackey.”
Ms. Mackey was Malcolm’s tutor. She came to the apartment each weekday for two years. In the beginning she taught him French; here was the reason Frances had hired her. Once this was accomplished, Frances did not dismiss her but asked that she stay and teach Malcolm “other things.” She asked Frances what this meant and Frances replied, “Things that are fascinating.” Ms. Mackey took this to mean she could teach Malcolm whatever she wished, and she did this.