That night Eliza slept poorly and had dream after dream that she was running late. Late for flights, late for meetings, late even to her own wedding. She was relieved to wake up and realize it was five in the morning in Frankfurt and hours before she had to be anywhere. She had no planes to catch, her wedding was still more than a year away, and she had plenty of time to address anything needed before the work day began.
A quick glance at her inbox showed only a handful of emails, none of which were urgent. Going back to sleep would have been ideal, but Eliza was too keyed up from the nightmares. And the hotel had a pool.
She would never admit to anyone that, for as long as she could remember, she had always believed that the water called to her. Her affinity for it was not defined by skill or hobby so much as a need to be submerged in it that was as fundamental as her body’s need for food. She’d realized young it was too peculiar to explain and had learned to swim laps to have the excuse.
She dug through her suitcase until she found her swimsuit. It took a little while; her clothes were tangled together messily. Not a useful state for them to be in, given how most of them needed to be perfectly neat and pressed. But if her clothes would need to be ironed anyway, she saw no reason not to let them get wrinkled in transit.
The pool, when she located it, was a dreary basement affair, long and narrow and split down the middle with a single rope marking it off into two lanes. It was, however, mercifully empty, and she shed the hotel bathrobe she’d used as a cover-up and slid in. The water was too cold, so she did the only thing she could: dove under and began. Soon the world fell away — her bad dreams, her new job, the specter of her engagement party. There was only the strange muffled peace of the water around her ears, here under the earth. She counted as she swam, neither laps nor strokes, but a steady beat as if to music she could not quite remember.
Eventually, out of breath, Eliza stopped. She spread her toes against the tiled bottom of the pool and hauled herself up to sit on its side. Across from her, in the other lane, another swimmer — a man — slowed, then stopped as well. She’d been alone when she had arrived and hadn’t heard or felt anyone enter the water. She wondered now if there was any way to grab her robe and flee to her room without looking like she was in a hurried panic to avoid human contact.
But when the man hauled himself out of the water, it was Harry. She felt all the more impulse to flee. They hadn’t even been colleagues for a day and now here they were in their swimsuits! Eliza took a deep breath. She’d been born a WASP for something, and if it wasn’t to suppress all her emotions in this incredibly awkward moment, it wasn’t for anything at all.
“Oh,” he said, startled, when he finally looked up and saw her.
“Oh,” she echoed. It only seemed natural. Their body postures mirrored each other across the water; why not their repressed horror too?
“Of course it’s you.” His voice wasn’t mocking; he sounded and looked as dismayed as she was.
They sat in silence for a few moments, probably because standing up and revealing more of their bodies to each other would make the whole thing worse. Each of them absently kicked at the water which rippled between them, sending darts and flashes of light onto the ceiling.
“Good morning,” she tried awkwardly.
“You’re up early,” Harry replied with only somewhat more aplomb.
To Eliza’s surprise he kept his eyes on her face. Not once did his gaze drop to her body, clad only in her blue swimsuit. With any other man she would have dived back into the water to cover herself with it; men could just be so awful about their gaze. But now that they were here, she could feel no threat emanating from him. Only a resigned weariness.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she confessed. She tried to match Harry’s courtesy and not look anywhere but his eyes, but she found it difficult. Not because of desire, although he was fit and handsome, all long limbs and strongly built. But because he was an infuriating and curious creature. She wanted to know things about him, even if the stories of men were often less written on their flesh than the stories of women.
“Neither could I,” he admitted.
The conversation, stilted as it was, felt strangely intimate, even though they weren’t really saying anything, just sharing space while they swirled their legs in the water and caught their breath from swimming. After their near-combativeness yesterday, Eliza didn’t know what to make of it.
“Anything wrong? Other than jet lag?” she asked, mocking his remark to her at dinner in an attempt to get back on that footing.
Harry gave a surprisingly weary shrug. “One of my best friends is dying of cancer,” he said. “Which was also true yesterday, but now he’s doing it faster. And we’re talking about it.”
Eliza’s training for nearly any and all social eventualities continued to fail her. She did not immediately know how to respond. When she said nothing, Harry frowned — at her or at himself for being so honest, she didn’t know — and began to hoist himself up from his seat at the edge of the pool.
“Well, fuck,” she said, in lieu of anything else. She didn’t want him to leave because of her silence.
He stopped and looked down at her. “That was rather my reaction, yes.”
She hurried to scramble to her feet. Even on opposite sides of the pool she couldn’t stand the idea of him towering over her any more than she could stand the idea of leaving him alone to his circumstances.
“I suppose the suggestion of bier und brotzeit would be inadequate?”
Curiosity sparked behind the sadness in Harry’s eyes, and Eliza tried not to wince at herself. She’d effectively invited Harry out for a booze breakfast.