The Swan of Lake Eola
Lake Eola is not new to Billie, nor are its swan boats, gauche white birds with black beaks and long necks. Plastic four-seaters propelled by pedals, they rest at a rickety dock on one side of the lake, which is really a manmade oversized pond in the middle of downtown Orlando. She walks past the boats once, twice, watches the college kids working the rental stand. The way they hold their bodies tells her they’re happy, they’re having fun. She is jealous of them, of their skin and hair, of the way life felt at their age. They didn’t have to think, for example, of the husbands they didn’t love waiting at home for them, the fact that their mortgages were about to increase by hundreds of dollars every month, or that their age was starting to show in ways unmistakable and irreversible.
I’m going to do it, she tells herself. I don’t care if I’m alone. Her sister, whom she is visiting, has been busy with last-minute meetings, leaving Billie to entertain herself. Billie is already planning social media posts about her swan boat ride, imagining how her life will appear on the internet: free-spirited, fun, adventurous. She can see the likes and comments rolling in: I love your life. You are fearless! I wish I was there. You look great, babe! She snaps a few photos of the lake with its large fountain ejaculating water into the sky, the flock of boats, and her recently pedicured feet on the walking path, carefully cropping out the blue surgical masks that have become part of the litter landscape, nearly ubiquitous as plastic bags and food wrappers. The whole park has a festive feel, and it seems possible to forget everything while here, especially if you can ride on the back of a swan into the middle of the lake.
She approaches the rental stand, handing a kid with beautifully thick hair her credit card. “I’d like to rent one,” she says. She smiles, too broadly, and then realizes that he undoubtedly sees her not as an object of desire but as a mother-figure. She looks down at her orange toenails and adjusts her face. He runs her card and leads her to where the swans float.
Carefully and slowly, he explains the rudimentary controls of the boat.
“Thanks, I get it,” she says. Apparently, it starts early, the way men always need to tell you what to do.
A few nights ago, before she left to visit her sister, she had a small fire in the backyard. She wanted to burn things – it was a stress reliever she engaged in regularly while drinking cans of Pabst, Old Milwaukee, or whatever cheap beer was in the house. The fire started with cardboard, old papers, waste that had been accumulating. But into her third beer, it took a turn. She ignited a horrible dress Dan, her husband, bought her once that she had never worn, a cheap ugly blanket gifted to them by his mother. She stared into the heart of the flames long enough that when she looked away, her eyes were still on fire. She was all summary to Dan, and he had no idea what she was burning.
“You didn’t put that fire out last night,” he said on the morning of her departure. “I woke up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning, and the embers were still glowing. Do you know what could have happened?”
“What?” she said as she neatly packed a plastic bag with airplane appropriate toiletries. “Tell me what could have happened.”
“You could have burned the fucking house down, that’s what.”
He glared at her and walked away.
“I can’t get out of here fast enough,” she mumbled.
It makes her laugh now to think of it, but then she shudders. Is it possible both to want something and fear it? The fire had been small. Plus, it is winter in Wisconsin. How could it have spread?
The pedals of the boat creak and she works up a sweat pushing them, though it feels like she’s only ever creeping along through the dark lake water. Finally, she reaches the middle. With no other boats in sight, she is the only swan on the open water. She stops, letting the boat drift in the humid breeze. She takes several selfies, adjusting the angle of her chin, the expression on her face, the height of the camera for each picture. None of them are good. None of them make her appear how she imagines she should. Is that how I really look? Fuck. She puts the camera down and props up her feet to let them bake in the sun. The boat is covered, but it’s hot, and the heat closes around her. It feels good to sweat after spending months shivering. She closes her eyes and listens as the sounds of the city play in the distance — tinny music from phones, laughter, the revving of engines. For a moment she thinks she hears someone call her name, maybe even Dan calling her back all the way from Wisconsin. After a while in the heat-fueled space between slumber and waking, an alarm sounds on her phone, reminding her to return to the dock.
She shuts the alarm off and stares at her phone for a minute. There are no notifications — no texts, likes, or comments. Then she looks at the dock, at the swans rocking in the water. It doesn’t seem fair to keep birds penned up like that, to keep them tethered to one small, shallow patch of water. No, birds deserve more. Swans deserve more.
Instead of heading back to the dock, where the young people laze about in the sun, she pedals away and then around the perimeter of the lake, looking for a canal, for a river, for some way to get out.
Darci Schummer is the author of the story collection Six Months in the Midwest (Unsolicited Press) and the forthcoming novel The Ballad of Two Sisters (Unsolicited Press). Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Folio, Jet Fuel Review, Atticus Review, MAYDAY, and Matchbook, among other places. She teaches writing at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College where she also serves as faculty editor of The Thunderbird Review.
Art: Boston Public Library CC2.0 ALT A collage of a yacht-sized swan boat seating ten passengers next to an old-fashioned-looking American dock
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