“The Visible Spectrum” by Carlee Jensen

Ingrid stood with her back turned on her mother and younger sister, her eyes fastened on the brilliant orange sunset swallowing the sky, and announced that she was planning to swim across the lake the next morning.

Samantha, who had fixed her gaze on the pale streak of sour cream in her chili, surfaced at the sound of these words. Ingrid was leaning against the railing of the deck, still dressed in the sweaty clothes she had worn running. She liked to run at sunset, when the road was not so hot and dusty. Their mother accepted this arrangement despite the fact that Ingrid was almost always late for dinner as a result. Most nights that summer, Ingrid had not had dinner with them at all. She waited until late in the evening to microwave a bowl of whatever they’d had, and ate it standing in the kitchen.

Samantha watched as her mother took a contemplative bite of chili. The lake was a mile across where they were, maybe a little more, and the water was still frigid though it was the second week of July. “You can’t go alone. You’ll need someone in the rowboat,” her mother said.

“Sam can come with me.” Ingrid turned to look at her sister and raised her eyebrows, conveying a message that was neither a request nor an order.

Samantha was, of course, the obvious choice. Their mother was not averse to rowing, but she had spent that summer preoccupied with little invented chores: riding her bike into town at sunrise to collect the daily newspaper; securing loose boards on the deck, though they had spent years simply stepping over them. Twice a week, she drove forty-five minutes into Syracuse to see her own mother, who still lived in the big, unwieldy house where she had raised her children.

Their father was a good rower, strong though he had always been small, but he was home in Connecticut. He would materialize for a few days at the end of July, working on his laptop in the full sunlight of the deck.

Their mother followed Ingrid’s gaze, resting her eyes on Samantha’s face. Samantha did not know which one of them to look at, so she looked over Ingrid’s shoulder at the sunset. The muscles in her neck seemed to stretch and compress involuntarily. Yes, she said, she would go along. She watched her sister’s face relax into a smile.

*     *     *

Samantha went down first, to drag out the rowboat and buckle herself into her life vest. A long column of stairs, cut into the side of the hill, connected their house to the water’s edge. From her place on the ground Samantha watched her sister emerge onto the deck and descend down the hill. Ingrid was the athlete of their family, a distance runner with knots of muscle visible in each leg. Still, she looked brittle in her bathing suit, the delicate bones around her sternum sweeping to each side like the wings of a butterfly. She had inherited their father’s fine brown hair, and the severe ponytail she wore now had a disquieting effect: her broad forehead and high cheekbones seemed skeletal, and her protuberant eyes with their sparse lashes had a faintly manic look. Samantha tried not to notice her sister’s angular elbows; the pale, loose flesh of her stomach; the four tight knots that held her sagging bathing suit in place.

Ingrid did not acknowledge her sister, even as she reached the bottom of the stairs. She slipped off her sandals and left them in the dirt at the end of the dock, and then stood for just one beat, staring at the broad expanse of water and the ruff of trees waiting to receive her on the opposite shore. Samantha followed her gaze, and the thought occurred to her for the first time: it was a long fucking way to swim.

With a metallic screech, Ingrid took off across the dock. She ran its length smoothly, light on her feet, her arms swinging at her sides as though it were the final yards of an easy race. The water was shallow, and Samantha had always preferred to leap in with her limbs flailing; Ingrid, though, dove. She bounced on the balls of her feet and spent one breathless second in midair, arching her back and pulling her hands forward to meet above her head. Her body curved and grew straight, compressed itself and then lengthened like a dancer’s. A wave rose up around her, a fringe of water seeming to catch the sunlight. In the half-second it took to fall back into place, Ingrid’s long body vanished behind the curtain of green glass. Samantha watched her from the water’s edge, one foot in the rowboat.

*     *     *

When both girls were very small, Ingrid had taken Samantha to the edge of the dock and explained, with a grim expression Samantha had never forgotten, the treacherous topography of Skaneateles Lake. The mud at the water’s edge was soft under their bare feet. The water itself sometimes felt like the pet Samantha had never been allowed to have: playful and tender toward her, welcoming when she lost her balance. Samantha loved the lake, Ingrid said, and so she might be tempted to wade in deep, up to her chest or even her neck. Beneath the water, though, the earth was mountainous, with flat plains opening suddenly into deep ravines. In the space of one step, a person standing in waist-deep water might find herself completely submerged with many dark meters beneath her. At its deepest point, the lake stretched three hundred feet down; deep enough, Ingrid assured her, that a person looking up from its bottom would not be able to see the sunlight.

Later that night, Samantha had awakened, sweaty and wailing, from a dream in which she had been pinned to the floor of the lake, trying to reach for the surface but unable to find her way in the swallowing darkness. Her mother had pulled Ingrid from bed to berate her for her cruelty and foolishness. What had she been thinking, terrifying a little girl with those stories? For the rest of the summer, she had forced Ingrid to share her bed whenever Samantha became afraid in the night.

During her freshman year of high school, Samantha had studied aquatic ecosystems in her biology class. Near the ocean floor, she had learned, animals had evolved to live in true darkness: fanged anglerfish with their luminescent forelocks, goblin sharks with fleshy snouts like nauseating approximations of a human nose. But these creatures lived thousands of feet below the surface of the water. Light, she learned, could penetrate to depths of six hundred feet or more; photographs in her textbook showed a world lit up with blues and violets and greens. Even trapped at the black bottom of Skaneateles, that nightmare landscape, she surely could have seen some shard, some fleck of light, something.

*     *     *

For that one stunning moment, watching her sister run across the dock, Samantha wondered whether this might not have been such a bad idea after all. Maybe Ingrid could make the journey. Such a realization would have brought her unspeakable relief. But by the time she caught up—Ingrid, being Ingrid, had not waited for Samantha to push off from the shore, or even glanced backward to signal to her that she was swimming away—the ease of that initial leap had already dissipated. Despite the sixteen and a half summers she had spent on this lake, Ingrid was not a graceful swimmer. She was not strong enough for a proper breaststroke, and preferred to hover below the surface of the water, cresting every few seconds to take a breath. She propelled herself forward with hard, irregular kicks and urgent sweeping motions of her arms. When she surfaced, she sucked in air with harsh gasps.

Still, there was something calming about the sight of her. The water was clear, and when Samantha looked over the side of the rowboat, she could see fractals of sunlight splintering over Ingrid’s bare back. Ingrid cut a sweeping, irregular path: now a burst of sparkling drops a few yards from the rowboat, now a rippling figure just below Samantha’s oar. It had a magical quality, this series of appearances and disappearances. However Ingrid might have been struggling on the other side of that rippling divide—whatever fear she felt as she opened her eyes on that emptiness below her—there was a power in her body, the clumsy way it cut through the water.

Sun licked Samantha’s shoulders and the tops of her thighs. She could feel already where it would be burned later. Later that night, she would rub aloe-vera gel over her skin and feel the faint heat that radiated from it. It pleased her to stand in front of the mirror each day and observe the changes in her appearance: the darkening of her fair skin; the lightening of her sandy hair; the length that had been added, in this most recent of many growth spurts, to her torso and, inexplicably, her neck.

It was only recently that she had become aware of her body in this way: not of its endless imperfections, which she knew—squashed nose, broad shoulders, stretch marks on her hips and stomach—but of its possibilities, its handful of resounding virtues. The thought had come to her like a divine revelation, whispered in her ear by the mother of Adam Barrett, who lived at the end of her block. At a Memorial Day barbecue, two weeks before they had left for the lake, Mrs. Barrett had stopped Samantha in front of the potato chips and exclaimed, placing a light hand on Samantha’s bare upper arm and surveying her with a look of satisfaction, that Samantha looked so strong and healthy, and so very beautiful. “You just light up this place,” Mrs. Barrett had said. Her teeth were square and straight when she smiled, though at that moment they had been stained a little purple from her wine. She had leaned close to Samantha and whispered: “No wonder Adam has such a crush on you.”

Once the thought was there, it had lodged itself in her heart. She had never considered the possibility that she might be beautiful—actually, arrestingly beautiful, so that she could capture someone’s mind and never even realize she had it. And so she had begun to study herself in front of the bathroom mirror, observing with satisfaction her clear skin and bright eyes. It made her feel shallow, discovering how badly she wanted to be pretty, and she kept the door locked so that Ingrid would not walk in and see her.

Ingrid herself had become religious about locking doors in the last few months. She locked the door to their bathroom and to the bedroom where they slept in narrow twin beds, so close together they could have held hands through the night. She locked herself in the laundry room whenever she took a phone call from home, although Samantha could have heard what she said if she had only cared to press her ear against the wall in the adjoining room. And yet, she was careless about certain things. She had hidden her box of laxatives under the bathroom sink, next to the extra tubes of toothpaste. She never cleared her search history on her computer. She kept the notebook in which she wrote down everything she ate—four strawberries, one-half cup oatmeal—in the drawer of her bedside table, where anyone could stumble upon it while looking for Scotch tape. It had been so easy that Samantha had almost wondered if Ingrid had wanted her to find them.

*     *     *

They were halfway across the lake, give or take, when Ingrid floated up to the surface and turned onto her back. “Wait,” she said. There was an audible shortness to her breath, and it struck Samantha for the first time that swimmers must crave water in the same way runners and hikers and football players did. She had not thought to bring any, even for herself. Ingrid closed her eyes and lay there, half-submerged. Her hair had come loose from its ponytail, and it fanned out around her.

“You okay?” Samantha asked. She kept the rowboat two or three yards from Ingrid, and it rocked softly as wind stirred the surface of the water. She let her oar brush against the ripples, and considered the possibility of just turning herself in a circle, feeling the tug and drag of it.

Ingrid opened her eyes and then closed them again. She was breathing deeply and slowly, and Samantha could see how her ribs rose and fell. Her arms, extended on either side of her like she was making a snow angel, were crisscrossed with blue veins. They had never really looked like sisters, though Samantha had once forced Ingrid to stand beside her at a mirror and confirm that their eyes were the same flat shade of brown.

“I’m fine,” Ingrid said. “Just give me a minute.”

There must have been sounds somewhere on the lake. There was the town, just a few miles away, where tourists and summer people packed into the bakeries and restaurants that sat dormant through the winter. There were motorboats and little sunfish sailboats and children jumping off docks, feeling first the weight of their bodies and then their lightness. (As kids, they had competed to see who could hold her breath longer, submerged themselves on the count of three and opened their eyes to stare at each other through the muted alien glow. They had twisted their faces into grotesque shapes, trying to make each other laugh, to force each other, bubbling over, to the surface.) But the lake was sixteen miles long from top to bottom, and in the little rectangle that they now described, there was nothing.

It occurred to Samantha that she should say something.

She had promised herself that she would speak to Ingrid some day while their mother was in Syracuse. She had practiced the words, chosen them carefully. “You’re my sister and I love you. I want you to be healthy. I am here to help you.” It had never sounded right when she whispered it aloud.

Three days earlier, she had come into the living room and sat beside Ingrid on the couch. Their mother had gone for the day, and Ingrid was reading a biography she had checked out of the miniscule public library in town. She loved biographies, consumed them the way Samantha consumed sitcoms and science fiction novels. Feeling Samantha’s weight beside her, Ingrid had glanced up and smiled, a real smile that rose wrinkles around her eyes.

“Hello, love,” she had said.

Samantha had spent fifteen minutes standing on the deck, breathing through the tight knot of nerves in her stomach. She had turned toward the house and turned back half a dozen times, forcing herself to imagine Ingrid’s anger, the everyday irritation escalating into rage. That she might start from this, from warmth, had not even crossed her mind. In less than the time it took Ingrid to smile, Samantha lost her resolve. Instead, she had reached for a magazine on the coffee table, and they had passed half an hour in companionable silence.

She should say something, Samantha thought again—not about anything to do with all that, but about this, now: her sister’s heavy breathing, the wide expanse of water on every side of them, the fact that Ingrid most certainly would not make it to the other side of the lake. She needed to toss the extra life vest into the water, brace her weight against the sides of the rowboat so that Ingrid could scramble, with the gasps and ungainly flopping motions of a castaway, into the empty space behind her. “I’ll row us to the other side anyway,” she wanted to say. “We’ll tell mom you made it across.” This was a good solution, she thought, one that would save her sister’s pride.

She must have looked away without realizing it, because as she leaned forward to speak those words, Samantha found that the floating figure she meant to address was no longer there. Ingrid had turned in the water, submerged herself, and begun to swim. A few yards ahead, the tops of her feet appeared and disappeared, her wild kicks propelling her forward.

Carlee Jensen was born in St. George, Utah and raised in Los Angeles, California. She graduated from Yale University, where she received recognition for outstanding scholarship in English literature. Her fiction explores questions of intimacy, identity, and the essential contradictions that define relationships. She currently lives and writes in Baltimore, Maryland, where she teaches fifth grade.


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