There is a kidney shaped pool at the Lamont County Health Club.
It is not shaped like a kidney to resemble the organ. This would befit the themes of the health club, elevating the entire establishment in one subtle reminder of mortality, with chlorine. But alas, it is shaped like a kidney because that was the cheapest and most readily available design for swimming pools in the late 70s, the era of Lamont’s conception. It is not a subtle place.
She walks the twenty-two blocks from her mother’s apartment to the kidney pool every day of her summer break. It is a holy ritual, the sun making psychedelic waves off the pavement as she spikes in radiant sweat, and just begins to drip, as she palms open the pool gate. An unforgivable surge of need struts up her forearm.
It is hot. It is central Florida. She works nights at a late night bubble tea café. There’s a milk smell stuck in her. She can’t forget it. And the long-term boba exposure has inalterably re-shaped her gut flora.
She has needs. She closes out each morning at 2 am. Typically only two employees work the late shift. And lately, she has found it common to be the only one closing. She has an opaque, avocado colored Tupperware container. She smuggles boba home. Little brown pebbles of tapioca, sliding into each other. She never takes more than half a big scoop in one night. No more than seven scoops in any one pay period. No one will ever know of her petty tapioca thievery.
She has icepacks. She keeps them in her tote bag, which says “Community Team Builder, 1998” in Comic Sans across the side of it and has many, many coffee stains. It is her mother’s tote bag, from when she was a community team builder back in 98. She carries the tote bag every day to kidney pool. And nestled between her two electric blue icepacks is her avocado tapioca vessel. Precious contraband.
And she sits at the edge of the pool, where plants stubbornly creak through the tile and make themselves known with buds and diverse adaptation tactics. The weeds have practically grown gills. There are always dead bugs, fresh, floating atop. And living ones, skiing across the water for the seconds until they become the fresher fresh dead bugs.
She carefully un-lids her Tupperware. She lovingly dips her feet as she picks out individual tapioca balls and lines them up along the pool. She removes her feet from the water. She delicately places a bubble between each of her toes. In all eight crevices. They acclimate too perfectly to her damp toe gaps. Little tapioca leeches. She spreads her toes apart and brings them back together, at this point very skilled in keeping the boba in place. Toe Kegels.
She is rarely alone at Lamont Health Club kidney pool. There are others. Always very elderly. Blue-veined blue-hairs with slow going gazes. They keep mostly to themselves. They are un-seeing of the tapioca toe Kegels. Even if they did see, they wouldn’t much care. In fact, they wouldn’t even know what boba is. They would simply think, That young lady is performing a health ritual at her local health club with modern technology, just as I do with the technologies I’ve internalized from my younger, more triumphant times.
She leans back, feels the boba begin to melt from the friction of her toe flesh, but mostly from the scorching Florida sun. This is the most exciting part. The excremental sludge stains her skin, momentarily. She dips her head back further, long hair beginning to touch the concrete. She keeps her eyes closed, welcoming the apparitions appearing on her inner lids as the sun unrelentingly plays off her body. She feels the gel pebbles get smaller, less significant, but their influence, their mark, only growing in toe territory.
There’s a feeling, something warm, inconstant. But not the sun. Not the tapioca marbles marbling her foot fingers. Something warm with a heart. Little lungs. Petite kidneys. Hairs. She slowly lifts her head and opens her eyes. There is a tiny old woman, a swim-capped crone, squeezing a tapioca ball on the girl’s left foot. The crone avoids the young, hot flesh. The crone squeezes with pruned fingers and slicked back knuckle hairs, squeezes like an esthetician at an adolescent blackhead. She has her breath held, trapped between a rattled intake and a wheezing outtake. Her eyes are wide, yet unafraid.
The girl is stunned, at first. But then the girl speaks: What are you doing? And the crone is stunned too, at first. But then the crone speaks: I could not help it. It was instinct.
The girl nods, slowly. This act is her solitary release, the practice that keeps her aligned, that stops her from disappearing in the sun, that keeps the milk smell from leaking into her veins and clotting her blood—that sustains her very inner ecosystem. This fact, though, of her unquestionable need, likewise exposes a possibility that there could be another out there who needs it too. And here they are.
I’ve seen you do this before. The crone wisps, her eyelid hollows thrum. I couldn’t wait any longer. The girl wordlessly scratches the avocado Tupperware across muddied white stucco, a silent assent.
The crone plucks a single boba ball. She squeezes it between two fingers. The brown gel constricts and then tears under pythoned pinch. An old novice’s embrace.
The sun yet spreads its heat, higher and higher.
Just before the tapioca splits apart, it assumes a kidney shape, a deep stain of organ in miniature, hot and pulsing.
Kate Jayroe is an editor at Portland Review, bookseller at Powell’s Books, and staff member with the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Other work by Kate appears in NANO Fiction, Juked, Hobart, and elsewhere.