Yo Te Veo by Rachel Pollon
Rachel Pollon’s “Yo Te Veo” is the second-place winner of the 2020 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Alexander Chee.
“Yo Te Veo” is one of those stories that I love where what is at stake is uncertain throughout until the last line. Set beside a pool bar on a vacation, the narrator is a playful enough companion, and begins innocuously, with the people watching I miss so much now. A dropped wallet and a scan of the contents turns this into an encounter where she learns that the people she was watching were watching her. She is suddenly drawn into a conversation that tells her more than she wants to know about herself and her life, inexplicably dangerous once it is set in motion. The ending offers up to the reader an uneasy sort of sublime—the feeling of an angel walking, if not on your grave, hers, and the feeling is not so much her death approaching as the need for a whole new life. Rachel Pollon is a quicksilver presence on the page throughout, keeping the story moving on nervous laughter, until the ending, which is the quarter she pulls from your ear, all unexpected—and when you realize she is a magician. —Alexander Chee
It’s hard to make out what language they’re speaking. At first glance I think they might be Italian. But as I eavesdrop further, take them in from behind my hopefully opaque-enough sunglasses, I realize I’m mistaken. None of the sounds emitted from their mouths are remotely familiar. I consider that they might be Croatian. Maybe Portuguese. I regret how limited my knowledge of Spanish is and that my education of it ended in high school. I remind myself that it’s not too late to learn French. They look like foreign film actors. I continue studying them.
They are two couples probably in their late thirties, presumably on vacation, drifting in the water together. One of the men playfully pushes his partner against the side of the pool as he kisses the back of her neck. The other couple, the man moving slowly about the water, takes his woman for a ride. She holds on to him, her chest pressed to his back, her arms around his neck, her face to the sun, smiling. He moves his arms with an over-pronounced faux determination, chugging her along. In less intriguing people this might be irritating. They seem to have all the time in the world, free from burden, deficient of doubt. They radiate an air of having the universe rigged, of being at one with some essential truth, all the while rapt in a conversation I can’t understand.
At a certain point I wonder if they can tell I’m watching. If they can, if they even notice, what do they make of me? Do I exude anything captivating or egregious? Do they wonder about my provenance? People tend to think New York, which I always take as code for possibly Jewish. No one ever guesses Los Angeles. I don’t scream sunny and carefree. A musician I had a thing with put it best when he told me I “whisper anxiety.” He meant it as a compliment and wrote a song inspired by me called “Her Head” that was never released in the States but was a quote, unquote hit in the Netherlands. This walk down memory lane reminds me that I also do not speak Dutch.
I turn toward Michael, reclining in the lounge chair next to me, and ask, in a hushed tone at a discreet decibel, while nodding at the pool, “What language is that?” He shakes his head; he doesn’t know either. He removes the headphones resting around his neck, places them on the end table situated between us, turns over on his stomach, makes multiple attempts to cover his face with his bucket hat, and closes his eyes.
Soon the women are getting out of the water. I wonder if and when my pale, violet-hued skin will begin to take on the olive brown tone theirs has. The blond, definitely bleached, wears a classic cut bikini. Electric blue triangle top with white borders. Mine has similar details, causing me to conclude that crochet is trending worldwide. The other, brunette, with the kind of highlights that frequent sun exposure bestows, wears a cream strapless one piece with ruching detail. They saunter. Lackadaisically, not flaunting. One hunches a bit. They look something like tired, almost recovering from a situation. They both wear sunglasses, so I can’t see their eyes. They seem to have a sort of conspiratorial bond. It makes me miss my best friend.
As they walk their way out of my view, and on to, I imagine, a stroll on the shoreline or to sunbathe on the sand, I turn my attention back to the men. It doesn’t seem farfetched that they may have just pulled off a successful scam, or possibly a heist, and that they’re here blowing some cash in celebration. In my experience, islands tend to attract a certain fringe type, people escaping from or escaping to, who, for one reason or another, like being off the grid.
The attraction for Michael and me, besides the obvious beauty and Zen-like spell that bodies of water, palm trees, and warm sand tend to put people under, is that we seem to work better as a couple when we’re somewhere else. It’s nothing we’ve ever acknowledged out loud, but like an accordion, going away brings us closer together. I know this to be true: if you want to be indelible, disappearance is key.
The taller of the men suddenly calls out to someone. It’s the brunette, standing off in the distance, hands on her hips trying to tell him something but not wanting to shout. There’s lots of gesticulating. It’s possible she wants him to know she’s heading back to their room. Needs the key. Maybe she’s batting away a bee. If only we all spoke sign language.
The men continue to move about seemingly in no hurry. Floating, dunking themselves, a full head and body immersion into the water, pushing their dark, wet hair off their faces, laughing at who knows what.
I wonder how they met. Did the women become friends first, or the men? Were one of the pair already a romantic couple trying endlessly to fix up their confirmed bachelor friend whose exploits with various and sundry women they’d listened to for seemingly ever until one day he met “the one”…“la una”…and she folded into this brood’s embrace?
Or vice versa?
Maybe they all grew up in the same village. Or went to university together. Maybe one was the other’s parole officer and they fell in love in the shadows.
Michael’s and my origin story began before we ever spoke. He was friends with people my friends were friends with and I would see him around, out in the world, in random places. At an opening for a performance artist whose thing was to never actually get on stage, just mill about as an audience member and eavesdrop on what people said. At a birthday party where the person being celebrated cracked her tailbone trying to do a handstand while inhaling from a bong. Michael had the air of not giving a shit, which I found aspirational. I give too much of a shit. It’s burdensome. When we did finally talk, running into each other at a dog park that, although he didn’t have a dog, he visited because he liked them better than humans, I told him I was seeing someone even though I wasn’t. I could tell he needed the challenge.
I think about how we come to conclusions and make up our minds about things and people by our experiences with or observations of them and how unreliable that is. At most, I estimate, we can only know sixty-five percent of a person. The other thirty-five percent is submerged. Like this man whose romantic partner wants him to come closer.
Now the men are out of the pool, wrapping towels around themselves. They’re gradually positioned square in front of my cabana, and the shorter, more hirsute one looks me directly in the eye and smiles. Then he makes the international sign for “check, please” and I realize he’s looking at the pool attendant picking up towels just behind me. My face goes hot for a second and I hope it looks like a sunburn as the attendant huddles with the men. They move past me and over to some out-of-my-eyeshot beach chairs, or possibly to count their money, or perhaps back to their not quite adjacent, but in the same complex, partial ocean view rooms for a late afternoon love making session with their significant others.
Michael changes position again, sitting upright and covering his ears with his headphones in one seamless move. He is a man of action, I am a woman of words. I lean over to him and, using his armrest for balance, place my lips on his cheek for a moment longer than usual. Do you hear me, I wonder but do not say. He smiles at me, then lies his head back, classic rock seeping out from his ears, tapping into an underlying but ever-present sense that I am invisible. Or, at times, should be.
“I’m going to jump in the water,” I simultaneously say and gesture at him.
“Ask the waitress to come over if you see her?” he says too loudly, above the din of his headphones.
I nod that I will and then I’m gone.
I approach the steps that happen to be closest to the area where the foursome were sitting and slowly make my way in, one deliberate step at a time, when I notice something on the floor near the chairs the group had been camped out on. It’s emerald green, a wallet maybe, a leather pouch of some kind. I look around and no one else is in the vicinity. The always attentive, until now, poolside attendants are nowhere to be found. The area had been tidied. The towels and drinks were disappeared, like a crime scene wiped of all evidence. The only hold out is the emerald green elephant in the room.
Not absolutely sure what the right or wrong thing to do is, I follow a dim but increasingly throbbing guiding light inside me and climb back up the few stairs I had descended just moments before and make my way over to retrieve the now practically glowing green oddity. It’s leather. A notebook. Has a cord around it that fastens it. I loosen the cord and subtly and cautiously flip through it. I find sketches. A house, a sunset, a male face that may or may not be a rendition of the taller man, and, of course, some words I don’t understand.
I glance over at Michael but he’s still lying flat, eyes probably closed or at least not looking at me, and reflexively decide to take the notebook in the direction I last saw them all heading. An anticipatory dread morphs into excitement. I wonder if “taking the bull by the horns” is a phrase also used in their language.
As I round the corner the ocean’s waves crash, seeming to announce my arrival, and I notice straight ahead, in the not too far distance, the four of them camped out at the seaside bar. The women are sitting on stools shaped like shells, the men lean next to them. They’re chatting with the bartender. I’m suddenly aware of how exposed I am. Not wearing a cover-up, just my bathing suit, no sandals. My steps feel more weighted as I realize I may have been rash. Though it seemed like the thing to do only moments ago, I am now exponentially mostly wanting to get it over with. I remind myself this is the perfect progression to the story that’s been playing out in my head for the last hour. And that I’ve come this far. Contact is in my grasp.
None of the group notice my approach, so when I reach them, they’re startled by my hello. The stockier of the men turns towards me first.
“Hello,” he says, in his indeterminate accent.
The others turn their bodies and gaze towards me. Without warning I offer up the green excuse.
“I found this,” I tell him. “I was at the pool and noticed it where you were sitting.”
Stocky smiles and says something to Electric Blue Crochet, then to me, “It’s where she keeps all her secrets.”
Electric Blue Crochet smiles in response then blows a wisp of cigarette smoke above her own head.
“Thank you,” she says, in a thick accent, followed by something under her breath that indicates relief, and then, “Good citizen.”
“Buy you a drink?” Stocky asks.
I tell him no thank you, that I’m about to go swimming. As if in this scenario that has any bearing on the situation.
“Did you open it?” Electric Blue Crochet asks.
“No,” I say, and guiltily mumble something about just seeing it on the ground.
“I would have,” she says.
They all laugh.
Cream Strapless, in a voice just as raspy as I imagined, says, “I saw you watching us. I guess it was a good thing.”
“I wasn’t watching,” I say too quickly, then add, “I was noticing.”
“Noticing…” she mimics.
I make a gesture with my fingers to indicate something like snowflakes falling from the sky. “You were sparkly,” I say.
Regret and a detached wonderment at my sudden inability to find the right words in my own native tongue flood my veins.
“What is sparkly?” Stocky asks.
Electric Blue Crochet utters something and they all laugh again.
“I think you are sparkly,” the taller man, wearing not quite Speedos but short trunks, says.
I smile, deciding he’ll be the cool one should this get weird for any reason.
“Where are you from?” I ask. This bold non sequitur an attempt to change the subject and also because the mystery has now been consuming me for a good portion of my day.
Short Trunks says a name that I don’t recognize but, not wanting to appear ignorant, I nod in appreciation and hope for more clues.
“You have been there?” Stocky asks.
“No…” I can authentically and emphatically say.
Short Trunks says, “You should visit. A good place. Many freedoms there.”
This tells me nothing.
“Freedom is in the mind,” Electric Blue Crochet says.
“Oh, that’s where I left it,” I say.
Short Trunks smiles widely. “A comedian,” he says, pointing at me.
My oftentimes quashed but inexplicably resilient leanings towards optimism, and survival, get me wondering if I have found my people.
“Maybe a detective,” Cream Strapless says.
“Are you police?” Stocky asks, then laughs. “I’m kidding,” he says. “No police I know are so honest as you.”
I nod and smile, trying to keep up, then hear myself say, “In high school I was voted most loyal.” This is a lie. It was summer camp and I was twelve at the time.
“Where is your home?” Short Trunks asks.
I tell them Hollywood.
“Are you famous? Let’s take a picture with the movie star,” Stocky says.
I tell them I’m not. “I work behind the scenes,” I say. “I read scripts.”
“Maybe you will make a story about our meeting,” Cream Strapless suggests.
“You never know,” I say.
Short Trunks hands his phone to the bartender and asks him to take our picture. I adjust my bathing suit top and the couples gather on either side of me. Electric Blue Crochet blows smoke at the bartender as he points the phone our way.
“Smile,” the bartender says, and I do.
We move away from each other and Short Trunks tells me his Instagram name so I can look him up and tag myself in our picture.
“Oh, good,” Electric Blue Crochet says, “then we can spy on you.”
Stocky mimes the act of looking at something through binoculars then smiles and winks at me.
Cream Strapless reaches in between us for her drink on the bar and says pointedly to me, “Your husband is missing you?”
“Boyfriend,” I say, wondering for the first time if they are married or find the institution an unnecessary noose. “He probably is.”
Electric Blue Crochet interjects, “I thought maybe he was your brother, you don’t touch too much.”
Stocky says, “I thought you are on work holiday and he is your boss.”
A prickly feeling starts to emanate from under my skin, beginning at my forehead, riding down through all my extremities, swathing me in electricity. Exposure.
I momentarily don’t know how to respond, tottering between feeling embarrassed at their observations, flattered that they were also watching me, deflated that this leap of an odyssey has taken a sinkhole of a turn, and wanting to take a drag from Electric Blue Crochet’s Pall Mall.
“I guess it’s a cultural thing,” I end up saying. “We like to give each other space.”
Electric Blue Crochet grunts.
“Oh no, that’s no good,” Cream Strapless says. “Men like to know you are interested.”
“Let her alone,” Short Trunks says to the women. Then to me, “You need some fun, you come find us.”
“Thank you for bringing us our treasure,” Stocky says. “If we see you at dinner, I will send reward.”
I tell them it was no problem.
“No problem!” they repeat back to me like a catchphrase, then say in unison what I assume is “goodbye” or “thank you” in their language but also consider that it could mean “asshole.”
I turn to leave, waving as I move off, aware of the possibility of my mostly bare body being studied by them as I go, keeping to the grassy areas so I don’t burn my feet.
Heading towards me on the path adjacent is a man holding a child. I assume by the intimacy of the situation that they are father and son though they are different ethnicities. The child is Asian, the man has strawberry blond hair. He holds the boy aggressively and as they get close enough for me to hear, says to him, “Don’t ever do that again.” The boy couldn’t have been more than two. He regards the man blankly, while sucking on his right fist, oblivious to the logic being imposed on him. He looks me directly in the eye and I seize the opportunity to try one more time. I lock eyes with the boy and hope he receives my message. His father takes note of my presence and as we near each other I say, “Don’t be mad at him.” He shoots me an exasperated look that insinuates I do not understand as we continue on our opposite journeys.
Back at the pool area, Michael is sitting up, spots me, and makes a gesture indicating, “Where’d you go?”
I give him an “OK” sign with my forefinger and thumb touching, making a circle, even though it doesn’t absolutely apply, nor answer his question, then point to the pool.
I approach the nearest edge and stare into the deep. Closing my eyes, I take in air, dive myself in, and swim the length of the pool underwater holding my breath. All is silent and powder blue. I am strong and capable. When I reach the end, I bob up and back into a floating position, still deafened by the water covering my ears. The loneliness and power of ultimately being a solo traveler in life, cells and dust and regrets and desire, victories, close calls just out of reach, swirl in my head, in my DNA.
I notice a splash off to the side. Michael has joined me in the water.
I consider acting like I don’t recognize him, asking his name and telling him he looks remarkably like someone I know. So I could meet him again. So I could present as different, introduce him to the person I want to be. As if this transformation is only achievable if someone else catches a glimpse of it.
He goes underwater and comes at me like a shark. I wonder if he’ll take me limb by limb, or whole. I’m ready to be put out of my misery.
He pops up through the water and pulls me close.
“Where’d you go, stranger?” he says.
I adjust myself on his lap, drape my arms around his neck, the water bobbing me up and down.
“Yo te veo,” I say.
“I see you, too,” Michael says.
And even though we might mean different things, I kiss him and hope for the best.
RACHEL POLLON is a writer from Los Angeles via the San Fernando Valley. Before getting down to it and focusing on the writing, she worked in both the music and television industries. Her short stories, humor pieces, and poetry have been published in The Coachella Review, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Weeklings. Other works were included in The Beautiful Anthology and Teen Girls’ Comedic Monologues That Are Actually Funny. She is @RachPo on Twitter and @rachpowills on Instagram. Her website is SeismicDrift.com.