Brandon Taylor's debut novel, Real Life, is an entrancing and exacting story centered on a Black biochemistry grad student at a predominantly white school in the Midwest. Wallace's existence seems suspended in a constant state of uncertainty—romantically, personally, and professionally. image Click here to read more short stories and original fiction.

It's also about how the pains of a traumatic adolescence persist, in some cases becoming sharper with time, and how they can prevent a person from connecting with someone else.

In his short story "Sussex, Essex, Wessex, Northumbria," Taylor proves himself adept once again at navigating this emotional terrain. The protagonist, a swimming instructor named Bea, had a rough childhood, and her adulthood is now marked by a peculiar solitude, which Taylor describes with breathtaking poignancy. Possible salvation for Bea, however, appears in the form of a handsome neighbor...

"Sussex, Essex, Wessex, Northumbria"

On weekends, in the rec center pool, Bea gave swimming lessons to small, poor children and led a group of old people through water resistance exercise. The money was not very good. She was paid out of a small grant funded by the university and the community that had established the program for children in the worst schools on the perimeter of town. It seemed to Bea like the university and the community might have used the money for a foodbank or for new textbooks. She couldn't understand what swimming lessons were supposed to do for a bunch of hungry, tired kids, but she was grateful either way for the small pay and for the opportunity to use the pool.

The kids didn't ask her anything. They mostly just wanted to jump into the pool and splash each other. She had made an effort at first in teaching them the strokes. She stretched on the cool tile beside the pool and mimed the motions for them, but when she looked up from her spot, she saw that the children regarded her with a cool cruelty. She felt like a helpless turtle whose head they were about to bash in. She resolved to let them do what they wanted so long as no one drowned, and the on-duty lifeguard mostly spent her time on her phone anyway, or policing the lanes to make sure people were sharing properly. The old people reminded her of her father except they were overly solicitous where he was hard and mean, and so she didn't know how to respond when they called her dear or patted her shoulder and said she'd done a fine job as she helped them out of the pool or into the pool or gave them towels. Sometimes, in the middle of their slow-motion exercise, she caught them gazing at her like she was an illusion or a mermaid, and she felt pretty, until she realized that they staring because they could barely make her out. She chastised herself.

Bea taught the lessons and the class because the girls on the swim team didn't want to do it. They were fearsome, tall girls with taut skin and broad shoulders. When Bea showered after being in the pool, she could hear them changing for their weekend practice. They had to use the regular women's locker room because the building had been built during a time when women's sport facilities weren't deemed a necessity. It meant that on the days they practiced in the pool, there was an overlap between this curious, alien race of girls and the rest of their mushy human selves. They talked like girls anywhere: about the randomness of moles or freckles, about the weird flexibility of a thumb joint, about bad food from the night before, their boyfriends, their girlfriends, the videos of their pets that their lonely parents had sent to them, assignments, professors, coaches, kisses, the slow sweep of a hand coming to rest against their back, the loneliness of mornings, the brutality of their work. In the shower, Bea felt close to them then, the water striking her sternum as she listened as keenly as she could to what they talked about, and she felt that in another life, she might have been one of them, and though this was not true, in the moments when Bea was kindest to herself, she let the thought go on a little longer than she should have.

Read the full story here: Read this Aching and Beautiful Short Story by Debut Novelist Brandon Taylor


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