Marco Polo


George can hold his breath underwater for a very long time. Take for instance now, as he reaches his one hundred and fiftieth Mississippi here in Nicole Petr’s dad’s mansion’s pool. He’s been submerged long enough that he can almost pretend there’s no water at all. But he’s got his eyes open, and he can see the legs and the red and the blue-and-white polka dot bikinied bottoms of Angela Ryan and Mary Hobbes, pale through the weak gelatinous light. And he can see Brady Dodd’s cannonballed body puncture the surface and slow to a halt, his path traced by a chaotic bubbly wake for an instant before it scatters and ascends. It’s all quite blurry, and the chlorine is itching away at his eyes, and anyway the air is running out. Something is battering the walls of his chest, neck, mouth, trying to escape.


Mary is interested in George, George knows. In Ms. Teske’s trig class, third period, she sits ahead of him and to the left. George sits with the wall at his right, though usually he puts his back against the wall, given how tiny the desk is. Before Ms. Teske begins her lecture, Mary usually turns herself sideways with her legs crossed over her desk’s steel bar, and she converses with George’s friend Kevin, who sits next to her ahead of George, and who’s known her since second grade. Sometimes she’ll try to bring George into the conversation. Teasing remarks, afterthoughts: “What about you George? Why you so quiet?” “Oh real deep, Kev, real deep, like George.” She can talk about good TV and knows more about sports than even Kevin. And whenever George says something she looks at him really hard, like she’s about to laugh, and usually does laugh, and a lot of the time George doesn’t even know why. To George’s left, completing the square, is a skinny kid with an open mouth and glasses named Andrew Falk. He and George don’t speak.

George takes very thorough notes in trig, more so than in any other class. Mary makes fun of him for getting near-perfect scores. The scores are one reason Ms. Teske lets him sit with his back to the wall, rather than facing straight forward like everyone else.

At age seventeen now, George has never kissed a boy or girl. He’s honestly not sure he would know how.


This is the first night in several months—almost the whole school year—that George has done much of anything with his friends. He is not drinking. A bottle of Admiral Nelson’s sits on the bar on the lower level of Mr. Petr’s mansion. The floor is made of hand-cut octagonal slabs. There’s also a fireplace which he’s never seen lit and which he doesn’t think has a chimney. For the first hour or so after they all arrive he plays pool on a team with Mary against Brady and Nicole. The other guys are off playing basketball in the full-court indoor gym, which has leakage issues and always smells mildewy. Some girls are over there too, probably at the far end, probably kicking a soccer ball back and forth.

He focuses very closely on the array of solids and stripes. They’re losing badly; Nicole plays every weekend. He wonders if that’s all Nicole does on the weekends, out here in River Hills with her dad on the phone with investors upstairs.

Once, mostly by luck, George manages to sink three in a row and Mary gives his triceps an excited little shake. Brady scratches on his turn and drops the cue ball in Mary’s palm with a grumble. She slides the ball back and forth around the far end of the table, waggling her head in a little uncertain dance. “What do you think, Mr. Math?” she looks to George. George is fairly certain that Mary is smarter than him, and that she doesn’t need his advice on anything, really. But he watches himself pretend to ponder and stroke his chin, and he points to a spot with his cue. Mary sinks the orange solid and also their own purple stripe—but by now Claire and Abby have gotten bored of the gym and they come in carrying Mike’s Hard Lemonade and suggest everyone go swimming.


One morning early in the school year George woke up mid-dream not feeling good. He made it to fourth hour, civics, and then asked Mr. Preston for permission to go to the office and call to be let out sick. Mr. Preston tucked his goatee into his neck and looked over his glasses at George. He told him yes, kid, you look white. Like this. He held up a sheet of paper with printed questions about the American Disabilities Act.

At home George tried to lie down and sleep, but that was no good. He spent the day walking up and down the stairs at home, avoiding mirrors and opening and closing the refrigerator and various cabinet drawers. His mom came home from work and left again after taking his temperature, 98.5 degrees, and setting out microwavable soup.

George hasn’t seen it happen in a while, but he knows his parents kiss every morning. They’ll be halfway out the front door and they kiss, and whichever one is out the door first will turn sort of clumsily with their bag and then go. There’s a step down from the entrance and they always seem to have trouble with the logistics of it. They make fishy kiss lips like parodies of movie pecks, and both actually say “mwah.”


George is very good at swimming, but he’s discovering now that he’s bad at Marco Polo. When he calls out “Marco” with his eyes closed, he can hear Mary’s “Polo” right in front of him, but he can never quite tag her.


One night early in the winter swim season, George’s coach came over and crouched by his lane. The man’s hairy legs disappeared into his cargo shorts. George was panting with three of his teammates. They’d just been told to do a hundred yards of dolphin kick without breathing. George finished the first twenty-five yards easily, watching the pool floor’s maroon line slide by, his feet churning the water, arms tight behind his ears, torso curving and straightening as if sliding over a series of mounds. Halfway through the second twenty-five his chest began to swell, his skin grew dense, something cooked in his neck and his cheeks. He thought he might come up, sneak a breath. It’d be easy enough. Just loosen your arms, turn your head, nobody’d see. The blood in his head forced the light from his eyes, the pool went dark. He saw a slice of light on the floor of a room with a girl hidden somewhere inside. He tightened his arms, squeezing his skull. He kicked and kicked and kicked.

Coach first pointed to a kid next to George, a skinny sophomore whose hair was plastered on his head like a sharpied wig.

“Did you breathe?”

“. . . No.”

“Bullshit. You breathed three times. What about you?”

The other two boys had taken two breaths each.


George shook his head.

“Get out of the pool.”

Coach told him to dry off and put a T-shirt on and meet him outside the locker rooms. He led him to the weight room and put two fifteen-pound dumbbells in his hands and told him to lay belly-down on a tall bench and to lift them like he was flapping his wings. Fifteen times, four sets. He was going to do an extra ten minutes of back and shoulder training every night after practice. “You’re our new butterfly.”

Butterfly is the prettiest but also the most punishing stroke. It consists of a full-body undulation. The swimmer throws his arms in front of him just out of the water and drags them back through the heavy fluid past his waist. For the most part only very young or inexperienced swimmers breathe with every stroke. If you lift your head too much, as you sometimes have to, to breathe, either your whole body gets canted and drags in the water or you damage your spine. You minimize breathing through what George’s coach calls anoxic training, in which you exercise the body without breathing, forcing your lungs and especially muscles to operate as efficiently as possible. And even when you do breathe, in competitive butterfly, you’ve got to keep your head very close to the surface, folded, almost beneath your shoulders and chest. Keeping your head down is what makes the stroke. George turned out to be very good at it.


Everyone’s out of the pool now, back on the mansion’s first story. George watches Ryan rolling the crew’s second joint on a glass coffee table. The girls are in and out, changing and drying their hair. Luke is making a big deal of asking anybody if they want to step outside for a cigarette. Angela and Nicole join, and Brady follows. Mary gets Luke to give her one but doesn’t go. She sits on the arm of the big leather chair where George has collapsed, and she hands him a pink Lucite lighter. “I was gonna step outside. Are you good at lighters? I can never get them.” George gives the lighter an experimental flick. It works the second time. Michael and Claire and Ryan are too wrapped up in joint number two’s progress to notice. “Great, you can help me,” Mary says, with a twisting shrug and a smile that might be ironic. He follows her through the wide country doors to the lawn.


Ryan has traded hand jobs with an older girl from Key Club. He might have also fucked this one girl with dyed red hair who sits in the halls at school for hours after the final bell, but he’s quiet about it.

Brady has been having sex with his girlfriend Jordan for nearly four months.

Michael may be having sex with Abby right now.

Luke swears he got head from this girl in Virginia while on a family camping trip, but nobody believes him and it would be gross even if it were true.


During the season George always felt pretty much wiped out after practice, especially after walking home with his hair frozen and skin drying and breath making smoky shapes against the street. He was in both AP Physics and AP U.S. History and could barely cook through his homework before collapsing on his bed under the window in his room. Unlike previous years, he did every single assignment. His mom would bring him plates of pasta and something steaming and green, and she wouldn’t talk to him at all because he would redouble his study whenever she knocked. She would kiss her hand and press it on the back of his head for a moment after setting down the plate. He hardly saw his father in the evenings at all. From his pillow through the window he had a good view of the moon in the winter, and sometimes as a kid he would talk to it instead of saying his prayers. He glanced at it sometimes, still, but usually now he just slid into a solid blank sleep.


Out in the middle of the field behind the mansion Mary sticks the cigarette in her mouth. George lights it and she immediately starts coughing. He should tease her, he knows, but doesn’t want to. He grows uncomfortable as her coughing continues. He takes a step, trying to catch the face she’s turned away. “Are you okay?”

Mary nods, tries another drag, coughs again. “I don’t want this. Do you want this?”

George shakes his head. Mary rubs the lit end on the grass and stands with the almost-whole cigarette, looking around. “Will you think I’m a bad person if I just throw this somewhere?”

George shakes his head. But what he ends up saying is “litterbug.”

“Hey. I am a very good recycler.” She tosses the cigarette overhand somewhere out onto the dark glossy lawn. She walks out a little and sits on the grass. “Do you recycle?”

George doesn’t think about recycling much, but he takes a seat anyway and says “I do my best.”


He finished the season by placing fourteenth statewide in the 100 fly. When he emerged from the pool, his season over, and stood with his hair matte and spiky and a towel over his shoulders before Coach, he thought they would go over his splits, thought Coach would give him some off-season regime to dedicate himself to. Instead Coach just shook George’s hand with a firm rough grip and said, “Now we just need you to survive for next year, captain.” George stood there until he sensed his coach’s discomfort, and then moved on to receive backslaps and adulation from his teammates. And then George had time to kill, and think.

There was never enough to occupy him, then. Though his homework got more difficult as test season approached, he did it ever more thoroughly, forgave himself less and less. He was sleeping earlier and earlier, just to be done with the day, but feeling more and more tired. Sometimes—before first and fourth periods, usually—he found himself quivering and breathing shallow, something he’d seen in movies but which he’d never known can actually happen in real life. It was mostly when he saw couples in the hall, couples that looked natural together, intertwined, holding hands, teasing each other, like Brady and Jordan. And there was one time when he was passing that kid Andrew Falk in the halls. They traded glances, Andrew’s blank and dumb. But he looked again, nervous, uncomfortable. George realized he must have been staring at him. He hurried on down the hall.

Without trying, he found himself almost silent toward his friends. On a Friday after lunch when everyone was filing out of the upperclassmen’s lounge, Brady punched him in the arm.

“George, what’s been up? I feel like you haven’t been around,” with emphasis at the end of each sentence like a rapped slant-rhyme.

George smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know. Sorry man, nothing really.”

By now they were out in the halls.

“You been stressin’? My parents keep pushing me to apply to Marquette and man, like that shit?”

“Maybe, yeah, I guess.”

"Don’t stress, George. I know you can stress.” Brady was walking backward down the hall now. He shot George with a finger-gun, and George shot back before turning toward his locker.

After that he made an effort at school. He couldn’t think of his own jokes, but he laughed at everyone else’s. He said “what’s good” at appropriate moments. After that nobody asked how he was doing.

But the mornings were bad. Waking up under a quadrisected parallelogram of window to his right and a great cream vacuum of carpet to his left, remembering it for the first time that day, again, and realizing he’d forgotten again somehow in his sleep. Soon he even thought of it then, in his sleep. But he didn’t stop sleeping. And on waking it became impossible not to think of all the however-many-more mornings were ahead of him, queued up and ready and waiting, receding like the frames in two parallel mirrors.

When he told his parents he was going out with his friends tonight, his mom said “Good, Georgie! Say hi to all those boys for me!” His dad looked at him through his frameless glasses, lips in a suffocated smile: “Have fun.”


“I was scared out of my mind. We were all huddled in the bathroom, had to stay by the walls. The cops were shining their lights through the window.”

“Wow,” says George, watching a spot of cloud erase a patch of stars before moving on.

“But then we heard the door open and the cops shouting ‘Party’s over! Party’s over!’ and everybody shouting ‘The cops are here! The cops are here!’”

Mary sometimes glances over to see if George is actually listening. He is. She goes on.

“And we’re like shit if they knock on a locked bathroom door they’re gonna know we’re here and they’re gonna bust in because they have to because like ‘maybe somebody’s O.D.’d in there’ or maybe they just want to bust more kids.”

“. . . But you didn’t get caught?”

“Nope, because Angela jumps up and slams open the window, and it turns out there’s a section of roof big enough for seven people right under us.”


“So we crawl out one by one and sit on the roof—but only for like a minute because then we hear the cops on the second story and we’re like ‘shit!’ and everybody just hops off the roof without thinking about it.”

“Anybody get hurt?”

“I sprained an ankle, but that was it. We still made it to the woods before this cop lady could stick her head through the window and figure out what was going on.”


“So we spent the night trekking through the woods to a gas station where Matty’s sister picked us up in her jeep. Safe and sound. But it didn’t really even matter because like two weeks later I got in a shitload of trouble with my parents for having to get my stomach pumped because I went sort of overboard at Stephanie’s.”


“. . . I actually felt really bad about that. My parents were actually really disappointed.”


“Like they actually didn’t think I would do that.” Mary looks at George. He can see her thinking, sorting through words. “And when I thought about it I was like, ‘Oh. I didn’t really think I would do that either.’”

George can see the patch of cloud moving only as a negative—wherever the stars are just black, not stars at all.

“Anyways. That’s the worst trouble I’ve ever been in. What about you?”

George takes a big breath. “I broke a window when I was eleven.”

Mary watches him, laughs. “That’s it?”

“I don’t really get in trouble, I guess.”

“Well that’s good.”

“Yeah.” George pauses. He shakes his head like a dog, trying to clear it. He lays back on the grass. It feels wet through his shirt, but when he touches it with his hands it’s dry, just cold. “I don’t know.”

So now he’s flat on his back smack in the center of Nicole’s father’s big giant lawn. It’s ten acres, maybe, butting up against the sighing highway way behind the woods above his head and fading on the sides into these sloped grass fields dotted with mansions. Way below his feet the pool glows and way out in front of him there’s this white hole-punched moon and the great big gauzy sky, wheeling away around it. George’s senses cross and he feels for a moment like the moon is making the highway’s noise, some kind of whisper or sigh. But Mary’s there too and they’re both kind of high, thinking they might fall off.


Michael Kristoff undid the dress-ties at the back of Laura Ware’s neck in the middle of the pit at a high school dance. She caught it just in time and hurried to the bathroom.

Ryan has a picture on his phone of this girl with her tits out. Her name’s Lisa and she was in George’s gym class last semester. Ryan says he got it from a grody Slipknot drug-dealer kid named Jared who’d promised the girl he wouldn’t show it to anybody.

Nicole’s older sister Catherine is part of a sort of legendary group of girls two years older than George. When the girls were thirteen, three sophomore guys got them drunk and then convinced or coerced the girls to blow them, or maybe sort of demanded it. But then one night Nicole’s much older brother and a bunch of his friends surrounded two of these dudes in the Blockbuster parking lot and proceeded to fuck them up so badly that the third sophomore carried an aluminum bat with him everywhere he went for a quarter afterward.

There’s this one girl George heard got raped by her friend’s dad. He sees her smoking cigarettes in a fat black hoodie by the church he passes on the way to school in the morning.


Mary has turned to George at some point. Now she’s lying on her side in the grass with her cheek on the back of her hand, both hands in a pillow like a kid pretending to sleep.

“I like you, George.” She doesn’t say it in a romantic way, just informing him as to the general state of her preferences, who’s cool, who’s not. Their hair is cold and chemical-stiff but their clothes are dry and the air is neutral and still, almost empty. “You’re interesting.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugs, sideways. She waits. He thinks she wants him to understand something, or maybe just to let the moment rest.

He turns his head toward her. The skin around the edge of her face is still damp from her hair. It looks as if it might squeak if someone ran a finger along it.

“I don’t know if you would like me if you knew me better.”

This is the most George has ever volunteered to Mary. The way it came out, he realizes, it doesn’t sound weird. It actually sounds like a quirky flirty joke. That’s not what he meant and he wants to say it again but he doesn’t.

Mary reacts very little. She is very assured, George thinks. She says “No?”

George can see this conversation going on and on and ending, and there would be more conversations. He turns on his side now, trying to wedge himself into the earth a little, facing her. He moves his mouth, biting down on “I . . . I . . .” Something comes out in a whisper. “I . . . .”

George is now looking at the grass beyond Mary’s neck, then at her and away again, and his breathing is punchy and harsh. Mary looks concerned but also businesslike, like a lifeguard or an EMT. “George?”

“I . . .”


—I used to ride a unicycle. Did you know that Mary. That’s what it was like at Ethan Harris’s party last August walking around that’s how drunk I was. Brady went off somewhere with Jordan and left me to fend for myself at Ethan’s. Everyone was making out. I think Luke hooked up with Claire that night and Ethan was fucking Cece of course and Angela and Kelley were licking whipped cream off each other’s faces while Mattie cheered them on. That girl Stacy Falk you know the short kind of weird one. She goes to Pius I think but you remember her from middle school. Her brother goes to East he’s in our trig class we don’t talk. Well she was there and kept coming up and talking to me super drunk and sometimes I wanted to do something or something but there were always all these people around and Stacy kept looking worse and worse and I didn’t know what to do with all these people around. She disappeared and things just kept going. Everyone kept handing me bottles to swig and I took them I was stuck waiting for Brady to drive and I thought maybe next time Stacy came up to me I’d be drunk enough to do something about it. I was trying to put my bottle back in my coat upstairs. It was like a game room or entertainment room you know with the TV and couch and consoles and speakers. The door had kind of closed on its own and left a little slice of light in the floor. My coat was on the couch in a big pile of other coats. I was digging through them and uncovered Stacy passed out cold like nested in these coats with her face in the cushions. It was like if you see a nice bike somebody’s left out by the street. I think I shook her or something anyway she sort of rolled almost off the couch almost fell. I caught her by the thigh and arm and rolled her back. Stacy I said. Still touching her. Stacy I’m here. She was wearing a skirt. It was like being alone but with another person there I mean another body I guess and I thought this is it this is what it is for me this is my first deal it’s how it is. I know how it sounds and hate how it sounds and hate how it is but it’s that. I touched her don’t know how to say it. Felt-up fingered molested. Finger-fucked. Whatever sounds worst. And a hand in her shirt. For maybe about twenty seconds before she gave this little startled twitch or shrug and a grunt. Don’t even remember how it felt. The grunt the noise she made was almost like fear but not disturbed fear just startled fear like “ah!” but not quite. Her face buried in the couch. I walked right back out. Remembered way later. Kept the bottle and tried to black out don’t know why I didn’t black out.


There’s a splash, and a scream, and then laughter. George sits up and looks to the pool. He sees Michael surfacing, whipping water from his head, Abby and Jane bent over laughing on the deck.

Mary props herself up just as George lays back down. Her shoulders are rolled behind her, arms in gentle twists. He had been about to say something.

She looks back at him, pressing her chin to her shoulder, eyebrows up, letting him finish his thought. But her expression changes, and George realizes it’s because of what she sees in the face she’s facing, his own. Her eyebrows lower, lids closing to almost a squint, opening again and just watching.

He puts himself up on his elbows and she curls her legs and turns until she’s almost facing him and they’re kissing. Later the only thing George will remember from that first kiss is—just before he leaned in—running his finger along the skin under her ear.


And now George is floating, drifting with his eyes closed, water filling his ears. When Brady calls out “Marco” George cries “Polo” with the rest of them. He gives short light kicks, willing himself away. Once in a while he floats by Mary and puts his lips on her cold back, just beneath her swim-top’s ties. She turns and splashes him. But later while Michael and Abby and Brady and Nicole are making out in separate corners of the pool, while Claire and Angela pass a bottle and float, when he makes a teasing subsurface dive for her legs, she pulls him up and holds him there. They linger on the surface.