Leap Day

It’s Liz’s birthday and she’s getting ready for water aerobics when one of the ladies figures it out. Amid the usual locker room banter about sagging boobs and the hunky new lifeguard and trying not to pee in the pool, Hazel realizes it’s February 29th.

“Liz! You’re a Leap Year baby!”

“Wait,” says Fran. “Does that mean you’re only twenty?”

This idea delights the ladies. Liz laughs along, tucks her white hair into her swim cap. 

As they exit the locker room, Phyllis wags a finger at Liz. Phyllis is tiny and bird-like, the oldest of the ladies at the pool. “You know,” she says. “When your birthday comes around only once every four years, you have to make it count.” 

Liz stops in her tracks. Stunned to hear, after all these years, the same words her father used to say.

* * *

 On her fourth birthday, Lizzie’s father set up the ladder and promised to catch her. She giggled all the way up, but lost her nerve at the top. I got you, kiddo, said Pop, so Lizzie closed her eyes and leapt. The thrill of the air — that momentary suspension between ladder and embrace — sent her wriggling out from her father’s arms and right back up the ladder. A squeal, a leap, a catch, again and again and again.

Four years later, Lizzie sneaked out the back door before anyone else was awake. She pulled the ladder from behind the shed, climbed onto the roof, and ran off the edge, arms flapping. Lizzie heard her mother’s shriek just as her feet caught air. Later, knees grass-stained and scraped, Lizzie swore that before she fell to the ground, just for a second, she flew.

On her twelfth birthday, Lizzie broke her arm flying through the air on a homemade trapeze. On her sixteenth, she convinced her friend Bonnie to ditch school. They rode the bus to the beach and bought tickets for the Giant Dipper. At the top of the roller coaster, they raised their hands in the air, screamed all the way down.

The Santa Ana winds blew warm the next Leap Day. Elizabeth (no longer Lizzie) heard the beep-beep of Robert’s Volkswagen bus and pulled a yellow sundress on over her swimsuit. She’d told Robert that for her birthday, she wanted to jump the Clam. When they got to the beach, all their friends were there. Elizabeth stood on the edge, the rock warm beneath her feet, the surf breaking below. The guys, full of whoops and bravado, debated the best takeoff points, gave instructions on how to time your leap with a swell. The way Robert looked at Elizabeth made her feel daring, fearless. When he said time to fly, babe, she knew she wanted to be with him forever.

On her twenty-fourth birthday, she placed Robert’s hand on her belly to let him feel the baby kick. They laughed about that day at the Clam. How enormous the leap felt then, how small it seemed now.

She spent the next Leap Day at her father’s bedside. Cancer running amok, nothing left to be done. After that, Leap Days came and went like any other day. One of the kids was sick or had a piano recital or soccer game. Before she knew it, the kids were grown, and Liz had forgotten the part of herself that was driven to leap.

* * *

Last Christmas, Liz’s grandson proudly told her that the cells in our bodies are constantly replacing themselves. Eleven years old, and he figures he’s already become a whole new person. “And Grandma, just think how many people you’ve been!”

Eighty years old. She wonders if this Leap Day will be her last. She still has her health, but knows just how quickly that can change. She’s outlived Robert, and Bonnie, and all the swaggering boys from that day at the Clam. Lizzie. Elizabeth. Liz. All the selves she has been. She’d almost forgotten. Almost forgotten her father’s arms snatching her out of the air. The Big Dipper and the trapeze and flying from the rooftop of her childhood home. Her hand in Robert’s. The sun, the spray of the sea as her feet left the ground. 

One by one, the ladies from the pool walk down the steps and into the water. Their instructor greets them and they break out in a chorus. It’s Liz’s birthday today, Vince. Go easy on us today, Vince. Spare us the wall squats, Vince.

“All right, ladies,” says Vince, and looks from swim cap to swim cap for Liz, but she’s not in the water. She’s walking along the side of the pool, away from them all.

The ladies call out, but Liz keeps walking until she reaches the base of the high dive and begins to climb. Vince speed-walks toward the diving board, blowing his whistle. Liz is halfway up the ladder when Vince reaches the bottom. 

“Come down,” he says. “Before you get hurt.”

Liz blushes, thinking of her sagging swimsuit, the veins that creep across her legs, and what she must look like from below. But she marvels at what her body can still do. Heart still pumping, lungs still breathing, legs still strong enough to climb.

At the top, she grips the handrail. The rectangle of the pool comes into focus below. Vince, the ladies – they’ve all gone quiet. The lifeguard leans forward, narrows his eyes. Water ripples softly in the pool. The sky stretches overhead, a vast and boundless blue.

 Later, she’ll have lunch with her friends. A loud, raucous lunch where the other diners will stare, will wonder what’s gotten into those old women. But now there’s a hush as Liz steps forward, toes the edge of the board. 

She bends her knees, sets the board in motion. Down, up. Down, up. And then, she’s in the air. That in-between place she’s always loved and had almost forgotten. She’s in the air and, at least for a moment, she’s flying.