Eyes shut, lungs empty

The pool glitters below me, bright summer sun dancing off the waves. I take one deep breath, two three four, and jump off the end of the diving board. No elegance in my fall, no style, as I pinwheel through ten feet of air into the water. It smacks me hard as always, a flash of red across my vision. I sink.

I only know this because I was told the story so many times as a child: when I was a toddler, I nearly drowned. It was at some sort of gathering at a doctor’s house, a birthday or a graduation or just the sort of summer shindig that was part of the upper middle class upbringing. Apparently I was playing too close to the pool; perhaps it was one of those setups where the hot tub area drains down into the deep end. And it was the early eighties, before the Era of Helicopter Parenting, when children were simultaneously watched and studiously ignored. Whatever the circumstances, I fell in and sank to the bottom like a stone. One of the (many) doctors there had to jump in, fully clothed and save me. Did I have water in my lungs that they had to push out? How close was I to dying, there at the bottom of the captured sea? How much of a part does this play into my mother’s deathly fear of water?

It was surprisingly hard to force myself down to the bottom. Twenty feet of water, and while I was still a scrawny little thing, the discovery of the joys of junk food still several years in my future, I tended to float more than sink. I couldn’t just swim to the bottom. It had to look real. I pushed every ounce of air out of my lungs, waved my arms ever so slightly in an attempt to push myself down further. My eyes were shut tight; how much further? How much longer? And then, finally, the rough scrape of concrete against my back. I had hit the bottom.

When my parents first told me that they wanted me to go to summer camp at the local park, I pitched a fit and tore up the application. Hearing this now–I have no memory of this event, either, memory that most fickle of friends–I am simultaneously surprised and not surprised at all. I have always been terrified of change, comforted by routine, and going from the quiet summers spent bouncing back and forth between my parents’ and the house where my aunt and cousins lived, doting women less than a minute’s walk from our front door, to the impossible-to-know wilderness of other people was the sort of thing that would have inevitably led to hysterics. (Just thinking about it now stresses me out slightly.) But: I tore up the application? That strikes me as the sort of embellishment that comes with the re-telling; I was never an assertive child. And yet I can see myself doing it, yanking the papers out of my father’s hands and tearing them to shreds, not even thinking of the immediate consequences, the talking-to or the spanking. No, just thinking: Not that. Not change.

When they quietly pulled aside a couple of trusted kids and asked for someone to do this, the criteria were simple: we had to be willing to jump off the high diving board, we had to make it look like we landed badly, and we had to be able to hold our breath for twenty seconds once we sank to the bottom. I had only just worked up the gump to use that board the year before, mild acrophobe that I was, and I still had a few moments of flop-sweat terror as I’d launch myself off the springy surface and plummeted through the air, thinking of all the ways that it could go wrong. But here, here was a chance to show that I was brave, that I could Do A Thing. I volunteered immediately, before I could second guess myself. Making it look bad? Not a problem. I could barely dive anyhow.

His name was Kenny, and he was one of the three or four camp counselors that spent all day with us, a group of forty or so kids ranging from eight to twelve. I don’t remember the names of any of the others. I had a crush on him almost from the start, one of those innocent childish infatuations that bloom and wither in the pre-teen years before we hit the utter hormonal confusion of puberty. He was smart, he was funny, he was just a bit of a nerd too; he taught us a game that we played on the basketball court with those red bouncy balls, a modified version of dodgeball he called Wizards and Warriors, just like the NES game. I probably followed him around like an adoring puppy that first year, ten years old and scared of the other kids. The fear wore off over time; I begged my parents to sign me up for another two-week session. I was having the time of my life, swimming and bowling and running around in the park and playing Wizards and Warriors on rainy days. And there was Kenny. Were we friends? In my mind, we were. I’m sure to him I was mostly just an annoying little boy that was under foot entirely too much, but if that was the case he never let it show.

I counted slow. I think I counted slow. I knew, even at that age, that this wasn’t going to be exact, that this was part of a drill, that one of the lifeguards had to see me drowning. So. Slow. Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. My eyes were still shut tight, my arms drifting loose above my head, my back bouncing slightly up and down against the rough texture of the bottom of the pool. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. I was glad I had taken several deep breaths before jumping in, but the impact of the water always shocked the breath out of me anyhow, left me gasping and flailing at the surface when I managed to come up. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three.

Despite having nearly drowned as a child, in my mind I have always been obsessed with water, with swimming. But. My uncle took me to Water Babies as a tot, and apparently I completely forgot everything there; my mother had to sign me up for swimming lessons when I was seven, another change-in-routine I’m told I pitched a fit over. Was it residual fear of that near-death experience? I don’t know. What I do know is that once I got a taste of the water I wanted nothing so much as I wanted a swimming pool. We ended up getting one of those above-ground jobbers, a pale imitation of the real thing, and only kept it for a few years, but I swam every chance I got, at home or at a friend’s house or, at summer camp, the once-a-week trip to the city’s public pool. You couldn’t keep me out of the water.

My lungs felt like they were about to burst; the charade was up, I was going to have to swim back up to the surface, to breathe breathe just breathe nothing in my life have I wanted so much. I nearly inhaled water in an attempt to silence the screaming in my chest, that seemed eminently reasonable in the moment. But finally, finally, rough hands around my waist, pulling me up up out. It took all of my will not to gasp like a fish as we surfaced.

The rules for diving were simple. The deepest third or so of the pool was kept empty of kids, ensuring no one landed on top of some tot scrambling to get away from a cannonballing pre-teen. You couldn’t climb the ladder until the kid ahead of you actually jumped off the board; this seemed like a dumb rule to me, until I saw the kids who climbed all the way up, stood on the board for a moment, then quickly backed down again. I was one of them, the first time. I stood teetering over the brink, looking down at the pool like it was the tiny river at the bottom of the canyon and I was Wile E. Coyote hanging over the gulf that one moment before gravity reasserted control. I couldn’t do it. It was too much. I had to climb back down the ladder, shamefaced, tears in my eyes. I had disappointed myself. I had disappointed Kenny.

They had cleared the pool, and I could hear the shocked gasps of other kids, of adults, as they manhandled me onto the small wooden plank that they used to carry injuries away from the pool area and to the front of the park, where an ambulance would pick them up. I could hear Kenny, the shock in his voice. Wondering: what happened? Is he all right? I wanted to open my eyes, wanted to say something, but no; I had to wait until they set me back down, for an ambulance that would never come, before I could give up the secret. And part of me, some dark small part of eleven-year-old me, was secretly delighted: he actually cares. As I sit here and write this now, I wonder: was my willingness to volunteer, to fake injury, really an act of bravery, as I’ve made it out to be in the dim mirror-chamber of ancient memory? Or was it some sort of test, an attempt at validation, at answering that question that gnaws at the back of my mind on dark lonely nights: will anybody really care if I’m gone?

I’ve never been the most coordinated individual, and my first few jumps off the high diving board and into the water were sprawl-y splash-y affairs that turned my belly red. But the terror and the exhilaration and the thereness of the impact of water, of plunging into the depths of the pool, of surfacing with a laugh and a gasp, they kept me coming back. I got tips from Kenny, and others, as to how to actually dive into the water. I tended to overshoot, to slam on my back rather than my stomach as I arced too far, but those times when I actually managed to do it right felt like nothing else: a smooth, swift plunge into the cool clear water, fast and slim as a fish. Kenny was proud. I was proud too.

Finally they put me down in the concrete vestibule, the sound echo-y in my ears. I opened my eyes, sat up, looked around. Kenny was there, of course, and the look on his face was that of utter betrayal. Why would you do this to me? it said. Why would you fake this? I was a precocious reader, and had read about it before, but that was the first time I had ever seen a look of betrayal. He walked away, silent, while the head of our summer camp group and the folks in charge of the pool explained that it was all an exercise, that I had generously volunteered to be the guinea pig, to test the lifeguards’ reactions and their ability to clear the pool in time. I smiled, I’m sure, as the adults thanked me for my participation, but inside my heart broke.

It had been a test, and I was the one who had failed. Failed by taking the test in the first place.

He forgave me, and we were still friendly for the rest of that year’s summer camp, but my relationship with Kenny–clearly not as one-sided as I seemed to have feared–was never the same after that. I know I went to camp again the next year, but I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t a counselor then, and while it was still a lot of fun it just wasn’t the same as before. Part of it was me getting older, sure. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t benefit from being one of the counselors’ favorites, back before; I got picked as the wizard in Wizards and Warriors rather more frequently than was fair, and it’s always nice to feel special. But it no longer felt as special to me, as magical. Some fundamental innocence had been lost. I had betrayed someone I cared about, and that had consequences, consequences I was barely able to understand at that age. Consequences I still sometimes struggle to grasp.

But I still love the water. Love to sink down, to look up at the surface from the bottom of the deep end. It’s been years since I’ve jumped off a diving board–more likely that I’d break it, now–but someday, somehow, I’ll jump off a high board again and come splashing down into the deep end of a deep azure pool, sunlight glinting in my eyes as the terror of free-fall is replaced by the sharp shock of the water’s embrace.

No more pretending I’m hurt, though. Some things are too real to fake.

3 thoughts on “Eyes shut, lungs empty”

    1. I never told you the story of when I nearly drowned on purpose at summer camp, which I was obsessed with and definitely didn’t want you to keep me from going? I’m shocked. Shocked. 😛

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