I can’t swim.
Zack, however, was always such a masterful swimmer. He could effortlessly glide through the water as if it was moving out of the way for him and not the other way around. I could only slap at the water, my fingers clumped together into clumsy hamfists. Zack would always emerge from the chlorine soaked bath and wipe his eyes with his thumb and index finger, pulling his eyelids together in a clean, habitual motion while clearing his eyes of any excess irritants. I would rip myself out of the water and messily rub my eyes with the back of my hand, only leaving them red and throbbing from the chemicals.
I always found it funny when Zack would try to teach me how to swim, like I somehow missed the quintessence of it and needed clarification. It had nothing to do with my inability to grasp the concept of swimming. I understood how it worked. The mechanics of it. But I could never make it happen for me.
“Just kick your feet,” he would say, demonstrating the technique to me as if seeing his performance might make something click in my brain. Like it was that easy. I imitated his strokes, but I felt like I was missing something integral to the process.
* * *
“Yes you can,” my mom says when I insist that I can’t swim, my first year of college, home on summer break. Sitting in a Starbucks, I felt a switch in my head being pulled, putting my whole body in defensive mode.
“No, I really can’t.” I took a sip of my drink, too soon, the liquid scalding the top of my mouth.
“Well, maybe you can’t now, but you could. You just haven’t really tried.”
“You really think that?” I spitted, the skin on my face curling toward my nose, the face of a man who’s offended, who feels violated, wronged. “Not being able to swim has been nothing but shitty for me my whole life.”
“I just feel like maybe you haven’t tried that hard,” she said, her words ringing true. We’ve always been a family to do stuff like that, withhold things from ourselves for a kind of social leverage. It wouldn’t be out of character for one of us to claim something as pointless as I’ve never eaten KFC just to feel different, to stick out, like we weren’t just getting pushed along with the current.
“Believe me,” I said, touching my tongue to the top of my mouth, feeling the rough skin, knowing that it’d be at least a week for it to heal. “If I could swim, I would have by now.”
With that, I took another quick gulp of coffee, even though I knew it was still too hot, because the damage was already done, the pain was already in place. The worst I could do was extend it a little.
* * *
I was 10 years old the last time I went to a public pool. It the day Zack was tested for the deep end. If I had known that, I would have declined the invitation to come along. I didn’t need another reminder that every time I visited a pool it got a little less acceptable that I didn’t know how to swim. But his mom asked my mom, and the whole thing was arranged before I had finished my bowl of Cheerios that morning.
All pool visits had a comparable itinerary. Zack’s mom would set up her lawn chair and then casually ignore her son and me for the entire day, leaving us to entertain ourselves unsupervised. The two of them were card-carrying members, daily visitors. She was a stay-at-home mom and the pool filled in for a baby sitter. Looking back, it also seems likely that she hoped Zack would drown and she could be rid of her motherly burden.
The pool was divided into sections, separated by half-white, half-colored buoys. As the depth increased, the buoys’ color increased in severity. It started at blue, as in shallow enough for a small child to wade through safely, and went all the way up to red, meaning that death was imminent for a brick like myself.
Once a week, the pool hosted swimming trials, hurdles set before people who had already obtained the ability to swim through some ungodly means and were now seeking the use of more advanced accessories such as the diving boards, slides, and of course, the grand prize: the deep end. To most, the deep end wasn’t that formidable, but I saw the space as nothing more than a death trap, a hole to the center of the earth. I didn’t understand that it was the same place: that the same water touching my skin had only moments ago drifted from beyond the red buoys.
“Good luck,” Zack’s mom said to him as he walked off toward the north end of the pool. She lifted her hand, waved her fingers back and forth, her head not looking up from her magazine.
“Yeah, good luck,” I echoed. To this day I couldn’t tell you if I meant it.
The kids looking to gain access to the deep end lined up single file, their arms down at their sides. I looked on from the orange side of the red buoy, the closest I was able to get to the event. I held on to the edge because placing my feet on the floor would have put the water level uncomfortably at chin level. I was too far to hear what the instructors were saying. In my mind, they were on par with the insult-spewing drill sergeants in the army movies I watched on Sunday mornings after I finished my homework.
As the swimmers were briefed, I floated by myself in the pool. It was almost liberating to be a kind of ghost. As far as the kids who walked by knew, I could swim perfectly fine. On occasion, I took the opportunity to allow my toes to slip over the deep-end line, feeling like I had somehow cheated the system. Like I was allowed a glimpse of a privilege that I hadn’t earned.
I could see Zack standing in line, his mouth silent, but his small body fidgeting. I thought at the time that he was nervous or perhaps cold, but I now understand that he was just a hyperactive kid, and the waiting was killing him inside.
They went on, one after the other, girls, boys, all different ages. We were at an awkward period where the girls had reached a growth spurt before all the boys, so Zack was left sandwiched between two monstrously tall girls, neither of which he gave even so much as a glance to. Our tastes in girls had yet to develop, and even if they had, the height difference would have instilled fear before lust.
The trials didn’t take long. If you had made this far, there wasn’t any doubt that you were going to pass. I watched them, my hand still resting safely on the edge, my toes suspended above the floor below me. Eventually, it was Zack’s turn. He crept up to the edge, rolling his shoulders clockwise as the instructor gave him directions. He nodded confidently, pulling on the front of his light blue swimming trunks with an audacious vigor, old enough to have below-the-belt adjustment problems, while too young to know what doing it openly in public implied.
From where I was, there wasn’t anything to watch once Zack leapt into the pool. I could see him, and then I couldn’t. As far as I knew, he had jumped in and drowned, an idea with implications that I considered. If he did, in fact, drown, I could parlay the whole thing into a reason for not swimming ever again. You can’t swim? I would be asked by people, to which I’d respond, I watched my best friend drown in a public pool when I was ten. Who could argue with the logic? In that scenario, it had nothing to do with my inability to perform the task. It was just the unfortunate side effect of a childhood trauma.
This notion was strangled as I saw Zack’s full form appear above the water. The instructor who had previously given Zack directions motioned to help him out of the pool. Zack reflexively waved him off; they were equals now, and he didn’t need the help. He grabbed the side of the pool, pulled himself out. Zack then straightened his frame, milking his body for every bit of height it could muster and went about doing the final task set before him. He walked over to the diving board and stood at the end for what seemed like an hour. Perhaps he was mulling over what his first dive would look like, as if it the outcome would follow him for the rest of his life. In that way, it seems almost cruel that while he’s likely forgotten the jump, I’m damned to remember it.
And then he did it. He bounced himself into the pool, and just like that, the deep end was his.
* * *
“Does anyone not know how to swim?” asked Mr. Schaefer, wearing his usual tracksuit, red and white, our school’s colors.
Only one other kid and I raised a hand on that first day of class.
I really thought I could find a way to avoid having to take swimming in high school. Take an extra year of Spanish, play basketball during a free period, mow the principal’s lawn. But, now, there was no way out. I had to take it if I wanted to graduate. I was a senior, stuck in a class with all of the screw-ups, the leftovers, the ones who didn’t get useless classes like swimming out of the way early in their academic career.
For our final, we had to do 20 laps without stopping. We’d swam laps as a class before, and I could make it up and down the pool without falling to bottom, but I just couldn’t swim right. I couldn’t keep my butt down, my head underwater, my body from curling into a ball. I just floundered, grabbing the water with my arms, yanking myself to the end of the pool.
Schaefer was strict about not letting us rest mid-lap. If you stopped for even a fraction of a second, he’d make you get out. He’d mark your name down, and then it would supposedly count against your final grade. In that final series of laps, as I pushed my body forward with my arms, my legs completely useless in the water, I heard our teacher yell out names of kids who he saw resting at the turn-around. Each time, I’d hit the side, push off with one fluid motion—the only part of swimming laps that I could perform correctly. And when I was done, had counted out all 20 laps, I pulled myself out of the water, resting on my forearms, gating each breath, trying to avoid sucking anymore chlorine back into my lungs.
“Good job,” Schaefer said, kneeling down next to me, putting his hand on my head. “You’re the only one to get through all of them.”
I looked around to see my classmates sitting at the edge, waiting for me to finish so that Schaefer would dismiss us. I tried to smile, feel pride in my achievement, but the pain in my arms wouldn’t let me, a constant reminder that I finished the task, but I’d worked four times as much as anyone else.
This shouldn’t be so difficult for me, I told myself between breaths.
This shouldn’t be so hard.
* * *
“Good job!” I yelled as Zack swam over to me. He smiled, the first time he had done so all day, trying to hide the pride he felt.
As I began using my hands to mime what I assumed was his swimming technique, I lunged slightly forward, taking a step too far and slipping underneath the buoy and toward the deep end. I began to panic, thrashing around as if I’d find something to hold onto. I could feel my body carrying me to the bottom of the pool. I tried to swim, to kick my feet and push the water with my hands and everything else I could think of that I’d ever been told about swimming, but it was of no use. There was a ball and chain on my ankles that were intent on taking me down as punishment for my pride.
This event probably only lasted a second or two, but it felt like I was under water for hours, the little bit of breath in my shallow lungs being thrust out by panic before Zack was reached me. He put two hands under my arms and pulled me the yard or to the shallow end. Even as my head was safely above water I continued to flail and fight with all of the vivacity my oxygen-depleted body could muster.
In that moment, I felt like I’d rather go under. I didn’t want to be saved from the deep end, a privilege that should have been something I enjoyed, not something I feared. I didn’t want to be saved because I couldn’t do a task that I was too old to not be able to do. I didn’t want to be saved while I flopped and scratched and coughed like a drowning cat, scared out of my mind. But most of all: I didn’t want to be saved by Zack.
* * *
The fight happened shortly after my last pool visit. I’ll never be able to remember what it was over. Maybe I called him a childish name, maybe he broke one of my toys, or maybe it was over nothing. It doesn’t really matter. We were kids, drunk on anger, our judgment clouded by youth, by not knowing that our minds had different compartments, that feelings could be filtered into different places.
Our arms locked around each other, struggling, I saw Zack’s head come crashing into my face, too fast for me to react. I had never been in a real fight before; I didn’t know that your head could be a weapon. I didn’t understand the rules. That is, that there aren’t any rules.
I hit the ground hard, my head whiplashing back, slamming into his parents’ driveway. I tried opening my eyes, but Zack’s head had made contact with my nose, filling my eyes with tears. A bulky mass dropped onto me and tried to hold my arms down. I began thrashing, escaping the grasps. Instead of punching normally, I made my hands into fists and then hit downward, pummeling Zack’s ribs with the bottom side of my hands, like they were hammers. Once his knees, which were placed on my chest, gave a little, I swung both of my arms right to left, knocking him off of me, onto the pavement beside me.
My brother Eric and I had fought before, but it was different. I may have been mad at Eric, but I didn’t really want to hurt him, I just wanted him to give up, admit that I was a winner. No matter how deep we were into a brotherly brawl, both of us knew we could tap out at any time. But with Zack and I, his body lying next to me, I’m not sure there was a way out for either of us.
He was lying facedown, so I grabbed at his left arm, and tried pulling it upward—a victory move.
“What the hell are you doing?” Zack’s mom screamed, jumping out of the side door, her face angry, like she was about ready to join the fight, like in a video game where she was my next opponent.
I looked down at Zack, my knee on his back for leverage, gripping his arm almost perpendicular to the ground. What the hell was I doing? I tell myself now that I just wanted him to give me some kind of sign that I’d won, that the disagreement was settled. But I can’t say with any honesty if that would have stopped me. I can’t say how far I would have gone.
I sprinted back to my house, ran upstairs to my room without saying anything to my parents, and closed the. I sat on my bed, my legs held bunched to my chest, the sweat on my arms going cold, waiting for the doorbell to ring.
When it did, I waited to be called downstairs, where Zack and I would be forced to shake hands, say we’re sorry, the way my parents used to solve all of my disputes. But this call never came, and eventually my mom opened my bedroom door, stepped inside. She slid in, like she was trying not to wake a sleeping baby, and sat next to me on the bed.
“You guys had a fight, huh?” she said.
“Are you hurt? Do you need to go to the doctor?”
“Okay, well,” she stopped, put a hand on my shoulder, trying to channel her maternal authority through the tips of her fingers. “I’m not going to ground you or anything. But I don’t want you and Zack hanging out anymore, okay?”
I nodded, and that was the end of the discussion. She didn’t care who started it, what the fight was about. The important part was that I was uninjured, and that I wouldn’t fight again.
Zack and his family moved to Australia, his dad’s homeland, less than a year later.
We didn’t say goodbye.
* * *
“What happened?” Zack’s mom asked as we walked over to her settlement. Her sunglasses hid whether she was truly looking at us, or just the magazine with a shapely woman on the cover that sat just below her eyelevel. My body crumbled to the ground in front of her, my knees digging into the grass around her tiger-striped foldout chair like an anchor, as if at any moment I could be swept up and taken back to back to the deep end.
“He swallowed some water,” was all Zack said in reply.
I nodded my head, agreeing with the abridged version of the story. My nose and throat felt hot, raw, like they were stripped bare by the chlorine.
“Okay,” his mom said, raising the magazine back to her face without turning her head.
I looked up at Zack, the pain blurring my vision. I like to think he gave me some kind of acknowledgement that I just couldn’t see. A nod of understanding, a sly grin, anything. But I know that he didn’t. Instead, he just looked at me for a moment, adjusting himself again through his blue shorts, a completely different person than he was an hour earlier.
At that moment, I couldn’t have known that I would never return to that pool. I couldn’t have known that three short summers later the pool would be shut down permanently. I couldn’t have known that Zack would move away, leaving the two of us as lingering enemies rather than friends. All I did know was the ache that came from realizing that it wasn’t that I couldn’t swim, but that I would never swim. And that the idea had come to represent a rift between Zack and I that, though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, was just too large to overcome.
My eyes still burning, I forced them to stay open long enough to get a last, detailed look at Zack as he turned away from me, walked to the edge of the pool, and disappeared, slipping confidently back into the deep end.
Alex Sobel is a freelance writer and musician living in Toledo, Ohio. Likes: bothering his cat and dog while they’re trying to sleep, tongue-in-cheek dancing in music videos. Dislikes: introducing himself to strangers, being asked to describe “what kind of music he writes.” His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post Online; Foundling Review; Ink, Sweat, and Tears; theNewerYork; Treehouse; and others. His articles appear regularly in The Press, a newspaper out of Oregon, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter at @alexsobel30.
This is wonderful, Alex. It has such heart. I could see every scene as if in a movie with a voice over. Your transitions were seamless and that’s a tough thing to pull off. Really great work and a very enjoyable read.