A squirrel flitted amongst the branches of the Fuerte avocado tree, jostling the few stubborn stragglers that clung to a season well past its peak. My grandma stood outside the tree’s shadow, her bare feet buried in cool dichondra.
I watched from my pediatric wheelchair as she plucked powdery purple jewels from the vines that hugged the redwood siding of the hillside home my grandpa had built when my dad was still a kid. Fresh grape juice stained the warm earth tones of her favorite muumuu.
She limped across the hot flagstone path and passed me an unwashed handful.
“These are Concord grapes,” she said in the accent she’d carried from Chicago to Los Angeles two generations earlier. “You don’t eat the skin.”
I leaned across my armrest to leverage my other arm to my face. Together, we sucked out the soft, sweet interiors of the grapes and spat the leftover husks on the path.
The chain-link gate behind me squealed and my dad appeared at my side, stinking of chlorine.
“You ready?” he said.
I hollowed out the few grapes left in my mouth and ditched their bitter skins. “I guess.”
He led me through the gate and onto the salt-pitted concrete that surrounded the giant rectangular swimming pool. Aunts and uncles and miscellaneous relatives splashed and shrieked and dunked each other in the water. One of my older cousins jackknifed from the diving board that loomed at the far end.
I stopped my wheelchair a foot from the edge. My dad slipped off my shirt, then reached behind my knees and back to lift me.
“Why does pool water look blue?” I asked, stalling for time.
He hesitated. “The water absorbs red light. When you take red from sunlight, it turns blue.” His grip tightened. “You ready?”
Blue water sloshed against the Gunite pool lining at my feet. I hadn’t gone swimming for a year. I stared down at my red shorts and wondered if the pool would absorb me too.
My dad lifted me, his body cold and damp against my flushed skin.
“Don’t throw me,” I said. “Do it slow.”
He knelt onto the salt-pitted concrete and lowered me into the pool.
I braced against the cold water. The edge beckoned in front of me. I grabbed it, gasping.
“You okay?” he asked.
Something scratched against my side. He reached toward it, revealing the floating thermometer.
“Eighty degrees,” he said after a quick inspection. “Any hotter and I’d start to sweat.”
He took two steps and jumped over my head, landing a cannonball a few feet behind me.
The cold water rained against the back of my head. I gasped again. I squeezed the edge harder. I dug my toes into the bottom.
Only then did I notice my firmly planted feet. I stood on bended knees, like a crab. But I stood.
I hopped in place. Amazed by my buoyancy, I hopped to the side, sliding along the edge. It felt like walking. It was walking. I’d almost forgotten the sensation.
My mouth clamped shut. A breath eased through my nose. I hopped to the other side, reaching the steps in three moonman bounds.
I found one of my younger cousins there, shivering in her water wings. She stared at the sloshing blue, terrified.
I hopped back the other way, toward deeper waters. I glanced at her again and shook my head. Then I let go of the edge.
I caught my balance instantly and turned to face the other direction. The whole pool opened up in front of me. Relatives splashed and shrieked and dunked each other. The water lapped at my throat.
My grandma eased her way down the steps past my cousin, then thrust herself into the pool with a whoop. I grinned and hopped toward her. Away from the edge. Walking, once again.
“Hi, Bri,” she said when I reached her. She took my hands. “Remember this?” She turned me in a slow circle. “Motorboat, motorboat, goes so fast,” she said, picking up speed. “Motorboat, motorboat, step on the gas.” At the word “gas,” she let go of my hands and I glided through the water. For an instant, I panicked at the thought of losing my balance, but recovered with little effort.
She grinned at me and I smiled back. On the cusp of teenagehood, such childish games should’ve been well past me, but the trip down memory lane somehow filled me with an even greater buoyancy. I remembered the me who once loved such games. The me who walked. The me who climbed. The me who stood back up after every fall. The me who swam.
As my grandma headed off toward the deep end, I found the edge and glanced back at my little cousin and her water wings. I could swim to the other edge in front of her, cutting the corner that contained the steps. I could show her how to do it.
Without another thought, I pushed off of the edge and dropped my face into the water.
My pockets, filled with previously unnoticed quantities of air, dragged my butt to the surface and shoved my face down deep. I tried to arch free of the water, but lacked the trunk strength to overcome my buoyant backside. A few gurgles of air escaped my shorts, but it wasn’t enough. I opened my eyes underwater and saw the steps. I kicked toward them. Once. Twice. Three times. My lungs burned. I fought the urge to take a breath. My hands found the steps.
As I breached the surface, my cousin kicked at my face. “Get off!” she said. Then she locked eyes with me and quieted.
I pulled myself to the edge and shimmied away from her. Tears filled my eyes.
I couldn’t swim. I couldn’t climb. I couldn’t walk. All I could do was drown.
My dad glided to my side and I splashed myself in the face so he wouldn’t see me cry. I could do that much at least.
He squeezed my shoulder. “You all right?”
“Yeah,” I said, breathing through my mouth once again. “I opened my eyes underwater.”
He studied me for a long second, then tousled my hair.
“I was about to swim to the deep end,” he said, offering his back to me. “Want a ride?”
I watched a trickle of water split at the mole on his shoulder blade. I may not have been able to swim myself anymore, but with his help I could still feel the water against my skin. I could still make it to the deep end.
“Sure,” I said.
He lowered his back into the water. I let go of the edge. Two hops later, I wrapped my arms around his neck. He grabbed both of my wrists with one hand and held them against his collarbone.
Before I could answer, he thrust himself forward, taking me with him.
My head plunged underwater, pressed against his submerged back. Neither resurfaced. I tried to pull away, to stretch for air, but he held me under, fast against his collarbone.
His calves kicked against my toes as he propelled us forward, aided by his free arm. Agitated water splashed all around me, dousing the exposed crown of my head. If I could find an inch or two, my mouth would strike air.
I tried to wrench my hands free, but his grip was iron. Again he kicked. His arm slapped the water. I opened my eyes, but could see nothing but the mole on his shoulder blade. The skin tightened and loosened as his shoulder rose. I felt rain on my cheek as his body twisted, then nothing as my head followed his shoulder underwater in a completed stroke.
When his shoulder rose again, I lifted my head as far as I could and turned my mouth for the surface. When I felt the rain, I sucked in a breath. Mist and agitated water came with it, but so did precious air.
The shoulder dropped and took me with it, plunging me beneath the churn. I needed to cough, but resisted. To cough would be to drown.
His body twisted again and I stole another wet breath. I didn’t dare try to scream or shout for help. All I could do was endure.
I forced my eyes up as far as they would go, searching for the shadow of the diving board. When we reached it, he’d stop, and I’d be safe.
Another stroke, another breath. Over and over, riding the fine line, knowing that any change would be the end of me.
Finally, a shadow. The diving board!
I sensed an edge. We’d made it.
I felt his arm strike the Gunite wall, but he didn’t stop; he didn’t surface. Instead, he pivoted and pushed off back the way we’d come with his feet.
My head went deeper, where no rain could find my crown. He’d changed his stroke and I’d fallen off my fine line.
Unable to breathe, and with no hope for a change, I yanked against his iron grip as hard as my atrophied muscles could manage. The grip held, but two more attempts saw one of my arms free.
I tapped against his shoulder to get his attention, but he didn’t respond. The air in my lungs expanded and I let out a few bubbles, fully aware of their short supply.
Terror rising where my head would not, I scratched at his back, but gently, so as not to tear open the mole.
My hunger for air grew toward a demand, but I knew I couldn’t. I scratched harder, no longer caring about the mole. No longer caring about anything but breath.
The blue all around me lightened, but I knew we had a lot of shallows to pass before we reached another edge. What if he didn’t stop there either? What if he made another lap?
I had to breathe. I couldn’t wait.
And so I did, sucking pool water into my lungs. For an instant, it satisfied the hunger, but then it forced a cough. Another breath of water followed the bubbles. I scratched. I twisted. I spasmed.
He didn’t notice. He didn’t let me go.
I breathed again and it felt great, as if I’d grown gills. But then the water darkened. The pool spun around me. I thought of the red of my shorts, absorbed. With the last of my strength, I tugged at the iron grip, knowing that to break free would still be to drown, as the bubbles in my pockets drove my head to the bottom.
My wrist didn’t budge, but his arm struck edge. He breached the surface, bringing me with him.
I lay my head against his wet back, coughing and sputtering. I sucked in a breath, not knowing if I breathed air or water. Or neither. Or both.
He lifted me out of the pool and onto the edge. I tucked my head between my legs and coughed. Pool water ran from my shorts and throat. Chlorine burned the back of my nose. I shivered, then broke into tears. It was over. I’d survived.
“He all right?” my uncle’s voice asked.
I felt my dad’s hand on my back, rubbing. If he scratched, I’d feel it. “Sure,” my dad said. “Just got a lungful of water.”
I coughed again. My throat tightened. My mouth moistened.
With one violent heave, I vomited.
The grapes I’d shared with my grandma spewed into the pool. I watched the sweet, tender interiors as they floated for a moment and then sank, absorbed like the red. I wondered whether they’d still be floating if they’d kept their skins.
My dad carried me back to my chair. A towel awaited me on the seat. He wiped me dry.
My cousin waddled by, still wearing her water wings. Her sister giggled at her heels.
“Where are you two off to?” my dad asked them.
“We’re going down to pick tomatoes,” the older one said. “Wanna come?”
My dad rubbed my hair with the towel. “How about it, kiddo? I can carry you down the steps if you want…”
I knew if he carried me, he’d do so with an iron grip. “No thanks,” I said. “I think I just want to stay in my chair for a while.”
I was. My grandma only grew cherry tomatoes, and their skins always got caught in my throat.
“Suit yourself,” he said. “But tomatoes sound good to me. I think I’ll grab some for the drive home.” He tousled my hair. “You’ll be okay for a few minutes, right?”
He walked away. I wondered if he could pick tomatoes without crushing them.
The water sloshed against the edge in front of me. I stared across it, watching my relatives as they splashed and shrieked and dunked each other. I looked for the sweet, tender insides of the grapes I’d puked up, but the pool had swallowed them.
It was a beautiful day. The birds were singing. The sun was shining. Laughter and good cheer surrounded me. I popped off my brakes and headed for the house.
The chain-link gate tried to stop me, but I managed to flip the latch and push through. On the other side, I found my old grape skins. They lay on the flagstone path, hollow and bitter without their sweet, tender insides.
“Conquered grapes,” I mumbled.
I looked up from the shadow of the avocado tree and stared at the few stubborn stragglers still clinging to a season long since passed.
Image Credit: steve p2008/Flickr Creative Commons