Hank lived in a light blue trailer up a thin dirt drive some distance behind his friend Aaron’s house, who owned the property. Hank paid him a couple hundred bucks in rent to “hide out back there,” as Aaron said. But it wasn’t really hiding to Hank. It was where he felt all right with things. One of the few places. The trailer was surrounded by pines that shed pin-prick drops of sap in a painfully slow drizzle, against which Hank had strung a giant blue tarp like a sail over the roof of his trailer and pickup. Underneath, the light sifting through the canopy gave everything a blue tinge, like being underwater in a swimming pool whose floor was covered in pine needles. A smaller tarp hung like a kite over the outhouse he had built and which, he was happy, Suzanne hadn’t seemed to mind using the first time she had come over, two days before. That was after dinner, and then again later, after sex, when with much laughter, she got into his big boots and clomped out to make use of it, the door of the trailer screaming on its springs and slamming shut behind her. He liked the feeling of her being out there, and knowing she was coming right back in with his “big man boots,” as she had called them. It was a kind of aloneness he wasn’t used to. Usually there was no one coming back, and the space outside of his trailer seemed filled with a watchful silence that extended all the way to the top of the hill, where he had the vague intimation of being watched by something, a presence in the empty spaces between the trunks of the pines. Something that filled the darkness. A witness to his small life.
Suzanne had left a picture lying on his kitchen table before she got back into her truck and drove off that morning. He kept looking at down at it while he made his breakfast, as he had for the last two days. Her friend had taken the picture, which showed her in the water of a pond that she said was on her parents’ land. Her parents rarely swam in the water, being advanced in age, but she liked to bring friends there on weekends for barbecuing and to drink some beer. They’d play a bit of music and get away from the world for a while. “Just escape, you know?” she said. “It’s nice up in the mountains. You should come!”
He had smiled and nodded, and tried not to show any of his hesitation.
The picture she had left was of the side of her face, laughing, when she must have been much younger—15 years before maybe. She would have been in her the late twenties then. Her white shoulder, half submerged in the clear water, was still visible beneath the surface. Her hair was dry on top, but part of it had been submerged, and was dark and smooth. Out in the air it was light brown, lighter than it was now, and the sun was playing in it, so the very top of her head looked almost like it was shining. Her skin looked clear, and smooth, and very fresh, and there were no lines around her eyes. In fact, he hadn’t immediately recognized that it was her when she had shown it to him, and had he not been interrupted, he would have asked who it was in the picture. He was very glad he hadn’t, and felt the swell of relief when she had said, “That’s me! In the water! I was always in the water then.”
He couldn’t get over how good she had looked. He stared first at her young face, holding the small paper rectangle out in front of him as he eased into the chair at his table with a plate of ham and eggs steaming before him, the eggs like bright yellow eyes in their wiggling jelly. What he realized was that this was the kind of woman he could never have gotten when he was younger. Out of his league. Completely. No question. These were the kind of girls that Aaron used to get, when Aaron still had it, and hadn’t aged it all away. But now he was getting a girl who had been just like that, and even though age had taken some of it away, that was who she had been. A memory of three girls running toward the open window of Aaron’s car returned to him, their faces leaning in, speaking across Hank’s body to Aaron, who sat in the driver’s seat with his hand on the wheel, grinning back at them.
He had only looked at the girls’ hands as they gripped the open window frame, pink, red, and cracked sparkly purple nail polish on their small slender fingers. Only at the last moment, as the girls turned away to run back to their cars, did he look up to see their faces, the girl closest to him catching his gaze for one electric moment, her blue eyes sparking at him, a quick smile big enough to hold even him. He couldn’t help but put that young face into the picture of Suzanne, to imagine that it had been her, to imagine Suzanne holding him with a smile that big. He knew that he would always see that younger face in her, and that he would find her more beautiful for it, and that he would look for signs of it when she smiled, or talked to people in a group, or lay down to sleep. It would always be there like a mirage, appearing unexpectedly in the unique constellations of light, and facial expressions, and the movement of her hand through her hair, shimmering for a moment, a glimpse into what had been there, and what was now becoming his.
He often wondered how it had been that it was him she talked to at the firehouse barbecue where he had volunteered a few weeks before, what it had been that compelled her to keep standing next to him at the grill, after he had flipped a burger patty neatly onto her outstretched plate and had said, “Good catch.” He remembered how she had smiled at him and said, “Former softball player. What can I say?” He had been a bit surprised when she hadn’t turned away after that, how he had suddenly felt himself needing to dig for something else to say to allow her to stay. She was swinging back and forth on one heel inside her blue flip flops, and he told her that she probably didn’t have to say anything then, her expertise speaking for itself. She had let out a loud “Ha!” and then proceeded to tell him that her expertise only extended to softball, and that that was about it. She had given up on “expertise” and all that other crap. “It’s just about living and trying to have a little fun here and there, isn’t it?” she had said. He had nodded, agreed, and noticed how she didn’t seem interested in going back to rejoin her group, or the other people there from the town, and how, as the afternoon wore on, he began to get used to the image that the people in the parking lot must have seen, of the man behind the grill who had a woman next to him, and that the longer she was there, the more he began to trust that she really was there for him, the reality asserting itself as slowly as sap flowing through his body, until it reached and slowly took hold in his brain, and he felt as comfortable as he might ever, letting her lead him back to her apartment that night, both of them swaying a little, after they had gotten drinks at the Cornerstone.
Thinking back on the barbecue he imagined this was what Aaron must have felt like all the time, having someone near him that other people would want, or envy him for. He had felt proud to be with her, thankful almost, to be like Aaron, or anyone else, who had his own life. Hank was a big man, stout, with big arms, big hard belly, round taut legs, short brown hair, buzzed, all thinned out on top, and he kept a goatee. His lower lip stuck out just a bit farther than his top lip, which was a fact he often tried to hide, by pulling it in, so it often looked like he was biting his lip. But he was “kind,” she had told him a few days later, while they were lying around on her couch after a movie, and he had never considered this before. He liked that idea of himself, and tried to fit the role. He looked around his trailer, the small sink, the orange curtains, some tools on the window bank, and still felt her presence there, her shouts of “Don’t let me down, Mr. Man,” slowly dissipating, as she got into her truck after urging him to come up to the cabin. For a moment he saw his long narrow trailer under the blue part through her eyes, then again through his, then both of theirs simultaneously, and felt a warmth go through the little homestead in the woods, as he considered it to be the home of a kind man, him.
The other part, the part about the weekend getaway and the fact of there being water, had already lodged itself on the bottom shelf of his stomach, where it sat, difficult to digest, no matter how much he tried avoiding it.
The pond was fed by a river, she had told him, and though it was calm, there was still a fine undertow. Water rushed in on one side and spilled out the other. She had said this as though it were a good thing, explaining that it kept the water nice and clean, and most importantly, that the water would be cool in the summer heat. Even though he knew it was irrational, he saw himself carried away by this hidden current. He hadn’t ever learned to swim and was terrified of the water. His friend Aaron knew of this fear, and when they did get to the water he always put Hank on grilling duty so no one would know. He’d wear a swimsuit and stand behind the grill, as if he had just been in, or was about to go in. For this he loved Aaron, and sometimes clung to him too desperately, which Aaron could always sense. On the way back home Aaron would poke fun at him. “You’re a grown man Hank,” he’d say. “And a big one. The water should to be afraid of you, the way I see it.”
Hank would get red in the face and feel angry and helpless at the same time, and hate the ease with which Aaron was staring out the window, the comfort he had with everything. He hated that it was between them, this knowledge, and that it was something Aaron didn’t make him challenge, but still made fun of him for. He was glad he knew about it, in fact he needed him to know, but hated that he knew, and hated even more that the problem even existed, that it was a part of him, that it was something he had to think about often because in the summer, in an area with a whole ton of lakes, it was impossible to avoid the water for all those months. He had to show up sometimes, and no one would even think to excuse it; it wasn’t like missing a leg, or being blind in one eye, things that people couldn’t help. You were expected to want to swim, to know how. Thinking this made him want to punch Aaron, or the windshield, or the dash, while at the same time it made him want to curl up in a rough blanket in the back seat.
But he was stuck on the picture. On Suzanne’s white shoulder and the clear green water it was in.
That clarity went down all the way to the black bottom, where the muscles of the water would drag him down, the body of the water much bigger than him, and somehow this strength was connected to the rush of storms through the trees above his trailer—the hail, the pelting rain, the wind that cracked branches off—the vast willpower of nature that was never visible in any one place, it’s source unclear. That frightened him, that the rush of the great storms held all the power of the world in it, and that this power would be drumming down on his small trailer, and ripping the branches from the trees all around him, and if it decided to do anything more, it would lift him right out of the woods and fling him down the hill into town. The sky would be dark, and there was nothing visible above it.
He knew of the world’s power well from the logs he cut all summer. He knew this from the enormity of the machines they used to haul the logs. In the beginning, when he had just started the job, the trees were just trees, they were tall masses of trunk. But increasingly he became impressed by their weight as he sat on the flat hard surface of a stump and leaned his hand on its hard flat plane. The impression of its weight and impenetrability for some reason always lodged itself in his spine, right in the middle of it, where he had once landed hard on a stone during a camping trip, and felt how his back had almost snapped in half. What it registered there was how simple it would be for one of those logs to crush that spine and immobilize him completely, or how a log could come rolling from its stack, and clip his knee, yanking it out of socket. He began seeing injury everywhere. There was so much weight, so much mass in each log, and though his saw cut through them steady and smooth, he still always looked up with a kind of awe as the claw from the log grappler lifted the logs up on the pile. It did this with awkward ease, the motor skills of a jumpy inhumanly strong monster, but he was constantly aware of how a log could slip free, and squash the man below.
He knew he was right about all this force from watching the footage of the tsunamis on the small television nestled in the corner of his kitchen counter. That was something he followed closely. That was a kind of vindication for him, telling him he wasn’t completely wrong to be afraid: the light rectangles of rooftops washing and bumping into one another as they ran down the street, collecting others and taking them along. Later, boats were laid down in fields, and houses sat slumped in the water, as though they were on their knees.
It used to come up a lot more when Hank was a kid, all those parties at the lake or the public pool or the country club, where the rich kids had their birthdays. But that’s what he liked about adulthood. You could get away from most things you didn’t like, move into your own little chute and glide down smoothly without any major bumps. You didn’t have to confront things if you didn’t want to, and no parent or coach could come and make you do it, blowing his whistle till you jumped in and clung to the sides. You had your routine, your same-old thing, and you could pretty much get it out of your life. All that avoidance did leave a kind of stain on you though, the way a moth leaves a streak of grey on your palms when you clap it shut in your hands.
Some mornings Hank would look out the narrow back window of his trailer and imagine a burning man running down toward him through the pines, screaming and waving his arms, and he’d imagine all the trees jumping into flame, and catching the trailer, and his truck, and everything else till there was nothing left but a flat burnt out area.
Even though there was terror in this fantasy, and he felt his body go up like a dry pine, he always imagined himself coming back, as though his real self had been somewhere else, a few counties over, living the life he thought he should have led. The spot of land in the woods would be rough, black from soot, smoldering in a few places, and he’d rake it flat, and smooth, bending low over the surface, the palm of his hand riding over the soft black earth, until everything was perfectly flat. From this, he might allow some rebuilding. His real self could take it on and do the whole thing over, start at the beginning, and at this part in the fantasy his mind became like a barrel at the town fair raffle that rolled and rolled and spun the tickets inside of its mesh cage, each like a memory where he could have jumped into the shining glittering blue, where he could have fallen free through the cool surface, where he could have looked up or spoken to faces hovering just over him, where no voice reached out to grab and punch the air from his chest, where no boot stepped and bent the shoots coming up out of the ashen forest floor. Everything, for once, could grow back, and no part of him would come in wrong. He’d picked the winner.
He knew this was all fantasy though. There would be no fire like they had in the west, burning out the planes, all that unwanted brush. There would just be his life, as it had always been, and as he so often did, he clenched his hands in frustration over having to change any of it at all. Why did he have to be the one to do it, and why hadn’t he done it yet? Instead of flattening the whole thing, he’d have to crawl through and try to find a way out. And he knew it would take some hurting, or some risk. Maybe not a fire, but a fall.
As though he were bending into it, he knew he’d have to let himself tip into Suzanne’s gravity. Vaguely he knew things might get knocked loose, that the destruction might devastate parts of him before it did any cleaning up, but Hank felt like something out there in the silent darkness of the woods up the hill that was telling him to follow this. It was the same thing that brought the fire down the hill, the presence that he had become increasingly more aware of the longer he was in the forest, of someone watching him, of everyone watching him.
It listened and held the muffled voices of every accuser, every judging face, just as it seemed to hold his own face, turning slowly to look at him, a dark accusation in the expression. There was this long extension cord running its orange tether all the way to the top of the mountain, where it had plugged into this presence as though it were an antenna that he had slowly learned to tap into, that allowed him to listen outward to the rush of the trees, to hear the weather, to feel in the air the coming storms, the force that could whip and snap branches and pull the massive trunks loose. It was the thing that knew where all the power in the world came from, the hill like a dark socket he had plugged into so he would know how to prepare himself, and though it stayed up there and didn’t move, he felt this secret force, this presence speaking to him through its silence, and it was telling him that the day for waiting was over, that he had stepped through all the windows in the calendar, and that today, he had to leave his trailer.
When Suzanne called the day after she had left the picture to give him the directions he took them down with a shaking hand. She was already up there at the lake house, and he could imagine her flipping her hair over her shoulder, standing bent and casual at a counter with a bunch of scrap papers and pens on it, near the phone, wearing a big plaid shirt. “The swimming’s just beautiful,” she had said at one point. When that happened, his whole body began trembling, and that was that for the rest of the conversation. He got off as quickly as he could, and in the silence that followed, felt how deeply he just wanted to stay home by himself in his dim trailer in the cool woods with the blue light from the tarp all around him. He got the strange idea of hugging himself, of taking a cold shower, undressing completely, and curling up in a blanket. He could see himself, his hard belly, and his package shrunken from the cold just barely visible to him beneath his stomach’s hard rise. He envisioned throwing the blanket around his body and holding it in tight, staring out the window at the branches moving slowly and lazily in the light breeze. He wanted to stay frozen like that for a very long time.
This fantasy brought back the image that was always there, that was where his mind began the story. It was the dot where the map started, the trail. On the island in Maine for that year, when he was young, it was all swimming. He had wanted to join, to learn how, was excited and equally afraid of the waves, would wander out into them with his pant legs rolled up, and feel them brush up against his ankles and then go in farther until a larger more violent splash drew him back.
Standing there once, in a new blue bathing suit his father had bought him for the trip, his mother had told him to stop being afraid and pushed him forward in front of the eyes of Bentley, the man she was with, to show that her son was not weak. Bentley had taken to comparing him to his father, who he called “that weasel,” and though Hank had often said, “He’s not, he’s not any such weasel,” Bentley had just repeated it back to him in the winy tone of a school girl: “He’s not any such, he’s not any such.” Hank had been excited to learn to swim, and wanted his mother to teach him, or Bentley even, though he was more afraid to ask him. When his mother pushed him, he had almost fallen in, but found his balance and turned and said, “Don’t push me! Don’t push me!” He could already feel the larger waves rolling in on him.
“Come in Bentley,” he said, and was motioning him with his hand, repeating the motion again and again. “Teach me, teach me!”
“Only one way to learn!” Bentley yelled back, and then once again his mother pushed him, and this time he could not stop himself, and he had fallen forward as his mother charged in next to him, splashing and knocking him farther in. Then it was water everywhere. The waves had taken him and torn him and ripped through his nostrils and shoved his face into the sand. He had thrashed in the waves and only found his way out by knocking, accidentally, into his mother, who fell in the breakers. Together they lay tangled, the water streaming over them, and he clung to her and tried to find the air through the constant crashing and heaving of the waves. But holding on to his mother was not anything for a boy to do, and she kept trying to shove him off. No air was coming into his lungs and no sounds could get out until he stumbled back, raised out of the water, and stood there trying and trying to get the air in.
It was blocked, and he was looking around at the bright beach that he felt was now clearly blocked off by a wall that was suddenly a between him and it. He could not get back in the warmth of it, was stuck in his body, which just moments before had breathed the air and walked easily across the soft hot sand. He was sure that he would never get back in, that his hands, tearing at the invisible sheet, would never break through it. He’d fall back into the water, which would draw him out into its dark folds far past the breakers. Then something small knocked loose inside him through all his waving and tearing, and the tiniest pinprick of air sucked in, and then more and more until he stumbled up and lay on the beach, breathing as much of it as possible, the warm air circling in around him and the fingertips of the waves brushing his feet, and he kicked at them.
“It’s just a little water,” Bentley had said. “You’re not afraid of a little water, are you?”
“Why didn’t you help me?! Hank screamed up at him. “You’re a weasel! A dumb weasel!” And then he felt the stinging slap of his mother’s hand striking his face. He sat shocked for a moment, because she had never hit him. As though the decision had been made for him, he ran up the beach, grabbed his towel from where it lay next to Bentley, kicked sand up at him and then ran for his life. He thought he would be chased, tackled by Bentley’s strong hair arms, his chest getting crush as they fell to the sand, but he wasn’t. Instead, he sat far away from them at the edge of a dune that rose up behind him. He watched the waves and the ocean, saw boats passing almost without moving on the far horizon, and kept thinking of the waves dragging him out, farther and farther out toward those boats, and his body would be a little white fleck of foam moving out in a line toward the deep end of the horizon. Beneath, the ocean would get deeper and deeper, and soon, far out in the middle of it, he would sink down, the current would take him, all of the dark strength that came from somewhere beneath the waves, would pull him down into it and bury him forever.
Then, for a long time, he sat perfectly still, and let the wind blow his hair, as he scooped sand up in his hand and let it drop again. The waves spread up the shore and then back down, and they would do this forever and never stop, as though to show how they couldn’t get tired, how their strength was endless, and he knew that in some fundamental way, he was nothing like them, that there was something weak and broken in him, and when he walked back to his mother and Bentley at their towels on the beach, with the little radio Bentley had brought playing, he would have all of this confirmed.
As he stood in his trailer, his thoughts circled out from this memory and to something else he hadn’t wanted to think of, not consciously anyway, but it was the one thing he knew: that every man Suzanne had ever known, shit, every man she had slept with, knew how to swim. He was the only one who didn’t. And as a man, he shouldn’t be scared of a thing like water—he couldn’t just lie in the shallows as he had done on other occasions, telling his friends he just liked it there.
“Are you afraid or something?” They had always asked, laughing after they said it. And he laughed too, pretending it was as ridiculous as they said, though probably some of them must have known anyway, why it was he never went in farther.
“It’s just the place I like to be is all,” he said, pretending to himself that none of them knew, hating that they didn’t say anything, that their kindness that was actually full of pity, like he was some child, some scared-ass pansy, so that he felt sick the whole time, and wanted to rush out of the water, to find someone to punch, to land his fist right directly in their throats, so they couldn’t breathe, so they’d know how it felt to suffocate, to be cut off from the world.
On the day before of the trip, after getting off the phone with Suzanne and going to work, he didn’t think about the lake except in tiny flashes of terror, like light bouncing over water, and then, to make himself feel better, he pretended he would tell her. The whole thing. She wouldn’t even flinch, would tell him it was the most normal thing. Then together they would walk slowly into the water, float in the shallows, and slowly, he would become used to it there with her, and he might even try a few strokes. The freedom of the open water would be his for the briefest moment. He would fly, and everything in his chest would open up with the strokes he was making. But just as quickly as the fantasy came, the open waters zapped shut, and pulled him down, became endless, empty, and he would be flailing and drowning in them and she would be suddenly a small and distant face in the water, watching him drown with an uncomprehending look on her face.
On the morning of the trip he didn’t think about it nearly at all, stepping into his truck robotically, one leg lifting after the other, then strapping himself in, and turning the key in the ignition. As he drove, the idea was up there in the sky somewhere above him, floating and circling like a hawk, like wind rushing through the treetops. Somewhere in the back of his mind his little fantasy hung on and he thought he just might out and tell her, though he couldn’t quite conceive of the moment. Could he really just lean in and say it casually, “I cannot…” but the words wouldn’t finish. He imagined the various reactions she might have. First, laughing at him. “What, you!? I don’t believe it. No way. Haha. What? You can go into the forest and cut down all those trees but you can’t swim?” The idea would continue to make her laugh, as though he were joking with her, and he would shrink under her derision. Or, she might just see it, she might just say, “Oh, that’s okay honey, let’s just get you in the water then, give it a shot.” But that would almost be worse, her talking down to him like that, and everything he’d have to give up in that moment. He just couldn’t imagine it.
As he drove, the roads were winding and the country got higher and the towns smaller and a kind of greyness came into them. He felt this greyness more acutely than he ever might have before because it was a tense greyness, a tight greyness, the greyness of being alone in a place where there weren’t many people, where the land, the mountains and all the trees that covered them, were bigger than the people. Small town with square storefronts and flat roofs that came and went like a choked breath.
Getting out of the truck at the end of the small dirt drive, he heard voices from above. There were people on the porch of a large log cabin. It looked like families mostly. He knew her parents wouldn’t be there, which relieved him. He couldn’t have her father looking on from the porch, watching him down by the water, avoiding it.
He saw Suzanne emerge from a green door in little cut off jean shorts and stop to see him, wait, then smile across the drive at him, and he remembered how beautiful she was.
Walking up, she spread her arms out to either side, as if she were going to hug the whole driveway, grinned and then looked down, pointed at his legs and said, “You’re wearing your suit! Good!” He had been, the way he always did when he went to events like this, to pretend to everyone that he was there for the swimming. It was a blue suit, with a couple grease stains sustained on the part of the grill he often hid behind. She hugged him, then pushed him along up the stairs through the various family members and friends, the running children, and Suzanne, who very obviously had been drinking, now pressed a cold green bottled beer into his hand. He popped it open and drank from it, leaning against the railing, raising it whenever no words came to him so that soon he had gone through a few. Maybe he could tell her, if he got enough in him, and she had enough in her. It might get him out of it, because he saw that he was just waiting for the inevitable, waiting to go down to the water where the swimming would happen. Everyone was eating, which meant there was no hiding behind grilling and no Aaron to save him.
“Let me show you the house,” Suzanne said. Before he knew it they were in a small room upstairs and she was taking off his shirt and his shorts and directing his hands to do the same to her while the antlers on the walls were the quiet observers.
“Won’t people hear? Isn’t it bad, with all the families here?”
“Only if they find out!” she said, laughing brightly.
“Relax,” she told him. And slowly he did.
In the laziness that followed, he thought he might tell her. She was breathing less quickly and still looking up at the ceiling, as though the images and sensations were still playing above her. He gripped the sheets, began to turn to her, and when she felt this, she turned as well, her face bright, and she grabbed his cheeks and kissed him and then sprang up out of the bed and walked off into the bathroom. The moment had passed, and he leaned back on the bed and looked out of the windows at the mountains and breathed deeply and folded his hands in his lap and tried to get the image of the pond out of his head, the idea of it just down the hill from the house, waiting for him.
Before she came back out, he reached for his clothes at the end of the bed, grabbing his shirt and the pair of worn swim trunks that had never gone deeper than three feet. He got out of the bed and pulled them up his legs, the mesh underwear inside sliding roughly into place. He got his shirt on and stood there, waiting with a small and nervous anxiousness for the bathroom door to open.
Suzanne to came out, tying her shirt in a knot on the side so he could see her smooth white stomach, and just as he thought she would, she said looked up once the knot was in place and said, “Let’s go cool off in the lake, right Mr. Man?” Then she came across to him, out her hand behind his, and kissed him really fully, her mouth hard against his, like she was trying to press herself into him.
By the time they made it to the water he was holding hands with her and he was drinking a fresh beer and they were standing with other men talking about the fishing in the various lakes around town and he thought it wouldn’t even come to swimming. Tomorrow they could go home. But she began to pull him to the water while he pretended to be interested in the conversation. She kept pulling and he entered even farther into the conversation until she yanked him out.
“This way, you big loony!” she said. “Who cares about fishing; they’ll be talking that same old stuff all night.”
“Well I’m interested.”
“Well don’t be. Be interested in swimming. Be interested in me.”
She was grinning in a cute way, and for a moment he saw the younger face from the picture, and remembered that he wasn’t supposed to be scared right now, that a normal man would want to go and swim in the water with her, would like having fun.
“All right, I’m interested.”
He followed her to the beach, which was a break in the reeds where the lawn ended in a sickle shape and changed to earth. “But I don’t feel like getting wet, so I’ll stand here and watch you go in.”
“No you won’t; you’re coming in mister.”
“You are. Don’t be a prima-donna. The water’s wonderful. I want you in it with me.”
He stared at her. She was smiling and had kicked her shoes off and shimmied out of her shorts and now turned and stepped in delicately, like a stork. He knew he should be loving this scene. He liked watching her legs in the water, he liked her, her cheerfulness, but the whole thing was twisting up into a sickness, a kind of hatred of opposites.
He came forward and pulled his sandals off slowly, putting great effort into bending down and getting them from his feet. He followed her in, noticing that the bottom dropped quickly.
“I’m not going any deeper than this. This is as deep as I go.” He was in to his waist, and the water was shocking his stomach.
“You know I won’t let you get away with that.” She had stood next to him but was already moving farther out. She thought she was being cute. She thought she was being like a young girl tempting him in or something.
He could feel her joy in showing him a good time, and he thought he should just do it now, before she forced him in, pushed or pulled, and he lost his footing and would all of a sudden be drowning. She wouldn’t be strong enough to lift him out, not with his big body, and her tiny one. Maybe she’d call for help, and all those men on the shore talking about fishing would have to come and do it, and then what would he have left? Nothing.
“I can’t swi…” he began to say, and thought of finishing it, thought of her accepting it, without saying anything at all, just walking back through the water toward him, leading him slowly in, guiding him. Then he imagined them falling slowly forward into the water, her body under his, her legs kicking, her arms at his shoulders, and her face right there by his, close, her breath near his, paddling out with him, smiling, saying “Good, good,” and then there she was in real life, beckoning him in, “You’re not afraid of the cold are you?” She was smiling and kidding him, and he could see the flash of her beauty when she smiled, and he wanted to move toward it, and took a step farther into the water, but couldn’t.
He thought of asking her for help, of saying, “I’m going to need a little assistance here, this burly man can’t swim,” and making a little joke out of it. “This fat belly is buoyant but not that much. It might just weigh me down. I’m a little afraid here my dear. These big arms of mine never learned to swim, they’re no fins here my dear.” But the words wouldn’t come, he could feel them sticking in his throat as she swam farther out, first one, then two calm full breast strokes before she turned, facing him, kicking away into the cool water. The sunlight was hitting it and sending glistening blinding shots up through his eyes, her hair almost all covered by water so it looked like she was disappearing into it. He could feel his feet on the ground, his toes on the tiny gravel, and he was afraid of taking one step more, because after that step there would be nothing. He had tested it. There was that fall off into the unimaginable blackness.
She kept saying, “Come on, come on in, don’t let the coldness stop you,” and he was biting his tongue, muttering, “Doing the best I damn well can, Jesus,” and she said, “What was that you’re mumbling over there?” and he answered much too loudly, “I said I’m doing the best I damn well can!” and then he felt instantly bad about it, and realized too that she might have picked up on the fact that he wasn’t just struggling because of the cold. He looked up to see her studying him, was afraid of what she saw, and felt his feet slipping on the stones and starting to strike out at the water, pushing himself back even as he slipped farther, leaving the gravel, suddenly kicking out into nothing and she was just watching him, her face furrowed, and looking suddenly old, as a cloud passed overhead and covered her face in the clarity of shadow, and a wild panic gripped him: he was slipping out into nothing, and his big frame crashed backward into the water, flailing, and she began to laugh and it was all he heard through his splashing, and the words, “Can’t you swim, Hanky dear? Didn’t you ever learn to swim?” It was friendly laughter, he could hear that. He could even see in his imagination the kind cheerfulness in her face, but it was laughter nonetheless, at his expense, and he scrambled out, got a tiny bit of footing, and started to pitch small desperate spouts of water toward her, half in jest and half out of anger, saying “What do you know about it?”
He could feel that people had turned to them now, were watching, and he felt like she was aligned with them against him, watching and ready to laugh, and her laughter would rise up and through them. He felt like everything inside him was twisting up, like she was betraying him and not seeing him, and he felt people splashing toward him, as though they were coming to push him in, and he turned at them and said, “Stay away; stay away!” He was pushing the water back and forth in front him, churning it, and they were saying, “We’re just here to help man; we’re just here to help.”
He saw that they had come in to make sure he didn’t fall, that they must have seen his big body in the water, flailing around, had realized he couldn’t swim. They must all know it now, the truth out in the open air above the pond, free to everyone. He wavered, waiting for their laughter, but then he was saying, as though it were the words of someone else, someone who had come to a piece of clarity; “Back the fuck off, back the fuck off, leave me alone, just leave me to it.” And he struggled and stumbled forward determinedly, caught her eyes looking at him, almost like they were afraid and encouraging at the same time, as if they were seeing everything, all he had ever hidden in that one moment, and he felt a cold shiver go through him, like stepping out into sunlight. And then he pushed himself right toward her, his big arms parting the air, his stomach rising in an empty arc of fear as it hit the dark clear green water, breaking it as the cold rushed in around his sides and he kicked at the liquid, aware of something, was it her? was it the air? a shadow high above watching as he struggled to reach her safety.
Matthew Zanoni Müller is a writer and teacher living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He was born in Germany, but lived most of his life in the US, either on one coast or the other. His stories and memoirs have been published in Halfway Down the Stairs, DecomP, Prick of the Spindle, The Boiler Journal, NANO Fiction and others. He also has an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and co-authored a memoir with his father entitled Drops on the Water: Stories About Growing Up from a Father and Son. To learn more about his work, please visit: www.matthewzanonimuller.com
© 2016, Matthew Zanoni Müller