Aqualair

Aqualair by Jen Scholten

Illustration and short story by Jen Scholten

I fell into a pool when I was young, as I fell into so many bodies of water in my youth. I was born on the water too, like you, Lidia, except I can’t reflect on a moment of your literal near drowning — I don’t remember you writing that in. Two moments I almost met my demise in the water, one real and one I can’t tell to this day if I imagined or not.

I have the same reel in my head each time I visualize these. One is full of light and color, the other more somber and dooming; backlit with a warm, enigmatic glow. Like the light of a sauna.

Once, I remember working on some house with my father and sister  — or maybe we were just visiting a family friend. Visiting and carpentry went hand and hand for him as he was a great multi-tasker and conversationalist. I always loved to hear him talk to other adults. His gruff voice illustrated his enthusiasm for people and connection. He always brought us to the water, so back to that — maybe he was building a dock, I can’t remember.

I know that it was a house at the edge of a lake, my sister and I were at the indigoed body. In my mind, this image is always from a third-party eye. Some very tall, or even floating being looks on at our two little girl bodies teetering on the dock, my father busy in conversation or work, or both. It’s confusing — you see, what is always clear are those two little girl bodies, color in the water and light in the air. Everything else there plays a random part each time I think of it.

I wondered at the water; gazing, touching. Peering in, I began to drift and my spirit crept outward. I was no longer a young shell and all sense of age became vacuumed from me.

I felt a little hand on the small of my back, so I stumbled and gravity swallowed me in. I don’t remember penetrating the water, so skip that imagery completely. I am underneath, sinking to the algae and stones on a lazy gravitational pull. Waiting.

I spent seconds that seemed like hours on my way to the bottom. I wasn’t even wet. My clothes and hair had not bothered with the dampness somehow. I wasn’t cold. I didn’t feel frightened. I actually don’t remember feeling anything, just thinking on the quiet. After a while, some large shadowed figure grabbed my waist and as two whole hands cupped around me, I was rocketed up and out. Almost.

When I reached near the surface some transparent barrier, like saran wrap, resisted me. My face smushed up against it and I couldn’t breathe. I don’t think anyone noticed this small rejection though, the commotion must have been too much. The struggle made me choke and spit. I can see my face now from the third-party eye, I look like a fool. The resistance wasn’t drawn out, it lasted no more than a couple milliseconds probably but this actually did frighten me. So once I was through, I started bawling like a newborn baby. Jesus, I was only five or something.

But that’s where the image ends. It was my father that saved coughing, spitting drooling me with a few nervous pats on the back. And I use saved loosely as a placeholder. There’s a different word that goes there.

A few years later I am in the water again at a pool on one of our only family vacations. Thinking on it, I have a hard time understanding why I was swimming alone so far away from others. And I don’t remember my family being there. At one point I was inching toward the deep and underestimated the drop off line that I would normally tease my body along. Instead of turning back, I kept going

Underneath, it’s what you’d imagine. Everything is aquascreened through my burning sight. I sink like a stone and my back bumbles down the white, tile hill. Riding a black swimmer’s T low, I’m looking up at the depth I’m in, matching black numbers naming it. They don’t seem accurate. Then my eyes move above toward the darkness, a shifting glass veil distorting what lies beyond and certainly ahead.

My father was a diver and would often tell me stories of him diving. He said the navy made him hold his breath for two whole minutes at a time. So I thought I could. I challenged the darkness above but soon enough my little lungs began to burn and I panicked. I looked around, everyone was so far away. I screamed for help in vain, but swallowed my cry back. With an exhale, it reappeared a milky, octopus ink; a growing fog in front of me. I felt my sight leave in a flicker of warning, so I moved my body as swiftly as I could.

Two sharp legs were jutting out from one edge near the surface, legs like mine. Slowing as I finally approached them I grabbed a foot, then a calf, then hips yielding, free of terror. A shoulder, one more and I’m there. A body in descension as I ascend. I feel a ledge, finally.

I looked back and watched a face sink below, my own paralyzed. Emerald eyes pierced from beneath wildly with a despair that made me bow my head and cry uncontrollably to the ledge, tears melding with the rest of my damp body. Once I could gather the courage, I dragged myself reluctantly up and out.

Rotating on the edge I wormed back to the tile wall. Its cool temperature sent a wave through my spine that lent me forward into embracing my knees. I dropped my head again, focusing the shallow breath hot on my thighs. I couldn’t watch what happened to the her, couldn’t bear it. Guilt recalibrated my petrified heart and I mourned us both deep into my leg muscles. After my breath relaxed I drew up my head and opened my eyes, hoping I’d see her.

She wasn’t there waiting at the ledge, catching her breath in a delayed mirror of me. She wasn’t even at the bottom of the pool when I looked over. Then I scanned the room, certainly she was upright, safe and walking around somewhere, but I didn’t see her near the lounge chairs toweling off. She wasn’t in motion heading for the shower. She wasn’t any thing or any where. I gave up looking when I became distracted by the many swimmers still half-submerged, hovering around the length and width of the pool. Each paired with a shadow body beneath them, inching closer, latching on.

Grabbing a foot.
Then a calf.
Hips yielding.
A shoulder.
One more.
There we are.




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