Alone and Not Alone by Kate Gehan

At the club, Clarissa listens to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack on her Walkman and experiments with sitting in different positions to watch her flesh ooze through the lounge chair’s plastic strips. She flips onto her stomach and lets her head drop until her braid, thick as rope, swings down to touch the grass. Beneath the chair, her stomach and thighs squeeze through the open slats, gravity an unflattering force. Nothing could be more difficult than being the age she is now.

Jonathan walks by and snaps her back with the tip of a wet towel. It stings. His teeth remind her of yellowing shells but his wet swim trunks cling to his muscles nicely. All summer he has been teaching her how to dive after swim team practice.

“Watch this,” Jonathan says as he climbs the pool high dive. He positions his toes along the edge of the aqua board.

“Flip!” Clarissa yells.

“Show us how it’s done, Merman!” Jonathan’s friends scream from the water.

He nods, bounces a few times, and vaults high enough for two summersaults before entering the water. Everyone knows he’ll go to a big school in Florida on a diving scholarship if his grades aren’t good enough for an Ivy.

***

Before he jumps, Jonathan curls his toes across the tip of the diving board and forces quick, hyper, breaths until he is nearly dizzy. As he bounces, he takes a few of the longest breaths he can to clear out his lungs. He ignores his friends’ taunts from below. If he holds enough air in his lungs this time, he may go deeper than ever before. Jonathan takes one final gasp, launches himself into a tuck, and after a few spins, he descends.

Once he cuts through the surface, he opens his eyes to the shallow water’s burning chemicals and sunlight. He pulls himself away from it, and his nose tickles with an emerging coldness. Deeper into the darkness, away from rules. This longing to swim like a water creature is a petulant exercise, because of course Jonathan lacks the gills and the webbing. The water changes, becomes murky. A seahorse floats past, up towards the cheery surface.

His organs compress. He reaches a place of depth where paddling is no longer required and he begins to fall like a stone without moving his arms or kicking at all. Teaching his body to do this is important during the planet’s current stage, when communion with the water is still a pleasurable pastime and there is just enough dry land. Jonathan knows this stage will not last forever.

His body desires oxygen at the mitochondrial level and the mighty pressure of the water begins to wipe his thoughts clean. How many minutes has it been? It definitely seems longer than the last dive. Years have maybe passed when he hears singing in the distance—less song than vibration, not something communicated through his mollusk ears. Gargantuan mammals sense life from miles away. Perhaps they feel him in the water now, sinking down to the place where they feed from grasses, and they will welcome him. Jonathan is but a dollop of life in this place and the blackness drenches him now, seeps through his skin in a somnambulistic erasure.

Fingers and toes numb, he convulses involuntarily and instinctively turns his body around before it’s too late. Furiously reversing all of his effort, Jonathan follows the upward direction of the bubbles.

After what seems like another set of years, he wheezes at the glorious surface, beneath the diving board. His friends beckon him to play their stealth attack army game of pretend-drowning in the shallow end of the pool. Jonathan swims over to them, still transfixed by the inevitability of a time ruled by scarcities in a world where nearly everything is afloat. He is not frightened because he is learning the mysteries. The next day, and the day afterwards, his diving will improve and he will decode the songs of the deep.

***

Clarissa claps for Jonathan when he emerges, but he’s too far away to hear, swimming perfect strokes over to the boys pretending to be Navy Seals choking one another. The lifeguard blows her whistle on the shenanigans.

Swim practice begins in an hour and Clarissa decides to head over to the club snack shack for lunch. This summer she has stopped eating French fries with her sandwiches because most of the girls on the team have pancake-flat stomachs, some concave even. She wants to winnow herself into a sharp blade. She imagines executing a dive alongside Jonathan where they slice the water together, perfectly synchronized.

Clarissa sucks in her stomach and almost succeeds in disappearing her little roll of belly fat as she walks by Jonathan and the boys horsing around. Jonathan expertly flicks water at her leg and says something about her “fantastic breath control.” Because her Walkman headphones are in her ears Clarissa pretends she can’t hear, but she holds her breath as long as she can, until the fir trees along the snack shack pathway are blurry and her thoughts become microscopic objects just out of reach, floating off to some larger sea.


 

KGehan

Katherine Gehan’s writing has appeared in McSweeny’s Internet Tendency, Literary MamaThe Stockholm Review, Sundog Lit, Split Lip Magazine, People Holding, Whiskey Paper, (b)OINK, and others. She is nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel. Find her work at www.kategehan.wordpress.com and say hello @StateofKate.

How I Learned My Name by Sandhya Acharya

The kids in my kindergarten class would already be on the second page of their assignments while I was still remembering the letters to my name, Gobind Lambodhar Banerjee, which contained half the stinking alphabet. In third grade, I insisted people call me Gollum.

Overnight, from a freak, I became the cool kid. It was a bit strange at first. The scrawny brown boy in a class full of white kids being called Gollum seemed a bit offensive. But it gave me an identity, made me stand out. I walked around calling girls “my precious”  and they didn’t even mind. They giggled and locked hands with me. Gollum had struck gold.

My mother she still called me Gobind. She stressed each letter and ended the D emphatically. Sometimes she’d add an “O” and call me Gobindo. The “O” would trail on the air like the lingering scent of a skunk.

One day my friend Sara called and asked to speak to Gollum. Confused, Ma explained to Sara what my real name meant; ”Gobind or Govind like the the God Krishna. The blue one, you see.” I cringed. Did she really say that? I felt flushed, more red than blue. Sara laughed when I took the phone. She teased, “Gollum, are you a God?” I didn’t eat the lunch Ma sent to school for days. She made fish curry, samosas, even Mishti Doi one day. Staying away from Mishti Doi, that creamy, milky, sweet concoction, was hard. But I did. Food was a powerful tool, and I used it against her by rejecting what she made.

After I began middle school, she stopped packing my lunch three days a week. Instead, she slipped a few dollars into my hands and said, “Go have fun! Eat what you want.” It was liberating. I got ready by myself in the mornings while she made her tea, pounding the ginger and cardamom patiently. She would stand by the door, steaming cup in hand, stealing glances of me while I put on my shoes. In the evenings, two days a week, she drove me to piano lessons. She made me go, no matter how many jarring, off-key notes I played.

When I turned sixteen, I could drive myself to classes and back in our old red Corolla. I managed my own schedule—friends, library, school. I was on top. Though I’d given up piano by then, I excelled at debate and swimming. I would have no problem in getting into the college of my choice.

I didn’t see Ma much on weekday evenings then. She said she’d joined the gym. But when I studied at night, her light in the bedroom stayed on. When I came out to go to the bathroom and get ready for bed, she’d walk into the kitchen for a glass of water and to ask if I needed anything. Once, when I came back late at night from my swim meet in another city, I saw her peep down from the window. I groaned and braced myself for the questions, but when I walked in, I didn’t see her anywhere. Just a plate on the table with my dinner. It was then I realized I wouldn’t have minded her sitting across from me, asking how my day was.

A few weeks after that lonely night came my graduation. The phone rang while Mother got ready upstairs. My old friend Sara called to see if I was ready. I was supposed to ride with her. I apologized, and said things had changed, and that I’d see her at school. I bounded up the stairs and found Ma. She looked beautiful in pink tussar Sari.

“I’m ready to go if you are,” I said. As she looked at me surprised, I asked, “Can I drive?” She hugged me and patted me on the back. Before we left, she lit a lamp in front of the deities and  dragged me to the kitchen. She pulled out a little pot stored in a corner of the refrigerator and handed me freshly made Mishti Doi, which I promptly ate. The sweetness stayed in my mouth the entire two miles to the school. She held my hand while on the road for a brief moment and then mumbled “sorry” before breaking into a sheepish smile. That smile passed away too fast.

The auditorium was full by the time we arrived, so I ran to join my friends. Ma found her seat. Dozens of parents sat proud and beaming, ready to cheer their children. From the stage, Ma’s pink Sari stood out in the crowd.

The roster set on the podium, and the announcer Mr. Ross was about to start. I ran to him. He nodded, scratching and rewriting on his paper. When it was my turn to do the walk, my friends looked around surprised when they didn’t hear the familiar Gollum. Mr. Ross instead, very adeptly pronounced the words Gobind Lambodhar Banerjee. I heard Ma clapping loud from her row. I could see her tearing up as she mouthed the words, “my Gobind.” I grinned, waved her a kiss, and murmured “my precious.”


 

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Sandhya Acharya grew up in Mumbai, India and now lives in the Bay Area. She worked as a financial professional and loves to dance, run, and be Mom to her young sons. Her articles have been featured on NPR (KQED), and in India Currents and IMC connect. She blogs at www.sandhyaacharya.com.

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