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.
Katherine Gehan’s writing has appeared in McSweeny’s Internet Tendency, Literary Mama, The 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.