All of us divers stand clustered with our teammates. We’re holding our Sammy’s in front of our penises, praying none of the girls in the stands can see that far. The water’s cold. No, it really is. The temperature in the air is way warmer. The chlorine makes halos out of the lights above, or at least I think it does. Our Speedos are blushingly low-cut and tighter than a cougar’s miniskirt. Hell, you can probably tell our religions. (Unless you’re Tommy Marvis. He’s either related to a horse, or he stuffs his suit. Sadly for every other diver on our team, it’s probably the former.)
The bleachers are also stuffed … with family and friends, not abnormal appendages. It’s hard to see my mom. She’s the tiny Vietnamese lady with the huge glasses. She’s wearing a shirt with a photograph on the front. The picture is of nine-year-old gapped-tooth me staring at the camera holding up my first diving trophy. Thankfully most of the words: Divers do it off a board have faded. Good thing my mom’s English sucks.
The qualifying meet is almost at the half-way point. Time to get mentally prepared. I’ve never done a poll on what divers are thinking about during the 50-yard freestyle (that’s the race right before the diving part of the competition). I’m sure we’ve all thought the same thing at a practice or a meet: don’t whack your head on the board. There’s no wood to knock on, only Bobby Martin’s head, though I haven’t cracked my head on the board since I was thirteen. That’s four years ago. Ages and ages and ages.
Matt Reid walks up to me, nah more like swaggers, and says, “Man, that was the best swim of my life. I’d totally kick your ass, pussy.”
Hey, if you can’t have teammates like that, why have enemies? I give him my fake Asian smile. The one that says “you honor me with your awesomeness”, but means “shove it, you smug son-of-a-bitch”. The truth is that I used to be a swimmer. Before my mom put me in a dozen after-school activities like chess, gymnastics, and ballet (I know, right, I was that kid), she made me learn how to swim. Something about her losing her dad when her family escaped Vietnam by boat, I guess.
Another truth? I wasn’t half bad either. Except, in the beginning I’d get stuck swimming in the slow lane next to the deep end. That doesn’t sound like a problem, I know, however, I used to think that something was going to crawl up from the grate at the bottom of the pool and eat us all. It might have made me swim faster to get to the center lane. Safety in numbers. I’ll never know.
Right around the time I started showing some real promise in butterfly, my mom pulled me out and demanded I become a diver and win Olympic gold. That was during the Sydney games. She had mad wood for Dmitri Sautin. Which was weird on so many levels. Least of all because my mom hates anyone from a Communist country. Unless they’re vying for a gold medal? Anyway, everything he did I had to do. It didn’t happen, and I split my head more times than I care to remember. I still can’t do an inward 2 ½ in the pike position, so what are you going to do?
What that all boiled down to was that day after day, dive after dive, I had to face the deep end. I had to stand on a flimsy piece of plastic and look into the darker water and then plunge right into the danger zone. The stench of chlorine invaded my brain until I couldn’t smell it any more. The ripples swirled on the surface and mesmerized me. The fear subsided. I learned how to dive. Every single time I hit the water I opened my eyes. There was no way I was going to let whatever crawled through the grate get me first. To this day I still open my eyes underwater. It’s safer.
“Diving next is T. Mavis with Rampart High School.”
I remember where I am. Good thing no one tried to punch me while I was off in La-la land. It’s a game we play. Someone starts nodding off or something and we punch them in the gut. I’ve puked more times than I can count because of it. Teammates, I’m telling you.
Tommy does a slightly awkward reverse in the tuck position. I could make a joke about his enlarged member throwing him off-center, but I won’t. We need his points if we’re going to make it as a team to state this year instead of as individuals.
“Good dive, T-man,” I say, clapping hard. Six more divers have to go before it’s my turn.
This makes me seem like a rock star, or something, when I think: The first dive I’d like to do for you tonight, ladies and gentleman, is a back 1 ½ somersault in the tuck position. It’s not my hardest dive -- that’s the forward 3 ½ in the pike position -- but I make it look easy. No lies. Coach Casey once told me that I had textbook perfect dives. Until, you know, I put too much spring in the board and look like a flying penguin, or not enough spring and I resemble a water buffalo. Those are nerves or a shadow passing right under the water that freaks me out and shatters my concentration.
“Next diver is A. Hughes of Rampart High School.” Big applause from the crowd. He’s got like nine siblings. Plus, his grandma lives here as does most of his extended family. Must be nice.
Aaron does an inward dive in the straight position. It’s something to watch if you’re a spectator, but not worth that many points. I wait for him to surface and add my claps to those of the crowd. Divers that I don’t pay any attention to go, while I anticipate them calling my name. That’s when I see her, Zoë Blom. What I’m about to say is going to make me seem even more of a dork after admitting I play chess. Zoë’s the first girl, wait, the only girl I’ve ever loved. Sadder still is that she’ll never know. Especially not now.
Here’s the lowdown on Ms. Blom. Her and her dad came over from Sweden in the late 90’s or something. She was in my gymnastics and ballet classes. I almost convinced her that she needed to start diving with me, if only to see her every single day of the week. Her dad would pick her up in this big old black Chevy Impala. He’d call from the car, “Prinsessa Tuvstarr,” and she’d run to him. They’d rattle off in Swedish and laugh.
She was the most graceful girl I ever laid my eyes on. Even when she sat so still and quiet, I could tell she could move like a piece of ribbon in the wind. She had long, long blonde hair, like Rapunzel, almost the color of starlight. Now, I might be talking her up because I’ve loved her for a decade, or it could be because she’s really that special.
At the beginning of this school year, Zoë’s dad was killed in a horrible accident at the factory where he worked. Zoë hasn’t been the same since then. She used to be a popular cheerleader and super friendly. Now she hides behind thick prescription lenses that aren’t hers (I know they’re her father’s) like some kind of briar patch. She had a boyfriend, but I heard that ended when she stopped calling him back after his fortieth attempt.
Her foster house is down the street from me. Sometimes I walk by late at night to see if her window’s open or her light is on. If I had enough courage I’d throw a rock at her window and tell her that I lost my dad too. I’d call out “Prinsessa Tuvstarr” and she’d wake up from whatever nightmare is keeping her so broken and silent.
“Next diver, J. Nuggen from Rampart High School.”
The worst of it all is that the night Zoë found out about her dad, she took a pair of scissors to her starlit hair and chopped and hacked it all off like some prince cutting through a dangerous forest. Someone must have tried to fix it, but it still looks terrible with the back and sides all uneven. What’s left of her bangs hangs limp, more grey than silver, across her forehead. I stare at her and wonder why she’s at the meet. What could possibly make her come out and sit among so many people? She doesn’t look like she’s talking to any of them.
“J. Nuggen, please approach the board.”
I continue to stare, hoping or praying that she’ll see me. That she’ll acknowledge me in my tiny Speedo. That maybe she’ll wake up at last and remember me.
Julio snaps his Sammy at my chest. “Hey man, are you scared or something?”
I look at him, rubbing my hand against the welt that’s about to rise where the rubber cloth hit me. “What the hell was that for?”
“They called your name like eight times, bro,” he says.
“I didn’t hear anything.” And I didn’t either.
Julio shrugs. “They’re totally butchering names, bro. They called Tommy, Mavis. I think that’s Jay Leno’s wife’s name.”
We both laugh. Julio shoves me towards the diving board. “Don’t smash your face, dude. That’d suck.”
I curse under my breath, not remembering the dive I’m supposed to do. I’m too caught up in the emotions that are stirring inside. When I climb the three stairs to the board, I glance into the crowd, comforted by the fact that Zoë’s still there. This dive is going to be for her. She’s watching, or at least her head’s turned in the right direction. Even though I can’t remember what I’m supposed to open with, I walk with confidence.
As I adjust the level of spring in the board with my foot, I decide that it doesn’t matter what I’m supposed to do. I’m going to start with a back 2 ½ somersault with ½ twist in the pike position. That’ll wake her up. It would wake a sleeping dragon.
Squaring my shoulders, I take the first step, then the next, then place the balls of my feet on the edge of the board, back facing the water. I get enough height and pull of the dive. As soon as I hit the water, I open my eyes and stare down at the bottom. Not even Zoë Blom’s going to make me forget about the possibility of a monster in the pool.
When I come up for air, the crowd is cheering. Much more than they did for Aaron, and that makes me grin inside and out. When I climb the ladder to get out of the pool, Coach Casey smacks the back of my head with my Sammy.
“What is with everyone hitting me today?”
“Jake,” says Coach Casey, slit-eyed and seething, “you were supposed to keep your best dives until the end of the meet. We don’t want the competition to know what you can do yet.”
“I don’t see how it matters,” I say, grabbing the towel and wiping the water off my arms and chest (yep, there’s a big ol’ welt). “State’s in three weeks and I’m only 7 points from qualifying.”
Coach Casey looks like he might smack me again. “Okay, Coach Nguyen, I forgot who was running this meet.”
Staring down at the floor, I mumble, “Sorry, Coach Casey. What am I diving next?”
The rest of my dives go off without a hitch. I’m an obedient team member. We’re going to be able to add 150 extra points to our school’s total today. It’s a good feeling. The meet ends and we qualify for state. We did awesome. Everyone’s high-fiving and trying to snap each other’s thighs with twisted towels. It’s a guy thing. (Maybe not the girlie screams when someone actually gets tagged.)
Looking out into the thinning crowd, I see that Zoë’s still sitting in the same section of the bleachers. All the swimmers and the divers head to the locker room. I’m the last one to shower, which is fine by me because my mom packed my bag and the only pair of underwear is some tightie whities that have been dyed pink by something. Hey, I said my mom’s English wasn’t that good. Neither is her reading comprehension because she can’t do laundry for nothing.
Speaking of my mom, I know she’s sitting in my car in the parking lot waiting for me. My mom’s used to waiting for me. In my mind, I can picture her in the car with her Sudoku book. She’ll never know that I’m going commando. I shove the pink undies back into my bag and pull on my red and gold sweats -- our school’s colors. The locker room is so quiet you can hear the water dripping from the shower. Everyone’s left already but me. Sometimes I sit for thirty minutes or longer after a meet thinking about how I could have done a dive better. Today I’m thinking about Zoë.
When I open the locker room door to the pool, I notice that all the lights have been turned off. The big windows are letting in the afternoon sunshine and it glints off the water making the walls and the ceiling seem to glitter. I’m almost too caught up in the mirror-like properties of water to see Zoë. She’s sitting at the deep end, so close to the water’s edge she could almost drink it. She’s wearing some kind of large winter coat. Odd.
I drop my bag with a thunk that echoes across the pool. Zoë doesn’t look up. She removes her dad’s glasses and puts them beside her. Leaning out over the water, she stares at her reflection in the almost still water. I can tell, even from over here, that she’s crying. Her hands reach up to where her long moonlight hair used to hang. They clench in fists and she hits herself on her temples over and over.
Before I can stop her, she falls into the water. Zoë’s lost a lot of weight since her dad died, and there’s the smallest of splashes. If I hadn’t been watching and anticipating the sound, I would have missed it. I expect her to surface quickly. Nothing. Not even the trail of bubbles they sometimes show in movies.
I tear off my hoodie and remove my flip-flops. We’ve always been told not to run near the pool because it’s wet and we could slip and crack our heads open. (It’s always about our thick skulls, isn’t it?) I don’t have time to think about the possibility as I race across the cement to the tiles that line the pool. Before I dive in, I locate Zoë. She’s sunk to the bottom. Right above the grate. No time to think irrational thoughts of monsters.
I take a breath and dive in, immediately open my eyes, and swim to the blurry form at the bottom. The pressure causes my ears to pop slightly. Below, Zoë’s eyes are closed. Her mouth is open, and she doesn’t look like she’s sucking in water. I pull at her coat. It must be caught because she doesn’t move. Panic is setting in. I release more than half of my air trying to yank her by her coat to the surface.
She’s too heavy. I kick hard towards the surface, take a huge gulp of air, and dive back down. My ears pop again. It hurts a little. At least my eyes have grown accustomed to the sting of chlorinated water. When I reach Zoë, I fumble with the zipper of her coat. When I finally remove it, I realize that she’s filled it with combination locks to weigh her down. That solves the mystery of where all the girls’ locks went.
At this point, what’s left of her is dead weight. I scissor kick up, pushing her in front of me. When our heads surface, I inhale loudly, waiting for her to do the same. Tiny droplets of water line her closed eyelashes. Her lips have gone a strange bluish color and dark bruises stand out under her eyes. I swim to the ladder, keeping her head above water.
If I thought swimming with her was hard, then lugging her soaking body out of the pool is a thousand times harder. The muscles in my thighs burn, but I manage to get her out. I roll her on her side, hoping any water she’s swallowed will pour out. She’s still not breathing.
My mom, in all her wisdom, also saw fit to get me into CPR classes. Only, resuscitating a dummy is infinitely easier than trying to save a real person. The one person I’ve loved for far too long without saying anything. Trying to remember every step, I put my finger in her mouth and sweep. There’s nothing in there.
I turn her to her back and use her chin to tilt her head back. Rivulets of water pour down her cheeks like tears. I put my ear to her mouth. Still no sound of air rushing in and out. I reach her wrist with my shivering fingers. Her skin’s got the same bluish hue of skim milk, but I find a pulse. Weak and sporadic.
“Wake up,” I whisper. She doesn’t respond.
I pinch her nose with one hand and hold her chin with the other. Putting my mouth around her mouth, I can’t help but thinking how this moment between us should be so much different. I blow all of my air into her mouth and watch as her chest rises. Waiting for her to do it on her own, I press my two fingers against her chin. Nothing.
I continue to give her mouth-to-mouth for what seems like days. Finally, her body shudders. I roll her to her side and she coughs up water and vomits. Her eyes flutter open and shut, open and shut. A sound like a whimper issues from her, and I’m so glad to see that her lips have gotten some color back.
Rubbing her back, I say, “It’s okay, I’m here.”
Her body tremors in response. She brings her knees to her chest. For whatever reason, she doesn’t open her eyes to look at me. I’m not sure what to do. That’s when my mom comes in. Her glasses are perched on top of her head.
“Jake, that you?” she says, peering across the sun-sparkling surface.
“Yeah,” I answer. “Call 911, My*.”
It’s almost a week before I’m allowed to see Zoë. She’s still in the hospital’s psych ward. I don’t mind. In fact, I’d battle underwater monsters to see her alive and animated any time.
She’s sitting in the chair next to her bed. The hospital bracelet on her wrist looks way too heavy. Without saying a word, I take her hand in mine and sit on the edge of the bed. Her lashes flutter and she sighs.
We sit like this for a long time. Long enough for the nurse to come in twice and check on her. She doesn’t say anything to him either. I sneak glances at her appearance and try to match it to the girl I knew growing up. Her hair’s been cut in a pixie style. It suits her. The white hospital gown looks two sizes too big on her. She’s still graceful even though she’s not moving. If I didn’t know I loved her before, I would definitely know it now. I can’t help it, she’s beautiful.
The nurse returns a third time. “Visiting hours are over, kid.”
I nod. As I get up to go, Zoë squeezes my hand. She looks up at me with her blue eyes. I never noticed that they match the dark water of the deep end. I wonder what monsters hide in their depths and decide I’ll slay them all.
“Thanks,” she says.
What I should say is, I love you, but I don’t. She’s not ready for that, not yet. Instead I pull out her dad’s thick spectacles and place them in her hand. Somehow I hope that she knows she’ll have to be strong and live for him now.
I walk to the door and look back. “See you soon, Prinsessa Tuvstarr.”
* My is the closest approximation to the Vietnamese word for mother in English. I also discovered that it was a Frenchman who created the Vietnamese alphabet. Wiki, how I love you. Sometimes. Not all the time.
** One other thing, I totally was the kid who was terrified to swim past the deep end growing up. Instead of monsters, I always imagined real big sharks swimming up through the grate and eating everyone. Imagine, a pool full of blood and the body parts of children. It wasn't until last week that I got over this childhood fear. Maybe. LOL!