Every strong swimmer has a story about nearly drowning. This is mine:
Late one June afternoon I was driving home from my summer job at my dad’s water park, Slide with Clyde, when my phone rang and Brandon’s name flashed on the screen. He knew I never answered my phone while driving. And everybody working at Slide with Clyde today had heard that my dad had gotten Ashley, the twenty-four-year-old human resources manager, pregnant. That meant all my friends knew, because I’d found Brandon a job there and my entire swim team jobs as lifeguards, all seventeen of us—everybody but Doug Fox.
My dad had left work a little early—to tell my mom before she found out from another source, I guessed. So if Brandon wanted to talk to me now
, it must be important. Maybe it had something to do with my parents.
I parked my vintage Volkswagon Bug in the courtyard outside my house, between my dad’s Benz and my mom’s eco-friendly hybrid, and cut the engine. The Bug had no air-conditioning. The Florida heat had been bearable while I was damp from swimming and the car was moving. But my bikini had dried underneath my T-shirt and gym shorts. The sun beat down. The heat crept through the open windows like a dangerous animal unafraid of humans and settled on my chest.
I picked up my phone and pushed the button to call Brandon back.
“Zoey,” he said.
“Hey, baby. Is something wrong?”
“Everything!” he exclaimed. “You’re going to kill me. You know how I was telling you at lunch about Clarissa?”
“Who?” I’d been distracted when I talked to him at lunch. I’d just learned the latest about Ashley.
“Clarissa? The brunette who works at the top of the Tropical Terror Plunge? She’s in college. You told me I should ask her out anyway.”
“Right.” I couldn’t believe he’d called me about this. We’d become friends because I was a good listener, and I gave him advice on his girl troubles—but surely he knew this was not the time.
“Well, I asked her out, and she said yes. But then her big sister came to pick her up from work, and Zoey
. This chick was on fire
. I don’t know how much older she is than me. She might have graduated from college already. That’s kind of a reach, even for me. But I could go out with Clarissa this once, give it a few weeks to cool off, then try her sister. What do you think?”
“I think you’re jailbait.”
He laughed shortly.
In the silence that followed, I heard how mean my comment had sounded. True but mean. I could not have a friendly conversation right now.
“Brandon, can we talk about this later?” I asked. “I’m sitting outside my house, and I think my dad is inside telling my mom about Ashley.”
“Oh,” Brandon said. He sounded like he’d really forgotten about the rumors at work today. “Are you scared?”
“I’m . . .” I stared at the front door. “No, I’m used to the idea. Everybody’s been talking about my dad and Ashley since the park opened in May. I’m more relieved that I don’t have to be the one to tell my mom.” I held up my hand and admired how perfect and smooth my manicure looked against the ancient steering wheel. “That’s awful of me, isn’t it?”
“Zoey, you could never be awful.”
With that one sentence, Brandon melted my heart all over again. He was a player, but he meant well. Deep down he was truly a sweet person and a good friend, and he knew how to make me feel better.
I ended the call with him and stood up in the courtyard. Sure enough, my parents’ voices reached me even here. I’d hurried home so I could support my mom through this. Now I wished I could unhear them screaming betrayal and divorce at each other. I’d sat on the edge of my seat up to the climax of this movie, but now that I knew it wouldn’t have a happy ending, I didn’t want to see.
Instead of going inside, I scooted around the side of the house, ripping off the T-shirt and shorts over my bikini as I went, kicking off my flip-flops, pulling the ponytail holder out of my hair. I hit the beach running.
A dark storm gathered on the horizon. Usually my beach here along the Florida Panhandle was gentle, only soft white sand underfoot, protected from sharp shells by the sandbars in deeper waters. Today the wind was full of sand, stinging my legs. Way down the beach I could just make out the red flags flying in front of the hotels, warning about strong surf and undertow. The flags were for tourists. They didn’t mean me.
I splashed into the ocean. The water was warmer than the air. It soothed me, flowing under my suit and across my limbs. The waves were high with the coming storm, but I was stronger than they were. I swam straight out over them, into deep water, purposefully tiring myself out. If only I could sleep tonight. A long way from the beach, I performed a flip-turn against an imaginary wall and swam back toward shore.
A wave crashed over my head, taking me by surprise, forcing salt water into my mouth, pushing me down. Cold jets curled around my ankles and towed me along. My knee skidded across the bare sandy bottom of the ocean.
I kicked toward the surface—a few massive kicks that took all my strength. If I reached the surface and stayed there, I could skim along the tops of the waves, stroking parallel to the beach until I escaped the current that wanted to drag me under and out.
I popped into the cold air. Just as I sucked in a breath, another wave plunged me under. In the roar I coughed water and strained against the urge to breathe more in. I tumbled along the bottom.
With strength I didn’t know I had left, I pushed off the bottom, propelling myself to the surface. I would glide through the water, pop into the air again, take that breath I’d missed.
The surface wasn’t where I thought it would be. I couldn’t fight the urge to breathe the ocean. That was when I realized I was going to die.
The ocean tossed me into the air like trash.
I breathed deep and long, already paddling before I hit the water. I knew the current would take me again soon. I didn’t waste my breath screaming. The beach was empty. No lifeguards patrolled this private section. Signs warned SWIM AT OWN RISK . Even if someone had come to my rescue, it would have been another foolish swimmer without a float. Both of us would have gone under, and it would have been my fault. I was the lifeguard.
I swam until I couldn’t swim anymore. Then I kept swimming.
Finally I escaped the current, stood upright on the bottom, waded to the shore, collapsed on the beach just as the storm broke over me. The rain beat me into the sand and seaweed.
I lay there for a long time, eyes squeezed shut against the raindrops, breathing. It was over. I thought only of myself, so thankful to be alive. I walked home in the cold rain.
But three months later, when my mom attempted suicide, I would look back on that afternoon as a warning. On coming home from work and hearing my parents argue, instead of escaping into the water like a troubled teen, I should have stayed and supported my mom. If I’d taken better care of her when she needed me, I could have prevented everything.
A TINY CHIP HAD APPEARED IN the pink polish at the tip of my pointer fingernail, where it was most noticeable. I rubbed the pad of my thumb across it, hoping no one would see it before I could fix it. My mom had always stressed to me that outward appearances were important. Strong personalities would challenge you no matter what, but you could repel the weaker people who might take a swipe at you by presenting yourself as moneyed, stylish, organized, together.
From across the emergency room waiting area, I heard a familiar voice, though muffled—a voice from school. I looked up from my fingernail. Doug Fox stood in the vestibule, framed by the black night outside.
Doug was hot, with black hair that never streaked in the chlorine and salt and sun, and eyes the strangest light green-blue, exactly the color of the ocean here. They were mesmerizing, framed by long black lashes in his tanned face. I could see why his eyes were famous among the girls at my high school. A boy with an ego as big as Doug’s didn’t deserve eyes like that.
I had a lot of classes with him this year. He was on the varsity swim team with me. And he hated me. He was the last person I wanted to see right now, when the doctors had told me my mom would live, but I didn’t know what would happen next.
Instinctively I ducked my head—which would do me no good if he looked in my direction. My hair wouldn’t drape forward to cover my face. It was still pulled back in the ponytail I’d worn home from work a few hours ago, when I’d walked into the eerily quiet apartment I shared with my mom and found her. Anyway, Doug and I had known each other forever. He would recognize me instantly. My hair in my face would not save me.
But he wasn’t looking at me. He talked with the policeman who’d responded first to my 911 call, who’d stood awkwardly in the apartment while I sat on my mom’s bed and held my mom’s hand until the ambulance came, and who had not abandoned me. My dad had been half an hour away in Destin, shopping the Labor Day sales for baby furniture with Ashley. He’d arrived only fifteen minutes ago and had burst through the hospital doors in front of me, into mysterious corridors that were off-limits to a minor like me. All this time, the policeman had sat with me in the empty waiting room. Or, not with
me, but across from me. Not close enough to converse with me or comfort me like a fr...