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 friend, but in the vicinity like a protector. Around.
Now he stood in the vestibule with Doug. Doug handed him a bag printed with the name of a local seafood restaurant: Jamaica Joe’s. And I realized in a rush that the policeman was Doug’s older brother, Officer Fox, equally celebrated by the girls in my school for his appropriate name. Doug had brought his brother dinner because his brother had stayed with me long enough to miss a meal.
They spoke with their heads together, and now Doug did look up at me. His brother was telling him what my mom had done.
I looked away again. The doors into the emergency room were white. The walls of the waiting area were white. The floor was square white tiles with gray specks.
I couldn’t stand it. I looked over at the vestibule. The night was black, Officer Fox was dark in his uniform, and Doug shook his black hair out of his green eyes, piercing even at this distance. He said something to his brother and took a step toward me.
Oh God, weren’t things bad enough without Doug here? I’d thought the shock of finding my mom had drained the life out of me for years to come. But my heart still worked, pounding painfully in my chest in anticipation of what Doug would say to make things worse.
The emergency room doors flew open and banged against the walls before folding shut again. My dad stalked toward me, muscular and fit at forty-seven, his handsome features set in fury. I shrank back into the vinyl seat, afraid he was angry at me.
But maybe he was furious at the world for allowing his ex-wife to sink to this low—or better yet, furious with himself. He had realized on the drive here from the baby superstore that he had failed us. Now he would come to our rescue. Yes, there was the matter of Ashley being four months’ pregnant with his baby, but our family would get past that and he would come back to my mom.
He lowered himself into the seat next to mine. His brow was furrowed in anger, but as he opened his thin lips, I was sure he would utter everything I’d longed all summer to hear.
“You keep this to yourself,” he snarled.
I blinked at him. My brain rushed through scenarios, painting him as the hero, and finally gave up. There was no way he could be our hero when his first words to me were a command to keep things quiet. I stammered, “Keep . . . How . . . ?”
“They’re taking her to the loony bin in Fort Walton,” he interrupted me. “With any luck they’ll dope her up, and she’ll be back at work in six weeks. You want to spread it around town that she’s nuts and ruin her career, go right ahead.”
I tried to hear pain in his voice, sorrow at what my mom had done, remorse for the hand he’d had in driving her to this point. Emotions like these must be behind his unsympathetic words.
But all I heard was anger. Embarrassment that his friends and business partners and employees might dish about him and his tabloid-worthy private life. Fear that my mom would lose her job and he’d have to share the proceeds of his water park with two families instead of one.
“Don’t even tell those little twins, you understand me?” He leaned forward and looked straight into my eyes as he said this. It was the closest his body had come to my body since he arrived. He would not hug me. He would only invade my personal space to emphasize that I’d better not spill this secret to my best friends.
Without waiting for my answer, he stood. “Don’t move,” he barked, not looking at me. I assumed he meant me because I was the only other person in the room. He was already walking toward the vestibule.
Oh God, oh God. He might threaten Officer Fox into promising silence, but he had no idea who Doug was, or how little Doug cared about anybody. There was no threat my dad could make to Doug that would shut Doug up if he thought spreading the news about my mother would hurt me. Doug would think he was ruining my life, but really he would be ruining my mother’s—because even if she started to recover from her mental illness, she wouldn’t recover much if she lost her job and the community’s respect.
I saw all this unfolding in front of me as my dad swung open the glass door to the vestibule and leaned into Officer Fox’s personal space, and there wasn’t a thing I could do to stop it from happening. Doug’s green eyes widened as my dad growled at Officer Fox. I couldn’t make out all of what my dad was saying, but when you can kiss your job good-bye floated to me through the glass, I turned away from the black rectangle of night. I stared at the white doors to the emergency room. My thumb found the chip in my fingernail polish and rubbed back and forth across it. I didn’t need to see it to know it was there.
The vestibule door squealed open. “Zoey,” my dad called. “Let’s go.” He stood alone at the threshold to the darkness. He must have chased Doug and Officer Fox away.
I gestured toward the emergency room doors. I thought he would know what I meant by this. When he raised his eyebrows in expectation, I realized I would have to explain even this to him: that I didn’t want to leave her. I opened my mouth and had no words for any of it.
“They won’t let you see her anyway,” he said. “The loony bin won’t let you see her either. They say it’s to protect you from her, and to protect her from you. To remove her from the environment. They’ll let her call you when she’s ready to see you.”
He was saying what I’d been thinking. I’d been blaming myself and hoping that self-blame was natural in these circumstances but ultimately silly. He was telling me it was not silly. Even the mental hospital thought it was my fault that my mother had done this. I still didn’t want to believe any of it, but I felt myself falling down that slope without anything to grab to save myself, except this:
I whispered, “When I first got here, they told me maybe I could talk to the hospital psychologist about what happened?”
“They don’t need you to diagnose your mother,” my dad grumbled.
“I mean”—I swallowed—“for me? To talk about me?”
He huffed out a sigh and leaned one shoulder against the glass wall of the vestibule. “So now you’re crazy too? You’re not going to a psycho-anything. You see how much good it did your mother. They’ll just give you the drugs that you can OD on later. There’s a reason we call them shrinks. Let’s go.”
I stood, only then realizing how sore my back was and how long I must have been sitting in that seat, staring at the closed emergency room doors. I followed my dad through the vestibule and into the night.
We didn’t have far to walk. He had parked his Benz in a handicapped space just outside the door. The backseat was filled with large boxes with laughing babies on the labels. A high chair, a bouncing swing. I slid into the passenger seat and lost myself in an argument inside my own head.
I did not want to believe my dad was right. My mom had not OD’d on medicine a shrink had given her. She had OD’d on sleeping pills her regular doctor had given her. She had never gone to a shrink, probably because of my dad’s opinion of them. I had overheard him saying something like this to her during one of their fights last spring.
I could have pointed this out to him, but he would not have listened to me, any more than he had listened to her. And though normally I might have obsessed about this point of contention and reviewed it over and over, trying to find a way to present it to him that he would understand and accept, tonight it slipped away from me as if captured by the undertow.
In my mind I was back in my mother’s bedroom at our apartment, trying to fix everything. I was the lifeguard, but I couldn’t give her mouth-to-mouth because she was still breathing, and I couldn’t give her CPR because her heart was still beating, faintly. What could I do to help? When the paramedics arrived, I could tell them exactly what she’d taken. Holding my cell phone to my ear with one hand because the 911 dispatcher had ordered me not to hang up, I walked to the bathroom and found her prescription bottle in the trash. Empty.
“Aren’t you going in?” my dad asked.
I looked over at him in the driver’s seat. He thumbed through the messages on his phone. He’d parked the Benz in front of the apartment, between my mother’s hybrid and my battered Bug. He’d just bought Ashley a convertible Beamer. I drove this ancient Bug because he made me use my own money from working at Slide with Clyde for my car, insurance, and gas. He’d told me before that growing up a spoiled brat was what was wrong with my mom.
“Come to think of it,” he said, still scrolling, “I’ll have to help you. You need to get everything. Even after she’s released, the judge won’t let you live with her. You might not be back here for a while.” Behind us, the trunk popped open to receive all my belongings. He stepped out of the Benz.
I followed him into the parking lot. The apartment building was the nicest one in town, which wasn’t saying a lot. Everyone who could afford a house lived in one, which left the apartments for the transients. Mature palms and palmettos softened the lines of the weathered wooden building, but a huge air-conditioning unit filled the late summer night with its drone, and the scent of the community garbage Dumpster wafted from behind a high fence.
My dad noticed the smell too, nostrils flared in distaste as he stood waiting for me at the front of the car. I wondered why he didn’t go ahead to the apartment. Then I remembered he didn’t have a key. I pulled my key chain from my pocket. Still, he didn’t move. He didn’t know which apartment was mine, after I’d lived here for three months.
An instant of anger at him propelled me forward, onto the sidewalk. I inserted the key into my lock. But now I had to turn the key. Now I had to go in.
My dad was watching me. I couldn’t let him see me hesitate. That would make things worse on my mom, to admit to my dad that what she’d done made her less of a person and worthy of his disdain. I shoved inside and flicked on the light.
At least the apartment was extremely clean, the way I’d left it. It didn’t look like an insane person lived here. But viewing it through my dad’s eyes, the apartment building’s standard-issue furniture made it look like she had sunk low. I didn’t want him venturing farther inside, judging.
I faced him. “Why don’t you watch TV while you wait? I won’t be long. Can I get you something to drink?”
He grunted and stepped outside, reaching into his pocket for his cigarettes—a strange habit he’d taken up last May when the water park opened for the season and he hired Ashley.
I watched him until the door closed behind him, then dashed through the apartment, double-checking that it was neat. As I passed back and forth in front of my mother’s desk in the living room, her suicide note stared up at me, the most obvious crazy item: Zoey, I just couldn’t see doing it all another day. I love you. Mom. If I put it in the desk drawer, I would be putting my mom away. I settled for squaring the notepaper perfectly against the corner of the desk. Again.
In the kitchen I peered into the refrigerator. I would take anything perishable to the Dumpster so my mom wouldn’t have a mess to clean up when she came back. I was surprised to find no fruit, no milk. My mom had cleaned it out already.
In the bathroom I selected all my toiletries, leaving my mom’s. In my bedroom I grabbed armfuls of clothing from my closet and my dresser and shoved them into my suitcases. At first I went for the summer clothes only. Then I pulled out a light jacket in case I was still living with my dad when the nights got cool. As I reached the sweater box under my bed, I stared at the cotton and cashmere, heartbeat accelerating into panic, wondering just how long my mom would be gone, and what she would do in the loony bin all that time, and what they would do to her, and whether they would ever let her out, and whether a judge really would keep me from living with her my entire last year of high school.
The smell of smoke startled me. I hoped my dad wasn’t smoking in the apartment, because my mom was allergic. I shoved the sweater box back under my bed, zipped my suitcases, and hauled them into the den.
The apartment door was wide open, letting the air-conditioning out, making room for the warm night air my dad had just smoked. He stood over my mom’s desk, reading her note with his nostrils flared again.
“I’m ready.” I left one suitcase for him and wheeled the other past him and out the door, hoping to distract him from what he’d already seen. He followed me. I pulled the door shut behind me and locked it. When I turned around, he held his hand out.
I looked up at him, puzzled. “The key? Why?”
“Because you’re a teenager,” he said, “and I’m your father.”
I didn’t like the finality of it, or the implication that I was a wild child who couldn’t be trusted with the key to an empty apartment. But a part of me was grateful my dad was taking charge. I wiggled the key off the ring and held it out to him. He didn’t notice. He was looking at the screen on his phone.
He pocketed my key but kept his phone in his hand as he wheeled my suitcase around to the open trunk of the Benz. After hefting both suitcases inside and slamming the trunk, he opened the driver’s door. He nodded toward my Bug. “You’re bringing your car, right? I’ll see you at home.”
Home. He meant the house on the beach. I hadn’t been back there since my mom and I had left. He had joint custody of me, but I figured we saw enough of each other every day at work. Besides, Ashley had gleefully warned me that if I ever did want to visit, the house was a mess. She was having the kitchen remodeled.
I did not want to follow my dad back there right now. I pictured myself in my old bedroom, staring out the window at the ocean I couldn’t see in the black night, wondering what was happening to my mom. I had stared at white emergency room doors for hours tonight. Panic at what she had done rushed through me like pain to my numb fingertips when I warmed them inside on a rare cold winter day. I could not sit in that bedroom tonight, wincing at my heavy heartbeat. There was just so much I could take.
“Actually,” I said, “if you don’t want anyone in town to know about Mom, there’s a beach party I need to go to tonight, the last blowout of the year. If I’m not there, my friends will want to know why.” The Slide with Clyde employees had thrown beach parties all summer. Tonight’s party was special because today, Labor Day, had been our last day of work. Slide with Clyde had closed for the season. This much was true.
It was not true that my friends expected me at the party. They expected me to stay home with my mom. Some days when I came home from work, she seemed energetic as ever. Better, even. But most days she hardly ate dinner, and she went to bed early. In the last couple of weeks she’d complained that she couldn’t sleep. I’d suggested that she didn’t need twelve hours. Her response was to ask for those sleeping pills from her doctor. Now I wondered whether she’d had suicide in mind all along. I had worried about her all summer, so I’d stayed home from my friends’ parties, not that it had done any good.
Tonight I would go.
My dad nodded absently, sinking into the driver’s seat of the Benz.
“I may be out late,” I warned him. “Is that okay? I know I have school tomorrow—”
He closed the door of the Benz and started the engine, already thinking of someone else.
© 2010 Jennifer Echols