“We Were the Drowners”

Josie Sigler

June 14, 2017 
The following is from Josie Sigler’s short story, "We Were The Drowners." Sigler is the author of The Galaxie and Other Rides & living must bury, which won the Motherwell Prize & was published by Fence Books. She completed a PEN Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Residency & has received a NEA Literature Fellowship & an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. The draft of her first novel recently won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.

It was every Dolphin’s loftiest goal: to be chosen by Jim Yablonski, director of the Downriver Municipal Outdoor Pool, as one of his Drowners. From June to August, Monday through Saturday, we, the ten swimmingest members of the girls’ recreational team, climbed onto our banana-seated bicycles in the first morning heat. We pedaled, streamers flowing, toward the pool at the edge of our neighborhood. We entered the beige brick building that smelled of chlorine and mildew. Tucked behind our locker doors, we undressed. In the showers, we shouted the best songs on the radio, our voices echoing, our suits sucking quick and wet against our new bodies, the dents and swells we hadn’t shown to anyone yet. We reported for duty poolside at seven.

There, waiting for us in the bright Michigan sun, stood the lithest of the Shark boys, ages fifteen to seventeen, who longed to be lifeguards. They Speedo-wedgied, head-locked, and skull-knuckled each other until Jim marched out of his office wearing Hawaiians and sport sandals over bright white tube socks. A staccato screech emanated from the whistle clamped between  his teeth. The boys snapped to attention, thrusting out their chests, sinewing their stomachs.

Jim examined his beloved clipboard.

That morning, Rory Brunhaefer and Casey Wheldon were chosen to go first. They pulled their whistles over their heads and rock-paper-scissored for who got to sit in the lifeguard chair and who would walk the periphery. Casey’s paper beat Rory’s rock—the only way Casey would ever beat Rory, as far as nine of ten Dolphins were concerned.

Casey, smirking, climbed his throne. Jim blew an ear-splitting blast.

And the drowning began.

I was a Drowner all three of my Dolphin summers. By the time I was almost fourteen, I understood the nuances of the job. There was an art to playing dead, performing the perfect accident. You had to make up a story about not only how but why you would drown and  believe it in your guts before you went anywhere near the water. Each boy got just ten minutes to prove his mettle. Thus timing was of the essence if you wanted a particular boy to notice  you. But so was subtlety—if you wanted him to like what he noticed.

Thus we veterans strolled around on deck, chatting and tossing a beach ball as real bathers might.

Lucy Pfeiffer, however, a newbie if ever there was one, threw her scrawny body in the water  and began gulping and thrashing.

Lucy Pfeiffer. Barely twelve and considered pathetic by all. Her dad was the boss at Shyandotte Chemical. Ours was a Shy-Chem neighborhood, so most of us spent dinner listening to our dads complain about her dad. Plus everyone knew that Jim hadn’t originally chosen Lucy to drown. At the awards ceremony the September before, after Jim had given out medals for speed, the coveted Most Valuable and the dreaded Most Improved, he read his list of Drowners. Lucy, unnamed, had burst into tears. Jim felt terrible, so when Charity Tremblay got sick between summers, he called on Lucy to substitute.

Charity Tremblay. Until that year, she had been the most popular Dolphin. She was small and curvy. She had extra-deep dimples and her hair had once rivaled Farrah’s. But you could never hate her for being perfect because she was so darned nice, looked you in the eye and listened when you talked and remembered what you said. We had been friends since kindergarten. In October, Charity started getting enormous bruises on her legs. The gym teacher, worried about what might be happening to Charity at home, spoke to the school counselor the same day the Tremblays called to say gym class was too strenuous.

Leukemia was the doctor’s ruling.

We had known other people with cancer. My aunt. Kerri’s grandfather. A few kids at the high school bore their radiation scars so bravely you could almost forget how their sad faces had looked on the coffee cans that graced the counters of businesses all over town. But Charity. Our leader. The one we secretly wished we could be. This was another strike against Lucy: she wasn’t all that reverent about replacing Charity.

Help! Lucy called out. She spread her arms on the surface and began to float face-down. Casey blew his whistle and shouted, Clear the pool!

He hopped from his perch, grabbed the styrofoam rescue board, and glided toward Lucy. She wound  her skinny arms around him as he hauled her  out, strapped her down, and began to mimic resuscitation.

CPR was not the most important part of our sessions, Jim told us. The boys selected to become lifeguards would take an official CPR course, would perfect their pumping and  breathing techniques on dummies. But learning to swim with another person in your arms? That could never be simulated. A junior high girl was the exact right weight for a high school boy to practice this on. We acted out the CPR part to give the boys a sense of the timing. The trainee would say Air! to indicate a breath instead of breathing into your mouth. When you felt sufficiently rescued, you said, Okay! That was supposed to be the end of it. But after practice in the showers, there was always conjecture about the meaning and tone of a rescue. Especially if a trainee’s lips—perhaps purposely—bumped a Drowner’s lips.

Lucy made Casey lean over her for five excruciating minutes. She even faked a small seizure.

Rory smiled. He’d clearly won out despite choosing rock. He twirled his whistle on its cord around his finger one way, and then the other.

Rory Brunhaefer. Almost seventeen. The Shark who held the record for butterfly.

President of the high school drama club though he was only a junior. The hottest of fiddlers on the roof and ironically a Jet all the way. When the stage lights poured down on Rory—his dark curls, his hazel eyes—the whole world held its breath. Everyone said he would make it all the way to Hollywood. He had taken Charity to the movies several times before she got sick. She reported back to us that he knew everything about the business. Once Charity was off Rory’s roster and a tasteful amount of time had passed, many a Dolphin began to dream of becoming  the woman who would someday ride Rory’s arm in People Magazine.

Lucy was clutching her throat, moaning.

For crying out loud, Linda Peters said. It’s over!

Linda Peters. The coolest Dolphin and our new leader. Unlike Lucy, Linda was aware of her change in status. She hadn’t been in the pool all summer, not even for laps, and sometimes left before regular swim practice. She had outgrown the whole thing, she said. She had taken to wearing a pantsuit and sunglasses, like she was on Dynasty or something. When boys kissed her, she said like it happened all the time, it was the real deal, not part of some infantile game. Jim thought Linda was on drugs, because thanks to the war on them, adults thought drugs were the only problem a person could have. Jim had given Linda a warning: shape up or ship out. It remained to be seen which she would do. During a rescue, if you held out too long, Linda would question any claim that a boy had meant to kiss you or touch your chest. You’d be  socially ruined for weeks.

Seriously, Kerri Tefferini said, tossing her hair.

Keri Tefferini. Everyone called her Tefferini. Tefferini, now second in the chain-of-cool, had an amazing last name and a football star brother also called Tefferini. She was the most paranoid person I knew.

For real, I prepared to quip, but all talk stopped as Rory walked past us on his way to the lifeguard chair.

We readied ourselves for a nice, understated drowning.

Especially me. Consensus had it that I was winning in the race for Rory’s heart. He sat next to me after practice in the Dairy Queen parking lot in the twenty minutes before the high school girls arrived. He dropped by at sunset and sat with me on the porch or helped my dad water the lawn. Unlike the other drama kids, Rory didn’t say much offstage, so I didn’t know for sure what was happening, but Linda said it made perfect sense: Rory and I were both artists. I was going to be a famous writer. Sure, Charity was gorgeous and nice, but that wasn’t enough. Rory needed someone edgy and deep.

Result? I had not been to see Charity since she got out of isolation, even when her mom called my mom and invited me. How could I explain that while she was dying I was stealing her boyfriend?

Rory climbed into the lifeguard chair and put his sunglasses on.

It was almost July. I had not yet fully drowned on Rory’s watch and Lucy’s embarrassing effort provided an opening to shine. So when Jim blew his whistle, I sauntered into the shallow end, letting the cool water surround me. I was careful to avoid dampening the flips I had spent  an hour training into my hair. They would melt as soon as I went under, but until then I had a chance of temporarily erasing what I looked like during regular swim practice—the cap and goggles accentuated my braces and my nose, which I planned to have fixed first thing after Rory and I moved to Hollywood.

Once I was certain that Rory had to have gazed at me as his eyes swept the pool for signs of danger, and before another girl could start the process, I began to sidestroke casually but territorially toward the deep end. With minimal ado, I inhaled, slipped beneath the surface,    and sank to touch the pool’s rough white bottom. I began to count so I could deliver an   accurate report to Jim.

Rory’s whistle screamed.

I felt him plunge in. His blurred but beautiful form moved toward me from above. Once  he was close, in the crystalline water with sunlight pouring through, it was as if God was  holding a magnifying glass to Rory. I could see the golden hairs on his arms, the sharp brown points of his nipples. I closed my eyes. His chest was hot against my back as he gathered and pulled me, stroke by stroke, to the edge. He hefted me onto the stinging concrete and rolled    me onto the rescue board. His hand grazed my hip as he strapped me down. I stared at the sky. He leaned to listen for my breath, which I held—even the folds inside his ear were perfect.

Water trickled from his curls onto my cheeks. He placed his hand under my neck and bent toward me.

Air! Rory barked, nearly deafening me.

He pulled away. He placed his interlocked hands a few inches above my sternum and pumped without touching me. My heart jump-started, anyway, given his closeness.

Air! he said again. I waited five seconds, ten, fifteen. I felt his breath on my chin. I looked into his desert-colored eyes. He smiled. Then, miracle: the curve of his upper lip touched the center of my lower lip, sending a jolt of electricity down into my legs. I almost kicked him.

The angle must have been such that everyone saw. I heard a collective gasp.

Rory raised his head.

Okay! I said. I smiled and sat up, trying to appear unmussed.

Rory held out his hand and I took it. I pulled myself up. I was dizzy with conquest. He squeezed my fingers. I rubbed the chlorine from my eyes and looked at him. But he was not looking at me. No one was. All were gazing gape-mouthed at the building. What else could possibly be so almighty mesmerizing?

I turned.

There in the shade outside the glass doors stood a small girl wearing a red swim cap. She seemed to hesitate, and then walked toward us. I waited for Jim to explain to the newcomer that the pool wasn’t open yet. But the girl was Charity Tremblay, our missing Drowner, minus her old curves and locks.

The drops of water running down my legs seemed to freeze. I saw a shiver pass through Charity, too. Her mother exited the building in her culottes and sunhat and Rory’s fingers released mine.

A hundred eighty-seven, I blurted. A hundred eighty-seven seconds from start to finish.

But no one seemed to hear. Everyone but Linda and me gathered around Charity and said, Welcome back, good to see you, you look great.

Then Rory draped his arm over Charity’s shoulders.

Mrs. Tremblay’s eyes shone with proud tears, just as they had when, after Charity’s second round of chemo had failed, we showed up en masse at the marrow drive with our parents in tow. We bared our veins for the needle. We knew Charity needed a miracle. We wanted to be the miracle almost as much as we wanted to run from that white room.

You made it! Jim said, chucking Charity’s arm.

Charity smiled. Her dimples looked even deeper without eyebrows to distract attention from them. I could see her veins beneath skin that looked like paper against Rory’s tanned arm. Charity was as skinny as Lucy, who also looked she might join Mrs. Tremblay in crying.

Jim took Lucy’s chin, tipped her face up, and said, Don’t worry. I got room for all the healthy girls!

Then, Jim shoved his whistle between his teeth and we swung into action while Charity sat in a white plastic pool chair Rory set up for her. Everyone had forgotten—if they had even seen—what had happened between me and Rory five minutes before.

I looked at Linda, who shrugged. What could we do? Charity was our friend. She hadn’t died. It was great news.

Soon the non-drowning members of the swim team began to arrive and practice ensued.

At ten, the pool opened to the public. The real lifeguards came on duty and moms hauled water wings and coolers filled with frozen Capri Suns onto the deck. While the Tadpoles, Minnows, and Guppies splashed and belly-flopped, we changed and got on our bikes.

We rode past old plants with new names—Shy-Chem used to be Consanto Corp, Bast Chem was Americhem Solutions, and so on—past the refinery, the steel mill, the few mom-and- pop custard places in town. At the Dairy Queen, we tried to wolf down enough food to satisfy our ravenous hunger before the trainees arrived in Rory’s car, a Roadmaster station wagon  given to him by his grandmother when she moved into a home. The car was not-at-all-cool and everyone knew it, but at least Rory had a car, could go where he wanted when he  wanted.

The boys horsed around until the high school girls arrived, the Lady Sharks whose bodies had become too heavy to rescue. Their unbraced teeth, the perfect symmetry of the green eyeliner we weren’t yet allowed to wear and which kept them in the locker room for twenty extra minutes so we got the boys to ourselves also made the boys forget us. Our boys were just a game for them. They only dated guys who had been Sharks when they were Dolphins. Yet our boys opened the hood of Rory’s car and squinted into its bowels. The Lady Sharks tossed their flips. They turned the radio on and up. They did not wait for the boys to choose. They flung their arms around the boys they wanted and danced to the best songs of the summer.

Even Linda turned into a gawky nerd in their presence. Thus we usually headed back to the pool where we could realign ourselves with the Guppies for the afternoon. While the Sharks sometimes snuck back in after the pool closed, they never came to Open Swim. Thus, we could cannonball, duck each other, and scream Marco Polo without destroying our images.

The day of our ill-fated maybe-kiss, I had just sucked up the first bit of soggy cookie from my Oreo Blizzard into my straw when Rory’s car pulled into the Dairy Queen.

And who was in the front seat? Charity Tremblay.

Rory opened the passenger door for Charity. He helped her out of the car. Charity had changed into a sundress, but she was still wearing her red swim  cap.

I sunk onto the bench at the table with the other Dolphins. Rory walked over to the window to place their order, and Charity looked lost for a moment. Then, she headed toward us.

It’s a pity date, Linda whispered to me. He obviously likes you.

Or, Kerri said, it’s because of the whole donor thing. Maybe Lucy’s right. You really can’t fight fate.

With this Kerri revived the topic that had been on everyone’s lips from the time of the marrow drive until Rory started showing interest in me at the beginning of summer. When Charity got her marrow-miracle, the person who matched had asked to remain anonymous. For weeks I looked into the faces of my neighbors and friends, wondering which of them was the selfless hero. I never considered that it might be one of our group. In December, during a Friday night sleepover at Lucy’s house which our parents made us go to, Lucy shared her theory: Rory was Charity’s match. It was the perfect teenaged cancer love story. Anyone could see that. And if this was true, Rory was hers forever.

Besides, Kerri went on as she licked her cone, I’m telling you, the stuff’s contagious. I know a kid at Benton who says there are four cases at his school, all from the same class. I’m not going anywhere near the pool if she does.

Tefferini, I began, wanting to tell Kerri she was being ridiculous, but Charity had arrived at our table.

Hey, she said.

It was more a question than a greeting. It was clear, somehow, that I had to be the one to invite her to join us.

Have a seat, I said.

She sat. She looked at each of us in turn and then cried, You guys! Tell me all about your lives!

When I considered my life, I could think of only two things: first, how I used to be afraid of the Connelly’s German Shepherd, Duke, and Charity always walked past their yard first on our way to school and never made fun of me about it. Second, the night I learned I was not the one who could save her. How I lay in my bed feeling a rush of relief because I wouldn’t have to offer up the wing of my personal ilium for the drilling.

Rory saved us from having to answer by walking over to deliver Charity’s Butterfinger Blizzard. He started to say something, whether to me or Charity I couldn’t tell, but just then a gang of Lady Sharks arrived at our table to fawn over Charity. One even stroked her swim cap.

They had never paid attention to her before. But now one Lady Shark pulled back her coppery flips to reveal the small red radiation scars at her temples. She slapped Charity five.

Charity was back to being Dolphin number one.

For awhile we tried to go to Charity’s house in the evenings and hang out like everything was normal. But it wasn’t the same, given Linda’s glowering and Kerri washing her hands every five minutes and my anxiety that Rory would drop in. We couldn’t do our hair for obvious reasons. We couldn’t try on clothes because Charity’s clothes didn’t fit her. We couldn’t talk about boys because that would mean talking about Rory. We usually watched a video until Charity fell asleep on the couch, which happened long before the rest of us were ready for sleep. The others tiptoed out the door and rode home. I usually stayed longer.

Once during this time she lifted her head, and as if still in a dream, said to me with a sigh, I just wish it was like it used to be.

It was the only time in all the years I knew her that she came even close to issuing a complaint about her lot.

When her mom came to wake her and walk her to her bed, I went home to find my porch empty. Rory didn’t come anymore. And he sat with Charity at Dairy Queen.

The following day at the pool Charity would apologize, saying, I’ll feel like myself again soon!

It didn’t seem possible. But soon wisps of hair began to appear at the edges of Charity’s swim cap. Then she switched the cap out for pretty scarves. She left her white plastic chair to sit on the edge of the pool. She dipped her legs, pretending she might slip, providing an excellent distraction to the trainees.

She’s getting her figure back, Linda said, not even trying to hide her jealousy from  me.

We were deep into July and Linda still hadn’t drowned, nor had she gotten in the water during practice. I sat off to the side with her. I had stopped drowning as part of my plan to ignore Rory until he graduated. We hadn’t talked in weeks. How could he let me go so easily?

Yeah, I said, looking down at my own hips, knowing that Rory was likely comparing me to Charity.

Linda made a face at Charity’s back and scratched her eyebrow with her middle finger.  Jim, who happened to look up right at that moment, marched over and pointed at Linda, then at me, and blew his whistle. Hard.

In the pool, he said, stabbing his thumb at it. Now.

Everyone was watching. Everyone probably knew why I was moping. It seemed far less embarrassing to go along with Jim than to resist. I walked toward the pool. I didn’t pause at the edge. I just let myself fall in. I decided I’d make Rory think I was drowning and rescue my own self. Proud of this plan, I surfaced to see Linda was still standing against the wall with her arms crossed and her eyebrows raised.

I’m going to have to let you go, then, Jim said, clearly thinking this would change Linda’s mind.

Fine, Linda said.

She stood and stalked toward the women’s locker room. The glass door swung wildly behind  her.

Jim pressed his lips together and shook his head. You could see him thinking it: Drugs. I pulled myself from the pool. The pavement was hot against my feet. I walked into the locker room. Jim didn’t stop me, perhaps deciding it was better to have one kid talk another out of taking drugs. Linda was sitting on the wooden bench, her face in her hands. I sat down next to her and put my arm around her.

Linda, I said. I bent to try to look her in the eye. What? she said, keeping her face covered.

Just let it go, I said. It’s not so bad to be you. I mean, look at Lucy Pfeiffer. You could be her.

It’s not that, Linda said through her fingers. What, then?

She kept crying.

Linda, I mean it. Just get into your suit and go out there and get in the pool. You’ll feel better.

At that she yanked her hands away from her face and stood as if to say Oh, yeah? She ripped off her light yellow jacket and threw it on the floor. She pulled down her pants and kicked them aside. I stood looking at her arms and legs, which were covered with dark bruises the size of grapefruits—maybe a bit smaller. But everything cancerous, I learned when my aunt was sick, is relative in size to a grapefruit. The bruises actually looked more like bullseyes, deep red in the center, black at their edges.

Oh my God, I said.

Yeah, she said, her voice echoing against the tiles. I held Linda, let her cry in my lap like a Minnow. Don’t tell anyone, she begged.

We have to, I said. Look at Charity. She got better. And you’ll get better, too. My family’s not like Charity’s, Linda said.

I knew as well as anyone that Mr. Peters had a girlfriend and a wife. So I promised. Linda and I headed to Dairy Queen together, where we shared a banana split.

You know, Linda said through a mouthful of whipped cream and cherry, I’ve…I’ve never even been kissed. I’m still jealous about you and Rory.

Don’t be, I said. It was nothing.

Yeah, but I’m going to die without kissing anyone, she said. Then she straightened her shoulders and added, I accept it, though. It’s easier to just accept things.

I guess, I said, thinking of Rory.

We spent the rest of the day riding our bikes up and down the streets of our neighborhood like we had when we were Guppies. After we parted ways, I doubled back toward the pool. I was relieved to see that Jim’s Valiant was still parked out front. I let myself into the building and went to his office where I stood before him, broke my promise, and told him about Linda’s bruises.

You saw them? Jim asked, clutching his whistle. They looked just like Charity’s, I said.

I sat with Jim while he called Linda’s parents and told them what I had seen. She was going to be furious with me. Jim called Mrs. Tremblay, too. He thought the Tremblays might be able to give the Peters some pointers. Jim always talked as if he were coaching someone.

Jim added, Mary Peters has had a rough time of things…

He drifted off, not wanting to say anything bad about Linda’s father in front of me. Then he said, I know. With any chance, it will turn out to be nothing. But if not…well.

We can only hope the magic Charity and I had will happen for Linda, too.

I was stunned. Jim was was the one who had saved Charity’s life. He was her match.

Which meant…Rory wasn’t. So theirs was not the perfect teenaged cancer love story. And I was potentially the worst friend on Earth for even considering this at that particular moment.

Yes, yes, Jim said, Will do.

With that he hung up the phone.

You did the right thing by telling me, he said. Sure, I said, and went  home.

Linda was diagnosed three days later.

Two weeks later, Lucy Pfeiffer’s nose started bleeding during another life-saving session with Casey. Jim pressed a towel to her face, and when he drew it away, it was saturated. He told Casey to call 911. As the sirens approached, I stared at the bright tendrils of Lucy’s blood that floated lazily in the sparkling turquoise water.

The day we got word about Lucy, I stayed after practice and sat in Jim’s office, unable to go home and face my empty front  porch.

Jesus, Jim said, running both hands through his orangey high-and-tight, If cancer was Christmas bulbs, we could decorate a tree.

I snorted. He always said things like this.

They call it a cluster, he said, when there’s an epidemic. Yeah? I said.

On sitcoms and soap operas only one character got cancer, and that character was the cancer character. Everyone else was guaranteed safety. Especially the faithful friend. The spurned lover. The messenger.

We were gathered in the locker room the next day when Kerri started the whole business about contagion again. She wouldn’t get into the pool while Charity was in it, wouldn’t sit on a bench if Charity had sat on it.

Think about it, Kerri whispered. She comes back, and right away Linda comes down with it, and then Lucy.

The others nodded.

Tefferini, it’s scientifically proven not to be a germ, I said. It’s just a coincidence.

We have to tell the boys, Kerri said. We’re swimming in the same tainted water. They should be warned. And you, Kerri said, pointing at me, should warn them.

Me? Why me? I squeaked. I don’t even believe it.

You’re the one Rory really loves. Maybe he’ll listen to you.

I had been looking for an excuse to talk to Rory, anyway, to put the whole thing behind us and reclaim some dignity. Any drama would do, I supposed. So while the others went to Dairy Queen, I waited for the boys to come out of the building.

When they did, I stopped Rory and said, Can I talk to you? Ooo-ooo-ooo, the other boys wailed.

Rory tossed his keys to Casey and sat in the grass with me as Casey gunned Rory’s engine and drove off with the rest of the boys making dirty gestures out the windows.

Rory looked into my eyes. I had forgotten how nice that was. I thought you weren’t talking to me, he said.

Well, you’re too busy to talk to me, I said. Now that Charity’s better.  Not really, he said. I just thought you were mad at me. You seemed mad. It’s Tefferini, I said. I began to relay Kerri’s theory in a dull voice.

Thirty seconds in, Rory leaned back, slapped his hands down on his knees, and said: What a crock. Tefferini is a real piece of work.

Yeah, I said. She’s going to make it really hard on Charity. I know you’re…close. So I just thought you should  know.

Linda might have thought I was “edgy and deep,” but this is what I thought of myself: I played it both ways. Tefferini would give me points for playing messenger, and Rory would think  I was humane.

Charity’s not totally out of the woods, Rory said, so she could use some decent friends.

That’s what I’ve always appreciated about you. You’re not like those other girls.

It was the most he’d ever said to me about what he thought of me. But maybe, I thought, he felt the same kinds of things about Charity.

Want to walk over together? he asked. Sure, I said.

As I sauntered into the Dairy Queen parking lot with Rory, I wondered if Charity would  be jealous. But she wasn’t. She made room for both of us at her table. We laughed a lot. It was almost normal. And what if, I wondered and hoped, by sitting with the two most beautiful humans all of us knew, I bumped Tefferini out of the number two popularity slot as fast as   she’d slid into it? Then maybe people wouldn’t listen to her so much.

But everyone did listen to Kerri.

The girls developed new safety rules. No one could get dressed behind a locker door. If someone had bruises, it should be public information. All of the girls waited for Charity to leave before they got in the showers, which they did one at a time, in case someone was secretly infected. Obviously, no one went over to Charity’s house.

The boys were worse. A few Porpoises outright quit. Todd Walters had done the math,  and kids who did summer swim got sick more often than kids who didn’t. Plus, he said, he   heard cancer had gone gay in New York, and he certainly didn’t want anything to do with gays.

I did not follow the rules, nor did I pay attention to anyone’s nonsense, though my   reason was not solely kindness. I wanted to please Rory, but that wasn’t the whole of it either. Even if this was an epidemic-type story, I was the one who survived to tell the tale. I felt increasingly secure in my status as faithful friend, and by those terms, I could possibly prevent myself from getting cancer by showering with Charity. Especially because I might also be spurned.

But I wasn’t. In early August, at the beginning of the horrid heatwave that would last for the rest of summer, Rory knocked at our door one evening just as it got dark.

Want to go for a swim? he asked. I nearly fainted.

Sure, I said, trying to smile confidently.

I told my mom I was going to Charity’s for awhile. She didn’t stop me despite the hour. I had told her how the others were treating Charity, and she was proud of me for doing the right thing.

I walked out to the Roadmaster and got in. Rory drove the long way, along the row of abandoned warehouses between the railroad tracks and the river. You could tell how many  times a factory had changed hands by how many different kinds of windows it had. Some were blue, some green, some grey with soot, some new and clear. Smokestacks billowed their bitter clouds in the night and the air smelled like an old battery. Looping back along the river, we approached the pool just as Jim’s Valiant was pulling out. Rory tucked his car along the nearest curb and killed the lights. Luckily, Jim did not see us. He’d been trying to catch the nightswimmers for years.

He’s working late, Rory said. He’s pretty upset, I said.

Who isn’t? Rory said.

We got out of the car and Rory led me behind the building. He showed me how to scale the fence. Dropping down on the other side, we crossed into another world. Reflections from the street lamps danced on the surface of the water, but it was too dark to see into the depths.

It was silent and the hot air pressed on me. Rory slipped his shoes off, tugged his shirt over his head.

He paused and said, I’ve actually never been here with a girl before. I mean, like this.  I answered by pulling my shirt off. I was glad I had worn my new bra.

We removed our shorts and stopped at our underwear. Rory’s were no different, really, from his Speedo. Yet I trembled to see those burgundy tighties with their grey elastic band.

I dove in and Rory followed, hardly leaving a ripple. He caught up with me in the very center and we swam around each other in circles. Shaking, Rory took my naked waist in his hands. And he kissed me. A real kiss. It wasn’t a trick, a performance for our friends. We   kissed until we couldn’t tread anymore. Then we swam to the side where I splashed Rory and  he ducked me. When I came up he pulled me to him and kissed me again. That time, it didn’t even seem strange. It seemed we had always been kissing somewhere in history. That night, after Rory drove me home, I lay in my bed damp and knowing that Rory Brunhaefer was mine.

During the final weeks of that summer, when it came time to drown, Charity and I were the only ones who leapt in. I really had to hand it to her: Charity Tremblay was no spoil sport. She had taken the unspoken but clear news about me and Rory well, and we were actually having fun together in the pool again. We came up with increasingly interesting drownings,   but nothing we could do was enough to make up for the absence of the others, who stood sweating on deck. It was over ninety degrees every day that August, and the day Jim finally lost it, it was pushing a  hundred.

Come on, ladies, Jim said.

He was worn thin, having learned a few days before that one of his favorite Guppies had been diagnosed with lymphoma.

No one moved.

Jim threw his clipboard on the pavement and shouted, What in the sam hill is wrong with you girls?!

We’d never seen him throw anything, especially not something so sacred as his clipboard.

He picked it up, smoothed his papers, and said, Nevermind. Don’t get in. It’s probably best anyway.

We looked at each other. What did that mean?

That night I stayed at Charity’s and on my way to the bathroom I saw an incredible thing: Jim was sitting at the Tremblays’ kitchen table. I supposed that through the whole donor   process he had become friends with the Tremblays. Beyond one run-in at the grocery store, I personally had never seen Jim anywhere but the pool. Further, he was wearing jeans, not Hawaiians, and he did not seem to have his whistle, though his clipboard, only slightly scarred, sat before him on the table. Mr. Tremblay was looking down at it. Mrs. Tremblay was slumped against the fridge. I stood in the dark hallway listening to their conversation.

It’s been going on for years, Jim was saying, but it’s getting worse. Water? The water did it? Mrs. Tremblay asked, biting her lip.

These plants have dumped their…crapola…in the river above us. Then the sanitation plants suck it up and we go and fill the pool—

What if you’re wrong? Mr. Tremblay said. This is our bread and butter you’re talking about here.

What if I’m right? Jim said. It’s the only common factor. These kids are in that water all day.

We have to close it, Mrs. Tremblay said.

I returned to Charity’s room where she was putting on lipgloss. Jim’s here, I said.

She nodded and pressed her shiny lips together. They’re going to close the pool, I said.

What? she said, turning. They can’t. It’s like…at the center of everything. But they did. Because it was at the center of everything.

But before they closed our pool, before they sent the water off in a test tube and the   results came back, before the lawsuits and the appeals and the waiting, before we learned that a corporation with a new name isn’t required to pay the price for old sins even if nothing else    has changed, before Charity relapsed and Kerri was diagnosed, we got in one last drowning.

Rory was on the chair the next morning with no one to save. We were lolling around, not talking. Even Charity and I stayed on deck. That morning as we walked by Jim’s office we saw him printing a sign that said: POOL CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. So we knew it was real, not some shared nightmare, at least not one that happens while you’re sleeping.

Five minutes into Rory’s turn, he shaded his eyes and looked at the building. We turned and the silence had become a hush.

Linda stood behind us on the concrete, as timid as Charity had been the day she had returned to us. But Linda’s story wasn’t like Charity’s. She hadn’t come because she was well again. There was no miracle-match for her. Tufts of hair clung to her scalp and her bones jutted beneath her skin. She had come, she said, to drown one last time.

Next year, she said, I’ll be a Shark, so this is my last chance. I don’t know, Jim said. Your mom know you’re here?

Yes, she said.

We could tell she was lying. So could Jim. But he blew his whistle anyway.

As she walked past me, Linda squeezed my arm with her bony fingers, and I knew she had forgiven me for telling Jim about her, that it didn’t matter anymore. Then she lowered herself into the pool. I looked at Charity. One last time, her eyes said. What did it matter now, after so many times? We plunged in.

Come on, I said to the others. Kerri shook her head.

No way, she said.

The others stood at the edge, looking at Kerri, and then at me and Charity. Then all at once they clamored into the pool for the final swim of our childhood.

We were rough with each other, splashing and screaming and cannonballing until Linda slipped beneath the surface.

Rory blew his whistle, made his way toward her. He pulled her gently toward the stairs and walked up them with her draped in his arms. The rest of us climbed out, our skins slaked and poisoned one last time. Rory lay Linda on the rescue board. He leaned over her body.

Air! Rory said.

Then he waited. He put his hands over her heart, on the breastbone that rose up like a sharp kite against the sky of her dusky skin.

Rory looked up at me.

I nodded.

The next time he bent over Linda and said Air!, my Rory touched his lips to hers.

But ours was no fairy-tale. Linda lay there until Jim bent down and put his fingers against her neck.

Linda, he said.

She didn’t move. She didn’t take  a breath.

Come on, Jim said, and then, kneeling down before her, Linda, sweetheart. Do something! Kerri said.

Call 911, Casey said.

I started to cry. This was Linda. Linda Peters who tried so hard to hide under a pantsuit what she knew would hurt and frighten the people she loved.

Linda opened her eyes, then, let out the breath she’d been holding. I just had to know what it would be like, she said.

Three months earlier, she would have meant that she wanted to know what a kiss from Rory would be like. But we understood what she meant now: she wanted to know what it would be like to be dead.

Jim knelt and gathered her up. He took her in to call her mom. It was all he could do. Jim could not save Linda. He could not save Lucy, nor her little sister, nor the Guppy whom I didn’t even know, nor the two Minnows who were diagnosed that fall. No one could. Nor could anyone save the great Rory Brunhaefer, my first boyfriend, who did not make it to Hollywood after all.


From The Masters Review Volume V. Used with permission of The Masters Review. Copyright © 2017 by Josie Sigler for The Masters Review.

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