I promised I would dive into the pool after you. I told you that we would have to do pushups, and we did – 100 of them – squirming, giggling, our lips blue and bluer the longer our little bodies lingered on the pool deck. You looked up at Claudia, our swim coach who was once a Russian drill sergeant, and gave her your best cheeky grin. “100 pushups for you, Claudia,” you said, taking a bow.
Claudia laughed, making slow deliberate moves towards you, her arms outstretched to grab you around the Nike-polyester- green cylinder of your torso. There was a splash and more laughter as she threw you into the pool. “Ah, there’s the smile,” said Val, his accent thick with joy. Val was the second to our Russian swim coach duo, a man who turned terrible to warm and full of love for us in a matter of minutes.
While Val and Claudia slipped into adult conversation, you were way down in the water, pushing your back flat against the bottom of the pool, staring up at the wood- panelled ceiling as though challenging the very seams of the aquatics center. You were always looking up.
I promised I would dive into the pool after you, and I did, always, for a long time.
I was training for a triathlon this summer, so I went to Master’s practice at the Presidio YMCA. It was a gathering of a dozen or two middle-aged men and women with too- broad shoulders and chlorine-bleached hair. We were all lined up on the pool deck, waiting to jump in until the new coach showed up, when Val walked through the swinging doors.
We looked at Val. We looked up at the mural of the military man swimming – the one with the cap that says USA across the top.
It had been 10 years since I’d swam in one of Val’s practices, and yet he knew that I knew I looked the same. There was no escaping recognition – or warmth. Val approached me slowly and grabbed my shoulders, his hands lingering by my ears for a moment and then shaking me gently back and forth. “There’s the smile,” he said, grinning with those gray twinkling eyes.
We swam for weeks without mentioning you. I thought for sure Val would stop me one day and ask, “Where’s your partner in crime?” between 100 yard butterfly sets. Or maybe he heard you’d passed, and he’d wrap me up in a hug after practice and just say “I’m sorry.” But he never did. And I never did. We left a space between us open for you, hanging in the air and tugging at my consciousness like chlorine.
I promised I would dive into the pool after you, and I did, always, for a long time. Sometimes I lie at the bottom, relaxing my back on the white-painted cement or blue-clay tiles, and your laugh echoes through the water. I always thought you were happy then, at least in our childhood, until someone told me that depression feels like you’re always underwater, looking up at the surface. You know you should swim up to the air, but it feels so good to suspend breath and close your eyes for a while.