Things We Think About When We Drown
My grandmother drowned twice, and both times she fought her way back up to the surface.
The first time, it was mid-summer, 1952. The whole of northern Minnesota was struck by a heat wave that wilted everything but the desire for water. Nowhere was hit harder than Abilene. Humans were boiled down to animals; nothing survived but loose skeletons and lust. People wandered the streets, to-do lists fluttering out of their hands, forgetting errands, misplacing names of old friends, forgetting everything. The roads stretched outward from the heart of the town like shimmering tentacles, curled up at the end. The world contracted inward that summer, my grandmother says.
By mid-July, work started to let out at noon, and everybody migrated toward Horseshoe Lake. The water would boil with limbs, mist thrown ten feet in the air by the churning. Everybody was there. For the first time in weeks, reality sharpened. My grandmother was thirteen that summer, and in old pictures, she is a wiry snip of a child, breasts just starting to surface, every limb confident and well placed. Her hair hung perfect on her back.
On the day of the drowning, she was in the midst of the girls from her school, way over in the northern tip of the lake. With the heavy glint off the water, it looked like the girls were one entity, a slick sea monster threading up and down between the weeds.
A small tangle of boys moved closer. My grandmother was perched on the shoulders of one of her friends, pounding the air with her fists and kicking water. One of the boys emerged from the pack. He spoke to my grandmother. Briefly. Her head dipped down, the blond bright in the sun. She slipped off her friend’s shoulders and swam to the boy. He challenged her to a contest and set forth the rules: they would hold their breath under water as long as they could. The winner would get something from the other. The boy wanted to pull her hair. It was a bet from his friend, the short one with the buck teeth. In a fit of daring, she asked for a kiss. The boy shook his head, blushing, angry. She insisted. Finally, he nodded. All the friends, boys and girls, howled. The boy took a deep breath, his face blew up like a balloon, and he squinched his eyes into little slits. My grandmother watched him, then let all the air out of her lungs, and slipped under the water, eyes wide open.
The rest of the kids screeched and jumped around, throwing insults back and forth like baseballs, waiting for the loser to pop up, shamefaced and gasping. As the seconds ticked by, the insults slowed down, and it was oddly silent by the time the boy emerged. He breathed deeply, fighting off his friends, who surrounded him like locusts. Everybody looked expectantly down at where my grandmother went under, but there was no motion except a stream of bubbles linking her mouth to the open air. For fifteen seconds or so there was nothing, then one of her friends noticed that her body had gone limp.
By the time the kids dragged her to the shore, the adults had been alerted, and everybody crowded around, pushing and shoving to see what looked like it might be Abeline’s first ever drowning victim. A doctor was found, sunning himself with his wife down on the beach, visiting from Minneapolis. He was fifty, still muscular, and stripped down to swimming trunks. He leaned over my grandmother’s tiny frame, checked her pulse, started the push and pull of CPR. A mother covered her mouth, put both hands over her daughter’s eyes. “Oh, god,” somebody muttered quietly.
The doctor kept working, and finally, after a long minute, my grandmother spluttered and sat up, coughing out lake water, tasting bottom feeders. The doctor patted her on the back. The crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief. As my grandmother continued to draw in ragged breathes, the doctor did something odd. He gathered her into his arms and held her like a baby, rubbing her arms and legs. She was as cold as death.
When my grandmother told me this story, she said that her first memory of regaining consciousness was the warm pressure of the sun-heated flesh of the doctor pressed against her. The incredible heat of a full grown man holding her, tight and long, warming her frozen flesh.
“Drowning was the first time I felt cool that summer,” my grandmother loves to say. “And in that damn heat wave, there were a couple times later that summer that I almost wished I could feel that cold again, let me tell you!” This is the way my grandmother always ends this story, and in my childhood, I couldn’t help but believe her.
Years after the first time I heard that story, I’m slouched in the third row of the ninth grade classroom at Abilene High, turning this story over and over in my head like a pet rock, polishing the parts I like, skipping over what feels rough and uncertain. Around me, the room sighs and shifts. We are ready for lunch.
Ms. Smith is pacing back and forth in the front of the room. We have been studying history, and today, we are going to watch the footage from the moon landing. Before the film starts, Ms. Smith tells us a long story about how her father had thrown a party for the moon landing, and everybody on her block came. “Lots of people,” she tells us, “still didn’t have a TV set then.” Somebody in the back of the room snorts, unbelieving. “It’s true,” she told us. “I was your age, then. I was fourteen when we landed on the moon.” She stares out at us sternly as if this meant something, then flicked off the lights and turned to the projector to roll the tape.
As soon as the dark falls, I can hear the boy behind me start to scoot his chair closer to me. In that moment, I am absolutely sure that if I could just get smaller he’d leave me alone. Shrink until I don’t take up as much of his field of vision. Implode, silently. In the muck of the late May classroom, my legs are sticking to the chair. The whole bulk of my body feels heavy- rounded edges and wide expanses that betray me at every turn. I don’t fit into dresses. My wrists are as wide as table legs. Somewhere under the tumor of my flesh, I know the real me is hiding- slim and slow, with eyelashes that curve over my cheeks like a doll. Sometimes, when I pass by billboards of beautiful girls, I actually salivate. Just wait, I tell myself. Someday.
Everybody is whispering and passing notes, movements rendered bizarre by the jerk and flash of the film in the sudden dark. Ms. Smith tells us the moment everybody had been waiting for was when Armstrong stepped off the little landing machine. She tells us to think about what that moment had meant for the country. This epic moment is marked in our classroom by a couple yawns from the second row. The speakers are broken on the projector, so the narration of the moon landing is my class, hissing dirty jokes and insults up and down the aisles.
The chair behind me scoots closer. Suddenly, I feel a knee start to dig itself into my lower back. My whole body freezes. I can feel a slow quiver start in my stomach. His knee presses in, deep, and starts to move around, experimenting. The feel of his awful knee on my exposed back fat literally makes me want to vomit.
I keep my eyes ahead. Ms. Smith is looking the other way. All I want is for somebody to make it stop, but I would rather have my fingernails pulled out than tell on him. I lean slowly away, but he is still there. My back is wide open, raw hamburger under his roving knee. I am sure my spine is exposed, white bone poking out through the fat like dominoes. Ms. Smith turns toward us, and the knee recedes like a tide. My body takes a breath. Relief floods my mouth like copper. I have never felt so ugly.
After lunch, I am walking back to the classroom alone when the two boys who sit behind me, Rayon and Jesse, step out from behind the drinking fountain. I can’t help but look down at their knees, wonder which one of them it was. In the distance, there is the sound of girls laughing and boys shouting in the lunchroom, but here, it is eerily quiet. Jesse steps forward. My hands hang by my sides like dead birds. He reaches out and grabs my shoulder, and Rayon takes the other. I offer no resistance. The only thing worse than them doing whatever they’ve got planned is exposing myself as bigger and stronger than them.
They march me down the hall like some kind of police escort. Somebody, I think, is going to come out of one of these open doors and make them stop. Any second now. It is as if nobody else has ever been born. The three of us move in perfect sync, our feet making a military drumroll down the tiles. Finally, they stop in front of the kitchen.
A mere ten yards away, all the lunch ladies are clustered together, peering into a large pot. All I have to do is say something, and they would hear me. They don’t see us as the boys hustle me past. We glide across the kitchen like panthers, and they move into the maze of freezers and storage in the back. Finally, they stop in front of one of the walk-in freezers, and Jesse pulls the door open. With a fluid, almost tender push, I find myself standing inside, listening to them pull the lock shut. The walls are so thick I don’t even hear them walk away. Perhaps they are still there, ears pressed to the thick, pimpled walls, listening.
At first, it’s not so bad. The cooler fan makes a gentle whirring hiss, and I’ve always been comforted by the sound of machines. There are multiple rows of white wire shelves, piled high with packages wrapped in paper, and those big white buckets with matching lids that cafeterias have. I take a quick little walk around the perimeter, hoping against hope that there’s a second door or some kind of escape latch for the door I came in. Nothing. I’m going to have to bang on the door. Oh my god, I think.
I imagine myself falling out the door, my whole class gathered around, watching. Fat and frozen, like some kind of hideous arctic beast. My back feels bruised, and I feel more than ever like I might throw up. Under my stomach, something that feels like panicked birds are starting to flex their wings. The sharp brush of them across my insides is pushing me closer and closer to total meltdown. I take a deep shuddery breath, and sit down on a huge plastic pack of shredded cheese. I close my eyes.
The second time my grandmother drowned, she was a lot older. Twenty five. My mother had just been born, and she had left her at home with a sitter for the first time. My mother was four months old, and my grandmother had been asked out on a date. Not the father of my mother, who was a no-good mechanic from the next town over with a wide, flat smile, but a younger man, a college boy who was the same age as my grandmother. His name was Ernest, and he was studying Animal Husbandry at the University of Minnesota. They decided to go swimming.
It was the same lake as years before. It was later in the summer, August, but not nearly as hot. The evening was elusive and gorgeous, and my grandmother was having a great time. They were eating ice cream in the car, and when the lake unfolded out of the darkness in front of them, it was like a sheet of velvet glazed over with diamonds. My grandmother was wondering if maybe she should try to marry this Ernest. That night, it seemed like she had finally outrun all the mistakes, all the hurt.
Ernest parked the car under a low stand of white pines, and they ran together, laughing, down toward the water. Ernest had a small, shrunken chest, but an absolutely glorious head of curly black hair that bounced as he ran into the water. They dove off the dock, and my grandmother says the water cut her like a million glorious knives, and that a new body emerged. In the middle of the lake, they found themselves again and floated together, treading water.
“I’ve never seen stars like this,” Ernest said. “Not recently, at least. You can’t see them in the city, I mean.” My grandmother laughed. “I’d die without the stars. Don’t you miss them?” Ernest looked deep into her eyes. “Yes,” he said. “I do.” It felt like the universe was finally snapping into place. My grandmother saw all the ghosts of the bad men who populated her history stream past her in the water. Tonight, they were immaterial and powerless. She touched Ernest’s chest. She felt, she told me once, like for the first time in her life she was young.
Later, they lay on the beach, giggling and talking about nothing. Ernest cajoled her into the water for a final swim. In the story, this is where the moon darkens, and reality bends itself. Somewhere in the water, Ernest told my grandmother that he wanted to make love to her, out there in the lake. My grandmother said no. He insisted. She said no again. He lost his boyish charm, and my grandmother suddenly realized that he was not a child after all. She reached out, hit him in the face. He looked at her, arms hanging loosely at his sides. He reached out, placed one hand on each of her shoulders, and pushed her under the water. She fought. He was so much bigger than her, she might as well have not struggled. He held her there for two minutes, while the moon continued to shine and the cicadas sang. Finally, he let her go, then turned and headed back for shore, not waiting to see if she was dead or alive.
After a few seconds, she spluttered to the surface, gagging and pushing water out of her lungs for the second time in her life. She staggered for the shore, sensed more than felt through her foggy vision, and finally collapsed in the mud. For a few long moments, her world was the simple in and out of breathing. Then, she got up, found her dress, pulled it back on, and walked up the parking lot. Ernest was sitting in the car, engine running, smoking a cigarette. He didn’t act like he saw her, but he leaned over and popped the door open when she walked up. She watched him ash out the window, assessing her odds. The town was nine miles away. She wasn’t wearing shoes. She got in. He locked the door, and the car nosed off into the night. From that moment forward, my grandmother’s life unfolded exactly as she was always afraid it might.
In the cooler, I try knocking on the door yet again. Nothing. I pound. Still no response. Finally, I yell, the thing I’ve been dreading. My voice curdles and cracks, and I feel myself blushing, even here. After a few seconds, I realize nobody has heard me. What an idiot, embarrassed at the sound of my own voice. I take a breath, decide to settle in for a while. I pile three fifty pound bags of rice together, climb on top of them. I will pound on the door every couple minutes. Somebody will come. I can feel myself moving into survivor mode. If nothing else, my mother will notice that I don’t come home on the bus. She will call the police. Everybody will search. Rayon will crack. Somebody will tell. I won’t die in here, that’s for sure.
Maybe they won’t come for a couple days, and I will start to starve. I will emerge skinny, normal, beautiful. The real me inside will finally emerge, victorious, energetic. I will join the cheerleading squad. Maybe I’ll take up the flute. I will become competent, talented, and perhaps a little bit sexually daring. I entertain this fantasy until I realize that I’m in a cooler, literally surrounded by food. Something about the uniform greyness of the cooler makes it almost impossible to keep your brain in one place. My thoughts are starting to separate, cojoin, coagulate.
Right before lunch started today, I came back to the room for my sweater. Ms. Smith was standing at the window, staring out at the playground. The film was playing again, bouncing dead images off the chalkboard. At first, I thought she didn’t see me, and I was fumbling for my sweater in the closet by the door, when she suddenly started talking. “Did you know,” she said, “when the Native Americans had signed away all their land, the very last bits of it, the up and coming generation, kids who could only remember freedom through stories, they started something called the ghost dance.” I held my breath. It didn’t feel like she was talking to me. It felt like if she turned around to see me, she’d be disappointed, like she was expecting somebody else.
She waited a moment, still facing away, then went on. “They thought if they got enough of their people to dance this special dance, the white people would disappear, shoot straight back up into the sky. They all wore special shirts even, to protect them from bullets. It was desperation. Pure desperation. And I’ve just been sitting here, thinking… the dance, I can only imagine it looked something like the moon landing. Stupid, right?”
She turned back to the room, and gestured to Neil Armstong. After his first gingerly step onto a frigid alien landscape, he started to run. You have to think the pressure must have got to him, and the relief of not dying on that first step must have been the final straw. He loses all composure, and there’s this fierce sense of play. He forgets the camera, it seems. Anti-gravity pulls him up, but his weight keeps pulling him down, so his movement becomes this push and pull between himself and the environment. He pushes off the surface, and the air almost holds him up for a second. It looks as if he might float away. Then, he gently comes back down, and his feet shatter the surface of the moon. Space dusts goes everywhere, and he is up again, leaping through air that would kill him to breathe. Dancing right through all that poison.
Ms. Smith and I watch together for a moment, holding our breath, waiting. “I think,” she says, “that the ghost dance must have looked exactly like this.” I wait for a heavy moment. “What happened to them?” I ask. She stares blankly.
“The kids, you know…. in the ghost dance.”
“They died, Phoebe. Most of them were shot.”
Inside the cooler, I lay down on the rice, feeling the chill traipse into my deepest bones, into secret corners of my huge bulk. My heart slows. The sacks are freezing. I force myself to get up, to knock on the door one more time. Nothing. It almost feels impossible that there is anything out there anymore. Maybe this is how Neil Armstrong felt. Endless space, outside his door. You could float out. Weightlessness, finally.
In my head, the largest lakes in Minnesota stretch out in all directions, golden, murky, endless. A sense of finality pervades. The silence is as big as the sky. Then, suddenly, without warning, my grandmother surfaces in the middle of the lake. Her head snaps back and she gasps toward the sky, sucking in greedy breath after breath. Reveling in survival. For a single moment, for the space of one long inhale, the oxygen is enough.
– Rachel Nelson is a writer and performance artist currently working out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She grew up on an isolated farm in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, and graduated from Hollins University in 2007. She is interested in deconstructing physical and emotional places through memory and identity.