I have an MFA in creative writing and live in Puget Sound where I serve as literary editor for Image Journal’s “Good Letters” blog. My first book of poetry, “Burnt Offerings” is forthcoming in January.
Dead Man’s Float
I met Jeff in Introduction to Water when I was five. He puckered like a fish and taught me to exhale a stream of bubbles. When I was six, he held me up in the dead man’s float position in the big pool where I couldn’t touch bottom. When I had to jump off the diving board to earn my Red Cross Beginning Swimmer card, I plunged toward him like an octopus, fastening myself around his neck.
Jeff was there every summer: when I was five and six and seven and an Advanced Beginner, eight and passing Intermediate, nine when my father left, ten when I was in Swimmer class all summer, eleven when my father married again.
The summer my father bought a house with his new wife, Jeff romanced Cindy, who sat in the elementary school bleachers watching as the pool lifeguards took on the beach guards in a summer slow pitch game. I was there too, barefoot and scabby-kneed like the other kids. We cheered for the pool guards, really for Jeff, a god in mirrored sunglasses with a gleaming smile that matched the zinc oxide on his nose.
When his team was at bat, he sat next to Cindy in the bleachers, his lips against hers. She wore white lipstick. I imagined myself ten years older, skin the color of toasted marshmallow, hair to my waist, kissing Jeff.
When I turned twelve and thirteen, Jeff taught me to dive. I was one of half-a-dozen girls who began each lesson by stretching toward him in hurdler’s position on the scratchy cement deck.
I watched his front dive pike, the powerful grace of takeoff, the upward flight, the snap of his waist, the switchblade kick to vertical. His legs were smooth and brown, his toes perfectly pointed. He sliced the water, leaving a ring where he’d gone under. I tugged on my bikini.
Those summers, while my breasts developed and my hips started to curve and I grew three inches, he taught me the five required dives, told me to visualize each one beforehand and to try again every time I splatted.
“Don’t lean,” he said. “Reach for vertical. Hit the water clean.”
He made me stretch to the pool’s bottom to finish every dive, my palms scraping stucco at twelve feet under.
He taught me to dive from the three-meter board. He climbed the ladder behind me while I counted each step, praying I wouldn’t die. He held my waist as my hands gripped the rails and I walked to the end of the board. I knelt on one shaky knee and extended my arms above my pulsing ears. The lane lines striping the pool bottom wavered twenty-two feet below.
Still holding my waist, he counted to three, tipped me forward, and let go. My mind fell in slow motion, while my body met the water with a stinging slap that knocked the air from my chest. Then he dove, a perfect one-and-a-half pike and slipped into the water.
“A few more practices,” he said, “and you’ll be ready for the approach.”
His approach was beautiful: four deliberate, powerful steps followed by a hurdle. The right leg lifted, knee bent, toes pointed, arms rising to full extension. His left foot pushed mightily off the board. He was airborne for a split-second, his arms forcefully returned to his side, his feet punched the board in unison, absorbing the spring as it traveled through his legs. He reached skyward, arms, fingers, and hands pointed, legs following in matching form, and flew to his peak.
He taught me this approach, made me practice it until it was automatic. Every forward takeoff dive: forward, reverse, or twist, in any number of rotations, in any position—tuck, pike, or layout—begins with this approach.
The summer I turned fourteen my father divorced again and my mother remarried. September came and I moved five hundred miles away from home.
My father phoned to tell me Jeff killed himself one April night. An overdose.
My new diving coach never changed out of his Levi’s and plaid shirt, never hurdled on the board or sailed into the air, never pressed his chest to my back, or held my arms like an archer shooting his bow. During my two years of high school competition in that same outdoor pool, I heard a dead man’s voice while standing on the three-meter board, heat shimmering from the cars below.
My father married again, my mother divorced, and the school board ran out of money for a diving team. We had a farewell party after the last meet, a chance to dive one more time before the coach padlocked the gate.
The four step approach, the body’s trajectory in air, the plunge through water twelve-feet deep, the scrape of stucco on palms, Jeff’s instruction in my head, his hands on my waist, and the dead man’s float: These things remain.