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I stepped out of the locker room and onto the deck of the pool, my towel tucked under my arm to hide the dumbbell I had stolen from the weight room.  It was half an hour before closing time on a frigid winter night.  The pool area was empty except for the lifeguard, who sat high in her chair, leaning back, legs crossed, twirling the blond curls of her hair with her index finger.  She wore sweat pants over her bright yellow one-piece swimsuit.  She glanced at me when I entered, snapped her gum, stared at the oversized clock on the opposite wall.

The air reeked of chlorine.  Fluorescent lights ran along the tiled ceiling, letting off a sickly, yellow glow. Moonlight filtered through tall windows translucent with frost along one side of the pool.  I stepped carefully along the slick, wet concrete deck, made my way to the deep end, set my towel at the water’s edge, careful not to let the weight wrapped inside clink when it hit the ground.  Climbing onto the starting block in the pool’s center lane, I slipped my goggles over my eyes, stretched my long arms like an albatross about to give flight, and dove.

The pool was cold.  I crawled two laps until I became used to the water.  For a few minutes, I lost myself in the rhythm of my strokes, the rotation of my arms, the turn of my head, the kick of my feet, the graceful somersault at the pool’s edge, the power of my legs as I propelled myself into another lap.  All the while, the thick black line painted on the pail blue bottom of the pool keeping me in the center of the lane.

I rolled onto my back, did a lazy backstroke for another lap.  The water-stained tiles of the ceiling passed above me.  I noted the lifeguard as I passed her. She had the broad shoulders and narrow hips of a competitive swimmer. But she was no more than a teenager, less than half my weight.  I doubted she could save my life if the need arose.

I stopped at the edge of the pool near where my towel lay.  Grabbing the dumbbell, I shoved myself into the middle of the deep end of the pool, let the weight drag me to the bottom.


“You’re going swimming now?”  Grace and I stood in the corridor in Intensive Care.  It was late, the lights dim.  Down the hall, two women dressed in scrubs leaned against the nurse’s station speaking in hushed tones while a keyboard clicked.

“Exercise helps me to clear my mind,” I said.

“It’s always about you, isn’t it?” Grace said.  In the room behind her, Dad was clearly visible through the sliding glass door and open curtain, slightly inclined in the hospital bed that had become his home these last weeks, IV in his arm, a monitor on his finger, a tube in his mouth.  His body was motionless, but his eyes were open.  “They’re going to take him off that thing soon.  He can’t breathe without it, and you’re going to leave.”

“We don’t owe him anything,” I replied, in a whisper I thought only Grace could hear.  The women at the nurses’ station glanced sideways at me.

Grace gripped my arm, pulled me out of Dad’s sight.  “Don’t say that, not now.”

“If not now, when?  It’s time he knew the pain he caused.”

“It’s too late for all that.  He can’t respond.”

“He can’t apologize, you mean.  But if he could, would you ask him to?”
Grace’s eyes welled up with tears.  I left her there, leaning against the wall.

My Dad’s bed was turned so that he could see the TV that hung high in one corner of the room.  A golfer made a putt from the edge of the green.  The sun shined, the grass was green.  Everyone was in shirt sleeves and sun glasses.  A stark contrast to the cold, dark night beyond the hospital windows, a parking lot thick with packed snow.

“Want me to change the channel?” I asked.  My Dad had never liked golf.  It was a patient man’s game.  Even though he made his living as a superintendent of schools, he was always working on some project or other around the house – building flower boxes, putting in a rock garden, subdividing the basement and putting in an egress window for an extra bedroom.  He liked to have something to show for what he had done.  Watching other people being active was never his thing.

He shook his head slightly.  “It looks much warmer there than here,” I said, looking up at the TV.  “Where is that, North Carolina?”

My dad closed his eyes and opened them again, a prolonged blink.  His way of telling me he didn’t know.  He had been in that bed, unable to speak, ever since the operation to repair the hole in his heart.  The hole was repaired, but they couldn’t keep his blood pressure up without medication, and he was unable to breathe without the respirator.  He was living that old joke that ended, “the surgery was a success but the patient died.”

For the month he had been in the hospital, I had only visited him three times, often with nothing more to talk about then now - the weather, what was on television.  Not much different than before the operation, when he was still outspoken and ornery and smelling of beer.  On the other hand, Grace had been at the hospital every day, sitting vigil for hours at a time, neglecting her own husband, her son, her daughter.  “You hurt her, you know,” I said.  I gulped hard, knowing I had to speak my mind now or never.  “It was a long time ago, and maybe you want to act like it never happened.  She does, too, but you hurt her, and I won’t forget.  You owe her.”

He closed his eyes, feigning sleep.  I stood there for a couple of moments, with this man who had once had so much power over my, my sister’s, life, but now was a sliver of a human being, skin paper thin, sunken cheeks, bony arms he could no longer lift.  When asked earlier that day if he wanted them to shut off the machines, stop the medications, he could barely nod his head.

I slipped back into the corridor, relieved that Grace was no longer there.  She must have gone down to the cafeteria, for some soup or coffee.  Good.  She hardly ate anything anymore.  I hurried away before she could return.


I sank to the bottom of the pool, the dumbbell clutched to my chest.  Pulling down my goggles, I looked up towards the surface.  The lights above were filtered and distorted by the water, but still just as bright.

My lungs began to ache.  I felt the need to exhale, fought to hold my breath.  I shut my eyes, allowed my mind to drift.

It was not like sleep.  It was not peaceful.  There was a pain in my chest.  My mind could not remain empty, but overflowed with past mistakes, lost hopes, shattered dreams.  A father I could not talk to, could never forgive, a sister I couldn’t protect, a broken marriage, an estranged son, meaningless but well paying jobs.

Eventually, the pressure became too much.  I exhaled.  Bubbles rose to the surface.  I let go of the dumbbell and popped to the surface, gasping, grasping for the pool’s edge.

The lifeguard waited there, dangling one foot in the water.  She had removed her sweat pants, her thigh muscles flexing as she kicked lazily at the water, her skin much too tan for the time of year.

I was still gasping when I reached her.  She leaned back, bracing herself with her hands.  The scent of coconut mingled with chlorine.  “You weren’t going to save me?”

“You had to come up eventually, conscious or unconscious.  Holding your breath is no way to kill yourself.”  Her voice was raspier than her young body would have led me to believe, as if she had been smoking for a lifetime.

“I wasn’t trying to kill myself.”

“You wanted to see if I would come for you.”  A statement, not a question.  I knew then who I was talking to.

“You came once.  I was in a car accident.  You showed up, an older man with a scraggly face, wearing a long overcoat.  You looked like you had just gotten out of your car to help me, but there were no other cars around.  I remember the smell of pipe smoke.”

“You were drunk,” she said.

“I wasn’t that drunk.  My car was totaled.  I had a concussion, was bleeding from the head.  You held out your hand to take me.  I wouldn’t go along.  I still don’t know why.  I had just gotten divorced, didn’t have much to live for.”

“Sometimes it’s like that.  You weren’t ready.” she said.

“I heard sirens, and you were gone.  I thought, maybe, this might bring you back.”

“I’m here.  You’re ready now?”

“It’s not about me, my Dad …”

“You don’t want him to go.”

“Not yet.  Not for his sake. It’s my sister. She’s been waiting so long. That’s why she’s been hanging around the hospital every day.  People think she’s devoted, that she loves him.  It’s not that.  He owes her, and she wants to get paid before he goes.”

“ An apology.”

“I just want him to be able to breathe for a few minutes without the respirator. To be able to tell her what she wants to hear with his own voice.  ”

“He may not say anything.”

“Then at least she’ll have that.”

“You’re asking a lot.”
I pulled myself out of the water, sat next to her.  My body trembled.  “I used to be able to hear them, as I lay in my bed.  I was her older brother.  I should have done something then.  If you give me this, perhaps, in a small way, I’ll be able to make amends.”

An announcement over the PA announced that the gym would be closing in fifteen minutes.  The lifeguard kicked at the water.  She wore a bracelet made of braded thread around her right ankle.

“And what will you give me?”
I thought a few moments.  “I’ll be your friend,” I said.

“Impossible,” she replied.  “I have no friends.  Not even suicides.  They’re running away from something, not running towards me.  And the old, the frail, those in great pain like your father, they may welcome me, but still, they fear me.  Friendship cannot be built on fear.”

“You must be lonely,” I said.  “I do not fear you.  I do not welcome you, but I do not fear you.  You are a fact, you are inevitable.  Fearing the inevitable is a waste of one’s soul.”

Our gazes met.  Her eyes reflected the water, both transparent and unfathomable.  She moved a hand so that it was almost touching my cheek.  I reached up and pressed it to my skin.  The warmth of her palm surprised me. “How can I trust you?  Others claimed to befriend me.  Liars all of them.”

I kissed her then. Her lips were small and chapped. A shiver ran up my spine.  My body chilled as if from a fever.

“See?” she whispered.

I kissed her again, this time long and hard with all the passion I could manage.  For a moment, I wondered if anyone else that was still in the gym, other workers, last minute runners, would see us.  Then I realized it wouldn’t matter, and lost myself in her embrace.

Eventually, she pulled away, kicked at the water, stared deep into it.  She had a slight grin on her face. “It used to be there was a cavern, huge and always damp, with a breeze flowing through it from who knew where.  On the floor of the cavern were billions and billions of candles of various shapes and sizes, long and tapered, round and squat, large and square.  They did not give off any scent, but they burned bright.  One for each person who lived.  When a candle went out, when the wax burned away, or that breeze suddenly gusted, then out went a life. You could prolong life by putting a new candle beneath the old one to keep it burning, or by shielding it from the breeze.”

“Not anymore?”

She shook her head.  “We change with the times.  No one in the modern world uses candles anymore, except for mood, to give off a particular scent.  A luxury.  No necessity.”

I thought of her and here now in front of me, but didn’t say anything.  “For a time, you can live for him,” she said.

“For how long?”

She nodded towards the center of the pool.  “For as long as you can swim.”

I rose, put my goggles back on.  Their green tint gave the air around me the impression of a threatening storm.  I dove, came up a third of the way in, began to paddle and kick slow and steady to make it last.  Each time my mouth came out of the water and I took a breath, I could feel the breath of my Dad, in the hospital, off the respirator, pained and shallow, yet still a breath.  I closed my eyes, and I could see him sitting up, the TV still on, and my sister there, holding his hand, her eyes hopeful as she waited to hear his voice.  His lips moved, but water filled my ears, and I couldn’t make out what he was saying.  I could see a bittersweet smile on her face, though, feel her hand squeeze harder.

My hand hit the opposite side of the pool.  I pushed off, kept on swimming, concentrating on my strokes, counting them as I made another lap.

Breathe, I kept telling myself, just breathe.


The End


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