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[Fiction] Dry Drowning

by Amanda Nowlin

Sammie, a real estate friend of my parents, is driving us around in her old white Cadillac big enough for a garden party. The Caddy is spotless, and the cream interior exactly matches the color of her hair. My son, Tim, rides in the back. I sit upfront picturing Sammie taking tea on the leather console that divides the front seat. I asked her to pick us up because I don’t want my parents to see my car down the street. As it is, they’ll be asking Sammie who was looking at the Nathan house.

It’s clear from the way Tim is pressing his knees together with enough force to marry them that he wants to undo his seat belt and slide from one door to the other when we make the Eleanor Drive roundabout. He watches for it, and when we are a hundred feet away, I look at Sammie to ask a question and simultaneously give Tim the spank-eye. 

My parents and Sammie live in a neighborhood full of oaks and pines, many china sets of Herend’s Queen Victoria, and a tree-roach problem no bug man can touch. 

I moved away from this neighborhood—from Texas—for ten years. I came back broke and needing a job, but I couldn’t stomach returning to my parents’ stagnant neighborhood. I was changed, I thought, for the better. I was more open-minded and aware of the bigger world, so I rented a house in a part of town that wasn’t so whitewashed. Now here I am thinking of buying on their block because it’s pretty and quiet. When Sammie called me, I told her I like our drafty house on Third, and unless Tim splits into twins, it’s plenty big. But what I meant was, sure, their neighborhood is much nicer, but I already feel stuck, and how could moving someplace with a homeowners’ association that regulates grass height do anything but make that worse. Sammie groaned and said the price was right; it was a good investment, and I should at least look. 

I’ve been divorced four years from a man who thinks a day without a joint isn’t a day worth living. Sammie thinks I need more help with Tim because he is the type of kid who might actually spontaneously double himself. She is trying to do me a favor. Everyone in town, except his father, Jesse, thinks I need help with Tim. They are mostly right. We can’t fly off and move someplace spectacular, because I couldn’t do this alone and because the divorce decree restricts me from taking Tim more than two counties away from his father. 

When I was young, I loved making decisions, pinpointing exactly what it was I wanted. Bad choices were especially fun to make (driving across the country on a whim, sex at work, asking a stranger for a ride on his motorcycle). Good choices seemed like someone else’s decisions, but the bad ones, those were mine. Then Tim came along, and every bad decision twisted into an indictment against me, not Jesse. He still finds and chooses the wrong direction with Zen-like focus, almost without repercussion. When Jesse lost Tim at the local state park last year, the reaction from a female ranger when I arrived was something like, “Oh, you can’t blame a man for taking his son on a hike! What a sweet adventure!” As though Jesse was committed to mindful fathering and the conservancy of our natural treasures. Tim was under a turtled canoe, watching our feet pass by the whole time. Jesse wasn’t mad. I heard he took that park ranger to a movie. I was furious. At everyone. And jealous, because I wanted to hide. No one tells you that motherhood makes you part of the public domain. 

Sammie pulls into the drive at the Nathan house. Weeds have overtaken the grass, but they’re green and shorn low, so the lawn looks nice. I remember walking up to this driveway to sell Mrs. Nathan Girl Scout cookies. Pink begonias bordered her sidewalk, and the Saint Augustine roots were tangled tighter than teenagers. All the way from the street, I could smell that Mrs. Nathan liked her coffee strong and burnt, and I often wondered if it tasted to her as terrible as it smelled to me. I sniff the air, getting out of the car: No coffee. I smell warm pine needles and maybe faraway cat poop.

My parents have lived here all my life. My dad started a roofing company after high school. Dr. Moses Nathan was a dean at the college. Many things about our families were on the diagonal. From this driveway, my parents’ house is a stage backdrop for someone else’s story. The Nathans are gone now, and I’m trying not to disappear into the backdrop of my own life. 

I don’t like the new owners, the Stanfords. They bought the house when Mrs. Nathan passed away, then painted her shutters mustard yellow. The ten years before that, the house sat empty while she was in a nursing home. Sammie says it is mostly empty again. 

In the kitchen, there’s a refurbished 1940s stand-up freezer and a fault-line crack in the counter tile. Tim makes a beeline for the crack and karate chops it with both hands. I tell him to go check the bedrooms upstairs. He does, then thirty seconds later, calls down, “Dead cockroaches!” But he isn’t afraid of bugs. If I leave him up there long enough, he’ll work them like LEGOs into a mega bug.

Our current kitchen on Third Street is command central, where I keep things alive and moving. Healthy meals are planned, made, eaten, and cleaned up there. Bills are paid. Homework is checked. There’s a guinea pig named Larry, plants, and seven fish in a tank to keep alive. Tim to keep alive. 

Two more roaches are on their backs in the kitchen sink. Everything in here needs work except for the morning sunlight coming in through three big windows. 

Heat breaks over me, moving fast as a white-capped wave. I turn around to see where it came from, but there’s only the light bending through the windowpane as it does through deep water. A long-forgotten image hits me next. I am young and in California on the day Marco Balle and I moved a sailboat from La Jolla Yacht Club to San Diego Yacht Club. I can smell the diesel and hear wind curling around the companionway as I come up on deck. I have to steady myself against Ms. Nathan’s counter. My hands start to sweat. My body feels too sensitive. My insides, which normally feel heavy like overripe fruit, buzz with taut energy that they send to my chest so that it lifts and lifts. I can’t remember which, but this is either the feeling of happiness or youth.

The plan was to leave La Jolla, follow the shore down to Point Loma, around Ralph’s breaks, and into the SDYC basin. It would take three hours. This task was part of Marco’s job. He’d been working for the club a lot longer and had many more responsibilities than I had. We taught sailing together, me and Marco. I only went with him because I had the hots for him, and he only let me because he thought I would sleep with him and not tell his girlfriend. 

Until I moved to San Diego, I thought California was the edge of the world. I was twenty-two. We were halfway between the two clubs, a quarter mile offshore. Standing at the rail of the boat, sails luffing, looking into the Pacific Ocean, I felt expansive, like nature had a keyhole in it precisely my shape. The world was expansive, and its possibilities started in the water in front of me; I just had to jump in. 

We’d stopped, I’m pretty sure to make out, but we weren’t yet making out, because I was so intent on the view. I wanted to dive into the ocean like a droplet down the exact center of a drain, but Marco, resplendent with the sweat on his shoulders reflecting the sun, had my attention, too. The draw to the water held a peculiar aliveness, the flippant freedom to stop or go, live or drown myself. Marco thought swimming there was a bad idea. He ran a hand through his damp hair and watched a bird above us.

I was barefoot, wearing a beige spaghetti-strap bodysuit under my T-shirt and jeans. This was the previous era of bodysuits. I put it on as another layer for Marco to get through so we wouldn’t immediately have sex; he’d at least have to peel me. As the boat settled into the bobbing pattern of the sea, I forgot wanting Marco, his brown, stout quadriceps, and how he could read a wind shift across the water easy as the newspaper.

The Pacific was the strangest, loveliest gradation of blue and infinite with the sun in the west. Imagining how my limbs would extend with each stroke took no effort at all. I’ve always trusted the ocean, though I’ve lived enough to know better. 


A sneaker squeaks on the wood floor, jarring me. Tim runs into the kitchen and grabs my sleeve. His lip is bleeding, and he’s holding one of his teeth like he might pull it out. “I brote my toof,” he says. 

I sink to my knees. The room is still sunny, but all the yellow is gone from the light. My jeans cut creases into my thighs, making me wish I’d run yesterday when I had the sitter. Sammie offers a white handkerchief from her purse. I take it. 

 “Did you fall?” I ask. I’m already rationalizing that these are baby teeth and he’ll get new ones soon. And then thinking, shit, I hope there’s nothing up there to break. And next, why are his pants wet?

I pull his hand from his mouth. Two of his fingertips are pink with slobber and blood. It looks like he’s been licking the red in his watercolors. 

“I was standing on the bathtub to see my pants,” he says.

“Why?” I know he doesn’t know why. My asking is a habit same as screaming his name when I want him to stop instead of saying, “Stop!

“To see if the dirt was off.” He looks down at his pants, tears drying instantly.

This morning, I told Tim his shirt and shorts didn’t match. He said everything else was in “the mountain” (of laundry), so I found his cleanest pair of nice pants. When he was dressed, I felt stupid for caring how he looked. It was probably in anticipation of Sammie and her cream-leather hair and the five-hundred-dollar tea service she likely keeps in her glove box. Doing what is expected has always been easier than doing what would make me happy.

Tim crawls onto my knee like horsey-goes-to-town. I dab the blood with the handkerchief and kiss his lip. It’s hot and already getting fat. His eyes are wide, the irises nearly the same blue as the Pacific that day in 1996. As Sammie talks about school zoning, I fantasize about opening the broom closet and diving headfirst into a saltwater wormhole that will take me back to the boat. I miss sailing. I miss the ocean. I miss being young. I hear her say, “You’d be so close to your mom and dad. Wouldn’t that be a big help! I wish my daughter lived across the street.” I think, no shit, me too. Her daughter is fun, but she’s a pediatrician in Washington, DC, now. Almost everyone I grew up with got out of this town, and they aren’t coming back. 

I want to swim down through the wormhole where no one can find me, not the university-professor carpool moms, not old classmates on Facebook, not my lazy ex-husband, not Sammie, not my parents, not Marco, not Tim. Not the people sending me emails, subject: Update expired credit card for autopay (multiply this message by the number of things I autopay: cell phone, toll tag, natural gas, electricity, city water, and trash collection). Or the mother emailing me, subject: Seeking 1st Grade fundraiser room-parent. Or the teacher with subject: Math tutor info, as discussed in conf. Or the city giving me subject: 2nd NOTICE, Curbside recycling RULES. Or subject: Time to schedule a well-child exam. Or subject: Well-woman exam overdue! Or subject: End of 2009 Soccer Season Party, snack assignments. Or subject: Dorian, Do you know Jesus? Or subject: Town Hall, delayed sidewalk project in your precinct. Or subject: We miss Tim at Kung Fu.

Underwater. I want to stay underwater until I am good and ready to come up, without the constraints of time or breathing or responsibilities. I dab his lip some more and imagine the water at whatever depth it takes to break time, the imperceptible current, the blue silence. I want to go back to when I was good at something and responsible only for me. I was good at being reckless, falling in shit and coming up roses, but I can’t live like that with a child. It’s too risky. 

Sammie leans down and pats Tim’s cheek, “You okay, sport?”

He nods. 

“You like it upstairs?” I ask, and hug him. After his bug announcement, I didn’t hear him up there at all. I wonder what became of the roaches. “Want to show me?” 

There are only a few rooms upstairs, but they’re big. Mrs. Nathan’s bedroom is so studded with windows, I don’t know where the bed would go. It had been tough during the divorce to decide what to do with our bed. I didn’t want it, but I didn’t want to think about Jesse putting another woman in it, either. No charity would take it, and it seemed wasteful to throw it out, so I’m still sleeping on it.

There’s a second bedroom, a paneled study, and one bathroom with the longest tub I’ve ever seen and a toilet floating a handful of tree roaches. I wonder if I could share a bathroom with Tim. I wonder if I could share a bathroom with a grown man again. 

Sammie puts her warm hand on my shoulder. It surprises me. My mother’s hands, and my own for that matter, are always freezing cold. “This could be a great investment for you, sweetie. Houses on this street are usually through the roof. If these were my clients, I’d never let them list so low, despite the recession,” she says with a sharp nod. 

“Do you think there’s something wrong with it?” I ask, looking around.

“There are small things to fix, but that’s all. And it hasn’t been updated, of course.” She smiles. “Good plumbing, roof, no aluminum wiring. Can you believe it?”

“Maybe they were in a hurry to get out of town.”

I open the closet in each bedroom, looking for the ocean. My closet at home doesn’t have space for a lightweight coat of paint. I’ve got all my old gear in there in case I’m ever invited to go out on the water. I saved a foul-weather jacket and bib, a PFD, gloves, Kevlar bag with a mainsheet and a Laser sail, half a dozen blocks I could eBay for fifty dollars a piece, and a four-hundred-dollar Lewmar self-tailing winch with a bearing out that I salvaged from a shipyard. 

I squint into the empty space, desperate for even the thinnest thread of memory, but 1996 has been re-stitched and stowed.

“Dorian.” Sammie touches my shoulder again. “Tim wants to see the backyard. I’ll take him. You keep looking.” 

I search the dustless baseboards for hints to how Mrs. Nathan ran her family with gusto. Was being a parent all she ever wanted? Mr. Nathan died when the kids were in high school. Mrs. Nathan didn’t work, so how did she feed them after that? Insurance policy? Family money? I walk back to the kitchen and turn on the water to wash the roaches down the disposal. I try to remember if Marco and I slept together that day on the boat. We didn’t. He did rub my feet, though, while we watched the sun drop. He put his thumb on the fish tattoo on the bottom of my foot and asked, “Why here?” I remember how proudly I told him the whole story of the college regatta when our boat dismasted. I got the tattoo after because our coach said that nineteenth-century sailors thought a pig tattooed on one foot would save them from drowning at sea. Four of us had our feet tattooed that night. No one picked a pig. Mine is a blue tang, and I hardly ate for a month to pay for it. I don’t come from a fancy sailing family. I learned to sail at Girl Scout camp. Sailing made me more myself, and I thought being good at it would get me anywhere I wanted to go. 

I learned this at Girl Scout camp, too: The time it takes to drown has to do with water temperature, level of fatigue, and swimming ability. It’s less often known that survival also depends a great deal on how long the swimmer can stay calm, hold her breath, and wait. 

And now I find myself back on the boat ten pounds thinner, in jeans and a bodysuit, ignoring Marco. I wanted to submarine swim to Hawaii, water touching every surface inch of my body as I pulled myself forward, giving me the feeling that nothing was touching me. Underwater, even gravity has to turn loose. Marco asked if I was going to jump or what. If I had the situation to do again, I’d take him over the side with me.

Sammie says, “We’ll be in the car,” from the other side of the screen door. The appointment is up. 

I cut off the memory and leave through the side door without locking it in case I want to come back. I tell Sammie I’ll think about making an offer. But I don’t know. When we reverse into the street, Sammie points the car the direction of my parents’ house. “Shoot,” she says. “I should’ve gone the other way.”

“It’s fine. I doubt they’re even home.” But when we pass, they are in the yard. 

My mother is fiddling with the irrigation panel on the side of the house. Dad is moving stuff stored next to the garage out of the mud: lawn mower, my old bike, a two-man fishing kayak he can’t control. The sprinkler has twice malfunctioned and run all night. When Mom relayed this, I didn’t tell her that I accidentally leave my old-fashioned sprinkler on all the time. It doesn’t matter that I make reminders to turn it off. Nor do I tell her sometimes I come home from work and see I left the door wide open all day. 

I don’t mind that Tim waves to my mom from the back seat. I’m turned looking at him. His hands are pressed to the window, his tongue thick and worrying the chip in his tooth. I make a mental note to call the dentist Monday. My mom looks worried. Our presence in Sammie’s car means there’s something she doesn’t know. A twinge plucks through my chest anticipating her questions. What was I doing with Sammie? Am I serious about the house? Will I expect her and Dad to babysit more often if I’m across the street? Can I manage ownership and upkeep? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. Mom puts a hand on her belly, because this is how she stands to receive news. It makes me put a hand on mine.

I was free to be whoever I wanted to be in California; there were no expectations. When you do that in your hometown, they call you a poser. How do you move forward like that? 


It was the light in the kitchen that I loved, I tell Sammie as she lets us out at our house. At first, she thinks I mean a particular fixture, and we are both confused for a minute. I know it’s idiotic that I’m thinking of planting roots across the street from my parents in a house I can barely afford in a mostly segregated neighborhood just so I can feel young in a memory. And can it last if I buy the house? Won’t a kitchen calendar and magnetic grocery list spoil the ecosystem? 


We’re at home on Third. Tim is almost asleep under the dining room table where he crashed with his pocket radio. He hasn’t napped in a year. Seems the showing was exhausting for him. 

As soon as he falls out, I call Kathleen, my one high school friend still living here. She brings over decorating magazines and a late lunch after I ask if she feels young anymore and what to do with a pink toilet. There isn’t a lot going on in this part of the world, which leaves single people time for walks in the woods and power squats. So she says she feels plenty young. As we flip pages, I try to match the Nathan/Stanford house on Eleanor Drive to the places I lived in San Diego but find no correlation. 

“Do you think Tim and I can share a bathroom?”

Kathleen says, “Sure, at least until he starts locking himself in there for privacy.”


Every so often, I think of his dad living here with us in the years ahead, and I wonder if we jumped the rail too soon, that maybe we would’ve eventually grown back together. Maybe he would’ve tightened up, and I would’ve learned to be myself on dry land, and an adult, and a mom all at once. I see him coming to bed after having the talk with Tim and us laughing about gummed-up sweat socks. These fantasies are unrealistic, I know, because in them my bedroom has French doors and curtains that flutter in the breeze, and Jesse is clean-shaven. 

The day we married, he wore a navy suit. Everything about him was sharp: newscaster hair he had trimmed every other week, orange suspenders and socks no one could see, the points of his collar stays sharp, the perfect crease down the front of his pants, and a wit that could cover gossip at the pizza dive to Russian politics. He was a razor sharp enough to cut us a path through the drudgery of maturity we saw inching our way. We wouldn’t let it get us, no! We were going to really live! We were going to make things happen! From the start, ours was a vague hope for an exciting future that wasn’t attached to anything in particular.

Kathleen has somebody from work for me to meet, she tells me as we scrape our teeth against the steamed artichoke leaves she brought with her. I tell her right now isn’t the best time and throw another cleaned leaf off the dirt clearing I call the patio. She asks what about fun? I think of the to-do list etched in my brain, things that need to be but are not yet done: 

-Trade carpool with Becky

-Check new after-school childcare hours at the Y

-Find new JEANS!!

-Return movies to library, pay fines

-Find item # and buy filters

-Lunch w/ Mom b-day

-Check for rec. age teen mermaid Netflix kids

-Treat tempera paint on slipcover & wash

-Take casserole to Rita

-Baby gift new clerk at work

-HVAC needs Freon

-Figure summer vacay. River again?

-Tim cleats

-Check if Jesse has soccer uniform

-Increase tax withholding

-Appt. for Tim’s eczema

Also, there are whites in the washer in the hot garage, but I think I have forty-five minutes before they start to sour.

 Kathleen goes home. I fill the tub for Tim and twice check the temperature before he gets in, even though I had a plumber install anti-scald devices in both our bathrooms after Jesse gave Tim a bath that left his toddler legs red for days. Jesse said he’d attributed the squirming and crying to normal bedtime fussiness. Even when it came up in the divorce, he maintained that Tim had been cranky all day, that there were no real burns, and if I’d been so concerned, why hadn’t I taken Tim to the doctor? He went on and on to the judge that we only ever used the hot water to fill the tub because it’s cast iron and cold all year long. “It tempers the water,” he said. This is true, but I always shut off the faucet and waited before I put the baby in. It wasn’t the burns I couldn’t fathom—parents make stupid mistakes. I hated that he’d been too clueless, or likely stoned, to recognize Tim was in pain. 

I remember him behind that court table, his lapel and hair equally rumpled. Listening to him plead his case made me angry and so sad for us. In the beginning of the relationship, the sex and optimism were luminous. Then we got overcome by the nitty-gritty of earning a living and having a baby. Jesse started substitute teaching Government. I worked my way up in the college Travel Reimbursement Office. 

I wondered if he remembered the Nova episode we’d watched that said there is no such thing as permanent heat. Absolute zero is the lowest possible point of energy, and most of the universe is constantly hovering just above it. We said—yes!—even stars are losing energy every second of existence; it wasn’t just us. That was the moment we recognized we were in trouble. We were similarly exhausted, but we no longer shared the ebb of pain or the flow of relief. We had separately fortified ourselves against the slow loss of heat. 

Tim listlessly draws on himself with colored soaps that look like crayons, then blots his skin with an eraser-shaped sponge. I sit on the toilet lid, calling out parts for him to wash. He tells me I already called pits, then turns to float face down, his white backside the brightest thing in the room. When he rolls over, he doesn’t mind the water in his eyes. I love that he’s never been afraid to get his face wet. 

Even though it’s Saturday night, I have to go to the office. I’m so behind on invoices. Tim tugs on his pj’s; then I put him to bed early as the sitter arrives. I decide to walk rather than drive because exercise releases endorphins. Microscopic particles of happiness still exist in the ether, but I must search them out and concentrate them into one idea to feel anything. Walking helps. This gives me the buoyancy I need to call my parents on the way. 

My father picks up, which is a relief. “Hello, darlin’,” he says like Conway Twitty. 

“Hell-low,” I say back, suddenly lighter. 

He doesn’t ask about Sammie. As is his fashion, he looks to the future first. “Tell me what’s going on good.” 

“We looked at the Nathans’ old house this morning.” I gird myself, not against his reaction but against my own admission. Moving to Eleanor Drive could seal my fate to repeat the monotony of my parents’ okay lives. Or, it could mean more options provided by a better elementary school, a savvy financial investment, and a neighborhood pool with a lifeguard.

“You in a position to move?” He’s reining the hope in his voice. He knows I make a good living but that Jesse only sporadically pays child support.

“We could maybe swing it,” I say as though Tim will be contributing. I push the button at the crosswalk, then step back because a huge tree roach is scurrying toward me. It continues straight over the curb and into the street like a shiny tortoiseshell hair clip with legs. 

“All right now!” Dad says. “That would be great.” He is excited, then moves on. “What are y’all up to this fine evening?” But before I answer, he says, “Your mother is at the gym. Want her to call you later?” 

Something interesting must have happened on the History Channel that he wants to get back to. I’m surprised Mom hasn’t called me already. “Sure. Love you.” 

“Love you more,” he says. 

Even though I still have to tell Mom, I am soothed. I once asked her if she’d felt desperate when I was young. She looked at me like I’d lost my mind and said she hadn’t had the luxury of thinking those thoughts. Given her financial situation then was roughly what mine is now, I didn’t know what she meant, but I knew not to ask again. If she’d lost herself when she had me, who was I to make her talk about it?

The walk sign counts down—eleven, ten, nine—as I wait for the lights to change, the traffic light as well as the sky behind it which is turning purple to navy. At four, a car passes and blasts me with a wave of warm exhaust. Instead of crossing toward work, I turn right and run up the block like Tim might. 


In my mind, the house smells of salt, though it didn’t this morning. A sliver of me wants to believe, as I run, in the absurd possibility that I can go back in time on Eleanor Drive to that moment of expansion on the boat, like it exists then and now simultaneously in some quantum, time-is-a-human-construction-folded-over-on-itself universe. Realistically, I know it’s bullshit, but in every other way of physics that doesn’t follow the laws of human understanding, it’s possible. I know I won’t and completely think I might open a door to a new department of life I didn’t know existed. 

My underarms are sticky by the time I reach Eleanor Drive. No light comes from the house. I’m relieved that the unlocked side door is in darkness. I turn the knob and go in, leaving the switches off. The security light in the Smiths’ yard next door throws austere blue patches onto the cabinetry. I imagine myself laid out on the countertop peninsula—the one Tim tried to karate chop in half—relieved of the burden of holding myself up, lounging on a boat cushion with Marco hovering over me. I go to the sink and turn on the water to listen to it splash. What am I doing here? How long can I suck on this stupid memory before it dissolves? And what then?

I make the corner and pause at the bottom of the stairwell, filled with the sulfur-yellow light of the streetlamp at the corner. The hardwood stairs pop like arthritic knuckles. The creak of a boat straining is like the slow reinflation of a flattened plastic water bottle. In the bedroom, the light is so potently hued I expect it to smell like eggs, but it’s the standard stale of vacancy. 

The tub in the upstairs bathroom, the only tub in the house, is big enough to swallow even tall, redoubtable Marco. I sit on the edge and twist the hot-water handle and wait and wait, then put my hand in it. The water heater will be the trick. The Stanfords left the water and electricity on for showings. Maybe the water heater is electric. But maybe it’s gas, and no one leaves the gas hooked up in an empty house. 

The cold water turns my nails white before growing tepid and finally warm. I use my palm and the showerhead to wash the dust and disembodied bug legs down the drain until the porcelain is nearly as smooth as our tub at home. I drop in the plug and let the water fill. The floor requires a wipe with toilet paper before I can put my clothes on it. I fold them small and carefully because this feels tidy. I think, how stupid to get naked in a stranger’s house and how daring.

I get in: feet then butt then small of my back. The heat, as I inch into the water, feels like it’s burning off the first layer of cells all over my body. A chemical peel. Tim would remind me water is a chemical after all. It fills in the spaces around my hair when I lie down. Big inhale to fill every nook that can be made buoyant. Up pop my breasts, miniature whales breaching. I press down on my belly but can’t push myself under. I hold the breath until my lungs burn like my skin. 

Stopping time requires total submersion, which requires emptiness, so I exhale everything until the moist walls of my lungs feel like they’re touching. Like two sheets of plastic wrap stuck together. This is how I would submarine swim to Hawaii. 

Kathleen is wrong. I don’t want a boyfriend, I realize. I want a boat. And to sail alone to the edge of Galveston Bay for the night, though I can’t remember how to securely set an anchor in a tide. I want to go anyway and wing it. But Tim. A better sailor could anchor in the bay, no danger. But I’m not a good sailor anymore, and I could drift into the ship channel and leave Tim motherless or drift into someone’s yacht and leave us broke. Every consequence I incur, I incur for us both.

The most insistent question in my life is whether I should restart the engine or resign to the sedative depths. Sometimes a decision can be reached only by getting very close to the water, so close that the boat heels with my weight. But if someone steps to the edge with me, over we both go, tangling together deeper and deeper without air. How do you hold that pulmonary vacuum so far down and force yourself to swim toward a pinprick of light while towing someone to the surface with you? How do you pick all that effort instead of one breath that would let it all be easy? One breath and you’re swimming to Hawaii.

I choke and sputter and snap up my torso and legs like a spring-loaded hinge. The room’s cool is abrupt, chilled glass against a sunburn. My breathing catches, then slows. I frantically crane to make sure I’m still alone. There’s no noise but the sloshing of water. I sit, breathe, look around. Sagging pink shower tiles. Pink toilet. My own shiny pink toenails, slick as the hull of a race boat sponsored by Pepto-Bismol. I pull the plug. There’s water all over the place. It reflects the security light across most of the floor. My clothes are soaked. 

Downstairs, as I dry my feet with a paper towel, I hear the water draining from the tub. It falls in the pipes behind the walls, under the house, through the sewer tap, and into the city line. I picture my sloughed-off skin, for some reason, going with the contents of those pipes (oh, the bug parts) to the treatment plant by the river. It could be recycled back to town from there, I don’t know. But maybe some is treated and released into the river, delivering a fraction of my DNA to Anahuac and Trinity Bay, the eastern lobe feeding Galveston Bay, and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. 

I slip on my sandals, step outside, turn the knob lock, and shut the door. This layer of skin feels new to the world, vivified. Because of the humidity, neither my skin nor my clothes will dry before I get home. On the walk back to Third, I picture Tim’s face with the radio dial against it. Any kid would be less a pain in the ass with a mother who doesn’t need to decide every few years if she wants to stay the course, but I’m the mom he’s got. I picture the sagging, pale-pink faces associated with each house I pass until I’m back in my neighborhood. In our entry mirror, I look like a dunked, middle-grade Baptist, water beaded to my chest and stuck to the fine hairs on my arms. 


I am groggy the next day until lunch, when the sun finally hits our west windows. I start cruising the internet for sailing schools. There’s a J/World school at the coast. They specialize in racing tactics on one-design boats—J/22, J/24, J/80. I kept my racing gear, assuming I’d be competitive again one day, but what I need now are practical navigation skills. 

There’s something called Captain Ray’s Marine Training. It offers Coast Guard license courses. Prerequisite: 360 days on the water since age eighteen. I do the math for the summers I taught on the water every single day, May through August. Then I read that 90 of those 360 must be in the last three years. I’ve had almost no time on the water since I moved back to Texas. 

Under a beach ball icon labeled Other Services, I find Family Marine Training. I dial Captain Ray’s number to leave a message requesting information, because it’s Sunday. That’ll keep me going, at least through tomorrow. A woman answers. I’m so surprised someone picked up that I entirely forget how to talk on the phone. She is Ray.

When I hesitate, she says “Hello, this is Ray” a second time.

“Hi. Ah. I’m on your site. I expected to get voicemail.” I try to laugh. “I was looking at the family class.”

“Yes?” she asks in a tone that invites me to continue. But I don’t, so she does.

“Are you planning a trip?”

“Ah, no. Well, I don’t think so.” I tuck my chin and rest my forehead in my hand. Goddamn it. “Can you tell me about your family requirements?” 

“Sure. Children have to be at least five. All students must pass a swim test and have two weeks sea time within the last ninety days.” She takes a breath. “It’s designed for families preparing for a passage.” 

Blue water. Ocean. These are the words she did not say that go before passage.

“Fourteen days consecutively?” I ask.

“No, not necessarily, and any time on the water over the course of a day counts.” 

If she thinks I'm a joke, she’s nice about it. I reread the description while she talks. Her words are so oiled. It’s obvious she’s delivered them many times. I want to Learn to read charts What to do in the event of mechanical failure. Her accent has a rhythm I know by heart. It’s one of the few things I missed about Texas when I lived in California. I expect her to call me honey, but she doesn’t, because Ray is a professional. 

I’ve gotten out of my chair. I move to the backdoor window. Clouds are scattered like cotton across a blue tarp after harvest. Tim is playing with the hose on the patio. I pick up a green crayon and a coloring page at my feet and write PFD over Dora and Diego. Personal Flotation Device. Tim constricts the flow of the hose with his thumb and sends up a huge arc prismatizing the yard into a kaleidoscope. He stops moving and watches the water. Everything from his feet to the corner of the yard shimmers, pixilated beads of color that fall pulsing—jewels to faint pastels to jewels again. Tim is content. I want to hold him in my lap, even wet like a dog, and wrap my arms around his shoulders. Ray is still giving me details. I walk outside quietly and stand behind Tim, letting the mud splash up on my bare feet. 

He sees me, and I open my eyes and mouth wide, to show him I think this moment is incredible too. 

“Time can be accrued on any registered vessel, canoe to aircraft carrier, on any body of water,” Ray finished. 

I perk up. That means… “Even a kayak?” 

“Yes, ma’am, so long as it’s registered. You know, the numbers along the bow.”

I do know. “Thank you so much,” I tell Ray. “I need to check on some things, and I’ll get back with you next week. I’m Dorian, by the way.” 

I end the call and squat to Tim’s level. He puts his arms around my neck, hose still in his hand, and kisses my temple. Water shoots down the back of my shirt. I bow my spine but do not scream because it would be right in his ear.

He goes back to playing. I hunt inside for an old towel, mark Ray’s site on my computer before I lose it, and then call Sammie to deliver the news. We will not be moving.

She says it’s okay, and besides, her partner took a woman there today after church and found a leak upstairs. “Didn’t you just know it was too good to be true?” She sounds so disappointed.

“It was the roaches,” I blurt out. “There aren’t as many over in this part of town.” I hear something against the phone, and I imagine it’s her impressive hair rubbing the receiver as she shakes her head. She still thinks I’m hopeless. For once, I know I’m not.

We drive the long way to the store on a route that will take us by the Nathan house. I prepare myself to see the sun gloriously hitting the white planks the way Jesus rays break the clouds to illuminate a Bible on church TV. I brace for that certain light that ignites regret. The bushes in the side yard obscure the house completely until we are at the end of the drive. Only then can I see that the house is as plain as every other on the street. Its plainness thrills me.

I punch the gas past the house and through the Eleanor Drive roundabout for the fun of it. The centrifugal force plasters Tim to the window. When he peels his face away, he’s laughing hysterically, the same way he laughs when I tickle him. It makes me laugh that way, too. 

“Where are we going anyway?” he howls.

 “To get you a life jacket,” I say, then turn back to the road.

I still have mine. 

Amanda Nowlin is a writer whose work has appeared in Callaloo, Gulf Coast, Vandal, The Dallas Morning News, and the anthology Literary Cash: Unauthorized Writings Inspired by the Legendary Johnny Cash. She is a sailor, rancher, backpacker, beekeeper, former college professor, and mother to two dynamic girls who are full of moxie. In Amanda’s spare time, she works as a teaching artist in the National Book Foundation’s BookUp program in Huntsville, Texas, where she lives with her family. 


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