When I was seven, I thought I’d drowned.
The thing about water is that you don’t know when it’s going to try and kill you until it’s too late. Until you’re head’s under and the current’s dragging you some kind of direction and your lungs are burning for air. And you don’t know which way is up, because once you’re under there is no up, just a permanent state of un-being.
The Clements family visited their lake house once every year, for about two weeks at a time, depending on when was the best time for the eldest daughter, Rachael, a young and talented Broadway actress. The other child, me, had more free time than she knew what to do with, and was not ever consulted on any decisions.
Still, I loved the lake house as a child. It felt magical. Not because of the crystal-clear lake or the extravagant house, but because it was two weeks, every year, with Rachael. Everything that happened within the bounds of that house, that lake, still feels like a fairytale. Just remember that not all fairytales have happy endings.
On the day that it happened, it had been the end of summer, some time in late July. The air had been hot and buggy, and I recall quite vividly that the whole day felt like it moved in slow motion, as if the air was so thick that it took effort to move a limb through it. The adults, my mother and my grandmother, had stayed on the back porch, day-drinking and failing at whatever DIY hobby had caught Grandma’s fancy that year. I believe that particular year it had been macramé.
From the back porch, the grassy ground sloped down, spotted with prickly plants that I knew to avoid, and led to the rocks at the edge of the water. I knew every inch of the grass between the water and the lake house; I had it all charted in my head. As usual, I’d been playing with Rachael, directing her in some stage play I’d written, letting her improvise scenes and songs since she was, after all, the lead. I used to spend all year long as a child, in between school and gymnastics and swimming lessons, thinking of stories we could act out standing on those rocks.
It being quite humid, Rachael had taken to lying on a towel in the sun, and had told me to act out something for her. She was eleven then, and beginning to think that she was old enough to be adult; I’d seen her tasting Mom’s mixed drinks at the house that morning, when no one else had been looking. She had grown taller, too, which made her look slimmer and more fashionable in her brand-new two-piece suit. Grandma told her every day that week that she should be a model, and when she caught me looking on, the old witch had pursed her lips at me and said my face was too wide and my eyes were too dim.
So Rachael had been kicking her legs in the air, lying on her stomach and looking at me expectantly. I’d been giddy with the idea of performing for her, and had shouted up at the porch, “I’m going to sing! I’m going to sing!”
To which dear old Mother had called back, “Please don’t, darling.” Grandma probably said something too, and I’m sure I’m lucky I didn’t hear it.
I’d perched my bare feet on the rocks, introduced myself and begun the scene, and launched into song. Rachael had giggled and clapped along, Mom had gone inside to refill her drink no doubt, and Grandma had stood up, her back hunched and her wig perfectly immaculate despite the humidity. I cannot recall what she’d said, only that she’d thrown a bottle over the side of the porch, letting it shatter in the grass, upsetting Rachael and successfully interrupting my unpracticed performance.
I’d been so startled, in fact, that my sweaty feet had slipped on the rocks at the edge of the lake, and suddenly I found myself crossing the boundary between realities: air and water. And while, at seven, I had technically done ‘swimming’ before, I had never successfully done it without the watchful eye of an instructor or the aid of some kind of floatation device. Which is why, I’ve been told, I fell right in, plummeted to the bottom like a sack of stones, did not kick my feet or even try to save myself, and even had the bad fortune to knock my head on a rock on the way down. I was told I was a disaster to save, caused the nice man next door quite a scare, the way I fought and coughed all that water up on him.
Grandma told me from her hospice bed when I was twenty-two that she didn’t think I wanted to be saved that day. I didn’t come and visit her after that.
Mom uses that story like a party favor, an anecdote to get people laughing and in a good mood during investment dinners and events of the like.
I remember it like this: my stomach dropped, and my toes curled against the rocks, and even before I hit the water I knew what was about to happen, and my eyes caught on the sun above me, blinding. The water paralyzed me, and there was a sharp pain in my right temple, and I had a thought that this is what it would be like to be caught in a washing machine, churning and being thrown head-over-heels. I didn’t want my eyes open but I couldn’t shut them, and everything was dark, seaweed or fish brushed against my legs, making me scream out the last of the air in my lungs. When something finally grabbed me I thought it was God, and this was the end, and that was only confirmed when I was dragged back into the light and I thought the sun was going to swallow me whole, because that’s where I thought Heaven must be, when I thought there was such a place. I had fought then, because no seven-year-old wants to die.
I’ve always loved the water, but since then, I won’t go in it. Not ever.
I find the Honorary Inn, somehow, stumble up the stairs to the Violet room. The walls are crawling with images of waves, but I know they’re all in my head. The rock in my hand--phone--doesn’t feel right, and I realize it’s not. It’s Walker’s phone, which means I can’t call anyone because I’m not a freak that memorizes phone numbers. There’s still water in my mouth, and I retch into the sink. Tear off my wet clothes.
I feel like I’m going to throw up again, and the room is too dark but I can’t stand the light. At some point I wrap myself in a kimono and find the landline in the empty lobby, and there’s only one phone number I know by heart.
When I hang up, I slink back upstairs, tears dripping off my chin, and I’m too afraid to lie down and my hands won’t stop shaking, and I hate being awake but I’m afraid of being swallowed by the sun. I scrub my arms and hair with towels until my skin is pink. I curl up in a ball in the armchair. Force my eyes closed. Pray I don’t dream of anything at all.