The sun beat down and the rocks were hot to walk over. Kate took an inner tube way out in the river, her long pale body draped over the tube, her arms and legs splashing in the water, her face skyward. Noah and Ben waded out, Noah carrying Ben’s football and bragging about how he could throw a tight spiral. Amy and I took our buckets to collect rocks and those tiny, dark fish that swim in the mud.
Last time we went to the river it was just Noah and me, so he didn’t mind hanging back at the edge of the water teaching me how to skip rocks. But Amy kept taking the rocks I found to make pieces of her mud castle and trying to make rules about what to do with the water we filled our buckets with, which annoyed me. I decided to skip rocks instead and enjoyed the idea of throwing a nice flat rock before Amy could claim it.
I watched the boys out in the water, envious.
“Noah, Look!” I called, wanting to show him skip tricks I learned on my own.
“Noah, look!” I tried again, choosing a real flat one.
I walked up to see what the moms were doing. They were leaned in, talking, the smell of cooking meat telling me they’d settled us in for the day. Bags unpacked, cooler full, they prepared food for when we emerged from the water at our various times, hungry from play.
“Uh-Oh,” Mom said as I approached. “What’s eatin’ you?”
“I’m bored,” I said, plopping down on the bench, arms folded over my chest, heels banging against the cooler full of Shasta.
“Only boring people get bored,” she said.
“I’m not boring!” I hated when she said that. I scrunched up my face and kicked the cooler hard with one heel, then the other.
“Are you hungry?” She stood, turning the dogs on the barbecue.
I nodded yes. Mom lightly tugged one pigtail and I smiled, but then immediately went back to brooding. I took a hot dog with only ketchup and headed back to the river, eyes tracking the boys way out in the water.
“Noah, look!” I skipped the flattest rock I could find with my one free hand.
I waded closer and tried again.
Still closer, hot dog held high.
From a reservoir in the Olympics, the Wynoochee flows to the Chehalis. Rivers move the water to the sea, where the water evaporates into rain, falls back into the cycle again. We drew pictures of this cycle for science class once. Our teacher tacked them on the wall, each one a little different, each one the same, titled The Water Cycle. My cow looked like a dog, my rain cloud frowned. I mottled my sun with flecks of orange, red, and yellow.
The moment the river swept me under I saw the fireball sun, the evergreen sentinels surrounding us, the rare blue sky.
I’ve heard drowning is supposed to hurt, but I don’t remember feeling pain. I remember significant silence and spinning, spinning, spinning, the water turning cold, colder as I sank. I remember flashes of white light, dark hair fanning out—white legs—as Kate swooped in to save me.
Delivered back to shore, I coughed water out my mouth and nose.
“Are you okay?” All the color gone from Mom’s face, she held my shoulders tight.
Was I dead?
“She’s awake and breathing.” Panic in Mom’s voice.
Mom held me on her lap the rest of the afternoon telling me stories about her childhood, like the time she punched a boy for saying there was no Santa Claus and how she loved to spend entire afternoons sitting on a branch of a maple tree in her front yard. She sang “You Are My Sunshine”, her mouth curving into a smile and her eyes yessing me on You. I drank three lemon-lime sodas and ate all the chips I wanted. She braided my hair and let me try on her mirrored sunglasses.
Someone snapped a picture of me sitting there, eyes downcast, kicking the blue cooler. I came across an old photograph not so long ago, digging through a softened cardboard box of photos from the top of Mom’s closet.
The second time I nearly drowned, I was eleven. At Wynoochee again, watching the kids my age and older out in deeper water, away from the babies and adults under the shade of a spruce, splashing, laughing, treading water. I moved closer and closer, feet still on the ground because they had to be and I didn’t know they wouldn’t be and I would be forced to swim. There were boys and girls swim-huddled, enjoying a privacy between them arrived at just by swimming out into the river, visible, but out of earshot of their parents. I thought maybe I could reach them, these confident girls and newly muscled boys.
I’d come to the river that day with Mindy’s parents. I did not know then I was in the twilight of that friendship. As friends do, I felt certain Mindy and I would always be sitting on picnic blankets by rivers, drinking sugary beverages together, eating hot dogs, whispering our secrets in trade. You tell me one, I’ll tell you. Mindy had to repeat kindergarten, plus she was a fall baby, so in just a few months she would turn thirteen. She was preparing for that day. She reclined, propped on her elbows, her new breasts accented. She wore a white neon paint-splashed bikini with little bows on each hip. She crossed one leg over the other, settled onto her elbows, her sunglasses shielding the fact that she observed every movement of a group of boys looking for a lost Frisbee in the woods near the shore.
When their Frisbee landed on our blanket, she snatched it up and waited.
“Sorry about that,” The tallest, tannest boy approached.
“It’s cool.” She still held the Frisbee, turn-tossing it in her hand.
“Can we have it back?”
“If you tell me your name,” she said.
He laughed. “Kevin, and that’s Jake and Joe.”
Mindy handed over the Frisbee. “I’m Mindy, and this is Eve.”
I flushed. The sun seemed hotter, brighter. I squinted my eyes to look up at him, managed a cracked hello.
Mindy gave no warning before she dove into the water. She walked up to the edge of the river, took two quick steps, aimed her arms out, palms together and dove her body to where it was deep enough to swim.
I stayed for a while watching as she swam out to the huddle of kids on the woods side of the river, away from the parent side, the shore. Mindy knew I couldn’t swim, but maybe she forgot. I hadn’t told her parents.
I waded out, the chill river water bathing my feet. I waded closer, drawn to their chatter, the laughter that reached to the tops of the trees, the splashing of legs and arms, the occasional self-baptism as one of them held their nose and dove under, then up again, shaking the water off.
A drop off.
One step my feet were on the ground and then—no ground.
Kevin saw my flailing arms, heard my cries, and saved me. He pulled me onto his inner tube and swam me to shore. Oh, my god, you nearly drowned. I think I might have saved you. I didn’t mean to, I just did. I can only guess, but that’s how I heard what he didn’t say.
I have returned in my memory to those near-drownings again and again, only vaguely aware of their most important aspect. I have written that it was the brush with death itself, that particular loss of innocence. I have written that it was Kate, so self-assured, and how she left a memory trace I could build on if I wanted to. Was it Noah and the distance between us? Was it the heat of the day? Was it the look of fear on Mom’s face when I came to? Was it Kevin and his saving me?
My near drownings don’t compare to the ones that came after, the ones that weren’t about staying afloat in water but were a kind of drowning nonetheless, were also about movement and breath in spite of the brain and fear. What I want to show you is how I learned to save myself, how it had everything to do with movement.
*Liz Shine lives in Olympia. She believe in the power of practice, and has practiced writing since some time in the early 90s when she became an adult in the rain-soaked city of Aberdeen. She writes fiction, some nonfiction and poetry, and holds an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University. Her work has been published in Shark Reef, Dual Coast, and Blue Crow Magazine. When she is not writing or reading, she is teaching, getting outdoors, and in every way trying to be in the wonder of the moment. Liz is the proprietor of Red Dress Press and the author of Make Time, a blog encouraging myself and others to make time for creative work.