Robert remembers standing on the diving board, fear tightening around his body like a rope. Instead of leaping into the swimming pool water, he turned around and descended the ladder, eyes downcast.
He gets flashes from his childhood at the restaurant during dinner. Trying to compose himself, he lets the ambience at The Oregano wash over him like a gentle wave. Mellow lights reflecting off decorative vases, strains of a saxophone weaving in and out with people’s voices, the air thick with perfume and the aroma of food. Taking a sip from his wine glass, he glances toward the restaurant kitchen door. At any moment now, a waiter in black will be hurrying out with his slice of strawberry cheesecake.
This celebration of his recent promotion is well deserved, considering how he has kept going in a straight line, ignoring the crooked paths pursued by his bullying co-workers. He’s past some of that now, as a manager, but he will have to deal with newer challenges. Monday morning looms like some ferocious beast guarding the gates of the rest of the work week as he faces the most unpleasant task of his new responsibilities.
“The first time’s the hardest,” his father had told him when, as a child, he was learning to dive. After initial resistance, Robert had climbed onto the high diving board only to freeze at the outer edge. He has never made another attempt ever since.
Just as his dessert arrives, there is a pause in the background hum of voices. People’s faces are turned towards a table in the corner. A young man is down on one knee, facing a woman seated opposite him. She has her back to Robert. The man is holding out a sparkling diamond ring and his face is lit up as if the jewel were emanating luminescence.
The woman rocks backward and forward in her chair, hands over her mouth. Nodding vigorously, she extends her arm. The man puts the ring on her finger and the crowd erupts in applause as they kiss and hug each other.
“They’re like two children with balloons,” thinks Robert, smiling.
Then the woman turns. It’s Kim. Robert’s smile fades and he drops his fork on the floor. He bends down to pick it up and when he looks up again, she is seated as before, with her back to him. She has not seen him.
As a teammate, an envious Kim blamed him for her mistakes at work and spread rumors about him almost daily. Robert heaves a sigh of relief at avoiding her even though she is now his subordinate. His elevation to a higher job title is like a new skin he has slipped into by chance and he needs to get used to it. However, this is unlikely to happen immediately, so he calls for the bill, pays and leaves.
As he lies in bed at night, he begins to view it as a good thing—this secret knowledge he possesses—about a rosy new phase beginning in her life. The thought that the engagement will provide a cushion for the upcoming blow soothes him to sleep.
The next morning, Robert wakes up early. He makes his coffee stronger than usual and during his commute, chooses a radio station playing peppy music instead of the news. When he arrives at work, most of the lights are still off. In the quietness, there are faint stirrings, like those of a hostile giant who is about to wake up. A figure sits typing in front of a computer monitor, oblivious to his presence. Robert quickly steps into a conference room and sits down with all the paperwork. He is on the diving board, waiting to take the plunge.
There is a knock on the door and Kim enters.
“You wanted to see me?” She asks.
“Yes. Please sit down,” Robert says without looking up, needlessly shuffling through the papers in his hands.
She sits down in front of him. He tries to shake off the nervous unease that he is used to feeling when he is in her vicinity, always bracing himself for a snarky comment.
Robert clears his throat. “As you are aware, the company has not done well these past two quarters and in my new capacity as your manager, I am faced with the difficult task of…”
Kim flinches and gasps. Robert stops speaking and glances up. The fingers of Kim’s left hand are bare. There is no diamond ring. He looks at her other hand, just in case he has made a mistake. Nothing there either.
Robert’s eyes sweep over Kim’s face and torso, taking in every detail. The deep sadness in her almond-shaped eyes and the faint crease in her forehead. The slouched shoulders and the way the thin lips curve downwards. The jaw set hard against some newly-formed foe who has laid down a rich carpet, only to snatch it away from beneath her feet in one night.
Robert’s ears are ringing with the background squeals and laughter of other kids splashing about in the swimming pool of his childhood. It all comes back to him now in startling clarity. The water is as if it were contained within the curvature of the earth underneath, while he gazes at it from thousands of miles above.
The blue liquid is unfathomably deep. His heart is pounding but a voice inside is egging him on, “jump!”
He imagines his legs bending at the knees. As they uncoil, his toes leave the hard surface of the diving board. In his mind’s eye, he is on his way down, all set to cut the surface of the water. Back in the room, he gathers his resolve and sends unfaltering words whizzing through the air like arrows towards their target.
On Friday that week, Robert goes to the swimming pool near his home. He climbs up onto the highest diving board and without a moment’s hesitation, plunges into the water.