By J. David Thayer
You’ve swum this beach dozens of times, so you don’t respect it. You don’t even notice how different the conditions are today. The water is choppy and stained. The cable of buoys enclosing the Public Swimming Beach has snapped. Rusted through, most likely. Now the two separate strands float out perpendicular to the shore and parallel to each other. Lots of people bob and splash and float in between. All ages and shapes. Busy day. Fourth of July weekends always are. Your brothers are with you, and so are their kids. So is your son. Eight years old. You brought a toy football because it’s so much fun to play catch in the water. Done it dozens of times. Everyone loves it.
At first, you all agree to play very near the shore. It works for a little while. Then the ball goes over your nephew’s head and starts to float away. You’ll get it because you’re a strong swimmer. You wade out after it, but the water is different today. The ball is moving away from the shore faster than you would have expected. Stupid, cheap toy football. But you’re in the Public Swimming Beach. It’s a safe place, so you give chase.
Wading in the heavy water is too slow. It’s getting further away from you. You lunge at it, but it’s just past your fingertips. Have to swim for it now. Three inches away. Always three inches away. This is silly! Get it already. Grab it! But you can’t catch up to it. You have to swim a little harder. It’s not even a legit football. It’s about four inches long, made of foam, painted blue and orange. And it’s a knockoff, besides. No way this thing cost more than 99 cents. A big wire basket filled with the things near the register in Sporting Goods. Let it go. Who cares! But it’s right there. Get it! This is stupid. You’ve almost got it, so get it! Get it.
You get it! Finally! You knew you’d win! Stupid, cheap, knockoff, blue and orange toy football. You showed it. Kinda wore yourself out, but you showed it! Nice! You can stop swimming now.
Your feet can’t touch bottom.
You pivot in the water. You’re guessing you’re at least 100 yards from shore. The current was helping you and the football glide further out, but now it’s your enemy. Why is it so strong today? Never been like this before. You take a quick self assessment and discover you’re way more winded than you should be. You remember you never exercise. You’re not in your twenties anymore. Not even close. You wonder if you were ever a good swimmer in the first place. Maybe you just thought you were.
You can’t expand your lungs to take a full breath. Short half breaths at best. You remember back at the lake house your dad offered you a life jacket, but you refused it. “Nah! We’re just playing a little catch in the shallows at the Public Swimming Beach,” you said. “Done it dozens of times,” you said. Dozens of times.
You begin to know some things. You know you’re in serious trouble. You know you’re too tired to fight against this current. You know you can’t inflate your lungs with enough air to continue bobbing much longer. You know something else has to happen, if it isn’t too late already. Maybe you should float on your back for a few seconds. Give your arms a chance to rest and get your lungs a few full gasps of good air. You try it.
It doesn’t work. Your breathing is exactly the same. Can’t inhale deeply enough. It’s getting worse. You roll over and resume your bobbing position. The current pulled you out even further while you tried floating. You’ve never been so utterly out of air. Maybe it’s not as deep as it seems. Maybe the lakebed is just two or three feet below you. Maybe you can go under and bounce off the bottom. Pogo your way to shore. You try it.
Nope. You can’t find the bottom. You tried, but there is no end to the water and the dark and the cold. You’re out of air and out of ideas. You always wondered what your end would be, but this? Of course, this. Why not. No one ever guesses these things. Everyone thinks they have much more time ahead. No one picks up a toy football from a wire basket in Sporting Goods and says, “So you’re the one, huh? Nice to meet you.” Plans only go so far. It’s all preordained and random and out of your control.
Don’t kid yourself. It’s not that complicated. You should have taken that life jacket.
You should be scared, but you notice you are not. It’s surreal. An odd peace begins to settle in. Your fight is fading. It’s all too hard. You take in your surroundings. This is the place. It’s today and very soon.
Then you see your boy watching from the shore. He’s laughing, so he doesn’t know. He’s going to see it happen. You know you’ve taken his daddy from him for the sake of stupid pride. Only now do you pray. “Lord, don’t let him see this! He doesn’t deserve this!” Your brothers watch, too. One of them is watching very closely. He almost knows, but it doesn’t matter. He can’t help you. Too much water separates you. Hundreds of people are close enough to help, but you don’t have the breath to yell, so they don’t know. They bob and splash and float and laugh. It’s a good day.
She’s probably twelve or thirteen. Her parents are watching, too. All three are so calm. She paddles out to you with her air mattress. “Here you go,” she says. Nothing else. You grab a corner and throw your chest onto the inflatable. Your lungs fill for the first time in ten horrific minutes. Maybe fifteen. Maybe five. “Thank you” doesn’t say it.
You save that stupid toy football, blue and orange.
Write the date on it with a Sharpie.
Look at it every so often.
Dozens of times so far.