Find Me at the Bottom of a Pool
There’s a girl in our swimming class who’s always angry. She was probably born that way. Bristling, we mean. Even our instructor, Ben, doesn’t look her in the eye. Ben is big and blocky and we stare at him like he’s a rare but gentle animal.
We had heard the angry girl’s name before, more than once, but it had never burrowed deep roots in our brains. A bellyflop, a cold shower, a walk in the rain without an umbrella—that was all it took to wash it out.
Whenever she surface-dives, we put our goggles on and our faces under. We know, even before our instructor does, when she can’t touch the bottom. So close, we murmur, bubbling, when she flutter-kicks back the way she came, breaking the surface empty-fisted and as angry as ever.
We tread water in a circle, passing a big, orange pylon around. Our instructor, Ben, has a cold today and keeps yelling from his nose, Keep the pylon dry! We pass it to the angry girl and we see what we’ve always known: she is too small, too weak. She cheats—she’s not treading water, but half flat on her back—and we understand. Our instructor goes, Head up! Five more seconds! He goes, Keep the pylon dry! We see it coming, but we still gasp when the pylon goes fwap! and glugs pool water, dipping beneath our bicycling feet.
Fwap, ooh, glug glug.
Afterwards, our instructor, Ben, catapults five handfuls of pennies into the pool. He tells us, Search. He tells us, Rescue. Through the pink and blue tints of our goggles, we scour the pool bottom, fingers curling around copper secrets. Where we are, tucked underwater, the light is always the same: waxy and slow. Sometimes, if we aren’t careful, we forget if it’s summer or winter, daytime or nighttime.
Poolside, cross-legged on warm tile, we stack our pennies into perfect towers. The angry girl sits with her back to us, facing the water, coins glistening on the floor behind her. We have no choice, we feel. Screwing up our courage, we steal them for our perfect towers. But she sees us.
She glares at us with eyes like frosted windows. Some of us wilt and some of us clamp our mouths shut, shrugging. Floating around our ankles and up to our heads is the smell of her anger. In it: a hint of roughness, of distant thunder, of souls being slingshotted to the far side of the world. We look away. We look at each other. We look at our instructor, Ben. Get changed, he says. Because today is the last class, he will meet with us one by one to slip us report cards and—if we passed—medals.
Swathed in colourful towels, those of us who are girls perch on changeroom benches, coupled off in hushed tête-à-têtes. When we see her walk, naked and bleeding, out of the shower area, we swallow our words whole. In her hands is an object the size of a Chinese pork bun. We crowd around her, shoulders smacking, to see. It is dark like a kidney, raked with blood vessels and pockmarked with a thousand commas that open to become eyes.
From the smell, we know: it is her anger.
At night, in bed, we bite our medals to fall asleep. We dream of nothing but flocks of crows plunging through open windows. Some of us skip lunch and some of us skip dinner. One of us won’t eat anything but French fries and lone, boiled hotdogs. We cross our arms, stomp our feet. We slam our lockers and bedroom doors, screaming at our substitute teachers and stepmoms to leave us the fuck alone. To the letdown of our instructors Matt and Jenny and Steven, we find ourselves out of breath, ears popping, unable to touch pool bottoms. Secretly, we fear we are becoming empty cicada shells.
Us boys, we don’t even realize we’re bristling. But we girls, we stew in our bathtubs, running our hands over our thighs and stomachs and breasts—searching. Sometimes, for a moment, we catch it. Under our palms and through the stretching skin of our bodies, we feel the familiar flutter of a thousand blinking eyes.
Carolyn Chung lives and writes in Toronto. Her work has appeared in FreeFall Magazine.
Illustrated by Meghan Murphy.