It’s summer, and I’m four years old. That puts us at 1994. Mom, Dad, and I are at a waterpark that doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m running around and splashing. My nose burns from trying to inhale while underwater, and the chlorine’s effects have spread to my eyes, making everything look impressionistic. This is my earliest memory.
Drew isn’t there. He’s at a friend’s, maybe, or football practice, I can’t remember. Either way, I’m wandering around while Mom suns and Dad goes to get himself a drink.
There are some other kids there, but not very many, and most of them are so young that they can’t even stand yet. I look from them to my mother to them again. A little farther past, there’s the main pool where all the older kids and adults are swimming.
The main part of the pool is open, but at the end, at the deep end, there’s one of those pool dividers to set up lanes for competitive swimming. A bunch of teenagers are messing around in those lanes, holding onto the dividers, dunking their heads under, and reappearing on the other side. The lifeguards aren’t watching.
I run over to the edge of the main pool, laughing, having no concept of the world other than what’s right here. I crouch down and put my small hands on the edge. I dip my toes in. One of the lane dividers is just a few feet in front of me. It would be so easy to reach it. The teenagers are still over there splashing, dunking, and carrying each other on their shoulders. I scoot off of the edge and fall into the pool.
The extent of my knowledge about swimming at this time has come from Drew holding me afloat in the pool while I doggy paddle, so my body goes back to that out of instinct. It doesn’t work, though. I splash and thrash, but I can’t keep my head above water. Even under there, I can still hear the happy sounds of people enjoying themselves, but the sounds seem to be coming from miles away.
I know it’ll burn, but I open my eyes anyway. Everything is harsh. Harsh blue of the water, harsh reds and oranges of bathing suits, faraway wrinkled feet, and beneath me a Band-Aid swirling in the pool’s eddy. My senses do that desperate thing where every sensory detail stands out all at once, so I can see the smudge of blood left on the Band-Aid’s bandage strip, and in that moment I see my own mother putting a Band-Aid on me. I was running around with a dollar store cap gun trying to shoot bad guys, and I fell down, skinning my knee. She came up to me, still smoking a cigarette, and put a Band-Aid where my skin had been cut open, her not knowing then that she shouldn’t be blowing smoke in my face while doing it.
I look past the Band-Aid and see the teenagers, who are moving away. I want to call out to them, but they won’t hear me. They don’t even know I’m there. One of the lane dividers is a couple feet away, but it might as well be a couple miles away. I’ve moved maybe a few inches from where I started, just far enough where I can’t reach the edge of the pool anymore.
I don’t have a fully-formed concept of death yet. I’ve killed bugs by this point and have seen roadkill in the Bay Colony parking lot from where a squirrel had no chance against a truck, me going over there when my parents weren’t looking, which was pretty easy to do, crouching down and talking to the squirrel, poking at its body and at its head, its mouth opening when I do, and a few flies coming out, me recoiling and not understanding, running home but not crying, being horrified but also curious. I knew those things, but that was about it. None of my family members had died yet. That would come later. For all I knew, this moment would last forever.
When I open my mouth to breathe, it isn’t like opening my eyes and feeling the burn of the chlorine. It’s much worse, but then it isn’t so bad as the darkness sets in, everything going from too harsh to too dim, and then it fades altogether and I’m just not there.
The next thing I remember is me opening my eyes. I’m on my back next to the pool with cold water on my mouth and chest. I’m looking up at a lifeguard who looks absolutely terrified. My mother is next to him, and when she sees that I’m alive, she starts crying uncontrollably. My dad is next to her. His face is hard to read, but it’s red, almost purple. It looks like he’s getting ready to fight someone, though he doesn’t know who.