The Shallow End
My lips graze the water and my toes graze the floor, kicking at the wall of the neighborhood pool. I return to the air and exhale. The water tastes funny. My chin is wet, itchy, and I peel off a few strands of dark hair that stick to my face like a spider-web.
“We’re going to blow bubbles,” Sarah tells me slowly, and demonstrates, lowering her face to the surface. I watch the bubbles fizz around her nose. I wonder if they tickle. Her mouth still moving in the water, she shifts her gray eyes to me and rests them on my gaze. She watches me watch her, her eyes alight as though waiting for me to laugh at her performance.
I manage a nervous smile, conscious of how tight I am clinging to the cold wall.
“It’s fun,” Sarah says, craning her neck toward the sky and squinting at it. She stretches her arms into the sun and pauses for a moment, a sparkling statue. I turn around and search for my mom. She sits on a green bench in the shade, scanning the newspaper. A section of the paper falls into a puddle at her feet. For a second she lifts her stare from her lap and I wave wildly, trying to get her attention.
“Olivia,” I hear, in a slow, sing-songy voice that is not my mother’s. “Olivia, over here.” It’s Sarah again. “This is fun, I promise.”
I’m not having fun yet, but I decide not to tell her that. I don’t want to hurt her feelings. I look her in the eye so she knows that I am listening.
“Watch this,” she commands, then plunges into the water. She goes all the way in—even her head disappears, her copper-colored hair just a dancing glint of red in the blue.
I can really see the bubbles this time. Full and big, they keep coming. Silver in the sunlight, they aren’t blue like the water.
It’s funny to watch the water pulse like this and I almost forget Sarah’s down there. I might not notice if she never came up.
But she does, finally, bursting back to earth and spraying me with mist. She wipes her face of water and looks wide-eyed at me. Wow, I think–or maybe I breathe it aloud.
A drop of water rests upon her upper lip like dew on grass. I stare at it until she smiles and it melts away; pop, like a bubble.
Suddenly her face falls and her eyes shift inward. Frantically she grabs at the wet red frizz around her face and plasters it back into a ponytail.
“Oh, Olivia, I’m sorry–I didn’t mean to go under like that so soon. I shouldn’t have done that.”
I don’t understand. “But you were showing me how to breathe underwater,” I offer. “Right?”
Well, yes–” she hesitates. “But you don’t have to do what I just did. You can blow bubbles without going all the way under water.”
She pats my shoulder, her hand sliding off my slippery skin.
“It’s ok,” I tell her. “I want to try it anyway.”
Once more I turn to my mom. This time she is watching us carefully. She waves and I wave back, flailing a little as I remove my sticky grip from the wall.
“Ok, Olivia, you can do this!” Sarah is excited again. “You just have to get your face a little bit wet, like you did before, and blow out through your mouth. Like this,” she says, and her lips vibrate like she’s shivering.
I bend my neck toward the water and let my face get wet like Sarah said to. Bzzzz, I say, my lips blubbering in the bright chlorine blue. “Good, great, that’s it!” Sarah says, coaxing me on. Maybe this is fun, I decide, enjoying the sound of my bubbles. The water feels good on my face, so I lower it in a little bit more. Sarah’s cheers become a muted chorus far away. I am a fish, blowing bubbles, breathing under water!
Then I’m choking, all of a sudden, whipping my face from the water and gasping for air, confused. Sarah grabs me in her arms and pulls me from the pool, resting me on the warm concrete. Soon I hear my mother’s voice and feel a towel on my back. “Olivia, are you ok? You’re ok… Sarah, is she ok?” I look up at my mom, then back down at the water. “What happened?” my mom asks, and Sarah tries to assure her that I am alright. I am alright, I think.
My teeth are chattering and I notice goosebumps on my knees, but I don’t feel cold. I dip my toes, wet and wrinkled, back down into the water. The sun feels good on my back and it sparkles across the pool. I stare at the water, squinting. “Olivia…” I hear, and feel my mother’s hand brush against my neck, sweeping my tangled mass of hair into her hands. She twists it around and around and I watch the water move. It’s so blue and so bright. I can see right through it, all the way to the floor