The Kidby Robin Tung
The kid is vehement about not putting his head underwater. He is gripping his father's shoulder but knows better than to wrap his legs around like a baby. His father restrains himself from laughing, but says to the kid's uncle, "It's like dying," trying to put a reason to the phobia. "But come on." His father speaks gently into his ear. "You have to learn. It's not hard."
"Hold your breath," his uncle calls, his torso like a column in the water, his arms folded and roped with muscles. But the kid won't, and sulks. He sinks down into his gray life vest while he paddles, the thick pads squeezing his face, and while doing so, lets out a pitiful moan because he's being pressured and judged, since now he's lost what little esteem they had for him, and he feels stuffed and hot with despair.
The kid had seen his baby brother almost drowned last week in another pool. He saw the baby palm the water for a foam noodle and tumble out and over the side of his floating car. The kid shrieked, tears and snot constricting his throat until his father saved the baby. The baby had been under for six or seven seconds, was what his mother told Nana, Aunt Stella, and his uncle. Now his mother was even more hawkish, pulling a white lawn chair barely big enough for her whole body up to the pool ledge to keep an eye on him and everyone. She interjected their stream of words between sips of Bloody Mary that Aunt Stella was stirring in a clear pitcher. They'd let the kid smell it and then laughed when he winced.
Stella is stretched out on a lawn chair beside the kid's mother. "If you don't go underwater, they'll push me in," she suddenly cries histrionically, but then smiles. Both his father and uncle groan.
"Who?" the kid asks, afraid, pulling himself out of the water. His sopping swim trunks are glued to his legs.
"They will!" Stella points to the men. Her shoulders narrow and rise up to her floppy hat. Oh, he couldn't save her from them even if he tried! He could do absolutely nothing —neither dunk his head nor save her— and why had they pulled him from his game? He'd set up a bucket at one end, and two weighted rings on opposite ledges. He wanted to be left alone to float on the noodles from one end to the other in his own relay.
They were talking now—the adults—about Mars, the outer space landing. If the adults notice him sitting on the ledge, sulking, a foot away from the water, they'll try to make him to put his head underwater again. He rubs the chlorine from his eyes and stands up but doesn't know where exactly to go.
"Do you want a sandwich?" Stella asks him. The radio is playing jazz. He'd asked her what it was. Jazz! his mother answered in unison on the third time.
The melodies flit up and down, a bouquet of mismatched notes like acrobatic ants landing in sets in close time. His mind can get so funny sometimes. He tilts his head and laughs quietly to himself.
"She's talking to you," his father says.
Stella waves, and in between "Are you hungry?" and "It's PB and J," she stares.
"I don't want—" the kid begins.
"PB and J is peanut butter and jelly," his father preempts him.
"I just eat peanut butter and—" the kid explains.
"That is PB and J. Peanut butter and jelly. They're the same thing," his father tells him, his voice arcing up.
"Yes, please." The kid is sullen.
"Okay," Stella says. "Come over."
The kid hurries across the frying cement to their lawn chairs near the deep end. The hot sun is already drying his back and chest. He can feel the little hairs on his arms rise back up a couple at a time.
He unzips the life vest and sets it on the floor. The baby bounces on his mother's lap and drops Fruit Loops from his sticky fingers. Each time the baby drops one, he leans over their mother's knees to look at it, then loosens his grip and drops another. The kid stoops down to pick one up.
"And get that one," his mother says, pointing her painted toes at a half-crushed pretzel.
"Sit," Stella says, and unwraps the cellophane to reveal a sandwich with a thin layer of brown and pink at the center. The kid looks at her smooth, tan stomach, the white of the bikini and the long hair that fans over her fawn shoulders. Her green and white bangles clink at her elbows and slide back down to her wrist.
Stella makes the kid sit down, and he takes a bite while the trumpet, cello, and piano fill his head like spastic vines. He wants to laugh because of the music, but the jelly tastes strange, and the peanut butter is bumpy and stuck in his teeth. But he eats one quarter of the sandwich anyway. If he doesn't, his parents won't give him anything else to eat, and they'll complain—lots of words hashing each other in the air—and none that mean anything to him, ensuing in his own terrible panic. They always want him to say something more. To show he understands. And he tries, but he doesn't really know. He pushes his bottom lip out and with one finger he pushes the sandwich on the table away from him.
"You're so grouchy," Stella whispers, but not meanly. She has found something out about him and is telling him, telling herself. His special teacher's helper, Ms. Adriana, does that, too: You're not listening. You're so spacey. But their faces don't flicker with his mother's anger, or flood with weariness like his father's.
"It's not peanut butter," the kid says quietly to his mother because he is ashamed to talk to Stella now. Stella begins mixing a fresh pitcher of Bloody Mary.
"Does it have nuts in it or something?" his mother asks.
He nods and pushes it slightly farther away.
"Stop pushing it and eat it," his mother snaps, and rolls her eyes. "Aunt Stella made it for you, and besides, it's only two, so you're not going to have dinner for a few hours. And who knows what Nana is going to make for dinner," she says.
"And you know that might not be edible," says Stella, which makes his mother roar with laughter.
"Is he going swimming again?" the kid asks, pointing to the baby's head.
"Don't do that," his mother says.
The baby gums at him, which makes the kid smile.
"Can he swim with me?" the kid asks.
"No." The baby drools and lets a Fruit Loop drop from is sticky hand. His mother wipes the baby's face with a yellow burp rag.
"Why?" the kid asks.
"Because I don't want to keep changing his diapers. I didn't bring a swim diaper," she says. His mother's cheeks are hot pink and she's sweating through her tank top. Her belly is popped out like there is still a baby in there.
"Come back in," his uncle calls.
The kid freezes, but sees the look on his father's face, and walks over without his life vest.
"It's going to be okay," his uncle tells him.
The kid nods but doesn't slide into the water where his uncle is. He walks to the steps and takes a long time getting in.
He stops at the bottom of the very shallowest part of the pool. The silky water licks his stomach. He watches Stella get up then and dunk her floppy hat on the chair and dive in as if she were the most natural thing. Her hair streams beneath the surface toward him, and when she breaks the water, she wipes the water from her eyes and kisses his cheek before swimming back to the deep end. The kid buzzes inside so much that he has to look down so no one will see him half-smiling.
"Keep going," his uncle calls from the nine-foot mark.
The kid hugs the cement ledge and inches toward the deep end. The water creeps up around his shoulders. He doesn't want it to touch his chin.
"Was it scary when you saw the baby fall in?" his uncle asks, meeting him at the five-foot mark.
"Yes," the kid says glumly. He doesn't like to remember it.
"What happened?" his uncle asks.
The kid shrugs and sticks his hand into the pool vent opening, and takes it back out.
"Tell me one thing you can remember," his uncle says, letting go of the cement to tread water.
The kid begins: "The baby was this"—the kid flails one arm to show the image of drowning and contorts his face because it was horrible—and the baby didn't even cry, he was just gone.
"I don't know. Use your words, don't act it out so much," his uncle says. The kid looks around. The other adults aren't watching him, and he feels a little better.
But he can't tell it right. Words don't work. They don't stream together, and he has to think. The kid tries to retell it, but soon his mother shouts, Use your words! Over and over, the baby falling in the water. His body wants to show them the horror of the baby sinking, his eyes probably open, his skin as pale as the bottom of the pool. And when his father got the baby out, it coughed and spit up and screamed.
But they've lost interest. They aren't paying attention to him anymore.
The kid holds onto the ledge and shuffles his way back to the shallow end. The adults are out and dried off, lying in the sun, drinking their glasses of Bloody Mary. The baby is falling asleep and his mother puts him back in the covered stroller.
With no one watching, the kid steadies himself and tilts his head back until the water cups his skull. He even lets the gluey water glob his ears closed until he can't hear them talking. He can barely hear the music from the stereo underwater: a scattering of notes stippling the surface of the water like rain and diffusing into thick, cloudy echoes. What was the name of that music? The chlorine machine ticks on. What was that music called? Oh, he can't remember. But, it's coming to him. He holds his breath, and half-floats in the white-netted water.