Sarah Pascarella is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Travelers’ Tales, The Boston Globe, and USA Today, among other publications. She has a Master’s in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College. Her novel, The Virgin Mary Hotline, is available via Kindle and Nook. She is currently at work on her second novel.
Here’s what it feels like when you drown. At first, you flail. The body will try anything to get to the surface. It’s harder, of course, when you are inverted, when you’re not sure how to right yourself so your nostrils can be taking in air and not filling with water; it’s harder when inner tubes are locked around your hips, restricting your legs from breaking free; and it’s hardest, most of all, when strong adult arms are holding you beneath the surface, arms that have you entwined in such a full-body choke hold that you know, as you futilely try to thrash and free yourself from the grips of hands and tubes, that your seven years were too brief, and that it’s not your fault you perished so young, done in by the genes that kept you short, unable to stand in the deep end of the pool; done in by the genes that made you related to this man, your uncle, making his annual visit from California, who now keeps you submerged; done in by the genes that coursed through all of the maternal sides’ blood and bones, the genes that couldn’t resist just another drink, then another, and another, so when your seven-year-old voice says to your inebriated elder, “You can’t catch me, I’m in the pool and you’re in the yard”, you understand too late that you have thrown down a challenge, perhaps even a dare, and that these in fact have, become your last words, an unwitting invitation for the man to throw his beer bottle to the ground, scale the wall of the above-ground pool, fully clothed and shod, to prove you wrong.
You don’t die, of course.
Your uncle wasn’t that drunk, but you still find yourself surprised at how long being dunked felt, how your small body was convinced—convinced!—of its imminent demise. Growing up as the eldest of three sisters, you’ve led a bookish existence, free of roughhousing, wrestling, or really any physical altercation or athletic exertion that you assume would be part and parcel of growing up with boys. Your uncle had seven brothers in addition to his four sisters and perhaps knew nothing but physicality—and even without the addition of booze, you might have been treated this way, even if you had both been casually and calmly swimming together, side by side, with no apparent provocation.
You remember the “drowning”, for lack of a better word, and the chatter leading up to the moments under the water, clearly and distinctly, more than 25 years later. What came after: Wet sneakers left out to dry on the back porch, captured in a photograph. Industrial-sized trash bags full of cans and bottles clinking as your parents hauled them out to the curb. A refusal to speak to your uncle for the rest of his visit, even going so far as to leave the room if he entered. Your parents not asking him to leave, per se, but not forcing you to interact with him, either. Until it was time for him to leave, to go back to California.
“You’re really not going to say goodbye?” your mother says. “You need to part on good terms.”
So at seven you realize that you can have an adversary, and that the adversary can be your elder, and your flesh and blood. You understand that, despite what transpired, you must show respect to one you think no longer deserves it. You acknowledge—to yourself—that you have to play the waiting game, a long game, before you alone dictate the company you keep.
You realize this as you cross the room to kiss your uncle goodbye. The steps are surreally slow, like moving underwater. A smirk tugs at his lips and tightens his eyes, the same expression he wore when he taunted you, outside the pool. This time, though, you don’t flail. You hold your breath. You kiss his cheek, scratchy with day-old stubble. And then, as though kicking off the wall after a lap, you burst away, all your limbs working fine now and fast, and as you move out to the yard, down the street, down the block, and keep going, you fill your lungs over and again with great gulps of delicious air.