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       Surfacing, p.1

           Nora Raleigh Baskin
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  The most peaceful memory I have is of when I drown. And if I close my eyes, I can still see the sunlight, cut into white bands, broken at the water’s surface. Beyond that, far above that, is the sky, blue and dotted white with clouds that seem to float in a mirror image of the water in which I am submerged. The burning pain of my first underwater breath is gone. Now when I inhale again, it is a warm and lovely feeling.

  I wasn’t supposed to swim across the pool to the deep end. I wasn’t supposed to be in the pool at all. But it was so hot and the water looked so good, cool and wet, and blue. There was the slide across the way, baking white in the heat. I can make it, I thought. I can paddle and kick, and I do. Then suddenly I am so tired, so very tired.

  I surface again.

  I can see the people sitting around the deck, even though my head is barely above the surface now. There is an old couple sitting at one of the plastic tables, under an umbrella, playing cards. A teenager and his summer girlfriend are lying in the sun, their chairs pulled back onto the grass, far from the concrete surrounding the pool. And that one little girl, but now all I can see are the imprints of her feet on the concrete, already drying in the sun.

  Help. I call out, “Help,” but no one looks up. No one hears me. My voice is too little, a watery whisper, and then I go under again.

  It is a long-ago instinct to hold my breath under the water, but very soon my lungs start to squeeze in pain as the air runs out. And without my brain explaining how or why, my arms pull and my legs push and one more time I pop back up.

  Ah, my mouth opens, air rushes inside, and the pain is gone. It is gone.

  I want to call out again. Help me. Please, somebody help me. The little girl has gone. The old lady playing cards is opening a can of soda now. The teenage couple is kissing, but I am too tired. I am more tired than I have ever been in my nine years. The teenagers are kissing, and I know now that I will never be kissed like that.

  This time when I go under, I don’t fight. I let the water cover my face and the top of my head. I look up at the sky, the white clouds, the absolute beauty of sunlight making its way through the water as if nothing can stop it. I can see the surface of the water and then the blur of what lies past that, distorted, but in a way more clear than anything I have ever seen. A weariness takes over my body, and I surrender to it.

  When practice was over, most of the girls, like Maggie, had thrown on their sweatpants or pajama bottoms, grabbed their bags, and pushed out the locker-room doors. Some rinsed off in the large shower stalls in their suits and then undressed under cloak and veil, meaning towel up to collarbone, tucked tight, arm straps pulled down, shirt on, bra on under that. Towel lowered around waist. Suit down around ankles, step out, hold on to towel, step into pants, and presto, magic. All dressed.

  Only Cecily Keitel got undressed all the way, showered like she would in the privacy of her own home. She dried off her back and her arms and even the inside of her thighs and put on her underwear in such a bold and civilized manner that it didn’t roll up and catch on her own rear end. Cecily had lived in Europe for the past two years, so nobody blamed her. But nobody wanted to be like her, either.

  “Listen, Maggie.” Cecily Keitel was one of the last ones in the locker room. She didn’t have anyone waiting in the parking lot. She was a junior, and she drove. “You’re beginning to piss me off.”

  Maggie looked around. Her best friend, Julie, had waved and left a few moments ago. The last of the swim team had dried off, more or less, and were gone.

  “Who are you trying to impress?” Cecily went on. “Not me, I can tell you that much. Because I know who you are.”

  At those words, Maggie looked up.

  “You think you’re better than anyone else. You think you’re going to make States your first year on the team.”

  None of this was true.

  Maggie started to speak. “No, I don’t,” she said.

  In a way, she wanted to warn Cecily. She didn’t really want to learn what she knew she was about to hear, but it was out of her control. Maggie never knew when it was going to happen, when it wasn’t.

  “You’re a great swimmer. What are you so upset about?” Maggie asked.

  “Look, my mother and father got divorced last year,” Cecily began. She was hardly putting up a fight at all. “And between the two of them . . . well, it’s like . . . they keep fighting over everything: the record collection, the blender, paintings on the walls, the dining-room table, and who gets me.”

  Maggie listened. She could fill in the emotions because they felt like her own. The tension you feel when your parents are at each other’s throats and how it eats at you.

  Maggie was still sitting on the narrow locker-room bench, drying her feet. She had her neck bent and was looking up. Cecily was standing, ready to leave but not leaving, as if locked in by the power of true confession.

  “Swimming is the only thing I can control,” Cecily said. “It’s the only thing that belongs to me.”

  “I can understand that.”

  Cecily sat down on the bench. “One week after the divorce is final, my dad gets me a new cell phone. The next week my mom buys me an iPad. My dad took me to Bermuda this summer; my mom had to fly us to France for a week. The more they hate each other, the more they pretend to love me.”

  “I’m sure they love you,” Maggie said.

  “Maybe,” Cecily said, “but they hate each other more. It’s really all my mom’s fault. She was cheating on him, you know.”

  Maggie looked away. At the end of each row of lockers was a full-length mirror, reflecting everything within its glass boundaries, no exceptions. Cecily bent over, shaking out her hair with her fingers, and for a second they looked like one body: Maggie’s head and torso, Cecily’s legs and feet.

  “Hey, sorry I said what I said.” Cecily straightened up and slipped her swim bag over her shoulder. She was ready to leave.


  “About you pissing me off. I don’t mean it. I’m just a little stressed,” Cecily offered, but Maggie knew that within a few minutes, maybe half an hour or more, but definitely sometime after she walked away, Cecily would regret pretty much everything she just said.

  It rarely took more than one experience with Maggie to realize that she was not someone you wanted to be around. Hearing yourself tell the truth is uncomfortable, if not downright unpleasant, and Maggie knew, even if no one else understood, that this kind of intimacy made people resent her. It was a gift, and a power, and a burden. It kept her isolated and meant that by the time Maggie got to high school, she was pretty much down to one single friend, Julie Bensimon.

  “All you need is one friend,” her mother would say, covering one of Maggie’s schoolbooks in brown paper or setting out dinner and then immediately leaving the room. No one is less inclined to be honest, it would seem, than your own mother.

  Maggie’s father was a little better at it. Or it was easier for him to maintain the right amount of distance, with pretty much everyone, since Leah drowned. He liked to think of it as discretion. “Discretion,” he would say, “is the better part of valor.” And Maggie wondered if anyone ever really bought into an expression like that. Wasn’t it just a way of granting yourself permission not to get involved? An excuse for not being around?

  “How was practice, sweetie?” Mr. Paris asked at dinner, which tonight was meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and peas. Each of his bites held a balanced proportion of all three items and just enough condiment. This equation took most of his attention. He didn’t look up when he talked.

  “Fine,” Maggie answered.

  “Do you need any money this week?”

  “No, Dad.”

  “Lick hit I,” Dylan pronounced, probably meaning something along the lines of the fa
ct that he would like some money this week. He was five, as was, of course, his twin, Lucas.

  “Too me,” Lucas added. The boys liked to shorten their words, talking backward, sometimes with clicks and odd high-pitched sounds, and they did it quickly. It started when they first began talking, and no one else could understand them. Mr. Paris thought it was just gibberish. Mrs. Paris wanted to have them tested. She feared their strange language had something to do with the in vitro fertilization: some brain malfunction, something serious, something bad. But it turned out only to be twin speak, harmless and common, cute at first, and then annoying, and then distancing.

  Leah and Maggie weren’t twins. They were almost four years apart and they didn’t have a secret language, but they had sister games that they had made up, with rules only they understood and only they could break or change. They played car, with their feet pressed up against each other’s, one driving while the other provided the engine noises and tire-screeching halts. They had a magazine game: on every page, in every photograph, you had to pick one item you wanted, and you had to pick — even if nothing appealed to you. The challenge was to find something, no matter how small, that you might really want — the watch on the model’s hand, a tiny box on the table in the corner of the room behind the piano — because whatever you picked, and touched first on the page, would magically appear in your room the next morning. And the catch was that you were never allowed to explain where any of the stuff came from. It was magic and had to be kept a secret.

  “Hey, Maggie. You aren’t even listening to me,” Julie was saying.

  “I am. I am.”

  Julie kicked her friend under the table. “Then why are you looking over there the whole time? And so what was I just talking about?”

  Maggie brought her attention back. “You were telling me about the test you have next period on The Catcher in the Rye and how you had no idea Holden Caulfield was really supposed to be in a mental hospital at the end and how you are so definitely going to fail. But you’re not, Julie. You just say that every time.”

  Across the cafeteria, three boys stood up. One of them shot his balled-up garbage into a bin; the other two left theirs on the table.

  Julie followed her friend’s gaze across the cafeteria and figured out what could have possibly captured Maggie’s attention more than Holden Caulfield. “Maggie, he’s a goon,” she said.

  “Where do you get a word like that? Goon. What’s a goon?” Maggie asked. She glanced back at the boys.

  “Matthew James is a goon. He’s short, he’s dumb, and he’s captain of the boys’ wrestling team. What more do I have to say?”

  In truth, Maggie had wondered that herself. If you took Matthew out of the high-school context, there really wouldn’t be much, so to speak, other than the fact that he was three years older and had told Maggie he was interested in her. He didn’t say that exactly, but he did lean over her while she was at his house working on a poster with his younger sister, Jennifer, and say something like “You sure smell good.”

  And then, instead of “Good-bye,” he had said, “See ya,” when he was leaving the house.

  See ya?

  He wanted to see her again.

  And he was popular, which still reigned supreme, nearly to the point of suppressing all common sense. Also to his credit, Matthew James had a girlfriend, and she was pretty, and she was cool. She was smart, and kind of an individual, so didn’t it stand to reason that if Sarah Lieman liked Matthew, there must be something more to him? Something attractive? Sarah and Matthew could be seen in the halls between classes exchanging all sorts of saliva, with enough passionate groping to have been put on warning by the vice principal. Twice, was the rumor.

  Matthew James and his two friends walked out of the cafeteria, kind of swaying, with a sort of gorilla-like gait. He didn’t say “See ya” this time, but Maggie figured that was because he hadn’t noticed her sitting there.

  “Maggie, he has a girlfriend.” Julie watched Maggie watching.

  “I know. Sarah Lieman.”

  Maggie and Sarah had actually been in a play together one summer. It was the first summer after Maggie’s family moved, five years after Leah drowned, before the twins were born, before Maggie started school, before she met Julie. Sarah was a year older, sixth grade. Her mom directed the community theater playhouse, and Mrs. Paris had put Maggie in the play in order to give her something to do over the summer and as a way to meet kids before school started. Maggie and Sarah got to be natives in the theater’s production of South Pacific, though once school began in September, they rarely saw each other. The fifth- and sixth-grade wings were on opposite ends of the school, but for those few weeks singing “Bali Ha’i” and painting their faces with dark makeup, Sarah was nice to Maggie, like a big sister, and it did help. She felt less alone.

  “C’mon.” Julie took Maggie’s tray from the table, piled her own leftovers on top, and carried it to the trash. “And tell me why teachers always think we’re going to love The Catcher in the Rye, because I hated it.”

  “Teenage rebellion and angst,” Maggie answered. “Even though the book is, like, sixty years old, they think we’ll relate. Hey, is that where you got the word goon?”

  “No, that’s just a good word.” Julie put her arm around Maggie so they could head out into the hall, together. “I like it. And if the shoes fits.”

  Fifth grade and everything was new. The teachers’ names, the hallways, where the bathroom was, all the faces of all the kids, even what to do during recess was all jumbled into a slide show of incomplete and interchangeable pictures. It felt like nearly every minute there was something new to figure out, and an unsettling homesickness followed Maggie around all day. It was October, and substantiating her mother’s expression that all you need is one friend, things hadn’t gotten better. Maggie sat alone at recess, and today, like yesterday, she watched. She saw one little girl run across the grass, turn, look back, and stumble for a few steps before her knees and palms hit the ground. The rest of her body kind of collapsed in defeat. The girl didn’t make any attempt to get up, so Maggie walked over and knelt down on the grass beside her.

  “Are you all right?” Maggie asked.

  “I fell,” the girl said.

  The other girls she had been herding with had continued on. If they had noticed her fall, they didn’t seem particularly worried. They were all chanting in unison, singing a song Maggie thought she had heard on the car radio. It looked like a hard fall. Now she could see blood seeping through the knee of the girl’s pants.

  “It hurts,” said the girl.

  “I’ll get someone,” Maggie offered, though she really had no idea whom to get or where to go to find someone. There must be a playground monitor, but somehow all the bodies blended together and she could hardly tell who was a kid and who was an adult.

  The girl reached out and touched Maggie’s arm. “No. Don’t. I’m fine. I’m Julie. Are you the new girl?”

  Maggie settled down, crossing her legs. “I guess so. I’m Maggie.”

  “I’m clumsy,” Julie said. She winced when she tried to straighten her leg. “My dad wants me to join the swim team. He says it will help me lose a little weight and be better balanced.”

  By then, several years after Leah’s death, Maggie was used to people telling her things they didn’t want anyone to know. She also knew that after this girl had told her these personal things, she would never want to talk to Maggie again. She might even spread lies or start rumors to cover up for whatever it was she had revealed.

  “You don’t need to lose weight. You look fine to me.”

  Julie smiled. “Thanks.”

  But maybe this time it wouldn’t happen that way. There was something about the way this little girl smiled and cried at the same time, and didn’t seem embarrassed by either, that seemed so real.

  “Will you be my friend?” Maggie asked her.

  “Sure,” Julie answered immediately. “Will you be mine?”

p; Maggie liked Sarah Lieman, respected her, even admired her. But Maggie was obsessed with Matthew, the kind of obsession that is a preoccupation that is like an occupation, so there is no leftover energy to worry about where it came from or where it’s going. All brainpower generally allocated to analysis is taken up with the insatiable fueling of that obsession. Lying in bed, before she fell asleep, exhausted by swim practice and whatever homework had kept her up till midnight, Maggie would channel her obsession. She would will her mind to begin dreaming before she entered the stage of rapid eye movement, before she fully lost control of her waking consciousness. She would take control of her dreaming and make it work for her, like a film director, creating a movie in which she was both the scriptwriter and the leading actor.

  Like all mind skills, lucid dreaming required practice and hyperconcentration.

  And it could only work if the dream was realistic.

  The setting and situation had to be familiar and credible. For instance, in her lucid dream, she couldn’t run into Matthew on a beach somewhere in the Bahamas, or in some vineyard in Italy, even though that was certainly tempting. Maggie loved the movie French Kiss with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline. Even suspect coincidences were limited. For instance, bumping into Matthew at the mall or on the street outside her house was not allowed. It had to be very close to possible — the more complicated and unpredictable, the more likely to actually occur, the better.

  Maggie could feel her body slipping into the fantasy, into lucidity. She feels the roughness of his hands when he grabs her. She can create the pulse of his blood when he holds her. She can feel his breath on her neck when he stands very close to her.

  And best of all, in her lucid dream she doesn’t have to ask herself or answer to anyone why she is with him, why he is watching her as closely as she watches him. He smells like beer and cigarettes. He talks about nothing but girls and wrestling and monster trucks. He is everything Maggie is not. He is her self-inflicted wound. It is precisely his hollowness and lack of responsibility that draws her to him.

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