We’re Now in The Deep End of the Pool Still Blowing Bubbles
I shaved my feeling-sorry-for-myself beard today. It had grown long and scratchy and gray. It circled my lips and poked at them, uncomfortably. I had been growing it for about two months, at first from the laziness that came with the holidays, and then out of spite for the writing world when a sure-to-be manuscript acceptance turned out to be a ‘no’.
There are no sure-to-be manuscript acceptances. I should have known that. I’ve always known that. But with this one, I let myself believe there were.
“I’m not shaving until I get a book deal,” I told my wife of 16 years.
“You could be ZZ Top by then,” Mary said and then headed off to work.
Her response may seem cold, but it’s not. Five days earlier, after a dry January of 2020 in the Johnstun household, I got the rejection email. We had no alcohol in the house, but on her way home from work, after finding out the news via a rampage of my texts, Mary grabbed two bottles of wine and placed them down in front of me on the kitchen island.
“I get it,” she said. “It was a whole year’s worth of work.”
I nodded. I drank the wine. And for the next day, I remained completely silent unless spoken to. I moped around the house, pouted, and drank a bit more the next night. Mary consoled me. And then she told me it’s time to move forward, work harder, and to knock it off – I summarize.
By the time I told her that I planned to keep my beard until I got a contract, a full week of swinging moods had worn out their welcome.
So today, right before I wrote this, I shaved my beard, recognizing that it was not an onward-and-upward beard but a wallow-in-self-pity beard. I’d grown sick of it, and my beady, red eyes that sat above it.
In the summer of 2005, in our late 20s, my wife and I held onto the edge of a local swimming pool, dipped our faces into the water, and blew bubbles. Five or six other adults did the same. We’d been swimmers our whole lives and thought we had signed up for a class to teach us to swim laps with efficiency for fitness. We did not.
“Okay,” the swim instructor said.
When we heard this, we lifted our heads out of the water to listen to her. My wife gave me a side-eyed glance and a slight smile. I smiled back, kind of. I felt embarrassed and stupid.
“Now that we’ve done that, while still holding onto the side of the pool, lift your legs behind you and float. Then blow bubbles again,” the swim instructor said, a young girl who couldn’t have been much older than 14 or 15 years old.
We did what she said to do. We lifted our legs behind us in the water, floated them by tightening our abdomen, stuck our head back in the water, and then blew bubbles. Children jumped in the water around us. A few of them looked our way and pointed, not sure why adults performed basic swimming kicks in the middle of the afternoon. They giggled and then swam laps around us, literally.
Annoyed at the situation, I let my legs drop a little bit in the water behind me. My coach saw this immediately and, trying to remember my name but instead calling me “Chase,” she said, “Chase, I know it’s not natural, but do your best to keep your legs close to the top of the water. Squeeze your abs. It will help. Look, look how Mary is doing it.” She pointed to Mary’s legs and then to mine. “See. Good job, Mary. Try that, Chase.”
I looked at Mary’s legs to appease our teacher.
Lifted mine a little higher.
And then blew bubbles in the water in front me.
That same year, we took a cake-decorating class. I was the only male there, and I was completely awful at it. My hands aren’t steady. I’m a horrible artist. And though I tried my best, I could not make a rose out of frosting. When done, a big, red turd sat on the top of my cake, not a rose.
Two years before we took the adult swimming and cake decorating classes in Champaign, Illinois, Mary and I signed up for a kayaking class at the University of Utah pool. We weren’t even engaged at the time, but we were on our way. We were in the stage of our relationship where we spent 90 percent of our time at each other’s places and felt awkward and upset when one or the other of us said, “I think I am going to stay at my apartment tonight,” leaving the other one to ask “why” but not actually speak the word “why.”
We took the kayaking class knowing that neither of us would ever have the guts to actually take one of those small kayaks on a raging river. This was never spoken, but neither of us are or were daredevils, so I imagined us – after completing the class – taking kayaks out on a lake and passing beers back and forth to each other, not cascading over class four rapids. The only frothing white tips we would conquer on our kayaks would be fermented. The class was fun. We paddled around in the Olympic-sized pool, learned how to roll in the water, and then we went to a local wing place, ate wings, and drank beer. We walked into the wing joint saturated from the water. It was winter, so the smell of fried chicken and the warmth of beer in the belly made the whole evening wonderful.
When we moved to Champaign after our wedding a couple of years later, I have to admit that we struggled a bit with being married. There were highlights for sure, like going and staying in Chicago once a month and traveling around that part of the country to compete in duathlons, and living in a place where we knew nobody. The latter was important.
In Utah, where I had grown up, I had so many friends, and Mary knew no one. And my friend group was not easy to break into. We had all gone to a Catholic School in Mormon Utah, so we had a very tight bond. Our stories went back decades. The group wasn’t ready to make new ones with new people. It wasn’t just Mary. Every person that has married into this clan of friends has felt the same way – outside.
After our short stint in Illinois, we moved back to Utah for work, back to where I had grown up and Mary had not. And it was not good. We fell back into the same trap we struggled in before we left Illinois: family and friends and obligations and claustrophobia. This time, however, I felt more of it too. And Utah was worse. Our marriage was worse off than it had ever been in its short lifespan.
Then we had one of those fights that you will always remember. One of those fights that sticks in the belly like shrapnel. The shrapnel may be taken out, but the phantom pain and scar will always remain. One of those fights. She hurt me. I hurt her worse, I believe. We didn’t mean everything we said.
In 2008, when I got a chance to work for a AAA baseball team in Tacoma, WA, we took it. I left a high-salaried job for the federal government for intern pay. We left a house to be rented out during the economic and housing collapse, a house we would eventually lose tens of thousands of dollars on, and we moved into 700-square-foot apartment on the water in Tacoma.
When the team was in town, I worked 80 hours a week or more. But when they were out of town, we began to crawl out of that darkness that the previous two years in Utah had clouded over us. We took our dog to the dog park and walked for hours, talking, just the two of us. We walked along Commencement Bay, talking, just the two of us. We drank coffee and strong beer and wine and argued about who had to take the dogs down to potty before bed and stand in the freezing rain with them while they found the perfect spot, just the two of us.
When the baseball season ended and when I quit because I wanted to spend the evenings in the stands with my wife instead of in the press box with stinky men and dirty jokes, we signed up for a yoga class in old Tacoma and had beer together afterward, covered in sweat instead of chlorine, just the two of us.
We’ve always taken classes together. Hell, we’re lifelong learners.
We’re back in Utah now, nearly 20 years after our kayak class together in 2001, with our son and dogs, nearly fourteen years after we nearly lost it all. We learned from that one fight. We’ve never fought like that since. We learned from leaving and finding our way back. We learned from the birth of our son and raising a child together, so I know that when she tells me to stop moping around, I know she is being kind and looking out for me and believing in me and telling me to shave the beard because I’m stronger than I’ve been acting.
Are we perfect? Hell no. We have our stuff. We’ve also had so many good years given to us, decades. We’re now in the deep end of the pool blowing bubbles together, flipping over in our kayaks – nearly drowning at times – but always meeting for wings and beer and trying again.
Just don’t ask me to make an icing rose.