Jackie Summers recalls how twice he dove into the deep end, and how both times he found himself clawing for the surface.
It was the summer or ’79. I was 12 years old and my bicycle was a stretch limousine that could take me anywhere in the world I wanted to go. On this particularly sticky August afternoon in New York City, it had driven me to the home of my best friend since the first day of first grade, Ronnie Garcia. Ronnie had a swimming pool in his backyard and two smoking hot older sisters, which pretty much made him the president of all things great about being a teenage boy, and me the vice-president by default.
As we splashed pool-side, our cabinet spent the afternoon blasting Pink Floyd on Ronnie’s boom box and discussing matters of greatest importance to 12-year-old boys (earlier that year Ronnie had taught me how to deftly pop open a bra-strap with a singular flick of the wrist, a skill that, to this day, I thank him for). Caught up in the invincibility of youth and the insanity of the moment, I decided that the shallow end of the pool where we stood was of insufficent depth to contain my teenage male ego. So in I dove and down I went—down, until I felt my feet touch the cool bottom of this backyard oasis. As I stood, fully submerged, three feet of water above my head, I felt as if I could accomplish anything. I was master of the deep end.
There was just one problem: I couldn’t swim.
I pushed off from the bottom, kicking both legs furiously, confident in my ability to propel myself back up through the surface like a seal at SeaWorld. Except, I wasn’t moving—at least not upward. I languished under the water, expending energy and losing oxygen. Frustration turned to desperation and panic as I felt pressure in my lungs beginning to build, my arms and legs flailing wildly and impotently. Chlorine burned my eyes and water filled my nostrils as I gazed at the growing expanse of azure above me. The two feet of water separating me from precious oxygen had become an ocean, and as the sensation of weightlessness and buoyancy was slowly vanishing, I felt myself beginning to sink back to the bottom. For impossibly long moments, I wondered if I would ever breathe again.
That’s how it felt when you left me.
Fortunately for me, Ronnie was an accomplished swimmer. When he realized that the tiny bubbles reaching the surface of the pool were actually my last gasps of air, he dived in without hesitation. I must have kicked and punched like a madman, because retrieving me from a premature watery grave covered him in purple bruises (which I apologized for profusely).
Ronnie Garcia saved my life. Because of him, I’m not only thankful for the many bra-straps I’ve effortlessly popped open in the decades since his tutelage; I am thankful every single time my chest expands and sucks up delicious life-giving oxygen. I’m grateful for every one of the tens of thousands of breaths I’ve taken since then.
I didn’t just fall for you; I dived. From the way I flung myself headlong into you, one might have thought I actually believed I had grown gills. I plunged myself into your depths, letting the cool moisture of you soothe and refresh the parched and arid places in me. For what seemed like an eternity, I stood on the the floor of your ocean: feet firmly on the bottom, ensconced in love. For impossibly long, perfect moments, I was the master of your deep. I could have stayed submerged in you forever.
And I would have, were it not for the crushing sensation in my chest. The concept of coming up for air never simply occurred to me.
Ronnie wasn’t around this time to perform his heroics and save my sorry ass from drowning. It took everything I had to claw my way back to the surface, where my friends applied emotional CPR. I coughed you out of my lungs unceremoniously for weeks and months. And even though some days I miss you so badly that I feel like an asthmatic breathing through a straw, I am grateful for every breath I take, with or without you.
Having feelings deep enough to swim in is a beautiful thing, if you can swim. The best swimmer isn’t necessarily the guy that can hold his breath the longest, although that helps. The best best swimmer is the guy that knows how to monitor his breathing; who knows when to dive, come back up for air, and dive again. If nothing else, you’ve taught me to be a better swimmer. Thanks to you, maybe the next time someone makes me feel like diving, I really will be master of the deep end.
—Photo © j summers 2011