Standing there, the too-tight floaties nearly cutting off circulation around my upper arms, I had only one thought running through my head.
Parenthood makes you do crazy, ridiculous things.
I glanced back over my shoulder, turning to look at Brandon. The flippers on my feet meant that I had to do a stupid, ridiculous little penguin-shuffle to rotate, and I knew that, if any of my office buddies could see me right now, they’d be laughing their asses off. I’d be the butt of all the water cooler jokes for weeks.
“Now, you’re still convinced that the pool’s too deep and scary,” I said again to Brandon, hoping that maybe the six-year-old’s mercurial mind had changed since the last time I asked him, five minutes earlier.
But he nodded, a single, firm jerk of his head. “Yes, daddy,” he answered, blinking solemn dark eyes beneath the head of too-long hair. Wasn’t Helen supposed to have taken him to get that trimmed? Did I really need to do everything, just because she was too busy flirting on dating sites instead of-
I took a deep breath. Put it out of your mind. Be a good dad. Don’t let the divorce hurt your relationship with your son.
“And me going into the pool,” I continued, “dressed in all this,” and I gestured down at the floaties, the flippers, the ridiculous getup, “will convince you that it’s safe to splash around.”
Another nod. Those dark eyes watched me, and I felt his total attention on me, that level of focus that only little kids can achieve. When he looked at me, I knew that I was his world. He trusted me, believed in me. Somehow, all the other shit didn’t feel quite so bad, when he looked at me like that.
I turned back around to the kiddie pool. Shuffle, shuffle of the rubber flippers. I looked down at the pool. It was the inflatable kind, and I’d spent half the morning sweating and cursing as I worked the pump and wished that I’d paid the extra thirty bucks for the electric pump version. Out in the sunlight in on the too-thin, weedy grass of my backyard, it held maybe a foot or so of sun-warmed water.
This might feel nice, I told myself. Step in, cool off a little, then come out and let the kid splash for a bit while you grab a beer. A good Saturday afternoon.
I glanced over at Brandon, who watched me. I put on a big, fake smile. I was going to hate the day when the kid figured out that most of my smiles had pain behind them.
“Here goes nothing,” I said cheerily, flopping forward into the ten inches or so of water-
I was underwater. I struggled, flailing my arms, seeing the light above me. That had to be the surface. My lungs screamed for air; I hadn’t pulled a full breath before flopping in. I came up, and…
The first thought, finally pulling itself together in my head, was bewildered. The kiddie pool wasn’t deep enough for me to need to tread water, it said.
I wasn’t in the kiddie pool.
I was… was it an ocean? What the hell? I spun around, splashing and kicking my feet to keep my head above water. All I could see, in all directions, was water. The sun burned brightly above me, shining down, its glare reflected off the sea around me. And it was a sea – thrashing, I turned in a circle, water splashing everywhere from my panicked kicks. No land. Just water.
I opened my mouth to shout out, to let out a raw sound of angry bewilderment – and a wave hit me, forcing me down under the surface.
It burned. Everything burned – my lungs, my face, the cut on my jaw where I cut myself shaving this morning, the muscles in my flabby legs as I tried to kick and swim. I felt my foot twist, and amid the bubbles and confusion underwater, I saw one flipper fly away, loose from my foot.
Shit. I was going to die. I was going to drown, out here in this ocean, and Brandon would have to go live with Helen and she’d never listen to a thing that the kid said-
No. I fought my way up, past the burning in my chest and throat and nose and head. Up towards the light, up through the bubbles, the crashing waves that kept shoving me under, again and again, like those bullies back in seventh grade, back down into the water until I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even scream-
Light. Air. Reassuring solid ground under my feet, imbalanced as I stumbled forward. Rubber hit my ankles and then I was out of the pool, falling to my knees on the crabgrass, my blindly clutching hands bumping against the hose that I’d used to fill the pool.
I gasped in air, tasted its sweetness. I blinked water out of my eyes. It ran down my back, my shirt plastered against my body. It soaked into the dirt and made sand stick to my scraped knees.
“Oh my god,” I groaned out.
“See, daddy?” I looked up, blinked water out of my eyes, as Brandon stepped around to me. I was back, I realized, back on the ground in front of the kiddie pool. “It’s too deep.”
Still struggling to suck in air, to fully fill my starved lungs, I looked at him. I shifted my gaze over his shoulder, at the kiddie pool still squatting there so innocently. Down at my feet, mismatched with only a single flipper still attached.
I should do something. Scream, get some gasoline, set the thing on fire. But Brandon was looking at me, and I tried to pull myself together. Be a good dad.
“How about I set up the sprinkler, instead?” I asked.
A long moment of consideration, and then a single nod. “Yeah. I like the sprinkler.”