Techniques for Breathing Underwater
Imagine that you are older and have traveled to cities, that you’ve witnessed the sun moving across the spires of cathedrals, felt the hands of thieves rummaging your pockets. What else of these plazas but the toil of Romani and sewer grates and glinting fountains? The women moving from table to table selling roses, children peddling trinkets. You have nothing for them, of course, and will make a show of opening and folding your palms like the bill of money, the mouth of a shark. At night will be the colors observed from a rented room built high into the sky. Cobalt and yellows, the excitement of brake lights flaring. Standing there, you will be reminded of marine corals, phosphorescence, the sprawl of an ocean floor glimpsed briefly in the retreat of tides.
There will be a time when you think of nothing but caddisflies and river currents and the look of unmoving trout, snap necked, in the hands of your father. You will be struck by the surprise in their eyes, the quick fade of color. The weight of their flesh piling in your creel. Walking behind, you’ll watch him stretch and send his line to deepening pools, hungry mouths quickly rising to the surface. He will point out to you the spot of current that bends and eddies below a rock, the promise of more fish. Stripping a bit of length from the reel, you’ll throw the hook into an overhead of untamed brush, your father cursing under his breath. Water flows around his words, around his waders. Removing the barb from a sinewy branch he’ll turn to you, explaining again the mechanics of casting, how to avoid getting caught.
The drop of masks in the airplane cabin will startle, a swarm of mouth coverings and coiled tubing, the look of appendages, plastic insects. You’ll struggle with the elastic, the flow of air, and wonder at what point you might pull the seat cushion for use as a preserver. A man announces something about the rapid loss of pressure, emergency landing, his voice sounding far away, the crackle of static. Later at the airport bar in Duluth, you’ll wonder if your dizziness had been fear or simply the diminution of oxygen, a drowning. Outside will be the hardness of sun, the blue-yellow clouds of deicing agents unraveling to the vast promise of distance.
Sometimes while standing before the windows of tall buildings, you’ll close your eyes, imagining the windsway of rebar and steel as that of currents, of swells returning you to water.
There will always be a girl, this being the one with gap teeth and gums that show like the remains of candle wax on her smile. Her family owns a small camp at the edge of a lake, the ring of a firepit, canoes at the dock. A hammock strung between two standing pines. Throughout the summer you’ll often lie there together, blistering with desire. Occasionally a boat pushed by a small motor will pass, sending braids of water brushing to the shore.
Wading into the lake you’ll notice her back, the imprint of rope criss-crossing her skin. The way it rises. She is impatient in the way of a child and dives quickly, submerging, only to appear again in what seems from an impossible distance. You watch her out there, floating in the motion of arms and legs, the occasional stillness that sinks her like a vanishing trick. She moves further, lapping at the water, and you imagine her as a stone sent skimming the surface: psst psst psst psst psst psst psst psstpsst, the sound like the secrets you’ll only unturn, later.
At the age of five you will come to realize separation, meaning that you will have begun to understand what it’s like to become fragile, to splinter. It would have been winter, the steep incline of a driveway undriven, serpentine beneath the snow. The look of hibernation. Everywhere is trees and white and bitter clouds, crystals slipping from the pockets of boughs. The bed of a sledding track runs from the top of the hill, narrow and curving at the bottom. You’ll remember the push from your brother and the quick sound of plastic gliding the snow, the icy burn of weather in the gaps between your mittens and parka. The anxious feeling of riding alone.
Nearing the bend of the road you’ll continue forward, straying into the dusk of a northern white pine, the dull sound of fracturing. You’ll remember the sticky bleed of crimson against your mother’s denim pants, of being rocked in her lap. Your father driving at such terrific speeds. Stay with me, stay awake. She will say this again and again, these words spoken muffled, wet, a siren calling from somewhere in the distance.
For a time, you’ll live in selfish ways. A shadow chewing at the edges of light.
How strange your father’s name will appear in the context of death, a lonely thing, fastened to granite and slippery newsprint. His memorial will be held in a large playhouse, the ceiling painted sunset pink, a sky of impossible clouds. You’ll be mostly fine, a bit dazed, scanning the bruising crowd of navy suits and black ties, charcoal looking blouses. The distinct sameness of small-town faces.
Following the service, you’ll drink heavily from an open bar and try to smile through remembrances, the jokes that land like boot heels digging into hardened earth. You search the room for the woman who will be your first wife, a warm thing, comforting as a bed. Tomorrow you will board an airplane together for Europe, a vacation months in planning, and that first night in Munich both of you sleep deprived, manic, making love with the taste of vending machine snacks on your breath. But that’s so far ahead of you. For now, take in the voices around you, the remains of picked over salmon at the buffet, the alabaster spine. Pay attention to the softness of the room. The photographs of your father and how much you’ve come to resemble him.
There are things that you should know: the scent of balsam is your grandfather on the breeze, that Oregon will always be the memory of moonlight reflected in water. Understand, too, the sadness you sometimes feel is not sadness at all, but rather the overwhelming startle of beauty, of time. Rainbows in gas station puddles, your first sip of beer, your brother. Love is a curtain drawn against the light.
What’s left to say after seventeen years? We’re running low on toothpaste. I’m leaving today. Will you remember the looping drives taken around the lake together in winter, the look of fisherman on the ice? How you’d stop sometimes and strip your clothes, shivering into the warmth of the other. The rough feeling of puckered skin. In time, you’ll come to know what it is to be suspicious, to feel the twist of a screw turning in your guts.
Your first marriage will lead to divorce, your second to hotel rooms and trysts with a woman who is everything your new wife is not in that she is meticulous with her desire. You’ll see this in the dig of nails scratched evenly to your back, by her pairs of underwear assigned to days of the week. You’ll come to know the sheerness of Thursdays, the silk of Sundays. This will go on for years, these pleasures, and swell ultimately into something untreatable among a breast.
One day in bed she’ll show you the scan, the image like glaze cracking the surface of porcelain. The next few months will blur, the pace itself eating away at her body, small bites taken from promises and thin smiles. You’ll remember the bumped-out look of her spine rising like hills from a distance, the veil of mist floating her eyes. The nothing weight grist of her bone and ash carried forever on your person in a vial.
When younger, you’ll imagine the ability to move objects with your mind, a neat little trick performed in gusts of wind and the slow walk of shadows, birds passing in flight. Candle glow waving in the exhale of wishes.
Let’s pretend it wasn’t fleeing but instead the curiosity of a flame. A month in Mexico, the details lost but for a few memories, mementos. The copper bowl, purchased from a woman kneeling by the side of a road. A milky looking scar, thread thin, drawn into the muscle of your shoulder. Rivers papery as the snake shed of skin. The feel of warm breath, earthen, sour, dreaming from the woman beside you.
Dancing will never be your best. A front tooth will crack on a playground slide, another on the kneecap of a neighbor, your smile growing jagged, torn. For a time, you’ll miss the girlfriend who made you bread, who offered herself up like nothing you’ll ever see again. You will never be a baker. You will know the razor white flashes of anxiety and panic, avoid yourself in mirrors. You will witness the decline of your mother, the growing looseness of her gown. There will forever be the want of somewhere else. You’ll plant a grove of apple trees and watch them, season after season, bloom in startling whites. It will be your heart that does you in.
NATHANIEL EDDY lives and works in Vermont. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Faultline Journal, Water~Stone Review, Salt Hill Journal, and others.