Free Swim


He topped sixty seconds for the first time in middle school. He did it on a dare and he nearly passed out. In high school, it became a sort-of parlor trick.

"Hey Jimmy! Do it in the lake!" 

"Hey Jimmy! Do it in this plastic bag so we know you're not faking." 

He did it every time because it meant prestige. It was a platform for getting girls. Of course, he swam too. He wasn't the strongest body on the swim team but his ability underwater was unmatched. But it wasn't the girls or the letter jackets that drove him to do it; it was freedom. 

Jimmy started holding his breath when he was six. That's when his mom stopped living. They didn't bury her until he was eleven, but by then she was a ghost. She had retreated from the land of the living via pills and People magazine. She ate in her room. She slept in her room. Jimmy's dad didn't. One day, less than a year after she came home from the hospital looking grey and reduced, Jimmy realized he had gone a week without speaking to her. He had only seen her in glimpses through the bedroom door when she had called for pills. He topped one hundred twenty seconds sometime his sophomore year.

Jimmy's dad had parlor tricks too. He drank with sour men who raced miniature motorcycles in Jimmy's back yard and shouted obscenities over the whining motors until the neighbors called the police. Jimmy didn't trust his dad's friends. Once, two of them came to blows and the fight ended with one of them sitting on the other's chest with a handful of hair working it up and down until the back of his opponent's head was gooey and there was a little stream of blood on the driveway. The loser of that fight never came back to drink with Jimmy's dad again. Jimmy wondered if he had survived, but he was too afraid to ask. 

It started in the bathtub. Underwater, he was free from the noises his brain stored up during the day to torment him with at night. His father shouting. Doors slamming. Bottles clinking. His mother moaning. Glass breaking. Engines revving. The TV. The neighbor's dog. The whispers of hunched and white-haired old ladies whose dresses were pressed stiff to make up for the wrinkles in their furrowed faces at First Baptist Church where his father would drop him off on Sunday mornings on the way to the horse track. Underwater he was free from the noises, from the pressure, from time and disappointment. 

A month after graduation, he went with his high school friends to the lake. Most of them were leaving for college in a few weeks. Jimmy was staying behind. They were drinking Keystone and jumping off big rocks into the lake. The higher the rock, the deeper Jimmy sank, and the longer the silence lasted. Deep in the green nothingness, he was free. There were no sounds, no restrictions. Nothing to see or hear or do. By then, he was up to one hundred eighty seconds. 

For two months after that, Jimmy worked at a scuba shop renting equipment to people going on vacation, people with the means to leave their circumstances behind. He stole opportunities to assist dive instructors in the pool, but the little square tiles on the bottom of the pool grew more and more worrisome. There were the same little squares in his parents' bathroom, the room he never saw any more, just past the room where his mom was dying. Floating over those squares, the quiet was deathlike. He saw himself floating over his mother's domain, like a specter. He didn't want to haunt his mother and so he didn't want the job. He stole a weight belt and stopped showing up. 

The weight belt was for the lake. He was timid at first; he kept it tied to a rope that stretched out to a tree on the bank. When he couldn't last any longer, he would drop the weight, swim to the surface, and then retrieve the belt with the rope. He reached two hundred seconds. And he did it alone. No one was there in the blind greenness. No one was within miles. 

It was a late summer afternoon when Jimmy made his final escape. It was premeditated, but not in a hopeless or dramatic way. It was just the next step in his journey. A final step away from the haunting, a last step toward freedom. The shadow of the tree where the rope used to be tied stretched far out from shore. The afternoon light danced on tiny waves inviting him below where they would gently rock him to sleep. He stepped into the familiar, murky green, but it was clear. Everything was clear for Jimmy. He lasted three hundred seconds that day. 

And then he lasted forever. 

Ryan SandersComment