by Barbara Harroun
Emily does not mind front diving off the highest platform. She can see the water or close her eyes to it, her choice. Diving is harder this year, physically. She put on weight over the summer, choosing Doritos and books over summer swim team. She was tired, true, but there was a heavy oppressiveness — like a steaming, wet wool blanket pressing down. Her mother called it melancholia and attributed it to her grandmother on her father’s side. Grandmother had drowned herself, one summer gloaming when her father was still a child, by walking into a lake and not knowing how to swim. Antidepressants, good ones, were a good decade off, so Emily swims through this unyielding despair, skimming its bottom and holding her breath, and on the good days, floating on its surface.
Her coach wants her to learn the back dives, beginning with the basic dive and working her way to the back flip and a precise one and a half. “Trust me,” he says, and she tries to. She wants to. If she is honest, she’ll admit to her sixteen-year-old self that she is in love with him. Later, in another decade, when she’s found Prozac and is awash in love, she understands how far off she’d been, but in the now he is the first man she’s seen nearly naked. He wears a black Speedo and models the dives himself. He is finely muscled. He shakes his head when he comes out of the water. When his suit is wet, she averts her eyes. He is the first man, the first to inspect her body, place his hands on her to illustrate proper form, peer into her face to see if she understands what his hands convey. He is not good with words. When he stands directly behind her, she feels the melancholia lift like mosquito netting being raised.
To back dive, all she has to do is fall backwards, her hands above her head in prayer position, and trust the water to swallow her. Yet, right before the moment of consummation, she flails, terrified, and lands hard, her back red and stinging. Falling backward, fear takes on a tangible shape in her stomach — a Rubik Cube in weight, size and outline. She can’t figure it out, although at night, in the dark and heat she turns her fear this way and that. Then she calls up the mirage of him, standing behind her.
She climbs up the ladder, then walks out on the platform, surveying the pool. “Hey,” her coach calls, “You can do this. You can.” She tries to see if he really means what he was saying, or if he had to say this because he is her coach. So many people just say shit they don’t really mean. From up here, she can’t tell, even though she knows the truth is simple. She knows the water is there, waiting. She just doesn’t trust it to receive her.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Rusty Toque, Black Sun Lit, the Kudzu Quarterly Review, Slipstream, Madrid: Journal of Contemporary Literature, The Circus Book, freeze frame fiction, Fiction Southeast, The Sonder Review, Eastern Iowa Review, and Empty Sink. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism.