In the motel’s retro, kidney-shaped, outdoor pool, thirty minutes till close, no lifeguard on duty, Harry Snow swims his first submerged lap, his long-lost special ability.
A moment ago his wife, Anne, still in her road clothes, waved to their kids splashing at the far end, her smile trembling, and said, “This time, believe it, this time I am leaving.” Clutching her phone, she sat back in a white metal chair, one in a row on the cooling red brick. In the hours since Harry had told her about the pictures, about her best friend, her anger had settled in. She watched a tattooed couple drown cigarettes in plastic cups and make their way upstairs, wet footprints evaporating, the sky blushing, crickets grinding. He went under.
His eyes sting as he pushes against the water. For Anne. To convince her — again — of his purposefulness, his genuineness. He is not just anyone.
What this is: a breakdown.
Minutes after he got his secret off his chest, the Camry’s motor locked up. It could have been Anne’s arctic silence that froze it. He barely made the puddled shoulder off I-80, not a hundred feet from a towering billboard:
They were towed, U-Haul trailer and all, into Cheyenne, Wyoming, a child on each of their laps in the cab with Rumaldo from El Salvador, who said he’d crossed the border in the crowded back of a semi, who said, “No worries. Cecil will take care of you.” Cecil of Cecil’s Paint and Body, Iranian, a former pro wrestler, the Desert Dragon, posters on the office walls, the mechanics his sons. New engine $3,500, labor $1,500. Their insurance saw to the rental car, which was something.
“Should have you back on the road to Iowa again by Friday,” Cecil said. Two days. Cecil said, “Thunderbolt Patterson, world heavyweight champ, was born in Waterloo, Iowa. Left first chance he got.”
“Good place to raise kids,” Harry said. “We like it. Where my wife grew up.”
“She grew up, all right.” Cecil made a clicking in his cheek. Screw him.
The trailer, padlocked at Cecil’s, holds their share of the furniture from his mother’s apartment. After her surgeries his older brother and sister moved her into a nursing facility, Life Care Center of Salt Lake City, a glorified motel where she died peacefully in an in-bed inflatable bathtub. Harry is glad he was not there to argue over who got what. He was busy teaching.
Now, stranded with his family at Little America’s pool, Harry recovers his superhuman power underwater. The pool is surrounded by a two-story horseshoe of rooms, the first floor with windows, the second with balconies and sliding doors, from which he presumes strangers must stare, must marvel as he so easily makes the deep end’s wall again, a spotlight dark in its center, as he turns, unfolds. He has no particular talent on the surface, but here, beneath, he instinctively sweeps wide with his arms, kicks, passes beneath the rope to the shallow end — the shallow end where his kids no longer are.
His sperm swam! Billions. Only two got through. The right two. He will get through.
Once, when Harry was on a high-school field trip to the VA hospital, a doctor asked for a volunteer to blow into a snorkel on the side of a blue metal box that measured lung capacity. Harry, a soccer-playing science nerd, blew as the lid rose and a needle tracked the force and length of his exhale on a sheet of graph paper. When the bladder inside began to hiss, the doctor said, “My God, you broke it. Those are mighty lungs of yours, young man.” A nurse high-fived Harry.
He turns again beside the unlit spotlight, thrusts out a good third of the pool, and, fighting the urge to surface, strokes and kicks, lap four.
Four. Half the years he has been married. Harry and Anne. Lucky Harry.
Fore! What his alcoholic golf-pro father shouted to warn of his shot. Fathered his fourth child, a half sister Harry has not met, with twenty-something wife number two — four years before cirrhosis clubbed him.
Harry caddied for his father in middle school. He didn’t mean to tip his clubs into the water hazard. When his father held his head under in the muck and reeds, he played dead. His dad told a player coming up that Harry had had some kind of fit, and he’d shaken him out of it. He told Harry it was a lesson in discipline. Would all the alcohol Harry’s father drank be enough to fill this pool? Anne referred to the abuse as Harry’s “creation story.”
Anne is brilliant. Anne is beautiful. Anne is an introvert music teacher who gets so mad at him she says she wants to die. Sometimes she says she loves him. He loves her more than he has ever loved another person, not counting his kids. What about his mother? Gramps? Himself? He wonders if Anne is the only adult he can love.
Harry tries to find the blurred shapes of Brad and Lucy outside the shallow end. Extends. Hears the water gush from jets. Hears himself shrinking around the air he carries, his heart lunging like the horse he rode across Gramps’s pond. Hears Gramps warning: “If you fall off, watch out, she’ll try to climb on you.” A gleaming, living, breathing horse.
Harry jogs the Midwestern flatness. With friends. He cycles. With friends. No golf. He hates golf, the wasted water, the chemicals sprayed to weed and green. A white ball in a black hole. He looks after his heart, not counting drink-and-smoke-all-night high-stakes poker with “friends.” Friends in quotes. He won $523 from his principal. Lost it on the Bears. And stress. The shitty pay. The grading. The grading.
Except for the odd outing with his kids to the high-school “natatorium” — the word for indoor pool that Harry uses, which they love on their tongues — to break the confinement of winter, he never swims. Not since Peru. Not since mountain lakes with Gramps. Not since teenage parties at rich kids’ pools, where he showed off his freakish, he admits, talent underwater. Others would go a lap, a lap and a half. He would do four and a half, five, no sweat. Harry’s friend Fudge said he should move to the Bahamas and become a free diver, that he could set a world record. His high-school girlfriend, her family Tutsis from Rwanda, didn’t know how to swim. Everyone at school loved her. Did they love Harry? Did she? She did not believe in “premarital intercourse.” Even though Harry was an agnostic, her father, a minister in some small fundamentalist church, took him fishing at Jordanelle Reservoir. Her father could not swim either, but he told of wading waist deep to baptize whole families in that very lake.
Harry remembers his last gasp — how long ago? — in the open air.
She went to Princeton, Harry to Weber State, where he majored in environmental science. Elk hunting, Gramps fell from his horse into a stream. Hit his head on a rock.
Anne. Harry met Anne in Puno in Peru, two of only a handful of Peace Corps volunteers for a hundred miles. He hired a fisherman to take them to the Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca, and there, for her, he swam underwater out from Inca ruins. She timed him at eleven minutes. Convinced Harry had descended from some ancient water spirit — Viracocha, come to bless his boat — the fisherman refused Harry’s money. Anne said, “All I can do is sing.” All?
Anne has a voice somewhere between Linda Ronstadt and Tracy Chapman and . . . and Brandi Carlile, only it’s genuinely hers. She compartmentalizes her shyness, performs weekends in bars, churches, and coffeehouses, at benefits. Has groupies. Writes songs he remembers, one he uses now to regulate his strokes: “If we try to lift the seasons like sand, / We wear away the nails of our hands.” Her fingers — on a guitar, cello, violin, piano. Him. Students love her. He plays nothing. Brad and Lucy play ukuleles her parents brought last winter from Hawaii. A volcanic island. Sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
He is beginning to imagine exploding — or imploding into the empty, compressed cavities inside his aching ribs. But. But he is not dizzy, still finds power in his legs when he leaves the wall. Number six. The walls blue. A pool in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where, for all but this infinitesimal sliver of history, water has not been pumped from the earth, sanitized, and boxed in concrete for human beings to slip into, away from normal gravity, from their clothes, their possessions.
Anne told Harry thousands of artifacts had been discovered on the bottom of Lake Titicaca. Bolivia is building an underwater museum. How long have human beings swum?
Harry reaches that point — he remembers it now — when his arms and legs continue without him. His job is to keep believing the last air inside is enough to keep him from passing out.
Are Brad and Lucy watching? Do they understand how exceptional this is, easily a record for this pool, maybe for any pool? With their mother, they are in that habitable, miles-high envelope of oxygen and carbon dioxide that cushions the world from the cold and dark where stars burn out and space debris hurtles at thousands of miles an hour. Where unmanned gadgets track a trackless Mars. Mars has water.
When this pool is drained for the winter, where does its water go? The West is drought-stricken. Burning. Climate strange. “The amount of water on Earth is constant,” Harry told disbelieving students. Seventy-one percent of the planet is underwater. He feels the oceans swelling with ice melt. With catastrophe. Sees Noah and his wife at the ark’s railing on the cover of his grandparents’ picture-book Bible. Flood. A word without shores.
Harry tells himself that if he makes this seventh lap — eighth? — there is no way Anne will not love him, that from the time he leaves the pool, extremities tingling, bloodshot eyes on fire, there will never be another fight. No more tears. No more times his kids stare as he must have stared in the aftermath of erupted voices and slammed doors. Anne will post photos of him climbing from the pool on Instagram. People will come from their air-conditioned rooms to cheer him, to post him on their Instagram pages.
Pull. Kick. Lips compressed.
The spotlight in the wall bursts on, blinds. Like when the cop woke him where he’d passed out in Brookside Park from brownies laced with who-the-hell-knows-what; Cheryl, supposedly Anne’s best friend, brought them over after the kids were in bed. Cheryl that night had blurted something about a threesome, and Anne, nearly shouting, had sent her packing. Then Anne, fists raised, said, “You would have liked it, Harry. You would have. We’re just bodies to you.”
“Well . . . ,” he said, but he knew better than to let it get started, so he left. The cop clicked off his flashlight, said, “Didn’t you teach my kid biology?”
Biology, that’s all Harry is. A terrestrial creature with amphibious tendencies. Ha. Genotype. Phenotype. Alleles. An organism that continues, stroke after stroke, to drive for the wall.
Life began in water. This life, this gift.
Harry rejected traditional dissection, won a grant for synthetic $150 frogs. He never went to war. His dad, who’d been in Vietnam at the end, said, “I don’t care what they say, every man needs a war. It teaches the tiger to hate tiger.” Said that before he’d had a thing to drink, while the two of them unrolled sod in place of his mother’s garden. His mom said, “Your father forgot how to love himself, so everybody else better love him — or else.”
Harry loves that he is a water spirit after all, staying under like no other — achieving nine, ten, fifteen laps? His obedient body.
His body is a “transport vehicle,” what five-year-old Brad calls everything that carries humans. He calls his sister’s rollerblades transport vehicles. He calls Grandma’s horse a transport vehicle. Harry’s body, horizontal, in active balance between gravity and the centrifugal pull of the planet’s whirl, persists, his oversized arms, his matchstick legs. His hair, his long hair, the hair Anne loved that wrapped his ears, that last lap vanished, must now float above him like logs from the beaver dams Gramps dynamited. Boom. Part of an eight-man underwater demolition team, Gramps set off twenty tons of explosives at the waterfront in Hŭngnam, Korea. Frogmen.
The frog stroke.
When Anne and Harry make love, naked, slick, thrusting, huffing as though the air on Earth is almost gone, as though there are not trees enough to release oxygen enough to fill his lungs, he breaks through to an exhausted, weightless, recovered calm.
Anne and Harry.
Anne is above him, dry, as angry as she gets, because he told her, the kids asleep in the back, just past Rawlins, just after a downpour he could hardly see through, told her about the photos Cheryl had texted and confessed that he had sent a picture back — a “joke,” he called it. Then he had quickly told Cheryl he couldn’t do this, to which she’d just replied with more photos. Before this trip. Before this swim. Overworked. Underpaid. Undone by his mother’s death. “I wasn’t thinking,” he told Anne.
His mother. The nurse. His mother’s mother, whom he never knew, had polio, gave birth to her in an iron lung. A machine breathing. His mother. Gone.
Harry tucks, launches off the wall for lap . . . what? Twelve? Thirteen? By now more travelers have gathered around Anne and the kids, lean above them at balcony rails, phones recording, glasses raised, their trips, their lives changed by this feat of will, his breath now shrunk into an aquamarine jewel in his center. Name an aquamarine jewel. How about whales? He almost laughs, almost breaks the seal that is his mouth, but his transport vehicle still has fuel in its tank, is on autopilot, and how much of his life is just like this? He told. That’s something. He told.
Harry has to piss. But he could never do it in a pool. The clear, clear water of a pool. Doesn’t like to think about all those migrating U-Haul bodies pissing in this pool. A thousand? Ten thousand? The water filtered, treated, clear. At their camp in the high Uintas, just the two of them, Gramps laughed at the idea of purifying water. “Good enough for rainbows.” Harry drank it straight from cold, crystalline Red Castle Lake, and he’d never been so sick, giardia, “beaver fever.” Gramps went in the hospital. His grandma laid down the law: no more camping.
For him, Anne wants to love to camp. They’ll go north to the nearest wilderness, in northern Minnesota. She bought each of them a straw that filters water. Could he drink his own piss? Don’t astronauts?
The space behind his eyes is outer space he is swimming through, always, he thinks, him, him meaning the human race. A white ball in a black hole. Him meaning the husband of Anne, the father of Brad and Lucy. His legs still spread, close, his arms sweep, so . . . Anne will now see that one fucking cellphone picture is meaningless. This is meaning, this is how his life explains itself. He doesn’t need to talk talk talk. He needs to make the wall, to somersault and push. He will. He can. He wills himself closer.
But the water opens, explodes with two human beings, clothed. They stand upright here beside him, hold his head out, in the nighttime, noisy, waterless air. If they had not intercepted him, heaved him onto the bricks under the gawking balconies, Anne would still be in her chair, his kids would still be awestruck at the pool’s edge, and the rental car would still be in the parking lot. He sees its empty space like an empty pool.
These dripping strangers think they saved him. But. He holds his breath. And holds it. And holds it how no one else can, that one endless breath.