Sunday, May 30, 2010

Against the Tide

Nobody else is on the beach. The time for swimming or practically anything starts at four. But now that I’m no longer itching to punch him out, Charlie taunts me into the ocean, which is uncomfortable and unsafe. He’s splashing and nudging me underwater with “shark” attacks.

Two minutes in the light and heat and it’s my head that’s swimming. A colorless, searing nightmare: midday at the equator.

Charlie nudges me twice and disappears. I start calling him.

(click here to read the first episode and here  for the previous one)

“Hey! Let’s hear it for Charlie everybody!”
And: “Char-lie! CHAR-LIE! Come on, flick your Bic!”

Another minute, though, and I’m calling him for real.

Score! Team Charlie wins the game. Out of nowhere he yanks my feet and holds my ankles together. I yell and curse. We’re splashing and laughing. But then I nod. “Time to go.”

“Not me,” he says. “Not yet. I float like a boat.”

“All right.” We ride a few waves but each one swells higher. They’re already starting to crash on the shore. No way am I swimming out where it’s calmer and deeper and invisible currents flow. “I’m out, Charlie. This is stupid. Do you want me to haul you in now or later?”

“Ha! Can you push a whale?”

I tell him again to get out. We’ve played in the dangerous ocean. We’re bad and besides, he won.

In the air, my skin, hair, and shorts dry before I reach Emma sitting under a palm tree. I’m asking her if she’ll come straight to my place tomorrow, when she jumps up, tossing her sunglasses in the sand.  “I don’t see him, Scott! Do you? I never took my eyes off him but now I don’t see him!”

She’s running knee-deep in the water and I run beside her.

“Stay in the shade, Emma. Don’t come in; I’ll look for him.”

I run into the water and start diving, eyes open. After scanning the clear water, I swim out where the sandbar drops. I dive down but cannot touch bottom. The water’s dark green and cool. I dive, search the depths, and come up for air, shouting, “Charlie!”

 I shout his name underwater too. “Charlie! Charlie!” pops inside bubbles of wasted breath. By now the ocean’s roaring inside my head. Nobody rescues anyone this way—everybody drowns. But this is Charlie! It’s insane to even think of walking away.   

A few more attempts, though, and my lungs seize up. Nose above the surface, I calm down, treading until I get the involuntary rhythm going again: inhale, exhale.

I keep searching, but surface more often, more desperate for air. Big waves roll in and the light is paralyzing.

Making an unconscious plea, I look up. A bird flies overhead and its shadow skims the surface just ahead of me. Between me and the horizon, the shadow seems to linger, almost within reach. Half-aware I’m chasing a silhouette—the warped copy of the bird’s flight, I race, arm over arm, because life skims ahead of me.

Only after the bird has flown past, do I tread and breathe hard. My head swivels and my eyes sting at the sight of arms churning the water. Emma’s swimming, because Charlie’s still nowhere to be found. Her feet kick and her slender arms rotate but she won’t survive unless she turns back now. We both know that.

Emma, I can save, if I’m still able to save myself. With the extraordinary strength that sometimes comes in an emergency, I propel myself beside her. Out of breath, we stare at each other, struggling to hold our heads high enough.

“Go back!” I’m afraid to reach for her, afraid she’ll slip from my exhausted grasp. “Go back, Emma!” I’m screaming although we’re face to face.

“Only if you do,” she says.

I nod. I swim alongside Emma toward the beach. We’ll be lucky if we make it. Except I still don’t give up: Heading inland, I continue diving and shouting and searching. Emma stops and waits for me, waves splashing her face. She doesn’t say anything, but I panic: no more swimming underwater.  Emma looks pale and frightened and I’m ready to clasp her in a rescue hold. 

We need to agree, however, or my hold could kill us both. “Emma, let me carry you in.”

She shakes her head and swims to the shore.

(click here for the last episode)


Dan Leo said...

Goddam Charlie. Dying the way he lived.

Unknown said...

This puzzled me, Dan. Charlie and I aren't that close; he's pretty much Scott's friend. You probably know him better. If so, give me a hint, because this story's been hanging around a long time.