Open Water by Lydia A. Cyrus
My cousin Shelby and her younger sister said they were smoking pot on the rock above us, but I knew better. I knew it was pot, but I didn’t ask questions. Their rebellious acts were a façade for attention. Shelby’s husband was walking up the hill to get to the top of the rock so he could dive into the lake from the highest point possible. The air was humid but the shady parts of the rocks provided sanctuary from the sticky air and hot sun. I stretched my legs out, off the edge of the rock, and let the sun bathe them. I stretched to meet the day and everything it was holding out for me; soon I would have tan lines.
My sunglasses were folded neatly on a tree branch that stretched over the green water. The tinted lenses were prescription and entirely too expensive. Still, they dangled a mere three feet above the water like low hanging fruit. My own rebellion. The other men who came with Shelby were passing around beer and someone told me to take a sip from the tall, white can.
“I hate the taste of beer,” I said. It wasn’t that I hadn’t had one before but that I genuinely didn’t like the taste, even if the can was white and gold and seemed extravagant.
“C’mon, just taste it!” Brandy, Shelby’s eighteen-year-old sister insisted. She was younger than me, prettier than me. Where my hair was dark, hers was a natural blonde and her eyes were blue. Brandy ran track in high school and always dated football players. I did not.
I took a sip anyway. Do you want to get high? I kept saying no. I had a job starting exactly a week from that day and I didn’t know if I had to pass a drug test yet. I had never smoked pot before either and I wasn’t sure I wanted my first time to be here at the lake. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get high with my cousins who were both older and younger than me while the threat of getting arrested loomed over all of us—underage drinking, jumping off cliffs, and smoking pot were all illegal here, but I was the only one who seemed to care.
My mother took me to swimming lessons as a young child and I excelled from the start. We went to Dreamland pool every week with my cousin John. Two small kids sat in the back seat of my mom’s Nissan with neatly folded towels on our laps and sunscreen smeared across our skin. My hair used to be almost jet-black as a child—more strikingly when it was wet—and it covered my shoulders. Sometimes mom would let me skip putting sunscreen on my shoulders because my hair covered that for me.
I swam with grace: legs together and hands straight out. I was never big on dancing, but in my own way I was very much a dancer. I have always been built small, more streamline. Swimming long distances was fast for me, expedient. Depending on the action required I could limber up to dive but also float on my back with great ease. Floating, to me, was an action of rest, and I used it sparingly. My body could follow the form of the water easily, molding and shifting to adjust to depth, to temperature.
I often thought of mermaids and would practice holding my breath to swim from one end of the pool to another. I pictured myself having a crimson tail and with my thick black hair flowing, I pictured having aquatic companions and evading the surface for as long as possible, but always I came back up for air, if nothing else just so I could turn around and swim under again.
As a child, it was not uncommon for an adult to find me in a pool with my clothes on, believing in the water at whatever cost. The only rule I ever had in swimming was that I had never been allowed to swim in open water—no streams wider than four feet and no lakes. I grew up in a landlocked state, so the idea of swimming in the ocean was never something to consider. I was always out of my reach.
We have one lake near my hometown at a state park: Beech Fork. My dad had always vehemently told me to stay out of the water unless I could stand in it and the water only reached my chest. Nothing deeper than that. The only open water I had ever known I saw on television. Many summer afternoons were spent with my wet, dark hair stuck to my forehead and shoulders while I curled up with a blanket in the floor to watch television. The heat of the sun was reflected in my deeply tanned skin and the slight energized buzz I felt when coming inside after hours of swimming and playing. The energy was always concentrated on quick, warm showers to ease the shock of transitioning from the warm outdoors to the air-conditioned house. My swim suit would be draped across the sink or on the clothesline, or really wherever I left it and I would sit Indian style in the living room floor to surf the TV Guide.
My favorite films were always the Jaws movies. I would watch them on loop on the AMC channel so often that it became commonplace to find me, if not in the pool, in front of the open water on the television screen. The images of the sea, of the men on the sea, were brave to me. Somehow, they were extraordinary: the thought that the open water deserved to be explored and everything in it, even the grotesque parts, were apart of something larger than I could understand, something freeing. I’m almost certain I would drift off to sleep on the floor and I could feel my body bobbing and swaying: the sensation of floating.
The section of the lake Shelby and her sister were occupying was hidden. You almost couldn’t see it at all if it weren’t for the men screaming as they jumped off the cliffs and the women sunbathing with beer in hand. When we got there we had to walk downhill and through jagged paths and tree branches to get to that spot. It was Shelby’s favorite. The park rangers on patrol would have had a hard time scouting us out unless they were on boat duty and happened to drift by. The anonymity was evident from the level of trash clinging to the rocks and dirt, but the hidden spot seemed to suit the nature of the day just fine.
In the course of the day, three other groups of people appeared. Some floated over on small inflatables and with beers in hand and others wandered down the path and dove off the rocks too. There were plastic cups, beer cans, and a few random dirty needles littering the stony pathway. When we first came down the trail I was immediately aware of the needles and felt my toes being pulled in at the thought of contracting something from stepping on one. Shelby and Brandy casually pushed the garbage aside and I made note that if I ever came back I would not be above bringing garbage bags and maybe even a broom.
Shelby was the older cousin who taught me things I shouldn’t have known. I remember once when I was still in elementary school when she introduced me to a new bodily function. We were standing on the side of the road in front of her stepdad’s house and she was throwing eggs against the pavement. How we got there and why I can’t remember, but we were there with soft boiled eggs in hand. She said that the boiled eggs looked like cum. I had no idea what she meant by that word and she simply said that it was something boys did and she thought it was funny that I didn’t understand. She always thought of me as her student, as someone she could corrupt with movies like Meatballs and Porky’s and with boiled eggs. She was always big on teasing me too. Growing up, she used to tell me that my real dad was black because I had such dark skin. She loved to tease me over things I didn’t understand. She relished the fact that my parents weren’t married when my mother got pregnant and once said, “Lydia, don’t you think it’s funny that your parents’ wedding anniversary is in March but your birthday is in October? That’s only seven months.” When I finally understood what she meant, I went home and sobbed to my mother that I was going to hell for being a bastard baby and an abomination. Shelby thought it was hilarious.
My mother on the other hand, never appreciated the lessons I would take home with after spending days with my cousins. She would sometimes ground me from seeing them when she saw the sort of behaviors I was picking up. If it was language involved, I couldn’t spend the night with them for a few weeks. For example, when I stubbed my toe on the old kitchen stove on night and yelled, “Fudge!” I was banned from sleepovers for at least three weeks. When mom asked where I learned how to say such a thing I told her that I heard Shelby say it once.
Mom couldn’t understand the appeal of staying with my aunt. It seemed, to her, that I didn’t have as much fun as I let on. As Shelby got older, she hung out with me less and the teasing became the more prominent feature in our interactions. She used to tell people that I was her “smart, baby cousin who went to a hillbilly school,” and she mocked my thick Appalachian accent relentlessly. The way I pronounced words like nine and ice were especially humorous to her. When she tried to mimic my speech patterns it always sounded exaggerated to me and more like a Southern belle voice than my own.
I still wanted to be there with her. For every memory I have of her tormenting me, I have memories of us sitting on creek banks together. Our favorite spot, Indian Creek, was teeming with water, fish, and crawdads. When the weather was warm, the three of us would pack brown paper bags with canned Vienna sausages and hotdog buns: the sausages for us and hot dog buns for fishing. We would catch slender, tan catfish and release them back into the water immediately. One summer we stood in the water, knee deep, and constructed little homes made out of pebbles for the fish. After constructing an elaborate, circular home we caught four fish. Brandy lost hers as it leapt out of the water and swam downstream. I shared my fish, named Emma, with her, and Emma stayed in the pebble dome for a few moments.
I remember watching her sleek body swim in circles and the way the whiskers on her face would bend and wiggle accordingly to the pace of the current. I vaguely remember a thin, white scar on the top of Emma’s head and I thought a lot about that: how did a catfish come to be scarred? I thought about the freedom to swim away and I said out loud, “I wonder why Emma stays in the circle even though she doesn’t have to? Doesn’t she know where she came from, that she can go downstream?”
The dirt and sand from the bank were still in-between my toes and in my hair when I got home that night, but part of me couldn’t get out of the water. Even as Allyiah’s mom drove me home, I was still thinking about what I had done—what it felt like to swim out past the buoy for the first time.
One summer, I went out in the water past the point of being able to stand. I was drifting on a dollar store pool float and used my arms to steer my neon green vessel left and right. My childhood best friend, Allyiah, drifted next to me. As her skin turned red, mine turned a darker shade of olive. The dirt and sand from the bank were still in-between my toes and in my hair when I got home that night, but part of me couldn’t get out of the water. Even as Allyiah’s mom drove me home, I was still thinking about what I had done—what it felt like to swim out past the buoy for the first time. I came to remember the experience in a different way, though, because of what happened when I got home that evening.
“Don’t ever let me catch you swimming in deep water. You could get a Charlie horse or cramp up and drown. No one would ever notice you were gone until it was too late,” Dad said. That’s what I remember most about the experience now.
“What do you mean you’ve never swam in open water?” Shelby kept asking as she sat on the bank with her shins in the water. Most of the bank was rock and covered in algae, making the water have a green tint to it. Shelby’s red hair and black bathing suit were perfect contrast against the trees and green water. Never gotten laid, never learned how to ride a bike, never gotten high, and can’t swim in open water. I could see her squinting through her sunglasses, trying to get a better look at my face, my innocence. I could feel her trying to understand how I seemed to be a grown woman of twenty years old and yet, still a child. She thought I was joking but my face seemed to prove to her that I was not.
“Dad always said no. If he knew where I was going today I wouldn’t have been allowed to come,” I stood on the edge of the stone beneath my feet. I couldn’t tell her the truth: that I had swam in a lake once before. The memory of that first time was framed by the grounding I got later and the way my father made me think about my mortality instead of my desire to swim. Just a quarter of an inch further in front of me and there would be nothing under my feet except more green water, no rocky bank, no Shelby. I thought about what was in the water: Sure, we were there but what else was there too? Where were the fish? Were there any fish?
“But your dad doesn’t live with you guys anymore,” she said, almost whispering, afraid. Maybe she thought my father, her uncle, would hear her say it. He had that kind of power. Shelby’s red hair was shimmering in the sunlight and her pale skin had started to turn pink on her shoulders and chest. I had nothing to say this time so I turned around and swam to my left in the cool water until my feet found the film on the rocks again so I could stand and walk back to my towel.
I think about depth a lot. The water really is endless—when it isn’t limited to concrete and chlorine. It can go on forever and never change. Human interaction is what makes it change. Maybe the water and I were alike in this way: we needed interaction with others in order to change. The water needed me in it, needed me swimming, to give it something different, a visitor of sorts. I needed my cousins around to show me what it meant to be a child and later to be something in-between a child and an adult.
The confines of a strict childhood, of curfews and limitations, stopped me from going downstream and I always thought I was okay with that. I thought I was okay with being innocent and staying behind. It’s okay to be that way, I know. But I don’t know that I want that for myself. I don’t know that I want to swim in the same circles because I wasn’t allowed to leap out and swim.
Jumping off the rocks seemed so dangerous to me: you could slip and bash your head in on the edge of the cliffs. You could hit the water and pass out even. You could drown. Watching people jump off cliffs and hit the water let me see the experience and hear it. If I sat too close to the edge of the bank I could feel the spray of water as someone hit the surface. How far down exactly did they go when they hit the water? How did they not run out of breath before coming back up?
Some things I can never know the depth of—the truth of—because I’m sitting on the bank instead, not jumping at all.
It’s not that the open water bothered me so much as the thought of swimming in it would be documented by others. I wasn’t bothered by the smoking of pot and the drinking although I was a little afraid of getting caught and getting arrested in Kentucky without my father ever knowing where I was in the first place. If I could get grounded just for swimming in lake water, I could only imagine the punishment for getting arrested on drug charges.
As long as I can remember I toed a line drawn by a father who shuddered at the sight of open water. His fear of his child drowning was warranted; how could it be dismissed? I’ve often thought about it too: every time I’ve ever swum too deep and felt the burning of lack of air I’ve thought about it. But taking away the chance to have that experience was, in a sense, causing me to drown too.
I know my father swam in open water. He smoked joints and got into bar fights, but none of those things were meant for me. My uncles have always told stories of the times they swung into creek water on vines and cannonballed. I heard the story of how my father’s closest friend, Stacey, could roll a joint in the dark at lightning speed. I heard about all the times they emptied beer cans and laughed together. Maybe it’s because he knows what could happen. Maybe he thinks if I had more freedom I would be like he was as a young man.
Just talking about the simple fact that I shouldn’t have been in the water was enough to make the experience fraudulent. The film on the rock beneath my feet made the experience seem dirty. I watched as young boys leapt off of the cliffs and hit the water. Each of them had tightly tied their shoelaces before jumping; the slap of the water stung the bottoms of their feet. The sound of their bodies hitting the water sounded so much like a muffled gun going off. I found it hard not to wince and close my eyes when they made contact. One of the boys didn’t surface quickly enough for my liking and I found myself edging towards the end of the rock. I had no plan on how to retrieve a body heavier than mine or a plan to retrieve my own body in deep water. Just when it seemed like something horrid had happened, a cleanly shaved head bobbed to the surface screaming, I touched the bottom!
I once dated a man who asked me questions about my life. I can’t believe you’re jumping into graduate school so fast. Don’t you just want to breathe? One night, he wrapped his arm around me as we watched a movie. Another question. Have you ever been outside of the country? And I said no. Where do you want to go? Why? I was forced to admit to a near stranger that I hadn’t even thought about that. Hadn’t created a destination in my mind. I almost said it. I want to go. As I sat there the silence in the room fell like mist over everything.
That summer, Brandy and Shelby both coasted around the edge of the bank in their floats with beer cans in hand. They all talked about how they envied the way I filled my bathing suit and the fact that I didn’t wear sunscreen but didn’t burn either. They weren’t really jealous of me. They were trying to find conversation to give because they knew we had so little in common. They were in their element: weed, beer, and cliff jumping. Why they invited me there I can’t say for sure. I think they thought it would help us grow back together like when we were kids, when we built pebble houses for catfish. What they didn’t know was that I wanted to jump too, but I wasn’t sure how.