The Student Literary Journal of Northern Vermont University

Drowning Lesson



Lately I’ve been conducting drowning research — not firsthand, as that research is the kind that’s truncated involuntarily, momentarily after it’s undertaken. When the young neighborhood moms don flip flops and yellow halters, the ice-cream truck gears up its mechanized Yankee Doodle, I trawl the internet’s depths, reading posts originally published in Prevention and Newsweek and USA Today. The benignity, banality of these publications a jarring vault from the subject matter the articles contain. All start with the usual advice: Go out in groups or pairs, wait a stint after picnicking before exertion, don’t venture away if you’re tired or distressed or drunk. When any doubt lingers, stay behind. This all seems like reasonable advice for life at large, not just for water safety, and briefly — in a move that seems coyly macabre, though I can’t place quite why — I endeavor to apply these strategies to my day to day.

The fucked up thing is this: If you Google save yourself from drowning, you get pages of drowning-prevention advice, nothing just exactly the results you were hoping for. Once you find yourself in a drowning situation, as true enthusiasts call it, there’s no path back. Few are the times we can’t unwork the folly we’ve walked ourselves into, and that — the irrevocable velocity toward a known end — is the truly terrible aspect of the physical act.

The fucked up thing is this: If Jerry Schweiger had been less of a dingus, he’d still be alive now, probably. Most of us are, though we’re no more pure-minded. If he hadn’t won, over months and years, his rap of testing the patience of those who knew him, of prolonging a punchline til you felt yourself going red in the face, he’d have his place among us walking idiots. Tragic flaw, I guess they call it. Gil’s was boy-legged brunettes, Barnes’s opioids and other muting substances, mine the need to reveal the invisible workings of everyday tragedies, but ours, somehow, were safer.

Jerry’s ill — situational comedy — only played in situations he could outwit, but you can’t outwit the water, not ever. Not on a day when the Igloo clusters with empties, sand bakes hotter than your driveway’s pave, when the shoreside crowd’s attention draws to tan lines and gossip and gulls, lustrous exposed slopes between bikini tops and bottoms. Peaceful setting framed for positive outcomes, hence the lack of hustle.

By the time the thrashing subsides, you’re already too late, and by the time you realize the forward-tilt float is no joke, Jerry’s gone: a wet weight you’ll shake and pound to revive. Slap him until he’s blue (he already is), widen your lips and join them to his to force artificial breath. Bring down your flattened hands where his heart might be and pulse 120 reps each minute. Don’t expect reaction and you’ll be less aghast at the lack. Bring your ear to his chest and hear blood rushing — muffled living thrumming — circulation seashell-echoed against that blank chamber in your sunburned crook of ear.

As the crowd falls into true human silence, leaving just the lap of waves against the dock, bring your fists to his chest from the full height of your raised arms. His meat now is different from the mad meat of your fists, you know this, and still you frenzy his body with beating: an action drastic and panicked and repeated. This action is meaningless, but the moment for inaction arrives only when hope is fully extinguished. Action, a performance: your only talisman against the blind and brutal world. Action taken swiftly and meaningfully, experts on the subject contend, is preferable to no action at all.