Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Dive

Cassie shuffled along the side of the pool, staring at the chipped pink nail polish on her big toes. She let three rowdy pre-teen boys in front of her and then took her place at the back of the line for the high dive. Happy to be in back. Happy the line was long. She concentrated on her breath—in and out, filling her nose with the chlorine-scented air. She started to chew on a nail, but thought better of it and clasped her hands in front of her instead.

Her feet burned on the hot concrete. She wiggled her toes, trying to cool them and then moved to the left to soak them in water that had pooled there, watching as a man flipped once off the dive and went neatly into the water. Easy as pie. Two girls took her place in line, and that, too, was okay. She was in no hurry for her turn.

The sun dipped behind a cloud and she got at the end of the line again, pulling her one-piece bathing suit down in the back, ensuring that it covered her entire butt. Her butt seemed to be growing in rapid strides lately, determined, along with her chest, to be noticed. She’d tried to hide the breasts that were pushing against the nylon by developing a hunched posture—shoulders curved into the sides—in case anyone detected what was happening to her body; but there was no way to hide her butt, it stretched the bathing suit to its limits, sticking out like a second head. 

She focused on the two girls in front of her, so she would have something else to think about other than butts or budding breasts, or the long climb up the ladder, and then the walk to the end of the board. The girls seemed to be her age and both had on shimmery two-piece bathing suits, standing straight as though pleased with themselves. The tall girl had one hand on a slender hip, her tiny chest poking out. The short, curvy one was running fingers through her damp hair with a practiced look of boredom. “Did we take your spot in line?” the tall one asked. 

Cassie shook her head. “It’s fine.”

“No. Go ahead of us,” the tall girl said, waving her hand at Cassie. “We’ve already been a million times.”

Since she had no other choice, Cassie moved forward. They closed in behind her in their skimpy bathing suits, cutting off her exit, and talked in detail about their nails.

Cassie’s mother would have liked them. She had high expectations for Cassie to be just like them—care about shoes and clothes, show up at the pool in a bikini. Her mother had been dumbfounded at JC Penny at the beginning of the summer, when Cassie wanted the black one-piece bathing suit with the oversized flower across the middle, but Cassie couldn’t bear the thought of too much skin on display. She might as well walk around the pool in her underwear. 

The line moved forward. One of the boys in front of her karate kicked his friend then stepped on Cassie’s foot. She pulled it back, scraping her sole on the concrete. He didn’t apologize, but Cassie wasn’t surprised. What boy would ever apologize for something that was his fault?

There were only three people ahead of her, and the familiar bulge of panic started in her stomach. She knew it would travel up and become lodged in her throat where it would burn and burn, even if she decided to jump. 

She’d tried to do the high dive before, but always when she came early while her mom swam laps. There never was anyone else in line. Not even the lifeguards paid attention at that time of the day—too busy cleaning leaves out of the pool and checking chemical levels. 

Cassie had climbed up the rungs all the way to the top three times, her heart pounding like thunder. The first time, she climbed right back down straightaway. The second time, she took one step on the gritty diving board, felt the rough surface beneath her feet, and then abandoned the idea. The third time, she made it all the way out to the end of the metal guardrails and stared down at the surface of the water, as smooth and calm as ice. Her mother, a speck, made even strokes through the pool, her long, athletic body not even aware of Cassie, sensing nothing. The longer Cassie stood there, the more anxious she became until she finally made her way back down the ladder again, her legs shaking, tears beginning to form in the corners of her eyes. She hated her cowardice almost as much as she hated her burgeoning body for its betrayal.

She was next. She knew the rules for the high dive: stay at the bottom until the person on it has jumped off, don’t jump off until they have exited the pool. She’d watched the kids line up and jump off it for years now, had seen when the lifeguards blew their whistles. She would at least avoid that. The boy in front of her jumped ages before she was ready, landed in the pool with a tremendous splash. His rowdy friends clapped and hooted for him, then their eyes turned to her. 

She hesitated at the bottom for a moment. “It’s your turn,” the tall girl behind her said. Cassie nodded and started up the ladder, the pavement giving way beneath her. Don’t look down, people always said, but how could you not when you were headed up? Doesn’t everyone want to see where they’ve been? See that place where they were so comfortable before? 

The bulge of panic moved up her throat, burning, her fingers started to shake. She held tighter to the rail to stop the shaking and kept climbing even though she didn’t want to, her palms aching from being pressed so tightly against the cold metal. Up and up she went, until she couldn’t go any higher.

Then she, like everyone before her, had to walk out on the rough blue board. She chanced a look below. The tall girl stood ready on the bottom rung, just waiting for Cassie to be done, not a note of fear on her face. “Are you going to jump, already?” the tall girl said. 

Cassie braced herself against the metal rail and made her shaky legs walk forward—one foot and then the other. Soon the rail ended and she was in a place she had never been before. Her fingers lingered on the rail until it was out of reach. The rowdy boys screamed, “Jump!” and it made the bulge in her throat burn hotter. She chanced a look towards the chaise lounges. Her mom was nowhere to be found, but a few women shielded the sun with their paperback books and watched her like she was the best new show in town: Would she jump or wouldn’t she? Riveting.

She took baby steps forward, missing the safety of the railing, reciting the 23rd Psalm in her head. It used to bring her comfort, but too much use had made it worn and thin, just words. Nearly useless. In the future, she would have to find something else to comfort her. 

She made it to the end of the board and looked down. The boys shouted for her to jump again, one bending at the waist and yelling so loud she wondered if his voice would even work the next day. The water seemed so big, so vast, deeper than she realized. She’d always thought everything was supposed to be smaller when you were high up, but not this pool of water, this was massive. Maybe everything—the world, her trivial life—was bigger than she’d known. Cassie wished for a moment that her mom was there to see her, but then understood it was better this way. It was something she was supposed to do alone, without her mom's support. Someone clucked like a chicken, the women watched, the boys shouted, but she was above them all. And if she jumped it wouldn’t be because they told her to.

It would be because she was going to do it all along.