“Harstad’s achingly lonely story artfully deepens a flat-screen modern world into a 3-D portrait of the empathy one stranger experiences on behalf of another, which becomes, in true transitive fashion, empathy flung back upon oneself.”—Heidi Julavits
I have been weighed and found wanting. It's nearly two o'clock, the last lesson of the day, and I am standing at the back of the diving board, right on its edge, and in front of me are the others, others who are going to dive, and soon it will be my turn. But it's impossible. Come what may. I know it.
But I've got to do it. This is the final dress rehearsal. The last chance but one. I must walk out onto the diving board, bend my knees, and push out with all my strength, dive out into the pool, break the water's surface, kick my way downward, I must reach the bottom of the pool, find the lifeless plastic dummy down there, rescue her, bring her to the surface with me, pull her after me toward land, up onto the slippery tiles of the swimming hall, and save her life. That is what I've got to do. And when I've done it a slip of paper will come out of her side, out of a waterproof hatch, a note saying she is alive, showing the frequency of her heartbeat, that she is breathing, evenly, and that she will pull through, even though she has been under water for too long, much too long. Now, it's my turn.
You've got to do it. It is one of the requirements for Physical Education in your last year of senior school, and it's now it counts, and I've been dreading this moment, I shan't manage it, yet I have to save her, I have to get that piece of paper from out of her, otherwise I'll be defeated, and I'll flunk P.E., and I can't afford to do that. So I jump. I dive out over the side and disappear down into the water, get chlorine in my eyes, gasp for air that isn't there, and my body turns stubbornly in the water and I come floating to the top, breaking through the water's surface, a foot first and then my head, I barely draw breath, see the teacher standing by the diving board in her white trousers and blue T-shirt, and around her neck hangs the whistle, when she blows it I'll be finished, then I can come up onto land again, but she doesn't blow, she shouts out try again!—and I duck my head beneath the water, and far below there's something red, which must be her, the one that's drowned, and I need to reach her, so I kick off, my ears hurting, and I kick, kick, but I don't reach any farther, my lungs are completely empty, I'm aching, and I begin to travel downward, but not fast enough, my body veers off course, twists, and I come floating to the surface, she blows the whistle, next!
When you've finished your dive, you get left in peace for a few minutes, get to sit and gather yourself on the bench beside the large windows where the sun comes in and glistens in the water. I sit on the bench, shivering, smelling chlorine, and the next one dives out, I watch him disappear to the bottom, take hold of the dummy, and come back up with her around him, he grabs her under the chin, holds her head high and swims with her into land, pulls her up after him onto the poolside, lays her on the tiles and checks her pulse, presses his lips against her lips of rubber, blows life into her, finds the correct spot and massages her heart, giving her life back, a gift, and the teacher blows the whistle, goes over to him, checks the slip of paper ejected from her waist, it looks fine, excellent graphs, she rips the printout off, staples it in her book under his name, and writes satisfactory, or something of the sort, a grade, then casts the dummy back out again, she drowns anew, undramatically, stoically.
I sit on the bench with the sun on my back, and there's a smell of chlorine on my arms, my hair, the large clock over the diving board shows there's only fifteen minutes left, and if I am quiet now, if I sit perfectly still and pretend I don't exist, perhaps I won't be noticed, then perhaps I might avoid having to do it again before my final attempt in two weeks. But I also know that this is precisely what she keeps a lookout for, these weaknesses, the kids who try to hide themselves away, pretending they don't exist, they will be tracked by heat detectors, their glowing faces warm with anxious desperation, they cannot dive, they will not pass P.E.
And I think: Try to put your finger on something, find its location. As if looking through old albums, turning the thick cardboard pages. Perhaps this fear was engendered here already. The year is 1982, and I am drowning, one summer holiday on the boat, somewhere on the West Coast. We have come into shore, alongside the smooth rocks, Dad has tied the boat, and I have gone up onto land. We are barbecuing sausages. But the mustard's been left on the boat, we forgot it, and you've got to have mustard, my mum says—couldn't you fetch it from the boat, and of course, I could—so I get up off the brown blanket where we're sitting, on the rock, I go over to the boat, pull the boat toward me, as I've been taught, tug the moorings to make it come closer, and I'm going on board, fetching the mustard, I am stretching my foot out to get my leg onto the ladder but the ladder is slippery and I lose my grip, and I disappear under the boat.
I disappear under the boat, sucked under its keel, find myself lying on the bottom, on the stones, and at my side, among the seaweed, a sea urchin, a huge sea urchin, and alongside that, a crab making its way toward me, and over the top of me, there above, is the boat.
Arms up and down at my sides, flapping in an attempt to push upward, I know where to go, but not how to get there, I flail with my arms, but still I am stuck at the bottom, and it is far up, I'm beginning to get tired, I sit again, look up toward the boat, the bottom of the boat, and there's an arm reaching down, a great arm reaching down through the water, and the arm takes hold of me, and it is followed by a head, and the head looks right at me, and Dad pulls me out of the water, up onto the shore, then Dad fetches the mustard from the boat. I am bundled up in towels, I'm given chocolate even though it's not Saturday, and lemonade too. But of course this can only be a superficial, partial explanation of the aquaphobia. This is an acquired memory, I can hardly recall it myself, at least not in this way. I know that I am also scared she'll flunk me in P.E., that I won't get any further, I'm scared I won't manage it, I am scared of dying, plain and simple. Of disappearing in the water.
We've been doing this for weeks. These training sessions. We've run for miles, vaulted over the horse and stood on our heads, cycled through the forest, I've swum 200 yards wearing clothes and sneakers, a test you have to pass in case you might be unfortunate enough to fall off the ferry to Denmark 200 yards from Hirtshals. Now only the dive remains. The lifesaving. And I can't do it.
It's useless. Impossible.
Staring at the floor, staring out of the huge window, straight into the sun, blinded by the light, making myself small on the bench, shoulders hunched and huddling myself up, soon I can go to the changing rooms, a bit early, she doesn't usually notice, and it's about the only trick I have left. But I continue to sit, I'll save it up, might need it in two weeks' time, that'll be the big moment, when there'll be one absolutely final chance to pass the test, then I either have to do it or fail, lose my grade, lose everything, not get the place I want, in the same school as her, everything will fall apart, everything that's been built up, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
So I don't go into the changing rooms, even though there's only ten minutes left of double swimming, soon the whole lot of us will go to our changing rooms, we'll shower the chlorine out of our eyes, off our skin and dicks, it stings beneath the foreskin but we pretend not to notice, borrow shampoo and wash our hair, dress in silence or a flurry of activity, quarrel about getting space under the two hair dryers that are mounted over the basin, in all probability to make it all as impractical as possible, and Jan lays claim of course to both dryers because he's the only boy with long hair and has to use a swimming cap, he commandeers both dryers and thereby the sink, he's never finished, so we exit the changing rooms, hair wet and cold in February, with sticky hair wax on our hands, and meet the girls outside, round the back, we bum smokes from each other while the girls' hair freezes, going stiff like bristles, and on the bus we smell of chlorine together and our eyes are red, like sleepless vampires, we take up half the bus and our gym bags smell musty in our schoolbags on our laps, and there is no longer any doubt, it is Tuesday.
There are countless ways to get out of swimming. Most I have already used. I have forgotten my trunks, forgotten my towel, I have acted ill, nauseated, had a cold, I've crept out of the pool, run into the changing rooms, taken out one of my contact lenses, run back out to the teacher, shown her my eyes, pulled up the eyelids and said, look, I've lost a contact lens and I can't see shit—and she's said OK—and I've arrived too late, twisted my nose till I gave myself a nosebleed, I've cut my foot with the scissors from my pencil case, you mustn't bleed in the pool, danger of contamination. But I have used all these excuses before, so I continue to sit there.
The teacher blows the whistle, and one of the girls who has just granted the plastic dummy from Laerdal Medical yet another lease on life gets a pat on the back, she leans over, red-faced, trying to catch her breath, and the teacher soaks her handkerchief in methylated spirits, wipes dry and disinfects the drowned girl's rubber lips, casts her back out into the water, head first, she sinks quickly, coming to rest on her chest, face down, and Sarah steps out onto the diving board, she is the thinnest in the class, she can barely stand upright, she is ill, anorexic, and everybody knows it, no one says anything, but everybody is watching, and I like her so very much, her swimsuit is large on her, she remains standing there on the board a few moments, and then as she dives the surface of the water breaks with no resistance, and she vanishes to the bottom of the swimming pool, and everybody breathes a sigh of relief when she comes up again, seconds later, with the dummy in her arms, and the dummy is fatter than she is, the teacher stands ready at the pool steps, takes the dummy, lifting it out of the water, and Sarah climbs up the steps quickly, bewildered, as if she were trying to catch up with the dummy to save her, but the teacher merely says, that's fine, Sarah, that was good—and Sarah's at a loss as to what to do, she looks at the teacher, and then bends over the dummy, checks the pulse, puts her lips on the dummy's lips and her hands on its chest, and the teacher says, it's just fine, Sarah—and blows the whistle, and Sarah is forced to get up and move away, and the teacher shouts over to me, we'll give it another try, shall we? And the sun sinks, curtains come tumbling down before the great windows, a storm gathers in the pool, the waves are about to sweep over the side, washing children out into the water, dragging them down beneath the maelstrom, and slowly I get up, holding tightly to the bench in the strong winds, I walk to the diving board, the teacher lifts the dummy and my thought is that she must not disinfect her lips, she must forget to do it, then it will be the same as kissing Sarah, and the teacher does forget, I stand on the diving board, and the teacher says it's all right, everyone else can go and change—and then I dive, but I can't move downward at all, and there lying at the bottom is the dummy that Sarah almost kissed, pressed her lips to, and I wish I could do the same, and I want to kiss Sarah on her own lips, not just these plastic ones, and I want to tell her that I am always there for her, even if I can't dive I can still be there for her, and I know that you're ill, I know that, but it doesn't matter, because you are a beautiful person and I shall be there all the way for you and I like the pictures you've drawn, I've seen them in your sketchbooks, and I like your voice Sarah and you should have songs written about you and my teacher shouts from the side of the pool that I must try again, and I breathe in, kick off, and try to swim downward, try to claw myself through the water, but I can't do it, the pressure builds in my ears, fear intensifies with each inch I dive, I am afraid I will never surface again, but there are several yards more to the dummy, and Sarah has already gone to the showers, and I swerve, give up, turn and swim toward the surface, toward the light, and the teacher blows the whistle, shakes her head, says I need practice—you've got one last chance next Wednesday, you'll have to practice in between, everybody can do it, she says, you surely can't be afraid of the water—and then I'm allowed to follow the others into the shower.
A meeting. Everybody regroups outside. As if to account for everything that has taken place, I think of it as an S.A. group, Survivors Anonymous, we ought to be standing outside the baths with gray blankets round our shoulders, steaming hot coffee and kind voices to reassure us everything will be all right, and chase the journalists away, but that's not how it is, we stand in T-shirts in the steaming frost with wet and stiff hair and hair wax on our fingers and have a smoke outside, and I maneuver myself to Sarah's side, trying to make it look casual, even if it seems unnatural, I have to squeeze in between her girlfriends, because I don't know her very well, we lack any natural responses between us, it is always forced, artificial, even though we've been in the same class for years, she's so closed in on herself, from the day she moved here four years ago, and she knows, she must know how much I like her, and I carry on standing next to her, try to think of something to say, but the chlorine fills my brain, and I stand and scrape with my shoe in the gravel, listening to the others talking about what's happening on the weekend, and what they're going to do, but Sarah isn't following the discussion, she's rummaging in the bottom of her bag, in her pencil case, searching for a lighter, and I find one in my pocket, give it to her, and she thanks me, I look for cigarettes in the same pocket, though I know I haven't any, I've run out, so I pull the pack out, demonstratively scrunch it up and throw it in the trash can behind us, shove my hands into my pockets, look at her and say:
She's a real cow, that teacher.
Yes, says Sarah.
It's the best I can come up with, the only thing I can find to say, but it works, it always does, I could have said anything at all, because she knows, I am sure she does, she knows that I know and she gives me a cigarette and I want to be together with her, get her to start eating, I want to sit with her at home in her room, watch her while she draws pictures, while she plays guitar, and I want to see her room, the room I've seen in my imagination so many times, fantasizing about how it looks, I've walked past her house so many times, looked up at the window on the second floor, the one with the blue curtains, and I've known that it was her room, in my head I've been inside that room a hundred times over, sat on her bed while she poked about in her room, puttered about with things, talked to me, I have sat on the edge of her bed, on the office chair next to her desk, where she keeps her schoolbooks, her CDs, her wardrobe, I know precisely how untidy it is, how the carpet on the floor has curled at its edges near the bed where she has tugged it with her toes in the morning when she's got up and the floor was cold, I have pulled the blinds down with their slightly childish pattern of stars and moons, laid her down on the bed, kissed her on the mouth, told her I love her, that everything will be fine, I have been there so many times, so often.
She gives me a cigarette from her pack, and I say thanks—and look at her and she turns to say something to one of her friends, and someone or other, I think it's probably Mat, says something about how I should have got the Nobel Prize in physics today for proving Newton wrong, but I don't answer, I look at Sarah, and she is so thin, I want to take her with me, in my pocket, she is so thin now, and she disappears a little more with each passing day, her face is in the process of erasing itself, her face is disappearing before us and there she stands shivering, she is so cold, I light the cigarette for her and she says thanks—and asks if I'm going to come to the café afterward, she is so cold, and I say, automatically: course I am. It's Tuesday and ages till the weekend, Tuesday, a day in the no-man's-land of the week.
You are ill. You are so thin, I'm frightened of losing you, can't you see that, can't you see that I'm sitting here, by your side? I am almost invisible. But all I say is: are you all right?
She nods, looks at me, looks out of the window, no, she says, I'm going to be admitted tomorrow, but it's OK with me, I don't care, she says, they'll just have to admit me, it's a phase, isn't it, like you being afraid of the water—and I think how hard she is on herself, why is she that way and I look at her coffee cup, she holds it with both hands, warming her hands on the cup, and it's noisy in the café, I have to strain to hear what she's saying, the loudspeaker gives information on the day's special offers and children who have got separated from their families, she asks me to pass the sugar bowl on the table, drops three sugar lumps into her coffee and I hear them touch the bottom, in my mind's eye I see them through the cup, how the sugar crystals release from each other, separate in the dark coffee, dissolve, come together again in her stomach as she drinks from the cup, all except the crystals that are left in her cup, on its rim or on her lips, those which she will wipe away later with her napkin, or that are left on her saucer, till the assistants come to clear the table, taking with them the cup, the saucer, the napkin, and the sugar that has been left, all the crystals to be thrown away with the wastepaper, never again to regain their original quadratic form, connected.
You're frightened you might drown, aren't you?
Yes, I say.
We sit there in the café, in the shopping center, and the loudspeaker on the wall sputters out "Unchained Melody" and I am so weary, so fed up with being afraid, so fed up with all the water and everything I've failed at, and I'm so afraid of it not working out and that I will have no future and the café radio spews out "Unchained Melody" and it sputters loudly and over that again, on the second loudspeaker, a voice announces a special offer in the winter sports department, where cheap sleds are selling at rock-bottom prices, and imported grapes, apples, and tomatoes, all of which are sprayed with mixtures resembling mustard gas and genetically modified to horror-movie dimensions, and are sold at amazingly low prices, and all the customers clank their cutlery, their knives and forks against their plates, and scrape their chairs squeakily back and forth from the tables, get up, fetch coffee, and return, and all talk at each other and the loudspeaker announces an offer in the delicatessen department and the radio crackles with "Unchained Melody" before being interrupted by a voice announcing that it's four o'clock and the news is coming up and I lean over the table toward her and say what are you doing this evening—and she kisses me.
But then again, she doesn't. But I really wish she did. Instead she says well, I really ought to go now, but we'll talk, won't we. In a couple of days, next week maybe, OK? OK. Then she gets up, comes round the table, gives me a quick hug and I hug her back, like friends, she's so thin and I don't want to let go, but I am so frightened of breaking her so I relax my hold and she wriggles free, slips out of my arms and I draw breath, and say, I really like you, Sarah—and she says, I know. Don't—she says, please—and then bye—turns and goes out of the café and the loudspeaker announces that the children's department and the ball room and video room will be closing in twenty minutes, and anyone who has mislaid their children can fetch them from the office on the third floor before five o'clock, if not they will be sold to a passing caravan train, but they don't say the end bit, it is only me that's thinking it, and I get up and leave the same way that Sarah went, go up to the second floor, into the record store, browse through more or less randomly chosen racks, but find nothing that's any good, it's all junk and anyway I don't really know what to think, so I leave again, get the bus home, sit in my room, it's Tuesday and Sarah's going to be admitted indefinitely tomorrow, Sarah is about to dissolve.
The decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
You can't beat the feeling.
I have been weighed and found wanting. Me and Sarah. We need lead weights so as not to take off from the ground. I sit in my room and watch TV into the night, all the sitcoms about all those friends, and couples, the people who are always there for each other, I watch the news, anything that's on, I watch repeats of repeats and think it isn't time that goes so slowly, but just the clocks that can't keep up, and in two weeks I've got to be able to dive, if not everything's lost, if not there's no way to pass P.E., and then I won't get to go to the same school as she's going to go to, I still can't dive, even though it's something everyone can do, and in a moment of inspiration: I get up, creep into the bathroom, fetch my swimming trunks, a clean towel, go into my room and dress, and the house is silent, except for my sister, she is awake, sitting in her room, listening to music, the treble of her earphones audible from the hallway, I can hear her tapping the beat out on her desk with a pencil, but she has no sense of rhythm and I pass my parents' bedroom, door ajar, I hear Dad snoring, the smell of sleep from the room, the sound of sheets, go down into the hallway, put my shoes on and go out into the snow, close the door behind me.
I cycle down toward town, it has stopped snowing and the only snowplow that's out has little or nothing to do, mostly there for show really, there's hardly any snow to plow, at most a bit of sleet, and I cycle down toward school, over the football field, and lock my bike outside the baths.
I go round the back, to the back door, I pick up one of the stones that form a border round the flower bed close by, hold my towel against the windowpane and smash the stone through the glass, I reach in with my hand and open the door, walk through into the corridor, in toward the changing rooms, and despite being the middle of the night it is bright in here, everything reflected, the white walls, the blue flooring, the huge windows.
The changing rooms are dark, I fumble for a light switch, finding one over the sink, and I put my bag with my swimming things on the wooden bench, strip off, hang my jacket on the hook, fold my trousers and sweater, pile them on top of each other, place my shoes under the bench, socks tucked inside, and I put my trunks on, come out to the pool side, the strong smell of chlorine meets me, the water is completely still and the room is blue, still and blue, the air is cold, I am getting goose bumps and I scrunch up my toes on the chilly tiles. The door to the pool attendant's office at the back, behind the diving board, is locked, but it'll be easy to pick open, one of those ordinary old locks that you can stick almost anything into and twist to open, so I use my house keys, and there inside, on a table, like a corpse awaiting dissection, lies the first-aid dummy.
Ready to drown again. I've got to save her this time. Or she will be left to lie there.
I take her under my arm, lift her by the tracksuit she's wearing, turn the light off and close the door behind me, switch her on by pressing the button in her neck, walk to the edge of the pool, cast her out. The splash echoes in the great, empty swimming hall, and the ripples reflect all around like snakes wafting upward over the walls. She could have screamed for help, but she doesn't. She drowns, dutifully, rehearsed.
And there I stand, on the diving board, there's one yard down to the water, everything is quiet again, and four and a half yards under that again, she is lying, waiting for me to rescue her, for someone to come and pull her up into the light, up into the air again, and the water is clear, the chlorine makes the water sharp and clean, and down there she lies calmly on her back in her red tracksuit, with arms at her sides, white sneakers neatly laced.
If you exclude the water as a factor, Sarah's lips are the last thing to have had contact with the dummy, with those soft rubber lips down there in the water, and if only I can get down that far, it'll be like kissing her, not quite the same, but the closest I'm going to get, technically speaking. Her saliva could be down there even now, and for a split second it almost looks as if the dummy smiles down in the water, puffer fish, puckered lips.
And there I stand, on the diving board, only I can save her now, and I take a deep breath in, breathe out, and dive.
I enter the water perfectly, start to kick out, but the fear is there in an instant, like a balloon, and though I kick as hard as I can, I go nowhere, I find myself twisting to the side again, losing any sense of up or down, panic sets in, instinctively I draw breath and swallow water, my body jerks, I catch sight of her and she stretches her arms out toward me, pushing away the seaweed and sea urchins, she calls to me, but the sound doesn't carry in the water, the bubbles of her breath meet my face and I kick out, I throw out my arms and break the surface of the water, break into the air, gasping for breath and swim back to land, rest my arms on the tiles, look back and see her down there lying, patient, indignant, fearful.
That's when I remember the stones outside.
I need ballast.
Dry my feet. Walk out through the changing rooms, out into the corridor and to the broken door at the entrance, I take three of the biggest stones back to the pool with me, put them into one of the empty ball nets out of the office, drag them with me out onto the diving board, tie the end of the net firmly round my hand, take a breath in, let it out again, practice, hold my breath as long as I can, let it out and breathe in anew, fill my lungs and then let myself go, disappearing downward.
I watch as the surface disappears over me and my heart beats hard in my chest, my ears pound and I can see that I'm nearing the dummy below, she lies so calmly still, in anticipation of an angel from above, and the stones pull me gently downward, I kick out and away with my legs, swim downward, and it is calm around me, all corners rounded, I can see the end of the pool on the other side, the shallowest end, where I have spent most of my time before now, where I have felt safe, I swim downward toward the dummy, pulled by the stones, I have never been so deep before, and my lungs are full of air as I land at her side, I can scarcely believe it when I touch the bottom, the black and white tiles, the bubbles, the oxygen making its way upward over me, and the dummy in its red suit lying motionless beside me, as if nothing has happened, as if she were as inconsolable as ever, doomed to be saved.
But now that I am down here, I suddenly don't know what to do. So I sit at her side, look at her, take her hand in mine, comforting, it is soft, rubbery, her arm, her elbow, body in hard plastic, and her eyes are closed, eyelids rocking from side to side as my movements set the water in motion. I look at my feet, my legs, look at her, everything gains a singular clarity, heightened reality, as if filmed with a digital camera, blue-green colors, and I look over at her mouth, the mouth Sarah touched with hers earlier today, and I bend over, put my lips on hers, close my eyes and try to imagine that I can sense the taste of Sarah, that I know how she tastes, how she is to kiss. And she tastes of chlorine.
I need to come up soon, I know it, I must untie the stones from my arm, take the dummy up with me, and revive her, but I don't. I sit on the bottom of the pool and I am not afraid. With the arm that isn't tied to the stones, I lift the dummy so she is seated upright in the pool, and I sit down beside her, so that we both look toward the other end of the pool, the shallowest end, where I used to spend my time, and my lungs are beginning to hurt, I have to release some air, a little air, and the bubbles rise and burst at the surface, I have to come up to the surface, and the dummy turns to me and says:
It was good that you came now.
Yes, I say. But, of course, I had to come sooner or later.
She opens her eyes, stares vacantly out into the water and says I always had to depend on the kindness of strangers. Then she laughs, a bubbling laughter that turns the water around her totally white.
I look up, up toward the surface, I see that our boat is up there, the keel cuts into the water, I search for my dad's hand, but don't find it, the keel is rocking from side to side and I won't be able to come up that way, so I put my arms around her, stand up in the water and I have pains in my chest, I release the last of the air I have, darkness grows behind my eyes, red flashes across my retina, as if my head might burst, I carry her up after me, she closes her eyes and collapses, unable to stand on her own feet, so I lift her around the waist and start to walk.
I walk toward the other end of the pool, walk up the gentle slope under water, toward the sign that says Sudden Deep Water, I drag the stones after me along the bottom, walk in toward the shallow end, slowly, and the light changes, I begin to hear noises, from outside, and I break the surface, come up, my head comes up out of the water and I draw breath for the first time, and I have saved a life.
Blue lights flash in at me through the huge windows and I drag the dummy up the steps, fast, lay her out on the floor, and my thought is that they've come for me now, they've seen the door is smashed and now I'll be taken and I'll have to go through interrogation through the night in my swim trunks and the water will drip onto my chair, onto the black leather chair in the interrogation room and there'll be a thud every time a drop hits the leather and they'll ask me why I did it and ask me till I answer and they won't let me go, and I stand in front of one of those huge windows, with the dummy behind me, and I see that the lights, the blue lights are growing bigger and I am ready to be taken, I admit everything, yes, it was me that broke in, yes, it was me that stole the dummy yes, yes, yes, and I'm not afraid any more, I have saved a life. But the lights change direction and the siren starts, and the ambulance passes by up the road, I hear it speed up, accelerating out of earshot and view, and behind me lies the dummy, eyes shut, safe on the tiles, in a wet tracksuit. I put her back, go into the changing rooms, change, replace the stones outside, cycle home, sneak back into my room, get into bed, sleep with my hair wet.
It is only the clocks that are unable to keep pace with the time, and after two weeks I am back in the same swimming pool. There's been a mention in the local paper about the break-in, pretty insignificant, no one has felt there was anything to investigate, nothing was stolen, after all, everything is in its place, and everyone who passed their diving test two weeks ago is allowed to play water polo in the shallow end, while the three of us who are to be given one more chance stand helplessly on the diving board, ready to walk the plank, so it's me and Joakim, who had permission to go away to Belgium with his dad for the last three weeks, and Katrina, who is about to dive, but Katrina always manages to get out of it, she's a year older than the rest of us, and they say she's got to retake this year again because she's so stupid she doesn't even know where she lives, leastways that's what we all reckon must be the reason she gets taken to school and back every day in a cab, though no one's asked. Katrina gets out of doing it by crying, this time too, and she's allowed to join in the water polo, while me and Joakim have to stay. The teacher blows the whistle and Joakim dives, disappears into the water, resurfaces, comes into land with the dummy, resuscitates her, he's been cramming, reading up, the printout comes out, gets stapled in her notes, and Joakim who's done his homework, Belgium or no, gets a pat on the back.
So, it's us again—she says. Looking at me.
Yes, I say.
And I am gone a long time.
I stretch out with my legs, push the air out of my lungs, make myself totally flat and kick away, slowly, but strong in my movements, I am so concentrated and disappear downward once more, down toward the bottom, toward that red tracksuit, and she opens her eyes as I come down to her, winks once, and I take hold of her, I gaze at her a moment, put my arms around her, look to see if she looks at me, if I am getting any response from her, and I touch her lips, and then I look up, there's a mass of color up there, a crowd of kids that have gathered round the edge of the pool, and just at the moment I come to the surface with the dummy, there is no one who says anything, it is utterly silent, and I see that the teacher's face has turned white, she has removed her trousers and T-shirt, and she is standing there in her swimming suit, ready to jump in, I drag the dummy up after me up onto land, empty the water out of myself, breathe life into her, her lips against mine, find the correct spot, and all this while the teacher stands dumbfounded at my side, and gratefully she lets a graph print out from the side of the body, the teacher staples it all firmly together, asks me if I'm feeling all right, if I want to take the rest of the day off, and I say thank you—turn and go, get changed, leave, it has begun to snow, and standing outside is Sarah, in a new outfit, she looks better, much better, her face is on its way to coming back, a new Roman Empire, and I say, have you come back?—I make an attempt at keeping the mask up, but give in, try to give her a hug, and it's OK. Good dive, she says. But you were gone a long time. It was just before they were going to jump in and rescue you. Stood there and shouted and screamed. I try to think of something to say, but can't come up with anything, so I wait for her to go on talking, wait for her voice to fill the whole space and she tells me she came back yesterday, that from now on she's going to be let off P.E., that she'll have assignments to do instead, and I ask her if she's still thinking of applying for the school she was talking about before, and she is. So I take a deep breath, I ask if she wants a coffee, and start walking over to my bike, slowly, as if to say to her—come now.
"Klor" @ Johan Harstad. By arrangement with Gyldendal Norsk Forlag. Translation @ 2005 by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik. All rights reserved.