“The Drowning Man”
a short story
Gary Baker, October 2013
The date was August seventeenth, two-thousand and twenty, and I walked the pier leading out over the lake, knowing that I had a major problem. This was the second time this month, the seventh this year, and had accumulated into who knew how many after what, three years?
And that was just it: three years had officially passed, today, almost to the exact hour, where the sun so high in the sky cast deep rays into the crystalline waters. Down there, amidst the rippling molecules, at the bottom where fish and weeds could clearly be seen living their lives, I had lain for little more than four minutes without breathing.
I know, that seems like a lot, but hear me out, alright? This is a confession, after all.
You see, I had gone out for a swim that day, three years back, but had misstepped my dive and slammed my right temple on the edge of the redwood planks on my way in. I had been so cocky then, that I just assumed doing a full cartwheel off the end to hurtle myself in feet first would be a good idea.
It wasn’t until I was drowning that I began to regret it, but by then I was already half dead. I had opened my eyes from unconsciousness, climbing out from one lighted world, and found that my legs had already given out and that my arms could do nothing more than shift the weeds about me like a faint breeze in the heart of a campfire clearing. I could smell the roasted marshmallows of my youth stinging my nostrils, could imagine my mother’s face so wonderfully clearly that I almost believed that she had been there to watch me die. But she wasn’t, and neither were any of my peers at the time who I had gone swimming with.
I later found out that they had chosen that moment to turn their backs and pop in a stogie or two to turn the last hot summer day into a colorful schematic of all that was and was not. So while their lives altered by noxious chemicals self-induced, mine was altered by natural molecules hellbent on forbidding my spasming lungs from air.
I still remember seeing the sunlight cast through thirty feet or more of perfectly translucent hydrogen and oxygen laced to the brim with the various other chemicals that come from rotting debris from the surrounding forest and glaciers. I remember watching as it spread out to fill me with an ethereal warmth even as my bodily warmth seemed to drain through my very pores, as though ten million plugs had been pulled all at once. I remember the painful sensation that stung my eyes as I hallucinated friends and family members walking steadily toward me as I lay there, eyelashes drifting this way and that in my thinning tunnel of sight, telling me to hold on just a little bit longer.
Well I did and nothing happened. See, it was only after I had relinquished my fate to the more grim sides of life and philosophy, that someone saw me at the bottom and dove in after me.
Her name was Claudia Al’Jazier, the step daughter of an Iranian national who’d taken refuge in our country to avoid losing the souls keeping him honest and realistic about the hidden and undocumented biological weapons in his homeland. In essence, he came here to keep his wife and children alive, but now, three years after getting to know Claudia so well, I would be more willing to stake my claim on him having done it all to save his own backside.
The man was a terrible father; a good man, yes, an undeniable fact after having single-handedly saved tens of millions just by leaking key information to certain individuals who had the authority to act upon it immediately, but a terrible father.
Anyways, so down Claudia came, subsequent to my vision having failed me at last, and similarly right before I could release myself from this world with all regrets settled and all beliefs forgotten. I still find it amazing that right then, in that fog-driven moment as my lungs seemed to burst and finally cease convulsing, instead of gaining a sense of religious compendium I lost it entirely.
I dove into that lake a christian boy, raised by a devout christian family and educated at a christian only grade school, and was brought out, by a girl only a year younger than I, as a man with no stake nor need of one in the race to decide what it was that existed beyond our ultimate end.
People would ask me what it was like, and would make an example of me as some proof of a god in the sky who’d kept me here in this world, but if that was true Claudia was my saint and, so far as I know, therefore negated the whole ‘god’ theory by default of her very specific organs.
I had awoken one week later in the hospital down on the foothills, having lost an entire week, an entire seven days, over one-hundred and sixty hours of my life, all drained away in a timeless existence. It was weird: my watery grave never left me in all that time and, if anything, grew stronger and gained as strong of a hold on my loins as Julius Caesar had over Europe.
Claudia and I dated for a long time, in fact we still hook up now and then, too, but it turned out we just weren’t meant for each other; too different of views on politics and reality, but we both know that wasn’t why at all. You see, shortly after having re-awoken to the shattered remains of my old life, I finally broke up the courage to go near water again, starting with a stream bed no deeper than my elbow. This habit of taking tours to my reaper grew steadily, a fix in the back of my mind driving me like a junkie toward the inevitable ‘overdose’. The only difference was that while a junkie would seek out noxious chemicals, I was seeking natural ones.
It started back in the lake, off the pier again, as I sat over the top of the water with my legs dangling down, staring haphazardly into the late-winter reflection on one of the hottest winters the mountains had ever had. The lake had never quite frozen over that year but the mists did when they condensed on objects nearby, and as I moved to get back to my things at camp to prevent anyone from taking my whole five dollar bargain sleeping bag, my foot slipped and down I went.
The shock was what hit me first, though realistically it was the water as had always been the case. Last time I had gone down when the lake was clear, but also when others had been within singing distance, far enough away to create a cacophony of harmonious notes by human vocals placed like a dot-to-dot picture over the lake surface. This time, however, I was the only one out there; everyone had believed the lake would have been frozen completely and just assumed I didn’t need anyone to be with me this time.
My back hit the pebbled lake bed again and I realized they were all wrong, so very, very wrong. I moved to swim back up, and found my leg cramped like rust-frozen metal from the campfire burger and beans that I had just eaten, and I panicked. Instead of climbing to the surface again, I held my calves in soaked wool-mittened hands and wept.
I knew, then, that this was it for sure, that from this there was no going back and it had all been my own fault for tempting the very waters that had tried to take me in the first place. Again came the slow repetitive reflection of the filtering sunlight that broke my mind and brought forth bodies for me to beg forgiveness to, none of which were affected by the waves, nor by any underwater currents in the least. Again I felt the heat dissipate from my pores and the cold seep in as though I were a live sponge that had been tamped and dried on the counter of some mad marine biologist for a decade.
My body took in the water like a brother, embracing like twins separated during divorce, and again my lungs seemed to burst. I watched my world fade into another timeless void, an endless existence of not knowing, a place that doesn’t register on any mental realm, and once again gave my condolences to the lake for having to deconstruct my body and dissipate the tissues into the various waste-removing lifeforms that would proliferate by my ending.
My vision was lost, and only then did a hand grab me again, this time a diver out on some erroneous expedition that I never quite understood. I mean the water had to have been close to forty degrees, for goodness sake; who would be so mad as to swim in that time of year?
Either way, it ended up pretty good for me as I was saved from drowning yet again, and this time I woke up on shore less than a day later. The man had a fire going and warm blankets for me to bundle up in, and somehow had brought out steel mugs to fill with hot tea and, later, spicy cognac.
We talked for hours and late into the night until finally he brought my things over so I could bed down. Like a saint he watched over me that night, stoking the fire to keep it blazing, and turned me over when he’d thought I needed it. The next morning he brought me home and made sure I promised to only go back with someone else at my side, which I must admit was harder than it seemed in that first thought.
Two weeks later I started the real reason for my confession when I went to the lake, that same pier no less, with a trusted friend at my side. I looked him in the eye, pleading with him to do me this one favor: kill me without killing me. I asked him to drown me just long enough for me to see that same end, and to reverse the process at the absolute last second before true death.
Maddeningly enough, he did so; even more maddeningly, it worked.
I drowned yet again, just two feet below the surface this time, and again felt the cold seep in and the light fade from ten sextillion fragments into one solitary gleam that consumed all as my eyes seemed to unbind. I watched illusory fish nudge me and ask me to allow the job to be finished once and for all... that my third time should have been my last as the saying goes.
And then the light turned black, existence ceasing to be just before a blinding flash brought me back to the living as Jacob pounded his cupped fists into my chest. The next time I went out, I told myself, I would make certain that I brought someone who knew proper CPR techniques, not like this chump who almost succeeded in killing me.
And that was where my fix officially began, as I found myself already planning another trip.
I became instantly enthralled in this idea, the euphemism of dying through so beautiful a cause. I mean, seriously, one way or another you could say all life came from the sea, and this was my way of seeing that in real time. I let my hair grow out for the next few months, the chemicals I was prescribed only made this easier due to some weird side effect, and by the time it had all grown as long as my shoulders I was seeing the prettiest sight right before I passed out.
I knew I had become the ‘meth head’ hiding in a bush, but I wasn’t afraid of the world anymore, not like the average junkie; if anything, I felt invincible. None of what I did was illegal, really, so I had nothing to hide. People would ask me how my weekend was and I’d reply that I’d had a great time, that I had seen what no one ever saw, the most beautiful colors a being could see... when I had gone out to drown myself.
You can imagine the responses and they ranged from ‘oh, stop it’ with a mocking wave, to ‘holy shit are you okay?’ Heavy emphasis, by the way, on the ‘holy shit’, there.
Psychiatrists asked me on numerous occasions if I had some sort of death wish, usually before they then scanned my brain for abnormalities that might indicate cancer or swelling in the worst of places. Each time they came away as awed, or cowed, take your pick, as everyone else; I had found my purpose for living and they knew that nothing they did could stop me.
It was just ironic how my purpose involved flatlining long enough to get a gist of that nonexistent feeling of being nonexistent, which sounds impossible to comprehend but really isn’t.
Two months later I went on a trip with my cousin from Texas, under orders from mom that made it obvious there were other motives behind it all. We had planned to go out on a boat in the bay north of San Francisco, but at the last minute I watched Jessie’s dashboard compass turn us East and we made our way deep into the Nevada desert. In the most of extreme cases, I found myself needing that fix, so far from any body of water at all, miles upon miles from the nearest puddle, for crying out loud.
We bedded down around the fire talking about the stars and I forced down my obsessive urges through thoughts that all I needed to do was await the end of this trip, and that if I were a good boy we would take the mountain route home. What I didn’t expect was for us to be out there for over a week, and apparently hunting is allowed that far out otherwise I have some serious blackmail to hold over Jessie’s head. We ate things you wouldn’t believe, Jess trying to distract me the whole time with talk of everything but water and precipitation, acting like MacGyver whenever given the chance.
It was then that I found out mom didn’t realize I was addicted to water at all but, rather, assumed I just had the worst of luck and therefore developed a deadly fear of the stuff that somehow ended up causing me to drown almost anytime I went near it. I discovered this on our way home as we stopped beside the trail-head to the lake.
Jessie looked over from the driver’s seat and calmly asked me if I was ready to face my benefactor yet. Okay, so his wording was closer to ‘demon’, but in the end it was all the same to me. So, almost too eagerly, I said yes, and off we hiked, out over ridges, saddles, and around the cliff-like ravine ledges that led to the bridge we needed to get to. Miles later we stepped foot on the granite boulders that made up the shoreside with the pier in direct view.
Jessie had nudged me, asking me what I was thinking about, and there I stared with eyes wide like a child given the golden ticket to Wonka’s factory.
My feet broke the surface off the end of the pier before I could even acknowledge my mental command to lift my feet and start running, much to the screaming Jessie’s dismay. Luckily I sank fast, having learned that a cannonball makes the quickest descent through both Google and experimentation, and therefore was much too deep when Jessie dove in after me.
I knew I had very little time, so I exhaled as quick as I could and inhaled that sharp burstingly painful gulp of fresh crystal glacier water. As my lungs started their convulsing, I numbly felt Jessie’s hand on my shoulder and knew instantly that my secret was officially out. My cover was forever blown.
Instead of letting me enjoy the slow recovery while the it lasted, Jessie smacked me so hard I thought I’d pass out again from that new pain alone. He shook me like a rag doll chanting as though to some deity for me to “wake the fuck up”. No joke.
That afternoon was the longest one I had ever been forced to live through, as his silence seemed to make it obvious how conflicted he was about my addiction. Here I was, practically singing my praises about nature and beauty and his supreme awesomeness as the best cousin alive at the very moment that I had sailed off the pier, arms wide as though to take in the whole sky, and yet not seconds afterward I was on the verge of another immensely painful flatline caused by my own devices.
He didn’t get it, and all the ways I had tried to explain seemed to fall on deaf ears. I guess comparing drowning oneself to the actions of anyone who has ever smoked or taken acid wasn’t the greatest of ideas.
From there I was placed into an in-home care ward where they seemed so sure about my new inability to drown that I began looking for ways just to spite them. I will admit that this blockade took time to defeat, but defeat it I did, and much to my caretaker’s utter dismay: with nothing more than a half-full glass of orange juice, I knocked it back and forced it down the wrong pipe to cause myself those same convulsions and back-breaking spasms.
To me, it was ecstasy.
The one thing I learned from that experience was that drowning in juice didn’t have the same beauty as drowning in a lake of diamond reflections. First of all, there was no wave of sunny warmth to take me over and bring me happily into unconsciousness. Second, the pulp caused me weeks of pneumonia-like coughing fits after having gotten caught in the micro-tubules of my airways, and I will forever regret that moment of weakness.
The big guns were then brought out as my shrink called in Claudia and insisted that we hang out more often, though by this point our unofficially-ended relationship was well-known. His thoughts were that perhaps being around my dark-haired knight in shining bikini armor would allow me to feel safe and secure enough to remember those feelings that I was seeking every time I went down into the blue again. His reasoning ended up being well-founded, too, when I found out just how badly she wanted this ‘us’ that she so enjoyed, to work out and become something much greater.
I’m not too great to admit that it did work for a little while, as each time I started feeling the urge to ‘go swimming’, as I started to call these outings, Claudia would entice me into other versions of going ‘down into the blue’, often donning tight-fitting indigo stretch panties. Like I said, though, it worked ‘for a little while’ at which point I told myself I would know when it was time to quit and that ‘now was not it’. It never was, now that I look back, but that point is obviously mute by now.
After finally coming to terms with my diagnosis I learned that I had what doctors referred to as “obsessive compulsive suicidal tendencies” and that this very way of referring to it was a major misnomer as it missed one key factor: that I didn’t want to die, not really. I tried to explain this over and over again, and only ever came against a wall with shrinks everywhere who all called me a loon, just not in so many words.
Now here I am, three years after that initial break, standing like an angry Batman at the third to last plank of the pier, my feet bare and my arms crossed in my long-sleeve track jacket, watching the water that seemed to have birthed me as though looking out over the city of Gotham.
Or, as would fit better for my case: Atlantis, with me acting as Aquaman.
I was holding myself back from another go, trying to tell myself that this pattern, this phase, of my life was over and done with, that it was time I grew up and severed my addiction before it severed my life.
Kids laughed in the distance and splashed water over each other like baby elephants, their screaming echoes reverberating in my skull with each and every second of it. This was supposed to be a peaceful moment. There was no point in doing this if the peacefulness couldn’t be obtained.
It was exactly why I had chosen this very time of day to come out here, on this particular day of the year: with summer almost over, almost the entire world would be camping amongst the pines and redwoods. It was like I was facing a wall, trying to kick myself into going ninety from a complete standstill with the bricks pressing against my cheeks. If I chose another direction I would be able to go anywhere and at any speed, but I wanted to do this here, off the end of the same pier that had started it all, and at this time of day where the sun was highest and would penetrate the deepest, making the end that much more beautiful.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I had no control over it anymore. Without my even noticing, I had stepped to the last plank and was looking out with the determination of a master skydiver. And here I was, poised at the edge of my world, toes hanging over, ready to dive into the sky from the complete and total opposite direction.
The clouds were coming in and the daylight would fade soon, the mountain chill soon to snatch up any warmth I coveted, so I only had a handful of moments left to do this. It was literally do or die, though the characteristics of the phrase in this case were exact opposites: if I chose to ‘do’ I would literally die, and if I chose to ‘die’ I would live to lose a major piece of me that I would never get back without going much too far when I broke next. I had to decide, then, if I wanted to do this now and under my own will, or later when my ‘fix’ got the better of me.
Then, proudly, a smile bloomed across my cheeks and I craned my neck to watch the beautiful sun fade away with the cold seeping in.