Bill took you walking the first day back. He’s that kind of guy. Maybe it was supposed to be a long walk, but it ended up being short because your legs were like pins without any joints.
He said, “It’s good to have you back, man. We were all a little worried there.”
When you started the triathlons in college you couldn’t swim very well. The race started at the boat launch and you had to dive in right away, like a razor, or you’d never catch up. With everyone thrashing and kicking and swimming over and under you, you could have sunk down into the bottom of the harbor and never come up. All the swimmers wore wetsuits, it was that cold. You took a deep breath and just swam under water like a frog as the mob passed over. When you had to breath, you’d fight your way up and men would take their faces out of the water and curse when they felt a head coming up against their stomach, or between their legs.
After a couple of years you were slicing though the tide of swimmers like a knife. You sliced and sliced, and then you biked, and then you ran. And the whole way, in every race, and all the time when you practiced, I was thinking yes.
I remember what happened right after the wreck. You woke up feeling, you said, like a head in a glass with nothing attached. And I couldn’t cry and I couldn’t even scream, and the doctor asked me if I wanted him to be straight.
They brought in a wheelchair so you could get used to looking at it. Of course you couldn’t use it at first, since you weren’t allowed to be moved. But it was something to shoot for, the wheelchair. A big silver beacon of mobility. If you healed up right, the doctors said, maybe one day you’d be able to sit up on your own.
The doctors were wrong, though. They were so wrong it makes my own spine tingle. When they let you, you sat right up. Yes, I said, and you moved your fingers, and yes, and you moved your toes. Then you stood, leaning like a tent between three people.
Bill was worried that you seemed depressed. One day after a walk he took you to his church, a small gathering in a room over at the strip mall. When I asked you about it you said you sang Amazing Grace. “Is that all?” I said. “Yeah,” you said, “that’s all.”
The next day I took you to the pool. You were so weak I had to help you down the ladder. I stood in the water behind you and held you hips so you wouldn’t fall back. Your foot slipped, and you said, “Shit.”
A couple of little kids were playing in the shallow end near us, and they drifted over to watch.
“Hey,” I said, “Get out of here. Leave the man alone.”
But you climbed back up the ladder all by yourself and left. You took a shower that lasted a hundred years and when you met me in the lobby you said, “No more swimming. I can’t do this.”
You were putting on weight, but it was like your body wasn’t yours. You walked around the house as if on glass. You walked as if you were glass, ready to shatter if anyone looked too closely.
You and Bill used to be running buddies. But after the accident you became walking buddies. You walked together every evening after dinner, like old men, him carrying your cane because you couldn’t get the hang of it. But then one day Bill stopped going for walks with you any more. You said he needed the time to run, but I said maybe he thought you were being ungrateful.
“Ungrateful to who?” you asked, but I couldn’t really put my finger on it.
One Saturday when you were looking strong, I took you to the pool again. You were still afraid to drive. This time you got in the water, and we floated in the shallow end with those long foam noodles that little kids can ride like ponies.
I said, “Want to try some laps with me?” I pulled my blue goggles over my face and did a little dive towards the deep end, thinking somehow my enthusiasm could sweep you up like a wave. But when I popped up in the deep end, you were still standing with your noodle looking like a wet cat and not at all like an athlete.
You waved me on, and I swam a couple laps of backstroke out of sheer frustration. You lay on your back and moved your arms slowly back and forth to keep from sinking.
On Easter I drove you to my parents’ house, where everyone hugged you like you might dissolve into ash under their arms.
“I just can’t get over how lucky you were,” said my mother. “It’s like all our prayers were answered.”
My dad said, “So when are we hitting the golf course?” and everyone laughed. You said something about metal bones and how maybe you wouldn’t have to take as much of a handicap now, and they laughed even harder and fed you little pieces of quiche. Even after, at the table, when we were eating ham and scalloped potatoes and green beans almondine, they all kept stealing glances at your working arms, your legs, your upright torso. As if in just moments the spell would break.
The doctors said you couldn’t run or go back to the construction work you did before. They said it like you were asking them to reach up and pluck out the moon. “You start lifting,” said the physical therapist, “and that metal knee that took eight hours to connect to your femur will be shot in under a month.”
What you could do was work at a desk. You could talk on the phone and take people out to lunch just fine, so you got a job selling windows at a fancy lumberyard. Sometimes you saw Bill when he came in to buy things for this job or that one. He just looked you up and down, at your skin that was starting to tan and the absence of a wheelchair, of a coffin, and said, every time he saw you, “How ya feelin’, man?” He said it like he expected something. Like your life was a balance sheet with a whole lot still in the red.
I thought I had lost you. I knew that the body takes its own time to heal, and that some places in a person take longer than others. But even though you told me everything, you told me nothing.
Then one day in January I took you to the pool again. It was about four months after you’d gotten out of the hospital. We stood together near the deep end, and it must have been right after a swim meet or something because all the lane lines were still in and the diving blocks were still anchored to the concrete. I put on my goggles and said, “follow me.” From a racing block I dove arrow straight into the middle lane, and with everything in my body I pointed the way across the pool. I swam the cleanest, straightest lap of my life. My freestyle’s not too bad. I made razors of my elbows. My hands cut the water without a splash. My legs beat out a drum-roll flutter kick behind me, and before I knew it I’d hit the other wall.
You were watching from the other side, and maybe, just a little, your expression changed. It was interest, I think. I hadn’t seen it in months.
“Now you,” I shouted, and it echoed in the empty pool room.
You were shaking out your legs and arms the way you used to as a swimmer. “Okay,” you said, “okay.”
Any minute now people would come bursting through the doors of the locker rooms, old ladies with kickboards and little kids with those puffy things they wear on their arms. A sea of artificial flotation. And the water would be cluttered, and there would never be this chance again. So you looked straight into my goggle-eyes, and I smiled, and you raised your arms to dive.
You dove. I could almost feel the rush of water on your skin. Rushing past your ears, a little getting in. The familiar up-pull of the surface and the down-pull of your weight as the force of the dive propelled you forward and up. You squeezed your shoulders to your ears and kicked like mad. All around was the rush of water and bubbles, and when you opened your eyes and exhaled the white stream of bubbles rose around your face.
Into the shallows, the bottom of the pool coming up to meet you. There were my legs and middle in the water, blue-tinted and soft, waiting for you as I will always be waiting for you. Come. You fluttered your feet and pulled with your arms and all your muscles needed air, but you were close so you pulled again and again and you kicked even harder and your life was rushing by and there it was, your head about to break the surface.
Lia Mastropolo studied literature and creative writing at the University of Connecticut, and environmental policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Berkeley Poetry Review, Confrontation, Full of Crow, and Pindeldyboz, among others.