Drowning is just like my dreams—silent and full of blue shadows, a starless night full of wrong angles and distortion. Someone’s hand, glassy and grasping, passes before my eyes. Only, in the dreams there are never any sensations beyond a dim, cool weightlessness, a sleeping mind’s version of floating or flying without the actual press of the gravity that lurks below. In drowning, the pressure is unfathomable until you are in its thrust, squeezed between plates, the bottom of the largest dogpile, where no one can hear you scream because there is no breath. What breath remains is trapped, an expanded bellows never free to exhale again, a scraped and burning presence, your lungs a cage of riled bees stinging blindly.
Before that, on the ferry, there is the slow twine of fingers; Damian’s cool and dry as they dust the sticky edges of mine, laced in sweat. We are strangers to all the strangers alongside us, casting “aw how cute” glances down adult chins. We’re at an almost invisible age. Not old enough to vote, but old enough to drive, to ride the ferry to the city alone, to bear between us the heartbeat of life, brief, astonishing, with all its oh shit and what’ll we do and what if.
Though we’ve navigated the slopes of each other’s skin, we’re not allowed to drive one another anywhere; have to be twenty-one, or a sibling. For what we’ve wrought, we chose the romance of water. Sea inside me and out, rain that unfurls like bolts of cloth, not droplets—the world through the ferry windows a smear of symbols that represent cities, civilization, bustle. The queasy roil of the boat’s slope up and down in the lash of sudden winds, all things swelling. Damian, mouth soft, breath hot at my ear, hands clench mine, “It will be okay.”
But life always has its own ideas—it enters as it pleases, sneaks in. It exits the same way, with its own sudden timing, very little warning, even if you should have known better. No epic movie crash of waves, no breaking glass or screams of terror. Just slow seepage, quiet hollow soundlessness as time disappears.
His fingers are not in yours anymore. He is nowhere. You stare for seconds, hours, a year, at a red shoe—his?—its white laces greenish, as it appears before your eyes, suspended, absurdly still, as though it is, in fact, not a floating shoe, but a painting of a shoe on a canvas in a museum and you are but a visitor, with leisure time and a lunch growing soggy in your backpack. And the light—where is the light source illuminating this underwater world without air or sight? Is it, perhaps, a trick of the dying mind, a hallucinogenic shock response to allow you a last reprieve? But then, does a dying brain ask such questions? And as you ask such a question, then comes the animal panic, all teeth and claws, and you writhe and fight toward a surface that is no longer where it should be. Black shadows blast overhead or underneath, sideways travelers to the deep of death, as the truth begins its slow numbing dread.
And the burning radiating beyond lungs into limbs and throat and cells. Your limbs are liquid, you are the water, the wave, the whale, the shark, the boat, Damian, the slipknot of cells you intended to uncoil, you are everything and nothing, you are the last breath you ever consciously took, your hand curling around his before the forces of nature rent your grasp apart.
Then, there is neither black nor white light. There’s a bursting, splitting outward into atoms and tissue shards; if there is blood it’s absorbed back into the veins of the first womb, and you are just falling, free floating, no longer...
Until you are. Again. Or for the first time. You feel born—breath in your lungs scratching like diamond on glass, and the lights piercing so that all you can see are vague forms, the sounds muffled, incomprehensible. Now comes the light, both yellow and white and artificial, this is what you think, and to your surprise not at all like the welcome swallowed blue of beneath.
“She’s awake!” A clamor of startled, shrill, happy voices. Rustle of rayon and khaki and other shapes loom into view: a square of window that looks out on the tops of short, squat buildings. A palette of beige and steel. A scent that cuts through the stink of algae-like brine that is the inside of your nostrils to reveal itself as the bastard child of alcohol and lemon juice—antiseptic—which smothers all else. Around the time you realize it’s a hospital, these are strangers, no, they are your parents, you understand you have been thinking of yourself as a kind of third party narrator to the transaction of your existence, which is an anomaly, that you are alive. You are alive, but he is not. But it, most likely, still is.
“Sweetheart, do you recognize us?” Mother. My mother. Her auburn hair is flyaway and unkempt, like she's forgotten to wash or brush it for a long time.
“I’m…” Pulse, thump, splash. My thoughts have become sounds.
“Yes?” She leans in too close, always over-eager, sour-edged coffee crowding my air, and my father's face comes with hers—conjoined parents in the science-fiction of my life. Why do they look so crisp and new? Like people hired to play my parents in a TV movie, or like the figurative stand-ins who show up in dreams and, in the morning, feel like weirder but better versions of the people in your life.
My teeth clack like dominoes falling together. The words are stuck behind my teeth, crowded there, huddled like survivors locked in a room. Locked below decks as water, sudden, swelling, not just a lark of a wave, not the mild storm predicted, floods in.
“God, Cynthia, she’s freezing, look at her. Her teeth are chattering, her lips are blue.” My father has gone white-haired. When did this happen? Was he always this way? He pulls a thin beige cloth up around my shoulders; so thin, I can’t believe it is it up to the task of warming me, but it does, some. Not enough to stop the spasms in my limbs. My leg shoots out, kicks my mother's hip where she is seated, a startled “Oh” escaping her lips.
My father presses the call button. “We need hot tea, god damn it, and more blankets,” he says aloud as though there is an intercom directly to the nurse.
“They should bring back that heat lamp.” My mother’s voice is a whimper, defeated.
No. They should bring back that moment of Damian’s breath hot on my ear, of the time in between choice and action, when even though we were about to discard what we had made, we were also bound by its starlight newness, its fleeting combination of double-helixes drawn from each of us.
The nurse’s arrival, in a squeak of sturdy shoes and scrubs covered in puppies, reminds me that I am still combined.
When she smiles, only half her face lifts, too; cheek, eye, lip half-frozen. “Time for a new saline bag.”
My father rises, a tsunami of a man at his full height, spread out football shoulders hinted at under his middle-age striped sweater and sudden-white hair. “Tea, blankets, heat lamp.” He ticks these off again like a litany, like items for the refugee camp. The wartime doctor.
Nurse frowns as she unhooks the old bag. “She’s plenty warm. Electric blanket underneath her. Don’t want to overheat her, now. Hypothermia makes them feel cold long after their temps return to normal.”
I want to ask after Damian but his name dries at the edges of my mouth. I want to ask if anyone here knows what it’s like to die in a dream and wake up alive. And I laugh at the line leading away from my arm.
“What’s funny?” My mother’s face forms only hollows and arrows, points of pain that draw her face in toward the middle like a seam wrenched too tight.
I want to say that if you open my veins, surely seawater will flow out—what do I need with more? But I shake my head.
Nurse leans down suddenly over me, frozen cheek-and-eye angled at me like a death mask as she fluffs my pillow. Her mouth grazes my ear, so familiar, this gesture, I convulse right at the center, my knees pulling fetal to my chest. “You should tell them. You’re a minor.”
A minor. My hand makes an automatic slide to the source. Still flat, but for how long? Not so minor, this joined piece of us inside me, hovering at the depths, waiting. Waiting, like me, first drowning, then pushing up to the light.
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is author of two novels and four writing guides. Her essays and stories have appeared in DAME, Ozy, the New York Times, Paste, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot and more.