The opposite of drowning

An excerpt from a work-in-progress tentatively titled “The opposite of drowning.” It is set in Toronto in the early 1990s where twenty-year-old Bea Porter is a lifeguard on the edge of Lake Ontario…

Drowning seems inevitable, even with her lifeguarding certificate photocopied and filed in her supervisor’s Cert. binder. It’s not that she’s afraid of water. She’s not. And it’s not that she doesn’t know how to swim. She does. She’s been swimming for as long as she can remember. She’s even taught it – back crawl, breaststroke, treading water, the whole nine yards. She knows exactly how to keyhole her arm underneath the water, kicking from her hips, toes pointed out behind her. Bea knows that sidestroke and breaststroke conserve energy and she can breathe on either side when doing front crawl. She knows how to write a boating plan and all of the things you have to take with you – a bailing bucket, a throw rope, an oar, PFDs, and knows how to curl her knees into her chest in H.E.L.P. – the heat escape lessening position – a clunky acronym for the tiny ball you wrap yourself in if the boat tips and the water is cold.

She’s taught her lungs to hold air for minutes at a time, minutes that feel like hours, and has thrown flutterboards to fake-drowning victims in countless pools and lakes, lying on the edge of a dock or the gritty tiles of a pool, coaching them in, “That’s it, keep kicking, what’s your name?”

But even with the whistle around her neck, the red and white singlet over her bathing suit, LIFEGUARD spelled in all caps across her chest, it still seems impossible not to drown. She can’t imagine that something wouldn’t wrap itself around her legs, her arms, pulling her down, holding her under, water filling her lungs, her voice disappearing in bubbles that might not even make it to the surface.

And so, every time she makes it back to the beach or the rowing dock, her suit dripping and darkening the sun-bleached wood, towel wrapped first in a turban, then around her waist and tucked into itself, it’s a small victory, a miracle somehow.