Her foot slipped and she started to fall.
Silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, I saw the figure of a girl drop to the pool from the high board. She hit the water awkwardly with a terrific splash that made me wince.
I did not join the cluster of youngsters at poolside who laughed at her ugly spill. In fact, I rose from my poolside lounge chair and took a step toward the pool to see if she was okay. But then I sat back, not quite on the edge of my seat, but nervously nonetheless. Even on such a hot July Fourth afternoon, I always shivered at the thought of climbing the fifteen rungs to the top of the high board.
The girl swam to the edge of the pool’s diving area and, with what looked like a move as natural as a dolphin’s, kicked up from the water, pulled on the deck edge and twisted into a seated position facing the water. She sat there for a few seconds and then – not as smoothly as when she was waterborne – climbed to her feet and limped away from the pool directly toward me. As she approached, I saw she was tall, fair, wearing a two-piece swimsuit and a red welt that spread from outside her right knee, up her torso to her shoulder. I also noticed her eyes were staring vacantly right through me.
The girl – she was probably eighteen – stopped at the lounge chair directly next to mine and reached down for her towel.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Startled, she looked up, straightened and wobbled a bit, her blue eyes wide and suddenly more focused.
“Oh, you scared me. I didn’t see you sitting there,” she said.
“Sorry, I was just a bit concerned because you took such an awkward fall.” I couldn’t help but stare at the ever more reddening stain against her skin.
“Eh, it happens,” she replied, shaking the water from her short strawberry blond hair. At that, the woman teetered a bit and plopped down on her chair.
“Whoo, must’ve hit the water a little harder than I thought,” she grinned.
“Forgive me, but how the hell can you be so nonchalant about what just happened?” I said. “That thing, that diving board, all high things, scare me to death. And what just happened to you is one of the reasons they scare me.”
“Oh, I’ve been jumping off the high board since I was eight or nine. Never really bothered me, but some little shit behind me jumped on his end of the board as was making my approach and my foot slipped. Tell you what, though, that water stings like hell.”
“I’m sorry, I’m Bill, Bill Thompson,” I said, extending my sunblock-greased hand.
“Hi,” she replied, “I’m Paula. The hand she extended was wet, sort of mushy, its fingers pruned from their time spent in the pool.
“Can I get you something? For the dizziness, I mean. A bottle of water maybe?”
“No, I think I’ll be okay if I just sit here for a few minutes. Besides, I think I may have just swallowed about a pint of water. I know I have at least that much in my ears.” Paula tipped her head down to the left and gently shook it, attempting to drain that ear.
“Ow,” she said and leaned back in the lounge chair. “Well, that’s one of ‘em. But I think I’ll wait a few more minutes for everything to stop rocking in front of me before I try the right ear.”
Then she giggled, the lilting laugh of a teenager, maybe even a ‘tween, I thought. I was surprised by the sound of her laugh, something like human wind chimes, I thought.
“You’re sure you’re gonna be alright then?” I said.
“Oh sure, soon as I feel a little sturdier on my feet, I’ll climb right back up there. I’ve got no other reason to be here at the park than that pool.”
“You’re not here to see the fireworks tonight?”
“No, I don’t like fireworks. They make me real nervous. That’s made for some lonely July Fourths, but I still have a good time flying off the board. Instead of flying up and exploding, I fly down and splash. I’m my own sort of firework, I guess.”
“I really admire you in being able to climb back up there,” I said. “When I was about five my Dad took up me up with him to the top of a diving board just like this. Then he chucked me off when I wouldn’t jump like he told me to.”
“How terrible,” Paula said, her eyes fully focused for the first time since she got out of the pool.
“Mom thought so, too. But that’s how my Dad was, Mr. Throw-‘em-in-the-deep-end. Sometimes it was for the better, said it would make a man out of me. Other times…”
I shrugged. “I still have a thing about heights. You say that you have lonely July Fourths because of your thing with fireworks; I’m that way about skyscrapers, open elevators, airplanes. That’s why the first spring break I ever went to was last year. My junior year – that’s of college, Paula. And I had to drive to Florida the whole way by myself. Won’t fly. Nope, can’t do it. Oh, I’ve tried to fight it, but I always get to the top and chicken out.”
“Well,” Paula said, “I can understand how you can be afraid of certain things. With me and the fireworks, I guess it’s the noise. I just can’t take the booming. You should see me during thunderstorms. I beat my dog to the spot under the bed every time.”
More chiming giggles.
“You’re very nice,” she said. “Thanks. Are you here by yourself, too?”
“Yeah, gonna try to work the tan, splash around, maybe meet some friends later for the fireworks show.”
“Oh, the boomers.”
“Well let’s see, it’s sixish now, so you’ve got awhile before dusk. That means I’ve got that long to get back to the pool before I head for home.”
“Paula,” I said, simultaneous with her blurting, “So, Bill.”
“Go ahead,” she said.
“What if I could find a way for you not to be afraid of the noise? Would you stay and watch the fireworks with me?”
Paula frowned for a second. Then her faintly freckled face opened up into a grin.
“How are you going to manage that?” she said.
“Um, well, I have an idea. C’mon, what do you say?”
Paula’s expression changed to something like that of a kid taking a test, leaning toward False, but nagged by the tiny possibility of True. She looked down, right, left, right, like her mind was searching for an Exit sign.
“C’mon, the colors are so pretty in person. TV can’t do them justice. Sometimes they actually make pictures against the sky. They sparkle and then they sink down like somebody drew a picture in colored chalk on a blackboard and then threw some water on it.”
“And this is supposed to make me want to expose myself to explosions? Pretty pictures?”
“Well, maybe not, but keep an open mind, okay?”
“Ohh-kay. But you’ve got to do something for me first.”
I felt a chill on the windless pool deck, where the flags above the pool-house looked melted to their poles by the heat.
“Let me help you get up and off that board,” Paula said. I saw a determined look on her face, but heard a voice that was soft and inviting.
“Maybe you really should go home,” I replied.
Paula giggled again.
I began searching for words, as well as a means, of escape.
“Look,” Paula said, “I started diving when I was seven and ended up diving competitively in high school and now college. I even became a platform diver. Think about doing THAT for the first time. One thing I learned is we all have fears and we all have to start low and work our way up. I’ll have you going off that high board by sundown or my name’s not Paula McDonald.”
“Well, at least I’ve accomplished finding out your full name,” I grinned.
“Then it’s a deal,” Paula said, extending her hand as if to shake on it. I reached out and she pulled me up and off my seat. She led me to one of the low boards, the one on the far side of the pool away from the audience of lounge chairs and too-close observers. However, this low board sported a tail of pushing middle-schoolers and teens.
“So, Bill, here we go,” Paula said as we took the position at the end of the swiftly moving line. “This board is just four feet or so above the water. Here’s where we’ll get your feet, umm, dry…and then wet.”
“I’ve been off a board this high before, Paula, it’s just the tall one that scares me. There, I said it, it scares me.”
“You’re allowed to be scared of something, Bill. I had a coach that told me that there’s no disgrace in being knocked down – or landing on your back. If there’s any disgrace, it’s in not getting back up.”
“Thanks, Coach Lombardi.”
“Never mind. Let’s get this over with.”
“Okay, I’m glad you’ve gone off this board before. We’re going to make believe it’s the Big Kahuna this time, though. We’ll do everything here we need to do to get off the high board so you’ll be prepared for later. How’s that?”
“Sure,” I moaned.
“Right, now take your time, try to enjoy the experience,” Paula said. “Remember, for a second after you jump up from the board, you’ll be feeling nothing, just air. It’s this of feeling and hearing nothing that you’ll experience until you feel and hear your entry into the water. That’ll be your explosion, but instead of fireworks, it’ll be, um, well, waterworks. Then, underwater, it’s quiet again. It’s lovely.”
“Remember, Bill, this was sort of your idea, right? Do what I do. I’ll swim to the side and watch. Okay, we’re up in a couple more kids. What I want you to do is walk to the end of the board and feel it sink and bounce a bit. Go with it. Use the bounce to get your butt in the air, out and over the water. Wherever your center of gravity goes, you’re going, too. When you bounce up, jump forward and upwards, stretching your arms out in front of you. Oh, and you don’t really have to look if you don’t want to.”
Paula stepped up to the board and slowly strode to its end, her body matched the sink and rise of the board, just as easily as she was striding across the pool deck. On her last step, the board went down and rose. She coiled her body and then exploded up, out and down into the water, carving a languorous arc above the water to a near-splashless entry into the pool.
She swam to the near side of the pool and looked back at me, a smile of accomplishment, joy, support, something, on her face. I was holding onto the rails on each side of the board. Shoulders tucked tight to my ears, I marched to the end of the board, mistimed the bounce and flipped ass-over-teakettle, splat, onto the water’s surface. For a second, I considered not coming up from underwater, but I broke the surface and swam to the ladder at poolside, where Paula was waiting.
“I think this will take awhile,” she said. “But remember coach’s mantra.”
“Yeah, I tried staying down, but it didn’t work.”
She giggled that giggle again and said, “Let’s go, Bill. It’s still just six thirty.”
For the next hour and a half Paula and I worked on the side and jumped off the low board. After a few mechanically solid dives, she told me that I was ready to fly.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“C’mon, Bill. What more do I have to do to get you up there?”
I had to admit, she had gone way beyond her part of the deal. While I stood in line about a half-hour before, I thought of a way for Paula to deal with the fireworks. I was as sure in my plan as she was in hers to help me fly. Except I was sure my plan would work. Her plan, I decided, was painfully flawed. I was the flawed part of the plan.
“Okay, okay, but tell me one thing,” I said, digging my bare feet into the concrete pool deck as she pulled me toward the ladder to the high board. “Why are you so afraid of the loud sounds. You don’t seem to be afraid of anything.”
She stopped, let go of my arm and stared at me. Hard. Then she took a step back.
“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” Paula said and took another couple of steps toward her towel on the lounge chair.
“Paula,” I called after her. “I’m sorry. If I’m going to do this – IF – I just can’t do this without you. I promise I’ll get up there. Just don’t be upset with me. Please?”
Paula spun and coldly looked at me. “If you must know, I was in a traffic accident, okay? Late night. After a meet. Okay? Need to know more, Bill? How about this? It was icy. Tractor-trailer jack-knifed on the highway ahead of a line of traffic. My coach tried to stop, just like all the other cars. We spun, and then all the other cars started hitting one another, bang, bang, bang, bang, BANG. Three teammates and the coach were killed, four injured. Me, not a scratch. That enough to get you going, Bill?”
I felt a chill that was immediately melted by a blast of heated embarrassment from my chest to my forehead.
“God, Paula, I’m so sorry,” I said, reaching for her arm.
She twisted from my grasp.
“Look, I like you. You’re cute, you’ve got kind eyes, and you helped me when everyone else thought I was some kind of klutz. You didn’t know me – obviously. But you wanted to make sure I was okay. And I don’t think you were doing it just to hit on me. Not that I wouldn’t have let you, you little jerk. But right now I feel like I just wasted a day, in more ways than one, and if you don’t climb that damn ladder and jump off that freaking board, I’m out of here, deal or not.”
What could I do? I mean really? I turned around, walked to the bottom of the ladder, where there were only three divers still diving in the five minutes left before the pool was going to close.
I took one step up, felt the water dripping off the guy above me on the ladder. I looked over at Paula. She was wrapping herself in her towel and putting on her flip-flops.
More steps up. The guy in front of me had reached the top and was standing on the near end of the board while another diver bounced and flew out and down into the water. Paula was stuffing things into her tote bag. She hadn’t looked one time at me.
I pulled myself to the rear edge of the board and stood there, looking out at the whole pool deck, the roof of the pool house, and the orangey-blond top of Paula’s head, which was turned toward the women’s entrance to the locker-room.
The guy ahead of me bounced on the end of the board twice, sending it deeply below where I was standing, so all I could see was his body from the shoulders up. And then, when the board came back up, he would bounce maybe two feet above it and land back on the sandpaper-like end again. He was getting his timing right or just showing off, I guess.
Then he just took off. Beautiful. Yeah, I’ll say it. Like a bird.
And there I was, just as the lifeguard sounded his claxon horn and yelled into his bullhorn that the pool was closing.
“C’mon, pal, last dive,” he said to me.
I looked behind me and there was no one on the ladder. I could easily just climb down. Nobody would have to skinny to the side of the ladder or climb off to let me pass. It wouldn’t be like that time in high school. The last time I tried to dive off the high board. The laughs and remarks were about as big an embarrassment as any I ever felt. Until five minutes before I arrived at the top of the ladder.
I walked toward the end of the board and it really felt just like the low board. Only thing different was that the drop-off on either side was about three times as high. It looked like thirty times to me.
I looked over at Paula and she was about five steps from the locker room door. And then she turned around and looked at me. She took off her sunglasses and looked at me. And her face had a sadness about it. I took a breath, bounced once and lost my balance for a second, but recovered. My heart was beating so hard I knew everyone could hear it above the silence on the pool deck.
“Tonight, buddy, while we’re still young,” the lifeguard boomed. “Now or never.”
I chose never. I turned around and took a step toward the ladder. I saw Paula’s shoulders slump and she turned back to the locker room.
And then I slipped and fell.
She was right. There is this feeling of silence, of nothing, not even the wind. And then there’s the noise of hitting the water, followed by the quiet again. She was so right.
She was also right about it stinging like hell.
I came to the surface just as the lifeguard was climbing off his tower and trotting down to see if I was okay. I’m sure he would have a tough time explaining how the only person in the pool ended up drowned at closing time.
I put my head down and swam for the wall behind me, under the board. That’s when I saw Paula.
“Bill, are you all right?” she asked, her face showing what looked like genuine concern.
I walked right by her, grabbed the handle on the ladder and started climbing.
“Hey, buddy, c’mon, let’s go. Haven’t you suffered enough?”
The disgrace is in not getting back up, I heard in my head. Yeah, I’d suffered enough. I was determined to suffer no more –- no more disgrace, at least –- today.
“Bill, it’s okay,” I heard Paula say below me.
I got to the top and just jumped off, head-first. I didn’t hesitate and I’m sure I looked like a complete spazz, but I did it — on my terms — just to prove that I could.
But never again.
Later that night, on a blanket over the hood of my car, I looked at Paula’s face glowing red, then green, then yellow in the reflected glare of each aerial bomb. Mostly, though, her face just glowed.
“Bill,” she yelled above the sound of the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony blasting in the headphones on her ears, “it really is very beautiful.”
I had to admit she was right, as I laid back and looked up, almost forgetting my near-failure. I couldn’t shake the idea of the sky as the water’s surface, splashing in a splatter of fire.
A big aerial bomb exploded in a garish flare of pyrotechnic elation. Even I was a little startled this time. It wasn’t the boom of the fireworks, though. It was the touch of Paula’s hand suddenly holding mine.
Yet another flash of colored light split the sky, the biggest yet. Like before, it was followed by a second of silence, and then the boom reached me. It was the sound that hit me and it was the concussion of the explosion that washed over Paula. It startled her a bit and she squeezed my hand.
This shocked me. But just for a second.
Then I squeezed back.
So, I thought. Flying.
I don’t normally post such long pieces here on the blog. They’re for a collection of stories I’ll maybe publish someday. But my friend Kellie Elmore asked me for a story based on that photo and quote up top of this piece. It kinda got away from me.