It is the summer of 1995; the sun is hot and the pool is lukewarm. Perfect conditions for a traumatic near-death experience.
I stand on the edge of the swimming pool, my toes on the rough concrete. My dad floats in the deep end, water clinging to his chest hair like mini marbles, reflecting the Carolina blue sky and the shining sun. He smiles, spreading his arms wide, “Come on. Trust me.”
My brothers have had enough of swimming and are stretched on a pair of those white plastic pool loungers, eating Doritos and Little Debbie cakes, slurping cold Mountain Dews and chatting with friends. They are unseen, and it is just me, my dad and dozens of kids splashing and running and laughing.
“Come on,” my dad says again, wading closer to me. “Just jump. It’s how I learned, too, you know.”
I look down at my pink one-piece, at my puppy fat tummy, the swimsuit fabric stretched tightly over it and my prepubescent chest, flat and unformed. I take a deep breath and feel my feet move without my instruction. I forget to plug my nose or maybe my dad never told me I needed to? I shut my eyes, feel my stomach dip like on a rollercoaster and crash into the water, missing my dad’s open arms. Like a rock, I sink belly first into the pool, down, down to the tiled bottom where abandoned friendship bracelets and a used Band-Aid carpets the floor. Something stings in my chest and I try to stand to my feet but feel like one of those newborn foals, knees bending in every direction but the right direction, struggling to stand.
Then I am rising, leaving the bottom of the pool by an unseen pair of arms. It is like a birth, emerging from the slick water, instead of infantile cries, a splutter of coughing erupts from my mouth. The lifeguard who rescued me lays me gently on the hot pavement in the recovery position. My dad mills about in the background, water dripping from his body and my brothers hurry over, mouths full of half-chewed Doritos.
I cough on the side of the pool as the other lifeguards blow their shrill whistles, call for the other swimmers to take a break. One of my brothers grabs my towel and wraps it around me. I rub the chlorine from my eyes and feel the tight press of my swim cap against my forehead. I peel it off, my afro curls springing back to life. I am done with the water for the day; I want no more of it.
Apologetically, my dad makes his way over to me. He helps me stand and takes me to the family changing room. He calls to my brothers who are gathering our things from the side of the pool. Everyone stares in silence as our wet feet leave footprints leading to the changing rooms and the exit.
My wet swimsuit is balled and slipped into the brown plastic grocery bag next to my dad and brothers’ wet trunks. Back in our clothes and sandals, we leave the pool, a quiet queue of baby ducks following our dad through the hot parking lot to our waiting car. The lifeguards have opened the pool again and the air is filled with shrieks and splashing. I am still shaken, my chest still feels tight and I do not know if it is a knot of anxiety, formed from the adrenaline of a near-death experience or if it is an apple of water somehow lodged there.
“Don’t tell your mother,” my Dad says after too much silence. “How about McDonald's for lunch?”
My brothers let me sit in the front seat of the car, a small sacrifice for someone who nearly died. I get in, the burgundy fabric of the car hot on the backs of my legs. I buckle my seatbelt and settle into the seat, trying to decide what kind of Mighty Kids Meal I’ll order. Debating if I could guilt trip my dad into springing for an apple pie or a caramel sundae.
As my father navigates the car through Fayetteville, everyone begins to relax. He and my brothers are engrossed in a conversation about basketball and I occupy myself people watching outside the window. Moments later the conversation dies down and we begin to eat our meals in the car of the restaurant parking lot. I had settled on my staple of chicken nuggets with barbecue sauce, the sundae sat in the drinks holder at my feet. Hungry from an hour at the pool, my mouth salivates as I raise a crispy nugget from its box. I close my eyes and bite into the nugget, ready to push the memory of the day far from my mind with a bit of indulgent emotional eating.
At first, I think it is barbecue sauce. It is like a mini-explosion in my mouth, like a Gushers fruit snack but not as sweet. I remove the nugget and study it and find a baby tooth lodged in the skin. I scream, blood bubbling up in the cavity where my tooth was. As I cry bits of unchewed food fall from my mouth.
In the backseat, my brothers try to stifle their sniggers as my dad pushes a wad of rough recycled napkins at me to staunch the blood. He reaches over and closes my nuggets, shielding them from my blood. His eyes catch mine and I can read his panic and overwhelm. He had never taken the three of us to the pool on his own before. He would never do it again. Our secret trauma of my accidental drowning wouldn’t be a secret the four of us shared, either. When we arrived at our house that afternoon, I ran inside, weeping, showing my mother my blood-stained shirt, my gaping hole and telling her what I had seen at the bottom of the pool.