It’s the same nightmare, or rather, memory.
Kim stands at the edge of the pool, the chlorine burning her nose and the too-small swimsuit digging into her thighs. The pale blue reflects the sunlight, the sun Red Cloud rarely sees, and Kim is mesmerized. She looks into the water, seeing nothing but the clouds mirrored back at her and she reaches out to touch the surface.
And she falls in.
She’s ten years old, doesn’t know how to swim, and is in desperate need of help because she can feel the temperate water, betraying her, going into her nose and down her throat. Her arms shoot up, out of the water, frantically slapping the very surface trying to scream for her mom.
During her brief appearance above the water, gasping for air, she sees her mom's hands wrapped around a man’s bicep. She slips back in.
The next thing she remembers is a heavy hand slapping her back and water dribbling out of her mouth. She looks straight into the eyes of a man she doesn’t recognize and jolts backwards.
She turns her head, trying to find her mom because her throat is raw, her head is pounding and she just wants to go home because she didn’t even want to go to the pool in the first place. She doesn’t want to see her classmates, never mean but always cold, and she knows her mom will forget she’s there in lieu of a man’s attention. Nonetheless, every week, she’s forced into the car, holding a mildewy towel and her faded swimsuit from three years ago with the promise of adventure whispered in her ear.
Kim stopped believing her mom after the ninth time she told her she’d teach her how to swim.
She looks around blindly for a minute more to no avail and then wills herself to calm down, turning to the lifeguard with steady eyes.
(Her teachers have always praised her emotional control. ‘A girl mature beyond her age,’ they would always say to her mom. Little did they know.)
“Over there,” she points to a blurry woman in the distant parking lot. “My mom’s there. Thank you,” she says, eyes still red and she gets up without waiting for a response, her hand clenched at her side. The walk is long and her flip-flops loudly slap the concrete, drawing everyone’s attention to the sad, shivering girl walking off.
This is when the nightmare usually ends but the memory lingers when Kim wakes up.
At home, she waits outside because she doesn’t have the keys and doesn’t know how to get into the house. Sometimes she'll have extra quarters in her pocket and she'll make the fifteen-minute walk to the payphone to call the bar, the number seared into her brain, but she forgets to bring coins this time and she admonishes herself for not looking ahead, feeling that the cold creeping into her skin is deserved.
Eventually, Mrs. Bea, the neighbor, sees her sitting expectantly on the stoop and invites her in for dinner. She smiles sadly at the small girl as she stabs the peas rolling around her plate, her appetite lost as the chlorine taste swirls around her mouth.
Deep into the evening, there are four heavy knocks on the door. Kim gets up off the couch where she’s watching The Twilight Zone and leaves behind an asleep Mr. and Mrs. Bea. She silently follows her mother back to their house, listening to her spout off excuses and leading into her wild stories of the night.
When she brings up the fact that she almost drowned today, her mom only rolls her eyes.
"Don't be so dramatic, Kimmy. I saw you; you were fine."
Kim almost replies, "Then why didn't you see that I needed you?" but she doesn't. She's tired of asking questions she'll never get an answer to.
She tucks herself into bed after finding her mom passed out on the couch, leaving her water and aspirin for the morning.
She’s done this before and she’ll do it again until they move the year after. Swimming becomes cello practice becomes afterschool tutoring and Mrs and Mr. Bea become Ms. Paloma becomes Mr. Colman.
Kim falls asleep thinking about how she spoke less than twenty words that day and she dreams of swimming underwater, gliding towards an unknown destination.
The next day, she refuses to go back to the pool and surprisingly her mother relents. For all the selfishness that exists in her, it’s moments like this when her mom smooths her hair back, drops a kiss on her forehead, and tells her that she understands that Kim feels that maybe this time she can anchor her.
(She realizes later on that her mother understands the sensation of drowning, of falling endlessly, more than anyone else in her life.)
She takes the day to walk into town on her own, the tops of her arms already pink from the sweltering sun, and enters the dimly lit pet shop that houses four hamsters, six birds, a meager selection of fish, and an incredibly bored-looking teenage boy.
“Don’t touch the animals,” he lazily says her way and she nods, instinctively putting her hands in her pockets.
She walks through the aisles, not with any real thought in her mind. Her mom had denied her a pet multiple times, citing the physical and emotional burden it would add to their already tumultuous lives, so she wanders.
She sees a lone goldfish in a small bowl, a strange sight as the other tanks are filled to the brim with flashes of orange, and leans over to get a closer look.
“He can’t swim that well,” the boy clicks his tongue. “Kinda useless for a fish, huh?” He laughs, walking over and tapping the glass with his finger. The fish startles and tries to swim away but there’s nowhere to hide.
And suddenly, Kim understands.
One month later, she’ll teach herself how to swim.
Six years later, she’ll make it to her high school varsity swim team.
(Her mother will be on the sidelines, boasting about when she taught her daughter to swim and Kim will grit her teeth.)
She’ll climb the diving board ladder and look down, jumping in with her shoulders back and head straight. She doesn’t hesitate for a second.
When Kim breaks the state’s Butterfly 100M record, her coach jokes, “You swim like you’re trying to get away from your own shadow.” Kim only gives a forced smile in return.
Twenty-six years later, she’ll be staring at Jimmy floating in the pool, urging the crab dip float towards him. The same blue sky reflects off the surface and she thinks, maybe it’s the same everywhere.
She thinks about her mother in that moment, an intangible shadow in her life, and she looks at Jimmy who grins up at her and says, “I just finally decided to be me” and she thinks, no he’s real, he’s here.