You don’t know what you would do until you’re faced with doing it, and then after doing it faces you with what you did.
What you did:
Had your old roommate over on a Monday night. Last night. You called him Bean, his first name rubbed away, rubbed clean, smooth with the weight of the collective body of the Boys. Bean brought a case of Keith’s from Kitchener, your parents in Ireland taking pictures of stone castles and frothy pints in pubs.
The backyard and the mosquitoes. The WI-FI- reached the pool shed. Bean started tagging the Boys in pictures through the years you lived together, pictures of the girls’ house (and reluctantly, you suppose, the girls themselves) your faces open and unvarnished. The neighbours might have heard the insidious inside jokes, but maybe not.
You talked around talk, you talked around the way things ended, or didn’t, the way the world fell off the edge of itself, tucked in its mirrors and disappeared. The night ended the same way.
You and Bean finished the case of Keith’s.
You wake, your tongue a sunkilled slug, an ache for centuries throbbing in the fragile frame of your skull. Bean leaves to perform a seminar on the French part of the Indochina War for the grad program he loves to hate, still half cut taking the concession roads in the county. He’ll earn an A.
You wobble on your old man’s old bike to work, down the middle of the side street six blocks or so. The bike the one he bought thirty years ago in Regina, the one you’ll wreck leaving Buffalo Wild Wings at the end of this summer, nearly plaster yourself in front of the freighters running perpendicular to the concerns of the condos and the cute coffee shops, the ones that render the place you knew a flytrap for commuters, the city you knew buried like cables that demand you call before you dig.
Lion’s Park pool needs one guard. Used to need three. You are old for the job, the re-certification fitness tests tougher every two years, and the three or four grey hairs on your head a heady reminder.
You turn your key for the equipment room without locking the bike, you can see it through the fence anyway, can see the world you leave behind through that fence every day.
The sun especially cruel, the umbrella snapped, a compound fracture from the last good storm, the plastic splinters of the pole slivers of a femur.
Only one kid. The same. His mom drops him off and leaves, gives you the extra eye, all of it illegal, but since it’s just you and since it’s just him, and since you can’t string sentences together in your condition, you hunker the concrete on what little shade the broken tower allows.
Bryce. Or Brock? Brody? Kid will be thirty, forty years old, and you still imagine him having the same rat tail then, giving PowerPoint presentations, and teaching someone how to ride a bike, tail full mast in soft summer wind.
This kid won’t teach anyone anything.
You nod off, a hand running in the jet flow of the shallow end.
You are asleep when Bryce or Brock or Brody (or Michelangelo) gets his rat tail sucked into the gyre skimmer, on the slope between the shallow and the deep, between seeing himself five years later egging houses and stealing cigarettes from his step-dad and his picture on the mantle in his mom’s townhouse, his school picture in the paper.
He fights, but his insistence is trapped in bubbles six inches from the surface while you work out the Keith’s in the sun.
The brain can last, at best, three minutes without oxygen. The length of a song. That’s not news to you; it’s not even news to me: it’s the in the NLS manual, scaring high school kids like it should. You read the line, on the third page of the waterlogged book you forgot at an ex-ex-ex-girlfriend’s parent’s house at the end of that first summer at Lion’s Park, at the end of the beginning.
It’s not the kid or the sun or an elderly couple on the bike path running by the edge of the fence that brings you around.
You wake up to throw up, like a dog farting itself into consciousness, and the quiet and the bubbles sends you into the shallow end before you remember your iPhone in your back pocket.
The kid won’t come up right away and you don’t know how long he’s been under, but you register the blue skin and the tranquility and think maybe you’re too late and yes, in the second of weakness (or strength), you think to leave him under—does his mom want him hooked to tubes and drooling through the next pocketful of decades?
Your body starts yanking him, you turn him on several angles, like the couch you moved back into your childhood bedroom, the one Bean pissed on last night.
The rat tail finally separates from the kid’s skull, leaving feathery whispers of blood in the clean water you clean diligently, you pride yourself to backwash, to vacuum.
You could’ve turned the pump off. The suction.
He sputters and his eyes are open. He doesn’t throw up, didn’t drink last night.
You don’t ask him if he’s alright.
It’s awkward, the way you don’t talk to him after, the way he scrambles up the steps to his Ironman towel.
The elderly couple only rounded the bend to see you pulling the kid with the rat-tail from the skimmer. All they saw.
When the city gives you an award a week later, and your face and the kid’s face (he’s working on a new rat tail) makes the news blog that used to be the city newspaper, you smile, you hold the pin and the plaque with your name but your head’s still swimming, your mouth underwater with bubbles skyward, eyes facing everything you didn’t do in the camera’s lens.
ALEXANDER CAREY was born in Guelph, Ontario and now lives in Hamilton. His fiction has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue and The Danforth Review. Follow him on Twitter @AlexCarey12