Fiction Issue #61

did it hurt when you fell

one

         He stands on top of the diving board but never makes the leap. Other swimmers crowd forward, a bouquet of monochrome spandex scalps. He pays no attention to them. His eyes lift toward the moldy ceiling beams and dusty floodlights, a contented smile wreathing his face. 

          It’s not normally this crowded at the indoor pool. Most Thursday mornings it’s just you and him and one grandma who dips in and out for twenty minutes. You swim your laps while he sits up on the diving board for the entire hour, legs dangling over the edge and towel flapping behind him. The lifeguard and you have come to an unspoken agreement; the lifeguard allows him to stay up there and savor the simple delight of being off the ground.

         But this influx of scrawny, bare-chested, blue-trunk-wearing swimmers is new. You stand in the water below, shouting at him to retreat, and he finally notices your flailing arms and turns around. But just then one of the other swimmers pushes forward, a little too impatiently, and he stumbles back and then drops like a millstone.

          You cannot reach him fast enough. You can only watch his eyes blink in snapshots as his body cuts through the air:

euphoria

euphoria

terror

terror 

         The second the waters embalm him he bursts back up and attacks the surface. Even surrounded by air he still gasps noisily, mouth wide as a cavern. The lifeguard’s whistle resounds and everyone watches you drag him out. The circle of their stares whisper at each other and you can hear it all.

          They don’t understand; they don’t know what he is. They see you having to haul out a full-grown man who’s shivering uncontrollably, droplets of phobia rolling off his gaunt arms. They think he’s just another human with an innate fear of heights. 

         But you know he’s not afraid of heights; he runs to them. 

          The first week he arrived in New York you took him to the Empire State Building and he knelt in front of the glass window, paying reverence to the sprawling panorama below. He buys plane tickets months in advance so he can guarantee a window seat. He gets tear-eyed every time the plane lands, every time the roller coaster ride is over, every time the Ferris wheel stops. He crouches down on any elevated surface—a pier, a bridge, the staircase— and gazes down longingly at the shrunken sight of the world from above.

          The above is his natural habitat. Earth below is his prison, his punishment.

         When you reach the bench on the side of the pool he presses into you, digging his forehead into your stomach and you cradle your hand to the nape of his neck. I’ve got you, you whisper into his wet hair. I’ve got you. I promise. Next time. We’ll teach you how to swim. Just in case.
          I couldn’t stop, he chatters, breath sucking against your cold skin. I couldn’t stop

the   fall   (he doesn’t say)

         You sign him up for swimming classes and ask for time off work so you can go with him for the first session. The swimming coach can’t convince him to keep his head below the water for longer than ten seconds. Every time he pops back up, eyes wet and wild, searching for you.

          You move to sit at the pool’s edge and hold his hand when he descends.

         He manages to make it to twenty seconds before bolting back up.

         Is this what it feels like to die—he asks you, blue lips pressed to your kneecap—to be dead, to be underground, trapped in earth for all eternity. You tell him the water is not a cage, it’s not holding you, it’s carrying you, just like the

s

k

y

          His lips go from purple to blue. He starts to shake so hard the instructor thinks he’s having a panic attack. You can’t tell them that he’s not upset, he just never realized that he could find what he had lost above in the blue below. You wade into the pool to wrap your arms around his frigid shoulders and he clings to you like hope is drowning him.

         After the second week, once he learns how to breathe in and out of the water, he asks if he can learn butterfly stroke. That’s more advanced, the instructor says. Are you sure you want to start with that. 

          Yes, he says, not looking at the instructor but at you. Please.

          It’s just the name, you tell him on the drive home. For that kind of swimming. It doesn’t mean you can actually fl—
                                                                                                              don’t

         The word slips down the windowpane that he’s pressing his nose into. His trembling shoulders drum against the door. He’s carving a dent in his thigh, the way his fist is burrowing so deep into his side. 

          At the red light you lean over and unwrap his clenched hand and massage away the crescents his nails have carved into his palm. He nods, accepting the soft tread of your fingerprints as an apology.

         He doesn’t talk about it. He never does. 

         He always does.

         It’s in the way he frowns at birds with naked envy, never sparing them a crumb from his lunchbox. 

          It’s the way he wears loose shirts so that when the wind blows the fabric will flare and flutter.

         It’s the way he rides his bike too fast and then lets go of the handles, arms held out wide as traffic and trees hurtle past.

         It’s the way he tucks himself beneath your arms like the body was meant to be a shelter to hide beneath.

         It’s the way he looks upwards with the face of a prodigal child asking his Father if he can finally come home.

two

         He tries to kill himself after you take him hang gliding.

         You should have known. You shouldn’t have let him read those magazines while he waited for you at the dentist’s office. You shouldn’t have let him watch that extreme sports Netflix documentary. You shouldn’t have let him take extra shifts at Wendy’s so he could save up enough money for the trip.

         But it was the way he looked at you. For the first time since you met him, he was

alive

he didn’t even cry when the security guard made you leave early from the empire state building he actually said it was alright and didn’t ask to go the next day to make up for it like he was denying himself the little diamonds of joy he usually carried around because he knew he knew he was in pursuit of a much larger gemstone that could barter away all his sorrow in a single moment of

a single moment of

         The day he told you he’d finally saved up enough to afford the ticket to Kitty Hawk Hang Gliding School he was laughing. You’ve known him for two years and never heard him laugh once. It’s a sound that seemed too pure, too divine to travel through your ear canal. It must be what the shepherds heard in the fields outside Bethlehem.

         He curled up in bed with you that night and held your hand, all five fingers tucked between yours:

i love you

i love you

i love you

         He tries to kill himself after you take him hang gliding.

         The afternoon of the flight there he promised not to fuss this time when the plane landed. You told him it was alright to feel emotion swarming through your body. You didn’t need him to disguise how much it hurts him to see the clouds so close but still behind glass, like only being able to view a loved one through the visiting room glass. 

         He said, I know but I don’t want to be upset about it anymore.

         That should have been your first clue. This trip wasn’t a trip to him. It was Icarus putting on his wax-kissed wings, it was Dumbo picking up the feather, it was Chang’e escaping to live in the moon.

         It was a single

                     moment

                                  of

         lookatmeimsocloseletmecomehomefathercanyouhearmefather

         Four different staff members hold him down while they pry the gear off him. In the melee he snags a pocketknife from one of them and starts lashing out wildly, spurring everyone to back off for but a moment. Then he takes off running to the edge of the cliff.

         Tennis shoes crushing dirt, sole going right through surprised blades of grass, ants scattering at the destruction of their home, ladybugs squashed under his heel.

         You all run after him like toddlers chasing an errant balloon.

         He stops right before the tongue of the precipice, pocketknife held high like a torch and looks you in the eye. You reach out to grab his arm as his lips move in the same shape he makes at night when he’s about to fall asleep or when you drive him to the Empire State Building in the middle of your workday or when you take him to fly kites on his birthday

and you punch him in his teeth

         don’t you fucking dare say i love you before you die

        (your fist keeps saying hello to his jaw)

         he latches onto your wrist like a bracelet of skin and screams

         (i) (want) (to) (go)                            home

         The hang-gliding instructor pulls you two apart. You receive looks of reproach from the staff, like this is some lovers quarrel, like this isn’t the one fear you’ve been suppressing since day one and the one idea he always denied having. The afterlife is not some straight corridor with a single door at the end. He might think dying will take him home, but you don’t know where he will end up. No one knows for sure, not even those who light the flames of faith.

         They shove tissues into his hand and keep their arms hooked around his as they take him away. You know he hears you crying. He looks up for a second before they shove him into the backseat of the car.

         On the flight back to New York he asks for an aisle seat. This is the end.

         When you get home he goes out to sit on the stairs of the fire escape. You join him. The pale glow of the moonlight almost hides the swell of his upper lip. Your knuckles feel like they’re still stinging from the impact.

         He doesn’t stare below like he always does; instead, he looks right at you.

         A choir of rebukes gather in your mind. Baritone, tenor, alto, soprano. They’re doing vocalization warm-ups against your tonsils. The night breeze is your conductor and he is the lone audience member in the Lincoln Center. You inhale—sheet music rustles—exhale—the baton is raised—

         i didn’t want to die

slips off his lips

         i’d just never been so close

         The choir seated in your throat disperses.

         I know, you exhale. You inch closer to him and raise a hand to his bruised lips. Your fingers wince at the softness there. An apology congeals around your gums.

         I know, he says. I know.

         He’s looking at you but his eyes beg to swoop down. He doesn’t budge, though; he’s denying himself the joy of an aerial view as penance. You nod, once and then twice, giving him permission he doesn’t need to ask for.

         His head lowers and he peers over the railing. Tension disperses from his body in the simple delight of observing the world from four stories up. You would have rented the sixth floor apartment if there had been a vacancy. Maybe next year, if you get that promotion at work, you can move to another apartment. 

         Slowly you scoot forward and wrap one arm around his waist, pressing your cheek against his left shoulder blade. He holds both arms out wide and lets the wind soar through the sleeves of his sweater.

         You say, I heard there’s a new Ferris wheel opening at the park in Jersey.

(him: my Father doesn’t love me)

         We can wait until next month to go, he says. The lines will be shorter then.

(you: but I do)

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