Kathy Boyles ran a day care business out of her suburban San Jose ranch house. Mid-thirties and petite, with brown hair in a pixie cut, she had two daughters, Kari and Sarah, and after school hosted as many as five more of us. I went to her house for years.
I’d walk from Schallenberger Elementary to her place, usually with Kari or Robin, one of the other kids Kathy watched. It wasn’t far from school, a short stroll through a quiet, tidy neighborhood. When we got to Kathy’s there was always a tray of snacks waiting –usually Ding Dongs, Twinkies, or Ho Hos that she’d bought secondhand at a bakery downtown. I’d eat a bunch of these, the luscious cake and fluffy white icing melting in my mouth, and something inside me would relax for a minute. It didn’t take long to learn that a Twinkie or four took the edge off of my loneliness, my tiredness, my anxiety about whether I fit in.
The pastries may have softened the edge, but they also contributed to a sense of submersion that bordered on numbness. I don’t remember how I spent my time. There was television — The Brady Bunch, Bewitched, Batman. There was indifferent play with Kari or Robin. There was probably homework. In any case, by the time my mom came to get me around six o’clock, I was always hungry in this gnawing way that went beyond my physical body, hungry for someone to see me, as if I’d spent the whole afternoon invisible as a ghost.
I went to Kathy’s in the summer too, but that was better. The Boyles had a pool and the other kids and I would spend all day swimming, breaking only for baloney sandwiches, soda, Cheetos. I knew how to swim before I started going to Kathy’s house but during those summer afternoons I refined my skills, reveling in the sheer joy of the water. I loved how it felt, warm and enfolding but also yielding; in the water I was both nurtured and powerful. I’d do somersaults forwards and backwards, blowing air out through my nose, spinning and spinning, relishing the disorientation I felt when I broke the surface. I’d swim the length of the pool and back, holding my breath. I’d crash against the water in a cannonball, relishing the violence of it. In the pool I felt close to complete.
Sometimes during the summer my stepsister would come for an extended visit with her dad and we’d go to Kathy’s together. At that time, when my sister and I were in elementary school, “warm” and “enfolding” were not the words that defined her experiences with water — in fact, being in a pool scared her. She’d get in but cling to the side, holding on more tightly than necessary while I swam in circles around her like a demented dolphin.
One afternoon we were together at Kathy’s, midway down the length of the pool. Kathy’s daughter Kari and some other kids cavorted in the shallow end. My sister gripped the cement lip in her customary death hold; to her left, I casually held on to the side while I beat my legs through the water. I remember that I was wearing my diagonal one-strap, tomato red bathing suit — and I didn’t care that it clashed with my freckled pink skin and strawberry blonde hair. Less than a yard away, Kathy lounged in a bikini just outside the glass sliding door that led from the house to the pool. She was talking on the phone.
It happened fast: my sister lost contact with the wall, and she panicked. She clutched the air in an effort to pull herself up but instead grabbed on to me, pressing down on my shoulders with surprising strength, pushing me underwater. I couldn’t get away, couldn’t get air, so with as much force as I could muster I tried to thrust her away from me. We struggled for what seemed like a long time, our terror rising, until finally my sister found the wall again and grasped it. Suddenly free, I surfaced, panting and angry, sure she’d shoved me under on purpose.
But when I looked at her I knew that wasn’t true. Kathy chattered on, oblivious, while my sister hung there, her face pale and her eyes full of fear. We stared at each other. Had we really almost drowned, right under Kathy’s nose? That horribly familiar sensation came over me, the one I usually felt during those long school year afternoons — the panic, the sense of being submerged. This time it had been literal, though. Surrounded by people, my sister and I had been essentially invisible.
What happened next? I’m not sure. Maybe my sister got out of the pool and curled up in her towel on one of Kathy’s plastic lounge chairs, hoping the sun would stop her shivering. And maybe I stayed in, curving my body over and over into somersaults until I couldn’t hear my heart thumping anymore, until the only sound was the rushing of water in my ears. Maybe I stayed in the pool until it was as if nothing had happened, as if it was just another day at Kathy’s, learning to swim.