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Meditations on Water

Ali Bryan

I cling to the railing of the bridge watching the cool North Atlantic race beneath my splayed legs sixteen feet below. This is where you learn about currents, about how fast the ocean can run. My father maneuvers himself around, so that his back is to the rails, his chest to the open sea. There is barely enough room for his heels. You remember what to do? He asks. Jump, I reply. As soon as my feet touch the water, he says, eyes sparkling, boyish. He is already proud. Not because he knows I will jump, but because he knows I trust him. Without warning, he leaps from the bridge. As soon as his feet touch the water, I hurl myself into the channel. The cold is mythical. This is the water of Greenland sharks, and shipwrecks. A hand pulls me to the surface by my elbow. The water of fathers and daughters.

I peruse a clothesline of art and photographs in an elementary school gym. There are pastel landscapes, Picassos, a janitor’s mop. I study a watercolor of the Bow River matted on blue paper painted by an eight-year-old. The riverbanks team with life: long-necked geese, bushes, coffee cups. A homeless camp. I buy the painting. Later that night I watch the real river overflow its banks. Geese and garbage float down the street. Possessions are swept away. Encampments, dinners, socks, homes. I hang the watercolor in my house on the hill, far from the river, far from the flood, the sirens and the mud.

I am nine months old, thick-thighed and copper-haired, when my sister carries me the length of the diving board and drops me in the community pool. It’s a hot day, a dirty year. 1979. The asphalt steams, the music sweats and I sink to the bottom, like a disco ball. My father is quick to retrieve me. Superhero, my sister will later recall. You didn’t make a sound.

My flippers are too big. I am snorkeling at John Smith’s Bay with its pink sand and jagged reefs. I can hear my breath under water, labored and rubbery. Fish with lumpy eyes swim beneath me, in straight lines, in swishes, in schools. The sun burns my shoulder blades. I want to see a shark. I don’t want to see a shark. I surface to catch myself, to breathe. I’ve snorkeled twenty-thousand leagues from shore. I imagine fins, black eyes, barbs, barracudas. My father waves from the shoreline and I swim like a sailor, lost at sea.

I am tidal bore rafting on the Shubenacadie river. The water is brown and churns at my bare ankles. The pilot, who looks criminal and bored, revs the motor so the boat slaps the water like a hand to a face. My elderly mother rides in the boat in front of me. By the river bank, the pilot cuts the engine. He motions for us to jump in and float with the tides. Stay close, he warns. Be within five meters of the boat at all times. The water is amniotic, salty, cool. I tread, surveilling the movements of my children, willing them not to drift. In the distance, a bridge. The pilot motions us back on board with a stiff wave. We are reaching the end of the river. I look over my shoulder to see my mother floating alone, fifty meters from her boat, forgotten.

I tighten my life jacket and confer with my husband at the opening of the cave. Which one of us will take the toddler? Whoever gets her will get less of the cenote, less of the experience. He is the stronger swimmer. He volunteers. He slips into the ancient water and I hand him the soft-limbed girl with the feral brain. She will go anywhere, try anything in a family of big kids and grown-ups. Our oldest swims ahead, neck-and-neck with the tour guide, who owns the light. I swim at the back, next to our son. In the blackness we can barely make out the guide’s headlamp. I’m going back, my son declares. He makes a panicked u-turn and guns it toward the dock. It’s too late, I call after him, my attention split between his determined strokes and the group, which is swimming away. I grab my son’s arm and tell him to hold on. He climbs on my back, wraps his arms around my neck, his limbs like petrified wood. I’ve lost sight of the group. I am in a choke-hold in a sinkhole being drowned by my son. Legs, I remind myself. Kick them. By the time we reach the other side of the cave, I am a floating bread bag. I have swallowed half of Mexico. My son traces the fingernail glyphs he’s left on my neck and says, that was fun.

I am five years old, leaning over the end of a weathered dock, staring at the lake. My mother in a cherry red bathing suit directs my attention to a school of fish, gathering just below the surface in a brown jitter. Their aliveness frightens me. The fish I know don’t move. They aren’t real. They lie in straight lines on ice beds in stores. Their eyes never blink. My mother touches my shoulder with so much tenderness I feel rooted to the dock, to her. I bend to get a closer look at the undead fish, their bloated scales and foreign bodies. My mother pushes me in.

I am straddling a banana boat, attached to a tether stretching from a speedboat. We are travelling fast and reckless. I can see over the heads of my children to my husband riding shotgun. The plastic grip keeping me secured to the banana feels loose, a tent peg in sand. The brochure pictures made the banana boat ride seem benign. A carousel or a Victorian sleigh. Appropriate for the four-year-old practically doing the splits in front of me. Hold on tight, I whisper in her ear, eating a lock of her red hair as the wind whips. The speedboat makes a sharp turn. Did the banana have a minimum age requirement? I shout at the back of my husband’s head. I don’t think this is safe. He doesn’t hear and the banana rockets forward. I wonder how I will explain this to social services. Why my kids are whiplashed, bruised, and concussed, but the boat driver is saying something, his co-pilot, gesturing. They are telling us to let go? He wants us to let go. Like fuck. I hold on for dear life, while the rest of my family is bucked from the banana. The four-year-old shoots ten feet up like a circus bear. The older kids tumble. My husband falls into the water, a newly-certified scuba diver. I crumple around the boat like a foil peel and land on top of my daughter. When I resurface, twisted and stunned, my daughter uses my head as a stepladder to climb back on. You were supposed to let go, she scolds.

I am in a fancy pink hotel. I watch with curiosity as my father plunders hardboiled eggs from the breakfast table and gingerly slips them into his golf shorts. Later, when we get to the beach, he passes me an egg. Fish food. He winks. We swim offshore toward razor sharp reefs swarming with Seargent Majors, Bermuda chubs, triggerfish and snappers. The reefs, shaped like shattered flower pots, cause the water to thrash. My mother swims out to join us. The ocean whips us around like wool socks in a washing machine. The egg crumbles from my hands. The waves pull me under, toss me against the reef. I see flashes of lips, underbites, yolk bits. The shadow of an eel. I see my mother drowning. My father and I pull her away from the reef. I am twelve and can’t touch the bottom. We barely make it ashore.

I am nine years old and in Florida. It is hot and shady. It is Caddyshack, late nights and cigarettes on the beach. I decide this is where people come to have sex, though I don’t even know what that means. There’s just something in the water. Something like sin. I tread in circles while lovers grope in nearby pairs, tangled like fishing nets. I think of the baptismal tank at the Pentecostal church a thousand miles away. I think of the altar. The pastors in suits. Their red-faced sermons. The sinners and saints and the faint scent of baptismal tank chlorine. I watch the couple in front of me make-out. I cool my cheeks underwater, and swim ashore at a sinner’s speed, to towel off the shame.

He said I was boring.

I watch as a man with unwieldy hair and beautiful shoulders ties my fifteen-year-old daughter’s ankles together. He weaves the straps, which resemble legwarmers or circus props, with the speed and finesse of someone who has done this a thousand times. You’ve done this a thousand times, I say. He nods, checks his handiwork, gives a hard tug on the cord. My daughter is not nervous, even though we’re a hundred and fifty feet up. Even though there is nothing up here but treetops and hawks. Clouds, memories, ghosts. She is not nervous because she has a broken heart, so heavy, it tugs at her shoulders and hardens her face. She is a hundred days of rain. Are you sure she’s tied up properly? The jump master smiles and in that second of tenderness I know my heart is broken too. Sure, sure, he says. She’s all good to go. My daughter inches her way toward the opening in the bridge, past safety rails and warning signs. She moves away from childhood. A white line marks the end of the grey weathered planks. The jump line. She doesn’t stop. She just goes. She throws herself off the bridge with such grief-fueled recklessness that my knees buckle. She falls and falls and falls. The jump master leans over the bridge and watches until the tip of her ponytail touches the water. Until the ache is gone. All good, he says waving me toward the vacant bench. That’s how you do it. He drops a pair of straps at my feet and says, just fall.

I cling to the railing of the bridge watching the cool North Atlantic race beneath my splayed legs sixteen feet below. My son stands next to me, all limbs and adrenaline and nautical-striped shorts. Are you ready? I ask. He exhales a loaded breath. Because once I jump, you have to jump. You can’t hesitate. I explode from the bridge, a woman who can do hard things, a girl who has not forgotten. I surface in time to see him suspended in the air, boundless and infinite, his body in the shape of trust. The ancient current pulls me. I find his wrist, tug him toward the oily dock, the blackened ladder. I watch him climb. I cling to the rusted bottom rung and hesitate because this is the water of time immemorial. The water of fathers and daughters. Of mothers and sons.

Ali Bryan is an award-winning novelist and creative nonfiction writer who explores the what-ifs, the wtfs and the wait-a-minutes of every day. She lives in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, where she has a wrestling room in her garage and regularly gets choked out by her family. IG: @alikbryan and TW: AliBryan 

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