Like Swimming

Robert Kepaik

Harmony is an early riser. He wakes most mornings to watch the dawn. He treads carefully down the narrow staircase to the kitchen, all of the walls in their house seem tightly closed, even the ceilings seem unnaturally low. He will sit by the kitchen table and drink three cups of coffee without any milk or sugar before his wife will join him, sleepy eyed and bumping into the corners of doors. He is not sure if he enjoys the dawn, he’s unable to see it as something serene or beautiful without thinking about the rest of the day that it brings with it. He does however knowingly enjoy the pre-dawn dark. Here he feels a great sense of timelessness. Today’s dark will be the same as yesterdays and tomorrow and will be perfectly captured and still and truly all his own. Once in the kitchen he tries to move as silently as possible, allowing the sifting, granulated coffee to spill out like sand into the base of the mug and pouring boiling water, annoyed by the hiss of the kettle, he’s patient so as not to disturb the quiet stillness all around him.

The kitchen table is littered with scattered piles of homework, pages ripped out of notebooks, mapped with little twirls and flourishes of red ink, dotted with small scrawled notes all finishing in question marks or exclamations. It’s beautiful, his wife’s handwriting, he thinks to himself. Alice Hayden teaches history and so forces all of her students to produce lengthy essays packed with significant dates, names of cultural verisimilitude and importance. She requires concrete explanations, timelines, cause and effect. The clear logical presentation of it all immensely pleases her. Dates, locations, battlefield and explorations, rebellion and revolt all draw through her a sense of a palpable and sincerely real past, far more consistent than any sense of the conceivable now. She finds hours pleasantly lost in researching and collecting up vast arrays of accompanying aids of tapestries, portraits and etchings to give her class greater resonance. She has decorated their home with hundreds of small, poorly printed out scraps of paper, of archaic book covers, penciled sketches and faded maps, all of which she sticks to the wall with plastic tape, only to have them all peel off and fall to the floor once the windows are opened and the wind works its way through the landing’s narrow hall.

Their house is small and used to be cluttered. Harmony is tall enough to have to crane his neck sideways when taking the steps and has to duck under the lintel of the kitchen’s doorframe. All of the room’s thickly carpeted floors, until last week were covered with threateningly sharp and plastic minefields all composed from children’s toys, the kind for boys, figures built for guns and mechanical monsters with ferocious and extendable appendages. But this morning, Harmony can pass through the living room, now a cleared and vacant space, without monitoring his footsteps, and for the first time in the week he notices that he walks without automatically looking down all the same, at the now empty the spaces between his naked toes.

He would watch the hazy coronas of light expand and distil from around the floodlights above though slowly fading sight, blurred as the plastic before his eyes softened into a myopic swell of distant and uncertain radiance.

The mature Harmony is strong; his legs feel constantly tensed and flexing to the touch. His chest protrudes out and over shadows what little of a flat stomach there is. As a child, a boy with ill-suited blond hair, he had made the conscientious decision to become physically developed, given his mother’s questionable choice of naming him Harmony in a town composed of Karl and Matt and Dave. While he had been unsuccessful at lifting weights, the more he heaved them up and down the less his biceps, triceps and chest seemed to want to budge, he found that in one activity he excelled. He was a swimmer, a natural. He seemed able to move beyond his classmates while exerting only a fraction of the effort that went into their frantically chopping storms of motion. The embarrassingly repeated description by all who saw him submerged was “effortless”. When he swam, he felt as if he would never need to come up for air. Time, slowed down, underneath. His hands and feet would enter and depart the waves without having seemed to break the surface. His heart never raced, and still he glided to first place in every competition. Of the pool, he loved every element. He would follow the line of black tile as it extended ever forwards into the chlorine blue darkness ahead. He loved to watch the small bubbles of exhaled air pass by his eyes like perfect glassy spheres, as the dull pressure of water filling his ears dulled every sound around him. He would watch the hazy coronas of light expand and distil from around the floodlights above though slowly fading sight, blurred as the plastic before his eyes softened into a myopic swell of distant and uncertain radiance.

He was fourteen when he decided not to come back up to the surface, to stay there underneath and in it all, perfectly womblike and protected. It took over two minutes for the clambering hands of the parents watching the meet from the front row to reach down and find him, and grabbing roughly around his limp arms and shoulders, pull him out from the water. He had known, even at the exact moment that his body had gone perfectly still, as he opened his mouth to allow as much water as there was space within him to fill, that he had not wanted to die. He simply wanted to remain underneath. And as He lay by the side of the pool, the water being pumped from his lungs by fists upon his chest, he felt the skin-like layer of water slide away from his drying body, and he knew that he would always now feel nakedly alone and unprotected. Harmony watched as the morning’s light began to interrupt the blackened sky, and after finishing his third cup of coffee and poured his wife her first, and began to set out the son’s breakfast cereal, toast and translucent apple juice, none of which he would touch.

Though he taught the swim team at the same school as his wife developed student’s understanding of how individuals could shape and determine the fates of whole nations, so they would as routine, leave in the same shared car every morning, he seemed to need this period of silence at the start of the day to compose himself, whereas she could be up and roused and ready, albeit clumsily, to go within the short space of thirty minutes. As she sipped her coffee of a thinish cloudy white, the brown liquid drowned by floods of milk, she stroked her husband’s hair as the two of them watch their son sit sternly in his seat, his hands pressed tightly beneath him, eyes fixed intently on the mesmerizing boxes of cereal that, although his stomach barked at him with a growing ferocity, he had refused himself to eat.

The son was, he had decided, going to be depressed, clinically, and had read online that depressed people very often do not eat. So although his body pleaded with him to reach out and fill the neonish plastic bowl with its faded childish decals of five years past in front of him with dazzling balls of puffed and sugary wheat, he sat motionlessly still and stared intensely ahead. He would, in the coming weeks, find another suggestion posted online on a medical self-help forum, that another true sign of chronic omni-polar depression could be excessive over eating. So that, one early morning his father would silently descend the stairs, in anticipation of his pre-dawn darkness ritual, to find the kitchen decimated, all cupboards emptied and scattered mountains of severed packs of single serving current cakes, crumbled loaves of bread torn apart, shredded by starving hands, and jars of peanut butter and chocolate spread scraped clean, and would hold his sickly and heavily breathing son tightly in his arms, as the boy’s heaving chest pressed his pajama’s sugary stains against his father’s bathrobe, as the open cupboards cast newly forming shadows onto the two figures, squatting on the littered floor, the sound of his weakly weeping son penetrating the room’s otherwise unbroken stillness.

He had tried curling up in a fetal ball upon the couch and listening to his father’s blues records, playing endlessly over and over the songs of Skip James, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt, but they had done little to solidify the intense and all consuming nothingness that the boy assumed to be the feeling of absolute and certain depression. He tried sitting in a darkened room, all of the curtains pressed tightly into the corners of the windowsill to block out any subtle intrusions of natural light, and then had listened to the plaintive cries of Native American chants. He worked his way through the local library’s collection of Argentinean Fados, Tibetan homesick refrains and depleted any depth of sadness he could extort from Górecki’s sorrowful recollections of great and formidable tragedy. But none of them had worked. They all made the boy feel, well, nothing. But it was not, the boy assumed, not the nothing of a hopeless depth, a nothingness that would signal that he was authentically, sincerely, legitimately depressed. He had tried frosting up the classroom window at school during their lunchtime break and with a moistened finger, stenciled out the word “suicide” onto the glass. However all this achieved was for a passing teacher to comment that he had misspelled the word “suiside” and to wipe the window clean.

I don’t care if it’s positive cognitive or interpersonal, but I want to see someone regularly in a small safe place with warm colors and welcoming furniture.

The parents had first been made aware of the son’s attempts, when they overheard a conversation snaking its way through the parental hub of the school gates, of how young Antony had to take anti-depressants, and at such an age! After they had reassuringly corrected the parents that it really wasn’t true they had, as openly and gently as was possible, brought up the issue with their son, as he sat at the table in front of them with a dinner of pork chops, mashed potato with string and greenish beans, all of which he had refused, quite politely, to touch and he had produced shyly from his pocket a handful of multi-vitamins, that he had been quietly popping all through the week, hoping that soon one of his classmates would notice and he could momentarily pretend that he didn’t want to explain, then only to painfully confess his sliding mental constitution.

Alice now cleared the last of her papers, filing those that she needed to that day into a tanned leather satchel. She dressed upstairs as her husband sat silently by the kitchen table, his hand outstretched across the varnished wooden surface, so that should his son wish to take his hand from out from under his legs, he could hold his father’s hand within his own. When Alice retuned, her hair now professionally tied back, and dressed in a ochre jacket looking both academically intense and yet somehow ever still approachable, she turned towards her husband with a nod that indicated that it was soon time that they should depart, and that he should now carry their motionless son upstairs to dress, having previously found that if they did not do this, they would find him still sat limp and monk-like on the floor in his pajamas an hour later, seeming to not have moved at all. And as his father rose, Antony lifted up his eyes to meet his parents and he spoke.

“Please. Just tell me I’m depressed, medically certified and wholly recognizably depressed. Tell me where on the CDI I rate. Give me Kovacs’ full diagnosis. Feed me Beta-blockers; give me increased doses of SSRIs. I want fluozetine, sertraline, paroxetine and Lexapro along my windowsill at night. I want you to tell me that I’m seriously, ill and that nothing I can do will ever change it. I’ll take the medication, I promise. I’ll do everything that my physiatrist says, but I want to have one. I don’t care if it’s positive cognitive or interpersonal, but I want to see someone regularly in a small safe place with warm colors and welcoming furniture. Please tell me that I’m not just really, really sad. Joey Thornton suffers seizers, Peter Cramer is colorblind, and a girl whose name I don’t know has spina bifida and has already told the school that she’s bipolar. Please, let me have this, before anyone else gets it. I want to have something special. I just want to know that feeling this way matters, that it means something beyond myself.”

The room was no longer still or timeless as it had been before the dawn had illuminated the kitchen’s stack of uneaten cereal, its sink of overflowing dishes and its floor free from discarded and abandoned children’s toys. It was now full to overflowing, caught in the path of a great and predicted tidal wave which had finally reached its peak, as two persons watched another with an almost intense desperation, as a third body began to weep, pouring themselves as if into a surrounding sea of unbroken water, the crest of which began to slowly climb the walls, reaching far above the submerging sounds below.

Author: jameskramerblog

James Kramer is a fiction writer currently based in Beijing. His writing has appeared in Your Impossible Voice, as well as various Poetry anthologies. He currently writes a monthly-ish column for LeftLion magazine on China.

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