It’s the weekend before Halloween, and my friend Tom is having a party at his parent’s place in Omaha.
His folks have a nice house with an indoor pool.
And a well stocked bar. Keg of beer. Snack buffet.
Saturday night. No parents. Plenty of booze. And a pool. A ginormous ocean of a pool with a net across the middle.
What’s not to love?
It’s the night Death whispers in my ear, and I almost oblige her.
There’s music, laughing, fun. Around midnight, Tom suggests we play a game of volleyball in the pool: “Girls against the boys.”
“I can’t swim,” I say, glancing at the heavily chlorinated water. Which is true. I’m 21 years old, and I can do little more than dog paddle.
“That’s okay,” says Tom. “Us guys will take the shallow end.”
The girls are fine with the deep end. They’re all champion swimmers.
The guys are fine with the shallow end. Closer to the keg.
So we commence the game, popping the regulation ball up and over the net. Back and forth.
Tom’s athletic, a strong swimmer. He serves. Carla volleys. Sends the ball arcing through the air. She’s amazing.
Right from the start, I stay close to the side. The fingers of my right hand stay in constant contact with the rim of the pool while I splash around with my left arm, helping my team out when possible.
We’re having a lot of fun.
Then without warning, an easy contest of volleyball becomes a furious dodgeball match. Tom slams the ball down into the water toward Carla. Carla hammers it back at Tom.
I venture a little farther out. My fingertips still brushing the dimpled concrete pool side just under the 5 foot marker. My feet are bounding up and off the floor, suspended like a moon walker, treading water. I’m buoyant, bouncing, and getting into the game.
Tom’s fist is a hammer pounding the ball back toward Beth. Beth knocks it back to Kim. Kim sends it to Nancy. Nancy slaps the ball away hard and it rockets across the surface of the water, skimming off a fine mist, spinning like a small planet, packing the wallop of a super nova…
It hits me square on the nose and turns me around. With an involuntary kick, I’m propelled backwards, underwater, under the net, rolling along the inclined floor, no sense of direction.
I hadn’t had a chance to take a breath. And now I can’t find the side of the pool.
Free fall but with no sense of up or down. Nothing to see but the blue-green walls and floor of the pool and bubbles and swirls and the blurry thrashing legs of girls still playing ball on the surface above.
I panic. I thrash. I kick.
My chest is tight. My throat is tighter.
My eyes burn with the chlorine but I can’t make them shut.
Oh. My. God.
I’m expecting Tom to grab me. I can almost feel his saving embrace. I’m betting Carla will cruise up beneath me, right me with an arm around my waist and guide me to the edge.
But nobody comes.
They’re too busy showing off for each other. Too busy having fun. Nobody notices me.
And then I open my mouth, and I…can’t…help…but…inhale…
Just like that…
A sense of peace washes over me. It’s warm and good. And I know that I’m going to die. Right then. Right there.
And it’s fine. I’m amazed at how fine it is. It’s like all the fear is gone, and there’s no pain and in some odd way I seem to be breathing. But deep on the bottom now. And floating.
Floating into the side of the pool where my fingers brush the wall.
The gritty texture of the concrete on my fingernails—like striking a spark that fires everything in me to life.
I’m thrashing again, clawing my way to the surface. This time with the wall to guide me up.
When my fingers wrap around the rim, I heave up and out and fold over the edge like a spent inner tube.
I’m alive and gasping and gagging and puking and still kicking.
But I’m alive.
It takes five minutes for anybody to notice me, sprawled on the tile floor.
Tom gets out of the water, pads over. Pours a beer on my head.
“Arise and walk,” he says.
And like Lazarus, I stand on shaky legs to stumble back into the land of the living.
Never again to be frightened at violence, but forever terrified of that damned beckoning peace.