Whenever the small feeling hits, Patrick takes deep breaths, clenches and unclenches his fists, and purposefully imagines a billion nuclear missiles obliterating every trace of the virus from the cells of his body.
One, two, three, four; He counts the breaths until the calm settles in. Propped up on one elbow on a towel in the grass outside the city pool, he gazes at the length of his right arm, outstretched and pointed up towards the sky.
Of course it’s not shrinking, he thinks. You’re as fit and healthy as ever.
It’s an affirmation he’s working hard to believe as the humid August air brings out a beaded sweat on his forehead and chest. He reminds himself that there’s no biological reason for his grogginess – it’s simply a result of the uncomfortable weather and the call from his sister, Allison, which woke him about an hour too early for a Saturday morning.
“Do you still dive, Patrick?” Allison had asked. For some reason the words echo over and over like a song stuck in memory.
“Not really,” he had replied. “I mean I just don’t think about it anymore.”
“Remember how good you were? I couldn’t believe the stunts you pulled up there.”
He had been good, with enough talent and effort to make the USA Diving Winter Championships two years in a row. Back when physicality was simple and natural, and when the future stretched ahead with infinite possibility and nothing to fear.
The memory stays with him as he turns his head towards the pool behind the chain link fence, a flattened “Z” of shimmering aqua, and looks at the board. It’s a one-meter, not a three, because of liability issues at city pools. But it’s easy to see himself taking three steps and a hurdle toward the edge, the fiberglass springing him up into the nine-foot space above it, his hands touching his ankles in the perfect pike formation, the world spinning around once and a half again; his outstretched arms spearing the water with a tiny, momentary splash.
Ten years ago at the age of 17 the flights were brief, but it always felt as if he could just keep rising, up and up into the space above that board, steered by the radar that was so natural back then.
“Don’t let it go to his head, but he has a special talent,” his first coach had told his mom and dad. “I’m not sure what it’s called, but there’s a phrase to describe it. Means something like cat sense.”
“Cat sense?” His mother, Faith, had frowned.
“When a cat falls or leaps from high distance, it always lands on its feet. It’s automatic because they always have a sense of where they are in the air. They can turn themselves around like expert acrobats. When Patrick twists upside down or spins around he still knows exactly where he is in relation to everything else. It’s very rare.”
“So we’ll call him Cat Man,” Faith had said then. “Maybe we won’t think so much about him killing himself.”
God, she worried a lot. Patrick turns his face back to the sky and remembers. At the meets 15 divers would take their turns and 15 mothers along with a few fathers would sit in aluminum mesh chairs and watch from behind the judges. His mother, Faith, had once let out a sharp scream when the back of his head skimmed the edge of the board. He’d heard it the instant he hit the water, then surfaced to see all of the women around her laughing with relief. They were supposed to pretend that the dives weren’t dangerous and that death didn’t happen at nice suburban swimming pools, and certainly not to born athletes who exuberantly defied it in that wonderful, perfect space above the board.
But it still happened, out of nowhere –
Give yourself a break, he thinks, and summons a self deprecating grin.
Don’t dwell . . .
Dr. Jaffe tells him a sense of humor is the single best thing for his mental outlook. She conveys it happily at every Friday session, ignoring professional conventions by greeting him with a hug, her stout body jiggling beneath the loose and garishly colored clothes she always wears. Part psychiatrist, part comedian, she always finds a way to make him hopeful even when he falls apart behind the closed door of her office. She’s the antithesis of the first shrink, a 50ish guy with a gray beard and beady eyes who spent most of their one and only meeting asking probing questions, as if making him squirm was something he had to endure to feel better.
Even now he has a physical reaction to the memory of leaving the gayshrink’s office, his face red and hot; the whole episode a stark reminder of how out-of-place he sometimes feels around the other men he encounters at his gym and at the clubs and in the random meeting spots of his urban neighborhood; never quite connecting with the pulsing music they all seem to love or the faddish clothing they crave; feeling that he simply can’t fit in among them –
“There you go with the lost little boy thing again.”
Dr. Jaffe has used the expression so many times, chastising him in her characteristically cheerful voice, urging him to look beyond the out-of-place feeling that comes to him so often these days. The sense that he’s lost his bearings, especially when he thinks back to his teens; the friendships that endured despite his understanding that he was different; realizing that might have been a good thing because he could do things they couldn’t do, in that amazing space above the board, high in the air.
“You should dive again.”
His sister’s voice comes back to him; with the underlying anxiety that she tries to disguise. She’s his closest friend, and the only one in his family who knows. Unfortunately her devotion to him is sometimes more than he can bear, because he knows she would never recover if his health went in a different direction. Which is why he’s compelled to keep her at a distance, with phone calls as opposed to visits even though she lives just two hours away. It’s the only way to fortify himself against the interactions that remind him of his potential frailty, the moments when he looks into her eyes and knows that, because of her fear for him, she will never be completely happy again.
Still, the conversation was a good one that ended on an upbeat note when he told her about how well things are going at work. It was only after hanging up that the sense of melancholy came back, replete with memories of the high school trophies and the college scholarship and the business degree and MBA earned with ease. The cat sense of always knowing where he was staying with him as the trajectory of his life continued to that magical second job. A real estate development firm that was making serious money as people moved back to the city.
The best part of your life, he thinks now, remembering the long days and late nights and camaraderie. His life in the year 2015, with the good job and good apartment and good friends.
And then it happened . . . or started to happen. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in October, when he recognized from a distance the gaunt face of an acquaintance from college; and remembered the drunken haze of a certain night and the afterward feeling that had made him sense, even then, as if something had changed.
“Don’t hate,” Dr. Jaffe has told him so many times. “It’s terrible that this thing has happened to you Patrick. Just awful. But bad energy won’t get you anywhere. You have to love yourself and envision yourself beating this.”
Some theories sound so good unless you’re forced to rely on them. No one’s ever proved that seeing yourself well is anything more than some kind of nonsense to give sick people some kind of mental lifeline. But he holds the thought close as he thinks back to the weeks that followed – the nagging dread of the worst and the desperate hope for the best, all leading up to the decision to get the test at the anonymous city clinic.
That day: a cold, rain-soaked Tuesday in November.
That moment: when the doctor shut the door to the tiny white room and met his eyes.
That feeling: of time stopping and accelerating as the terror came crashing down.
He was seated on a paper-wrapped gurney when the doctor spoke the words; the shock making it almost impossible to move or even breathe; a sensation that took him instantly back to the day 10 years earlier when his lanky, slim body was slammed down flat by a block during a high school football scrimmage. A sudden, complete lack of feeling below his neck as he stared up at his teammates, and then his father, running from the sidelines where he had been watching. The horror of it all magnified by the rage of being there on that field, playing a game he wasn’t built for but acquiescing because his father, the legendary Kevin O’Donnell, had wished more than anything that he would.
It was the turning point, cemented in his mind by the change in his father’s appearance in the weeks that followed: the deepening lines around his face and the graying of the hair at his temples and his recognition that he understood there were other, better things he was built to do.
The diving came next, a whole year of waking up at 4 a.m. for private coaching at the membership club, with Kevin and sometimes Faith watching from the low rise bleachers beside the pool. A year of astounding physical recovery and the discovery of that special cat sense.
The wheels of a bus marked “YMCA Camp” squeak to a stop in front of the pool’s main gate. When the doors open the kids stream out: at least a dozen black children in their early teens, all shouting and jumping around. Patrick sits up and watches as a lifeguard unlocks the gate of the chain link fence. The kids rush past in a swarm. Most simply drop their towels onto the cement and charge into the water, their thrashing severing the calm; their delighted laughter rising and echoing through the air.
He smiles at their exuberance, and thinks of his earliest memories of the suburban pools of his childhood; recalls his father calling out to him as a four-year-old and urging him to jump in and swim to him. A memory of the splash and the sensation of his legs kicking at the nothingness beneath him, the panicked gulping of air until he managed to swim a few strokes forward, and then a few more; his father slowly backing up, beckoning him forward until they reached the far end of the pool. Remembers even now the triumph of making it. The wonderful strength of his father’s sudden celebratory embrace.
His throat tightens as he sits up and watches another wave of people arriving at the pool: several Hispanic adults and children who emerge from a run-down Taurus station wagon and a pockmarked van with the faded logo of a landscaping company, an older couple frowning into the hazy sunlight; three 20-something guys in trendy, skin-tight swimsuits.
One of the guys makes eye contact. Patrick looks quickly away but not before he detects the pursing of the guy’s lips; the subtle sign of awareness.
“Love them Patrick. They’re your brothers.”
Dr. Jaffe’s voice comes to him again, with its gentle insinuation that everything will be better if he simply embraces his genetic disposition; as if he can somehow accept where he is even if it wouldn’t have happened if he was wired a different way. She knows it isn’t quite happening. Yet she’s the first person to remind him of his resilience since his diagnosis, after almost a year of weekly visits, all built around the same theme:
You’ll beat this.
On the way through the locker room leading to the pool, he stops to take off his shoes and to slip off his shirt. The walls and floor are slick with disinfectant that has the same sharp pine, dirty-clean scent he remembers from the clinic. A dozen or so black and Hispanic kids from another summer camp bus jump around, tossing swim swimsuits and tennis shoes into the air. Two of them shriek with Caribbean accents, another curiously eyes a man standing under the shower spray, his ragged, urine-stained underwear drooping from the water filling it, his legs covered with sores. The pool is free, and all kinds of people can wander in – from hipsters to day-laborers to the mentally ill and homeless – and today it calls to mind a melting pot of exotic body oils, sweat and bacteria amid gallons of chlorine.
The air is hotter and muggier as he steps out onto the deck and lays his towel flat and reclines on his back and thinks of the week ahead. The once-a-day miracle pill that keeps him symptom-free. The deadlines that he will meet on the job. The workouts with the trainer who continues to push him to be in the best shape of his life. All part of the routine he’s discussed at length with Dr. Jaffe, who keeps telling him there are things – mental things – that he still needs to do.
“You’re a man of conflicts.” It’s one of her favorite expressions, and often accompanied but a typically unprofessional but welcome massaging of his shoulders. “You’ve got so much tension that’s you’ve just got to work out. And the only way to do that is to sit down with your sister and your mom and tell them the truth about what you’re going through. Tell them the truth – .”
“No,” he says out loud, and shuts his eyes against the brightening sun. “Not a chance – .”
He doesn’t even want to think about what it would be like to tell his mother about the perpetual closeness he now has to death; doesn’t want to think about her mind going back to that one high school diving meet and the millimeter’s distance between his skull and the board. Doesn’t want to imagine her being as bereft as she was after the death of his father, taken by lung cancer the year the diving scholarship took him to college.
He feels a catch in his breath as he sits up on the uncomfortable concrete and looks out at the city kids filling the pool, the Hispanic families who wear shorts and shirts instead of swimsuits, the homeless man with the legs full of sores who appears to be arguing with the lifeguard, a muscular black man in a wife-beater T-shirt decorated with a photo of a rapper holding two pistols crosswise over his chest.
The sense of melancholy comes back; his eyes sting as he thinks of the clean, clear water of those suburban pools and listens to the rapid-fire Spanish between bouts of laughter coming from the young families.
“Poppy!” An Hispanic boy who looks to be about six-years-old stands on the edge of the diving board. Then with an excited wave of his outstretched arms he jumps in . . . and sinks to the bottom and swims a few strokes before coming back to the surface. At the edge of the pool his parents clap their hands and watch as he does an awkward dog-paddle toward the shallower end.
Two of the gay 20-somethings are there, squatting down into the water that comes up close to their necks. One of them calls out – “Earnesto!” – an instant before the boy reaches him.
And then they’re all standing in the water, sharing high-fives as the little boy climbs onto the guy’s back. Patrick watches as the boy pats his hands on the top of the guy’s head as if it’s a drum.
The guy winces slightly from the motion, and then suddenly, from across the pool, looks at him again and smiles, rolling his eyes in a happy, good-natured way.
He finds himself smiling back, as surprised by his own reaction as he is to the sight of the family and their friendship with the men. The kind of friendship that happens in a city, in this kind of pool.
“Here in the land of misfit toys.”
The phrase comes to his mind. He imagines the joking tone he would use in recounting the experience to Dr. Jaffe; imagines her laughing with him; seeing his lightheartedness and acceptance of the oddity of the scene and his place in it as a sign of progress.
But then again he hears Allison; from the back of his mind. Her bangs covered in sweat and her knees under her chin like the eight year old she once was:
“Do you still dive?”
He shuts his eyes and thinks about the bad block again; the feeling of paralysis and the look on his father’s face as he was carried on a stretcher from the field and the terror of never being able to move again.
Yes, he thinks.
I still dive.
He feels slightly dizzy as he stands, imagines the way he might look from a distance, getting up after being knocked down; his knees quivering as he walks across the warm concrete, his hands and fingers flexing at his sides – an ingrained, reflexive motion to relax his muscles.
He tests the water with his foot and finds it oddly lukewarm. He blinks, winces from a drop of sweat in his eye and gazes out at the chain link that surrounds the pool. And then he looks back toward the Hispanic family and the guy who smiled at him, all of them watching as he grips the metal rails and steps up the short ladder to the board.
It’s only a meter – three feet above the water instead of nine. He wonders if it’s a metaphor for his new life and his new condition – and then purposefully shakes the thought away.
The motion brings on another wave of dizziness as the sweat drips into his eyes and he looks out toward the other end of the pool and the faint haze that seems to have fallen over the whole day.
His mother, Faith, is there; one leg tightly crossed over the other, alongside his father, Kevin, a globe of oxygen hanging from a pole at his side. They shimmer briefly in what feels like a wide-awake dream as he looks down at his torso and arms and legs; and thinks of the medication working its way through his cells.
And then he moves, his memory and his muscles in perfect rhythm for three steps and a hurdle, the balls of his feet in a perfect strike at the end of the board, launching him upward into the air and that perfect space, up and up into the jackknifing motion and adding a perfect one-quarter twist, knowing then and there exactly where he is. Knowing –
You’ll beat this.
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