Our new Chevy van is tan. It has four hot, sticky houndstooth plastic seats and a nest of wool blankets that smell like antique wax and alcohol solution. My dad uses these blankets to protect furniture he repairs and delivers to rich people. He makes fun of these rich people by saying their names in a fake British accent and drawing out the syllables (“The Noooooordtroms” and the “McCaaaaaaaws”).
The heat is reactivating the chemicals in the blankets and my mom feels nauseated. Or maybe she has a headache. Or some sort of allergic reaction. My dad is mad at her, he thinks she’s exaggerating. I can tell because he calls her “Debbie” instead of “honey” and he glances with exasperation in the review mirror at me, seeking solidarity.
My sister, C.C., is three and doesn’t understand anything except that she likes her shoes too small. And she’s obsessed with noses. She likes to draw pages of them, especially of fellow diners in restaurants. She’s also really excited about the pool we’ve both been promised at the end of a long hot drive through the dry hills of central Washington state. Both of us have our swimsuits on under our clothes.
When we arrive at the cabin—splintery wood doors and rust-orange bedspreads—my mom goes to lie down. C.C. and I scramble for the chlorine oasis just beyond the short dry-needled pines. I’m armed with the green floaty dinosaur that C.C. has to wear in the water because she can’t swim. Within moments our legs and arms are glowing an electric blue under the sunlit water.
This is the coolest bathing suit I’d ever owned: a neon orange one-piece with fake rips across the bodice that looked like distressed denim. It had tank straps and high-cut thigh holes. I’m nine, old enough to know what a “sexy woman” is and young enough to have an imagination where I looked “sexy” in this swim suit—instead of like a bumblebee with a bowl cut.
The suit had been bought for the swim camp I’d attended earlier in the summer. Those three weeks had resulted in some new moves I was ready to unveil, namely, swimming the width of the pool… in the deep end.
Dad is lying in a plastic recliner reading a hiking book, because he’s going into the mountains later “whether or not your mother likes it,” when a sheriff with a tummy over his belt and mirrors in his sunglasses strolls up. I like the way the water makes my hair seem longer. I flip it over one of my eyes and watch them through the otter-brown strands as they pretend not to argue from the side of the pool.
“I know it doesn’t look like it, but we’ve got reports that a pretty serious windstorm is on its way. Gonna show up later this afternoon so you folks should stay put ‘til it passes.”
“Well I might go for a quick hike up in the hills before that happens,” says my dad. “Want to stretch my legs. It was a long drive from Seattle.”
“Suit yourself, I’m just telling you what they’re telling me.” The sheriff looks over my dad’s other-side-of-the-mountains guidebook and hiking boots before sauntering off with an “enjoy the pool kids” thrown back over his shoulder.
Dad’s dog-earing his book and out of the chair as soon as the slatted gate rattles closed behind the man’s saggy butt. Dad stops at the edge of the pool, my face reflecting distant and pale in the black lenses of his glasses. I wonder if this is a good time to offer to show him my ability to swim the width of the pool but decide against it.
Is he going to ask me to go hiking with him?
You never know with dad. Hikes often turn “epic,” in his words—miles longer than intended on little goat trails through fields of lichen-speckled boulders. Sometimes I have to wear sunglasses to stop the “snow blindness” or his jacket to keep warm when we’ve stayed out too late and the sun has fallen pink behind the trees, the sleeves of his 70s brown windbreaker almost reaching the dirty tongues of my Keds as I jog behind him.
A few months ago, in early spring, we went further out then we meant to. We’d crossed a snowfield when the sun was still up and the snow nice and sloppy. My ankles easily disappeared into the big holes left by dad’s boots. I didn’t notice the drop off to our left. Mostly I was listening for the whistles of marmots in the rocks above us and thinking about the chocolate and Crystal Lite we’d have for lunch.
But by the time we were heading back across the snowfield (this time with roadside hamburgers on my mind), the sun had gone and the snow was frozen stiff. The smooth rubber bottoms of my sneakers swam in Dad’s iced-over prints and a wind whipped stinging sand-sized pieces of snow against my cheeks. Suddenly the drop-off, a deep and jagged cliff that made the world tilt and my stomach clench, was the only thing I could see. And I knew, more than I’d ever known anything, that I was going to fall.
My exposed neck quivered and prickled in the deepening cold. I saw myself suspended in the air just long enough to realize what was happening and then plummeting, bug-eyed like Wiley Coyote, to the rocks below.
“Dad,” I whimpered, squatting pathetically in the snow, “I’m scared.”
“You can’t be,” He responded. “There’s only one way out of this.”
My mind frantically scanned alternatives as my backside went numb and my throat tightened. “Can you carry me?”
“It’s more dangerous if I carry you. It makes us top heavy.”
I looked up at him in disbelief, the tiny snow crystals collecting on his big beard. “If you fall, fall on your stomach with your arms out. That way you’ll stop faster. If you end up on your back, dig your heels into the snow like brakes.”
The fact that he was giving me advice on how not to plummet to my death seemed like the surest proof that it was going to happen.
His cold hand pulled me up by the elbow.
“You can hold my belt loop,” he said. “But keep walking.”
I focused on the frayed khaki loop and lurched, stiff-legged and shaking.
I thought about all the things I hated: riding the school bus, kickball, trying to fall asleep while people laughed (or fought) downstairs. They all seemed so far away and welcome now. I grieved for all these pointless routines in my second-grade life, and longed to lean against them—this time with the loving knowledge of how small and petty they were.
“You all right back there?” Dad’s words were faint, far above my head and diluted by the wind. I kept quiet and distracted myself with thoughts of my mournful teachers and classmates—especially those that weren’t nice to me. All eyes would be on the empty spot where I should be singing “America The Beautiful” tomorrow morning at 9:00. Their inevitable regret was a pale comfort but it kept me from looking down.
By the time my feet crunched dry pebbly trail on the other side of the snowfield I was so surprised I gulped the thin mountain air in huge open-mouthed sobs over my father’s shoulder as he hugged me on his knees.
“Good job,” he said. “It turned out pretty epic but I knew you’d be fine.”
Later, in the van with heat blaring and an Oreo Dairy Queen Blizzard sweating in my hand, dad chuckled. I looked over at his silhouette illuminated orange in the dashboard lights.
“What an adventure,” he said, his knuckles a ridge of peaks on the steering wheel. “How about we don’t tell your mom about it, OK?”
So I’ve learned to be suspicious of dad’s adventures. Today, with C.C. as my sidekick, I’d rather stay in the pool, maybe read my new Babysitter’s Club book with my legs crossed like a teenager and pretend to hope boys show up.
But if dad wants me to I’ll go.
Instead he asks quickly: “You two OK on your own right? Just long enough for me to go get your mother to watch you?”
I respond with a thumbs-up and kick off from the wall into the center of the pool where I purposefully run into C.C.’s floaty, earning a spray of her giggles.
I’m underwater when I hear the door to the cabin slam—a muffled thud felt more than heard in the pool’s white cement underworld. I dunk again as the van comes to life and clatters off. By my third surfacing mom appears, a watery halo of brown fuzzy hair, turquoise shirt, and grim face.
“You girls having fun?” she asks in a tone that says she’s definitely not. “Not too loud OK? I’ve got a headache,” she announces before opening her J.A. Jance novel and placing it across her upturned face.
C.C. and I have migrated poolside, digesting cups of macaroni and cheese we bought and microwaved at the nearby convenience store. Mom is asleep, her high-arched feet crossed at her fragile ankles. C.C. lays on her side, listlessly dangling a weary, loose-limbed stuffed dog off the edge of her chair. She talks to him in a quiet voice.
“You wanna go swimming? You wanna go in the pool? You can’t because you’re too tiny! You’re so tiny…” Her singsong whisper trails off, her lemon-yellow hair and cartoon blue eyes an animated mirror of the dog’s already faded coloring.
The sun has fallen behind some bruise-colored clouds; the resulting light is a flat, dusty brown. Rusty pine needles swirl against the legs of the lawn chairs before skidding into the water.
The sheriff is back.
“Ma’am? Excuse me, ma’am? Is your husband here or did he end up going on a walk?”
Mom is awake and standing with her arms crossed over her small frame in an instant.
“Sarah Rose, Camille Clare, get over here,” she says, waiting for us to scamper up beside her before turning her full attention to the sheriff.
“He went for a hike, yes. Is something wrong?”
“This storm is gonna be bigger than we thought. They’re anticipating real high winds. We’ll probably lose electricity here and we’re worried that we’ll have downage on the mountain roads.”
“Downage?” Mom asks, squinting her dark eyes.
“Trees,” the sheriff explains. “We’ll have trees fall on the road, people might get trapped in their cars or…” He looks down at me and my sister. The ear of C.C.’s dog has migrated to her mouth as she looks up at him, most likely studying his nose.
I’ve got excitement in my gut. Something is happening! It’s like a Rescue 911 episode. I think maybe we’ll be ushered into the police station. People will want to ask me questions and will think I’m brave. Dad will narrowly escape the downage and we’ll celebrate at a pizza place with big red plastic tumblers of pop. This might mean we have to stay on vacation longer than we’d thought. I might even get out of going to the YMCA camp where the kids play dodgeball all day and the counselors make out in the closets.
Instead mom follows the sheriff.
“Stay absolutely put, Sarah. No going in the water. I’ll be right back,” she says as her back is swallowed by the pine tree shadows—which fuss and bluster in the rising wind.
“Wanna see my new swim moves?” I turn and ask C.C. as I walk down the pool stairs, resentful that I’ve been reduced to showing off for my sister instead of my parents. The water has gone choppy and slaps my legs as I head for the deep end. “Watch!” I shout and thrash from one concrete lip to the other. I want to do a somersault turn but don’t know how, so I simulate by sticking my butt up above the water momentarily at the end of each lap.
“Want to try, C.C.?” I ask, pulling at her dangling feet. “Come in, I’ll help you.” She runs for her floaty, hands shielding her eyes from the dust and grit now thick in the air. “No, that’s OK, I’ll hold you. I can teach you,” I tell her, and she walks straight down the stairs toward me.
At first I cradle her like a baby as I underwater moonwalk towards the 5’ and then the 6’ mark but the water laps on her face and she sputters it out of her nose, grasping at the straps of my suit in fear. I try and turn her over and support her while she makes swimming movements with her arms and legs, but I’m too far out and can’t touch the bottom. I didn’t realize that my swim teachers were standing when they held me up by my belly.
We’re both going under now, frantically dog paddling to gasp at air and cough. I try grabbing her neck in the crook of my elbow like a lifeguard, but I’m too weak to swim with one arm. I surface momentarily and scan the pool deck for adult feet running toward us, but all I see are leaves caught in dust devils and an overturned chair blown against the fence.
No one is coming.
I sputter and swallow as much air I can before jumping down to the floor of the pool where I let out my breath so I can stay submerged and find C.C. She’s panicked and kicking but I open my eyes and grab her small blue legs swirling in silvery bubbles. I hoist her to sit on my shoulders pulling her arms around my head so her face is above the water. My chest burns and C.C.’s hands tear at my hair but each step takes me a little closer to the pool steps, three stacked half moons glowing white just beyond me.
My head explodes with oxygen as I surface. The wind, which is now strong enough to create little whitecaps that slosh over the pool edge, pushes itself into my nose and mouth. We fall together on the nearest lounge chair, water streaming through the rubber slats, dirt in our teeth, little sticks and pine needles stinging our bare legs and arms.
I do not feel brave. I do not feel like a grown up. Instead, I feel sick to my stomach and so, so small. I keep thinking about the look on my sister’s face as she walked into the water toward me without her floaty for the first time, a look of confident, easy trust.
“Girls! Girls! Come on!” Mom yells as she runs towards us, wrapping us in rough white towels and pushing us through the gate. She’s out of breath and near tears, too distracted to worry about why we’re soaking wet. Looking back at the pool I see C.C.’s dinosaur fly upside down into the waves, where it skitters frantically in circles behind the slamming gate.
Dad doesn’t come home that night—a fact that tickles the sheriff, who enjoys suggesting he’d “found some company at a bar.” When dad returns the next morning with the grin of adventure smeared across his face and stories of tumbling cedars and chainsawing strangers on his tongue, I’m not surprised. My dad was happiest when things were a little dangerous, at his best when the worst was right around the corner and the indignities of daily life were disrupted.
I hadn’t stayed up all night worrying like mom, who’d slept on the couch with her face pressed against the rain-patterned glass. C.C. and I lay together in the bedroom under the cigarette-smelling chenille, in the deep dark of a mountain blackout. My swimsuit hung on the cheap brass knob of the closet. The storm pelted the aluminum windows and thunder rumbled in surround sound around us.
“That was epic in the pool, huh C.C.?” I ask to the side of her face. She murmurs, fighting sleep. I roll onto my back and watch the faint silhouettes of tree limbs thrash against the ceiling. “How about we don’t tell mom and dad, OK?” I whisper to myself.
Sarah Stuteville is a Media Director working at a civil rights organization for American Muslims. A former journalist, she traveled and worked from over a dozen countries and taught journalism at the University of Washington for seven years. She’s a mother of two and is working on a memoir about journalism, mental health and motherhood.