Katie Prout | Longreads | May 2017 | 12 minutes (2,916 words)
This semester, I’ve been learning to swim. When I told her I didn’t know how, Stephanie laughed at me.
“John can’t swim either,” she said. “The people in your family don’t have enough body fat, you muscle-y freaks.”
Stephanie is John’s wife, my sister-in-law, and Stephanie can swim; she grew up in Michigan’s thumb, a remote place called Port Austin where freighters from Ontario still pull in. We grew up farther south in the state but still, my dad used to take us to watch them, longer than football fields; bigger, he said, than the Titanic. Further in along the boardwalk we’d go, skin sticky against the piping of the metal fence, and my dad would jump into the water my mom forbade us to enter, and come up clean.
When he was born, I hated John’s guts. Eventually, there were six of us kids, but for all of my memory it had just been me and my brother Steve, two years younger, and that was how I liked it. I was three years and 363 days old when my parents brought John home, and from his first adorable cry, the hot hate of cruel little animals coursed through my body, directing my actions toward him for the next two years.
When he was six months old, I watched John roll off the couch and onto our unfinished hardwood floor and did nothing; when he was two and got spanked for something he didn’t do, I smiled, and then felt resentful when my dad knelt down and apologized to him. It didn’t matter if John was guilty of no specific crime, he still deserved it. He took my mom, and he was beautiful.
As he grew into toddlerhood, the worst trait John displayed was, absurdly, a fear of grass, and adults found it to be endearing: no sooner would my mother set him down to pour lemonade at a picnic than John would lift one terrified, dimpled baby foot from the offending green earth and wail. Grills and beers abandoned, adults would jostle for the chance to scoop him up. All gooseflesh and baby fat, John was perfect for holding, or so everyone said. I tried not to touch him.
John is in the Navy now, working on an aircraft carrier called the U.S.S. Carl Vinson. He’s been on deployment since January, his fourth in as many years. I live in Iowa City where I teach and write and feel impossibly landlocked, even with a river running through town. I don’t know who Carl was or is, and usually misspell Vinson as venison. I don’t know what John does, even though I’ve asked; every time he answers, the words slip right through my ears.
At the beginning of the semester, when the professor of our writing workshop challenged us to spend the semester learning a new skill, any skill, so long as it was entirely fresh to us, I picked swimming.
I think it’s ridiculous that he can be in the Navy and not know how to swim. After my phone conversation with Stephanie, I tell him so over Facebook messenger. A few weeks later, when his ship gets steady signal, John responds. It’s February now. He’s somewhere near Guam, and I still haven’t gone near a pool. “Ha, yeah, well,” his message reads. “I don’t really need to.” John’s always been like that; a steady man of few words. By the time he was four, he’d had tubes in his years for two years. “He hears like he’s underwater,” the doctor told my mom, explaining why he talked so funny, and when I overheard it, I became fascinated with the idea, and as a six-year-old spent hours lying in the tub with my ears submerged but my eyes dry and open, looking around. Once doing this, I lulled myself into sleep, and when I woke up it was because a red-footed pajama leg was sunk next to my stomach. There was John, half-in and half-out, baby face looking serious, but cautiously optimistic. Thrilled to be given the opportunity to do so, I screamed.
When it comes to swimming, it’s not body fat that I lack; it’s chill. Floating is hard for me and always has been. So, as a matter of fact, is being bad at things: I give up a lot, grow furious and then despair; I sulk, I weep. To avoid learning new skills, I cut corners until my life looks like a tattered snowflake. At the beginning of the semester, when the professor of our writing workshop challenged us to spend the semester learning a new skill, any skill, so long as it was entirely fresh to us, I picked swimming. Older and possessing the maturity that being repeatedly bruised by your own flaws gives you, I approached this project with more patience than I would’ve in the past, but still warily. I ordered and returned many bathing suits. I scoured Racked articles about after-pool hair care. For research, I purchased and read Jaws in my bathtub.
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Growing up, I didn’t like John precisely because he was so likable. In the tub reading Jaws, I encounter blue collar brothers and small-town bullies, and think about the bloodlust of childhood that exists even without toothy predators prowling the sea. Because he couldn’t properly hear, John spoke funny; his first sounds were echoes of a deer in pain he absorbed from a hunting tape our dad used to pop in on van rides up north. I had no patience for his strange speech, and frequently made him the monster in our backyard games, but Mike, a preemie with a bowl cut whose glasses magnified his blue eyes so that he looked like a beautiful alien, translated for him.
“Nee-neee-neeeyah,” John would flute. From behind, Mike would pipe up. “John’s hungry.” Irish twins, the younger Mike dragged around a rubber chicken, his comfort object, and followed John wherever he went. Fifteen years later, after John pulled a sink from their dorm room wall in a display of whiskey-fueled exuberance, Mike followed him to jail, where they spent the night. This past spring, I talked him out of following John into the military: Mike was thinking Army. John, easily the best behaved of any of us besides our youngest brother, has been to jail the most: cops don’t like his size, how his friends call him Rocky, how his muscles stretch in his shirt when he stops and turns their way. Later, when I asked him why the sink had to go, he laughed and shrugged. “I was excited,” he says.
Finally, after a “gentle reminder” from our professor that we’ll be presenting on our new skills at the end of the semester, I am ready. Over spring break, I go to the pool alone: I watch from the corners of my eyes as parents teach their tiny children to swim. “That’s it!” they say to their splashing offspring. I try to do what they do, and I try to float on my back. I hit my head on the wall and cry about it.
I think about giving up, but then my friend Molly gives me my first swim lesson. We come up with a plan: a few lessons from her and other friends, plus me practicing at least twice a week in the school natatorium, plus me keeping a swimming journal so I can track how it all goes. To begin, Molly and I meet in a rec center a couple miles out of Iowa City. “Baby belly,” she says, “baby belly,” and then lays on her back, blinking and serene, to demonstrate. Except for when one of the mysterious waves that indoor pools possess gently knocks her about, Molly doesn’t move. It looks like the most natural thing in the world, but when I try it, I gulp and thrash, hold my breath and yelp, swallow air. I don’t know what it means to use your belly like a baby’s; I try to keep my abdomen up and almost give myself a hernia. Beatific with patience, Molly stays at my side, adjusting here, encouraging there, and by the end of the lesson—well, I still can’t float, but Molly has taught me backstroke and some sort of weird side crawl for dragging bodies to shore. I leave feeling excited. I use my swimming journal, and I start a letter to John.
For the next few weeks, when I practice swimming and floating, I think about John. It’s late March now, and I’ve finished Jaws. I rewatch the movie. There is a scene in the film where Quint, the Captain Ahab-esque shark hunter played by Robert Shaw, recounts the real life World War II sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, and gives a play-by-play of all the men who were eaten while waiting for help. He could’ve been one of them; he saw a shark’s eyes. “Like a doll’s eyes” he says in the film, the s becoming a slur of zz, and we loved that line, all of us; us kids marching around shouting it, my dad saying it to me when I was in college before hanging up the phone. Because it takes place on the 4th of July, Jaws was considered a holiday film in our home, and growing up we’d watch it on TBS after wading in our neighbor’s filmy, chest-high pool, where sometimes I’d smack on goggles and plunge my head underwater and stay under long enough to imagine what it’d look like to see a shark suddenly burst through the rough wall and plunder through the blue pool, legs in its mouth and a streak of cloudy red in its wake.
As I swim in the university pool now, I hear underwater the tickings of the gym, the grunts and hiss of pipe, and imagine that they are the sounds of a ship, and then before I know it, that ship is sinking and sailors are shrieking and fins are not far away. I splash at that thought, try to imagine John on a toy ship like one from the Battleship board game. In my mind, I zoom in. He’s safe inside, working out—his last message tells me he can bench-press 460 pounds. He reads sci-fi, he plays video games. He is profoundly, depressingly bored, but he is safe.
‘I can’t wait to swim with John in the ocean,’ I text my boyfriend. But then, his orders changed, and now I’m going to the water alone.
As a little boy, John possessed a heart-shattering tenderness; kept a palm-sized baby doll he named Baby wrapped in tiny shreds of handkerchief and snuggled up at his side; favorite movie was The Snowman, a wordless thirty-minute musical animation exploring the relationship between a snowman and the boy who built him that would send me running from the room in a seizure of melancholy, and one time, almost unspeakably grave, he came out of the house in the yard where I sat on my eighth birthday eating cake and gave me his zebra Beanie Baby, wrapped up as a present in his favorite hankie. He was four. His generosity, straight and true, provoked something in me different than the usual bite. Before we went to sleep that night, I gave the zebra back to him, and asked him to keep it safe. He nodded, and tucked it under his chin.
There is no trace of the speech impediment he once had when I talk to him now, but it’s been so long since we spoke. Even before he left, John and I didn’t really talk much. I feel guilty—I meant to send a care package or actually mail one of my letters—and yet, impossibly, it’s April. My tax refund comes in and I buy tickets to see his ship come to port in May, so I can give him the letters in person, and I tell myself that’s better. Also, thrillingly, I may be giving myself black eyes from my boyfriend’s shitty high school goggles but I’m doing it, I’m swimming twice a week, and after another few more lessons, it doesn’t matter if I can float or not, because if I don’t stop I don’t need to, and so I breaststroke for half an hour, a mile, an hour, more.
April is also when John’s orders change. I hear about it on the radio, listening to NPR and doing dishes with my screen door open to let in an early evening breeze; it’s such a mythically American scene I can’t quite believe it means anything to me until I hear Steve Inskeep say, again, my brother’s ship’s name.
When John called me four years ago to say he was joining the Navy, I was pouring water from my rain boot into the kitchen sink. I lived in Chicago then, performing in storytelling shows and working crappy jobs; he had dropped out of college. I sat on my bed in my wet clothes and listened to his reasons: the structure, the job training, the help with school. Growing up, recruitment was big in our area of Michigan, a used-to-be farm town not so far away from Detroit that the people who lived there didn’t suffer when GM went bust. It’s not all the usual rust-belt story: the area is working on an arts renaissance, and yet there I was, living in Chicago, soaked through my jeans because I had biked in the rain looking for both housing and jobs. I understood the need to get away, to restart. When I was 23, I quit my job and went to work on organic farms in Ireland. But John; he joined the U.S. military. The differences between these things felt impossible, and yet here my younger brother was calling me, telling me calmly, and after our parents, telling me first.
The distance between us is widening, and I cannot see across it. I skyped him a year ago while he walked with his dog and his wife down the street to a bodega; I watched him purchase and consume an enormous burrito. I’ve never visited him in his new home, in his new life. I can’t wait, I text my boyfriend, to swim with John in the ocean. But then, his orders changed, and now I’m going to the water alone. Since April, the Trump administration has been playing a game of incompetent chicken with my brother and the rest of his crew. John’s ship, once on its way home, is now heading in the wrong direction; he’s now floating in the Korean Peninsula, his return date unknown. He will miss the test he needed to enroll in a nursing program next fall; he will miss our youngest brother’s 90th major surgery for spina bifida. He misses his wife. I’m excited to see her, to spend time with someone who misses him as much, although differently, than I do. I think, if I ask, that she’ll swim at my side.
In class this semester, whenever I felt bored or furious, I wrote letters to him or diaries about swimming. The diary entries sit there now, left off in late March. The letters filter between them, remain unsent; the backside of one I unintentionally scribbled my to-do list. I feel embarrassed as I sit and write this, to admit that.
Beyond that half-hearted attempt to track the daily, there is fear: I am scared of how few memories of John I really have. There is the time he tried to buy me the portrait of Hank Williams painted on black velvet that hung on the wall of the bar near my apartment in Chicago, where he and some of his buds came to visit the weekend before he left for boot camp. When the bartender refused, John asked if I wanted him to steal it. Later, he slept next to me on top of the covers and in his coat. The time John carried Angel, my friend from high school, through the garage, into the kitchen, and down the basement stairs where he put a pan under her head so she could drunkenly puke if she wanted. Once, when our dad was in the hospital, we took out his canoe and snuck it across our hometown to the local lake. I was 18 and he was 14 and it was just the two of us, shaky with nerves, swim-less wonders with life jackets tossed on the canoe’s floor, busting out to play for just a little while. We found an island, covered in trash and condoms, but it still was a wonder to pull that boat ashore together. I remember that. And, submerged, a treasure: a memory of his impulse to know me, too. I remember my mom telling me, years ago, that John had confessed to reading through a box of my writings one afternoon, sitting in our dusty basement where he had been searching for something else. “I probably shouldn’t’ve,” he told her in his slow, grinning way, “but they were really good.”
The last time I messaged him on Facebook, I asked him how the ship’s crew took their new orders. John is generally pretty reticent, but he told me they were all frustrated. I asked him how he was doing. “I just want to get the hell home,” he replied. I know what he means when he says home, because it’s what I mean too: it’s not San Diego, and it’s not Iowa. It’s Michigan, the land of Great Lakes and sharkless pools. It’s where we are most often together. I imagine as I write; I close my eyes and lean forward. I can almost smell it. My brother and I kneel on the shoreline, looking for rocks and crayfish. The sun is high and bright, warm enough to swim. The water is close and clear.
* * *
Katie Prout is a writer, runner, and MFA candidate in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her work has been featured in LitHub, The Toast, Runner’s World, and elsewhere, and she has a forthcoming micro-chapbook with Ghost City Press, out in summer 2017.
Editor: Sari Botton