Pull Me Back
Isaiah Frost Rivera
Under the crinkle-cut fried sunlight, she stares across the community pool. She licks the mint-green goop melting down her ice cream cone while braver children dive in, heads dipped and legs flailing akimbo, as the chlorinated beast opens its mouth and swallows them whole.
Not her. She is six years old, knock-kneed, and terrified at the edge of the pool’s ravenous rim. The only one still dry in the face of such magnificent wetness – minus the ice cream crawling down her hand, and the warm vines of sweat trickling their way across her scalp, her neck, whispering temptation into her ear – and she plans to keep it that way. She knows what awaits in those neon depths.
Sick; her grandmother was so sick to think she’d want to be sucked up by those waters like the rest of these bozos. Look at these clowns, complete with white makeup, rainbow afros, mouths painted cherry cola red – the pool isn’t blue now, it’s spitty-purple, like Barney’s bathwater, or the bruises left when the edge of the belt buckle hits you instead of the leather.
Trepidation grips her throat. The sun frizzles her back. She tries to dip a sandaled toe in the water and it hisses. She jumps back, nearly dropping – but steady now, just in time, crisis averted – the still-wet, always-melting mint-chocolate chip ice cream scoop she can’t bear to finish, for fear of brain freeze; she could never surpass that teeth-chattering blizzard in her brain. She could surpass no deep-cold, in fact, no vicious flurry of snow, not even the kind contained in a snowglobe – shatter the dang thing! – no, she is a summer girl, always has been: piercing sun, short-sleeves, and open water; fluidwater, to be sure. None of that frozen junk. Who in the history of ever liked ice skating anyway? Not that she liked liquid any better, but at least it made its intention clear. In the dark face of a frozen pond, all she saw was death; the cold clutch of the Grim Reaper pulling her down, yanking her limbs, her hair, cooling her blood to a motionless pitch.
She gives her cone a leery lick. Yes, summer. She looks up. French fried sun rays refract in her glasses and stun her. Some boys nearby splash each other. A few razor-edged droplets land on her ankle – HISSSSSS – and she leaps, a tight grip on her ice cream cone this time, to be sure.
Ugh! What a bunch of stupid, wet clowns.
The sky darkens as powdery clouds pass over the sun. Her stomach churns. She wants to lick that never-ending drip of an ice cream cone, but it’s too cold for that – snowdrift piles on the cheap lounge chairs – boys shiver as blue-lipped mothers huddle in the shallow end, clutching their infants – well, she definitely can’t go in the water now, it’s the middle of winter; she has pneumonia, whooping cough, and a throat so dry she could swallow that entire hissing pool in one gulp, clowns and all. Her grandmother is rubbing her back as she leans over and coughs and coughs – my gosh will it ever stop? – her chest caving in, the barrettes in her braids clacking against her skull – “See what happens when you don’t listen, little girl?” – the sky melting grey and white in her window as she weeps.
She licks her lips, mint-sticky, she is pool-side yet again…bunch of clowns splashing about; are they slow or what? Can’t they see this watery bruise for what it is?
At the deep end, her eyes pinpoint the top of a head through the frenetic choreography of splashing arms and flying pool noodles. There is a young boy, almost completely concealed by that liquid booby trap. He isn’t laughing like everyone else. Maybe he’s as sceptical as she is.
She watches the brown nub of him bob up and down. Water hovers around his mouth.
What is he doing? Is he hiding?—
Absolutely not, you cannot hide there, her older cousin Darius had said, fog blowing from his lying mouth as he shook her shoulders and pointed up towards the pool deck.
Come on, Darius! Loni had whispered, yanking his snow pants suspenders. Behind the shed!
Ready or not, she heard Porscha holler from the front yard. Perry finished: Here we come!
She heard the two of them rushing towards the backyard, snow crunching under their boots. Darius whispered a swear – ooh, she couldn’t wait to tell Nana he said the S-word!
She couldn’t take her eyes away from the verboten staircase.
Don’t, he repeated to her as Loni tugged him away. Seriously, it’s not allowed.
It was just her now.
Time to move – Pff! What does he know – climbing up the deck stairs, yapping as if he were a grown-up; he only just turned 10! – crawling across the iced-over tarp like a secret agent – Found you! Porscha and Perry screamed by the shed. Loni shrieked; another swear from Darius (ooh, more ammo!) – Ha, I am the master of hide-and-seek! – flattening her body to match the frozen curvature of the pool – a genius plan, no one’ll find me here—
Okay, olly olly oxen-free!
Snap! Bad plan, terrible plan. She had to think fast. They couldn’t discover her shameful hiding spot, or they’d tell Nana! Okay, she just had to breathe soft, be still – as still as that boy across the water, who, as far as she can see, despite all that’s happening around him, hasn’t moved…
An ice sheet shatters. She shudders. Goosebumps dash along her arm; another lick of that gosh dang ice cream cone she’ll never finish because she hates the cold – stupid, stupid idea to ask for mint chocolate chip, the coldest of flavours; stupid to ask for any ice cream to begin with, but Nana did offer, and Mommy always said it was rude not to accept when adults offered you food – but why couldn’t Nana offer a lemonade (ice-free), or a hot dog, anything besides an ice cream cone? Ah!, but none of that backtalk, Mommy would say with a stern hand on her shoulder, especially not with Nana, or else you’ll get popped by the both of us and you won’t be able to visit anymore.
Her overzealous tongue scrapes the side of her palm as it quivers. Who said I wanted to visit anyways? she wishes she could say. In fact, if she could avoid a slap to the mouth, she’d proudly declare her desire to never lay eyes on her Nana’s house again, the overwhelming sight of it; drab window panes glaring her down, the roof a flaring nose, and below that, the front yard’s stone path twisting like a tongue leading into the mouth of the beast. Or perhaps that was the tail; the real monster was in the backyard. And like any successful monster, it concealed itself well, until she ultimately succumbed to its bubbling violence. Ugh, and how cowardly she had fumbled. No, that’s not the word for it. It was really more of a flailing – a scratching, she remembers, when she had fallen through the ice her hand was scratching the air the way a falling cat’s limbs scatter like Jenga pieces. Yes, she remembers all too well, scratching and tearing at the edges of the tarp, splashing about, her gloves darkening, but she couldn’t get out, only went deeper in the water. No, ‘water’ isn’t the word, it was nothing like water – dark-green unholiness, leafy and full of dirt. Ice cold. She remembers gasping, but it was really more like a whimper, a guttural sound from her throat she could never properly recollect. Oh, but she would never forget the sound, the way it rippled through her, nor that gut-punch of terror as the tarp snapped and she sunk to that second layer of water, the kind that was harder to get out of, her boots tangling with the tarp, her clothes like a heavy sponge absorbing her life-force, dragging her deeper and deeper—
“Aye!” She jumps as a woman in a nearby lounge chair sticks her arm out towards the water and motions over a child crying in the shallow end. “Come here, Hyper-Activity. You see?” She turns to her friend, who sticks out her lower lip in sympathy. “I knew he was gonna fall soon as he stepped in.”
The young boy waddles over gasping, arms scarecrow-stiff and stuck out in his floaties.
“Come on,” she patronises. “Show Mommy where you fell.”
He looks at her and releases a blaring, drawn-out sob.
“I know baby, I know.” She twists off his floaties. “This is why Mommy said not to run, remember? Couldn’t help yourself—
—could you? Just couldn’t help yo’self.” Nana, indifferent to her desperate sobbing, tore her soaking clothes off piece by piece in the bathroom and tossed them into a basin.
“What I tell y’all about playing on that deck, ah?”
She tried to respond but her weeping was relentless.
“Ah?!” Her grandmother pulled her chin up. “Look at me when I speak to you.”
Through her tears, her grandmother took on the shape of a watery ghoul. She cried harder.
“Alright, stop crying little girl.” She wrapped a towel around her foolish granddaughter and sighed. “You’re safe now.”
But she couldn’t stop. Her sobs wouldn’t permit it. Her body trembled with an unbearable chill, her skin still stinging from the ice and the water and the stares, oh, how all of her cousins just stared—
—“Sweetheart, didn’t anybody teach you it’s rude to stare?” The woman smiles stiffly in her direction, holding her crying son, stripped of his floaties now.
She blinks; she hadn’t realised how hard she’d been watching. Shame splashes her face as she turns back towards the pool, spots the same strange boy, takes a vicious bite out of her cone-
Brain freeze! What a silly thing to do – the snowman fist to her brain sends her back on the edge of that pool deck, struggling to grip anything, scraping her nails into the fuzzy deck carpet so hard it shredded. She could feel it all: her clinging wet clothes, the red, raw survival welling in her chest, her cousins’ eyes, their unspoken ‘See-I-told-you-so’s collecting atop her skin like snow until she became a giant snowball, ready to be thrown into a black hole, never to return. All this fresh in her eye now; no more pool or crying sons or the still boy in the distance, no mustardy sun marring her perspective – nothing now but this feral moment where, fresh off the instinct of her split-second flight, she stormed down the deck stairs and approached her cousins, the air between them pulsing, pregnant with rage; this flash of a moment in which, had her grandmother not charged out of the house after hearing the commotion, she would have grabbed each of them by the hair and tugged them into that (dare she say it?) that damn pool herself, dunked them into her new home (the ice princess she had become!), and laughed as they struggled in the depths just like she had when she fell in; the frozen-over (though not frozen enough) pool she had been told over and over not to play near, which beckoned her like a creepy uncle at the cookout pulling her in for a hug she didn’t want; as she tried to grab hold of anything, anything, but no, the water just wouldn’t let her go. She had stumbled onto Death itself, right into its strangely warm embrace, so calming in fact that, for just a brief moment which she would never be able to speak of aloud, not at this age, she almost considered letting it take her all the way under—
She gasps. The furious fog slithers from her eyes. She remains at the edge of the community pool, clenching her cone – Lady Liberty, melted torch in hand.
Again, her gaze focuses on the strange, quiet boy at the pool’s end.
Something about him has her spellbound. He has remained motionless in the same spot as when she first saw him, only his head is lower now. He gently spits up bubbles.
She watches his eyes glaze over and begin to close.
(She remembers the wide-eyed fire in her own eyes that winter…)
His head sinks; a terrible gush, then a wide ripple.
What a clown.
She is six years old. Her life is so embryonic, it would feel disingenuous to say it has even begun yet. All she knows of drowning is its motion: the clawing, the screams for help, the terror. She’d recognise it anywhere; you never forget that kind of fear.
She doesn’t yet know Fear’s love-affair with Death, how easily it melts to pieces in Death’s playful arms; nor does she particularly know Death itself, its true power, once it has managed to slither its way into your lungs, as your adrenaline gives way to a smothering sense of calm and your body relinquishes its drive to survive, allowing itself to be lulled to sleep by Death’s unmistakable voice resounding through you, even in its tremulous whisper.
She faces off against the pool, bouncing with the distinct juvenile resilience every child possesses in their marrow. Even as she stands petrified, the remnants of that winter day echoing still, she knows that she has the capacity to live, to claw her way out of that clown pit. Yes, she has convinced herself now! She is the Summer Ice Princess, all fireball and frostbite; hers is a flame that can melt any frozen pond and make it her pet.
Poor thing. She thinks she’s figured it all out.
Around her, life continues without a blip. The clouds part and greasy gold sunlight pours through. A ghoulish stereo plays an old-school hip-hop song: I can’t believe, today was a good day… Children splash about. Mothers chide. Fathers sigh. Each of them remains unaware that Death has stopped by for a swim with an unattended young boy. Including her, the unwitting eyewitness to its charms.
A weary father returns to the pool from a much-needed smoke break. He wipes a tattooed hand across his mouth.
He cannot find his son for the life of him.
Last he saw of the pipsqueak, he was flexing. “Daddy look, I’m a big boy!” he squealed, hopping up and down in his new trunks with his teeth bared and chest puffed out. “Just like you!”
“Alright tough guy,” he laughed. “Wait here, Dad’s gonna step out for a second.”
Funny kid – nothing like his headache of a baby mama, always going on about how if he was going to be a father, at some point he had to grow up, quit making things harder for himself, be the man his own father (not for lack of trying) couldn’t be. In truth, as a teen he’d been full of fire, fighting demons only he could see. If anyone had the right to tear him a new one, it was her.
But after his last stint, he was finally getting his shit together: working two jobs (on the books, thanks), making strides in therapy, reading his bell hooks. And it had taken him years, though it didn’t feel that way. Prison warps everything, including time. One second you’re a punk ass kid with fury in his blood, the next you’re a grown ass man with a fresh infant to raise.
Sometimes, he felt like he was raising two kids: the ball of folly he and his girlfriend made, pure joy, and the vulnerable child deep inside himself, tugging his heart’s sleeve, demanding his attention at all times after years of being neglected.
Sometimes, he didn’t have enough energy for the both of them.
But today, he had decided, his miracle of a son would come first.
If he could just find the kid.
He peers across the water, remembering, with pride, their walk to the pool earlier today. His son kept running ahead of him, excitement jolting through his body faster than his little legs could handle. He kept going on and on about how much he loved the water, how he was so brave he wouldn’t even need to wear his vest when he finally jumped in…
Something dreadful clicks in his head.
He lurches forward.
In the corner of her eye, a man rushes past so furiously he bumps an umbrella over. Parents and kids begin to turn towards him, confused by the commotion.
She doesn’t hear any of it. Sound has stopped around her. The water comes to a freezing halt.
It’s just her and the pool now.
She slides her feet out of her sandals, takes a deep breath, and steps forth. Instead of a hiss, the water lets out a resigned groan.
See? Death can’t touch her!
She smiles, licks her hand greedily, but she has finished the cone.
There is no ice cream left for her.
Isaiah Frost Rivera is a queer Afro-Puerto Rican thinker, maker, and scholar. Staten Island is his home. To read more of his work, visit his WordPress blog: The Poetic Xenolith.