From The Biology of Drowning —
The usual sequence of events in a drowning is as follows: Upon submersion, the victim holds his breath until forced to inhale. He gulps water. The water induces spasms of the larynx, which closes the trachea to protect the lungs. Little water enters the lungs. With the trachea blocked by laryngospasms, no fresh air enters the lungs and the supply of oxygen begins to fail. Lack of Oxygen, anoxia, affects the brain within 30 seconds the laryngospasms begin to weaken with imminent brain failure. The victim then inhales again, this time aspirating water into the lungs before a fresh spasm closes the trachea again but for a shorter duration. With each successive inhalation, more water is aspirated; anoxia increases, and laryngospasm duration decreases until they are finally abolished and the lungs are filled with water.
In salt-water submersion the brine in the lungs acts through osmotic pressure to remove large amounts of water from the blood. In three minutes, experimental animals lose 40% of the normal water volume in their blood. This over concentration of blood can cause heart failure. Seawater chemicals pass quickly into the blood stream through the lungs disrupting normal fluid balances.
Death from submersion occurs quickly, often in two minutes or less, depending on the physical status of the victim and other factors. In many instances, victims removed from the water alive later die from the delayed effects of submersion.
It was as if they drowned again and again and again and they couldn’t speak to each other because words were strangled and the snapshots happened individually and I’m unsure they knew each other or if they did not but they spoke their stories.
Tom and Nadia saw their lives float around inside their minds and both two people saw different scenarios in three minutes as death from submersion occurred. Tom was the last person Nadia saw alive, Nadia the last person Tom saw.
I had those damn pink socks with cherries, you know, the ones that puff out and are made from cotton balls, dangling off the sides that sit on an ankle. I loved those socks and they fell off somewhere in the water. I saw a toucan fly up above, his black and yellow and orange body swaying side to side. What did it look like for him looking down on me; the trees and the valleys and the canopies of leaves? I wished at him, “Come scoop me before I step into the basement.”
I heard the yells from others and saw my mother, young and in a white dress with a black sash and her wide face and small eyes and glittery skin coming out of big clear balloon. She was twenty-nine when she died and alive now waving. I never wanted a child to know what it feels like to lose a mom when young. I thought of my daughter. All I wanted were my socks back and I would be fine. The rest of the world would slip away and it would be okay.
I clutched the tree branch and stared at my toes without a pedicure, the green and white water tiles, and I missed having the socks my daughter made. A tall man floated by me, on his back, and I thought he was dead like the others starting to cork up and I tried to paddle a little bit past him. Then he tilted his head up and grinned. There was a river around us. He touched my hand gripping the bark, and he said, “Hi there. Tom’s the name.” And that was when the current took us both.
I don’t know what they’ve told you about drowning, but it isn’t what you expect. It’s beautiful under there, and losing yourself makes you a rocket, candles and kerosine lamps, the sky. You’re a machine driving a stampede headed south to bottom, and back to clouds of dust. You keep turning and the bubble takes full responsibility for your being. In two minutes, “you’re bubbling” until there is a clearing and all of a sudden time’s wild and you’re a flying machine. To die is everything, because it means you made it so far. And everything I saw in those moments I remember were of Tom. I don’t think I knew him before, memories now bump and grind against stones until they shatter.
The only thing missing when I died were my pink socks with the cherries on the sides. I couldn’t find them even after leaving. I started crying; I was in a weird state. The water was running and he said, “My hair is wet.” I thought the wet hair might be from my tears. I started to sing that Neutral Milk Hotel song, “There’s some lives you live and some you leave behind; it gets hard to explain.” Tom stopped moving and started to sink, then pushed himself up again and I felt his feet moving and that’s how I felt his pauses and beginnings, and I stood up, stepped on something like a shag carpet, and walked to the wall, turned my palms against it until I found a switch, and pressed. I returned to him in light, past bright blue walls and the bathrobes tossed over a falling bar. The bathroom was small, a cupboard, black and white checkered floor, the tub, a sink, bidet (it surprised me). Not much inside the room. All those shades shined on the tub and Tom never looked so blue, young, and spongey. Someone painted the bidet green and I imagined who painted it, what she did for a living; who she was, if she used it after sex or had sex at all, where she was now, if she knew we were here. I didn’t think she would mind us in her tub. I whispered to Tom, “We are safe here.” The water dripped from the faucet and then it stopped running. I kept rambling, kept the hollow from spreading, “There’s a third perspective, hanging from the ceiling, looking at all of us and that perspective in the background is the real one and all of this is only a manifestation. That background is unadulterated and not mutilated and it sees all sides, something you or I can never do. I’m aware of it though. I know everything else, every other outlook, is treated with some sort of life equivalent of pesticides.”
Tom’s head rolled down to his scarred chest. I told him, “On the ship there was a kid named Weiss and she dressed like a boy. I taught her in the third grade and her mother invited me for dinner. It was the first time someone did that. And I don’t know…I was on her back porch and I thought about my life so far as a series of snapshots. I can’t explain more but it hit me hard. Anyway, I just sat there and sobbed for like four hours and that little girl didn’t do well with crying, but she let me keep going on her rocking chair. Her mother brought me tea and it was good because I snapped out of it and filed away another snapshot for the next time the tears came. I felt like each snapshot was an alias of another life I’d lived in a world that isn’t okay, that’s selfish and ready to gobble you up. The balance of navigating innocence and experience binds flesh to conscience.”
She was one gripped match extinguished and placed back in the box. It’s an unfortunate fact that she was my good friend who was in love with me, who I had sex with a handful of times, who has the best fashion sense I had ever seen, who was essentially my gay fashion consultant who wasn’t gay. Even now, or before the boat sank, she pulled off wearing tuxedos. I could only pull off wearing a tuxedo half the time myself.
There’s an old building made of bricks, and ivy on the far tower, and a garage where I lived with five other people, and it connected to a house, which was triple the size of my real childhood house, but it led to an underground tunnel to a casino, which was a bronze amorphous building with glass mosaics. Down the street was my dad’s house, which wound down into a sewer, which leads to Florida and Florida was a seedy motel with lots of bedrooms and no doors. I woke up inside one of the empty and hot bedrooms there and I looked at it like a town I lived in for years. I knew the stratified, wrapped disposable flatware, the bubbled wallpaper, the library discards upside down and spread wide open and backward tossed in a wood crate.
On the patio Nadia was asleep and I nudged her foot with my foot and she finally woke up too and said, “Tom, I love you,” and “I’m scared to talk to you.”
“Why?” Nadia draped herself over the couch and springs pushed through the velvet in the way a cup without a coaster makes a stain. I wanted an entire new world to come out of what I said to change where we were then, “Do you only feel in the summer on rainy days?” But it came out as a five dollar party conversation starter and Nadia moved as spacious as air in retrograde to a big bouquet of wilted flowers on the floor.
“Tom, why are these here?” This room suddenly had the charm a pink paradise motel offers and stood the most romantic place in the world and I wanted to jump her bad. It didn’t help I went to rehab seven times and her skin was the exact color of a perfect bourbon, a pure alcoholic’s pornography. I know it might not seem like that would provoke me, but if you go to alanon, you’ll get it.
I tried to grab her, but she floated away and I felt totally crazy and the palm trees fell back and forth in the wind and a gang of cacti cackled at the base and I really did feel like there were holes in my brain. I smelled medicinal floral, oranges, and lemon when she left and the motel was empty, completely empty, and I draped myself over the couch now, alone, totally alone, and I became a man laughing and laughed.
The boat sank and some stranger and I sat on the inflatable rubber raft, which ridged from the water in long yellow spaghetti noodle shapes.
“Nadia…I’m..my name…” Nadia’s tongue slid from the terrace of her lower jaw in a spoiled cream color, and she shivered. The boat fought wind parallel to shore far enough away I felt scared for us but really for her.
“I’m Tom. Your legs…?” Her body was primed Russian linen crumpling and she was dying and I said nothing more about that. “I’m here. Stay here.” Water lapped up and on us. With tipped fingers pressed into red brick I touched Nadia’s cold wet cheeks.
“It isn’t alive…hot hell…as thick a guilty conscience…a modern honeymoon…I’m coming.” Eyes widened, eyes narrowed; stalling; I caught parts of her mutter. I watched her; the figure of a girl who would have left a seat up in the public restroom. Maybe because of her afflictions—spindled hair, infected arms, wart covered knees. We held hands on the yellow floor. I didn’t feel any less afraid.
A circle of mist and god and fog kissed her into a sheet of white paper and I didn’t stop holding her fingers until her hands broke loose and the nails flicked around like there were too many yellow jackets and she closed a door to our world.
We were both on the bridge over Kariba dam at age thirteen speculating about future days. We snuck past the bronzed snake with an open mouth and stone bottom that stands twenty meters from the metal fence, past the brush, and with those huge pliers, opened up an entrance. The walk across brought us closer to water, the wailing of floods pouring out from one side to the other, and the kisses we did that night. The next day of holiday our parents grounded us and, I saw you two years later at age fifteen drinking poppy sodas, shaken up with trembling hands, the closest you got to opium. We started to yell, ready to talk and defend.
And then it was after the miscarriage and you wrote a poem and I didn’t know what to do except stuff my fist in my mouth to cry. You wrote, Another bloodless moon and genes anchored to you alone, and left the yellow Post-It on my pillow. How would you have responded if you knew how hard I cried? I bet you would have told me the next line of poetry, imagined by me, but probably true. Our bodies disappoint us.
I saw you. Beautiful dinner plate eyes, blue and yellow discs, revving and ticking ready to swallow the sky. I saw you. And, I forgave you.
They floated atop a life vest.
“I want to breathe again, Tom. Tom, I want to breathe again. Loops on loops, we’re more neutral than anything.”
“Jesus Christ, Nadia.”
“It’s like life is such a fish. You hit bigger fish and gobble smaller fish and hit coral and plastic for eternity until you die from the sea-coaster.”
“There’s an expanding river. We’ll sit on it and it’ll be bliss. There are black holes I want to show you in the center of cities, places and spaces perfect for us. Anything and everything happens inside there. It’s special, like you and me.”
Ashamed, Thomas didn’t know protocol for Nadia’s breakdown following the sinking. Foldable, movable, and lightweight, Nadia could be a lawn chair. “Tom, put me down.”
“I can’t Nadia. We need to get to shore.” The XXXL life vest protects them.
“I just wonder about it all the time—life and nature and growing and dying and growing and plants. There is nothing I think about more than how much I would like to be a garden. I just want to bloom flowers and grow grass, maybe let someone eat my bark. Drink rainwater through roots. Blossom.”
With river around them, completely vulnerable, Tom imagines being a water plant at night with wind ripping his roots from sandy bottoms. The morning of the next day Thomas and Nadia meet the planet’s heart, inaccessible unless drowned.
Rose Pacult is the author of Knowing Zasd by His Walk VOL I-III (Dokument Press) and the poetry collections Bending (Juste Ici) and Lifter + Lighter (Hasau Mountain). She currently lives in Chicago and is artist in residence at No Nation Gallery.