“There’s only one song, and Adam and Eve wrote it; the rest is a variation on a theme.” – Keith Richards (McPherson, Ian. “Jagger/Richards: Songwriters”. http://www.timeisonourside.com/songwriting.html)
I’ve been thinking about relationships. There are many topics for writers to choose from, but love is the one we come back to over and over for inspiration, for affirmation, for stories to tell. Love makes the world go ’round. All you need is love. But as Shakespeare warns us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth”.
What happens to those of us needing love but terrified of the risks involved? How do we get what we need without giving up control? I created a female chef named Judy Diver, who stays in any relationship until the moment her partner says those three little words… and then she’s gone. As long as no one says “I love you”, things go on as usual. Until one day, when she drives out to meet Steve at a crowded city park on her day off…
Judy reached the wading pool. Parents young and old dangled tiny children by their waists down into the shallow water. Other adults lurched, strangely hunched from the back. She walked past and saw the tiny people gripping index fingers and attempting the great walk of the upright, little feet between those of their parents, everybody’s legs sloshing happily through the water. At least 70 children had to be crowding into the pool: the surface was a dazzling panorama of tender sunbonnets in every possible color and configuration of flowers and cartoon characters.
Finally she found Steve. He’d been waving at her for some minutes to get her attention. Judy waved back. He’d laid a large brown blanket on the grassy verge at the edge of the lake. Tree shade just covered half of the blanket.
The park lawns were filled with bodies seeking the heat like winter creatures coming out of a long hard hibernation, but everyone was in a good mood. A family had claimed the next section of grass. The mother determinedly lay on her stomach with her breasts nestled in a pillow and her chin propped on the backs of her hands. Her entire concentration was focused on a popular paper back mystery opened on the blanket in front of her.
Her husband was left to supervise their children. A boy sat just above the water by two little girls in matching lime green swimsuits. The sisters bobbed inside bright orange life rings as they played in the lake. Their father was propped on his left elbow, leaving his right hand free for the beer hidden in a stubby can cooler. “Keep to where I can see you,” he ordered, but he wasn’t too concerned. He was sure they would be in less danger of getting drowned than they were in of being trampled. “If you go in deeper, you don’t go in without the life rings!” Okays drifted up the lawn towards him and all three turned back to their games.
“You wouldn’t believe the road traffic!” Judy gave Steve a hug and set down the food she’d carried halfway around the lake looking for him.
“You wouldn’t believe the traffic here on the lake front.” Steve yawned loudly and stretched back out on the blanket. Judy nudged him with her foot as she unpacked the lunch. “Hey. Don’t go to sleep on me, I just got here.”
“No chance of falling asleep with this racket,” Steve assured her. It was true: the water out in the deeper part of the lake was filled with people swimming or floating on air mattresses, while closer to the shore line a hundred small children laughed and splashed and shrieked. They made a joyous sounding, truly loud racket.
It fit the afternoon though, the languid mood of summer time when shadows move slowly across park lawns and picnic blankets. A slight breeze riffled the water into little waves; each one would send small children shrieking excited back out of reach for a second or two. On blankets and towels all around them people turned on their sides like sunflowers following the rays of the sun, or curled like large sleeping cats. The mother remained absorbed in her paperback mystery. Her husband’s head lolled where he’d fallen asleep still propped on his side.
Steve and Judy played Old Maid, and Judy kept winning. She’d figured out a system for cheating as a child, and couldn’t stop laughing as Steve became more and more frustrated with each hand he lost. “Just one more round!” he kept insisting.
A low, insistent shriek broke Steve’s concentration. It was similar to the piercing sounds made all afternoon by the lungs of the small children who filled the park. This one sounded different, though, a wail preceding the announcement of a disaster.
He dropped his hand of cards and the blanket bunched as he jumped up. Steve got to the water just as the little boy lost the life ring he’d pulled away from his sister. The little girl gurgled and vanished under the surface. Out in the water the bright orange ring bobbed, now empty. The little boy stood up to his neck in the lake shrieking. The ring floated further out and away. His other sister began to scream; only she and Steve had seen what had happened.
Their voices were drowned under the hundreds of other shrieking, laughing children, tinny radio music and the baseball game being broadcasted on a loud speaker, all the chatter of a hot summer afternoon on a waterfront in a city park.
Steve ran into the lake. He swam in the direction of the floating life ring, hoping the little girl had sunk somewhere in the general vicinity. When he reached what he thought was the point where she’d gone under, he began to dive.
Visibility was murky under the surface. He swam with outstretched hands and eyes searching desperately for signs of a body. Something kicked him hard in the cheek, and Steve resurfaced choking. The small child snug in his life vest simply paddled on past Steve in the water and flailed with skinny arms; he hadn’t even noticed the adult under the surface. Steve gasped in more air and dove again.
This time he was luckier and spotted a lime green object wafting in the under current. Steve grabbed her by the first part he could clutch, which was her shoulder strap. He swam back to the surface with strong strokes. Steve pulled the child’s head into the crook of his arm and made his way back to the shore.
When he emerged from the lake everything sounded far away at first, as though God had pressed a button and the world had been put on mute. With a rush his hearing returned, and the sensation of his own raspy breathing. He felt the water running off of his clothes as he lay the child on the grass and felt for a pulse. She lay as limp as a deboned fish.
Steve pumped her chest and turned her body onto the side. The lake water she’d swallowed came up in a sudden gush, and the child began to cough. Steve let out a high laugh with a feeling of exhilaration: she was alive after all. She arched her back to take in new breaths of the air. As she breathed in Steve felt his vision come tunneling back, whistling in with her new air. Her lungs expanded and compressed, and the colors of the world dimmed and glowed brighter along the ragged edges of each one of her breaths. The multiple layers of colors in the kites flying overhead, the fluttering sound they made in the suddenly windy afternoon, the breeze creating gooseflesh over his entire body, and the shadows flying back and forth over the edge of the water were almost unbearable.
Nobody except Judy witnessed the rescue. There was simply too much other activity in the lake and on the shoreline. The child’s parents listened in dozy incomprehension as the girl’s little sister and brother hysterically tried to explain where she’d gone. Incomprehension turned to puzzlement, and to horror. They scanned the lake surface, frantic by the time they finally spotted Steve resuscitating their daughter. They rushed over, the father’s eyes spilling with tears even though he could see she was going to be fine.
“She’s alive? How could I have? What sort of parent? In just a matter of seconds?” He spoke in fractures, unfinished questions, knowing there could be no answer to the enormity of the monstrous disaster that had almost happened. His muscles shivered in hard spasms, matching Steve’s.
Steve had begun to shake so hard that he had to sit down abruptly, almost falling on the child as she tried to sit up. The father grabbed Steve by the arm and helped him sit while he pumped his hand over and over, a wordless thank you. Everyone except Judy was crying.