“It’s okay, baby. I’ll catch you,” he says.
I can barely hear him over the echo of laughter, the patter of wet feet on cement. The sun hangs, bright and burning, in the chlorine-scented air. I pick at the pink frills of my bathing suit, readjust my purple goggles. One of the big kids runs by the lifeguard’s chair and leaps, leaving a splash and a sharp whistle in his wake.
“You can do it,” Dad coaxes, in the same voice he uses to calm a panicked animal. “Jump.”
My heart pounds. I’m afraid, not of the water itself or even that he will drop me. I’m afraid of opening my eyes and finding myself in another world, one without oxygen, floating in refracted light.
I jump anyway, forgetting to hold my breath.
Water splashes around us, cold and smelling strongly of chemicals. He lowers me slowly into it, calloused hands under my thin arms, smiling.
“That’s my brave girl.”
Our backyard fills with squeals. My little body is hot and golden in the sun as I propel myself skyward on our secondhand trampoline. Underneath me, a sprinkler shoots streams of deliciously cool water through the thin membrane. I fling droplets as I leap into the summer air, trying to reach the sky.
Dad sits in the shade, reading. A bee shuffles around the rim of his lemonade glass and he shoos it away.
“Watch me!” I yell. I leap, touch my toes in midair, and land clumsily on my side, shooting off into the safety netting around the edge of the trampoline. I rise, unfazed, hair and eyelashes dripping.
“Good job, baby girl,” Dad says. Drops of water fill the square holes in the netting like stained glass, obscuring him in tiny rainbows. He’s distorted enough that his grin looks like a frown through the curtain of liquid and netting hanging between us.
I begin my favorite game. I am a lion, down on all fours, crawling and bouncing through the spray of the sprinkler, which is now rain on the savanna. I roar mightily.
Dad watches for a moment, all but forgotten, and returns to his book.
The life vest clenches tightly across my chest. My legs stretch out uselessly in front of me, bare feet dipped in the lake water collecting in the front of the kayak.
“Don’t worry,” Dad says when I ask about the water. “It’s not a leak.”
His kayak is green and mine is orange. They’re the same size, but his looks significantly smaller with his long legs folded awkwardly into it. He paddles easily, confidently, and teases me while I spin in circles in the middle of the lake.
It’s more of a pond than a lake, really, rainwater and snowmelt cupped gently in the hands of the mountains. It sits surrounded by needle-thin pines, tall grasses, and raspberry bushes. Moss and algae float heavily on it’s surface. Here and there, fish break through in search of insects.
“Race you to the dock!” Dad shouts.
“No fair,” I cry out after him, wobbling as I try to find the right rhythm with my paddle. He’s nearly there by the time I’ve gotten myself to stop spinning.
Left, right, left, right. I mimic his movements clumsily, and my kayak inches forward in a meandering line. I can hear him laughing at me long before I reach the dock.
“Shut up,” I mutter, and he only laughs harder.
I reach my paddle deep into the water, collecting a long strand of moss, and fling it at him.
He stops laughing, moss sitting gloriously atop his head like a crown, dripping on his face. For a moment I’m afraid I’ve gone too far.
“That’s it,” he snarls, and with one swift movement of his paddle I’m drenched in a wave of lake water and algae.
We dissolve into hysterics, his laugh big and bright, mine high and tuneful. The lake ripples and the little valley echoes with joy.
I sit on the front steps of our house, the concrete warm beneath my legs. Rain tumbles from the sky in slow, fat droplets, only slightly cooler than the heat of the summer air.
Eyes closed, I let the water fall on my face, wrap its fingers through my hair, run in rivulets down my cheeks.
I’ve promised myself not to cry, not over a vapid teenage crush. He certainly isn’t worth my tears, but I’m grateful that the sky cries them for me.
The door opens behind me. I tense but do not move, don't even open my eyes. He sits down next to me on the steps in the rain. He doesn’t know the boy’s name, didn’t even know there was a boy.
We sit together in the cleansing rain and think of the things we are missing, the holes within us that the rain can’t reach.
“Tell me about Mom,” I whisper.
And for the first time, he does, in a voice as low and soft as the murmur of rain on the grass. We cry together then, our tears mingling with the last of the summer deluge.
I sometimes dream about her, floating face down with her hair splayed out in the sunlight like a flower. In the dream, I’m always suspended in the water beneath her, so that her face is too dark to see clearly against the brilliant light dancing around her in the ripples.
I wonder if Dad dreams about her, too, her lifeless limbs wrapped up in waves. I wonder why he still loves the thing that stole her from us, why he has taught me to love it, too. Perhaps he hopes like I do that the water remembers her, holds her close to my skin because it knows she was mine.
“Leave me alone!” I scream through the locked door. I hear him walk away, his footsteps heavy and helpless.
The letter flutters from my hand to rest by my feet. My eyes swim and blur the words written there, the words that shattered me.
We regret to inform you that we cannot offer you admission...
We appreciate your interest...
So many fine applicants...
He will tell me what I do not want to hear. There are other colleges, other programs. It will work out. I don’t have to attend Mom’s alma mater, even though I dreamed about it for years. In time, I know I will tell myself this, too, and life will go on.
For now, I crumple into myself and let the disappointment drag me under, out into the sea of self-doubt.
I do not know how long I wallow in grief for the future I’d envisioned. When I do emerge, he hugs me and offers a sympathetic smile. Outside, snowflakes cling to the window, melting against the vague warmth of the glass.
We walk slowly through the sand, my arm linked through his. The golden light reminds me how precious these moments are, how little we see one another now, since I moved across the country for school.
Up ahead, a cluster of friends and distant family gathers on the beach to celebrate my college graduation. I lock eyes with the second half of my soul, standing at the edge of the crowd. We share a secret smile.
“I like him,” Dad says.
“Me too, just a little,” I joke.
As we get closer, I realize that everyone is watching. Then I realize that the second half of me has fallen to one knee, holding out a ring that shines like dew in the sunset. I don’t hear what he asks me over the sudden crash of waves in my heart.
I say yes, and the ocean gleams a little brighter.
Dad beams down at his newborn granddaughter, her tiny feet wriggling in the soapy bath. She watches him, her big eyes filled with contented mysteries. Between them passes a depth of love I’ve only begun to fathom.
“I’m so proud of you,” he whispers.
I am proud, too. Proud of my little family, of the man I married, of the life we’re building together. Mostly I’m proud of the way my daughter’s fingers curl around mine.
I hug my father tightly, and think of the oceans that fill us, the water and memories that hurt and heal in equal measure.
Tears of joy fall into my daughter’s bath. She croons at us, raising a fist. A single droplet clings to her hand. My whole world is collected there, shimmering in the sunlight on the tip of her fingers.