When I was little I’d swim deep into the deepest part of our swimming pool. I'd burst to the surface when I couldn’t hold a breath in my tiny little lungs anymore. I’d emerge gasping, eyes blinking, scaring my mom every single time. My eyes would blind with darkness only from the pressure building up. I felt the tiniest of disconnects during these deep dives which I indulged myself in often.
The panic my mother would emit at my sopping wet face felt like a challenge. I loved to see how far I could push my mother's attention to my safety even when I knew I was in complete control. I’d giggle, brushing the bleachy chlorinated water that stung my eyes off of my face.
“Did you see how deep I went momma?”
“Maura Lee! You can’t scare your mother like that!”
The swimming pool in our family's backyard is the reason my daddy enrolled me in swim lessons so early as a girl. I could breathe under water better than anyone else in my class. It was this feat that made my daddy so proud of me.
Daddy said, “Maura, you have to learn how to swim. If you fall in the deep end, no one will hear your shouts from under water. It’ll sound like a dull roar at best, little pup.”
I loved when he called me pup in his low register voice. I remember Mrs. Oldes from next door wondering aloud one day to Daddy, “Paul, why do you call that girl of yours pup?”
Daddy would chuckle, “Maura has the heart of a golden retriever. She’s loyal and follows me around like a sweet pup would. We should all be so lucky to have a pup like her.”
Months after the divorce momma told me that the parties weren't what we thought they were. Momma made sure she got the house and the pool in the divorce. Come to find out daddy had motives for turning me into a good swimmer, one of which was keeping me occupied. My swimming into the deep end was the perfect distraction to allow my daddy to flirt with other women at the party.
Underneath the water the humming of bodies moved by me in a fluttery rapid motion. Everything seemed slower when watching it from underneath the water. The hustle and bustle of guests. They'd walk by the edge of the pool and linger under the misters chatting. The sound of the ice from their cocktail glasses sounded more like a rumble than a clink from under the water.
Most of the guests wore bright colored polo shirts and fun patterned dresses. Greg and Darlene were always at our parties. They stood out in wardrobe and in personality. They dressed themselves from head to toe in all black. The Grants were the epitome of nice neighbors. They gave off the impression that they were standoffish in their black clothes. They were actually quite the opposite. They were everyone's favorite neighbors and extended help to anyone that needed it.
Darlene was gorgeous in her strappy patent leather gladiator sandals. They braided up the back of her olive colored calves. Her onyx, body hugging cocktail dress did not pass the finger test as it hit the middle of her thigh. Greg wore slim cut black denim and a deep v neck black cotton shirt. Rock n’roll star might’ve applied to his appearance if he wasn’t actually a computer coder. The Grants adhered to no dress code other than their very own. They stood out in their dark presence. Like a black hole, most of us gravitated toward them even though we didn't mean to.
I always thought it was weird when couples matched their clothes. I saw a TV show once where the main couple dressed in matching clothes. They were odd in behavior, and even more strange was their salt and pepper shaker collection. Greg and Darlene were the sort of folks who had no such collection. They exuded cool, chic energy that screamed, “Come here, you know you want to talk to us.”
Greg, despite his dark outward appearance made it a point to stop by the edge of the pool before leaving every party. He’d squat low, arms braced on the tops of his thighs waiting for me to broach the surface of the water.
“Don’t forget to breathe pup.”
Greg would wink, and boop my nose while borrowing my daddy's nickname for me. It didn’t matter that I was ten and should be exempt from such silly gestures. The booping of my nose was endearing.
It was easy to hear conversations around us, and see what was happening before us in our conscious state . Mrs. Oldes stayed in the lounger by the pool eating nothing but green olives from her martini. We could all see the juices of the gin soaked olives dripping down her wrinkled hands. I loved hearing Gerald from the cul de sac speak about his gangrene foot. The way he shouted about "the damn liberals ruining the country," always made me laugh. The details were all there before us.
I know that I was awake when I saw daddy slide his fingers up the back of Darlene’s legs. I watched as his tanned hands moved over the black fabric covered curve of her backside. The pressure in my chest squeezed so tight I was immobile. When I was little momma taught me that my body would tell me when something wasn’t right. That I would get a feeling in my belly or a warmth covering my face into my ears, telling me to get help. I knew I was awake, but I prayed the over chlorinated pool had gotten to my head. My daddy, who called me pup and loved my golden retriever energy was cheating right in front of me.
The house with the pool wasn’t the only thing my momma kept in the divorce. She also kept up the neighborhood parties, out of spite. Bev was a woman scorned and she intended to continue with some semblance of normalcy for the both of us.
“Listen Maura, we’re not going to let the consequences of your daddy’s choices and secrets ruin our lives. We won’t live in the dark because he tried to take our light.”
Greg still frequented these parties that my momma insisted on hosting. I pondered why he was still so nice to me and momma when it was my daddy that stole his wife Darlene away. At the end of every party he’d find me in the pool and remind me to breathe. He still called me pup, and it felt different. What once before felt like a sweet gesture, now caused an acidic bile in my throat. I wanted my daddy to call me pup, and no one else.
My momma married Greg not even six months after the divorce papers had ink on them. Greg had all the characteristics of a charming man. Good manners, regular eye contact, validating of others feelings, and respectful of everyone. My momma and I included. He eased into our family without much disrupt.
With daddy gone it felt harder and harder to breathe. I would swim every day, as a type of therapy. Challenging myself to go deeper in the pool until I felt paralyzed by the crushing weight of the water. At night I began to sleep less and less until my momma became so worried she took me to the doctor.
“Maura it’s not uncommon for people your age to start exhibiting sleep troubles. Kids your age can have bouts of sleep paralysis after enduring stressful life events.”
The divorce, that must have been it.
My momma didn’t like that my very big sleep disturbance was all because of my daddy and his straying ways. The doctor insisted I would grow out of this, and that I needed time to learn how to process my feelings better. I was so terrified that being unable to move and speak was me repeating what I saw. That day I saw my daddy put his hands on another woman that wasn't momma.
Our parties were the same. I’d spend the day swimming and watching the partygoers, while my momma mingled and clung to Greg. His eyes always found mine like a gravitational pull syncing up among the crowd of busy bodies. Greg would smile and nod at me, while cheersing his glass in the air. It was easy to spot him in his trademark black clothing. My momma tried real hard to shake Greg of this type of attire with no luck. At least momma had found solace in Greg, even if it did mean my daddy didn't live with us anymore.
After a party, I would drag out those moments leading up to bed. I knew what was ahead of me when it came to sleep. I knew that I was about to blur the line between sleep and awakeness, and I didn't look forward to it.
“Momma, I don’t want to go to bed. Can I lay on the floor in your room?”
“Maura. You know you can’t lay in here. Greg can’t sleep well with you making a ruckus all night long.”
“But momma, you know that I always have troubles with sleep after our parties. I swear if I see that shadowed looking ‘man’ one more time I will shrivel up and die. I want it to stop.”
“I know you do Maura. Give it time.”
“Maura, your mother is right. The doctor said you’d grow out of this. We’ll be here if you need us.”
My face and ears warmed.
That was the thing though, if I needed them there was no way I could yell for help. No way I could get up and come cry to one of them. I was stuck every time the hissing and humming of the paralysis kicked in. I’d lie there cemented to the bed with a shadowed darkness looming over me inches from my face daring me to wake up. The feeling was unsettling and felt realistic.
“Ok momma. Good night.”
Swimming that day exhausted every nerve in my body. I fought sleep, but sleep came all the same. I woke, startled and frozen to the the digital red numbers on the clock. They glowed bright from the side of my peripheral vision-it was 2am.
The heavy humming was always the first thing to come. A visceral tingling with noise climbing up my body shrouded me immobile. The paralysis would swallow me whole until my breastbone felt compressed. My eyes longed to blink, as the water from my eyelids began to pool and leak down the sides of my nose. I was awake. My subconscious proved otherwise, as the shadowed body crept over me inches from my face. I wanted to scream for help, get my momma, or somebody to wake me from this torture that my brain was subjecting me to.
The humming turned into a deafening whisper, spoken right into my eyes, “Don’t forget to breathe pup.”