FIRST THING TO KNOW ABOUT EILEEN SEWARD IS THAT SHE LOVED TO ALMOST DROWN. During the summer she always wanted to feel breathless and buzzing like the thick, humid air, to feel the sting of chlorine-water as it overflowed her lungs and rushed through the rest of her body, and I was the one who would do it: Who would hold her under. I’d always have to look away or close my eyes while her body jerked this way and that, trying to force itself to the surface knowing that it was in danger. Afterwards we’d sit in her bedroom on the floor, so she could lie down, underneath her older brother’s poster of Evil Knievel that she stole from him, she’d tell me about what it all felt like: The sudden numbness in her arms and legs and how her head felt dark and cloudy like a thunderstorm. She’d tell me she imagined it’s how you’d feel right before you die, and I’d say That’s creepy and she’d say We’re all gonna find out someday, tilting her head to the side like she could hear a song I couldn’t.
Second thing about Eileen Seward is that I was in love with her. It was that simple, cut and dry. I had my reasons, one of them being we were best friends and had been since like the fourth grade. Eileen also had giant boobs that were always falling out of her blue, two-piece swimsuit because Eileen was fat. Not too fat though. Not like so fat you felt sorry for her, but fat enough for almost all the other boys in the eighth grade to leave her out of their fantasies. Mostly though it was because Eileen thought about what it would be like to die or how her head loosely resembled a thunderstorm. She wondered about things, things I didn’t, like mortality, which to her was something to be explored and investigated. I, on the other hand, a scrawny kid, didn't want to think about death like Eileen did, ever, and I wondered about things like how to tell your best friend you're in love with her without fucking crying because you're scared she won't say anything back, or what the soft patch of skin between her boobs tasted like.
The first time I almost drowned Eileen was in the summer before ninth grade. We were at her house out back by the pool, which is where I spent most of my time back then.
Besides, Eileen’s house had video games and a small diving board and a mini-bar on the deck that her father kept full of candy bars and soda. We were lying out by the pool one day with the radio on to some oldies station that had the Beach Boys playing, and Eileen said, “You ever think about drowning?”
She was staring intensely at the bottom of the pool, her feet dangling in the blue. Her pale, chubby thighs ran all over like spilt pudding as they pressed against the cement deck. “Or about staying under for like, like ever?” Eileen added. She pulled her legs from the water and sat down next to me in the grass. I couldn’t help but look at her, just completely stare at and fall in love with her for like the millionth time at the way her thick body squeezed into that small blue swimsuit with a small hole the size of a penny in the butt. I could see a speck of pale cheek-skin peeking out, and she wore it like she didn’t know or care about it, like maybe she wanted me to be looking.
“You’d drown,” I said. “Unless you had gills or something.”
“Right,” she said. “But what comes before that?”
“Yeah. Like what if I stayed under until right before I drown?”
“There’s no almost drowning.”
“There has to be,” Eileen said. “And think of the rush you’d get.”
Eileen was always saying stuff like this, about being a daredevil and all. She was all about this rush, and as long as I can remember she always tried to drag me along with her, doing stupid things like making homemade bombs out of plastic bottles and toilet cleaner, or one time when we were walking home from school down Jarvis Street across the railroad tracks the lights started flashing and the arm came down with a yawn, and Eileen made me cross anyway, tugging on me, on my arms at first, but then letting go, leaving me to decide my own fate, stilled with fear, racing across the tracks as the train pounded toward us.
Eileen reached over my lap now for a brownie from a Little Debbie box we had. She unwrapped the thing and quickly finished it off, eating it like a boy in one or two bites, a smear of chocolate on her lips. I watched her use her index finger to rub her lips free of smudges and couldn’t get the urge to kiss them out of my mind: To stick her cocoa-covered fingers in my mouth and roll them around until they were licked clean. It felt risky thinking these thoughts, like I was dangling from them: Like I was suspended over some deep, dark canyon grasping on to them—thin, fragile thoughts that could snap at any moment.
She smiled at me, her teeth darkened with brownie bits. “Hold me under,” she whispered.
“Hold me under the water.” Her voice was wet with the brownie.
I stared at her for a moment. Dimples took to her cheeks by what seemed like the thousands. This, what she was telling me, didn’t sound right.
“For how long?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Forever. Or until I pass out and shit.”
“What if you run out of air, genius?”
“That’s passing out.” Eileen shook her head at me. “Which is kind of the point.”
She grabbed me by the hand—like she was always doing back then, just dragging me around as if I were a doll—and pulled me onto the hot deck to the edge of the water. I titled down toward the bottom of the pool and dipped a toe in and immediately felt my body freeze over in hesitation. My mind was seized by thoughts of Eileen dying in there: Of her lungs filling and exploding like a firecracker. There was a feeling of power around the pool like it was electrified, and it made my skin crawl.
Eileen turned to me and said, “C’mon on. It’ll be fine.”
“What should I do if you pass out?” My voice broke here and there as it became apparent to me that she really wanted to do this. This was not like at all like bomb making: This was different, much more real.
“Call 911 or something. Maybe try mouth to mouth.”
My ears perked at the thought of mouths on mouths. “I don’t know how to do that,” I said.
“What,” she said. “Kiss?” She cocked her head to the side while a playful grin crept across her face.
“I know how to do that,” I said. “I meant the breathing part. Besides, this seems kind of dangerous.”
“C’mon, Matthew,” she said, her face wiped clean. She locked her hands at her waist. Her voice was direct, hard. “Why are you such a pussy all the time?”
She looked me up and down and then shook her head with narrowed eyes, like I had just failed at something, some test. Eileen had never said anything like that to me before, and I didn’t know how to take it, how to respond. I stood a few feet from her wondering if I should just tell her truth: That I didn’t know why I was a pussy all the time, and that I loved her but had serious doubts about that love because she made me feel so uncomfortable all the time, so helpless, like in those dreams where you’re falling and falling and then you wake up when you smash into the ground, and even though part of me loved how Eileen made me feel, a bigger part of me wasn’t sure.
It didn’t used to be like that though back when we first met: Back when my father killed himself.
My father was a traveling salesman and was always on the road and his father died when he was young; he talked about it sometimes, though he never said how, always with his mouth slightly pursed and hands clasped at his lap. My father sold wigs for a company in New York and one morning, for no real reason, he hung himself in our basement. My mother had just gotten out of the shower, her skin smelling bright and clean, her long, tangled hair gently brushing against my cheeks as she took me by the hand down our basement steps, which were rotting and unstable, to get some clean clothes for school. My mother thought my father had gone to work hours before, his empty coffee cup on the table and the lingering, electric scent of his aftershave following us around, but when she flipped on the light in the laundry room he was dangling there in his suit and tie, his face blue and shiny like a marble. For one moment, right there in the basement, nothing in the world happened. Then my mother started panicking and immediately covered my eyes with her both her hands.
“Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look, don’t look,” she said, quickly grabbing my shoulders and spinning me around the opposite way, sending me upstairs to my room until she came to get me.
Beneath me, beneath my room, for hours I sat with my knees to my chest listening to my heart break: To the sound of my mother crying, sobbing along with the hum of the dryer, and after a while I could hear my father’s old jazz records being played, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, which slowly overpowered the creaking of my father’s big body as it hung from underneath me. Soon after I could smell fresh coffee being brewed like it was morning again, like somehow this hadn’t happened, and my mother didn’t come upstairs until much later, until long after dark, until I had fallen asleep on the floor with my hands covering my face.
It was a few days later in math class when Eileen tossed a note at my feet. She was fat then too, more so than she was that summer, and she was sitting a few desks down from me munching on a small, plastic bag full of cereal. I opened it and it said SORRY ‘BOUT YOUR DADDY. The principal had made an announcement over the PA assuring me that the entire school’s thoughts were with me, and plus it was in the papers too. I glanced down the row at her, furiously scribbling on a piece of paper, and when she looked up at me I gently nodded. It was an odd moment because I had never really talked to her before and she was the only one who said anything to me about it—years later though, I realized that the circumstances were a perfect in for Eileen, that she couldn’t have made a more apt entrance into my life.
A few minutes later she tossed another note at my feet that said she was sorry again and that everything was going to be OK, and that we should be best friends because we both need one and that her favorite holiday is Halloween because of all the dead people but that she wouldn't celebrate it around me, if I didn’t want her to, and that she had a pool and that we could swim in it anytime we wanted. At the bottom of the note, she wrote CHECK THIS BOX TO BE BEST FRIENDS, and I broke my pencil darkening in the box, grinding the lead into the top of my desk, my fingers trembling.
“Matthew,” Eileen said. Her voice was different now, a bit easier. “I’m sorry.” She reached out and grabbed my hand and said, “It’ll be OK, though. I promise.” Again she tried to pull me into the pool and this time I didn’t resist, and we waded out to the middle and Eileen started giving me directions on what to do, on how to count out loud the seconds she’s under, on how to hold her under properly by pushing down on the top of her head with my fingers interlocked for support.
“Don’t let me up,” she said. “Don’t let me up until I tap your arm, OK?”
I looked down at the drain. “OK.”
She cracked her knuckles, took a few deep breaths, and then I leaned over her and forced her under, watching her head quickly vanish. I snapped my gaze elsewhere, up toward the sky, toward the neighbor’s house, anywhere, and began counting the seconds out loud. I could feel the force of everything she was against the palm of my hand. He body shook violently beneath me, her arms shooting out from the water like missiles, and I could still see her struggling even as I looked away so I shut my eyes so I couldn’t see anything. Seconds passed, maybe minutes, numbers pouring from my mouth without meaning or order. I got lost inside them, in forming them with my lips.
Then suddenly there was no life against my palms. Just like that, Eileen’s body had gone limp and the water was stilled. I opened my eyes and saw her floating beneath me, her face to mine, her eyes wide open and her pupils murky. The sound of the smallest waves lapping up against her body sounded shoes lifelessly clacking together, and as I quickly reached down and pulled her to the surface, panicked, I had the uncontrollable urge to cry, to fill a pool of my own with nothing but me.
Her ankles tore against the hard cement and bled in a few places as I set her on her back, when she immediately began spewing hot, clear liquid from her mouth and nose. She coughed for a few moments before saying, “I told you not to bring me up…” She stopped, her body clutching on to all the oxygen it could. Her lips were blue and trembling. She caught her breath. “Until I tapped your arm.”
“You were just floating there,” I said, out of breath and panicked myself. “You weren’t even moving.”
Eileen wiped some water from her forehead. “How long was I under?”
“I don’t know. I lost track.”
She nodded and tried to roll over on her side but couldn’t because her stomach hurt. I fanned her for a moment with my hands.
Then she said, “My eyes fucking burn.”
“You didn’t close them. I saw it.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Are they all red and blotchy?”
She tried to rub the redness away, her fingers dragging across her dry eyelids with a dull scrape.
“Why didn’t you?”
“Close my eyes?” She now tried to blink the blotches away.
“Yeah. You knew they’d burn.”
“I don’t know,” she said, looking away from me. “I guess wanted to see the whole thing happen, you know? I didn’t want to miss anything.”
On the radio, the oldies station was playing “A Day in The Life” by The Beatles. I only know this because right then the really weird part was playing, with the orchestra hammering away and all the whirring and whooshing and rising and falling that sounds like a jet engine, the part that’s real chaotic that I’ve never really liked.
After a few moments Eileen said, “I saw you closed your eyes.”
I didn’t say anything. Just gently nodded, feeling embarrassed.
Eileen flashed a sharp grin. “You always do.”
She wrapped a towel around herself, covering her giant boobs. With my help, she stood up and walked over to the grass where the Little Debbie box was and sat down and pulled out another brownie and went to work. I sat across from her and watched for a moment as she pulled off small chunk after small chunk, her entire mouth quickly becoming smudged. She yanked some blades of grass from the ground and arched her ankles back to meet her hands and used them as a makeshift Band-Aid, the red and green running together.
The Beatles song was still on, at the end now, after it’s been soft and slow for a while and you wouldn’t think it could explode again like it did before, and I kept thinking about what Eileen had said about not wanting to miss stuff and her decadent fingers, and just as the song went fucking crazy for the last time I waited until Eileen had plopped another piece of brownie in her mouth, and darted in and kissed her. She froze and her mouth hung for a second like dead weight, but then snapped into action and swallowed the brownie and kissed me back, and suddenly the earth felt dark like a cloud was passing by the sun, like everything in the whole world, or at least my whole world, could’ve gone wrong right then, could’ve failed, could’ve killed me, but I didn’t care and started rubbing my hands on Eileen’s inner thighs and forcing my finger through that penny-sized hole in her bathing suit until a quarter or even silver dollar could’ve wormed it’s way, and I whispered something into her mouth about fear or how I was fucking in love with her like I was screaming into a cave, and we kept kissing like this for what seemed like years, both of us with our eyes wide open.