I could have saved him. The man who swam out into black waters, gulped too much and drowned under the glitter-flecked Waikiki sky. But I didn't want to.
We were sitting right there, Tim and I, on the steps of the empty lifeguard tower when I saw him approach the shoreline. Tim didn't see the man, his face was buried in my crotch. I tapped Tim on the back of the head and pulled up my shorts and told him to act normal. But the man didn't see us. He waded in the water, let the incoming waves crash against his legs, the wet sand slosh about his feet. He looked out toward the dark horizon. Then he dove in and swam.
Tim and I lived in the condos at the end of Waikiki, right before the long, winding Diamond Head Road. It was beach-front and expensive, our condo, but Tim and I split the rent, all thirty-two hundred dollars of it. I didn't have nice things growing up. Neither of us did. So a condo overlooking the sands of Waikiki, gorgeous sunsets every night from the comfort of our lanai, it all seemed deserved, even if it meant that meals often consisted of Coral brand tuna on rye bread.
Tim and I each took a pill right before sunset. This was before we went down to the beach, before Tim gave me head on the steps of the lifeguard stand. From our lanai we watched the sun slowly get swallowed up by the ocean. There's something magical about rolling while watching Mother Nature do her thing. The golds are that much more golden. Shadows against the waves are extreme, a contrast that you would never believe. Pink-lined clouds appear like Technicolor cities in the sky built by God's hands alone.
On the steps of the lifeguard stand, Tim and I watched the man swim out toward nothingness. “What's he doing?” Tim asked.
It was too dark to see anything. Sometimes these tourists get romantic ideas about night swimming, but the rest of us know better. Black churning water is nothing to play around with. “Swimming,” I said. “I guess he's swimming.”
But I knew differently. There was a look about him. The way he squared his shoulders to the horizon. The contemplative way he stood in the water before he dove in. It was all very familiar. He wanted to be swallowed up.
The next morning Tim called me out to the lanai. I walked out there with my mug of coffee and Tim pointed down to the sand. Two lifeguards on all-terrains and a few paramedics huddled around someone lying in the sand. Even in his bloated state, like he'd drank half the ocean, I could tell it was the same man.
“The guy from last night. Right?” Tim asked. “I can't believe he drowned.”
“I guess he wasn't a good swimmer,” I said.
“I guess not,” Tim said.
I saved Tim once, when we first started dating. We'd taken a drive to the North Shore and Tim didn't tell me he couldn't swim. We rubbed suntan lotion on each other's bodies. He read GQ in the glaring sun and I dozed off for a while. But then it got too hot, my skin cooking under the intense sun. So I grabbed Tim's hand and led him to the water. He was reluctant, pulling back a little. I took it as flirtiness, him playing coy. Then the water was chest deep and a wave pummeled our bodies. Tim ducked under. The force of the outgoing current pulled him farther out. He flailed his arms. His head bobbed. Then I realized he could not swim. I swam to him, threw my arms around his chest and pulled him back to shore. It's easy to save someone when you know they want to be saved. When their life means something to you.
I went about my day thinking about the man washed up on the beach. It was an image I could not shake, even later as Tim and I readied for bed. We have a ritual — before we go to sleep, we tell each other one thing about our day that we haven't already talked about. While we lay there next to each other I said, “The man from last night. The one who drowned. I had a feeling he wanted to.”
Tim asked me how I knew, but I couldn't explain it. Rather, I couldn't explain it to him.
When I was just twelve years old, one night, very late, my father appeared at my bedside. He wore his blue bathrobe, and he crouched over me, placed his knee on the edge of the mattress. I tried to speak. I tried to say, No. But there was a weight on my chest, breath absent, and I could not make words.
I turned my head away. I did not want to see him. He pressed his face onto my pillow, breathed on my neck. I could smell the bourbon on his breath. I shivered. But he did not touch me that night. Only his breath did.
Then he left my room. I heard the front door open and slam close. I crept out of bed and watched from the window as he walked through the front yard and down the street in his robe. I decided to follow him. He walked to the end of the street, then another street, then another street. Sometimes he'd turn and look behind him, as if he knew someone was following him, and I'd hide behind a bush or in someone's yard.
He crossed the highway to the beach park in our neighborhood. I watched in the shadow of trees as my father stood at the shoreline, looked out to the darkness deliberatively, squared his shoulders to the horizon as he waded in the water. Then dove in.
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This story recently appeared in Gertrude Journal, No. 18, Summer 2012.