How Not to Drown

1. Don’t obsess about the reasons you ended it with him. Of course you could think of reasons but none of them would be true and also all of them would be true. Things like: the way he cut the mushrooms for dinner, one at a time instead of bunching them, irritated you. Things like: when you stood in line at the grocery store on a Saturday morning and he thought you didn’t know the difference between granulated and powdered sugar. He explained it to you, carefully, precisely, like when you were in college and showed your grandpa how to use the GPS in his car. You said to him, “Oh really, that’s the difference? I never knew!”

“Yeah, that’s the difference.” He smiled dopily, like a golden retriever, the kind of smile that’s fixed into a face.

You stared at this person you’d been dating for almost eleven months, since you moved to the city and learned that’s what you called it.

“Wait, are you joking?”

“Of course I’m fucking joking, Alex. You think I don’t know the difference between powdered sugar and regular sugar?”

“I can’t tell when you’re joking or not.” His forehead wrinkle appeared. This meant: worried.

You didn’t tell him that wasn’t the point.

 

2. Focus on the real moment: a Monday morning, a few weeks later. Downtown, a new route, one block from his work, two from yours.

“Look,” you said, pointing at the lot across the street.

When he turned his body towards the construction, you could see in his hair the places he’d be bald one day. The building was totally open, and workers stood in the middle of the u-shape they’d made from the inside of it. The concrete revealed, the wires of its insides showing, like crumbling halva.

“That’s so cool,” he said.

“Cool?”

“Yeah, it’s so cool the way the wires are exposed.”

You were maybe already sad before he said this, but you were definitely sadder after.

“I wonder if they tear down buildings the same way every time, or if they do it differently depending on the structure.”

This is the moment you knew you’d eventually have to end it.

Here’s what you were thinking about: your grandpa’s jaw hanging open, drawing in raggedy breaths every five seconds. You sat next to his hospital bed in his room, pleading with him silently to let go, but you wouldn’t say it out loud. Too cheesy. Begging God to take him, but God knew you mostly didn’t believe in Him and so He probably wasn’t listening.

Alex saw exposed wires and you saw your grandpa’s empty mouth, without his teeth in, the darkness of it hanging slack. And this picture you found near his desk, digging through his things while waiting for him to die, which was of yourself as a little girl, wearing a turquoise swimsuit the color of the swimming pool water, and jump-hugging up on his large body, your arms wrapped around his shoulders.

“What?” Alex asked. You knew he was worried he’d be late if you stood there longer.

You shrugged. The construction worker put down his sign and motioned you forward. “Have a great day, okay?” he said, kissing you on the cheek and pushing his sunglasses back on his ears.

 

3. You were stagnant for a week, until it was Monday again, and you still hadn’t done it. You left work early with your tired in the edges of your eye sockets.

You stood on the train—you still called them that even though you knew it wasn’t strictly correct, what a native might say—and tried to feel your skeletal system, align your posture. You weren’t sure where you were going: his house, yours, somewhere new, a neighborhood you’d never been. For seven days, you’d been trying to talk yourself back into it, the relationship.

You got off at 24th only because Jen, one of your best friends from college, was calling. This seemed like enough of a sign to head aboveground. You pushed through the turnstile, phone held in between your ear and cramping shoulder. You tried to get to full service before losing the call—“Hold on, hold on, I’m walking upstairs.” It was windy outside, coming through the stairwell of the BART.

For seven days, you’d been trying to talk yourself back into it, the relationship.

Jen wanted to know what was going on. Jen had a sprained ankle and was waiting for her boyfriend David to come pick her up outside the gym. Jen was still in Boston, where you lived together at the beginning of your Real Lives. Before you felt itchy on your arms and the soles of your feet every time you came home to the house in JP, and started applying for jobs on The West Coast. (You still thought of it in capitals then.)

You walked down 24th, towards no one you knew’s house.

“I’m just sitting in the last moments of sunshine.”

“I’m sorry you sprained your ankle.”

“It’s okay. Have you done it yet?”

“No. Not yet. I think I’m going to though. Really soon.”

“I guess I still don’t really get the issue. Did something happen?”

“No. Yeah. He just…we just don’t see things the same way. He doesn’t get how I feel about anything, he just wants to…I don’t even want to tell you about this. I’m ruining it, I’m making things up and telling you some story about why it doesn’t work but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter why it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work.”

“There must be a reason.”

“That’s exactly the point. There’s a reason but there’s also no reason.”

You didn’t want to invent something for all your friends who wanted to know why, so you stopped returning their calls and texts. You were like a teenager again, making excuses for getting a bad grade on a test, who wouldn’t just admit she’d stayed up late, listening to the new Something Corporate/Dashboard Confessional/Taking Back Sunday CD on repeat instead of studying. Letting the music feel your feelings for you.

“Well. You’re entitled to your feelings,” Jen said.

“Maybe.”

“The longer you stay, the harder it’ll be to leave, so, if you’re having all these doubts…yeah.”

“Or maybe I’m overreacting. Did you ever feel like this with David?”

“With David…I mean, I think when we first started dating, it wasn’t like I was like oh my god I’m going to marry this guy. But I remember one night we’d been dating for like six months, and he got out of the bathroom and there were his little shaving hairs all over the edge of the sink, and I was brushing my teeth and noticing them and I didn’t even care, and that’s when I was like shit I am totally in love with this person, because you remember when I lived with Peter and he did that I would flip my shit about it, like, this is so gendered that I’m having to clean up the sink from your chin stubble! But that night I didn’t even care. Also, though, he’s not emotionally manipulative like Peter.”

“Also.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s…hold on. This entire city is fucking under construction. That’s a jackhammer.”

“You’re in a boom, Carrie! I keep reading you’re in a bubble. More jobs. It’s good.”

You walked quickly away from the noise. You saw a dress in a window and you saw, in its printed green and white flowered pattern, an excuse to get off the phone, away from whatever story you were making up for a person who had known you for seven years, who held your hair back while you vomited from tequila plus vodka, whose hand you squeezed at the hospital once when Jen had to get an emergency spinal tap, who lay giggling with you on the floor of your shared bedroom in the dorms until you yelled, “Stop! I’m going to seriously pee on this floor if we don’t stop.”

“Okay,” Jen said from Boston. “I feel like we didn’t really talk about it.”

“That’s okay. I’m sorry you twisted your ankle.”

“It’ll be fine.”

“Okay. I’ll call you soon.”

“Yeah, okay, just call whenever. Let me know what happens. I’m sorry you’re having a hard time.”

“I’m fine. I’m just, it’s just today.”

 

4. When you visited your grandpa last summer at his house by the ocean, the wind came off the Atlantic and you were wearing just a t-shirt, pale peach and loose. He said to you, “Aren’t you cold?”

“I’m a little cold. I didn’t want to wear any of my sweaters though. I didn’t want to carry it.”

“You can’t keep arguing with the world like this, Carrie.”

“Grandpa.” You sang it to him.

“Okay, you can keep arguing, but you’re going to lose. The wind, you’re not going to beat the wind with just being stubborn. You’re not going to beat nature.”

“I’m not trying to beat nature.”

“Are you trying to be uncomfortable? Why don’t you just let yourself be comfortable?”

These were the kinds of questions he asked.

 

5. You didn’t look for a dress that night. And you didn’t go to Alex’s for dinner. Or turn around and walk the thirty minutes straight home, to your unmade bed with its twisted grey down comforter.

You walked down the street, towards the fancy ice cream place with the strange flavors, and ordered biscuits and gravy, which came with actual dough pieces. You sat inside, in the heat. Now it was getting dark, sun behind a hill, and all you could see was your own reflection in the window, the place in your left eyebrow that you’d over-plucked by accident earlier in the week, that still needed to grow in.

You left your coat on, scarf wrapped around your neck, tight. Licking slowly, slowly, letting it coat the top of your tongue and the back of your throat with creamy fat, like covering your dry legs with lotion in the winter.

You spun on the stool, pretending the world had ended around you, there’d been the apocalypse but you hadn’t known because you were inside the ice cream place, which somehow had been the only safe place. The luck of it.

When you went outside later, if you went outside later, you’d see only dust, everything transformed to rubble, and there’d be no empty, sad, torn down places, once everything had been reduced to brown, fine silt. The kind you could pick up in your hand and scatter, like cremains.

 

6. In the beginning of the new year, four months after you ended it, and three months after you decided to stop speaking, or rather, after Alex told you he didn’t want to hate you and that he needed you to stop speaking, you are learning a different story. It’s a story about a man with an almost hairless arm. Him, holding his dark arm next to yours to compare shades. A man with a gold band around his finger that looks like a cousin of the one you’ve been wearing on your hand since your grandpa died.

You quit your job in the office and are teaching swimming to middle school girls. Your hair is always crunchy with chlorine.

“Why not? Why not make a mess of it?” your mother said on the phone, when you told her you were quitting your job, just a month after ending things with Alex.

“Of what?”

“Your life. You’ve never done that before. So try it.”

Your arm has more hair on it and is almost the same shade as this man’s. You are probably the only person in the entire city who’s getting tan in the winter, but it’s been a dry one, everyone says, so you can be outside, in Marin or Berkeley, when you’re not at work.

“You like that band?” the man asks, looking at your ring. He’s the kind of man who knows everyone’s name at the front desk of the pool, and they know his.

“Sure,” you say. You don’t tell him it’s your grandpa’s that you got resized. You don’t tell him you’re beholden to no one.

You’re learning city kids are strange creatures outside of the pool. One second they’re children, the next they’re grown-up skinny models, all hips and sassy eyebrows. They know how to protect their bags; they know how to catch a cab and a bus. Sometimes, except in the water, you feel like they know more than you, child of the suburbs of the northeast.

Don’t ask him about his ring.

After, you lie in the bedroom of the studio apartment south of Market where he takes you. He says it’s his friend’s place, only occupied when his friend is in town for work, which is rarely. Something about data and hospitals. His friend is always on the road. The apartment has no photos.

You miss the seasons. You miss the way the leaves falling forces people to think about change, and the cold keeps them inside to consider what they have or haven’t done, and talk to each other. You miss weather that doles out consequences.

The next day, at the pool, one of the lane swimmers pulls you aside as you walk toward the locker room to get ready for work. You want to run from her the way you want to run from everyone, lately. Stay.

“Hun,” she says, in a voice like no one you are related to, a voice of the south. You wonder what turn she’s taken to end up in a community pool in northern California.

“Yeah?”

“I’ve seen you. You’re a good swimmer. You’re a good teacher.”

“Thank you.” The woman wears a purple one-piece and sparkly, blue toenail polish.

“You’ve got an open heart.”

You smile at her like someone with an open heart might.

“Has anyone told you, how good it gets?”

You hold still. The woman has short silver and white hair and is pretty, with sharp features and ballerina cheekbones. She wears no make up.

“Child, you’re young, and you’re beautiful, but let me tell you from sixty, it gets even better.” The woman smiles; the corners of her eyes get crinkly. “I’m in love again! And it can get so good.” Her teeth look strong. They look real. “Okay?”

“Okay.”

She squeezes your shoulders and trots off toward the pool.

You walk to the locker room to put your bag away, to sit on a rubber bench with your head in your open hands, briefly, to try to feel ready to teach those adultbabies how not to drown.

Janet FrishbergJanet Frishberg lives and writes in a light blue room in San Francisco, where she’s currently editing her first book. You can find her work in places like Smokelong QuarterlyPithead Chapel; Literary Orphans; Cease, Cows; the SF Chronicle; and r.kv.r.y quarterly. She’d love to tell you more at janetfrishberg.com.