This is what I think of when I think of water:
A floating rag doll, a leaf swirling over a swing set, a blonde wig on its pedestal, a helicopter rising in the sky, and a triumvirate of doctors. I have a blind disconnect to the water – no emotions – so there are images instead.
My brothers and I are sneaking down a motel corridor which overlooks a swimming pool. The metal steps are cold on our bare feet and creak when we step on them. We’re wearing our bathing suits beneath our clothes. Our parents are sleeping.
The sun is hot, the water is smooth, and we have the pool to ourselves. I’m the eldest and the leader who collected my siblings to slip out. Because we’re young and alive, and we don’t want to be sleeping when we’re near this fantastic new pool. I get out of the pool and walk down to the deep end. I don’t know what propels me there. The blue-and-white tiles are slippery, the air stinks of chlorine.
A child has forgotten his rag doll. It’s a beautiful thing, life-sized and detailed. Plump brown hands are bobbing at the end of its sleeves. Long brown curls are floating in the water. It wears a little red-checkered shirt. I know that shirt.
Like a bolt to the heart, I understand that I’ve done something which can’t be undone.
Chaim didn’t die, and he didn’t suffer long-term damage. He’s a sweet 23 year-old with a baby daughter. He was a commander in the Israeli army and is studying psychology now. I don’t think he’s traumatized, or even that he has memories of the event. He was only three. For him, nothing remains of what happened.
When I found Chaim in the water he was face-down. I didn’t see his face until after he had opened his eyes. So when I think of his face during those coma days I think of a face that has been rotting in the water a long time, cottage-cheese texture and soft mold, even though I know it wasn’t so.
In the waiting room of the hospital where Chaim is lying in a coma, I’m playing a jumping game with my brothers. You have to pick a blunt edge, like the side of a chair, and leap around it. I hear a young female doctor with a harsh face and thinning hair, telling my parents that Chaim probably won’t wake up. I evaluate my chances with a blue leather-padded armchair. I see the chair, and myself, and my parents, from somewhere flat and impersonal outside my body.
Another doctor comes in to say there might be a chance, and then another to announce that things are looking better. Now a helicopter is taking Chaim to a Baltimore hospital. I tell the people gazing with their heads upturned that my brother’s in there. I’m proud; it was only because I screamed right away that they found Chaim in time. So my parents say. Of course, it was only because of me that we were at the pool in the first place, and it takes me a few years to realize they were trying to prevent a guilt complex. The scream itself seems like a soulless thing, ripped from me without consent, so I can’t exactly take credit. But no matter.
We kids are taken to family friends while my parents stay at the hospital. I don’t remember much of that stay. I remember the wig their mother wore. Religious Jewish women cover their hair, and some cover with wigs. I glimpsed hers through her bedroom door, thick and yellow and seemingly possessing a life of its own. The mother in her robe looked coarse and grim without it.
My mother had made a deal: if G-d saved her son, she would cover her hair. In Brooklyn she bought a wig of her own, curly and black. I hacked it to little pieces with a steak knife.
The other thing I remember is a leaf falling on my head as I sat on a swing. One of the little girls, a knowing little blond-tailed pipsqueak, told me that even a small twig can kill you, if it falls from high enough and takes you by surprise. I still don’t know if that’s true or not.
When my father called from the hospital to say that Chaim had opened his eyes, I was surprised. What with playing with the other kids I had forgotten all about Chaim. I asked my father why he was crying and he said that he was crying because he was happy. I didn’t feel happy. I didn’t feel anything, and I don’t feel anything. I just think of that floating rag doll, and of the red-checkered shirt. I think about that shirt almost every day.
I’ve rarely been in a body of water since then. In Haifa I used to sit on the Mediterranean shore when the sun was setting and everyone else had gone home. It never occurred to me to go in the sea. I don’t want water pooling in my bathing suit, or wet hair plastered to my neck, or salt and brine eating into my skin. Waves just a few meters away seem like grim strangers. For me, they’re something of the past. The water took something from me, but I’m not sure what it is.
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