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Calm
by Tara Pyfrom

This story contains references to attempted suicide, domestic abuse, and drowning.

Please use discretion when reading.

 

She didn’t want to drown, but she didn’t want to breathe anymore either. What was the point of breathing? Continuing to breathe hurt too much. Forcing air into her lungs 15 times per minute every single minute of every hour for the rest of her miserable life seemed like an eternity of endless torture. Wouldn’t it just be easier to drown?

 

Melissa had done her research. She knew that the average person could only hold their breath for around a minute or two without lots of practice. She watched a documentary about free diving once on Netflix and knew that the folks who practiced the sport could manage several minutes without breathing as they descended to the ocean's depths. It seemed like an insane thing to do. Yet as Melissa watched the best in the sport succumb to the carbon dioxide that built up in their bloodstream and eventually pass out below the surface, she thought only of the calm there must be in those final seconds: the freedom in abandoning the struggle for breath.

 

Before she could talk herself out of her plan, Melissa jumped, feet first, into the cool water of her backyard swimming pool. As her bare feet hit the water, there was a whoosh of air in her ears and then an explosive rush of water as her head slipped below the surface. Air bubbles rushed around her body, tinkling her bare arms and legs, as her body sank seamlessly to the bottom of the fibreglass shell only seven feet down. As her feet hit the bottom gently, she allowed her knees to buckle smoothly beneath her so that her butt brushed the white surface briefly before her body’s natural buoyancy tried to take over.

 

For a moment, she sat suspended in a state of weightless wonder. The bubbles produced by her jump into the crystal-clear water reached the pool’s surface above her head. Melissa did not open her eyes. She simply sat, legs loosely crossed beneath her defying the laws of gravity, hanging in the chlorinated world.

 

She had spent her whole life at the bottom of a swimming pool. She had learned to swim at three, or so she had been told. She didn’t have a memory of ever not being able to swim, just as she didn’t remember ever not being able to walk. Everyone learns things so early on that our brains don’t bother to retain the memory of what it was like before. As a young girl, she spent hours in the family swimming pool, occasionally alone, but most often with her siblings, playing and splashing for hours.

 

Extended summer swimming hours turned into fall days when her brothers refused to swim as the temperatures plummeted, but still, Melissa would swim.

 

“She’s going to freeze to death,” her paranoid mother would moan to her father when he refused to close the family pool as late fall turned into winter and snow began to fall.

 

When her father finally insisted that he had to winterize the pool or risk damaging it with the below-freezing temperatures, Melissa would reluctantly concede and allow him to seal the swimming pool in mid-December. With snow blanketing the landscape, Melissa would beg her parents to drive her to the YMCA at every opportunity so she could swim.

 

As Melissa got older, family, relatives and friends insisted she should swim competitively, such was her obvious love of swimming pools and the water. However, for Melissa, swimming was never about laps or competition. It was about pure joy and the calm she felt under the surface. Well into her late teens, Melissa imagined herself to be a mermaid or a dolphin: content to live below the surface permanently. The trouble was she needed to breathe.

 

In her mid-20s, Melissa began experimenting with her ability to hold her breath for longer and longer periods. She read books on the subject and without ever having proper training, managed to reach a personal best of three minutes. Her friends thought her hobby was ridiculous and so after several attempts to share her excitement about the achievement, Melissa gave up and enjoyed her silly hobby of holding her breath alone.

 

Then life happened. Relationships. A career. Responsibilities. There was less and less time for swimming and no time for silly hobbies. As the weight of adulthood settled on her shoulders, Melissa gave up swimming altogether. She hadn’t intended to; hadn’t planned to stop doing the thing that brought her so much joy. She let her YMCA membership lapse, and she stopped taking sunny vacations.

 

Now, as she sat at the bottom of the pool, eyes still closed, Melissa wondered if she had kept swimming if her life would’ve been better. Would it have been enough to keep her from getting to where she was right now? Maybe the depression that had been her constant companion now for so long might have been easier to bear with a weekly swim.

 

But that didn’t matter now. There was no point running through what-if scenarios in the last few seconds of her hopeless life. Melissa knew she couldn’t change the past. She knew that from personal experience. She had tried so hard, for years now, to make peace with all that had happened, with all the pain. There was no going back and there was no going forward.

 

There was just the beautiful, weightless silence at the bottom of the swimming pool. Still, she kept her eyes closed tightly. She needed to keep reality at bay. She was scared to open her eyes to see the white walls around her and the surface of the water above her rippling gracefully. If her eyes were closed, she could pretend she was calm. Free. Untethered. Immortal.

 

Melissa’s body sent its first mayday signal to her brain after 30 seconds of her tightly constricted windpipe and clenched eye muscles. You need to breathe, her body insisted.

 

NO, I DON’T!

 

Melissa ignored the burn in her brain and neurons fired off more urgent demands again and again. Demands to inhale. Demands to move to the surface. Demands to open her eyes. But she wasn’t listening to the demands of her body and mind. She was done suffering the stings and bites and slaps and pinches. She was no longer willing to feel the sadness, hopelessness, melancholy, and rage. She was ready to be finished.

Not breathing was going to hurt less, she reminded herself. Constant calm. That was the goal. That was the finish line at the end of the marathon of burdened labour that was her life. She had craved it for so long now that it had become her mantra, her obsession. She was not going to give up on her quest to attain it. Not when she was finally so close: as close as she had ever been in her entire life.

 

As each precious second ticked by, Melissa saw a new flash of the pain that kept her motivated to rage against her need to breathe. First her older brothers and their constant need to be the best at everything. Then her mother’s frequent extended absence from her life. A rough go at high school with a miserable, soul-crashing teacher in 9th grade. More than one dream chased and lost in her early 20s and a realization that she just wasn’t good enough. Then there was Jerry.

 

Her lungs burned in her chest. There was a white, hot fire there now. The kind that melts steel, and souls. She didn’t know if the painful burning was real anymore. Maybe it was just another night terror. Her thoughts were growing distant, like watching her life through a cardboard tube. Jerry. Jerry was real. As much as she wanted him to be a nightmare, he was very real. More flashes came but now they were fuzzy around the edges and in sepia tones.

 

More seconds slipped away. The last few grains of sand slipped down the narrow tube. The bottom half of the hourglass was almost full. Then he grabbed the bejewelled case surrounding the glass from the shelf, a prized possession of Melissa’s, and hurled it at their plate glass door.

 

The room imploded with a scream and Melissa’s eyes flew open. She could no longer battle her body’s anger at being denied the oxygen it so desperately craved.

 

Now came the part she knew to expect: the last fight against the pain to find absolute calm on the other side. This was where she needed the most strength. She knew it would be. She was so sure that she would give up at this point that she had planned a failsafe. An anchor to keep her tethered to her goal. Quite literally. Melissa shifted her body slightly and felt the pull of the metal boat anchor knotted with rope around her left ankle. She felt dizzy. Drunk even. But it was the bad kind of drunk. The Jerry-kind of drunk.

 

The blackness was closing in. The fire in her chest was dull now, much easier to ignore. She knew the final calm was only seconds away. Sleep was calling her. A sweet, long, peaceful sleep with no more pain. She only had to wait a few more seconds.

 

And then she looked up for the first time since plunging in. Her head lolled backward as consciousness began to fade. The scene above her was fuzzy. The pool’s surface refracted the sunshine above as it penetrated her silent cocoon. The movement of the gentle wind above sent radiant swirls of shapes, pictures even, in the screen of life that danced a few feet above her head. It was spectacularly beautiful. Beautiful in a way that Melissa could never remember experiencing before.

 

The shapes moved and spoke to her. They evoked long-held memories of summers spent as a mermaid, endless days of sunsets, and kindnesses granted to her by friends and strangers alike throughout her life. They were glimmers. Glimmers of moments that made her life meaningful even when the pain was impossible to bear. They were her reason.

Then suddenly she fought. She fought with more strength than she had ever had, with more power and speed than her muscles seemed capable of. Melissa’s brain ignited like a powder keg as her lungs suddenly burned white hot again. With no exhaling to get rid of the gas, the CO2 in her bloodstream had built up to a toxic level in the 60 seconds she had been holding her breath. The lack of oxygen to her muscles and the weight of the pool water pressing down on her made her movements agonizingly slow. Melissa reached both of her hands down around her ankle and fumbled with the rope she had tied there.

 

Two or three more precious seconds slipped by as Melissa’s fingers refused to comply with the fuzzy signals being sent from her brain. It’s too late, Melissa thought, as the blackness closed in. The flashes of memories, originally bright like fireworks, were now just a faded blur of black and white, seen as though she was looking through a tunnel. I need to breathe, she thought.

 

And in the millisecond before defeat, before she finally gave in to the hopelessness sadness and fear, Melissa’s brain fired off one last burst of instruction from her brain to her left ankle. KICK! As both her legs moved with the very last bit of fight left, Melissa suddenly realized that beautiful swirls above her were now closer. But it was too late. Unable to hold her breath any longer, Melissa inhaled the chlorinated water sharply through her nose and mouth. Instantly her body convulsed, rejecting the liquid that entered where her body demanded air.

 

As she struggled to expel the water entering her airways, she kicked again and fought, dragging her arms franticly through the water. No longer calm. No longer at peace. Now the bottom of the swimming pool was a war zone. The place to do battle with demons. A place to rage against the pain that she had grown so complacent toward. Suddenly calm was not what Melissa wanted at all. She wanted the pain. She wanted the screaming. She wanted the tears. She wanted air!

 

Then, only barely conscious, her head broke through the tremendous swirls of light above her head. She coughed and retched as her body forcibly removed the water from her windpipe and lungs. Her chest hurt and her head was spiralling as rush after rush of oxygen reached her lungs, then her starved brain. After minutes of spasmodic body movements brought her consciousness back in doses, she felt her feet touch the hard bottom of the fibreglass. Without realizing it, Melissa had managed to move her body to the shallow end of the pool.

 

Her arms and legs stopped fighting. She breathed in and out in erratic waves to match the ones now bouncing animatedly back and forth against the edges of the pool. And inside the house, she could hear the baby crying.

Tara Pyfrom (she/her) is an LGBTQA+ freelance writer and memoir author, born and raised as an island girl in the beautiful Bahamas. Her previous article publications include CBC News, Gay Parent Magazine, Canadian Immigrant Magazine, and UNILAD. Her true story of survival from a monster category 5 hurricane has been featured in podcasts and is the topic of her upcoming memoir, The Ocean in Our Blood. Tara lives in New Brunswick, Canada, with her wife, daughter, and two dachshunds. When not writing, she can usually be found plotting her next far-off adventure with her family.

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