My short story ‘No Splashing’ was published by Oyez Review (v. 44, Spring 2017). Please visit their website for information on ordering a copy of the issue. I’m also presenting the full story here for you to read. Enjoy! And please leave a comment to let me know what you think!
by Cameron L. Mitchell
Jake grips the side of the pool with both hands and looks around to make sure no one’s watching. He spits out twice, trying to get rid of the foul chlorine taste filling his mouth. Feeling guilty for doing something he shouldn’t, he swipes at the gently undulating water and watches as the white spittle separates until it disappears. He’s a good swimmer, always keeping his mouth shut when submerged, but water still manages to get in, little by little. Jake wipes his lips with the back of his hand, but the strong chemical taste remains.
“Hey, look at me!”
He turns around to watch Bobby attempt to land an even better can opener than the one he did less than five minutes ago. “Ok,” Jake calls out, “I’m watching!”
With a determined look on his face, Bobby takes a deep breath, stares straight ahead, and shakes his arms all around in a kind of nervous ritual before finally making a run for it. He bounces as hard as he can at the end of the diving board, flying high into the air. Right before hitting the water, he leans back and grabs his knee with both hands. Although the resulting splash isn’t the biggest Jake has seen today, it’s really not all that bad.
As soon as his head pops above the surface, Bobby asks, “How was it?”
“Good,” Jake assures him, watching his friend swim over. “Probably your best one ever.”
“Yeah, but not as good as theirs,” Bobby says, nodding over to the older boys near the lifeguard stand.
“But they’re bigger than you,” Jake says. “When you get older, I bet your splashes will be way better.”
“Yeah, me too.” Bobby pushes his wet hair back, smiling. “You gonna try one?”
“No, I think I’ll just dive.”
“Yeah.” Jake swims over to the ladder. Before fully emerging from the water, he tugs at his blue trunks to make sure they’re not sticking to his body. It’s awful when they get like that, exposing the imprint of his backside and other private areas. Having to swim around half-naked is bad enough. Last summer, he often wore a t-shirt in the water. No one would have said anything if he was one of the fat kids – everyone knows why they swim with a shirt on. But Jake is as thin as a rail. It didn’t take long to figure out he was drawing more attention by keeping his shirt on than he would if he just took it off like the other guys.
Jake nears the white cement steps leading up to the diving board but keeps his distance from the two boys already in line. Over on the other side of the pool, past the floating rope that divides the deep end from the shallow, Jake sees his brother Sampson kicking around. He’s got his goggles on, the pair Jake used to wear. He’s getting better at swimming, only because Jake has been giving him lessons. It was their father’s idea to save money. When he was around Sampson’s age, Jake had official lessons at this very pool, but, even then, Father thought it was a waste of money. Take ‘em down to the river and toss ‘em in, he said. Like my daddy did with me.
Jake would have fared just fine if his father had done that to him, but there’s no way he’s letting anyone throw Sampson into the deep end while hoping for the best. At the same time, he doesn’t blame his father for not wanting to pay for swimming lessons. Jake can’t recall ever actually learning to swim from that skinny lifeguard lady who’s long since moved on, probably to a better pool in a bigger town. He and the other kids spent most of their time splashing around in the shallow end, taking occasional breaks to practice holding their breath underwater; there were also floating exercises, on their backs and stomachs. Then, one day near the end of the course, they all lined up at the diving board to jump off into the dreaded deep end. If that was too scary, you could jump off the side of the pool near the ladder instead. Some kids pinched their noses and dropped down, holding onto the side for safety. Most of the kids, including Jake, chose the diving board. Janine, the lifeguard, was right there in the water to rescue you in case you started sinking like a rock. None of the kids had much trouble, but Jake still thinks it’s odd that he can’t remember a single instance of being taught the mechanics of swimming – nothing about the breaststroke, backstroke, or any stroke at all.
“Ok, it’s your turn,” yells Bobby.
Jake considers trying something flashier to change things up, but right before he bounces at the end of the board, he decides to stick with what he knows best. Arms extended over his head, he hits the sparkling water at what feels like the perfect angle; he’s not good at most things, but he’s good at this. Jake stays underwater while swimming back over to Bobby. If he wanted, he could swim under the rope and all the way to the other end of the pool without coming up for air. He loves the feeling of total submergence, when every sound is muddled, no voice able to reach him. A different world exists beneath the water, one that feels more peaceful, somehow.
After returning to the surface, he wipes drops of water from his eyes and looks at his friend. “How was it?”
“Boring,” Bobby answers. “Hardly no splash at all.”
“That’s what I was going for,” Jake says. “The smaller the splash, the better the dive.”
“Let’s go see what Sampson is doing.”
“Ok,” Bobby says, “race you there!”
Before Jake can respond, Bobby kicks off from the side of the pool and darts under the floating rope. Jake takes off after his friend, easily catching up and swerving past him. He touches the wall at the shallow end and turns around to find that Bobby has already given up on the race. He’s standing beside Sampson and some other little kid. “What are you doing to him?” he asks.
“We’re playing baptism,” Sampson answers. “I can do you next.”
“Yeah, right,” Bobby says. “What kind of game is baptism?”
“You baptize the person so they don’t burn in H-E-double-L,” Sampson explains. “It’s really easy.”
“Are you sure your friend wants to be baptized?” Jake asks, joining the spectacle.
“My name’s Ryan,” the boy says, “and I’m ready to meet God.”
“Oh geez,” Jake snickers.
“Alright, hold your nose,” Sampson says.
“Can you believe this?” Bobby asks under his breath.
“It’s my fault,” Jake says. “I tried to baptize him in the bathtub at home one time.”
“Quiet!” Sampson exclaims in a surprisingly authoritative voice for someone so puny. He turns Ryan around and places a hand on each shoulder, pushing the boy down towards the water. “Now, are you ready?”
“I’m ready,” Ryan says. He sounds funny with his nostrils squeezed shut.
“Take this child!” Sampson yells, pushing Ryan down beneath the water. “Don’t let him rot in that, um, purg place – what’s it called again?”
“Purgatory,” Jake says.
“That’s it, purr-gahh-tory,” Sampson repeats slowly. “And let God take this child who’s now clean and ready to be taken.”
Ryan struggles under the water until Sampson finally releases him. He inhales a desperate gulp of air before turning around to ask if it’s done.
“By the power vest in me, you are saved,” Sampson says. “Forever and ever, amen.” He puts his hands together in a praying motion, offering a small bow. “Anybody else wanna go?”
“No way,” Bobby says.
“It’s the power vested in me,” Jake tells his brother. “But that’s what they say when you get married, not baptized.”
“It’s the thought that counts.”
“Not really,” Jake says, laughing. “You’re being silly.”
“I am not!”
“Yes you are.” Jake splashes water in his brother’s face.
“Am not!” Sampson yells, splashing Jake back. Bobby and the newly baptized Ryan join in. So much water is flying through the air, Jake can’t tell if anyone is really winning. He quickly tires of all the shenanigans and makes his escape up the ladder, just as the lifeguard blows his whistle and yells at them to knock it off.
“Where are you going?” Bobby asks, out of breath.
“To rest. I’ll be over with our towels.”
“Wanna get something out of the snack machine? My mom gave me extra money.”
“Not right now,” Jake says, walking across the hot cement to where they left their stuff. He digs through the pile of t-shirts, towels, shoes, and socks until he finds what he’s looking for – the big beach towel with the palm trees that he always brings to the pool. It’s old and frayed at the edges, but it’s the biggest towel they own. After spreading it out and sitting down, he digs through the pile again to find his sunglasses. They’re his favorite pair because they look just like the ones Tom Cruise wears in that movie where he dances around in his underwear. Jake slides them on and leans back against his elbows, keeping his head up so he can casually glance around the pool. With his eyes hidden, no one will be able to tell he’s watching.
Despite the clear sky and warm weather, the pool isn’t very busy today. Jake turns his attention to a group of high school kids gathered near the deep end. The two girls are lying on their backs and seem more interested in sunbathing than taking a dip in the water. Their bronze skin is shiny and greasy from all the baby oil they keep rubbing on. Lots of girls come to the pool to work on their tans, never once stepping foot in the water. Jake’s not sure why they bother since they could lie around just about anywhere else without having to pay an admission fee. Girls in high school are weird, though. One day they wake up with boobs and start showing them off every chance they get. They’re pretty stupid, Jake thinks.
The two older guys are soaking wet and don’t act much differently than Jake and Bobby. Earlier, Jake noticed them trying to outdo each other by taking turns jumping off the diving board to see who could make the biggest splash. They really thought it was funny when they caused water to shoot across the deck, hitting the girls. The shorter one with shaggy dark hair suddenly leans over the girl closest to him and wrings his trunks out, making sure to get her good and wet. She squeals and tells him to cut it out in a really annoying, high-pitched voice. He laughs and gives his friend, who’s taller with blonde hair, a loud, smacking high-five.
Jake wonders if the girls and guys are paired off into couples. It seems everyone in high school is obsessed with finding someone to go steady with – a boyfriend to hang all over, a girlfriend to paw at when no one’s looking. Jake can’t believe he’s on the cusp of such a strange new world, where going steady and driving and parties are everything – a place where full grown adulthood is the next step. If he finds it challenging to fit in and act normal now, he can’t imagine how much harder it will be when he’s older. It’s like there’s this set of rules that he never got a chance to read. Even when he figures out what he should be doing, it’s usually too late. When he leaps into the deep end of the pool, nothing pleases him more than landing the perfect dive with little to no splash, which is the exact opposite from all the other boys who aren’t happy unless they’ve soaked innocent bystanders.
If it was just splashing and sports, roughhousing around and making gross sounds with your armpits, Jake figures he could manage. But other things worry him. In just about any situation, he’d be better off if he just went against his instincts. Instead of staring at the high school boys, Jake should be gawking at the girls with their oiled-up skin and budding curves. He should be waiting in wild anticipation for a bikini top to slip down just enough to reveal a quick glimpse of nipple, like his friend Bobby. The chests he finds thrilling are always on display here at the pool – he just has to be careful in taking a peek without being noticed. It’s the guys who excite him, the way they horse around, sometimes even pulling their trunks down to moon each other. Behind the protected darkness of his shades, he takes in every detail of the boys and their increasingly adult bodies. Muscles spread and flex across their backs, arms, and naked torsos. The shorter guy even has hair sprouting across his chest. For a moment, Jake gets a little too excited and has to shift around, but that quickly dissipates when he stares down at himself. He has such a flat, narrow chest, not a single hair to be seen. He’s so scrawny you can actually see the outline of his ribcage, and his limbs are like toothpicks. Jake feels like such a little kid and worries that his body will never expand and grow or change at all. He fears he’ll always look the same, trapped inside the body of a child forever.
Jake hears wet feet smacking across the deck and glances over to see his friend Bobby approaching. “Still resting?”
“Yeah,” Jake answers. “The sun feels good.”
Bobby agrees, pulling his own towel out. He snaps it in the air before spreading it out next to Jake and sitting down.
“It’s getting a little hot, though.”
“Here, this will cool you off,” Bobby says, shaking his wet head at Jake.
“Haha, funny.” Jake removes his shades only long enough to wipe them off with the edge of his towel.
“Hey, you want to spend the night with me this Friday?”
“Yeah, sure,” Jake answers without giving it much thought. “I’ll have to ask my parents first.”
“It’ll be ok with mine,” Bobby says. “We can watch a movie in my room if you want. My dad hooked up a VCR to my TV. He said it’s so I can watch my stupid cartoon videos and not bother him, but I don’t even watch those anymore.”
“Sure you don’t.”
“I don’t,” Bobby insists. “We can get a scary movie, maybe.”
“I thought your mom didn’t let you watch R-rated stuff? If it’s not rated R, you know it’s no good. Definitely not scary.”
“I think I can get my dad to get us something good,” Bobby says. “He’s on this movie buying kick lately. He gets them for cheap somewhere near work. Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“Alright, I said I’d ask,” Jake says, annoyed with all the nagging. “Jesus, you don’t let up.”
Bobby looks away. Jake studies his friend’s body – just as skinny as his, thank God. But he’s sure Bobby will sprout up before long, his body filling out and bulking up in ways Jake can’t imagine for himself. Bobby’s the baseball player, the athlete, so it’s only natural that his body will grow and change into something else. It makes him sad in a way, the idea that the differences between them might one day expand to the point of being insurmountable.
Suddenly, Jake notices that a hushed silence has fallen over the pool. The high school kids are staring over at the locker rooms. So is Bobby. Jake turns to see what’s caught their attention.
It’s a young man making his way around the edge of the pool as he heads to the deep end. He must not be a regular since Jake has never seen him before. He looks to be in his mid-twenties or so. Everyone’s staring because of what he has on: a skimpy pair of tight black shorts that look like bikini bottoms meant for women. It’s a Speedo, which is fine if you’re on TV or getting ready to swim in the Olympics, but this is real life. People don’t wear stuff like that around here.
Jake quickly pushes his sunglasses back on and stares at the form walking by, absorbing every detail. The stretchy material covering his groin leaves very little to the imagination. He might as well be walking around naked – most underwear Jake has seen reveals less. It’s obscene the way the curve of his manhood sticks out, hanging down on full display as if begging to be traced by hungry fingers, inch by inch. His smooth, tanned thighs bulge out, flexing as he walks. A trace of light brown hair covers his chest, and his arms, while not overly muscular, are well-defined.
The high school boys snicker as the man steps up to the diving board. For some reason, Jake feels nervous and exposed, like he’s the one in the tiny swimming briefs for the entire world to see. The man runs down the board, bounces high, and lands a perfectly smooth dive, leaving only the smallest hint of a splash behind. He comes up for air near the floating rope but quickly darts back underwater beneath it, swimming the length of the pool. When he reaches the wall at the shallow end, he turns around to swim another lap. One of the high school boys calls the man a fag. He doesn’t say it loud enough for the guy to hear and defend himself. He says it for his friends, who all start laughing. Coward, Jake thinks. He looks over at Bobby, thankful that his best friend has never made a fag joke. “I’m gonna use the bathroom,” he blurts out, hopping off his towel.
Jake races to the locker room, unsure of what he’s doing. He noticed the guy in the Speedo didn’t bring a towel or anything else with him to the deck. He must have left his stuff inside the locker room – and there it is on the bench against the wall, a pile of clothes that must belong to him, close enough to touch. There’s a dark blue tote bag beneath the bench, along with some tennis shoes that have socks sticking out. Jake moves closer, sliding down the bench next to the clothes, imagining that the man is still inside them. He reaches a hand out and touches the acid washed jeans with the tip of his finger – a jolt of electricity shoots through his entire body. The wild splatter of colors call out to him, the various shades of blue splashed across the bleached out whiteness; he has to feel every inch of the material for himself. Slowly, he runs his finger along the jeans, up to the jagged teeth of the open zipper and the cold metal surface of the button. He takes a deep breath, noticing for the first time that the clothes have a light scent of cologne, something masculine and woodsy. He longs to pull the clothes up to his face to breathe in that alluring smell. He doesn’t want to forget this moment, delicate and dangerous as it may be. To reach inside the jeans and get his hands on the man’s underwear – he could do it if he wanted, but he’s scared. It would be like walking off a cliff. A single step and down he’ll fall, tumbling into the deepest abyss.
A sound from across the room disrupts his train of thought. As if withdrawing from a fire, his hand snaps back. He turns to see a very young boy rounding the corner into the locker room. The kid looks younger than Sampson – a baby, basically, with his full, round cheeks and pudgy arms and legs. He flies past Jake, who sits in a stunned silence, his knee barely a centimeter from making contact with the man’s clothes. Excited to reach the pool, the boy doesn’t acknowledge Jake’s presence at all. The floor is wet and slippery, and Jake wants to tell him to slow down. He shouldn’t be running in the first place. That’s what all the signs say. It’s dangerous. He could fall and hurt himself. By the time he opens his mouth, the boy is gone.
Jake looks back to the jeans and rumpled t-shirt, but the spell has been broken. He feels ridiculous, like some pervert stealing a lady’s panties off the clothesline behind her house. Jake jumps off the bench and runs from the locker room, much faster than the young boy. He’s lucky not to slip and fall.
“Sampson!” he yells at the edge of the shallow end. “Get out, we’re going home.”
“Come over here,” Sampson calls back in an infuriatingly chipper tone. He’s leaning over something on the side of the pool. “Look at this.”
Jake walks around to his brother. Crawling on the deck below Sampson’s careful gaze is a dark June bug. “It was drowning, so I rescued it.”
“Ok, whatever,” Jake says. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Alright,” Sampson says, keeping his eyes trained on the bug. “First I have to do CPR.” He reaches a finger out and pins the June bug against the deck. “There, CPR,” he says, squishing the bug until its guts squirt out.
“That’s gross,” Jake says, looking away from the splattered bug. “Why do you do stuff like that?”
Sampson shrugs. “I don’t know.” He dips his hand beneath the water to wash away the slimy insect guts. “Help me up.” He reaches his arms up for Jake to grab. Once he’s out, they walk over to their pile of stuff, where Bobby still sits.
“You guys leaving?”
“Yeah,” Jake answers.
“I’ll come too.”
“Ok,” Sampson echoes, pulling his shirt over his head.
“You should have dried off first,” Jake tells his brother. “Now your shirt is all wet.”
“So what,” he says, sitting down to pull his flip-flops on. “It’ll dry.”
The boys gather their belongings and head out. As they walk through the locker room, Jake can’t help but take one last look at the Speedo man’s pile of clothes still sitting on the bench, waiting. Filled with an aching sense of wonder, he thinks it’s probably best to stay away from the pool for a while.