You don’t know how to swim, do you?”
I was surprised. “How did you know?”
He opened his arms wide, taking in the vista of the lake. “Lake,” he said, and then he pointed at me. “David.”
“Okay, Sherlock. I can’t swim,” I admitted.
“Would you like me to teach you?” He stood up, waded into the water, turned and extended his hand toward me.
“I’m actually pretty afraid of water,” I told him. I had to be honest. The idea of deep water sent me into a panic. “I’d rather not.”
He stood his ground with hand outstretched, smiling. “C’mon. Time to be a big boy.”
Reluctantly, I stood and took his hand. He waded me in deeper. To my shins. To my knees. To my waist. I didn’t like the feeling at all.
“Good,” he said, encouraging me. “We’re gonna teach you how to dog-paddle first. It’s the easiest.”
I was nervous. “Dog-paddling?”
“Yeah. Just watch me. You’ll see. It’s totally easy. You see mom’s doing this with their baby’s at the pool.”
“Great. Baby swimming. I feel better already.”
He stepped a few more feet out, and down. The water was at his shoulders. “Watch me. It’s just all about moving your arms and legs at the same time. Keeping your head above the water and just breathing regular-like.” He did the demonstration for me. It looked easy.
“Okay. Come here,” he said, his chin barely above the water.
I felt the slippery rocks under my feet. The water darkened where he stood. I hesitated.
He waded back to me. “If you’re going to learn to swim, you have to get in the water. You gotta trust me. I’ll take care of ya.”
Taking my hand, he slowly tugged me forward. When it reached chest level, I began to pant. He stopped, looked at me, and squeezed my hand. “We can do it here, I think.” He held his arms out just under the surface of the water. “I want you to lay chest down on my hands. I’m gonna hold you to get you started.”
His hands felt strong and reassuring as they pulled me in. I leaned forward onto his arms, keeping my head arched high above the water.
“Okay. Now slowly begin to stroke with your arms. Keep your hands cupped. And kick with your legs.”
He held me firmly in place as I did what he said. It felt like I was trying to move away from him in the water, but he kept me in place with his fingertips on my ribcage.
“Okay, a little faster now. Both arms and legs.”
I stroked and peddled faster. I felt it lift my body up in the water and off his arms.
“Watch your breathing. Keep it nice and normal. Relaxed.” His voice was soothing. “You’re doing great.”
I could feel that my muscles were still sore and strained, but the movement in the buoyant water made them feel better.
“Okay. I’m gonna letcha go in a minute, but I’m right here. So, there’s nothing to worry about. All right?”
I didn’t like the sound of that but I said, “Okay.”
“Just keep it going,” he instructed. He pulled his arms away from under me. I moved into the water.
“Shit!” I barked, feeling uncertain.
“Calm! Nice and steady. You look great,” he called after me.
“Shit.” I could see that I was moving into deeper, darker water. I really didn’t care for that at all. I turned my head to look back toward the shore and aim in that direction. It looked very far away to me now.
“I’m right with you.” I heard him swimming close to my side. “You’re doing great. You’re swimming, pal!”
My movements became more frantic, wanting to bring the shore to me closer and faster. Soon my toes were touching the bottom again. The slick rocks. I planted my feet and began walking to shallower water. I could hear Ryan behind me.
“You did it!” he yelled. “You swam. You swam the very first time!” He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and patted my stomach like I’d just won a race. “First time, a winner!”
I laughed with my panicked breath, and sat down on the bank. He was next to me.
“Not that bad, was it?” his toothy grin was alive with enthusiasm.
“No,” I lied, water streaming down from my wet hair into my eyes. It was much worse, I thought to myself.
We had our sandwiches and Kool-Aid, spread our towels, and lay in the sun. There was no sound of the outside world, save the occasional plane that flew overhead. It was like our own private Eden. It wasn’t long after we lay down that I heard his light snoring. It was like a lullaby that called to me as well. I drifted away in the warm cocoon of our secret paradise.
When I opened my eyes, I could tell the sun had shifted. Late afternoon. We were in the shade of the elms. I was facing the lake. Ryan was behind me. I turned my head over to face him. He lay there staring at me. “Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he said back.
I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. “Whatcha doing?”
He smiled and blinked. “Memorizing you,” his voice said, dreamily.
I was silent a moment. I wasn’t certain of what he said. I saw a butterfly flit past him. “What?”
“The real color of your eyes. They’re not just blue. There’s some green. Brown. Black.” He pushed my hair behind my ear. “How your ear is shaped like a perfect tulip petal.”
A fingertip outlined the dip beneath my nose and lip. It tickled. It made me scratch my nose.
“The way you sit close to the table when you eat. How you hold your fork upside down to pick up your food…”
He was telling me things I didn’t even know about myself. I’d never even been aware of him watching me that closely. His hand trailed down from my shoulders to the small of my back. “The hair that grows like golden feathers right in the bend of your back.” He rubbed the hair back and forth with the tips of two fingers. I felt it. I’d never known it was there.
“Why?” I asked. I didn’t understand the curiosity.
“Because it’s important.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was amazed. Flattered. No one had ever paid much attention to me before. His eyes remained fixed on me. “When did you first know?”
Then I understood. He’d never asked me the question before. I told him the story. The one that would be with me every day of my life. The beautiful hand. The Coke bottle kiss. The bike ride. The sunburn and Noxema. I described each scene as if I were laying out pictures from a family album.
He was quiet a long spell. Then he said, “That’s why it’s important.”
We swam again. This time I did it without his assistance. Even though it was only dog-paddling, I was doing something I’d never done. He made me proud of myself. I could swim.
When the day waned long enough to bring in cool breezes, we knew to head back. It was a long ride. I sang inside myself the whole time. Beatles, All You Need Is Love.