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Breathing Underwater.

Garth had told Jay he was a professional diver on their second date, almost four years ago, and had avoided all water-related activities since. The lie wouldn't have been a problem if Jay's cousin wasn't, as luck would have it, an Olympic hopeful swimmer, or if Jay hadn't always--as he put it--loved the way a man's body "rose and dove in a single motion" through a current, which was his first response when Garth told him, across that restaurant table, that he spent his early twenties glistening like a mirage in water shocked blue with chlorine, his body hit with those shining fluorescent lights as he shot across the black lines in record speed. Ever since, Garth didn't have to actually defend the lie to Jay so much as either pretend to be sick, or injured, whenever swimming was called for, which wasn't often. He got cramps when Jay wanted to go to the pool. He developed a convincing and unexpected allergy to chlorine.

Garth and Jay had taken their Sunday picnic from the town green to the lip of Black Lake, a body of water twenty miles inland of Cape Cod's coast that was known for looking like a pupil from the sky. It was early summer, the grass hot and dead under the cloth. Jay moved closer to Garth and rested his hand on his thigh, biting into an apple, just as Garth noticed the small head a dozen yards into the brown water, the tiny hand slapping noiselessly. The real problem was that, so unlike him, Garth had forgotten his lie just then. When he stood, his knee struck Jay's nose, and Garth sensed him wince and turn away as he dove into that boiling brown water, the pebbled bottom digging into his chin. He swam out fast and saw--a child, the body submerged, air bubbles pocking the surface of the water. What he remembered next was the cold metal of the small white lifeboat that had appeared, rocking with the lurch of CPR, and the sight of families standing on shore, and Jay, holding his bleeding nose with a cloth napkin, smiling like an idiot.

The real problem was that Jay had missed seeing Garth out there in the water--his vision clouded with tears--and that a dad on the beach who had gotten to Jay first was a reporter for the local paper. The real problem was that Jay had spilled every detail about Garth, his partner--a word Jay had avoided using to describe them until then. The real problem: Jay had unloaded all those years of who Garth was. Including, of course, how good Garth was with kids, his sixth sense for when food was about to burn, how long they had been together, and his status as once a record-holding diver, best-in-state.

Garth held a golden memory of his first important lie, the first time he'd ever experienced the quiet thrill of getting away with something. He remembered the way the words blurted out in a way he almost could control, how easy--even clean--it was to tell his close friend Erin that day before gym class that he could see the future, that he'd seen it before, actually. When prompted for a prophecy, Garth shut his eyes, listening to the sound of basketballs hitting the glossy gym floor. He concentrated on his breathing and told her she would be famous one day.

"How?" she asked, skeptical.

"I think it's singing," Garth had said. "Or dancing. Something. When you get nervous you sing to yourself."

Garth had heard from a classmate that Erin had taken to singing annoyingly to herself during quizzes in English. He took the easy leap of imagining she enjoyed it, that he could flatter her into believing.

Erin looked a little stunned, pleasantly surprised, and Garth felt the same about what he'd just done. What he didn't realize before stepping off the bleachers and standing against the padded wall to be picked for softball was that Erin then told her friends, and they told their friends, and the next day during homeroom several others came asking. And Garth had good visions for them too, took what he knew of them and like recombinant DNA, or even magic, made whole a future in which any offer of success seemed inevitable, any good trait everlasting, glowing with promise.

Garth woke to the sound of the newspaper hitting Jay's pillow. It had been a long night of talking--about ambitions and feelings, the dumb pride Jay now felt for Garth--and it occurred to Garth that he should feel proud, too--or, if not proud, exactly, something good. He should feel he had saved something, because he had, after all. But it registered differently for Garth, as if he'd only let something slip, like he had sealed his fate as someone who would inevitably become exposed for who they truly are.

"Guess who made the front page?" Jay said, sitting down on the bed.

Garth sat up and leaned over Jay's shoulder, starting at the top. There was a spliced photograph--of him in the boat, bent over and looking like a wet, tired mess, and of the boy, Brady, a photo that must have been taken after Garth and Jay had left, because he was smiling. The photo announced the boy's status as all right despite the close call, "close call" being a phrase the reporter had used at least a dozen times to describe the incident. Garth felt those words shot back at him as he read, as if it were really his close call, and was quietly pleased he had accidentally struck Jay, kept him from seeing anything.

The article explained the details of the event. It included a quote from Garth, something he hadn't even remembered saying: I saw something out there and something in me just leapt up. To be honest I wasn't even thinking. He was torn between finding this quote from himself dumb and probably doctored, edited by the writer, or actually heroic, as if something about him was undeniably good, innately made for that very moment.

What convinced Garth this wasn't true--that he was not, in fact, made for that moment--was a line that came about three-quarters of the way through the piece. His heart briefly seized at it: He used to swim professionally, a skill that certainly came in handy, Jay Glover says. The words threw him back down to earth, and he found them obnoxiously amateur, totally sloppy. "Handy" in particular struck Garth as toolbeltish and lazy. That Jay had so adamantly claimed Garth as his partner, a moment Garth remembered in vivid color, and was not mentioned as such in the article, came off to Garth as, at best, passively homophobic.

"They don't say you're my partner in this," Garth said, lying back down. The pillow gave a deflating sigh as he rested his head on it. "I didn't even notice," Jay said, which was the wrong response. And then, after a pause, thank God--"But you are."

Garth considered who might call him on the lie as he tried to fall back asleep, because it was inevitable, he thought--someone would. It was so wrong. The most sport he played in his early twenties was a brief stint as a beginning tap dancer, a hobby he gave up after not being the immediate best in a room full of aspiring dancers at his university. The benefit to moving far away from his home and life in Iowa to follow Jay to Massachusetts was that Garth knew no one, which he found refreshing and freeing. But this, he began to consider, was an illusion. He realized--the birds outside cutting the air with their high, piercing noise, the sunlight slicing in through the blinds--that the move had only offered everything he needed to lapse into the old, well-worn habit of making things up.

The problem was that after a while, a few of the things Garth had said began to reveal themselves as true. Chad in the eighth grade made early junior varsity soccer at the high school, and Anna did get the lead in the school musical. It didn't matter that these things were expected, a notion that dawned on Garth often, or that just as many of his peers had nothing come to fruition. The air around him began to feel vaguely dangerous, the ground beneath him slippery.

He held a kind of power, he thought, though it was false. But then, he sometimes wondered--was it?

Garth learned the boat outing was meant to be a celebration, a thank you, held by Brady's parents. The two had come over several nights after the rescue--that was their word for it, "rescue"--and offered Garth, among other things, money. Lee and Louise, a stockbroker and an art teacher at a private high school, bled apology and gratitude in a way that unsettled Garth. But there were moments, as they all sat down to a dinner of homemade pasta, during which Garth could shake off his concern before being snapped with the force of a whip back into it. Lee and Louise explained the plans for the boat party, that all the details were planned, and that it was meant to be a surprise but that Jay wasn't sure when Garth would have to be at work again--so they came out with it. Garth felt briefly locked into something, then soothed himself with the reminder that he would not have to swim, and that it was a kind, benign gesture. He thanked them and said they were looking forward to it, a nod toward their now-labeled partnership.

"We weren't even sure where he'd gone," Lee said after a while, slapping a spoonful of sauce on his plate. "If it weren't for you--" his eyes met Louise's. Lee had said these words, or words like them, dozens of times in the twenty minutes the four had been eating, and Garth could sense it affecting him.

There was a pause as Jay poured wine, an expensive bottle Louise had handed him when they walked in. In the past, Garth had been wary of Jay's drinking. It was true that Jay once had a "drinking problem," which was how Jay described it, something Jay had told Garth after several dates. Garth had never seen anything concerning, no behavior to suggest the problem even as he often found himself looking for vestiges, proof of it. He appreciated that Jay was forthcoming even as he envied the ability to be so open, gratingly honest.

Louise moved her napkin to her lap. "How far down did you dive?"

"It wasn't that far," Garth said.

"He told me Brady was a ways down," Jay said, coiling the pasta around his fork.

"It was kind of far, hard to remember," Garth said. He felt the authority of fact slipping away from him and added, "Maybe a few yards."

He remembered as he took a sip of the wine, nodding across the table at Lee, who held his wife's hand tenderly, that it was barely a couple of feet. He could see, in a strange flash of clarity, that moment at which he had arrived, breathing labored, the brushing of stirred-up detritus on his skin, and the shock of blond hair waving gently under the water, sinking into darkness.

Jay gave up trying to maneuver the pasta onto his fork and picked up his knife. As he cut, the metal made a short scream against the plate.

Garth figured out, now secure in being validated by these small fortunes coming to light in his classmates, that he could choose to see far into the future without repercussion. Amy would get into a top college for acting; Brad would drop out of high school but for something much better--Garth couldn't see what yet, something to do with cars? He began to favor the phrase "Years from now" and see that, in fact, people were wearing their futures on their sleeves, or even someplace more obvious--it just took looking at people the right way. He felt strange, though, walking through the halls of the school, feeling the exerted pressure of the lies around him, tightening the air. Sometimes when he was certain he would be revealed to be a fake, a total liar, he asked himself why he had ever bothered entertaining the lie to begin with. He settled on two reasons before dismissing both; attention, and to be liked.

One morning, Rafe, a younger boy with a snaggletooth who was new to the school and generally unliked, came to Garth crying. Garth was walking up a flight of stairs when he heard the soft sobs behind him and turned to see the boy's small eyes watering with tears. He had stopped even though it disrupted the flow of other students trying to make homeroom.

"You were right," Rafe said. Garth didn't even remember what he'd told Rafe, but he leaned in for a hug, assuming the worst.

"I know," Garth said, then turned and disappeared into the crowd.

It was a large boat, white with golden lines circling the hull, adorned by an enormous white sail that waved in the breeze as if in slow motion. Garth regarded it from a distance, pinched with excitement, as Jay followed. He considered reaching to hold Jay's hand but decided not to, focusing instead on the hot summer day around him, the sweet smell of salt chalking the air, the gulls moving in slow orbit overhead, the dull and distant pang of call bells.

"It's a friend's boat, to be honest," Lee said. He had dressed in bright red shorts, a beige button-up short-sleeve shirt, and sunglasses--an overthought outfit, Garth thought.

"It's great," Garth heard Jay say from behind.

"How far are we going out?" Garth asked, walking up the wooden ramp.

"We're thinking of docking on the Vineyard," Louise said. She had already boarded and looked elegant, relaxed, in her wide hat. She leaned against the railing, and Garth saw Lee watching her, so obviously, publicly smitten. "Some great swimming," she added, "if you're up for it."

When Garth went to college away from home, in New Jersey, he had quietly resolved to become truthful--which was itself the boldest lie. The simple question Where are you from? was met with duplicity: Arizona. A small town in Kentucky. Even as he detected a fresh shame, the fear he had not yet come to realize as fear was laid bare before him: it didn't matter where he was, it didn't matter what he wanted. He couldn't stop.

They stopped near the tip of a dock that stretched nearly a half-mile out. The rest of the boats were out setting lobster traps, the ferry gone, the whole beach vacant except for a few small boats tipped on their sides. The water reflected the sun in a harsh, white shimmer.

The Smalltalk from the Cape had been in turns enjoyable and unbearable for Garth, the heat of the day stinging him as Lee had poured them glasses of red wine and relaxed, talking about the weather, plans for the holidays. Garth wanted badly for Jay to say something, to prove his forethought aloud, but Jay only sat and occasionally sipped from his glass, the wine staining his upper lip a line of dark purple.

"It's a beautiful spot, isn't it?" Louise said.

"It's very nice," Lee added, taking off his shirt. A sweaty fuzz of grey hair slicked his back, and Garth flinched at the sight. But then there was the splash and mist of Lee jumping in, and Louise preparing to go in after him. The amount of fun they were having seemed, to Garth, to border on caricature.

Garth moved closer to Jay, sitting next to him in a way he felt would force Jay to either take his hand or acknowledge an active decision not to. But Jay only looked forward, past him, at the island rippled with trees swaying in the calm breeze, the warm day.

"This is so nice," Jay said. The moment felt avoided to Garth. He felt the sweet wine in his stomach, the warm air made invincibly calm around him. He wanted to prove something to Jay, to seal his lie as true while he still could. He stood and walked to the side of the boat. Louise and Lee were treading water, their arms moving in wide arcs. Garth lifted his shirt over his head, making a point not to turn toward Jay. It was true he had told that lie about being a professional diver in order to level what he had then considered a physical difference he couldn't reconcile--how, he often thought, could a guy like that like a guy like him? Garth wasn't out of shape, but his body sagged slightly, which hadn't even been unseemly to anyone he'd dated before.

Garth aligned his toes against the edge of the boat, steadied his breathing, and briefly imagined himself as Jay saw him. The thought pushed him forward and up, drawn as if by some invisible line, arcing down slow into the bright water. But as he hit the surface, he had taken in a breath, accidentally--a sour pressure pinched the bridge of his nose, and the water tickled his throat, he coughed, and then there was the cold water in his mouth, and he was choking. He couldn't control his arms, and through his panic it occurred to him how strange he must have looked. What Garth remembered next: Jay's hands on his ribs, his legs finally working to tread water, unable to breathe without coughing, the terrified, childish look on Lee's face, which bobbed on the surface feet away, Jay's warm body behind him, and Louise asking from what seemed like a great distance, Is he all right? Is he okay?

Years later, after Garth would settle down with another man, a polite biology teacher named Charles, in a small town in upstate New York, he would walk daily to a pond a half mile from their home. He would go there early in the morning, when the fog lifted off the water with an ethereal shine, and the years would melt around him to reveal the memory of that moment at Black Lake: the sun slanting down in a single cutting ray, the thud of his labored breathing in that boat, the silver whistle swinging from the lifeguard's neck, the held breath of everything as Brady choked out that first living sound. The pond would be the only body of water for miles, which Garth would enjoy. At some point amid the quiet, he would lose that ability to patrol the border of his lies and surrender himself instead to the calm truth. Some spring mornings the fog would come down from the mountains to meet the mist at the water's edge, and when it did, it gave Garth the impression of entering a dream--or, he sometimes thought, of finally waking from one.
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Author:Kispert, Peter
Publication:The Carolina Quarterly
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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