Main Drain

Main Drain

Main Drain 1080 814 Joanna Theiss

Arriving home from camp, Joan’s skin is chlorine-itchy. Joan wants to tell her mom about the girl who almost drowned today, but her mom is watching Geraldo and you do not interrupt Geraldo.

Joan drops her duffel bag on her bed and waits for the chirrups of the commercial break.

“Come fold,” her mom yells.

Joan’s mom is standing in front of the couch, and she is picking her underwear out of the clean laundry pile. When Joan reaches for a pair of shorts, her mom says, “That poor woman. She told Geraldo that she got molested by her own father but totally forgot about it until therapy.”

“How do you forget about that?” Joan says. Her mom doesn’t respond.

“One of the girls at camp almost drowned today. The lifeguard had to dive in.”

“Shush,” her mom says, eyes in their pink frames focused on the television. “It’s back on.”

*

Joan and her mom moved back to Michigan after the divorce to take care of Grandpa, who has dementia and needs an oxygen tank to breathe. When they first drove into town, their station wagon stuffed full, her mom pointed out the landmarks.

“There’s the high school, where me and your dad went,” she said. “There’s the church where you got baptized.”

One month into their new situation, her mom has complaints. Grandpa is so addled, he sometimes thinks her mom is his high school sweetheart. Joan’s dad does not pay enough in child support. If the lawyer had been better, her dad would be paying twice that amount.

Because Joan’s mom says she’s old enough to pitch in, Joan scans the jobs on offer on the grocery store’s corkboard. A swim camp, its logo a fat, blooming rose, is hiring counselors. Joan can’t remember the last time she went swimming, but when she thinks of the descent through water, of scraped toes on the coarse concrete of the pool’s deep end, she sucks in her breath and holds it until she feels her eyes bulge. When she lets herself breathe, the relief is so pure that she yearns for the sensation again.

She rips off the fluttering strip under the poster.

*

At swim camp, Joan is in charge of ten kids, which seems like a reasonable number until she is alone in the pool with all of them.

The boys use kickboards like shovels, digging up water that falls heavily around Joan. The boys are bad, but the girls are worse. The girls expect the impossible: for Joan to both assure them they are safe and excite them about the joys of swimming.

But Joan cannot deliver on that. There is no relief for her now. She hates the water’s relentless insistence, its search for any way inside her body. For hours after she swims, rage sticks in her throat.

The little girl who almost drowned today had inched herself away from Joan and the other campers, got to the deep end, and let go, while Joan was hating.

While Joan was hating, the lifeguard had cut through the sky and sliced into the water, emerging with the little girl. The girl’s hair was flattened across her forehead like toilet paper that clings to the inside of the bowl.

After, the camp director yelled at Joan. The lifeguard, bulging attractively in her red swimsuit and terry cloth shorts, picked at her cuticles.

“We expected more from you, of all people,” the director said, looking hard at Joan.

*

Her mom allows Joan to go to the roller rink, if she comes home by nine-thirty.

“I’m not driving you, though. Ride your bike.”

“Where is the rink?”

“You know.”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been.”

“You have been,” her mom says. “Before we left.”

“How would I remember that?”

“Anyway, it’s just on the other side of Hall Road.”

*

“You’re Joan Nowack! I’m Melody! Melody Mazur!” The girl thuds down on the bench next to Joan. Her breath smells like salted pretzel, and, more faintly, like her braces. “I’ve been meaning to say ‘hi’ since forever, but I’m in the other pool with the older kids. You’ve got the little ones, right?”

“Yeah. Not my first choice.”

“No, it wouldn’t be mine, either, if I were you,” Melody says. “I can’t believe you came back. So weird. But, like, in a good way. Brave.”

Another girl rolls to a stop in front of the bench. She delicately cocks one skate onto its toe end.

“Hey, do you remember Joan Nowack? The girl who drowned?”

Joan thinks Melody must be confused, or maybe she’s talking about Joan’s camper, whom the lifeguard had to rescue today.

Joan is about to correct her when the other girl says, “God, Melody. She didn’t drown.”

“Okay, fine. She almost drowned. Happy now?”

Joan is underwater when the other girl says, “Yes.”

Joan makes Melody tell, though Melody is fuzzy on the details, about how Joan came to be sitting at the bottom of the deep end at swim camp the summer Melody and Joan were five.

What Melody remembers is the clown, the clown who brought Joan the biggest bunch of balloons Melody had ever seen. The clown who sang a funny song, to cheer Joan up because she had been out for so long.

“In a coma, like on Guiding Light,” Melody says.

“Why would you want to work at the same camp where you almost drowned?” the other girl asks.

They do not believe her when she says that she doesn’t remember almost drowning.

*

A few years later, Joan will convince herself that she remembers. She will use the story, especially the part about her parents leaving town after it happened and keeping it a secret from her, as currency among her college friends. A credit scored in the game of whose family is more dysfunctional.

But later, when Joan gets married and has a child of her own, Joan will decide that she doesn’t remember. What Joan briefly thought of as memory—soft blue light descending through bubbles, a splotch of rust around a screw holding a drain in place—are images from a dream.

Joan will not talk about it.

Joan’s wife will teach their little girl to swim.

Joan will stay home and fold the laundry.

Header photograph © Galduryndari D.

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    Harold Theiss 04/23/2021 at 4:11 pm

    Good story. Joanna’s writing style is very good. The reader is constantly encouraged to continue reading to learn what comes next.

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