By Barbara Poelle
Ahh, summertime. And the living is easy. Unless you’re in publishing this summer, then the living is endless hours of bingeing and cutting. But that doesn’t make as nice a song.
When I was just a little Shark, June through August was easy livin’! Summer was for campfires and hiking boots, ice cream cake and sun tea, bronze skin and green hair.
Yes, I looked like some sort of novelty pencil top troll during the summer because blonde hair turns bright green with prolonged chlorine exposure. And prolonged expose I did. The moment the sun came up to the moment it dipped behind Mrs. Studie’s house, I spent every waking minute in the backyard, swimming. I would call over KelC, King-Thing, and Spaghetti and we would crank up the New Kids on the Block and hang tough in the summer sun. But when the three of them would pull themselves out, dangling their legs and drinking Diet Cokes on ice, I was still doing handstands in the shallow end, diving for rings and sticks in the deep end, and begging them to come back in and play; I was never done swimming.
Are you there with me? Think 13 years old. Think the year before bikinis and boy’s phone numbers. The year before varsity and calculus. Can you hear NKOTB with their tinny croon on the boom box? Can you hear the dog bark at a passing car, a bird call to its mate, a distant plane passing over head? Can you be there?
Now cut to the sound of the house door swinging shut on the porch. Hear Jordan Knight cut off mid-falsetto. Hear the heavy click of a tape being changed. Hear Axl.
Welcome to the Jungle.
When the screen door slides open, the squeak slicing the air like a trumpet blast announcing royalty, you’ll need a second. You will think to yourself, how do I process this? How do I describe what I am seeing? I’ll help you: What you are seeing is the result of an evening back in college when Reese Witherspoon and Aphrodite got drunk and let things go too far. Yes, this is their love child. No, go ahead and stare. I know, trust me. I grew up 3 years behind this. The thick blonde hair, the spattering of freckles across the bridge of the nose that only romance heroines have, the blue and green checked bikini, simultaneously demure and filthy. Yes, yes, drink it in. I’ll wait.
You will notice that KelC has been struck dumb mid-sentence, King-Thing powers down the rest of her coke without taking a breath, and Spaghetti is just open mouthed gaping. They’ll be okay, they’ve seen it before. It just takes a second. What you are seeing pour herself onto a lounge chair and pick up reading material (maybe Cosmo, maybe Skeleton Crew), is my older sister. For reference purposes we will use the name the Underground French Mafia uses when tracking her whereabouts: Le Bink. (The Underground French Mafia, much like the kingdoms of Florin and Guilder, have to keep tabs on the most beautiful women in the world. I don’t know why, I am not in the UFM. Or from Florin or Guilder.)
Cut to everybody’s favorite Shark, flopping in the shallows, spotting someone dry and fresh; someone to plaaaaaay.
“Le Bink! Le Bink! Wanna play paddle ball?”
Le Bink has adjusted her tortoise shell sunglasses and picked up her magazine, the pages sounding like gunshots as they turn.
“Le Bink, Le Bink, wanna dive for sticks?”
“Le Bink, Le Bink, wanna play Monkey See Monkey Do?”
“Le Bink, Le Bink, wanna play Jump or Dive?”
Pause. Slow grin.
Okay, now remember that scene in Braveheart when William Wallace is like, “No, guys, it’s okay; I am just going to talk to him, nothing bad will happen.” And his bekilted buddies are like, “Dude, don’t do it, remember last time when you said nothing bad was gonna happen and they played canasta with your innards?” (Yeah, I totally slid “bekilted” in there. I am feeling good about that.) Along the pool edge, KelC, Spaghetti and King-Thing suddenly start to murmur and burr to each other, this Scottish Trio has been here with me before.
See, Jump or Dive’s inventors (uh, and competitors) are not the sharpest knives on the tree. Basically I launch myself into the air and at the apex of my upwards arc, Le Bink will call out either “Jump” or “Dive” and I have .07 seconds to rearrange all of my limbs to allow for the according end of my body, either feet or head, to enter the water first.
So it begins. I thump towards the end of the board and launch myself up into space. I just know Le Bink is going to start out with the big guns in order to get me to leave her alone, so I already begin to pike my body into dive position mid-air.
“Jump!” she calls, ohdearGod I misjudged! Heaving my spine back as if I have run into a low slung limbo pole, I overcompensate and back-flop hard onto the surface of the water. I come up sputtering and the Scottish trio is clucking and shaking their heads, while Le Bink flinches and “ooohs” over the top of her magazine.
“I’m okay, I’m okay, I ‘m ready…” I say as I heave myself up the ladder out of the deep end. My size sevens slap rapidly against the gritty surface of the board, and once again I am in space. I know that she is going to say ‘Dive’ because she thinks that I think she is going to say “Jump”. So again, I am already head to knees on my upward arc.
“Jump!” she calls and ohthehumanity, pull up Goose, Pull UP! but I just can’t get there and I hit the water in a perfect sitting position, the slap on my rump worthy of the one I deserved (but never got ha-HA!) for outlining the flowers on the kitchen wallpaper in blue ink.
This continues, me attempting to predetermine what it is Le Bink wants to see, launching limbs and extremities into the fray, only to emerge, sputtering and baffled, to the surface. After a particularly spectacular miscalculation where I may or may not have dislocated seven out of ten toes, the Scotsmen are practically keening. Even Le Bink is looking a little green around the gills.
But I willna surrender!
My arms, splotched and shaking like raspberry jello (which my mom has already called out that she is making for a snack for all of us) lift my shivery corpse up the ladder. I cross to the board. Spaghetti has found some bagpipes and their mournful tone fill the air. King-Thing clutches her kilt, white knuckled and pale faced. KelC is keening, “Mercy! Just cry out Mercy!”
My feet step to the board, chlorine teardrops falling in slow motion from the curve of my ankle bone. Forty yards away, Le Bink narrows her eyes. I am exhausted, but as I start the sprint to the end of the board and launch myself into the air, I know.
She is going to call Jump.
I leave my feet beneath me, my spine straight, my dignity rising with me as I arc through the air.
“Dive!” she yells.
I give it everything I have. I jackknife as if snapped in two. Instead, I end up beautifully parallel to the water’s surface.
Now, I have never been thrown through a plate glass window (though for goodness sakes I came awful close once and I might of kinda deserved it) but I would imagine that it would be a similar feeling to what I experienced that day. I feel like I hit and then the surface tension just held me for a quiet, achingly beautiful moment and then the water just kind of folded me into its arms, submerging me, like that fat woman who used to over-hug me at the racquetball club. The impact itself was like being bitch-slapped by Poseidon. I would have thrown up in my mouth except for the fact that my lower intestine had already launched itself up my esophageal tract and lodged against my uvula.
The bagpipes blew one final note as I sunk to Davy Jones’s locker. And then I was up at the surface, gasping and heaving, as the Scotsmen just shook their heads and left the scene slowly, off to mourn.
And to eat raspberry jello.
And this, my dear friends, is what you are doing when you write what you think I want to see and not what is organically you. No matter how much you think you know what I am going to look for, or say, or want to add to my list, you can’t dive when you are in jump position. Stop trying to turn that historical fiction into a thriller. Don’t put the dog in the YA. You cannot wait for me to call out what I want, you have to throw yourself into your choices for genre and character and execution wholeheartedly and if we connect great, if not, that’s okay too; you’ll find someone you will connect with. Launch it into the air and own it all the way down.
Although who am I kidding. Twenty years later and still…this August? Break out the haggis, it’s on.
But this year, I KNOW she thinks that I think she is going to say Dive, so I will Jump. Unless she is thinking that I am thinking that she is thinking Dive, and knows I will Jump…then I should Dive.
So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me….