Many years ago on an Italian lake, on an evening that smelled like cypress and salt and red wine, my friends and I took turns on a rented paddleboat, cycling over the lapping surface, all of us full of laughter and delight.
This weekend Scott and I rented a paddleboat at the Leavenworth campground, but this time, the experience was quite different.
It was an overcast, raw day, the wind gusting in damp spurts, then falling flat and silent. We were the first people of the season to rent a paddleboat, and it took some time to sort out padlock keys and life vests.
The cashier gave us a doubtful look when we said we were all going in the same boat (okay, so we’re not petite; I’ll admit that), but the boat clearly stated it was built for up to 775 pounds, and we’re not that big, thank you very much.
We got the kids tucked into the rear-facing seats and then we got in and pushed off.
Have I mentioned I am terrified of water? Despite surviving a number of instances of near-drowning, and despite having a passable ability to swim in most cases, I feel outwitted by water. It’s so deceitful. It can look so gentle, so cool in the lacerating sun; I love the way it sounds against any kind of shore. But succumb to it, get too far away from terra firma, and you’ll find it turns against you, becomes enormous and blind. It will swallow you like plankton.
I generally have to stuff my unease whenever I have anything to do with water. On this day I stuffed my unease so effectively that even when water started running in quietly from the base of the pedals, I didn’t pay it much heed. It was just a little water.
We tooled around the pond, cruised past reeds and ducks and tree branches hung low with wide leaves. The kids were slightly bored. I kept asking: “Are you having fun?” and I kept getting lukewarm answers. The puddles near our feet were getting deeper.
Then, at the center of this (really quite small) body of water, there was a critical dynamic shift, and water began to pour over the bow of the boat, at first just a little, like a faucet, enough for me to say, “Hey, the water’s coming in”—and then the entire front of the boat vanished underwater, and our little paddleboat, folks, was going down.
Scott leaped in the water (wearing his Carhart jacket, jeans and boots) and I sort of fell in after him (wearing an unzipped fleece coat that immediately became tangled up in my arms). From the surface of the water (the endless, sightless, unfeeling water) I could see both of my children above me, rocking forward out of the boat, two tumbling sacks at the mercy of physics.
I thought: they’re wearing life jackets.
I thought: this is no time to panic.
I panicked anyway. But only briefly, before I realized I was hyperventilating and I had better get busy and grab that fucking boat and swim. I also realized that for reasons I can only attribute to the Great Spirit and a host of angels, neither child fell out of the boat, and now they were both wailing above me, with Scott already swimming and pulling the boat.
If I haven’t mentioned that Scott is heroic in any time of crisis, now is a good time. He does not panic. He acts. In this case, he quickly assessed that the boat was not going to sink entirely, that the children were still in it, that the water was very cold, and that the best plan was to swim like hell. He would have saved me too, if I had been unable to collect myself, or disentangle my arm from my jacket, but luckily, I got it together.
We swam. For about a thousand miles. In cold, repugnant water that I involuntarily swallowed, barely keeping my head above the black surface, hauling the boat, my fleece coat wrapped around my right arm and weighing about fifty pounds.
Jordan kept wailing: This is very dangerous! And: You’re going to lose your coat!
Maya became perfectly still, tiny white hands clamped to the sides.
At last Scott found his footing, and I hauled up after him, and we plucked out the kids and dragged that stupid contraption up on the grass.
Maya declared: “Well. We’re not going to do that again.”
She’s a wise child.