Men learn to swim in the deep end

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December 21, 2019 by The Citron Review

by Emma Pattee


Here is Gamal’s most treasured memory of his father: a big hand and the freight train impact of it against his bony 5-year-old chest. For a brief moment, Gamal is a starfish dancing in midair, then the smack of water. Liquid in his nose and the back cavern of his throat. His hands lash out, catch on nothing. He coughs twice and goes under.

Beneath the water, there is a different type of light and sound. Gamal can hear the music from the pool bar and something else, the lonely thud of his heartbeat in his ears. Through the milky blue of the hotel pool, he sees his father peering down at him. His father’s face, distorted by the water, is soft and languid. (Gamal likes to think worried but perhaps that part of the memory was added years later at the suggestion of a well-intentioned therapist).

“Like a frog, kid.” Even underwater, his father’s voice is a boom, filling the pool area so that the other parents look over, put white hands up to block the sun from their eyes. What’s going on over there? Gamal’s father is unphased, flicks his cigarette ash into the pool. He doesn’t care what other people think of his parenting.

How did men learn to swim before there were YMCAs and swim lessons? Jumping tangle-limbed off a rock into the current? Escaping a stampede of wildebeest? Diving for shellfish? Even now, ten thousand years of evolution are awakening in Gamal’s body. Nerves firing. Muscle memory. His ancestors learned to swim on dusty riverbanks under the capitalist eye of a crocodile. Gamal learns to swim in the deep end of the Flamingo hotel pool in Las Vegas, 1982.

After pulling himself out of the pool, Gamal faces his father, now seated on the pool chair, smoking. Gamal’s eyes are red and wide from the chlorine. His two tiny fists like apricots.

“You pushed me!” Gamal shrieks.

“A thousand boys learned to swim like that,” his father says over his shoulder, looking for the cocktail waitress with the sunburn who always pours a little heavy. Even in that moment, Gamal is impressed with his father. How his bulky nose creates a sharp line of shadow on his face like war paint. When he leans back on the pool chair, his shoulders are so wide they fall off the sides and his chest puffs up like a komodo dragon. The clack of the gold ring he wears on his pinky finger against the hollow metal of the chair leg. “Halima!,” he motions to Gamal’s mother who is fanning herself in the shade. “Find me that waitress!” He leans back and blows smoke directly towards the sun. Gamal is standing close enough that he can smell his father’s skin; tobacco and Acqua Di Gio. His father is a king among men. This is decades before the cancer and the bankruptcy and all that.

A lifetime later and Gamal has his cargo shorts soaked in the Pearson Community Pool in Anaheim, holding the weight of his son’s slippery brown body like a slug. Tiny fingernails have hooked into Gamal’s wrists. This is his son’s third swimming attempt. The other two ended in tears and a sympathy trip to Dairy Queen.

“Like a frog,” Gamal says. “Just kick like a frog,”

Twig arms striking out in the water. Erratic thrash of legs. The water starts to creep up over the boy’s head and he shrieks, “Dad! Don’t drop me!” He clamps harder on Gamal’s arm, the whisper sting of his little nails creating caters in Gamal’s skin. Gamal has the sudden urge to remove his hands. To shove the little boy out, away from him, to let him sink or swim on his own. To go sit on the bleachers and watch the young moms. His father – years dead at this point – blows smoke with low lidded eyes and says, men learn to swim in the deep end.

Instead, Gamal lifts his son up higher, out of the water. “I got you,” he says. His boy’s body flimsy like rubber, so unprepared for what it will take.


Emma Pattee’s writing has been published in The New York Times and Carve Magazine and is forthcoming in Marie Claire. She was a 2019 AWP Writer-to-Writer mentee and leads the Portland chapter of Women Who Submit. She is currently working on a novel. You can find her on Instagram at @elpattee.



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