by Katie Tonellato
My dad never got into the pool with us when we were kids, despite going to college on a swimming scholarship. Near chlorinated water, my dad’s eyes turned a venomous red and tears pooled from the pink corners. He was a nationally ranked swimmer before progressive goggles were invented. The goggles he used were clear and plastic, digging into the soft skin around the eyes and keeping minimal amounts of water out. The chemicals from the water stripped away the tear film on his cornea, leaving him susceptible to burns, dirt and infections.
All of my memories from pools, lakes and the ocean feature an omission of my dad, and my mom sitting in her tri-fold beach chair, reading a supermarket romance novel while her pale skin burned.
Incendiary as a child, I never made it past the third or fourth round of swim lessons because my mom couldn’t handle having to keep me from talking back to the swim teacher or pushing other kids under water. I bullied both her and my brother, who was clumsy, with his disproportionate feet and head. If my brother didn’t trip into the water I pushed him. If my mom tried to reel me in to wrap me in a towel, I would swim to the middle of the pool. No way she would jump into the water to retrieve me. As a result, my family grew up doggy paddling and pinching our noses before we jumped into water.
I joined the swim team my junior year of high school, still lacking in fundamental skills. For the first week of practice I spent most of the time catching my breath on the wall and wondering how long it would take me to sink to the bottom if I let go. There were over 70 girls in the pool. My coaches and team wouldn’t have been able to see my body past the kicked up water. Except my friends would notice because every time they passed me doing laps they made sure to pull me under by my feet. Learning to stay afloat took over a month.
At my first meet, my dad, who had refused to go to my soccer matches because soccer was “boring” and “gay”, perched on the bottom rung of the bleachers in the murky humidity of the pool, eyes pouring out tears. He wore the same outfit everywhere. A crew neck sweatshirt, a golfing hat to cover his bald head, khaki shorts and navy New Balance sneakers.
I swam in the outside lane, otherwise known as the slow lane, and got 3rd in my heat. My dad walked along the lane line of the pool for the entirety of my race. His voice bobbed in and out with each stroke I took a breathe on.
He drove me home afterwards in his truck. The seats were duct taped and smelled like cigarette smoke.
The entire ride he taught me technique. To hold my hands above my head like an arrow and squeeze. How I could do a flip turn and be ten times faster. To open my palms and look straight ahead.
I fell asleep against the window.
After that car ride, he followed me around the house for the rest of the fall season. If I watched television in my room he knocked on the door and swung it open precariously to talk about swim meet dates. If I went to the bathroom he faced the wall in the corner while I peed to talk about progress plans.
If I waited on the porch for my friends to pick me up he would wait outside with me.
“I think you can get faster than Amber if you just get over the piano on your back,” he said from his seat on the porch steps.
I nodded, “I only need to go down by three seconds and we are tied. But she doesn’t even swim backstroke.”
“Who cares! She’s been swimming her whole life and you just started two months ago.”
“Look at how buff I am now.” I rolled up my sleeve and flexed. “I’m like a man.”
He scoffed, pulling himself up by the railing, “These are muscles.” His own sleeve pushed up onto his shoulder. His arm bulged. The veins in his bicep were a dark purple.
“One day I’m going to be more buff than you,” I said.
“Maybe when I’m dead.”
My ride pulled into the oak leaves piled on the side of the street. I left my dad on the porch. His body disappeared behind our screen door as the car pulled away.
Before water is concentrated with chlorine and poured into fiberglass, concrete or vinyl pools, water is transparent, tasteless, odorless, and colorless. Essentially, in its most basic corporeal form, it is featureless. A blank slate. Yet, it is the solvent of life. Our bodies are made up of 60% water. The vital organs; the brain, the lungs and the heart, are made up of 70% water. Essential to most solutions on earth, its lack of distinctive attributes allows it to react with all of the solutes around it.
Humans are pliant as such. They are what they react to around them. They are solvents. Like the pores of a sponge, they take in their surroundings and become mirrors of them. Refractions of their environments.
Which is why submerging in water is healing. The plunge rinses the body and gives another life, by relieving us of the environment in which we are reacting. Senses are dulled, blurred, muffled, numbed. All that is left is the body itself, skinned and ready to become new.
In my final years of college I got so lonely I felt like a teenager again.
I was going out every weekend to a gay karaoke bar called Nyne and dancing until I threw up in the bathroom or dropped my Alaska credit card in the toilet. I went with anyone who was willing. The DJ played the same three songs on repeat. I danced and danced until my hair was soaked in sweat and makeup ran down my face. Until my physical body was displaced from the bar, somewhere underneath it all.
My roommates Chelsie and Kaycee were usually the ones who went out with me. Neither of them drank. They drove me twenty minutes into Spokane just to babysit me. Chelsie knew the security outside, so we got in for free.
One occasion, I housed an extra beer in my pocket from our house. I beat the system this way. Saving money and staying drunk. We sat at a table and my roommates' eyes danced over me. I felt that without me they didn’t know what to do at a club. I guided what we did, when we went out, how much fun we had, and they held it against me in the morning.
I pulled the beer out of my pocket and chugged it. One of my roommates grinned maniacally, the other looked around the room.
“Katie put that away. You can’t bring in outside drinks,” Kaycee said.
I crushed the empty can in my hand, “just a can.”
I walked over to the counter, saw no trash cans, and set my can on the bartop.
The bouncer followed me and scooped me up under my arm as I started to sit back down. Both my roommates' eyes went wide.
“Whoop.” I turned to him. He was tall, pear shaped and bald. I had seen him there before. I had never seen him smile.
“Is this yours?” He held the can in his other hand.
I nodded. It was nice of him to hold me up.
“You can’t bring outside drinks in here? Do you know how dangerous that is? What if someone spiked a drink or something. Right?”
I nodded, but I could only hear some of what he was saying.
“Don’t do this again.”
My cheeks flushed. After realizing I wasn’t going to be kicked out, my roommates laughed, huddled closer together, separate from me. I sat down again.
“You idiot.” Chelsie’s mouth was tiny and tight.
I shrugged, “Next time I’m making a run for it.”
Kaycee shook her head, “You’re going to get us banned.”
I didn’t care. I didn’t care what he said. I didn’t care if someone spiked my drink. I didn’t care that they watched me all night. I didn’t care that I fell into people dancing, or that their drink soaked through my shirt. I didn’t care that Chelsie got annoyed after having to drag me back to life from the bathroom. I didn’t care that nothing was real and no one cared about me. I didn’t care that they bought me more drinks. They laughed like hyenas. I danced and danced.
On the drive home I pressed my face into the car window. The condensation from outside was like ice on my cheek. When we got home I got out of the car before them, stumbled into the house, and put distance between us. I grabbed a box of cheerios from my cupboard which also housed mushrooms I hadn’t taken that had gone stale, and three packets of edibles. I brought the cheerios with me into the bathroom.
We had one bath at our house. I turned on the water as hot as it went. While it filled I spooned cheerios by the fistful into my mouth. I turned the lights out, immersed in darkness, only the sound of the water flowing.
I placed the cheerio box on the floor before undressing. It was knocked over in my attempts to take off my pants. I dipped into the water and it was scalding. I held onto the wall.
My eyes started to water from the steam. When I was little I used to cry in the bathroom with the space heater on my feet because our house was drafty. The bathroom always seemed like a place of comfort to my family. The only time my dad had cried in our house was in the bathroom. He had an air bubble pressed into a cavity on his tooth. He locked himself in the bathroom and cradled his cheek, lying on the floor, crying.
The only other time I’d heard of my dad crying is when my mom told stories about when my grandma died. The way she told the story, he was bawling, but I couldn’t imagine it like that. My dad was full of humor and anger and care. He didn’t interact with sadness. Unless the force of the emotion had been so strong it had broken free. He might have breathed in, counted to three, breathed out and let it pour out of him like rotten garbage. His purple face crumpled over his knees.
My dad still does not talk about his mom except to talk about her cooking. I tried not to engage in conversations with my own mom about her because it felt sneaky. Like a raw, open cavity we pressed into.
My roommates were banging on the door. I woke up just as my bottom lip sunk below the water line. The box of cheerios was face down on the floor, the bag opened. A few stragglers laid out like little shells on the floor. I called out to them that I was fine. The bath was no longer warm. I got out and water slid off my leg onto the floor. I wrapped a towel around myself and opened the door.
My junior year of college, I had panic attacks every single day. I would lie in bed with my eyes closed. Facing the wall. Facing myself. I cried a lot. I was high all the time. I couldn’t move. That same year I attempted suicide. Curled up on the bathroom floor, head leaning back on the cold porcelain of the tub.
In a last minute moment of weakness I called my dad on the phone.
“Katie what’s wrong?” My name wrapped around his mouth.
My words stuck in my throat. I gurgled them up in small spurts, “I don’t know,” came up.
“Katie, you have to talk to me,” he said.
Katie. I am here. Katie. I have care. Katie. I am on the other end of this phone call.
“Nothing’s wrong,” I cried. Tears fell into my mouth. “There’s nothing wrong.”
“It’s okay. It will be okay.”
He stayed up with me. Hundreds of miles away. An exhale on the other end of the phone. I don’t think he knew what was happening or what he could do. Both of us were helpless at that moment. All I remember him saying is “It’ll be okay.”
Over and over again. “It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.”
He pulled me out of school. I left two weeks before finals and stayed at my parents house. It was a silent summer. People tip-toeing around the house. I could hear them like mice, opening the fridge quietly, telling someone to turn the television down, pacing past my room, afraid to knock. On the odd occasion I was home and awake everyone would hide in their rooms except for my dad, who pretended to do chores in the kitchen, watched tv with me in the living room, and asked if I wanted anything from the store.
I worked four jobs. So many jobs that I didn’t need to think about anything but working. When I came home I collapsed onto my bed, slipped on the Winnie the Pooh sleeping mask my mom bought me the year before for Christmas and passed out. I would get about four hours of deep sleep before my alarm would go off and I would be up again once more, heading out the door in my Doggy Daycare t-shirt.
Sometimes when I slept, I would wake up and my dad would be at my door looking in at me, unsure, still, like there was something sitting on the tip of his tongue. All the memories from when I was a kid. When I scraped my knee after falling off my scooter and he put neosporin over the rocks embedded in my skin. When I fell out of the back of his parked truck and was convinced I broke my arm so he made a make-shift cast that I wore for two weeks. When I lost my first soccer game and cried inconsolably in his lap. When I got homesick at my first sleepover and he came to pick me up. When he would ground me for doing something mean to my brother but would never let me miss going with my friends' family to a play that he knew our family couldn’t afford. When I snuck out to the skatepark in the middle of the night and had to call him to pick us up in another city after we missed the last bus. When I was small, smaller than his knees and I would stand on his feet in between his legs and he would walk me around, holding me while I watched the world grow small around me.
I dodge around undergraduate students trying to reach the fourth floor. I technically recognize that I am not late in any sense of the word, but my mind can’t quite wrap itself around the idea of the potential of being actually late. I am headed to my Literary Journal class, in my first year of my Master’s program. My headphones are hanging from my pocket and I step on them as I walk-run before reeling them back in by the chord.
My phone rings in my pocket as I pull up to the classroom. The sound alone overcrowds my already, fast-beating heart. My dad is calling. The phone is heavy in my hand. I think about smashing it on the floor before answering it.
“Hey dad,” I say out of breath.
“God damnit I have a funny story. Are you busy?”
“I’m just heading to class.”
“Alright, I’ll be quick.” He won’t. “So you know how your mom and I have been reading her old diaries?”
I give him a gentle “hm,” half listening to him ramble on about my mom’s school girl crush on some band singer. People wave at me as they walk into the classroom. I wave back. I stand next to a window, looking out over the mountain of Flagstaff, Arizona. A landlocked state. Less than 1 % of its surface is water. The air is sparse and dry. I miss the water of my hometown. I miss walking along the waterfront smelling the fish and watching birds fly from the posts of wood that had once been docks, but had burned down in a fire, leaving charred and wet poles that receded as the tide came in and out.
This summer I will move back to Tacoma for two months while paying rent in Arizona. Throughout high school I dreamed of leaving Tacoma behind. I rarely went back when I was in my undergrad. I wasted time drinking and partying and making plans for a future that lost its pulse in my hands. My old bedroom gathered dust. The dust collected on the window sills, my swim trophies, my old children's books, my Letterman’s jacket. I was going to become a famous writer or comedian. I was going to go to Uganda, Italy, China, Tasmania, and Russia. Leaving my parents at home to wonder where I was, what I was doing, who I was with. If I was okay.
I look at the phone screen while my dad talks, the time trickles forward.
“How's what’s her face?”
“You mean my girlfriend? Bailey’s fine. I’ll make sure to tell her you say hello.”
“Don’t tell her that. What if she thinks I like her,” he replies and I want to laugh and cry. My professor has started class.
“Hey dad, I have to go to class.”
“Alright sweetheart I’ll talk to you later.”
He hangs up first.
I’m in my childhood home for Christmas break, which truly isn’t my childhood home anymore. After I moved out, my mom gave my older sibling my room, my family acquired four cats, and all of the furniture had been replaced.
My mom is cooking from the other room, and Christmas music is playing. The smell of baked bread is in the air. She walks into the living room with glazed eyes. Ever since my brother got his job at a dispensary she is always high. She is more tolerable this way.
“Well, Kate,” she pats my thigh, “We’re glad you’re home. Your dad has really missed you.”
“I’m glad HE misses me,” I reply.
“He really does.” Laurie says without looking up from their phone. They have short bleached hair. They are three years older than me and still live with our parents.
“No seriously he’s been a bit depressed.” My mom rubs her hands up and down her pant leg. The ring on her finger leaves indents on her skin.
“I hear him crying sometimes,” Laurie says. They are flippant, cold.
I feel buried. “You do?”
“The pills are making him sensitive.”
He calls them his “girl pills.” Really they are testosterone suppressants so his once cancer filled prostate remains cancerless.
I’m not sure how to respond.
“Doesn’t he still go golfing with his friends?” I know he does. He always has a story to tell me when he calls me.
“Sure, but they’re getting old and weird,” my sibling says.
Footsteps walk around upstairs. A door opens.
My dad’s feet are lighter on the steps than I remember them. He walks into the room heading for the kitchen. It’s jarring. He has lost all of the muscles that once made up his shoulders. Pulled skin reveals gaps where the muscle has atrophied in his arms. The skin of his face pulls down like the jowls of a fish. He sits next to my mom on the couch. She runs a hand over his head, taking his hat off. He cradles into himself.
“Dad,” I say.
He doesn’t open his eyes. He hm’s at me.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“I’m sleeping.” he replies, “I would be a lot more okay if you stopped asking me questions.”
His smile reaches outside his face.
Now, back in Flagstaff for another three months before I head to Tacoma for the summer, I have panic attacks before I go to bed. I thought I had cured myself of them. But, recently, I’ve had a few uncontrolled, soundless ones.
Here’s how it starts: I lay in bed. My space heater purrs because my roommate won’t let us turn on the heat. The blinds are closed to my window, but because I have so much junk on the window sill they are still cracked, the light pushes in from the stars outside. The shadow of a pine tree moves back and forth.
I hear my upstairs neighbors filling their bathtub. I tuck my feet under the blanket to conserve heat. I have this fantasy. Which I have had before. In it, the bathtub fills up with water. The weight of all that water breaks through the floor/ceiling and the tub crashes through the drywall and crushes me. I never die in this fantasy. It’s a playful thought, not a dark one. My legs are crushed underneath the porcelain of the tub and I am alive and I feel all of it.
But there is more. My phone rings and it is all the way across the room. It rings and it rings and it rings and then, my voicemail plays out loud, “This is Katie’s phone. Leave a message.”
I sleep. I wake. I try to breathe. Nothing comes in. Nothing goes out.
I turned 25 in September, six months after the Covid pandemic hit. I celebrated the day before my birthday. My friends took me to a pumpkin patch. We pushed each other around on wheel barrows, ate corn, and took pictures. I was happy to be 25.
On my actual birthday, I called my dad and asked what my mom and him were doing for dinner. We decided to meet up at the one and only Dickeys.
I pulled up and the parking lot was full, but the Dickeys was completely empty. Inside, the walls were made of wood strips like a barn. Behind the cafeteria style counter was a yellow and brown menu. The Tuesday special was the pork rib plate, complete with a side of beans and a roll. The menu looked far better than the food tasted. Yellow plastic cups were stacked high near the cash register. My parents had dozens of these at their house.
My parents were standing at the counter, huddled around the large menu. Three portly men, sweating and tired, waited for their order. They all had some form of spotty facial hair. I walked up behind my parents and my dad waved to me. He hovered above my mom who didn’t notice I walked in, her eyes focused on the beef brisket and pulled pork pictures overhead. Her arm wrapped around my dads.
“Happy birthday!” My dad said. He grabbed the back of my head and kissed my forehead.
My mom turned to me, smiling too broadly, like a pumpkin. “Happy birthday Kate’s!”
I nodded my head at her. “Thanks.”
We ordered and everything was quiet. My dad ordered quickly. Usually, he takes fifteen minutes to ask questions, ponder the menu, and consult with the group on the best deal. I got the feeling that my parents were distracted.
We sat down without food. On the television screen our table faced country music videos played. A curly haired country boy sat on the beach with a guitar in his lap. He wore jeans, but no shoes.
“Why are you two being weird?” I asked. My mom shot me a pointedly pathetic gaze.
“Nothing, just had a doctor’s appointment today. It’s been a long day is all. What have you done today? Get fucked up?” my dad asked.
“No we did that last weekend.” I grinned at him and he nodded watching the screen behind me.
My mom picked at her food. Her eyes were watery. I made a joke about the man on the television and my dad chuckled lifelessly. I stared at them both and neither met my eye. Two older women walked around the corner holding two giant baked potatoes on their trays. They sat on the opposite end of the restaurant. Food fell off one of their plates onto the table.
“Why are you being so weird?” I asked, annoyed.
“Nothing.” my dad said at the same time my mom said, “Your dad got some unsettling news.”
Unsettling, like there was an arsonist living on our street. Like we had been robbed. Like someone we knew was going to jail.
“Stephanie.” My dad looked at her, furious and she cowered like a dog.
“What kind of unsettling news?” My stomach dropped. My chest rose.
“I said not on her birthday, fuck.” He shook his head at her. He seemed scared. I had never seen my dad look scared.
“What news?” I asked again. My hands started shaking. I put them in my lap.
He looked back at me and was calmer than before. “You remember the other day when I was peeing blood? Well they checked my PSAT or something and it’s indicating that I have cancer.” He said the word indicating in a mocking tone, like a doctor would say it.
We all paused.
“What does that mean?”
“He says they caught it early, so there’s nothing to worry about. I mean they scheduled me for a follow up in three months. If it was urgent you would think that they would get me in the way sooner,” he said like a salve. For himself. For me.
Underwater is quiet enough for peace, loud enough for an inner silence. I pull and the water rushes in between my fingers. The Northern Arizona pool is similar to most I have been in throughout my life. Hot, moist air that makes the cold water tolerable. Next to me, an older man is kicking hard, holding a kickboard, with his goggles pulling back the skin of his face. I stroke, one two three four, breathe. My muscles are hard. I kick. I pull. People like to say that swimming is a great time to think. I can’t think. Or I can, but I cannot stop thinking about what I don’t want to think about. I focus on pulling more, harder. I don’t grieve, I rage.
I get to the wall and pull the goggles off my head. My phone is sitting in a ziplock bag next to my kickboard. I am waiting for my dad to call. Now, I am unceasingly waiting. There are no messages. I reestablish my goggles and push off from the wall. I think about the fact that my dad and I are the same. I got so much from him. I got his smile, his eyes, the red undercurrent of our skin. I got his loyalty. His gapped teeth. His athleticism. His guilt, worries, fears. His love for women. His potty mouth. I got his mean humor and his charm. I am just an alteration of him. If he is sick, if he chokes on the air around him, who do I give all these things back to? What do I become in its absence?
I lurch forward, desperate to get back to the wall. I continue swimming. I am amphoteric. I can be used as both an acid and a base. I am neutral. Without reaction. I am whatever I am interacting with needs me to be.