People Love a Story Where Someone Almost Dies
I saved someone’s life once. A woman drowning in a river, and good thing because it’s my go-to party story. People love a story where someone almost dies. Really, that’s the part they love–not that a hero stepped in to save the day. People are morbid fucks when it comes right down to it. But I was that hero. Me.
And I’m skinny as a rail, so people get even more excited when I tell them I saved a drowner. People look at my scrawny ass and think, if she did it, so could I. If it’s a man, he adds in my being a woman and probably thinks he could save a boatload of people.
But me, I just saved the one. Briana, a visiting cousin of Tonya’s who came with us to swim after our shift was over. In the summer, we swim at the Holy Hole, which is what we call our part of the river. It’s dark and cool by the water, and the moon is fat and beautiful, like Tonya. She thinks she’s too big because her ex-husband made her feel ugly. Pete used to call her a cow, and I think he socked her around. She never said so, but you can only come to work with so many black eyes and klutz stories before people catch on. Pete’s the kind of guy whose party story involves group sex, and he tells it with pride. That’s Pete. Tonya left him two years ago—it took her years to work up to it, but she did because Tonya’s strong. Strong in a quiet way, which is why most people don’t see it. Except me. I know she’s strong.
So anyway, we like to swim in the river after work. We’re sweaty, smell like grease, and are dead tired, but nothing feels better than dunking under that cold water, feeling the current rush against our throbbing legs, wiping clean a night of customers. Tonya treats every customer with kindness, even the rude ones. Once, when I told a pushy trucker that my number was 1-800-nevergonnahappen, she said I was brave. I wanted to tell her that talking brave isn’t the same as being brave, but I just shrugged. When she’s working, Tonya hums to herself softly. Listening to the smooth, low rhythm of her voice reminds me of being in the water—effortless and cool.
Briana, the cousin, hangs at the bar waiting for Tonya’s shift to end and takes advantage of the free drinks she’s getting because Duane, the bartender, thinks she’s cute. Briana’s not fat and beautiful like Tonya. No, Briana’s got muscles everywhere—almost like a man. Her biceps pop when she raises her beer for a swig, and her legs look strong enough to crush someone between them. I wonder what it might feel like to have muscles like that, for people to see how strong you are just by looking at you.
After work we head to the river—me, Tonya, Briana, Duane, and Mickey, one of the dishwashers. We sit on the big rock where the current picks up, and I can feel Tonya next to me, even if we’re not touching. Out of the corner of my eye I see those gorgeous, thick thighs of hers and I want to touch them. But I just run my hands over the cool rock beneath me, look up at the swollen moon above me.
Duane howls like a wolf and cannonballs off the boulder into the cold, rushing water below. The Holy Hole is about twelve feet deep and then gets shallow, real quick, on either side. Come on in, Tonya’s cousin, he yells over to Briana. I don’t want to watch this mating ritual go down, so I jump off the boulder into the water.
I let myself sink until I feel the silky, cold mud and smooth stones at the bottom of the river. Everything is muted and cool and dark, and I can’t feel where my body ends and the water begins. It is my favorite feeling in this world. When I can’t hold my breath any longer, I shoot myself up to the surface to fill my lungs.
Briana tiptoes into the river from the bank instead of jumping off the boulder like the rest of us. It’s strange to see such a muscular creature move so tentatively through the shallows. She hugs herself with her huge biceps and whimpers about the cold. As she baby steps closer to the hole, I yell, “Watch it. It gets deep fast and the current picks up.” Idiot is what I’m thinking. Get in or get out, but stop making a show of it.
And then Briana slips under. One minute she’s standing and holding herself with her big ole guns, and the next, she’s under. It’s almost graceful, except for what comes next, which is that Briana breaks the surface, hair pasted over her eyes, gulping and yelling before the water swallows her again. I think she’s playing, that someone who can’t swim wouldn’t be dumb enough to go past their ankles. But then I hear Tonya’s voice ring through the night, “She can barely swim!” So I dive down for Briana.
Even though the water is murky, there is no way to miss the thrashing close to the river bottom. As I swim towards Briana, she pushes off the riverbed flapping wildly upwards, so I surface with her and give her my arm for her to grab. I know that isn’t what you’re supposed to do now, but it’s all I know in that moment, so I do it.
Does Briana grab my arm like she’s supposed to? No! She grabs my shoulders, clamps down hard, and pushes me under like some kind of human raft she’s trying climb aboard. She’s thrashing and kicking me in the gut, and then we’re fully submerged and she’s sinking us both. It feels like she weighs three hundred pounds, and all I can think is that this bag of muscles is gonna drown me. She’s gonna kill me.
Nothing has ever struck me as clear as the fact that she was going to drown us both. That’s when I start punching and pushing Briana’s rock-hard abs until I finally break free and swim to the surface. I’m gasping for air, hoping she has the sense to push off the bottom again ‘cause there’s no way I’m going back down for her. And then there she is, sputtering and reaching for me. I yell grab my arm, and push back from her so she can’t reach any other part of me. I use my free arm to paddle, and kick hard toward the riverbank.
Briana sits in a heap on the bank, sobbing, and Tonya hugs her, shushing her like a baby. I wait for Tonya to check on me, but it’s Duane and Mickey who huddle around me telling me I’m a hero. They say they were about to dive down but it looked like I could handle it. Why in God’s hell would you think that, I want to ask, but I stay quiet ‘cause who doesn’t want to be called a hero? I watch Tonya hug Briana until Briana gets up and walks over to me—all unsteady and snotty like some kind of monstrous toddler. I know it’s mean to describe her like this ‘cause she was scared down there, but I was too, and you don’t see me blubbering all over everyone.
“You saved my life.” Briana crouches next to me and keeps repeating this. I pat her on the shoulder and say it’s okay so she’ll stop. Tonya comes over and looks at me with her big, brown eyes, little flecks of gold shot through. “Thank God you were here, Holly.” She jerks her head at Duane and Mickey. “Those two are worthless, and you know how slow I am. You saved her, Holly.”
I want Tonya to keep going, but she trudges up the bank behind Briana to leave. Mickey and Duane drive me home and I tell them how Briana felt as heavy as an iron anchor, how tight her grip was, how I punched and pushed at her underwater to free myself. I tell them she was going to drown me and admit that I wanted to save myself more than anything.
What I don’t tell them, what I don’t tell anyone when I tell my best party story, is that I needed to survive because I had to hear Tonya’s voice again—the silvery sound of it when she hums at work. I tell myself that I leave this part out because I know what makes a good party story. People want to hear about slipping beneath the surface, about punching and thrashing: They want to feel death come close. They want to break the surface and be called a hero, so I give them what they want.