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Six Inches to the Deep MAG
Oblong, olive-colored, and clear with chunky, black lashes, Brianna's eyes blinked. And so did mine, over and over, trying to bat away the chlorine and the screaming, aching sensation that life had changed.
I distinctly remember Brianna's eyes, the unintimidated gaze of the first black girl to move into our suburban, Southern neighborhood. Sure, some residents hissed over their morning Krispy Kremes that it had finally happened: a black family had moved in, and, of course, housing prices would go down now, right? But with a few exceptions, neighbors respected the Matthews family's right to breathe the same sweet neighborhood scent of onion grass and honeysuckle bushes. After all, it was 1998.
I was seven then, and still a pitiable swimmer: a chronic doggy-paddler preferring to penetrate the tepid pool water inch by inch. Brianna – two years my junior – would cannonball into the dusty indigo water and emerge like a sea creature with her chocolate locks matted to her soft skin, insisting that next time, I jump too. I just wanted my inflatable water wings.
“It's nothing – watch,” she'd say, curling her bony knees to her chest to brace the engulfing wetness. Watch was all I ever did, especially as Brianna began to favor the deep end, the six-foot water, where hairline cracks in the pool's gray cement dropped into cerulean oblivion.
Once, Brianna (dissatisfied with my cowardice and nautical inabilities) locked my petite hand in hers, yanked me from the pool and dragged me past the tattered umbrellas, the strappy, plastic chairs the color of egg yolk, and the translucently white old men smearing SPF 75 across their wrinkly bodies, all the way to the diving board. Grainy concrete pricked the soles of my feet as we ventured farther and farther into perilous territory.
“I just ate,” I lied, recalling the peanut-butter sandwich I had picked at three hours earlier. “You can go first.” I silently prayed for the lifeguard to call for adult swim before I had to plunge into the unknown. Brianna mounted the spring-loaded board. She smoothed the green ruffles of her bathing suit and arched her toes in preparation. The board barely shuttered as she walked to its tip.
I stood six inches from the deep water. Six inches too close and too far. Six inches from plunging into the blue. As was tradition, Brianna jumped first. Not just jumped but vivaciously sprang. However, the problem wasn't springing up; it was coming down. Brianna's flip was silent; her head smashing against the solid board was not.
Did I imagine those noises? The sound of her skin ripping and her fingers grasping the breathless air? The tings of the board reverberating with guilt? The hum of each disturbed drop of water deflecting her limp body? The drum of her father's booming footsteps as he rushed to save her? The symphony of my thundering ears and quickened heart, as I feverishly wished I could do more than doggy paddle?
A part of me also yearned to be farther than six inches away. Suddenly, the chlorine was too pungent; it burned my nose and throat like ammonia. The water was too black, too murky. I couldn't even see the blood rise to the surface.
In the three long seconds of panic, before Brianna's father dove into the deep end with near-Olympic form, I tilted my head to those wrinkly men lounging in the strappy chairs. Their oiled faces flashed to the ominous tidal wave caused by Brianna's lifeless body. Their eyes flickered, but not one tendon flexed in their flaccid legs. They sat motionless, unmoving, casually watching the little black girl drown.
And there I stood: one eye on the black water, the other on the white men. Was this really 1998?
Before I realized that I was screaming, Brianna emerged in her father's shaking arms. He laid her on the cracked cement. In many ways, I am still the girl standing at the edge of the deep end, petrified, waiting for her to open her eyes.