Publisher: Dreamspinner Press, November 8, 2007
He learned to swim at the clever age of twenty-eight. Gail Harm was always a late bloomer. He was kept from the water by fear and doubt, by an anxiety he could never quite name. A false sense of insecurity. He observed others, how they found their pace in the current, how they managed, and he respected them for it. Indeed, he felt something resembling awe toward them. But he never ventured into the water himself. Best to let those who know the water do the swimming.
When he was younger – when all the other boys were learning to tread water at the pool – he stood at the side, shuddering more from embarrassment of being topless, exposed, than from any actual coolness of air on skin. His parents and friends had tried to encourage him. At so young an age, though, encouragement and threats are hard to differentiate through a veil of fear. No one ever got him to take so much as a toe-dip in the pool. Not once. He would watch the other swimmers with envy, he would watch televised swimming events with a sense of shame. Why could he not do it? Why could he never dive in? His adult life had continued to be just like that. Poolside shivers and self-conscious eyes. Stressing over the details and flaws, the exposure, that no one else seemed to notice. Or if they did, they never cared.
But then, at the age of twenty-eight – yes, that late – Gail blossomed forth.
He shot up through the internalized phobias that others had unknowingly planted in him and went swimming in a small pond. Dove in for the very first time. The fact that he knew how to swim was not a surprise. He had watched other boys, now men, in the water all his life. He knew a breaststroke from a backstroke. What did surprise him was how perfect it felt. The moment he hit the water, that glorious splash scattered his inhibitions. Naked, and okay with being naked. Perfectly fine with being a twenty-eight year old, naked, late bloomer in the water.
On the opposite bank, watching him, lovingly encouraging him without a hint of threat, was the springboard to Gail’s awakening. Marsh Gary.
To Gail’s astonishment, Marsh had begun undressing right there on the banks of the pond as they walked around it on that late afternoon. The summer was kind. It hadn’t been too hot, and a breeze caused ripples on the water. Marsh took every piece of clothing off slowly, as if it were nothing, as if he were in his room readying for bed. He kept his eyes locked to Gail’s and he smiled.
“What are you doing?” Gail asked breathlessly. Forbidden things surfaced in his mind. As forbidden to himself as the touch of water.
“I’m going swimming,” Marsh teased. “Meet me on the other side.” Gail wandered if that was a question intent on making him jump in as well. He could just as easily walk around the pong and meet Marsh there.
Marsh ran and jumped into the pond, his body elongated and elegant. Gail was burning up just looking at him. He watched Marsh cross the water with ease. Such beauty and grace. When he climbed onto the opposite bank he waved Gail over, his skin shining. Forbidden, but how sweet the touch must be.
“I don’t know how,” Gail shouted across the pond. “I don’t know how to swim.”
“You never learned?” Had he never told Marsh? But then, why would he have?
“Never.” But something in Gail told him he knew how to do it.
“It’s nothing. You can do it. It’s the most natural thing in the world, Gail. We’re all born in liquid, after all. It’s like swimming through oxygen, just heavier.”
“But what if I sink?”
Frogs and birds listened with anticipation.
“I’m here,” Marsh assured him. “I’m right here and I’ll help you.”
Gail didn’t understand why Marsh’s assurance was all he needed to hear. It made no sense that that alone would ease his fear, his trepidation. But it did. He no longer felt the dread; it dripped away.
Gail quickly disrobed. His was not the easy, graceful disrobing that Marsh had performed. No, his was frenzied and clumsy. But once he was totally nude he stood erect, proud, as if showing off to Marsh. As if saying “Look what I can do!” A phrase he had never proclaimed as a child.
“Come on then! Jump in! I’m right here. Just come to me.”
And so Gail dove in. Marsh was right. The water felt true. It felt natural. Why had he refused it for so long? Sure, it was muddy and murky, but that no longer seemed to bother him. He could get through it the same as everyone else.
He swam and he was good at it. Marsh watched him, smiling, returning the grin that Gail wore even as his face was submerged beneath the pond water. He was doing it; he was swimming. But that realization, and its companion thought that he had missed so much by avoiding the water all these years, made him fumble. He jerked with fear and seemed to forget what it was he was doing.
He began to struggle; he began to panic.
“Calm down!” Marsh shouted from the shore. “You’re doing fine. You’re doing great.”
But Gail could not regain his composure and security. He began to sink. And he thought the water was there to tease him all along, just to get him to dive in so he would drown.
As he struggled, he heard a splash and soon felt the comforting strength of an arm around his neck, pulling him to the pond bank. Marsh looked down upon Gail as he lay on the ground, breathing, rasping. The realization that he had survived excited him.
“You’re okay,” Marsh said. “See? You’re okay. You did it.”
Gail said nothing. He stared into Marsh’s face, into the kindness, the understanding. He cherished each drop of water that fell from Marsh’s nose and eyelashes onto his own flesh. Without embarrassment, he enjoyed the feel of Marsh’s wet, naked form on top of his own, of Marsh’s hand stroking his hair.
Of Marsh’s lips on his. Wet lips, kissing gently but strong.
“Now,” Marsh whispered, not more than an inch from Gail’s face, “aren’t you glad you jumped in?”