News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Thursday, September 15, 2016

You can't breathe underwater

With summer almost over, I'm reminded of this excerpt from The Skinny Years. Enjoy the last days of warmth--and remember the times when a summer was forever.  

Standing on the sidewalk in front of the Bockman’s house, Skinny stared nervously at the only two-story home for blocks. The house was small compared to his home in Cuba, Skinny reminded himself.  But among the small, boxy cottages in Wynwood, it seemed like a palace.
The closer he’d gotten to the Bockman’s house this morning, the more Skinny’s nerve had faded. Wearing a bathing suit borrowed from a neighbor and carrying a castoff Everglades hotel towel did not help his confidence. In fact, Skinny’s doubts had started only moments after Janice’s invitation.
What had Janice meant by ‘the kids who would appreciate it most’? The question had tortured him for the last two days. Still, the thought of seeing Janice again—in a bathing suit, no less—helped him kick that qualm down the road each time it surfaced.
Swallowing hard, Skinny walked to the door and rang the bell.
A stout, middle-aged woman in a flowered sun dress opened the door. “You must be Skinny,” she said smiling. “Come on in.”
Skinny followed Mrs. Bockman through a large living room where a slender man with a copper-colored beard sat working on a fly fishing lure and smoking a pipe. He rose and extended his palm.
“Glad you could make it, son,” Mr. Bockman said shaking Skinny’s hand. “Hope you enjoy the pool.”
“Thanks for inviting me, sir,” Skinny answered.
Mr. Bockman’s eyebrows rose. “Wow. Janice wasn’t kidding when she said your English has improved. I’d swear you were born speaking it.”
Skinny beamed at the compliment—and the fact Janice had mentioned him to her parents.
After meeting Janice’s dad, they continued through the house to the kitchen. There, Mrs. Bockman led him through open double doors to their newly-built pool. Seated at a patio table on the concrete deck, Skinny saw Janice in a modest one-piece bathing suit and a fully-dressed Norman Lee.
“Janice,” Mrs. Bockman called out, “your other guest is here.”
Janice smiled and waved him over. “Hi, Skinny. You know Norman, right?”
“Hi, Norman,” Skinny said with a small wave.
Norman Lee was new to the neighborhood, a lanky good-natured kid from Georgia with a honey-thick drawl. The thing about Norman was this: He had a bright pink harelip scar under his nose. It was something Skinny tried hard to ignore—but it always made his throat catch with pity each time he saw the kid.
 Looking at Norman, Skinny came to a realization that made his stomach flop.
Janice’s reason for inviting him now made a miserable kind of sense. This isn’t a pool party. It’s a pity party. The ‘kids who would appreciate it most’ meant the deformed, the fat and the poor. He knew the Bockmans meant well. But it made him feel small enough to crawl under the belly of ant.
“Well, now that you’re all here, it’s time to open the pool,” Mrs. Bockman announced in a sunny voice. “Norman, why don’t you go get changed? The bathroom’s just inside on the right. I’ll be in the kitchen if any of you need me.”
Norman rose excitedly and disappeared into the house.
Meanwhile, Janice pulled on her bathing cap, walked to the edge of the small pool and gracefully dove into the deep end.
“Get in, Skinny!” Janice called out after surfacing in the shallow side.
Skinny joylessly took off his shirt and shoes, lowered himself into the water and swam over to her.
“Hey, you swim pretty good,” Janice said.
“I’ve been swimming since I was little,” Skinny said dully. “We used to have our own—” Skinny stopped and turned around as he heard the clomping of footsteps on the deck. Coming toward the pool at a full gallop was Norman Lee in his white jockey briefs.
“Yeeeehaaaw!” Norman yelled as he launched himself feet-first into the deep end.  KERSPLOOOSH! The splash sent small waves sloshing over the edge of the pool.
Janice looked at Skinny, covering her mouth as she laughed. “Oh, my God! Norman’s in his underwear!”
Skinny smiled back, the sound of her laughter brightening his mood. But then Skinny noticed something wrong. Norman’s was thrashing wildly in the water. “Hey, I don’t think he knows how to swim,” he said to Janice.
Janice’s smile changed to a look of horror. “Mom! Mom! Come here!” she yelled.
Without thinking, Skinny swam toward Norman. Diving under the water, Skinny saw the gangly Georgian, limbs flailing in panic, trying desperately to reach the surface. As he swam closer, Skinny could hear Norman’s gurgling cries of terror. For a moment, Skinny watched helplessly, not knowing what to do. Then an inspiration came to him.
Diving until he was directly below Norman, Skinny stood on the bottom of the pool and pushed the drowning kid toward the surface. Looking up, Skinny could see that Norman’s head was finally out of the water. The question now was: How long could he keep this up before coming up for air?
The answer came with a heavy splash. Looking above him, Skinny saw a pair of chunky legs in white cotton panties billowing inside a flowered skirt. Mrs. Bockman had jumped into the pool, fully dressed. In a matter of seconds, she pulled Norman to safety.
Skinny surfaced and found Norman gasping for breath, clinging to the side of the pool. Mrs. Bockman was beside him, her hair wet and plastered to her neck and shoulders.
For a long moment, everyone stared at Norman, expecting an explanation.
“Y’know somethin’,” Norman sputtered in his Georgia twang. “You cain’t breathe underwater.”
A short while later, with everyone safely on the pool deck, Janice’s dad put his hand on Skinny’s shoulder. “Nice going, son. Mrs. Bockman told me what you did.”
Glancing at Janice, Skinny saw her smile, eyes glittering with approval. 
The fireworks in Skinny chest began once again. He didn’t dare hope Janice was ready to fall into his arms like a hero in the movies. But there was a whiff of something more than friendship in the chlorine-scented poolside air.

An excerpt from The Skinny Years by Raul Ramos y Sanchez

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