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  • Avvayar

The Physics of Drowning

It takes a very talented individual to drown when they know how to swim.


You live close to the beach, about a five-minute drive - maximum- but you rarely go. When you were younger, you would go all the time- almost every Saturday. When the sun was about to hit the edge of the horizon- your whole family would go. You’d race your sister to the ocean, where each wave was taller than your little self, and you’d both try to venture out the furthest before your amma catches you. The thrill of doing the wrong thing, the thrill of not getting caught. But when you were done, when darkness would fall and you got caught too deep in, you’d hate it. You hated how the sand stuck to your calves, made your arms itch, and then littered the car seats and stayed there for weeks. Now you watch the waves lick the shore, washing away any evidence of the past; fierce, forgetful, forgiving waves. You want to stand in the dead centre, let it wash over you like Jordan, but the waves are too rough- thrashing against the shore; violent, venomous.


So you stand there at the edge of the shoreline, so the tips of the waves kiss your bare feet, watching as a pale skinned tourist wanders too far in. It's captivating to watch; the way the waves knock him down, the way they seem to drag him under. The way his body flails above the water line, struggling to keep above the surface- not really drowning, but the jagged dance of a man desperately trying not to alarm anyone else as he tries to keep afloat. His performance is mesmerizing- it draws in a small crowd. They stand at the shoreline, watching in what seems like awe- the secret thrill of watching a disaster go down without the guilt that follows. The man wades towards the shore with utmost difficulty, fighting against persistent waves. You want to help, but you can’t. It seems ridiculous to wander that far, and for a second you feel like your amma watching as her children run deeper into the ocean, purely to defy her order to keep close, with no concept of the consequences. The water is at his calves, his strides are smoother, the spectacle is over. The crowd subsides.


You make your way back to where your family is seated- on the white plastic chairs of some low-end beach restaurant that sells Chinese food and beer. You watch them as they laugh, as they smile, as they take in the way the blue sky breaks into rusty oranges and smooth pinks, tendrils of white clouds drawing stark contrasts. You watch as they whisper to each other while the sun slips past the waves, concealing itself as the sky prepares for nightfall, and you think to yourself; maybe he’s on to something. The pull of the waves against your will to live. As though it’s testing you, testing your strength, testing how hard it must pull before the fight kicks in. The thrill of a disaster, and then of coming out alive.


Your mother is impulsive- she takes time to digest things, but doesn’t let that stop her. No one ever taught her how to breathe. So you let her words crash over you, cut into, you submerge yourself in her boiling first reaction. You give her time to breathe. Someone has to. She rushes- racing against something, but you can never understand what. Or who. Only that she insists you move faster, wake up earlier. Only that she insists on ploughing through her daily routine as though someone is watching- as though she gets extra points for finishing early. Tour de France, if cyclists were jittery middle-aged women with short tempers. There are not nearly enough hours in the day, judging by the way she moves across the hall floor, sprints into the kitchen, always on someone’s deadline- but you can never figure out whose. There are brief moments in time when you think you know her, but she moves too fast to tell if what you caught was a childhood anecdote or an impulsive reaction. Her reactions are loud- yours are often silent. Wait it out, give her a second to breathe. She will calm down, she will walk away, and then she will call you down for dinner in a wayward attempt to say she’s sorry, to say she knows, to say she wants you to wash your plate and kiss her goodnight.


But standing at the edge of the pool at the Colombo Swimming Club, on what was supposed to be an insignificant Saturday, you stare at her words crash down on you, pushing you under, whipping at your skin and smashing through your thousand walls. You stare at her, shocked into silence, wishing for a second to breathe. She doesn’t yell at you by the pool, she only whispers- though her words ring in your ears- too loud to fully hear, but you know what she’s saying. You’ve ruined the family gathering, you ought to be ashamed. She’s whispering things, her voice quiet as though it’s coming from the far edge of the horizon, but it feels too loud as it bounces around your body and shakes it like a maniacal child with a mystery gift on Christmas Day. The way you brood in your corner, unconcerned. The way your face is forever dragging itself down, your eyes averted, your smile downturned- “ungrateful”, she says.“Why can’t you ever just be happy?” she says.


In that moment you want to be six feet underwater, slip into that quiet darkness at the bottom of the pool. You want to strip your shirt and flimsy tropical pool shorts and dive- swim down until the world is consumed in a certain deafness, where the sound barely reaches and light simply dances through cracks and ripples on the surface. You want to be suspended at the bottom- toes grazing the cold pale blue tile, arms grasping at highly chlorinated water that slips through your fingers, stings your eyes.


But instead you are here, on the edge of the pool. The only thing burning your eyes are lone tears- deserting soldiers running out of the safety of their barracks, hoping for escape or quicker death. Instead you’re here; the soles of your feet burning against the heated concrete, sweat trickling down your arms. You closely watch your amma’s face that’s shielded by the shade casting down from her comically large sunhat. There’s nothing to shield your face, so you turn it down away from the wind and her piercing gaze. God, you think, it’s so hot. The ground is shaking, the air is heavy- it's thick, it’s sweaty. Your hands are clammy, damp- chest tight, ankles quivering at the weight of you, eyes blinded by the evidence of your own weakness. You can’t remember how you got into this situation - maybe you said something, maybe you snapped, maybe you begged to go home, maybe you got caught up in the whirlwind of your own melodrama- it’s far too late to ask.


“God,” she says, “I don’t know how to handle you- you’re always sad, always sulking. I can’t handle this. You will never find love this way.”

She grabs your arm. It hurts, stings. She continues, “You’ll never find love if you keep behaving this way. There’s something wrong with you.”


All you need is a second to breathe. Why can’t she give you just a second to breathe. She’s rushing on, indignant, with a paragraph to say and the vehement need to say it. You stand there, at the edge of the pool, waiting for the moment where the distortion will lift off her voice, where the world will stop shaking for just a second - just a second so you can breathe.


They said she drowned herself in the bathtub. You don’t know her personally- but everyone around you seems to know her- or they know her enough to talk. That’s all they ever seem to do- talk, bicker, question. They whisper in little circles- was it her marriage? Was it her job? They heard it was because she cheated on her husband- well, she’s always been a little different. There’s always been something off, they say. Something is just not right. Your amma whispers at the dinner table, when she thinks you’re too engrossed with eating to hear. Thaththa nods, mostly.“That type of behaviour,” amma tuts, “Naturally will cause grief.”


After dinner you retire to the bathroom, watch as the tub fills up mockingly. The water’s shallow, so you wonder how she did it. It’s not deep enough to let yourself sink. You want to dip in, sink down till the water covers your ears- sink down to where everything is silent. The water gushes over your ears and then your face. The silence is overwhelming. If you stay, you can live in that silence. If you stay you can live in that darkness.


In a second your body kicks in, and you’re up. Your body always fights back, always drags itself back up, always crashes through the surface. Desperate for the chaos of sound, for the thrill of the fight. Desperate to bulldoze through another day, desperate for breath, for light. Desperate for the thrill of a disaster, but then of coming out alive.