Fiction - Hyssop and Hermetics, The Absinthe Literary Review

What You Learn
a short story by Jameson Currier

You are fifteen years old. It is summer; school is out. Your father is letting you drive to the pool. He mentions the stop sign you are approaching and you tap the brake pedal to begin stopping. The car has power brakes. It lurches with your tap, lurches again when you release the pedal. You let out a giggle. Your father tells you not to be so nervous and to turn on the left turn signal. You feel a bit of sweat beneath your arms and on your forehead. You think about turning down the radio and turning up the air-conditioner but there is already too much to think about in front of you. You are glad when you finally reach the country club.

Your father tells you to park away from the other cars. He points to a spot that makes you turn your head. You turn the wheel at the same time. You almost cause a collision with a passing car but you right the wheel at the last possible moment. Blood has drained from your dad’s face. He doesn’t speak as you lurch the car to a stop. When you have turned the ignition off, he says, “I’ll meet you back here after your class.”

Inside the club, you sign in and walk outside to the pool area to join the other guys who are taking the class. Lifeguard Certification. Three hours every weekday for two weeks. Your father thinks it will help you get a summer job. He thinks you can be a lifeguard at the country club. Your dad was an Eagle Scout when he was a teenager. Your older brother is a football player. Your dad thinks you need to stop reading so many books and get outside more often. The swimming class was his idea, not yours.

Outside it is bright and hot, but not as hot as it will be later in the day. You sit on the concrete shelf, tell your name to a man carrying a clipboard and wearing a whistle on a string around his neck. He has skinny legs, a big gut, and very hairy forearms. His face reminds you of a coach at school. His body makes you wonder if he would float. “Everyone in the pool,” he yells and blows his whistle. The guy beside you dives in head first. You walk to the steps, edge your way into the freezing water, stopping when you reach your waist. You wait a few seconds until your teeth start chattering and then you dip into the water to your shoulders, take a breath, and swim underwater. This is your favorite way to cool off in the heat.

When you surface, the man with the whistle is addressing the guys in the class. There are twelve of you. He says his name is Mr. Williams. He gives a spiel on the importance of safety in the water and being serious about looking out for others and how swimming well is a serious matter than can mean the difference between life and death. The guy beside you treads water. You stand in shallower water on your tip toes, balancing yourself with outstretched arms. You like to rock in the water as if you are dancing. While the instructor is talking, you sing pop songs in your head while rocking.

The first part of the class is the qualification. You have to swim and swim and swim. You do one lap then have to do another, then another. Mr. Williams yells to change from sidestroke to breaststroke. You heart is beating in your ears. You swim and swim. Your chest is full of air one minute and gasping for more the next. Your lungs begin to hurt. Your arms grow heavy. When you finally finish the guy next to you is coughing up water. Mr. Williams blows his whistle and everyone gets out of the pool.

Next you have to retrieve a brick from the bottom of the pool. You are number seven. The first two boys are like seals. They easily retrieve the brick. The third guy doesn’t like to open his eyes underwater. He has to dive several times to get the brick. Mr. Williams turns red in the face but seems to forget it when the fourth boy is a seal, too. When it is your turn you hold your breath and dive. You swim easily to the brick but find it heavier than you expected. The weight is a shock to you and it takes you a couple of seconds to get a good grip on it before you surface.

Mr. Williams taps you on the back when you get out of the pool and says, “Good job.” You sit and catch your breath and watch the other boys dive and retrieve the brick. Number nine and number twelve struggle with the brick, too. Only number ten, a skinny boy with scabs on his knees, can’t bring the brick to the surface.

Next you have to swim with the brick without using your hands. Mr. Williams begins the numbers backward, with boy twelve. Number ten keeps dropping the brick. You sit in the sun squinting, getting nervous. When it is your turn you jump into the pool holding the brick. When you surface Mr. Williams yells for you to swim with the brick and not dog-paddle in place. You hold the brick in front of you, as if it would float on its own. It doesn’t. It can’t. Your arms grow tired. Your legs become more tired. Your lungs hurt. You keep looking over your shoulder hoping Mr. Williams will blow his whistle when your time is up. When the whistle finally goes off you drop the brick. Mr. Williams yells at you, tells you to dive and pick it up and bring it back to the surface.

In the car after the class, your father asks you if you want to drive home. You shake your head no and turn on the radio.


The next day at the pool there are only ten boys in the class. You remember that number eight’s name is Andy. Number five is Craig. Two is Steve, who was in your algebra class last year but never spoke to you because he was tall and on the basketball team and you were short and only in the marching band. You begin the class by swimming laps. Mr. Williams makes you tread water, surface dive for the brick, and swim laps with it before you get out of the pool. After class, your mom picks you up and you drive the car home.


On Wednesday, you float. You spend minutes and minutes and minutes and minutes on your back with your stomach and eyes to the sky. The sun is very bright and you have to squint while you float. Water fills your ears. Chlorine sinks into your skin.

After floating, you practice tossing a rescue tube in the water. Water continues to stay in your ears. The chlorine makes you itch. While Mr. Williams is talking, you scratch your arm raw and shake your head continuously trying to dislodge the water. Charlie, number six, keeps coughing so that you can’t understand the instructions. Steve, the tall basketball player guy, picks dead skin from between his toes.

After class, your older brother picks you up. He does not let you drive home.


On Thursday, it is not so sunny. There are only nine boys in the class now. Number six, the guy who was always coughing up water, has decided to drop out. Mr. Williams gives a lecture about the importance of safety. As the sky grows cloudier, he says he will teach you how to resuscitate a victim. He makes you line up according to height. He breaks the class into pairs. Since you are now the shortest guy in the class, the odd one out, Mr. Williams tells the class that you have the honor of being his partner. And guinea pig. He makes you lie on your back on the cement. You feel silly, let out a giggle, then try to become serious. He kneels beside you and explains to the class how to open the victim’s airway. He tilts your head back so that your mouth opens. He leans his face over you and tells the boys how to check a victim’s breathing. You feel a bit of sweat under your arms even though the air is cool. He explains that if the breathing is not normal, pinch the nose and ventilate. He presses his fingers against your nostrils and his lips cover your mouth. His mouth is moist and full of energy. The whistle around his neck thumps against your chest. You cannot understand anything else he is saying because all of this is a shock to your body. When he pulls away from you, you hear someone snicker. Mr. Williams reminds the class that this is a serious matter.

When it comes time for the class to practice CPR, Mr. Williams lies down on the cement, tells you to practice with him. You lean over him. His face seems huge. The pores of his face are filled with stubbles of black hair. Hair grows up from the collar of his shirt. Behind you, some boys giggle while they practice, others grunt and say to their partners, “Come on, just do it and get it over with.”

Looking down at Mr. Williams, you don’t think that you can stretch your mouth wide enough to cover his mouth. It is full of big teeth and a thick tongue. Stubbles of hair ring the border of his lips. You open your mouth wide, wider than a yawn, and press your mouth into his. You force two breaths of air into his mouth and realize, when you break away from him, that something of him remains with you. You cannot exactly place what it is. It is more than the taste of him. More than the moist, warm feeling of his mouth. Something, you think, has been left inside you.

When Mr. Williams tells the class to switch positions and continue practicing he stays on the ground. “Do it again,” he says to you. “And don’t be so nervous this time.”

After CPR, Mr. Williams demonstrates how to handle a struggling victim. It is still too dark and gray and cold to swim. He continues to use you as the class guinea pig. “Don’t sacrifice your life trying to save someone,” he says. “If a victim lunges toward you, place an open hand against his chest.”

Mr. Williams places the palm of his hand against your chest. His hand is moist and warm against your skin when he touches you. He turns you toward the class. “Lean backwards and submerge rapidly away from him. Keep your blocking arm extended.”

Mr. Williams now takes his hand and presses it against your shoulder. His hand is so large you believe you can feel the weight of each of his fingers. He turns you away from the row of watching boys. He makes you clamp your tiny fingers around his thick, slippery, hairy wrist. “If a victim grabs your arm or wrist, quickly submerge the victim by reaching across with your free hand and pushing down on the victim’s shoulder while kicking upward for better leverage,” he says.

Mr. Williams presses against your shoulder so that you are forced to your knees. His strength is surprising, but his touch is still moist, warm. You look up at him as he says, “This leverage allows the rescuer to pull his hand free. You may also reach down with your free hand to grab your other hand, and jerk upward. Swim clear of the victim and reassess his condition.”

Mr. Williams motions for you to stand up. He squats so that he is about your height. He takes both of your arms and places them around his shoulders. You can feel the power of his body. His eyes meet yours. “The front head-hold escape technique allows you to escape from a victim who has thrown his arms around your head and neck,” he says. “Take a quick breath and tuck your chin into a shoulder while shrugging your shoulders upwards. Then take a strong stroke and submerge instantly. This drags the victim below the water.”

Mr. Williams shifts his squat so that he moves in closer to you. He moves his hands to rest below your elbows. His touch is surprisingly soft now. “Grasp the victim’s elbows or the underside of the upper arms.” You feel the energy building up in him. It seems to come from somewhere in his squat, somewhere in his legs. It moves up through his body until your hands are suddenly tossed up into the air. “You have to thrust the victim’s arms upward and away,” he says while you are trying to reign in your thrashing arms. “Be sure to keep your chin tucked and shoulders shrugged to protect your throat.”

The class ends with a demonstration of the wrist-tow and the cross-chest carry. Mr. Williams hands surround you, warm you. His chest is against your back, your head is locked in his elbow. Then he is kneeling so that you can surround his chest with the hook of your arm. He looks up at you. You look down at him. You meet his stare. He meets yours. You feel his strength, the muscles in his arms, the strength in his legs, the dampness in the hair of his forearms — all within the clutch of the power of your elbow.

After class, the wind gives you a chill when you walk out to the car. Again, your brother does not let you drive home.


On Friday, you are back in the water. Mr. Williams is again your partner and he joins the class in the pool. He takes his shirt off and dives into the water without a splash. His body is huge and covered with wet black hair. You practice escapes and holds and tows with him for three hours. He keeps your energy focused on him.


Over the weekend, you tell your dad that you do not want to be a lifeguard because you want to work in the record store. He says no, that’s no place for you to work. Your dad thinks Satan sends messages through certain kinds of music and books; your mom does not dispute this. Your older brother, who smokes cigarettes while sitting on the roof outside your bedroom window, tells you it’s all a phony game so that adults can control the world.

Your mom lets you drive to the mall so that you don’t spend all weekend inside reading a book. Your two younger sisters sing Bible-camp songs in the back seat and make you nervous. You spend the whole time at the mall in the record store, forcing your littlest sister to find you and tell you when it’s time to leave. Your mom is so annoyed at you for keeping her waiting that she does not let you drive home.


On Monday, Craig is not at class and Mr. Williams pairs you up with his partner, Steve. Practicing rescues and holds and tows with Steve is not the same as it was with Mr. Williams. Steve has no coordination in the water. His grip is too tight. At one point you must knee him to prevent him from choking you. Since he is the largest boy in the class and you are the shortest, the rescues are awkward and you must fight off the urge to scream at him. By the end of the class, you are so angry and upset that you decide you never want to come back to this pool again. You are glad to see your brother waiting for you in the parking lot. It means you don’t even have to try to want to drive home.


On Tuesday, Craig is again out of class, though Mr. Williams does not say if he has dropped out for good or not. After twenty minutes of laps, you are once again paired with Steve. Each team of partners must demonstrate the rescue of a victim for the rest of the class. Since Steve is the tallest in the class, your demonstration is the last of the pairs. You sit in the sun while the four other teams thrash through the water. Andy and his partner use a float, which seems to sink the moment it is needed. When it is your team’s turn, Steve decides that he will be the victim and you must rescue him with a cross-chest carry. Mr. Williams nods and Steve dives into the pool, swims to the deep end, and pretends to need help.

You dive into the pool, slice easily through water. You swim toward Steve. Steve grabs you by your left wrist when you are close to him. He is strong enough to push you underwater before you have a chance to react. You are smart enough to remember how to break the grip underwater, but when you surface Steve is behind you and grasping his long thin arms around your neck. You go back underwater to release his grip, like you have practiced, but his legs are so long and awkward you misjudge his thrashing. He kicks you first in the arm. Then in the stomach.

The air goes out of you while you are underwater. You feel water rushing into your mouth. At first, everything goes blurry. Then, everything goes black. When you blink your eyes open, you are lying on the tiles at the edge of the pool. Mr. Williams is leaning over you. His face is close to yours. You can taste him inside of you. He has saved you from Steve. He has saved you from drowning.

After class, you wait in the car while Mr. Williams talks with your father. You see the disappointment register on your dad’s face as he walks to the car. He asks you if you want to drive home. You shake your head no. You don’t want to talk to him. He doesn’t understand what happened. He doesn’t understand that Steve kicked the wind out of you. You feel like crying. You don’t want to be a lifeguard but you don’t want to be a failure either. About a block from home, your dad says that Mr. Williams wants you to take the class again next year. “You just need to be stronger and older,” your dad says. “It’ll help you keep up with the bigger boys.”

You decide your older brother is actually right about something. The world is a conspiracy of adults. And bigger boys.


Thirteen years later you are two inches taller and thirty-three pounds heavier than you were the summer you drowned and were saved by Mr. Williams. You remember the swimming class while you are at the gym. The memory doesn’t happen right away. It floats to the surface when a guy steps on a treadmill next to the one you are using. You see his face in the mirror in front of you. It is not the same face, but it is similar enough to dislodge the whole set of memories of what happened the summer you were fifteen. It is not the same body either, but the stocky, hairy build is enough to make you remember Mr. Williams.

You walk on the treadmill until it is comfortable enough to jog. You run at a slow pace, keeping your steps even. You glance in the mirror. Yes, the face is similar. Too similar. It is the same nose, the same wide stubble of blue-back hairs. The same jaw. Your throat tightens. For the next twenty-two minutes you remember everything you can of Mr. Williams and then you want to forget him.

After the treadmill, you move to the other exercise equipment. You are ready to repack the memories now that you have examined them. You move from the leg machine to the back machine to the bicep machine. You don’t look back at the guy on the treadmill. Your life moves forward. Your workout continues. You lie on the mat and do sit-ups. When you finish and walk across the room to the free weights, you notice he is no longer on the treadmill. A quick glance through the room shows you that he is no longer on this floor. You relax and continue exercising. By the time you make it to the locker room, you have forgotten him. The memories have been packed away.

You change into your swimsuit and take a quick shower. You walk out of the changing room into the small corridor that leads to the Jacuzzi. This part of the gym is co-ed, used by both male and female members. It is a large, glass-enclosed space in the area between the entrances to the men and women’s locker rooms. Since there is so much walking back and forth in front of the glass wall, most members don’t use the wet sauna because it is like sitting inside a television set. Everyone looks to see what you are doing. You hate this part of the gym too, though you love sitting in the hot tub for a few minutes before you change back into your everyday clothes and walk across town to your apartment.

Today, the water is hotter than usual but you adjust to it easily. You are the only person in the Jacuzzi. You sit then lie with your head against the ledge of tiles, going through a list of things you want to do before going to work tomorrow morning, the faint smell of chlorine haunting your memory. You close your eyes to concentrate and relax, even though the gym is emptier than usual today because it is a summer weekend. Most of the members are out of town or out at a private beach somewhere. Your soon-to-expire membership was a generous gift from a boyfriend who has already expired beyond usefulness. You could never afford this kind of place given the kind of money you make and the larger amount you owe, so you journey across town as often as you can to use the gym.

When you open your eyes only a few seconds later, you are surprised to see the treadmill guy entering the hot tub. It is like you have entered a dream. Or a dream world. You cannot believe this is happening and cannot decide if it is pleasure or torture.

He descends the steps slowly into the water. His body is covered with dark hair that becomes darker when wet. He is wearing a small black swimsuit. He stretches his arms out on top of the water, dips his body in and out. He does not look at you as he settles into the water beside you. 

At this point, you have decided it is torture. You think about leaving but you are too embarrassed to step out of the Jacuzzi. You are already aroused. You would have to reveal all that you have. You cannot leave the Jacuzzi until you can find a way to hide your interest.

You try not to stare at him. You look at the empty hallway, the empty walkway, the streaks of humidity on the glass wall. He stretches out his legs in front of him and flutter kicks. His leg grazes yours. He pretends not to notice it has happened. You also pretend it has not happened.

He shifts in closer to you. You shift closer to him. He changes position, dips his body up and down, his hands now underwater. His touch grazes you. He pretends it has not happened. His face is a warm, stubbly stare. He is a torture-machine and you will not let him know it. You pretend he has not touched you. Your heart is beating in your ears.

He shifts closer. Underwater, his hand presses against your swimsuit. You glance over his shoulder. You look again at the empty hallway, the empty walkway. Your face does not reveal your pleasure though your body reveals every inch of it. You are flushed with blood. When you move your hand to his swimsuit, you feel he is erect too. He is ready for you. He is a torture-machine of pleasure, you decide. His face remains motionless as you shift your hand inside his swimsuit. When he touches you, he easily finds what he wants.

The encounter continues without conversation or interruption. Your facial expression does not change to accommodate his stroking hand. His black-stubbly jaw does not shift to recognize yours. All of this continues out of sight, underwater. He has easily aroused you because he is so familiar. At one moment you close your eyes and imagine he is Mr. Williams. Seconds later, it is all over. The water has revealed nothing that has happened. The man has been satisfied and he is leaving the tub area. You watch his black trunks and furry black legs disappear into the locker room. After all these years, the fantasy is over as quick as you can come.

When you are alone again in the water, you shake your head, trying to dislodge water that has somehow become trapped in your left ear. Your father told you on the day that Mr. Williams saved your life that your instructor was willing to make an exception and keep you in the class if you wanted to remain, though he didn’t think that you would pass the final examinations and get your lifesaving certificate. Your father had decided it was not the right path for you, that one close encounter with death was enough to chance in a summer.

“He’s a fast learner,” Mr. Williams had said to your dad. “A few more years and he’ll be a strong swimmer, too.”

You realize it has taken thirteen years to understand how smart you were that summer. You never forgot the taste of that something Mr. Williams left in your mouth when his lips pressed his breath into yours. It was not something that you could easily explain at fifteen. But it was also something you knew you could not let drown.


© 2002 Jameson Currier

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