They turned onto the brown-chalk dirt road. The Station Wagon rumbled, shuddering on the uneven ground. The car rocked James against the confines of his tight cinched seat-belt. The edge of the strap gnawed at his bare chest; he shifted his pale green shamrock towel so it rested softly between his body and the wide synthetic belt.
His friend Ryan rested his head against the window, his skull knocking dully against the glass with every jolt over the rounded stones embedded in the dusty path. He wore a ratty yellow Laker’s T-shirt, and the laces of his sneakers and swim-suit both lay spread limp over him like loose rigging trailing behind a sailboat aimlessly at sea.
James looked in the rear-view mirror; he saw his mother’s face, directed intently at the road ahead. Strands of wispy brown hair curled across her cheeks, framing her features to a diamond shape. Her eyes were behind silvery reflective sunglasses. Over the seat back he saw the tanned nape of her neck, curls suspended above with a fuchsia hair-clip. He could see her bare shoulders, left uncovered by her lavender tube-top. There were two pale lines on her sun-browned skin, just above her shoulder blades where her swimsuit laced up in a knot, like stripes of cream.
“How’s your mom doing, Ryan?” his mother asked, her voice interrupting the car’s mechanical drone.
“She’s okay, I guess.” Ryan’s voice always sounded the same when he talked about his parents: quieter, tense. He sounded older than fourteen when he talked about them.
“Is she seeing anyone?” He saw his mother adjust her glasses in the mirror, and could imagine her eyes behind them, desperate to know.
Ryan replied with a shrug and a sort of inconclusive grunt. James looked out the window, embarrassed, trying to make it as clear as possible that he is in no way responsible for what his mother might say. Why did she always have to ask?
The gravel parking lot crunched beneath the car’s tires. There were a dozen other vehicles there, rusty station wagons mostly. His mother parked. Beside them a family was maneuvering a card table from the trunk of their blue-gray SUV. A tall girl with dark hair stood a few paces away from the rest, her weight on one hip and a ribbed blue cooler held with both hands; she watched the others wrestle free the table. The cooler was damp with condensation, the ice inside shifting noisily when she moved.
Her eyes flickered at him for an instant when he stepped from the car, and he felt a wave of crushing shame at his shirtlessness, at his mom’s rust flecked vehicle, at his youth. He could feel her dismissing him. Just a kid, just another thirteen-year-old. She shifted her wight to the other leg. What was she thinking about?
“Hey James!” Ryan called, already moving along the wide dirt path toward the shimmer of reflected light which showed iridescent through the trees. Ryan motioned to James, his t-shirt hanging on him like a poncho. His father had probably given it to him, James thought, brought it back from a business trip. It was several sizes too big.
James hurried after his friend, scarcely conscious of his mother following tiredly after. He could feel the dark-haired girl watching him, or ignoring him. He didn’t know which would be worse.
They emerged from the trees and walked together onto the beach area around the deep pool. Gold-gray sand was scattered in a dirty circuit about the bowl-like hole filled deep with gleaming black water.
Water filtered into the pool from trickling tributaries and, along the far edge, spilled over smoothed stone in a sun-catching mist. The sound of falling water filled their ears, the soft roar of it swelling over the slap of bare feet on damp rock and the muted shrieks of swimmers paddling on the surface of the abyss.
Deep black rock shone wetly and glassy little pools in the mangled topography trapped bits of the reflected sky. There were perhaps three dozen people standing above the pool, holding their shivering bodies, clutching at their near-naked selves, hair plastered down over their foreheads and about their faces. Others lay on the crafted beach, stretched out on striped towels, cheap paperback books clutched in one hand – as often as not a mere prop to excuse their eyes crawling lazily across the swimmer’s exposed skin, leaping from body to body.
James and Ryan established themselves, stretching out their towels on a patch of promising beach. They covered the ground, clenching warm sand in their toes as they knelt to brush the rough grains from the swaths of bright fabric. James’ mother arrived, depositing herself in her parental seat behind their towels and turning her attention to her cell phone.
“Don’t forget sunscreen,” she called idly after them, stretching in the sunshine.
There was a faint wind. It meant nothing now, but James knew how it would feel when they emerged later, dripping, primordial from the depths and chilled deep to their skeletons. It would cut then, as it did now at the straggling line assembled along the edge of the rock. The line lead towards the officially sanctioned jumping-off point. A white stripe was painted on the black rock, and below it a ceaseless pale ripple spread on the liquid surface. Each jumper renewed the constantly dissipating impact before it could fade completely.
The two of them joined the line just behind a pair of older girls. The ground was hard and wet, smooth stone roughened by a scattered layer of sand. The girls’ swimsuits clung to their bodies, wrapped like slimy undersea weeds over their smooth backsides and the high protrusion of their breasts.
“What’d she say then?” one of the girls asked the other, her teeth chattering and her long blond hair darkened and clumped in damp strands on her shoulders. The girl’s bodies seemed to strain and pull against the wrapped strands and wet suits; he could almost feel his fingers at the knots. The pleated material of their swimsuits seemed to clench at them, close as shadow. He could see the imperfections of their skin, the fiber-thin hairs rising from their goosebumps. He felt almost delirious, his stomach clenching.
“Look at that.” Ryan said, tapping his arm and half-pointing at an older boy with a whistle hanging around his neck. The lifeguard leaned against the his chair, not bothering to sit. James looked, and he saw immediately what Ryan had. The lifeguard’s penis hung tumescent in his tight wet trunks, bloated against the slick and clinging cloth. “Jesus,” Ryan whispered, leaning close to James – their sun-warm bare arms touched – and he made a disgusted face, “do you think he knows?”
The older boy seemed oblivious, he relaxed against the white-painted chair, draping himself languidly over the wood frame and eying the swimmers as they passed.
James looked back at the older girls. The second wore a bird-egg’s blue one-piece, the suit holding against her hips and the slight curve of her belly. She tugged at the wide strap over her shoulder, laughing at something the other had said. Her hair was the color of rotten straw.
He glanced at Ryan. His friend’s legs were crossed one awkwardly over the other, revealing nothing. James felt himself stir, the sensation uncoiling from low in his abdomen and slipping warmly downward.
The air around the dark pool seemed to be thrumming with energy. He imagined those sprawled on their towels and staring from behind their sunglasses as observers on a space station, watching from safety as a young sun went unexpectedly supernova. Another of the burning children fell shrieking to the water, vanishing under in a white splash and emerging face-first, gap-tooth smile skyward.
The line crawled forward, falling off and growing again as those below clambered back up to take their place dripping at the rear. Why did they jump over and over again? What thrill was it that drove them to leap bat-like into the dark? The rock seemed a living thing beneath James’ feet. There were only a few now between him and the white line.
The blond girl jumped, plummeting swiftly downward in a sharp arc. All her poise vanished in the fall, the careful way she had held herself on the rim was abandoned in the moments before impact. She seemed naked, revealed as she tumbled through the air. Where had she gone?
He watched her as she swam away from the point of impact, her legs kicking dimly under the water, like a fish rising near the surface but never breaking it. He watched her swim into the colorless mist beneath the falling water and felt the near irresistible urge to leap in after her, to swim to her.
“You wanna go first?” Ryan asked. The pale strip on the rock seemed to glow. The empty distance separating them from the marker was clad in near-volcanic black.
James shook his head. “No, you go.”
Ryan nodded. He sucked in a breath, his thin chest convulsing, ribs pressing against his tight skin, too tight to be real. James could see right into his friend, into the blood-fruit organs, the wisp-chamber lungs, the trembling coils of piled intestine. He could not sense his own physicality, so aware was he of Ryan’s. He felt that he could cease to exist.
And then Ryan was gone, feet slapping at a run over the four feet of rock, and outward. He made no sound as he fell, arms windmilling and feet pumping for some kind of traction. He seemed to be clawing for something to grab onto.
The splash stained the black mirrored water, spreading slow into an uneven crater impact pattern. Ryan surfaced wet and gleaming, and he swam out, further into the pooled shadows.
The ignorantly blissful lifeguard waved James to the line. It was time to go.
James stepped out to the edge. His toes curled on the sharp edge. The rock fell away below in a sheer wall, like the jagged igneous at a volcano’s throat.
He wondered what it would feel like to drop below the surface, to penetrate the thin layer of tension and sink into the mystery below. To be lowered toward the algae-clad boulders down so deep they seemed part of the darkness, the silt-stirred water thickening around him. And his feet would press into the soft not-quite mud on the bottom, his ears popping from the pressure. And there, at the bottom, his knees would bend, his body would make its furthest descent, and he would straightened, kicking down and propelling himself upward, to the surface.
James drew in a breath of cold air. The lifeguard leaned towards him, expression hardening to concern. “Hey, kid,” he said putting a hand on James shoulder and the other modestly over his own, fully developed, sex organ, “what are you waiting for?”
James nodded. And the lifeguard took away his hand.
James let himself tilt forward until he knew that he was beginning to fall, and his legs pumped once against the stone. He sprang out and, as he went breathless through the air, he felt himself awaken in the cold.
And the water beneath, yawning like an immense mouth, surrounded him.