Sam didn’t know if it was wonderful or a complete disaster but she knew that she was beginning to breathe under water. She first noticed this ability when she took her 5-year old, Julian, to Matthew’s Beach on Lake Washington for a swim. The boy played on the sandy, weed-strewn shore with another boy and Sam had been lazily watching the two, occasionally looking up from her copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. She must have dozed off for a moment when an uncomfortable sensation, like falling from a height in a dream, forced her to sit up. She heard the familiar slosh of water on the shore and the ambient music of children splashing and shouting; she felt the warm press of the sun on her body but something was missing. Sam scanned the beach, her eyes traveling out to the deeper water. Nothing. Nothing. There! She spotted Julian’s hand, raised as if to politely ask a question before it slipped under the water.
In the few seconds it took before Sam dove into the lake and swam toward her son, she felt her senses sharpen. A slight breeze made her skin prickle and she could hear the quickened pump of her heart. She noticed a crow gracefully landing in a pine tree, saw the way its feet pushed forward like landing gear, heard its cry so piercingly that tears filled her eyes. Sam felt the raw sensation of panic clutch at her chest and throat, but her mind seemed to split into two kinds of awareness. One half of her mind remained steady and clear, sought the lifeguard and tried to calculate how much time she had to find Julian before he drowned. The other half of her mind became dreamlike, unreal. When she spotted the young lifeguard, his arm propped against one side of the lifeguard chair, the pose emphasizing his muscular arms and slender waist, Sam traveled back to the summer when she was fifteen and had a crush on the lifeguard at her neighborhood pool in Maryland. As if her senses were a tape that looped back and then suddenly sped forward, Sam could smell the delicious summer aromas of baby oil, chlorine and juicy fruit gum, could feel the sensations of that time nearly thirty years ago colliding with the present sounds of splashing and the melody of voices at the beach. In the midst of this floating reverie, which seemed to take place in some kind of hole in time, a place where each second slowly unfolded, Sam heard her own voice yelling from a distance, ”My god! Someone help me! My son!”
Not waiting for help to arrive, Sam raced to the water and plunged in, the muscles on the side of her body straining. Where was Julian? Sam opened her eyes to a murky, greenish underworld, heard the sounds of the surface made hush and gauzy soft underneath. Grasses and weeds swayed beside her like the hair of dead mermaids. Her feet touched a stone, felt its smooth hardness, then the lake bottom muck, cold and gelatinous as it shifted under her weight.
In the quiet under the surface of the lake, Sam searched for Julian, pulling through the weeds and debris near the bottom. Despite her fear, she felt the freedom and ease in her body that water had always bestowed upon her. As a girl, Sam had floated for hours on her back in lakes, pools and oceans, sky gazing. Those hours in the water were her happiest, brief slices in time when the boisterous cacophony of her siblings, who always seemed to be fighting, was finally silenced. In the water, the responsibilities of school and the complexities of adolescent friendships dissipated. She felt peaceful, engulfed by the water like a fetus suspended in a womb. As Sam searched for Julian, she became aware that she felt no urgency to surface, even after a full minute had passed. Two minutes passed. Finally, her gaze turned toward the shore. She spotted Julian’s legs, instantly recognizing his orange suit with its print of black flames. Sam surfaced just in time to see Julian pop up, a wet grin on his face. “Marco!” he shouted. It was only a scare.
The next day Sam breathed underwater in the bathtub. Before Julian arrived home from school, Sam laid in the tub, looking down the length of her 45-year-old body, the water returning to her breasts the buoyancy that aging had begun to strip away. She slipped her ears beneath the surface, sinking into its muffled peace. Soon her whole face was submerged. Sam lay like that for five minutes; the breath came, not through her mouth or nose, yet there was breath. It’s real, she thought. I can really do this.
Afterwards, Sam experimented with underwater breathing as often as she could. She took to visiting Lake Washington nearly every day, leaving the house as soon as her husband headed off to work and she returned from dropping Julian off at the bus stop. In the summer months, Sam was well-camouflaged among the many swimmers and waders at the lake. She would stroke to the diving dock and then, when no one was looking, plunge down deep before she propelled herself underwater all the way across the lake. As the weather began to turn and the beaches closed, Sam, fearful of being noticed as a lone bather, sought new ways to pursue what had evolved beyond a passion into a physical need.
She took to night swimming. Satisfied that her husband and Julian lay deep asleep, Sam would quietly rise in the middle of the night. She kept a swimsuit in the trunk of her car that she slipped on, feeling physical relief as she shed her clothes and felt the chill, damp elastic of the suit snap against her skin. In her first forays into night swimming, Sam climbed the fence and broke into several members only outdoor pools in North Seattle. Chlorine soon began to bother Sam; she longed for briny or at least brackish water, so she drove all the way to West Seattle and snuck into the saltwater Coleman Pool. Under the moonlight, in storms and once in snow, Sam did underwater laps, gaining strength and energy the more she swam. Cold water had ceased to bother her. Even in the depths of winter she could manage the waters of Lake Washington. Sam found herself losing the need to sleep through the night. Instead she began to spend her days in a kind of slowed down, almost trancelike state, as if storing energy for her night swims. She roused herself to full alertness only when her family was around.
At first, no one in the family suspected Sam’s secret activity. Determined not to be discovered, worried that maybe she had become a kind of freak, Sam was meticulous about keeping up appearances. Her husband, a heavy sleeper, was used to Sam’s longtime habit of showering at night. Unaware of the time of her return as Sam climbed back into bed, he enjoyed the earthy smell of her damp hair. No ripples were created in the life of her child either. Julian loved the routines with his mother, the daily walks to the school bus stop, the way she would stand there waving until the bus pulled away. He loved the delicious snacks he would come home to, the sound of her voice as she read him his bedtime stories, the feel of her arms embracing him and the softness of her lips as she kissed him goodnight. But in time Sam’s ability to keep everything normal became a challenge. To do so took energy. It took energy away from where she felt her energy to be naturally drawn. Into silence. Into freedom. Into the swaying, cradling womb of a large body of water.
After three months her family began to notice odd changes. Her husband noticed the water bills had risen dramatically and thought maybe there was a leak in a pipe. In truth, Sam had been filling the tub near the brim several times a day and showering for over an hour when no one else was at home. Her husband noticed subtle changes in Sam too. She had always been prone to coldness in her extremities but lately her feet and hands had become shockingly cold. He worried about her health. The warmth had seemed to drain from Sam’s personality as well. Though never a big talker, Sam had always been an attentive listener, her words well-timed and caring. Lately, Sam shunned physical contact with her husband and she answered most questions with a simple yes or no. Julian noticed, too, that his mother didn’t seem to enjoy their time together as much as in the past. It was always he, not she, who initiated a cuddle or a kiss anymore. She would yawn during his bedtime stories and tell him that she felt tired. Instead of finding a nicely prepared snack awaiting him after school as in the past, Julian would have to call out to his mother, who seemed distracted and distant, “Mom, I’m hungry!” Sam’s husband suspected depression, or worse, an affair. He planned to confront Sam soon with his suspicions.
Around Christmas, nearly a half a year had passed since Sam first discovered her ability to breathe under water. She decided to fabricate an elaborate lie to buy extended swimming time. Realizing that her husband had grown suspicious, Sam decided to “confess” that she had been very depressed and that she knew she hadn’t been acting herself. The relief on her husband’s face was clear. Not an affair. She told her husband that she wished to visit her best friend in California. She needed to be with a close woman friend. She promised that if she didn’t feel better afterwards, she would go see a therapist. “A short trip, a few days is all I need,” Sam pleaded.
Her husband gladly accepted the plan, thinking it might help Sam to spend time with her friend. Sam made arrangements for Julian’s care for the days she would be gone and bought a plane ticket. On the day of her flight, she parked her car at the house of a friend who lived near Lake Washington. She knew her friend’s family would be away for a few weeks vacationing in Canada. Her car would go unnoticed.
Sam decided to follow the lake waters as they flowed out to Puget Sound. She needed to reach open water, felt the urge as strongly as one feels the need for food or sex. She entered Lake Washington at Matthews Beach just before sunset, feeling an odd stirring in her limbs, a deep and thrilling excitement, as if she were returning to her true home. The park was empty: the boaters come ashore and the bicyclists and walkers on the Burke Gilman Trail gone home. Wading straight out to the deep water, Sam firmed her thighs and began to undulate, her legs working together like a strong tail. The movement propelled Sam quickly through the water. Occasionally a fish would eye her, and Sam would eye the fish back, no threat passing between them.
Heading south from her point of entry, Sam sped toward the Montlake Cut. There she noticed a group of UW students dangling their legs over the cement walls, cigarettes glowing like red tracers in the dark. She swam silently past them, feeling no curiosity, only a mild level of threat. Passing through the Cut, Sam entered Portage Bay and headed to Lake Union. As she glided past Ivar’s Seafood Bar, she glanced up and felt a wave of sickness as she watched the diners fork pieces of fish into their mouths. Sam moved deftly past the house boats; her ears took in the strains of Mile’s Davis’s “Kind of Blue,” which seemed vaguely familiar but she could not recall how she knew this sound. In truth, Sam had loved this music for nearly 20 years, but she heard it now as just a sound, different from the churn of motors in the water, different from the bubbling and swishing of tides. She caught sight of a man and woman kissing as they slow danced on a deck and observed them coldly. Sam swam westward toward the Ballard Locks, straining to reach open water.
Following a yacht into the Hiram Chittenden Locks in Ballard, Sam could feel the waters’ turbulent pull beneath her, the force of gravity in the locks as it began to drain. She instinctively hovered near the yacht, grasping the bottom rung of a ladder to steady herself. She heard voices from the people in the yacht. They spoke loudly, drunkenly. Suddenly a man appeared at the side of the yacht and looked down at Sam in the water.
“Goddamn seals!, he said.
“Eat all the goddamn salmon. Ought to just shoot ‘em.”
Though she didn’t understand the man’s words, Sam felt alarm rippling through her system, electric, urgent, primal. She dove deep down into the waters below the yacht, the swirl and force of the churning currents spinning her around. The lock finally opened and Sam felt her blood quicken as first the smell of the salt water brightened her senses and then the briny waters of the Puget Sound caressed her skin. Pumped with energy, she swam, her kick gaining power as she felt herself pulled toward the San Juan Islands.
The next morning, when Sam’s husband called California to speak with Sam, he found out she had never arrived. He called the police. Her car was found where she left it, parked at the house of the friend who was in BC. They found Sam’s clothes in the car and speculated that she had been assaulted. A tip hotline was set up. An emergency search began through the thickets in the park. A team of waders scoured the waters near the shore and divers were dispatched to search the deeper waters, but no body was found. The Seattle Times reported the mystery of the local woman who disappeared and the TV stations repeated the story endlessly. Footage of the grieving family was shown, a heartbreaking image of a man cradling his boy whose face turned away from the camera as he sobbed into his father’s pant leg. “Please, Sam. If you can hear this, know that we are here and we love you,” her husband pleaded.
Out on the water, Sam swam with the orcas of J-Pod. It was they who had approached her, curious, playfully racing alongside, urging her to leap. Sam mimicked the orcas, her body springing from the water with the freedom of a child on a trampoline. Again and again she alternated swimming and leaping. A memory of dolphins she had seen in Greece flashed in her mind. But the memory was different than in the past. No longer was she standing on the deck of a ship with her husband on their way to the Greek Islands. No longer did she feel the same set of feelings, the human awe of seeing the dolphins leaping through the air, the human joy of being young and in love and sailing on the Mediterranean, the human pleasure of thinking, “I, like Odysseus, sail upon the wine dark sea.” This time the memory came as if she were inside the body of the dolphin, her joy a dolphin joy. She swam through the night, occasionally resting on the currents, but possessed of a great free vitality that pushed her forward. After three days in the water, no trace remained in her memory of her life on land.