Sylvia was the first to arrive, twenty-two minutes before the class was scheduled to begin. Scanning the six long tables arranged in a rectangle, she decided to take a seat in the middle along the far wall, her back to the windows overlooking the parking lot. The flyer carried in her purse calmed the buzz of fearful embarrassment that she might have arrived on the wrong day or at the wrong time.
There was the assurance: Saturday, February 14th–Valentine’s Day, which she could do well without–and a program called “Write Your Heart Out.” As she waited, Sylvia took out the yellow legal pad she’d brought and began jotting down what she needed to buy at the store when she stopped after class.
“You’re writing already.”
Sylvia’s head snapped up from her notations for bagged salad greens and Lean Cuisine entrees. Across the room, two women anchored their purses and notebooks at their chosen places and unbundled from their down coats. “No, just a grocery list,” Sylvia said. “I’m not a writer.”
“Everybody is,” said the woman who introduced herself as Jan. The other woman’s name was Myra. They looked to be about her age, Sylvia decided, or perhaps a couple of years older.
A man came in the room, carrying a briefcase; he extracted a laptop from it and sat at the short end of the rectangle of tables. He said his name was John. His graying dark hair was gathered in a ponytail, a look that Sylvia never really liked, but it seemed to suit him–in a “writerly” sort of way. She dropped her eyes to keep from staring, not wanting to give the wrong impression.
Sylvia watched the door and absentmindedly twisted the ring around her finger, an aquamarine set in gold, which she wore these days to wean herself from her wedding band. Brad had been dead for two years, ending a five-month rapid slide from diagnosis (kidney cancer, already metastasized to his liver) to surgery to chemo to hospice. During his decline, Sylvia had struggled to keep up emotionally, from fight to acceptance, all in support of Brad. Theirs had been a good marriage for 26 years, not without its rocky spots–when he worked too much, when she focused more on the kids than their relationship. They had celebrated their 25th anniversary with a small backyard party–close family and friends. A year later, Brad was gone, and she was a 53-year-old widow. Now, at 55, downsized from their four-bedroom colonial to a two-bedroom townhouse, their son and daughter out of college and on their own, Sylvia saw her life as something to fill up, like an empty bucket.
She tore off the notebook page with her grocery list, folded it in fours, and put it in her purse. Other people trundled in until there were ten.
At five minutes to the hour, the instructor bustled through the door, apologizing for unexpected traffic delays. She introduced herself as Arlene Kirkpatrick, a local writer whose young adult novel had been published the year before. Now she was working on historical fiction about the travails of a Colonial settlement along the Hudson River in New York State, based on a family story. Arlene extracted an iPad from her canvas tote bag and then a small spiral notebook. Sylvia recognized the scene on the cover from a recent visit to the Art Institute: a copy of the Japanese print of the Great Wave, a massive blue curl topped by white froth.
Arlene glanced at the clock: one minute after one. “Okay, let’s begin.”
The writing workshop had been Charlotte’s idea. Sylvia’s best friend since for twenty years, since Sylvia’s oldest and Charlotte’s middle child were in kindergarten, Charlotte was always looking out for her. When Brad got sick, Charlotte came by casseroles and flowers, had coffee with her when hope could still be distilled from the prognosis, and sat with her when the conversation turned to end-of-life care. And one time, Charlotte had showed up in the driveway on a Saturday morning, telling Sylvia she had an appointment–booked and paid for–for a massage. “If you don’t take care of yourself you won’t be able to help Brad or anyone else,” Charlotte told her. Sylvia had lain on the table, tears running nonstop, while a young woman kneaded the worry knots out of her shoulders.
After Brad died, Charlotte helped pack up his clothing in one nonstop session that was like burying him all over again. That night, when Sylvia went to bed, she found Brad’s fisherman knit’s sweater folded on the bed with a note in Charlotte’s handwriting. “Keep this. Every thread is infused with memories.” That night she slept with sweater clutched in her fist like a life preserver.
Sylvia glanced at the empty chair beside her, the one that Charlotte was supposed to occupy. Instead, her friend was in bed with the flu. Sylvia had offered to skip the class and bring over homemade soup, but Charlotte insisted that she go. “Go write me a story,” Charlotte said, her voice garbled in a way that made Sylvia wince in sympathy for her sore throat pain. “If you don’t, I’ll be pissed.”
Tangled in her own thoughts, Sylvia missed the first part of the instructions for the class, but surfaced in time to hear Arlene explain a free-writing exercise. “Just reach into your memory and write down the first thing that comes to mind.”
Sylvia stared at the yellow pad with its blue lines and remembered something for her grocery list. She reached into her purse and extracted the folded page to make a notation for liquid soap.
A few seats down the table, John typed on his laptop, the pads of his fingers clicking against the keys. In the corner, a young woman with a cascade of black hair to her waist moved a fountain pen across the pages of a journal. Across the room, Myra and Jan whispered together and then took to their notebooks.
Sylvia twirled her pen in her fingers, reading the script on the side of it: “R&L Plumbing–drips & leaks, no job too big or too small!” A week earlier, she’d called them to install a new faucet in her kitchen, the kind of work that Brad used to do himself around their house. She’d gotten used to living alone, especially in a smaller place that was more manageable. But when something broke or there was a noise she couldn’t pinpoint the source of, she quickly became overwhelmed, swamped by her own fears about what might be wrong or could happen. Those were the times she got mad at Brad for leaving her, but there was no one to argue with or to comfort her with a hug after she got finished yelling at him.
“Don’t think too hard—just let the memory float up,” Arlene coached. “Capture whatever comes to mind. Even what you did this morning before coming here.”
The first thing Sylvia saw in her mind was Brad’s face, the image sharpening to him at twenty-one, the age they’d been when they met. His hair had been chestnut-brown then, curling in the back where it touched his collar. Her sister Gwen used to tease her that she’d married a man prettier than she was. Their daughter, Sheryl, looked like Brad. Their son, Doug, resembled her: big boned with dark hair and eyes.
Sylvia tapped her pen against the yellow pad. No, she wasn’t writing about Brad, their marriage or his death. She couldn’t—not there, among all those strangers.
“Just close your eyes and let an image come to you,” Arlene urged in her direction.
The next thing that came to Sylvia’s mind was how, in the summer of 1967 when she was seven years old, she’d almost drown at the community swimming pool. Her mother had dropped her off at the pool, assuming that her friend Becky Tucker would be there with her mother. But Becky had come by herself, expecting Sylvia’s mother to be there. Relishing their freedom, the girls had strutted around like they were one of the “big kids.” Then Becky immediately announced she was going off the diving board. Sylvia said she was going, too, not realizing how deep the water was.
The details poured out onto the page: how shocked she’d been at the depth of the water, how Becky had jumped in to save her, how she’d grabbed onto her friend so tightly she nearly pulled Becky under, how she watched Becky break free and swim away to save herself.
Sylvia’s hand sweat from holding her pen. She put it down on the table and rubbed her moist palm against her pant leg.
Arlene called time; fifteen minutes had gone by. She asked if anyone had anything to share from the writing exercise.
Myra jumped in, flipping through pages of her notebook. “I wasn’t sure what to write, and then I thought about a trip I took a couple of summers ago to Nova Scotia. I remembered how cold and lonely it looked in places–all rocks and the wind with a real bite to it, even in August. But there was this sheltered place where the sun was warm, and it felt so good to be there. Protected.” She shrugged and laughed, then ducked her head. “Well, it’s hard to explain. I guess I have to keep working on it.”
“Sounds like you have a great start.” Arlene spread her hands out toward them, inviting other comments. “Anyone else?”
“I thought I didn’t have a good story to tell, but then I remembered something that had happened to me years ago,” Jan interjected. “My car broke down and a young man stopped to help me–he turned out to be a real godsend.”
John read a paragraph on his laptop screen about a cross-country road trip when he graduated from the college in 1983 and drove to Medford, Oregon, to see his brother. It didn’t matter when I got there, or even if I made it all the way. All I thought about was going someplace, anyplace, just to put miles between me and my parents’ house and their unspoken questions about when, where, and how I was going to get a job…
Sylvia looked down at her page and wondered why she’d written such a terrible memory. Maybe there’d be another exercise and she could capture something else, like going shopping with Sheryl when she was home at Christmas. But when Arlene asked them to close their eyes and recall the memory they’d just written about, shopping with Sheryl was washed away by the swimming pool memory. “Think about the emotions in your story. What did you feel then? What do you feel now as you think back?”
Sylvia pictured herself in her white bathing suit with the red and blue trim, standing at the edge of the diving board–how bold and free she’d felt. Then she plunged into the water, and excitement became fear and then something even deeper–absolute knowledge that she was going to drown. She’d given into that certainty, stopping her struggle, bobbing in the water, knowing that at any minute she’s slip under and her lungs would fill.
When Arlene called time on the second exercise, Sylvia wanted to keep writing. That evening she texted Charlotte to ask how she was feeling, and got a quick reply: “Little better. Slept most of day. How was class?”
“Not bad. Nice teacher.”
“Read me some tomorrow.” Charlotte signed off with a smiley face.
With nothing of interest on the television, Sylvia went to look for the book she’d taken out of the library that afternoon, a new release by an author she liked. She found the novel on the kitchen counter, near where the car keys and phone charger; underneath it was her notebook. Turning to the last page, Sylvia reread a few sentences:
I kept fighting in the water, struggling to keep my head up, so afraid I would drown. Then everything became calm, and I knew I would. I stopped splashing. I was seven and prepared to die.
Sitting down at the kitchen table, Sylvia continued writing, remembering what came next: Seeing her friend, Becky, at the poolside, too scared to move, the oblivious lifeguard dozing in the chair, the preoccupied parents, thinking about her mother and Becky’s mother both assuming that the other one was there…
And then the word. A roar had started somewhere in her gut and rose to fill her head. She’d never experienced anything like that before in her short life. Nor had she since.
I heard “No!” Like someone was screaming inside me. Then suddenly my arms started to work, not splashing in fear, but rotating at the shoulder. My body started to move and I reached the edge of the pool. I pulled myself out.
Sylvia wrote a little more, how she and Becky had gone to the shallow end after that, sitting with the toddlers in water just a foot deep. She and Becky never told their mothers what happened and never talked about the incident. Maybe they were afraid of getting into trouble. Sylvia should have known better than to go off the diving board when she couldn’t swim.
Eventually Sylvia made a better effort of playing in deeper water, but kept her feet on the bottom. As long as her toes felt the cement, she was safe. She didn’t learn to swim until she was in college. Brad, who had worked summers as a lifeguard, had taught her: holding her around the waist while she got used to putting her face in the water, rotating her arms with scooped hands, and splashing her feet. Even now she could remember how it had felt to be held afloat by him.
Her throat constricted and her tears smarted her eyes. Sylvia put the notebook away and made a cup of herbal tea in the microwave. It was nearly time for the ten o’clock news.
That night Sylvia dreamed she was back in the house on Chestnut Street, which looked like it did when she and Brad had first bought it: the original kitchen with the painted cupboards, the living room with the shag carpeting. In the dream, her bed was in the middle of the living room, a big four-poster like her parents once had. As she lay there, the room began filling with water, until the bed floated toward the ceiling. Sylvia tried to sit up, but her arms and legs were immobile. Her chest tightened as the water inched up her body until her face was nearly submerged.
Sylvia awakened at the sound of her own cry and felt the dampness of her nightgown and sheets as sweat beaded her skin. She lay there for a while until she finally managed to get back to sleep, her arm stretched across the mattress toward Brad’s empty half.
Two weeks later, while having coffee with Charlotte, Sylvia spotted a man with a dark ponytail in line and recognized him as John from the writing class. Had she been alone, she might have waved or said hello, but didn’t want to with Charlotte there. When John noticed her and approached their table, Sylvia tried to act like she hadn’t seen him.
“So are you writing?” he asked.
“Yes, some.” She introduced Charlotte.
John explained that there was a local writers group that got together once a month on Wednesday nights at the library. “You should come. We keep each other going.”
“Oh, I’m no writer.” Sylvia fiddled with the stir stick from her coffee.
“You’ve been working on your story for two weeks? Yeah, you are.” John set his grande latte down on their table and reached in his pocket for a scrap of paper. He wrote the details on the back of his coffee receipt. “We meet again this Wednesday, 7 to 9. Bring your story.”
“I’ll think about it,” Sylvia smiled.
John picked up his coffee and told them both good-bye.
“You are so going to that writing group,” Charlotte said.
“Don’t start.” Sylvia held up her hand.
“All I’m saying is he seems nice and this writer group could be fun for you.” Charlotte reached over for the scrap paper. “Blue Moon Writers. And he gave you his email address.”
“Charlotte—” Sylvia tried to find a place to look other than her friend’s widened eyes.
“You don’t have to go out with him or anyone else. But you do owe it to yourself to have a life.”
“I have one, thank you.” Sylvia drank her words with a sip of decaf skinny mocha.
At six-fifty on Wednesday night, Sylvia sat in her car in the library parking lot, telling herself she should put the key back in the ignition and go home. But at Charlotte’s insistence she’d written a short note to John on Monday that she was coming and had received a quick reply. She opened the car door and trudged across the library parking lot.
The room upstairs off the Reference section was just large enough for a round table and eight chairs with wooden backs and blue upholstered seats, two of which were occupied by a husband and wife who introduced themselves as Sam and Donna. Two others arrived, Maureen and Terri, and then John. They all chatted like old friends, with inquiries about people Sylvia didn’t know. Then they went around the table and introduced themselves, and gave an update on what they were writing.
Sylvia tasted the saliva in her mouth, and twice she swallowed as her breath shortened. Then it was her turn to speak. “I’m Sylvia and I’m not a writer. But I came to a class at the library two weeks ago–only because my friend told me I should–and I started writing this memory about something that happened to me when I was seven.” Realizing how ominous that sounded, she quickly dispelled any wondering. “I nearly drowned in a swimming pool. But I managed to get out, even though I couldn’t swim. So that’s what I’m writing.”
“You kept yourself afloat,” Sam offered. “Saved yourself.”
Sylvia nodded. “Yes. As obvious as that sounds.”
Maureen leaned across the table. “So how did you do it? You said you couldn’t swim.”
Sylvia toyed with the pen in her hands and looked down at the pages filled with her strong, slanted handwriting. “I, uh, heard something.” She tried not to look at John, but was aware of him watching her. “Something inside myself.”
“What was it?” Donna pressed her hands together.
“No,” Sylvia said. “The word–no. But not like that. It was a long sound–no-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.”
“No to death,” John said. “Yes to life.”
Her feet crossed at the ankles, wiggled under the table. “Something like that.”
“What made you decide to write that story?” Terri asked.
Sylvia shrugged. “The instructor told us to write down the first memory–” She stopped herself.
Brad never had that choice. He’d fought the good fight in the beginning, but the cancer had been aggressive and didn’t respond to treatment. His only choice had been no to suffering, and his yes to dying with dignity. Two years later, she was in a pool of her own grief and Charlotte kept jumping in, trying to pull her out. It was up to her to save herself. Her breath filled her lungs slowly, ready for the deep dive into the story and out the other side.