Rickie’s got a foot on my head, I’m holding onto a fistful of his hair and he’s pressing my nose so far back it feels like it’s ramming into my brains. Whenever we get together, he beats the crap out of me. I’ve known Rickie since we were little, since baseball camp, when I had thick glasses and a patch to correct my lazy eye. Sometimes, my eye still goes berserk.
“Let him go,” Jodi says. She’s skinny with blue eyes and black hair and she dresses like a boy with cargo pants and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. The wind makes her t-shirt ripple revealing a strip of her white stomach.
Rickie holds me down a few seconds longer and then releases me.
“Got to work on your leg drop,” he says.
We’re sitting on a cliff overlooking the Hudson. Our town is an hour north of Manhattan. There’s a power plant, a scenic view of the river and nothing to do. Kids make their own fun. They drink forties, dump bottles in the river, jump off cliffs and some of them drown. Our high school holds assemblies after this happens and all the girls cry even though they’d never talked to the kid who died. These aren’t the girls I like.
Rickie moves over to Jodi and starts rubbing her arm, which is covered with goose bumps.
“What the hell are you looking at?” Rickie’s got his mouth wide open and he’s shaking his head back and forth at me.
“Nothing,” I say.
“Cut it out,” Jodi says. “He can’t help where he’s looking.”
I close my eyes to make them readjust, back to normal.
“What is that?” Rickie points toward the river. I turn to look where’s he’s pointing, at a big fancy ship with four sails. It’s heading down the Hudson. As it gets closer, I see a man and a woman standing on the deck. They’re tan and blond, wearing matching pink shorts and sweaters, another sweater tied around each of their shoulders. The woman is yelling with glee. It’s all drama and it doesn’t belong here. The whole thing is blinding.
“Friends!” the man is calling. “Friends, help us out! Our boat here is sinking!”
I see now that the ship is lopping over to one side and going down. The woman is still yelling, but it occurs to me that it’s out of terror rather than glee.
“We have to do something,” Jodi says, standing up with her hand over her eyes.
“What are we supposed to do?” Rickie says.
There’s noise and commotion as the boat sinks like a balloon deflating in slow motion—they’re up to their waist in water and then they’re under. The sails go below, the whole thing goes down. A bird swoops low over the wreck and a bubble pops up on the surface of the water.
“What just happened?” Rickie says.
“That was weird,” I say.
We sit for a moment, watching the spot.
“We can’t just sit here,” Jodi says, looking back and forth from Rickie to me. She cares about causes; she posts photos of rabbits with no hair and missing eyes on the bulletin board next to the cheerleaders’ lockers with a sign that says: “Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe she’s a bunny killer.”
“What do you want us to do?” Rickie says.
“Do something real.”
She’s standing on the edge of the cliff with her arms back in ready-to-jump position. It’s about a twenty-five foot drop below.
“Jodi,” I say. My voice cracks. “Maybe you shouldn’t do that.”
“I’ll be fine, Lazy-Boy.”
“Don’t try to stop her,” Rickie says. “She never listens.”
She shakes her head and says under her breath, “You’re such wusses.” I feel her disappointment like a shot in my chest.
She’s beautiful in midair with one leg bent and one down, her hair wild, her arms over her head, her clothes billowing in the wind. I think she’d be happier if she were jumping every second of her life.
She enters the water with a splash.
We stand up and watch her swim away from us.
“Crap,” Rickie says.
I decide that I will jump in after Jodi because there are times in life that one must be a man. I will drape Jodi and the preppy couple over my shoulders, swim them to shore and double drop kick Rickie.
I look down at the water rushing below me, at the space between me and it, and I feel my stomach drop.
Rickie’s next to me. “What do you think you’re doing? Don’t do it for her. She doesn’t want you bro.”
I close my eyes.
“In her world, you are an ant. You’re an ugly little bug with lots of legs.”
I breathe in.
“Can you even swim?”
I bend my legs and spring up and away from the cliff, and those few seconds are an hour. It’s the most peaceful place I’ve ever been, the wind whistling in my ears, falling. I feel the air cradling me.
The water, when I finally hit it, is cold. So cold, I think my heart has stopped. I open my eyes to green and begin to freak out. I don’t know where the surface is. I’m drowning. I flail and flip and try to push myself up but I don’t know which way that is and this is how I will die.
Something’s got a hold of my foot, some sort of plant or sea monster and I can’t move. I struggle, flailing my arms and legs but it’s no use.
A sunbeam gleams like gold chips dancing in silver water. The cloudiness clears away and turns the color of a clear sky. I let the water move me as if I’m a blade of sea grass and I feel calm. Jodi is below me, her hair floating all around her, motioning me to come toward her. I point at my foot to signal to her that I am stuck. She swims toward me, her arms by her sides like fins and she releases my foot from the plant.
She takes my hand and we swim.
There’s a submarine with a seaweed lawn and a roof. We fall through the door, our hands split apart and we tumble and tumble until I crash into a hard surface.
I can breathe again, I’m gasping for breath, lying on a wood paneled floor next to Jodi. Everything looks blurry. There’s elevator music playing in a room with a bed and green and orange flowered curtains. Outside circular windows, fields of underwater plants sway like a crowd at a concert.
The preppy couple is looking down at us. They’re wearing bathrobes with the initials PM and PW sewed on the chests.
“Hey friends,” the man says, puffing at a pipe. “Welcome to our submarine. Please don’t tell anyone about this.”
Jodi and I spit mucky water onto the floor. I can barely sit up, my arms and legs feel so weak.
“We misjudged you kids when we saw you sitting on that cliff,” says the man. “We really didn’t expect you to jump in after us, but here you are. With heart like that, we had to take you in. ‘Course your friend, the other one, he doesn’t have that kinda heart.”
Jodi sits up, hugging her legs, blinking at me.
“You kids are shivering,” the woman says. She throws us colorful blankets that look like they’ve been woven by Native Americans.
“What is all this?” I say.
“Get rested,” the man says. “Don’t worry.”
“We’ll let you two warm up,” the woman says. She and the man close the door gently behind them.
Jodi and I wrap ourselves in the blankets and sit shoulder to shoulder on a bed. It’s cozy in here and it smells like fresh laundry.
“They seem really nice,” Jodi says.
“I get a weird feeling,” I say.
“At least you jumped in,” Jodi says, shrugging, her hair dripping. “Look at Rickie.” There’s a little black and white TV in the corner that shows Rickie still standing on that rock, pacing like a lion at the zoo. Jodi runs her hand over my face. “I think your eye is fixed.” I look at her straight on. I see nothing but her.
We live down there for awhile. The man teaches me how to steer the submarine and how to grow facial hair. The woman shows Jodi how to put on makeup; she’s like the mother Jodi never had. Rickie is still there on that rock, pacing.
One day, Jodi tells me she has feelings for me. “I realize now that you’re stronger than Rickie because you’re resilient. It’s because you’ve had to overcome your lazy eye. He’s never known hardship.”
I reach toward her and put my hand on the nape of her neck. We look into each other’s eyes and kiss, and though I’ve never kissed a girl, I am very skilled.
Another day, I find the man sitting in the home theatre, wearing a cable knit sweater, sipping a soda. The film spins through a projector and a slice of soft light spreads over the room. I come and sit down next to him.
Rickie’s on the screen, sitting on the cliff with his head in his hands, looking sad at the water.
“I love this movie,” the man says. His hair is a salt and pepper gray which is becoming, coupled with his bone structure.
“In a second, he’s going to get up and start pacing again.” He shoves popcorn in his mouth. “Classic.”
“You think he wants to come in after us?” I say.
Popcorn spills from his mouth. “Ha! There he goes!” Rickie stands up and starts pacing again.
“I feel a little bad for him,” I say. “I kind of miss him.”
The man turns to face me. He’s wearing spectacles that magnify his eyes. He says, “We’ve got everything you’d ever want in our submarine. A movie theatre for example. It’s a dream– everything you’ve ever desired. But you do miss reality sometimes,” says the man, nodding at me, empathizing. The film ends and black squiggles pop on a white screen. “Then again” he says, stroking his chin, “down here we’ve got love.”
I stop to watch Jodi setting the table, humming to herself. She has filled out beautifully. She’s taken to wearing her hair in a casual pony-tail, a few loose strands framing her face, and her apron is tied neatly around her waist. When she sees me there, she comes toward me, her pale moon face tilted. She puts her arms around me and rests her head against my chest.
“Hi sweet pea,” she says. “Dinner’s almost ready.”
The room smells hearty, like stew.
I pull away from her. “Jodi,” I say. “Is this who you want to be? Remember how, when we were in high school, you used to throw red paint on women in fur coats? Didn’t you want to do something more along those lines?”
She smiles with one corner of her mouth turned upward and runs a hand over my cheek. “This is where I belong,” she says. Her eyes blink with a pleasant vacancy beneath raised brows.
“Now pull up a chair and tuck your napkin in your shirt.” She returns to the stove, humming.
That night, I can’t sleep. I leave Jodi in bed, pace around the cabin and spend hours looking out the window at dolphins snacking on squids. This Jodi, the one who is smitten with me, is nothing like the real Jodi. She’s always needed something or someone to save, and what is she doing with her life now? And what has become of me? Now that I can see straight, I’ve got nothing to prove.
I grab the wheel and take the submarine for a spin through the fields of seaweed which move like fingers tickling the boat. I think about last Thanksgiving. There was a fat turkey sweating in the middle of our dinner table. My mother stood up to saw through the turkey but it was tough and wouldn’t give and the whole bird fell to the floor. I got down to pick it up but Rickie caught me by the pants and gave me the wedgy of my life. Those were good times. Rickie always came over to my house for dinner because come to think of it, his family was pretty much the pits. His mother used to blow an air horn in his ear to wake him up in the morning.
“He’s always been jealous of you,” the man’s voice says. I turn around to see the couple is standing behind me. He’s smoking his pipe wearing a collared nightgown and she’s sporting poodle slippers.
“Don’t say that,” the woman says. “That Rickie kid was a bully. A nasty mean kid.”
“Lovey, let the boy go and live his life. In the future, he’s going to be a doctor and that Rickie kid is going to be fat and unemployed and sleeping on his couch. The tables will turn.”
“No!” the woman says. Her eyes look crazy and desperate. “Down here, he’s somebody. He’s got a woman to make him dinner. He was nothing up there. A wuss. A lazy boy.”
I’m trying to steer the submarine but we start bumping against plants, plants slapping against the window.
The man takes his wife by the elbow. “C’mon dear. This is upsetting you. Let’s go to bed.”
He guides her away but first he turns back and says, “She liked you, that Jodi. With your lazy eye and all.”
I park the submarine and notice that the water is cloudy again, the color of peas, and I sit for a long while with my head up, watching sunlight and blue sky wave at me from the surface. I imagine my mom’s up there plastering my face on trees, questioning every conversation we had leading up to my disappearance. My dad’s got one hand on the lawnmower — the other’s flipping burgers on the grill; he’s trying to act extra normal, holding it together for the family.
Come to think of it, how long have I been down here?
I return to bed, wrap my arms around my loving girl and pull her close before doing what I know I have to do.
I leave in the middle of the night. I open the door and push away from our perfect spot, away from our home underwater. I wait for old Jodi to come and get me, to take my hand, to swim us back to shore.
Sara Weiss Zimmerman’s writing has appeared in Literary Mama, The Hook Magazine and Outbreath. She received her MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and is a graduate of Tufts University. Sara works as a writing professor and yoga instructor and lives in Nyack, N.Y. with her husband and baby girl.